The wind comes up out of nowhere

Charles Nicholl on the disappearance of Arthur Cravan

In the annals of French literature, Arthur Cravan is more often a colourful footnote than a sober paragraph. He is usually referred to as ‘the poet and boxer Arthur Cravan’, and this odd-seeming conjunction is often fleshed out with more disreputable terms such as ‘con man’ or ‘adventurer’. He is also described as Oscar Wilde’s nephew, which is true up to a point: he was the nephew of Wilde’s wife, Constance. As a writer, Cravan had a brief and stormy career, in Paris, in the years around the outbreak of the First World War. His chief influences were Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry and the Italian Futurists; he preceded by a few years the Dadaists and Surrealists, who acclaimed him a pioneering figure. He was, André Breton said, a ‘barometer’ of the avant-garde. As a heavyweight boxer, his career peaked in 1916, when he fought the formidable Jack Johnson in Barcelona. He lasted six rounds. These two strands of Cravan’s career are not as diverse as one might think: his stance as a writer was extremely combative – confrontation and ‘anti-art’ polemic were his métier. As the poet Mina Loy, who was briefly his wife, put it, ‘The instinct of “knock-out” dominated his critique.’ One of my favourite Cravan pronouncements is the contemptuous dismissal, ‘Toute la littérature, c’est: ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta.’ One might translate ‘ta ta’ as ‘blah blah’, but the sentence is also very physical, the repeated monosyllable delivered like a series of jabs to the chin of literature.

At its best, Cravan’s writing has a wayward brilliance, but probably his greatest creation was himself, or at least the deeply dodgy persona he presented to the public. Before a fight he would unnerve opponents with a bellowed recital of his accomplishments: not his successes in the ring, which were not much to boast about, but a dubious curriculum vitae including ‘hotel-rat’ (i.e. thief), muleteer, snake-charmer, chauffeur, ‘ailurophile’ (cat-lover), gold prospector, nephew of Oscar Wilde, and ‘poet with the shortest hair in the world’. These pre-fight performances are comic, and he is often very funny on the page, but his eccentricities hover on the edge of a more menacing kind of craziness. He stood 6’ 4” tall; for the Johnson fight he weighed in at 105 kilos (over 16 stone) but was heavier when out of condition. In civvies he was insouciant, dandified, caddish-looking: a fur collar, a chapeau melon, his huge shoulders draped in an expensive-looking suit probably bought on credit. Fair-haired and square-jawed, in certain photographs he is very handsome, and he was known as a voracious womaniser. Loy’s first impression when they met in New York was that he combined ‘the air of a Viking with the repartee of a Victorian charwoman’.

His name is not much known this side of the Channel, where there is as yet no biography of him or translation of his works. (A long-awaited life is in preparation by the leading Anglophone Cravaniste, Roger Lloyd Conover.) This lacuna is curious because although Cravan was Swiss by birth, and wrote exclusively in French, he was a mix of Irish and English by blood. I have long been fascinated by this hyperbolic but ultimately enigmatic figure, and not the least enigmatic thing about him is the matter of his death. In early 1917 he left Europe for the United States, on the run from the draft: ‘On ne me fait pas marcher, moi!’ There he continued to sow scandal, notably when arrested for indecent exposure at the opening of an exhibition by the ‘Independents’ (Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp et al) at New York’s Grand Central Gallery. The entry of the United States into the war made him liable once more to conscription or detention, and in the last days of 1917 he crossed the border into Mexico. He was last seen in about October 1918, but whether this is the date of his death remains open to question. If it is, he died at the age of 31. It is generally said he drowned off the Mexican coast, but among the many legends that surround him are alleged later sightings, and there are some picturesque theories concerning his survival, the neatest of which is that ‘A. Cravan’ reinvented himself as the no less mysterious author ‘B. Traven’. (Other than orthographic neatness, however, this theory has little to recommend it.) On a recent visit to Mexico I attempted some sifting of the facts and fantasies of his disappearance – if not to answer, then at least to pose more clearly the questions that hang over his last months.

It comes as no great surprise to learn that Arthur Cravan was not really Arthur Cravan. He first used the name in 1910, when he was in his early twenties. It is a nom de plume, but the nature of the man tempts one to call it an alias. It is generally said (though never, as far as I can find, by Cravan himself) that the forename is a tribute to Arthur Rimbaud, whose poetry and lifestyle were undoubtedly a major influence; and that the surname is taken from a small village in Burgundy (now Cravant) where his first wife, Renée Bouchet, came from.

He was born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, in a residential suburb of Lausanne, on 22 May 1887, the second son of a well-to-do Anglo-Irish gentleman, Otho Holland Lloyd, and a former governess, Clara ‘Nellie’ Hutchinson, whose origins are obscure but who was certainly born illegitimate. They were married in 1884, just a month after Otho’s sister Constance married Oscar Wilde. (Cravan’s claim to be ‘the grandson of the queen’s chancellor’ – one of his pre-fight brags – was grounded in truth: his grandfather Horace Lloyd was a distinguished jurist and privy councillor. Many of Cravan’s statements put one in mind of Adorno’s psychoanalytical maxim, ‘only the exaggerations are true.’) Though Cravan never met him, his notorious Uncle Oscar was a profound influence; more so than his father, who deserted the family shortly after Cravan’s birth. He was 13 when Wilde died in Paris, but the name had never been mentioned in his bourgeois family. It was a later meeting with his cousin Vyvyan Holland – Wilde’s second son – that kindled his interest. One of his first truly Cravanesque pieces, self-published in 1913, is a strange séance-like ‘interview’ with the long-dead Wilde, whom he also calls Sebastian after Wilde’s Parisian alias, Sebastian Melmoth. The piece veers between adulation and insult; Cravan is seduced by the possibility that he was Wilde’s illegitimate son. The ending is rather fine:

Out on the pavement he squeezed my hand and, embracing me, he murmured once more: ‘You are a terrible boy’ [these words in English in the original]. I watched him going off into the night, and just at that moment something tempted me to laugh, and from afar I stuck my tongue out at him, and made a gesture of giving him a great big kick. It was not raining but the air was chill. I remembered that Wilde had no overcoat, and I thought how poor he must be. A wave of sentiment rolled through my heart: I was sad and filled with love. In search of consolation I looked up – the moon was so lovely it only swelled my grief. I was thinking that Wilde had perhaps misunderstood my words; that he did not realise I could never be serious; that I had caused him pain. And I began to run after him like a madman. At every crossroads I strained my eyes for him, and shouted: ‘Sebastian! Sebastian!’ I careered up and down the boulevards until I was certain I had lost him. Wandering the streets I slowly made my way home, my eyes forever fixed on that useless idiot, the moon.

This is typical of Cravan’s style, the overwroughtness expressed in a style of controlled lucidity. As early as 1905 he wrote in a letter to his mother that he preferred a ‘down-to-earth style’ (‘le style terre-à-terre’), and apart from some flowery juvenilia he mostly stuck to that maxim, however bizarre the content. The Wilde interview was convincing enough to inspire a po-faced report in the New York Times of 9 December 1913. Its headline, ‘No One Found Who Saw Wilde Dead’, is an amusing vindication of Cravan as prankster, but has also a rather chilling note of prophesy concerning Cravan’s own demise five years later.

The Wilde interview appeared, like almost all of Cravan’s extant work, in the magazine Maintenant, which ran for five issues published at irregular intervals between 1912 and 1915. (A sixth issue was advertised but seems never to have appeared.) A complete flush of Maintenants recently sold at auction for €15,000. A confection of poetry, essay, polemic and scandal, Maintenant was entirely written and published by Cravan: the other contributors (Robert Miradique, W. Cooper, E. Lajeunesse, Marie Lowitska etc) are all pseudonyms. Even the advertisements bear his skewed imprint: the restaurant Chez Jourdain entices customers with the words, ‘Where can you see Van Dongen’ – the Flemish painter Kees van Dongen – ‘put food in his mouth, chew, digest, smoke?’; and a glue has the slogan, ‘You can’t break everything, but with Seccotine you can glue everything together again.’ The most extensive of Cravan’s subsidiary identities, it seems, is that of Edouard Archinard, who not only contributed to Maintenant, but had a small exhibition of paintings in Paris in 1914. He is still mentioned briefly in French art reference-books (‘Little is known about . . .’), but Roger Conover argues convincingly in his 1992 essay ‘The Secret Names of Arthur Cravan’ that he was yet another of Cravan’s disguises, and even discovers that Archinard was the name of a headmaster at the college in Lausanne that Cravan attended. In 1992, four small Archinard canvasses were exhibited at Paris’s Galerie 1900-2000, whose owner, Marcel Fleiss, is a noted Cravaniste. Cravan’s ventriloquy seems almost obsessive: ‘my fatal plurality’, he calls it in Maintenant 3; ‘my character, heart of my inconsistencies’; ‘my detestable nature, which . . . makes me sometimes honest and sometimes sly; vain and modest, coarse and distinguished’. He presented, Loy said, ‘an unreality of himself to the world, to occupy himself with while he made his spiritual getaway’.

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