The Poet who Vanished

 

“Anyone who picked up a new copy of the New Republic from his or her local newsstand on the morning of 18 July 1955 could have opened it to read an article called ‘How to be happy: installment 1053’. What they couldn’t have guessed is that the author would, in all probability, choose to extinguish his life mere hours later. With a flourish sour, sardonic and elegant, the author would disappear. His name was Weldon Kees.

“Kees had the knack of being in the right place at the wrong time. As a writer-artist, Kees had been in all the best cultural hotspots of the period. He was in New York in 1943-48 during the early Abstract Expressionist boom, but left before the market took off. He had also been in artists’ haven Provincetown, but had sold relatively little work. In 1950, he arrived in San Francisco. Somehow he had managed to be in these places and failed to make critical breakthroughs. He (and his wife Ann) had quit places without getting the most out of them. He seemed to have turned missing opportunities into his greatest art form.

“Admired for his talents as a poet, storywriter, critic, musician, composer, painter, film-maker and photographer, Kees never broke through in any one field despite his talent…”

Read the full review online at Spiked, 26 May 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/weldon-kees-the-poet-who-vanished/19874#.WShlYGkrLIU

Literature of Longing

Denton Welch

Denton Welch, Daniel J. Murtaugh (ed.), Good Night, Beloved Comrade. The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver, 2017, University of Wisconsin Press, hardback, 213pp, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-299-31010-3

 

The upheaval of the Second World War provided many people with opportunities for covert romantic and sexual assignations. The blackout in large cities aided fleeting trysts and, on the home front, the relocation of people assigned war work, the absence of spouses and general mobilisation all loosened social constraints. People of different regions, professions and classes mingled on an unprecedented scale during those years.

In November 1943 the author-artist Denton Welch was partially crippled and bed-ridden when a friend paid a visit. Welch said he was too ill to see him, then he changed his mind; it was a decision that would alter the course of his life. The friend brought into Welch’s bedroom a handsome labourer called Eric Oliver. Although they did not know it at the time, Welch and Oliver’s lives would be entwined forever after.

At that time Welch had published a novel and some stories that had made him the toast of a small circle of London literati and a wider circle of homosexual admirers. Welch, who had trained as an artist, had been struck by a car at the age of twenty and for the remainder of his life suffered severe medical complications. Mobility seriously restricted and frequently in pain, Welch occupied himself with writing, spending his adult years in Tonbridge, Kent. Although in his twenties, he described himself as “old, so immensely old, like a stone image on a mountain watching small boys play”. Detachment aided Welch as a writer – he excelled in observation and description. Of the writings published in Welch’s lifetime the most explicitly homosexual aspects were omitted; only in the 1980s were Welch’s frankest writings published.

Welch’s journals and novels are tinged with longing, regret and wistfulness. Reading his descriptions of road-menders working in the sun stripped to the waist, we are made strongly aware of an attraction the author rarely consummated. His bucolic descriptions of rural Kent and pinpoint scrutiny of domestic details also leave a strong impression. Reading Welch is peculiarly like watching Welch write – we imagine Welch melancholy and thoughtful, his full forehead and horn-rimmed spectacles bowed above the pages of a notebook.

When Welch met Oliver, the latter was working in Kent in the agricultural service as a land boy. Oliver found Welch good company; Welch became infatuated with Oliver. The mismatch in class and outlook – with Welch a public-school-educated introverted intellectual and Oliver, a hard-drinking bisexual working-class rake – caused a degree of friction and uncertainty. After a slow start they grew closer and became lovers. After Oliver’s residence was destroyed by a V-2 rocket (in July 1944), he accepted Welch’s offer that Oliver move in with him; they would remain together until Welch’s death in 1948, at the age of 33. The companions gave mutual support and Oliver’s emotional and practical assistance brought the writer great happiness in his last years.

This collection of 51 unpublished letters by Welch to Oliver covers the period 1943-7. Most letters are from 1943 and 1944, before cohabiting rendered correspondence unnecessary. The letters of 1945-7 were written during Oliver’s absences. In early letters, Welch expresses his longing and betrays anxiety about rejection, sometimes pricked by jealousy and self-pity.

“I would agree with you absolutely, over 100% love affairs being very uncommon, but doesn’t that apply to everything in life? Aren’t all our feelings, however strong, never quite as strong as we think they might be? Aren’t they always mixed with some doubt; and aren’t we always torturing ourselves and wasting time thinking, can this be love?”

Reading of the indignities of Denton’s medical examinations and the symptoms of his conditions explains much of his peevishness, although the descriptions are touched with humour. Not all of the correspondence is introspective. Welch tells Oliver about the flight of residents from Kent to avoid V-1 bombs (a number of which landed on Tonbridge), “those wretched bombers circling overhead and those peculiar lights which flash from the hillside” and difficulties of living with rationing. He passes on news of their friends, sometimes empathetic, sometimes catty. Suffering and the threat of sudden death heightened the piquancy of Welch’s desire, though he admitted that “in some moods I would quite ruthlessly sacrifice all the lovers in the world to my work.”

The editor has decided to leave Welch’s spelling and grammatical errors uncorrected and underlining in the original letters is faithfully transcribed. Thus we get Welch at his most raw, intimate and irascible. A vivid, informative introduction allows readers previously unfamiliar with Welch’s writings to understand the course of the author’s life and work. Extensive annotation is confined to the back of the book and includes extracts of Welch’s novels and journals. The reader does not have to be familiar with Welch’s other writings to enjoy this collection, which is as fresh and lively as Welch’s fiction and journals.

This book is part of a series of publications in the press’s “Living Out” series of gay and lesbian literature. More open social attitudes towards sexuality have stimulated interest in gay writing. Newly published letters and diaries give us insights into the experiences of people whose stories could not be publicly told in the eras in which they lived. Although some individuals considered their sexuality shameful and found subterfuge stressful, others relished the frisson of “sex as crime”, leading the lives of sexual outlaws and conspirators. Welch’s life is particularly poignant as it was so clearly restricted by the circumstances of his time. In a later age more advanced medical treatment and altered social attitudes regarding homosexuality would have extended and enriched his life. Yet, perhaps Welch’s best qualities as a writer spring from painful yearning and a sense of isolation. Paradoxically, what might have made Denton Welch’s life fuller would possibly have made his writing less powerfully engaging.

Alexander Adams

Franz Kafka: a Life Beyond Literature

“There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.

“A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.

“Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Kafka was a self-made proprietor of a fancy-goods store in Prague, selling fabrics, clothes, household goods and toys…”

Read the full review of the new 3-volume Reiner Stach biography online at Spiked Online (28 February 2017) here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/kafka-a-life-beyond-literature/19511#.WLWjhfl_s5k

 

Robert Crawford: Young T.S. Eliot

The Waste Land has stimulated, perplexed and antagonised millions of readers since its appearance in 1922. A multilingual collage of myth and observation, composed with sections of verse both original and filched, this epic poem popularised literary modernism (even though it was not the first modernist poem). Using new sources, and with the freedom to quote the poet’s writings, Robert Crawford has combined biography and literary analysis, in Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land, to illuminate one of the most complex and influential poems in the English language and assess its author, TS Eliot.

“The Eliot family were upper-class Unitarians from New England who moved to St Louis, Missouri, before the birth of Tom. Born in 1888, young Tom grew up in a bubble of Puritan gentility in the commercial bustle of a polluted Midwestern city. Long before Tom became an expatriate American in London, he had already lived his life as an outsider. While he was a Harvard student, Eliot toured London, Paris and Germany and found his passion for European culture deepening. In 1911, while in Munich, Eliot wrote his first masterpiece, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, in which the protagonist is an indecisive onlooker of life, aware of his impotence and marginality as if ‘etherised upon a table’. He effectively captures the situation of a man hemmed in by moral and social inhibitions that prevent him from functioning. ‘Do I dare?’, he asks himself, to eat a peach or change my fashion.

“Crawford’s biography shows how Eliot’s life experiences and reading material were woven into the rich tapestry of The Waste Land and other poems…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 6 March 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/ts-eliot-among-the-bankers-and-bloomsberries/16744#.Vd-O__ldU5k

Philip Larkin, version 2.0

“Since his death in 1985, Philip Larkin’s reputation has taken a battering, especially from commentators on the left. The controversial 1988 edition of his Collected Poems dented his professional reputation due to misguided editorial decisions. Then there was the publication of Selected Letters in 1992, followed the next year by Andrew Motion’s biography. The droll and disarming letters shocked some with the poet’s cutting comments about fellow writers and his casual racism. The biography seemed to cast its subject in a poor light, making him appear deceitful towards women, politically reactionary and unjustifiably negative in outlook.

“In recent years there seems to have been a concerted push to repair Larkin’s reputation. A collection of love letters to Monica Jones appeared in 2010, which showed the poet in playful and affectionate mood (while not concealing his manoeuvrings to conceal his infidelity). An excellently edited Complete Poems has appeared, replacing the inadequate earlier collections, and unpublished early writing has been added to the corpus. Now we have this biography from James Booth, a former colleague of Larkin’s at Hull University…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 10 October 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/larkin-wasnt-as-prickly-as-you-think/15995#.Vd-IuPldU5k

Sean B Carroll: Brave Genius (Camus & Monod)

“When Albert Camus died in a car accident in 1960, the Nobel Laureate was mourned not only as a creative artist but also as a moral philosopher. Camus championed moderation, dialogue and the inalienable dignity of the individual at a time when – in France – partisan loyalty to nation and party often led people to advocate and defend acts of barbarity. Camus refrained from becoming too publicly involved in the debate over Algeria, first in the grip of civil unrest then wracked by civil war, but instead worked to influence events behind the scenes. Acutely sensitive to the suffering of fellow Algerians, he knew his pleas for clemency from the French government and moderation from FLN insurgents would draw condemnation from both ends of the political spectrum.

Even Sartre, Camus’s ally-turned-opponent, admitted he was ‘an admirable conjunction of a person, an action, and a work’.

One of those most deeply touched by Camus’ death was Jacques Monod, a leading microbiologist at the Pasteur Institute…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 22 November 2013 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/camus_and_monod_courage_and_genius/14328#.Vd98efldU5k

Sue Prideaux: August Strindberg biography

“Sue Prideaux opens her biography of playwright August Strindberg with the Strindberg family arriving in Copenhagen during a lengthy period of self-imposed exile from Sweden. Strindberg, in search of accommodation, had been directed to the local castle by a gypsy. The family arrived at dusk and an eccentric host and hostess (ostensibly mistress and servant but actually brother and sister) proceed to put on a bizarre magic display for the Strindbergs, accompanied by dirges on a hurdy-gurdy.

Growing increasingly alarmed, Strindberg (prey to portents and magical signs) was anxious to leave. However, given a brief tour of the castle in near darkness, he finally agreed to take rooms there. Only on returning next morning did he discover the squalid state of his rooms and the noisy menagerie in the gardens. The sinister servant threatened the family with a pistol and Strindberg was seduced by a maid and subsequently charged with sexual intercourse with a minor. (It turned out she was actually above the age of consent.) The shenanigans at the castle would come to inspire some aspects of Strindberg’s most popular play, Miss Julie…”

Read the full review on SPIKED, 25 May 2012 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/review_of_books/article/12485#.Vd95OfldU5k