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59: APOLLINAIRE AND THE PARIS OF MODERNISM

May 24, 2014

#59:  APOLLINAIRE AND THE PARIS OF MODERNISM.  Amidst the programs, schools, manifestoes, phantasms and staggering productivity of the years of international modernism, the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire retained, for all its love of elaborate wordplay, formal border-jumping and technical complexity, a kind of moonstruck spirit and tear-stained sense of loss that marks it as a work separate and special.  At one point we may be dazzled by an aggrandized, star-grabbing distance of vision, and at the next find him sitting on the ground, telling sad stories of romantic grief.  Of his two major collections, Alcools (1913), once voted by French readers the single best collection of poetry in French, saw the moods and manners of Symbolism through to their emotional ends; it was followed by Calligrammes (1918), in which the voice of the Avant-Garde and the sights of the first World War broke open the formal surfaces and brought out a new energy and playfulness.  Both these volumes have been given authoritative bilingual editions by Annie Hyde Greet, published by the University of California Press, in which the downright French level of annotation is both warranted and helpful.   For background the best reading is still Roger Shattuck’s classic The Banquet YearsThe Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I (Vintage, revised 1968).  Shattuck studies the works and lives of Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie and Apollinaire and shows, still better than anyone, how the theatricality and excesses of the time were bound to its genuine, at times mortally serious artistic accomplishments.  Shattuck also edited and translated for New Directions the Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire (1971), which covers both his verse and prose.  Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters, by Francis Steegmuller (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1963)  is a good and sympathetic biography.  Apollinaire: Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Olivier Bernard (AnvilPress, 1965), is another excellent selection and includes the lovely woodcuts Raoul Dufy did for “Le Bestiaire”.

     That’s the serious side—though of course Apollinaire had more than a touch of the publicist and prankster in him.  For gossip and tale-telling one of the most entertaining books I know of is James R. Mellow’s Charmed Circle:  Gertrude Stein and Company (Praeger, 1974).  I will admit I don’t rate Stein very highly as a writer—her particularly unreadable form of  self-proclaimed “genius” has always provoked in me a massive attack of jemenfoutisme, to use the argot.  But she’s a hoot to read about, and for a literary all-star cast this book is endless fun, from Hemingway, Picasso, Apollinaire and Wilder on to almost innumerable walk-ons and cameos.

      And this of course was the Paris of Shakespeare & Co., and of La Maison des Amis des Livres, the two great bookshops on the Rue de L’Odeon in the Sixth, the myth-land of Odeonia, of Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, two of the wonderful figures in the history of bookselling—and no ignoble standing in the history of French letters.  “Her simplicity was that of an undivided mind and a whole heart,” Richard McDougall wrote of Monnier; it was true of Beach as well.  Read Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company (Harcourt Brace, 1959) and The Very Rich Hours of Adrienne Monnier, translated with commentary by Richard McDougall (Scribners, 1976); in French, I believe Monnier’s Rue de L'Odeon is still in print.  It’s part too of the world of Janet Flanner’s Paris Journals, mentioned before.  Andrea Weiss’s Paris Was A Woman: Postcards from the Left Bank (Harper, 1995) has a good text and loads of pictures; Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, by Noel Riley Fitch (Norton, 1985) is also worth reading.

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