Saturday, July 23, 2011

Finds: Thoroughly Munted

Guillaume Apollinaire. Alcools. 1913. Trans. Anne Hyde Greet.
Foreword by Warren Ramsey. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966.

It's funny when you go snooping around in the ripped old paperbacks in the back of a bookshop (in this case, Jason Books on High Street, long before it came up in the world and went boutique). You see something there which hardly even seems to merit picking up - in this case a backless wodge of papers with a pasted spine and no title-page - which turns out to be one of the finds of your life.

I see from the inscription above that it was on the 5th September, 1979, some 30-odd years ago, and the book in question was Apollinaire's Alcools - or, rather, a complete dual-text translation of the same, which some iconoclast had ripped apart and then deposited among the other trash to be pulped. A price of 15 cents hardly seemed exorbitant even at the time, especially when I think of the amount of time I've spent leafing through those pages, reading and rereading those amazing poems: "Zone", "Le Pont Mirabeau" - above all, "La Chanson du Mal-Aimé":

Un soir de demi-brume a Londres
Un voyou qui ressemblait a
Mon amour vint a ma rencontre
Et le regard qu'il me jeta
Me fit baisser les yeux de honte
More than a half-century has passed since the manuscript beginning with these lines was fished out of limbo, read and read again, and a dazzled magazine editor called across the room that here, at last, was a first-rate poem. A reader of the sixties might find other terms in which to express his approval, though some of Paul Léautaud's are still serviceable: "I read, read twice, three times, was carried away, dazed, delighted, deeply moved. Such melancholy, such evocative tone, such bohemianism, such rangings of the mind, and that faintly gypsy air and the total absence of that abomination of ordinary verse, la rime riche ... "
- Warren Ramsay, "Foreword"

I'm glad that that front page of the foreword hadn't gone the way of the title-page and all the other prelims (including the copyright page). That idea of an editor picking up the poem for the first time, reading it, and immediately recognising genius was, I suspect, the main reason I persevered through all the strange pages of Apollinaire's book. I'd never read poetry like this, had no frame of reference to set it in - for a while, it seemed to me as if I'd never read poetry at all before this, my discovery of the Modern.

Even as first published in that distant spring of 1909 (when it lacked two stanzas of the Zaparogian Cossacks' horrendous letter and, unlike the more characteristic final version, was punctuated), "La Chanson du Mal-Aimé" has the authority of the more mature Apollinaire, the vibrancy of a modern poet speaking in his own voice ...
I don't quite know why anyone would take what must have been a fairly new book (Anne Hyde Greet's version of Alcools was published in 1966, a mere ten years before I found it in those back shelves in Auckland) and dismember it like that. Had the poet displeased them somehow? Perhaps that word scrawled on the back cover holds some clue, like the "CROATOAN" found carved on a tree by the lost settlers of Roanoke Island: "scenarios", it appears to read. But what scenarios, when and where?

I doubt I'll ever know.

Arthur Koestler. Dialogue with Death. Trans. Trevor & Phyllis Blewitt. 1937.
Abridged ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1942.

On February 8th, 1937, six months after the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain, the troops of General Franco entered Malaga. The author, then a war correspondent for an English Liberal newspaper, had remained in the besieged town after its evacuation by the Republican army. On the day after the entry of the conquering troops, he was arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death. For four months he was kept in solitary confinement, witnessing the executions of his fellow prisoners and awaiting his own. He kept a diary in his cell, which he succeeded in smuggling out when released; this diary forms the main part of Dialogue with Death.

Under pressure of world-wide protests General Franco agreed that Koestler should be exchanged for a prisoner of the Republican Government. He was released in May 1937. Dialogue with Death was first published in January 1938, as the second part of Spanish Testament. The original edition, with an introduction by the Duchess of Atholl, contained a number of chapters dealing with political and military aspects of the Civil War, which was then still in progress. Since then it has become, in the words of the New Statesman and Nation, a book "which should rank among British classics."
This rather scruffy looking Penguin I found in the shelves of an old second-hand furniture shop which used to nestle in the heart of the Mairangi Bay CBD, between Max Paterson's stationers and the greengrocer's shop. It was run by a lady called Ruth Thorne, who maintained a couple of bays full of battered books at bargain prices.

This one probably set me back ten or twenty cents, in July 1979, a couple of months before I bought the Apollinaire. It had an almost equally great influence on me, though.

Those 1940s Penguins seem so strange and exotic to us now, but it's worth remembering that they just looked junky at the time. It was the content of the book that interested me, the strange intense account that Koestler gave of his experiences in a death-cell during the Spanish Civil War. I'd already read his classic novel about the Stalinist purges, Darkness at Noon, at the recommendation of our Russian teacher, Eddie Meijers, but it was this coverless paperback which had the stronger effect on me, I think. Something about the way he wrote was so vivid and immediate - I guess I've been trying to find something like it ever since.

Translated by


Published in 1938 by Victor Gollancz Ltd.
Abridged edition published in Penguin Books Feb. 1942
Reprinted in Penguin Books March 1943

NONE of the characters in this book is fictitious; most of them are dead by now.

To die - even in the service of an impersonal cause - is always a personal and intimate affair. Thus it was almost inevitable that these pages, written for the most part, in the actual expectancy and fear of death, should bear a private character. There are, in the author's opinion, two reasons which justify their publication.

In the first place, the things which go on inside a condemned man's head have a certain psychological interest. Professional writers have rarely had an opportunity of studying these processes in the first person singular. I have tried to present them as frankly and concisely as I could. The main difficulty was the temptation to cut a good figure; I hope that the reader will agree that I have succeeded in overcoming this.

In the second place, I believe that wars, in particular civil wars, consist of only ten per cent action and of ninety per cent passive suffering. Thus this account of the hermetically sealed Andalusian mortuaries may perhaps bring closer to the reader the nature of Civil War than descriptions of battles.

I dedicate it to my friend Nicolas, an obscure little soldier of the Spanish Republic, who on April 14th, 1937, on the sixth birthday of that Republic, was shot dead in the prison of Seville.

Arthur Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905, a Hungarian subject, and studied engineering and psychology respectively at the Technische Hoschschule and the University of Vienna. He became a journalist at the age of 21,lived as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Paris and Moscow, travelled in Soviet Central Asia and in the Arctic on board the Graf Zeppelin. While correspondent of the News Chronicle during the Spanish Civil War, he was captured by General Franco's troops and was imprisoned for having denounced, in the British Press, German and Italian intervention on the Nationalist side.

In 1938 he abandoned journalism to take up novel-writing. His works include The Gladiators, Darkness at Noon (fiction), Scum of the Earth, which relates the author's experiences during the French collapse, and Spanish Testament, of which Dialogue with Death is an improved version. Koestler is now serving as a private in the British Army.

Of course the word "abridged" always acts on me like a red rag on a bull. I always want the book, the whole book and nothing but the book.

As I read more about Koestler, though, I began to understand the curious politics behind these various versions of his Spanish civil war memoir, the strange fusion of communists propaganda and personal testimony in the original version (which I found some years later in a pile of old Gollancz Left Book Club editions:

Koestler, Arthur. Spanish Testament. Trans. Trevor & Phyllis Blewitt. Left Book Club Edition. London: Gollancz, 1937.
Eventually I even discovered a third version of the book, from the "Danube Edition" of his collected works, which began to appear in the 1960s. There's something about that battered old Penguin that seems almost to embody history for me, though.

The fact that it had been printed a mere six years after the events described in it gave me a powerful sense of their reality, their tangible weight and gravity.

I've never been able to ignore those ripped and munted books at the backs of bookshops ever since. How can you know what treasures might be sitting there, glowing radioactive in the dark?

Koestler, Arthur. Dialogue with Death. Trans. Trevor & Phyllis Blewitt. 1937. Abridged ed., 1942. Rev. Danube ed., 1966. London: Papermac, 1983.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Jack you're addicted! If I go to town I head for book shops. I pass clothes shops - every kind of shop (except coffee places but I prefer Starbucks where I have Chocolate in preference to coffee) - but I will stop at any kind of book shop (or library) and I am always getting books form the library. It is an obsession with me... (And it is potentially almost any subject.) In the winter my son and I go to the Panmure library (it is as it is warm most days and then we walk after we have had lunch) and not only do I get the books thrown out from my local library but I restlessly prowl looking for books on almost any subject or genre...I move from he 000s to well any decimal number...and I am not looking to re sell (necessarily) I seem to have a hunger for knowledge (or is it just books?) on a big range of subjects...books and knowledge I
can never know...

I recently got a book of essays by Koestler but his essay on the Fischer-Spassky match wasn't very well informed (it had its moments)...very sketchy

He was a hack (more or less) ... but that may have just been a pot boiler ...

'Alcools' I couldn't get into but I cant read French perhaps that is problem. 'Calligrames' are interesting.

Of the French I liked poetry by Hugo (again in translation), I tried a bilingual of Verlaine but it didn't seem much to me... Valery seemed just to write too much, Rimbaud of some of his works is good, Celan I find too baffling but (apart from Guillevic & Rilke (very mixed times I know)) Trakl is the major European poet for me. Transtromer also.

Of course there is Baudelaire's "Fleurs du Mal" and the prose poems of say Mallarme and Jacob.

I haven't yet got into those I Italian poets. Most of the Spanish or South American poets I just cant keep my head on (I rarely sell poetry of my own but I got rid of Neruda)...Eliot seems to do so much more than most of them with a few lines.

However there are many great prose writers from those countries.

Pushkin I enjoyed a lot and Milosz but not Herbert or in Russia Mayakovksy or (very different) Celan...but there are many poets I do like...probably hard if one only really has one language as I do...
Handke's plays I enjoyed immensely and so on.

But it is good to get close to the original as you have found.

Perhaps I will get around to looking again at some of those poet I don't seem to lie so much.

Also in Scandinavia 'Brand' and 'Peer Gynt' of Ibsen..but also 'When we Dead Awaken'...these are like strange and wonderful poems.
The prose of Miller is extraordinary and he talks about Strindberg and Rimbaud...his prose is like the poetry of an intense kind like the best of Rimbaud.

Like immense poetry is Thomas Wolfe's huge, torrential, passionate books...I read two of his books this year..came to about 1400 pages in total!! He for me is (or was) incredible. Sadly he died relatively young at 38.