ROBERT FRASER – IT interview. (Questions by Niall McDevitt)
Congratulations on being the first biographer to have written a full scale biography of David Gascoyne, and such a fascinating one. Your book is generating a lot of excitement among old Gascoyneans, and curiosity among the uninitiated. I have said elsewhere it will do for Gascoyne what Alexander Gilchrist did for Blake. Why is yours the first when so many biographies have been written about so many other 20C poets? Is it simply that biography tends to be a posthumous art and that Gascoyne lived a long life, or was the publishing industry averse to such an uncommercial prospect? Were you conscious yourself of any missionary sense of rescuing a soul from oblivion?
Your comparison to Gilchrist is interesting. Sometimes it takes an awful long time for the world of readers and critics to sort out what is happening before its very eyes. If in, say, 1819 you had asked an average informed reader of what was then modern verse to name a key and dynamic figure on the British poetic scene, he or she would probably have said “Southey”. Almost nobody then had heard of Blake. In 1863 Gilchrist began to put him on the map, but his study calls him an “unknown painter.” In the first volume (1966) of his autobiography, Bertrand Russell, an undergraduate in Cambridge during the 1890’s, tells a revealing story. He was climbing a college stairwell one dark evening when he met a fellow student descending. This total stranger pinned him to the wall and recited “Tiger, tiger, burning bright.” So overwhelming was the effect that Russell almost fainted away. A voracious reader since his teens, he had never heard of Blake, and this was half a century and more after the poet’s death.
I first became aware of Gascoyne thanks to Jeremy Reed’s section in Conductors of Chaos, the anthology in which some poets were asked to nominate a neglected poet for attention. His fine short essay there, his ‘Elegy for David Gascoyne’ which I heard at the time it was written, and another longer essay in his own book Madness: The Price of Poetry did the trick of turning me on to a brilliant poet who didn’t otherwise seem to feature in the official line-up of 20C poets. How did you first get interested in Gascoyne?
Well, I obviously got there a while before you. I first came across Gascoyne’s work in the anthology Twelve Modern Poets, one of a series of “Zephyr Books” published by The Continental Book Company in Stockholm in 1946. A few years previously, I or my brother had acquired a copy in a second hand bookshop. I have that very copy before me now: it is edited by the Swedish writer Artur Lundkvist (1906-1991) who says in his Introduction “David Gascoyne, the youngest of these twelve poets, began writing under the influence of French Surrealism, but in his first collected volume [not quite true incidentally], Poems 1937-1942, he is primarily a follower of the modern French Catholic poets, elegiac and darkly visionary”. I have a distinct recollection of reading this compilation one early summer’s evening on the Queen’s Promenade in Kingston in around 1963, when I was sixteen. I notice now that I’ve ticked all of the poems by Gascoyne and George Barker. Later I lost sight of Gascoyne’s work, principally because it composed no part of my formal education. In the late 1970s I caught sight of it again when I re-discovered Barker. According to my diaries, I first delivered a lecture on “The Poetry of David Gascoyne” at the British Council in London in 1980 – about the time Gascoyne himself was beginning to emerge from the shadows.
A biography of Gascoyne has the advantage of its subject being astoundingly precocious. The reader doesn’t have to wait too long to be in the thick of the action. He is like Rimbaud, and yet unlike Rimbaud in that he didn’t excel as a schoolboy, but was a dismal failure. How do you account for such an outbreak of genius? Though his background and education were not privileged, he did have the nourishing experience of a musical education in Salisbury. Was that the spark? You mentioned in another interview Gascoyne learning French by reading Rimbaud in Kew Gardens; was Rimbaud the spark?
Gascoyne and I were both cathedral choristers, so I can attest to the profound influence of that experience on the way the ear hears music and words, whether singly or in combination. Perhaps this accounts for the almost liturgical sound of some of Gascoyne’s middle period verse. He actually started writing poetry in Salisbury. For the pyrotechnic display of the early 1930s, however, we should probably look to other causes. In 1928 the family was living in Fordingbridge on the River Avon, where his father was a bank manager. In that year Leslie Gascoyne had a nervous breakdown and the bank moved them back up to London, where David was sent to a rather indifferent day school. By way of compensation, the bookshops and art galleries were full of experimental stuff: the surrealist journals, transition and so on. What we find in his earliest poems, I think, is a visceral sensation of tradition and experiment meeting, and sometimes colliding. Insular British verse of the Georgian School also struck the young Gascoyne as moribund, so he sought escape by teaching himself French. It is hardly surprising that Rimbaud became a model. He had been about the same age when he started writing verse, and he sounded the authentic note of rebellion. Rimbaud was also, of course, a hero to the early Surrealists.
Your book is full of surprises. I wasn’t aware, for instance, that Gascoyne came from a distinguished acting family – the Emerys – or that he had been an actor himself during WWII. Was it that – as described – rather louche and bohemian origin that genetically predisposed to him to his own unsettled, peripatetic, hand-to-mouth way of life?
I think you exaggerate the loucherie. The theatrical clan of the Emerys – Gascoyne’s mother’s people – had been scapegraces in their time, but Winifred Emery – the aunt by whom she was brought up, and the first Lady Windermere – was affluent and respectable. She and her husband the impresario Cyril Maude maintaining a large house in South Kensington with many servants, and also enjoyed a weekend retreat in Bexhill-on-Sea. They discouraged Gascoyne’s mother from going on stage, and wanted her to become an elocution teacher. But part of her, I think, always rather hankered after the artistic life, and it is certainly possible David imbibed some of her nostalgie de la boue. The contrast between the solidity of his immediate nuclear family, and the sense of a freer existence in the collective past, seems to have been essential to his development. The Surrealists’ repudiation of the family system definitely tore Gascoyne apart. Malgré lui, he was desperately fond of his own family. Little wonder he experienced serious breakdowns when each of his parents died. Their love for one another had been the bedrock of his peripatetic life.
You have also written a biography of George Barker, a friend of Gascoyne’s. You yourself point out the chalk and cheese natures of these two men i.e the highly extrovert, sexually rampant, fertility god Barker and the highly introverted, chronically under-sexed and childless Gascoyne. They seem contrasting studies in the old maxim ‘Character is destiny’. Barker once mischievously said of his friend: ‘David has the distinction of being the most boring man in Europe.’ Presumably, you wouldn’t agree? How much did having wrtten the Barker biography help you to write Night Thoughts?
No, I wouldn’t exactly concur with Barker’s judgement, but you have to see it in context. Barker’s affectionate insults were forms of caress. The vital words here, of course, are “in Europe”. For “boring” read “intellectual”. Though neither poet was in the least academic in the disparaging sense, Gascoyne was an intellectual to his fingertips, while Barker sometimes preferred to play the philistine. I say “play” because, as I discovered while working on him, Barker was forever adopting masks, some of which were suavely appealing, and others deliberately grotesque. Gascoyne by contrast seems to me to have been quite incapable of wearing a mask of any kind: his intentions were often alarmingly clear, and his vulnerability was abundantly plain to all who met him.
You may have noticed that I begin both biographies by describing the poet’s mother. Barker’s was gregarious, Catholic and boozily Irish: in 1940 he wrote a wonderful sonnet evoking her rocking with laughter as the wartime bombs fell “gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand.” Gascoyne’s agnostic mother by contrast was attentive, though slightly inhibited in a genteel sort of a way. At one moment in Paris in 1938, the young Gascoyne talked of inviting her over and confronting her in an attempt to make her break down and reveal her inner self. It could be argued this is what Gascoyne was always doing to himself. His poems are full of an inner pain some readers feel quite uncomfortable to observe. Barker and Gascoyne were opposites. Both men implied to me in separate conversations that was one reason why, for well over half a century, they had been such close friends.
Gascoyne and Barker sometimes get lumped in – Dylan Thomas also – with the New Apocalypse poets and even with the vaguer New Romantics. Is this truthful or useful if, say, Gascoyne is to be understood in a domestic British context?
Well, that’s a big IF. Even so, even if controversially you were to confine yourself to Britain, it might make more sense to place him in an alternative trans-historical tradition taking in the medieval mystics, the Metaphysical poets, Francis Quarles etc.. Before me I have a photocopy of a typescript dating from around 1946, the year of that Swedish anthology. Its title page, typed by Gascoyne, reads “EMBLEMS AND ALLEGORIES chosen by David Gascoyne with Original Lithographs by Graham Sutherland”. The prospective publishers were to have been Frederick Muller of 29 Great James Street, W.C.1, but it was never issued because Gascoyne found that he had double-booked with Tambimuttu’s Editions Poetry London, who then took umbrage. If anybody wished to publish it now with Sutherland’s illustrations, they would be doing themselves a most almighty favour. The title page is followed by a thematic contents list which includes everything from George Herbert and Henry Vaughan to Hopkins, R.W. Dixon, Coventry Patmore, Coleridge and Henry King. I have all the contents too. As far as Gascoyne was concerned, these were his peers, not Barker or Thomas. I have lectured on both of those men, and I have already observed of Barker, the bonds they shared were not those of similarity. Both of the others loved to tease Gascoyne, perhaps because they envied in him an underlying sincerity and seriousness. Recently I kept a Swansea audience in hoots of laughter reading them Thomas’ “Letter to My Aunt”, with its wonderful debunking of Gascoyne. Gascoyne himself told me that technically he had learned little from Barker, and Barker little from him.
Was Gascoyne the first Surrealist writer in the English language, or just one of the very first? Critics have said that Surrealism and English didn’t go very well together but if one thinks of the works of Gascoyne, and the much better known works of Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan, one has evidence to the contrary. Gascoyne wrote good poetry before Surrealism and after Surrealism but was always labelled as a Surrealist. It is proof of his astuteness that Surrealism is such a short and distinctive phase in his oeuvre. What do you think of his Surrealist poems and of the English Surrealist poetry canon?
The sub-title to my recent biography is carefully chosen, and it attributes to him a “surreal” rather than a Surrealist life. There is some very interesting Surrealist verse in his second volume Man’s Life Is This Meat (1936). Thereafter his strictly Surrealist poetry dries up. If you are looking for a consistently Surrealist British poet, try his friend Roger Roughton who founded the Surrealist publication Contemporary Poetry and Prose in 1935, and who committed suicide in Dublin in 1942. The problem for Gascoyne, I think, became that, though the Surrealists explored the recesses of the human mind, their understanding of that mind was ultimately materialist. And after, say, 1943, Gascoyne is reading Heidegger and along with him repudiating the materialist world view. Gascoyne was an Idealist in several related senses. That said, the imagery of his poetry retains a surreal intensity and vividness. And there is a surreal arbitrariness to much of his life. Which is why it was such fun to narrate.
You make it clear that Surrealism was not the only Franco-European movement that Gascoyne imported into his own work – and thus into English poetry and the English language – but that he later moved on to religious existentialism. ‘Miserere’ is perhaps an outstanding achievement in this vein. Would you say the religious existentialist is the mature poet, the true Gascoyne, as opposed to the Surrealist poet of his youth?
What I believe is of less importance than what Gascoyne himself thought. If you got him in an unguarded moment, he would almost certainly have endorsed your verdict. The religious verse will probably outlast the earlier stuff because it addresses permanent questions. In line with our common ecclesiastical roots, both Gascoyne and I are Christian in at least a cultural sense. But neither of us have been joiners, which means that we are both quite uncomfortable in a church gathering, or in a political meeting or any other collective pressure group. Gascoyne was the least parochial of men, and so no parish or party would ever have held his permanent allegiance. Being a religious existentialist is a way of entering into the spirit of religion while retaining your freedom, and your scepticism too. At least that is how I tend to look at it.
For some – Breton included – his religious existentialism and Christianity must have looked like he was going backward, even though it was a moving on from the aesthetic to the religious level, and a moving on to new trends in philosophy. For others, perhaps for secular existentialists, neo-Darwinists etc. his Christianity means he is irrelevant or anachronistic. Do you think it is not only his Christianity but his European brand of Christianity that has – so far – alienated him from a significant native readership?
Absolutely. Religious Existentialism, with its roots in Pascal and Kiekegaard, never took off in England. When in 1963 I was not reading D.H. Lawrence or Gascoyne on the river bank, I had my nose deep in John Robinson’s Honest to God, published that very year. This was a forlorn attempt by the Suffragen Bishop of Woolich, a leading New Testament scholar and theologian of the period, to introduce Continental religious existentialism into England. After I had read it, I championed the maverick bishop in a balloon debate. I still have my notes for the speech, but the bishop was the first to be turfed out of the basket. The winner was James Bond, which tells you a lot about the English. Not only was Robinson turfed out of the balloon, he was also turfed out of his bishopric (I nearly typed bishop-prick), and had to go back to teaching in the Cambridge college where I later worked. I was told that he had made a pathetic figure. Nobody could understand Gascoyne either when he went on about Leon Chestov…
I was blown away to discover that Gascoyne’s poem ‘A Vagrant’ was so autobiographical. I’d always assumed that – especially because it is presented in inverted commas – it was the lyrically enhanced monologue of a character he’d met. Again, we are reminded of Rimbaud’s own vagrancy in Paris and sleeping under bridges. Do you think that it his life of poverty, madness, vagrancy etc. that makes Gascoyne so unappealing to a larger audience? Is he too terrifying? Paradoxically, of course, it makes for a far more interesting read than one of a poet who’d spent his whole life at the writing desk.
The story behind that poem is quite amusing, because in 1947 Gascoyne had taken off to Paris in the company of a rich American who promptly forsook him and fled to Spain with Nancy Cunard. Gascoyne was left alone in a house, the rent of which had not been paid. So we was kicked out and had to sleep rough under one of the bridges. A few years later he could have done what I did when homeless in Paris in 1969, and knocked on George Whitman’s door at Shakespeare and Company, where he could have shared a mattress with some very Existentialist bedbugs. (I still possess a period Surrealist piece I wrote there, if IT or anybody else is interested). As it was, David shared the quais with other down and outs for several nights before being rescued by an affluent diplomat’s wife. But the experience of marginality and liminality fed “A Vagrant” and several other poems. George Whitman would have loved him, all the more because Shakespeare and Company shares a street – la rue de la Bûcherie – with the lodgings an impoverished Gascoyne rented in the late 1930s.
Like Hart Crane – who wrote a poem called ‘Legend’ – Gascoyne’s life is endlessly legendary. (Unlike Crane’s, it was very long). Was it a joy to write about, or were his regular miseries somehow infectious, or was it just bloody hard work? Is Gascoyne the only major poet who – instead of being summoned to Buckingham Palace – actually took it upon himself to break in?
I think that your alternatives are a little stark. Agony and ecstasy would be nearer the mark, with the stress on the conjunction. I spent weeks in Yale toiling over bulging boxes of documents, and from each box a genie sprang up. The largest box was catalogued as “Surrealist material annotated by Gascoyne.” It sounded promising so I saved it up until last, and was going to devote my last weekend to it. When I got into the library on Saturday morning, I called it up. It was labelled “Surrealist Joke” in Gascoyne’s handwriting, and it was empty.
Otherwise, there was no lack of material, all of which proved useful. Sometimes it was the least promising looking sources that proved to be the richest. There is, for example, in the British Library a run of fourteen notebooks dating between 1948 and 1951, a rather difficult period in Gascoyne’s life. Gascoyne’s wonderful editor Roger Scott had already looked at them, and by and large concluded that they were too chaotic for use. For me they proved a real treasure trove, like a chest of ill-assorted jewels: drafts of poems, reflections of his reading, rants against friends or against himself. Marvellously candid, and gloriously revealing. In fact, the more disturbed Gascoyne became, the more necessary it seemed to me to be to echo his own tone of voice. This is probably why Iain Sinclair in the Guardian recently compared the resulting biography to a feat of ventriloquism: which is perhaps the nicest thing that anybody has said. Of course, there were moments when the self-absorption grated, but at such times it became ever more necessary to sustain that act – or perhaps leap – of faith.
The story is regularly punctuated with the failure of fellow poets to recognise Gascoyne and his oeuvre. Eliot and Auden, especially, should have been more receptive to such a superb Christian poet. Spender appears in the narrative as a poet who was initially dismissive of Gascoyne but later bent over backwards to make amends. There was talk of how that’s just the way the luck runs for the ‘less than great’. Gascoyne’s social exclusion from English modernism puts me in mind of Blake’s social exclusion from English Romanticism. Was it Gascoyne’s outre-bohemianism, his proto-hipsterism, that caused this problem? Or what? Were his fellow poets envious, or threatened?
I am not sure that it is right to describe Gascoyne as a Bohemian in the same sense as one would apply that adjective to say, Barker or even Thomas. He was oddly conventional in certain respects, and certainly quite squeamish. The sexual permissiveness of the 1960s, for example, horrified him because he thought it meant making use of people. The reasons for his exclusion had far more to do with temperament and class. Not being a joiner meant that he kept his distance from the Auden Group, and ultimately it led to him being expelled by the Surrealists. He just would not toe a party line. That said, one cannot ignore the fact that the exclusion was to some extent social. Anne Goossens, one of the few people who can remember him from the forties, told me that it was partly a matter of not having been to the right sort of school. British social and intellectual snobbery were alike against him. You said that Spender went some way late in life to make amends. I was myself a witness to that impulse when I went to interview him at his house in St John’s Wood just a few weeks before he died. I did not record the interview because Spender was obviously very ill. However, I found myself in the presence of a man in contrite, even in confessional, mood. He said “People took Auden and me for radicals, but we were in fact an extension of the Bloomsbury Group. We feared Gascoyne and his kind because we feared they would leave dirty marks all over the rug.”
For me, what makes Gascoyne preferable to Eliot both as a poet, and later as a Christian poet, is that Gascoyne’s sensibility was of the left, sourced in the revolutionary zeal of the Surrealists, and expounded on in his own First English Surrealist Manifesto. (By the way, who translated the First English Surrealist Manifesto as it appears in your book? Gascoyne himself?) In your account, he begins as a revolutionary, occasionally lapses in his middle age, and then returns to his engaged roots in old age. Is that a fair assessment of Gascoyne? I believe that the English poetry scene, and canon, proritises poets and poetries of the right, and that Gascoyne fell foul of this. Is that plausible? Is it also plausible that in the long run, his having been held back or even censored, will lead to his work having a much greater prominence and influence?
Yes, that is very plausible. But I think you have to distinguish between achievement and reception. Eliot is a wonderful poet, of whom a convincing biography has yet to be written. Like you, I would have to distance myself from certain of his views, and insofar as his reputation is a reflection of his views, one has to dissent from that reputation, while continuing to admire the quality of his poems. And Gascoyne himself was a very great admirer of them.
It is the work that matters, however, far more than the vagaries of reputation, and I think that even Eliot’s reputation is far from being a settled question. In fact, it is these canonical figures whose reputations are sometimes the most unstable. I wrote a long lead review about the work of John Donne in the TLS last year in which I pointed just how misunderstood Donne has been. One of the greatest paradoxes of Donne’s life was that this Royalist Dean of St Paul’s was a cradle Catholic. The life of any worthwhile writer is likely to throw up equivalent paradoxes. The problem about “reputations” is that they tend to consist of over reactions to one part of a complex mix.
But to descend to the question of reputation, it might be true to say that Gascoyne’s has suffered because of his refusal to play any of the established political games. You can be Left Wing in England provided you repudiate the establishment with an established drawl. Gascoyne could never relinquish the political commitments of his youth, because he had never, never been on the winning side. He would have hated the modern habit of calling anybody who fails to fit in, or to take advantage of others, as a “loser”. He was on the side of The Lost. If you have to tie a label on him, try “Lost Poetry”, or perhaps “Lost Property”. Whether he will be rescued from the Lost Poetry Office later on, I do not know. I should hope so. I have done my ‘umble best, milud. And that includes translating a few works by Gascoyne in French, including the First English Surrealist Manifesto, that he saw no point in translating himself at the time. So, yes, that translation is mine.”
Gascoyne is, for me, almost an English Beckett, but one whose mainstay was always the poetry, though he did branch out into fiction and drama. Do you see any points of comparison?
Well, that’s an interesting point because some of his draft plays do remind me of Beckett a little. They did know one another, introduced I think by the art historian, Georges Duthuit. But actually Gascoyne was a much sweeter individual. And, despite the Existentialism, he never relinquished a certain quality of faith. There is little faith in Beckett, and little hope either.
Gascoyne was largely uncelebrated at the end of the 20C. He is still dismissed today e.g. Andrew Duncan branding him as ‘pedestrian and hysterical’ or Michael Schmidt mostly ignoring him in Lives of the Poets except for the phrase ‘David Gascoyne on a rare good day’… I see him as a Blake-in-Progress. Yet he is still mocked. How do you ultimately rate him?
Well, higher than Michael Schmidt, I should say. With all due respect, you cannot conceive of Michael as a vagrant. When I knew him in the early 1980s he was living in Chapel-en-le-Frith. I had to deliver to him the typescript of PN Review 31 which I was then editing. I phoned him up from London and asked “Where can I meet you?” He consulted his diary and said “I am busy all week, but if you take the 6 a.m train from Buxton into Manchester, I will get in your carriage when it reaches Chapel, and you will have my undivided attention as long as the journey lasts”. So I did as I was told, and in the pearly light of dawn the platform at Chapel stood this energetic person resembling a Harvard sophomore with a high-necked white vest beneath his shirt. When he entered the carriage and sat opposite, he possessed perfect Ivy League manners. And Manners, you know, Maketh Man, even in in Manchester.
You cover the struggle of modern English poetry against its nemesis and nadir, The Movement, citing writers such as Jeremy Reed, Iain Sinclair, Aidan Dun, Stephen Romer as poets who recognised as exemplary and inspirational Gascoyne’s more artistic, European, bohemian, philosophical modus operandi. Any comments on that battle as it continues on?
I am afraid that I think The Movement was utterly ghastly. In fact, it was a misnomer. It should have been called The Stasis. I prefer poetry that is, well, moving, and Gascoyne was definitely that.
Do you teach Gascoyne and Barker as Open University subjects?
We certainly teach Gascoyne, and Blake, and Gilchrist too, though on different courses. If I had my own way, they would feature on the same course. Barker, though, languishes outside the pale. Probably he would have regarded it as a badge of honour not to be included on a university course. And he may well have been quite right.
Thank you for this the revived IT’s first interview.
Thanks. It has been a pleasure.
Night Thoughts is published by Oxford University Press, 2012.