John A. Scott: Shorter Lives

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2020, 136pp.

John A. Scott’s spectacular Shorter Lives is made up of a series of poetic biographies of crucial figures in the development of what is usually called Modernism but which, as the distance from it lengthens, looks less like a movement and more like a rejection of the nineteenth century and everything it stood for. Developments in art, literature and music, often violently ideologically opposed to each other, were gathered together by this common drive to a rejection of the past on the basis of the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And the rejection of the European nineteenth century is something that continues to this day, one hundred and twenty years after the formal end of that century, especially in the grotesque parodies of nineteenth century culture – as embodiments of all the issues contemporary Western life disapproves of – that appear in popular culture. This seems unprecedented: it’s normal to kick your parents as you struggle to make an individual life, but not normal to keep on kicking the crumbling skeletons of your great-great-grandparents.

Scott’s book includes biographies of Rimbaud, Virginia Woolf in her childhood incarnation as Adeline Virginia Stephen (this biography ends in 1904 at the time of the breakdown which followed her father’s death), Andre Breton, Mina Loy and Picasso, with brief suites devoted to Charles Cros (an erstwhile friend of Rimbaud) and Ambrose Vollard, the great art dealer of modern painting and commissioner of Picasso’s famous series. A note at the end of Shorter Lives tells us that this volume is the first of a projected trilogy and so the cast of characters will treble. But even then, these lives can only be a sampling of the tumultuous events of early modernism. One’s sense of the project is that the sheer size of the material of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century means that no biographical overview is possible, and no single character can bear the burden of representing the movement(s). This makes it possible to approach the entire issue poetically, looking, as I will try to show, for patterns, threads, connections, repeated images and so on – the kind of thing that a major poet would do almost instinctively.

And so the first thing I would want to stress about this book is that these are poetic biographies and the word “poetic”, as usual, is open to a slew of interpretations. The crudest, perhaps, involves the notion of obsessive interest. Scott has been concerned with the literary and visual arts of this period, especially in France (which usually claims the privilege of inaugurating the modernist movement) from the beginning of his career. In an interview recorded in the early eighties he spoke of the impulses behind his earliest poetry:

In fact a lot of my early poems and many in The Barbarous Sideshow were part of a vast master scheme which I never completed and which was going to be a sort of contemporary, twentieth-century mythology. It had two major fictional characters named Rudolph and Miranda whose lives were intertwined with those of a lot of people in the first twenty years of the century – the Dadaists, for example . . .

Forty-odd years is a long time to harbour a project and Shorter Lives is obviously a long way from the projected work of the seventies but the impulses are clearly the same. Of course it could be argued that there is nothing unique to poetry in obsessions – sober historians have their lifelong projects as well, no less renowned than those of poets – but obsession is only a preliminary poetic feature here.

A second involves the issue of imaginative freedom. Not everything in these biographies is “true” or “real” according to the principles of historical honesty. Scott doesn’t only allow himself the freedom of imaginative reconstruction or speculation as a conventional biographer might, he allows himself a full imaginative engagement, changing the reality where he wants. One way of describing and comparing the portraits of Shorter Lives is to look at the degree of imaginative freedom that each contains and to speculate as to the reasons for it.

The first life is, fittingly, that of Rimbaud. Whereas most cultural historians are prepared to credit Baudelaire as being the first “modern”, he always seems to me to be an artist going about his work without an unusually intense animus directed towards the artistic culture he inherited: he was a devotee of Wagner, for example, perhaps the quintessential locus of late nineteenth century art. It is Rimbaud who throws the first sizeable grenade. One of those geniuses who, very quickly and very early on, run through all the possibilities of past and contemporary art, Rimbaud was just as profound an enemy of the early precursors of modernism – the kinds of multiple movements of the fin de siecle – as he was of the past. Scott’s life goes from his arrival in Paris to his death in 1891. It contains a section in which Rimbaud returns to London and lives in a basement flat flooded by water which rises and falls according to the tides. The material comes from Rimbaud’s own Illuminations – as it does in the next section which imagines Rimbaud in Aden – but it is also a theme in Scott’s work. His second book is called From the Flooded City and it may be worth pointing out that one of the most powerful of his earlier poems, “Elegy”, is built around Rimbaud’s death. Dismemberment (Rimbaud’s leg was amputated) is another recurring theme. At the conclusion of “Rimbaud”, there is a section which imagines a later life for a Rimbaud not struck down by syphilis. Here, readers not entirely au fait with the lives of French poets in the late nineteenth century will be relieved to know that the imaginative status of this section is clearly signalled:

Arthur Rimbaud misses seeing the Twentieth Century by nine years and three weeks. How different if he had chosen to resist the desire to lie with one of the beautiful Adari women . . .

In this section there is both imaginative expansion of the “what if” variety – Rimbaud serves as a war correspondent for Le Monde during the First World War – but also expansions whereby the line between the real and the imagined become blurred. One of the rare later pictures of Rimbaud is a photograph of him as a trader in Harar wearing a fez. Now, in this imagined later life, his head has adopted the shape of the fez so that he needs only to colour it to attain “a permanent headpiece”. He also travels to Venice and unwittingly introduces the plague which will kill not only Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach (from Death in Venice) but also Visconti’s Aschenbach – a very different character but from a film “adaptation” of the novella. There is a sense here of one of the dominant modes of the entire book: what is present within the poetry (or art) enters into the world of “reality”.

Rimbaud is also imagined to have been a pioneer of the process of cutting up texts and making new texts from them – a process that has survived into modern poetry where other textual practices of the time, automatic writing, for example, have not. The first section of this “Life” shows him borrowing a journal which has poems of Baudelaire but whose pages he must not cut. Hence he makes his own poems out of the half-lines that he can make out by prizing apart the joined pages. At the very beginning of Shorter Lives we meet the significant phrase, “misreading where necessary”. Something similar happens in the brief suite of poems “by” Charles Cros which follows the Rimbaud life and in which the poems, a note says, “were assembled from mistranslations of the French originals”. Again it’s a recurring theme/method in Scott’s work: there are “versions” of Propertius in the earlier “Preface” (which, with “Elegy” shows Scott at the grand guignol boundaries of his art).

The Rimbaud portrait, which is at heart derived from a careful study of everything that is known about him, allows itself, in other words, a good deal of imaginative license, often deriving expansions from the works. If one approaches the book from this point of view, it can be seen that the Picasso portrait, a set of twenty-four prose poems, allows itself (I think) only a couple of such expansions. In the fourth poem, Picasso’s mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, produces the kind of demon-child that “Elegy” concerned itself with:

. . . . . 
For several months the creature remains hairless; what will be horns are barely knuckle-like lumps. The genitals, an inheritance from Picasso, are fully-formed and would be of prodigious size even for an adult. From the first, Marie-Therese deems it satanic. She quickly learns how it shies away from candle-light, rears, swivelling aside with astonishing dexterity. Mercifully, the horned boy dies, par hazard, glimpsing its own grotesqueness in a glass – death by self-sight – a condition previously noted in creatures half-bull, half-human . . .

The studio used by Picasso in the rue des Grands-Augustins is where Balzac wrote his famous story “The Unknown Masterpiece” in which three painters – including an as yet unfamous Poussin – discuss a work by Porbus. At the end of Scott’s life of Picasso, Porbus and Poussin reappear to look at one of his paintings, converting Picasso into the third of the painters, the fictional Frenhofer.

The central “life” – that of Andre Breton – is entirely fictional (and very funny). Breton is imagined as arriving in Melbourne during the Second World War and, while in a hotel, having Trotsky dictate a manifesto about art and revolution to him in a dream. Breton writes the words on his bed sheets and then later finds that all the hotel’s bed-linen is dealt with by Chang’s Chinese laundry which, he discovers, has affiliates throughout the world, all of which contain libraries of sheet writing including one in Djibouti which contains the bulk of Rimbaud’s work imagined to have been produced in Africa. The Breton “Life” is almost entirely in prose that doesn’t aspire to be read as prose-poems. It is in fact a part of Scott’s novel, N, which was deleted from the final version. It fits in very beautifully here as a centrepiece which looks at Australia in Surrealist terms – Breton is fascinated by the rebel and proto-surrealist, Ned Kelly, and by Nolan’s photographs of Kelly’s armour which recall the African masks which became influential in the twenties. It may not be intended but there may also be some sort of judgement passed here on Breton, a walking mixture of gullibility, excitableness and quarrelsomeness whose history remains locked in narrative prose, rather than poetry. Again, significantly, the work alters reality, especially early on in Breton’s voyage to Australia:

. . . . . It was at this time Breton came upon the idea of charting the course on his copy of the Surrealist Map of the World. As, perhaps, a direct consequence of this (for what other explanation could there possibly be?) islands mysteriously began to amass and to disappear to the astonishment and consternation of the crew who, for example, would be confronted by shorelines hundreds of miles in excess of the islands they had visited many times before. The Bismarck Archipelago, for instance, was now a group of major islands easily exceeding the size of India. Breton’s map and glass were confiscated and the remainder of the journey via the British-French Condominium and New Caledonia passed without incident. . . 

Either side of the Breton portrait are lives of Virginia Woolf and Mina Loy. Both stick close to the facts and have comparatively few imaginative expansions. Those that are there, as in the case of the Picasso life, stress the demonic. Woolf’s madnesses will, presumably, occupy a later section of her biography, but there is a lot of concentration in this section on the sad life of Woolf’s half-sister, Laura, the daughter of her father, Leslie Stephen, and his first wife, Thackeray’s daughter, Minnie. A damaged child, she is portrayed here as a creature of demonic violence. One of the Stephen/Duckworth children’s hobbies at their holiday home of Talland (in St Ives, Cornwall), was smearing treacle in tree branches and then catching the moths that were drawn to it. The section, “Mothing”, describes this and continues:

. . . . . 
                   The following morning,
Laura is out to lick the branches. Her large
          head bent forward, face

          wallowing in the
treacle and moth-dust. Her eyes raise at their
first approach: “br-br-br -“ she essays, but can
get no further down the narrow passage
of its letters. “Branches,” Ginny offers back.
“Sweet, hard branches like Brighton Rock.” She and
Nessa, scheme – imaginatively girl-to-
girl – upon their stuttering (honey-tongued)
half-sister fixed upon the bark. Breathlessly,
they catch her tongue within the jar, and take it
(‘br-br-br’ it thrums) inside the house to pin.
Meanwhile, back in Laura’s slowly working
mouth, the treacle seeps into the cavities;
and sets within the gums.

The introduction of a demonic element into this well-known familial environment might explain why a section is devoted to James Stephen – “Jem, A Brief Digression” – a completely mad relative and suitor of Stella Duckworth, rather than Stella’s later husband, the reliable and profoundly sane Jack Hills.

In the life of Mina Loy there is a brief passage in which her husband, Arthur Cravan, draws a pen quill from her back and gets ink by soaking her hair. This has a very “Preface”-like quality. And later, in another Scott-like moment, Loy actually enters a painting: Richard Oelze’s famous Die Erwartung. As I have said, the Virginia Woolf life takes us only as far as 1904 by which time she is still Virginia Stephen, not yet Virginia Woolf. The Mina Loy life begins at almost exactly that point, leaving out the first part of her life – her marriages to Stephen Haweis and Arthur Cravan. Loy is not as significant a creative figure as the subjects of the other lives but she does have connections to a wide range of important people including Marinetti, Duchamp, Picabia, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore. She is also intriguing because her various attempts to write down her own life focus on the figure of Arthur Cravan, her second husband and nephew of Oscar Wilde. He only appears in this life as a figure of the past being brought into words. He is, in fact, what he was in life: a disappearance, an absence – in this he resonates weirdly with Rimbaud. Most likely he chose his name (one of many – his baptismal name was Fabien Lloyd) so that his Christian name recalled Rimbaud’s. His baptismal surname Lloyd also, as the poem points out, contains in itself Mina Loy’s surname (itself a conscious blurring of the original “Lowy” which her mother thought to be too Jewish – the patterns and repetitions in these lives can begin to get vertiginously complex). His disappearance – taking a repaired sailing boat for a test run in the Gulf of Tehuantepac – is one of those which spawned, Rimbaud-like, its own set of myths: later sightings, found remains and so on. Scott, focussing on Loy’s later life, has a lot to say about her relationship with Joseph Cornell, the reclusive fellow-maker of box art. There is also a brilliant set of poems about her life after the war in the Bowery slums of New York where people sleeping on the streets simply die of cold: a kind of prefiguring of the current pandemic.

Why there is this comparative restraint on imaginative expansion in the lives of Woolf and Loy is a difficult question. It isn’t a case of available detail since, although the biographical facts about Loy are fairly sparse, Woolf must be the most over-exposed individual in twentieth century art with her extensive letters and diaries completely available. Perhaps it is because neither Loy nor Woolf move so fully in the world of the demonic as Rimbaud and Picasso do. Breton, on the other hand, simply inhabits the land of the irrational whose principle is: Whatever can be imagined can be real.

This quick look at the degrees of poetic/imaginative expansion in these lives also points up another element that one would want to call “poetic” though, again, writers in other genres might object. And that is the high degree of formal organisation of the entire book. It is structured in seven parts which are organised symmetrically. At the centre is Breton’s visit to Australia. Outside of it are the lives of Woolf and Loy, each fragmentary but structured so that the latter takes off where the former concluded. Either side of these are the two suites – the sonnets of Charles Cros and “The Vollard Suite” in both of which a good deal of imaginative expansion takes place (Vollard finds among his paintings works by “someone Pollock, someone Warhol, someone Bacon”). And then at the beginning and end are the lives of Rimbaud and Picasso.

This patterning is reflected in the styles of the sections. While Breton’s life is, as I have said, told in Scott’s elegant narrative prose, the opening and closing lives are really prose poems. In fact there is a good reason to feel that the method of the twenty-four images we get of Picasso is designed to make us recall Rimbaud’s Illuminations. In contrast, the lives of Loy and Woolf, though they contain prose sections, are predominantly done as sonnets, poems which have a distinctive visual shape (rather than a simple line count) in that both the first and last lines are indented. It’s a poem shape that dates back to Scott’s earliest work in The Barbarous Sideshow but here its complexity is multiplied by a set of conventions which are, so to speak, bolted on to the text. There are passages set in Courier font to indicate quotation from the author, there are marginal glosses and also footnotes. Virginia’s half-sister, Laura, has her effacement (she was eventually “institutionalised”) represented by having appearances of her name screened. James Stephen has his speech done in an old-style wedding-invitation font. The visual effect is spectacular and the poetic effect is intriguing because it is yet another attempt – more successful than the usual double columns etc – to move poetry away from linearity into multi-level meanings and perspectives. Of course, the downside is that it’s a nightmare to quote and I expect that in this book’s many reviews there will be few actual quotations from the lives of Virginia and Mina – the textual challenges would make it too difficult.

Finally, on this issue of what the word, “poetic” in the phrase, “poetic biographies” might entail, there is the question of the sensitivity to patterns and repetitions. I’ll take one example only from the dozens one might list. Mina Loy’s life includes detail about her son-in-law, Julien Levy. He was the son of a wealthy American real estate dealer who, though to some extent besotted with Mina (“inappropriate” sexual bonds are also a feature of Woolf’s life) married her daughter, Joella. He set up a very important art gallery in New York and introduced many of the artists of the modernist period to America with Loy acting as his Paris agent. One of these was Arshile Gorky. In mid-1948 Levy was driving in rain with Gorky as passenger. The car overturned, Gorky was left paralysed and unable to paint and shortly thereafter suicided, having “gone through the empty house, seeking out his favourite spots and preparing an individually-made noose for each of them”. The third of the three poems of “The Vollard Suite” – the next section of the book – describes Vollard’s death in 1939. While he is returning to his house, his chauffeur-driven car loses control on the wet road, somersaults, and Vollard is killed when material from the back of the car flies forward and breaks his neck. A note tells us that one of Vollard’s clients, Maillol, also died (in 1944) when the car in which he was a passenger skidded and rolled during a thunderstorm.

This is a fairly obvious example of the sort of chimings that attract a poet’s attention though they might be blurred within a straightforward, individual-based biography where they can only be interesting contingencies that would be relegated to a footnote (assuming they survived an editor’s pen). Another example might be the complex issue of movement, especially between countries. But there are other patterns within individual lives which are picked out in the poems. Rimbaud’s constant “drive to the east”, his continuous efforts to get away from Roche, his home, to the warm lands of Africa, are frustrated continually and, when eventually they are successful, turn out to be no more than a preparation for his final return home to die. Mina Loy’s constant movement seems a symbol of the idea of transforming the self and, possibly, making a “modernist” self. We see her passing through doors and a quote from the New York paper, Evening Sun, speaks of her as “already half-way through the door into / Tomorrow.”

Continuous rereading prompts all sorts of other examples and perhaps the most convincing connotation of the word “poetic” is that the method encourages (perhaps demands) an imaginative expansion on the part of the reader. I find myself beginning to plot my own course through this landscape, wondering, for example, what Woolf and Loy, as little girls, were doing on the day Rimbaud died. There are the birthdates also. Virginia Woolf was born on the 25th January, 1881 and Mina Loy on the 27th December of the same year. There are suggestive but entirely fortuitous harmonisings here: one opening the natal year, the other arriving at its close. And then there is Picasso, born on the same day as Woolf but three months earlier. Nothing in Shorter Lives explicitly connects this pair but one could meditate at length about one being a mirror image of the other: one whose madness expresses itself in creativity and a violent assertion of sexuality, the other in some way internalising the madness into psychotic, self-destructive spells. One working through a succession of partners, the other clinging to one, etc etc. And then there is the fact that Picasso is born exactly ten days after P.G. Wodehouse a figure who, in a way, represents exactly the opposite of modernism (though he lived in France for a time and migrated to America, like Mina Loy, and wrote for American musicals which might be seen as part of the reaction against nineteenth century, Germanic musicals). He also, unlike Loy and Picasso, had a direct experience of the demonic, not so much in being imprisoned by the Germans but in being tormented by English newspapers as a Nazi-sympathiser, a victim of the demonic powers of the popular press. I’ll stop here. Once one includes someone like Wodehouse in the landscape, the possibilities become vertiginous and that way madness lies!

The fundamental issue that its nature as a succession of “poetic biographies” raises is whether Shorter Lives is a contribution to the historical reconstruction of modernism (done by looking at the sorts of things conventional biography omits) or whether it is another, parallel universe to the actual historical period, one in which a poet can allow himself imaginative entries and expansions and one in which the creative powers of the individual artists are allowed to create a reality. I’m not entirely sure – an embarrassing admission for a reviewer. As evidence that it is the former is the fact that there are no wholesale changes to known history: Virginia Woolf doesn’t conduct an adolescent relationship with her half-brother (and first publisher) Gerald Duckworth, and Mina Loy doesn’t shoot Cravan in the wrist. The imaginative scenes are grafts rather than “alternate universe” changes to the historical timeline. I would like to sit on the fence and say that it partakes of both with perhaps a slight leaning toward the latter. Presumably the later instalments will help to clarify this problem. But, despite ones uncertainties about exactly what kind of book one is reading, it’s impossible to overstress just how extraordinarily fertile and imaginatively dense Shorter Lives is: there is more complexity and achieved ambition in half a dozen of its pages than in most books of contemporary Australian poetry.