Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Surreal life

He had published his first volume of poems at sixteen and had written what remains a standard introduction to surrealism at eighteen; and, now, a decade after his death, he has a deservedly comprehensive and illuminating biography: 'Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the poet David Gascoyne' by Robert Fraser.

Born in 1916, I have reached the gathering clouds of the Second World War and Gascoyne at 23 already has five well-reviewed volumes behind him but is worried about his productivity. He is right to be so because the mental frailty that haunted his middle years is slowly becoming apparent. It would have a devastating impact on his ability to work, silencing for long periods this most imaginatively gifted of poets.

I keep being struck by realising: I knew that person, as I knew Gascoyne himself, if briefly. So, for example, Gascoyne is described taking a translation of, the 'father' of Surrealism, Andre Breton's work to the publisher, Faber and Faber, where he has a conversation about the possible meaning of certain terms with T.S. Eliot's then secretary: Anne Ridler, herself to become a distinguished poet and translator, and whose silent prayer group I used to attend in her house (when in my twenties) (and about whom, in appropriately surreal fashion I dreamt last night)!

It is a beautifully written book - shrewd in judgement, at turns poignant and humorous - and full of life - that extraordinary period of experimentation in the face of gathering war clouds that was the 30s.

One of the key thinkers that shaped Gascoyne's life was Lev Shestov - the Russian Jewish thinker of the 'arational' - of the God who lies beyond reason and cannot be justified by reason only by faith. I remember discussing him with Gascoyne in the White Hart bar at Dartington Hall (in 1986 at the first Temenos conference) and seeing how necessary a thinker he was to a man who had tasted disintegrating despair, where the world refused to be kind or justifiable, and only a slender thread of faith remained. My knowledge of Shestov was (and indeed remains) minimal - I had read an essay by Milosz, a chapter by Camus and Shestov's own 'Athens and Jerusalem' but was on surer ground when we turned to Buber that second Jewish 'existentialist'. Both had a mind that hallowed the particular, presence, the person in their uniqueness. It occurred to me then that both are 'philosophers' that reached after poetry (Milosz says of Shestov that his turn to thought feels that of a disappointed poet) where 'truth' speaks out of a crystalline moment captured in their particular images.

Here is Snow in Europe written at Christmas 1938 where I have now reached:

Out of their slumber Europeans spun
Dense dreams: appeasements, miracle, glimpsed flash
Of a new golden era; but could not restrain
The vertical white weight that fell last night
And made their continent a blank.

Hush, says the sameness of the snow
The Ural and Jura now rejoin
The furthest Arctic's desolation. All is one;
Sheer monotone: plain, mountain; country, town:
Contours and boundaries no longer show.

The warring flags hang colourless a while;
Now midnight's icy zero feigns a truce
Between the signs and seasons, and fades out
All shots and cries. But when the great thaw comes,
How red shall be the melting snow, how loud the drums!

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