Writers

Mourning Lost Characters with Jean Alica Elster

A wonderful Detroit writer who I have had the pleasure to meet at a number of local author events is Jean Alica Elster. As a Kresge Arts fellow, she was featured in a video discussing her work. I thought I would share it here, not only because she’s someone you should know about, but also because she brings up a topic that I’ve mentioned here a number of times: the mourning that follows the completion of a literary work.

 

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Rupert Croft-Cooke’s Bosie Biography

The sun is shining through my office window this morning. The spring has brought light snow as it happens. But I spent the chilly evening reading Rupert Croft-Cooke’s “The Caves of Hercules,” a memoir of the author’s time in Tangier.


I ordered the book through Melcat inter-library loan as part of my continuing search for Schwabe– the mysterious member of the Wilde circle who went on to be a card sharp and possibly a spy. Croft-Cooke was the first to suggest that Maurice Schwabe was significant to the Wilde story, although he didn’t say a great deal about him. He included, in one of his books on Wilde, a description of Schwabe he got from “a barkeep” who had known Schwabe in 1910 in Tangier.


When I learned about Croft-Cooke’s “Smiling Damned Villain” an account of the life of a swindler named Paul Lund who he met as a bartender in Tangier, I thought perhaps he was the source. But looking back at Croft-Cooke’s description of what he learned of Schwabe, I found that he described the bartender who knew Schwabe as West Indian, which Lund was not, and I also realized that Lund was the wrong age to have known Schwabe in 1910. But Croft-Cooke did write a whole series of memoirs about his travels. This eventually (I checked out the wrong volume first) led me to “The Caves of Hercules,” which covered his time in Tangier.


I didn’t learn anything about Maurice Schwabe, except for an understanding of how the subject of him came up. Croft-Cooke was working on his biography of Lord Alfred Douglas at the time. He described him as a man who had given him “his ageing friendship and thus a faraway link with Oscar Wilde.”


The reason Croft-Cooke wrote his biography, he said, was that he realized “that there were intelligent people who still saw Bosie Douglas as the man Robert Ross and his followers depicted him.”


His biggest challenges, he said were persuading Douglas’s literary executor, Edward Colman, that he was going to do right by his subject. “Fortunately at the time he accepted my honesty of purpose and allowed me, on payment, the freedom of the Douglas copyright.” His second challenge was obtaining the books he needed in Tangier. He obtained some through a friend who opened an account for him with a specialist book seller, and others were lent and posted by the London Library. (Why won’t the libraries in London mail books to me?)


Croft-Cooke estimated that he spent less than six months writing his Bosie, “but I knew when I came to the end of it that it was the best book I could write.”


I feel a certain kinship with Croft-Cooke when he laments that “it met the fate of every book I had written up til then…No book of mine…has ever reached five figures in hardback editions, and Bosie was no exception.”


“But,” he wrote, “I loved writing it and to some degree I know that– in a useful modern phrase– I had set the record straight. There were people, my late dear friend and literary godfather Sir Crompton Mackenzie among them, who still thought Ross a hero and refused to realize that in his treatment of Bosie he had been a despicable little wretch, and there were still people who labelled Bosie with the epithet used by a miserable scissors-and-paste scribbler whom I know, named Percy Colson, ‘the Black Douglas’; but here and there light dawned and Sir Rupert-Hart Davis wrote me a promise (not, unfortunately, fulfilled) that in the next impression of The Letters of Oscar Wilde he would correct one of the most unjust passages by re-writing a footnote to read– ‘According to Ross’, instead of letting it be supposed that he had accepted the Ross version of what had been done about the ‘De Profundis’ letter after Wilde came out of prison. Old unhappy far-off things and battles long ago, but they seemed desperately important while I was writing ‘Bosie’…”


His follow-up book was “Feasting With Panthers” in which he wrote that “it is scarcely yet realized what a large part [Maurice Schwabe] played in Wilde’s ruin…” The book brought Croft-Cooke nothing but the initial payment, “which was a modest one.”


“I do not complain,” he wrote, “that I am, and am likely to remain, an extremely poor man; so far from feeling self-pity, I realize, as I have said, that I have the utmost good fortune in being able to earn an unskilled railwayman’s wages by doing what I like best in the world, and during the fourteen years of which I am writing, doing it in cheerful surroundings and among people who interested me. Sometimes I am plaintive enough to say, as the King told the Queen and the Queen told the Dairymaid, ‘I would like a little bit of butter with my bread,’ but the mood soon passes as I start another book.”


And that is a fairly good depiction of this author as well, as I tune out the sounds of crickets chirping over Oscar’s Ghost and dive into the investigation of that intriguing panther. If only I could call Rupert Croft-Cooke on the phone and ask him what else he knew.

Adventures in Exile

DNkRI9iXUAAbku2La Cause Litteraire today (via its Twitter feed) made me aware that November 1 is the anniversary of the death of Alfred Jarry (pictured right).

This gives me an excuse to share one more of my Oscar’s Ghost outtakes. This passage describes what happened when Oscar was finally granted bail before his second criminal trial:

 

Robert Sherard had rushed to Wilde’s side and was buzzing around, proud to be able to do “menial work for my friend.” This consisted mostly of fetching him glasses of claret. Oscar was deeply depressed and asked Sherard, “Oh, why have you brought me no poison from Paris?” Sherard immediately went to his club library and looked up the effects of various kinds of poison. He told Wilde that he should not consider prussic acid because death only came after forty minute of “indescribable agony.” Wilde decided not to poison himself after all.

Sherard had joined the chorus of people urging him to flee. He was willing “to take the whole care and responsibility of the evasion on my shoulders…” and he took up “counter-police manoeuvers” to see if they were being watched. His emotions were in such a state that Alphonse Daudet, who came to visit him from Paris, was afraid he was losing his mind. Sherard’s dramatizing was exhausting everyone and (Oscar’s brother) Willie Wilde offered to do whatever it took, including to sell his library, to raise the money to send Sherard back to Pairs. Daudet came to the rescue, distracting Sherard by suggesting that they write a book together. The book became Daudet’s My First Voyage: My First Lie, published in 1901.

Sherard would one day write that Wilde’s arrest had ruined his career. After the “crushing blow” he found it difficult to write and his income plummeted. (Writers are always looking for something on which to blame their writer’s blocks and difficulty making a living. Sherard had actually been suffering from financial problems for some time.)

Bosie was no longer encouraging Oscar to stay and fight. He was begging him to come join him on the continent. (Bosie’s brother) Percy Douglas even promised that if he did he would personally reimburse Rev Headlam (who had contributed half of the bail) for his portion of the bail. Sherard, recalled some of the letters that Bosie sent him (which Willie had seen and kept teasing his brother about) “…a curious medley of attractions was set out. There was moonlight on the orange-groves and there were other inducements which need not be particularised.”

Perhaps we can help Sherard on that score. When Douglas arrived in Paris he found a community of artists, sympathetic to Oscar Wilde, who welcomed him into the heart of French Bohemia. The circle revolved around the editors of the Mercure de France, Alfred Vallette and his wife the cross-dressing Rachilde who described herself as a “man of letters” on her calling cards. One of the only women in the circle, she was also the most famous writer of them all.

The Mercure was then based in two second-floor rooms in the three-room home of its editors. It was located on the rue de’l’Ėchaudé off the boulevard Saint-Germain, a dark avenue best known for its many houses of ill repute. The first two rooms were a small reception room, and an office-library. The third was the couple’s bedroom.

There, in a dark red, smoke-filled room, on any given Tuesday could be found an invited assemblage the leading lights the French artistic avant-garde. Paul Valéry referred to them as “a fermenting mix of striking personalities.” They gathered to discuss religion, aesthetics, philosophy, politics and art. There were no formalities, and no servants. Vallette, who hated pretension, opened his own door to his guests himself often dressed in a short jacket paired with his house slippers. Léon-Paul Fargue described the scene, “Almost instantly the little salon was thick with tobacco smoke. The air could be sliced like a loaf, one could barely see anything. All these famous persons seemed as if painted on a canvas of fog…” Wilde had been a habitue of Rachilde’s salon. He once asked if the “enigmatic creature in the black woolen dress” could really be the author of Monsieur Venus.

chat_noir_poster_steinlein-During Wilde’s trials and in the first part of his incarceration Douglas was frequently seen in the famous cabaret the Chat Noir of Rodolphe Salis in the company of the symbolist writer Alfred Jarry, the writer and caricaturist Ernest LaJeunesse and his protoge, the angelic-looking decadent artist Léonard Sarluis. Of Sarluis it was said “La Jeunesse was his mentor and Oscar Wilde was his god.”

As we have seen, Douglas had a religious devotion to the philosophy he believed Oscar Wilde represented. The couple had never been sexually exclusive and so being loyal to the incarcerated Wilde, as Douglas understood it, was not maintaining a chaste celibacy until his return. Rather it was remaining devoted to both Wilde and “the cause.” Being loyal to the cause meant partaking in the sacrament of sex. The extent to which he did so, however, is an open question.

Alfred Jarry’s autobiographical novel Days and Nights disguised the names of the real people who were its characters. The journalist Edouard Julia decoded the names of the characters in penciled notes in his copy, identifying “Bondroit” as Lord Alfred Douglas. The nature of the novel makes it difficult to know exactly how historical these coded adventures were. Sengle, the hero of Days and Nights makes no distinction between day and night– waking consciousness and dreaming. It is all a continuum. Therefore the scene including Douglas could be a faithful memory, an embellished memory or pure fantasy.

The novel describes a group sex scene at Sarluis’s studio, which included Douglas, Sarluis, Henri Albert, Ernest La Jeunesse and one woman, the actress Fanny Zaessinger. The novel dates this as happening before Jarry’s military service in November 1894, but Alastair Brotchie, author of a biography of Jarry, believes it must have happened (assuming it did) around this time.

Bosie wrote from the Hotel des Deux Mondes in Paris on 15 May, “My own darling Oscar, Have just arrived here. They are very nice here and I can stay as long as I like without paying my bill, which is a good thing as I am quite penniless. The proprietor is very nice and most sympathetic; he asked after you once and expressed his regret and indignation at the treatment you had received… Do keep up your spirits, my dearest darling. I continue to think of you day and night, and send you all my love. I am always your own loving and devoted boy Bosie.”

What Does a Writer Look Like?

Today GQ posted a feature on “How to Dress Like a Writer.” My answer: stay in your pajamas all day. You are an introvert with a home office. GQ took a more dapper approach. Now, GQ is a men’s fashion magazine. So it would be unfair of me to point out the well-dressed writers they featured were all men. I came to the story through a side door and so I was struck by the absence of women before I realized what the publication was.  But this led me to wonder: when the average person hears the word “writer” what comes to mind?

I have written about gender and trends in publishing here in the past, so I won’t look up and link all the articles again, but research has shown that women read more than men, women make up the vast majority of publishing professionals, and this has been true for ages. In the Victorian era, female writers outsold their male counterparts by a comfortable margin.

Given all of this, you might expect the image that comes to mind when you say “writer” to be a woman. I’m guessing, however, that it is not. Your picture was probably more Ernest Hemmingway or Stephen King than Jane Austen or J.K. Rowling.

For even though women do more reading, and undoubtedly more writing, research shows books by male writers find a clearer path to publication, books that are seen as appealing to male readers are more likely to be published, to be taken seriously as literature and to get reviews. And even though female writers were more popular than male writers in the Victorian era, we have little historical memory of them. The serious writers studied in literature courses have overwhelmingly been male.

I did a little unscientific test to see what images the word “writer” evokes when not in the pages of a men’s fashion magazine. I typed “writer” into Google image search. Pictures of typewriters and fountain pens are the most common images associated with the term. More often than not, if there is a person in the picture, it is a man who is using the tool.

Writer at work

But the male images are not as overwhelmingly dominant as you might expect. At a quick glance my impression is that it is perhaps a 60/40 split of men to women. There was also one dog:

Boxer dog making note

What struck me more than the number of male images vs. female was the way male and female writers seem to be depicted. Here are three of the first images of women writers that came up in my search:

The women are in pastoral settings, getting inspiration from nature. Men are more likely to be shown in a professional setting, struggling over words at a typewriter in a book-filled office.

The overall impression I get from looking at these pictures is that writing is serious business for men, they labor and struggle over their text, whereas women write for pleasure and self-expression.

How does a writer dress? If he is a man, he dresses for the office and is correspondingly taken seriously as a professional. If she is a woman, she dresses for the beach or the forest, and probably carries a diary.

 

For more on initial assumptions about identity categories see my 2015 post What is an Identity?

Published Writers in Pain Part II

Some time ago, probably after the release of my second novel, I wrote a post called Published Writers in Pain about the phenomenon of post-publication depression. Today I came across another quote on the subject from a 1985 Washington Post interview with John Fowles.

After you finish [writing a book], you are intensely depressed. It doesn’t much matter whether the reviews are good or not. You feel empty, a field lying fallow, and you must let it stay fallow for a while. You love a book when it’s being written. You are so close to it. You’re the only person who knows it and it’s still full of potential. You know you can improve it. Then, suddenly, there’s the dreadful day when you have the printed proof texts. You get a feeling of ‘That’s it. This is the final thing and I shan’t have the chance to change it.’ It’s a feeling of death, really.

 

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

Is Jake Gyllenhaal the Reincarnation of Marcel Proust?

The Guardian today featured an article on an upcoming auction of documents related to French literature. One of the notable letters is from Marcel Proust who was taking time away from contemplating lost time to complain about his neighbors:

The most amusing letter in the collection, Bonna said, was from Proust to the son of his landlord…In the letter, Proust complains about being able to hear his neighbours’ loud sex. The noise was not the problem, the letter reveals: “Beyond the partition, the neighbours make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.”

As they brought up the subject of Proust, there is another historical resemblance in my continuing series I thought I might mention: