Christopher Hawtree

the pillowbook of Christopher Hawtree, writer and Green Party councillor for Central Hove

On David Gascoyne

Posted on | April 20, 2012 | No Comments

With pressure on space and delay in its appearance, my piece on David Gascoyne in today’s Independent was shorter than envisaged. Here is the full version, including reference to the many others who popped up in his life. That said, the printed version appeared neat enough.

Night Thoughts:
The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne
Robert Fraser
OUP £30

Many know about the death by drowning of W. S. Gilbert; others are aware that in 1933 Hemingway, incensed by a review, trashed the Paris bookshop in which he read it; few, however, could point to the incidents’ one degree of separation. Such surprises regularly punctuate the soberly engrossing chronicle which Robert Fraser has created in and around the life of a poet whose modest fame has burned steadily, almost brightly, since his Thirties emergence as a teenage prodigy.

Born into a family where his father’s office life proved as fraught as his wife’s stage ambitions, Gascoyne would have learnt that, as a girl, she had been in the water when Gilbert swam out to save her friend, and met his own end. No sooner had Gascoyne’s peripatetic childhood brought him to Salisbury than this tall, elegant boy was in the Cathedral choir – and performed Elgar, in the composer’s presence and on an early disc. From the start he was such an omnivorous reader that prose and poetry came readily to him, and he published, at nineteen, an enduring study of the Surrealism which had inspired him in Paris (where he met Hemingway the day before the novelist’s mood soured). A co-organiser of the famous 1936 Surrealism exhibition in London, self-educated, bookshop-haunting Gascoyne moved, elegantly dressed, in literary and artistic circles with a certain charming diffidence born of precarious sexuality and finances – and persistent recourse to off-the-shelf benzedrine. One lover, he later, harrowingly, learned had died in Auschwitz. His own war was spent touring England in farces (Michael Redgrave a hopeless amatory quest) before many returns to France, where – as his poems turned from surrealist to apocalyptic – accumulated angst brought a first asylum sojourn and worsened as his mother ailed, and was not held at bay by his fine foray into painting. Convinced that he had to inform the Queen of worldwide conspiracy, he went to Buckingham Palace, where a guardsman halted him – and, police summoned, he was despatched to another asylum, where a smashed television landed him in a padded cell.

Intermittently stable, he moved to the Isle of Wight, only to be incarcerated again. One day came a visitor, Judy Lewis, who had recently ushered Bob Dylan around a Festival there. She read patients poetry as a salve for them, including one by Gascoyne, who stood up and announced that he was Gascoyne; which she politely answered, assuming this a tall’s man Napoleon complex. That muddle sorted out, they married, and he was to enjoy an Eighties renaissance after his journals’ publication – belying one entry: “the truth about my sex-life: I cannot stand up for ladies, and I have an innate sense of chivalry.”

The index entry for “Gascoyne, David” in Robert Fraser’s biography is a surreal poem in itself; the text is a marvellous evocation which sets such sensational summary – even an appearance in the Spanish Civil War – in an emotional and intellectual context, from hopeless fumblings with Antonia White and trainbound fling with William Holden’s unknown brother to his inspiration in Jouve’s work which led him to Holderlin’s or a private performance by Bartok contrasting with a glimpse of Stravinsky as “a little fencing-master spy”. There is illumination at every turn, bringing any reader similar delight to that found by Gascoyne on his bookshop trawls. Robin Skelton – who gave Gascoyne welcome prominence in his Sixties Penguin anthology of Poetry from the Thirties – had a wild alter ego Georges Zuk which fooled the British Library cataloguers into labelling him Algerian. An inspiration to Waugh, that fascinating figure – and support to Gascoyne – Meraud Guevara turns out to have been subject of a book by her daughter, published in Paris five years ago. Something to seek out sooner than attempting the recipes with which Gascoyne experimented, chaotically, in others’ kitchens. Read his short lyric “Snow in Europe” – “the warring flags hang colourless a while” – and you will be charmed into exploring a writer given due dignity by Robert Fraser.


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    Christopher Hawtree is the Green Party Councillor for Central Hove but items are posted here in a personal capacity as an individual.

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