THREE CURIOUS INTERWAR NOVELS
Among all the novels published between 1919 and 1939 there are inevitably some which deserved to be better known than they were at the time and also later when literary histories were being written. Perhaps they didn’t fit in with what were seen as identifiable trends, or they couldn’t easily be located within a group or movement. Critics and commentators often like to pigeon-hole books and to place them in a useful context. The result is that the books that can’t be dealt with in that way are frequently overlooked and forgotten. I want to look at three novels which seem to me to be in that category and are worthy of some attention. It’s not my intention to subject them to close textual analysis or indeed any kind of in-depth critical evaluation. They strike me as novels that might appeal to readers with a taste for the offbeat, and that’s sufficient reason to write about them. And to provide some basic information about their authors.
The Eater of Darkness by Robert M. Coates has often been referred to as “the first Dada novel in English”, a description that may be open to question. Without attempting to give a short history of Dada, it’s sufficient for my purposes here to say that, in the Paris of the early-1920s, it was for a time in favour. Tristan Tzara had arrived from Zurich carrying the Dada message or part of it, at least. The original Dada group in Zurich may have had different aims and ambitions, even if they, or most of them, had a belief in the absurd as a relevant commentary on the madness that gripped Europe between 1914 and 1918. It’s perhaps difficult to know at what levels of seriousness the nonsense was aimed. Serious nonsense may seem a contradiction in terms, but it has its uses. Berlin Dada’s activities were more-inclined to take on a direct political tone and sometimes identify with the newly-established German Communist Party. The question is whether or not the kind of Dada Tzara brought with him made sense in the Paris of the 1920s, other than in the form of entertainment value provided by provocation?
Robert M. Coates, born 1897, had arrived in Paris in 1921, which was about when the Surrealists were beginning to form a loose group largely under the guidance of André Breton, and were soon to eclipse the Dadaists. For Coates, however, “It was the Dada period, and for me Dada always meant gaiety: the one artistic movement I know of whose main purpose was having fun”. And he was young and tended to be happy, optimistic and confident. He had missed the Great War, and graduated from Yale with the class of 1919. He then worked in advertising before heading to Paris.
I’m surmising but I assume he didn’t need to worry too much about money, and the exchange rate worked to the advantage of those with dollars. And, of course, being in Paris in the 1920s had its own magic : “One wonderful thing about the nineteen-twenties in Paris as I look back on them, was that the ‘great ones’, even the titans, were so accessible. You didn’t have to make an appointment, and a pilgrimage, to meet Leger, Picasso, Satie, Pascin, Juan Gris, Tristan Tzara or Brancusi…….You found them sitting at a table nearby on the terrace of the Café du Dome, the Select, or the Rôtonde, in the Montparnasse Quarter, or the Deux Magôts in the Saint-Germain”.
It was in this heady atmosphere that Coates wrote parts of The Eater of Darkness, while living in Giverny, in Normandy, with others being written in New York when he made a return visit. When it was finished he showed it to various people, though with little expectations of it being published. One of them was Gertrude Stein and she liked it and, according to Coates, was largely responsible for it appearing in print. It was published in Paris in 1926 by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions. It’s worth noting that Coates wasn’t a complete unknown among the expatriate community in Europe and had been published in magazines like Gargoyle, Broom, and Secession.
The plot of The Eater of Darkness involves a young man, Charles Dograr, who lives in a rooming-house in New York, and meets up with a fellow-resident, a mysterious old man. The old man has an invention, “The Dead Plane”, with which, with the rays (x-ray bullets) it sends out, he can kill people at a distance, and carry out other crimes like robbing banks, without the police ever being able to trace who was behind the acts. He enlists Dograr in his schemes, and a mad sequence of encounters, chases, mishaps, and murder ensues. Revealing all the twists and turns in the narrative doesn’t get anywhere near describing the compulsive nature of the writing. The reader wonders just what is likely to happen on the next page. At one stage the “x-ray rod of light” scans a list of things seen which includes some names indicative of Coates’s then-acquaintances, including Malcolm Cowley, Arthur Moss, Lawrence Vail, Peggy Guggenheim and Reginald Marsh.
Coates, in reminiscing about the book, said that his main influences were the Nick Carter detective novels, the works of “Sapper” (H.C. McNeile), famous for creating Bulldog Drummond, and especially the Fantômas stories by the French writers, Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvesire. The Surrealists were particularly fond of the exploits of Fantômas, a ruthless master criminal.
The Eater of Darkness was picked up and published in an American edition in 1929, by which date Coates was back in New York and working for the New Yorker. He stayed there for forty years, during which time he had around one hundred short stories in the magazine. He also functioned as its art critic, and has been credited with coining the term “Abstract Expressionism” to describe the paintings of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and others. He wrote several books, including Yesterday’s Burdens (“an ‘essential’ novel of the early-1930s”) and the acclaimed crime novel, Wisteria Cottage. He died in 1973.
There is a loose similarity of basic plot in The Eater of Darkness and Michael Fessier’s Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind, published in 1935. Both have a young man encountering a strange, and potentially dangerous, old man. In Fessier’s book Johnny Price meets the man when they’re both in a crowd that has gathered “at the scene of a streetside murder” in San Francisco. The old man says he carried out the crime and doesn’t seem at all bothered about making his escape. Later, he appears again when Johnny is in a bar, and he thinks, “there was something funny about him and I couldn’t figure out what it was”. He soon finds out and realises that a look from the old man is enough to frighten anyone who challenges him. They all refer to how his eyes turn green in their intensity. And more than that, he learns that the old man is a serial killer.
Initially, Fessier’s novel might appear to fit neatly into the pulp fiction category of crime writing. The dialogue is brisk and to the point, and there is an emphasis on keeping the events fast-moving. But judging from some responses to it when it first appeared it left reviewers struggling to place it in context. It was variously described as “a bizarre and extraordinary piece of writing” and “a sinister, fascinating book”. Interestingly, the English writer, J.B. Priestley, said, “I read it last night in one grand gulp”. It certainly has that effect as the story brings in a strange girl who swims naked in a local park, and an artist anxious to paint a portrait of the girl but never quite succeeding in getting it right. In the Introduction to a recent reprint of the novel, David Rachels draws attention to the fact that the girl wears green when dressed, and he relates this to the old man’s green eyes : “The color’s split symbolism dates to the end of the Middle Ages, when its traditionally positive associations – including youth, beauty, and love – were challenged by an association with the devil”. The end of the novel spotlights a confrontation between the girl and the old man.
Fessier, born in 1905, didn’t write anything else as curious as Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind and it’s interesting to read the three short stories which are appended to the novel in the reprint. They are straightforward pulp fiction from Manhunt magazine, competently written but with little else to distinguish them from other similar stories. Fessier was “a prolific writer, but not a prolific novelist”. He wrote over 200 short stories, one of which, “That’s What Happened To Me”, published in Story in November 1935, was reprinted in anthologies, and served “for many years as a staple of high school English classes”. He worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter and had 29 credits to his name, though his best-known contributions were to a couple of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth musicals, You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier, in the early-1940s. Later, he wrote for television, including Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He died in 1988.
The third in this trilogy of unusual novels from the interwar years is one that I’ve long wanted to read since I came across a reference to it in Neil Pearson’s Obelisk : A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press. CharLes Beadle’s Dark Refuge was published in Paris in 1938, and was never reprinted until 2023. It had an underground reputation, partly because Obelisk Press published what was considered to be pornography, so its books were automatically banned in Britain and the United States. I have to say that, reading it, what few erotic passages there are seem mild compared to what now gets into print. The main emphasis is on drug-taking, in one form or another, and that might be more likely to disturb some people than a few mostly-hinted-at sexual couplings.
Beadle was an interesting character, born at sea in 1881, with his father being captain of the ship. The family seem to have almost lived on board, and Beadle’s mother died at sea in 1884. Beadle was brought up by various relatives and, in 1899, he joined the British South African Police in Cape Town, and was there during the Second Boer War. I’m abbreviating Beadle’s activities, which included adventures in several parts of Africa, plus visits to France, England and the United States. He published his first novel, The City of Shadows : A Romance of Morocco in 1911, with another, A White Man’s Burden, in 1912. In addition, he had articles and stories in publications such as The Wide World Magazine and Pall Mall Magazine. A third novel, Witch-Doctors, was published in both England and America in 1922. It was popular and is still available from reprint specialists.
My primary concern is with Dark Refuge, but Beadle did publish a couple of other books which are of related interest. The Blue Rib : A Romance of the Riviera (1927), and The Esquimau of Montparnasse (1928, reprinted as Expatriates at Large in 1930), cast a cold eye on the habits and antics of the bohemian fraternities of the areas referred to. There was also Artist Quarter : Reminiscences of Montmartre and Montparnasse in the First Two Decades of the Twentieth Century (1941) by Charles Douglas, which was a joint venture by Beadle and Douglas Goldring. The latter appears to have done most of the writing, with Beadle providing appropriate anecdotes and related material. It was reprinted in 2018 under the title, Artist Quarter : Modigliani, Montmartre and Montparnasse. (See my review, Northern Review of Books, July 2019).
Dark Refuge is clearly autobiographical in many ways, with Modigliani, the French poet Max Jacob, and Modigliani’s mistress, Beatrice Hastings, plus some other real-life characters, appearing under different names. Beadle himself is there observing and participating in both the drug-taking and the sexual activities, which cover heterosexual, homosexual, and lesbian frolics. It’s sometimes difficult to know exactly what is going on. What is interesting about the writing is the way it switches from person to person in terms of continuing the narrative, with intrusions into the minds of the characters. It’s not what I would describe as “easy to read”, and may have disappointed some of those who, on a visit to Paris, perhaps thought they were picking up a hot piece of pornography. It makes me think that Jack Kahane, for all his notoriety, had an eye for the unusual that inclined him to take chances with books. He did, it must be said, publish Henry Miller, James Joyce, Anaïs Nin, D.H. Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell, and Cyril Connolly. His son, Maurice Girodias, would later carry on the tradition with Olympia Press in the Post-War period, mixing pornography with books of literary merit like William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Gregory Corso’s fantasy The American Express, and several works by Samuel Beckett.
Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno, in an afterword to the reprint of Dark Passage, relates it to Naked Lunch : “both writers utilise the drug experience to construct fractured narratives to reveal the drug-induced displacement of time and space”. He also says, “Beadle’s book reads so well because he gets utterly inside the experiences he relates, shows us what is happening from an interior point of view. His unique narrative device of creating individual monologues that also function intertextually as objective description, allows us an unusual opportunity to encounter the principle personae through their thoughts, dialogue with others, and their space and place within the often lyrical renderings of situation and scene”. His enthusiasm leads him to describe Dark Refuge as “a tremendous modernist novel that should rank among other classics such as Tropic of Cancer, Nightwood, Nadja, Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, and, of course, Naked Lunch”.
It isn’t necessary to completely agree with him, but there is no doubt in my mind that Dark Refuge deserved to be reprinted, especially in its present form which reinforces the text with numerous annotations, a long afterword which charts Beadle’s life and activities, photographs, a bibliography, and additional material. Rob Couteau, who is largely responsible for discovering so much about Beadle and his publications, deserves our thanks for all his hard work.
A final note. What happened to Charles Beadle? He was obviously back in England in the 1940s and a few stories appeared in a magazine called Short Stories. But where and when he died, possibly in the late-1940s or early-1950s, is a mystery that even Couteau, despite extensive enquiries, has been unable to resolve. Some information may come to light now that his book is back in print.
The three novels I’ve dealt with all seem to me to have retained their interest. And allowing for occasional period mannerisms and, in Beadle’s case, certain racial attitudes and stereotypes that would be unacceptable now but were typical of the time he was active, they certainly haven’t dated.
Robert M. Coates : The Eater of Darkness, Capricorn Books, New York, 1959. This is the edition I have, but there have been more-recent reprints.
Michael Fessier : Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind, Staccato Crime, Eureka, 2023.
Charles Beadle : Dark Refuge, Dominantstar, New York, 2023.
Charles Douglas : Artist Quarter : Modigliani, Montmartre & Montparnasse, Pallas Athene, London, 2018. A collaborative venture between Charles Beadle and Norman Douglas.
Kenneth E. Silver et al : Modigliani and His Models, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006. Useful as a guide to some of the people mentioned by Beadle and the period.
Neil Pearson : Obelisk: A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 2007. A fascinating book, packed with details about Obelisk books and their authors.
Robert M. Coates : Yesterday’s Burdens, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 1978. Afterword by Malcolm Cowley who was with Coates in Paris in the 1920s.
Edward J. O’Brien, editor : The Best Short Stories of 1936 : English and American, Jonathan Cape, London, 1936. Michael Fessier’s story, “That’s What Happened To Me” is included.