By Charles A. Riley II

University Press of New England. 271 pages. $29.95. ISBN 978-1-61168-850-4


Edited by Emily Ballantyne, Marta Dvořák and Dean Irvine

University of Ottawa Press. 255 pages. $39.95 CA.  ISBN 978-0-7766-2380-1

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Paris in the 1920s. Le Dome, Le Select, La Coupole. Ernest Hemingway boxing with Morley Callaghan, and Scott Fitzgerald as an incompetent timekeeper between rounds. Gertrude Stein telling everyone that they are a “Lost Generation”. Hart Crane getting drunk and falling foul of the French police. Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and her heroic support for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Robert McAlmon publishing Hemingway’s first book. The little magazines, transition, This Quarter, The Transatlantic Review. It’s a period and a place that lends itself to the recounting of anecdotes.

It’s a fascinating story and numerous books with titles like The Crazy Years have documented the personalities and events in a lively way. There’s nothing wrong with such accounts, which often  emphasise the experiences of the American expatriates who flocked to the French capital, but it is essential to know that much more was going on than the merely anecdotal evidence suggests. A lot of important and inventive work was being done in the fields of literature, art, and music.

Charles A. Riley’s Free As Gods is a wide-ranging account that goes a long way towards redressing the balance in terms of the manner in which it deals with the various disciplines, demonstrates how they often inter-acted with each other, and points to some lesser-known (to most people, I would guess) figures around Paris in the 1920s. It is his contention that: “To read a poem or examine a painting in isolation from the cultural history is especially inadvisable because this was an era of collaboration more than of individual genius toiling in seclusion”. And he further states: “This study argues that the form-shattering tendencies of modernist art, music, and literature were accompanied by a concomitant will to create form”. The 1920s witnessed “a march towards abstraction through expressionism but also a resurgence of figural and still-life painting, realism in fiction, and classical ballet on stage”.

To emphasise his point about how the various branches of the arts frequently interconnected, Riley says that, in the 1920s, minds and tastes were changing at “an accelerated pace” and the boundaries among media were “blurring”: “Some of the greatest writers, such as Hemingway and Stein, were also contemporary art insiders, just as Gershwin, Porter, cummings and Dos Passos were serious painters. Pound was writing an opera in the twenties. Le Corbusier was painting as well as designing buildings and laying out a revolutionary new magazine. Léger was making movies, and Picasso was designing sets for the theatre”. Add to all this the fact that, according to Riley, jazz musicians had encouraged people to “take improvisation as the gold standard of originality” and everyone felt free “to be gay, straight, black, Jewish, bohemian, or aristocratic,” and so “slipped into fluid roles that defied specialisation”.

If Riley is to be believed, “a working knowledge” of jazz is essential to an understanding of the “cultural history of the period”. He seems to be knowledgeable about music generally, though perhaps a bit hazy about jazz history, and I’m not sure how Dizzy Gillespie’s “bent trumpet” altered the “physical culture of music”. There are various explanations about why Gillespie came to use his distinctive “bent” instrument in the 1950s (the popular, though unlikely one is that someone trod on it and bent it out of shape and Gillespie found that he achieved a better sound with the bell pointing upwards), and it does seem to be accepted, in jazz circles, that Gillespie got the idea from a British musician at the Ritz Ballroom in Manchester, England, in 1937. (see Alyn Shipton’s Groovin’ High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie, Oxford U.P., 1999). And it’s said that a trumpeter/comedian named Merwyn Brogue who played with Kay Kyser’s novelty band in America in the 1930s under the name of Ishkabibble, used a similar instrument. But perhaps I’m being unnecessarily pedantic? On the other hand, it bothers me that what appears to be a statement of significance about the influence of jazz seems to lose its impact when its factual basis is questioned. Gillespie was hardly introducing anything new when he appeared with his “bent” trumpet. In any case, his inclusion in a discussion about the 1920s seems a bit odd. He only appeared on the jazz scene in the late-1930s.

On the question of jazz generally, Riley again arouses my suspicions when he talks about “Understanding the thrill in 1924 of what it meant to import jazz from club to concert hall…”. Some might argue that in doing so the essence of jazz as an improvised music, with audience reaction almost a part of the performance, was likely to be lost. What Riley seems to be talking about is a watered down version of jazz, tailored to make it respectable. I enjoy Gershwin but his music isn’t jazz. And as for Paul Whiteman, Riley quotes the French jazz critic, Robert Goffin, who referred to Whiteman’s music as “weak dilution devoid of all real musical character”. And did Gershwin really write “history’s greatest serious jazz?” What is “serious jazz”? I have an uneasy feeling that Riley thinks jazz is “serious” when it takes on some of the orchestral characteristics of classical music.

Riley brings in some well-known names, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Malcom Cowley, Harry Crosby, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, all of them regularly mentioned in other accounts of Paris in the Twenties. I have to admit that I’ve never been able to get too excited by the Murphys. They were rich and could afford to invite a select band of musicians, artists, and writers to stay at their villa on the Riviera, Gerald Murphy had some talent as an artist, working in the Cubist style, but he was hardly all that original or inventive (Murphy “was not all that important to Picasso”).  But as Scott Fitzgerald knew, people tend to be fascinated by the rich. They are different, even if it’s only because they have more money. Riley does have a point when he says that “private patronage is often the most auspicious guarantee of avant-garde freedom”.

Of more interest is the chapter about Archibald MacLeish. “It is a pity that nobody reads or teaches the poetry of Archibald MacLeish anymore,” Riley plaintively says, and with that kind of statement it’s only fair to wonder why? Poets come and go, and fade from sight as fashions change, but there may also be a case for suggesting that it’s perhaps because their poems are not very interesting. Riley doesn’t offer any complete poems, or even substantial extracts from them, for us to consider. I turned to some anthologies and couldn’t get excited by most of what I read, which is, of course, a purely personal response and my judgement may be at fault. I have to say that Riley makes a persuasive case for at least looking at MacLeish’s work again.

Nancy Cunard, Ernest Ansermet, Eugene Jolas, Picasso, Hart Crane, even Oswald Spengler, all receive attention from Riley, and one way or another, he does manage to build up the idea of a period in ferment. I did notice a few errors along the way. On page 55 there’s a reference to the “1929 film version of American in Paris”, with a dream sequence “staged by Vincent Minelli and Gene Kelly”. Riley presumably means the 1951 Film version, and at the risk of again being called pedantic, isn’t it Vincente? On page 58 John Dos Passos’ novel, One Man’s Initiation, published in 1922, is said to be about the Spanish Civil War, which didn’t break out until 1936. Dos Passos was writing about the First World War. A later novel, Adventures of a Young Man, published in 1939, did touch on the war in Spain. On page 166 Riley says that “Veterans unleashed the grim details of trench warfare in novels and memoirs”, and lists several items, including Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, which, as it’s set during the Spanish Civil War and was only published in 1941, doesn’t belong with books about the First World War.

I’ve raised some queries about aspects of Free As Gods, but it still seems to me a stimulating book, partly because it takes a different approach to its subject, Paris in the 1920s, than many other books. And it looks at some of the lesser-known, or less talked about, writers and others who were around, but perhaps not noticeably so. 

A couple of the writers who were in Paris for a time in the 1920s, and later wrote about their experiences, were the Canadians, Morley Callaghan and John Glassco. Neither rates a mention in Riley’s book, but they are both dealt with in detail in Translocated Modernisms. As the sub-title of the book suggests, it isn’t only the Paris experience that is dealt with, and even when the focus is on that city, as it is in the case of Mavis Gallant, for example, who went there in the late-1940s and stayed for most of her life, Paris as a place is not necessarily of key importance. Gallant’s Paris Stories were written in the city, but were not always located there.

Neither Glassco nor Callaghan produced anything of major significance about their Paris experiences, though both wrote interesting and useful memoirs about them, Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris is tidily written and probably reliable when it comes to telling how it was. He met Hemingway, Robert McAlmon, John Glassco, and many others from the Paris expatriate community. But, as far as I know, he wrote only one short story, “Now that April’s Here,” which had what might be called a Paris basis, and that was produced in response to a request by Edward Titus, Editor of This Quarter, for a piece inspired by an encounter that Titus, Callaghan, and Robert McAlmon had with John Glassco and his companion, Graeme Taylor. McAlmon was also asked to write something, but typically failed to come up with a suitable story. Callaghan’s account was published in the December, 1929, issue of This Quarter.

It is suggested, in the essay about Callaghan in Translocated Modernisms, that he revised many of his stories to make them fit in with writings by “more well-known American modernists who lived in Paris”. I happen to have a copy of the issue of This Quarter in question, and out of curiosity checked the text of “Now that April’s Here” with the version in Morley Callaghan’s Stories (Macmillan, Toronto, 1959). There are only one or two minor amendments to the original version, and nothing that would suggest anything other than tidying up some punctuation and similar small points.

Callaghan’s story certainly satirised Glassco and Taylor, and within the conventions of the time, clearly indicated that they were homosexuals. McAlmon was, too, but Callaghan played down that side of the character based on him. When Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse was published in 1970 he painted a somewhat condescending portrait of Callaghan, picturing him as provincial and not very imaginative. This was probably an act of revenge on Glassco’s part because he had been annoyed by the way Callaghan had portrayed him in his story. The question of how truthful or accurate Glassco’s memoirs are needs to asked. It’s suggested that “Memoirs of Montparnasse is grounded in a self-reflexive engagement with fabrication. He intentionally destabilises the factuality of his memoir in favour of the performative and the fictional”. In other words, Glassco wasn’t trying to present a true and accurate picture of what he had experienced, but instead wanted to get across how it felt to be in Paris in the 1920s.

I mentioned earlier that Translocated Modernisms isn’t solely about Paris in the 1920s. Mavis Gallant moved to Paris in the early 1950s and died there in 2014. She wrote two novels, but was mainly known for her brilliant short stories, many of which were published in The New Yorker. When asked if she was a Canadian or international writer, she replied, “I’m a writer in the English language”. And she said that she didn’t enjoy the company of other writers and preferred to mix with painters.

Brion Gysin was associated with William Burroughs and the coterie at the so-called Beat Hotel in Paris in the 1950s, though he had a more varied career than that implies. He seemed determined to be at home wherever he was in a process of “unsettling identity at the individual level as a formalised global ideological critique”. But he might well be best remembered for his time with the Beats, as recounted in his novel, The Last Museum (Faber, 1986), and in the interview and related material in Here to Go: Planet R-101 (Re/Search Publications, 1982). He’s a genuine avant-gardist, perhaps one of the few that Canada has produced.

Other essays focus on Wyndham Lewis, Katherine Mansfield, and Malcolm Lowry, with the emphasis being on how they “translated and dislocated cultural practices across oceans and continents”.

Translocated Modernisms is a useful addition to the library of books engaging with the history of modernism. There were moments when it seemed to be in danger of sliding into the quicksands of academic theorising and jargon, but on the whole it’s readable, though not designed for a non-specialist readership looking for entertaining anecdote about expatriate escapades.