I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Edouard Roditi was born in Paris 1910 of American parents. In 1929 he abandoned his studies of the Latin and Greek classics at Oxford and, until 1937, was associated with the Surrealist movement in Paris, as contributor to transition and as partner in Editions du Sagittaire, which published Andre Breton’s Surrealist manifestos and a number of books by Crevel, Desnos and Tzara. During the war years, he worked in the French shortwave broadcasting section of the Office of War Information in New York and as an interpreter. Since 1944, he has been employed, mainly on a freelance basis, as a multilingual simultaneous interpreter at international conferences including the 1945 San Francisco Conference at which the United Nations Charter was drafted, the International Military Tribunal for War Crimes in Nurembuerg, UNESCO, and at the European Common Market. His books of poetry and prose include: Thrice Chosen (1981), The Confessions of a Saint (1977), The Delights of Turkey (1977), Meetings with Conrad (1977), Emperor of Midnight (1974), New Hieroglyphic Tales: Prose Poems (1968), Dialogues on Art (1960, 1980), Poems 1928–1948 (1949), Oscar Wilde (1947), Prison within Prison: Three Hebrew Elegies (1941), Poems for F. (1934). He has also published a number of translations from the Dutch, French, German, and Turkish.
Bradford Morrow Tell me about the autobiographical book you are at work on now.
Edouard Roditi It’s an enormous project, because each time I start writing it I find I get involved in total recall. All sorts of things come out that I’d forgotten for decades. And the more deeply I become involved with it the more I feel that the world has changed so much since my childhood and my adolescence, so that all sorts of things I experienced then have to be described and explained. To the average reader of today they’re utterly strange. It’s as if I’m writing about the 18th century or the Romantic era.
BM The art, and literary world?
ER No, the social world. I mean, the way people lived, the upper-middle class to which my family belonged has changed entirely. I was brought up in Paris. I was born in Paris of American parents. Probably now, I’m the oldest American resident in Paris, the oldest member of the American colony, which, in the ’20s when Mussolini was demanding colonies. American humorists proposed that the American colony of Bohemians in Paris be given to him. Now everybody who is older than I and who had been living in Paris at that time—Gertrude Stein, and the rest—are all dead. So I’m the oldest survivor with the possible exception of Eugene Jolas’s widow.
BM When did you know that you wanted to become a serious writer, when did you get involved in the literary world?
ER When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a painter, and my father, who was a businessman, was absolutely horrified. He thought all artists died of hunger. He tried to discourage me thoroughly. Whenever he found me drawing or painting, he’d fly into a rage. Then I discovered that one could write in secret. A sheet of paper is much easier to conceal than an enormous canvas, a large watercolor or drawing board.
My first publication was in transition and a couple of other advance garde magazines. My first poem was published when I was 17, which was shocking; I could almost compete with Rimbaud in that respect. The youngest contributors to transition besides myself were Paul Frederick Bowles (who is I believe one year younger than I am) and Charles Henri Ford (who is one year older). They looked at us askance, thought we were completely weird creatures. We were all three involved in the Surrealist Movement and associated to some extent with the French Surrealists. I more than the others, because my knowledge of French was more considerable than Paul’s or Charles Henri’s. I was writing in both French and English.
BM The three of you were living in Paris at the time?
ER Paul was studying music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. Charles Henri had been publishing Blues in Columbus, Mississippi and had come over to Paris.
BM Were the Surrealists in Paris a tight-knit circle at that time?
ER Well, the French Surrealists were very tight-knit because they were very ignorant of any literature except French literature, and not particularly knowledgeable in French literature for that matter. They knew French literature back to around 1840 and that’s about all.
BM Given certain Surrealist principles, like autonomous immediacy and nonreferentiality, was it important that they know anything before that aside from source materials?
ER Yes. They didn’t realize for instance, that Horace Walpole in the 18th century, had been the first to try automatic writing in English, when he wrote the Hieroglyphic Tales. He explains this in his preface. That they didn’t know. There are examples of various kind of automatic writing in the Middle Ages. Cocteau knew his Greek and Latin classics to some extent and French classical 17th-century literature. He was much more widely read than Breton.
BM So your roots are in Surrealism?
ER Yes, but I very quickly drifted out of it, because I discovered that automatic writing can produce, sometimes, woefully surprising results in that you think you’ve done something very original but on second glance it turns out that some of your readings have come out. Subliminal memories of other writers’ work.
BM You equate automatic writing with Surrealism?
ER At the time, they were considered the same. Automatic writing was their main activity until the early 1930s, at which time they became more involved with politics, Trotskyism specifically. They broke with the Communists when Eluard and Aragon joined the Communist party. Breton broke with the Communists. They also became much more involved with mystical theories. Breton started reading all sorts of pseudo-Kabbalists of the 19th century, but I didn’t accompany him in that pursuit. Then I became acquainted with Eliot in 1931. He exerted a very considerable influence on me. He cleaned up my mind.
BM In terms of prosody, or religion, or what?
ER Just generally. He made me much more keenly aware of what it means to write and to be a writer. He encouraged me a lot and published some of my poems in The Criterion, when I was all of 24, which I regarded as a little victory.
BM What has happened with Surrealism? Does it have any viability at the present?
ER It has practically no viability in French literature. Its current practitioners are all repeating themselves and each other. Here in America it took a very long time to surface. Of course, in the ’30s, no publisher even among the small presses would even consider anything Surrealist. Now it’s become very widespread and all sorts of people claim to be Surrealists. But what they really are, I don’t know. I’ve had connections with many Spanish Surrealists, Germany seems to have escaped Surrealism altogether. I’ve known some English Surrealists: David Gascoyne, Nicholas Moore, and a couple of others. And also with Dylan Thomas, who has admitted that he was influenced by Surrealism.
BM To return to your autobiography for a minute, having read several chapters in typescript, I can see that one of the binding elements of the book will be growing up under the triple curse of being a Jewish, epileptic, and homosexual writer.
ER I’m now rewriting it. I realize I have to make it even more objective. I realize I must describe society and the people I met. It’s a world that no longer exists.
BM Where has the world got to now in terms of the art community? And based on where we’ve been and where we are now, what do you think the future holds? What function do you think the artist will have in the world?
ER One of the most remarkable things is that artists that were considered avant-garde, but who financially, never really made the grade, have ended up as millionaires. Picasso ended up a multi-millionaire. Chagall is a multi-millionaire. I remember when I was 16, I bought a Picasso signed lithograph for less than 30 dollars. My father had friends who were buying Picasso and Braque in the ’30s and serious businessmen like my father thought they were crazy. If nothing else, they’ve turned out to be marvelous investments. A lot of what was considered crazy and avant-garde is now thoroughly acceptable. It’s the same with literature and music. Advance-garde art developed primarily as a revolt against the academies. Now that the academies teach it, it’s become an entirely different kettle of fish. They are no longer revolting against anything in particular, revolt has become a tradition, it’s become trite.
BM A friend of mine who wants to be a biographer has told me that the present generation of poets and fiction writers will in 40 years make for some of the dullest literary biographies ever produced. It will be an endless procession of parochial events that commences with graduation from Iowa, proceeds through various grants, writer’s conferences and residencies. To try and derive any art through such lives is preposterous. (Conversation was here suspended. It resumed several minutes later.)
BM I can think of a kind of recent art that’s both non-academic and yet very explicit: Graffiti art. Yet the public doesn’t flock to it, unless of course they happen to be in an IRT subway.
ER There’s good, bad and indifferent Graffiti art. We’ve had something like it in Europe for quite a while. It was first started around 1905. In Russia by Lanonov who did it for a period. Dubuffet’s been doing it in France for over 30 years now.
BM Not in the streets on walls.
ER No, no. On canvases, admittedly, but inspired by what was on walls.
BM But canvas doesn’t have the same political implications as subway walls and railroad cars.
ER Then they did it in Amsterdam about 15 years ago on haldings, haldings wherever they were putting up a building.
BM Any artists specifically?
ER All kinds of young artists, mainly disciples of the Cobra group, Appel and the other Cobra artists. It has its own special flavor here, especially the way it’s come out of the subways to the surface. But it too has quickly become mainstream. The walls they now paint on have become detachable and are for sale. It’s a legitimate art form when it’s good. The trouble is that the moment a trend becomes popular a lot of less gifted young artists get on that bandwagon. It then becomes more and more difficult for the uninitiated audience to distinguish what is good from what is bad, because they’re all imitating each other, or the better ones.
BM Throughout the various trends and fads in art you’ve seen over the century, what artists in your opinion will survive into the next? Which writers?
ER Well that’s very difficult to say. Because sometimes when I get depressed I wonder whether anybody’s even going to crack a single book open in the next century. And with this nuclear threat hanging over us, who the hell is going to be alive to read it anyway. But then recently, somebody in Paris brought to my attention the last issue of the American Book Review which had a panning of my book Thrice Chosen (Black Sparrow Press, 1982) together with a panning of Paul Goodman at the same time for his Preface. The author of this article described Goodman as an “absolutely dreadful writer” which I found rather camp. And I wrote a letter to the editor, which he must have received this week, pointing out that in his appreciation of my poetry the reviewer quotes a couple of lines and objects to the bathos. And I said, well, bathos is a perfectly legitimate rhetorical trope. Pope used it, Samuel Butler in Hudibras used it. And in this particular poem it was intentional. It’s supposed to be a parody of journalism. They’ve missed the point once again because of historical ignorance. What varieties of historical ignorance may afflict unborn generations of readers I couldn’t begin to guess. And as for Goodman being a perfectly dreadful writer, Thomas Paine was considered dreadful in his day, George Washington couldn’t stand Philip Freneau, whom we should respect as the first American writer to have defended the rights of Blacks and the Indians. Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman were all considered dreadful writers by most of their contemporaries. But we read them and why do we read them? Because they make us think. Paul Goodman makes us think. Goodman may not write as perfectly as the author of this review, but America has always had a plethora of perfect writers. Great writers there is always a shortage of; great writers can have their faults.
BM We met at the house of a great writer some years back: Kenneth Rexroth. What do you think of his writing?
ER Well, I’m in love with Kenneth as a writer. I have been in love with Kenneth as a writer for 30 or 40, years. I’m totally uncritical of him. He awakens a chord in me that practically no other American poet does. He is unique. Oh, there are other American poets of the past 30 or 40 years that I like and poets that generally Kenneth liked too. Kenneth had a sense of language: something that’s become increasingly rare. And a marvellous vocabulary.
BM Which post-war American writers have had the most influence on European writers of the same period, if any?
ER Oddly enough, during the immediate post-war, a certain number of Americans, Nelson Algren and Faulkner and several others had influence upon French literature. The French were more influenced by German writers such as Kakfa and Musil. I think the influence of Kafka is still increasing today in France.
BM What is the “art scene” like in France right now, who are the painters getting attention?
ER There are an enormous number of rather mediocre painters and sculptors working in Paris at present who are being promoted by the dealers and critics.
BM Is the restaurant-as-art-gallery still a popular way of vending paintings, as it was several years ago, even a decade ago?
ER It’s not so much that they show in restaurants, but the restaurants have invested in art. There are restaurants like La Mediterrane on the Place de e’Odeon that have their walls plastered with Bernard Buffet and other artists. There’s a tremendous amount of art produced in Paris. More varied, in a way, than in New York, partly because until very recently it was very easy for foreign artists to come and settle in Paris, and inject, so to speak, some totally new or exotic element. The immigration procedures were not as complicated then. Among the up and coming artists in France there are also gifted, young Israelis, Turks and so forth.
BM Are these artists grantsmen and women on a par with Americans, or do they manage to make their own way?
ER Not, certainly, to the extent that it exists here in America. There’s the Fondation de France, which doesn’t have the funds to grant much. There are a couple of foundations in Germany. There’s the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon. But nothing like what is found here.
BM Nathaniel Tarn elucidated among other things the possible perniciousness of grants, in an Open Letter to Montemora several years back, and started what was called the PoBiz controversy. One of the fundamental ideas behind his theory was that by funding the production of too much art, a democratization takes place, a kind of leveling out. Because of the din that is created, the best work tends to get lost in the shuffle, at least for a period of time, longer than what is historically usual (and that’s plenty long in itself). It’s a multifaceted argument, too complex to go into here. It is admittedly frightening to think of the artist as a ward of the state; on the other hand what little money artists can manage to wrest away from the government goes to a better cause than 99 percent of what Capitol Hill cooks up everyday. But do you think this lack of governmental grant-giving has hurt or benefited art in Europe?
ER Benefited it, absolutely. The grants remind me always of that lovely old American story about the upstate New York farmer who is taken to the zoo and shown a camel, and who looks at it and says: “That’s a compromise reached by a committee. Ain’t no such thing.” The thing is that grants are always given after a committee’s agreed, and there is always a compromise that excludes from the whole grant machinery most of the truly gifted. Exceptional, eccentrics never get them.
BM James Joyce goes to Yaddo? Well, an argument can be put forth that grants bail you out of the responsibility of having to confront practical problems in life. Henry James had to do one hell of a lot of talking to keep those 250 dinner invitations flowing in each year! A declining economy may reverse it whether one likes it or not.
ER Yes. Well, you see the grant system worked beautifully in the Renaissance when it was an individual patron who decided he was going to grant money to Raphael or Michelangleo or whoever it was, and they didn’t have to consult a dozen others to agree on a compromise.
BM Making use of your own historical perspective, tell me more about some of the artists you’ve encountered during a lifetime immersed in the arts.
ER I’ve met a great number of writers and painters who were considered famous or great. But my own impressions have often been that most of the very great whom I’ve met lacked certain human qualities. So, the number of those I respected both as artists and as human beings is very limited. Rexroth was obviously one. Joseph Conrad, who was of course very paternal when I met him because I was obviously young. Joyce was a complete disappointment: he was totally uncommunicative and a bore. Eliot was sweet to the point of being an absolute saint. His manner was extremely kindly. Pound I met very superficially at Sylvia Beach’s store and I found him unbearable. His tone when he spoke was very contemptuous of anything and everything. William Carlos Williams was a very sweet man. Musil was somebody I found extremely intelligent, although reticent; obviously a man who knew what he was all about. He had very sound common sense. Politically he was also sound. And I found Paul Valery to be a man of really rare intelligence and balance.
BM Did you meet Thomas Mann?
ER Yes, but under such circumstances that I’d rather not speak about it.
ER Auden was very difficult. Shortly before Auden’s death, a couple of years before his death, a friend of mine had been to New York and had come back to Paris, and I asked him who he’d seen. He said, “Oh, well I dined with Auden.” And I said, “How is he?” “He’s in a great state of excitement. He’s just received a letter from Stockholm stating that he is going to get the Nobel Prize.” And I said, “Well, more power to him.” A couple of days later I met Sasha Andreyev, who is the grandson of the great Russian Realist writer Leonid Andreyev. Sasha had just come back from Geneva where he’d seen Nabokov. And I said, “Oh, what does Nabakov say?” “Oh, Nabokov’s in a great state of excitement, he received a letter from Stockholm stating that he is going to get the Nobel Prize.” Within a week the announcement for the Nobel Prize came out and it was Beckett. Auden died of bitterness.
BM You both live in Paris. Do you know Beckett?
ER Well, Beckett I’ve known on and off for a very long time. He is extremely withdrawn. It’s extremely difficult to communicate with him, because he doesn’t want to communicate socially. But he is very pleasant when I do meet with him, because we have known each other since transition.
BM What was the general opinion, what did people think, when Whoroscope came out?
ER It wasn’t noticed. It wasn’t noticed at all.
BM And then when Murphy came out?
ER When it was published in France, it had a considerable success.
BM Do the French consider Beckett their own, or do they perceive him as an Irish exile?
ER Beckett is a major French writer as far as they’re concerned. He’s written everything in French. When I was young, and this is something I will include in my autobiography, the French Academy was extremely nationalistic and would never elect as members Jews or foreign born writers. They made a great exception in the case of Bergson, because they couldn’t avoid it. And Andre Maurois. This was before the war. Now, about ten percent of the French Academy are foreign born or Jewish, for lack of any other candidates.
BM Not to mention the horror of electing Marguerite Yourcenar who is a woman.
ER Yes, and an American citizen. They now say that in the French Academy building they have two toilets: one marked GENTLEMEN, the other marked MARGUERITE YOURCENAR.
Bradford Morrow’s collection of poems, Posthumes, was published last spring by Cadmus Editions. He lives and works in New York City where he is editor of Conjunctions and is currently working on a novel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee