Book review by Rob Couteau
Published in: The Paris Free Voice, April 1993 (Paris, France); Lift magazine, 1993 (Somerville, MA).
Literary luminaries such as Hemingway, Joyce, and Stein often come to mind in a discussion of American expatriate writers in Paris. After the Liberation, however, sweeping changes transformed the literary scene in the City of Light. This postwar landscape, largely ignored until recently, is the subject of this group biography of American writers who felt compelled to journey here, in search of a crucible of transformation not obtainable in the United States. Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Chester Himes, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Harry Mathews, John Ashbery, and William Burroughs and the Beats are the principal subjects of this study: a diverse group in terms of style, yet many of them sharing similar perceptions of France and an abiding appreciation for the manner in which life in Paris nourished their art.
Beyond individual differences of lifestyle and personal history (e.g., James Baldwin living in abject poverty and just barely surviving with the help of friends vs. James Jones’s affluent Ile-St-Louis comforts), Paris provided each of these writers with a cultural context that they could never find in the U.S. Even a Frenchman who was uninterested in literary matters accepted that the role of a writer was a legitimate one to play in life: not one to be viewed with suspicion or derision, as was all too often the case in America. This lack of a need to constantly “explain oneself”–and, instead, to be granted a greater degree of respect for devoting oneself to the Muse–was enough to provide many expatriates with a sense of enfranchisement and to propel them to notable artistic achievement.
For Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose thesis for the Sorbonne explored the city as a symbol in modern poetry), this extended to a deep love of Paris itself:
Other expatriates shared this love but, like many of the Lost Generation, kept their involvement with the French to a minimum. James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, preferred to use this atmosphere of creative freedom to distance himself from the literary establishment at home and to engender a greater creativity within himself.
Sawyer-Lauçanno portrays the novelist Harry Mathews and the poet John Ashbery as two who “penetrated well beyond the surface culture, who engaged themselves fully in French language, literature, and life, and who transformed those lessons into a unique contribution that adds to American letters.” The chapter devoted to them is perhaps the most intriguing one in the book, and it contains much new information on their artistic development. In particular, the author explores the liberating influence of Raymond Roussel, whose work helped to transform Ashbery’s poetic style and Mathews’s approach to prose. Roussel’s word play and linguistic experiments had long influenced the surrealists; his Impressions d’Afrique was cited by Marcel Duchamp as the most important influence on his creative thinking. Roussel, writes Sawyer-Lauçanno, “opened up for Ashbery the latent possibilities lurking under the most common linguistic constructions, allowing him, in Michaux’s words, ‘la grande permission’ to experiment with language.” Harry Mathews summed up the mysterious writer’s influence by remarking: “Roussel was the man who allowed me to write fiction.”
Continual Pilgrimage is a beautifully written and informative exploration of the (often inexplicable) effects that Paris exerts on those who journey here. As its title implies, this exploration is an enduring one:
While many expatriate writers were never accepted by the largely insular French society (a complaint still heard among expatriates living in France today), they were at least left alone, in relative peace, to pursue their peculiar calling. In the words of Chester Himes (whose A Rage in Harlem was first published in Paris as La reine des pommes): “It was not so much that France helped me, but that it let me live and empowered me to concentrate on my work.”
Updated: 11 July 2011 | All text Copyright © 2011 | Rob Couteau | key words: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Chester Himes, Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Harry Mathews, John Ashbery, and William Burroughs and the Beats