Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz

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9780091930974: Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz

Ezra Pound referred to 1922 as Year One of a new era. It was the year in which a skinny, shabby Irishman and a natty, quietly sinister American entered the cultural landscape, hell-bent on exploding everything that realistic fiction and Georgian poetry held dear. It was the year which began with the publication of Ulysses and ended with the publication of The Waste Land: the most influential English-language novel and poem of the century. Despite several revolutions in taste, these two works remain the twin towers at the beginning of modern literature; some would say, of modernity itself. And it was the generous, indefatigable, discerning Ezra Pound who played a significant part in the launch of both writers' careers.

     Constellation of Genius puts the accomplishments of Eliot and Joyce in the context of the world in which their works appeared -- a year of remarkable firsts, births, and foundations. The passing of an old world: the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the end of British Liberalism with the crushing defeat by the Conservatives at the General Election, the thwarting of Marcus Garvey's dreams for a new Africa. Dada was put to rest, Proust died and Hollywood transformed the nature of fame, making Charlie Chaplin the most recognisable man on the planet. Hitchcock directed his first feature, Kandinsky and Klee joined the Bauhaus and Louis Armstrong took the train from New Orleans to Chicago, heralding the beginning of modern jazz.

Gloriously entertaining, erudite and idiosyncratic, this is a biography of a year, a journey through the diaries of the anthropologists, actors, artists, dancers, designers, film-makers, philosophers, playwrights, politicians and scientists whose lives and works collided over twelve months, creating a frenzy of innovation which broke the world in two.

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About the Author:

KEVIN JACKSON has written thousands of articles, primarily on film, photography, modern art, literature and cultural history for, among others, The New Yorker, Granta, Prospect, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph, Guardian, Evening Standard and Vogue. He has been a script editor and script consultant, lectured and taught at the National Film Theatre, the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Musuem, presented documentaries for Radio 3 and Radio 4, directed and produced films for television, written the book and lyrics for a rock opera, curated film seasons and a photography exhibition as well as authored and edited more than twenty books.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

JANUARY
 

 
1 JANUARY
LAUSANNE – PARIS
T. S. Eliot was en route from Lausanne to Paris. He arrived on 2 January, rejoining his wife Vivien and remained in the city for two weeks. During the stay, Ezra Pound introduced the Eliots to Horace Liveright, the American publisher, and they had dinner with James Joyce. For about 10 days, Pound and Eliot worked closely together on the manuscript of The Waste Land. In mid January, Eliot returned to London – to his flat at 9 Clarence Gate Gardens.
HOLLYWOOD
At the very start of the working day, Douglas Fairbanks gathered all his colleagues together and declared: ‘I’ve just decided that I’m going to make the story of Robin Hood. We’ll build the sets right here in Hollywood. I’m going to call it The Spirit of Chivalry.’ Among those listening to this impassioned speech was the head of the Pickford-Fairbanks foreign department, Robert Florey, who later reported: ‘I will never forget the forcefulness with which Douglas made this pronouncement. He pounded his fist on a small table. Nobody said a word.’
Fairbanks went on to explain that he and his wife Mary Pickford were planning to buy a new studio – the old Jesse Hampton Studio on Santa Monica, which was surrounded by huge empty fields where the film-makers could re-create Nottingham, the castle of Richard the Lionheart, Sherwood Forest, Palestine, the Crusaders’ camp in France … They would make thousands of costumes, all based on authentic period designs, and shields, and lances, and … Finally, Fairbanks’s brother John worked up the nerve to ask just how much all this would cost the company (of which he was treasurer).
‘That’s not the point!’ Fairbanks replied. ‘These things must be done properly, or not at all!’
By midday, everyone was agreeing with him. Robin Hood must be made.
By the time of release (see 18 October), Robin Hood had cost $1,400,000. It was by far the most costly film that Hollywood had produced – almost exactly twice the bill for the previous record-breaker, Intolerance, which had eaten up $700,000. The Dream Factory was entering a new phase of ambition, accomplishment and hubris.
PARIS
Marcel Proust saw in the New Year by staying up all night at a ball given by his aristocratic friends, Comte Étienne de Beaumont and his wife. Proust was now famous; he was also very ill (indeed, he was dying, and would not see out the year). The latter condition was only too familiar to the novelist, who might fairly have described his life, in Alexander Pope’s phrase, as a ‘long disease’. But fame was still a novelty.1
Proust enjoyed his fame, as much as his health permitted, though he had new sorrows, too. In January 1919 he took a blow from which he never fully recovered: his aunt announced that she had sold the building in which he had his legendary apartment, 102 Boulevard Haussmann, for conversion into a bank. He was forced to move out at the end of May, and spent most of the summer living at 8 bis Rue Laurent-Pichat, before finally settling at 44 Rue Hamelin.2
Still, he continued to work doggedly at revising and correcting the texts of his huge novel, though insomnia and fatigue made the work wretched. He asked his publisher, NRF, for help; for some unfathomable reason, they put the task of correcting proofs in the hands of André Breton. The proto-Surrealist was sublimely lazy at the task, but he adored the rhythms of Proust’s sentences and would read them aloud to his acolytes.3
If some of Proust’s ailments were psychosomatic in origin, all the approval his work received did nothing to ease them. In the autumn of 1921, he suffered a collapse, and began to exhibit signs of uraemia. Early in October, he accidentally poisoned himself with massive overdoses of opium and veronal. But he kept on revising; and when his symptoms permitted, he continued to go out into society. On 15 January 1922, he attended the Ritz ball, where he was treated to a demonstration of the fashionable new dance steps from Mlle d’Hinnisdael. He was impressed: ‘Even when indulging in the most 1922 of dances, she still looks like a unicorn on a coat of arms!’
PARIS
The 25-year-old André Breton4 and his wife Simone, née Kahn, moved into a two-room studio flat on the fourth floor of an unassuming building at 42 Rue Fontaine, in the northern part of the 9th arrondissement.5 Downstairs was a cabaret called Le Ciel et L’Enfer; hence playful references, ever since, to the Bretons occupying ‘the rooms above Heaven and Hell’.6
In 1922 Breton had published little, and was still hardly known outside a small coterie. Born in Normandy, he had begun training as a doctor and psychiatrist. During the war, he spent the early part of his military service in a psychiatric hospital in Nantes, where, in February 1916, he met an extraordinary young soldier, Jacques Vaché, whose weird sense of humour and general air of rebellion impressed him profoundly.7
Both in the company of Vaché and on his own, Breton began to develop an exotic sensibility and an idiosyncratic set of hobby horses. His touchstones from the past included the likes of Rimbaud, Jarry and Lautréamont.8 But he was also alert to many contemporary influences. One was Dada, the anarchistic anti-art movement, which he first encountered in January 1919, at almost exactly the time of Vaché’s death.9 Another influence was the body of theory being developed by Sigmund Freud.10
Breton began to realise that he was creating something he could not as yet adequately define, and for which he had no name.11 Still, some five years before the official birth of the movement in 1924, he was assembling key members of his team: Soupault, Aragon, Eluard.12
For the meantime, though, Breton was content to join forces with Tristan Tzara as he brought Dada to Paris in a series of rowdy provocations. More prosaically, he quit his medical studies and sought work in publishing: Gallimard not only took him on for a while, but paid him extra money to help Proust with the corrections of The Guermantes Way, which they had agreed to publish. To the young man’s surprise, Proust was wholly affable to Breton, and welcomed him cordially to long editing sessions at 44 Rue Hamelin late at night.
The Gallimard position did not last long, but after a period of scratching around for part-time jobs, Breton struck lucky. He had been introduced to Jacques Doucet, a wealthy 67-year-old haute couturier and self-appointed patron of the arts, who was the most successful dress designer in Paris after Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret. Doucet had a large and rapidly growing collection of modern manuscripts and paintings in his private collection, based at 2 Rue de Noisiel in the 16th arrondissement. The collection was now of such a size that it required cataloguing; besides, the uneducated Doucet needed the advice of connoisseurs for his future purchases.
Breton, they both agreed, was the ideal man for the job. He took his work seriously, carried it out with intelligence and flair, and used it to help his friends, persuading Doucet that it would be wise to buy first editions and manuscripts from members of his gang. (He was quite right.) When, towards the end of January 1922, Louis Aragon decided to abandon his own medical studies, Breton persuaded Doucet that he would make an ideal co-curator. With a steady income, Breton could now afford a home.
In fact, the apartment at 42 Rue Fontaine was far more than simply a place to sleep in. As Mark Polizzotti puts it, the studio flat
acquired a permanence that soon garnered the aura of legend … it became a symbol, as much a part of the history of Surrealism as Breton himself. It was ‘his crystal, his universe’, as his daughter later said; the site of many of the group’s evening gatherings and the showcase for his various collections.
It was the HQ of the Surrealist movement.13
As soon as he moved in, Breton began to furnish the studio, mainly with paintings by artists he had ‘discovered’ or who shared his preoccupations: Giorgio de Chirico’s The Child’s Brain (1914), for example, which he had first glimpsed in a gallery window from a bus; he was so impressed that he jumped off the bus and ran back to see it more closely. There were also works by Max Ernst, Picabia, Man Ray, Derain, Marcel Duchamp, Picasso, Braque, Seurat.
He also festooned the rooms with artworks and objects from Africa and Oceania – masks, dolls, carvings. It made a powerful impression on visitors, one of whom said that ‘Every painting, every object sent out an exceptionally powerful emanation, a hallucination, which adhered to it like a shadow wherever it was put.’ In short, 42 Rue Fontaine became a private museum, or, more exactly, a modern-day Cabinet of Curiosities – the richest and strangest of such collections in the history of Surrealism.14
Within weeks of moving into the new flat, Breton had established a routine of quite bourgeois regularity. Immediately after work, usually from about 5.30 to 6.30, he would meet with other members of the embryonic movement, and then have dinner at a cheap restaurant. The company would then go back to number 42, where they would play the games and conduct the experiments that were leading them towards their revelation. André and Simone would then retire to bed, while Aragon and others went on a bar crawl through the neighbourhood. This quiet, domestic life became the soil that nurtured the wild and savage growths of Breton’s imagination.
And there was a revolution to be managed. On 3 January 1922, Breton published a note in the journal Comœdia, announcing an ‘International Congress for the Determination and Defence of the Modern Spirit’ (see 17 February).
5 JANUARY
SOUTH GEORGIA
The courageous Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest H. Shackleton died of a massive heart attack. He had found it hard to settle back into everyday life after his exploits and ordeals; like Tennyson’s Ulysses, he wished for one last great voyage.15
9 JANUARY
PITTSBURGH
1922 was the year of radio. Up till now, radio technology had been used almost exclusively for the sending and receiving of one-to-one messages – as we would now call it, ‘narrow-casting’. But in the early months of the year, a period that has been called the ‘Broadcasting Room’, station after station came on the air, in the USA and around the world.
The first American AM station launched during the boom was KQV-AM in Pittsburgh, which aired on 9 January.16
PARIS
The young American journalist Ernest Hemingway (b. 21 July 1899; he was not yet 23) and his new wife Hadley moved into a smallish fourth-floor flat at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine, just off the Place Contrescarpe. They had arrived in Paris a couple of weeks earlier, on 22 December 1921, and had been staying at the Hotel Jacob. Paris would be their base for the next two years, though they both travelled a great deal throughout Europe during this period.
In his memoirs, Hemingway tends to exaggerate the degree of their cheerful poverty in Paris. Their flat cost only 250 francs – about $18 at 1922 exchange rates – and their income from Hadley’s marriage settlement alone was a guaranteed $3,000 a year. In addition, Hemingway had a salary from his job as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star. Since he estimated that a Canadian or American could live comfortably on $1,000 a year, this was ample.17
Thus pampered by the exchange rate, the Hemingways had enough money to employ a maid, who came and cleaned in the mornings and cooked dinner for them on the nights they did not eat at restaurants. Their flat was, though, a little on the cramped side, and Hemingway soon resorted to renting an office on the Rue Mouffetard. Here he kept regular working hours, and so managed to escape the common fate of those who came to Paris to pursue artistic visions and ended up simply drinking and talking about the work they were going to do.
10 JANUARY
PARIS
A new nightclub, Le Bœuf sur le Toit, opened in the Rue Boissy d’Anglas. Its proprietor was Louis Moyses, who named it after a recent musical entertainment written by Jean Cocteau in collaboration with Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud. Wildly popular within just a few days of opening, it rapidly established itself as a major Parisian institution, almost immediately taking over from Cocteau’s previous hang-out, La Gaya, as the place to see and be seen. In 1922 and the years that followed, Le Bœuf was ‘the very cradle of café society’, with a reputation to match or exceed that of Maxim’s or the Moulin Rouge. For Paris, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – les années folles – really began on this evening.
If not the greatest genius of his age and his native city, Cocteau was certainly their most representative figure – the man who set the tone of Parisian modernity and embodied its heady, stylish spirit. Elegant, fastidious, witty, eclectic, fanciful, he was a delightful talent in his own right and a sharp-eyed, energetic promoter of talent in others. He had plenty of enemies – Breton despised him, and often did his best to make Cocteau’s life miserable – but a regiment of powerful friends, too. His major biographer, Francis Steegmuller, suggests that Cocteau ‘invented’ the Paris of the 1920s, and though this is an amusing hyperbole, it is not without a hard centre of truth.
It was Cocteau, for instance, who was credited with introducing the Parisian fad for drinking American-style cocktails (people punned on the verbal similarity of Coct-eau and cock-tail); Cocteau who enthused loudly over the ‘universal genius’ of Charlie Chaplin; Cocteau who gathered together and promoted Les Six: a group of rising young composers – Francis Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and Georges Auric – who, though usually grateful for his skills as a publicist, sometimes declared that, apart from a shared dislike of Debussy and fondness for Satie, they had little in common. And then there was jazz … No doubt Paris would have embraced the new American music soon enough, but Cocteau did his very best to promote the budding love affair – writing jazz criticism for L’Intransigeant, inviting the Billy Arnold jazz band over from London (the first ensemble ever to play a concert hall in Paris) and even improvising jazz himself at the piano of La Gaya.
In 1922, Jean Cocteau would celebrate his thirty-third birthday. A gay dandy, greatly influenced by Oscar Wilde, he had first come to public attention with a collection of poems published in 1909, when he was barely out of his teens. It was at around this time that he encountered and was enthralled by the Ballets Russes, for whom he became something of a mascot. He was inspired by Diaghilev to turn his hand to drawing and stage design; he was also charmed by the overtly camp artistic milieu of the Ballets, which Stravinsky, a committed lover of women, grumpily referred to as a ‘homosexual Swiss Guard’. Diaghilev was a crucial figure in Cocteau’s artistic development; his challenge to the young Parisian to achieve something major – ‘Astound me!’ – is his single most famous utterance.
Cocteau rose to that challenge with Parade,18 a collaboration with Picasso19 and Erik Satie. Cocteau followed this coup with more poetry, and more entertainments for the stage: the original Bœuf sur le Toit, and the tragicomic Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, which mingled Greek dramatic conventions and contemporary vaudeville. By the start of 1922, he was a full-blown celebrity.
But his private life was not as glittering as his public ca...

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