Review: ‘transition: the history of a literary era, 1927-1938’

by Dougald McMillan (London, Calder and Boyars, 1976. 303 pp. Illustrated. £8.50)


A.J. Leventhal


Coincidence, Zeitgeist, call it what you will, the evidence is overwhelming that these days writers in the critical, historical and literary fields have chosen to cover the same ground at the same time. There has been a concentration on Bloomsbury out of all proportion to the importance of the output by the group so named. And it goes on. There is at the moment a similar outburst of commentary on the activities of American and British expatriate writers in Paris during the twenties and thirties of this century. The shock provided by the revelation of the sexual habits of the English group may have helped to keep the Bloomsbury pot bubbling but there is no question of any secrets sensational or not being exposed in this latest rash of publications.


Paris in the thirties was less inhibited than London earlier in the century. Indeed English and American authors could have books published in the French capital which their own compatriots would not dare touch. That is to say, in their own country. Lady Chatterley’s lover, for example, was published in Paris by the American, E.W. Titus.


Because of this freedom, perhaps the cheaper cost of printing and the profusion of literary expatriates, there was a temptation to indulge in the luxury of the independent little magazine. Ford Madox Ford embarked on his Transatlantic venture which had a limited and short lived success. A much more serious effort was made by the dedicated Eugene Jolas—an American with a German and French background—with transition. It is indeed the serious purpose of the editor of this magazine and his endeavour to bring it to fruition that is the basis of the book under review.


Published in an era of manifestoes, dadaist, surrealist, communist, sometimes in step and very often violently antagonistic, Jolas’s periodical followed the fashion with its proclamation of the Revolution of the Word. If Joyce had not agreed (gratefully) to serialize Work in progress in the first number it is doubtful whether transition would have attracted immediate attention. This was a period when Freud and Jung had made writers unconscious conscious (pardon the paradox) who felt driven to take liberties with logic as well as syntax and, with Joyce apparently showing the way, to mine the riches embedded in words better to express the inherent ambiguities of the prompting of the unconscious. Joyce himself had no interest in automatic writing, nor for that matter had Gertrude Stein likewise a contributor. Their affirmative common factor was a shared notoriety; Joyce’s detractors liked to join them in equal decadence.


Behind the experimentation in transition was the theoretician Jolas. His ideas were sound enough:


            We need new words, new abstractions, new hiero-

            glyphics, new symbols, new myths. These values to

            be organically evolved and hostile to a mere meta-

            phorical conception must seek freer association. Thus

            there may be produced that sublimation of the spirit

            which grows imminently out of the modern conscious-

            ness. By re-establishing the simplicity of the word, we

            may find again its old magnificence. Gertrude Stein,

            James Joyce, Hart Crane, Louis Aragon, André Breton,

            Léon-Paul Fargue, August Stramm and others are show-

            ing the way.


However, Jolas unfortunately invented new words far from simple to describe many of his contributions. We find headings like: The Synthetist Universe, Dreams and the Chthonian Mind, Hypnologues and Paramyths, Little Mantic Almageste—I could go on. This aspect of the periodical must have lost it many readers but jargon still flourishes. The other day the University of Maine advertised for someone who could combine ‘synchronic and diachronic analyses of events in a transcultural and holistic mode.’


The list of transition collaborators is impressive. Professor McMillan devotes separate chapters to Joyce, Beckett, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas and Gertrude Stein fitting them neatly into the Jolas scheme when they seem at variance. But apart from these there is a goodly sprinkling of Americans and Europeans with a strong accent on surrealists.


It is surprising to find so large a number of Irish contributors in the magazine. Easily to be explained are those in Joyce’s immediate circle like Beckett, Thomas McGreevy and Arthur Power (The Drapier letters—a play). There are, however, also to be found: Denis Devlin, Padraic Colum (a friend of Joyce’s but based in New York), Niall Montgomery (contributing Joycean prose while still a student of architecture), Geoffrey Phibbs (so known before changing his name to Taylor), Charles Duff, George Reavey, Lyle Donaghy and T.B. Rudmose Brown. The latter at the time a professor at Trinity College Dublin was later to welcome Samuel Beckett as a student and join him afterwards as a colleague. His name is woefully misspelt here, copying an original misprint.


In the welter of works dealing with the literary life as lived in Paris by émigré writers, this book by Professor McMillan stands out. The author is more concerned with their production than with any excesses in their private lives. He never loses sight of his objective: an examination of the role of transition in the evolution of modern language and literature. Access to Eugene Jolas’s autobiography (unpublished) has helped him in his task as well as a not very general ability to read and profit from the still incompletely mined Finnegans wake. What was obviously a labour of love was made easier by these two aids and his summing up of Joyce’s attitude to transition is unquestionably in accordance with his own: ‘To be involved with transition was to be marked as part of the zealous avant-garde and to invite misunderstanding and hostility. But it was also to enjoy the benefits of a congenial, uniquely perceptive editor, open to radical experimentation and willing to provide the kind of context and explanation which defined the new modes of writing.’