1 Julian Trevelyan
I first met George Reavey at Cambridge in the late 1920s. He was a great ‘bringer together’ of conflicting personalities; in his Victorian lodging house there was much talk, and there was always the feeling that we were at the centre of things. George presided blandly in a strawberry coloured shirt. People such as Brunowski, Empson, and Humphrey Jennings met there; Experiment was the name of the magazine which they edited, and which contained poems by George Reavey.
Afterwards he taught in France, and it was not long before he drifted to Paris, which for people like George at that time had Montparnasse as its centre. From Cambridge, on my visits to Paris, I was taken to meet the literary lions that frequented the Dôme. Names such as Titus, Sam Putnam, Wambly Bald, Lowenfels, and Sylvia Beach may now be forgotten, but were impressive then.
In 1931, I took a studio beyond Montparnasse, and George left a seedy pension where he was then living, and for the next two years he shared my studio. He was in some ways a difficult companion. At times, I suppose that it was the Russian side of his temperament that was uppermost; he became exuberant and rather mad. At other times it may have been the Northern Irish side that drove him to silence and introspection; at such moments it was difficult to know what he felt and what he wanted to do.
While I tried to find myself in paint, he translated Russian poetry and wrote poems himself. His poetry at that time was avant-garde, and in the succession of slim volumes that he published during his life, he owed nothing to anyone and his poems were entirely personal. He saw himself as Faust warding off Mephistopheles, and he had a disarming way of producing a poem from his pocket, saying ‘this is a poem I have just written on the subject we have been discussing.’
He would sit at a table at the Dôme writing poetry. It was then the custom for the waiter to leave a saucer on the table for each drink consumed, so that on leaving one knew how much to pay. One line from one of George’s poems comes back to me: ‘The hours lie stacked in heaps of numbered saucers.’
In my studio there were now additions to the literary lions; Sam Beckett was a constant visitor, as was the critic Stuart Gilbert, and the surrealist poet Georges Hugnet. Also one should include the sculptor Zadkine, the painter Bill Hayter, and various other adven- turers from Montparnasse. The names Yesenin, Pasternak, and Andrei Biely become familiar as poets whom George translated.
After 1932, George had other work to do. He started a literary agency in Paris, then drifted to London, and eventually to New York. I saw him only occasionally, and, at his death, the only mementoes are a bundle of tattered letters in a drawer and a row of slim volumes in my bookcase.
A brilliant group of young poets and artists having distinguished their generation at Cambridge with the now historic Experiment review, came to Paris where I met them in 1931. Brunowski, Empson, Jennings, Reavey, Sykes-Davis, Trevelyan all in their early twenties had already given evidence of great promise. Bruno, philosopher, mathematician and poet; Empson with the Seven types of ambiguity, still in print in many languages, a masterly treatise on poetic statement written as an undergraduate tutored by I.A. Richards; Sykes-Davis and Julian Trevelyan with poems and images; George Reavey with his earliest poems and translations from Russian. Later many of this group collaborated in the Surrealist number of This quarter, a review published by Titus in Montparnasse. I can still recall the image of the two comrades, Julian, immensely tall, intense, excitable, witty; George, redheaded, bearded, silent with a sense of latent violence and occasional bursts of Homeric laughter. That summer when staying with Robert Graves in Deya I recall discussing George Reavey’s poems with him and Laura Riding. Brunowski and Len Lye, the poet, painter and cinéaste, had that year been working in association with Robert at Deya.
Although little older than these young friends, I must have represented a stable element to them as, owing to the heavy equipment required by my profession, I moved less often than most of my friends, serving at moments as a deposit for furniture left over from a midnight flitting from one temporary habitation to another. All of us were poor and these moves generally caused by non-payment of rent. Sometimes lowered from a first floor window in the small hours, loaded onto a handcart, and pushed along the deserted streets of Paris by night, these few possessions were transferred to a more propitious quarter. In 1932 George confided his Faust’s Metamorphoses to me to illustrate. In this year I also illustrated Georges Hugnet’s Ombres portées, Stendhal’s Souvenir de l’égotisme and published the Apocalypse prints which Hugnet, in return, illustrated with a prose poem. As Sam Putnam, who prefaced and published the Metamorphoses points out, it was a happy combination. My apocalyptic preoccupations of that time did agree very closely with George’s image.
Meanwhile, George had formed an agency for translation and publishing Europa Press, in partnership with Marc Slonim, the Russian writer, the youngest ex-member of Kerenski’s Duma. Between the two they had complete access to almost all European languages. Both of them had Russian as a mother tongue; Reavey’s association with Irish and English writers gave them a scope which at that time must have been unequalled. The first publication of Sam Beckett’s poems is one of their historic achievements. Yet, as I remember, this was done practically without financial support from two small rooms above a shop on the corner of the rue Bonaparte and the rue des Beaux-Arts across from the entrance to the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. The anthology of Soviet prose and poetry dates from this time; a most valuable document on a little known subject in the Western world.
To make a digression, I learned at this time from Empson to correct the scientific habit of seeking definitions when life is ambiguity, and, from George, the technique of thinking by transformation, metamorphoses, leaps of the imagination to irrationally related stages, rather than the pedestrian technique of development, accretion, elimination, amplification and synthesis. Thus toward the increase of entropy rather than its decrease by withdrawal of rational information.
In general we were poor by our own choice, but the misery and squalor of poverty did not seem to touch us to any extent. Paris of this time had the peculiar and extraordinary quality of permitting our existence almost without money: the irreducible minimum was obtainable, however, without the sacrifice of too much time and effort. To us it was infinitely preferable to the comparative security and affluence which all of us could have obtained elsewhere by virtue of our academic education and capacity. The solidarity of a firm group of friends mitigated the lack of means. We were occasionally put to some shifts to ensure supplies; George, I recall, once tutored the son of Count Karolyi, one time president of Hungary.
This was the time of Joyce, of transition, the review published by Elliot Paul and Eugene Jolas in which under the title of ‘Work in progress’ fragments of what was to become Finnegans wake appeared at intervals; the laboratory of the word engaged the semantic activity of many writers and poets among whom was George Reavey. Beckett and Stuart Gilbert were closely associated with Joyce: I once etched an inscription ‘Taken from the Liffey at Chapelizod’ on a certain date which had some significance to them both, on a pebble which was presented by Sam to Joyce on his fiftieth birthday.
After 1939, when we were all violently displaced, I saw George at times in London where his work continued but, like all of us, under very different circumstances. After my departure to the United States in 1940, I had occasional news of George, his eventful mission to Russia for the British Council and the sinking of his ship in the disastrous convoy to Murmansk. Later he showed us a photograph of himself wrapped in the enormous coat of a huge Russian sailor taken in the galley of the trawler that rescued him after the ship was sunk. We did not meet again until I returned to London in 1946 for a brief visit, but we renewed our association when he went to the United States after the war, staying in my house in the Village sometime between 1948 and 1950, when I returned to France. At this time he commenced to write poetry again after many years of interruption by other preoccupations, translations and prose writing. He was a close friend of Dylan Thomas and he attempted in vain to save him from the alleged friends whom, as he told me later, let him die. On my subsequent visits to the United States we foregathered in his narrow apartment in New York where the accumulation of his books and pictures finally left bare space to live and move. Again, during his last visit to Paris, he lived one summer in my studio, as he renewed his acquaintance with the city in which so much of our active youth had been spent. Others will recount his career as a poet, as writer and translator, his friendship with Pasternak and other Russian writers; for me there remains the memory of a warm, loyal and humorous friend and of his capacity to provoke and catalyze the thought of a wide circle of his contemporaries.
Denis Devlin, whose Intercessions came from George Reavey’s Europa Press in 1937, experienced and expressed the personal context of his own death in the moment of reaching maturity as a poet:
The years weave through me and young men spend their time,
Evenings of unhappiness, a great weak iris ...
Time does not stretch ahead of me
As if I might unroll my scroll on it
But it is volumned round me, thick with echoes, things
I cannot see throughout.
Such things so and so many years ago:
The already is my present unresolved.
(‘The heavenly foreigner,’ 261-8)
For George, finally, there was no such timely recapitulation. There was merely the doctor’s matter-of-fact announcement of the unexpected event. And there was George’s body left, last to date, to display
that final human talent
and the friends growing older on their random paths are left with the memories tangled in years and the vision of
the bent rain
Slanting on gray seas.
For me, now writing, what remains of George is what I remember; I keep no letters, I keep no records. With a preference for the minimum of means, I retain of hours of talking and company no more perhaps than of a single gestured word, its movement, or the judgement that encapsulates an insight, a mere guess at what the case is.
What I seen then is first of all that quality of warm happy anticipatory laughter, like a child’s going to a circus, which was almost the signature of the small fair-haired young man at my side carrying like me a bottle for the party to which we were bound. Meeting George again thirty years later at his own party at which he showed me a photograph of twenty-nine volumes of his translations from the Russian the quality of his laughter, I discovered, had remained the same. And as it had been in 1934, so it was after thirty years in our inconsequential and unimportant half-phrase gossiping. That was what it was, as it is with small children, all-absorbing attention in what one is doing without thought for the busyness and the heartless concerns of public life. That was what it was, a friendship of no public importance which had lasted a life-time.
A chronology and list of George Reavey’s publications is printed at the end of this issue.