Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters
by Francis Steegmuller
Farrar, Straus, 365 pp., $6.50
There is a certain kind of cultism that is encouraged by the way in which Mr. Steegmuller has chosen to write this first English biography of Guillaume Apollinaire. He begins by discussing at considerable length the question of Apollinaire’s paternity. No doubt this is a legitimate subject for a biographer, yet there has always been an unfortunate tendency, reminiscent of palm-reading and astrology, to derive Apollinaire’s entire character from his illegitimacy and his mixed Slavic and Italian temperament. This beginning is, to my mind, unfortunate, because it leads us at once to the Apollinaire of the cult—the mysterious Rabelaisian giant, the mal-aimé smiling through his tears, the hero and lover and practical joker, etc. This is the Apollinaire perpetuated by the countless books of memoirs and reminiscences that have emerged from the pre-world War I period, but one would hope that a biographer of Mr. Steegmuller’s gifts would go beyond this stereotype. Apollinaire criticism has reached the point where new avenues of exploration are possible, and Mr. Steegmuller (who sets as his goal in this book merely the establishment of “facts”) has missed an opportunity in not giving us a new Apollinaire. Such a book might have begun, for instance, with the quite new insights into the poet’s character that are to be found in Marie-Jeanne Durry’s study of Apollinaire’s religion.
Mr. Steegmuller has pursued the facts about Apollinaire with scholarly enthusiasm. He has interviewed government clerks, studied old documents, and gives in an appendix a moving account of an interview with Annie Playden, Apollinaire’s first Muse. But I find that he does not make sufficient use of a prime biographical source—the poet’s writings. There is relatively little analysis of Apollinaire’s prose writings, although Mr. Steegmuller has undertaken to challenge the notion that Apollinaire was an important critic of the arts. In fact, he holds Apollinaire partly responsible for the barbaric style of contemporary art criticism: “It (Les Peintres cubistes) is a curious volume, much of it written in the turgid, pseudo-metaphysical style that Apollinaire seems to have been the first to consider essential to a discussion of avant-garde art but which has since become all too familiar to readers of prefaces to art books and introductions to exhibitions by contemporary artists.” This is a thesis that should be backed up by textual analysis, but Mr. Steegmuller does not undertake his own investigation of this question. Instead, he quotes Braque, Jacques Villon, Picasso, and Kahnweiler, the “impresario” of the Cubists. This constitutes an impressive array of witnesses to Apollinaire’s incompetency in the arts, but it leaves the argument against Apollinaire without content. Even if Mr. Steegmuller is right, there is still much to be said about Apollinaire’s plastic and visual sensitivity, as displayed in his poetry, perhaps especially in those poems inspired by paintings, such as “Les Fenêtres” and “La Vièrge à la fleur de haricot à Cologne.”
The book’s title leads us to expect a …