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The Collector

Voices: A Memoir

by Frederic Prokosch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 343 pp., $17.95


In August 1939, I crossed the border from France into Italy. At thirteen I was already Henry James’s passionate pilgrim; and the principal object of my pilgrimage was those remnants of the Roman empire which I had come to know so well from that glorious film The Last Days of Pompeii, not to mention its Plautine counterpart, the sympathetic Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals: a thousand compelling celluloid images complemented by the texts of Tales from Livy and Suetonius’ mind-boggling gossip.

At the train’s first stop in Italy—Ventimiglia?—fascist guards gave the fascist salute just as they had done in all those newsreels where Hitler and Mussolini were perpetual Gog and Magog to our days, grotesque cinematic fictions soon to break out of the honey-odored darkness of the art-deco Translux theaters and become real-life monsters in spades.

Yet on my first trip down the Italian peninsula, in the company of a group of schoolboys and masters, I seldom looked out the train’s windows. I was reading a Tauchnitz edition of The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosch. For the next week I was in two places at once. I was in the Rome that I had so long imagined. I was also fleeing across an Asia that had been entirely imagined by Prokosch. One hot, airless August morning, as I walked up the Via Tritone and into the Piazza Barberini, I realized that I was, simultaneously, in the desert southwest of Urga and in prewar (yes, we knew it was prewar then) Rome, facing the Bristol Hotel, where lived, unknown to me, another writer that I was soon to read, George Santayana, whose The Last Puritan was to have much the same revelatory effect on me as the romantic eroticism of The Seven Who Fled.

From the ages of seventeen to twenty I was in the American army. Wherever I was stationed—at least in the United States—I would go to the post library and look up Prokosch. In the years since I first discovered him he had published three more novels. He was something of a cult in the army; and on the outside, too. During the summer of 1945 I was on leave at East Hampton, Long Island. I had finished my first novel. I had another six months to serve in the army.

I cannot remember how I met Prokosch but one day there he was on the beach. Somehow it had never occurred to me that the two fascinating words that made up his name might actually belong to a living person, aged thirty-seven. It is true that I had looked carefully at the photographs on the dust jackets. But one might just as well have been looking at pictures of Byron. Certainly the dust-jacket biographies were brief and uninformative. He seemed to spend a lot of time in Europe; and that was it. Now there he was on the white beach, a dark-haired, black-eyed man, who looked more like a pirate than a writer.

In Voices: A Memoir, Prokosch writes of that summer: “I took a room in one of the cottages of the Sea Spray Inn…. Every evening I’d go wandering along the beach and watch the breakers. There were days when they kept pounding at the sand with their shining fists and there were days when they slid shoreward with a snakelike malevolence.” In this one offhand description, Prokosch displays his characteristic investiture of nature with the human and the human with the natural—Ruskin’s so-called “pathetic fallacy” which was to be denounced yet again by the French “new novelists” as the unforgivable (for an entire literary season) anthropomorphizing of nature’s neutral otherness. Nevertheless, central to Prokosch’s vision of the material world is a creation that can only be recorded by the human eye, itself both subject and object—the sole measurer of light, and inevitable victim of darkness. For Prokosch, a landscape observed is an extension of the human, particularly if the landscape is one that he himself has invented, like the Asia of The Asiatics and The Seven Who Fled.

Personally, I found Prokosch amiable but distant. Now that I have read Voices, I can see that he was not used to being the found writer of a younger writer; rather, he himself was a dedicated finder of older artists and wise men, and the memoir that he has written is curiously selfless. The voice one hears is not so much his as the voices of those whom he has admired or at least listened closely to. By and large, he has chosen not to praise himself, the memoirist’s usual task. Instead he has tried to distill the essence of each voice rather than what might have been exactly said. Since he and I often saw the same people at the same time (in the case of Santayana, we must have been alternating our visits to the Convent of the Blue Nuns, neither letting on to the other that he was making pilgrimages to the old man’s cell), it is fascinating for me to hear what Santayana said to him as opposed to what he said to me. Particularly when…

But, first, who is Frederic Prokosch? He was born in Wisconsin in 1908, the son of a Sudeten-Czech linguist and philologist. Prokosch’s childhood was surprisingly Twain-esque: Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin; Austin, Texas; and rural Pennsylvania where his father taught at Bryn Mawr. As a youth, Prokosch’s interests were about evenly divided between the arts—literature, painting—and tennis. Eventually, Professor Eduard Prokosch moved on to Yale, where Frederic got a doctorate in Middle English. In 1935 Prokosch was at King’s College, Cambridge, when The Asiatics was published. Like Byron, he was suddenly famous.

The Seven Who Fled (1937) was equally successful. He also published poetry; was praised by Yeats. During the war he worked for the Office of War Information in Lisbon and Stockholm. To date, he was written sixteen novels, four volumes of poetry, and he has translated into English Louise Labé and Hölderlin. For thirty years he has been completely out of fashion in America (a place the late Philip Rahv used to call Amnesia), but the French continue to find his novels fascinating, and he has been praised in that country by critics as various as Gide and Camus and Queneau, while the first translation into French of The Seven Who Fled was made by Marguerite Yourcenar. He lives now in the south of France. He continues to write; he makes, by hand, miniature editions of poets whom he admires; he collects butterflies (I wish he had published more of his correspondence with Nabokov, another literary lepidopterist).

For those concerned with Significant Literary Trends in Modern Literature (so different from our own high culture’s English Studies’ English Studies), Prokosch is a precursor of the currently fashionable Latin American school of writing, which has managed to break more than a hundred years of beautifully resonant silence with the sort of precise rendering of imagined human landscapes that Prokosch had invented and perfected in the Thirties. Since Prokosch’s novels have always been available in French translations, his inventions have much influenced those Latin Americans who have always looked—and continue to look—to Paris for guidance. Garcia Márquez would not write the way that he does if Prokosch had not written the way that he did. At a time when the American novel was either politically engagé or devoted to the homespun quotidian, Prokosch’s first two novels were a half-century ahead of their time. This did him no good in the medium-long run.

After forty-four years, I have reread The Seven Who Fled. To my surprise, I actually remembered some of it. I also found that much of what had been magical for me still works. But then the picaresque novel has the unique advantage of being…. Also, what is not dated cannot truly date; and if the writer has chosen to render imagined people in an imagined landscape with history firmly kept to the margin of his story, the work will always be what it is, in the present tense. On the other hand, the last two pages of the first edition which I have been reading are ominously dated.

First, there is a page with the words: “The Harper Prize Novel Contest Its History and Terms.” On the next page, the publisher tells us that the judges of the 1937 contest are Louis Bromfield, Sinclair Lewis, and Thornton Wilder. Recently, I read that Tennessee Williams (circa 1937) said that his favorite writer was Louis Bromfield while I remember writing (circa 1950) that Thornton Wilder was mine. The publisher now hits hard the Ozymandias note: “The first Harper Prize was awarded in 1922 to Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, which also received the Pulitzer Prize. The second winner was Anna Parrish’s The Perennial Bachelor. The third was The Grandmothers by Glenway Wescott, the fourth Julian Green’s The Dark Journey, the fifth Robert Raynold’s Brothers in the West, and the sixth Paul Horgan’s The Fault of Angels. The seventh award went to H.L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn, which also won the Pulitzer Prize. To this distinguished list is now added The Seven Who Fled by Frederic Prokosch.”

Happily, we have now got literature sorted out and we all know exactly who’s who and why. The absolute permanence of the oeuvre (there is no other word, in French at least) of Joyce Carol Oates, say, is, very simply, a fact that no American English teacher—as opposed, perhaps, to an English American teacher—would for an instant challenge. But then the nice thing about being now is being right, and the bad thing about being then is being wrong, not to mention forgotten. Could any of these prize-winning books have been any good? It beats me. Of the lot, I read and somewhat admired The Grandmothers. I have read Julian Green but not The Dark Journey. The rest are simply dusty titles, swept up by time’s winged wastebasket wherein alabaster cities as well as fruited plains are all as one forgot by Amnesia the Beautiful.

The Seven Who Fled is filled with energy and color. The somewhat unfocused romanticism of Prokosch’s poetry works very well indeed when deployed as prose narrative. From Kashgar, at the center of Asia, seven Europeans flee the armies of the youthful General Ma, who ranges up and down Tashkent while Russia and China begin to press upon the borders of that disintegrating state. In the Thirties, much was made of the fact that Prokosch had never set foot in the Asia that he had invented for The Asiatics and The Seven Who Fled. Since then, other writers have invented jungles in South America not to mention those brilliant invisible cities of Asia that Calvino’s Marco Polo saw.

For each of the seven characters, there is at least one reverie of an earlier non-Asiatic time. For the Englishman Layeville there is a glimpse of the world in which Prokosch himself had been living:

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