Fun in the Waste Land

Looking for Laforgue: An Informal Biography

by David Arkell
Persea Books, 248 pp., $20.00

There were “deeps in him,” Ezra Pound said of Jules Laforgue; “and Laforgue more than they thought in him.” Eliot, characteristically, was more cautious in his praise, anxious not to mix Laforgue with the major poets, but generous and constant all the same. He saw him as “an admired elder brother,” “the first to teach me how to speak”: “Jules Laforgue, to whom I owe more than to any one poet in any language.” When Eliot wants to place Marvell, he adapts Laforgue: “C’était une belle âme, comme on ne fait plus à Londres.” (“He had a fine soul, of the kind they no longer make in London.”)

But were there deeps in him? This is not a question David Arkell really tries to answer, although he does quote Pound on the subject and mentions his own discovery of the deeps. Looking for Laforgue is “an informal biography,” its subtitle says, and at times it takes informality to the edge of elbow-jogging intimacy. “‘Promises, promises…,’ Sanda Mahali must have thought,” “the Berlin show was peanuts in comparison.” The writing generally is not as closely cared for as one would wish. “It turned out that Laforgue and Eliot had been married, at an interval of seventy years, in the same London church….” I suppose the sense is clear enough, but the phrasing is fraught with unintended comic possibilities. Laforgue and Eliot married. Perhaps there were deeps in them both.

Nevertheless, this is an engaging, informative book, fond of its subject but not gushing; and even the writing has its moments, as in this evocation of Baden-Baden at the time Laforgue stayed there:

There is that eternal band playing English waltzes next door; and there are hunting horns, and pianos that play fugues and Chopin nocturnes. All around there are pines, shivering and creaking like old furniture, and in among them the chattering of birds: cawing crows, tireless blackbirds, deafening swifts. And the bells: the cracked tinkle of the one downstairs, calling guests to lunch, the elevation bell of a religious procession. That saddest bell of all, the one that sounds from a thousand little German railway stations….

Most of this is paraphrase of the poet himself, but it is very well presented. There is not much to be done with the poetry in this casual approach, but letters, journals, and prose fiction, shrewdly quoted and ably translated, are at the heart of Arkell’s work, and add up to a well-shaded portrait.

Jules Laforgue, the second of eleven children, was born of French parents in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1860. The family returned to France when he was six: to Tarbes, and then Paris, where he finished his undistinguished school years. He had a gift for making loyal friends and for finding influential protectors, and these latter rescued him from a precarious literary life in the Latin Quarter by having him appointed French Reader to the Empress Augusta of Prussia. He was then twenty-one. He was given a spacious apartment…

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