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:
And Cambridge. Those ingratiating days of hesitation and unreality! Those platonic hours upon the grass lit by the rays of sunlight slanting through the leaves, or among the scattered dusty books lit by rays that slanted through the high windows. Their very unreality indeed gave them a magical and melancholy innocence, not that of childhood, but that of pure seclusion. The elaborate pleas for a new order; the eloquent disputations of social justice; ardors and ambitions which made every moment seem important and profound.
Yes, Prokosch met Guy Burgess at Cambridge; no, Prokosch was not political. But his character Layeville is fulfilled in youth at school:
So that, little by little, he became familiar with the chilling pangs endured by those who have lost, somewhere amongst the ardors of childhood and youth, all power to love.
There is an astonishing sexual tension in Prokosch’s early books that is as hard to define as it is impossible not to sense. The sexual takes unexpected forms. One of the seven kills another man, a gratuitous but altogether necessary act that is, in its dreamlike rendering, highly sexual, presaging Genet and Paul Bowles. As a writer, Prokosch is not so much a conscious mind as a temperament through which the human condition, as imagined by him, flows—and merges with the nonhuman. For Prokosch, each of the seven who flees is both generalized essence and specified ape, while the dark gravel-strewn Gobi beneath the sheltering sky that does not shelter is simply an extention of a shifting, living cosmos where man is in all things that man observes; and the only constant is change—hence, the romantic’s agony. Or:
He could see that the snow was leading a life of its own, precisely like the earth or the sea: but sterile, secret, silvery, its love so to speak turned forever upon fragments of its own self and destined to fruitlessness and silence. A million crystals of infinite complexity, living for nothing else but the gradual destruction of their own perfect selves, growing slowly into each other, moving silkily downward during each moment of sunlight, motionless again at night, and then in the warm sun again becoming amorous and weak, like vast degenerate tribes drifting together, flowing away; demonstrating how close to one another were purity and decay, perfection and death.
Thus he makes the snow a metaphor for the human; and makes the snow snow; and makes sentences: “Sentences must stir in a book like leaves in a forest,” wrote Flaubert, “each distinct from each, despite their resemblance.”
The title of Prokosch’s current memoir is significant: Voices. In a sense, it is an ironic commentary on the ancient complaint that he was always, as a novelist, too much concerned with place and not enough with people. Actually, it was his special genius to realize that place approached as if it were character is human since only a human mind can evoke a landscape never before seen on earth except in the author’s mind. But now Prokosch has turned from those dreams of imaginary places (and recollections of the past, as in his reconstruction of Byron in The Missolonghi Manuscript) to the voices that he has heard in life and now recollects in memory.
Most young writers are eager, for a time at least, to meet the great figures of the day. At nineteen I was fascinated to meet Prokosch because his books had had a profound effect on my early adolescent self. He found this amusing: “How sensitive you must have been!” And the pirate’s laugh would roar. Later he found it amusing that in the summer of 1948—when I was not enjoying the success of my third novel, The City and the Pillar—that I should want to meet Gide and Santayana and Sartre…. He gave me the impression that this sort of busy-ness was somehow vulgar. I wish now that I had known then that he himself had been a resolute collector of all sorts of rare artist-butterflies; and that he had continued to add to his collection until he withdrew himself entirely from the literary world, as most writers who write eventually do.
But, plainly, the voices he once heard persist in memory; and now he has put them down. From youth, he tells us, he had got into the habit of taking down conversations. He had begun with his father’s friend Thomas Mann, who came to call on the family at Bryn Mawr. “I kept staring with fascination at the back of Thomas Mann. The stars were beginning to shine and a mist hung over the hockey field. His head rose from his shoulders like a moss-grown rock and the words he was uttering spread from his skull like antlers.” Among those words: “‘The fatal thing,’ he said, ‘is that Tolstoy had no irony. It is a miracle that he managed to write as well as he did. Irony in a novel is like the salt in a pea soup. It gives the flavor, the nuance. Without the salt it is insipid.”‘ This is echt Mann, for whom food was always a metaphor, and the heavier the food the heavier the metaphor. “After he left I went to my bedroom and wrote it all down, and this was the first of the dialogues that I scribbled faithfully in my notebooks.”
Prokosch glimpsed “an abyss at the core of greatness” in Mann. The abyss or vastation or, simply, Weltschmerz was to be a recurring theme in Prokosch’s own travels among Heine’s foreign cities: “It was a journey in search of the artist as a hero, as an enigma, as a martyr, as a revelation, and finally as a fragment of humanity.”
While an undergraduate at Haverford, Prokosch and a culture-vulture classmate spent a summer in Paris where they called on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The ladies were just back from Spain. Gertrude relates: “The Goyas were very nice and the El Grecos were more than adequate but I felt no rapport with the Murillos or the Zurbaráns. Alice said that she profoundly distrusted the Zurbaráns but we trusted Mallorca when we came to Mallorca.” As for Paris, Gertrude confessed that in the early days, “There were moments when I was homesick but they gradually grew less frequent. I still had friends in America and I wrote them some letters and we ate cornbread with molasses and apple pie on Sundays and on certain occasions a bit of cheese with the pie. One has these native habits and it is foolish to defy them…. Even Alice who is a gypsy has her own deep Americanism.”
Prokosch has always had a habit of asking the apparently simple—even simple-minded—question. He asks Gertrude Stein if she has a definite philosophy. This nets him some splendid Stein:
A writer must always try to have a philosophy and he should also have a psychology and a philology and many other things. Without a philosophy and a psychology and all these various other things he is not really worthy of being called a writer. I agree with Kant and Schopenhauer and Plato and Spinoza and that is quite enough to be called a philosophy. But then of course a philosophy is not the same thing as a style….
Later Prokosch and friend lie in wait for a style as incarnated by James Joyce at Sylvia Beach’s bookshop. Incidentally, it is the friend who is ravished by Stein and Joyce. At this point, Prokosch is still as interested in tennis as in literature; but he has read Ulysses and Mrs. Woolf, and when the reluctant lion is trapped over tea in the shop’s back room, he asks Joyce what he thinks of Virginia Woolf and is told that
she married her wolfish husband purely in order to change her name. Virginia Stephen is not a name for an exploratory authoress. I shall write a book some day about the appropriateness of names. Geoffrey Chaucer has a ribald ring, as is proper and correct, and Alexander Pope was inevitably Alexander Pope…and Shelley was very Percy and very Bysshe.
When confronted with the “stream of consciousness,” Joyce’s response is sour: “When I hear the word ‘stream’ uttered with such a revolting primness, what I think of is urine and not the contemporary novel. And besides, it isn’t new, it is far from the dernier cri. Shakespeare used it continually, much too much in my opinion, and there’s Tristram Shandy, not to mention the Agamemnon….”
Prokosch was a good tennis player; at squash, he was a champion. Suddenly, one hears the somewhat surprising voice of Bill Tilden, who had written, “Never change a winning game, and always change a losing one,” a maxim that must be reversed when applied to art. “One day I finally cornered Bill Tilden….” Prokosch got the master to autograph one of his books on tennis. Tilden had also written two novels, which Prokosch had read. Tilden dismisses them as “Perfect trash. I always yearned to become a novelist. But I didn’t have it in me. Just rubbish, that’s all they are.” But for Tilden—and the young Prokosch—tennis was an art form, too. Unhappily, the Tilden that Prokosch met was at the end of his career: “My legs are giving way. Will the last act be tragic?”
For Prokosch there were two golden ages, divided by the war: Cambridge at the end of the Thirties and Rome at the end of the Forties. He seems to have enjoyed his literary success without ever having taken on the persona of the great author. Also, surprisingly, Dr. Prokosch has never taught school; never sought prizes or foundation grants; never played at literary politics. He seems to have been more interested in the works or voices of others than in himself as a person (as opposed to himself as a writer), a characteristic that tends to put him outside contemporary American literature; and contemporary American literature, sensing this indifference to the games careerists play, extruded him entirely from the canon. He was like no one else, anyway. He had always been a kind of expatriate at a time when the drums of America First had begun to beat their somewhat ragged martial tattoo. Finally, he was dedicated to literature in a way hard for his contemporaries to grasp as they pretended to be boxers or bullfighters—not to mention bullshitters, Zelda Fitzgerald’s nice phrase for the huge hollow Hemingway who had set the tone for a generation that only now is beginning to get truly lost. Hail, Amnesia!
Prokosch went his own way; and listened to his voices. At Cambridge he invites an ancient don to tea. The old man tells him, “You are rather naïve to have written a masterpiece. I agree with the critics. The Asiatics is a little masterpiece. But is your air of simplicity just a part of your cunning, or is your cunning just an aspect of your inner simplicity?” Although this is the sort of self-serving conversation that memoirists are prone to include to show how much the famous admired them, I quote the exchange because Prokosch seldom gets this personal about himself; he keeps tributes to his genius at a delicate minimum. Prokosch has no response other than “Both, maybe.” To which Housman (yes, it was he; later to become famous as the TV spokesperson for a Los Angeles bank) replied, “In every American there is an air of incorrigible innocence, which seems to conceal a diabolical cunning.” Prokosch broods on Housman; on Eliot; on beauty…and on Auden.
Beauty, first. The absolutely relative or relatively absolute nature of beauty was not as firmly established in those prewar days as it is now. It was generally agreed then that beauty was good; and that the good is hard to achieve. “Of this wisdom,” wrote Walter Pater, “the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for art’s sake has most; for it comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, simply for those moments’ sake.” In a way, this is incontrovertible; but the way that Pater put what Prokosch echoes is not our present way. Today all abstract nouns are questioned save those abstractions that are used measure the ones that have gone out of fashion. We signal and we sign; we structure and we deconstruct; and for a long time a good deal of the century’s philosophy has been a division of logic. Although Prokosch’s idea of beauty in art is very old-fashioned indeed, the way in which he himself deploys his own art is a formidable reminder that beauty, no matter by what sign or name acknowledged, can be a fact whose refutation is a highly risky business even for the most confident literary bureaucrat.
The voice of Auden is the most significant in Prokosch’s memoirs. Auden was his almost exact contemporary. By the time that Prokosch had published his first volume of poems (after the two celebrated novels), Auden was already the most famous young poet in English. From the beginning Prokosch acknowledged not only Auden’s mastery but his own indebtedness to him. This is a rare thing for an almost exact contemporary to do: when it comes to envy and malice, our century’s poets make even the dizziest of American novelists appear serene and charitable.
Prokosch had fallen under Auden’s spell long before they finally met in New York City at the Yale Club. Auden had just arrived from England. “He wore a pin-striped suit, a wrinkled shirt, and a checkered tie. I had the impression that he had tried to look tidy for the Yale Club. His thick unruly hair was parted far on the right. There was a wart on his right cheek and he cocked his head to the right, so that his body as well as his mind seemed to tilt into the asymmetrical.” Auden asks Prokosch to propose him for American citizenship. Prokosch says he would be delighted. They talk of Delmore Schwartz’s new book, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. “Auden listened inquisitively and nodded his head politely. He seemed, by some secret antennalike instinct, to be appraising all the strengths and all the weaknesses in Delmore Schwartz.” But at the mention of Dylan Thomas “he looked irritable and queasy” while a reference to Prokosch’s recent book of poems, The Carnival, and its debt to early Auden, appeared to trouble Auden with “the ambivalence of my admiration and his politeness was fringed with little tentacles of hostility.”
And I suddenly realized that there were four of us at the table: two speakers and two listeners who were hiding behind the speakers, each with his own hidden attitudes and doubts and suspicions. And abruptly, as we glanced across the table uneasily, we were engulfed in a silence of mutual shyness and distrust.
I said, “Tell me, Wystan. Why did you decide to escape to America?”
“Escape! What in the world makes you think it was an escape? It was not an escape. And what’s more, it was not a decision. It was an instinct, a desire. Please don’t try to intellectualize. One has impulses and instincts. There was no yearning to escape. And there was nothing that remotely resembled a decision!”
Although Prokosch tells us nothing of his private life, he does describe a Turkish bath in Forty-Second Street where “I was repelled by the cockroaches and the smell of secretions but intrigued by the atmosphere of silence and cunning.
“As I sat in the steam room I caught sight of Wystan Auden. He looked like a naked sea beast as he prowled through the steam, and his skin looked phosphorescent under the damp electric bulb.” Auden’s voice is now from a nightmare. “He rambled on wildly, as though secretly distraught.” He compares the steam room to Kafka; talks of Dostoevsky: “All is focused on obsession. All this vice all around us, there’s touch of lunacy, isn’t there? It’s so mad and ridiculous in its Dostoevskyan fashion. ‘To extreme sickness,’ said Pascal, ‘one must apply extreme remedies.’ Very clever, of course, but what did he mean by extreme remedies?
He clutched at the marble slab, as though seized with a fit of dizziness, then faded into the steam like a fog-bound vessel.
Years later Prokosch sees Auden, alone at a café in Venice. Prokosch begins:
“I’ve been to see the de Chiricos.”
“Ah, you’ve been to see the de Chiricos,” said Auden remotely.
“They were very disappointing,” I said, blowing a smoke ring.
“Oh, I see. They were disappointing,” said Auden sarcastically.
“Almost sinisterly so,” I muttered, half-imploringly.
“Indeed. Were they really? Almost sinisterly so!” He perked up a bit. His teeth protruded slightly.
I had an unerring knack for always saying the wrong thing to Auden. Whatever I wanted to say, however simple or sincere, the moment I opened my mouth it sounded gauche, vapid, insolent.
He seemed somehow to revel in this air of mutual embarrassment. He seemed to swell up into a sleek, didactic majesty.
I said, “Venice has changed.”
“Venice,” he snorted, “is constantly changing. With all that sky and water, how can it keep from changing incessantly?”
“I used to think of Tiepolo whenever I thought of Venice.”
“Of Tiepolo. How interesting. So it reminded you of Tiepolo?”
“But I now think of Tintoretto. It has a beard, like Tintoretto.”
“A beard. Yes. I see. Like Tintoretto. How very amusing.”
Perhaps he was drunk. Impossible to be sure. He had already started on his desolate journey downward. The wrinkles were deepening, the pouches were thickening. The eyelids looked scaly and shifty, reptilian. Even the eyes were no longer the old Auden eyes, which used to be quick and alert as hummingbirds. They had turned into eyes that seemed to gloat over a malady, to brood over some accumulating inner calamity.
“Tintoretto,” he said, with an accusatory precision. He seemed to ponder over the word, to linger over its contours. He cocked his head a little, as though looking for a new perspective. His hair was very tousled and his fingernails were purple. He stared across the piazza with an air of agitation.
And for an instant I caught that old familiar whiff of a festering unhappiness…There was something almost regal in this massive, drunken misery. I felt almost reconciled to this grim, penultimate Auden. I yearned to cry out, “Come, let’s drop all this pretense! Let’s be friends after all! Let’s forgive and forget!”
But I couldn’t bring myself to say it. He slumped back in his chair. He seemed to catch on the wing this momentary impulse in me and all of a sudden he seemed to be listening to a voice in the distance and the folds of his face took on a ruinous splendor. This quick, molten beauty was the last glimpse I had of him. It was like a quick shaft of lightning on a war-shattered landscape.
I said, “Well, goodbye. It was nice to see you, Wystan.”
“Yes. Of course. Tintoretto. It’s odd about Tintoretto…”
I must say it takes guts to record such a scene at one’s expense.
The Santayana voice that Prokosch records is not at all the voice that I heard. The old man says to Prokosch, “One must always, without necessarily being a pessimist, be prepared for the worst. For the end of what we call our Western civilization—I include the Athenian—and all that grandeur of Christian romanticism.”
His head sagged a little. His eyes began to water. His voice rose imperceptibly, as though for a final effort. “We are sailing ever deeper into the dark, uncharted waters. The lights in the lighthouses are beginning to go out. Is there anything to guide us? Is there anyone worth listening to? I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m cold with terror….”
I fear that my Santayana was a stoic like me, and I could not imagine him cold with terror at the thought of civilization’s end. Even at eighty-five, the clear black eyes did not water but shone as bright and as hard as obsidian. When I said to him, with youthful despair, that the world had never been in so terrible a state, Santayana could not have been more brisk, or chilling. “My own lifetime has been spent in a longer period of peace and security than that of almost anyone I could conceive of in the European past.” When I spoke with horror and revulsion of the possibility that Italy…Bella Italia…might go communist in the next month’s election, Santayana looked positively gleeful. “Oh, let them! Let them try it! They’ve tried everything else, so why not communism? After all, who knows what new loyalties will emerge as they become part of a—of a wolf pack.” I was sickened and revolted by his sangfroid, by his cynicism, by his, yes, blancmange. I was also much amused by his response to my sad comment on the speed with which literary reputations were lost in Amnesia. “It would be insufferable,” he said swiftly, “if they were not.” Could he have heard time’s winged wastebasket hovering near?
Among Prokosch’s voices there are some marvelously comical ones, including Lady Cunard and Hemingway in deadly combat for the mucho-macho drawing-room championship award. An exchange between Edith Sitwell and Edmund Wilson is also splendid. It is 1948 or 1949. The Sitwells are being lionized by tout New York.
The butler slid past with a tray of boiled shrimps. Edmund Wilson approached the sofa with a glass in his hand. He plucked a shrimp from the tray and dipped it in the mayonnaise. He held it in the air as he sipped his whisky. I watched with frozen horror as the shrimp slid from its toothpick and gracefully landed on Miss Sitwell’s coiffure. But Miss Sitwell ignored it and continued with serenity.
“It is always the incantatory element which basically appeals to me….”
“‘The Hollow Men’ is pure incantation,” said Edmund Wilson. He kept peering at the shrimp with a scrupulous curiosity. “I heard Eliot read it aloud once. It was a marvel of rhythmicality.”
“Even in Dryden,” said Miss Sitwell, “there is a sense of abracadabra….”
I kept staring at the shrimp with a feverish fascination. It lay poised on Miss Sitwell like an amulet of ivory. I visualized it in terms of the Victorian, the Elizabethan, the Gothic. I suddenly began rather to like Edith Sitwell.
I suddenly began rather to admire Frederic Prokosch twenty years ago when he visited me on the Hudson River where I lived. I took him to a party attended by a number of hicks and hacks and hoods from a nearby outpost of Academe. Naturally, they regarded Prokosch with contempt. They knew that he had once been famous in Amnesia but they had forgotten why. Anyway, Auden had won. And Auden had said that there can only be one poet per epoch.
A great deal was said about poetry; and some of it was said by poets—teacher-poets, true, but poets nevertheless; winners of prizes (“They got more prizes now than they got poets”: Philip Rahv, circa 1960, Amnesia). Prokosch was entirely ignored. But he listened politely as the uses of poetry in general and of the classics in particular were brought into question. Extreme positions were taken. Finally, one poet-teacher pulled the chain, as it were, on all of Western civilization: the classics, as such, were totally irrelevant. For a moment, there was a blessed silence. Then Prokosch began to recite in Latin a passage from Virgil; and the room grew very cold and still. “It’s Dante,” a full professor whispered to a full wife.
When Prokosch had finished, he said mildly, “Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”
Now in his seventy-fifth year, Prokosch ends his memoir with: “I live in a valley below Grasse in a cottage enclosed by cypresses. Behind me loom the hills where the walls are perched in the sunlight. Below me flows the cold green canal of the Siagne. Every morning I look at the dew which clings to the olive trees and I wonder what strange new excitement the day will hold for me…. My voyage is at its end. I think how glorious to grow old!” But “then I sit by the window and drink a cup of coffee and labor once again in my ceaseless struggle to produce a masterpiece.”
So he is still at work, writing, as he ends. “I am no longer afraid of loneliness or suffering or death. I see the marvelous faces of the past gathering around me and I hear once again the murmuring of voices in the night.” One must have created for oneself a very good day indeed to have so beautiful a prospect of the night.
May 12, 1983