|Bob McAlmon, John Glassco and Graeme Taylor|
'Today we're meeting the white hope of North American literature,' said Bob one morning. 'His name is Callaghan, and he's just come to town with a pisspot full of money from a book called Strange Fugitive. Have you read it?'
'No', said Graeme. 'But I know his stories in the New Yorker. Very fine and sophisticated. Just like Hemingway's, only plaintive and more moral.'
'Well, Fitzgerald says he's good, so he's probably lousy. Anyway he has a lot of dough, so we might get a dinner out of him. He's Canadian too. What do you think he's like?'
'Well,' said Graeme. I see him as tall, thin, blond, cynical, in a pin-striped suit. It's the way he writes anyway.'
Here's the dust jacket of Callaghan's first novel, Strange Fugitive (1928).
This image of Callaghan as 'tall, thin, blond, cynical, in a pin-striped suit' is a typical John Glassco joke. Morley Callaghan turns out to be a small, plump, dark, shabbily dressed, naive tourist:
Morley Callaghan was short, dark and roly-poly, and wore a striped shirt without a collar; with his moon face and little moustache he looked very like Hemingway; he even had the same shrewd little politician's eyes, the same lopsided grin and ingratiating voice. His wife was also short and thickset. Both of them were so friendly and unpretentious that I liked them at once. It was like meeting people from a small town. We apologized for not finding them sooner, saying we had looked in at the Coupole.
'I didn't like that Coupole, it's too much of a clip-joint,' said Callaghan, 'The drinks here are just as good, and a lot cheaper. Eh, Loretto?'
'Yes, about fifteen per cent less, Morley. And you have just the same view here. My, this is a lovely city, but the French are right after you for all they can get. You find that, Mr Taylor?'
'Yes,' said Graeme. 'You get used to it.'
'Like hell we will,' said Morley.
Callaghan now changes the subject, and asks McAlmon the very question which I would have asked if I'd been in his place.
Suddenly changing the subject, he asked, 'Say, how do you get to meet James Joyce? McAlmon, you know him, I'm told.'
'You're damn right I do,' said Bob. 'But what do you want to do in Paris, go around like a literary rubberneck meeting great men? I'm a great man too, for God's sake. And here I am. Ask me your questions. I'll even give you my autograph.'
'You're a good writer, ' said Morley, all his strength of character appearing, 'but you're not Joyce – not yet. What the hell,' he went on, 'this guy Joyce is great. Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century. I wouldn't compare myself to him. Why should you?'
'Oh,' said Bob, 'now you're getting modest. Well, you can't fool me. You think you're one hell of a writer, why don't you admit it? Why do you give me all this crap about Joyce? You're more important to yourself. If you think so much of Joyce, why don't you write like him instead of your constipated idol Hemingway? Lean, crisp, constipated, dead-pan prose. The fake naive.'
'Now, McAlmon, let's go into this properly. First thing, I don't write like Joyce for the simple reason that I can't, it's not my line. But I can admire him, can't I?'
'No, you can't. You can't admire Joyce and write like Hemingway. If you do, you're a whore.'
Morley reddened. 'You're a funny guy. I don't know if you're talking seriously, but let me tell you I write as well as I can, and though you may not like my stuff...'
'I've never read your stuff. I don't read The New Yorker.'
'Well then what in heck are you talking about? Perhaps you haven't read Joyce either.'
'Right! I haven't read Joyce or Hemingway. I don't have to. I know them – and I know you too, Morley, and I like you. Especially when you get mad. I know you're a good writer. The test of a good writer is when he gets mad.'
After the Callaghans leave, McAlmon (consistently two-faced in Glassco's book) dismisses Morley as 'a dumb cluck'.
'Well there goes your sophisticated New Yorker type,' said Bob when Morley and Loretto had left in search of a cheap restaurant.
'They're both very nice, ' said Graeme. 'He's got brains and determination and a devoted wife. He'll go far.'
'Rats, he's just a dumb cluck, an urban hick, a sentimental Catholic. All he's got is a little-boy quality.'
On a later occasion, Callaghan and Glassco are talking about McAlmon.
'I like you and Graeme, ' he said. 'So does Loretto. But say, what's biting your friend McAlmon? I can't make him out.'
'He's always that way.'
'I admire his work – in a way. 'Miss Knight' is a nice piece of writing. No one has gotten that type of fairy down on paper before. In fact, McAlmon's pretty good when he's writing about fairies. How do you account for that?'
I tried to give the appearance of someone forming a considered judgement. 'He just has a natural sympathy for everything eccentric.'
This is another wonderful comic moment, for Taylor, Glassco and McAlmon were all bisexual.
All the above is by way of introduction to Morley Callaghan's own memoir, That Summer In Paris (1963), which I read straight after McAlmon's Being Geniuses Together. It's a gripping and funny read, and confirms Glassco's picture of Morley Callaghan as an innocent abroad.
The cover of my copy has bad portraits of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. These two writers dominate the book, just as they dominated Callaghan's time in Paris. He had little interest in the city itself - all he cared about was writing and meeting his fellow writers.
'Memories of tangled frendships', on the cover, is a good description of the book, which is mostly a series of baffling encounters with the literary lions of Paris. Callaghan is constantly surprised and confused by their behaviour and their mutual hatreds.
Scott didn't like McAlmon. McAlmon no longer liked Hemingway. Hemingway had turned against Scott. I had turned up my nose at Ford. Hemingway liked Joyce. Joyce liked McAlmon....Around the Quarter, indignities, bitter or comical, were shared so frequently they became little more than part of the daily gossip.
Callaghan is thrilled when McAlmon invites him to have dinner with the Joyces, at their favourite restaurant, the Trianon.
It was a restaurant near the Gare Montparnasse, where the food was notably good. Just to the right as you go in we saw McAlmon sitting with the Joyces. The Irishman's picture was as familiar to us as any movie star's. He was a small-boned, dark Irishman with fine features. He had thick glasses and was wearing a dark suit. his courtly manner made it easy for us to sit down, and his wife, large bosomed with a good-natured face, offered us a massive motherly ease. They were both so unpretentious it became impossible for me to resort to Homeric formalities. I couldn't even say, 'Sir, you are the greatest writer of our time,' for Joyce immediately became too chatty, too full of little bits of conversation, altogether unlike the impression we had been given of him.
|Joyce in 1929 photographed by Berenice Abbott|
It was now ten o'clock. Turning to his wife, Joyce used the words I remember so well. 'Have we still got that bottle of whisky in the house Nora?'
'Yes we have,' she said.
'Perhaps Mr and Mrs Callaghan would like to drink it with us.'
Would we? My wife said we would indeed and I hid my excitement and elation. An evening at home with the Joyces, and Joyce willing to talk and gossip about other writers while we killed a bottle! Stories about Yeats, opinions about Proust!...It all danced wildly in my head as we left the restaurant.
Callaghan is upset to find that Joyce, the arch modernist, does not live in modernist surroundings.
The Joyce apartment, at least the living room in which we sat, upset me. Nothing looked right. In the whole world there wasn't a more original writer than Joyce, the exotic in the English language. In the work he had on hand he was exploring the language of the dream world. In this room where he led his life I must have expected to see some of the marks of his wild imagination. Yet the place was conservatively respectable....The room was all in a conventional middle-class pattern with, if I remember, a brown patterned wallpaper, a mantel, and a painting of Joyce's father hanging above the mantel. Mrs Joyce had promptly brought out the bottle of Scotch. As we began to drink, we joked and laughed and Joyce got talking about the movies. A number of times a week he went to the movies. Movies interested him. As he talked I seemed to see him in a darkened theatre, the great prose master absorbed in camera technique, so like the dream technique, one picture then another flashing in his mind. Did it all add to his knowledge of the logic of the dream world?
As the conversation began to trail off I got ready. At the right moment I would plunge in and question him about his contemporaries. But damn it all, I was too slow. Something said about the movies had reminded McAlmon of his grandmother. In a warm, genial, expansive mood, and as much at home with the Joyces as he was with us, he talked about his dear old grandmother, with a happy nostalgic smile. The rich pleasure he got out of his boyhood recollections was so pure that neither the Joyces nor my wife nor I could bear to interrupt. At least not at first. But he kept it up. For half an hour he went on and on. Under my breath I cursed him again and again. Instead of listening to Joyce, I was listening to McAlmon chuckling away about his grandmother. Quivering with impatience I looked at Joyce, who had an amused little smile. No one could interrupt McAlmon. Mrs Joyce seemed to have an extraordinary capacity for sitting motionless and looking interested. The day would come, I thought bitterly, when I would be able to tell my children I had sat one night with Joyce listening to McAlmon talking about his grandmother.
The evening now takes an odder turn.
|Aimee Semple McPherson|
'What record?' asked McAlmon, blinking suspiciously...Mrs Joyce was regarding my wife and me very gravely. 'Yes,' she said. 'I think it might interest them.'
'What record?' McAlmon repeated uneasily.
Mrs Joyce rose, got a record out of a cabinet and put it on the machine. After a moment my wife and I looked at each other in astonishment. Aimee Semple McPherson was preaching a sermon! At that time, everyone in Europe and America had heard of Mrs McPherson, the attractive, seductive blonde evangelist from California. But why should Joyce be interested in the woman evangelist? and us? and McAlmon? Cut off, and therefore crestfallen, he too waited, mystified. Joyce had nodded to me, inviting my scholarly attention....
The evangelist had an extraordinary voice, warm, low, throaty and imploring. But what was she asking for? As we listened, my wife and I exchanging glances, we became aware that the Joyces were watching us intently, while Mrs McPherson's voice rose and fell. The voice, in a tone of ecstatic abandonment, took on an ancient familiar rhythm. It became like a woman's urgent love moan as she begged. 'Come, come on to me, And I will give you rest...and I will give you rest...Come, come...' My wife, her eyebrows raised, caught my glance, then we averted our eyes, as if afraid that the Joyces would know what we were thinking. But Joyce, who had been watching us intently, had caught our glance. It was enough. He brightened and chuckled. Then Mrs Joyce, who had also kept her eyes on us, burst out laughing herself. Nothing had to be explained. Grinning mischievously, in enormous satisfaction with his small success, Joyce poured us another drink.
Before we could comment, his daughter, a pretty dark young woman, came in. And a few minutes later, his son too joined us. It was time for us to leave.
When we had taken Robert McAlmon, publisher of the city of Paris, home, we wandered over to the Coupole. That night we shared an extraordinary elation at being in Paris....It was a good night.
Isn't that a great story? And you won't find any of this in Ellmann's biography of Joyce - it doesn't fit his big narrative themes.