This piece is about 6 printed pages long.
How connect Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) directly to the greatest U.S. spy trial of all time? Could the 20th century American poet, Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978); be personally embroiled in the 19th century Brussels shooting of Arthur Rimbaud by fellow poet Paul Verlaine? In a manner not discontinuous with that standard police procedure which pursues a perp by tracking him backward, here we will question former prison cellmates, the better to discover those shadow figures concealed behind the blatancy of crime. In a real life Le Carré, our exhaustively documented global chase through time and space will take us from the sordid House Un-American Activities Committee to splendid Tahiti! Poets will loom as dark and large as members of the Red Brigades, meet in bandit bands, or Goya’s covens, bearing signs upon their brows legible solely to them, where they’ll pore over cryptic manuscripts lost for more than 70 years!
Facts and action! Recall Balzac’s shrouded histories of The Thirteen! E.T.A. Hoffmann’s gothic literary sect, the Serapionic Brotherhood! What secret code could Blaise Cendrars share with Louis Zukofsky? What veritable Dr. Strange ever conceivably pose as their dread puppet-master?
Louis Zukofsky first mentions plans for his The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire (Wesleyan 2004) in a letter to Ezra Pound in October of 1931. Correspondence shows work had commenced by mid December of that year; finished almost exactly one year later, on Dec. 15, 1932. Two sections were published in The Westminster Review in 1934. The whole text, in a French translation by Zukofsky’s partner René Taupin, was published in Paris that year.
Quandary clouds the exact nature of their ‘collaboration’, which has become the object of expert speculations elsewhere. I wish only to state that all but 6 copies of the book were later destroyed by fire. Tension ignites drama.
As if completing some spectral cycle of signs, Zukofsky’s book was not published in its entirety in the U.S. until 2004, the centennial of his birth. In its introduction, Serge Gavronsky admirably outlines various possible reasons why Zukofsky might have been motivated to write his first full-length critical work, on Apollinaire. In his review of that same book Bradford Haas suggests Zukofsky’s incentive, in part, was money.
To whatever extent these answers may be true; they miss what hides in plain sight. Proximity. Complicity. And guilt: by nefarious association. Zukofsky attended Columbia University from 1920-24. The Columbia website for the class of 1924 lists one Whitaker Chambers as ‘best friend’ of Louis Zukofsky. With Louis, and René, who taught French at Columbia, Whitaker Chambers will play considerably more than mere tag-along in this triumvirate. For he was a titan (mythological ambivalence intact); and before apprehending all suspects, we must first bring him to ground. Make him talk. Then pin two others down.
Though it might not pertain to our story, I include his character sketch for sheer color. Born on April Fools Day, in Philadelphia in 1901, by 1923 Whitaker Chambers had not only been expelled from Columbia University but had also joined the Communist Party. He may be the only man to have edited, at different stages in life, both the CP’s Daily Worker, and Time Magazine. With Richard Nixon as his top supporting witness, Chambers made definitive history by testifying against Alger Hiss; accused of spying for Russia at HUAC; after himself turning against the Party. For the record, Hiss was convicted of perjury, never of espionage, though the effect on his life proved de facto to be the same.
Nuff said. What intrigues me however, is Chambers’ 1930 translation of a book called in English, The Sentimental Vagabond, from the French of a today little known travel writer named Albert t’Serstevens (1895-1974). Although Chambers, also a poet, was ‘asked to leave’ Columbia in 1923, Zukofsky published one of his friend’s poems, while acting as guest editor of Poetry magazine, as late as 1931. Clearly these two were still in league when Chambers translated t’Serstevens.
Far from done with pay-dirt spadework, we have unearthed a staggering find. Missing Persons. The key question is not Gavronsky’s, But why Guillaume Apollinaire? It is instead the forgotten enigma: Who was Albert t’Serstevens?
Albert t’Serstevens… was the ‘best friend’… of the poet Blaise Cendrars!
We now point our search light at Paris, where my esteemed colleague ‘X’ (wishing to remain anonymous; PhD Sorbonne) assiduously furthers our probe. In his closely argued, widely researched doctoral thesis, ‘X’ compellingly established a covert liason between the two known friends and fellow writers Albert t’Serstevens and Blaise Cendrars. Cendrars (1887-1961) is sufficiently well lauded to permit me here to dispense with his profile. Poet of the Trans-Siberian Express, once having come into money, he bought a house opposite La Santé prison, which had been formerly owned by a General, with a bathtub big enough to wash that Commander’s horse.
Although t’Serstevens has since been totally eclipsed in the States, he prospered for decades in Europe, enjoying popular success behind dozens of true adventure books, several of which were made into movies. His Vagabond Sentimental was published in France in 1923, under the name A. t’Serstevens. He was so particular about this moniker that he once sued an editor for printing his full first name. Though rumored to stick politically to the Right, at 18 he helped found a phalanstery based on the pleasure principles of utopian Charles Fourier.
Since we have already touched upon the twin topics of alias and anonymity, let me add that here they are rife. 500 poems in number, Louis Zukofsky’s juvenilia were penned under the pseudonym Dunn Wyth. Guillaume Apollinaire’s given name was Guillaume Albert Vladimir Alexandre Apollinairis de Kostrowsky (1880-1918); Blaise Cendrars’ was Frederic-Louis Sauser (1887-1961). While Whitaker Chambers, who died the same year as Cendrars, and wrote at times under the pseudonym John Kelly, was born Jay Vivian.
‘X’ irrefutably proves that Cendrars collaborated (there’s that word again) with t’Serstevens, generating together numerous works still celebrated only under each of their respective names. As t’Serstevens incessantly toured the globe, spending 4 years just in Tahiti, this exchange was often conducted by correspondence; then embedded into their books as code! Incredibly, ‘X’ has cracked that code, and his much vilified, now noteworthy thesis has at last been fully vindicated. Predictably, senior Cendrars experts who in his candidacy denied ‘X’, today fling themselves around like dogs, claiming credit for his perspicacious insight and industry. (This is the scene where family members pitch forward with carving knives in their backs at the reading of the patriarch’s Will.)
With world famous comrades Blaise Cendrars and Guillaume Apollinaire we come full circle, finally closing the net. For if he was not demonstrably aware of their cloaked collusion, still there is no doubt that Whitaker Chambers, whose daughter now lives in Paris, knew of t’Serstevens intimate friendship with Cendrars. Near common knowledge, this could not elude a translator of t’Serstevens, that author having been frequently even photographed with Cendrars. Nor could he have gone unapprised of Cendrars’ illustrious companionship with Apollinaire. After all, his own best friend, Louis Zukofsky was busily reading, researching, translating and writing on Apollinaire.
All clues ineluctably lead us to one conclusion. Louis Zukofsky, René Taupin, and Whitaker Chambers conspired successfully to create, not a communist cell, but a hotbed cult of clandestine American based Apolli-naires!
Apollinaire was in the air. William Carlos Williams explodes his own breakout formal innovation Spring and All, also published in Paris, in 1923. He cites Dada at the New York Armory Show as early as 1913. And he corresponds with Zukofsky. * In The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire, Zukofsky not only liberally translates André Breton, but competently compares the theater of Alfred Jarry to plays such as Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Apollinaire.
We are told that in 1923 the only book in the Columbia library by Apollinaire was Mathew Josephson’s translation The Poet Assassinated, published that same year. I fear Gavronsky downplays the case by invoking scarcity. We are not looking at a lack of information or exposure in the young Zukofsky, but an excess of intensity and excitement! Likewise, I must put Haas to one side. Despite somewhat equivocal corroboration from Zukofsky’s letters to Pound, money alone does not push a man to commit such passionate poetic crimes! If it strikes me as singularly bad business, lacking both dollars and sense, to translate French back into French: can it be sound salesmanship to so transform a translation that – deformed – it can barely be recognized? In The Writing of Guillaume Apolllinaire, Zukofsky translates over 100 pages of Apollinaire’s work, some of which is still unavailable in English, 70 years later, in any other form! Yet it is precisely the book’s second section, The Poet Resurrected, made up entirely of these translations; that was not even published in English until 2004.
Speaking of talking in riddles! What is today Zukofsky’s retroactively seminal collage novel, composed of parts from nearly all of Apollinaire’s works, mixing both poetry and prose in ‘free interpretation’, so winningly arrogates poetic license; to a criminal degree; and 50 years early; that it stands matchless. His is unprecedented pastiche of a kind not valorized before William S. Burroughs’ ‘cut up’ techniques, and elsewhere unseen until post modern appropriation.
Saving the best for last, let us now savor the farthest flung ‘Pataphysical yet bullet proof truths, promised above, confirming Louis Zukofsky’s impossible, extimate bond with Paul Verlaine. In 1932, A. t’Serstevens signed a contract with the publisher Plon to write a life of Paul Verlaine. Not astonishing in itself, this fact will be exquisitely aggravated by relation. In this case, a family relation… Albert t’Serstevens’ uncle, Theodore, was none other than that very judge who presided over the 1873 trial in Brussels for the shooting of Arthur Rimbaud by his lover Paul Verlaine! Was this not the greatest literary trial of Europe’s 19th century? We know the sad outcome of that. Yet, in both instances, the humanity and honor of the t’Serstevens bloodline shows in high relief. In an age when the litigants’ homosexuality was thought more egregious than any shooting, Theodore fielded this potentially volatile fireball with fair-minded discretion, cool, and minimum public display. For such admirable command he will be repaid historically only with bile. And one year into the work on his life of Paul Verlaine, A. t’Serstevens withdrew from that contract, abandoning the project in a true crise de conscience. In the end, there was plenty of pulp being peddled proclaiming pederasty, denouncing drunkenness, an addiction to absinthe, and his penchant for assault and battery, as the mortal core of Paul Verlaine. A. t’Serstevens so loved Verlaine’s poetry that he simply would not retell these truths, forgiving the faults of the man.
* William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) met Louis Zukofsky in 1928. Williams translated Philippe Soupault’s Derniers Nuits de Paris, under the English title Last Nights of Paris, in 1929. Apollinaire introduced Soupault to André Breton. Mathew Josephson, Apollinaire’s translator, is said to have been the liason between Williams and Soupault’s publisher. The current Paris based Soupault Association’s president is Cendrar’s daughter, Miriam. Cendrars first met Apollinaire after being jailed in 1912 for stealing his L’Hérésiarch et Cie. from a Paris bookstore. He then wrote Apollinaire, who agreed to go his bail.