Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saturday commute xl: At the baths with Clovis and Bertie van Tahn

Twit twit twit
jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc'd.

I flatter myself, that our opening text settles right in upon its perch, as if it were born here. Yet, have we known each other long enough, I sometimes wonder, for such a headline not to slam the shutters shut of their own accord, but rather, to suggest something gently menacing to our undergraduate memories? I don't mind, that the page seems to haul up a fresh cadre of readers to adjust for unseasonable deflations in its ranks, but I never really know what the new know about you, stalwarts of the guytummy era, and brave trekkers through the partisan sludge of our time. 

I have come to the beach, but at the very least I demand some credit for having brought literature's most portable cynic, HH Munro (Saki) as counterpoint to my deferred researches into Mr Eliot. We don't have this problem of reconciling manic genius at home, because we have the English dog; but Whit is at his spa for the weekend, and you can well understand, how the Piranesian morbidity cast by his absence, makes it perfectly reasonable to resort to the baths. You can just imagine, then, how pleased I was to find Clovis insulting the imperturbable and impenetrable Bertie van Tahn while composing some verses to assist Mrs Packletide in one of her society feuds -- fountain pen blotting out page after page, himself more or less heaped in terrycloth, as Bertie is slung languidly into a neighboring chair and looking conversationally inclined. Bertie does goad Clovis into a teasing sharing of snippets from his bath house epic, but frustration cannot help but colour his gratitude. Offering encouragement as very few can, Bertie likens Clovis to an Orpheus descending into Jermyn Street.

[portrait removed]

I do not expect to encounter, even by resort to wilder chance, a more luminous image than this of the dashing poet on the cusp of his irreversible immortality. As you realise, I've been recalling the bidding war which Mr Eliot and his cannily exotic chum, Ezra Pound, came up with to promote a smashing, glittering transatlantic roll-out of the great new thing, the poem called, The Waste Land. This was back in '22, some 10 years or so after Saki's The Recessional was published. 

Involving Edmund Wilson, John Peale Bishop, Scofield Thayer, Gilbert Seldes, Horace Liveright, Virginia Woolf, and such periodicals as The Dial, Vanity Fair, The Criterion, The Atlantic and The Century, in an all but carnally hot but hilariously buzz-driven pursuit of a text most of these people hadn't actually ever seen, TS Eliot's flogging of this admitted GNT must rank among the merriest, ebulliently indecent pieces of auctioneering since Shirley Temple went public. And the lads made off with an absolute killing.

Receiving the importuning ambassador from Vanity Fair, Pound is described as extended on a bright green couch, swathed in a hieratic bathrobe made of a maiden-aunt .. fabric, offensively soft .. When buyers' interests would flag, Pound would revive them with visits by Constantin Brancusi, and who knows what other occult entertainments. The scholar to whose work I'm indebted for the breathless details of this treasure hunt, Lawrence Rainey, speaks of the ultimate publication of The Waste Land as a social event, a triumphal occasion.

This prospect is exactly what drew Clovis Sangrail to the baths for Mrs Packletide, and has twinkled in the dreams of writers ever since. What found Bertie there, is not immediately obvious. Possibly, they had wi/fi. 

Extract of The Waste Land,
  ll 203-206 

T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land
Michael North, editor
  Norton Critical Edition
  Lawrence Rainey
  The Price of Modernism:
    Publishing 'The Waste Land'
W.W. Norton, 2001©

H.H. Munro
The Complete Works of Saki
Noël Coward, introduction
Doubleday & Company, 1976©



  1. the image of the running children is so beautiful--Truffaut, Ruth Orkin, and Billy McBride all in one.

  2. I'm very happy to have discovered this image for the precise reasons you mention; it's a happiness to use these little forays to share something in this way. But I also think it suits the tag-team audacity of Pound and Eliot, and shows very well what their hopes then were, I think.

    Thank you for your comment.