A surrealist at the Elysee : BOOKS : POETRY

Poet David Gascoyne made a dazzling debut at 16, but fell out of fashion and endured bouts of mental illness. Today, at 78, he is still better known in France than in Britain. Dennis Egan discusses an elegant survivor
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The Independent Culture
THE poet David Gascoyne, svelte and slightly stooped at the age of 78, has been virtually silent for the last 40 years. He started writing young, publishing his first collection at 16; his mother warned him that he would "only regret it later". He was immediately compared to Rimbaud, whose Illuminations he had translated word by word, at 14, with a dictionary, and this baleful influence was to lead him eventually towards the Surrealists. Today he remains apart from the English tradition, and finds himself, like Edgar Allan Poe, more appreciated by the French than by his own countrymen.

His occasionally marginal reputation may have enhanced the esteem in which his devotees hold him, but also necessarily narrowed his readership. However, with the current publication of his Selected Poems, Gascoyne's eclectic work may get a second chance.

Stephen Spender described him as not only one of the better poets of his time, but, along with George Barker and Dylan Thomas, as part of the opposition to the dominant influence of W H Auden. Gascoyne's poetry, as Spender wrote in a review in 1944, reflects a period where it was no longer possible "to imagine that, by the simple comprehension of events, one can diagnose a malady and prescribe a treatment for it." David Gascoyne was perhaps better known then than he is today. He was more visible. The new edition of his work aims to introduce him to a generation of readers unfamiliar with his highly touted beginning as well as his personal struggles with mental health, both of which have weighed heavily upon his reputation.

In Opening Day, the largely autobiographical novel written at 17 and highly praised by Cyril Connolly, Gascoyne is clearly the young, idealistic, revolted protagonist, Leon. He was already forming an image of himself as a writer. As the narration nears its climax, Leon thinks: " `Goodness knows who will publish the thing when I've finished it. Publishers do not like too much originality. But the idea is not really original. ( ... ) And then,' he thought, as he fell deeper and deeper into the trough of sleep, `what joy - to look back on all those finished pages, and then - to take up the pen for the last time - and write The End!' " But it was still only the beginning for David Gascoyne.

Born in 1916, in Harrow, Middlesex, and named after his mother's favourite book, David Copperfield, Gascoyne came of ordinary stock; nothing in his financial or social family background could help launch him in the literary world. For the relatively few years Gascoyne spent in formal education, he attended Salisbury Cathedral Choir School and the Regent Street Polytechnic. His premature departure from formal education was prompted by his lack of interest in all subjects apart from English composition, in which he excelled.

What really separates Gascoyne from the later Amis-Larkin school, as well as from that of Auden and most of his contemporaries, is as much a matter of personality as it is of politics. As Kathleen Raine comments in her introduction to David Gascoyne's Collected Journals (Skoob Books, 1991): "For David the touchstone in all things was the Imagination," as opposed to Auden and Spender, the "Oxford political poets". It was this imagination that eventually led him toward the Surrealists.

Surrealism, by the time the young Gascoyne obtained an advance from his Opening Day publisher, Cobden-Sanderson, to write A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935), was drawing to an end. It had been founded by Andre Breton in 1924, and the literary wing of the movement was almost exclusively confined to France. Gascoyne was its self-appointed English champion, and translated several of its poets. Still, in spite of the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London, it never really took hold.

Gascoyne has been unfairly stigmatised as a Surrealist; though his 1936 collection of Surrealist poems, A Man's Life is this Meat, is today a collector's item, the essential Gascoyne is rooted in spirituality. His search is directed toward an inward revolution, not the outward political revolution that was so fashionable at the time.

Before returning to England in the mid-1960s, David Gascoyne divided most of his time between Paris and the South of France. He met nearly all the literary elite, attended salons and was embraced by artistic and intellectual circles. He aspired "to become European rather than `parochial' ", as he wrote in a memoir of Law-rence Durrell, and it was in France that he experienced his most prolific period. There were years of intense productivity, though all too often his writing was hampered by struggles with depression and amphetamine addiction.

During these bouts, his search for "Truth which I pursue/When not pursuing Poetry" became more and more demanding. There were times when he could write no more than a postcard, for example while living in Aix-en-Provence with the widowed painter Meraud Guevara. When he found himself unable to write, Gascoyne spent most of his time drawing, cooking and socialising, in what turned out to be an unsatisfactory effort to stave off a mounting interior crisis.

Gascoyne's first break-down had come following the Second World War, and though, according to his mother, he had "no proper treatment - because he just would not co-operate", it seemed he had recovered. But then there was a second collapse in April 1964. He was interned in a psychiatric hospital, this time on the outskirts of Paris, after deliriously striking a guard at the Elysee. The Parisian newspaper Le Canard Enchane ran the headline: "He took himself for the Messiah". Gascoyne admitted that his intention to inform de Gaulle that he was the Messiah sounded "spectacularly crazy", though he saw himself "fundamentally just as sane a person" as he ever was. When his friends heard the news they were shocked and worried. Blanche Reverchon Jouve, a psycho- analyst married to Pierre Jean Jouve, the French poet who most influenced Gascoyne, warned Meraud Guevara that it was very important that he should be released to the care of his mother and that he should not live alone. Accompanied by a male nurse, he returned to the house on the Isle of Wight in which he lives today.

With the exception of three short pieces, privately printed and now included in his Selected Poems, David Gascoyne has not written any poems since "Night Thoughts", which was commissioned by the BBC in 1954 and published in book form the following year. Within this long prose poem are several voices interacting with various narrators. Early on the mood is set: "Around us, as within us, battle rages." The voices seem to echo what he wrote to Benjamin Fondane, the Romanian-Jewish-French philosopher when, at the age of 21, Gascoyne stated his most profound conviction as the "courage to persist in the most difficult route in contradiction and absurdity, courage to admit that one is afraid." In the final stanza of "Night Thoughts", as the overlapping, spiralling voices reach a peak of anxiety, we are reminded that: "We are closer to one another than we realise. Let us remember one another at night, even though we do not know each other's name."

Overall there is a calmness to David Gascoyne's voice, a hope and a challenge. The man and the poet are indistinguishable; each strive for unity, despite the contradictions, or because of them. There is an enigma about him, an odd sense of fragility and strength. He is similar to Giacometti's solid yet strikingly lone figures, tall and slim on a pedestal that seems too small for the elegant stature. His poem "To a Contemporary" whose "wits/Were tough as wire since you, cut to the quick/By premature cold disabuse,/Had set your face against your inmost face," and whose courage was "not to turn away/From knowledge or from Death", has this sobering conclusion:

You were brave

Enough to hear the seeming truth, could you

not dare

To face the last fear, which is that of Love?

His modest house, which he shares with his wife Judy, is a stopover for a continuous stream of poets and scholars, and of the curious admirers for whom Gascoyne is something of a cult figure. Until health forbade such vigorous ventures as reading and lecturing, Gascoyne's following grew from one poetry festival to another. Now, for the most part, those who have heard him or seen him come to him. When asked about this, or about his regret that he has not written enough, and that he published too early, in a gesture that is rich with silence, he will raise his unsettling blue eyes, trip his fingers, absently, so it appears, over the well-used spines of books. Then, the finely sculpted fingers interlaced on his lap, he half-jests, "Everything about me is a `case history'." Not without effort he pulls his lanky frame straight. He enjoys talking and reminiscing, but now he is tired. Later, after supper, which is precisely at 7pm, he'll smoke his third and last cigarette of the day. He'll watch some television and he'll read.

There is an early entry in Gascoyne's Journals, for 20 March 1937. While talking about the artist (he was thinking of Strindberg), he remarked: "If one admires him as an artist more than as a human being, I suppose one says his writings are a crystallisation of his life? I should not care to be regarded thus myself." And then there is the line, a haunting one, from "Apologia" - "Perhaps/ Only the poem I can never write is true."

Well, perhaps that poem, probably unfinished, is tucked away, apparently forgotten, as his journals were believed to have been. If not, there is a generous sampling of David Gascoyne, of his own particular truth, conviction and stark appeal for love in his Selected Poems. Just as the man was repatriated, some 30 years ago, maybe the work too will now come home.

! `Selected Poems' by David Gascoyne is published by Enitharmon Press at £8.95