Obituary: Alain Bosquet

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The Independent Online
COSMOPOLITAN authors are not respected in our world of increasingly self-centred little nations. The very word "cosmopolitan" is enough to arouse suspicions, suggesting someone lacking in seriousness, hardly respectable, not even genuinely "foreign". The poet Alain Bosquet was such an adventurer - in language, living and literature. No one could have been less "one of us". His very birth, the fruit of a hodge-podge of nationalities, made him questionable, even problematical. He bore the sort of name - Anatole Bisk - that the British find funny, bestowed upon him by a father of Alsatian-Belgian origins.

His mother, Berthe Turiansky, came of an old German-Jewish family, and later Bosquet was to pay tribute to her and to the towering patriarchal figure of her father. His father, Alexandre Bisk, was a poet, and a good translator who made the first Russian versions of Rainer Maria Rilke. He was also a dealer in that most romantically cosmopolitan of goods, rare postage stamps. His mother was an accomplished violinist, and when the family moved to Varna in Bulgaria, she helped to scrape a living by giving violin lessons, while his father took on translations, then as now always badly paid.

In 1925 they moved to Brussels, where in 1938 Anatole studied at the Universite Libre, with a special interest in Romance philology, and started a poetry magazine, Pylone. With the Nazi invasion, he was mobilised in May 1940, and took part in the brief Belgian campaign, then was incorporated in the French army. After the fall of France, he spent some time in Montpellier, then went on to Paris, where he acquired a passport to cosmopolitans of the highest quality, the Diplome de l'Ecole de Perfectionnement des Professeurs de Langue et de Litterature Francaises. It was then that he changed his name to Alain Bosquet.

In 1942, he arrived in a city he always loved, New York, helped edit the Free French magazine Voix de France, and with the Russian writer Yvan Goll started a literary review, Hemispheres. At this period he made many significant literary friends and encountered some famous figures - Maurice Maeterlinck, Jules Romains, Thomas Mann, Marc Chagall, Hermann Broch, Bela Bartk among them.

One of the most influential writers he met was Andre Breton, the high priest and chief commissar of Surrealism, who published his poems in VVV while Roger Caillois, a specialist in South American literature, introduced him in the pages of Les Lettres Francaises in Buenos Aires. Bosquet again put on uniform, this time with the American army, and saw service in Texas, California and Maryland before being shipped to Northern Ireland in December 1943.

Nineteen forty-four saw him in London at General Eisenhower's headquarters with the task of examining the German coastal defences in Occupied France, with a view to opening the Second Front. He debarked on the Normandy beaches, then moved with the American troops through northern France and into Germany where he was one of the first to enter the Buchenwald concentration camp.

His next post was as liaison officer with the quadripartite control commission in Berlin. Nineteen forty-five saw the publication of his first collection, La Vie est clandestine. In 1947 Bosquet founded a German-language review, Das Lot ("The Sounding Line"), of which Gottfried Benn was to say that it was the determining factor in the revival of poetry in Germany.

In 1951 he was installed more or less permanently in Paris, where he worked with Albert Camus on Combat and started contributing reviews and essays to Le Monde, Figaro and the Nouvelle Revue Francaise. In the late 1950s, he taught French literature in the US, at Brandeis University and the universities of Madison and Milwaukee.

He returned to teach American literature at the Universite de Lyon and to work as producer and commentator on French radio. He became reader for several important publishing houses and directed collections of new poetry. In 1980, this cosmopolitan wanderer was finally naturalised as a French citizen.

Alain Bosquet's literary career was launched, and he became the author of a score of books of poetry. Langue morte won the first of his many awards, the Prix Guillaume Apollinaire, in 1951. Others included the Prix Max Jacob for Deuxieme Testament (1959), the Grand Prix de la Poesie de l'Academie Francaise for Quatre testaments at autres poemes (1967) and the Prix Goncourt de la Poesie for Le Tourment de Dieu (1987).

Many of these volumes were translated into almost every European language. Among the distinguished translators of his work into English were his friend Samuel Beckett, Edouard Roditi and Lawrence Durrell. In return, Bosquet translated Durrell's poems and a selection of work by the great Serbo-Croat poet Vasko Popa, who reciprocated with a selection of Bosquet's earlier poetry published in Belgrade in 1958.

Bosquet also wrote fine literary reviews and appreciations of countless younger poets, as well as substantial essays on Saint-Jean Perse, Pierre Emmanuel, Eugene Ionesco, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. He compiled authoritative anthologies of contemporary American and French poets, and his own work as a poet appeared in a 900-page collected 1995 edition, Poesies completes (1945-1994): Je ne suis pas un poete d'eau douce ("I am no milk-and-water poet").

Indeed, Alain Bosquet's was an original voice working in a broad French literary tradition of lyrical contestation. He was a poet in a modern style of classic realism, with an immense variety of themes and an inexhaustible inventiveness of tone, expressed with a passionate lucidity that set him apart from the majority of younger French poets taking the easy way out in empty linguistic obscurity.

Anatole Bisk (Alain Bosquet), poet, novelist, translator: born Odessa, Soviet Union 28 March 1919; married 1954 Norma Caplan; died Paris 17 March 1998.

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