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Writing the Lost Generation: Expatriate Autobiography and American Modernism (review)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 364-367 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0015

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This book shows an amazing amount of research, reading, and putting it all together. On the whole, I found it exhausting and interesting in equal amounts, and perhaps should have read it in little bits, a chapter at a time. On the other hand, the pleasure of reading it in gulps is certainly a testimonial to something about its ability to involve the reader.

What is generally characteristic about the treatment of the persons and facts in these pages is the amassing of persons and quotations, from critics as well as from the expatriates who are its subject. The ambition to put together far lesser-known figures and the far better-known ones is surely laudable, and a diligent reader will spend, of course, far more time on the lesser-known figures, such as Alfred Kreymborg (“Kremmie”), Harold Stearns, and Samuel Putnam, whose Paris Das Our Mistress of 1947 is among the most entertaining of many of the autobiographies mentioned. Full disclosure: reading something by Putnam once on a beach in North Carolina, dedicated to Putnam’s son Hilary (who became a famous philosopher), I decided to name my then about-to-be child Hilary, so that whatever gender it turned out to be, it would have a lovely name. It did, it was a daughter, and all was well except in France, where, since there was no feminine Saint called Hilary or Hilaire, her teachers were bemused and even befuddled. Never mind: I love the name and hope my daughter does also.

Back to Monk’s book. One of the more entertaining elements about it is the sort of circling maneuver one notices: various views of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas appear, so that a topic is surrounded by commentary in various chapters. This appeals to the distracted reader, who is constantly brought back to the figure. About the surfeit of characters, I kept thinking of a Provençal anchoiade, with so many vegetables surrounding the central dip that the dip became lost, submerged.

That said, a lot is written about all these figures, and no one feels cheated out of space or pages. The initial discussion of the title “lost generation” is definitely worth returning to, as is, in fact, all the material about Stein and her detractors as well as her supporters. The discussion of lesbianism throughout this book is at once thorough and discreet, and that includes the chapter dealing with Janet Flanner (“Genêt” for the New Yorker’s Paris Letter). I was particularly charmed by the remarks about Ernest Hemingway, and glad, now that there is a whole (again) controversy about the editing of A Moveable Feast, to see so much about it. That’s it, I think: in any book with a whole panoply of figures, what you really long for is a neat (not neat group, but neatly marked as significant) assortment of people you can care about, whether or not they are major writers.

I was especially drawn to commentaries like that of Malcolm Cowley (whose Under the Volcano I dragged with me on a trip to China, and which I found very tiring going—perhaps it is a book one should read in one’s youth . . .). “The exiles of 1921 came to Europe seeking one thing and found another.” Seeking the “good life” and the “traditions of art . . . they found valuta.” Now, I don’t happen to know what “valuta” are, and assume, without looking it up, that it means “values,” and—be reassured—I shall certainly look it up after finishing this review. I loved his saying how he wrote in mornings, sat in cafés, and traveled because “there was always a new city where life was more agreeable or cheaper.” Yes, never mind that he, and so many others, always returned to Paris—the point was something not about how the grass is greener, but something about the allure of the elsewhere, never mind what were its valuta.

“Our Paris,” Putnam called it. And of course it is, for many of us, just that. We know how all-important place is, and our place is whatever it is. This was often Montparnasse, when it wasn...



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