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  • Remembering the Hours:Nancy Cunard's Expatriate Press
  • Kris Somerville

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[End Page 67]

In 1930, at the suggestion of fellow English poet Richard Aldington, fledgling publisher Nancy Cunard launched a poetry contest to advance the reputation of her recently founded press, the Hours. She had begun her small expatriate printing operation two years before in a rustic farmhouse in the remote village of La Chapelle-Reanville in Normandy, sixty miles from Paris. But she tired of mundane conflicts such as uncooperative binders, unreliable and slow mail service and sudden interruptions in heat, electricity and water. She moved the Hours to a small shop at 15 rue Guenegaud, a narrow street on the Left Bank. To generate some publicity and announce her arrival in Paris, she offered ten pounds for a hundred lines on the theme of "time."

After sending out announcements to literary reviews in England, she received over one hundred entries. In her estimation all of them were mediocre when "not frankly bad." Most submissions ranged from doggerel to metaphysical ramblings. None of the writers, she felt, could be called a poet, though two or three could feasibly be published. On the eve of the contest deadline, she went to bed nerve-wracked. She needed a miracle.

The manuscript she found the next morning slipped under her door was more than she could have hoped for—a poem titled "Whoroscope" by Samuel Beckett. Neither she nor Aldington recognized the name, though they were instantly taken by the poem's skillful language, imagery and technique. Put simply, they both felt that Beckett expressed himself beautifully and trenchantly; the poem was a fresh and personal meditation on the life and ideas of Descartes.

Nancy had a winner. When she met Beckett later that day, she noticed a touch "of the silhouette of James Joyce" in the twenty-four-year-old Irishman's aquiline features. This was a first publication for the former Trinity College, Dublin, linguistic scholar, who was then coincidentally in Paris researching all sorts of strange information for Joyce's Ulysses.

"Whoroscope," printed in Caslon 11-point type and bound between scarlet covers, sold well. More importantly, Nancy found in Samuel Beckett an artist she could indeed champion, and he would become a lifelong friend. But he was only one of her finds. Over the next six years, Nancy would publish many of the greatest writers and artists of the modernist era early in their careers.

Though Cunard was a noteworthy poet, journalist and publisher, her life eclipsed her art. Newspapers could not get enough of her. They reported on the tumult of her personal life and the excesses of her political activism, [End Page 68] much of it rumor and exaggeration. In her story, some saw the type of the poor little rich girl, while others recognized an uncompromising renegade who rejected social and familial obligations in favor of a life of her own invention. Cunard's friend, British poet and critic Arthur Symons said of Verlaine, "Never was there a nature more absolutely impelled to act itself out, more absolutely alien to every conceivable convention." Something similar can be said of Cunard. She believed that one should do what one wants in life "to the hilt."

Nancy's acute intelligence, flair for dramatic extremes and what friends called "diabolical beauty" were difficult to ignore. Her exquisite façade, as well put together as one of her handmade books, hid a melancholy, malcontent spirit. Her mysterious sadness, combined with an air of fearlessness, captured the imagination of her artistic friends. Thinly veiled renderings of her appear in Ezra Pound's and T. S. Eliot's poetry. Michael Arlen made her the heroine of The Green Hat (Tallulah Bankhead would play the Cunard-inspired Iris March in the 1925 London stage adaptation of his novel). She was a leading character in Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point. and some speculated that Ernest Hemingway based Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises on Cunard. Man Ray and Cecil Beaton photographed her; Oskar Kokoschka, John Banting and Wyndham Lewis painted her; and Brancusi sculpted her. Images of Nancy dressed all in black, hair...


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