l i t e r a r y l i v e s published five well-received books. His first collection, Roman Balcony and Other Poems, appeared when he was sixteen, and his first novel, Opening Day, when he was seventeen; by that age, he was also publishing poems and criticism in the leading journals of the time, including Eliot’s The Criterion. Using a small inheritance, he made his way to Paris and met many of the leading figures of the day, most of whom took him seriously. Enchanted by encounters with the likes of Breton and Max Ernst, he came back to England preaching the gospel of Surrealism; Gascoyne’s importance in bringing Surrealism across the channel was considerable. One of the enduring fruits of his passion was A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) – a classic of its unusual kind. Another was the collection Man’s Life Is This Meat (1936), which included one of his most powerful and strange poems: ‘And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis’. You can almost hear Larkin splutter.
He was a fascinating man and this is a worthwhile, rich and readable biography. But it would not be fair to end without a caveat: even by present-day standards, the quality of fact-checking and proofing here is pretty shabby. Some of the goofs are quite amusing – I particularly enjoyed a reference to that hard-drinking, two-fisted Dublin novelist ‘Irish’ Murdoch – but others are just irritating. Here are a few. Shaw’s stage comedy of 1932 was entitled Too True to be Good, not Too Good to be True. Henry James wrote In the Cage, not In a Cage, and
Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake, not Finnegan’s Wake, as any fule kno. The ‘New School of Social Science’ is probably the New School for Social Research, the highly addictive drug is not heroine but heroin, and W H Auden’s famous poem ‘September 1, 1939’ opens not on Forty-Second Street but in ‘one of the dives/On Fifty-second Street’. The theatre director ‘Peter Brooke’ needs the last ‘e’ removing, though ‘wannaby’ wants just such an ‘e’ to become ‘wannabe’, and the poet ‘Wendy Milford’ is usually known as Wendy Mulford. And so on. Slovenliness of this order disfigures an otherwise valuable book. Both author and subject deserved better. To order this book for £30, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 36
‘It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are,’ writes Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust (1939), commonly regarded as the best novel ever written about Hollywood, that factory of broken j ay pa r i n i
California Nightmares Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West
By Joe Woodward (O/R Books 276pp £11)
Subscribe young Subscribe today for people who devour books www.literaryreview.co.uk dreams. West’s sad, even pathetic characters yearn for something they can never have – which can’t be had – and their lives spiral into chaos, slipping towards a violence that is beyond them and which no effort can bring under control.
The Great Depression took root in West (1903–1940), an American writer whose wild, sometimes grotesque fantasies have become part of our collective imagination. In this fresh, elegant biography by Joe Woodward – the first in four decades – West comes alive, a strange young man on the prowl, a crazy fool, a fantasist. ‘The dream life of Nathanael West,’ writes Woodward, ‘was surely a vivid one – wellsuited for novel writing and less-suited for Hollywood pictures.’ Yet he managed, in thirty-seven years, to assemble a small but permanent body of work, and – like Keats or Rupert Brooke or any writer of immense talent whose vision is cut short – one can only guess where he might have gone.
‘A writer is what a writer does,’ Woodward states at the outset. During his own lifetime, West was ‘always a writer on the verge of breaking out’. But even his two best novels – Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust – failed to find a sizeable audience, and his work for Hollywood studios was not successful. He moved in august circles, making friends with F Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Dalton Trumbo, Dashiell Hammett and S J Perelman. He met the latter, one of the great humourists of the century, while a student at Brown University, which he had entered on a false transcript. (Perelman later married West’s sister.)
West had large ambitions. As he wrote in Miss Lonelyhearts: ‘At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything.’
In a sense, West was a slight latecomer to the so-called Lost Generation that Gertrude Stein had named. He was ambitious, of course, and understood the difficulties about anti-Semitism, which was virulent at this time. He changed his name from Nathan Weinstein to Nathanael West, heading to Paris in 1926, a
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