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Bohemian Rhapsodist Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne

By Robert Fraser (Oxford University Press 469pp £30)

The story went something like this. Place: a mental hospital on the Isle of Wight. Date: the early 1970s. A kindly, middle-aged vet’s wife, Judy Lewis, had for several years been visiting the institution to read poetry to small groups of patients. Mrs Lewis was a keen believer in the therapeutic powers of poetry, and she may well have had a point. One afternoon, her group was joined by a newcomer: a tall, thin, gloomy man of about her own age. He said little, and she paid almost no attention to this melancholic figure until, one day, she chose to read out a poem entitled ‘September Sun: 1947’. At the end of her reading, the sad man touched her on the arm and said: ‘I wrote that poem. I am David Gascoyne.’ ‘Yes, dear,’ she said gently, ‘I’m sure you are.’ And she carried on reading. But the man had been telling the truth.

It’s the kind of yarn that sounds like erudite legend – I first heard it ages ago from a young American writer, and took it with a pinch of salt – but it was corroborated by the principals when I went to interview Gascoyne in the late 1990s (‘Good afternoon,’ were his first words to me. ‘I am a heterosexually impotent bisexual.’). It is confirmed again in Robert Fraser’s long and gratifyingly detailed biography of the English poet. Just two years after that unlikely encounter, Judy Lewis had left her husband, secured David’s release from the wards and become Mrs Gascoyne. She proved to be a devoted wife of the oldfashioned school, and brought her husband a degree of emotional and domestic stability he had never known. Had she not done so, Gascoyne could easily have spent the rest of his life as a solitary, self-tormenting inmate, forgotten by all but a few poetry buffs and historians of Surrealism.

What sort of poet was David Gascoyne? One concise way of sketching his life might be to compare his ways with those of the most famous of his nearcontemporaries, Philip Larkin. (Gascoyne was born in 1916, Larkin in 1922. Not exact, but close enough.) Where Larkin was, or posed as being, violently anti-foreign, Gascoyne was saturated with the literature, art and philosophy of other countries, especially France, where he lived for several years, and developed fluent if strongly accented French. Where Larkin worked doggedly and well at his day job as a librarian, Gascoyne hardly did a day’s paid work in his life, save for a short period as a rep actor during the Second World War.

Gascoyne, by David Stoker (1989)

Larkin was robustly heterosexual, Gascoyne mostly gay – or at any rate a ‘heterosexually impotent bisexual’. Larkin stuck strictly to booze as his drug of choice; Gascoyne became addicted to various forms of speed: many of his mental agonies, including hallucinations, conspiratorial paranoia and messianic delusions were due to amphetamine psychosis, little understood at the time. Larkin was a lifelong conservative who came to adore Mrs Thatcher; the young Gascoyne was a member of the Communist Party and, like other leftish idealists, went to support the Republicans in Spain. (He grew disillusioned, and drifted away from political commitments.) Larkin was a troubled atheist, Gascoyne turned increasingly to mysticism and occult traditions such as alchemy. Larkin’s verse is plain-speaking and lucid; Gascoyne’s is often dense and difficult – the kind of poetry keenly admired by other poets rather than the general reader. It is partly thanks to the efforts of such poets, including Iain Sinclair and Jeremy Reed, that Gascoyne’s reputation grew steadily in the last years of his life (he died in 2001), and a good deal of his work is back in print.

Gascoyne has appeared on the margins of so many other biographies and studies of the 1930s that a book which puts him squarely centre stage is a valuable addition to literary history, and for the most part Robert Fraser’s work is very well done, nicely evocative of period detail, and crammed with sketches of the many forgotten characters – some of them even more eccentric than Gascoyne himself – who played a role in his strange life. One example is the apparently philanthropic but nonetheless alarming Dr Karl Theodor Bluth, a crank medic who prescribed Gascoyne with Methedrine; when you consider that Bluth liked to pump his other patients with ox blood, this was a fairly orthodox treatment.

Roughly speaking, Gascoyne’s life has a classic three-act structure. Fraser underlines this by dividing his account into three ‘Nights’, in homage to the three-part Gascoyne poem from which the biography’s title is taken: 1916 to 1939, 1939 to 1964, and 1964 to 2001. Even more roughly speaking, this amounts to a period of remarkably precocious success, followed by poverty, despondency and deepening madness, and ending with the unexpected sunshine of a late marriage and a gradual mellowing into an elderly savant, dispensing anecdotes to the admiring young while Judy handed round the cakes. All these periods were eventful, but the first is so remarkable that – as with the mental hospital anecdote – it smacks of improbable fiction.

When it comes to precocity, Gascoyne makes Keats look like a late starter and Chatterton an also-ran. (It is hardly surprising that one of his earliest heroes was Rimbaud, who stopped writing poetry before his teens were out.) By the time he was twenty-two, Gascoyne – whose formal education, such as it was, ended about three weeks before his sixteenth birthday – had f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 7