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Celebrating the spirit of the avant-garde

By Karen Rosenberg

Eugene Jolas, 1931

James Joyce. Gertrude Stein. Franz Kafka. William Carlos Williams. Samuel Beckett. Hart Crane. Ernest Hemingway. Just a few of the renowned authors whose works were published, and often premiered, in the literary journal transition between 1927 and 1938. The complete list of writers and artists featured reads like a roster of the international avant-garde between the World Wars--an exceptionally creative community. These artists and writers responded to the challenges posed by industry, urban life, and new media, seeking to expand traditional limits of visual and verbal representation. In a culturally saturated time, they permanently redefined their disciplines.

This weekend, Yale will host a conference entitled "The Avant-garde in Transition" to investigate the influential history of the magazine and the fascinating lives of its publishers, Eugene and Maria Jolas. The conference agenda promises to turn the Whitney Humanities Center into a temporary shrine to the avant-garde. Major international scholars of 20th-century art and literature, including Yale's Vincent Giroud and Tyrus Miller, will present their recent work. In addition, the Jolases' daughter Betsy, a celebrated composer, will discuss her parents and their contemporaries in an informal conversation. Finally, original issues of the magazine, featuring the work of Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro, and others, will be on display.

All this was made possible by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library's recent acquisition of the Jolas papers, a valuable collection that includes drafts and letters from key contributors to transition. The Jolas papers have also enabled the publication of Eugene Jolas's autobiography, Man From Babel, a project he abandoned in the 1940s and which has now been painstakingly reconstructed from fragments found in the new archives. The book will be released this year by Yale University Press, demonstrating the papers' potential to further illuminate the art, literature, and history of the avant-garde. This weekend's conference, according to Giroud, marks "a very happy conjunction of events: the fact that the archive came to the Beinecke, that it made editorial work possible...and now the publication of the book makes further scholarship possible." The lives of Eugene and Maria Jolas, as well as the legacy of their magazine, reward such close investigation.

Images from a transition cover by artist Joan Miro.

The magazine, transition, was a product of the Jolases' extraordinary vision; they were among the first to recognize the genius of Joyce and many of his contemporaries. At a time when Ulysses was banned and scorned, transition published installments of the "Work-in-Progress" that was later to become the revered novel Finnegan's Wake. Leaders of the Dadaist, Surrealist, Expressionist and Verticalist movements found a voice in the magazine. The common thread linking these groups was the philosophy that "the writer expresses. He does not communicate," put forth in a collective piece from transition entitled "Manifesto: The Revolution of the Word." Jolas termed the work "a declaration of linguistic independence."

This direct affront to literary convention immersed transition in a controversy amounting to no less than, in the words of Eugene Jolas, "a storm in the paper forests of two continents." Jolas's scrapbook of articles denouncing transition, now in the Beinecke archives, attests to this statement. The magazine even prompted painter, novelist, and critic Wyndham Lewis to launch a rival publication called Enemy. Despite such outspoken criticism, transition remained on the cutting edge of the international literary scene. The phenomenon of the magazine, Giroud says, was that "it became an emblem of the avant-garde, whether you were in favor of it, or whether you considered it ridiculous. It's really extraordinary."

Beyond its revolutionary linguistic agenda, transition represented an effort to create an international community of the avant-garde. In the anthology Transition Workshop, Jolas says, "To me it was the realization of a youthful dream that had brightened my immigrant years before World War I.... I had spent most of those years in the crucible of New York, absorbing its universe of races and languages, and it had been my hope that my experience might one day help to span the Atlantic with a two-way flow of ideas between men of different races and tongues." Based in Paris, the expatriate capital of the artistic world during the early 20th century, the Jolases' magazine succeeded in establishing a "workshop of the intercontinental spirit," not only publishing rising authors, but also translating the works of older, more established writers like Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. Contributors to the magazine came from all over: America and Western Europe, to be sure, but also such diverse places as Mexico, Romania, Guatemala, and Poland.

Eugene and Maria Jolas embodied the international, multifaceted spirit of their work on transition. A poet and translator as well as an editor, Eugene Jolas grew up speaking French, English and German. Appropriately, Giroud notes with respect to the conference, "some of our speakers are American, some are French, and some are German. The conference participation reflects the triple nationality of the man we are celebrating."

Jolas's multinational background was an essential element of his writing; he published 13 volumes of poetry, including multilingual works, and found a kindred spirit in Joyce's experiments with language. According to Giroud, Jolas "was completely fascinated with what Joyce was doing in `Work-in-Progress'...incorporating words from several languages and being creative with them, inventing new words, and inventing a new form of epic that took in the whole complexity of the modern world, with the suddenly increased possibilities of communication." While he is not as famous as many of the writers he published, Jolas's poetry reflects an important literary preoccupation of his time. He was, as Giroud says, "acutely conscious of the possibilities of language: the dangerous possibilities, with Nazi propaganda, but also the creative possibilities."

Maria Jolas led a similarly meaningful and dynamic life. Born in Kentucky, she was "an extremely important figure in the American community of Paris, well-known and respected by Joycean scholars," Giroud says. An eminent translator, Maria Jolas also founded a prominent bilingual school in France. Surviving her husband by several decades, she was politically active in the French Resistance during the Second World War and in the Paris American Committee to Stop War during Vietnam. The conference includes a discussion of her contributions to transition and the larger avant-garde community, which were certainly as important as those of her husband.

The last of transition's 27 issues appeared in 1938. As Jolas recounts, "the by then inevitable approach of World War II made it no longer possible to concentrate on abstract laboratory problems, or to daydream about new forms in art and language." Instead, artists and writers were forced to confront the more concrete challenges associated with the rise of fascism. Despite this abrupt ending, transition made an undeniable impact on international culture, remaining at the forefront of the avant-garde for an incomparably productive time."No magazine lives forever, especially a magazine as creative as transition," Giroud said. "What makes it so interesting and valuable is that it remained creative until the very end."

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