Celebrating the spirit of the avant-garde
By Karen Rosenberg
|COURTESY OF BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY|
|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
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.
|COURTESY OF BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY|
|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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