mercredi 24 janvier 2018

T.S. Eliot - Peter Ackroyd - 1984

Any student of modernism as expressed in world literature and especially in Anglo-American literature would nominate T.S. Eliot to the list of writers who wrote groundbreaking poetry, beginning with Prufrock in 1915, The Wasteland in 1922 and ending with Four Quartets in 1945. Peter Ackroyd’s 1984 biography of T.S. Elliot takes the reader on a well-observed, fair-minded journey through the life and career of a towering cultural figure whose public image was not altogether attractive. Eliot, we all know, was considered aloof, arrogant, self-absorbed, highly intelligent and highly sensitive. He held anti-semitic views and joined his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound in espousing fascism. What we did not know, but may have guessed at, particularly after having read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats or watched the musical Cats was that T.S. Eliot had a sense of humour. Ackroyd reminds his readers that Eliot, while essentially a serious man — a product of his puritanical upbringing — nevertheless enjoyed light entertainment like detective fiction, music hall shows and American comic films (especially the work of the Marx Brothers). In his youth and throughout his life, Eliot read comic strips like the surrealistic, linguistically playful Krazy Kat and the classic, slapstick single strip Mutt and Jeff. At the offices of literary publishers Faber and Faber, where Eliot worked for some forty years, he liked to play practical jokes, including setting off firecrackers in the coal scuttle and a sending letter to the editor of the Times, proposing a "Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses.” Ackroyd tells us that Eliot, a dedicated writer of letters, wrote to friends “rambling in a high spirited or nonsensical manner about nothing in particular”. Such humour even stretched to the envelopes, and those addressed to friends such as Clive Bell often had on them verse instructions to the postman. It is a pity that Ackroyd could not give us more examples of the lighter side of Eliot’s personality but a bit of light investigation has revealed that the Eliot estate refused Ackroyd permission to quote from the poet’s unpublished work or correspondences. However, the hefty, two-volumed “Letters of T.S. Eliot” were published years after Ackroyd’s biography and are available to all — enabling us to fill in the many details and also to look anew and with more intimate evidence at the life and times of the “Old Possum”.

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