Kay Boyle’s early novel sheds light on the literary history of the transatlantic modernist avant-garde
Year Before Last deserves to be rediscovered by students and scholars interested in modernist periodical culture and the literary history of the transatlantic avant-garde.
An editorial and critical success story, the novel did much to advance Boyle’s career as one of the promising talents of the expatriate avant-garde. Having been given T.S. Eliot’s imprimatur in London, it was first published in London by Faber and Faber in 1932. Almost simultaneously, it was brought out in New York by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith — who paid the author an advance of a thousand dollars — and, a few months later, in Paris by Crosby Continental Editions, a series that brought out cheap editions of modernist works. Reviewers praised the novel’s poetic quality, mastery of images, and finesse of perception. A critic for The New Republic wrote that it was “as emotionally and rhetorically rich in prose as poetry can be.” Over the years, it continued to grow in popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. There was talk of a film adaptation. In 1937, Calmann-Lévy brought out a French translation by Marie-Louise Soupault, the wife of the Surrealist poet, writer and critic Philippe Soupault.
The novel’s autobiographical plot was inspired by a dramatic episode that took place in January 1926, when Boyle decided to leave Normandy where she had settled three years earlier with her first husband, Richard Brault, to travel to the French Riviera at the invitation of the American poet and editor Ernest Walsh. A few months earlier, Walsh had started a small literary magazine, This Quarter, which he coedited with British artist Ethel Moorhead, who generously provided for the printing and shipping costs. Like other avant-garde “little magazines,” This Quarter aimed to support young talent, and in particular the younger generation of Anglo-American modernist writers and artists. As a matter of fact, the journal showed only limited interest in European literary and artistic production — with the exception of Brancusi and Picabia. Such national preference reflected Walsh’s ambition to free the literature of his native country from the shackles of European, and especially British, tradition, and encourage the search for a new poetic and democratic idiom.
The first issue of the magazine was dedicated to Ezra Pound, tireless promoter of the avant-garde and defender of small magazines, and included fiction and poetry by Gertrude Stein, H.D., Ernest Hemingway, Yvor Winters and William Carlos Williams. The number and quality of the contributions, as well as the quality of the paper, illustrations and typography, soon made This Quarter a leading mediator in the Anglo-American literary landscape. Walsh’s unflagging editorial fervor was also a key element of its success. According to Boyle’s later account of her arrival in Grasse in February 1926, no sooner had she set foot on the station platform, exhausted after her long night’s journey in a crowded third-class carriage, than he excitedly started to tell her about his plans for his journal and his enthusiasm for Emmanuel Carnevali’s latest book.
If anything, she was entranced. In 1922, shortly before her departure for France, she had worked as an editorial assistant in the New York office of Broom magazine, another American little magazine published in Europe. Owing to the generosity of Broom‘s American editor, Lola Ridge, she was introduced to Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, with whom she formed lifelong friendships. In particular, Williams’s search for a new, distinctly “American” poetic idiom was a major source of inspiration for her early experiments in both poetry and prose.
As the days went by, Walsh and Boyle’s common interest in the rejuvenation of American letters and their strong mutual attraction blossomed into a romantic relationship, driving an infuriated Ethel Moorhead to deprive Walsh of her financial support. Suddenly finding themselves without a home, they set out on an erratic journey along the coast and into the hinterland, hoping to settle down in a place where Walsh’s illness (TB) would not arouse suspicion and stigma. From March till October, Boyle helped Walsh with his editorial activities, typing letters and proofreading manuscripts, and reading aloud to him from the books that piled up to the roof of their old Renault.
Walsh’s unfailing belief in the power of literature reverberate in the pages of the novel as well as in a series of poems written in 1926 and 1931, such as “To America” and “For an American,” where he is described as “a full swinging river” whose footsteps are “wild valleys thundering under [America’s] hills.” In other poems, Walsh’s figure mingles with those of Eugene Jolas, Robert McAlmon, or Harry Crosby, three Paris-based expatriate editors and publishers, and close friends to Boyle. Along with the superb “The United States,” dedicated to William Carlos Williams, these poems create a composite, romantic portrait of the poet-genius fervently engaged in an American literary Risorgimento. Life with Walsh also provided Boyle with material for the 1931 short story “Rest Cure,” which narrates a fictional episode in D.H. Lawrence’s final days in Vence, in early 1930.
This collective and transsubjective view of literary production also permeates Year Before Last. Significantly, the end of the decade was marked by several encounters and collaborations of which the novel bears trace, including Boyle’s active contribution to transition magazine, which was launched by Eugene Jolas in 1927 to take over from This Quarter after Walsh’s untimely death, and her friendship with Robert McAlmon. The two editors were probably a source of inspiration for Mr. Alaric, whose letters bring Martin Sheehan renewed faith in the relevance of his work. “The poet in Italy” is a thinly veiled reference to Emmanuel Carnevali, and the “American writer” bears strong affinities with Williams.
Another distinct characteristic of the novel is its intertextual and intercultural dimension. Explicit allusions to Pound Eliot, Baudelaire, Poe, Blake, and Cocteau, inform dialogues and descriptions. Other quotes from Joyce, Byron, Poe, Sandburg, Williams, or Mangan are seamlessly woven in the text, as in this passage taken from Williams’s In the American Grain:
This was the America with which Martin felt bondage, and the skyscrapers might never have been reared aloft. The country of Pocahuntas : a well-featured, but wanton yong girle, sometimes resorting to our fort, at the age of eleven or twelve, get the boyes forth with her in the market-place, and make them wheele, falling on their hands, turning their heels upward, whome she would followe, and wheele so herself, naked as she was, all the fort over.
In a similar way, throughout the novel, snippets from poems, letters, or novels emerge in a dance step or a song, and erupt from the books, journals, and manuscripts that cover the floors, shelves, and beds, and pile up to the ceiling of Sheehan’s car.
If the name of William Carlos Williams has already been mentioned several times in this article, it is because Williams’s view of renewed poetic contact with the American soil was understood by such young writers as Boyle, Walsh, and McAlmon as a literary call to arms. According to the hermeneutic approach Williams developed in In the American Grain (1925), true knowledge of the American experience (what Williams called “the hard, sardonic, truculent mass of the New World, hot, angry”), could only be achieved through encounter with other cultures and experiences. In Williams’s book, Poe, the literary equivalent of such figures as Daniel Boone, Sam Houston, or Pere Rasles, epitomizes this form of “discovery” of America.
Walsh and Boyle could not but embrace this form of cultural transnationalism. In Year Before Last, Irish ballads, Joyce’s musical prose, and Carnevali’s American-Italian prose and poetry combine with Sandburg’s sonic imagery or Poe’s funereal accents in a form of composition close to the fugue. This collective, multiple and heterogeneous imaginary points to Martin Sheehan‘s magazine as the real protagonist of the novel. The (nameless) journal is indeed the constant preoccupation of the characters and the prime mover of the plot. In this respect, the novel also gratifies the reader with an insider’s account of the inner workings of modernist little magazines, with their often contradictory imperatives, complex forms of — at times unsocial — sociability, blatant sectarianism and elitism, and miraculous, fragile contingency.
The vital energy that gushes out of these pages may render the reader deaf to what characters keep repeating. Let’s listen to Martin telling us that he died years ago in a plane crash. Let’s pay attention to the numerous ghosts that haunt the story. And for good reason. The end of the twenties marked the dissolution of avant-garde modernism and the decline of literary magazines. The last of them, transition, suspended publication from 1930 to 1932, at the very same time when Boyle was at work on her novel. The rise of political magazines marked the beginning of a new decade, while eyes anxiously turned toward Germany. Soon, Boyle and her family left France for Austria, where they witnessed at first-hand the Anschluss. A spectrographic narrative, the novel nonetheless radiates the petulance, audacity and gaiety of youth, and a stubborn belief in novelty, understood as both individual creation and collective/communal re-creation.
[The original 1932 edition should be preferred to the Virago edition (1986) which bears traces of revisions by the author that are often detrimental to the stylistic idiosyncracies that account for its originality]
Adapted from the introduction to the latest French translation of Year Before Last: Fuir avant demain, UGA Editions, 2018.
This is an excellent review of YEAR BEFORE LAST and really captures the interests and passion Boyle and Walsh had for promoting a new modernist idiom. You exactly capture it in your description of the novel’s “intertextual and intercultural dimension” with allusions to other writers who are “seamlessly woven in the text.”
PS: I very much like the new website design.