Book Review: The Fictions of Arthur Cravan: Poetry, Boxing and Revolution

1 September 2021

Aaron Eames, Loughborough University 

Dafydd Jones, The Fictions of Arthur Cravan: Poetry, Boxing and Revolution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019)

Arthur Cravan (1887-1918) was a sailor in the Pacific, muleteer, orange-picker in California, snake charmer, hotel thief, logger in the great forests, former French boxing champion, grandson to the Queen’s Chancellor, Berlin automobile chauffeur, gentleman thief, and much else besides – or so he claimed. Provocateur, poet and poser, we know for certain that Cravan mingled with the pre-war Parisian avantgarde, was knocked out in an exhibition match by Jack Johnson, and was the nephew of Oscar Wilde. He is, at first glance, a biographer’s dream but, when one considers all the misinformation, mystique, and mythology surrounding (and generated by) this remarkable man, he quickly becomes an impossible subject. In The Fictions of Arthur Cravan, Dafydd W. Jones manages to get to grips with this simultaneously effusive and elusive figure and place his impressive list of epithets in their proper context. Giving due acknowledgement to Maria Lluïsa Borràs’s Arthur Cravan: une stratégie du scandale (1996), this book provides anglophone audiences with the first comprehensive biographical study of this ‘twentieth century man of mystery’.[1]

In reality ‘Arthur Cravan’ is a fiction, a pseudonym of Fabian Avénarius Lloyd, but it is the name by which the man is primarily known. Lloyd developed many identities: ‘Bombardier Wells’, ‘Édouard Archinard’, ‘Jean Rubidini’, ‘Numa Persan’, ‘Philippe Or’, ‘Robert Miradique’, but ‘Cravan’ was his central persona. Jones assumes his audience’s familiarity with Cravan, and his legacy as a ‘proto-Dadaist’ and ‘nihilist hero’ (4), from the outset. We read, for instance, about his ‘dreamy orange-picking’ (55) without hearing much else about this languid interlude. This is offset by the book’s chronological structure which follows Cravan’s life from birth in Switzerland in 1887, his eventful sojourns in Germany, France, Spain, the United States and Mexico, up to his enigmatic disappearance in the Pacific in 1918, allowing one to become acquainted with his mythos even as the author simultaneously demystifies it. For instance, Jones corrects the tangled timeline of Cravan’s stay in Berlin, and the posthumous Cravanographies of his wife Mina Loy and the poet Blaise Cendrars are held up to the light alongside documentation such as Cravan’s Paris Address Book and passenger manifests. The title of the book thus gestures towards Jones’s combination of an historical scrutiny of Cravan’s legendised life and a critique of his literary works.

Jones examines the latter in detail. Chapters four and five in particular explore Cravan’s journal Maintenant, whose five issues he compiled almost single-handedly between April 1912 and April 1915. He critiques Cravan’s various journalistic and fictional endeavours, including his notoriously merciless review of the 1914 Salon des Indépendants, the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants founded in Paris in 1884 to promote the work of Impressionists and other artists rejected by the official Salon. In his review Cravan took the chance ‘to pillory, insult and summarily dismiss his close as well as fringe Parisian acquaintances’ (155) including the artists Robert and Sonia Delaunay; ‘his insulting invective’, Jones dryly comments, ‘was nothing if not inclusive’ (156). The author also considers Cravan’s attempts at poetry, identifying his debts to Walt Whitman in, for example, these characteristic lines from ‘Hie!’:

I would like to be in Vienna and Calcutta,

Catch every train and every boat,

Lay every woman and gorge myself on every dish,

Man of fashion, chemist, whore, drunk, musician, labourer, painter, acrobat, actor;

Old man, child, crook, hooligan, angel and rake; millionaire, bourgeois, cactus, giraffe, or crow;

Coward, hero, Negro, monkey, Don Juan, pimp, lord, peasant, hunter, industrialist,

Flora and fauna:

I am all things, all men and all animals! (126-127)

This is little more than Cravan’s ‘legendary roll-call’ (62) or his dream CV writ large.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously claimed to philosophise with a hammer. Jones makes use of the finer instruments in Nietzsche’s arsenal, along with the theoretical toolkit of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari to read Cravan’s life. At times this critical apparatus can seem superfluous, as it does in chapter eight where in Jones’s own words the idea of ‘“death” in the infinitive’ acts as an ‘undercurrent’ (259), one that underwhelmingly rejoins the main course. It can also feel incomplete. In order to pin down the mercurial Cravan, Jones proposes a ‘schizo-biography’ that can encompass his myriad identities. Jones fails to define this term satisfactorily, perhaps leaning too heavily on a reference to his earlier monograph Dada 1916 in Theory: Practices of Critical Resistance (2014). At other junctures, however, the theory-driven critique is highly illuminating and well-integrated. Jones’s application of Deleuze’s notion of the subject as ‘assemblage’, for example, generates an intriguing way of thinking about Cravan’s identity: where we might have seen a man in a mask, we are encouraged to perceive him as a mass of multiplicities. Jones argues that Lloyd/Cravan realised this and set about ‘creating, experimenting with and transforming (his) life’ (47) as he wished. His first step, for instance, in becoming a boxer was appearing to be one, just as he wrote that ‘[i]t is essential to be American, or at least to look like you are one, which is exactly the same thing’ (73) – to appear to be something is to become it.

There is plenty here of interdisciplinary interest. As a Wilde scholar, I can speak to the significance of this book in providing a necessary study of Wilde’s extraordinary nephew to complement that of his extraordinary niece Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Wilde.[2] This is particularly evident where Jones discusses Cravan’s short story ‘Oscar Wilde est vivant!’ (Oscar Wilde is Alive!) in which Cravan pretends that Wilde, who died in Paris on 30 November 1900, casually stops by his home for a chat on the 23 March 1913 (Cravan assumes he has been living in South East Asia). Jones offers an intriguing reading of this tale as ‘a productive continuation of [André] Gide’s “Hommage à Oscar Wilde”’ to which it is ‘strikingly close in imitation’ (149), contending that the work which brought Cravan transatlantic attention was also a parodic response to an earlier Wilde-related memoir.

Jones both builds upon his own previously published research and makes full use of the latest scholarship by Bertrand Lacarelle and Bastiaan van der Velden, as well as the various articles contained in La règle du jeu, 53 (October2013), and Arthur Cravan: maintenant? (2017), a Museu Picasso exhibition catalogue edited by Emmanuel Guigon (with English texts translated by Paul Edson). Jones proves that, even without the mythology, Cravan lived a captivating life; indeed the author has the best of both worlds, being able to rehearse the legend even while dissecting it. However, the insistence on dense philosophical criticism in places renders Jones’s study difficult to penetrate without a complementary understanding of Deleuze, and the prose style of Jones’s preface in particular sets one up to expect (incorrectly, of course) that the rest of the book will be written in a sort of Expressionist stream of consciousness. Nevertheless, The Fictions of Arthur Cravan will serve as an essential basis for future scholarship, having provided us simultaneously with a biography of Fabian Lloyd and a critique of Arthur Cravan’s legend.


Sources:

[1] As he has been called by Mike Richardson and Rick Geary in their graphic novel Cravan (Milwaukee, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2005).

[2] See Joan Schenkar, Truly Wilde: The Unsettling Story of Dolly Wilde, Oscar’s Unusual Niece (London: Virago Press, 2000).

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