Son of a Sphinx
BEING A LIVING LEGEND in one's own lifetime is hard on the liver—especially in Paris. But it is even harder on the serious biographer who, several generations later, tries to separate subject and myth. Poet-Critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who died on the eve of the 1918 armistice, is an almost classic case in point. For the avantgarde, he loomed as a giant figure, an irrepressible rebel against stuffy conventions, a decisive experimental voice in modern French poetry, and the cultural midwife of the cubist movement in painting. For most of the rest of the world, he was little more than an obscure bohemian scribbler from the heady pre-Dada days in Paris when it was still possible for the bohemians to think that society needed their help in turning itself inside out and upside down.
Opium of the Muses. Writing the first full-length biography of Apollinaire by an American, Francophile Francis Steegmuller has considerable trouble trying to find the real man in the middle. His carefully contrived book is likely to please best only those readers who know least about Apollinaire, but who are delighted to dip into a nicely, often spicily, written story about a fin de siècle Villon who smoked opium, palled around with Picasso, Matisse and Braque and (in 1911) got arrested for stealing the Mona Lisa.
Apollinaire didn't steal it really. That heroic act was reserved for an Italian house painter with an inflated sense of national pride. But Apollinaire and the young Picasso did happen to be harboring some statuettes that a zany friend had stolen from the Louvre as a joke. Once, during the national furor which followed, Apollinaire and Picasso wandered the streets of Paris for an entire night, miserably toting the incriminating statuettes in a suitcase, not knowing whether to throw them or themselves into the Seine and not quite daring to do either. Eventually, Apollinaire had them returned to the museum, faced the police, and was let off after a five-day stretch in prison. He wrote six poems about the experience, but he was deeply hurt by it, Steegmuller reports, because a police official referred to him as "scum."
Wilde Postcard. It is often hard to disagree with the judgment. Born in Rome in 1880 and grandiosely christened Guglielmo Alberto Wladimoro Alessandro Apollinaire Kostrowitzky, the future poet was in fact the bastard son of a beautiful Polish courtesan and an unknown man, possibly of noble blood. "Your father a sphinx," Apollinaire once bitterly gibed at himself, "your mother a one-night stand." At 19, he was helping his mother swindle a hotelkeeper in Belgium out of three months' food and lodging. At 20, when a young English governess refused to accept his hand in marriage, he threatened to throw her (not himself) off the cliff on which they were standing.
Terrified not only by this drama but by such spooky things as a postcard from him with Oscar Wilde's famous line "For each man kills the thing he loves," the girl sensibly fled to England and finally emigrated to California. Apollinaire in turn sat down to write La Chanson du Mal-Aimé, a long poem that swings between lyrical passion and harsh, direct descriptive talk in a way which was to put a lasting mark on modern French poetry.
The nights in Paris all drink gin
And fall asleep with their streetlights on.
Trolley cars are mad machines
To make green sparks and scream like queens.
All his life Apollinaire was troubled by his outcast state. From 1904 to 1911 he mocked society by making his living as an editor of a pornographic series called The Masters of Love, by pamphleteering for any new form of poetry or painting that turned up, by sprinkling his three volumes of poetry and various phantasmagoric novels with scabrous puns and salacious posturings. But when the war began, he enlisted in the army—which he did not have to do as a foreigner—and proved a tough and durable soldier until he was hit in the head by shrapnel. He won a measure of respectability, French citizenship and the Croix de Guerre.
Monster or Hero? Apollinaire, Steegmuller insists, was a remarkable poet despite, rather than because of, the poetic gimcracks he often employed. Uniquely among his contemporaries, he understood that poetry would increasingly need a precise language to keep pace with the modern world, a stock of images to keep pace with science, which was leaving all old-fashioned conceptions dangerously behind.
But Steegmuller is never certain whether, as a man, Apollinaire is some kind of contorted hero or merely a monster of genius. The lapse is not surprising. Apollinaire's friends weren't sure either. Marie Laurencin, the painter with whom he lived for four years, has left history little more searching commentary than the fact that Apollinaire insisted they make love in a chair because he couldn't bear to have his bed rumpled.