Bernice bobs her hair

From The Times Literary Supplement:

Recently I began to wonder what books people were reading and talking about a hundred years ago. All I knew about 1920 was that it was the year Prohibition began. And I knew that the First World War was over, and that Winston Churchill, the War Secretary, was bombing Mesopotamia and raving in the newspaper about the “poison peril” emanating from Russia – the Russia, he said, “of armed hordes smiting not only with bayonet and with cannon, but accompanied and preceded by the swarms of typhus-bearing vermin which slay the bodies of men, and political doctrines which destroy the health and even the soul of nations”. In January 1920, Lloyd George said, “Winston has gone mad”. One thing pleased the War Secretary very much, though: a book deal. He had a contract to write a history of the vast conflict over which he had just presided, and what with serialization payments from newspapers in Britain and the United States, he was going to receive half a crown per word for The World Crisis. The pay rate was exhilarating, he told the press baron George Riddell.

So that was my working sense of 1920 – very incomplete. What other interesting bookish events went on that year? I will tell you. In May, a writer named Hope Mirrlees published a poem. It was a longish work – twenty-three pages – about a person wandering around Paris on a single day in 1919. “Paris is a huge home-sick peasant”, she wrote. “He carries a thousand villages in his heart.”

Virginia Woolf, who thought the poem was “very obscure, indecent, and brilliant”, typeset it, printed it on a small press, corrected typos, and then sewed the bindings of 175 copies. The cover said “PARIS” and “HOPE MIRRLEES” in thin red letters; its paper bore a pattern of harlequin diamonds in red, blue and gold. The book was one of the earliest publications of the Hogarth Press, of Paradise Road, Richmond – Leonard and Virginia Woolf, proprietors. “This little effusion looks at the first blush like an experiment in Dadaism”, wrote a reviewer in the TLS, on May 6, 1920, “but there is a method in the madness which peppers the pages with spluttering and incoherent statements displayed with various tricks of type. It seems by a sort of futurist trick to give an ensemble of the sensations offered to a pilgrim through Paris.” A copy went to the British Museum, where it was stamped “May 12 20”.

The poem (available in facsimile on the British Library’s website) begins: “I want a holophrase”. And then it quotes Parisian signage: “NORD-SUD, ZIG-ZAG, LION NOIR, CACAO BLOOKER”. A holophrase, in nineteenth-century philology, is a “sentence word” – a brief utterance that carries much meaning in a short space. It was a word used by Mirrlees’s companion, the Cambridge classicist Jane Harrison. Harrison gives an example of a holophrase taken from one of the indigenous languages of Tierra del Fuego: mamihlapinatapai, which means “looking-at-each-other,-hoping-that-either-will-offer-to-do-something-which-both-parties- desire-but-are-unwilling-to-do”. Paris, with its flashing holophraseology, its saffron skies and its wicked moon, its private anthology of multilingual quotations and its explanatory endnotes, was not much read in 1920. It’s now celebrated as a lost landmark of modernism, an influence on T. S. Eliot as he wrote The Waste Land in 1921, during and after his mental breakdown. I like Mirrlees’s free-verse epic better than Eliot’s, honestly – Eliot’s poetry effortfully hauls itself out of despair, “dragging its slimy belly on the bank” like the rat of “The Fire Sermon”, while Mirrlees’s world is full of sunlit buildings and manic joy – but maybe I’m just being contrary. She even quotes the historic plaques on buildings: “VOLTAIRE / EST MORT / DANS CETTE MAISON / LE 30 MAI 1778”.

Another noteworthy book from 1920 is Agatha Christie’s first detective novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which appeared in October, advertised by the publisher as “a very ingenious detective story, introducing a new type of detective in the shape of a Belgian”. What an astonishingly skilful beginning to one of the great fictional runs of all time, and narrated by Hastings himself! “You are agitated; you are excited”, says Poirot to Hastings, early on. “It is but natural. Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts, neatly, each in his proper place.”

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement

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