A Mysterious French Writer
During the longeurs of this summer’s World Cup, after the U.K. (and the U.S.) had been eliminated, there was a short period of celebrity for an octopus that predicted results. This magnificent creature, which unerringly pulled the correct national flags from underwater boxes, was called many things by many writers, all extolling the sporting foresight it displayed from a fish tank in a German zoo, but no one went so far as to call it “silken-eyed,” the beautiful and appropriate epithet for the cephalopod first used by one of the stranger men of 19th-century French letters, Isidore Ducasse. Writing under the pseudonym Lautréamont, at a time when Franco-German warfare went well beyond the footballing arena, Ducasse created a hero who, as Roger Cardinal describes this week in the TLS, felt a “deep spiritual affinity” with his octopus, as well as more physical feelings of desire for a female shark. He also conceived ambitions toward a 10-year-old girl that would seriously have breached 21st-century standards of propriety and was quite controversial even in the extremities of the Siege of Paris. He became later, not surprisingly, a literary hero for the Surrealists. His best-loved character was “as beautiful as the fortuitous encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” His complete works, edited by Jean-Luc Steinmetz, are newly published by Gallimard.
It is hard to imagine that Ducasse would have appealed to the American feminist anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, even though she was named by her father after the Enlightenment philosopher and was an ardent proponent of free love. Octopi were probably a passion too far even for one who believed that she should “never allow love to be vulgarized by the common indecencies of continuous close communication.” As Daphne Spain writes in the TLS this week, reviewing Sheila Rowbotham’s Dreamers of a New Day, Voltairine was certainly not keen on children, mocking the maternal instinct and defending the childless. Rowbotham also highlights the British author Margaret Storm Jameson, who wrote 45 novels before dying at the age of 95, and the American, Elsie Clews Parsons, who wrote articles about sex when that was not at all acceptable in polite company. The British social reformer Clementina Black declared that the bicycle “was doing more for the independence of women than anything expressly designed to that end”; noting that chaperones and maids could be left behind on cycling trips. Frances E. Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, agreed. She was so thrilled with her bicycle that she named it Gladys and took lessons because it gave her a sense of mastery over a machine, and because her friends thought she was too old to learn. Spain notes that she was only 53 at the time. Like the other remarkable women in Rowbotham’s story, Willard believed life could be better.
Koestler, the Dangerous Intellectual
Arthur Koestler had an aggressive sexual reputation which, while not, as far as we know, including inappropriate approaches to sea creatures, took a broad view of the possibilities of women whom he happened to meet on dry land. As Jeremy Treglown writes in the TLS, reviewing Michael Scammell’s new biography, the author of Darkness at Noon was “very short, extremely energetic, and generally fuelled by Benzedrine as well as alcohol.” He found that not many of the women who liked him were put off by the directness and, sometimes, roughness of his approach to sex, but he made a few famous miscalculations—notably with Simone de Beauvoir. Given the number of women involved (he kept notes on them all, presumably in case he forgot them), this was inevitable in Treglown’s judgement. Koestler seems to have been found boring, sexually, as often as overardent. “Joan Lee Thompson, for example, told Scammell that Koestler 'wouldn’t tolerate any changes of position, or, God forbid, let the woman go on top. I said to him once: "I want a change, I’m tired of being pinned down like a butterfly." ' " His reputation in this and other non-literary respects has somewhat overwhelmed his modern reputation, but Treglown gives a verdict on which of his works are still worth reading today.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy . He is also the author of Thirty Days , a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War.