Chapter 1 The young Nino Frank and the French avant-garde

 

Arsène

barletta-puglia

Barletta, Puglia *

In a dry, dusty town in Southern Italy around 1912, a small boy opened the Sunday edition of the Corriere della Sera, and was transported to a magical Paris, and the fabulous night-time world of Arsène Lupin, gentleman-thief. The French hero of the novels of Maurice Leblanc was so popular that they were translated and serialised across Europe and America. From the first word Nino Frank was hooked, and his dream was to reach Paris.

Since he did not have the talents to become a gentleman-thief, he decided that the next best thing was to be a poet. By the time he was fourteen he was writing romantic lyrics to his first 'grand amour', which caused him to be expelled and the young lady to be sent to a finishing school in Switzerland; more successfully, but more prosaically, in that year his first piece of journalism was accepted: an article on a local sporting event in the big Milan paper, La Gazzetta dello Sport.

In preparation for his chosen career, in his later years at school (1920-1922) he devoted all his energies to reading the Italian literature of the last 100 years, following this with all the French literature he could find, published over the same period. It was when he found the French avant-garde, in a budget series called Les Contemporains, that he felt he had found his models and masters, the great experimental writers from the first decade of the twentieth century:

Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Mac Orlan, Larbaud, Cendrars, and through them the universe of Picasso and Braque, of Stravinsky and the "Six", of the Lapin Agile and the Bateau Lavoir – to them would go his eternal adoration.1 | original text

He began to translate them into Italian and started a book on 'La letteratura francese di ieri e oggi', which did achieve publication, though some years later. With his newly acquired knowledge of French literature, at a time when Italian papers were failing to give serious attention to the exciting developments in France, he felt he could make a valuable contribution if only he could find a way into literary circles. The only established Italian writers he admired as experimental and forward-looking were Luigi Pirandello and Massimo Bontempelli. He did not dare to approach Pirandello, but wrote a parody of Bontempelli's novella La vita intensa and sent it to the author with an admiring letter, followed by three original short stories. Bontempelli replied with warm enthusiasm:

I'm absolutely sure you understand me. And I'm all the more grateful to you, because you are one of the first to justify the rather sweeping claim I've been making that only those born after 1900 could understand me [my aims], 2 | orig

and arranged for him to have an occasional column in the leftwing paper Il Mondo, to write articles on French literature.

Not only had Frank found some employment while waiting to become a successful poet, he had also found a formula for introducing himself to the writers he so admired, and ultimately the road which would lead him to Paris. For each work he reviewed, he sent a letter to the author accompanied by his own article – presumably translated or paraphrased in French – and sometimes requesting extra information to include in the article. Most copies of Il Mondo were destroyed under fascism, but there were at least two articles which would have far-reaching consequences. His review of Pierre Mac Orlan's stories Le Chant de l'équipage and La Maison du retour écœurant would lead to an invitation from Mac Orlan to translate the books into Italian, which Frank did, and successfully published in Italy.3 His article on Max Jacob's book of prose poems, Le Cornet à dés, would have an even more startling result.4 Jacob impulsively invited him to visit him at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, though he then had second thoughts and put the visit off for several months. Finally, Nino persuaded him with a professional reason for his visit: he would be able to send to Il Mondo reports on personal meetings with important artists – which in fact started with an article on 'Max Jacob at home'.

"I due Massimi"

Once Frank gained a foothold in France, he worked ceaselessly to get the work of Massimo Bontempelli known in France, and that of Max Jacob in Italy. His relationships with these two men were – apart from his enduring passion for the actress Nina Ronchi – the most important features of his life between 1922 and 1927, and there were striking similarities in his feelings for them. What had begun as the calculated, if clumsy, overtures of an adolescent looking for an entry into the artistic world rapidly became, as he was treated seriously by two writers he greatly admired, a much more emotional involvement. He had had almost no rapport with his elderly father, who died when he was 12, and he despised most of his schoolteachers. He needed a sympathetic father-figure, and he found one in different ways in, first, Bontempelli, and then Jacob.

nino-frank

Nino Frank,
Italian photo
**

 

Had the admiration, and the need, gone in only one direction, these relationships would not have been as profound, or as lasting, as they proved. In their own ways, both older men needed a young acolyte, and made use of his enthusiasm and his talent. Bontempelli, increasingly isolated by his internationalist and anti-classical stance, had two needs: to gain young followers in Italy, and to become known more widely, especially in France. If he could persuade newspapers and journals to take Frank’s articles, the young man would write enthusiastically about him, and would discuss his ideas with other young writers. The plan worked well, as over the next few years Frank wrote not only in Italy, but in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and even Spain about Bontempelli, Pirandello and the new young generation of Italian writers. Beyond this, Bontempelli was delighted to hear of Frank’s plans to go to France, since he promised to try to arrange publication of Bontempelli's works, in translation, in Paris. Indeed, in March 1924 Frank wrote columns about him in Paris-Journal and Vient de paraître; and even managed to arrange a meeting at the Banca di Roma in Paris to introduce Bontempelli, at which he spoke passionately in French about his master, and read some of his work aloud in Italian.5

Meanwhile, however, Frank had also entered into an emotionally more complex relationship with Max Jacob. Jacob had retreated to the country to escape the temptations of Paris, but he could not resist inviting young artists and writers to visit him, partly to advise them on their work, but also to have the pleasure of the company of young men. Early in his correspondence with Frank, especially after the latter sent a photograph of himself, he became concerned about becoming too attached to him, and tried to put him off. But Frank did not understand the import of Jacob’s intense language, and in any case saw in him his passport to the France he had adored from afar. He pleaded until Jacob capitulated, arriving at Saint-Benoît in November 1923.

What was he like, this very young man who set out on the 1300 kilometre train journey from Naples, with trepidation and a large trunk of books? He had only just left school, where he had ostentatiously played the aesthete, to distance himself from the apprentice-blackshirts who were his schoolmates:

I wore a monocle, and talked of Art with a capital 'A', declaring myself to be a Nietzschean, a Bolshevik and a Futurist all at the same time.6 | orig

He knew what to expect of Paris, from his reading of Arsène Lupin and his mother's fashion magazines: he was sure that the men would be elegant and attired in evening dress, and the women would wear very large hats. But he arrived at a damp grey station in a very different 'France profonde', a setting familiar from his reading of Pierre Mac Orlan; and when he was woken from a deep sleep in his hotel by his fellow guests singing 'La Madelon' [famous French marching song]:

he was indeed in France and it was marvellous; suddenly he no longer felt alone...The France he had just discovered was not any old France, but the essence of France, this historical microcosm of France, which he would never forget.7 | orig

max-jacob
Max Jacob

When he reached Saint-Benoît, Max Jacob welcomed him enthusiastically, hastening to tell him all about the monastery and its inhabitants. What he had not expected was Max's even greater haste to cement their relationship on the first evening, with a passionate kiss. He saw Nino's horror and changed the subject, and after this initial misunderstanding, they settled briefly into a happy father-son relationship. Frank was already corresponding with Jean Cocteau and Pierre Mac Orlan, but Jacob also put in a good word for him when he made a brief visit to Paris to meet them. He advised the young man on his work and gave him introductions to other French writers and editors. Frank for his part wrote about Jacob for Italian papers, and tried to interest publishers in his work; but ultimately Nino’s eyes were on Paris – as Max had always expected – and when in March two young friends of Max, the writer Pierre Morhange and the Spanish artist Pedro Pruna, came to pay a visit and suggested he meet them there, the country idyll was at an end:

I finally reached Paris. From my hotel on the river near the Place Saint-Michel, I looked out on the Paris of Marquet. What am I saying, Marquet? Ten, a hundred others too: chance set me down right among painters and poets, I met Picasso, Diaghileff, Supervielle and Jouhandeau, all the marvels of a happy time. In the mornings, I watched the skilful painting of my neighbour Pedro Pruna, and we met Julien Green returning from his mornings in the Louvre, when he would talk mysteriously to us about the letter to the Catholics of France which he was going to publish; and in the evenings, in the café, I joined the gang of Georges Friedmann, Norbert Gutermann, Emile Benveniste, Pierre Morhange. Everything was offered to us, above all the women, the girls, still wearing hats and petticoats.8 | orig

Over this period, Jacob's continuing anxiety was that Frank would dissipate his creative energies by chasing journalistic and other assignments, and he tried repeatedly to persuade him to adopt the ascetic attitude of the true poet. In December 1923, when Nino was about to visit Jean Cocteau, he wrote to Cocteau in a supportive letter:

Nino has some splendid ideas for novels...I fight ferocious battles with him against journalism and translations and other pointless exercises.9 | orig

In March 1924 he wrote twice to Nino in Paris, with urgent advice:

Find a room in Paris; buy a table and a bed; you'll furnish it little by little. Your friends will advise you how to avoid starving...You won't have any more or less talent whether you live in Vienna or Paris or Rome; isn't that the only concern you should have? Work, learn more about your craft, and lead a quiet life. (Letter XII)

I'm delighted you've finally understood that journalism is hateful. Write your poems, prose, novels and await your time: it will surely come. (Letter XIII) 10 | orig

Frank was not really listening. With only a small monthly allowance from his mother to live on, he could not survive without at least some journalistic work – and in any case, the only way to get original works published was through contacts at journals and publishers (often owned by the same people). In Paris, he had introductions, from Max and from Pierre Mac Orlan, to Georges Charensol at Paris-Journal, and significantly for his own future, at that paper he met a fascinating group of people who would become his friends and colleagues. His memories of his first visit there were still vivid in the 1940s, when he wrote in his book Petit Cinéma sentimental:

I dashed up to Paris-Journal with my first articles...Martin-Chauffier was there, drawing sardonically on a strange pipe with a lidded bowl, Philippe Soupault, flashing a magnificent pair of cream gloves, and others. I heard talk of a hearse, and asked timidly if someone had died...A young man with eyes like an owl and a profile as sharp as a knife-blade, at least as elegant as Soupault, turned round and looked me over with a half-smile.

It was René Clair. He had just directed Entr'acte, and had not yet cut his umbilical cord to journalism. The actors in the funeral procession of Entr'acte were his friends from Paris-Journal, led by Marcel Achard and Charensol.11 | orig

 

He knew instinctively that Paris was where he wanted to be, and when he had to return to Italy to consolidate his journalistic connections there, he was determined to return. Before leaving, he arranged a meeting – promised for some time – which would lead to a stimulating friendship between his "due Massimi": Massimo and Max. Intriguingly, although Bontempelli had been planning a visit to Paris, he was quite nervous, anxious to improve his French in advance, and consulted Frank as soon as the latter arrived at Saint-Benoît on which of his books he should send to Jacob "to present myself spiritually to him".12 He appears to have sent him Viaggi e scoperte, with a personal dedication. They all met in Paris at the house of Armand Salacrou at the beginning of April, where Jacob, who had left his convert's hairshirt behind along with his Breton clogs, was in skittish Parisian form:

[Everyone had come to meet] Max Jacob, who had left his practical clogs at the monastery and was now wearing his Parisian monocle...an evening which was a bit risqué – though not malicious – mainly through the efforts of Max, whom no-one could control, and who had taken it into his head to embrace everyone as they arrived.13 | orig

Bontempelli was not offended, and they met again at Easter at Saint-Benoît, this time with the addition of Nino's girlfriend, Nina Ronchi.

The two Italians returned to Milan in May, by now close friends. Massimo gave Nino a photograph of himself, inscribed 'A Nino Frank, mon prophète', while Nino, always prone to poetic allusion, in a later memoir looked back on Massimo at this time as "Massimo Bontempelli, mon patron, mon compagnon, mon frère".14

The cultural mediator

Now, having laid the foundations for literary cross-fertilization between Italy and France, it was time for Frank to concentrate seriously on building up a reputation in Italy as a commentator with a wide knowledge of the contemporary literature of both countries, but most especially as a supporter of 'modern' ideas. Late in life, he rationalised what were no doubt still the muddled aims of his younger self:

Rejecting the classicism of Leopardi so admired by [the journal] La Ronda – as was natural at his age – it was in Bontempelli that he discovered his modernist hero; and at the same time, developing a passion for French writers, he fixed his admiration on a certain line of descent from Rimbaud – Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Cendrars and co – with a kind of annexe in the Bateau-Lavoir [Picasso, and other artists]. From this followed a kind of cross-fertilization between the two discoveries, and the need to communicate them to the world.15 | orig

Thanks to Il Mondo, he had already found a niche for himself in reviewing French avant-garde works and giving Italian readers a flavour of French cultural life, and he began to try to place translations from French (mainly done by himself) in Italian journals. During 1924 and 1925 he wrote articles on a range of avant-garde French poets – Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Mac Orlan and others. He also translated two plays – Alfred Jarry's Absurdist work Ubu Roi and the Dadaist play L'Empereur de Chine by Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes - both of which were staged in Rome in 1926.

But his greatest loyalty was reserved for Max Jacob. The two corresponded regularly during this period, and it only needed a cry of pain from Jacob for Nino to spring to his defence. Thus Jacob, in October 1924:

Did you know that the Surrealists have invented the calembour, hallucinations, poems written in sleep, in short, everything which has come down from me – whose name they are careful never to mention any more. Reverdy has done the same, when anyone has asked him which writers it came from. Long live joy! long live justice! long live humanity!16 | orig

Immediately, in December, Nino was able to insert into his column on 'Books from France' in the journal Il Libro a reference to Max's latest works, notably L'Homme de chair et l'homme reflet, and to claim on his behalf the paternity of the "calembours poétiques" about which the Surrealists were boasting.17

Then in April 1925, in an issue of Il Baretti devoted to French poetry, he was given generous space for his article 'Cubist poets', in which he was able to make the full-blooded claim that Max was the cubist poet par excellence, and was writing cubist poetry long before Picasso's cubist paintings. This article, which had disappeared from general view but has now become available on-line, is of considerable interest in demonstrating the importance, within certain French intellectual circles of the time, of the concept of cubism in poetry. Frank's opinions here are derived from his contacts with French writers and critics, and he was attempting to explain the concept to an Italian audience largely unaware of, or indifferent to, the idea.

He began by listing the nucleus of poets who (after years of critical debate) were deemed qualified to be considered cubists:

Critics have ended by classifying as cubists the three companions in misery Max Jacob, André Salmon, Guillaume Apollinaire, two contemporaries who knew them well, P. A. Birot and Pierre Reverdy (who remains, until further notice, the honorary emperor of the Surrealists), then a few younger writers springing later from the same source, Jean Cocteau, Blaise Cendrars, Paul Morand, P. Drieu La Rochelle, Paul Derniée, Ivan Goll,

and then attempted a brief definition:

Cubism taught us: we need to return to the primitive forms, which are geometric forms; let colour be a function of form; let the work of art have its own interior life, be hermetic, without useless padding from the soul of the artist; let it be a spectacle for the mind, and a solid construction of the mind; let us fully digest reality, then represent it as we see it within ourselves; and if for this we need to break up planes, to destroy what is not reflected in us, to modify reality, then let us break up, destroy, modify.18 | orig

Relatively brief paragraphs were devoted to most of the poets listed, and it is evident that the main purpose of the piece was to ram home the idea that Max Jacob was a more complete cubist than any of his contemporaries or later followers:

These are the main laws, the dogma of cubism: in his cell in the monastery of Saint-Benoît, Max Jacob – Picasso's greatest friend, ever since 1901 – presented to me some of his poetry in prose, written in 1899 and 1903, in which he was already using its aesthetic methods; and his Oeuvres mystiques et burlesques de Frère Matorel – poetry in perfectly cubist prose and verse – were written before 1907. This would show that cubist poetry was born before cubist painting, and that Picasso was influenced by Max Jacob; and people in France are already beginning to think this, watching – without surprise – the sure rise of Max Jacob and the unexpected decline of Picasso.19 | orig

Evidently the teaching absorbed by Nino had come from Jacob himself; but he added his own critical voice in order to sum up Jacob's contribution:

He it was who in the preface to the Cornet à dés – poetry in prose written between 1906 and 1914 – first explained the new aesthetic, and from this preface derive all the varied expressions of modern poetry. In that volume of poetry in prose, and then in the Visions infernales, in the verses of the Laboratoire central and the Pénitents en maillot rose (all intended to be an intellectual representation of Hell) we find – packed with goodness, hard, substantial, palpable – lyrics in which, without any expression of personal feelings, he seeks through careful phrase construction to place the poetry in its space and give it an intrinsic reality in no way dependent on links to its author. Thus, an art which is totally intellectual, circular and – through its insistence on concrete form – launched on a plane of dangerous abstraction.20 | orig

The campaigning for recognition for Jacob in Italy was paralleled by Nino's efforts on behalf of Bontempelli in France. For him, Bontempelli represented – indeed, was the key writer within – an Italian avant-garde which he was seeking to define, and promote across Europe: parallel with the trends in France and elsewhere, but with its own unique Italian character. By the time he returned to Italy in May 1924 he had already placed articles on Bontempelli in one journal in Belgium and two in Paris, all the articles highly complimentary, and all focusing on the originality and 'fantasy' in his subject-matter and treatments. Thus, in January, in the Belgian Renaissance d'Occident:

the imagination of a painter no longer attracted by nature, who sees in his own mind strange landscapes, true fantasy...These books have the strange landscapes of the realm of the Absurd...his landscapes remind us of dreams – of calm, never-ending dreams.21 | orig

Then, in Paris-Journal, in March:

M. Bontempelli: it is hard to understand why a writer of this calibre is unknown – or almost so – in France; he is an important poet (he writes novels and short stories), constantly preoccupied with moving ahead to something new...a most original writer, with a style which is sharp, full of astonishing shortcuts – and yet also relaxed and rich.22 | orig

Finally, the same month in Vient de paraître, a lyrical review emphasising even more strongly the strangeness of Bontempelli's creativity, its otherworldliness, approaching the 'Absurd' beloved of the French avant-garde, from Jarry to the Dada-ists:

A poet: he has created a new world; a fixed, frozen world – in which vibrates the atmosphere of a fairyland without colour, or grey-green, resonating to infinity: the noises, the echoes are from Elsewhere – described with an incomparable musical mastery. Beings live there, ill-assorted, supposedly human – yet there is something discomfiting, disquieting about them; it is the Absurd: a gratuitous Absurd, without aim, without reason: the author is drawn into it by his fantasy.23 | orig

Bontempelli himself felt that his work epitomised 'novecentismo' as opposed to 'ottocentismo' (twentieth-century rather than nineteenth-century writing), thereby expressing the idea that most current Italian writing was firmly grounded in the previous century. Others credited him with having brought the Fourth Dimension – mainly debated in artistic circles of the time in relation to painting – into literature, through the strange twists of his imagination, as noted by Frank in November of the same year: he had managed to place an article in the internationalist Berlin journal, Der Querschnitt, in which he wrote of Pirandello and Bontempelli as the only writers showing the way forward for Italian writing:

Pirandello dealt the sharpest blow (Proust does not come near) to the deceptive cult of personality: his is the creation of a new atmosphere, the naked recognition of the absurd Modern, the most original style since Nietzsche...We call Pirandello a genius; but alongside him we can speak of Bontempelli, this delightful composer of prose, who is perhaps the most advanced writer we have in Italy; he has understood how to lead us towards the "fourth dimension"; his latest book, Eva ultima, a modern fable in a loosely-woven style, offers us the motor we need to move forward.24 | orig

However, Nino's trenchant criticisms of established Italian writers – which he often intended as support for Bontempelli – were about to cause him trouble, now and, more seriously, for the future. Indeed, soon after they first met, Max Jacob had already written to Jean Cocteau that "Nino is deplorably frank...he likes nothing and knows everything."25 The article in Der Querschnitt, which pointedly omitted to mention Giuseppe Ungaretti – who considered himself a highly important Italian writer, critic and French specialist – may or may not have been noticed by him. But his regular column in Paris-Journal, 'Chronique d'Italie', certainly was noticed and angered Ungaretti.

Ungaretti spent much of his time in Paris, and had established himself as an important consultant to the Nouvelle Revue Française on Italian literary matters. Only Italian authors approved by him would be accepted by that journal, and later also by Commerce. Along with most of the Italian literary establishment, he considered himself a patriot and a classicist. Thus criticism of Italian writers or artists, especially in the foreign press, was anathema to him – and most particularly criticism of the poet-hero d'Annunzio. Almost all of Frank's articles in Paris-Journal, from March 1924 to January 1925, were critical of Italian writers, excepting Pirandello, Bontempelli and a few young writers, but his tongue-in-the-cheek references to a new book by d'Annunzio in his article of 12th December brought matters to a head:

D'Annunzio's novels being unreadable, his prose hardly amusing, could we expect much from this book of memories? Well, it turns out to be extremely funny; this book is almost a masterpiece, and M. d'Annunzio evidently still has marrow in his bones...This old devil of a poet is not without charm now, in his later years he has found his best voice. There is just one awkward point: these fragments carry earlier dates: 1902, etc.26 | orig

Bontempelli – himself not on good terms with Ungaretti – was seriously alarmed at reactions in Italy, and wrote to warn Nino to tread more carefully:

I attach a news item directed against you which came out the other day in the Nuovo Paese. Obviously the author of the item is a cretin: but I must advise you to be on your guard, to tone down what you write, etc, simply out of common sense. Ungaretti was furious: the best of it is that in Paris he has said much worse things – but not written them down. They're clever people, always ready to pick a fight, there's no need to play into their hands.27 | orig

Nino's broad criticisms of Italian letters in the French press were brought to a (temporary) halt by the demise of Paris-Journal. Meanwhile, his campaign on behalf of Bontempelli, and his attempt to define his master's writing, continued with a colourful article in La Gazette du Franc in July 1925, about Bontempelli's recently published works:

The author's lyricism and humour set this play [Nostra Dea] at the familiar crossroads of madness and reason: but this juggler, this "lyrical fantasist", as M. Lalou [René Lalou, critic, and author of La Littérature française contemporaine] calls him, is not so easy to place...I have tried to follow...his evolution from humour to poetry, to an epic synthesis of our times: he is the only writer who has understood the essence of the modern.

...The human anguish which hangs heavy in the air today breaks out in dazzling flashes, bursting through this tangle of black ink which expresses M. Bontempelli's permanent humour, always torn between madness and reason, two facets of a single poetic theme.28 | orig

It would not be long before this groping towards a name for Bontempelli's very particular style and content would lead to the expression 'magic realism' which Bontempelli would make his own. In 1953, Frank wrote about the belated award of the prestigious literary Premio Strega to Bontempelli, and commentators' revisiting of the idea of magic realism, trying to pin down the origin of the expression:

I can't remember precisely where the expression 'magic realism' came from. No doubt it was in the air. I remember that Bontempelli and I talked about it to Edmond Jaloux – who was at the centre of European criticism in Paris – and that the idea appealed. I used it in an article and Bontempelli picked it up: but had I invented it, or did it come to me from something I had read? I have no idea, but I mention it because it had some success and in recent years I have been asked about it by Belgian and American theorists, who seemed to find it important.29 | orig

Bontempelli himself reported Frank's initial suggestion as 'mystical realism', and the final expression seems to have been a further development. Be that as it may, it was out of the discussions they, and their circle of mainly young writers, had in the mid-1920s that the expression was born which would come to epitomise Bontempelli's work and consolidate his reputation.

Throughout this time Nino was surviving on irregular and poorly-paid journalistic assignments, dashing from one city to another, and one editor to another, looking for work. His translations often did not lead to publication, and when they did, were badly paid. A small satisfaction was the publication of his first short story, 'Il sacco vuoto', in Il Mondo in June 1925.

Then at the end of 1925 he had a tremendous stroke of luck. Ugo Ojetti, whom Nino admired and had written about in complimentary terms, became the editor of the Corriere della Sera, and offered him a paid post as cultural correspondent in Paris. It seemed that his dreams had come true...

 

[The next chapter will describe Nino Frank's work in Paris, and in particular the challenge of creating, with Massimo Bontempelli, the Italian revue "900", to be published – in French – in Paris and Rome.]


*Piazza Roma, Barletta. By kind permission of Colin Gowing, from his website about his father's war service in North Africa and Italy, 1941-1944.

**A photo taken in Italy, exact provenance unknown; it may well be the photo Nino sent to Max Jacob before they met.

All translations from European texts are my own.

Notes

1Nino Frank, 'Une heure d'oubli', Le Bruit parmi le vent (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1968), p.144.

2Alvaro, Bontempelli, Frank, Lettere a "900" (Rome: Bulzoni Editore, 1985), letter no.3 from Bontempelli to Frank, 1922, pp.58-9.

3Nino Frank, 10.7.2 et autres portraits (Paris: Maurice Nadeau/Papyrus, 1983), p.11.

4See Anne S. Kimball, Max Jacob: Lettres à Nino Frank (New York: Peter Lang, 1989), pp.11-12.

5Lettere a "900", p.72, note 1. Paris-Journal reviewed the event, and reported that Frank had presented Bontempelli as "the only writer who counts in modern Italy, apart from Pirandello".

6Nino Frank, Petit Cinéma sentimental (Paris: Nouvelle Edition, 1950), p.38.

7Nino Frank, 'Première France', Mémoire brisée (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1967), p.129.

8Nino Frank, 'Arsène', Mémoire brisée, p.277. Pruna was a talented young Spanish painter who knew Picasso, and it was through him that Nino met Picasso and other artists.

9Kimball, p.14.

10Kimball, letter XII, 25.3.24, pp.46-7, and letter XIII, 27.3.24, p.49.

11Nino Frank, Petit Cinéma sentimental, p.50. The Dada-ist film Entr'acte was René Clair's first film as director.

12Lettere a "900", letter no.5 from Bontempelli to Frank, 27/28.11.23, pp.61-62.

13Nino Frank, 'Il Diavolo etnologo', Il Mondo, 20.10.59, p.9.

14Nino Frank, 'Débuts au théâtre', Le Bruit parmi le vent, p.223.

15Nino Frank, 'Réalismes italiens entre 1918 et les années 30', Les Réalismes, 1919-39 (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1980), p.32.

16Kimball, letter XIX, 19.10.24, p.62.

17Nino Frank, 'Libri della Francia', Il Libro, no.1, Noël 1924, p.4.

18Nino Frank, 'Poeti cubisti', Il Baretti, nos.6-7, April 1925, special issue on French 20th century literature, p.32.

19ibid. [Translator's note: critics have argued that during the early 1920s Picasso briefly lost his originality, before finding a new style.]

20ibid. This article can be found on-line at http://circe.lett.unitn.it (Catalogo Informatico di Riviste Culturali Europee, Università di Trento). Further references to articles by Frank during this period can be found in: Adriano Marchetti, 'Les débuts de Max Jacob en Italie, avant qu'on ne l'y traduise', http://cahiersmaxjacob.org/cmj10/10marchetti.html

21Elgar Frank, 'Massimo Bontempelli', La Renaissance d'Occident, IX, no.1, January 1924, pp.252-3. Frank used this pseudonym in some of his early writings.

22Nino Frank, 'Chronique d'Italie', Paris-Journal, 14.3.24, p.4.

23Nino Frank, 'Massimo Bontempelli', Vient de paraître, no.28, March 1924, p.147.

24Nino Frank, 'Italien per Auto', Der Querschnitt, November 1924, pp. 312-3. The article represented contemporary Italian writing through the metaphor of a broken-down car, putting forward Bontempelli's writing as the motor of progress for Italian letters. For the journal, this article had been translated from the original Italian into German.

25Kimball, p.14.

26Nino Frank, 'Chronique d'Italie', Paris-Journal, 12.12.24, p.5.

27Lettere a "900", letter no.19 from Bontempelli to Frank, early 1925, p.88. Frank did not abandon his determination to prick the bubble of d'Annunzio worship, and wrote a sarcastic piece on him in Der Querschnitt in September 1925, 'Freuden des Dichters', pp.792-5.

28Nino Frank, 'Nouvelles d'Italie', La Gazette du Franc, 25.7.25, p.11. Bontempelli's play Nostra Dea had premièred successfully in Rome on 22nd April, 1925.

29Nino Frank, 'Les Italiens et le réel', Mercure de France, 1.10.53, p.345.

 


 

Original quotations from which translations taken (numbers match relevant endnotes)

1Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Mac Orlan, Larbaud, Cendrars, avec, par leur truchement, l’univers des Picasso et des Braque, des Strawinski et des “Six”, du Lapin agile et du Bateau-Lavoir, auquel ira son adoration perpétuelle.

2Ho perfettamente inteso che lei mi ha capito. E gliene sono tanto più riconoscente, in quanto lei è uno dei primi che danno ragione a una mia alquanto superba affermazione, di quando ho detto che non potevo essere capito del tutto che da gente nata dopo il 1900.

6Je portais monocle, et je m’occupais d’Art, avec un grand “A”, c’est-à-dire que je me proclamais à la fois nietzschéen, bolchevik et futuriste.

7Il était bien en France et c’était merveilleux; brusquement, il ne se sentait plus seul...La France qu’il venait de découvrir, ce n’était pas une France quelconque, mais la plus que française, cette France condensée par l’histoire, et qu’il n’oubliera jamais.

8J’atteignais enfin Paris. Logé dans un hôtel des quais proche de la Place Saint-Michel, je voyais le Paris de Marquet. Que dis-je Marquet? De dix, de cent autres: une chance me mettait de plein-pied avec les peintres et les poètes, je rencontrais Picasso, Diaghileff, Supervielle et Jouhandeau, toutes les merveilles d’un temps heureux. Le matin, chez mon voisin le peintre Pedro Pruna, dont je suivais le pinceau agile, nous voyions arriver Julien Green, qui revenait de sa matinée au Louvre et qui nous parlait mystérieusement de la lettre aux catholiques de France qu’il se disposait à publier; et le soir, au café, je me mêlais à la bande des Georges Friedmann, Norbert Gutermann, Émile Benveniste, Pierre Morhange. Tout nous était offert, et d’abord les femmes, les filles, encore chapeautées et juponnées...

9Nino a des idées de romans vraiment très belles...Je lui fais une guerre acharnée contre le journalisme et les traductions et autres exercices oiseux.

10Trouve une chambre à Paris; achète une table et un lit; tu la meubleras petit à petit. Tes amis te donneront des conseils contre la misère...Tu n’auras ni plus ni moins de talent que tu sois à Vienne, à Paris ou à Rome; n’est-ce pas la seule préoccupation que tu doives avoir? Travaille, mieux apprends ton métier et tiens-toi tranquille. (Lettre XII)
Je suis ravi que tu comprennes enfin que le journalisme est haïssable. Fais des vers, de la prose, des romans et attends ton heure: elle viendra sûrement. (Lettre XIII)

11Je grimpe à Paris-Journal, où l’on me prenait mes premiers articles...Il y avait là...Martin-Chauffier, tirant narquoisement sur une pipe bizarre au fourneau clos, Philippe Soupault, qui exhibait une magnifique paire de gants beurre frais, d’autres. J’entends parler d’un corbillard: je demande timidement si quelqu’un est mort...Un jeune homme aux yeux d’oiseau de nuit et au profil en lame de couteau, au moins aussi élégant que Soupault, se retourne et me considère avec un sourire mi-figue mi-raisin.
C’était René Clair. Il venait de réaliser Entr’acte, et n’avait pas encore coupé le cordon ombilical qui le reliait au journalisme. Les figurants du cortège funèbre d’Entr’acte étaient d’ailleurs ses camarades de Paris-Journal, Marcel Achard et Charensol en tête.

13[Tutti erano venuti per incontrare] Max Jacob, che aveva messo via gli zoccoli di prammatica al monastero e portava il monocolo parigino...una serata un po’ burrascosa, ma senza cattiveria, per merito precipuo di Max Jacob, che nessuno teneva a bada e s’era fitto in capo d’abbracciar in anticamera il non so più venuto assieme a me e a Bontempelli.

15Rebuté, c’est de son âge, par le classicisme léopardien de La Ronda, c’est en Bontempelli qu’il découvre son héros des temps modernistes, et, tout a la fois, s’entichant des Français, il fixe ses admirations sur certaine postérité de Rimbaud, filon Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Cendrars et compagnie, avec l’annexe du Bateau-Lavoir. D’où quelque péréquation entre les deux découvertes et le besoin de les communiquer au monde.

16Sais-tu que les surréalistes ont inventé le calembour, les hallucinations, les poèmes écrits en dormant, bref! tout ce qui est moi dont ils ont soin de ne plus citer le nom, jamais. Reverdy quand on lui a demandé de quels écrivains il venait a fait de même. Vive la Joie! vive la justice! vive l’humanité.

18La critica...s’è finito per classificar cubisti i tre compagni di miseria Max Jacob, André Salmon, Guillaume Apollinaire, due coetani i quali ebbero dimestichezza con loro, P. A. Birot e Pierre Reverdy (ch’è sempre, fino o nuovo ordine, imperatore onorario dei surrealisti), poi alcuni giovani zampillanti più tardi, Jean Cocteau, Blaise Cendrars, Paul Morand, P. Drieu La Rochelle, Paul Derniée, Ivan Goll.
Il cubismo insegnava: bisogna tornare alle forme primitive, che sono le forme geometriche; il colore sia in funzione della forma; il quadro abbia una sua vita interiore, sia ermetico, non legato all’anima dell’artista da prolungamenti inutili; sia uno spettacolo per lo spirito, e una solida e meditata costruzione dello spirito; digerite la realtà, poi mostratela come la vedete dentro a noi, – e se per questo è necessario scomporre i piani, distrugger quello che non si riflette in noi, modificar la realtà, scomponete, distruggete, modificate.

19Queste le leggi principali, i dogmi: nella sua cella del monastero di St. Benoît-sur-Loire, Max Jacob – il primissimo amico di Picasso, dal 1901 fino ad oggi – mi presentò alcune sue poesie in prosa, scritte nel 1899 e nel 1903, ov’eran già usati i metodi estetici; e le sue Oeuvres mystiques et burlesques de Frère Matorel – poesie in prosa e in verso perfettamente cubiste – furon scritte prima del 1907. Si dimostrerebbe cosi che la poesia cubista è nata prima della pittura cubista, e che Picasso è stato influenzato da Max Jacob: e questo cominciano a pensarlo parecchi in Francia, che assistono – senza meravigliarsi - all’ascesa sicura di Max Jacob e alla decadenza improvisa di Picasso.

20È lui che nella prefazione al Cornet à dés – poesie in prosa scritte dal 1906 al 1914 - spiega per primo l’estetica nuova, e da questa prefazione deriveranno poi tutte le varie espressioni della poesia moderna: in quelle poesie in prosa, e poi in quelle – tutte intese a rappresentare intellettualmente l’inferno – delle Visions Infernales, nei Versi del Laboratoire Central e dei Pénitents en maillot rose, troviamo, dense come frutti e dure sostanziose palpabili, liriche in cui – senza espressione di sentimenti – si cerca, per mezzo di un’attenta costruzione delle frasi, di piazzar nello spazio la poesia e dare ad essa una realtà intrinseca completamente priva di legami con l’autore. Un’arte tutta intellettuale dunque, cerchiale e – attraverso la sua legge di concretezza – gettata sur un piano d’astrazione pericoloso.

21Une imagination de peintre que la nature n’attire plus, et qui regarde en son cerveau des paysages étranges, de la vraie fantaisie...Il y a dans ces livres des paysages étranges du royaume de l’Absurde...ses paysages nous donnent des souvenirs de rêves, mais de rêves calmes, sans fin.

22M. Bontempelli: on ne comprend pas pourquoi un écrivain de cette trempe soit inconnu – ou presque – en France; c’est un grand poète (il écrit des romans et des contes) dont la constante préoccupation semble d’être toujours nouveau...Un écrivain très original, au style aigu, plein de raccourcis étonnants, – et cependant détendu, ample.

23Un poète: il crée un monde nouveau; un monde figé dans la glace, – où vibre une atmosphère de féerie sans couleur, ou verdâtre, infiniment sonore: les bruits, les échos sont d’Ailleurs, – racontés avec une incomparable maîtrise musicale; des êtres y vivent, très disparates, soi-disant humains, – néanmoins il y a en eux un je ne sais quoi de trouble, d’inquiétant; c’est l’Absurde: – l’Absurde gratuit, sans but, sans motif: l’auteur y est entraîné par sa fantaisie.

24[Pirandello] Er führte die schärfsten Hiebe (Proust reicht nicht an ihn heran) gegen den Bluff der Persönlichkeit; es ist die Schaffung einer neuen Atmosphäre, die nackte Erkenntnis der absurden Moderne, der originellste Stil seit Nietzsche...wir nennen Pirandello genial. Neben ihm kann man von Bontempelli sprechen, diesem entzückenden prosaisten, der vielleicht der fortgeschrittenste Schriftsteller ist, den wir in Italien haben; er hat es verstanden, uns der vierten Dimension entgegenzuführen; Eve ultime, sein letztes Buch, moderne Fabel in unbestimmtem Formcharakter, bietet uns das Auto, nach dem uns gelüstet.

26Les romans de d’Annunzio étant illisibles, sa prose peu amusante, pouvait-on avoir foi en ce livre de souvenirs? Eh bien, c’est excessivement drôle; ce livre est presque un chef-d’œuvre, et M. d’Annunzio a de la moelle, toujours...Ce diable de poète n’est pas sans charme maintenant, c’est sur ses vieux ans qu’il trouve sa meilleure voix. Il y aurait bien un point obscur: ces morceaux portent des dates reculées: 1902, etc.

27Ti unisco un trafiletto uscito l’altro giorno nel Nuovo Paese contro di te. Evidentemente l’autore del trafiletto è un cretino: ma io ti avevo pur consigliato di star in guardia, moderare il tono ecc. Questo per pura opportunità. Ungaretti era inviperito: il bello è che lui a Parigi faceva molto peggio: ma lo faceva a voce. È gente abile e battagliera, e non bisogna dar loro armi.

28Le lyrisme et l’humour de l’auteur situent la pièce [Nostra Dea] au carrefour bien connu de la folie et de la raison: mais ce jongleur, ce “fantaisiste lyrique”, comme dit M. Lalou, ne se laisse pas situer très aisément...J’ai essayé ailleurs de suivre...son évolution de l’humour à la poésie, à la synthèse épique de notre temps: c’est le seul écrivain qui a su décomposer l’essence du moderne.
...L’angoisse humaine dont est saturée l’atmosphère des cieux d’aujourd’hui crève en éclairs fulgurants, qui se découpent sur cet emmêlement de raies à l’encre noire qu’est l’humour perpétuel de M. Bontempelli, toujours déchiré par la folie et par la raison, deux faces d’une seule poésie.

29Je ne parviens pas à me rappeler avec précision de qui venait l’expression de “réalisme magique”. Elle était sans doute dans l’air. Je me souviens du commentaire que nous en faisions, avec Bontempelli, chez Edmond Jaloux, à ce moment au centre d’une critique européenne, et que le propos séduisait. Je m’en étais servi dans un article, et Bontempelli l’avait reprise: mais l’avais-je inventée, ou me venait-elle d’une lecture quelconque? Je n’en sais rien, et si j’en parle, c’est qu’elle avait eu quelque fortune et qu’il m’est arrivé, ces dernières années, d’être questionné à son sujet par des auteurs de thèses belges ou américains, à qui elle semblait significative.