Arthur Cravan was an avant-garde writer who hung around Paris and New York around the turn of the century. Although he was admired by both the Dadaists and the Surrealists, if you asked him which artistic or ideological school he belonged to, he’d probably proclaim himself above such petty distinctions before going on to discuss boxing, the mediocre art churned out by established artists, and how great Americans are. Like many avant-garde types, I get the impression that Cravan is more likeable in his writings than he would be in person.
I downloaded Anne O’Meara’s translation of his complete work from the Academia, a site that seems almost too good to be legal. The PDF was surprisingly readable on my Kindle, although I must complain that I would prefer if the paragraph beginnings were tabbed, instead of lying flush to the left margin. I wouldn’t be surprised if this typographical oddity was taken directly from Cravan’s originals – he would probably consider himself too interesting to bother with the finer points of book layouts.
Cravan’s prose is made breathless by having sentences stuffed with clauses, and hyperbolic by his tendency to make everything as emotional as possible. I daresay he’d look down on me from Avant-garde-halla with a smug smile if I said that dionysiac would be a good adjective to describe his prose. I was thrilled from reading the first page of the first Maintenant and its loving account of New York and the American modernity it embodies. I felt vindicated by Cravan’s encounter with his dead uncle Oscar Wilde, who Cravan refused to treat like a demigod of wit. Cravan’s conclusion that ‘Today, everyone is American. It is necessary to be American, or appear to be, which is the same thing’, is pertinent especially in today’s globalised world, although I suspect that in a century the same thing could be said about being Chinese.
His poetry didn’t do so much for me.
Works of Arthur Craven is obviously a document for Dadaists, Surrealists and fans of the man himself. I’d also advise anyone doing an Oscar Wilde fan anthology to include his piece on the man. And some of the wilder prose reads like a tamer version of The Chants of Maldoror. But I think that the people who’d really benefit from this document would be university students doing an essay on the French avante-garde who are too cheap to actually buy a book translation.