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Pierre Rival, Ezra Pound en enfer. Paris: L’Herne, 2019.  €15. ISBN: 979-1031902401, pp. 253.


review by Ryan Johnson





A book aiming to make us understand Ezra Pound’s full-throated support of fascism between 1940 and 1945 will come with a host of problems. Though Pound remains one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, his politics, his belligerence, and his anti-Semitism prevent him, understandably, from the enjoying the academic favor of other “difficult” modernists such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Because Pound’s politics are explicit not only in his biography but also his work, passing over his less salubrious aspects in silence is not as viable an option for Pound scholars as it is for scholars of W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot, poets with ideas not terribly dissimilar to Pound’s but without works such as Jefferson and/or Mussolini and The Pisan Cantos looming over their legacy. 

So the impetus for Pierre Rival’s Ezra Pound en Enfer. Framed as a “romantic biography,” and with liberal use of free-indirect style to take us into Pound’s mind, Rival’s book wants us to understand what made Pound’s aesthetics turn to totalitarian politics. We are introduced to the Pound of Ente Italiana Audizione Radio, the station in Rome from which Pound broadcasted pro-Axis, anti-Semitic, and anti-American addresses from 1941 until the end of the war. The image of “l’homme plein de rage” (27), furious at “usurers,” Jews and Anglo-Saxons (28-9), gives way to a more multifaced image of an artist whose unorthodox readings in Chinese, French, Greek, Latin, and English literatures led him to support the Axis. The result is a text that tries to be as wide-ranging and multilingual as Pound’s poetry:

On ne pourra pas dire qu’ils n’ont pas été prévenus, les citoyens américains qui partent se faire tuer à la guerre :

                        —Ezra Pound speakin’

Car tel est le rôle de l’homme juste, l’homme qui possède le Virtùle Rén [Zhě],[1] 仁者, dont Confucius nous apprend dans ses Analectes que Wéi rén zhě néng hào rén néng wù rén唯仁者能好人,能惡人, « Seul l’homme juste peut vraiment aimer et seul l’homme juste peut vraiment haïr ». (33)

It is in the attempt to recreate this multilingual and multi-traditional background that Rival’s book has its greatest merit. As Christopher Bush has recently reminded us, Pound’s interactions with East Asia, though eclectic and contentious, were not lacking in sensitivity, and were, in many ways, similar to approaches we would hold in esteem today.[2] Rival’s method may force us to confront unexpected mixtures, blends of Confucianism and Dante with Mussolini and Hitler (135-145), and to ask how such a concoction could ever be produced. This is the intention Rival signals in his postface, as he sends us back to the present:

Cinq mois plus tard, Donald Trump est élu Président des États-Unis sur un programme isolationniste et populiste qui aurait sans doute séduit le poète, comme l’aurait séduit le « style » du candidat, à la fois patricien et vulgaire. Et le 4 mars 2018, les élections générales italiennes porte au pouvoir une coalition de la droite extrême et du mouvement antiparlementaire « 5 étoiles », reprenant certaines des propositions sociales avancées par Casa Pound

Le prophète Ezra a-t-il eu raison trop tôt ? (217)

How convincing you find this sudden presentism depends on how plausible you believe it that a modernist poet’s turn to fascism could foreshadow, and help us to understand, current politics. 

The emphasis on the “use” of understanding Pound’s fascism is perhaps this book’s weakest point. For all the reasons listed above, any attempt to explain Pound’s fascism, which will necessarily make him appear more sympathetic, will meet with raised eyebrows, if not outright resistance. And the defensive marketing does this project no favors. The editor’s note asks that readers “se faire librement leur proper opinion,” and praises Rival’s work for breaking “enfin une longue conspiration du silence à propos d’un auteur qui incarne fortement dans son oeuvre le lien entre avant-garde esthétique et régime totalitaire” (9). Yet, as Claude Grimal’s excoriating review of the book has already pointed out, several works in both French and English have already traced this same trajectory, and in a considerably more scholarly way.[3] All the same, the editor feels the need to reassure the public that no one involved in the production of the book agrees with Pound’s opinions, a move that might make too obvious of a point, as Grimal notes, and make us wonder about the publishing house’s own confidence in both its work and its readers. Socialist philosopher Michel Onfray’s preface does not help matters:

Il est vrai que si j’avais préfacé un ouvrage sur Éluard ou Aragon , qui ont célébré Lenine et Staline, la Guépéou, autrement dit la police politique marxiste-léniniste, celle qui conduisait au Goulag, ou sur Sollers qui a estimé que Mao Tsé-Tung, le boucher sanguinaire de la Grande Révolution dite culturelle, était le plus grand poète du XXe siècle, on m’aurait consacré un portrait apologétique en dernière page de Libération, ce qui aurait déclenché une « Une » élogieuse du Monde le lendemain, avant de générer des revues de presse sirupeuses et toutes de guimauve sur France Inter ou France Culture, etc. (11-12)

This stance, alternating between defensive and aggressive, will probably not aid in winning over the general public, who may not be filled with interest just by knowing that a book on Pound’s politics is fine because books on writers with similarly abhorrent views have been published and lauded. Though the anxiety is understandable, the press does seem to be overplaying both the danger and innovation of Rival’s book, and that will likely limit the reception it finds among non-specialists. 

Specialists themselves might not find much new here. We hear, among many other things, about how Gaudier-Brezka’s death and the general mayhem of the Great War propelled Pound towards fascism (55-57), about Pound’s efforts to restore Vivaldi to his rightful place in classical music (58), about how Pound gave a copy of Catullus to James Joyce in Paris in 1920 (117-119), and, throughout, about the tensions, and art, produced by Pound’s division between the two women in his life, Dorothy Shakespear and Olga Rudge. Pound scholars may find it interesting to revisit these details in Rival’s unorthodox book, with its novelistic style and snippets of imagined conversation, conversations over breakfast (68-69) and in the streets of Rome during the final days before Pound’s imprisonment (167), painting a more intimate portrait of Pound than usually available. But some might wish that Rival had put his considerable research and passion to work on a slightly more scholarly though still engaging biography on Pound in Italy, much, say, as Michel Wasserman has done on Paul Claudel in Japan.[4]

What we have is an interesting book, not as scandalous as its frontmatter suggests, but not as groundbreaking either. Specialists may refer to the book as a curiosity, and more general readers may be scared off by the odd framing. The rest of us in search of an intimate glimpse into Pound’s unstable mind in the 1940s might be best served turning to the Cantos themselves. 

[1] There’s an extra “ě” here in the book. Such typographical faults appear a few times in the text, as do incorrect transcriptions, such as when the pinyin for  in the next line is given as “wù” rather than “è,” but are generally few. 

[2] “Perhaps there is something instructive in the ways his work eludes our current dichotomies: anticapitalist, philological, and generously cosmopolitan, but also fascist, appropriative, and frequently racist. If nothing else, Pound’s work recalls the central ambiguities of fascism, the reasons it appealed to so many people whom we today otherwise admire or would admire.” Christopher Bush, “‘I am all for the triangle’: The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Pound’s Japan,” in Ezra Pound in the Present, eds. Paul Stasi and Josephine Park, London: Bloomsbury, 2016, 105.

[3] Claude Grimal, “Ezra Pound en surface,” En attendant Nadeu: Journal de la littérature, des idées et des arts, 12 February 2019. Grimal’s list, though extensive, is not exhaustive. He misses, for instance, Tim Redman’s Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. 

[4] Michel Wasserman, Claudel Danse Japon, Paris, Classiques Garnier, coll. « Études de littérature des xxe et xxie siècles », 23, 2011.