The life and the work, Martin Edmond

In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say A Lot: Selected Fiction
Greville Texidor, (Kendrick Smithyman ed)
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781776562268

All The Juicy Pastures: Greville Texidor And New Zealand
Margot Schwass
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781776562251

In April 1970 I moved, with two other 18-year-olds, into a house at 6 Margaret Street, Ponsonby. One of us, Andrew McCartney, met a woman called Rosa and subsequently we were invited around to her place, in nearby St Mary’s Bay, to meet her father, Werner. That visit initiated a series of Tuesday night meetings during which we would sit on the floor in the front room, literally at his feet, while Werner, from an armchair in the corner, instructed us in the principles of anarchism and the methods of resistance and activism we should, as students, be using to make changes in what was then still called society. This was Werner Droescher, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, the third husband of Rosamunda’s mother, the writer Greville Texidor, who also fought in that war.

About 20 years later, another friend, Gerard, who was going overseas, gave me some books from his library: among them was a copy of In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say A Lot, a selection of Texidor’s fiction edited by his father, Kendrick Smithyman, and first published in 1987. Now, Victoria University Press has re-issued Texidor’s book as a VUP Classic and, in tandem, published a literary biography by Wellington author Margot Schwass. All The Juicy Pastures is subtitled Greville Texidor And New Zealand, but the book in fact tells the story of her life from her birth in Wolverhampton in England in 1902 until her death in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, in 1964.

I only went to a few of Werner’s classes on anarchism in St Mary’s Bay. I liked him and I believed in him, but at the time was more interested in things other than radical politics. Nor did I read all of the book that Gerard gave me: just the title story, a stark account of a woman visiting her conscientious objector husband in an English prison during WWII; and Smithyman’s introduction, which gives a brief outline of the Texidor story. The prospect of a full biography of such an enigmatic figure was enticing; when the review copies arrived, I read the Life before I read the Work.

It was rich and various. Margaret Greville Foster – whose mother, Editha Prideaux, grew up in New Zealand and then went to London to study at the Slade – was painted as a young woman by Augustus John and Mark Gertler. In the 1920s, she socialised on the fringes of Bloomsbury before, with her sister Kate, becoming a dancer and travelling, with various troupes, in Europe and to the United States. She performed in New York and toured the mid-West doing a Skeleton Dance with a male contortionist; became a heroin addict; married and divorced a Scotsman she called “Mr Wilson”. Manolo Texidor, her second husband, whom she met in Barcelona, was a businessman and a racing car driver who founded a cork factory in Buenos Aires. They had a daughter, Cristina.

Barcelona was also where she met Droescher, a young, idealistic, German teacher; they married according to anarchist rites and spent the next 25 years together, including the eight years (1940-48) Texidor lived in New Zealand, mostly in Auckland. After that, they were seven years in Australia before returning, in the mid-1950s, to Spain. The marriage ended when Werner decided to go back to New Zealand to study and, ultimately, teach, in the German department at the University of Auckland. Texidor, with a Spanish lover, returned to Australia, where she ended up taking her own life. She travelled, by train, wearing a long black cloak, from Sydney to the Blue Mountains, and lay down among a grove of trees in Hazelbrook with some sleeping pills and a bottle of Tío Pepe.

Most of the writing Texidor did was done while she lived in New Zealand; this accounts for the subtitle. It is the best documented period of her life; for the rest, in the absence of the materials out of which biography is usually made, Schwass is forced into a consideration of her fiction as a source for biography: always a tricky proposition. Texidor, like her contemporary Anna Kavan, whom she knew and with whom she has affinities, tried to cover her tracks; much of what she wrote she burned. Perhaps she did not wish to be known retrospectively. Perhaps she preferred a full and lively present to the vagaries of a ghostly past or an imaginary future. Not everyone is enamoured of posterity.

She was also a suicide, with the elusive, perhaps unknowable, character of those who take their own lives – one of those who, in Hermann Hesse’s formulation, live in the belief that they will die by their own hand. When she was 17, her father, a solicitor, facing personal disgrace and professional ruin, threw himself in front of a train; her godmother committed suicide; so, too, did the painter Mark Gertler, whose beautiful portrait of her graces the cover of Fifteen Minutes and who is the model for the “genius”, Julian, in the novella, “These Dark Glasses”, which opens the collection. The central character in that work, Ruth Brown, obsesses over what kind of shoes she should be wearing when she kills herself. The other novella-length work, “Goodbye Forever”, which closes the collection, also features a suicide as the lead character.

Texidor’s unknowability perhaps accounts for the thinness of the portrait in the biography. For all of the drama and intensity of the life she lived, she comes across as shadowy, equivocal, full of doubts and uncertainties. A paradox: there are so many who testify to her vibrancy, her passion and her engagement; and, yet, you don’t feel these qualities on the page. Most of the quotations in her own words are from letters she wrote to her contemporaries, usually literary men. She said she wrote better letters when she was drunk. The biography is handsomely illustrated, using a remarkable collection of family photographs, yet I finished it without a clear sense of who Greville Texidor was.

When you open the book of her own writings, however, there she is, in full flight, vivid, changeable, chameleon-like, acerbic and sardonic, with a taste for the withering remark and a fine eye for description of the world no less than of the mind which sees the world. She became a very good writer indeed; although there was always something restless, even dislocated, in her voice. She changes her point of view constantly, giving you glimpses into the minds of all of her characters while remaining unable, or unwilling, to locate herself securely in the narrative. The stories are as if made from shards of a broken mirror that has been re-assembled with a few bits missing; or, a kaleidoscope which spilled the pieces of coloured glass that might once have made a pattern.

She owed a debt to Frank Sargeson, who mentored her when she lived on the North Shore of Auckland: correcting her atrocious spelling, editing her manuscripts, giving her paper to write upon. He claimed her as his creation and, in a letter from Australia, bewailing her inability to finish her autobiographical novel about the Spanish Civil War, she echoes that claim. I imagine they enjoyed gossiping together. Her interactions with the young Maurice Duggan were an accelerated learning for both of them. In his introduction, Smithyman, another member of Sargeson’s circle, gives an eye-witness account of the famous occasion when Texidor went after Denis Glover with a carving knife: and then with her fists.

Sargeson remarked that Texidor was happiest when involved in the complex business of living: socialising, entertaining, cooking, eating and drinking, dress-making, restoring old houses, looking after orphaned children, travelling, performing and all the rest of the many things she did. Smithyman adds that she “had close, very satisfying relationships with Spanish people”. Hence the lament, implicit when it is not explicit, that she did not write more, may be beside the point: it assumes that writing is some kind of higher calling. Not everybody believes that, even among those who have the skills to accomplish it, as Texidor certainly did.

Schwass is good at laying out the facts of the life in an orderly fashion; she is strong in her literary analyses of Texidor’s work and persuasive in her account of the North Shore writers in the 1940s and of their connections with what she calls the Phoenix / Caxton writers who preceded and overlapped with them. There are some paths she could have followed further. Texidor, along with Sargeson, Smithyman, Louis Johnson and other New Zealand writers of the time, was published in the periodical Angry Penguins out of Melbourne. It would have been good to read more about exactly how that happened.

Max Harris and John Reed, editors and publishers of Angry Penguins, Australian agents for the Caxton Press, were originally also going to publish, as a stand-alone work, These Dark Glasses. Harris and Reed were part of an international network which included John Lehmann and his sister Rosamund in London, and James Laughlin at New Directions in New York. Texidor’s excellent translations of the poems of Federico Lorca appeared in the successor to Angry Penguins, Ern Malley’s Journal. Schwass repeats the old canard that the Ern Malley hoax set the cause of Modernism in Australia back a generation; actually, it helped seed the complex, post-modern future we live in now.

Her account of the Sydney Push in the 1950s, with which Werner and Texidor became associated, is also sketchy. Quoting a 21st-century architecture columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald on the sexual politics of the Push seems a stretch. The anarchism of the Push frequently shaded into nihilism. Some of its members were enthusiastic smokers of reefer; there was a split in their ranks between the boozers and the stoners. Texidor was a user of drugs and alcohol in her Australian period; it would be interesting to know more of her associates. Because she never wrote about that period in her life, as she did not about her time on the road in the 1920s, information may be lacking. The biography does not record where in Sydney she left from when she set out upon her last journey.

The stand-out story in the collection is the last, allegedly unfinished (it seems complete to me), novella “Goodbye Forever”, with its chilling account of the disintegration of a mind. It begins as a satire on the North Shore scene and includes what Schwass identifies as the voice of Sargeson – an unnamed writer who records his interactions with the heroine, Lili Lehman, a refugee from Vienna. Lili’s is the dominant voice in the narrative and the dissolution of her mind is handled with consummate, indeed forensic, skill – probably only possible for one who had experienced that herself.

Schwass speculates that Texidor’s instabilities, her depression and her drinking, arose from trauma experienced during the Spanish Civil War: that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I think it more likely that her deficits, such as they were, came, as so often, from inside the family. There is her father’s baleful example; she was an addict long before she went to war; she lived, on and off, with her mother for all of her life. Her first recorded suicide attempt took place after Editha, aged 87, died in Australia in 1954. Smithyman, in his introduction, quotes French psychoanalyst René Laforgue on “the neurosis of failure, where succeeding is the dangerous thing.”

There are many writers who have only one book in them, even if they go on writing it over and over again. In Texidor’s case, one book is all we have. It can be read, as Schwass reads it, as a series of glimpses of the life she led between 1936 and 1948 and takes us from Mediterranean Spain and France in the 1930s; to England in wartime; to a Quaker farm in the backblocks of the Kaipara; to the literary sub-culture of the North Shore in the 1940s. On this journey, we are accompanied by her inimitable voice: accurate, unselfpitying, bleak and hilarious; with a grave lyrical grace; and the psychological insight which, you might say, with Lili Lehman, only the mad command. Also ever present, again in Lili’s words, and finally, is what she calls this infatuation with death”.

Martin Edmond is a writer living in Sydney.

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Posted in Biography, Fiction, Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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