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F.P. Grove in Europe and Canada: Translated Lives

by Klaus Martens
351 pages,
ISBN: 0888643640


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Herr Greve and Mr. Grove
by Eric Miller

F. P. Grove: Cover of F. P. Grove in Europe and Canada

Toward the end of Oscar Wilde's 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray¨translated by Felix Paul Greve in 1903 as Das Bildnis Dorian Grays¨the protagonist once again confronts his painted portrait. This accusatory picture reconfigures the details of its appearance in accordance with the conduct of its subject, Dorian Gray himself. The man remains pristinely youthful even while the artifact diagnoses his moral degeneration. Wilde writes: "He went in quietlyÓ and dragged the purple hanging from the portrait. A cry of pain and indignation broke from himÓ in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite." That Felix Paul Greve should have chosen Wilde's work for translation seems fateful, not so much in view of his behaviour¨though he did once spend a year in the Bonn jail for fraud¨as of the strange reciprocal powers that governed the relation between Greve and his subsequent Canadian self Frederick Philip Grove. Such powers necessarily involve themselves in duplicity, or (to use a less pejorative phrasing) in doubleness.

What Klaus Martens's fascinating biography of Greve may suggest to the reader is that this duplicity is inevitable in the process of emigration. By extension, it could be asserted that every immigrant is an artist, an artist of life. To adopt a pseudonym after emigration merely makes explicit the distance between former and present worlds, and lives. Greve moved in the circle of super-refined Stefan George and immoralist AndrT Gide, and his own portrait, entitled Bekentnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (Confessions of the Confidence Man Felix Krull), may even have been painted, in words, by Thomas Mann; whereas Grove's first North American book, Over Prairie Trails (1922), avowed the righteous model of Henry David Thoreau, who traveled much in Concord, emphasized economy, and chided Old World decadence.

This way of stating things is incomplete. Without an intelligent audience, apprised of the facts and their permutations, no one can be properly appreciated as an artist of life. It is Klaus Martens who plays the portraitist Hallward to Greve's Dorian Gray. Martens scrutinizes Felix Paul Greve's European existence (1879-1909) and thus thoroughly transforms the biography of the Canadian Frederick Philip Grove (who died in 1948). Of course, in his own writing, Grove reflected with inventive obliquity on his life. In this case, the scruple of the scholar is more compelling than the labours of the novelist. Grove's book Settlers of the Marsh (1925) certainly deserves praise. But to learn, say, that the original for the fictional Clara Vogel may be, in large measure, the colourful Else Endell (later Else von Freytag-Loringhoven) tempts us to prefer history to novels.

Else Endell, once wife of the Jugendstil architect August Endell, set up a mTnage with Greve and emigrated with him to the unpromisingly named town of Sparta, Kentucky. She developed into a writer occasionally given to orphic and surrealist gestures, including works written in a kind of Ursprache or original language. One such, published in The Little Review in 1918 (by which time she was Else von Freytag-Loringhoven), bore the opaque title "Mefk Maru Mustir Dass". Her memoirs rely, like Emily Dickinson's poetry, on the dash as propulsive punctuation: from what Martens quotes, these memoirs evince the precipitous, appealing egoism of much bohemian recollection, which can be savoured in the special freedom from spite and distress that mere readership, unlike personal participation, may guarantee. Else came to know Djuna Barnes. Her own version of things insists that Greve, or Grove, abandoned her in America. But she admits that, being a woman of acute sensuality, she had already felt her desire for her lover waning and (worse) experienced his yearning for respectability as inimical to her. Symptomatically, comically, Grove sought the geography suitable to his new, respectable self in Canada. For her part, Else gravitated to New York City.

Martens provides an illuminating socio-aesthetic context in which to understand how Else von Freytag-Loringhoven could fashion herself into a particular sort of female writer, a dramatic "poetess". He also details the complex procedures whereby Felix Paul Greve had already mimicked to adequacy (though not to perfection) the manners and productions of an affluent littTrateur. Born to a streetcar conductor in Radomno, West Prussia, Greve had the advantage not just of intelligence, but of good looks: according to the conventions of his time and place, he was judged handsome. His awareness of this fact contaminates some aspects of his German-language work with the fatal whiff of authorial vanity. Among the pleasures of Martens's biography is the tangency of Greve's energetic literary hustling to the sphere of greater artists. For example, Greve entered into a direct contest for priority in translating Flaubert with Franz Blei, an acquaintance and sometime promoter of Franz Kafka's friend Max Brod.

In his life of Kafka, Ernst Pawel describes Blei as "a versatile hack" who "edited a succession of slick, highbrow magazines, Amethyst, Hyperion, Die Opale, renowned as much for their exotic eroticism as for their literary quality". Pawel adds that each periodical, "after a few years, invariably slipped into the gap between Blei's ambition as an editor and his lack of resources as a publisher". Klaus Martens's biography testifies that, when Felix Paul Greve faced an analogous gap between his wishes and his performance, he chose to confront and, indeed, to literalize it in the promising remoteness of the Old from the New World. He overleapt his problem by bold emigration.

How successful in the end was this evasive manoeuvre? Greve's mutation into Grove certainly improved on Dorian Gray's doomed effort to escape his picture's graphic conscience. And, because Greve had no need to suppress malign political commitments, his reinvention cannot solicit the charge of cowardice, unlike (say) the case of Paul de Man. Exempt from such strictures, Grove becomes in Martens's hands a kind of Everyman, at once timeserver and artist, criminal and citizen, here and there, traitor and true heart, cad and paterfamilias, decadent and pioneer, poseur and naturalist, toady and original, slipshod scholar and daedal fabulist. If nothing else displaces us, time does. Martens's biography is exemplary and Canadian in impulse to the degree that it hypothesizes a continuum even as it demonstrates with aplomb a history of dereliction, severance, oblivion and repudiation. Martens's copious array of illustrations documents Herr Felix Paul Greve and Mr. Frederick Philip Grove alike¨their identity and their disunity, their broken and intersecting worlds, each with its own perishable, memorable personnel. ˛

Eric Miller, author of Song of the Vulgar Starling, teaches at the University of Victoria.

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