Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros51Comptes rendusJames Gifford. Personal Modernism...

Comptes rendus

James Gifford. Personal Modernisms. Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes & Lawrence Durrell. From the Elephant’s Back. Collected Essays and Travel Writings.

Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2014 (294 pages), ISBN 978-177212-001-1. Edited and with an Introduction by James Gifford. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2015 (406 pages), ISBN 978-177212-051-6
Isabelle Keller-Privat
Référence(s) :

James Gifford

James Gifford. Personal Modernisms. Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2014 (294 pages), ISBN 978-177212-001-1

Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell. From the Elephant’s Back. Collected Essays and Travel Writings. Edited and with an Introduction by James Gifford. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 2015 (406 pages), ISBN 978-177212-051-6.

Texte intégral

1James Gifford’s essay Personal Modernisms. Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes is a groundbreaking critical, metacritical and analytic reflexion that delves into an often neglected generation, in-between the Auden generation and that of the Angry Young Men. Gifford shows how these writers and poets from the 1930s and 1940s have been mostly left out of canonical anthologies because of their anarchist stance which led them to stand apart from any school or movement. Anarchism turned into a uniting factor that brought together expatriate artists such as Lawrence Durrell, Albert Cossery, Henry Miller, David Gascoyne, Elizabeth Smart and George Duncan and accounts for the brotherhood of artists that bridged the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Gifford thoroughly studies how this very active network responsible for the editing and publication of little magazines based in London, Paris, Cairo or San Francisco functioned as an artistic and intellectual crucible whose frequent meetings, letters and self-reflexive criticism testify to their awareness of the political turmoil and social havoc wrought by the Second World War and the Cold War. The originality of this essay lies in Gifford’s deft analysis of how anarchism—understood in this particular context as the ‘general tendency to avoid creating movements or schools, [the] politics of the unpolitical, and [the] aesthetic emphasis on the experience of the individual’ (xi)—has contributed to a renewed vision of the artist’s role in society which is still a topical issue.

2Among these anarchist writers the figures of Henry Treece, Alex Comfort and Robert Duncan, who will play a major role in the San Francisco Renaissance along with Kenneth Rexroth, loom large, which enables Gifford to underline both the artistic and the intellectual role played by the entire network in the assertion of an anti-authoritarian position that both sets them apart and justifies a renewed scholarly interest. Confronting the various interpretations of the term ‘anarchism’, Gifford goes back to Benjamin Tucker’s definition which leads him to redefine the concept not as ‘a strictly political opposition to government rule’ (xiii) but as a ‘personalist’ (x) perspective which welds the aesthetic and political views of all who previously came under such different labels as ‘New Romantic’, ‘New Apocalypse’, ‘English Surrealist’ or ‘San Francisco Renaissance’. Gifford’s aim is not merely metacritical, it is also pragmatic for such a recategorisation entails an in-depth reassessment of the artistic practices that emerged and enables the reader to go beyond a mere regionalist approach and consider the cultural implications of artistic anarchism. In a light-handed way that belies the author’s intimate knowledge of his topic, Gifford hints at the founding role played by Personalist authors in the development of a rhizomatic, decentred literary world that paved the way for contemporary art, heralding the complexities and paradox of our modern world.

3Gifford’s argument is organized into four main parts. The first one, entitled ‘Late Modernism. The Shape of Literary Criticism’, contextualizes the various critical perspectives and literary assessments of Personalist authors which account for their dismissal. Gifford underlines the paradoxes of criticism that has proved both irrelevant and incapable of grasping each artist’s individual struggle but which has nevertheless left a deep imprint upon our reading patterns. He also broaches the delicate topic of these artists’ lower middle-class backgrounds, suggesting implicit correlations between intellectual and social hierarchies. Simultaneously, Gifford convincingly argues that the ‘quietism’ Orwell denounced in his criticism of Henry Miller is not synonymous with social or political indifference but should rather be read as the sign of the writer’s perceptive vision of a society ‘founded on injustice absolutely’ (34). Therefore, Miller’s dystopic interpretation of the world, which led him to write to Orwell in a prophetic letter dating back to summer 1936 ‘We are in for an era of the bloodiest tyrants the world has ever seen’ (36) testifies to the intellectual and ethical kinship which enriches our reading of both authors.

4Gifford effectively articulates the concepts of anarchism and Surrealism and shows how the latter notion was reappropriated by Personalist authors who dared develop it beyond regional boundaries and regardless of political affiliations. By bringing into light their faith in an organic, embodied, intimate awareness and reshaping of the world, Gifford shows how the Personalists’ endeavour sheds new light on the symbolic and metaphorical structures of their works as well as on their authors’ critical commitment and subtle resistance to the prevailing thought pattern of the day. Such a metacritical and pragmatic approach opens new avenues for the reader who is brought to reflect both upon acknowledged and unacknowledged influences and on the emergence of a paradoxically personal and cosmic approach of the world that asserts the hope in a redeemed world where the self may harmoniously blend within the universe and dispose of the ego. In that respect Gifford’s enlightening analysis of J. F. Hendry’s sea metaphor (40) is a key moment in his literary and critical demonstration.

5The second chapter, entitled ‘Narrative itinerary. From the Villa Seurat to English Post-Surrealists’, offers a detailed description of the various connections that composed this artistic network always on the move. It is organised chronologically and highlights the common preoccupations of writers that were to transform the literary landscape after the Second World War. James Gifford describes in a most vivid and effective style the links that ramified around Henry Miller and how his prolific correspondence with Wallace Fowlie, Herbert Read, David Gascoyne and Lawrence Durrell also shaped out the evolution of English Surrealism. Incidentally, Gifford suggests the paramount role played by the endless flow of letters that helped connect a tight network of exiled, marginal writers who slowly undermined the centralised, hierarchal artistic empire. The story of The Booster and Delta is a perfect example of what he calls ‘the politics of the unpolitical’ (69) and paves the way for the blending of anarchism and Surrealism that characterised the New Apocalypse founded by Treece, Fraser and Hendry. For the first time in literary criticism the influence of the Villa Seurat group upon the poetic and philosophical debate that developed worldwide in the late 1930s is deftly expounded and the quest for an intimate, quintessential form of liberty is clearly related both to the artistic and historical context. Surrealism thus appears to be transmuted into the pragmatic crucible of new forms divested of any political bias and anarchism emerges as a form of self-knowledge, the longing for a creative and intellectual freedom through which each artist recaptures Miller’s outcry: ‘[…] in living my own life in my own way I am more apt to give life to others […] The fight is for life’ (84). Gifford’s thorough description of the little magazines that were born from the constant criss-crossing of letters, poems and Surrealist texts that challenged political, geographic and moral boundaries evinces his enthusiastic curiosity for and extensive knowledge of archives. As a result he enables the reader to share with him the excitement of newly discovered literary material which enables him to bridge the gap between Paris, Cairo or San Francisco the better to understand the complex interactions that spurred the Post-war literary world. The anti-authoritarian stance of anarchism thus emerges as the unifying factor welding together the marginal literary communities of Late Modernism and throws into the limelight the paramount role played by poetry as this particular genre becomes the ideal medium through which writers, in the wake of Lawrence Durrell, attempt to reach ‘a level of experience beyond the causality principle’ (104). For the first time in Durrellian studies the complex poetic concept of Durrell’s Heraldic Universe is artfully linked to the political and historical context thus explicitly situating poetry as an act of resistance and tying in syntactic and linguistic analysis with the poet’s ethical commitment. By revising the literary criticism of the 1940s that relegated those authors in limbo James Gifford also pinpoints the political implications of criticism itself and implicitly bears witness to the forcefulness of the anti-authoritarian streak of those networks that are progressively reincorporated within the vast field of literary studies.

6The third chapter entitled ‘Authority’s Apocalypse. Theories of Personalism’ situates anarchism within the political context of Fascism and Marxism and denounces present day theoretical tradition which, he argues, ‘impairs our capacity to understand what the personalist authors have explicitly stated’ (161). James Gifford sets out to explore the traces left by anarchism in the formal and aesthetic structures and endeavours to renew our gaze upon the work of art. Reading is not unlike an unending weaving process whereby the critic simultaneously connects the warp and the woof, the philosophical theory and the practice. While asserting the common characteristics linking those artistic communities, he underlines their individuality, suggesting another key component of the Post-War artistic world which can no longer be read as a stable entity but rather as an organic system where multiples cells branch out and connect. James Gifford discusses the key notions of power and authority, selfhood, the ego, identity, freedom and individualism, the representation and role of the body as well as the various forms of symbolic construction. He examines the connections between D. H. Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller, Duncan, H. D. and Pound. Throughout this chapter he never forgets to underline repeatedly the critic’s necessarily precarious position both as an active interpreter of the text and as the author of a “project [that] remains incomplete, in progress, and impatient with conventional demands for tidy systematizing and comprehensiveness” (172). In so doing James Gifford significantly redefines the critic’s role and pleads for a less dogmatic perspective that would most certainly have appealed to Lawrence Durrell who pictured Clea exclaiming ‘”Criticism!” […] as if the world were an insult’ at the end of The Quartet. Offering ‘a work of use rather than a work of authority’ (172) to the reader, James Gifford invites him to become the creative actor of a new relational reading which he puts into practice in his last chapter.

7This last chapter entitled ‘Rereading and Recasting. Miller, Durrell, Smart, and Duncan’ turns the reader’s attention towards the early creative works of the latter and examines how a recontextualized assessment reshapes and enriches readerly perspectives. James Gifford’s analysis of The Colossus of Maroussi, The Black Book, the novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and the short poem ‘An Ark of Lawrence Durrell’ is a brilliant demonstration of the cogency and usefulness of his theory. Not only does he offer the reader new critical insight into the texts, shedding light on heretofore unknown influences that corroborate the perceptiveness of his interpretative strategy, but he also proves the seminal role these texts hold within the shaping out of present day literature. Literature is a slow, intense, and ongoing awakening which Personal Modernisms successfully celebrates.

8From the Elephant’s Back. Collected Essays and Travel Writings is a collection of short, mostly inaccessible prose texts by Lawrence Durrell which have been selected and edited by James Gifford with the ambition of bringing back into the limelight one of those personalist authors whose complex artistic and philosophical itineraries he has analysed in depth. Therefore the collection should not only be read as the erudite compilation of source material that will delight all Durrellian scholars, but should also be considered within the theoretical perspective developed by James Gifford in the afore mentioned essay.

9By organising the various texts into four categories that shape four distinct chapters—‘Personal Positions’, ‘Ideas about Literature’, ‘Eternal Contemporaries’, and ‘Spirit of Place: Travel Writing’—James Gifford invites us to (re)discover some of Durrell’s founding and lesser known texts that disprove present-day dismissive views of his work and that enlighten the complexities of his ‘multiverse’—the rhizomatic, organic creative universe explored in The Quintet.

10The initial batch of texts illustrates the subtle progress of one who was wrongly categorized as ‘an imperialist author’ (xiii) while the second part reveals the theoretical and philosophical inquiries of a writer who relentlessly questioned the poetic act itself. Throughout these pages Lawrence Durrell never ceases to surprise the reader through his deliberately thought-provoking and humorous reflexions, such as ‘One cannot help thinking as one reads them, that criticism is a trade which deals with inessentials; with artifice not art. For the joy of art is in its privacy, in its exclusiveness’ (63). Yet, while apparently disparaging the critic’s task, the writer relentlessly whets his curiosity by furnishing him with hermetic inklings upon his art, such as in the short texts ‘Ideas about Poems I and II’ and ‘The Heraldic Universe’ which read both like an undeclared manifestoes and poems. Lawrence Durrell, faithful to his autobiographical speech from 1982, ‘From the Elephant’s Back’ which aptly figures on the title cover and opens up this anthology, clearly stands out not just as Kipling’s child but, more importantly as a thinker who has always been engaged in ‘the theory and the practice of fiction’ (1), although this definition appears incomplete for it should obviously include that of poetry. However the interest of this volume does not only lie in the immeasurable wealth of Durrellian archives that are brought to the reader’s knowledge: it also sketches out the fascinating portrait of an artist engaged in the creative production of his generation so that readers of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Richard Aldington, Cavafy, and Seferis will discover fascinating pieces of critical analysis where they may least have expected to. Once again James Gifford challenges readerly anticipations. The final part devoted to travel writing will similarly edify and stimulate both Durrell’s readers and all those who seek to understand the refinements of the genre. The neat critical apparatus as well as the detailed bibliography will be of invaluable help to researchers.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Isabelle Keller-Privat, « James Gifford. Personal Modernisms. Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes & Lawrence Durrell. From the Elephant’s Back. Collected Essays and Travel Writings. »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 12 octobre 2016, consulté le 01 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Isabelle Keller-Privat

Université Toulouse 2 Jean-Jaurès

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search