Olson on Vitoux (2018)


Vitoux, Frédéric. L’Express de Bénarès: À La Recherche d’Henry J.-M. Levet. Fayard, 2018, pp. X +264, ISBN 978-2-213-70560-6

Kirby Olson, State University of New York at Delhi 

Valery Larbaud felt that Henry J.-M. Levet was the poet he had always been seeking when he first came across one of his poems in a literary journal in 1902. About Levet’s poems, which he later edited under the title Poèmes (1921), Larbaud wrote, “je rêvais d’un poète, ‘comme ça,’ fantaisiste, sensible à la diversité des races, des peuples, des pays, pour qui tout serait exotique, ou pour qui rien ne serait exotique (je crois que cela revient au même), très ‘internationale,’ … humoriste, c’est-à-dire capable de faire du Whitman à la blague, de donner une note de comique, de joyeuse irresponsabilité, qui manquait de Whitman. Au fond, ce que je cherchais…, c’était le poète qui eut été le successeur à la fois de Laforgue, de Rimbaud et de Whitman” (Poèmes précédés d’une conversation de Léon-Paul Fargue et Valery Larbaud, 25–26). 

Frédéric Vitoux, a member of the Académie Française, takes up where Larbaud ended over a century ago, and dives into Levet’s childhood before Paris. In his volume, Vitoux opens, “Henry Jean-Marie Levet m’obsède. Je l’ai découvert à l’âge de seize ou dix-sept ans. Il ne m’a jamais quitté” (11). Vitoux sketches Levet’s life in Paris, and presents itineraries of the poet’s global travels. Although Larbaud’s enthusiasm led to the publication of Levet’s surviving poems in 1921, and Levet’s complete poems remain in print at Gallimard, almost nothing has been set in stone about the poet. We knew, for example, that Levet lived from 1874–1906. He published poems in a scattering of journals (we have the dates of publication), but then disappeared in his late twenties into the consular service. After that, until he returns to France with tuberculosis in his early thirties, no sketches exist. Frédéric Vitoux is Levet’s first biographer. In his Proustian volume, Vitoux (now in his seventies) hopes to discover himself through his lifelong obsession with Levet. Vitoux visits Levet’s house in Montbrison to research the poet’s origins. Levet’s father had been a progressive mayor and legislator. The Levet house is now converted into a branch office of Crédit Agricole. Behind the bank is a small street named Rue Henri Levet (note the French spelling of the first name). Vitoux tracks through obscure memoirs of the period to find anecdotes and letters mentioning the poet by the painter Francis Jourdain, novelist Charles-Louis Philippe, and Marcel Ray, among others. There may have been other letters and poems among the poet’s papers, but the parents apparently burned them, as they wanted their only son to be known as a clean-cut French diplomat, rather than as an Anglophile Bohemian poet. They refused permission to republish his poems. Larbaud and Fargue had to wait until his parents passed in order to present his work.

Levet had had green hair as a teenager, and walked around the town with a tennis racquet that he was never seen to use. A few writers had met him early on in Montbrison. Levet claimed to have written a novel called L’Express de Bénarès, but Vitoux hypothesizes that the novel was never written, and that he had shown a stack of blank paper to friends. The novel is compared by Fargue (in his conversation with Larbaud) to Lautréamont’s Maldoror, but Fargue admits he had never read Levet’s novel. He had depended on Levet’s description. 

There are other blanks. Levet seems to have never had a lover. In the biography, Vitoux asks whether he might have been homosexual, but there is no proof. “On ne lui connaît alors, j’insiste, aucune liaison, aucune intimité particulière. Pour un homme comme pour une femme. On ne lui en connaîtra du reste aucune, de toute sa vie” (137). And yet, in Levet’s Poèmes, there are passages in the earliest texts that joke about homosexuality. In the later poems, scenes on transatlantic ships, Argentine supper parties, and the Levant abound with heterosexual eroticism. 

The only glimpse of real life romance occurs in the conversation between Larbaud and Fargue. A young woman is mentioned by the name of Marie Pamelart. On a stroll with Fargue and Jourdain in late nineteenth-century Paris, Levet met this art student and all three became enamored for life, although they never saw her again. It is difficult to call this coup de foudre an attachment. The last chapter of Levet’s life was spent in the consular service in the Philippines and the Canary Islands. Larbaud, in the conversation, says that in the Canary Islands was a man named Tallien de Cabarrus. Did this fellow consular officer, or others, ever comment on Levet in personnel files? Vitoux’s amusing biography fills in the timeline up through Paris, but leaves room for new scholarship on the many absences in Levet’s life. Did the novel exist? Did he have a love life? What did the Consular Service think of him?

The biography does, however, provide photographs: of the poet in consular outfit, and in a family portrait. These images of a timid and reserved gentleman contrast with an illustration for Montmartre nightlife done by Jacques Villon. A dandified Levet in spats and cravate lounges on a barstool with a drink. In another illustration by Félix Vallotton, Levet appears to applaud a theatrical piece with nine other rakish men. In the photographs, Levet appears sheepish. In the illustrations, he appears to be a wolf. Which is the real Levet? The book includes the ten great “Cartes Postales” of Levet’s Poèmes précédés d’une conversation de Léon-Paul Fargue et Valery Larbaud in an index. This book should interest anyone with a scholarly interest in the period as inward Symbolism turned to outward Modernism.