Destry and Dionysus
Max Brand was one of the most versatile of American authors, and in theeyes of MARTHA BACON, one of the most charming. She first saw him in the company oj her father, Leonard Bacon, the poet, and her impressions go back to that unclouded year, 1928, when they were all together in Florence. The author of two volumes of verse and a novel, Miss Bacon is now a member of the editorial staff of the Atlantic.
by MARTHA BACON
IT WAS a fine spring night. The stars hung like almond blossoms over Florence, shedding a scent and a lyric over the turgid Arno; above the Torre del Gallo, Jupiter hung like a sword. The professor of astronomy invited me to the pedestal.
“Shut one eye and look and you will see three moons.” There were indeed three moons. The astronomy professor continued with his disquisition. “ We measure in units of distance called lightyears. The light from that star took twenty-five years to reach you. You do not see the star to which I am pointing now, but only the light of it, which started on its way to the earth before you were born.”
I must take my stand from that star and let the light take me back rather than forward, back to the moment at which the light started, and I find myself in Forte dei Marmi, on the coast of Liguria, below La Spezia.
Between the sea stabbed with brilliant July sunlight and the garden full of zinnias, rooted in sand, are Faust and his daughter, Jane, come to pick us up for a swim.
He is a huge man, over six foot three; he is in his late thirties and the look of his youth has left him, the hair is thinning on his massive head. His cold blue eyes are at war with the heated modeling of the jaw and lips, He is Michelangelo’s man, the shoulders big, the limbs well cut, the hands heavy with stub fingers. Jane resembles him as the lion cub resembles her sire, Her thick hair burns like brass in the sunlight; her blade-like twelve-year-old body stands ready to pierce the sea.
Faust, Jane, my sisters Helen and Alice, Bigboy, the Fausts’ Newfoundland, Celia, our Sealyham, and Piero, who is anybody’s big socialist cat, run across the baking sands, giving a wide berth to the hornet-haunted clumps of sage, to the sea. Piero stops before we get to the beach to hunt for lizards; Bigboy splashes in first of all; Celia, torn between love of people and hatred of water, remains an agitated dot at the edge of the surf: “Come back, come back. You will all drown.”
Faust has a project this summer; the stars are his project and Forte dei Marmi is the place to pursue it. During a Mediterranean summer everything that is serious happens at night. In the early morning before the heat begins we are in pursuit of music and art. At eleven we swim, at noon we eat figs and prosciutto and drink wine. The rest of the day we sleep under white nets to keep off the mosquitoes. At twilight we rise, as the evening primroses, taller on their long stalks than we are, open their yellow eyes to Arcturus in the west and to Capella coming over Carrara, escaping the shark’s-tooth range by inches. The sand is cool now and we have lit a bonfire on the beach. We are grouped around Faust, who with his worker’s hands and scholar’s lips translates into his own terms the universe.
“Do you see that necklace of stars almost directly above you? That is called Corona. Those are not stars of the first magnitude. They are thousands of light-years away. There is Polaris, there is the Great Bear, the Little Bear, Io and her son. Later on in the year you will see Orion and the weeping Pleiades. There will be Sirius and there, invisible, will be the dark companion whose atomic substance outweighs our solar system.” And the voice continues, impressing upon us the precise number of light-years at which we are standing off from VEga, whom we are approaching, as it happens, at a really nerve-racking pace.
“Mother, Mother, the stars are going to fall on me!” It is astonishing that this holocaust, the sun, plagued by whirlwinds, constricted by earthquakes, hurling flaming gas a million miles into outer space, rises so punctually over Italy. Faust makes the stars real. Faust makes it possible to believe that time is what it is, a great ring of pure and endless light that comprehends the dinosaur, the drowned body of the author of Prometheus Unbound, the undrowned bodies of the authors of Point Counter Point and The Furioso, who at this moment sit clasping their thin knees on the other side of the fire, their glasses gleaming like four stars, admonishing us drily not to fall into the flames.
Faust makes the stars real. Our summer at Forte dei Marmi is over and we are again in Florence. It is time for other realities. All Gaul is divided into three parts, the sum of the squares of the legs of a right-angle triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse; the minuet from Don Giovanni; Austrian tyranny, Papal tyranny, four wars of independence and now the blue-jowled Duce who has brought prosperity and plumbing to the land of the Caesars. For Faust, however, there are three essential realities. “Repeat after me: Homer, Shakespeare, Dante. Chaucer had talent, Milton could barely write English. Aeschylus, yes, Sophocles, maybe, no gentleman would read Euripides.”
Faust works furiously at the typewriter from early morning until late afternoon and rounds off the day with six sets of tennis before dinner. He is split by two necessities: what the public will read and what he longs to write. The split is an agony and he drinks to soothe it, until he cannot tell friend from foe. In a flood of unrecognizing anger he turns upon his butler, Elia, and catches him by the throat, pinning him over the balustrade while the Italian household alternately wrings its hands and marvels. It is midnight or after and my father is summoned from across the garden. My fat her is subject to unpredictable spasms of common sense.
“Hullo, Faust. Drop that butler.”
Faust drops the butler, who is all unrestrained gratitude and goes to bed, and the two gentlemen retire to the library, to get even more drunk as gentlemen will, to read Aeschylus, and to talk of daughters.
“There’s just one thing about Jane, the thing we begin with. Jane is perfect. Jane is my daughter.
I have no mother but I have a daughter, Jane.”
THE mother is a memory. In 1900 her son, Schiller Faust, is a child eight years old, sitting in a carriage with his father and his brother, Wolfgang Goethe Faust. They are driving home from the graveyard on the outskirts of the California town where the mother has just been buried. Schiller Faust chooses this moment to tell his father that he doesn’t believe in God. He is soundly and instantly thrashed for this impropriety by the fierce German immigrant whose passion for the classics of his native land has led him to name his sons magnificently but not to do much else for them.
1 he future looks dark for young Schiller Faust. He is bound out to a neighboring farmer, pitches hay, feeds the hogs, and sleeps in a barn, getting what schooling lie may when his master will let him. Yet in this life of brutalizing labor he acquires a passion for poetry, reading it by sunlight, by moonlight, by candlelight, memorizing it when he can’t find the time to read it, and filling his voracious need by writing it. His head ringing with poetry, he gets through high school, grows to an enormous size, and blunders into the University of California, where his friends nickname him Heine. He studies Greek, becomes a brilliant student but fails, out of sheer cussedness, to turn up for the exams. Diplomaless he shakes the academic dust from his sandal and makes his way to New York and there becomes for the nonce a subway guard, so poorly paid, so hungry that he staves off his pangs by snatching discarded sandwiches from the trash barrel. At the outbreak of the First World War he joins the Canadian army but finds it unchallenging and deserts at a moment when desertion can well mean the firing squad. But the gods are with him and lead him safely through the Maine woods and back to California.
The war is ended and he becomes a husband and a father and a writer. He is perhaps one of the most successful writers of the twentieth century. For Schiller Faust is Max Brand; he is also Evan Evans, Frank Austin, George Owen Baxter, Lee Bolt, Walter C. Butler, George Challis, Peter Dawson, Martin Dexter, Evin Evan, John Frederik, Frederik Frost, Dennis Lawton, M.B., David Manning, Peter Henry Morland, Hugh Owen, Nicholas Silver, Henry Uriel, and Frederick Faust. On subways, in trains, on boats, in lighthouse stations, in doctors’ offices, people will while away the time reading the novels that he grinds out every afternoon between two and five. They are westerns and sports stories, hairy-chested popular tales with good workmanlike plots, written in clean, serviceable prose that whips a story from the gate to the finish line without a pause and that adds up to a count of twelve novels a year. He writes for a fortune and gets it. Alive in him like a nerve is the instinct for poetry. He spends long painful mornings, not wooing his muse, but ravishing her. But she resists, and though he masters tennis and Greek and makes success his slave, the muse evades him.
He lives like a medieval prince in his Florentine villa. His swimming pool and tennis court are the envy of the petty aristocracy for miles around, He runs a pack of Newfoundlands and keeps the stars in sight with a telescope on his terrace. He has a weak heart which threatens momentarily to kill him; and against the advice of a battery of doctors he puts the heart in its place by drinking deep, smoking like Vesuvius, playing tennis like a champion, driving an Isotta Fraschini a hundred kilometers an hour through the Rhône valley, and keeping a work schedule that would murder a stevedore. He argues that the heart is a muscle and should be exercised. He loves his family and tyrannizes. He wants your happiness, wants to live and arrange it for you. He marries you, delivers you, buries you, thrashes a daughter, dries her tears, charms the women, and sees what the boys in the back room will have. And the novels are stacked like cordwood in the offices of Brandt & Brandt. He writes them faster than they can be printed. Faust is a one-man factory.
And in 1931 Basil Blackwell brings out in a limited edition a small volume (89 pages) called Dionysus in Hades, of which there are live hundred copies extant.
In elevated and measured iambics, irregularly rhymed, Faust tells his own myth, the story of wine and hope and a hard journey and a lost woman.
Accompanied by Silenus and a rout of dancing satyrs and bacchantes, Dionysus descends into Hell, where he pleads with Persephone to restore to him his mother, Semele. He is permitted to see Semele, but Pluto warns him that it is not in his power to free her. He must go to Prometheus for help. Dionysus continues his journey through nether Hell and comes at length to the Titan, who from the midst of his torments tells him that Zeus has been defeated. The god has denied to men the gift of immortality, but Prometheus has brought them the illusion of hope and Dionysus has brought them the illusion of wine, and out of these two illusions comes the everlasting life of mortals. Dionysus learns that Semele may live only if he will surrender her to forgetfulness. lie therefore leads her to Lethe, where she drinks and is re-created in Heaven as Thyone, the goddess of rapture, and Dionysus returns to the island of Cos, “to the beautiful and blind life on earth.”
It is not poetry for our time. Indeed it is so far removed from present trends that one is put to it to discuss it at all. The diction is lofty and Parnassian, smooth as cream, and there is not a line in it whose reference would be obscure to a citizen of the Age of Pericles. He has whipped the verse into submission, and only occasionally the elegiac outcry that he seeks splits the boundaries that he has descried for himself.
He fears not contemporary literature; neither regards he Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But Hollywood gets him. Although he has sworn by the nine gods that he will never live in California and that he will never work for the movies, he does both. He goes to MGM at the usual hyperbolic figure to do a series called Young Doctor Kildare. MGM takes his method of writing screen treatments as a standard. From henceforth they are written in the present tense with action and dialogue as an integral part of the text, rather than as narrative with directions interpolated at the whim of the cameramen, the technicians, and half a hundred associate directors and producers — a notable economy from the point of view of the studio lot. By this means, expenses can be cut in half.
His big movie is Destry Rides Again. In a cloud of dust and with a pounding of hoofs it stars young James Stewart and brings Marlene Dietrich back to the screen, superb in flounces and long black stockings, half strumpet, half angel, to sing in her throaty Berlin voice against the saloon and prairie backdrop that is the temple of an American myth. Faust is after all a myth-maker, and the despised medium serves him better than he knows. Destry and Brandy roar through the film, Centaur and Bacchante, and the Stetson hat and the ruffled petticoat are as classic in their way as the helmet and the chiton. It is a succés fou with the fans, and the critics are chanting yet.
As it has been in Florence, so is it in California. The talk still teems with Homer and the house with people, some of whom are a pretty far cry from Ilium. Faust drinks with Irish poets, polo players, physicists, and movie stars, and plots stories — he keeps a few acquaintances for the special purpose of bouncing plots off them, as he puts it. He supports promising artists and once promising drunks and anyone who touches him for a dime or a job or both. He plays the horses at Santa Anita, staking long shots across the board, obscure neutralcolored geldings with vague names like King Pharamond and Bubbling Boy who pay fourteen to one and win. His generosity is equal only to his output, and those who benefit from him far outnumber his pen names. He writes poetry — Dionysus drives him to it and the mornings are sacred to poetry. He is outrageous, ungovernable, adorable. He loves and hates and strikes the board and has an opinion on every subject — Rembrandt, Bach, and Einstein. “You can have Mozart, you can have Froissart, but no Brahms and no Keats.”
He hasn’t forgotten the stars. He keeps the telescope on the roof of the Burlingame Avenue house with which to order their courses. Between rushes of Doctor Kildare he is teaching Morris, the Negro butler, the science of astronomy.
Morris’s dark hands place the roast before him.
“Do you remember that star I showed you last night? The bright one?”
“Yes, Mr. Faust.”
“That’s Venus. Go out and see if she’s still there.”
Morris returns. “She’s still there, Mr. Faust.”
“Good.” He arises from the table and goes to her, returning presently to tell us that all is well with Venus.
At Santa Maria Infante it is all over, He struggles for a year to get into the war and finally goes as a correspondent for Harper8217;s to cover the Italian campaign in May of 1944. The correspondents are warned to wait for the first wave and to follow the second one in, but Faust does not wait. What his weak heart cannot do, a German mortar shell does. The light from the star has reached us now, and we find ourselves in the presence of the dark companion.
And the sweet clover, I without a name
Where Dionysus sat, until at last
Sorrow, not for the Greeks, upon me came.