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Robert McAlmon was a ubiquitous presence among the “Lost Generation” of American expatriate writers during the 1920s and ’30s in Paris. Bisexual, he entered into a marriage of appearances with the heiress and lesbian writer Bryher. With her father’s great wealth, he started a press that published the early work of many of the most famous Modernists—and paid bar tabs and hotel bills for his friends Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce. By the end of the 1930s, he was sinking into obscurity, bitterness, and alcoholism.
Books Unbound’s three-part program on this lesser-known Modernist concludes with poems and prose pieces from McAlmon’s 1921 collection Explorations, with a third short story from his fiction collection A Hasty Bunch (1922) to complement “A Vacation’s Job” and “A Boy’s Discovery” in parts one and two.
The first segment features McAlmon’s complete cycle of poems about what was then still the novel sensation of flying in an aircraft: “Aero-Rhythms” (Joan Hawkins), “Perspicuity” (Cynthia Wolfe), “Etherism” (Hawkins), “Aero-Metre” (Erin Livingston), “Consummation” (Tony Brewer), “Volplanetor” (Wolfe), and “Aero-Laughter” (Frank Buczolich).
The short-short story “Light Woven into Wavespray,” read by Phil Kasper, infuses gorgeous descriptions of seaside leisure with McAlmon’s pervasive ennui and contempt, and intimations of his sexuality. The central panel of the episode is “Mood Decisions,” a prose sequence (read by Brewer and Livingston) rife with biting humor, sharp images, and snark.
The episode closes with more poetry. Now almost a century old, the prescient “White Males” (Hawkins) treats its titular subject as a violent species facing extinction. Also included are “Today’s Music” (Wolfe), “Words” (Buczolich), and “A Modern’s Half Day” (Hawkins)
Special music for the episode comes from two classical composers who were active at the time of McAlmon’s literary career. The poems on flight are accompanied by excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s symphonic poem “The Song of the Nightingale” (1917), conducted by Pierre Boulez and performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. McAlmon writes about Stravinsky in the prose piece “Thought Ghosts on Music” in Explorations:
“Strawinsky — a snigger chortled between Mozart and Schumann — ‘laughing up his sleeve at us, and not letting us in on the joke with titles as does Strauss,’ men behind me declared. The innovation jarred senses that ten conscientious years of musical training had grooved. An innovation that might cause them to retrain their senses. I could hear Strawinsky tittering up his sleeve, and hear the titter giggling along his ribs, making them to rattle — and that is another theme for modern music. I enjoyed Strawinsky. He might mean anything because he meant nothing.”
Additional music comes from Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, written during the time A Hasty Bunch and Explorations were published. The sonata is performed by Carlos Benito de la Gala and Alberto Gorrochategui Blanco on their album Kodaly and Ravel (KalilaDimna, 2011). Wind sound effect for the flight sequence was created by Mark DiAngelo via SoundBible.com.
Sarah Torbeck hosts, with announcer Jack Hanek. This episode was produced, written, and edited by Cynthia Wolfe, with production assistance from Heather Perry, Sarah Torbeck and Jack Hanek.
Executive producer: Joe Crawford
Theme music: The Impossible Shapes