IMPROVISED EUROPEANS by Alex Zwerdling

IMPROVISED EUROPEANS

American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London
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KIRKUS REVIEW

The ambivalence of pen-toting expatriates is Zwerdling’s absorbing subject. And those expats are well known indeed: the Americans Henry Adams, Henry James, Erza Pound, and T.S. Eliot, all of whom found themselves while living in London. Zwerdling (Literature/Univ. of Calif., Berkeley; Virginia Woolf and the Real World, 1986) examines a transitional moment in writing lives spent abroad for their revelations of character. The strength of the author’s narrative lies in his recognition of bad luck, frustration, and failure as important themes, especially when apparent disappointments help win the writer-protagonist what he most seems to want. Namely, for James —the claim to a European, supranational identity,— which, Zwerdling points out, —offends every natural constituency.— James achieved the coveted identity, but was then lamentably misunderstood both by Americans and by his adoptive English audience. The consequences? His —bitter withdrawal to the coterie.— In fact, despite their triumphs, all four expatriate writers have left troubled legacies, and this is another strong suit of Zwerdling’s: his ability to observe without melodrama the conflicts that were innate in each author’s ideal of victory abroad. The portrait of Eliot is particularly shrewd. Regardless of his enormous success in England as a writer, editor, critic, and arbiter, —despite Eliot’s estrangement from America and eagerness to leave, he finds no adequate substitute in the improvised life he constructs abroad.— That is, he remains unhappily American—and half erased by his own hand. Although Zwerdling’s introductory chapters discussing broader cultural Anglo-American competition and attempted reconciliation are too discursive and extended to launch the book with the brio that it needs, his clarity and concision elsewhere give readers the guidance they require in following sometimes wayward footsteps. —Being a citizen of the world might only be a glamourous name for homelessness.— Agreed. (8 pages photos, not seen)

Pub Date: June 2nd, 1998
ISBN: 0-465-03275-3
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1998