Time has not been kind to Mina Loy’s reputation. Her work itself has retained its vitality—it is as silvery and as lush as it was when she was writing in the early-20th century. But as many of her peers, from T.S. Eliot to Virginia Woolf, have become the formidable representatives of Modernism, Loy’s work has often been shuffled to the side, seen as slight or dismissible.
And yet her champions continue championing. Her reissued poetry collections and her biography felt more like arguments for her reputation’s restoration. And now a new collection of Loy’s prose, consisting of short stories, essays and drama, picks up where her previous reissues left off. Stories and Essays of Mina Loy comes with an introduction by the University of Sussex’s Sara Crangle, and it once again urges the addition of Mina Loy’s name to the list of those solid figures making up the Modernist canon.
I talked to Crangle about how a writer as talented as any of those considered to be the greats can be shuffled off to the side, the fascinating life that Loy lived, and what Loy’s chances are with a contemporary audience.
Read the last Bookslut on Michael Holroyd's A Book of Secrets.
You wrote that many of the women who participated in the Modernist scene have not made it into the canon. Was that simply the sexism of the time, or did they once enjoy a popularity that was not sustained after their death? And which female writers, aside from Mina Loy, do you believe need to be restored?
In fact, I suggested in my introduction that as modernism became an aesthetic construct—a period seen as something like a discrete whole, a notion that remains in hot dispute—many women did not make it into the canon.
Thanks in large part to the second wave of feminism, this situation is not nearly so dire as it was. Presses like Virago brought a great deal of women’s writing to the attention of the reading public, and as gender studies have become increasingly entrenched in universities, you’d be hard-pressed to find a literature curriculum that does not include the work of Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein or Katherine Mansfield. As I go on to argue in my introduction, a great deal of recovery work has salvaged Loy from the scrap heap of modernist history—recovery work to which I remain wholly indebted.
That said, some very good women writers remain relatively unknown. Mary Butts’ novel Armed with Madness is a fabulous, pastoral response to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; it is currently not in print. On a recent visit to the University of Cambridge, I made passing reference to Radclyffe Hall and was surprised to discover that the people I was speaking to—a Ph.D. candidate studying modernism and an American professor—had not heard of her.
Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness is arguably as important in terms of the history of sexuality as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Both of these books were censored, and as such, very much in the public eye in their time. Neither Lawrence nor Hall are excellent writers, I share Loy’s aversion to Lawrence, but Lawrence is unquestionably on the map in a way that Hall is not.
And who now reads Ivy Compton-Burnett, who was, in 1937, on the bestseller list alongside Woolf and Agatha Christie? Are these continued elisions a product of modernist misogyny? I don’t think we can blame the plenitudes of modernist machismo for our ongoing sense that once Woolf and Stein are on the curriculum, we’ve succeeded in representing women modernists.
What's your personal connection to Loy and her work? Is it something about her prose that moves you, or is it more about her and the brave life she led?
Like most readers, I came to Loy via her poetry, which, at its best, is dynamic, dense, brash and ludic. I started exploring Loy in depth when I had a research fellowship at Queens’ College, Cambridge, and in a rare turn of events—one I doubt I shall ever replicate—was given funding to go to Yale without much other motivation than seeing what I might find in Loy’s archive.
The research trip was entirely speculative and, as is often the case with speculative research, both satisfying and productive. I knew Loy had written novels, but had no idea that she was such an extensive writer of short prose pieces—as I worked my way through the archival boxes, I became increasingly certain that these stories, dramas and critical works could readily form a fabulous book in and of themselves.
Fortunately, when I later approached Loy’s executor and editor, Roger Conover with a plan for the book, he agreed. While Stories and Essays of Mina Loy is not a complete collection of her short prose [Conover has published other works in his own books], there are some wonderfully quirky, intelligent bits of writing in this book that I’m thrilled are now in print. Loy is a great hand at the prose poem essay, for instance.
As for Loy’s life, Loy was a very well-connected modernist and had a knack for being in the right place at the most interesting time—in Florence as Futurism was kicking off, in New York as Dada made its way westward, in Paris as surrealism came to the fore. Her life is the stuff of fiction, and indeed, has become the subject of at least one novel, but if she couldn’t write, my interest in her would never have gone beyond a read of Carolyn Burke’s biography. She’s very much worth taking the time over as an artist, rather than as a biographical icon.
Loy is known primarily as a poet—I have to admit, before this collection was announced, I was pretty ignorant about her prose. Some poets wrote particularly awful prose, so what do you find unique about her prose, as a separate thing from her poetry?
Anyone familiar with Loy’s poetry will find that there is a lot of overlap between the subject matter of her poems and the prose in Stories and Essays. And there are some turns of phrase in this collection that are emphatically “Loyesque”—consider, for instance, the introduction of the central relationship in the story “Piero and Eliza”: “Into her life he frolicked like a sinister kitten.” Or, in “The Agony of the Partition,” where a photograph of the detestable Schwartz is drily described as, “Questionably picturesque, having a certain Greco-Woolworth grace.”
For longstanding Loy fans, it is a delight to see that her celebrated wit spans both her poetry and her prose. What this is not, however, is a book of polished prose pieces, hence the extensive annotations at its end. Although a fair few of these works were drafted many times, only the play “The Pamperers” [published in Loy’s lifetime] had anything like a final seal of approval from the author. My own feeling is that this very incompletion makes the book more interesting—we’re reading work in progress, and on occasion, it’s a bit rocky or incomplete, but what it isn’t, ever, is dull. Loy is very much a modernist in her extremism, and in this new book, these extremes oscillate from cutting, astute satire to a near-decadent state of fantastical whimsy.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.