The battle-field and the madhouse
Savage Messiah by Jim Ede
Sophie Suzanne Brzeska and Henri Gaudier met for the first time at the St. Genevieve’s Library in Paris during the early part of 1910. It was the strange meeting of two people with violent temperaments widely different in age and experience, utterly unsuited to each other, and yet destined to live together for the next five years, and in the end to die violently as they had lived, the one on the battle-field, the other in a madhouse.
That is the opening of Savage Messiah, Jim Ede’s biography of Henri Gaudier, which I read in anticipation of Laura Freeman’s new biography of Ede. Savage Messiah has the potential to be one of the great biographies, but Ede gives over whole sections to Gaudier’s letters, which breaks the spell of his prose and swamps the book with unstructured details. Had he not done that, he may be better known. Certainly, the material gave him a remarkable story to tell.
The doctor he had seen in France had told him that he would find it good for his health if he went occasionally to prostitutes; and Sophie encouraged this idea, even though it cost five shillings every time; but her economical sense was outraged, though her heart was touched when Henri returned, having given the woman five shillings and then been too disgusted and horrified to do anything with her.
Ede has all the markings of a superb biographical writer and it is a real shame he never wrote another biography. Here is his account of Sophie, as she was in the start of her sorry decline.
Miss Brzeska was feeling particularly irritated by the noise around her, had stopped up her ears with cotton wool, and was sitting right up against the wall, with her back to the room, so as not to see its bare misery, and was singing at the top of her voice. [Gaudier] had to call her two or three times before she turned round.
Such compression, such timing, such a gentle, detached touch. There is also a scene, too long to reproduce here, where one of Gaudier’s sitters describes him at work, so intensely focussed that when he got a nosebleed he ignored it until she was so disgusted she said something: he told her to pass him some old underwear, which he pulled over his face, insensible of the dripping blood: eventually, the clothing was soaked through. All the while he sculpted.
The light had gone, and in the street outside there was a terrific noise. It was a dog fight, one large dog pinning another by the throat, and Gaudier left his work to come and watch it. He watched it to the finish, with dark, interested eyes, his head against the window, and the street-lamp shining on his bloody bandages.
The next book club where we will discuss Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Bronte will be on 9th July at 19.00 UK time. If you cannot make this time but would like to attend, email me or leave a comment.
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