My Mother and the Moderns
Jean, Djuna, Dada, the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, Marcel Duchamp, André Gide & the rest
Frederick Philip Grove was a name to conjure by when I was growing up on the farm. He was a great Canadian writer, who rather implausibly had chosen to live on a dairy farm just outside of nearby Simcoe, the town where my mother grew up. His biggest books were Settlers of the Marsh, a novel about a Swedish immigrant settler on the Big Marsh district of Manitoba, and In Search of Myself, his autobiography. He died in 1948, the year I was born, which meant meeting him was never in the cards.
But my mother spoke of him often because she had known him, first as a teenager, when Grove had tutored her in French, then as a family friend. After his death, she remained close to his wife, who had actually done most of the French tutoring and continued to support Grove as his writing became less and less remunerative. My mother would pick Mrs. Grove up from the old dairy farm and drive with her to University Women’s Club meetings in town. Once, when one of my brothers need to read Jude the Obscure for English class, and the local library was tapped out, Mrs. Grove loaned my mother her husband’s copy on the condition that it not leave the house and be returned in pristine condition.
In his autobiography, published in 1946, Grove described being born prematurely in a Russian manor house as his parents raced to get back to their home in Sweden for his birth. His father was a wealthy English-Swedish businessman, his mother a Scottish heiress and Viennese-trained pianist. He was raised in a Castle Thurow overlooking the Baltic, mostly in the hands of a nurse named Annette. He had his own sailing yacht. He traveled among the cities and spas of Europe with his mother, meeting many of the great composers of the era. Later, his father, seemingly down on his luck, sold the yacht and sent the young man to tour America with the proceeds. One day, in Toronto, he discovered that his father had died, the wealth evaporated. There follow twenty years of wandering in the United States and Canada, working mostly as an itinerant farm labourer. He became proficient at riding the rails. Eventually, Grove found his way to Manitoba, where he began to turn himself into an impoverished Canadian writer.
As it turned out, everything except the impoverished Canadian writer bit was untrue. Grove’s parents weren’t rich Anglo-Swedes, he hadn’t grown up in a castle, and his name wasn’t Frederick Philip Grove. He is viewed as one of the great con men in Canadian history, a congenital liar, and a bigamist. When a series of curious and able scholars began to check the facts, they discovered a paper trail and a life that, in fact, was far more fascinating than the one Grove had written for himself. Felix Paul Greve was born in Prussia and raised in Hamburg, where his father was a tram conductor. He was tall and impressive and a linguist who wrote poetry and ingratiated himself to a circle of wealthy queer literary set in Vienna. In Paris, he knew and translated Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide, among others. (Gide wrote about their meeting; he described Greve as “effrayant,” frightening.) He met Elsa Plötz, daughter of a Pomeranian mason, also an actress, vaudeville performer, and artist, then married to a friend of the young poet. Eventually, she left her husband and married Greve. Money was always a problem. He borrowed from friends, one of whom later had him charged with fraud. He spent a year in prison, furiously translating for money and writing his early novels (his novel Fanny Essler is based on his wife’s early years). At some point, he faked his own suicide and took ship for America, where Elsa subsequently joined him. They tried farming in Kentucky, were briefly arrested (Elsa was cross-dressing) in Pittsburg, and finally split up. Grove headed for North Dakota and thence into Canada, where he morphed into Frederick Philip Grove, met his Canadian wife, became a school teacher, and then a famous (impoverished) Canadian writer (and my mother’s French tutor).
Elsa gravitated to Greenwich Village where she married a Baron Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven. She became a startling figure in the New York avant-garde demimonde. She befriended Djuna Barnes and became Marcel Duchamp’s lover. She dressed up in outrageous costumes, wrote dada-inspired poetry, and was an inveterate collector of art-junk (there has been a persistent rumour to the effect that she gave Duchamp the idea for his famous urinal sculpture). She ended up back in Germany where she died in abject poverty, though Barnes, who remained a loyal friend, tried to help. Elsa, as happens with slightly crazy art-types, was a better literary model than artist herself. Not only did Felix Paul Greve base a novel on her, but Frederick Philip Grove sketched her as the bored, manipulating, promiscously adulterous wife of the young farmer-hero in Settlers of the Marsh.
She fascinated Djuna Barnes, who cajoled her into writing an autobiographical sketch, which was still among Barnes’s papers when she died. In that sketch or in conversation, Baroness Elsa surely told Barnes a good deal about her life, including details about her husband Felix Paul Greve, who, amazingly enough, turned up in Barnes’s great experimental novel Nightwood as a character named Baron Felix Volkbein. Felix Volkbein’s biography is almost a transposition of Grove’s own biography in In Search of Myself. His father is a Viennese Jew of Italian descent married to a magnificent Viennese heiress. He suppresses his Jewishness and tells everyone he is descended from an old, nearly extinct, line of nobility. Hence, Baron Volkbein. Felix Volkbein inherits his father’s pretend title, his money, and most importantly his concealed self-doubt. Psychologically, this fits rather well with Felix Paul Greve who seemed to have repressed his lower class roots and performed a certain civilized hauteur and sexual ambiguity to make his way into an upper class literay world. Barnes captured Greve’s inner emptiness and social pretensions perfectly.
Critics once thought Elsa was the model for the novel’s femme fatale Robin Vote, but it is clear now that she is mostly based on Barnes’s long time lover Thelma Wood. (Both Grove and Barnes, it seems, were good at writing revenge fiction.) The book is startling in its early portrayal of queer sexuality. What is not to like about the image of the Irish-American Dr. O’Connor spouting aphorisms in his squalid Parisian attic, rouge on his cheeks, a wig on his head, and himself in a lady’s nightie? But it’s also difficult in its use of old style cultural essentialism. Barnes will go on about Jews, men, and women in ways that once seemed natural but are now offensive.
What Barnes misses is that Frederick Philip Grove really was a very good writer, but in a completely different vein. Where Barnes was eccentric, baroque, aphoristic, and queer in her sensibility, Grove was naturalistic, with a unique prose style, at once dramatic, muscular, and yet austere and economical. (Though, oddly enough, both Nightwood and Settlers of the Marsh centre on an infuriatingly faithless female lover.) Grove could paint a landscape and mood in a few spare sentencs, infuse an apparently inactive scene with suspense and passion.
Grove’s reputation, both literary and personal, is clouded by his compulsive self-invention. It’s difficult to separate a genuine reading of his work from the chatter of misapprehension and gossip. I was surprised, when I finally picked up Settlers of the Marsh, at how engaging a book it really is. But his life remains mysterious and enigmatic, not because it is hidden — scholars have pretty much documented every aspect of his former lives — but because one has a hard time imagining why he did what he did. It seems as though, to become the writer he wanted to be, he had to abandon the old, fluid world of early 20th century European letters, with its ferment of experiment, its adventures in gender ambiguity and freeform relationships. When he moved to Canada, he buttoned himself up, as it were, married and settled down to a productive life. The couple had two children; the daughter died, but my mother knew their son Leonard.
Elsa took the other fork in the road, throwing herself into the glory and chaos of Dada, avant-garde masquerade, and sexual freedom.
I don’t understand it, but I like this story. And I often imagine my mother being driven out to the Grove farm Saturday mornings with her cousins, drinking tea, and practicing her verb forms. This was about 1931. She would have been ten years old, a bit of a tom boy. She remembered Grove as being somewhat austere, aloof, and English-seeming. She remembered that he taught her French folk tales. But the truth is she didn’t remember much, always talking more about Mrs. Grove and Leonard when pressed. So meeting the man who had known Gide and Wilde and slept with Marcel Duchamp’s lover, the model for Baron Volkbein in Djuna Barnes’s gender-bending classic novel, made very little impression on her. Such are the ironies of life.
Later on, she certainly knew about his lies and concealments. The Canadian newspapers breathlessly followed the revelations, without getting into the lurid sexual aspects. Once Grove’s cover was blown (and, of course, he was long dead by then), Simcoe began to buzz with gossip. One story my mother relished was about some friends who took a vacation in England and fell into conversation with some people in Norfolk who claimed that Grove wasn’t even German, that he actually English-pretending-to-be-German, born in a nearby village. Everyone knew it.
Grove found it increasingly difficult to be a writer in Canada, despite his successes. He couldn’t place his last novel Two Generations: A Story of Present-Day Ontario with a publisher, and so brought it out himself in a limited edition of 500 copies, sold by subscription for $4. My mother had copy No. 91, duly signed by the author. After she died, I found it in her library, wrapped in plastic along with a half-dozen yellowing newspaper articles.