Richard Davenporthines

Bohemian bonhomie

Mary Ann Caws describes the bars and cafés where the likes of Kafka, Buñuel, Dali and James Joyce lounged, drank and bragged about sex

Mary Ann Caws, a retired professor of English and French literature at the City University of New York, published her first book in 1966. Since then she has written several dozen studies, many of them about surrealism or modernism;
others with such varied subjects as the women of Bloomsbury, Robert Motherwell, Blaise Pascal, Provençal cooking, Dora Maar and the wonderfully titled The Art of Interference. Now, after a career of urbane, discreet academic distinction, Caws has decided that it is time for her to put her personality into her books as well as her name on the title page.

Creative Gatherings gives light but careful sketches of places that Caws has known where creative people — painters, sculptors, poets and others — have congregated, eaten, smoked, drunk and lounged, while discussing their work, exploring their hopes, bitching about their dealers, sincerely extolling or enviously belittling their rivals, bragging about sex, fooling, striving and desponding.

The theme of her book is encapsulated by Joan Miró recalling his life in Paris’s avant-garde rue Blomet in the 1920s. ‘The rue Blomet was a decisive place,’ Miró said. ‘It was there that I discovered everything that I am, everything that I would become.’ He and his neighbours lived the bohemian high life as they drank copiously of curacao tangerines. ‘More than anything else,’ declared Miró, ‘the rue Blomet was friendship, an exalted exchange and discovery of ideas among marvellous friends.’ Creative innovation, ardent friendship, hard challenges, noble ideas and sickly boozing recur throughout Creative Gatherings.

Caws muses on the Shakespeare & Company bookshop in Paris, which welcomed and nurtured James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes and others; on the Café Pombo in Madrid, where Salvador Dalí, the poet Federico García Lorca and the film-maker Luís Buñuel used to meet; on the Café Louvre in Prague, with its billiard room and art gallery, where Kafka, Einstein and Karel Capek assembled in different groupings; and Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, where the poet-provocateur Tristan Tzara and the painter-poet Jean Arp congregated with other Dadaists.

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