In the annals of French literature, Arthur Cravan is more often a colourful footnote than a sober paragraph. He is usually referred to as 'the poet and boxer Arthur Cravan', and this odd-seeming conjunction is often fleshed out with more disreputable terms such as 'con man' or 'adventurer'. He is also described as Oscar Wilde's nephew, which is true up to a point: he was the nephew of Wilde's wife, Constance. As a writer, Cravan had a brief and stormy career, in Paris, in the years around the outbreak of the First World War. His chief influences were Rimbaud, Alfred Jarry and the Italian Futurists; he preceded by a few years the Dadaists and Surrealists, who acclaimed him a pioneering figure. He was, André Breton said, a 'barometer' of the avant-garde. As a heavyweight boxer, his career peaked in 1916, when he fought the formidable Jack Johnson in Barcelona. He lasted six rounds. These two strands of Cravan's career are not as diverse as one might think: his stance as a writer was extremely combative - confrontation and 'anti-art' polemic were his métier. As the poet Mina Loy, who was briefly his wife, put it, 'The instinct of "knock-out" dominated his critique.' One of my favourite Cravan pronouncements is the contemptuous dismissal, 'Toute la littérature, c'est: ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta.' One might translate 'ta ta' as 'blah blah', but the sentence is also very physical, the repeated monosyllable delivered like a series of jabs to the chin of literature.
LRB 9 March 2006 | PDF Download