George Orwell’s reticence to say much about his time in Paris during the late 1920s, when he was still the unknown, barely published Eric Blair makes it challenging to uncover his friends and acquaintances. However, it is increasingly evident that he did develop a literary network which grew rapidly.
Biographer Gordon Bowker stated that ‘characteristically’ Orwell did ‘not spend time in Paris searching out fellow writers or trying to gain entrance to artistic coteries’. However, considering the limited documentary evidence from 1928-1929 and his demonstrably successful professional networking, from 1930 until his death in 1950, this view is highly contestable
Blair received considerable assistance from Nellie Limouzin, his well-connected bohemian aunt, and her circle of Esperantist comrades. These included her future husband Eugène Adam, Lucien Bannier and Norbert Barthelmess, the German proletarian writer, translator, editor and poet inspired by an ‘abhorrence of injustice’ who lived with Limouzin and Adam.
Blair was almost certainly introduced to Henri Barbusse, which led to two early essays being published in his new journal, Monde. It is possible that Blair met others in the circle of writers who wrote for Monde, including the American, Harold J. Salemson (1910-1988).
Salemson translated Eric Blair’s first professional writing, ‘La Censure en Angleterre’, published in Monde on 6 October 1928. He was a young and extraordinarily talented American expatriate, only turning 18 the week before Blair’s essay was published.
Born in Chicago, where his Russian father worked as a doctor, his family lived in Paris for two years in the early 1920s. On the death of his father, the family returned to France due to the favourable exchange rate and Salemson studied history and literature courses at the University of Montpellier and at the Sorbonne. He published in Les Nouvelles Littéraires, Artistiques et Scientifiques, La Presse, Poetry, Europe: Revue Mensuelle, The Quarter and transition where it is likely he came to the attention of Henri Barbusse, who became a mentor.
Salemson enrolled in the Experimental College, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, during the fall of 1927, but by the spring of 1928, had returned to Paris to live and was formally affiliated with Monde as a film critic. Barbusse provided a press pass enabling entry to film premieres and literary events.
Using money his mother had saved for his tuition, Salemson decided to publish an ambitious, bilingual modernist journal, Tambour. He edited and published eight issues (1929-1930) designed to appeal to a diverse readership and featured unknown, emerging American writers, such as Paul Bowles and James T. Farrell.
Tambour had an impressive circulation of about 1,500 copies and a solid base of 800 subscribers, including James Joyce, Stuart Gilbert, Henri Barbusse, Henri Bergson, Jean Cocteau, major American film studios and established literary magazines. Eric Blair is not listed (although over 200 subscriber cards have not survived) but considering his interest in modernist writers possibly read Tambour which featured well-known literary figures such as Philippe Soupault, Blaise Cendrars, and Jean Cocteau, and devoted an entire issue to a survey, taken five years after his death, of Anatole France’s legacy.
Salemson proudly presented a copy of the first issue of Tambour to Barbusse in 1929, inscribed:
à Henri Barbusse,
Harold J. Salemson
A decade later, in May 1938, a memorial banquet for Barbusse held in Los Angeles was presided over by Salemson, as a measure of his appreciation to his mentor.
‘Presentation’, Salemson’s manifesto in the first issue of Tambour, is brimming with a young man’s intellectual enthusiasm for the modernist project:
To interpret the past is to express the present; to express the present is to create the future.
Every form of artistic expression, past, present, or future, whatever be its tendency, is tolerable. It is only by establishing the movement, forward or backward, of art, that we can bring out its meaning, its value. The new direction can be conceived only in the light of the lessons learned of the past.
In questions of art or of literature, ideas, beliefs, races, all melt into one. Whatever may be our origin or our convictions, we are all humans united in an overpowering search for the ultimate goal of art, beauty.
We shall assemble all the species, all the tendencies. To our readers will be left the privilege of passing judgment.
BUT THE NEW GAIT WILL BE SOUNDED TO THE BEAT OF THE TAMBOUR.
H. J. S
There is only circumstantial evidence that Harold J. Salemson and Eric A. Blair ever met but the Tambour office, at 3 rue Berthollet, was a five-minute walk from Blair’s hotel. Steve Salemson, Harold’s son, believes that this was also his father’s residence as he was unlikely to have been able to afford additional lodgings.
His son does not remember Salemson saying much about his Paris years except that he had been at the 1929 première of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s surrealist film – Un Chien Andalou, at the Théâtre des Ursulines – when a woman in the audience screamed and fainted during the scene with the straight razor slicing an eyeball (it was, in fact, a calf’s eye substituted at the very last minute). Salemson recalled that the film was paused as she was removed from the theatre. He also mentioned the poet Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau (with whom he was photographed in 1929) and Eugène Jolas, the publisher of the influential ‘little magazine’, transition.
Steve Salemson did not know that his father had translated Blair’s first ever published article into French nor had his father mentioned Orwell but this was not unusual in that Salemson had known many famous literary and film types in his long career and may not have realised that Eric Blair was the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It is fascinating to compare the similarities with Orwell’s famous dictum, from his satirical masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), with Salemson’s opening line from the 1929 manifesto:
Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.
To interpret the past is to express the present; to express the present is to create the future.
There are several other interesting parallels, shared interests, influences and coincidences worth mentioning briefly. Salemson made a career with his pen, as a film critic and translator after departing France for America. During WWII he served in the US Army’s Psychological Warfare Branch and helped produce the propaganda leaflets dropped over Italy and Southern France in 1943 and 1944.
Salemson went on to edit, Thought Control in USA, a collection of papers from a conference sponsored by the Arts, Sciences and Professions Council of the Progressive Citizens of America (July 9-13, 1947 in Beverly Hills). This conference represented a concerted effort to publicise concerns about what chairman Howard Koch called ‘an alarming trend to control the cultural life of the American people’.
Salemson was always politically on the left and progressive but like Orwell, was attacked by both the left and the right for his independent thinking on political, cultural and literary matters. He was portrayed as a Trotskyist in some doctrinaire communist journals but his articles in Screen Writer, railing against censorship and his support for the American Authors’ Authority to help enforce contracts, led to him being sacked for ‘all of the horrible left-wing things’ he had done in his life.
‘Thought control’ had become even more dominant when Salemson was blacklisted and required to appear at the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955. He invoked the fifth amendment, refusing to answer questions about his time in France before the war.
HUAC had been formed in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty from private citizens, public employees and organisations suspected of being communist activists. Salemson had visited Moscow in 1934 and his father was born in the Russian ‘Pale of Settlement’, but there is no evidence that he ever was the ‘red under the bed’ HUAC was searching for in their witch-hunts during the 1950s. Barbusse, his literary mentor, may have written a hagiography of Stalin (a key text in the construction of the ‘cult of personality’) but Salemson’s own activities were never about growing the power of the communists.
Both Salemson and Blair were exactly the young Anglo-American writers whom Henri Barbusse had been encouraged to recruit for Monde to appeal ‘to a broader audience’ than official Communist Party publications, such as L’Humanité which he had also edited. Neither succumbed to communism.
Blair’s Network Grows
Eric Blair and Harold Salemson did have at least one mutual friend, Édouard Roditi (1910-1992), who contributed to The Adelphi and volumes 2, 4, 5, and 8 of Tambour. A well-educated, multi-lingual American poet and playwright, he was well-connected to the major modernist writers between the wars and published in other French literary periodicals, such as transition.
An outsider, Roditi was gay, although not attracted to ‘outright homosexuals’ and most of his relationships were ‘with bisexual or otherwise normal men’ in whose love life he was an exception. In an early draft of his unpublished autobiography, Roditi recounts how Salemson wrote, enclosing two books he wanted ‘autographed’ by the author George Moore who lived nearby:
The Confessions of a Young Man was a kind of English pastiche of À Rebours the decadent French classic written by Huysman and the other … Esther Waters, a realist novel in which Moore had once shocked his English critics and readers by following the example of such realist masters as the Goncourt Brothers, Zola and Octave Mirbeu in their descriptions of the life of under-privileged women who earn their living in a world where men exploit them.
Roditi also corresponded with Eric Blair and although these letters have not survived, the following account explains their connection:
We originally met through Jack Common, who was working with Sir Richard Rees in the editorial offices of THE ADELPHI. I had met Rees through Carlo Suarès and Krishnamurti in Paris, and then, when I was living in London, began to contribute from the time to time to THE ADELPHI. Actually, I brought both (Stephen) Spender and Dylan Thomas to contribute to it …
Roditi and Blair were constant companions during 1931, roaming London, talking with people on the streets, eating inexpensive Chinese food in the East End before walking to Ebury Street in Pimlico, where Roditi lived. They were habitués of the notorious all-night Café Bleu in Soho, along with Dylan Thomas, loafed in Trafalgar Square, ‘met the original of Mrs Wayne’, one of the tramps found in the James Joycean-inspired chapter three of A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935), and listened to the street-vernacular.
Roditi witnessed Blair memorising phrases, by repeating them aloud to himself, which later appeared in Down and Out in Paris and London. Roditi recalled that both he and Orwell were ‘equally shocked by the apparent indifference of the middle and upper classes to the dreadful phenomenon of unemployment and sheer destitution’.
Sonia Orwell, twenty years after the death of her husband, thanked Roditi for his insight into the period:
… I was surprised you had known George so well because it’s difficult for me to imagine those years in the early ‘thirties, but you did describe so well the amorphous, and open, state of your minds back then.
It was at this time that Orwell’s professional and personal network expanded rapidly to include editors, agents, publishers, poets, writers and friends connected to literary and artistic coteries. These included Mabel Fierz, Leonard Moore and Victor Gollancz who were directly responsible for the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London.
This blog post is an excerpt adapted from my 10 000 word paper ,”The True Artist: Poverty, Networking and Literary Artifice”, George Orwell Studies (2021) Vol. 6, No. 1 pp. 7-31. Special thanks to Steve Salemson for providing advice, photographs and many other documents that bought his father to life in 1920s Paris and postwar America.
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