Frederic Prokosch – freedom in fiction

GRASSE;FRANCE - OCTOBER 18: American writer Frederic Prokosch (1908-1989) poses at home in Grasse,France on the 18th of October 1987. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
Prokosch invented a role for the melancholic ingénue before it became fashionable.
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Literary fame is a fickle beast. Most writers know that when going into the business; if they persist, they become either stubborn aspirants or principled dissenters. Neither stance is altogether admirable. The career of the forgotten American writer, Frederic Prokosch (1908–89) demonstrates this point.

Prokosch’s first book, The Asiatics, got a great reception when it appeared in 1935. The praise was well deserved. It is written so vividly – conflating perfectly, some might say, character with setting – that it’s nearly impossible to believe the author did not directly see all the places and people he described. Yet Prokosch used entirely written sources. For the interwar youth, especially, the book gained cult status. My own copy is of Second World War vintage, printed on cheap brown paper and in a rectangular shape made to fit inside a soldier’s breast pocket. This for one of the most sensual narratives in 20th century American literature.

The Asiatics began a career for Prokosch in conflating fact and fiction in compelling fashion. His own book of memoirs, Voices, or ‘an album of portraits’, as Prokosch called it, tells of conversations with many famous people, mostly literary figures as well as royalty and other eminences, to whom Prokosch had been granted special, seemingly exclusive access. He recounts their conversations and correspondence as carefully as he had earlier painted scenes in faraway Asia. Were the memoirs truthful? It doesn’t matter, really, to those reading Prokosch for the high melodrama his writing offered. Or it shouldn’t. The memoirs read very well. 

Prokosch was born in Wisconsin, the son of Austrian-émigré father and a Baltimore-born mother, and grew up there, in Texas, and in Chicago, after a short time in Europe. His parents were scholarly and musical. Frederic went on to earn a PhD in literature, and taught briefly at Yale and New York University. He abandoned the path of an academic career (also his father’s, as it happens) and struck out on his own with commissions and grants for writing and translating, with a brief interruption during the war as an observer/attaché/propagandist for the American government in Portugal and Sweden. His writing career lasted for several more decades but without resuming its pre-war success. Prokosch spent his final years living in southern France almost unknown outside that country.

He had other talents as well: tennis, squash, painting, lepidopterology. Even forgery.

Prokosch has been the subject of a short study by Radcliffe Squires, a curious but rather unkind biography by Robert Greenfield, and somewhat kinder portraits by Pico Iyer and Gore Vidal in the New York Review of Books. The final one is a review of Prokosch’s memoirs. ‘The voice one hears’, Vidal writes, ‘is not so much his as the voices of those whom he has admired or at least listened closely to. By and large, he has chosen not to praise himself, the memoirist’s usual task. Instead he has tried to distill the essence of each voice rather than what might have been exactly said.’

Which stance is more egotistical for a writer? With Prokosch this question is very difficult to answer. He described himself as fundamentally unknowable, but in nearly every poem, essay, and novel he drops a hint – of special, superior, ‘profound’ knowledge, intimacy, wisdom, or, as he put it, ‘cunning’ – each covered by a mask of barely concealed plainness and innocence.

The attitude is contrived, certainly, but to what end? It’s tempting to say that it’s little more than the over-exertion of a provincial, resentful at being excluded from the club but determined to be admitted nonetheless, or at least to be connected to it in some way, much as the young Prokosch used to send nude photographs of himself to writers he admired. He did not receive many grateful replies.

Vidal insinuates that the attitude, or later, the stance, was one of choice:

He seems to have enjoyed his literary success without ever having taken on the persona of the great author. Also, surprisingly, Dr. Prokosch has never taught school; never sought prizes or foundation grants; never played at literary politics. He seems to have been more interested in the works or voices of others than in himself as a person (as opposed to himself as a writer), a characteristic that tends to put him outside contemporary American literature; and contemporary American literature, sensing this indifference to the games careerists play, extruded him entirely from the canon. He was like no one else, anyway. He had always been a kind of expatriate at a time when the drums of America First had begun to beat their somewhat ragged martial tattoo. Finally, he was dedicated to literature in a way hard for his contemporaries to grasp as they pretended to be boxers or bullfighters – not to mention bullshitters, Zelda Fitzgerald’s nice phrase for the huge hollow Hemingway who had set the tone for a generation that only now is beginning to get truly lost.

This too is, as already noted, an exaggeration and falsification in most respects. So it’s tempting to make a case that Prokosch’s ‘literary’ project was a great metafictional experiment. The problem was that so many people seemed to fall for it. Prokosch more likely watched his fate accumulate outside himself, not as the product of his great imagination but as the victim of it. In one of his lesser novels, The Idols of the Cave (1946), he offers a response of sorts in a description of another emigré, ‘Baron Legué’:

The baron was a collector of old glassware. Behind him stood a cabinet filled with rows of old wineglasses which he had picked up, one by one, in the antique shops of New York; fine Venetian, Bohemian, Jacobite goblets, touched with the iridescence of age. The lamplight fell on their delicate curves and tall, spiraling stems. One breath of air, it seemed, and they would fall into fragments. And the baron himself, with his frail, tapering mind, looked as brittle as his glasses; he seemed about to collapse.

Alas, not yet. Prokosch persists:

‘We’ve tried to build our own little Europe over here’, he continued in his weary, melodious voice. ‘We built our pathetic replicas of Paris and Brussels, and tried to protect them from the hurricane’. He fixed his bloodshot eyes on Pierre with sudden animation. ‘But now the war is over. Listen, my boy. The war was not precisely pleasant, but it was only a hint, a prelude to the approaching melodrama. The world has grown too small for our machinery, and too big for our hearts. All we see is stone, metal, paper, numbers, names; they’ve fallen like a curtain over the shape of man. We’ll have an era of weird little cults, I suppose, a hysterical hodgepodge of panaceas. But they’ll be useless, one and all. Just a kind of lurid rhetoric. The great new pestilence will continue… Millions of little people are swarming in the streets outside. But they’re turning into ghosts. Their capacity for freedom is dying.

Frederic Prokosch was ahead of his time in some ways. His career rose spectacularly and fell in early adulthood; the scope of his imagination – a particularly American imagination, it should be said – extended globally before globalisation cast its spell upon contemporary literature; his historical and aesthetic sense invented a role for the melancholic ingénue before the Millennial and Z Generations took the character mainstream. Most of all, Prokosch naturalised the absence of authority made possible by the proliferation of standards in the public realm of letters. Neither his doctorate nor his pedigree meant much in the usual sense; he could achieve more fame and honours than his peers by simply making it all up – including, after a time, the credentials and bona fides. Nowadays dealers in facts have worse noses for truths and untruths. His many voices echo still, in our collective heads, from our mouths, on our screens.

Kenneth Weisbrode

Kenneth Weisbrode is a diplomatic and cultural historian currently working in Turkey. He received his PhD from Harvard University, where he studied under Akira Iriye and the late Ernest May. He is the author of Churchill and the King and The Atlantic Century.

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