A TLS reviewer goes to war
By MICHAEL CAINES
He counted not the cost:
What he believed, he did.
The month before the poet Charles Péguy was killed, in September 1914, another professional writer in his forties had enlisted, in the British Army. George Calderon was initially sent to France as an interpreter. He had a "combative" interpretation of an interpreter's duties, however, and went missing in action during the Battle of Achi Baba (a bloody yet vain attempt to gain an advantage in the Dardanelles) on June 4, 1915.
Calderon's literary friends included Percy Lubbock, who published a "sketch from memory" of him after the war, and the poet Laurence Binyon, whose tribute, quoted above, adorns Lubbock's book; his wife Katharine had served as his literary agent and continued to promote his works in the 1920s, including his often revived play The Fountain. Other works included a tragedy in blank verse, Cromwell: Mall o'Monks, and his posthumously published account of the South Seas, Tahiti by Tihoti. He had also reviewed regularly for the TLS in the decade before the war, covering Russian literature, the new G. K. Chesterton or H. G. Wells, and various other subjects.
Perhaps most significantly for theatre history, Calderon had spent a few years in Russia and come back with tastes ahead of his time: his translation of The Seagull, staged at the Glasgow Repertory Theatre in 1909, was the first British production of a play by Chekhov. . . .
Unfortunately, Britain wasn't ready for something so "queer, outlandish, even silly", as a critic would say, a couple of years later, of a production of The Cherry Orchard. When The Seagull came to London for one night only in 1912, Calderon's proposed lecture on the dramatist had to be abandoned; there was virtually nobody there to hear it. The translator's view, however, was that Chekhov was a "pioneer" with a "fine comedic spirit which relishes the incongruity between the actual disorder of the world and the underlying order . . . . His plays are tragedies with the texture of comedy".
Calderon's impassioned and insightful appreciation of Chekhov still seems to me to be worth reading. I'm particularly struck by the observation with which he ends the introduction to his translations of The Seagull and The Cherry Orchard: it was wrong of the Russian critics to read a "message of substantial hope" into Chekhov's work. (While Calderon tentatively takes an alternative form of consolation from the plays, perceiving in them the promise of some other, perhaps more spiritual kind of progress, he doesn't press the point.) Each generation has such hopes, and believes it stands "on the boundary line between an old bad epoch and a good new one. And still the world grows no better; rather worse; hungrier, less various, less beautiful". That's why Chekhov puts the "hopefullest sentiments" in The Cherry Orchard in the mouth of "Trophímoff", the "mouldy gentleman" and "a fine guarantor for the Millennium!" Calderon gets what is a great, unfunny joke on Chekhov's part. "It is all his sad fun."
Less admirable, a century on at least, are Calderon's activities as the Honourable Secretary of the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage – but that didn't mean he couldn't, with his reviewing hat on, mock a novel for depicting a world in which "the men talk athletics and the women culture". ("Honourable behaviour is called 'cricket'; dishonourable behaviour is 'not cricket'.") "Artist, fighter, politician, scholar, talker, playboy", as the TLS described him after the war, Calderon was complex, versatile and restless. Since his body was never recovered, the TLS reviewer of Lubbock's Sketch rather Romantically thought "It was as if he had wandered off into another sphere as unceremoniously as he wandered oft into regions of this".
A new perspective on both the early years of the war and Calderon himself is offered by Calderonia, a blog recently begun by one of Calderon's successors as a champion of Chekhov, Patrick Miles. Dr Miles's biography of Calderon is due to be published next year, but, for the moment, he's made it possible to follow the day-to-day thoughts of a biographer on his subject's final year – on, say, the difficulty of appreciating Edwardian terms of praise (they can sound somewhat underwhelming today) or on the various military manoeuvres and blunders that were to decide Calderon's fate.
Miles also gives a selection of thirty amusing and representative quotations from Calderon's work ("Tolstoi is, above all things, a good hater . . ."), and poses a question that applies to many of his contemporaries: why did Calderon go at all, when, at his age, he didn't "need" to and "his literary career was at full throttle"? The frank answer is: "We shall never entirely know . . .". "I'm off on a new and unknown adventure", he wrote to Katharine in the month before his death, "but it either ends ill or very well, and no thought can alter it – so rejoice in the colour and vigour of the thing." Swashbuckling spirit and patriotism aside, however, there is a suggestion of a deeper explanation in something Calderon wrote in the TLS, in a review of Aylmer Maude's "enormously prolix" biography of Tolstoy. Here he rejects "Tolstoyism" as "an exaltation of the merely animal side of life":
"It seems so important to Tolstoy for men to have enough to eat and for there to be no pain or violence, that he is ready to sacrifice all ideas in the world for that end; patriotism, art, science, philosophy, poetry – everything may go to the Devil that Christian brotherhood may reign; and this Christian brotherhood amounts only to helping one another to live the dull material life, like green-flies in a fat garden."
For Calderon, as much as he admires Tolstoy as "one of the great figures of the age", this is not a "doctrine . . . for this generation". The ideas he mentions are, presumably, protected and nurtured by the apparatus Tolstoy would dismantle: "government, law, war, frontiers, and nationality". Not only patriotism (a very ugly thing, to my mind) but art and even poetry are apparently worth dying for. "War may be murder, but it is so many things besides that it is not worth stopping to call it names."
That was George Calderon writing in 1910. I wonder if he held to those views after seeing action in Flanders (where he was wounded) and at Gallipoli.