That Frederic Prokosch’s literary star has all but vanished in the nearly 80 years since his novel The Asiatics exploded onto the literary world like a bomb presents a mystery that is at first almost as unexpected as one’s first reading of one of his novels. Here is a writer whose work, hailed as something completely new in modern literature, met with effusive praise from Thomas Mann, Graham Greene, William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, André Gide, Thornton Wilder, Malcolm Cowley, Albert Camus, Issac Bashevis Singer, and scores of other towering figures of 20th century literature. A few years ago, I passed on to two French friends, both of them “grands lecteurs” who had been regularly dismissive of American writers, a copy of Prokosch’s The Seven Who Fled. It had an immediate, paradigm-changing impact on their conception of American literature, as it had on mine when I read it some twenty years ago.
These first two “Asian” novels of Prokosch – stunning feats of imagination about places he’d never, in fact, visited - plunge one into a deep lyricism of mood and impression amid profoundly evocative and atmospheric landscapes, filled with danger and adventure and existentially adrift characters, wandering and seeking without knowing what it is they seek. At the time these novels were published in the mid-1930’s, there was nothing like them in American literature, not least for their geographical abandonment of the confines and comforts of the United States and old world Europe in favor of the mysteries of far-flung places (while British writers like James Hilton and W. H. Hudson may have toyed with exotic locales, their works capture nothing remotely like the degree of alienation in Prokosch’s characters, who are dwarfed in every way by the landscapes through which they move). Even today, the impression these novels initially provide a reader is of a thrilling, perilous and darkly fatalistic freedom extending to limitless, lost horizons.
None of the other books I’ve subsequently read by Prokosch has had quite the same sustained effect on me as The Seven Who Fled (though it’s possible that had I read The Asiatics first I might have written this sentence with the two titles interchanged, and I’m just now starting one of his stylistically different late masterworks), but he remains a writer I turn to with anticipation and admiration – even when his novels’ flaws provoke storms of exasperation. I recently discovered in a secondhand bookstore another of these lesser works, Nine Days to Mukalla, about a group of travelers attempting to traverse the forbidding Hanhramaut area of southern Arabia after a plane crash. Starting to read it I experienced again that initial Prokoschian thrill of feeling the foundations of the familiar world dropping out from beneath me as I entered Prokosch’s. His ability to plunge one instantaneously into an intimate, exotic geographical expansiveness is simply remarkable, like a sudden step off the edge into some spatial portal. The novel’s title derives from an empty reassurance, repeated day after day to the hapless travelers, that they’ll reach Mukalla in “nine days.” Alas, I too began to feel that, trapped in this eternal recurrence, I might never get there either, and by the end of the book had come to think of it as Two Hundred and Forty Nine Pages to Mukalla. That the novel so quickly turned sour did little, however, to mitigate the disorienting excitement of its opening. Rarely does a dividing line between reality and fiction seem so sharp as in the first pages of a Prokosch novel; he’s a modern writer who evinces little interest in blurring that line – odd, perhaps, for one whose personal life involved so much wanton misrepresentation of the truth. But as the seductive glow of the first riveting pages of Nine Days to Mukalla faded into the frustrating meanderings that would mark the rest of the book, my curiosity about Prokosch himself grew. So the next day I headed to the library to see what I might find in terms of critical works about him.
I was astonished to find little more than a book in German (this is a world-class library, after all), but was even more surprised to spot a recent Prokosch biography on the shelf. Robert M. Greenfield’s Dreamer’s Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederick Prokosch, had come out only about a year ago – and apparently rather quietly, too, since I’ve been unable to locate a single detailed review of it. My arrival in Mukalla would be even further delayed, as I left the novel dormant while instead devouring Greenfield’s utterly compelling, deeply researched, tightly written and sensitive book. Greenfield’s uncovering of the enigma of Prokosch’s decline into obscurity is fascinating, and his examination of the writer’s unusual, complex trajectory provides an uncommon and invaluable angle from which to view 20th century literature and literary figures, both American and, to some extent, international.
From the start, Greenfield makes clear that Prokosch – even putting his literary works aside – was a complicated, captivating and difficult figure. Readers will hopefully excuse the absurdity of my attempting to distill Greenfield’s formidably researched 400+ pages into a summary paragraph, but I’ll try to touch on some highlights without, I hope, being too wretchedly reductionist. Born in Wisconsin in 1906 to German/Bohemian emigrant parents, Prokosch and his siblings grew up under a doting mother and an almost tyrannically perfectionist father, an academic who moved through a series of university appointments around the U.S. as a leading figure in German language studies. Frederic (familiarly, “Fritz”) was taunted as an adolescent for his small stature, feminine mannerisms, and intellectual “Prokoschiousness,” but at university, the surprising imago that emerged from this rather unpromising pupa was a tall, handsome athlete - who went on to win numerous tennis and squash championships in the U.S. and Europe – as well as something of a sexually profligate homosexual, a factor that led to an enduring estrangement from his coldly disapproving father. Aspiring to become a poet, (and along the way obtaining a Ph.D. in literature), Prokosch in his initial literary forays met with repeated rejection, until, lying about in a hammock one summer, he wrote The Asiatics – a startlingly atmospheric tale of a young man’s capricious and directionless adventures as he drifts across Asia from Lebanon to Indochina (parts of the world that Prokosch had never, at the time he wrote the book, visited). Upon its publication in 1935 The Asiatics became an astonishing overnight success, garnering great critical acclaim. A book of poems, The Assassins, shortly followed and earned similar accolades for Prokosch’s poetry. Thrust into sudden literary stardom, Prokosch began frequent travels around Europe. After a second less popularly successful but still widely hailed novel, The Seven Who Fled, Prokosch entered a lengthy period of literary decline, with most reviewers dismissing his several subsequent novels, despite their flashes of lyrical brilliance, as little more than tiresome variations on The Asiatics containing poorly drawn characters subservient to thinly linked series of moods and impressions too detached from story – and from reality – to be readable. Following public indifference, disdain and even ridicule from some establishment poets, including W. H. Auden (Greenfield produces a bitingly satirical poem by Louise Bogan poking fun at Prokosch’s verses), Prokosch abandoned poetry altogether and spent much of the 1930’s traveling about Europe, though still churning out one flawed, unsuccessful novel after another. The rise of Nazi Germany and the world’s entry into the Second World War cast Prokosch in an unfavorable light. Having originally taken as his literary models such diverse authors as May Sinclair, Isak Dinesen and Auden, Prokosch adopted as one of his chief idols during this period the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, sharing with Celine an admiration for fascism and, at least in the early years of the Third Reich, for Hitler’s transformation of Germany. While he later recanted these sentiments and spent much of the war working in the U.S. Army’s Office of Communications, serving for a time in the diplomatic corps in Stockholm (and boasting to have been involved in intelligence work and espionage), he seems to have initially viewed events leading up to America’s entry into the war as little more than intrusions into the sybaritic private life he led beachside in a Portuguese resort town. After the war, Prokosch’s literary efforts took a backseat to an intense social and promiscuous sexual life. He shuttled back and forth between Europe and the U.S., with erratic appearances among a crowd that included Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Christopher Isherwood, and other literary figures (Greenfield offers an amusing anecdote of an inquiry by Richard Wilbur as to Prokosch’s whereabouts, to which Stephen Spender replied, “He is doubtless in Europe somewhere, in a large car, out of touch with reality.”). For the most part abandoning the United States, towards which Prokosch felt increasingly deep disdain given his literary reception there, he settled in southern France and maintained a relationship with Jack Brady, a finance executive who – despite business concerns that kept him abroad for all but a few weeks of each year – would remain Prokosch’s closest companion for the rest of his life. In France, Prokosch experienced something of a resurrection of his literary talent (if not his career), putting out a few historical (and historically inventive) novels now critically viewed as among his best, including A Tale for Midnight, a fictional account of the Cenci family tragedy, and another, The Missolonghi Manuscript, detailing Byron’s final months. Prokosch then lapsed again into a frustrating and fruitless period during which he continued to write but failed to gain publisher interest in his work, which had taken a turn towards surrealist science fiction. In the 1970’s, Prokosch was implicated in an embarrassing and personally shattering forgery scandal, caught selling purported first editions of what have come to be known as his “butterfly books” – limited edition decorated pamphlets of his own and others’ poems, often with forged inscriptions and printed himself decades after the dates he ascribed to them. A late burst of affirmative recognition would come upon publication of his critically and popularly received literary “memoir,” Voices (which turned out to be almost entirely fictitious) and with further respect from the European community, which bestowed upon him a number of high honors for lifetime literary achievement. Prokosch died at his home in Grasse, France in 1989 at age 83.
Central to Greenfield’s biography is his focus on the many ways in which Prokosch often served as his own worst enemy, maintaining throughout his life a narcissistic self-absorption that kept him at a remove from others as well as from the events of his time. He details Prokosch’s lifelong inclination towards self-promotion, exaggeration, manipulation and prevarication, which enraged many who crossed his path, including publishers, whom Prokosch played against one another to extract concessions and advances, and other writers, towards some of whom Prokosch ran, like a Scottish shower, unpredictably hot and cold. Greenfield does an impressive job of examining both the roots of this constant shadowy dance with the truth as well as its more innocent side, allowing us to see it as Prokosch himself may have seen it, a means of creating a kind of idyllic presentation of himself. This “packaging” is a motif that ran throughout his life, from the personalized slipcases he designed for his library of first editions, to the exquisitely prepared editions of poems that would later cause him such trouble, to his aggressive and often highly imaginative machinations in strategizing his career with publishers and others. Greenfield also handles Prokosch’s homosexuality with great sensitivity, offering revealing and sometimes surprising (and damning) glimpses of the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-gay bigotry displayed by several well-known writers and critics. In this, Dreamer’s Journey obliquely provides a fascinating and significant look at sexual attitudes in the mid-century American and European literary world. Greenfield only skirts the margins of this life Prokosch led “in the shadows,” although going any deeper would obviously have been a daunting task for any biographer, particularly one whose subject, in his seventh decade, said of himself:
I have spent my life alone, utterly alone, and no biography of me could ever more than scratch the surface. All the facts in Who’s Who, or whatever, are so utterly meaningless. My real life (if I ever dared to write it!) has transpired in darkness, secrecy, fleeting contacts and incommunicable delights, any number of strange picaresque escapades and even crimes, and I don’t think that any of my “friends” have even the faintest notion of what I’m really like of have any idea of what my life has really consisted of…With all the surface “respectability,” diplomatic and scholarly and illustrious social contacts, my real life has been subversive, anarchic, vicious, lonely, and capricious.
Greenfield uncovers and investigates in Dreamer’s Journey a remarkable wealth of sources, pulling out gems of biographical and historical detail. These include Prokosch’s lifelong interest in lepidotery; his remarkable ability to copy, convincingly, almost anyone’s handwriting, even while writing upside down and backwards; a welcome affirmation of something that in retrospect seems obvious in reading his early novels, that he’d spent much of his youth poring obsessively over maps; and his having finally made a voyage across Asia covering, in reverse, many of the places he described in The Asiatics (one of my sole disappointments in Greenfield’s biography is the brevity with which he treats this journey; should anyone be looking for a potentially stimulating subject for research, here’s one that’s ready-made). In addition, there’s a brief mention of a lengthy overland voyage in the late 1930’s from Vienna to Constantinople, which had me wondering whether Prokosch, while in Europe, might have somehow learned of the remarkable journey taken along this route slightly earlier by a young man named Patrick Leigh Fermor. Of particular interest are the synopses of the half dozen or so books that Prokosch could not get published, the manuscripts of which Greenfield unearthed in the archives at the University of Texas. His late unpublished novels flirt with magical realism, science fiction, and a sordid kind of horror (the wildly over-the-top plots of a couple of them, The Inn of the Wolf and The Mermaid, sound from Greenfield’s descriptions like something one might have concocted from an amalgam of And Then There Were None, The Exterminating Angel, and Salò).
Most fascinating to me about Greenfield’s book is its sidelong glance at Prokosch’s attempts to escape the existing parameters of American fiction and create an “international” literature, and at the differences between European and American literary cultures as viewed through their differing receptions to Prokosch’s work. Prokosch emerges as an especially intriguing figure, given his strong European roots, his returns to Europe throughout his life and his final choice to settle there, as well as the “internationalist” quality of his writing, which found him, as though craving escape from his immediate surroundings, repeatedly projecting his plots and characters into remote, forgotten corners of the globe. Prokosch’s own view of American literature as insular and shallow (a view that can still find a resonant echo, as in Nobel Prize committee secretary Horace Engdahl’s 2008 complaint that American writers fail to participate “in the big dialogue of literature”) led him farther and farther afield from American concerns (though he did briefly attempt to return to them in his late novel, America, My Wilderness). No doubt Prokosch’s nearly constant string of disappointments from American publishers, critics, and the reading public pushed him into an increasingly pronounced anti-Americanism, but this was an attitude formed early and only enhanced by these failures. Still, Prokosch’s best works are undeniably unique creations, and a more generous view of their “internationalism” might underscore a kind of valor in his effort to transcend literary smallness and provincialism (that he was admired by a writer with such strong social convictions as Sinclair Lewis is perhaps less surprising than it might at first appear). His best known work, The Asiatics, and the variations on it that followed, might well wither under the harsh light of some contemporary critical approaches (particularly, I’d imagine, from post-colonialists and others employing Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism, who would likely make quick hash out of something like Nine Days to Mukalla, with its potpourri of hookahs, snake charmers, bejeweled prostitutes, mad camels, fiercely barbed and turbaned nomads, and other stereotypical Arabian rangelanda). But Prokosch’s more successful work certainly deserves more recent critical attention than it has received. He remains a singular, intriguing, and underappreciated American writer.
In the end one comes to see Prokosch as an immensely complicated and rather tragically lonesome figure, whose works spanned a range of quality from the nearly unreadable to a few unparalleled masterpieces, and who was at one time far from the marginal literary figure he is today. While restraining himself from advocacy, Greenfield, in Dreamer’s Journey, makes a convincing argument that Prokosch remains one of the most enigmatic and unusual of 20th century American authors, who left us at least a handful of brilliant books that deserve revisiting and perhaps some rehabilitation of a literary reputation that, until now, with the welcome corrective arrival of Greenfield’s superb biography, has been built on a glaringly incomplete picture.