on Transatlantic Aliens: Modernism, Exile, and Culture in Midcentury America by Will Norman (Johns Hopkins University Press)

In The Impossible Exile, his biography of Stefan Zweig’s final decade, George Prochnik asks, “What makes a good exile? Is there a calculable equation of inner fortitude, openness of mind, and external networks that determines a refugee’s odds of survival? Why did Thomas Mann, Carl Zuckmayer, and Zweig’s friend the conductor Bruno Walter flourish in the United States, while Zweig, Bertold Brecht, and the dramatist Ernst Toller recoiled from almost every aspect of their New World experience?”

NormanCover.jpgWill Norman’s Transatlantic Aliens comprises a discerning response to Prochnik’s questions by illuminating how and why exilic figures such as Adorno, de Beauvoir, Nabokov, Steinberg, Grosz and others persisted through disorientation. But Norman also portrays the evolving field of relations between post-war American innovators and the newcomers determined to influence the west’s new center of the arts.

The narrative of Zweig’s demise, at least as Zweig recounted it in letters, pitted the refined and modernistically enlightened creative psyches of Vienna, Berlin and Paris versus the commercial debasements of America. The latter’s crassness was seen as simply too pervasive to overcome. But Norman shows that certain other emigres seemed to gather their powers from the very antagonistic differences they encountered. Even more relevant for us now, the European cosmopolitans encountered a wave of right-wing authoritarianism and xenophobia that echoes the challenges faced by current immigrants.

Norman.jpegThere is the case of C.L.R. James who during the McCarthyism of 1953 was deported to Britain for alleged Communist ties (he had none). Adorno, newly arrived from Germany, was designated as an “enemy alien” during World War II and prohibited to travel beyond a five-mile circumference from his home in Los Angeles. When Beauvoir’s America Day by Day was published in 1947, she was pilloried by some mainstream critics as if she had no right to remark candidly on the United States.

The clash of cultures, Norman reveals, yields new hybrids that may profoundly shift the field of relations between artists and their audiences. Raymond Chandler, Norman asserts, is “a transatlantic modernist whose characteristic hardboiled style and conflicted position in relation to mass culture derives from the idiosyncratic encounter he stages between his cultural adolescence on the British literary scene in the early years of the twentieth century and the unique emergence of modernity in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1940s.”

Commenting on Hannah Arendt’s telling essay “We Refugees” (1943), Norman writes, “This is a question of adaptation rather than assimilation, in the sense that adaptation entails the subject responding to changes in the environment with her own innovations, but only in order to protect deeper currents of continuity in her disposition.” That fine phrase – “deeper currents of continuity” – suggests why so many of us are responding to younger poets who portray recent crossings from elsewhere: they force us to renew attention to our own deeper currents as well as to the arduous experiences of immigrants. This urgently needed discernment informs Norman’s portraits of personalities, their circumstances and their works.

NormanDeBeauvoir.jpgNorman’s chapter, “The Taste of Freedom,” takes up the figures of Nabokov and de Beauvoir in an intriguing way – by their experiences with the great American road trip. (De Beauvoir traveled around the States in 1947 – at the very moment Jack Kerouac hit the road.) Norman suggests that cross-country travel influenced not only de Beauvoir’s America Day By Day but also Nabokov’s Lolita, insofar as both texts underscore the very nature of freedom (Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze flee across the “crazy quilt of forty-eight states”). Of America, de Beauvoir wrote, “It is a battlefield, and you can only become passionate about the battle it is waging with itself, in which the stakes are beyond measure.”

NormanSnatchers.jpgAs World War II was ending, André Malraux envisioned a new “Atlantic Civilization” rising out of the wreckage. He was looking across the sea to New York. As a matter of timing, the flight of intellectual and artistic exiles to America coincides with the fading of Modernism — and the beginning of something more provisional and creatively turbulent than an Atlantic Civilization. Norman’s immigrants not only weathered the challenging transition to American turf but also, in their new work, pointed the way ahead for painters, writers, and thinkers as the 1950’s advanced. He shows quite convincingly that it’s a short hop from the alienation of exiles during those years to the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The alien, commercialized and omnipresent, was becoming the norm.

[Published November 16, 2016. 288 pages, $45.00 hardcover]