“DESTROY,” H.D. had pencilled across the title page of this autobiographical novel. Although the manuscript survived, it has remained unpublished since its completion in the 1920s. Regarded by many as one of the major poets of the modernist period, H.D. created in Asphodel a remarkable and readable experimental prose text, which in its manipulation of technique and voice can stand with the works of Joyce, Woolf, and Stein; in its frank exploration of lesbian desire, pregnancy and motherhood, artistic independence for women, and female experience during wartime, H.D.’s novel stands alone.
A sequel to the author’s HERmione, Asphodel takes the reader into the bohemian drawing rooms of pre-World War I London and Paris, a milieu populated by such thinly disguised versions of Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, May Sinclair, Brigit Patmore, and Margaret Cravens; on the other side of what H.D. calls “the chasm,” the novel documents the war’s devastating effect on the men and women who considered themselves guardians of beauty. Against this riven backdrop, Asphodel plays out the story of Hermione Gart, a young American newly arrived in Europe and testing for the first time the limits of her sexual and artistic identities. Following Hermione through the frustrations of a literary world dominated by men, the failures of an attempted lesbian relationship and a marriage riddled with infidelity, the birth of an illegitimate child, and, finally, happiness with a female companion, Asphodel describes with moving lyricism and striking candor the emergence of a young and gifted woman from her self-exile.
Reading over the blurb for this novel, I’m not sure that the writer really had a good think about what the term “readable” means. To me, it means something that runs along and is kind of average difficulty wise. I’m not saying I’m totally disagreeing with the term readable in the case of this book, because it is exactly that… readable. It at least makes sense half the time.
This isn’t a book to be casually picked up and put down. This book demands attention, it demands time and it demands a whole lot of brain power. It lingers on the borderline of making absolutely no sense at all in parts- likely because it’s not known how much editing H.D. had done to this text as part of the evolutionary process it went through to become Bid Me to Live. It makes this a really hard book to review, because I’m not even sure if I understood a lot of it- or even that it is meant to be understood.
The prose is utterly stunning in this- beautiful, long, drawn out paragraphs of gorgeous writing that makes you want to simultaneously weep and smile. It feels like you’re in her dream, wandering around as it twists and turns around you, staring over her shoulder as she goes through her life. Sometimes the dream is a nightmare. Sometimes it is warm and cosy.
Was it two in the morning? Odd white mist rising from a silver river, far and far and rather cold stars. Stars in France are rather cold, taking on a sort of artificial glamour like diamond stars on king’s breasts.
I loved seeing the creative process at work. There are many passages that are mirrors of some in Bid Me to Live, others that are extremely similar. Much of the book is not the same, as it deals with a slightly earlier time period and with a cast of different characters, but there are some overlaps.
The most obvious constant is the figure of Richard Aldington, who is Jerrold Darrington here, and Rafe Ashton in Bid Me to Live. Here, he comes across as a much harsher and more potentially dangerous man, particularly after he returns from the war. D.H. Lawrence is noticeably absent in Asphodel, but Cecil Grey (as Cyril Vane again) is here as the man she ultimately leaves Aldington for. This iteration also deals with her lesbian relationships with Frances Gregg and Bryher, which the later version did not.
This is not honestly a book I can say I liked, per say. It was a book I wrestled with and found absolutely daunting, extremely hard going but very, very rewarding. For a book that was marked for destruction by it’s author, it is very good. I don’t think it is as good as Bid Me to Live, though I liked how she dealt with her lesbianism here. I think time and hindsight might have resolved some of the confusion and anger she was feeling in the early 1920’s, when she was writing this. I’d absolutely love to talk to her and find out what the process she went through, with writing the Madrigals and whether it truly was part of the healing process for her to get over this era in her life.
I wouldn’t recommend this to the casual reader, not really. If it interests you and you really want to, then do go for it. I would recommend Bid Me to Live over Asphodel, but this is a very, very beautiful work of art. It’s almost more art than literature, in some ways.