A twist with a tail

An Irishman’s Diary about literary Lucifers

‘Hemingway’s encounter with Ford, on the terrace of a Montparnasse cafe, had a comic interlude involving yet another writer, the Anglo-Frenchman Hilaire Belloc (above centre, with George Bernard Shaw, left, and G K Chesterton)’. Photograph:  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘Hemingway’s encounter with Ford, on the terrace of a Montparnasse cafe, had a comic interlude involving yet another writer, the Anglo-Frenchman Hilaire Belloc (above centre, with George Bernard Shaw, left, and G K Chesterton)’. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sat, Dec 21, 2013, 01:00

While assassinating the character of Ford Madox Ford during his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (Irishman’s Diary, December 19th), Ernest Hemingway also tells a funny story that, I’ve since discovered, has a bizarre, even diabolical, Irish link.

In fact, as reader Padraig Harvey informs me, Ford left strong links with this country. An Englishman of German parentage, he was born with the surname Hueffer, which he simplified to Huffer, then abandoned, circa 1919, in favour of something less Teutonic. In the meantime, however, he had fathered a daughter, Catherine Hueffer, who married the artist Charles Lamb, who lived in Connemara. They in turn produced the future wife of the great wildlife documentarist, Éamon de Buitléar, leading to further offspring who populate Connemara to this day.

But getting back to A Moveable Feast, and Hemingway’s encounter with Ford on the terrace of a Montparnasse cafe – which had a comic interlude involving yet another writer, the Anglo-Frenchman Hilaire Belloc.

Specifically, Ford is said to have exultantly interrupted their conversation at one point to ask if Hemingway had noticed the way he (Ford) had just “cut” – ie given a dirty look to – Belloc. And Hemingway has to admit that no, he didn’t notice either the look, or that the “gaunt man in a cape” who has just walked by was Belloc.

So there follows an amusing exchange in which Hemingway first asks Ford why he “cut” him (“because a gentleman always cuts a cad” is the reply); and then, leading the older man on, inquires whether a gentleman should always cut a “bounder” as well as a cad (no, “because it would be impossible for a gentleman to have known a bounder”); before finally wondering whether he (Hemingway), despite being American, could also be considered a gentleman.

“Absolutely not,” replies Ford, who then adds, with the magnanimity of an Englishman: “You might be considered a gentleman in Italy.”

Anyway, all this is beside the point. Which is that, in the tale’s denouement, after Ford has departed and Hemingway has been joined by another acquaintance, he sees the man with the cape pass by again and says: “That’s Hilaire Belloc. Ford was here this afternoon and cut him dead.”

Whereupon the friend calls him a “silly ass” and points out that it wasn’t Belloc at all”. “That’s Alestair Crowley, the diabolist. He’s supposed to be the wickedest man in the world.” Crowley was indeed known as the wickedest man in the world, at least to the tabloid press of his native England. He was also a bit of a renaissance figure, being among other things a poet, magician, and mountaineer. But it was for his occultism, and his busy sex life, with both men and women, that he became notorious.

Like WB Yeats and other celebrities of his era, he was a member of something called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and later founded a religion of sorts himself. His posthumous fame includes being named in a song by Black Sabbath and appearing on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. But during his early years in Paris, long before his Hemingway cameo, Crowley was friendly with an Anglo-Irish painter called Gerald Festus Kelly. And it was through this friendship that he met and married the painter’s sister, Rose Edith Kelly, much to her family’s horror.

Apparently it was intended as a marriage of convenience on her part, and it soon ended in divorce. But they were genuinely attached for a time. In fact, it’s said to have been a trance she experienced while travelling with Crowley in Egypt that inspired his religious cult.

Those Kellys were descendants of a man – also called Festus – who appears to have originated in the west of Ireland sometime in the late 1700s. In fact, the Christian name, which followed down the generations, may suggest a link with the aforementioned Connemara, where Festus has long been popular as the Latin (and more polite) version of Fechin, a local saint.

In any case, Sir Gerald Festus Kelly, as he became, was a well-known figure in the Anglo-Irish art worlds of the early 20th century. He also figured at least once in the columns of Myles na gCopaleen, after receiving an honorary degree from Trinity College (something the outraged Myles affected to believe had been promised to him).

And I wonder if Kelly and his colourful former brother-in-law were a factor when Myles’s other literary persona, Flann O’Brien, wrote his one and only full-length play. A twist on the Faustian myth, it was entitled Faustus Kelly. And it detailed the comic consequences of a deal between an ambitious Irish politician and the Devil, who quickly finds himself out of his depth.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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