Harry Whitecliffe is the sombre hero of this story of madness, blood, death and redemption. It is true that the years, themselves, were roaring, having been terrible from 1914 to 1918…
Sensing, perhaps, that their happiness will not last, the survivors just want to have fun. The euphoria has also reached staid Albion, which has fallen in love with a way of life that mirrors that of the Continent…
In the London of the 1920’s, a slim book appears. It is of such literary promise, that the edition is sold out within a few days. It contains a series of marvellous pastiches of Oscar Wilde, light as a flute of champagne, but of such perfect art, that people have difficulty in believing that it is the work of a beginner. No-one has ever heard of Harry Whitecliffe.
The author seems to be totally disinterested in his success. The most severe critics can praise as much as they like the qualities of the work, and the big newspapers print whole extracts from it, the new literary giant, for whom everyone predicts a fine career, remains obstinately hidden.
Editors make their discontentment felt when their reporters are still returning without an interview, several weeks later…
Then suddenly, just when people are beginning to think that it is a literary joke, by George Bernard Shaw perhaps, or the very young T. S. Elliot, turning to prose, Whitecliffe at last consents to put in an appearance.
He is twenty-three years old, a handsome boy, sportive, but fond of his food, amiable and excentric: it is said that one night on the town, he gave a little beggar-girl from the slums a cheque for five hundred pounds…
His editor’s accounts bore him, and he sends his groom to pick up considerable sums of money, always in ten pound notes, the only ones he can stand. He loves flowers, but only if their stalks are no longer than twenty centimetres. Exactly the sort of character that the English love… Now, he is invited everywhere. People fawn over him, and the newspapers are full of him…
He also continues to write. Poetry, stories, essays, plays. One of his comedies, Similia, runs for four hundred straight performances in London, then throughout the whole of England. This brings him a fortune which he immediately dilapidates with friends.
He orders cars specially built for him, which are real rolling salons. His is the name on all lips, the man that everybody wants at their grand receptions. With his mysterious side, which enchants. Sometimes, he disappears for weeks, during which time, people lose themselves in conjectures. It is true that he has a lot of liaisons, and those who question him do not insist, but praise his exquisite discretion.
At the beginning of 1923, he is one of the kings of London. Adulated by the best society, he sees opening before him a destiny that others, however gifted, have awaited much longer…
Suddenly, one day in September, it is learnt that he has just sold everything that he owns, and that he has given a free hand to his editor to administer his work. He makes it known that he is going to spend a few months in Holland.
“For as long as it takes to learn about Flemish paintings and pierce the secret of their down-to-earth idealism.”
And with this delicious paradox, he jumps aboard a liner, leaving a band of consternated friends on the quay.
Before the end of the year, he is to be found in Dresden, Germany.
In 1924, the capital of the old Saxon kings is still a museum town, whose castles and churches are reflected in the Elbe. He settles in sumptuously, and soon, in honour of this distinguished guest, the Dresden theatre puts Similia on the programme, with enormous success, which is also explained by the quality of the translation: it is by the author, himself, who is equally gifted in both German and English. Soon, some ninety German theatres are performing his play.
He then devotes himself to poetry and modern painting, and founds in Dresden, which is also the capital of the German intelligence of this time, an avant-garde magazine and publishing house. It’s the Dorian Verlag, whose few remaining publications are worth a fortune.
He appears entirely conquered by his new country, where he leads a life that is totally opposite to the one in London. Early to rise, he gallops every morning until nine o’clock on the banks of the Elbe.
At ten o’clock, he takes care of his business until evening, scarcely stopping to lunch in his office. At six o’clock, he visits salons, exhibitions, meets a few people from the literary or elegant world, then returns home for nine o’clock. And what does he do then? No-one knows. Some, at Dresden, ponder the question…
It is probable that he retires early to remain in form, or he writes inside his apartment which reeks of Gemutlichkeit, German comfort, with its precious objects, notably a superb collection of French wild animal paintings… No-one sees him at any dinners, circles or wild night clubs of the epoch, which are so numerous in Dresden, and elsewhere, in this Germany of despair.
This life of exemplary regularity, almost monotonous, has perhaps another reason, too. Love has entered into his frivolous life, and marks it with a gravity of which his English friends would have thought him incapable, in the person of a pure and beautiful young girl of nineteen, Wally von Hammerstein. One of those Bavarian girls who, when they are beautiful, surpass the beauty of all other German girls.
Whitecliffe is not bad-looking either, and their equal culture naturally brings the two young people together. Of excellent family too, the writer can only favourably impress the aristocratic young lady’s parents, and soon an engagement is mentioned.
Meanwhile, they take long romantic gallops along the river and in the Saxon plain, whose horizons are as vast as the smiling destiny which opens before them. They would like their marriage to be as soon as possible.
To be continued.