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Grubby manuscripts implicitly begging us to rethink Modernism are making it into print at an amazing rate these days. The latest diamond-in-the-rough to fly out of its box in the Beinecke Library is H.D.'s Asphodel, a roman a clef drafted in 1921-22, and retailored at some point in the thirties to stand as a continuation of its more famous sister-work, HERmione. Like Mina Loy, H.D. worked and reworked prose versions of crucial autobiographical episodes; the material in Asphodel overlaps with the "War I" material in both Paint It ToDay and Bid Me To Live. If we take her at her word, H.D. never thought this seedbed of a novel was as good as the others; the title page of the manuscript bears her command "DESTROY." Critics will view the publication of this "most explicitly lesbian" of H.D.'s works as a victory over self-censorship and silence, and students of Modernism and devoted readers of H.D. are certainly more fortunate for her ambivalence.

As an expanded rendition of the turbulent period between H.D.'s expatriation and the birth of her daughter Perdita, Asphodel chronicles the shifting triangles of H.D.'s romantic career (H.D., Ezra Pound, Frances Gregg; H.D., Richard Aldington, Bridget Patmore; H.D., Cecil Gray, Bryher) with all the assiduousness of info-tainment. What rescues the work from its author's apparent vanity, and from her self-conscious aestheticizing (and Hellenizing, and Hokusai-zing) of all observation, is the importance and relative obscurity of the tale she tells - the development of the female, lesbian, and mother as an artist, in a culture of hostility. Like Virginia Woolf, H.D. is skillful at making a critique of heterosexual relationships resonate, through experimental aesthetics, as a critique of culture. She also has Woolf's feel for the various classic "plots" that inform novels; one of the best moments in Asphodel is in the early "Americans-abroad" section, in which Hermione (H.D.) studiously watches a bedbug racing ("tight and fast about his business, rather American") over the "Mont Blanc" of the bedsheet in a Parisian hotel.

Though one could easily miss the geometric forest for the stylized trees here, the work is meticulously structured. The editor offers satisfying maps to the whole in the introduction, and keys in the carefully researched appendix, which supplies identifications and brief, inviting histories of most of the characters. Yet despite its able editing, the reader will occasionally be reminded that Asphodel was left for dead on a library shelf by its author. The dialogue can be remarkably hard to attribute; the title and epigraph themselves are misquotations, as Spoo points out, of a passage from Landor. Whether these among others are signs that "Hilda nodded," or whether they represent part of the feminist critique of linguistic and cultural mastery (Hermione says, "There are other haunts, not of the intellect"), is an open question. It's too bad that consistency demanded regularizing the occasional variant on "George Lowndes," the Pound character's name: as Susan Stanford Friedman argues, "Lowndes" may have been, from H.D.'s point of view, the truer fiction.
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Author:Januzzi, Marisa
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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