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Brian Coffey

Bits & pieces served with Coffey

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Brian Coffey

Coffey told me two stories about his association with Hemingway whom he met in Paris. As I recall in the first story, Coffey said he was sitting with two others at Les Deux Magots, one of whom had recently reviewed, and panned, one of Hemingway’s books. I can’t recall what particular year it was or which book it was since it could have been Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923), or In Our Time (1924) (a title slightly plagiarized from Lermontov) or The Torrents of Spring (1926) (a title totally plagiarized from Turgenev) because they were all written in Paris. Regardless, Coffey was sitting at a table where he could see anyone walk into the café and he saw Hemingway walk in apparently in a foul mood. According to Coffey, Hemingway surveyed the café and spotted Coffey with the miscreant reviewer whose back was to the door at which point Papa stormed over to the table. Now, much has been made about how “macho” Hemingway was. Whether he was or wasn’t is open to biographical scrutiny; however, what he did at that moment really gave “machismo” a bad name since without warning he walked up behind the reviewer and coldcocked him. The reviewer fell to the floor and Hemingway stormed out of the café. Moral: be careful about giving your opinion about Hemingway. That made the second story that much more ironic. The second story Coffey told me was also corroborated by Beckett. Of course, Hemingway had no reluctance when it came to offering his literary opinions or any other opinion. One only needs to read his anti-Semitic poem “To a Tragic Poetess” dedicated to Dorothy Parker to appreciate that, but another of his opinions dealt with Joyce’s “Fragments of a Work in Progress” [i.e. Finnegans Wake] to which Hemingway opined something to the effect that people shouldn’t be too hard on Joyce since “Ulysses tired him out.” Curious comment coming from someone who coldcocked a journalist for not liking one of his books. Hemingway stories aside, I was also keenly interested in initiating a correspondence with Coffey and, for a while, I did.

The University of Delaware has Coffey’s correspondence. Alas, any letters from me to him aren’t extant and I don’t have anything I ever wrote to him. However, I kept what he wrote to me and his letters really bespeak of the man’s brilliance and his humanity. We exchanged a number of letters mostly dealing with French literature and, specifically, with the Symbolists. But one letter in particular moved me more than any of the others. It was a transitional time for me when I was at the confluence of deciding what exactly to do with my life (to write OR to teach) and I expressed that anxiety to him. On 14:viii:78 and again on 21:x:78, he wrote me letters, excerpts of which had a major effect on me:

 

“Dear Mark,

Thank you for your letter. Don’t try to separate human activities into real and non-real ones. Whatever men or women do is real in so far as being what they do. So earning one’s living in a university as lecturer is a real activity which may also be a means to a further end. One is just earning one’s keep by lecturing, which one can do badly, or well or if one attends to the opportunity very well. It is when a person attempts to pull rank or to see themselves not as other men/mss and to expect to be taken as speaking with authority that an element of unreality (=lies) appears.”

 

And following: “Don’t forget that Dante was both poet and scholar, and that scholarship, scientific study, poetry and statesmanship proceed from the personal centre of a human being, the intelligence preceding the specifications. The only problems that arise are those one makes for oneself and those one sets up barriers and obstacles to the doing and to the making. The imperative of choice disarms, no doubt, but it is choose or die on any plane and slipping into working and then choosing to go on is a good path. The Muses also are a reality.” Hadn’t ever thought of myself in the company of Dante whether in this hell or any other hell, but the point was well taken.

Years lapsed. I returned to the United States, finished my doctorate and took a position at Chapman College in 1990. I wrote to Coffey extending an invitation to come to Chapman which he politely declined. The letter, written on 26:ix:90, only a few months after Beckett’s death, included a poem he wrote titled, “One Way” from the collection Third Person.

 

“Giving what he has not given

he sees what he has not seen

Taken what he has not taken

he hears what he has not heard

No worst fear

no best fight

constraint constrained

to work himself out”

 

 At the bottom of the page he wrote, “poem, written in 1937, with S.B. in mind, is a kind of pre-view of the man to come. He was a faithful friend. From our first meeting, in 1935, to the end. R.I.P.”

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