This is an excerpt from a work-in-progress, The Book of Minor Modernists; another excerpt has appeared in Burning House Press.
BASIL FLORESCU (1903–2004)
Vasile Florescu was born in Paris to a Romanian father and an English mother. Raised in the luxury of the sixteenth arrondissement, he was educated at home, but soon outpaced his tutors, and in the autumn of 1917, the fourteen-year-old Florescu matriculated at Cambridge, where he studied history, physics, and philosophy. It was here that he adopted the anglicized version of his first name, Basil, that he would use for the rest of his life. In 1925, he submitted his doctoral dissertation, a new version of the ontological argument that incorporated Einstein’s theory of relativity. Florescu counted himself a disciple of eighteenth-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who he called “the prophet of the modern world.” Florescu’s major philosophical papers, published between 1927 and 1934, offer a Berkeleyan interpretation of quantum mechanics, contra Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s “standard” interpretation.
Florescu moved to London in 1925 and married Marina Kutuzova, a Russian émigré, in May 1927. Three months later, she died after falling from the balcony of their house in Belgravia. Neighbors claimed that the couple had been arguing before the fall, but the police ultimately declined to press charges. Florescu remarried—and divorced—four times in his long life.
A 1928 debate with Bertrand Russell in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement established Florescu as a public intellectual, and over the next six decades, he published countless articles on everything from Roman antiquities to American sitcoms. He wrote extensively on international politics, taking a hard line against communism. Though critical of anti-semitism, he offered measured praise for the Nazis: “Hitler is hardly the ideal champion of human liberty,” he wrote in 1934, “but he has at least the courage to resist Bolshevism—a courage that so many among us seem to lack.” During the war, Florescu worked for the Office of Strategic Services in London, helping to interpret intelligence on the Axis’s scientific capabilities.
Florescu relocated to the United States in 1946, and for the rest of his life, he held professorships at various American universities, lecturing on philosophy and Cold War politics. He became a contributing editor at William F. Buckley’s National Review in 1957 and appeared often on Buckley’s talk show, Firing Line, in the 1960s and 1970s; TV Guide commended his “elegant, Old World charm.” In 1982, Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Florescu died of natural causes at his home in Connecticut at the age of 100. In 2011, documents from a recently unsealed archive in Bucharest revealed that he was a double agent during the war, passing information on the OSS to Romania’s fascist government, who in turn shared it with the Nazis.
ÉDOUARD GAROT (1878–1910)
One of his contemporaries called Édouard Garot “the angriest man in Europe.” Born in Brussels, Garot enrolled at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1897, but left after only two months, disgusted by the “idiocy and degeneracy” of his instructors and fellow students. For the next few years, he was a clerk at the Anglo-Belgian Indian Rubber Company; his earliest surviving works are drawings in pencil made at his desk. In December 1901, he married his landlord’s daughter, Imke Visser. Four months later, she gave birth to a daughter. Garot abandoned them in July 1902, leaving in the middle of the night for Paris.
During his first years in Paris, Garot made a series of pen-and-ink drawings that have come to be known as Les Crétins. Influenced by Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau, whose work Garot idolized for its grotesquerie and violence, the drawings depict monstrous figures who leer at the viewer or chew themselves in rage. By 1905, Garot had taken up painting, a medium that he never mastered. He hoped to recreate his crétins in oil, but found himself unable to delineate the figures as clearly as he had in pen. The result was a semi-abstract style that baffled his contemporaries. Only two of his paintings were displayed during his lifetime, though they would later influence the abstract expressionists.
Garot held several jobs in Paris, but tended to lose them quickly, and lived in extreme poverty. In 1907, he married Suzanne Roux, a barmaid. She soon discovered his previous marriage, and he was tried for bigamy and sentenced to three months of hard labor.
Though he detested all the impressionists, Garot had a special hatred for Claude Monet. “Monet’s sluggish rivers and lifeless flowers represent the extent of man’s capacity for cowardice and mediocrity,” Garot wrote in an unpublished 1909 essay. For years, he sent long letters to Monet, demanding that the older artist stop painting; Monet never responded. On July 10, 1910, Garot boarded a train to Giverny with a loaded gun, intending to kill Monet. The gun, however, went off in Garot’s pocket, wounding him in the thigh. Garot refused treatment; the wound became infected, and he died on July 18.
ARTURO JIMÉNEZ (1860–1926)
Born in Puebla, Arturo Ignacio Jiménez Ruiz was a gifted pianist from early childhood. In 1881, he entered the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City, and two years later, he went abroad to study at the Vienna Conservatory. His earliest compositions consisted mostly of piano sonatas. After finishing his studies, Jiménez established himself in Vienna, writing music, teaching the children of wealthy families, and giving concerts. He married Maria Klein in 1888; they had three children.
Jiménez had little interest in opera until 1896, when he saw a production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. “For the first time,” he wrote, “I understood the full force of Wagner’s idea—the total work of art. But I also saw his flaw: the Norse gods are too tame. Wagner’s idea needs a mythology worthy of it.” Later that year, Jiménez began to write the libretto for La Falda de Serpientes, an opera based on the Aztec creation myth, and by December 1897, he had completed the score; on New Year’s Eve, he performed the opera on the piano for family and friends, singing all the parts himself. Jiménez offered La Falda de Serpientes to several companies in Vienna, but none wanted to produce a nearly five-hour Spanish-language opera about the Aztec gods. Undeterred, Jiménez began to write a sequel, Las Estrellas del Sur, but progress was slow: “It is impossible,” he wrote in his diary, “to write a Mexican epic in Europe.” In 1901, he and his family moved to Mexico City.
Over the next decade and a half, Jiménez completed Las Estrellas del Sur and three other operas: Huitzilopochtli, El Volcán, and El Conejo en la Luna. Known collectively as the Trece Cielos cycle, they tell the story of Aztec mythology from the creation of the world to the dawn of the fifth age. Jiménez hoped to have the entire cycle performed at once, as Wagner did with his Ring cycle at Bayreuth, but his elaborate sets proved expensive: El Volcán, for instance, required an enormous on-stage volcano that erupted in the final act. The operas went unproduced for years.
In 1920, Álvaro Obrégan was elected president of Mexico, and his government instituted various programs to foster Mexican art. Though privately critical of Obregán for refusing to nationalize U.S. oil companies in Mexico, Jiménez convinced the government to stage the Trece Cielos cycle, arguing that it would “do for Mexico what Wagner’s art did for Germany.” In April 1924, La Falda de Serpientes premiered in Mexico City, conducted by Jiménez himself. Las Estrellas del Sur was staged the following year; Jiménez planned to conduct, but severe stomach pain forced him to pull out at the last minute. He had long suffered from ulcers, but his health worsened over the next year, and in September 1926, he died of a gastrointestinal hemorrhage. The Trece Cielos cycle was not performed in its entirety until 1949.
LENA LITVINA (1921–1944)
Lena Mikhailovna Litvina came from a radical family: her grandfather was one of the leaders of the Jewish self-defense force during a 1903 pogrom, and her father was a member of the Bund. She was born in Minsk in 1921, and published her first poem at the age of fourteen in a Yiddish literary journal. By 1936, Litvina had begun to write in Russian. Her pre-war work is imitative of the Silver Age poets, particularly Osip Mandelstam.
The Nazis occupied Minsk in June 1941, and Litvina’s father was among the first Jews arrested and executed. Litvina fled into the forest and joined the partisans. She spent the next three years fighting throughout Belarus; notably, her unit assassinated the SS brigade leader in Vitebsk. Throughout the war, Litvina continued to write poetry, pairing striking symbolist imagery with the realities of partisan life. She recited her work around the campfire, to the admiration of a younger partisan-poet, Ilya Zakharenko; the two married in 1943. In June 1944, Litvina was killed in a skirmish with the retreating Wehrmacht.
After the war, Zakharenko began to publish Litvina’s poems in Soviet literary journals, and in 1947, he edited a collection of her work, From the Forest. Encouraged by its success, the next year he published a memoir about his and Litvina’s time as partisans. Zakharenko remarried in 1953, but continued to champion Litvina’s work, writing several monographs on it and editing a volume of her pre-war poetry and journal entries, in addition to publishing two collections of his own poetry.
By 1970, From the Forest had been translated into eight languages; it proved particularly popular in Italy. In 1973, Andrei Alexandrov, a Russian writer who had recently defected to West Germany, claimed that Zakharenko was the real author of From the Forest. Noting that there were no manuscripts in Litvina’s own hand, Alexandrov said that Zakharenko had “dressed his own second-rate poetry in her first-rate myth.” Zakharenko denied the accusations, attributing the lack of manuscripts to the exigencies of the war: Litvina, he explained, had memorized her poems for lack of paper; he had only written them down later. Scholars continue to debate the issue. Zakharenko died of a heart attack in St. Petersburg a few months after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
ART THOMAS (1900–1989)
Arthur Thomas was a math teacher and basketball coach at Central High School in his hometown of Elmira, New York. In 1946, he and his family went to New York City on vacation. At the Museum of Modern Art, they saw three of Piet Mondrian’s Composition paintings. Thomas was fascinated with the paintings’ lines, which seem to run off the edges of the canvas, as if each painting were only a piece of a larger whole. He sketched copies of the three paintings on the inside of his guidebook and spent the rest of the vacation trying to join their grids, but he could not make them fit. Concluding that he simply did not have all the pieces, he embarked on a project that would last the rest of his life.
For the next forty years, Thomas devoted his spare time to Mondrian, buying dozens of books, keeping up with art markets, corresponding with curators and buyers, and taking his family on vacations to London, Paris, and the Netherlands to see Mondrian’s paintings. He developed a catalog of Mondrian’s works more complete than any professional art historian at the time, and copied nearly every painting himself in pencil on graph paper. “He had no artistic training,” his wife told the New York Times in 1990, “but he was a geometry teacher. Straight lines, rectangles—that made sense to him.”
Ultimately, Thomas hoped to create what he called “the big grid”—a single work that incorporated all of Mondrian’s paintings. Working in the family’s basement, he arranged his copies of the works into an enormous assemblage, redrawing them at different sizes as necessary. By 1960, his big grid encompassed more than half of Mondrian’s paintings, covering two walls of the basement. Thomas, however, came to believe that this arrangement would never yield a complete grid, and after his retirement from teaching in 1965, he started from scratch, but his second grid never incorporated more than thirty-five percent of Mondrian’s paintings.
In the 1980s, Thomas dealt with various health problems, severely impairing his work on the project. He died of heart disease in 1989. His family and friends had known about his work for years, but it came to broad attention after a 1990 New York Times article. His big grids have since been shown at several major museums.