At StAnza Poetry Festival a few years ago Peter McCarey gave Robert Crawford a copy of Sergey Zavyalov's newly published English and Russian version of his poem Advent, Leningrad 1941 which he has published in his Molecular Press imprint. A couple of years later, Robert asked the Press if it might be interested in a text of his own that echoed aspects of Zavyalov's approach; he suggested an English and French version, with the translation by Paul Malgrati.
PMcC: I was intrigued by the proposal and delighted by the text. Judging by the response from the book launch (an online event with participants from ten countries), that wasn’t an unusual response. I’d like to take up again some of the questions that arose at that event as a result of your reading. Zavyalov’s poem seemed to suggest to you a way of approaching a theme that had been with you since childhood. Would you tell me first how and why the story of Violette Szabo had such an effect on you?
RC: I’d read about Violette Szabo when I was about ten or eleven in a book called Three Great War Stories, which included the full text of R. J. Minney’s Szabo biography, Carve Her Name with Pride. There had been a film made of the book, but I’ve never seen that. At that age when I read ‘Commando’ comic books, loved Alistair MacLean thrillers, and pored over a ‘Jackdaw’ folder of facsimile Battle of Britain documents, I was fascinated by World War II stories, and Szabo’s life as a skilled, charismatic, very young British wartime agent parachuted into France, then eventually captured and taken to Ravensbrück concentration camp where she suffered and was executed, struck me as remarkably heroic. Awe-struck, I kept looking at the photographs in the book, which included pictures of Szabo herself, and of her orphaned daughter. Szabo’s story became part of my inner landscape, and has remained so.
My father had fought in the Scots Guards during World War II, and had been through France and Germany from Normandy to the Baltic, though he hardly ever spoke about his experiences there; my mother was a survivor of the Greenock Blitz. So, although I was born in 1959, events of the War always seemed quite close.
By the time I wrote Curriculum Violette my daughter was roughly the age Violette was when she died; my wife shares a birthday with Violette; my late mother was born in the same year as Violette. So perhaps, along with my memories of reading about Violette Szabo, those things, in a hidden way, undergirded the impulse to write.
When I read the English translation of Zavyalov’s Advent, Leningrad 1941, its use of the diary format interspersed with liturgical materials and lists of wartime rations struck me as oddly akin to ‘Scottish Informationist’ poetry – and I could see how, using not the diary format but the CV format for narrative purposes might provide an informational structure for retelling Violette’s story in a way that revealed something of her complex, awe-inspiring identity without pretending to kinds of knowledge of her that I don’t – and can’t -- have. Being interested in both poetry and biography, and having had to read or provide innumerable CVs over the years in connection with my day-job, I’d been thinking a lot about the CV form, and wondering if it could be used for artistic ends. Muriel Spark’s Curriculum Vitae is a book I relished, but it’s hardly experimental in technique. Reading Zavyalov helped show me there might be a way of using the CV format in a more experimental way to provide – and in some ways to question – notions of biography; and yet at the same time to tell a story so powerful that it might have an emotional impact via the most honed, factual, and informational of formats.
No longer possessing Three Great War Stories, I bought a reprint of Minney’s Carve Her Name with Pride as well as Susan Ottaway’s more recent biography, Violette Szabo, and I drew material from these books. Around the same time, to celebrate my wife’s 60th birthday and her retirement, we went by train to stay at Arisaig House, a location associated with Szabo’s wartime training in the Scottish Highlands; and we sailed from Mallaig to Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula, where Violette trained. Though I’d known those landscapes as a child, I hadn’t realised (or perhaps had completely forgotten) that those places were part of Violette’s story.
PMc: When we met in the 80s you were already an established poet and an editor of Verse, the liveliest poetry magazine I was aware of, a transatlantic periodical that was essential to poets in Scotland. Then – in addition to your academic work – you developed a hugely successful career as a biographer, once again spanning the Atlantic, with books on Burns and Eliot. Poet and biographer seem to meet in CV, where the poet’s evocative skill is held in check by the biographer’s discretion and fidelity to what is known and the limits of knowledge. Would you agree?
RC: Yes, there’s a tension in Curriculum Violette between the lineation of verse and the factual material of prose biography. Some people may see Curriculum Violette as a poem, and others as an experimental biography. It partakes of both, and aims to be multiple. Though the French text by Paul Malgrati is a close translation of the work, it also becomes part of the work itself, helping to articulate another aspect of Szabo’s complex identity as simultaneously French and English.
The epigraph to Curriculum Vitae comes from David Hume and is a passage about identity that I first came across as a student in the General Philosophy class at Glasgow University. Hume’s vision of the self as indiscernible is troubling – and can seem true; yet the sort of integrity manifested by Violette Szabo (a figure whose name and aliases as a secret agent seem to emphasize fluidity of self) also – and in a moving way – runs effortfully counter to that. The CV format, with its effect of ‘bullet points’ (a pun that I intend, but which remains only implicit in Curriculum Violette), enhances the sense of a ‘bitty’ or atomized self, even at the same time as it sets out the committed trajectory of a life.
PMcC: You are reluctant to call this work a poem. This attitude has an interesting echo in Zavyalov, in that while he himself insists that his “Advent, Leningrad 1941” is a poem, there are those who question that.
RC: Zavyalov’s work was to me unquestionably a poem, and I regarded Curriculum Vitae as a risk-taking poem when I was working on it. But it also comes from my work as a biographer, and now I think I’d like to leave the definition of it to readers
PMcC: One of the instructive contrasts with the Russian work is that it has no hero, indeed no fully named character at all, for all its voices. Curriculum Violette, by contrast, is dedicated to a heroic life. One interesting question from the audience concerned the change in British popular narratives of WWII, from the boys’ comics of your own generation (and perhaps the film Carve Her Name with Pride) to a more sophisticated view that took account of other experience of that conflict – the Bengal famine comes to mind. I guess that CV takes a step further again; how would you describe its historical perspective?
RC: Well, we can only look back at the events of Szabo’s life, and there are ethical questions around how far we can truly ‘inhabit’ it. The form of the work (which itself conjures up bureaucracy, forms, and form-filling) tries to acknowledge those ethical issues. One way to write about her would be to use sympathetic imagination to try to get inside her motivation, experience, and suffering. Instead, I’ve chosen another approach that salutes and acknowledges her heroism, but is honed, laconic, and, of necessity, rather distant. My hope is that her heroism shines all the more brightly through a format that appears very tight-lipped and bureaucratic. The work shows a human being passing through bureaucratic systems, transport systems, educational, religious, and military systems. Yet I’d like to think that readers nonetheless detect a courageous thread of enduring, deep humanity that is perhaps not fully comprehensible but also emotionally as well as intellectually moving.
Lively, pretty girl; sporty; good French; black hair; no highbrow; devil-may-care.
Kensington to Pangbourne by gleaming black Raleigh Tourist bicycle – detachable gear case – 100 miles (round-trip); Stockwell to Noyelles-nur-Somme 160 miles (one-way including cross-channel boat).
Home-baking (Empire biscuits, scones)
lamb and mint sauce with grandmaman’s mended mint-sauce ladle
toad in the hole
slice of lemon
Lambeth Borough Council Welfare Centre
Grace Fields singing ‘Sing As We Go’
starlings whistling in a cloudy sky
a baby crying in the flat below
FLORA AND FAUNA
Pigeons (daintily fat on breadcrumbs, toes missing)
More pigeons (kissing)
Blackbirds (singing pink, pink, pink)
Grass, buttercups, and hydrangeas in Slade Gardens
A terrier’s wink
compact mirror (from the roof garden at Derry & Toms)
lipstick (favourite shade)
Mother’s needle and thread