The swirling yellows, oranges & reds in this fiery 1920s style illustration on the cover of the TLS caught my eye this week along with the headline announcement of a newly discovered story by Nancy Cunard, ‘A Lost Night’.
The edition contains a really interesting article on Cunard herself, challenging the reputation she earned in her own lifetime as a dilettantish muse, hyper-sexualised ‘modern woman’ and ‘over-ambitious failure’. Cunard – poet; founder of the Hours small press, publishing ‘contemporary poetry of an experimental kind’ between 1928 and 1931; political journalist; ‘anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anti-imperial writer and activist’; curator and editor of Negro, one of the first and most comprehensive ‘pre-civil rights era documents of transatlantic Black history and culture’ – has been, until now, unfortunately best remembered in the salacious, bitter and over-sexualised accounts of her written by some of the era’s most notable male voices.
The use of the word ‘failure’ in this context got me thinking… ‘failure’ is a judgement applied by those who feel they have the right to judge, a construction of the dominating ego in the process and pursuit of dominating others by keeping them down. Who’s to say Cunard is a failure? A failure at what? In her own context, her list of achievements speaks for itself. A successful and sexual woman, with anti-imperialist politics and a deep commitment to publishing challenging writing by Black writers, Cunard was deemed a failure by dominant white men in a dominantly white male literary and political culture. Borne out by a longer historical view, Cunard’s achievements are beginning to take the spotlight as readers and scholars are given fresh opportunities to approach her work without the limiting nature of a scandalous reputation preceding her.
That’s not to say that everything’s rosy from this side of the historical looking glass. Anna Girling is right to highlight the casual anti-semitism in ‘A Lost Night’, suggesting that Cunard’s ‘later acute sensitivity to discrimination was yet to mature; rebel or not, she was still at this point in thrall to the prejudices of her class’.
The story itself demonstrates not only Cunard’s ‘self-aware female perspective’ but, for me, the self-consciousness of inconclusivity – both in narrative and in life. Beginning with the premise that ‘I do not wish to write about anything but life, and life, to me, always seems very inconclusive’, this short story set in the all-night cafes of Montmartre is self-consciously inconclusive throughout. The narrator – in defiance of her absent lover – determines to enjoy herself in the Paris nightlife, making repeated references to her desire to stay ’till the end’. In the fever of passion she resolves, ‘so angry was I and justified in my anger that I would, indeed must, now get to the end of this’. And yet finally, the episode in itself is ‘not conclusive’, for ‘how could such an episode be conclusive in a love that was worth while?’.
This self-conscious inconclusivity – for me – is reminiscent not only of life’s inconclusive nature, but also of the nature of short fiction, the form in which Cunard was writing this story. Unlike the longer-form fiction of the novel, short fiction lends itself to the episodic, to the incomplete and inconclusive. This is a fictional form that has no time for the pretensions of narrative cohesion typically associated with the longer novel, in which loose ends are often tied up and a sense of the protagonist as a more rounded and complete character is arrived at through progressive development. In Cunard’s short narrative fiction, ‘A Lost Night’, the narrator is prevented from looking back on a period of essential self development from a perspective of coherence and completion. The story itself has ‘made no difference’, and the position of the narrator at the end is not superior to where she was at the beginning.
And it strikes me that it’s that totalising perspective of the conclusive narrative – the idea that a person, character, life, story, or historical moment has reached its conclusion – that accompanies the egotistical judgement of failure or success. One can only judge something, or someone, a failure if the process has ended and all the possible outcomes are known and settled.
Life is not like that.
Nancy Cunard – searingly aware of the ‘hell’ of a reputation – makes a case for the inconclusive in both life and narrative, refuting the totalising perspective from which ultimate judgements can be made. And history is bearing that out. Her story is not conclusive. ‘Failure’ is a fiction.