Daniel Swift’s account of the disgraced poet’s years in a mental hospital is enthralling but leaves us little wiser as to his state of mind
The psychodrama surrounding one of America’s greatest 20th century poets during, and immediately after, the second world war is so bizarre, it’s astonishing that this chapter in the life of the modernist, madman, fascist and traitor AKA Ezra Pound has remained largely neglected for so long.
In The Bughouse, Daniel Swift has reconnoitred a unique but hardly obscure literary target. The deranged figure of Pound behind bars has been hiding in plain sight for decades. Still, it is Swift’s considerable achievement sympathetically to examine an extraordinary, often troubling, tale in an idiosyncratic biographical analysis that marries lit crit and memoir in a sometimes awkward fusion.
Swift describes Pound as “the most difficult man of the 20th century”. Others called him “the Trotsky of literature”. He was certainly a rag-bag of contradictions: a racist who believed in African myth and Chinese philosophy, and an antisemite whose 800-page Cantos is an unfinished masterpiece of renowned beauty and complexity. “As much as Freud or Einstein,” writes Swift, he “invented the modern age. He edited The Waste Land.” He also played tennis “like an inebriated kangaroo”, revered the US constitution, but spent the second world war broadcasting anti-American propaganda from Mussolini’s Italy.
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