The family of Anthony Kerrigan keeps a collection of letters he wrote to three generations of Spanish language authors, from Cela to Bellow, from Borges to Gil de Biedma, in Mallorca. He was their friend, as well as their translator.
He gave voice to three generations of Spanish-speaking writers, and he was an ambassador of their work, always ready to help them move beyond the enclosed, gray national spaces of the Francisco Franco dictatorship in Spain. Anthony Kerrigan (Massachusetts, 1918 – Indiana, 1991) was an American who was born to Irish immigrants and spent his childhood in Cuba. He would go on to translate some of the most important works of many famous authors, including Miguel de Unamuno, Pio Baroja, Ortega y Gasset, Benito Pérez Galdós, Camilo José Cela, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Reinaldo Arendas. Kerrigan and his wife, Elaine Gurevitz, made a brilliant couple. Authors like Julio Cortázar, Ana María Matute and Jaime Gil de Biedma, who wanted to move into the English-speaking world, came to them.
Kerrigan moved to Mallorca in 1956, thanks to a scholarship from the Bollingen Foundation to translate Unamuno’s complete oeuvre. Now, 28 years after his death, Kerrigan’s family has begun to inventory the part of his enormous correspondence that was not donated to the University of Notre Dame, where Kerrigan taught. In the family’s mountain of folders there are hundreds of letters, manuscripts, cards, newspaper cuttings and photographs, all reflecting Kerrigan’s expansive network of contacts and friends. In addition to the names already listed, he also maintained contact with Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Antonio Saura, Dionisio Ridruejo, Américo Castro, Aranguren, Julián Marías, Carlos Barral, Jaime Salinas, Italo Calvino, Saul Bellow, John Dos Passos, Cynthia Ozick, Alastair Reid and Herbert Read, and the list could go on.
“What is unique, and what separated my parents from the rest of the literary world that used to live at the peak of literary life in Mallorca is that they were creators of their own work, and they did so as a team,” says Elie Kerrigan, their daughter. “Unlike others, they felt equally comfortable in two cultures: Spanish- and English-speaking. Our home (which was once the place that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas chose as a place of retreat from the hectic Paris scene) welcomed some of the most important intellectuals of the period.” Kerrigan concludes, “[I]t is definitely worth preserving their records so that future generations can enjoy their rich legacy.”
Among the papers, there is a copy of an FBI report on the young Kerrigan. He had wanted to fight in the Spanish Civil War among the ranks of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification in a group financed by the actor Edward G. Robinson, but the group’s intentions were frustrated when a comrade with a “strong German accent” alerted them that the Stalinists would kill them as soon as they entered Barcelona. Later, in 1950s New York, Kerrigan met Gurevitz, a woman with Russian Jewish heritage, a violinist and pianist who had studied with Carl Friedburg, who in turn had been the student of Clara Schumann. Kerrigan and Gurevitz travelled to Barcelona, Paris and Mallorca. In Paris, they had a daughter, Antonia Kerrigan, who is now a well-known literary agent. After their travels, the couple returned to the United States where they published poems in Poetry magazine while waiting in vain for the arrival of their friend Dylan Thomas. Thomas would never arrive – the Welsh poet had decided to beat his whisky-drinking record in the White Horse, the bar where he had gone at the suggestion of Ruthven Todd. Soon after his binge, Thomas would die at the Chelsea Hotel.
The Kerrigans entered Spanish cultural life in 1956, starting with a poem written by Anthony for Cela’s newspaper, Papeles de Son Armandans, which had been founded by Cela around the time Franco was trying to reduce the effect of Spain’s isolation from the world, and the dictator and Dwight D. Eisenhower made a deal that allowed U.S. military bases to be established in Spain. Kerrigan had written a poem called “El Atentado Contra la Virgen del Piropo,” for a book about Picasso, which was censored. Cela, during lunch with the censor, and helped along by cognac and a sublime Havana cigar, said, “Modern poetry is dedicated to the idea that poetry means nothing.” Soon thereafter, the ban on the poem was lifted. Later, Picasso did the cover illustration – a portrait of Kerrigan – for the American’s book, “At the Front Door of the Atlantic.” For the Spanish artists, Kerrigan was essential to their international reputations. Kerrigan translated Cela’s book, “The Family of Pascual Durate,” into English and provided international contacts for Cela’s work.
The Inventor of Borges
From La Jolla, California, the historian Américo Castro wrote to Kerrigan about Cela. “What happened to our friend makes me sad. We all have our weaknesses, and for him it was maladjustment between his practical life and his literary life. With the strongest affection I’ve told him that it’s bad for him to produce too much. That’s where his conflicts with different people stem from, and sometimes they are with people who care about him and think highly of him.” Julián Marías wrote to Kerrigan in 1953 of his sadness over the death of Ortega. (“Half of me has gone with him.”) Marías’ son, the novelist Javier Marías, would give the name of Kerrigan to one of the characters in his book “Voyage Along the Horizon.” In 1964, Miró told Kerrigan about the works of art he had collected in his house – an Alexander Calder mobile hanging from the ceiling, two Fernand Légers, a Georges Braque, a Wassily Kadinsky, a tapestry and four of his own paintings. And he rejected his poems for publication, saying that “more than poems [they were] poetic sentences.”
Borges, whose existence had been in doubt and whose first story published in English appeared in the magazine of Black Mountain College (in the Reviews section!) sent translation corrections to Kerrigan and recommended that he translate “El Aleph.” (“Kerrigan, my inventor. We are both European exiles in America.”) Reinaldo Arenas spoke to Kerrigan about the works of the Cuban marielitos* in letters filled with complaints about loneliness. Cortázar encouraged Gurevitz to translate “Los Premios,” but he warned her about the Americanisms of his characters: “My characters don’t always express themselves with the tone and correctness of the [Real] Academia Española,” he said. Rafael Alberti would send him poems and drawings. Ana María Matute asked him to be her agent in the United States, and Salinas wrote him in English in 1963, “Seix Barral [press] continues to be the same old whorehouse that you all remember; and I am getting sicker and sicker, tired of being the only girl in the place. I’m looking for a sugar daddy to retire with so I can start a clean and honest life, but I’m not what I once was, and it won’t be easy to find one.”**
Salinas was the right hand of Barral in the Prix International Formentor organization, where Kerrigan and Reid worked intensely. In 1970, Barral split from Seix, establishing Barral Press. The editor suggested to Kerrigan something that would be of pivotal strategic importance: that they publish a pocketbook-sized translation of James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which would substitute for the translation done by Salas Subirat. According to Barral, the Subirat translation was “impossible to understand” because “Joyce’s linguistic inventions are reproduced literally, which means two things. First, that the horrible Spanish translation is filled with poorly chosen dialectic language. And second, that there is no trace of the changes in style and in the historic registers of the original English, which, in this work, constitute an important structural element.”
Barral proposed to Kerrigan that they create a commission to oversee the translation. The group would include, “[t]he book’s translator, you, along with Jaime Gil de Biedma who is a translator, you know, who is excellent with Eliot and certainly the most brilliant Spanish writer who understands English deeply,” and “a person designated by a British group of Joyce’s friends, by a British association of writers, or by a university, au choix de monsieurs les héritiers.” Kerrigan, Irish like Joyce, was enthusiastic. He proposed Mario Vargas Llosa as translator and Anthony Burgess as a member of the editing committee. He also tried to convince Liam Miller, an editor at Dolmen Press, to form part of the committee along with Barral. The whole idea, though, was frustrated when they found that the owners of the copyright, The Society of Authors, were bound by a previous contract.
Keys of a Poem
Kerrigan met de Biedma in 1959 during the “Conversaciones Poéticas de Formentor.” On May 13, 1962, the poet asked Kerrigan to help him find a house in Deia to spend August with Juan Marsé and Luis Marquesán (“we’ve already bought the tickets”) and to “make an agreement with a landlord – or landlady – for a place that is relatively livable and relatively cheap.” De Biedma wrote, “This winter was terribly cold and lonely, and I am longing intensely for the sun and a Rousseauian life.” At the end of May, the poet spent two days with the translating couple. Then they went to Deia to look for a house (there were two possibilities – one with the Catalonian Jimmy d’Aurignac, and the other with the painter George Sheridan), and to go to the beach. On June 1, de Biedma, drinking alone and inundated with the feeling of Rilke’s 10th elegy, composed a poem that he christened “The Trip to Kythira,” an allusion to Charles Baudelaire’s desolate verses. In the end, the poem was called “Disembarking in Kythira.” He sent it, complete, to the couple on June 26. In another letter, Elaine translated four of de Biedma’s poems in English. He explained that his famous verse, “I was born (forgive me), in the age of the trellis and tennis” is not a request for forgiveness for his family wealth, but a wink to Alberti, who had written “I was born – with respect – with the movies.”
Kerrigan’s archive contains countless letters from his American friends as well as from Irish and Scottish poets. One who stands out is Alastair Reid, a friend of Salinas and a New York journalist. Neruda used to call Reid “Patapelá” (scraped paws) because he often walked around barefoot. There are also letters from Robert Graves. In one of his letters, Graves tells the story of Ava Gardner’s visit to Deia in March, 1956. Graves had met Gardner in the house of Ricardo Sicre, a spy in Madrid. In Deia, Gardner said she made Captain García of the Guardia Civil famous when the actress invited him to dance at a party, and he responded, with a salute, "I'm sorry ma'am, I'm on duty." Graves was impressed by the actress and dedicated several poems and a story to her, the “sweet barefoot belle of Hollywood.”** Kerrigan proposed that Graves work with Cela, but the Brit’s response was cutting: “I don’t want to get mixed up with Spanish writers in this stage of political history. I’ve already been bitten once [...] I have nothing against Cela.”
Kerrigan was also Bellow’s neighbor in Chicago during the 1970s. His name appears in Bellow’s book “Ravelstein.” In one letter, Bellow corrects a former missive in which he had attacked Kerrigan for an article Kerrigan wrote for Commentary. In his article, the translator laments that the Swedish Academy had passed over Borges, awarding prizes to less valuable writers. Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, was furious. But later remorseful about his harsh remarks, he wrote to Kerrigan to tell him that he felt himself to be the victim of marginalization from neoconservative magazines like Commentary, whose editor-in-chief was Norman Podhoretz, whose wife Midge Decter was also a well-known author there. Bellow took the chance to make fun of the sociologist Edward Shils (“shills and stooges”).
Kerrigan’s love of snuff rubbed off on Bellow. Those who knew the poet and translator still remember him with his untidy white mane and messy beard on drunken nights, removing a small red metal box with large white letters from his pocket. He would open it, pinch a bit of tobacco, and breathe a series of quick, dry breaths to feel the pleasure of its tingle.
*Editor’s note: “Marielitos” is the name given to the Cuban immigrants who left Cuba from the Port of Mariel in 1980.
**Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quoted material could not be independently verified.