Prokosch, Dr Frederic
Frederic Prokosch (May 17, 1906 – June 2, 1989) was an American writer, known for his novels, poetry, memoirs and criticism. He was also a distinguished translator.
Prokosch has been described as “unjustly, undeservedly & tragically unknown”. And, indeed, he appears to belong to that unfortunate group of brilliant and eccentric writers who are either ahead of, or behind, or simply out of their time. They are simply like no one else, defy classification, and are thus consigned to oblivion.
Motionless, thoughtless, utterly alone;
And darker than all, the old, the old and terribly
Wizened, whose hands reflect their caverns of grief,
Who gaze all day into the arteried glass
Of their habitual hopes.
His first novel, "The Asiatics", published to critical acclaim in 1936 when he was 29, was an instant and international sensation. The Seven Who Fled appeared in 1937 and was similarly received.
The following summarises why Prokosch deserves a place on our web-site. The book reviewer has understood the underlying philosophical and spiritual messages of these two early books. The objectives of all spiritually aware people is to attain unity BUT IN DIVERSITY, as such Prokosch is sending out an urgent warning about the dangers of globalisation, because it will ultimately destroy spirituality, destroy creativity and can only lead to our eventual destruction:
Goodread book review
These two books describe a psychological landscape rather than an actual one. They should be read as fantasy in spite of the realism of the prose and description. Asia should be read as the "unconscious" or “subconscious”. …Prokosch is trying to show how globalization homogenizes the imperialists and imperialized alike, leading to a spiritually bereft mental landscape. A desert of creativity and spirituality.
The characters are a little ‘flat’, but necessarily so for the books' theme. The stereotypical and xenophobic descriptions of people of Asian cultures reflect the mindset of imperialism and the way it homogenizes individuals and peoples, destroying the differences that create rich cultures and creativity. If it makes you uncomfortable, that's a sign that it's achieved its purpose. The very use of the term Asia to cover such a wealth of different cultures and nations is itself a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned.
That he runs into the same people is comment that certain archetypes and mindsets transcend location and time. You run into them everywhere, more so in a modern world getting ever smaller and more generalized as we become global and industrial. These books are the ultimate modernist novels, beautifully constructed and written.
He had a particular hatred of what large cities were doing to men's souls, not just the problem of loss of diversity and culture, but loneliness added to a cultural desert that made people inhuman - machine robots employed to simply make money for a faceless business that had no soul, an uncontrollable golem.
In utter spiritual blackness the assassins:
Enormous cities whose ten thousand lamps
Console no traveller's weary solitary
There is just the hint occasionally that he was a prophet. Whether meant literally or figuratively, he saw a new 'flood' coming long before any others did.
The pinnacles, flooding the gates, compelling the walls,
Great cities crumble, ocean to ocean cries,
Waves, millions of waves loaded with fish and seaweed throng…..
To those who loved too privately or suffered far too long
But his message was lost. His “hypnotic, dreamlike prose” was out of sync with the ‘realism’ of postwar America and, embittered by rejection in his home country, for the rest of his life he compulsively wandered through Europe, and for a few years, the Asia he had so vividly imagined, finally settling in the south of France where he died in 1989.
Prokosch went on to produce sixteen novels, several collections of poetry and translations, and an autobiography, “a bizarre and magical, but fictional, memoir".
Prokosch was named a Commander in the Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French government in 1984 and awarded the Volterra Prize two years later. His novels have been translated into 15 languages.
A Veil of Mystification
Prokosch lived in and for his imagination. His books and poems were fiction and his life became a fiction. But it was a glorious fiction. Writing in the New York Times, Harold Strauss said about The Seven Who Fled (which won the Harper Prize):
In singing, supple prose, with an evocative power strange to our earthbound ears, with passion and often with fury, Frederic Prokosch takes us off to the vast, mysterious reaches of Central Asia. It is a weird adventure of the spirit on which he leads us. For, mistake not, despite the apparently realistic description of the endless reaches of the desert, of the topless towers of the snow-capped mountains, of the huddling villages in which men rot away in poverty and disease, this Central Asia of Prokosch's is no actual place upon the face of the earth. Like Xanadu, like Arcadia, like Atlantis or Aea [sic] or Poictesme, it is a phantom manufactured by a restless mind. ...Whatever the meaning of this book, and there will be much debate on that score, its wild lyrical splendor and its profound emotional content mark it as a memorable novel.
From early on, Prokosch sought to cast his life into a hopeless riddle. He was homosexual and men of this time had to live their life in secrecy anyway, but Prokosch went one better by devising secrets layered over secrets. Most of Voices: A Memoir, for example, is pure fantasy. Self-deluding, he succumbed at times to the persuasiveness of his own fictions. He was, however, an immensely gifted writer, "a sort of Berlioz in prose". Approaching his sixtieth year, he boasted that no person had succeeded in knowing him as an integral personality:
"I have spent my life alone, utterly alone, and no biography of me could ever more than scratch the surface. All the facts in Who’s Who, or whatever, are utterly meaningless. My real life (if I ever dared to write it!) has transpired in darkness, secrecy, fleeting contacts and incommunicable delights, any number of strange picaresque escapades and even crimes, and I don't think that any of my 'friends' have even the faintest notion of what I'm really like or have any idea of what my life has really consisted of. . . .With all the surface 'respectability,' diplomatic and scholarly and illustrious social contacts, my real life has been subversive, anarchic, vicious, lonely, and capricious."
Prokosch was unclassifable as a writer or poet, because he was essentially a philosopher who chose to describe his philosophy using fiction.
The dolphin flows into the night,
Through all the wild and deep lie woven
The curves of power and delight
He combined the stoic aspects of eastern philosophy and religion with a sensibility and gentleness that is very nearly Buddhist in its overall detachment, while remaining Romantic in its particulars. Then he wove a story round it using his imagination. The world he imagined will likely strike you so powerfully that you will choose to return more than once.
W B Yeats described his poetry as ‘rich and immediate, musical and magical’ and described him as a ‘true visionary’.
The Asiatics (1935)
Prokosch's novels The Asiatics and The Seven Who Fled received widespread attention in the 1930s. The action in both of these narratives takes place in Asia, a continent Prokosch had not visited but wrote about from his imagination and from books and maps.
New York Times critic L. H. Titterton wrote about The Asiatics:
"Whether such adventures ever happened to any one man, or whether, as seems far more likely, the author has supplemented certain experiences of his own by a rich imagination, using as its basis information gathered through wide reading, is immaterial. For this is actually a quiet, meditative book into which adventurous episodes have been introduced simply as a device for displaying various aspects of the Asiatic mind and spirit. It is the work of a man of a deeply poetic nature possessed of an astonishing ability to describe in a few words a color, a scene, an odor, an emotional situation, an attitude of mind, an idea; words so well chosen that passage after passage seems perfectly to express some truth that we have many times, in a stumbling way, attempted to state.
The Seven Who Fled (1937)
The Seven Who Fled is Prokosch's follow-up to The Asiatics. Both novels are set in Asia, a continent remember that Prokosch knew at that time only from maps and National Geographic surveys. Whereas The Asiatics follows one young American from Beirut to Hong Kong, The Seven Who Fled follows (naturally) seven characters with different backgrounds who start out together, but are scattered by political upheaval and try to escape from central Asia. Following seven characters allows Prokosch to more fully explore the human condition -- the different ways people react to the unfamiliar and to danger, the different fates that result either from their decisions or simple bad luck.
The seven characters are of different nationalities, genders, belief systems, etc. But rather than the characters becoming representative types, - a thinly disguised way for the author to generalize about their respective categories, - what comes through is a broader sense of the inadequacy of any one narrow viewpoint. We may like or dislike certain of the characters, but they hold our interest because of their common humanity and, at times, their inhumanity.
His descriptions are utterly compelling and chilling. For example, one of the characters freezes to death, and the chapter in which his progress slows and stops and his mind drifts to the home he will never see again, is masterly.
"Prokosch has invented what might be called the geographical novel, in which he mingles sensuality with irony, lucidity with mystery.
He conveys a fatalistic sense of life half hidden beneath a rich animal energy.
He is a master of moods and undertones, a virtuoso in the feeling of place, and he writes in a style of supple elegance."
- Night of the Poor (1939)
- The Skies of Europe (1941)
- The Conspirators (1943) - made into a movie of the same name in 1944
- Age of Thunder (1945)
- The Idols of the Cave (1946) - Among the most noteworthy of Prokosch’s latter-day writings are The Idols of the Cave (1946), a sophisticated story about a circle of aesthetes and socialites in New York City through the war years
- Storm and Echo (1948)
- Nine days to Mukalla (1953) - is a dreamlike journey into the Arabian world
- A Tale for Midnight (1955) - A Tale for Midnight (1955) is a Gothicized retelling of the Cenci story
- Under the Winter Moon (1958), written under the pseudonym of "Teresa Brooke"
- Mother Was Always in Love (1960), by Philip Van Rensselaer and Frederic Prokosch, uncredited author
- A Ballad of Love (1960)
- The Seven Sisters (1962)
- The Dark Dancer (1964) - The Dark Dancer is set in medieval India
- The Wreck of the Cassandra (1966) is a realistic and poetic story of nine people castaway on a savage island
- The Missolonghi Manuscript (1968) - The Missolonghi Manuscript is a faux-memoir of Byron's last days in Greece.
- America, My Wilderness (1972) - an excursion into magical realism
- Voices: a Memoir - The publication of Voices: A Memoir in 1983, was advertised as a record of his encounters with some of the century's leading artists and writers, but has been shown to be almost wholly fictitious.
We have used his poems for observations as it is impossible to extract anything representative from his novels.
- The Assassins (1936)
- The Carnival (1938)
- Death at Sea (1940)
- Chosen Poems (1945)– a selection chosen by Prokosch himself, that includes four previously unpublished poems
- Fire Song (1955)
O the vines were golden, the birds were loud,
The orchard showered, the honey flowed,
The Venice glasses were full of wine,
The women were geese and the men were swine
- Some poems of Friedrich Hoelderlin (1943), translator
- Louise Labé, Love sonnets (1947), translator
Prokosch was born in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, Eduard Prokosch, an Austrian immigrant, was Professor of Germanic Languages at Yale University at the time of his death in 1938.
Right Prokosch by George Platt Lynes
Prokosch graduated from Haverford College in 1925 and received a Ph.D. in English in 1932 from Yale University. While at Haverford, Prokosch began writing poetry and saw his poems published in some of the best-known literary magazines of the time. By the mid-1930s, Prokosch was also experimenting with fiction.
During World War II, Prokosch was a cultural attaché at the American Legation in Sweden. He spent most of the remainder of his life in Europe, where he led 'a peripatetic existence'. His interests were sports (tennis and squash), lepidoptery [butterflies], and the printing of limited editions of poems that he admired.
Prokosch later gained a reputation as a writer’s writer with an elite following that included Thomas Mann, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Albert Camus, Thornton Wilder, Dylan Thomas, Anthony Burgess, Raymond Queneau, Somerset Maugham, Lawrence Durrell, Gore Vidal, and T.S. Eliot.
Prokosch died in Le Plan-de-Grasse (near Grasse), France.
Frederic Prokosch is the author I would most wish to save from what Gore Vidal has called "time's winged wastebasket." He combines an extraordinary talent for description and a lush romantic prose style …. One might think the two would conflict, but remarkably they don't. Prokosch invests scenes of near-total bleakness with stunning beauty, and describes scenes of the most intense beauty with a sometimes disturbing detachment. His gift for language surpasses any American of his era except Fitzgerald (and they are neck and neck), but the quality of his thought is clearer. The influence of Prokosch, can be found in magical realism (Garcia-Marquez, Bowles) and in the current generation of European authors (Rushdie, Kundera, etc.).
Dreamer's Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederic Prokosch – a comprehensive study of the poet. It explores
‘his published and unpublished writings, his troubled personal life, the conflicts arising from his homosexuality, his wanderings as a kind of permanent expatriate, and his preoccupation with reinventing his persona and creating an imaginary and highly dramatic past for himself’.
Given that Prokosch himself found it difficult to separate fiction and fantasy from truth, Dr Greenfield has concentrated on the facts he can establish as facts - Prokosch's unpublished novels and a bit about his personal life. Dr. Greenfield also provides synopses of Prokosch's unpublished novels, rejected for being too "incredible". They languish at the Ransom Library at the University of Texas.
“Here's hoping they soon see the light of day, the last testament of a neglected genius”.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Harlan Ellison on the nature of inspiration and on Frederic Prokosch
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – Evening
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – from Elegy
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – from New Year’s Eve
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – from The Perfectionists
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – from Victims
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – from War of Nerves
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – Song IX
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – Song VIII
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – The Assassins
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – The Boulevard
- Prokosch, Dr Frederic - Chosen Poems – The Dolls