In his huge quest to identify and locate all the copies of the 1874’s edition of Maldoror, Bertrand Combaldieu met Sheelagh Bevan. Her story deserve to be told.
When Les Cahiers Lautréamont received another e-mail from Sheelagh, they had to re-read it to believe it. After the surprise faded, there was a quick decision: the amazing story of this New York art and literature expert must be subject of an article. Just have a look:
By the way, my wedding ring has the word « umbrella » engraved on the inside, and my husband has the word « sewing machine » engraved on his.
Sheelagh Bevan, now assistant curator in the Printed Books and Bindings department at the famed Morgan Library in New York, experienced something the Surrealists could not even imagine. In the 1982 or 83, long before her current position, she dreamed about Richard Hell, a punk singer songwriter and poet. A premonition, an « objective hazard » that Breton and Éluard would not deny. And the fortuitous encounter happened in 1996.
Richard Hell had known about the Maldoror Cantos since 1975, twenty years before they met. His first copy lost, he later bought a New Directions 1943 edition and a paperback copy. Sheelagh, aged 16 in 1981, was working in a bookstore and came across Maldoror on the shelves. She never heard of Lautréamont but was drawn to the book because of the reputation of the publisher, New Directions. The blurb on its back described it as “one of the earliest examples of Surrealist writing” and mentioned “the principle of Evil”. She still owns this 1970 printing published in 1965.
« Who could resist? » says Sheelagh who spent her paycheck on publications of these avantgarde or modernists publishing houses New Directions and Grove Press, though she never really liked the cover showing a sculpture by Marino Marini.
Cover and back cover of the New Directions edition.
When they met in East Village, NY in 1996, Sheelagh was reading Roger Gilbert-Lecomte (1907-1943), a French immoderate poet and a Surrealist dissident, little known and in fact forgotten from French literature. Richard was reading and writing a lot of poetry and fictions. The first time Sheelagh visited his apartment, she saw The Maldoror Cantos on the shelf. Isidore Ducasse would accompany them throughout their lives together.
The most incredible, the most touching moment of this modern adventure will occur on Oct. 5, 2002 in Copake, a two-hour drive north of New York. Sheelagh and Richard were married in a ceremony that close relatives will probably never forget. A judge, presumably rather conservative in this place, read the wedding vows loud and clear:
Inasmuch as Richard and Sheelagh have consented together in wedlock and thereto have pledged, each to the other, and have declared by the joining of hands that this joining is as beautiful and venerable as the retractability of the claws of birds of prey, and especially as the fortuitous encounter upon a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella– it is nonetheless true that the draperies in the shape of a crescent moon no longer derive the expression of their definitive symmetry from the quaternary number: go there and see for yourself if you do not believe me— now, in accordance with the authority vested in me by the law of the state of New York, I pronounce that they are Husband and Wife.
The Wedding wows
Even if the judge stumbled only once during the brief rehearsal on the word quaternary or retractability, he read the text without hesitation, looking straight at them. Sheelagh and Richard were the first Ducasse-style couple in history. At least as far as we know. Breton and his followers have a challenge ahead.
«The choice was obvious, said Sheelagh, birds are so important to me, so we also wanted to use the retractibility of the claws and then skip ahead to the fortuitous encounter. I think I added the last sentence of the book because it seemed to be both a question and a kind of blessing. It’s more of a collage, the way we integrated the phrases together. A presumption, to be sure”.
The families of the couple were not surprised, given their knowledge of their literary affinities with Surrealism and the language of absurd as well as their personal sensibilities. “Introducing Lautréamont’s beautiful and strange language into the ceremony was a way for me to embrace the artifice already present in the ritual. It made the wedding feel like a creative project, more expressive of the two of us rather than convention, Sheelagh confessed. In retrospect, it feels more like a message I sent to myself, rather than to him”.
A wedding planned and carried on under the auspices of the poet. Shortly before, they had gone to the Diamond District, just a block from the Gotham Book Mart, to engrave the rose gold rings to match the engagement ring they found in an antique store of Montmartre. Ducasse again. And the jeweller, just like the judge, did not hesitate, indifferent to Sheelagh and Richard’s request to inscribe the words: Umbrella for her, Sewing Machine for him!
Richard Hell and Sheelagh Bevan’s rings.
Thus Ducasse carried Love in a spectacular and touching manner, in an unexpected place. The poet is not only an unclassifiable enigma in the French literature, a legend praised to the skies by Surrealism, a myth for some or a simple literature accident for others. In New York, he became a universalist, a cement for the souls.
As proof, by the end of 2002, a few weeks after the wedding, Richard bought one of the 100 vellum-bound copies of the John Rodker translation, published by the Casanova Society in London in 1924, with three illustrations by Odilon Redon, and an introduction by Remy de Gourmont, entitled “The Lay of Maldoror”. This is the first English translation of Les Chants de Maldoror.
The Lay of Maldoror – The Casanova Society, 1924.
And Sheelagh and Richard did not stop there in their joint path with Ducasse. Unless it was Ducasse who led them. They threw a wedding party for friends two months after the ceremony at a loft on the Bowery, the cradle of punk music in New York. Guests had to answer the invitations by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, an address created by Richard for this occasion. For all guests, he printed the beautiful wedding wows and included in the envelope a photo of the couple taken by Richard Kern, photographer and film director of the NY underground artistic scene.
Invitations for wedding party.
Richard Hell and Sheelagh Bevan in 2002. ©Richard Kern
But Ducasse was probably not a man to let the romance take hold, and the union of the unreconcilable umbrella and sewing machine eventually came to an end. The couple broke up in 2016. “. I suppose the umbrella/sewing machine metaphor turned out to be true–in every beautiful and terrible way imaginable”, she says. So now, what’s left?
First of all, an undeniable attraction for poetry. Reflecting on the dissolution of her marriage, Sheelagh suggested that the beauty and horror of what happened “helped reconnect me to my 16-year-old feelings about Lautréamont—by fulfilling, for better and for worse, what I thought and hoped life and art could be”. Today, Sheelagh applies her talent for literature and art at the Morgan Library.
And let’s be honest, Sheelagh and Richard lived a unique experience coveted by everyone interested by Isidore Ducasse. We can question ourselves on this unbelievable union to be convinced that Ducasse’s verses can be true and achieve posterity. Yes, some fortuitous encounters deserved to be experienced, even if they collide with reality. In Paris, Brussels, New York or Montevideo, this “sacré bouquin” (sacred book!) everywhere leaves traces, spreads its prose to new generations. Human timeless poetry in fact.
And Sheelagh, who confesses she wouldn’t share the Maldoror Cantos with just anyone, concludes: “I can never hear or read the word quaternaire without thinking of Lautréamont”. Neither we can!
 – http://www.themorgan.org/
 – The Songs of Maldoror, Sixth Song, verses 1 and 8.
 The American avant-garde review Broom (http://www.ecoledulouvre.fr/revue/numero3octobre2013/GauthierResume.pdf) released large abstracts in English translated by J. Rodker of the cantos and the whole Canto VI from Aug. 1922 to Dec. 1922. Man can view the abstracts i.e on http://bluemountain.princeton.edu/exist/apps/bluemountain/index.html. The 1924 edition remains the first English translation of the whole book.
by Bertrand Combaldieu