This cover may well be your first encounter with American writers Willie Seabrook and Marjorie Worthington. It was for me, although Seabrook, especially, captured a wide readership in his day, enlivening New Deal America with alluring dispatches from far-flung locations. On one memorable occasion he and Worthington flew in a small aircraft from Paris to Timbuktu, byword for fantastical remoteness, unable to speak over the roaring engine and communicating in notes. And it was through him, for instance, that readers in the West first encountered the figure of the zombie, a phenomenon which spoke to Seabrook’s more-than-solely-journalistic interest in altered states of consciousness.
Worthington, his lover and later wife, also enjoyed success as a writer, if to a lesser degree; everything about the pair’s relationship suggests it would not have survived an inverse allocation of renown. They met while married to others, but considering the extremely unconventional life they were to live together, Seabrook and Worthington’s meet-cute couldn’t have been more suburban – they were making up a quartet for bridge. The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, originally published in 1966 and now reissued by Spurl Editions, details the pair’s subsequent life together in France and the US from the mid-1920s to their split in 1941, with a mournful coda taking us up to Seabrook’s suicide shortly after the end of World War Two.
With this unsettling book, Spurl seem to have arrived at a mid-point between two of their other titles, the noir squalor of Barbara Payton’s I Am Not Ashamed and the avant-garde stylings of Michel Leiris. That there might even be a Venn diagram that could offer an intersection between those highly contrasting circles offers some indication of the oddities that await you in this strange world.
Leiris himself turns up, along with numerous other between-the-wars luminaries. “It is impossible not to ‘drop names’ in writing all this,” announces the author. For real; she hasn’t even made it to the end of the first sentence before Gertrude Stein‘s name falls loudly to the page. Elsewhere we marvel at the porcine digits of Ford Madox Ford, visit a brothel with Carl Van Vechten, hole up next door to Aldous Huxley, and go for a night on the tiles with Dashiell Hammett when we bump into William Faulkner. Like you do.
Place names flash across the page like establishing shots and you just know someone interesting is going to arrive; as soon as there was mention of Toulon I realised with a thrill that one of the era’s most intriguing yet elusive figures couldn’t be far. And then, yes! along comes Princess Violette Murat herself, she of smoking-opium-in-a-submarine-with-René-Crevel fame. The name “Sanary” appears, and knowing there to be an émigré community in the Provençal seaside town at the time you realise that all manner of Mitteleuropa exiles will be along soon. Sure enough, there’s Stefan Zweig, Lion Feuchtwanger and a dour, preoccupied Thomas Mann (son Golo lodged with Seabrook and Worthington for a time, sleeping with a loaded revolver under his pillow). Another temporary Sanary resident, Sybille Bedford, described Worthington as “a stiff, gentle woman with a soft voice and an unhappy face”, and that is precisely how she comes across in these pages.
In France Seabrook and Worthington lived an intensely eccentric, bohemian existence punctuated by brief moments of luxury. That the sanitary arrangements in their loft-like Toulon home can be described, in full, by the words “slop jar” provides some sense of the living conditions, but this is when they appear to have been at their happiest. In what was even by his own quixotic standards an impulsive gesture, Seabrook leased a hilltop château in such an advanced state of disrepair that they could do little more than picnic between its crumbling walls, accompanied by their pet monkey Boubou.
What a complex and contradictory figure this Willie Seabrook was. He grew up in ‘genteel poverty’ and hated the fact, at times enjoyed significant material comforts through his own hard work and the popularity of his writing, yet he would often deliberately dress down, presenting himself as a man of far slimmer means. And although his books sold in enviable amounts, he craved the company and validation of more prestigious writers. He could be intolerably boorish and insensitive to the point of abject cruelty, but was so moved by his first exposure to a Verdi opera that he threw up in the interval.
In some ways Seabrook was ahead of his time. His 1935 book Asylum appeared decades before the rise of the celebrity rehab confessional (with truly propitious timing he had himself committed the day Prohibition was repealed). And certainly his interest in S&M came years before such practices even had the cachet of modish taboo. His particular preoccupation seemed to be in invoking extremes of control, immobilisation, endurance. The cover image of a hooded woman depicts one such exercise, and earned me the disapproving looks of an entire Polish family on the S-Bahn. But Worthington was no participant, no Wanda von Sacher-Masoch, not even an Ella Grainger. She didn’t want to know about the succession of women who arrived for varying durations, some for a single session, some for weeks. She dismissed them as “Lizzies”, trying not to dwell on them as individuals, wishing only their departure and Willie’s return to what passed for normality between the two.
Worthington’s prose is… not artless, exactly, but certainly guileless. She seems to exhale her words in a fretful sigh, sometimes recording the lyrical sensation of moments recalled, sometimes shrouding painful events in silence but never gratuitously retouching the past. Few episodes illustrate the gulf in the pair’s respective sensibilities better than her appalled description of Seabrook cooking and consuming human flesh in a borrowed Parisian kitchen (later – in one of the book’s most disturbing passages – he cooks his own flesh, plunging his elbows into scalding water so he can no longer bend his arm to drink). That Worthington was pained by the careless, callous, crapulous Seabrook is clear enough. Had she lived longer she could have filled a substantial bookcase to groaning with self-help books warning women against precisely the behaviour that she exhibits in this book. She tries to locate the source of Willie’s psychosexual intensity (cherchez la mère, apparently), but fails to question her own dependency. She is no less paralysed than the Lizzies, but there is no safe word for what she undergoes. When the inevitable split comes she is as debilitated as any of Seabrook’s zombies, her personality still captive in Willie’s strange world. Finding late acclaim as a newly single writer, she is unable to inhabit her success, lacking Willie’s greater triumphs to lend it scale and meaning.
In journeying from the bright hilltop of bohemian exile to the grim, demonic depths of co-dependency and finally arriving at an equivocal twilit tranquility, there appears to be something appropriately ritualistic and cleansing to The Strange World of Willie Seabrook, an exorcism of sorts. It was Worthington’s last book, and I can only hope purging herself of it brought her some happiness for the last decade of her life.
The Strange World of Willie Seabrook is published by Spurl Editions, available now.