Reavey, George (1907–76), editor and poet, was born 1 May 1907 in Vitebsk, Russia, son of Daniel Reavey (1876–1938), Belfast businessman and director of flax-spinning mills in Vitebsk, and his Russian wife Sophia Turchenko (1883–1957). George was brought back to Belfast to be baptised in St Mary's catholic church on 13 May 1909, but otherwise lived in Vitebsk, except for intermediary visits, until 1919. His father was arrested during the Russian civil war, so he returned with his mother to Belfast, where they lived at Chichester Park and he attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. In 1921 they moved to Fulham, London, where he was educated at the Sloan School, spending his summers in Belfast. At Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1926, he helped found the review Experiment and was part of an avant-garde artistic circle.
After graduating BA (1929) he moved to Paris, briefly attending the Sorbonne (1930–31) and then working as writer, translator, and editor. His Faust's metamorphoses (1932) was a book of twenty vers libre poems, illustrated by the artist Stanley William Hayter with a foreword by the critic Samuel Putnam, who characterised Reavey as ‘one of the after-Joyce Irishmen who was able to take surrealism with no bad after-effects’ (Linen Hall Review, 9). The following year, he brought out translations of contemporary Russian writers, entitled Soviet literature. With fellow translator Marc Slonim he set up (1934) the European Literary Bureau, which they used as a literary agency. Back in London (1935) he founded the Europa Press as a forum for avant-garde writing. Its first publication was Echoes bones (1935) by Samuel Beckett (qv), to whom Reavey had been introduced by Thomas MacGreevey (qv) in 1929. The book met with polite mystification. Thorns of thunder, which appeared under the Europa Press imprint the following year, contained translations of Paul Éluard by (among others) Reavey, Denis Devlin (qv), and Beckett, who was incensed to find his work included since he had refused permission. He vowed to have no further dealings with Reavey, but after his novel Murphy was rejected by publishers in quick succession, he asked him to become his literary agent. After forty-two rejections the novel was finally placed with Routledge in December 1937. A blurb stressing the author's Irish genius and Celtic waywardness brought a scathing letter from Beckett, followed by mollifying ones when he discovered Reavey was the blurb's author. In 1937 Reavey acquired the rights to Dylan Thomas's ‘Burning baby’ stories for Europa Press. The poet's popularity would have assured large sales but the content was salacious and printers refused to set them. Thomas, who thought Reavey a rotten businessman, was roused to extraordinary invective: ‘that sandy, bandy, polite, lockjawed, French-lettered, i-dotted, Russian t'd, non-committal, BA'd, VD'd, mock-barmy, smarmy, chance-his-army tick of a piddling crook who lives in his own armpit’ (Thomas, Letters, 323). Reavey was similarly unsuccessful with Beckett's Watt; in 1947 he placed the book with Hamish Hamilton but it was not published until 1953, by another company, when it was out of his hands. Beckett, however, was more forgiving than Thomas, and eventually wrote Reavey a warm, if uninspired, inscription: ‘To George Reavey, to whom I owed so much, with whom I shared so much, for whom I cared so much’ (Journal of Beckett Studies, no. 2 (1977), inscription). Reavey aroused mixed feelings and seems to have had a dual nature: Hayter referred to his ‘sense of latent violence and occasional bursts of Homeric laughter’ (ibid., 5) and the painter Julian Trevelyan called him ‘in some ways a difficult companion. At times it was the Russian side of his temperament that was uppermost; he became exuberant and rather mad. At other times it may have been the Northern Irish side that drove him to silence and introspection’ (ibid., 4).
When the second world war broke out, Reavey rescued his mother in November 1939 from Poland, and then suspended his literary activities, taking up a post with the British foreign office in Madrid (1940–41). In 1941 he was in London working for the ministry of information and the BBC, and in April 1942 sailed for Murmansk as press attaché to the British embassy in Moscow. The boat was torpedoed and the passengers were picked up by a British trawler on 2 May; Reavey survived and spent until summer 1945 in Moscow, where he edited Britanski Boyuzik (British Ally), an embassy paper. On his return to London he began lecturing on Russian literature and published a translation of Gogol's Dead souls (1948). This enabled his move to New York, where he was appointed Rockefeller Foundation research fellow (1949). Except for a brief interlude as lecturer in Manchester University (1950) he spent the rest of his life in New York, working as an academic, poet, and translator. From 1956 to 1959 he was professor of English at Post College, Long Island University. He published a further six volumes of poetry, including an in memoriam to John F. Kennedy, which was privately printed and then reprinted in the Dublin magazine The Lace Curtain in 1971. John Montague included two of his poems in the Faber book of Irish verse (1974), but he has received scant critical attention. He died on 11 August 1976 in New York. He married three times: Gwenedd Vernon (1937), the artist Irene Rice Pereira (1950), and Jean Bullowa (1960). His papers are in the Harry Ransom humanities research centre, University of Texas, Austin.