Shusha Guppy interviewed Lesley Blanch at her home in Garavan, before and after a delicious home-cooked lunch consumed in the shade of a fig tree in the garden. September 1988.
Shusha Guppy : When you left England in 1946 after your marriage, you were en poste in Bulgaria for two years, I think. And later you wrote Under a Lilac Bleeding Star, which is a Bulgarian saying, isn’t it?
Lesley Blanch : Yes. There they say that a compulsive traveller is “born under a lilac bleeding star.” I have travelled all my life, so it fits. Of course that meant leaving my husband often you might say far too often. He had other women of course, all men do. They are so proud of their . . . aptitudes!
SG: What about you? As a very attractive, and they say, sexy woman, you must have had lots of offers on your travels?
LB : Naturally. And I liked having adventures in far away, wild countries. Everywhere I travelled I collected lots of friends, and yes, I did have lovers too.
SG : You went to Bulgaria after the war, when the country was in turmoil. Were you happy there?
LB : Yes, very, although there were problems: practically no food and many dramas. There were three armies of occupation – American, British and Russian. I learned to speak Bulgarian of a kind, pretty quickly. We made many friends. Best of all I got to know the gypsies. We had no money and I had no chic clothes, but I remember I had some scarlet damask curtains which I had brought from England to brighten a leased apartment; so I took them down, and the gypsies came and made me some chalvaris (wide Turkish trousers) which I still have, and still wear at home. They would crouch on the floor and sew. They would not take any money: “Oh no, not from you! You are one of us!” they would say. “Will you come to my daughter’s birthday feast, christening? Will you dance at my son’s wedding?” Of course, I would and did. I remember they were always sitting on the ground in their mahallahs or camps, picking nits from their heads and putting them in a saucer! But the sun shone, then, and I adored their seducing music.
LB : When you went back to Paris from Bulgaria, your husband worked at the Foreign Office, Le Quai d’Orsay. Did you get to know the intellectuals? It was the heyday of the Existentialists – Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, et cetera . . .
LB : Romain knew them all. I knew Camus, but not very well. I spoke French rather badly. I am not an intellectual in their way. I loved Malraux – he was a really romantic figure. Nancy Mitford was a great friend, just settling there, and becoming a part of the Paris scene. Both Romain and I revered de Gaulle, though I never met him. He wrote me a lovely letter about The Sabres of Paradise, and I have heard he said that it was remarkable that a woman should be able to understand the battles so well and describe them so vividly. True, I used to have my bed covered with maps, working out the campaigns.
SG : It is sometimes difficult for two writers to live together. Apart from practicalities, there is the question of professional jealousy and competitiveness. Was Romain Gary jealous of the success of your first book?
LB : He didn’t like it at all. His friends couldn’t believe it because they thought him such a great man, but he was jealous all them same.
SG : What about you? Were you jealous when he won the Goncourt for The Roots of Heaven?
LB : Oh no! I wanted him to be successful and fulfilled. It never entered my head, never! Sometimes I got fed up with his implacable selfishness, but we had a lot of laughs together, and I took on all the chores while he, convinced of his genius, devoted himself to his writing.
SG : Considering the modus vivendi you had achieved with Romain Gary, were you surprised when he wanted to divorce you and marry Jean Seberg?
LB : Yes. And I said I would not give him a divorce for a year, to see how it went. But finally they married, and had a son, whom I sometimes see. He is a very handsome boy.
SG : Did you feel bitter about the split?
LB : Only in the sense that we had become very great friends, and had worked out a way of living together in which I took on all the chores and complications and mechanics of life. We understood each other perfectly about work and had the same sense of humour, and we both loved animals. He used to say, “Lesley doesn’t mind my infidelities, she is very eighteenth-century!” And then we had just begun to have some money, which we never had before.
SG : What did you do after your divorce?
LB : We both continued to live in Paris and not overlap. But fifteen years later I came down here and bought this place and made this garden. At the end of his life Romain wanted to buy a house in this area. He always loved the Midi. He said to a friend: “I played my cards wrong, I should have stayed with Lesley-she let me do what I liked.”
SG : Were you surprised when he committed suicide?
LB : No, I wasn’t surprised. We both believed in euthanasia and the right to choose one’s death in dignity. He didn’t want to grow old: “Oh you are so young and enthusiastic! You don’t mind anybody knowing you are sixty!” he would shout down the dinner table, advertising the fact! He spoke English perfectly, with only the faintest Russian accent. But knowing how the English-speaking people find a French accent irresistible – rather like darling Charles Boyer’s – he would turn on a strong French accent for any attractive woman next to him at a dinner table. It made me laugh, and he would catch my eye and laugh too.
SG : Journey Into The Mind’s Eye, which you subtitled Fragments of an Autobiography, and which includes an account of your travels in Russia, notably your trip to Siberia on the trans-Siberian train, was written partly in memory of The Traveller. When did you first go to Russia?
LB : In the early thirties. I went to Moscow and Leningrad because of my interest in Pushkin. By the way, I have just heard from a friend that there is now a metro station near where he fought his fatal duel, and it is faced entirely with black marble. Isn’t that wonderful? When I first went there Stalin was starting his purges. There were few tourists, and as I spoke a little Russian the authorities didn’t bother with me much. I wasn’t aware of the persecutions, but one saw it was a grim and harsh life all round.
There were still children hunting in packs, the Bezprezoni, looking for food. There were still some droshkies, and I would take one and go to museums or the traktirs – cafés. I saw Shostakhovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Bolshoi, or was it the Mariinsky? – and met the composer on the stairs. I recognized him from his photos and introduced myself. He invited me to a party in the Green Room after the performance. There was a samovar and cakes, and several of the performers and people I didn’t know who were all very welcoming.
In the fifties, after Stalin’s death, I went back and travelled in the Caucasus. Things were easier there, and under Khrushchev too, just as now everything is changing with Gorbachev. I think he is wonderful! The capitalist world is stupid not to hold out a hand to him – to give him a chance.
SG : Was your husband ever with you on those journeys?
LB : No. He didn’t feel the same interest in Russia as I did, although he was Russian, Russian-Jewish, but I thought of him as just Russian, and that is what he liked in me: making a Russian home for us, with cabbage soup and samovar and piroshkis. Later he passionately wanted to be French, because he was grateful to France and de Gaulle was his hero. But you can never become French, can you? I can’t, anyway.
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