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 : People like you who are passionate about Russia and Russian literature are usually disappointed by the Soviet Union. But in your book you seem to approve of it. In the passage relating to your trip to Siberia you write most poignantly and vividly about the plight of the convicts in the nineteenth century with their chains and fetters dragging through the frozen steppes, yet hardly mention the millions and millions who perished in Stalin’s concentration camps, in worse conditions. How come?
Lesley Blanch : I think the Russian Revolution was an inevitable move in the context of the twentieth century, just as Khomeini’s Islamic revivalism is today. It is something, a phase, to be gone through. I don’t think it will kill Persia, and it hasn’t killed Russia. You might remember what the Tzarina Alexandra said: “Russia can only be ruled by the knout” – the whip. Yes, that very English, rather silly stubborn lady who was killed in Ekaterinburg in 1918, said that. I don’t know what conclusions to draw from that.
SG : You had travelled in Persia in the past and in 1974 went back to write the biography of Queen Farah. Did you get the impression that a revolution was inevitable?
LB : Yes. That book was a commission – the only one of my books I have written on that basis; otherwise I have always chosen what I wanted to write. But I loved the Shahbanou. She was a most charming woman, and she did an enormous amount for Persian culture and the arts, such as the Museum of Carpet, which she created, and the Museum of Qajar Paintings. She used to buy old houses to save them from demolition – because of course they were all being pulled down to be replaced by hideous modern buildings. She once said to me: “Look at this photograph of the Gates of Qazvin – I was only a few years too late to save them!” I got to know her rather well, and we often talked very freely, but then she would be called away to some duty, and my time was up. She was – and is – a remarkable human being.
The destruction that followed the fall of the monarchy was in a sense inevitable. However, the world’s treatment of the Shah is one of the most ignoble episodes of modern history. Only Sadat was loyal. The craven attitude of the French, the Americans, and the British… When you think that some African leaders who are reported to have cut up children and made chops and steaks out of them still live in great comfort in Europe, one realizes how political manoeuvres stink.
SG : You told me that you alternate long, serious books with short, light ones. After The Wilder Shores of Love you wrote the Harriette Wilson introduction and a cookbook, Round the World in 80 Dishes. I know what an accomplished cook you are, havingsampled your cuisine, but what made you write a book about it?
LB : I wrote it for a child in America. He was the son of the friends with whom I was staying in Long Island, and one evening he disappeared for a while and came back with a very good omelette he had made. So I wrote a little book for him, and did the illustrations myself. I enlarged it for England, where people still lived on rations and couldn’t travel to taste exotic cooking. Nowadays cookery books are serious business, but I can’t be serious about it. Sometimes when I’m writing I start cooking to relax, but usually I forget about it until the smell of burning tells me it is ruined. There goes another saucepan and my dinner, I say.
SG : The “light” book that came after The Sabres of Paradise was Pavilions of the Heart. What gave you the idea?
LB : I thought that houses in which people have lived and loved were interesting. I put in certain things people already knew about, for example Liszt’s life in Woronince, a chateau in Poland, and lesser known ones such as the Portuguese nuns. The book ran into trouble: the editor, Tony Godwin, who was a wonderful man left the firm for the States, then the art editor got pregnant and left, and the girl who replaced her had never heard of Delacroix, and one illustration was printed upside down! It was a mess. I tore into the editorial director, who being a gentleman had to stand and take it, while I being no lady just let fly! I insisted on a brief Errata, saying that a proper one would be as long as a lavatory roll. But the writing is nice, so I’m not ashamed of it.
SG : Your biography of Pierre Loti, which was published in 1983, has led to a revival of interest in him and his work. What made you choose him, since there are other biographies of him done by Frenchmen?
LB : Yes, but not good ones in English. He was an interesting character, and I shared his deep love of Turkey. He was not just a mawkish and sentimental writer as some think. Remember, people like Henry James and Marcel Proust admired him greatly. He wrote beautifully and had very sensuous rhythms. The French say, “Oh yes I read him at school, the book about his love affair with the Turkish woman, Aziyadé, and so on.” But his travel books are marvellous; and the one he wrote on China, reporting on the Boxer Rebellion is terrifying. It took me three years to write this biography. I always read all I can about my subject to get a balanced view before I begin, and I always try to find the families concerned. I had the luck to meet his daughter-in-law. She had lived beside Loti in the same house and didn’t like him. In fact she skinned him alive for me! Anyway, the book was a great success in France, although at first the French were dubious about my enterprise, because they thought that an English woman, speaking French in a rather careless way as I do, writing about their author, couldn’t possibly get it right. But La Revue des Deux Mondes gave it six pages, it won a prize and it set off a whole new interest in him. I get many fan letters: Le Figaro asked me to write about his mother, and Paris Match wanted me to write about his house; Le Figaro invited me to a cruise they were having in Turkish waters to give a lecture on Loti, but I declined that. I like to travel alone.
SG : One of the things I enjoyed about The Wilder Shores of Love and Loti was their brevity. Today biographies are so very long and contain a great deal of unimportant information, don’t you think?
LB : Oh yes, typical American style! I hope I’m more succinct. Lately there have been endless full-length books about each of the four women of The Wilder Shores. I keep getting asked to review them! The other day I was sent one about Isabelle Eberhardt. It is very worthy and well researched, but rather pedestrian and redundant. But when you get a man like Paul Bowles, who has lived in North Africa and has lately translated some of Isabelle’s short stories, and knows what he’s talking about, then it is very interesting. He knows what the Sahara means, the magic of it, the feel of it, and what she felt.
SG : There was an error of attribution in Loti about a poem by Auden which you had said was by Eliot, and I remember how every reviewer picked it out – irresistibly!
LB : Yes, it makes them feel superior. I suppose I forgot to check it at the last minute. Editors don’t check things any more, and typesetters are worse. It also often happens when you are your own proof-reader. You know your rhythm, you’ve been writing it for years, so you’re skipping along and don’t catch a fault. The proof-readers today are hardly any better than the typesetters, who don’t care what they’re printing. I remember a secretary I had once – I wrote a review of the ballet Swan Lake and she typed Swan Cake! I said, “But Miss Jones ‘the elaborate convulsions of Swan Cake’ doesn’t make sense!” She was very pretty and pert, and said: “No, Mrs. Blanch, nothing you write makes any sense to me!” I cherished that.
SG : You have written only one novel, The Nine Tiger Man, which was very well received when it appeared. Your autobiography, Journey Into The Mind’s Eye, reads like a novel too, especially the story of The Traveller. Were you not tempted to write more fiction?
LB : No, because I can’t invent. For biography I have to remember, and then work round a character. In biography you don’t invent anything, but you interpret. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t use your imagination. That novel was a landscape – the landscape of Rajput India which I adored. I had pulled a ligament in my leg and had to stay on an island in Jaipur. The Indians were very kind; they used to heave me about in a boat and take me round the island. You could hear the leopards coughing at dusk in the far hills, and the parakeets flewround turning the sky green. The whole thing was extraordinary. One day I saw what I thought was a log, but it was a crocodile. I had heard the story of a group of English women being put on that island during the Mutiny and not daring to escape because of the crocodiles – just stuck there, with no news and fearing the worst. From that I imagined the whole novel. That story evolved, but no other ever has.
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