Journey into the Mind’s Eye
Journey into the Mind’s Eye
Lesley Blanch was four when the mysterious Traveller first blew into her nursery, swathed in Siberian furs and full of the fairytales of Russia. She was twenty when he swept out of her life, leaving her lovelorn and in the grips of a passionate obsession.
The search to recapture the love of her life, and the Russia he had planted within her, takes her to Siberia and beyond, journeying deep into the romantic terrain of the mind’s eye.
Part travel book, part love story, Lesley Blanch’s Journey into the Mind’s Eye is pure intoxication.
‘... the perceptions of a fine writer ... all cast upon a gorgeous canvas.’ - Harvard Review
‘If you are interested in Russia – if you are interested in love – this haunting book is one to read and re-read.’ - Philip Ziegler
Journey into the Mind's Eye
Format: 352pp demi pb
Lesley Blanch was born in 1907 and educated by her own reading and by listening to the conversation of her elders and betters. She has always wanted to travel and never cared to sit still, unless it was for the opera. Her love for Russia came very early in life, as anyone will understand when they read Journey into the Mind's Eye. She was married to the French diplomat and fellow writer, Romain Gary (or Kacewgary) from 1945 to 1963.
Although renowned for her best-selling The Wilder Shores of Love (1954), which studies the attraction exercised by the East over mid-nineteenth-century European women and which has been translated into over a dozen languages, Lesley Blanch herself considersThe Sabres of Paradise (1960) her finest work. This study of the life and times of Imam Shamyl, the Muslim hero of the Caucasian wars of independence, draws together her two great loves, Russia and the Islamic Middle East, and examines the enduring conflict and connections between the two cultures.
Extract from Chapter One
Who is the lonely Traveller
Racing the moonlight to my door?
Racing his troika over the steppe
Pacing his steeds with the wind in the forest.
The North wind that harries
The South wind that tarries
Who the lone Traveller come to my door?
— Lonely no more.
Siberian song - Trans-Baikal region
I must have been about four years old when Russia took hold of me with giant hands. That grip has never lessened. For me, the love of my heart, the fulfilment of the senses and the kingdom of the mind all met here. This book is the story of my obsession. In her essays, The Sentimental Traveller, Vernon Lee wrote of her emotion for Italy thus: ‘There are moments in all our lives, most often, alas! during childhood, when we possess the mystic gift of consecration, of steeping things in our soul’s essence, and making them thereby different from all others, for ever sovereign and sacred to us.’ So Italy became to her – so Russia to me.
The Traveller had come to rest in the rocking-chair. The clumsy folds of his great fur-lined overcoat stood round him like a box, while a number of scarves tangled under his chin. His tight-skinned Chinese-yellow face seemed to glow, incandescent, in the light of the nursery fire where we made beef-dripping toast together. Even this warming occupation could not persuade him to remove his overcoat.
‘You’ll catch your death of cold when you go out,’ my nurse would always say.
‘Not after Siberia,’ the Traveller would always reply. It was a ritual.
Of all the lands he had known, his own, Russia, seemed to me the most fabulous. He was from Moscow, ‘a Muscovite’, he said, but later I was to learn he was of Tartar blood; and unmistakably, the Ta-tze or Mongol hordes had stamped their imprint on his strange countenance. The dark slit eyes, the pointed ears, the bald, Chinese-bald skull, the slight, yet cruel smile which sometimes passed across his usually impassive face – all these spoke of Asia, of the Golden Horde, and the limitless horizons of Central Asia, where he roamed, in spirit, and in fact.
Whenever he came to Europe, he would visit us, and then, reaching my nursery, sit beside the fire, his huge shadow spread-eagled – a double-headed Russian eagle to me – across the rosy wallpaper. Shrugging and gesticulating with odd, unexpected movements, his long, bent-back fingers cracking, the nail of one
little finger sprouted to astonishing length, he would spin a marvellous web of countries, cities, people and things, conjuring for me a world of shimmering images. Fishing for serpents in the lakes of Central Asia. How pomegranates (which at that time I had never even seen) were said to contain one seed from Eden… The sort of food Mamai the Tartar ate sitting in his brocaded, fur-lined tent. The Trumpeter of Cracow, the private lives of reindeer, his grandmother’s house in the Ukraine, where the vast entrance-hall was paved like a chess board in squares of blue-john and jasper; how, when he was my age, he used to jump the various moves on it with two aged dwarfs, who had been part of the household of his grandmother’s mother, and had remained on, capering up and down stairs with messages, and preparing the special violet-scented cigarettes the old lady puffed incessantly.
Or he would tell of Tarbagan Bator, the Marmot hero of Mongol legend, one of my favourite characters, who, in the beginning of the world, shot down several of the twelve suns which then blazed on high. ‘The brave little marmot used a bow and arrow, and that is why, to this day,’ said the Traveller, ‘no Mongol will shoot at a marmot with such a weapon.’
‘So you see, since there are very few guns either, in Inner or Outer Mongolia, the marmots live happy lives there,’ he added reassuringly, seeing what was known in the family as my ‘Black Beauty Face’ threatening. This was always the prelude to an outburst of uncontrollable sobbing brought about by any mention of animal suffering, such as Anna Sewell’s story of that name, the poem entitled The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed or any other reminder of dumb distress.
Along with an amber chaplet which he fingered abstractedly, the Traveller always carried a squat little agate spoon. ‘For my caviare,’ he said, ‘it tastes so much better from a spoon.’ He never met with this delicacy at our table, unless he brought it with him, which he sometimes did, appearing unexpectedly, with a lavish pound of the great, grey-grained Beluga kind.
‘Fish jam,’ cook called it, sniffing suspiciously. But I took to it from the first.
Sometimes he told me fairy stories – Russian legends, Ilya Mourametz the heroic, or Konyiok Gorbunok, the little hump-
backed horse who brought his master such good fortune; or the magical cat, chained to a tree, who sang verses when he circled to the right, and told fairy tales when he went to the left… Best of all, he would tell of the great train that ran half across the world – the most luxurious and splendid train that ever was – the Trans-Siberian.
He held me enthralled then, and today, a life-time later, the spell still holds. He told me the train’s history, its beginnings (first mooted, it seemed, by an Englishman, a Mr. Dull by name); how a Tzar had said, ‘Let the Railway be built!’ And it was. He told me of its mileage, five thousand (to the Canadian-Pacific’s three thousand); of its splendours: brass bedsteads instead of bunks; libraries, hot baths, and grand pianos to while away the hours. (From Moscow to Irkutsk, barely a half way point to Vladivostok, was nearly a week’s travelling.) Of its miseries; of prison wagons, iron barred trucks hitched on at some wayside halt where the shackled lines of wretched creatures could be heard clanking their chains, often five pounds of wooden logs added to the heavy irons, and singing their traditional exiles’ begging song, the Miloserdnaya, a sort of funeral chant of doom and despair.
‘How did they learn it?’ I asked. His face changed terribly. Another mask, of pure hatred, suddenly succeeded the habitual one of Asiatic impassivity.
‘Those who went on foot sometimes took over a year to reach Tiumen – not even half-way,’ he said, ‘two miles an hour – twenty miles a day was good going in chains… They had plenty of time to learn the begging song. And to learn how to suffer, and die,’ he added. He shrugged. ‘Life teaches.’ It was one of his favourite dictums. Then, wrenching himself from Siberia to London, he became suddenly autocratic. ‘More tea!’ he demanded, and I hurried to the tea-pot.
He always insisted on having his tea, Russian-style, in a glass. He liked a spoonful of cherry jam in the saucer, beside it. Sometimes he showed me how the peasants held a lump of sugar in their teeth, and sucked the tea through it, noisily, for sugar was a great luxury among them, and not to be dissolved prematurely. The Traveller always drank his own tea in a strange fashion.