SEPTEMBER 1, 2018
ENGLISH WRITER AND HISTORIAN Lesley Blanch was a little girl living in London at the beginning of the 20th century when she was “bitten by the Russia bug,” as Russophiles say. Enthralled by the stories and gifts of an itinerant family friend whom she calls the Traveller, Blanch became obsessed with Russian culture. The man recalled his journeys, for example, on a rickety branch line of the Trans-Siberian Railway, or “gliding down the Don to Astrakhan” on a “steam-boat filled with watermelons and concertina-playing steerage passengers.” At her seventh birthday party, the Traveller told Blanch about his niece, who celebrated her birthdays in traditional Siberian fashion, with a six-foot-long sturgeon, “frozen stiff, garnished with ribbons.” After the caviar was “ripped from its belly,” the fish was stuffed and cooked in a dish as “big as a coffin.” Suddenly, Blanch writes, surveying the real-life scene around her, “all the jam sandwiches and éclairs turned to dust.”
Noting that there was as yet no fashion for Russophilia (has there ever been?), the precocious Blanch navigates youth as an outcast, in self-imposed exile from the perceived banality of Britain. Though it doesn’t quite come as a surprise, the narrative complicates when the 40-year-old Traveller eagerly deflowers a 17-year-old Blanch. “All women like to be conquered,” he tells her, as the contemporary reader winces at the age difference (and the elder’s lothario shtick). The Traveller takes the usual from Blanch and in exchange offers her access to authentic Russian experience. Over blini and vodka at a Paris nightclub where they watch “tziganes” (gypsies) perform, the Traveller turns to Blanch and asks drily, “Russian enough for you here?” The two even discuss the possibility of marriage, until the Traveller summarily vanishes, setting a match to Blanch’s combustible infatuation.
Written in 1968 and reprinted by NYRB Classics this past July, Journey Into the Mind’s Eye, Blanch’s hybrid work of memoir, travelogue, history, and literary criticism is startlingly ahead of its time. Blanch was an omnivorous intellect and a features editor at Vogue during World War II — she worked with photographer Lee Miller to document women in the armed services. She was married to novelist and French diplomat Romain Gary, with whom she traveled widely. The couple befriended Hollywood stars and literary giants before Gary left her for Jean Seberg. Of the 12 books she wrote, Blanch’s favorite was a biography of Imam Shamyl — the leader of the Caucasian resistance to imperial Russian rule.
Hard to imagine the historical work was more idiosyncratic and sparklingly entertaining than this multi-dimensional volume. Describing her first trip to Russia, Blanch not only provides a captivating report on her activities, but perceptively assesses minor differences between Russian cities, and weaves in an aside on the “grotesque, or even sinister” quality of paintings by the 19th-century Russian artist Pavel Fedotov as compared with similar canvases by German Romantic painters. Fusing genres as masterfully as Rebecca Solnit or Maggie Nelson, she elaborates on what she perceives to be a “marked kinship between English and Russian writers.” When the Traveller speaks of dispossessed White Russian emigrés in Siberia, Blanch takes the opportunity to present readers with a tight profile of the diaspora induced by the unfurling Bolshevik order. With empathy, she writes of the “chaos, despair, bewilderment, disease, and terror” that undergird the revolutionary moment, illuminating the human toll of Soviet communism.
Westerners have long been consumed by Russia, a site of bewildering paradox: an expanse so vast as to be indecipherable, a place marked by both opulence and austerity, brilliance and simplicity, dully beholden to bureaucracy and authority and yet resoundingly vital, a country moving inexorably forward yet dogged at every step by its own backwardness. We owe this shorthand in part to the French writer Marquis de Custine, whose voluminous 1839 travelogue Letters from Russia established an enduring Western framework for looking at the country. In it, Custine ascribes to Russians all manner of specific traits and peculiarities, then goes on to say that they “have no ideas of their own.” He instructs Frenchmen to send their discontented sons to Russia, for it is a society where “no happiness is possible” and Europeans who visit would come to appreciate their lot.
Blanch was writing in the 20th century, when Russia became a powerful repository of Western fantasies, anxieties, and fears, a looming elsewhere that was both exotic and forbidding, the old “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” in Winston Churchill’s famous estimation. Particularly in its nukes-wielding Soviet incarnation, Russia was positioned as a sinister political and cultural counterweight, and a new binary emerged: us versus them. As historian Martin Malia wrote, the Soviet Union was “the great Other in terms of which the world was obliged to define itself.”
Today, this reductive urge is becoming strong once again, despite a generation of scholars who have thoroughly critiqued the binary and condescending ways the West has perceived Russia — with our colonial and Orientalist impulses and grave oversimplifications of the lived realities of Russia and its neighbors. Blanch’s book both reinforces and refuses the same old Russia tropes. She peddles anachronistic stereotypes about her “Slav-born” servants as well as more familiar fare — the idea that Russians have more soul than Westerners, that they are melancholy and inefficient — all the while emphasizing that her Russia is largely a fiction, that it likely says more about her own longings than the place itself.
In the Traveller’s wake, Blanch eats Russian food off of imperial Russian porcelain in her London flat; she names kittens Omsk and Tomsk after the Siberian cities; and builds a life in Europe full of intellectual jousting in emigré apartments and piroshkis from dank Russian grocers. “At home I fled the present,” she writes, by listening to Russian operas, reading Karl Baedeker’s 1902 tour guide of “La Russie” and her “sacred” Tolstoy, and even the historian Alexander Turgenev. Not the far better-known Ivan Turgenev, who wrote the novel Fathers and Sons and who, she says, “paled beside his kinsman.” Winking at the extraordinary depth and snobbishness of her own expertise, Blanch introduces even the Russian scholars in her audience to great artists we may have missed.
Later, the pathology intensifies as Blanch pursues one of the Traveller’s sons, who actually calls her Mamasha, or Mother. The two sequester themselves in European hotels and alternate between whispering sweet nothings and hurling breakfast trays at one another. She “collects” a wide assortment of Russians as lovers and friends, some “very old, with marvelous memories to be harvested […] All seemed to deepen the colors of my mirage.”
In its resolute avoidance of Soviet reality, Journey Into the Mind’s Eye can read like a romantic, at times desperate, attempt to resuscitate Russia’s imperial corpse. This can be grating, until the reader gives in and realizes that contemporary politics are simply not Blanch’s bag. With grande-dame confidence, she swiftly brushes away the geopolitical spasms of the century like crumbs from a tablecloth. Through much of the book, she brazenly doubles down on her “Run-Away Game,” mentally escaping the London tube for the taiga, cherishing the “snow-bound horizons of my inward-turning eye.”
Blanch does reckon overtly with the ethical complexity of traipsing through another’s land, taking seriously her status as an outsider and relishing occasions when she’s put in her place. For her, Russia was her soul’s home — the “landscape of my heart” — a place where she felt uniquely herself. But it was also, perhaps more importantly, a mechanism for endless seeking and discovery. Many of her experiences in this book do not take place in Russia but rather in the apartments of Russian exiles, thick with the “vinegary reek” of cabbage soup, who engage in intellectual debate late into the night. As with the Traveller so many years before, Blanch is keen to pine with them for a Russia lost to revolution, to communism, to time, and to experience, a Russia that they “perhaps, had never known.” Vladimir Nabokov called it, “Nostalgia in reverse, the longing for yet another strange land.”
Journey Into the Mind’s Eye reminds us that any place conjured from afar — in love or fear — especially by an outsider, is simply not the place itself. It is a projection, an assemblage of associations — in Blanch’s words, a merging of “fantasy, fact, geography,” set to Borodin. For Blanch, this love is as much about the yearning as anything. You can never truly master the language. You will never ever be of that place. Such an obsession provides a sense of control over the feeling of alienation in one’s motherland. You choose another place. But a feeling of displacement and loss persists. And yet this displacement is vastly preferable because it grants freedom, in the midst of a harrowing political moment (in Blanch’s case a world war), to immerse oneself in beauty — in literature, history, and fantasy.