9. Collioure

In the summer of 1923 the relationship with the Garland-Hales had broken down to the extent that Evelyn, with Cyril and Jig and their new friend Owen Merton, left Bermuda to find warmth and painting opportunities in, they hoped, the cheap and warm climes of southern France. I have not been able to find any letters relating to their leaving Bermuda and their travel arrangements, and so the story resumes when the family are in Collioure, in the foothills of the Pyrenees near Marseille.

Map

Collioure is a medieval fishing port, the harbour dominated by the church of Notre-Dame-des-Anges with its distinctive bell tower at the water’s edge. In the early 1920s the town nestled by this church and the Villa Tine, where the family lived, would have been in one of the narrow medieval streets surrounding the church. The soft Mediterranean light, the medieval architecture and the stark countryside were attractive to painters of the day, and in the 1920s the town was host to Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and André Derain, among others.

The letters that follow illustrate Evelyn’s ability to evoke, with few words, the colours and smells of her surroundings. Her opinion of those with whom she travelled with are also made explicit. We begin today’s collection with her description of their stopover in Naples, en route to France and written after their arrival in Collioure.

* * * * *

To Lola Ridge

Villa Tine, Collioure, France
July 7, 1923

Precious Lola:

I want to make note of what has happened and I do it in letters to me friends.  Is that a cheap economy of invention?  I know you want to hear and I simply can’t write it twice.

We were docked at Naples at eight o’clock and I was too lazy to witness the approach.  What I saw when I came on deck was a hot hill of houses with the Castle of Saint Elmo resting rather bleakly on the top of it, and on the other side only a large dim outline of a Vesuvius which the fog had almost obliterated.  There was a great stir of people landing.  Out of about two hundred second class passengers all but fifteen got off here, and Italian ladies who had luxuriated in soiled matinees for the past fifteen days appeared suddenly in evening dress, the scent of garlic more piquant for the usual perfume of the bottle which accompanied it.  Merton had horrible recollections of Naples where he had sunstroke and was often robbed and he awakened in a high key of antagonism which later precipitated itself.

Ellen1 loves the Italians and you can imagine how that irritated him.  Especially when the ship began to be overrun with dark shoddily neat gentlemen who would take us all to Pompeii for the day almost for the pleasure of doing it.  Lola, never let any brave man mention in my presence again the materialism of my native land.  At least we do our thieving in the grand manner.  Naples had an atmosphere of meagre financial desperateness.  It isn’t the war at all, but these are people who are temperamentally incapable of industry and initiative who are caught in the struggle and can’t get out of it.  They are like women who have led easy lives, whose soft bodies can not compete and yet they must compete.  They must get money somehow in the domesticated wildness of alley cats where they exist.

We had no sooner set our feet on the glaring dock to which we were drawn up when more hungry creatures offered their services, their carriages, their bought advice with a kind of illicit hungriness.  We did get a carriage and Ellen, who speaks Italian well, was scheduled to pilot us.  We wanted first to see the meanest streets.  But driver took us wherever he would—many halts, Ellen rising converses with him volubly.  He is agreeable, he wants to take us the longest way—and after the greatest moral exertion we go where we want to and come out right.  Merton’s eyes ache.  He exhibits an evasive tensity.  When the driver asks him if he likes Naples he replies baldly that he hates its stinks.  The driver looks unabashed and yet abashed.  He is agreeable.  We must be pleased.  He is like a kindly whore who is accustomed to being beat, who steals a little from the gentleman’s pockets and is ashamed of it.

Such streets, Lola.  Palermo had the same narrowness, the same tortureness, but its filth was new and bright and unsubdued.  Old Naples was a decayed body—sharp and strong with people living in it as in maggoty meat—people that ran in and out of dark windowless holes that were meat stalls and butcher shops.  In every shop a shrine like a kind of ikon with an electric bulb glaring stodgily in front of it.  Such meat shops—harsh pieces of red flesh, dingy tiles, crusts of flies, and always always, visible in the shallow depths as we stared in from the carriage, the worn picture of the saint on the wall above the counter at the back.  Such cadaverous women, such anemic children, such an absence of any joy in light or life—nothing anywhere but a rich and crowded hideousness.  There were shrines on the outsides of houses too, shrines that were dingy and fly specked, and beneath them also burned and electric light.  The vegetables exposed were sold and old and there was charcoal dust.  Some of the streets like the ones I remember in Lisbon climbed endless stairs with the banners of laundered clothes rising tier on tier till they waved at last in the merciless light.  Palermo reminded me of Rio de Janeiro on a smaller scale.  It was young.  Naples was used as I never saw a city used before.  There was not a fresh face, not a fresh house front–nothing that had not come to the end of itself and sprouted again like a tree that is half felled but struggles yet to a little harsh growth.  The stinks I had anticipated I didn’t find in actuality.  It was a visual aroma that I mostly get—black olives, wine jugs, basket makers, chair weavers, cobblers, smithies, wood sellers, all crowded in one street—court yards that had the faint illumination of decay-and people, people in rooms the depth of a wall, people who were crowded helplessly into the street while those in Palermo willingly lived in it.

The fine gardens and drive along the sea are a slightly less impressive counterpart of Rio since the mountains behind the city are further back.  There the same bald elegance of expensive passions.  We went to a restaurant on the waters edge where we could look directly at Vesuvius which had emerged from its pseudo mystery and looked fine but rather obvious with houses clustering at its gradual feet.  Maybe I had seen it too often on the walls on Italian restaurants but it was so exactly what I had anticipated that its actuality did not affect me until that evening when the ship was going out.

The restaurant had a wide veranda and an empty unluxurious appearance but we were very well served with some breaded cutlets, salad, and a kind of short cake with cherries in the middle of it, black bitter cherries that had been steeped in wine so that their acridness was subtilized.  The wine was bad here and in Palermo it was excellent.  We disgraced ourselves by misunderstanding a charge for services and not leaving any tips.  Our vanity was darkened for the day when we discovered it.  By this time Merton and Ellen had already disagreed as to Italian charmingness.

I was reckless enough to ask to go to the toilet and a small boy who could speak English escorted me up a torturous spiral staircase above the bar and stood politely outside the Johnny door until I could be admitted.  He waved his hands gallantly toward it as the last occupant came out.  Such a toilet.  A darkness almost complete but animate with smells, a toilet more used than Naples herself and uncleansed by the rains of heaven, a toilet without a chain to pull and with every evidence that the chain had not been pulled that week.

We had another ride in a taxi out the sea way, another past some fine old palaces, and another through some rich and substantial looking squares and business streets.  There were huge arcades with rich shops, but the prices were very cheap.  How I would have loved to buy presents for all of us.  Silk was next to nothing.  The dust and heat were terrible.  The taxi drivers quarrelled with each other.  We were continually being spotted as tourists and asked to see Pompeii.  There were beggars on the streets.  By the water we were besieged with proffers of boats.  There is nothing in Naples that can not be bought.  Nothing that isn’t trying to see itself.

1Ellen Kennan was a friend of both Evelyn and Cyril; she had been Cyril’s lover during the early 1920s.  She was travelling with the Scotts to France.

* * * * *

To Otto Theis

Collioure, France
July 9, 1923

Beloved Otto:

I had your letter a couple of days ago. . .The second class of the Patria was horrible, we almost died of starch poisoning and the general literal putrefication of the grub.  Jig had croup and I had a bass cough and a sore chest, and the passengers, Italians going home and a few rotten Americans were the very worst.  No lounge only a smoking room very dirty with dirty people and indigestibable babies and gentlemen who could spit farther and louder—much louder—than a southern Colonel in a Bret Harte story.  No permanent deck spaces, herding on and off decks partially possessed by the first class.  We rented five steamer chairs and spent most of the time looking for them and removing them from Italians who had escaped the property sense except as it related to the belongings of other folks.

However we did have two whole days in brilliant sunshine running a moving picture distance from Moorish castles and Algerian villages on one side, and the slow fatigued landscape of burnt Spain opposite.  Also the Azores, very kind hills and funny zig zag cultivation like an infantile insanity.  Dutch windmills very calm in the midst of it.  Also a day at Palermo which is like Brazil, gaudy, ennuied, and ingenuous.  Sicilians seem to like bright irrelevant things, wonderful gay sweetmeats, marvelously naïve carts, a new looking city and very old alive hills burning above it.  A day in Naples where, thank God, most of the passengers got off, a rapacious Naples rich with filth, and dingier in its richness that I knew a Southern city could be.  Everybody wanted to sell something, services, information, taxi cabs, and Pompeii was hawked about like a Coney Island commodity.  It did look beautiful though when we were leaving it.  Sorrento and Capri were all brittle houses small and white in a kind of winey light, Vesuvius immensely still, and a very dramatic sunset where the sun stood over the water in a huge sphere that had detached itself from the sky and seemed to float.

Marseille was stupe, very bourgeois and middleaged, very commercially cosmopolitan in the population of the streets.  The lots of plane trees looked strong and composed and heartily green and there was a quiet color in flower markets and zouave soldiers, but I didn’t feel in it any France more subtle than the naturalists.1

We had a wild trip to Port Vendres with one parrot and twenty three pieces of small baggage and three unexpected changes of train en route.  Port Vendres is one street around a well in port and the ships from Algeria dock under the hotel windows.  The Pyrenees are heavy and close above the stodgy houses.  There were some sailing ships that on moonlight nights were a labyrinth of stiff frost white ropes against a deep space of dark-lit sky, strangely intimate and close to us.  They had sour smelling cargoes that were loaded, unloaded and mysteriously loaded again while we were there (the same black beans sold, docked, resold and returned to the hold to be taken to Barcelona) by strong looking girls and lean strong old women who swung sacks with a rhythmical easiness.  We couldn’t find a house to rent and as our money was being eaten up in the hotel we came over here to Collioure and took the only place available, still much dearer than we had meant to pay for it.

The Villa Tine is a miracle of perfection, an ugliness that is above reproach.  But it is comfortable, has a charming garden in front and back garden of orange and magnolia and is five minutes walk from a swimming place.  Also, if you don’t mind slight inconveniences, it has room enough to put you and Sophie up.  Ellen Kennan is here with us till about the end of the month and after that we will have a room free.

Collioure old town
Modern photo of Collioure old town

We have a sternly shy maid who cooks very bearably though she isn’t the miracle of efficiency tradition had led me to expect and doesn’t do much else.  Merton manages the housekeeping and I clean up.  If we weren’t always nervous about money we could settle down to a wonderful year.  Merton only has a few hundred dollars and a month was wasted before we even got here (eighteen days on ship, three in Marseille, one traveling, a week in Port Vendres, and two or three days of getting settled in this place).  He is a remarkable water colorist Otto.  He has wasted six years doing manual labor, gardening, digging, anything, until his wife died last year and left him with two kids, who, fortunately are with their grandparents for the time.  We hoped Marie would do something for him, but alas she has the bug that labor in the soil is holy and that he needs it to purify his art.  He is pretty blue about the prospect of having to go back.  When you come down I want you to see his stuff and I have wondered if you knew anyone in London who had any money and would be likely to be interested in it.  He had a show at the Daniels gallery just before we left but it netted him only about a hundred and fifty dollars and he only got as much more from a little private thing we arranged at Marie’s Washington Mews place.  Except him and Marie and Charlie Demuth there aren’t any and they are older men who have gotten a certain influence through Steiglitz while he as a foreigner is just breaking in.

 Escapade was held up because I had to make cuts.  This was sprung on me when it was in page proof.  I spent four days more or less with a fool lawyer-was told it was a borderline book, a plea for free love, and would be considered a menace to American institutions.  I was made to cut out all statements that I was proud of my relation to Cyril, that I didn’t want to marry, in fact every positive assertion of my belief in my own decency.  Also all physical statements about sex and maternity.  An unmarried mother, so the lawyer told me, can’t be allowed to nurse her child.  He said I made myself “too attractive in bed” (mind you I was convalescing from Jigeroo and had him in bed with me but I had to cut that out).  I was sick.  I never would have done it but that Cyril advised me to because the Seltzers have my other book and if I break this contract they can break that, because there are no other publishers left, because they had Cyril’s wonderful Siren though I doubt now if they will publish it.  I never remember being so sickly humiliated, so futile rebellious, so utterly robbed of the kind of pride that supports you against the world.  I left New York feeling as thoroughly licked as I ever did.  And yet I know the book wasn’t ruined.  It is the personal element in the demands for exclusion to which it nearly killed me to submit.  I am grateful of the space between me and Puritan hideousness and in my present mood have a long tired ennui of attempting to put other things.  Of course I shall get over it.  If only we can afford to stay here long enough.

The nightmare atmosphere culminated in watching a blackmail trial for prostitution in which the woman was convicted because she was really too scared to risk the fight that it made me want to put up when I listened to it.

Well, about Collioure.  It is on the Midi railway and is about an hour from Perpignan.  It is very filthy and very beautiful.  It is very near the Spanish border, about seventy-five miles from Barcelona.  The Pyrenees have a luxurious severity like the richness of ecclesiastical voluptuousness.  The bathing is good.  The town is without a WC (our house has one thank god) and there are amorous cats in the streets by the hundreds.  There is a fort full of Senegalese.  Matisse and some of the pointillists painted here.  It is worth seeing and we WANT to see you.  I don’t know how you would come from Paris but we took the Paris express at Marseilles, then changed at Contrast, at Cette, and at Narbonne.  Expresses stop at Port Vendres for the Algerian boats and you could go to Port Vendres and drive about a mile over here or else take a slow train that stops at Collioure.  Everybody knows the Villa Tine and already the Anglaise that live in it.

Love to you both.  Evelyn

1The group disembarked at Marseille and travelled by train to Collioure, stopping en route at Porte Vendre.

* * * * *

To Otto Theis

Collioure, France
August 15, 1923

Dearest Otto:

This is the poorest saddest little town but very stark and lovely too.  The heat has dried up half the grapes and the fires on the mountains have burnt the cork trees and it just is rich massive flowing lava-like sterility, burnt colors with thick dry shadows in the high hollows and moorish watch towers very bleak on the bleakest heights.  I hasn’t rained for two months.  To recover me from the fatugure of the book we went to Arles Sur Teche for three days.  The scenery is absolutely different though only an hour and a half away—mountains covered with greenery that looks young and full like spring and torrents of mountains water rushing to fountains in the streets.  All night in the quiet you hear the think cool rush of water going past.  The teche is like an Alpine torrent Sug says, white round boulders and cataracts.  But it is really a less individualized place than this.

Escapade is out but I’m not reading reviews of it until I finish my book.1  If it does sell it will be—oh, irony—for scandal’s sake anyway.  Wonderful to write with religious solemnity of the most actual thing that ever occurred to you and only repeat the success of a sunday headline in it.  I have had no copy yet but will mail you one when I do.  The astericks indicate omissions and I imagine look queer but I wanted it to be known that the book was mutilated.  Mr Seltzer2 is indicted by the grand jury on last summers charge.  I may be next.  God knows I don’t believe in freedom as hesitant here more than there Otto.  The French are a niggling lot of commercialists and the Americans at least do it in the grand manner.  There is nothing but solitude and a few friends.  Today is a fete day and Jigeroo has gone with two kids unknown to ride on the merry go round.  He is learning French anyway—much more than I am.  Merton keeps house and I simply don’t speak.  Sug is a wonderful and lovely person—the most I ever knew or ever will know—and Merton with a much more limited sweep as he knows himself is absolutely genuine and sensitive and kind thank heaven.  Life is complicated but compensating mostly.  Money of course still annoys.  With Escapade at three dollars I may make something.  Marie didn’t make the allowance permanent after all.

Our very very most love to you and do come here.  We have to get a new place before October but I think it will be in this district.  We would always have room for you.

Evelyn

The Golden Door, published 1925
Thomas Seltzer was a Russian émigré who became a successful translator and academic. In 1919 he founded the publishing house, Thomas Seltzer Inc, which not only published Escapade but also works by D H Lawrence. These works brought him to the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and led to charges of publishing “unclean” books, which he fought vigorously: the legal battle resulted in his bankruptcy.

* * * * *

To Lola Ridge

[Collioure, France]
[September 1923]

Darling dear, I tried to write this yesterday when I was out painting with Merton and had to quit because it was giving me a pain to sit in a squidged up position on the hard earth.  I wish I could have stayed because I was looking at a funny caravan drawn up below us, a blue caravan with nice little Nottingham curtains very clean in the window and, now that they had unhitched their horse and settled down, two little canary bird cages hung on either side of the front door with little birds singing very at home on them.  Through the open door I saw inside a wonderful dresser with dishes hung in racks and three bunk beds one under the other covered with red spreads and lace coverlids, as clean and cute as anything.  A big woman with blond hair and a red face was watering the donkey that belonged to the outfit and another old woman very shriveled and hearty looking was making a fire.  If I had sat there longer I could have told you a whole story about them, but as it was I only learned that they came from Normandy.  I don’t know for why or what.

collioure harbour
Collioure harbour [AKPool.co.uk]

There was a fete here two weeks ago and the fishing boats were decorated with paper lanterns and the harbour very lovely in the vague night with floating flat-radiance of the candles.  We thought about Broadway and how this childish illumination in one key has such a naïve timidity while that other childish illumination is so wonderful bold and varied to such violence.  For some funny reason I never thought about America as America, a unit, a country with people in it, not people in a country, as I have since we came here.  I suppose I had no sense of America when I left New Orleans and this is really the first time I have felt absolutely removed from it since I felt New York for Bermuda was too close.  It is voluptuous like an old ladys memories.  I used to feel that way about Brazil but didn’t know it would come so quickly about this.  I don’t think I ever knew there was a racial America before.  Lower Broadway with a lost gull I once saw fling over it has become as symbolic as the mountains we saw along the African coast.  I suppose this is the first time I ever indulged romanticism about my native land.  Anyway the more I see of other countries, or this one other countries, the more magnificently awful my own country appears to be.  Not in any way that makes me want to go back.  I don’t want to go back for a long long time, not until I get all I can out of this distant appreciation.Cyril and Merton have done marvels in paint.  Merton’s best work and Cyril away ahead of Bermuda as good as that was.  Merton says Cyril’s painting has a stark profundity and I think it a wonderfully exact phrase for it.  Yes, Lola, we are having a good life now, and when I feel physically well I am awfully happy (when Sug is well, for a times all three of us have been sick).  Merton has a weak back he got while day laboring and sometimes when he lifts too many things it upsets him.

What you write about Escapade cheers me, but I don’t want reviews and I think I am wise.  It, or they makes you want to hit back to decent yourself and I don’t want to be stirred by them while I am in the new book.  But I liked the little clipping and thought it a very sweet generosity from somebody I don’t know, and I will be obliged if you will keep any clippings that you get.

I have finished the first draft of the new novel and am half way through the second, or perhaps a third through.  It is certainly a culmination of all other experiments in technique I have made and I believe embraces a lot more.  I think I am at least learning how to use analytic and emotional qualities in a real synthesis.  I hope you think so.  don’t tell anybody (especially Waldo, ha, ha, secrecy).  I learned something from reading Sug’s Siren and instead of waiting for critics to find out indebtednesses I haven’t got am going to acknowledge it in my introduction.  I do think you will like the book.  It is about Merton and his wife (that is really confidential), and what I had of her character from reading old letters and talking it over with him.  I take them through their experience here and then in the United States.  After that I don’t know what.  I would like to write really of this place but that will come later when I am intimate with it.

The French people are the most quintessence of individualism.  The way they do stand back and allow murder and anything else and never interfere with it.  Superficially they are the rudest people, or rather fundamentally for it is their real indifference, I ever saw.  Might know a popular fallacy would be undone once you looked at it.  They butt through crowds, knock you over, never apologise, stare unmercifully at any woman they don’t know, and never do the least curtesy for anybody except purely formally for very definite effect.  On the other hand their leaving you alone has its advantages.  This town is miserably poor and now at the end of summer is haunted by devastated artists who are going to get one picture in the salon before they die or die at once of a starch diet.  Some wear Pilgrim Father hair and blue coats, some fence with their palettes, as Sug says, and some trudge to painting armed like Tartarin on his hunting expedition with a meek little wife and three daughters to assist.  You never saw so many awful pictures as are being painted in Collioure at the present moment.  We like it though and are in great distress because we have not yet found a house to move to when we give up this.  The town is so old and so crowded that there is not but one garden beside ours and ours is THE ONLY HOUSE THAT HAS ANY SORT OF A WC IN IT.  Every morning ladies going to market carrying on the left arm the china slop pail with the offering to the all consuming sea in it.  Gentlemen trouble themselves less and merely squat.  God help me, I shall return to America and light an ikon in the bathroom.  The smell of merde is on the breath of the sea and is almost everywhere that a female in a clean dress would like to sit.  (I didn’t put an h in it Lola, excuse my vulgarity.)

collioure 1927 martin hurliman print
Collioure c 1927 [Martin Hurliman print]

Just the same I wish you could see now in the rain le Chateau2 with a wall like a mountain out of the sea and a fig tree dripping in a cranny of it quite high up.  The town is crooked streets that at night are dramatic and abrupt, very badly lit, and old woman in black resting in a crooked doorway, a black cat (there are lots of cats and lots of rats) slinking past her, and a man with a red sash around his waist carrying a sack of charcoal up up into the darkness where a blood and thunder cut throat ought to be hid for some better loot.  The Pyrenees really begin here and they are the saddest most austere mountains I ever saw, burnt colored and grassy bleak, with some rocky peaks far off, the peak of the Canigo which is really a very high mountain, just visible sometimes when there is no mist.  Over toward Argelesse it begins to flatten and there is that variegated landscape the French make because of cultivating so many things in such small space, vines and olives and little garden plots diminutive in a large plain with a ribbon of blue haze making it perpetually remote like a veiled picture with the sun on it.Please write to me again and say how you and Davy are, and remember we love you both and THINK of you and TALK of you just about every single day, all three of us, and I do hope you are not ill now and are getting on with the book.  Remember anytime you want to be our household you are wanted above everybody and Lola it would be so wonderful if you can come over because living here though not as cheap as we had hoped is better than New York and easier on the nerves (provided you aren’t directly in the upset labor market here).  Very big hugs and kisses and love to you and to Davy, and darling I wish I had some pet deity to pray to that you would NOT be sick.  Let us know how the book gets on.

Evelyn

Thomas Seltzer was a Russian émigré who became a successful translator and academic. In 1919 he founded the publishing house, Thomas Seltzer Inc, which not only published Escapade but also works by D H Lawrence. These works brought him to the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and led to charges of publishing “unclean” books, which he fought vigorously: the legal battle resulted in bankruptcy.

 town of Collioure nestles around a mound surmounted by a Crusader castle.

* * * * *

This is the last of the letters from Coullioure. A month later the family and Merton were in Algeria, where the story resumes next week.

 

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