10. Bou Saada (1)

Last week I posted a small selection of Evelyn’s letters from Collioure, on the Mediterranean coast of France, near the Spanish border.  Cyril was painting the coast and the countryside surrounding the picturesque ancient town and Merton, his New Zealand friend and protégé, was developing his talent as a watercolourist.  This lasted throughout the summer of 1923, until the decision to move to the north coast of Algeria that autumn.

Bou Saada
Image from Google Earth, with Bou Saada marked by a dot in the centre of the image. Even now it is isolated–how much more so it would have been in 1923!

The following letters, full of vivid descriptive language, record a way of life that Evelyn finds  different and sometimes repugnant, but her evident disapproval does not affect the clarity of her language.

* * * * *

To Otto Theis

Rue Coumes
Bou-Saada, Algeria
October 11, 1923

Dear Otto:

I haven’t heard from you in ages and I have the PIPP so I won’t write a long letter, but I want you to know our new address which is Rue Coumes, Bou-Saada, Algerie, via Alger.

We couldn’t get another house in Collioure, it turned very cold, and we came the twenty-four hours to Alger.  But Alger was so damp and expensive that we are trying out here, two hundred and fifty kilometres without a railway.  I suppose it is the fatigue of travel but right now I have the worst hump I ever had about a place.  There is nothing but sand and mud houses and dirty Arabs and women without faces and I don’t think it interesting or picturesque or anything is obviously is, but just dismal.  You feel squashed by the inertia of the landscape and the inertia of the people.  All the kids have sore eyes and flies on their faces like they were pastries in a window.  I don’t like it, and more not because I don’t think Cyril does and I know Merton doesn’t and we haven’t enough money to move again inside of six months.  In fact we had to take the only house there was here for six months.  But for Gods sake don’t come to Bou Saada except as a wealthy tourist who is going to motor back in two days.  This is an oasis and there is very little water but not enough to commit suicide in at that.  There are some date palms but they don’t excite you.

Lots and lots of love, Evelyn

PS Marie [Garland] took care to mail the snottiest review of Escapade and to write that she has inquired around it wasn’t selling.  Maybe that’s why I don’t like Bou Saada.

* * * * *

To Otto Theis

October 19, 1923

You are a sweet thing to say what you do about me and writing and things and next to Cyril’s faith in me there’s nobody I want to live up to more than you, and I am certainly trying damned hard right now to do better than I ever have done, lots.  I naturally want Escapade to sell but am scared to trust it will.  You see I would like most awfully to get Sug a new suit, and lend Merton some money (he is in an awful fix and deserves a lot) and (A-las, human weakness again) send mother a little, and pay back one seventeenth of all the incredibly awful debts I owe.  Well there doesn’t seem much immediate chance of that.

I had no mail in three weeks and got it all forwarded today, so I have several letters to answer, but I had to say something to you first.  And I will write again more elaborately when we are really in routine.  I don’t care how many sins of correspondential omissions you are guilty of, I can’t keep from writing to you.

Evelyn

* * * * *

To Lola Ridge

[October 1923]

My dearest dear Lola:

Well, honey.  We are all stuck out here in the middle of nowhere having come in quest of a cheap winter in dry climate.  Merton is in an awfully tight box financially and we are trying to invent some way to help him stick it through the year.  He has to send money to his kids and that makes it a tight pull.  Tom was up at Buzzards Bay but has been returned and that leaves two with Mrs Jenkins so we don’t know whether it will be too much for her or not.

I think after we are settled in a place that is liveable we may be able to do a lot of work here, though as a place to paint it presents, once you abandon the obvious picturesque, the most difficult and subtle problem I ever saw.  The general neutrality of the landscape makes it about as easy as discerning forms in a white sheet.  It is the kind of place that no Anglo Saxon wants to get close to.  It repels with its alien quality the most pronounced of which is dirt.  Just sand wastes, a few low sand hills, and mud houses so low and flat that they are submerged in the general indefiniteness.  Then the people all reduced to a more than conventional uniformity by clothes all white all flowing, or all once white for they are all dirty, the faceless women with their muslin window curtains held up so that only one eye is exposed.  I don’t feel capable of writing immediately about it yet, but I will later.  And so let us know how you are, and have so very much love from all of us, and lots of love to Davy.

Evelyn

Another Note for Lola

Dear Lola, dear.  I wrote you yesterday and feel inclined to add this note.  I went out with Cyril and Merton when they sketched today and some faithful nuisances in the way of Arab kids followed us about half a mile.  When I sat down a little distance from the men said Arab kids began to cluster around me and chant something that went like ah-ou-ou-aaaaa-ouy-a as loud as they could and to throw stones as close to me as they could without hitting me.  Then in French they said if I’d give them a cigarette they’d leave me alone, but I wasn’t going to offer bribes so, though I had anticipated the request for a cigarette and had intended to bestow one, I didn’t.  So the au-ooo-auuu stuff went on until Merton came over to rescue me.  They are little devils alright.

CKS desert wc
Photo of a watercolour by Cyril, presumably of landscape near Bou Saada

Yesterday afternoon we saw the dancing at the baptism again and the most charming little girl in a ragged Mother Hubbard who had unbelievably large eyes bewitchingly biased and painted green underneath.  She was only about eleven and with an unhealthy delicacy, a premature sex consciousness mixed with inevitable gaucherie.  She did the bird movements with her hands exquisitely and gave a dance du ventre which was to me not the mechanical sex it is supposed to be but a kind of saint vitus dance of the guts.  It reminds me of all the stomach aches I ever had.  The courtesy in these affairs is for the audience to supply one hundred franc bills to paste with spit on the forehead and turbans of musicians and dancers.  Then when the show is over the money is returned.  None of the ouled nahils[1] will dance until somebody has put at least two hundred francs in their bonnets.  As we weren’t used to it we watched this weeks board a bit nervously until the show was over, but it came back properly and we had only to buy three bottles of beer for the star performing ladies.

PLEASE WRITE HOW YOU ARE.  Evelyn

[1]     The Ouled Nail are a Berber tribe in the Sahara Atlas mountains with a distinctive dance tradition.  The dancers are heavily made up and their costumes are richly ornate.

* * * * *

To Lola Ridge

[October 1923]

Beloved dear, too funny that the very morning I wrote to know what had happened to you, I got your letter.

My dear, I wish I had really been able to pass on more of my experience here.  For the first month I was simply paralyzed by strangeness.  I was never anywhere before that every single detail of existence was alien and I couldn’t identify myself with it.  Then we have all been and still are sick.  Sug, Jigeroo, and I were all ill at once and poor Merton got so many responsibilities on him that he had a general nervous blow up and can’t paint, but I feel somehow or other that it isn’t nearly as serious as it appears but only a kind of accumulated general panic from too much worry about practical things.

SCK City Scape
Cyril Kay Scott: “City Scape” [North Carolina Museum of Art]
It is cold here and the desert is twice bare with the falling of the leaves on the few trees of the oasis and the palms all getting papery and dull.  The poor Arabs are dirtier and more miserable looking than ever.  Such pathetic creatures, the women all braceleted and veiled in inappropriate accompaniment to the nakedness of poverty that they can’t conceal.  We live opposite the police station and last night a drunk or a lunatic was shut up there and spent the whole night quavering out something that sounded like ci-ci-moi, in a thick broken voice, pounding and kicking the door, and beginning this curious monotonous song of misery again with an occasional sobbing cry interspersed.  The cell they put him in is on the street and I have seen in the stone floor and no furnishing of any kind, but when I began to think how awful it was I had only to recall the home interiors here that are just a muddy darkness, a hearth, a pot, and a rag in a corner to lie on.  Only the children of marabouts or priests are rich.  There is a big monastery near here which owns many herds and houses etc.  The dream of an earthly heaven is gained at the expense of almost all the necessity which the dream promises to supply.  As for Arab women, the French schoolmistress says that an Arab boy of twelve will beat his own mother, and women have no authority over their own children after the age of two.

Evelyn

* * * * *

To Lola Ridge

[ Autumn 1923]

Precious Lola:

Having unearthed your address from long hiding, I will enjoy a direct communication.  I sent you two letters already via Gladys[1].

Since you won’t tell me your news, here’s mine.  I have finished the new novel, The Grey Riddle[2] (name out of a quotation from the Boyg scene in Peer Gynt).  It is to the mind of Sug, Merton, and myself, not just better, but INCOMPARABLY better, than anything I ever wrote.  It owes the basis of its technique to Siren and I acknowledge that in the dedication (though as much as I want it to appear the fact Siren, its inspiration, has no publisher is TOO ironical).  The technique is more elaborate and conscious by indubitably evolved from that.  I tried to make the book like an Ibsen play, in that the drama of the present is the unfolding of the past.  But of course, being a novel, the unfolding is in peoples minds, in memories and the like.  I use parenthesis, dash, italics, capitals, and small type as I never found out how to use them before, and have combined all my usual addiction to objective detail subjectively perceived (or so attempted) with a much freer emotional expression than I ever dared out of shadow play.  I do HOPE you like it.  You gotta be godmother and  assist at the accouchement anyway.

It begins in France with France with two people struggling in the vacuum of alien surroundings, goes to New York and evolves their inward struggle in the factual struggle of material circumstance, and the last part, after the woman’s death, is in the man’s mind only.

Then Lola about Sug[3].  Well, the promise of fine things in the Bermuda stuff, has been justified and exceeded a dozen times.  His last work is exquisite, such a perfect harmonization of sensuous full emotional quality with delicate mental perception I ever saw.  I don’t believe any water color except Cezanne has ever been as good.  The only draw back is his very punk health lately.  In fact Bou-Saada has laid us all out with grippe and bronchitis almost continuous.  Merton is doing himself wonderful justice, with very exquisitely realized things, with the most sensitive minute perception which locates emotion in time and space and yet does not remove it from the artist’s subjective.  He is pretty worried about money, but we hope he can stick it out until he has given himself a real chance.

Jigeroo speaks French and goes to an Arab school.  He has been ill but happy otherwise.  So you see despite inwards this time as you said, darling, is a beautiful time.  If money and health permit we will justify it.  Our regret is that you and Davy aren’t here, and oh, again if we COULD get you here.

OM Bou Saada view1 (1)
Owen Merton: Undated desert landscape, possibly Bou Saada [Thomas Merton Society]
The Arabs are dirty and miserable looking, but there is a fine arid landscape of fleshly hills, a huddle of frail walls and of dead dry mud, a hurricane of dark palms against a sky that (when it condescends not to rain) is hard with light.  There is the wonderful sinister importance of the women all in red (all the married women of some tribes wear red) shrouded, holding with their palms fan-wise a screen of draperies across their faces.  They don’t wear veils as in Alger, but are even more concealed.  There are the cupolas of marabout tombs that are somehow more voluptuous than she ever imagined plaster, and float above the flat houses like tight bruised lily buds stained with brown and pink.  There is on market day always some man from the desert who seats himself in the dust of the Place and recites endless songs that have a slight half-moon rhythm which swings back and back on itself, the choruses accompanied by the holly agitation of the tambourine drum which he beats as if encouraging himself.  Then there are pipes always being played somehow, how querulous whistles, equally monotonous.  In the evening the muezzin on the roof of the mosque calls, cries out it seems, to Allah.  Men along street corners, removing their shoes, make that perfect complete gesture of abasement of which we have no counterpart, laying dust upon their foreheads and bending again three times to place their foreheads in the dust.  Then the brazen chanting of the Koran, little boys voices hurrying shrilly, men’s voices calling nasally above them.  On Thursdays we walk by the synagogue and the Jews in the light of many candles are chanting so differently with a soft vague intonation of breathed solemnity.

Bou Saada 4 (1)
Bou Saada: An Arab street [Past-to-Present.com]
However Mohamedism is horrible to a western mind.  Poverty accepted, slavery of women accepted, disease accepted, and death just the tossing of unconfined bodies into the scratched earth where the rain and the dogs go later to dig it up.Later I shall maybe get something out of this beside the picturesque.  Just now it is the sense of alienation which is satisfying, for one can work with it.

WE LOVE YOU AND DAVY.  Please get well. Evelyn

[1]  Gladys Edgerton (later Grant) was a fellow poet and faithful friend of Evelyn’s.  They met in New York shortly after Evelyn’s return to the US.
[2]    Evelyn never published a book under this name:  it is probably The Golden Door, published in 1925 by Thomas Seltzer.
[3]   Evelyn’s pet name for Cyril, short for “Sugar”.

* * * * *

To Otto Theis

December 31, 1923

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO BOTH OF YOU.

Dear Otto:

Bou-Saada is a microcosm of society presented with a crudeness and simplicity that a child would get.  In looking at Arabs you see why and how people arrived at a respectable ideal, at the feeling that it was better to have some decent hypocrisy about yourself than to be simple and blatant in cruelty as the Arabs are.  They just never need to excuse themselves for doing what other races do under cover, and I find myself anglo-saxon enough to get the hump when I contemplate it.  Natural selection functions here without any Christian modification.  The biggest most brutal males get the best food and the warmest clothes and look like Jesus Christs of healthy stock, gods all mighty in their own minds without any sickness of the imagination to identify them with their inferiors.  They are probably very kind and condescending to the women who are pretty and submissive enough to deserve it, and throw all the best bones to the children that cry the last.  But a great many of the children cry most of the time.  Every evening you can hear all up and down the streets the little girls sent to ask alms of prosperous relatives.  They sit in the doorways sometimes for hours together wailing a stereotyped plea with a monotony and persistence that compliments the nerves of the people indoors who seem to pay no attention to it.  The men wear wool burnouses, but I have yet to see any but the Jewish women who have changed their red calico robes for anything more suitable to the winter climate.  It snowed here last week and barefooted girls without any undies (quite visibly) were running around in it.  Not that the men don’t suffer too in their degree for some of them are the most artistic collections of rags I ever saw, and there are dozens of the nomad variety camping around here in exposed tents with no covering but their skins and no firewood but what they can collect in a place forty kilometres from any woods.  The fact that we live opposite the police station doesn’t add to our cheerful impressions.  It is a French police station and the Arab policemen are too unimaginative to keep up with the New York variety, are really very nice men (honest)—I don’t think Arabs have any lust for creating suffering like the Spaniards do—but the collects of rags and dejection that are hauled in there every day make we want to make sententious remarks about the failure of a civilization being proven by the populousness of the jails, or something.  There’s only one cell (quite as comfortable as an Arab home) and quite unfurnished, and men women and children are all stuffed into the same darkness.  Just what this proximity does to divert them I don’t know, and it may be the kindest method, only sometimes there are crazy men and very crazy drunks who wouldn’t be attractive companions for the ladies even in the dark.

Algerian village by OM
Algerian Village: watercolour by Owen Merton [Thomas Merton Society]
Oh, gee, well anyway this is a roundabout way of saying that one winter in a Muhamadon town is enough for a while.  We want to go to the Grand Kahyble (can’t spell it) April and stay there through May as the scenery is very different from this, mountainous and luxuriant and the Khablye people are not Arabs but Burbers[1] (as maybe you know) and have different customs.  And then June to go back to France.  We’ll have to return to Port Vendre and Collioure to collect maroquette[2] if the poor thing isn’t dead and then we thought we would go to Brittany and stay two or three months.  Merton and Sug then, IF our money is any more than now, want to spend two weeks in Paris.  After that the problem of a warm cheap winter somewhere and we have thought of Corsica, the Belleryic islands,[3] or trying Sicily again, whichever lives up to our ideal of prices and weather, and our last spring of freedom we want to go to London for two weeks before we go home.I wrote the first draft of the kid story[4] and handed it over to Cyril who is helping it out with the addition of a trick dog, helping me to kill a lion the way it should be killed, and translating a whole lot of stuff about Arabic customs to put them in the book correctly.  He has already put in thirty pages of notes so I shall insist on calling it a collaboration whether he wants to or not.  My part of it was the most rapid fire work I ever did, one hundred and seventy four pages in eight days.  But don’t let that prejudice you agin it, for I think it will be a very amusing little book when it is did, and Merton’s illustrations are excellent.  It is one of the many little boy lost stories, but this time the little boy lost collects an Arab girl and is, because of his ignorance of Arabic, tangled up in Arab weddings, Arab mosques, all kinds of Arab customs, walks off with a tame lion, and has two dreams in which camels and desert tribes in rebellion and drums and spahis are all mixed up.  The skeleton isn’t original.  I didn’t have it in me to break ground that way for kids, but I think the detail is for kids very fresh and exciting.  I don’t know what my arrangement with Seltzer is because my contract was left with Walter Nelles in New York, but I want to find out their attitude about Escapade, The Grey Riddle etc, and if I tactfully and businessly can, I should be grateful to use the introduction you could give me to your literary man.  Merton as the illustrator is much in favor of it.  I shall be quite set up if John Lane[5] takes on Escapade as I know he is more punkins than Duckworth, but I haven’t heard anything of it so I won’t hope too much.

In the Endless Sands

Otto, we do wish that your vacations came oftener and that you and Louise Morgan[6] could come here now.  If she isn’t well London weather is the worst that I can think of for her, and this place, though cold, is mostly so sunny, and really cheap when you get here.  It has the best hotel I ever saw in a small town, Hotel Petit Sahara, and when we were there was twenty-five francs apiece a day for all of us, a hundred francs for all, and very good food.  The bus ride from Alger here is hellish but only costs thirty-three francs each first class.  For a brief stay ANYWAY, even if you didn’t love Arabs, it is frightfully interesting—a beautiful oasis as far as palm trees go, wonderful desert and low hills around it, and every detail of native life as strange and picturesque as possible in more than obvious ways.  Oh, I do wish you could come.  If we had beds you could stay with us.  We have lots of room but no beds.

Lots and lots of love from all of us. Evelyn

[1]     Berbers, the nomadic people of the African desert
[2]     Evelyn had always liked animals and had kept a number of them in Brazil.  It appears she was still keeping pets in France, including a parrot, Maroquette.
[3]    Balearic
[4]  In the Endless Sands, written jointly with Cyril and based on Jigg’s account of the nine days he spent in the Algerian desert without being missed by his parents!  Jigg would tell his children about this episode but Evelyn never states that the book is based on Jigg’s disappearance.
[5]   British publisher.  He co-founded The Bodley Head and specialised in controversial works.
[6]   Otto’s wife

* * * * *

Next week will follow the Scotts and Merton through the remainder of their time in Algeria, ending with Merton’s sudden illness and the dramatic return to Europe.

 

 

 

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