Archive for January, 2012

Sophia Parnok (August 11 1885 – August 26 1933)



















These first few poems, written when Parnok was 17 to 19 years old,  are claimed, though not explicitly, to be Burgin’s, translations, But I am listing them separately because I did not find them in her biography of Parnok, and they are sufficiently different in tone and structure that I am not convinced they are Burgin’s work.



Dedicated to N.P.P.


I’m drunk on your wild caresses,
You’ve driven me crazy for you…
Just tell me I’ve only been dreaming
So I can believe that it’s true.

No, you want to torment me forever –
Why shouldn’t you play and have fun;
And smiling, you answer, carefree,
“We won’t do again what we’ve done.”

29 August 1902





Parnok circa 1907

Dedicated to N.P.P.

Love’s gone… the tuberoses have expired,
You have become cold as ice.
To see tears, my tears, that’s your desire,
But pride will never let me cry.

In night-time silence, utterly exhausted,
Suffering and loving endlessly
I curse the day of our first meeting
And sob for what you’ve done to me.

But I won’t cry when you are with me.
So there! Insult me, beat me and torment,
Just hint that I may get a chance to see you,
And if you want to, torture me again.

The way you play upon my heartstrings,
Sometimes it seems no pity in you dwells;
But you give all of paradise’s raptures
While with your hand you push me into hell!

29 August 1902




Parnok 1922

Dedicated to N.P.P.

The colder the letters you write,
The longer the silence between them,
The harder the waiting becomes,
The more I’m tormented with love!

The more I give pain to myself,
I want not to think and I suffer,
I want to forget and remember
That marvelous smile of yours!

Your image arises before me…
It makes me recall your caresses,
It rouses the passion inside me,
And I’m more tormented with love.

25 March 1903







 Burgin’s translations.



Parnok in the late '20s


Life  is a woman. Merely by her own seductions
Intoxicated, she will stand above her victim.
The more unhappy is the soul that lies before her,
the fuller she all is with unrestrained desire,
How often her mysterious gaze has hovered over
my soul with powerful inquisitiveness,
but merely had my soul to quiver in responding  –
and silently, with unconcern, she sought the distance.












Perhaps because I wished to fall in love with being
with so much obstinate avidity,
I felt more vividly how bottomlessly
dispassion for it had come over me.
But what of now? Can I be captivated
by life in an enraptured rush I do not understand?
My soul luxuriates in boundless freedom
as if inhaling life for the first time.









Parnok at her desk 1910

Just listen, how amidst inspired dreaming
the soul will suddenly lay bare its secret curves.
Let your thought illuminate them brightly
with creation’s breath in an audacious surge.
You will see, then, how the endless distance
so easily and wondrously removes its haze,
and there upon a lofty pedestal of marble
the depth of worlds feels Beauty’s silent gaze.












I so want to reflect my whole soul in my words,
I so want to discover them in my soul’s depths,
what they say should not be accidental.
But my impulse for searching’s rebelliously weak –
I lack know-how in finding my words,
and that’s why I have made my soul subject to silence,
and  hear in the silence her ebbings and flowings –
I so want to shout out – I don’t dare to.








In mournful luxury of trees that have been gilded,

Sophia Parnok and Olga Tsuberbiller

in tiredness of branches bent without a quiver
is Autumn’s quietude. Deserted and so pale
the distance that has dimmed; and in the night the play
of stars is cold; and the discerning silence
stands guard, or so it seems, to see if some weak sobbing
will not break out, a last enfeebled groan
from fading foliage. The air, though, is made thick
with fog… and it appears that the exhausted garden
wants to sigh, but doesn’t dare; and strangely blazes
among the tree-tops, colourlessly gold,
a single ruby leaf, as if with blood engorged.











How can one write about the quiet fading,
of vivid rushes deep within one’s soul?
About how thought, far off in sunless exile,
in morbid meditation or joyless sleep
looks lifelessly inside herself, exhausted,
and slowly drowns in her own feebleness,
how can one write?
How can one write – about the golden-textured
ray thrown lazily upon the emerald waves?
The play of hues on strange and wondrous sea shells
and lightning’s whimsy , and the thought of thunderclouds.
The lovely tuberose’s drunken fever,
and the weeping willow’s lonely tears –
how can one write?








I know profoundly well –  you’ve shown me everything,

Parnok and friends

the breathing of the skies, and speech of mighty billows
and twinkling of the stars within the depths of air,
and lightning’s vivid laugh in gloomy quietude
you’ve given me with you in brilliant consonance.

So let that farewell cry, as always, sound above me!
I have a heart so  that it can be broken!
I know too well that last, that grievous moment,
when happiness can’t help but be forsaken –
but through the garden joyfully I’ll go!
So what if a new loss lies in my future,
– My heart’s so happy in its secret fever:
love summons me, and I won’t contradict her.










Oh love! You stand before me and I’m afraid of you.

Sophia Parnok and Lyudmila Erarskaya September 1918

I know inside your breast you hide a gleaming dagger,
you’ll wound my thought with it and thus renew yourself,
and give to drink with blood your living body –


























And these, Parnok’s poems to Nina Vedeneyeva, her last love.





Give me your hand, and let’s go to your sinful paradise!…

Defy all State Pension Plans of heaven,

May returned for us in wintertime,

and flowers blossomed in the greening meadow,

where in full bloom an apple tree inclined

its fragrant fans above the two of us,

and where the earth smelled sweet like you,

and butterflies made love in flight…

We’re one year older now, but what’s the difference –

old wine has also aged another year,

the fruits of ripe knowledge are far more succulent.

Hello my love! my grey-haired Eve!








Night. And its snowing

Moscow sleeps… But I…

Oh but I feel sleepless,

my love!

Oh, the night’s so stifling,

my blood wants to sing…

Listen, listen, listen!

My love:

in your pale petals glisten

silver streaks of frost.

You’re the one my song’s for,

my silver rose,

Oh Rose of December,

you shine under snow,

giving me sweet comfort

that can’t console.







It still hasn’t got any cares, it’s still young at heart,

it still hasn’t cut its first teeth, our Passion –

not vodka, not spirits, yet no longer water,

its mischievous, bubbly, melodious Asti.

You still don’t know how to pale when I come up to you,

your pupil still doesn’t become fully widened,

I know, though you think that the magic I do

exceeds what I did in Kashira or affectionate Kashin.

Oh where is that tiny, forsaken, and garden-filled town,

(perhaps on the map they don’t bother to site it?)

in some kind of sixteen-year-old excitement?

Where’s the cottage with jasmine and the welcoming night,

and curlicue arches of hop-plants above us,

and thirst which could no longer be satisfied,

and sky, and a sky more impassioned than Petrarch’s.

At the end of my last or next-to-last spring –

together the two of us dreamed crazy dreams,

I burn up my night in a savage, a beautiful fire.

Dec 26 1931 (?)







I see: you’re getting off the streetcar – utterly beloved
a breeze, and in my heart it breathes you’re – utterly beloved
I can’t tear my eyes from you because you’re – utterly beloved!
And however did you come to be so – utterly beloved?
You, she-eagle from Caucasian glaciers, where in heat it’s cold.
You, carrier of a very sweet contagion, who never has a cold.
You, beclouder of your lover’s reason with logic clear and cold.
All five senses reel from your intoxication – utterly beloved!

April 1932











And her last Poem, written less than a month before her death



“Come what may, ” you wrote, “we shall be happy…”

" A head of silver grey. And youthful features/And Dante's profile. And a wingèd gaze."

Yes, my darling, happiness has come to me in life!

Now, However, mortal weariness

overcomes my heart and shuts my eyes.

Now without rebelling or resisting,

I hear how my heart beats its retreat.

I get weaker, and the leash that tightly

bound the two of us is slackening.

Now the wind blows freely higher, higher,

everything’s in bloom and all is still –

Till we meet again, my darling! Can’t you hear me?

I’m telling you good-bye, my far-off friend!

July 1933








Chekhov, thought by many today to be a gentle humanist, seems not to have held views that were very different   those of his   ignorant homophobic countrymen; this seems clear  from his privately expressed feelings and opinions.  Burgin has this telling comment of Chekhov’s, made in a letter to his friend and publisher in 1895:

” The weather in Moscow is good, there is no cholera,  there’s also no lesbian love – Brrrr!!    Remembering those persons of whom you write me makes me nauseous as if I’d eaten a rotten sardine. Moscow doesn’t have them –  and that is marvelous.”

That Chekhov himself, infected as he was with TB, was most probably a much greater source of unpleasant and harmful contagion than any hoard of lesbians, seems not to have crossed his mind.

Today when out and proud lesbians are eager to claim their lesbianism as a matter of personal identity, and take this vital right for granted, it is difficult to discern whether Parnok felt her lesbianism to be a matter of disposition or identity. To some of us that might matter hugely, but to others of us what matters most is that she never for a moment disowned  her experiences as a woman who loved other women, and she gave her heart and her soul a voice.

She could, I suppose have curbed her exuberance in matters of love and affection,  or for that, her anguish in matters of personal loss and pain, but she did not.  She used her voice and her talents to express her love without dissimulation or deceit. She dared to speak and to express the thoughts and words and ideas her society determined were better left unsaid and unexpressed and it is remarkable that nearly 80 years after her death  of Grave’s disease at the age of 47, her work still speaks for her. Her poems are fresh and vibrant, and full of force and  a kind of blazing tenderness.

I have chosen here, just as a matter of personal inclination, to include a handful of Parnok’s poems written by her between 1903 and 1905, when she was a teenager,  some which were written when in her thirties, and  finally some written in the last year or so of her life.

Alas, I cannot determine whether the early poems  are complete,  or just fragments. They are  Burgin’s translations, excerpted from her biography of Parnok. Nevertheless, they are easily recognisable as the tender first blossoms of an ardent young heart, and are precious for that reason alone, if for nothing else.

The other poems appearing here, written in mid-and late -life (late that is for Parnok who only lived to be 48 years old) exactly reflect the assurance of mature womanhood, and then the terrible poignancy of a woman who sees clearly, in the same glance,  both the intensity of her love, and her approaching death.





Some Personal thoughts…..


There are some minds that possess a harmonic echo with ones own –  not because the two are alike, but because the sound of one picks up and converts into sound the hidden frequencies of the other. It is something which happens in an instant – like a bullet whistling past one’s ear – or love at first sight, and that is what I felt when I first heard the poetry of Sophia Parnok.

I found an enormous feeling of ‘heart’ in her poems – and always love – not just love in an abstract sense, but the sense of a love which for want of a better word I have to call cultural – by which I mean my own culture – which is the culture of lesbian writing.

The matrix in which Parnok’s poems are rooted is personal and expressive of the twinings and weavings that go into our own individual histories of how in our own lives such  matters as relationships, dilemmas, difficulties, enmeshments etc are encountered, traversed and resolved.

People in the mainstream probably take this for granted – heterosexual men for certain, and to a lesser extend heterosexual women – because theirs is the dominant culture, and they swim in it like fish, barely having to notice the element.

This does not hold at all true for those of us who feel the strangeness and alienness of the mainstream world and all the assumptions which go unexamined and slide frictionlessly by mainstream people on the whole but fly against us  aliens like the showers of grit in a sandstorm.

Encountering Parnok was for me like encountering an island in mid-ocean, one that was spare and beautiful, and which took its expansive beauty for granted, without a fuss. Its many features – jagged cliffs, clear rock-lined pools, dark thickets of unbroken shade, its trees, it coast-line and  sunlit beaches, all seemed familiar to me – even though they were completely new.

I wish Parnok had had a life filled with happiness, and the blessing of sound health, but she didn’t have either.  Moreover she lived in a world that was in the throes of rapid change – Russia transformed itself from a monarchy to a communist republic in the second decade of her life, and that transformation and upheaval has its reflection in  her own struggles.

Her lack of a settled life –   careers,  relationships and  homes, were always in a state of unsettled flux –  gave her poetry a restless feel, but paradoxically a restlessness with roots. The roots of course were the sense of a constant and unappeasable hunger for love and for living, and for the endless and inexhaustible loveliness of the natural world, which are all the markings of the Muse poet.

I find it impossible not to love the person who gave us this poetry – this enormous gift of place and of context which simply overrides place and time, to embrace me in the senses of soul-enlivening familiarity that comes from feeling myself standing in my own world – my own universe of sentiment, with all the features of the landscape and all the fixtures of its interior places familiar and recognisable.

To read Parnok banishes my feelings of existential homesickness – and that is why I place her in the company of the saints I feel watching over me – and over all of us, who need that place which was at first only within the hearts and minds of women like her, but is now expanded to be a place which we can enter, and be at home with them and ourselves..

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Ismat Chugtai (August 1915 – October 24 1991)

There is a reason for this departure from my usual practice of leaving my commentary for the last. It is because of the disturbing and disconcerting nature of this story.
When I found myself wanting to select Ismat Chugtai’s  short story ‘The Quilt’, I asked myself why I would want to include such a post in this very gay- and lesbian-positive blog. The answer came immediately:  because of its cultural significance, and because in its own way it made visible an aspect of life ‘behind the veil’ so to speak.  Readers of this blog are aware that they cannot expect a steady diet of anything in particular, and once in a while they are bound to find a hot pepper or a sour pickle to surprise and delight – but also perhaps to vex and annoy!

In choosing this story I felt rather as a lawyer would who was putting a hostile witness on the stand.  What such a witness may reveal in response to questioning might be damaging to one’s case, but despite that risk she must heard. She has vital information on account  of where she has stood in relation to one’s client, and or to the state.  Human relationships, more often than not, do not conform to our ideas of what is proper, or edifying or even acceptable, and they range over the whole continuum from lovely to terrible.  I have my own idea of where ‘The Quilt’ fits on this scale, which is somewhere between disturbing and awful.  The ‘awful’ has since been ameliorated, since it was an impression and an opinion formed on the basis of the first translation I read.

The  first translation I came across by M. Asadud, and which I rejected in favour of another far better, was a malicious distortion of Chugtai’s pioneering short story. It had a strong misogynistic bias, and created an atmosphere of aversion and disgust for the story’s setting. I was surprised when I later read the version by Syeda Hameed, to find the poison of Asadud’s malice and derision entirely absent. Hameed’s translation, despite its editorial lapses, had a warmth and a supportive understanding of how the young narrator’s observations and responses unfolded. It made me aware in the most indelible fashion of how a translator with an axe to grind can take the ambiguities, nuances and uncertainties informing an original work and decisively slant them to impose his or her own personal and cultural perspectives and prejudices.

Even more surprising to me was not just that Asadud’s distasteful and unsympathetic translation was not discarded out of hand, but that it was used in the Indian Women’s  magazine ‘Manushi’ . Manushi – a word which means Woman – or even something closer to female human, since Manusha in Sanskrit means both ‘man’ and ‘human’. I would have expected to find here a translation which was if not feminist in its perspective, then at least one which was humanistic. Instead I found Asadud’s translation so egregiously tainted that at first it poluted the entire story for me. It was only after I read Hameed’s translation, and then a third collaborative work of Hameed and Tahira Naqvi  that I heard the sly but humanistic voice of the precocious child narrator emerge, and the strident ugliness of Asadud’s  unabashed, aversive infiltrations abate.

In ‘The Quilt’ Chugtai has chosen an eight-year -old child as her narrator, and she has placed her story in the world of Colonial India which existed before partition, that is, when India and Pakistan – and Bangladesh – were all part of the same country. The world of Begum Jan (Lady Darling) was probably swept away with the disasters of that ‘partition’  – a bloodless word for the largest mass migration of people in modern times, and perhaps of all time, and one in which hundreds and thousands of people lost their homes and their lives.  This first disaster was followed by others, chiefly the gradual and unstoppable process of Islamisation which destroyed any semblance of a civil state. When Chugtai published her story in 1941, it was banned by the State Government. Chugtai did not belly-up, and fought the charges, and won her lawsuit.  Chugtai’s feisty nature (an attribute of the little girl in her story) prompted her to fight to receive an education – something which in Muslim cultures is still denied to too many girls  – and to go on to become the first Muslim woman in Colonial  India to receive a Bachelor’s Degree. For this she endured the indignity of having to attend her lectures while hidden behind a curtain.

This is how Chugtai described the manner in which she received her higher education, when she and six other female students had to sit behind a curtain at the back of the class:

“If we could get what we wanted by sitting in purdah we would sit in purdah. We were interested in studying. If they had told us to wear burqas, we would have agreed.”

Here is what she has to say about the obscenity trial that was the original response to her  story:

“There was a big crowd in the court. Several people had advised us to offer our apologies to the judge, even offering to pay the fines on our behalf. The proceedings had lost some of their verve, the witnesses who were called in to prove that“Lihaf” was obscene were beginning to lose their nerve in the face of our lawyer’s cross-examination. No word capable of inviting condemnation could be found. After a great deal of search a gentleman said, “The sentence ‘she was collecting ashiqs (lovers) is obscene.” “Which word is obscene,” the lawyer said. “Collecting,” or “ashiqs”?

And about her response to a friends reproof about her having written such a story:

Using a mild manner and a tone of entreaty, I said, ‘Aslam Sahib, in reality no one ever told me that writing on the subject I deal with in “Lihaaf” is a sin, nor did I ever read anywhere that I shouldn’t write about this . . . disease . . . or tendency. Perhaps my mind is not the brush of Abdur Rahman Chughtai but only a cheap camera instead. Whenever it sees something, it releases the shutter on its own and the pen in my hand becomes helpless. My mind tempts my pen, and I’m unable to interfere in the matter of my mind and pen.”

Chugtai also offered this seemingly mild, but in fact pointed defense in extenuation of the tendency of her writerly eye to take in a culturally unbiased views of reality :

“Perhaps my mind is not the brush of Abdur Rahman Chughtai but only a cheap camera instead. Whenever it sees something, it releases the shutter on its own and the pen in my hand becomes helpless. My mind tempts my pen, and I’m unable to interfere in the matter of my mind and pen.”

And this is Chugtai’s rather disingenuous comment about the subject matter of the quilt:

 “In ‘Lihaaf’ I wrote about an eight-year-old’s view of lesbianism. They were discussions I had heard, though I did not know what the words meant. I knew what two men could do but not two women. A case was filed against this story in Lahore. Apparently, the people had understood it, although I hadn’t!”

My reading of this short-story is that Chugtai used the child’s point of view in order to preemptively deflect any accusations that could potentially have been leveled at her as an adult woman writing a somewhat socially subversive short story with veiled lesbian content.  The child is very precocious, and it seems to me that from the backward glance of her adult perspective, she has made a careful calculation about which of her ‘childish’ observations to report. Her disclosures about her own combative nature suggest to me that she is using a certain sleight of hand to covertly state that she  (rather than the Begum) is the one who has chosen to revolt against the strictures placed on her as a little girl by her family  – and it must be concluded by society as well.

The Begum’s sexuality, at least in Asadud’s translation, but to a far lesser degree in Hameed’s and Naqvi’s,  is unsympathetically presented as something unwholesome: as something decidedly  distorted and deviant.We are made to feel squeamish by the Begum’s lack of hesitation in using the child’s ‘innocent’ request to touch her in order to gratify her needs and desires. We are made even more uneasy if we ask ourselves exactly how ‘innocent’ the child’s motivation really is. The adult writer’s framing of the Begum’s behaviour  as a decidedly bizarre compulsion permits her to be slyly voyeuristic while at the same time avoiding any guilt by association.

To me this story is not at all about lesbianism as it is about the forms that  women’s sexual and affectional imperatives will assume in the absence of a freely chosen  expression. The deviancy here is not a social construct – meaning a deviation from either marital fidelity or heterosexuality – but a deviation from the values we tend to cherish in the assumed currency of love between lovers. Why are we left feeling that these are merely sexual acts, and not acts of love? It is not merely because of the acid tongue of the child narrator.

The Begum’s compulsive need  for sensuality in general , and human touch in particular, emerges as a pathology. I think we are meant to infer that it is the direct result of the Nawab’s neglect, and his blatantly insensitive provocation in indulging his own sexual proclivities in the face of the Begum’s deprivation. Chugtai has brilliantly walked on the edge of a razor in order to make a boldly critical statement about the condition of women in her society.  As women both the Begum and Rabbu are restricted in their options, and the Begum’s sensual needs and Rabbo’s pecuniary ones intersect under somewhat questionable cover of ‘The Quilt.’

It is clear we cannot expect a child’s point of view  to provide us with the shading and nuances of such a relationship as exists between the two women as sensed and felt from the inside out – at least in emotional terms, – but since the child can only observe, and not really assess, there is a ruthless and venomous undertone that intrudes in the absence of empathy.

The Begum in the absence of chosen diversions succumbs to the demands of her nature by surrendering herself to a compulsive and seemingly, to us, an over-indulgent sensuality.  In Asadud’s translation, the unflattering and overtly grotesque image of the Begum presented to us as obese, oily and prurient, is very carefully calculated to only speak of the ‘unspeakable’ in the horrifying imagery of a child’s nightmare, and the symbol of the smothering quilt. It is something which is noted and acknowledged in this translation, but without Asadud’s malicious emphasis.

The Begum’s circumstances appear to be  singularly against her. Her husband is a pederast, oblivious to her as a human being, and she can find no consolation in any of the pursuits available to her, since poetry and novels only intensify and exacerbate her discontent. She appears to have no peers, no friends, and she has no children, and as the child notes, there is not even a pet animal in the house. Even Rabbu does not appear to be a sympathetic ally. No one loves the Begum for her own sake.

The reason I hesitate to see this story in the context of lesbian desire is because it clearly does not lend itself to such an interpretation.  It seems clear to me that the consolation offered by Rabbu was not even quite that – but a sexual exigency desperately resorted to in the absence of marital satisfaction. Chugtai’s  story reminds me very much of the  American Writer Jane Bowles’s account of her affair with a Moroccan woman who was her household help. There is the same immiscibility of feeling – the same sense of distaste when one feels the presence of falsity and opportunism tainting human interactions and human relationships.  It is impossible not to feel some degree of aversion at what appears to be social, cultural and personal distortion.

Over time this practice seems to have become a habitual fixation, and the sexual acts engaged in with Rabbu seem not to have been interactions with another woman – or even another person – desired and appreciated for the human contact they afforded. They seem rather to have been a convenient outlet for  a free floating concupiscence – a mere indulgence of the begum’s sexual imperatives, rather in the manner of what for most men would be a financial transaction with a sex-worker.

Had the relationship with Rabbu had been fulfilling – had there been a ‘relationship’ in the first place – perhaps the Begum would have ceased to have been neurotic and volatile in her behaviour.  As it is she appears to be perilously close to having an emotional breakdown.

The larger picture here is, of course, the plight of women who are compelled to live their lives trapped in the prison of Muslim law and culture. These laws are immeasurably harmful and detrimental to the lives of women, who are deprived of their civil rights, their autonomy and self-determination in the name of religion, which is really a virulent form of patriarchy practiced in the name of God.  In this sense, ‘The Quilt’ must be seen to be Chugtai’s indictment of the society she lived in, with its false moralities and pietisms and its unremitting efforts to smother in the cradle any and all evidence of female personhood.  While it is perhaps true that Chugtai referred to lesbianism as a ‘tendency’ and a ‘disease’, she must not be blamed for this, Western society with its more serious pretentions to enlightenment  was eagerly asserting the same lies. Pioneers, particularly women pioneers in misogynistic societies,  must be seen and evaluated within the context of their times. They may appear to be less forthcoming, less unequivocal in their indictments of the moral , social and religious climate within which they are compelled to live.

Women are the chief victims of religious social and cultural injustice, and until the institutions which oppress them are either destroyed or dismantled, they will continue to be the victims of male exploitation. Nearly three generations – 70 years have passed since Chugtai wrote her story of ‘The Quilt’.  Have things changed for the better for the women who live under the oppression of Islamic law and culture?  Only yesterday I received an e-mail from a friend with a picture of a group marriage in Gaza. What could be surprising about a group marriage other than the size of the group – 450 plus couples?

Only that the grooms were adult males, and the brides were between 9 and 12 years old. This of course is the least of it. The more egregious violations of women’s rights and of their persons under the oppressive weight of such male-dominated cultures are too horrible to bear a mention.

That Chugtai rejected the values of her society with respect to their devaluation and oppression of women is clear beyond any doubt. She fought for her right to receive an education, and she asserted her right to her art and discipline as a writer. Before she died, she left instructions for her body to be cremated – in direct contravention of Muslim funeral rites and customs. Chugtai was a rebel to the very end.

Her writing is still banned today, in Islamic countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.





In the depth of winter whenever I snuggle into my quilt, its shadow on the wall seems to sway like an elephant. My mind begins a mad race into the dark crevasses of the past; memories come flooding in.

Begging your pardon, I am not about to relate a romantic incident surrounding my own quilt—I do not believe there is much romance associated with it. The blanket, though considerably less comfortable, is preferable because it does not cast such terrifying shadows, quivering on the wall!

This happened when I was a small girl. All day long I fought tooth and nail with my brothers and their friends. Sometimes I wondered why the hell I was so quarrelsome. At my age my older sisters had been busy collecting admirers; all I could think of was fisticuffs with every known and unknown girl or boy I ran into!

For this reason my mother decided to deposit me with an ‘adopted’ sister of hers when she left for Agra. She was well aware that there was no one in that sister’s house, not even a pet animal, with whom I could engage in my favorite occupation! I guess my punishment was well deserved. So Mother left me with Begum Jan, the same Begum Jan whose quilt is imprinted on my memory like a blacksmith’s brand.

This was the lady who had been married off to Nawab Sahib for a very good reason, courtesy her poor but loving parents. Although much past his prime, Nawab Sahib was noblesse oblige. No one had ever seen a dancing girl or prostitute in his home. He had the distinction of not only performing the Haj himself, but of being the patron of several poor people who had undertaken the pilgrimage through his good offices.

Nawab Sahib had a strange hobby. People are known to have irksome interests like breeding pigeons and arranging cockfights. Nawab Sahib kept himself aloof from these disgusting sports; all he liked to do was keep an open house for students; young, fair and slim-waisted boys, whose expenses were borne entirely by him. After marrying Begum Jan, he deposited her in the house with all his other possessions and promptly forgot about her! The young, delicate Begum began to wilt with loneliness.

Who knows when Begum Jan started living? Did her life begin when she made the mistake of being born, or when she entered the house as the Nawab’s new bride, climbed the elaborate four-poster bed and started counting her days? Or did it begin from the time she realized that the household revolved around the boy-students, and that all the delicacies produced in the kitchen were meant solely for their palates? From the chinks in the drawing-room doors, Begum Jan glimpsed their slim waists, fair ankles and gossamer shirts and felt she had been raked over coals!

Perhaps it all started when she gave up on magic, necromancy, seances and whatnot. You cannot draw blood from a stone. Not an inch did the Nawab budge. Broken-hearted, Begum Jan turned towards education. Not much to be gained here either! Romantic novels and sentimental poetry proved even more depressing. Sleepless nights became a daily routine. Begun Jan slowly let go and consequently, became a picture of melancholy and despair.

She felt like stuffing all her fine clothes into the stove. One dresses up to impress people. Now, neither did the Nawab Sahib find a spare moment from his preoccupation with the gossamer shirts, nor did he allow her to venture outside the home. Her relatives, however, made it a habit to pay her frequent visits which often lasted for months, while she remained prisoner of the house.

Seeing these relatives on a roman holiday made her blood boil. They happily indulged themselves with the goodies produced in the kitchen and licked the clarified butter off their greedy fingers. In her household they equipped themselves for their winter needs. But, despite renewing the cotton filling in her quilt each year, Begum Jan continued to shiver, night after night. Each time she turned over, the quilt assumed ferocious shapes which appeared like shadowy monsters on the wall. She lay in terror; not one of the shadows carried any promise of life. What the hell was life worth anyway? Why live? But Begum Jan was destined to live, and once she started living, did she ever!

Rabbo came to her rescue just as she was starting to go under. Suddenly her emaciated body began to fill out. Her cheeks became rosy; beauty, as it were, glowed through every pore! It was a special oil massage that brought about the change in Begum Jan. Begging your pardon, you will not find the recipe for this oil in the most exclusive or expensive magazine!

When I saw Begum Jan she was in her early forties. She sat reclining on the couch, a figure of dignity and grandeur. Rabbo sat against her back, massaging her waist. A purple shawl was thrown over her legs. The very picture of royalty, a real Maharani! How I loved her looks. I wanted to sit by her side for hours, adoring her like a humble devotee. Her complexion was fair, without a trace of ruddiness. Her black hair was always drenched in oil. I had never seen her parting crooked, nor a single hair out of place. Her eyes were black, and carefully plucked eyebrows stretched over them like a couple of perfect bows! Her eyes were slightly taut, eyelids heavy and eyelashes thick. The most amazing and attractive part of her face were her lips. Usually dyed in lipstick, her upper lip had a distinct line of down. Her temples were covered with long hair. Sometimes her face became transformed before my adoring gaze, as if it were the face of young boy.

Her skin was fair and moist, and looked like it had been stretched over her frame and tightly stitched up. Whenever she exposed her ankles for a massage, I stole a glance at their rounded smoothness. She was tall, and appeared taller because of the ample flesh on her person. Her hands were large and moist, her waist smooth. Rabbo used to sit by her side and scratch her back for hours together—it was almost as if getting scratched was for her the fulfillment of life’s essential need. In a way, more important than the basic necessities required for staying alive.

Rabbo had no other household duties. Perched on the four-poster bed, she was always massaging Begum Jan’s head, feet or some other part of her anatomy. Someone other than Begum Jan receiving such a quantity of human touching, what would the consequences be? Speaking for myself, I can say that if someone touched me continuously like this, I would certainly rot.

As if this daily massage ritual were not enough, on the days she bathed this ritual extended to two hours! Scented oils and unguents were massaged into her shining skin; imagining the friction caused by this prolonged rubbing made me slightly sick. The braziers were lit behind closed doors and then the procedure started. Usually Rabbo was the only one allowed inside the sanctum. Other servants, muttering their disapproval, handed over various necessities at the closed door.

The fact of the matter was that Begum Jan was afflicted with a perpetual itch. Numerous oils and lotions had been tried, but the itch was there to stay. Hakims and doctors stated: It is nothing, the skin is clear. But if the disease is located beneath the skin, it’s a different matter. These doctors are mad! Rabbo used to say with a meaningful smile while gazing dreamily at Begum Jan. “May your enemies be afflicted with skin disease! It is your hot blood that causes all the trouble!”

Rabbo! She was as black as Begum Jan was white, like burnt iron ore! Her face was lightly marked with smallpox, her body solidly packed; small dextrous hands, a tight little paunch and full lips slightly swollen, which were always moist. Those puffy hands were as quick as lightning, now at her waist, now her lips, now kneading her thighs and dashing towards her ankles. Whenever I sat down with Begum Jan, my eyes were riveted to those roving hands.

Winter or summer, Begum Jan always wore kurtas of Hyderabadi jalli karga. I recall her dark skirts and billowing white kurtas. With the fan gently rotating on the ceiling, Begum always covered herself with a soft wrap. She was fond of winter. I too liked the winter season at her house. She moved very little. Reclining on the carpet, she spent her days having her back massaged, chewing on dry fruit. Other household servants were envious of Rabbo. The witch! She ate, sat, and even slept with Begum Jan! Rabbo and Begum Jan—the topic inevitably cropped up in every gathering. Whenever anyone mentioned their names, the group burst into loud guffaws. Who knows what jokes were made at their expense? But one thing was certain—the poor lady never met a single soul. All her time was taken up with the treatment of her unfortunate itch.

I have already said I was very young at the time and quite enamoured of Begum Jan. She, too, was fond of me. When mother decided to go to Agra she had to leave me with somebody. She knew that, left alone, I would fight continuously with my brothers, or wander around aimlessly. I was happy to be left with Begum Jan for one week, and Begum Jan was equally pleased to have me. After all, she was Ammi’s adopted sister!

The question arose of where I was to sleep. The obvious place was Begum Jan’s room; accordingly, a small bed was placed alongside the huge four-poster. Until ten or eleven that night we played Chance and talked; then I went to bed. When I fell asleep Rabbo was scratching her back. “Filthy wench”, I muttered before turning over. At night I awoke with a start. It was pitch dark. Begum Jan’s quilt was shaking vigorously, as if an elephant was struggling beneath it.

“Begum Jan”, my voice was barely audible. The elephant subsided.

“What is it? Go to sleep”. Begum Jan’s voice seemed to come from afar.

“I’m scared”. I sounded like a petrified mouse.

“Go to sleep. Nothing to be afraid of. Recite the Ayat-ul-Kursi”.

“Okay!” I quickly began the Ayat. But each time I reached Yalamu Mabain I got stuck. This was strange. I knew the entire Ayat!

“May I come to you, Begum Jan?”

“No child, go to sleep”. The voice was curt. Then I heard whispers. Oh God! Who was this other person? Now I was terrified.

“Begum Jan, is there a thief here?”

“Go to sleep, child; there is no thief”. This was Rabbo’s voice. I sank into my quilt and tried to sleep.

In the morning I could not even remember the sinister scene that had been enacted at night. I have always been the superstitious one in my family. Night fears, sleep-talking, sleep-walking were regular occurrences during my childhood. People often said that I seemed to be haunted by evil spirits. Consequently I blotted out the incident from memory as easily as I dealt with all my imaginary fears. Besides, the quilt seemed such an innocent part of the bed.

The next night when I woke up, a quarrel between Begum Jan and Rabbo was being settled on the bed itself. I could not make out what conclusion was reached, but I heard Rabbo sobbing. Then there were sounds of a cat lapping in the saucer. To hell with it, I thought and went off to sleep!

Today Rabbo has gone off to visit her son. He was a quarrelsome lad. Begum Jan had done a lot to help him settle down in life; she had bought him a shop, arranged a job in the village, but to no avail. She even managed to have him stay with Nawab Sahib. Here he was treated well, a new wardrobe was ordered for him, but ungrateful wretch that he was, he ran away for no good reason and never returned, not even to see Rabbo. She therefore had to arrange to meet him at a relative’s house. Begum Jan would never have allowed it, but poor Rabbo was helpless and had to go.

All day Begum Jan was restless. Her joints hurt like hell, but she could not bear anyone’s touch. Not a morsel did she eat; all day long she moped in bed.

“Shall I scratch you, Begum Jan?” I asked eagerly while dealing out the deck of cards. Begum Jan looked at me carefully.

“Really, shall I?” I put the cards aside and began scratching, while Begum Jan lay quietly, giving in to my ministrations. Rabbo was due back the next day, but she never turned up. Begum Jan became irritable. She drank so much tea that her head started throbbing.

Once again I started on her back. What a smooth slab of a back! I scratched her softly, happy to be of some assistance;

“Scratch harder, open the straps”, Begum Jan spoke. “There, below the shoulder. Ooh, wonderful!” She sighed as if with immense relief.

“This way”, Begum Jan indicated, although she could very well scratch that part herself. But she preferred my touch. How proud I was!

“Here, oh, oh, how you tickle”, she laughed. I was talking and scratching at the same time.

“Tomorrow I will send you to the market. What do you want? A sleeping-walking doll?”

“Not a doll, Begum Jan! Do you think I am a child? You know I am…”

“Yes… an old crow. Is that what you are?” She laughed.

“Okay then, buy a babua. Dress it up yourself, I’ll give you as many bits and pieces as you want. Okay?” She turned over.

“Okay”, I answered.

“Here”. She was guiding my hand wherever she felt the itch. With my mind on the babua, I was scratching mechanically, unthinkingly. She continued talking. “Listen, you don’t have enough clothes. Tomorrow I will ask the tailor to make you a new frock. Your mother has left some material with me”.

“I don’t want that cheap red material. It looks tacky”. I was talking nonsense while my hand roved the entire territory. I did not realize it but by now Begum Jan was flat on her back! Oh God! I quickly withdrew my hand.

“Silly girl, don’t you see where you’re scratching? You have dislocated my ribs”. Begum Jan was smiling mischievously. I was red with embarrassment.

“Come, lie down with me”. She laid me at her side with my head on her arm. “How thin you are… and, let’s see, your ribs”, she started counting.

“No”, I protested weakly.

“I won’t eat you up! What a tight sweater”, she said. “Not even a warm vest?” I began to get very restless.

“How many ribs?” The topic was changed.

“Nine on one side, ten on the other”. I thought of my school hygiene. Very confused thinking.

“Let’s see”, she moved my hand. “One, two, three…”

I wanted to run away from her, but she held me closer. I struggled to get away. Begum Jan started laughing.

To this day whenever I think of what she looked like at that moment, I get nervous. Her eyelids became heavy, her upper lip darkened and, despite the cold, her nose and eyes were covered with tiny beads of perspiration. Her hands were stiff and cold, but soft as if the skin had been peeled. She had thrown off her shawl and in the karga kurta, her body shone like a ball of dough. Her heavy gold kurta buttons were open, swinging to one side.

The dusk had plunged her room into a claustrophobic blackness, and I felt gripped by an unknown terror. Begum Jan’s deep dark eyes focused on me! I started crying. She was clutching me like a clay doll. I started feeling nauseated against her warm body. She seemed possessed. What could I do? I was neither able to cry nor scream! In a while she became limp. Her face turned pale and frightening, she started taking deep breaths. I figured she was about to die, so I ran outside.

Thank God Rabbo came back at night. I was scared enough to pull the sheet over my head, but sleep evaded me as usual. I lay awake for hours.

How I wished Ammi would return. Begum Jan had become such a terrifying entity that I spent my days in the company of household servants. I was too scared to step into her bedroom. What could I have said to anyone? That I was afraid of Begum Jan? Begum Jan, who loved me so dearly?

Today there was another tiff between Begum Jan and Rabbo. I was dead scared of their quarrels, because they signalled the beginning of my misfortunes! Begum Jan immediately thought about me. What was I doing wandering around in the cold? I would surely die of pneumonia!

“Child, you will have my head shaven in public. If something happens to you, how will I face your mother?” Begum Jan admonished me as she washed up in the water basin. The tea tray was lying on the table.

“Pour some tea and give me a cup”. She dried her hands and face.

“Let me get out of these clothes”.

While she changed, I drank tea. During her body massage, she kept summoning me for small errands. I carried things to her with utmost reluctance, always looking the other way. At the slightest opportunity I ran back to my perch, drinking my tea, my back turned to Begum Jan.

“Ammi!” My heart cried in anguish. “How could you punish me so severely for fighting with my brothers?” Mother disliked my mixing with the boys, as if they were man-eaters who would swallow her beloved daughter in one gulp! After all who were these ferocious males? None other than my own brothers and their puny little friends. Mother believed in a strict prison sentence for females; life behind seven padlocks! Begum Jan’s “patronage”, however, proved more terrifying than the fear of the world’s worst goondas! If I had had the courage I would have run out on to the street. But helpless as I was, I continued to sit in that very spot with my heart in my mouth.

After an elaborate ritual of dressing up and scenting her body with warm attars and perfumes, Begum Jan turned her arduous heat on me.

“I want to go home!” I said in response to all her suggestions. More tears.

“Come to me”, she waxed. “I will take you shopping”.

But I had only one answer. All the toys and sweets in the world kept piling up against my one and only refrain, “I want to go home!”

“Your brothers will beat you up, you witch!” She smacked me affectionately.

“Sure, let them”, I said to myself annoyed and exasperated.

“Raw mangoes are sour, Begum Jan”, malicious little Rabbo expressed her views.

Then Begum Jan had her famous fit. The gold necklace she was about to place around my neck, was broken to bits. Gossamer net scarf was shredded mercilessly. Hair, which were never out of place, were tousled with loud exclamations of “Oh! Oh! Oh!” She started shouting and convulsing. I ran outside. After much ado and ministration, Begum Jan regained consciousness. When I tiptoed into the bedroom Rabbo, propped against her body, was kneading her limbs.

“Take off your shoes, she whispered”. Mouse-like I crept into my quilt.

Later that night, Begum Jan’s quilt was, once again, swinging like an elephant. “Allah”, I was barely able to squeak. The elephant-in-the quilt jumped and then sat down. I did not say a word. Once again, the elephant started convulsing. Now I was really confused. I decided, no matter what, tonight I would flip the switch on the bedside lamp. The elephant started fluttering once again, as if about to squat. Smack, gush, slobber—someone was enjoying a feast. Suddenly I understood what was going on!

Begum Jan had not eaten a thing all day and Rabbo, the witch, was a known glutton. They were polishing off some goodies under the quilt, for sure. Flaring my nostrils, I huffed and puffed hoping for a whiff of the feast. But the air was laden with attar, henna, sandalwood; hot fragrances, no food.

Once again the quilt started billowing. I tried to lie still, but it was now assuming such weird shapes that I could not contain myself. It seemed as if a frog was growing inside it and would suddenly spring on me.

“Ammi!” I spoke with courage, but no one heard me. The quilt, meanwhile, had entered my brain and started growing. Quietly creeping to the other side of the bed I swung my legs over and sat up . In the dark I groped for the switch. The elephant somersaulted beneath the quilt and dug in. During the somersault, its corner was lifted one foot above the bed.

Allah! I dove headlong into my sheets!!

What I saw when the quilt was lifted, I will never tell anyone, not even if they give me a lakh of rupees.

Ammi:          Mummy
Kurta:          An Indian tunic worn by both men and women.
Goondah:     A robber
Attar:           Perfumes made from essential oils
Nawab:        Minor Nobility
Babua:         A doll dressed in male clothing

Lakh:           A hundred thousand


Lihaaf in Nagari script


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Hector Hugo Munro, a.k.a 'Saki' (December 18 1870 – November 13 1916)














“Have  you written to thank the Froplinsons for what they sent us?” asked Egbert.

“No,” said Janetta, with a note of tired defiance in her voice; “I’ve written eleven letters to-day expressing surprise and gratitude for sundry unmerited gifts, but I haven’t written to the Froplinsons.”

“Some one will have to write to them,” said Egbert.

“I don’t dispute the necessity, but I don’t think the some one should be me,” said Janetta. “I wouldn’t mind writing a letter of angry recrimination or heartless satire to some suitable recipient; in fact, I should rather enjoy it, but I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters to-day and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness: really, you can’t expect me to sit down to another. There is such a thing as writing oneself out.”

“I’ve written nearly as many,” said Egbert, “and I’ve had my usual business correspondence to get through, too. Besides, I don’t know what it was that the Froplinsons sent us.”

“A William the Conqueror calendar,” said Janetta, “with a quotation of one of his great thoughts for every day in the year.”

“Impossible,” said Egbert; “he didn’t have three hundred and sixty-five thoughts in the whole of his life, or, if he did, he kept them to himself. He was a man of action, not of introspection.”

“Well, it was William Wordsworth, then,” said Janetta; “I know William came into it somewhere.”

“That sounds more probable,” said Egbert; “well, let’s collaborate on this letter of thanks and get it done. I’ll dictate, and you can scribble it down. ‘Dear Mrs. Froplinson – thank you and your husband so much for the very pretty calendar you sent us. It was very good of you to think of us.’ ”

“You can’t possibly say that,” said Janetta, laying down her pen.

“It’s what I always do say, and what every one says to me,” protested Egbert.

“We sent them something on the twenty-second,” said Janetta, “so they simply HAD to think of us. There was no getting away from it.”

“What did we send them?” asked Egbert gloomily.

“Bridge-markers,” said Janetta, “in a cardboard case, with some inanity about ‘digging for fortune with a royal spade’ emblazoned on the cover. The moment I saw it in the shop I said to myself ‘Froplinsons’ and to the attendant ‘How much?’ When he said ‘Ninepence,’ I gave him their address, jabbed our card in, paid tenpence or elevenpence to cover the postage, and thanked heaven. With less sincerity and infinitely more trouble they eventually thanked me.”

“The Froplinsons don’t play bridge,” said Egbert.

“One is not supposed to notice social deformities of that sort,” said Janetta; “it wouldn’t be polite. Besides, what trouble did they take to find out whether we read Wordsworth with gladness? For all they knew or cared we might be frantically embedded in the belief that all poetry begins and ends with John Masefield, and it might infuriate or depress us to have a daily sample of Wordsworthian products flung at us.”

“Well, let’s get on with the letter of thanks,” said Egbert.

“Proceed,” said Janetta.

” ‘How clever of you to guess that Wordsworth is our favourite poet,’ ” dictated Egbert.

Again Janetta laid down her pen.

“Do you realise what that means?” she asked; “a Wordsworth booklet next Christmas, and another calendar the Christmas after, with the same problem of having to write suitable letters of thankfulness. No, the best thing to do is to drop all further allusion to the calendar and switch off on to some other topic.”

“But what other topic?”

“Oh, something like this: ‘What do you think of the New Year Honours List? A friend of ours made such a clever remark when he read it.’ Then you can stick in any remark that comes into your head; it needn’t be clever. The Froplinsons won’t know whether it is or isn’t.”

“We don’t even know on which side they are in politics,” objected Egbert; “and anyhow you can’t suddenly dismiss the subject of the calendar. Surely there must be some intelligent remark that can be made about it.”

“Well, we can’t think of one,” said Janetta wearily; “the fact is, we’ve both written ourselves out. Heavens! I’ve just remembered Mrs. Stephen Ludberry. I haven’t thanked her for what she sent.”

“What did she send?”

“I forget; I think it was a calendar.”

There was a long silence, the forlorn silence of those who are bereft of hope and have almost ceased to care.

Presently Egbert started from his seat with an air of resolution. The light of battle was in his eyes.

“Let me come to the writing-table,” he exclaimed.

“Gladly,” said Janetta. “Are you going to write to Mrs. Ludberry or the Froplinsons?”

“To neither,” said Egbert, drawing a stack of notepaper towards him; “I’m going to write to the editor of every enlightened and influential newspaper in the Kingdom, I’m going to suggest that there should be a sort of epistolary Truce of God during the festivities of Christmas and New Year. From the twenty-fourth of December to the third or fourth of January it shall be considered an offense against good sense and good feeling to write or expect any letter or communication that does not deal with the necessary events of the moment. Answers to invitations, arrangements about trains, renewal of club subscriptions, and, of course, all the ordinary everyday affairs of business, sickness, engaging new cooks, and so forth, these will be dealt with in the usual manner as something inevitable, a legitimate part of our daily life. But all the devastating accretions of correspondence, incident to the festive season, these should be swept away to give the season a chance of being really festive, a time of untroubled, unpunctuated peace and good will.”

“But you would have to make some acknowledgment of presents received,” objected Janetta; “otherwise people would never know whether they had arrived safely.”

“Of course, I have thought of that,” said Egbert; “every present that was sent off would be accompanied by a ticket bearing the date of dispatch and the signature of the sender, and some conventional hieroglyphic to show that it was intended to be a Christmas or New Year gift; there would be a counterfoil with space for the recipient’s name and the date of arrival, and all you would have to do would be to sign and date the counterfoil, add a conventional hieroglyphic indicating heartfelt thanks and gratified surprise, put the thing into an envelope and post it.”

“It sounds delightfully simple,” said Janetta wistfully, “but people would consider it too cut-and- dried, too perfunctory.”

“It is not a bit more perfunctory than the present system,” said Egbert; “I have only the same conventional language of gratitude at my disposal with which to thank dear old Colonel Chuttle for his perfectly delicious Stilton, which we shall devour to the last morsel, and the Froplinsons for their calendar, which we shall never look at. Colonel Chuttle knows that we are grateful for the Stilton, without having to be told so, and the Froplinsons know that we are bored with their calendar, whatever we may say to the contrary, just as we know that they are bored with the bridge-markers in spite of their written assurance that they thanked us for our charming little gift. What is more, the Colonel knows that even if we had taken a sudden aversion to Stilton or been forbidden it by the doctor, we should still have written a letter of hearty thanks around it. So you see the present system of acknowledgment is just as perfunctory and conventional as the counterfoil business would be, only ten times more tiresome and brain-racking.”

“Your plan would certainly bring the ideal of a Happy Christmas a step nearer realisation,” said Janetta.

“There are exceptions, of course,” said Egbert, “people who really try to infuse a breath of reality into their letters of acknowledgment. Aunt Susan, for instance, who writes: ‘Thank you very much for the ham; not such a good flavour as the one you sent last year, which itself was not a particularly good one. Hams are not what they used to be.’ It would be a pity to be deprived of her Christmas comments, but that loss would be swallowed up in the general gain.”

“Meanwhile,” said Janetta, “what am I to say to the Froplinsons?”






















Who would have thought a topic as sterile as the writing of a  thank-you note could have occasioned such a bit of effusively brilliant frippery as this offering from H.H Munro – a.k.a Saki?
The English upper-classe of a few generations was  quite unsurpassed at a species of mildly derisive self -deprecating humour, which despite its understated tone, had, and still retains that subversive ability to make one, like it or not, dissolve in unrestrainable and almost hysterical laughter, -‘Tobermory’  – (perhaps it will be reserved for a later post) by this same authour comes to mind.
This story exactly explains the reason I continue to  love such polished exponents of this genre as P.G. Wodehouse, and always will. There is something quite remarkable and unique to English culture, which permits – and even encourages –  a simultaneous display of preening and sniggering.  I bet you won’t find anything to equal it amongst  either the French or Germans.
Americans, no matter how much they would like to, don’t have an upper class it is doubtful they ever did – (sorry Mr. James and Mrs. Wharton), because steel barons and railroad men, and even the pretensions of the founding fathers do not cut the mustard here.  Unless one is so terribly undiscerning as to mistake money for class, which I am happy to say is next to impossible to do even for the least discerning among us, Donald Trump and Warren Buffet also fail to crash the gate.
But even if we had an ‘upper-class’, it would only be found among the routs (gaggles, or murders – you  are welcome to choose the appropriate collective noun of your choice) of pinch-mouthed Republicans who have shares in the sorts of companies that reap their profits from anti-social enterprises such as genetically modified foods and stock market shenanigans.  Precious little scope for comedy there I’m afraid, and anyone prospecting for a laugh in that direction is sure to come up a cropper.
So to give us the hoi-polloi, Horace’s common crowd an unrestricted a sly inside-look at the slightly dithery formalities and unbreakable tribal rituals a certain class was constrained to religiously observe, we must resort to the likes of Mr. H. H. Munro.
Thank-you notes written with fountain pens, and stamps which had to be licked and pasted on brown envelopes ….  Oh where have they all gone? The rueful answer must be ‘The way of all flesh’.
But I would be forever and unforgivably remiss if I prevented the intrusion of a very serious note amidst  all this levity.  ‘Saki’ – Hector Hugo Munro –  was in my opinion a war hero. Munro died when he was struck by a sniper’s bullet in Beaumont-Hamel France. His last words were said to be “Put that bloody cigarette out”.  He  had volunteered at age 43 at the beginning of WW1 to join the British Srmy Royal Fusiliers  as a low-ranking soldier, when he could have so easily and honourably refrained from doing so. He was well beyond conscription age, and had contracted Malaria (in those days a debilitating and incurable disease) while serving in the police force in Burma. What was more, he was volunteering to uphold the interests of a nation which could have if it had so wished, prosecute and  jail him for simply living his life as who and what he was. Hector Hugo Munro was a gay man.  We would never have guessed that – would we!  and as such, he lived at a time when being one was in effect a criminal offense.  The  prosecution and trial and sentencing of Oscar Wilde  19 years before, when Munro was a young man of 25 could not have been forgotten.
The horrible scandal and the ruination of Oscar Wilde’s life must have also been fresh in the mind of Munro’s sister Ethel when she destroyed most of his papers after his death. I am sure she meant well, and was no doubt anxious to get rid of ‘incriminating evidence’ which had the real potential to sully her brother’s name and reputation, even after he had so gallantly given his life for his country.
While we can laugh at the innocent falsehoods and pretensions of a society anxious to uphold  a self-preserving  – and relatively harmless sense of propriety, we cannot be amused when that  hypocrisy takes on a punitive cast, and leads to the persecution of people who depart from sexual norms which are priggishly upheld in public ( though who could guess at the degree to which they were violated in private by that same ‘moral majority’) by its mainstream practitioners.
We must regret and deplore the enormous and incalculable amount of material expunged and  lost to our own history as gays and lesbians, through the acts of well meaning – and perhaps  not so well meaning people, and material which was destroyed even by gays and lesbians themselves because of the need for secrecy and dissimulation.
Those pages and chapters and entire books of or our past are lost forever, but we must never forget that they existed.




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I think that the wind, sweeping its way amongst the singers, makes for an uncanny presence – infiltrating the performance like a supernatural being who demands to be acknowledged, insistent on being included. It seems to want to touch the singers, and brush itself up boldly against them, to enter the moment and add to the gestalt its own breath and voice.

It seems as if the Mistral wished to re-enact its own drama as it was wont to do when in the past it moved through sacred groves of ancient trees.

It is beautiful to watch Caballé’s expression of serene dignity at the end – as she stands, so still and majestic, choosing to not sever her spiritual link with Norma,  remaining calmly in her priestly persona, retaining her magic for some moments more.

Then her eyes glint gently –  she has been singing against the cold northern wind – and sustained an interminable note which seems to have emerged from deep within her soul – and she seems to be awakening from a trance, having been caught up in another place and another time, until the cheers of the audience compel her unwillingly back into the present.

What a presence – what a voice!  Heavenly – chillingly pure – yet warm and embracing.  Brava – bravissima –  Caballé!





This was a comment left on Youtube by Willym.


“I was there that evening and even 37 years later it stays in my mind as one of the greatest evenings I’ve ever spent at the Opera. The performance was delayed in the hopes that the Mistral would abate – when it was obvious it wouldn’t the orchestra clothes pegged their score to their stands and battling the non-ending wind Caballe, Vickers and Veasey gave what was to be in many ways the performance of a lifetime. I knew it had been filmed that night – thank god!”








Casta Diva.


Casta diva, che inargenti

queste sacre antiche piante

Al noi volgi in bel sembiante

senza nube e senza vel!

Tempra o diva

Tempra tu de’cori argenti

tempra ancora zelo audace,

spargi in terra quella pace

che regnar tu fai in ciel.













O chaste Goddess, who silvers

These sacred ancient trees,

Turn your lovely countenance

Unclouded and unveiled…

Temper O Goddess

The ardent hearts

The audacious zeal

Disperse on the earth the peace

That you make reign in heaven.
















This is the rest of the aria – not sung here.



Fine al rito: e il sacro bosco

Sia disgombor dai profani.

Quando il Nume irato e fosco,

Chiegga il sangue dei Romani

Dal Druidico delubro

La mia voce tuonerà.

Cadrà; punirlo, il cor non sa.

(Ma puirlo, il cor no sa do so

Ah! bello a me ritorna

Del fido amor primiero;

E contro il mondo intiero….

Difesa a te sarò.

Ah! bello a me ritorna

Del raggio tuo sereno;

E vita nel tuo seno,

E patria e cielo avrò.

Ah, riedi ancora qual eri allora,

Ah riedi a me.)







Complete the rite

And in the sacred grove

Remover of obstructions of the profane

When the angry and menacing god

Demands the blood of the Romans

From the Druid temple

My voice will thunder

He will fall, I will punish him, I can do it.

(But punish him my heart can not

Ah return to me beautiful one

In faith of your first love

And against the entire world

I will be your defender.

Ah, beautiful one, return to me

In your serene ray

And with life within your breast

And I will have both homeland and heaven.

Ah return as you were then

When I then gave you my heart

Ah, return to me.)


Translation Dia Tsung.







To a Lady as She Was Singing














The uncanny voice and clearest of accents
from that sweet throat  issuing forth, dispatched
with its lovliest influence on the hearing
what could well suspend whatsoever torment.

Furthermore, again in its accident I feel
another mystery I don’t well understand –
when as the  greatest glory is sensed and felt
a feeling comes which gives a cause for pain.

These contrary effects, by the same song engendered
leaves one in the suspension of that alienation
where madness is sane, and reason is made crazy.

And again by a miracle. O renewed enchantment,
when the voice reaches its very height of sweetness
the soul once more is touched in echoing  grief. 



Juan de Tasis, Conde de  Villamediana.

Translation Dia Tsung.






 A Una Señora que Cantaba.

Mable Batten, ('Ladye') 'Mistress' of Radcliffe Hall, in a Portrait by John Singer Sargent.






















La peregrina voz y el claro acento
por la dulce garganta despedido,
con el suave efecto del oído
bien pueden suspender cualquier tormento.

Mas el nuevo accidente que yo siento
otro misterio tiene no entendido
pues es en la mayor gloria del sentido,
halla causa de pena el sentimiento.

Efectos varios, porque el mismo canto
deja en la suspensión con que enajena
cuerdo el enloquecer, la razón loca.

Y por nuevo milagro o nuevo encanto,
cuando la voz más dulcemente suena,
con ecos de dolor el alma toca.




Juan de Tasis, Conde de  Villamediana

(Winter of 1582 – August 21 1622)

In lieu of a likeness of the Conde de Villamediana, this portrait of a young man.

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Giacomo Leopardi (June 29 1798 – June 14 1837)
















Silvia, do you remember then
That time of your life
When beauty glistened
In your laughing and darting eyes,
And you, joyful and pensive, climbed over
The threshold of your youth?

Ringing through the quiet chamber
Resounding all the way around
Was your perpetual song.
Then when intent at your womanly task
You sat – content enough
With those hazy thoughts of things to come.
It was that scented May, when you
Thus passed the day.

I at my trifling studies
At times left off my sweaty papers
Where the commencement of my first youth
And youthful brilliance of my better days I spent
On the balconies of my paternal home
Lending my ears to the sound of your voice
And to your swift-moving hand
Across the wearying threads.
I gazed at the sky serene
The golden byways, and the courtyard-gardens
And there the far-off sea and here the hills.
No mortal tongue could speak
The feelings in my breast.

What lovely dreams,
What hopes, what hearts O my Silvia.
How they appeared to us
This human life – and fate!
When I recall to myself how grand those hopes
A tenderness takes me
Bitter and disconsolate
And turns me to deplore my baneful fate.
O Nature, O nature,
Why do you not then give
That which you promised then? Why to such a degree
Do you beguile your children?

You, before the grass withered in winter
Were locked in the malady which assailed and overcame you,
You perished, O tender one, and never glimpsed
The very flower of your years.
Nor was your heart to soften
At the praise now of your raven hair
And of your glance, demure, enamoured,
Nor with your girlfriends on a festive day
Were you to speak of love.

It perished too with me,
My sweet hopes of younger years
And too, the Fates negated
My time of youth. Alas, how –
How have you passed away
Dear companion of my early days.
My tear-soaked hopes
Here in this world – and there
The joys of love, of work, and of events
About which we talked so much together?
Is such the destiny of us human beings?
For when the truth appeared
You, poor abject one, succumbed: and with the hand
Of frosty death, to a naked tomb
From afar pointed the way.



Translation Dia Tsung.














Silvia, rimembri ancora
Quel tempo della tua vita mortale,
Quando beltà splendea
Negli occhi tuoi ridenti e fuggitivi,
E tu, lieta e pensosa, il limitare
Di gioventù salivi?

Sonavan le quiete
Stanze, e le vie dintorno,
Al tuo perpetuo canto,
Allor che all’opre femminili intenta
Sedevi, assai contenta
Di quel vago avvenir che in mente avevi.
Era il maggio odoroso: e tu solevi
Così menare il giorno.

Io, gli studi leggiadri
Talor lasciando e le sudate carte,
Ove il tempo mio primo
E di me si spendea la miglior parte,
D’ in su i veroni del paterno ostello
Porgea gli orecchi al suon della tua voce,
Ed alla man veloce
Che percorrea la faticosa tela.
Mirava il ciel sereno,
Le vie dorate e gli orti,
E quinci il mar da lungi, e quindi il monte.
Lingua mortal non dice
Quel ch’io sentiva in seno.

Che pensieri soavi,
Che speranze, che cori, o Silvia mia!
Quale allor ci apparia
La vita umana e il fato!
Quando sovviemmi di cotanta speme,
Un affetto mi preme
Acerbo e sconsolato,
E tornami a doler di mia sventura.
O natura, o natura,
Perché non rendi poi
Quel che prometti allor? perché di tanto
Inganni i figli tuoi?

Tu, pria che l’erbe inaridisse il verno,
Da chiuso morbo combattuta e vinta,
Perivi, o tenerella. E non vedevi
Il fior degli anni tuoi;
Non ti molceva il core
La dolce lode or delle negre chiome,
Or degli sguardi innamorati e schivi;
Né teco le compagne ai dì festivi
Ragionavan d’amore.

Anche peria fra poco
La speranze mia dolce: agli anni miei
Anche negaro i fati
La giovanezza. Ahi, come,
Come passata sei,
Cara compagna dell’età mia nova,
Mia lacrimata speme!
Questo è quel mondo? questi
I diletti, l’amor, l’opre, gli eventi,
Onde cotanto ragionammo insieme?
Questa la sorte dell’ umane genti?
All’apparir del vero
Tu, misera, cadesti; e con la mano
La fredda morte ed una tomba ignuda
Mostravi di lontano.














I have quailed mightily and hesitated long before daring to publish a post – let alone a translation –  of this poem, which is probably the most famous of all Italian poems, Giacomo Leopardi’s  “To Sylvia”. There is no translation in existence which can do it justice, nor will there ever be,  and for that reason I had not even thought to attempt one of my own. But then I looked at the version done by John Heath Stubbs, by far the ablest translator of Leopardi’s work, (since he alone above all the better known and lauded contemporary translators of Leopardi,  comes the closest in tone and sense and evocation to the thoughts and feelings the original evokes) and it occurred to me to have some different thoughts….

One of the greatest problems in translating Leopardi, is the choice one has to make, between creating something which is an English poem, or an Italian one. The temptation to make it ‘English’ is very great indeed, because the thoughts and sentiments lend themselves to such a rich expression, but Leopardi is not a rich or a  lush writer. He is thrifty and abstemious, and any translator who respects and admires the original must needs exercise  enormous restraint at every step, even at the expense of beauty, and this I have tried to do.

As I proceeded  phrase by phrase and word by word, I began to wonder particularly about the cosmic images Leopardi could not have known about or imagined, but which I suspect would have afforded him the greatest pleasure to contemplate – the black holes in galactic centres, swirling the stars around the space beyond their event horizons. Black holes with their infinite mass and invulnerability to time, the eternal dark divinities which create immeasurable amounts of heat and light from the swirling dust and clouds of stars entrapped around them,  and feed for eons on that which they excite – until they too fall into the endless quiescence which is the most potent simulacrum of living death the universe contains.

In a sense, I feel that Leopardi’s mind too was a kind of black hole, but one from which thoughts were emitted in a steady stream. His thoughts, poems, disputations, pedagogical work, translations and letters escaped the fearful gravity of his heavy heart, and found their expression in his writing.

For Leopardi truth is an apparition of death, but such an image need not daunt us, for the voracity of death, like the voracity of black holes, is at the heart of every conception of  life, and of mortality – and the awareness of our mortality serves us  as an aid to live with an awareness of the fleeting nature of time.





The villa in Torre del Greco where Leopardi spend his summers, and where he died.

“there are two truths which most men will never believe: one, that they know nothing, and the other, that they are nothing. And there is a third which proceeds from the second—that there is nothing to hope for after death…. all the vain hopes with which men comfort children and themselves, all foolish consolations,”

“Works of genius, have this intrinsic quality, that even when they capture exactly the nothingness of things, or vividly reveal and make us feel life’s inevitable unhappiness, or express the most acute hopelessness…they are always a source of consolation and renewed enthusiasm.”

Leopardi – from his notebook of 3000 odd pages, Zibaldone.

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Marijane Meaker May 27 1927













































I came across Marijane Meaker’s book Carol in a Thousand Cities by accident  in 1972, when I was 19 and living in Ceylon.  I remember that it sucked the air out of my lungs to find out that there was a world far away in the West where exotic beings called lesbians actually existed in numbers — and as a social group. Of course it was not their exoticism that stunned me, but their familiarity to me — and their separate existence as a coherent phenomenon — a  social entity — a possibility  of being alive and living in “real” life — as  with a band of angels and  in a heaven on earth.

It took several more years — more than three decades —  before I was to run into  Meaker again, and found myself launched once more on the fascinating journey  exploring so called lesbian pulps. Marijane Meaker, a.k.a Ann Aldrich a.k.a Vin Packer a.k.a M.E. Kerr (Meaker) was a pioneer of lesbian fiction, and she is still wonderfully alive and kicking, as is the illustrious Ann Bannon.  By then, Meaker’s world no longer represented for me a heaven on earth, but something even greater — an earthy life in which earthly aspirations were possible for lesbians.

I started out by reading Meaker’s ‘Highsmith’ , the fantastic memoir of  her  ’50’s love affair with Patricia Highsmith.  That led inexorably to ‘We Too Must Love,’  ‘Spring Fire’ (published under the name Vin Packer) and a blissful re-read of  ‘Carol in a Thousand Cities’ a line taken verbatim from the last paragraphs of Highsmith’s famous lesbian love story(and the first one said to have a happy ending), ‘The Price of Salt’.

In Highsmith I found for the first time in a long time a book I could not put down. In it Meaker writes with warm sentiment and without sentimentality, about her love affair with Patricia Highsmith. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Meaker’s prose that so immediately evokes the flavour of the ‘fifties. I see rising up before my eyes the photographs of George Marks and Chaloner Woods, — women in Massey suits and print dresses  and summer coats,  and I hear the romantic, evocative  music of Jeri Southern,  Chris Connor,  Jo Stafford….

Despite the stark repressiveness of that time in U. S History of highly neuroticised social oppression,  (it was the era of  McCarthyism, the cold war, and psychoanalysis and sexism) — and who knows, perhaps exactly because of it — there was a social cohesiveness in the gay and lesbian world now long since disappeared.  For me It only appears now in the fiction of the day. This was the world which provided the necessary back-drop for the kind of chance meetings which are now a part of our lesbian history. It was the era of lesbian bars where women went to meet each other, drink, socialise, catch up with the world, and fall in love. L’s was such a bar, and it was where Meaker and Highsmith met for the first time, and had there not been  such a place, they would probably not have met at all.  But meet they did, in that hidden world of the fascinating denizens of the ‘fifties New York,  lesbians in secret enclaves which survived and thrived despite the tensions and dramas of an era in American history filled with paranoia and social anxiety.

It surprised me to learn that Meaker’s Highsmith was affectionate and publicly demonstrative of her affection — something extremely rare in that hetero-totalitarian time. It would seem that Highsmith’s particular brand of internalised homophobia was a writerly and intellectual construct, and it never flooded the banks of their internal reservoir into the territory of  her love affairs  and relationships. Meaker says Highsmith ” would hold girls’ hands in the street, the supermarket, in restaurants.”

For me the saddest part of this relationship is of course its failure as a friendship when the two met again in the ‘eighties, a failure I think was not at all inevitable, but for Highsmith’s  incomprehensible inner compulsion which made her unable to desist from repeatedly expressing her racist and anti-semitic feelings and views. This in the end caused Meaker to shut down emotionally with her, and it forestalled any possibility of emotional re-connection or a renewal of their former love.

Though it is impossible to make conjectures or claims on behalf of the subconscious — one’s own  or another’s – it might be that Highsmith may have chosen this tactic in order to avoid the pain of an inevitable separation with Meaker. Meaker is quite explicit about her disagreements with Highsmith, but somehow, their breakup is strangely inexplicable. Meaker does not hesitate to make herself the object of her own irony. She was reactive and volatile while Highsmith was reserved and restrained and conciliatory. One has to admire Meaker for her forthrightness  — she is honest and unsparing of herself in revealing what she herself said and did in order to precipitate the end of their affair. The two of them seem to have been each other’s only loves, and the loss of that love had devastating consequences for Highsmith.

One cannot evade the feeling that Highsmith’s virulence in this regard is overdone, and that she expressed these unsavoury views in order to elicit a specific response  — perhaps something as small as a nominal agreement. It may have been a gambit to test the degree to which she was loved and accepted — not just for her goodness and virtues, but despite her faults and flaws — but it was a response that never came from Meaker. Perhaps if Meaker had realised there was no point in trying either to make Highsmith reform or to repudiate her view, there might have been a different ending to the story of their relationship. After all, these were views which were not aired in her writing, and they were for the most part private, and not followed-up by violent actions.  No one was harmed by them. Put them into the mouth of a Nazi, or a member of the K.K.K or an Islamist, and their power to devastate would be incalculable, but coming from the mouth of a mild-mannered old lesbian writer, who is furthermore much given to drinking, they seem more dismissive than dangerous. Highsmith was to become an old crank, but one gets the sense that there was a great mind and a responsive heart beneath the distant and forbidding manner

Highsmith was brought up a Southerner and a Texan, and her unexamined racism may have been felt by her to be a part of her which stood for her Southern identity.  Her racism never extended beyond words,  (she had friendships and affairs with Jewish women, and Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia Jefferies were close friends) and her fulminations were never virulent. In fact they were so manifestly pointless that one wishes they could have simply been ignored. Instead and regrettably they made a renewed relationships with Meaker impossible.

The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s  biography of Highsmith shows her to be a racist anti-semitic miserly monster with no real feelings for anyone but herself, but –despite acknowledging and being distressed by Highsmith’s anti-semiticism, Meaker portrays her as loving and sensitive, with the emotional restraint under duress that can never be acquired and that  can only either be inherent, or the result of good breeding. I cannot reconcile the image of Highsmith as a psychopath, presented by Joan Schenkar, with Meake’s portrayal of this fabulous dark-haired butch with her W29 L34 Levis with their sharp creases and her crisply ironed white shirts.  This is a woman who was charming, romantic, affectionate, who at the last moment cancelled her plans to leave the country because she regretted having to cancel a dinner date  she had planned with Meaker to celebrate their two month anniversary. Meaker describes  a getaway in the summer of ’59 after Highsmith had given her a gold wedding band (bought in an antique store) in acknowledgement of their relationship, when “there were blissful days ahead in Fair Harbor: making love, sunbathing, reading, walking along the shore. cooking dinner for each other, and lingering into the night having drinks and listening to music” and at other times (when a late visit to Janet Flanner, then 67,  and her lover Natalia Murray at Fair Harbour did not result in the expected invitation to stay overnight) sleeping in each other’s arms in the rain on the beach.

In an act of selflessness and love, Meaker had given up her wonderful little apartment in Manhattan, and the life she had carefully constructed there  in order to move together to a property in Bucks County Pa, on the Delaware canal. This was where their relationship took root, and grew, and finally came undone. And that is were I find the core of this book to lie. The real sub-text is a documentation of the fleetingness of love relationships even when love itself is strong.

Perhaps the more significance a personal love has in life, the more viable are the seeds of its own destruction, and the more inevitable the final disaster.

There is a poem by Robert Graves which speaks of a month in mid-summer and the course of poetic love-

The demon who throughout our late estrangement,
Followed with malice in my footsteps, often
Making as to stumble . . .
We both know well he was the same demon,
Arch-enemy of rule and calculation,
Who lives for our love, being created from it….

There is something I refer to as ‘The Heathcliff Factor’, when the wellspring of love is choked and thwarted on one who needs love even more than she or he wants it, there is a reflexive destructiveness and a hardening of the self that is the frequent result of buried pain. A sort of malignancy shoots out of the depths like some poisonous plume, which only a stable and reliable love can hold in check. When that love is gone, it erupts and moves across the surface of life like a pyroclastic  flow, scorching and killing everything before it.

When one recalls love in one’s later years, only the best  — and the worst — can elicit the effort of recounting, and Highsmith, this beautifully written and stylishly evoked chronicle of self-revelation of the love of a lifetime, bears this out.  It is sobering and saddening precisely because of how skillfully and irresistibly the past is made to make its way to the present, and to a tacit conclusion about the nature of love. Meaker and Highsmith seem to me to have been, in the end, each others’ ‘one and only’.  And yet, though love went on surviving, the relationship could not.  Told from Meaker’s point of view, she always feared that Highsmith would yield to the temptation to have affairs with other women. Though there was nothing untrustworthy about Highsmith (Meaker mentions only one dishonest act of Highsmith’s, the appropriation of a roll of film, which after all contained her own image), she succumbed to the temptation to snoop in Highsmith’s papers, interfere with her mail, and stalk her suspected lover.  In fact, It is Meaker who stepped out on her  live- in lover when she first met Highsmith. She kept the affair secret until she left New York to move with Highsmith to Pennsylvania The course of true love runs by default: like water it is ruled by gravity, and seeks its lowest level, It is willed into turbulence and in the absence of movement it reverts to inertia. In the case of Highsmith and Meaker, it was something between the two that put an end to their association.

Highsmith possessed an unerring sense of her own integrity which led her to reject received wisdom and received values, particularly of the sort that Meaker subscribed to, in the area of  the kinds of psychological analysis of homosexuality that Meaker (at least in her fiction) appeared to uphold. Highsmith was sure-footed and confident about her own sexual orientation and practices  — a true butch —  whereas Meaker was ambivalent about sexual ‘norms’, and was a Freudian apologist of sorts.  She bowed under her publisher’s pressure to end her lesbian novels badly (for the lesbians involved) whereas Highsmith contrived herself a way out of a similar stricture. Though both women were paranoid about being ‘outed’ (and who, being mindful of their times, could blame them?) Highsmith’s personal reticence and secrecy unsettled Meaker and drover her to  succumb to her own insecurities and to violations of Highsmith’s privacy.

Even allowing for the self-preserving evasion endemic to every biography, one cannot but be impressed with Meaker’s clarity, and her slightly mocking tone of self-deprecation. There is a wryness here that stands as a guarantor that not too much sweetener has been added to cover the bitter taste of old memories of loss and of love gone awry.  One feels that this was a loss that was irrecoverable to both women, and the sound of ‘if only’ seems to echo in the wind. This is a book I will always be glad I read. In Meaker’s book, Highsmith is presented sympathetically and respectfully. This is by no means the prurient tell-all revelation filled with gratuitously graphic details of love-lives.  The intensity and fire which existed between the two women is clearly and sparsely communicated, which in itself is a remarkable achievement.  It is not as complete as Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow and not as bitter as Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss. Highsmith. It is in a sense the most personal and kind of Highsmith’s biographies.








This is the song which was on the jukebox at L’s when Meaker and Highsmith met for the first time –

“You Better Go Now” by Jeri Southern








This is an entry from one of Highsmith’s private journals. It shows a very different aspect of her being, completely unlike her  guarded and rebarbative public persona. This is the Highsmith, I think, with whom Meaker fell in love, and who fell in love with her in return.

“Even in his arms dancing, one feels her in one’s arms dancing. The brain dully occupied with him, dreams with a clarity and a sentiment (not being controlled by its logical mechanism) that stifles the breath, bringing tears. One dreams of dancing with her, in public, of a stolen kiss more freely given and taken than any heretofore, in public. One is utterly crushed with the thought– which had become reality now, here – that one is for eternity an imprisoned soul in one’s present body…One knows then too,. and perhaps this is no small portion of the sadness, that life with any man is no life at all. For the soul, with its infallible truth and rightness, its logic derived from perfect purity, cries for her one love, her!”

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