That bitter abyss

4

December 12, 2016 by AK

About a month ago I noticed that the opening two lines of T. S. Eliot’s Grishkin poem from Whispers of Immortality (1920) mimic the respective lines of Théophile Gautier’s Carmen (1852). Compare Eliot’s half-stanza

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis…

with Gautier’s

Carmen est maigre, – un trait de bistre
Cerne son œil de gitana…

(Approximately, “Carmen is skinny. A stroke of bistre // Encircles her gypsy eye…”) Of course I was hardly the first to notice the parallel. Gautier’s poem is a masterpiece. Ezra Pound admired its precision. His Anglophile friend parodically imitated Gautier to highlight Grishkin’s supposed phoniness.

The bistre circles round Carmen’s eyes must have been natural. I have met people whose eyes always seemed to be rimmed with dark, slightly yellowish grey-brown, even when they were in perfect health and without makeup. They all had dark-brown, near-black eyes, which that shadowy contour accentuated. Although natural, it reminded me of the heavy makeup of silent movie stars, which Grishkin might have sported.

There’s a streak of certain nastiness in Eliot’s Grishkin exercise, as if an olfactory precursor to Cats. It reminds me – a loose association, not an analogy – of an early story by Chekhov, Mire. Gautier’s bronze-skinned Carmen has distant relatives in 20th-century Russian literature: for one, Ivan Bunin’s female images. In Song (1905), a girl working on a melon plantation compares herself to more exquisite beauties:

They say that Greek women on the Bosporus
Look good – but I am swarthy and lean.

Or “meager” – the Russian word also means “poor” or “bad” as in “bad crop.” The author’s sympathies are clearly with his dark heroine, but there’s no more exoticizing – the otherness of Bunin’s women is only due to their gender.


4 comments »

  1. JCass says:

    I had a much longer comment on this but I lost it so these are just some brief remarks: yes, Gautier is massively underrated and not just “Emaux et Camées”. Eliot’s “Hippopotamus” in the same volume (probably my least favourite book of his) also takes its starting point from another Gautier poem “L’Hippopotame”.

    Mérimée’s “Carmen” is indebted to Pushkin’s “Gypsies”, I believe, so there’s a nice circular logic in “Whispers of Immortality”‘s return to a Russian seductress. I couldn’t say whether Eliot was aware of the link. My guess is probably not.

    I don’t know if Grishkin is based on a real Russian émigrée Eliot had met or a silent film stars. If the latter then Pola Negri (though Polish) springs to mind.

    Eliot really had a peculiar obsession about the way women smelt, e.g. “And female smells in shuttered rooms” in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”.

    • AK says:

      I enjoyed your comment very much the moment I’d read it but just about that very moment I was in the early stages of what turned out a pretty unpleasant disease. Now that I can think and write again, I’ve found this 1996 article by David Lowe (a translator of Turgenev’s and Dostoevsky’s letters, if it’s that David Lowe) arguing that Pushkin’s Gypsies influenced, in all likelihood, not Mérimée’s novella but the opera by Bizet, via the libretto by Halévy & Meilhac. Lowe admits that Mérimée might have been familiar with Pushkin’s poem by the time he started Carmen but there is no direct evidence to support this claim. Mérimée only started learning Russian and translating Pushkin into French after publishing Carmen. On the other hand, it seems that the operatic Carmen picked up a few lines and sentiments from Mérimée’s translation of Pushkin’s poem that were definitely not in the novella.

      In 1835, Pushkin published 16 poems under the title, Songs of Western Slavs. Eleven were based on poems from Mérimée’s Guzla; two, on songs from Vuk Karadzic’s collection, and three were Pushkin’s originals. By the time of publication, Mérimée had already admitted to Pushkin, via a mutual friend, that Guzla was not a collection of original Illyrian songs but an exercise in stylization and then mystification. However, Pushkin did not throw away his Western Slavs cycle but published it together with Mérimée’s letter. Ironically, two of Pushkin’s best-known poems from this cycle are derived from Guzla. He thought highly of Mérimée’s output (such as Clara Gazul and the Chronicles) and probably found the quality of poetic imagination was more important that “authenticity.”

  2. JCass says:

    Thanks for this great research and sorry to hear about your illness. I would have replied sooner but I got caught up in Christmassy entanglements.

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