Lesley Blanch (1904-2007) influenced and inspired generations of writers, readers and critics. Her lifelong passion was for Russia, the Balkans and the Middle East. At heart a nomad, she spent the greater part of her life travelling about those remote areas her books record so vividly.
She left England in 1946, never to return, except as a visitor. Her marriage to Romain Gary, the French novelist and diplomat, afforded her many years of happy wanderings. After their divorce, in 1963, Blanch was seldom at her Paris home longer than to repack.
Her posthumous memoirs On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life are published by Virago, Little Brown.
Where would you like to live?
It must be a warm country. If I really want to be coldly factual I must try to live where I can be looked after, but that’s a very dull answer only come on me now when I’m approaching one hundred. I should like to live in the Levant, somewhere in a Moslem country; the Moslems respect age. I loved Afghanistan passionately, but not the way it is now. I read, over and over again, the place names, just to get back there.
What is your idea of happiness on earth?
I want a garden and animal companionship and music.
What faults do you find most forgivable?
Temper. Rudeness. I forgive them very quickly. I don’t bear much malice because I’m too bored with it.
Which fictional heroes do you prefer?
Heathcliffe in Wuthering Heights.
Which fictional heroines?
Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.
Who is your favourite historical character?
I like Charles II very much, all women do. I think Shamyl* takes a lot of beating. Dost Mahommed, the nineteenth century Afghan tribal ruler, was a remarkable character. He was ready to cooperate many times with the most difficult situations and always kept his word, but was driven out by the British. Very like Afghanistan today.
[*Nineteenth century prophet leader of the Chechens against Imperial Russia, subject of Lesley Blanch’s biography The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus.]
Who are your favourite heroines in real life?
Lady Duff Gordon was wonderful when she lived in Egypt – accepting her complaints and getting to know people in the most wonderful way.
Who is your favourite painter?
I love so many painters. Chinnerry – tiny paintings of Chinese landscapes. Chagall – great wild heaving Jewish-Russian mysticism. I like some eighteenth century stuff, but I’m sick of Boucher and Fragonard; if I see another woman on a swing kicking off her slipper I shall be sick.
Who is your favourite musician?
Bach is a part of daily life, like an architectural prayer. I like almost all Russian music. After that I’m very partial to Wagner. I find it soothing to write to reggae.
What quality do you most admire in a man?
And in a woman?
A certain elegance which has nothing to do with clothes: femininity.
What is the virtue you admire most?
I think straightforwardness. Consideration. Principles.
Who would you like to have been?
There seem to have been snags in everybody’s life. If you find yourself in their skin you’ve got to take on their problems too. I’d like to have been a woman who had plenty of help in the house, who could get on with work more.
What is the main trait of your character?
Obstinacy. My mother used to say if I’d made up my mind it would never move.
What do you appreciate most in your friends?
Affection. I’ve been very lucky in my friends. I’ve had so many and they’ve all been very loving and I’ve hardly ever had a mean friend.
Your main fault?
What would be your greatest misery?
Something to do with animals. The Black Beauty syndrome.
Your dream of happiness?
Being with my animals. Being active.
What would be your greatest unhappiness?
To be very ill and not be allowed to go in a civilized way. I should think that applies to most people. That in fact is speaking for euthanasia. Not that I’m in a hurry to leave the party, even now I still enjoy a lot of things. I have a certain amount to put up with, but very little compared with other people who have great courage.
What is your favourite colour?
I love all colours. I love colour.
Your favourite flower?
Sweet Williams and, of course, lilac.
Your favourite bird?
I think a blackbird.
Favourite prose writers?
The Mystic poets are wonderful, Blake especially, and Andrew Marvell’s Ode to his Coy Mistress is a favourite:
. . . ever at my back I hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity . . .
I used to teach my husband Romain Gary English using Restoration poetry. At seventeen I was obsessed with all those bawdy Restoration plays and butcheries – very unsuitable.
What do you think it means to be a great romantic?
Living it as well as writing about it. Not many people do that any more. They haven’t got enough time. But when you’re a romantic, you make time. Maybe you miss a business appointment because you’re still in bed, you see? Of course, that way you do miss other things. You have to pay for everything, you know.
Who are your heroes in real life?
Coluche, who started up the soup kitchens called ‘Restaurants du coeur.’ His great work still stands for the best in France. A vulgar comic, but a great humanitarian – visionary, even.
Vladimir is a beautiful name. Florian I always wanted for a boy kitten – but less right, indeed hopeless, for a man.
What do you dislike most?
Which historical characters do you despise most?
People do dreadful things. Lord Ellenborough was the governor/viceroy of India and was responsible directly for the first Afghan war. He was appalling in his negligence and lack of office. But he was also the brother of the adored Emily Eden, who wrote those enchanting letters that I so often reread.
What are the military achievements you admire most?
Churchill’s overall command of impossible situations. De Gaulle’s leadership of the Free French during the Second World War.
What is the reform you admire most?
The introduction and acceptance of birth control. Because you’ll get nowhere without it.
What natural gift would you like to have?
To be able to play the guitar.
How would you like to die?
In my sleep.
What is your present mood?
My present mood is in despair, utter and total despair about the way the world has gone, at what is now considered to be civilization.
What is your motto?
Get up and get on with it. Which I don’t do enough of now.
Copyright © Lesley Blanch, 2006 c/o BookBlast Ltd, London. All rights reserved.
The lead images of Lesley Blanch and Romain Gary sitting outside St Leonards Terrace Terace, Chelsea during World War Two, and her guest room in Menton, are copyright material and may only be used for associated reports about this post. It is not permitted to change them, to add to them, reproduce or modify them in any other way. In case of violation, we reserve the right to withdraw the right of use.