Narrative non fiction: a new category
When Lesley Blanch wrote that “Journey into the Mind’s Eye is not altogether autobiography, nor altogether travel or history either. You will just have to invent a new category . . .” the label narrative non-fiction did not yet exist. Her autobiography about the early part of her life was published in 1968. She was ahead of her time. Like Rebecca West and Truman Capote, Lesley Blanch was experimenting with different forms and techniques to tell a damn good ‘true’ story.
Lesley Blanch claimed she could not invent, hence choosing biography rather than fiction, although her storytelling was underpinned by a vivid imagination and scholarly research. The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus took six years to complete and required thorough investigation in Russia and Turkey.
What is narrative non fiction?
Narrative non-fiction is not just a convenient label used by publishers to help booksellers categorise their titles and display them, or a new genre fresh out of American writing schools for literary critics to argue about. It is favoured by clever young editors like Leo Hollis at Verso, or Richard Milner at Quercus, as a way to get across difficult, or dry, ideas in an engaging manner. People are most interested in other people and their experiences, not the dusty archives of research. To take the reader on a scientific, or philosophical, or historical journey of discovery by means of a series of a well-written scenes knitted together to form a compelling whole, as opposed to recounting how A then B then C happened in a cut-and-dried linear fashion, makes for a more exciting read and a saleable book.
The roots of narrative non fiction lie in journalism: it is how the story is told that is the point, as opposed to slavishly sticking to pure facts. The narrative is based on real people and events, but the author uses the literary and cinematic techniques of novelists, playwrights and poets to make the story vivid and dramatic. Time is invariably telescoped and the line between fact and truth becomes blurred, although veracity is paramount. It is important not to make anything up, as did James Frey in A Million Little Pieces.
In academic writing the relationship of the author to the reader is one of instruction and authority. In narrative non fiction, the relationship is one of trust — people and events are real, and the narrative is underpinned by exhaustive research thereby giving credibility. But a varied range of writing techniques are used to make the story vivid and dramatic.
Biography, autobiography, memoir . . . history, science, philosophy, travel, food . . . diary, letters, chronicle, photography . . . all benefit from this treatment. Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards, Frances Wilson‘s How to Survive the Titanic or The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay and Ruth Scurr‘s John Aubrey: My Own Life (written in diary form), Kathryn Bonella‘s Hotel K and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Capital are must-read recent examples.
The Wilder Shores of Love
“A cult book which pioneered a new approach to history writing,” wrote Joe Boyd in The Guardian about The Wilder Shores of Love which has remained in print ever since first publication in January 1954. Four nineteenth-century European women left behind them the industrialized West for the Middle East, to find love, fulfillment, and “glowing horizons of emotion and daring”. Lesley Blanch captures her reader’s imagination by means of impressionistic prose and brings to life extraordinary characters shrouded in mystery. With the self-confidence of a great actress, she gets under the skin of those she writes about and is able to convince her reader of the palpable existence of the most exotic characters and events.
How to write narrative non fiction
How does Lesley Blanch do it?
— She uses description, dialogue and action to bring to life the characters involved in the events.
— Creates a clear setting to establish context and atmosphere, reveal something about the characters and plant the seeds of what will happen. Maureen Cleave wrote in the Daily Telegraph, “A scholarly romantic in a school of her own, the depth of Lesley Blanch’s research is such that other writers plunder her books shamelessly.”
— Different stories are woven together in alternating sections, or else follow a classic dramatic structure of rising action, climax, denouement.
— The voice is first or third person.
— Creating scenes and dialogue by blurring fact and letting flow a vivid imagination. Writing about experiences and events doesn’t mean every last detail needs to be portrayed exactly as it actually happened. There is a difference between making up a story and calling it non fiction and moulding specific aspects of the story to enhance the narrative, all the while retaining the actual event’s core truth, or integrity.
— The timeframe of events can be compressed to make the narrative more fluid yet retain its essence. Is a person’s life a straight line, or a mosaic of impressions and memories? The sub title of Journey into the Mind’s Eye indicates Lesley Blanch’s way of seeing: Fragments of an Autobiography.
— She played with genre and enjoyed poking fun at conventions, as did her diplomat-novelist husband of eighteen years, Romain Gary, in his fiction. Genres are hybridized: love story, travel memoir and history in Journey into the Mind’s Eye; history, romance and adventure in The Wilder Shores of Love; ‘on the road’ travel anecdotes and cookery in Round the World in 80 Dishes.
Diana Vreeland & Lesley Blanch
Lesley Blanch’s very particular way of getting under the skin of her characters can feel decidedly personal. Isabel Burton was obsessed by her wild explorer husband Richard Burton who brought the Kama Sutra to the English, and was one of the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile. Blanch’s description of their marriage feels, in places, as though she is writing about hers. Diana Vreeland wrote in the April 1965 issue of American Vogue, “Lesley Blanch is an adventurous woman, mentally uninhibited. She has proved that in her six books, beginning with The Wilder Shores of Love . . . Part of the Blanch effectiveness as a writer lies in her first-hand research, her pleasure in sensuous details, her spread of knowledge, and her understanding of love.”
In Journey into the Mind’s Eye, Lesley Blanch describes the galvanic impact made on her at a young age, of a man whom she refers to as ‘The Traveller’. A friend of her parents — possibly a former lover of her mother’s — he seduces her when she is seventeen, on the night train to Dijon. A mesmeric character and a superb storyteller, he was Russian, and instilled a lifelong love of all things Russian and exotic in her. Their liaison was scandalous, however to keep him anonymous had another point: it made the impact of their love affair and its abrupt ending far stronger — and her subsequent journey to Russia more poignant. The power of myth lies in creating an aura of mystery and in the telling, repeatedly. In January 1969 the reviewer for the New York Times wrote: “What we have here gives us an idea of what Iris Murdoch might produce if she fancied writing about the land Sir Winston Churchill called a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma . . . I haven’t encountered such a love of intrigue combined with such a love of luxuries since I last read a novel about James Bond.”
Journey into the Mind’s Eye: an early example of narrative non fiction
She was a masterly mythmaker and relished a good story more than anything. Life was never boring with Lesley Blanch. She was wickedly funny. In Journey into the Mind’s Eye her description of her train journey to Corsica, setting off from the Gare du Nord, with The Traveller, his two sons and his “mad Montenegrin aunt,” Countess Eudoxia, is pure ‘real life’ comedy — like a scene straight out of a sitcom.
The contrôleur arrived to punch our tickets and worked himself into one of those legendary Gallic uproars over the presence of a dog in the compartment. The animal had no ticket and, in any case, must travel in the luggage van, he said. A furious scene ensued.
Although Russian invective is held to be of an unimaginable violence, I observed that in moments of fury the Traveller held to his opinion that the French language best expressed hatred. Sometimes however, he had recourse to those homely English phrases he so much enjoyed acquiring. Now, after a tirade in his mother-tongue which left his family gasping, and which the contrôleur, at last stung beyond officialdom, countered with the more homely ‘Foutez-moi la paix!’ the Traveller capped it with ‘and the same to you with knobs on’. Although this phrase was no doubt incomprehensible to him the contrôleur grew even more livid, lost all semblance of control, and striking an attitude worthy of Talma hissed: ‘Mes compliments à Mademoiselle votre mère!’
The Traveller had now worked up to a histrionic degree of rage and, being almost asphyxiated by the fumes of garlic which the contrôleur diffused about the compartment, threatened to open the outside door and fling himself or the contrôleur on to the line if a hair of the dog’s head was touched. A rush of air, soot, sparks and noise overwhelmed us. The Countess was clutching the tchibouk to her bosom, while the samovar overturned, hot water cascading over the plush seats. In spite of the silk pyjamas and the grey gloves, the Traveller contrived to appear an intimidating figure and, when Kamran and Sergei closed round, the official turned tail. The Traveller sat back, looking purged while I righted the samovar. Hondof had taken advantage of the battle to apply himself seriously to the picnic hamper, his head and ears buried deep among the debris of a cold chicken. The Countess, I noticed, now had tears in her little eyes.
‘I saw it in the cards this morning,” she moaned. “No good will come of this journey. We are under a dark star.”
The Traveller was in fact Theodore Komisarjevsky who arrived in London in 1919. He brought Director’s Theatre to England, implemented new Stansilavskian ways of thinking about character and promoted realistic acting. John Gielgud, one of Komisarjevsky’s students, said of him, “His influence has been considerable and his contribution to the English theatre and its artists leaves us greatly in his debt.”
Theodore Komisarjevsky: godfather of narrative non fiction
Komisarjevsky produced a ‘synthetic’ theatre, “Where all forms of art could be harmoniously united in one single show. I introduced music into the plays, rewrote the librettos of the operas to suit the character and the rhythm of the music, and inserted dialogues and speaking parts in the operas. Hence the singers took part in the plays as well as the operas, and similarly, the dramatic actors took part in the operas.” [Myself and the Theatre, London, Heinemann, 1929]
The young Lesley Blanch, fresh out of the Slade School of Art, witnessed his techniques first hand as he put on Chekhov at Barnes Theatre (her small, battered copy of Three Sisters and Other Plays translated by Constance Garnett, published in 1923, has crossings-out and annotations in pencil all over The Three Sisters. Two A4 pages of roughly drawn circles and lines are folded up and tucked inside.) In the early 1930s she sketched out the scenic and costume designs for his ground-breaking productions of The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth at Stratford. In the 1930s Lesley Blanch turned to journalism and was features editor of British Vogue during World War Two. These formative experiences informed her prose writing in the 1950s and thereafter.
There was still food rationing in post-war 1950s England, most borders were closed and trains were the main form of transport. Lesley Blanch knew what her readers wanted and she gave it to them: ‘local colour’, high romance and adventure. Her writing took them to places they had never visited or knew little about, which is easy to forget in our age of easy travel. Her non fiction stories are so readable that readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy fiction.
An historian can make a difference and make their readers aware of the hinterland, the roots of the present day and what is going on around them. Some of her best writing is in The Sabres of Paradise, the biography of Imam Shamyl, known as the ‘Lion of Daghestan and Chechnya,’ (religious leader of the Caucasian tribes who fought the invading Russian armies from 1834 to 1859). With its vivid descriptions of the Caucasus and the campaigns in which both the young Tolstoy and Lermontov participated, this book encapsulates the essence of her passion for the East and her love of the unknown. Certain scenes embody a cinematic aesthetic in structure and emotion. Lesley Blanch wrote this book when living in Hollywood with her French husband. When she was not away on research trips, or entertaining visitors, she worked as a script editor for Hollywood director George Cukor. Some chapters are pure drama in the way they are structured and suspense is built up.
Extract from The Sabres of Paradise
Chapter 24, Tzinondali
In the greying dawn some villagers arrived with stories of Shamyl himself marching on Telav. The servant girls were by now on the verge of hysterics and had to be calmed by a brew of tea. Their inefficiency caused the loss of another hour for, wailing and shuddering as they recounted to each other the terrors of capture by the mountaineers, they had not packed in a manner Princess Anna expected. Some of the trunks had to be repacked. It was eight o’clock. The sun was high and strong in the brilliant blue sky when the last strongbox was placed in the pavoska. The children were jumping about excitedly, tugging at Madame Drancy’s skirts, when a cry sounded from beyond the garden, ‘God save us! The Tartars!’ A shot rang out, the voice choked, and was heard no more. There was the sound of galloping horses, men shouting, a terrible tumult sweeping down on the old house. The shrieking servants scattered in all directions. The Princesses and Madame Drancy seized the children and fled inside the house, followed by the nurses, some maids and the old Princess Tinia, who even now could not believe that disaster had overtaken them. ‘They would not dare!’ she kept muttering angrily. Princess Anna, imagining that the Lesghiens were raiding the house to loot its treasures, decided they had better barricade themselves in an attic where she thought it unlikely the mountaineers would think of looking for anything of value.
She did not realize that she, her sister and their children were the treasures Shamyl sought − the only hostages of sufficient value to enable him to bargain at last − at long last − for the return of Djemmal-Eddin, his son. She had no idea that this raid on Tsinondali was the consummation of long years of scheming, of hopes deferred. Looking round the dusty, low-ceilinged attic at the frightened faces of her family and servants, she burst into tears. ‘God forgive me! Why did I wait so long? You could all have been saved . . .’ She knew what indignities and terrors, if not death, awaited them, were they to be discovered.
By now, ‘the Tartars’, the dread horde, had entered the house and could be heard below, smashing down doors, ripping curtains and thumping wildly on the piano. Their guttural cries, mingled with the sounds of broken glass and china, mounted to the attic where the maidservants were on their knees, praying noisily for deliverance. In vain the Princess urged them to be silent. At each fresh uproar, their wailing began again. The old Princess Tinia seemed stunned and repeatedly ordered them to go downstairs to rescue a tea service she especially cherished. The older children, now terrified, were calmed by Madame Drancy, while the Princess Orbeliani was occupied with the babies. The ancient nurse Maria Gaideli was trembling convulsively and had set up the traditional wailing of grief-stricken Georgians. It was now impossible to hope their presence in the attic would not be discovered. From the tiny windows, Madame Drancy could see the gardens overrun by ferocious-looking turbaned riders, their horses trampling the parterres. The dried-up riverbed was now a pathway leading to the house: a path along which hundreds of horsemen galloped, pouring down from the hills, their savage cries ripping the morning air. As they rode into the courtyard, they brandished their shaskas over their heads and, reining their mounts up on to their haunches, whirled them round and round, while the animals snorted and plunged viciously.
To conclude, here is an extract from the opening of Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry: Message from a Ghost, in Lesley Blanch’s best-known book, The Wilder Shores of Love. Pure historical romance!
When the Corsairs led Aimée Dubucq de Rivéry through the teeming lanes of Constantinople towards the Seraglio, a path was cleared for her by the slashing hippotomus-hide whips of the Sultan’s eunuchs. She was a present from the Dey of Algiers to his master, the Padishah, or Sultan of Turkey, Allah’s Shadow Upon Earth. She had been on her way home to Martinique from her convent schoolroom in Nantes, where she was a special favourite with the Sisters. She was a beautiful, intelligent, pious and charming young creature. There had been tears and prayers when she set sail, and even the Mother Superior had been on the jetty, to wave farewell. How many more tears, how many more prayers, if they could have foreseen her fate!
But Aimée, now swaddled in sumptuous brocades, and bundled in veils, must have remembered the prophecies of the old negress Euphemia David, in Martinique, when Aimée and her cousin, a dark, skinny little girl, whom the world was to know as Joséphine Bonaparte, crept through the sugar canes at dusk to cross the old sibyl’s palm with silver. At the time, her mumblings had seemed a wild farrago: crowns, thrones, and pirate ships. The children had listened breathlessly − they did not believe her, but they remembered . . . Now, with a thud of terror in her heart, Aimée saw an enormous figure waddling towards her, his ermine-lined pelisse sweeping behind him, his towering turban nodding with flamingo plumes. It was the Chief Black Eunuch, the Kizlar Aga, a princely Nubian, Son Altesse Noir, come to the Gate of Felicity to inspect the Dey’s offering to his Sublime master. Beside him Aimée saw a great pyramid of heads, some so newly severed that they reeked and steamed with blood. The future seemed to close round her. It was not a nightmare! It was her destiny, and she could not escape! Her large blue eyes stared out wildly over the yashmak, and then closed. Aimée had fainted.
London, 20 April 2015
Georgia de Chamberet is literary executor of Lesley Blanch, and her god daughter.
The posthumous memoirs On the Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life are published by Virago, Little Brown.
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Picture Credits: Lesley Blanch. Costume design, ‘Orchidée’. Le Club des Deux Canards Mandarins, Henry Duvernoy & Pascal Forthuny. Director, Komisarjevsky. Nov. 1923. Le Studio, Champs Elysées Theatre, Paris © The Estate of Lesley Blanch. All rights reserved.
Lesley Blanch photographed by Henry Clarke for Vogue in 1973 © Condé Nast Publications Ltd. Rights enquiries: Harriet Wilson, Director of Editorial Administration and Rights, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd, Vogue House, Hanover Square, London W1S 1JU.
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