Journey into the Mind’s Eye – Lesley Blanch & Bitter Orange – Claire Fuller

The last month has been quite busy and hectic. And while I have managed to read some wonderful books, I have not quite had the time to write about them. That is why in this particular post, I have chosen to review two books instead of one. I have greatly enjoyed both and they are strong contenders for my Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Blanch & Fuller

Journey into the Mind’s Eye – Lesley Blanch

Here’s what the NYRB Classics blurb says:

“My book is not altogether autobiography, nor altogether travel or history either. You will just have to invent a new category,” Lesley Blanch wrote about Journey into the Mind’s Eye, a book that remains as singularly adventurous and intoxicating now as when it first came out in 1968.

At a very young age, Lesley Blanch is dazzled by The Traveller and his stories of seventeenth and eighteenth century Russia. There is an aura of mystery around The Traveller and not much is revealed about him for much of the book other than that he is an older man, Russian with Asiatic features, and around the same age as Lesley’s parents. He periodically visits their home. But because of him, she develops a deep passion for Russia and Siberia, and has dreams of one day embarking on a journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway – a dream that comes to dominate her life.

In a way, the Traveller becomes an important man in her life. In her late teens, on a trip to Paris and later to Dijon, they consummate their relationship. Later, Blanch joins him, his aunt and his two sons on a family idyll to Corsica for two months. And then the Traveller disappears.

But in no way does that diminish Blanch’s passion for Russia and the Trans-Siberian railroad. Infact, she continues to visit the homes of Russian emigres in Paris to whet her desire for all things Russian and hold on to her vision of the Russia of yore.

Life goes on, and Blanch meets the French author Romain Gary. Enthralled by his Russian origins and deep voice, she marries him. Gary at the time is in the diplomatic service, and so they travel widely staying in places such as New York, Los Angeles, and Bulgaria to name a few. And while not her beloved Russia, these are postings that Blanch enjoys greatly, Bulgaria being the highlight during her time with Gary.

Gary then leaves her for the actress Jean Seberg. However, Blanch does not dwell on this too much. In a sentence, she only mentions matter of factly of their marriage ending in a divorce.

More importantly, now that she is on her own once again, it renews her vigour to finally visit Russia and embark on her much anticipated Trans-Siberian journey.

Here’s the Guardian:

Her avoidance of a conventional life in London led her on quixotic voyages geo-graphically and emotionally. In 1931 she became one of the rare tourists to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Dragged around monuments to Soviet progress, she perplexed her guides with questions about the homes of 19th-century writers, all the while glancing over her shoulder and around corners for that beloved Asiatic face.

Blanch’s dream of travelling on the Trans-Siberian railroad does come true, and this is not really a spoiler given what’s so rewarding about this book is the journey and not the end result. But after a very long hiatus, will she meet the man who shaped her life – the Traveller?

Journey into the Mind’s Eye is a wonderful book and Blanch’s passion for Russia and Siberia sparkles on every page. It is a hybrid work of memoir, travelogue, history, and  displays Blanch as startlingly ahead of her time. It certainly fuelled my appetite for travel to far flung places!

Journey into the Mind's Eye
NYRB Classics Edition

Bitter Orange –  Claire Fuller

When the book opens Frances Jellico has just arrived at the crumbling English mansion Lyntons. We are told that the mansion has been purchased by an American Mr Lieberman who has yet to visit the place. However, he wants an estimate of the treasures at the mansion. For a fee, Frances is appointed to study the architecture of the gardens and bridges and compile a report.

Frances at the time has just lost her mother and so this position could not have come at a more opportune time.

Once there, she comes across her neighbours – the hedonistic couple Peter and Cara. There’s more. Frances also discovers a peephole in the floorboard of her bathroom, which allows her to spy on both of them.

Meanwhile, Peter and Cara are enthusiastic to befriend Frances and she is thrilled. Frances is shown to be a plain, ordinary woman, overweight and not attractive in the conventional sense. Peter and Cara are quite the opposite: good-looking and glamorous.

Increasingly, they spend most of their days together – having lavish meals prepared by Cara, drinking wine after wine from bottles taken from the cellar downstairs, smoking cigarettes and languidly soaking up the summer sun.

And then the cracks start becoming visible – atleast Peter and Cara’s relationship is not as hunky dory as it originally appears. It all culminates in a tragedy that has a lasting impact on Frances’ life.

Claire Fuller has penned a dark and atmospheric tale with gothic overtones that is gripping and hard to put down. The summer is wonderfully evoked and the characters are also well drawn. At its heart, Bitter Orange is a tale about loneliness, obsession and wanting to belong.

That Frances wants to belong is quite obvious given her diffident personality and the fact that she is now alone and left to fend for herself. So much so that as the days carry on, she becomes obsessed with both of them taking a deep interest in their relationship, and what it means to her.

But in a sense, Peter and Cara are struggling to belong too, to find their bearings. Cara, particularly, is prone to bouts of anger and is quite clear that she does not want to go back to her home and a stifled existence in Ireland. She is yearning for a different life, with the firm belief that Italy will make her dreams come true. Peter is in some sense adrift too. He leaves his first wife for Cara, but is it is decision that will give him satisfaction?

Bitter Orange was thoroughly engrossing and I will be exploring more of Claire Fuller’s work.

Bitter Orange
Fig Tree Books Hardback Edition