from The Seated Womanby Guillaume Apollinaire, translated from the French by Richard Kostelanetz
As far I can find, Apollinaire’s posthumously published novel has not before appeared in English. Indeed rarely acknowledged, La Femme assise is not mentioned at all in thick Apollinaire books by, say, Francis Steegmuller and Margaret Davies. David Hunter in Apollinaire and the Great War (2015) notes that before his death the French writer prepared a manuscript in which “separate sketches on life in Montparnasse during the war and the history of the Mormons in the nineteenth-century USA were merged.” The result, Hunter continues, was “a novel that would eventually be published in 1920 and an early version of which has been described as a masquerade on the deceitfulness of men and the duplicity of women.” Hunter in a footnote cites the Apollinaire most definitive biographer Lawrence Campa’s identification of the seated woman as “the image on a false coin,” which I report without fully understanding.
This following version continues my interest in working with texts initially provided by Google translation, along with my sympathy toward (if not an identification with) a writer born exactly sixty years before me with the surname Kostrowitzky that begins with the same four letters as mine and likewise contains four syllables. As he was known to his buddies as Kostro, so I’ve been since childhood Kosti. To his taste for inventive language I’ve sometimes added bits of mine. Much like myself, Kostro could be audacious, and he tried to be funny.
What makes the book so odd is that it combines a story he probably knew firsthand about the adventures of an attractive woman from the provinces in sophisticated Paris with fiction about another world, Mormon America, that he wholly imagined from secondary sources that were available to him more than a century ago. One theme implicit in this book is that Mormonism, then only a few decades old, had entered the European imagination.
While the idea of polygamy attracted people like Kostro, the book demonstrates that he learned much else about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Utah. Much of chapter two consists of a very long fictional letter from John Taylor, who was in fact at that time a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, historically the second highest governing body of the LDS church. Though written letters were the only form of intercontinental communication at that time, it’s unlikely that the historical Taylor ever wrote anything so extended. The fact that Kostro’s English was reportedly slight makes me wonder how he imagined so much detail. On this last question, his biographers report only that he spent considerable time in Parisian libraries. One historical deviation, likewise reflecting research gotten wrong, is attributing to Mormons certain extreme physical conversion exercises that were in fact notorious in the Burned-Over District of western New York State in the early 19th century, where the Church of Latter-Day Saints also began, but not a common practice among Mormons. (These choreographic extravagances I first learned about nearly sixty years ago in William G. McLoughlin’s rich history course about religion in America.)
In one of the few scholarly acknowledgments of La Femme Assise, the Belgian scholar Wilfried Decoo writes in French, translated into English in the BYU Studies Quarterly (1976), “Apollinaire’s interest in the Mormons dates back before World War I, according to the accounts of several friends. He had plans for La Mormone et le Danite as early as 1912.” While doing research on other projects in the National Library of Paris, “What must have enticed Apollinaire was the strangeness of the sect, the allegedly bizarre mores, and especially the accusation of sensuality, centering in polygamy.” As a Mormon convert, Decoo offers two rejoinders: 1) “The rolling, jerking, and shouting associated with certain fundamentalist sects” were not Mormon, as I’ve already noted; 2) The contrast between the “debauched and sterile affairs” of Kostro’s female protagonist(s) “and on the other hand the marriage and the fecundity of the Mormon women.”
Indeed, though Kostro portrays certain Mormon men as predatory seducers, other passages in La Femme celebrate the apparent benefits of polygamy for the voluntary wives. Though officials in the Mormon hierarchy have since rejected this practice, the option remains alive for certain LDS dissidents. My own opinion, as a libertarian, is that the option should be viable if acceptable to the participating parties; likewise polyandry, if only because, I also believe, state-sanctioned divorce should be made illegal. An LDS friend dear to me knows that she descends from a second wife and thus might not have been born had the practice been made illegal in her great-grandfather’s time.
The further truth is that both polygamy and polyandry are practiced informally in more ways than, given the stigma, are commonly known or the participants would like to reveal. One theme mentioned by Kostro is that polygamy empowers stronger men to impregnate several women contemporaneously, thus giving leverage to Brigham Young’s historic mandate to increase the LDS numbers as rapidly as possible. Also implicit is the aim, in an inverted eugenics, to increase the likelihood of stronger offspring that have indeed marked the LDS around the world. As Decoo notes, Kostro “most likely wished to shock his public by presenting Mormonism as a possible solution to the problem of [European] depopulation.” Also, my own sense of Elvira’s problem is not that she’s promiscuous, but that her life lacks roots.
From my colleague Charles Doria, always more literate, come these comments on the text: “A strange prefigurement to The Story of O (1954). Also reference to Catullus' Coma Berenice [Berenice's Lock] is quite surprising, but also comforting. In the dance of the Moorish Girl and her Big Moor Guardian, I detect references to Stravinsky's Petrushka (1911), who after wildly dancing, is killed or maybe not by the Moor.”
–Richard Kostelanetz, FarEast BushWick 11385-5751
Elvira Goulot was born in Maisons-Laffitte. From her beginnings she displayed a definite taste for horses that she painted in a remarkable way and for horseback riding, although she no longer has any opportunity to engage in it. But she thought about horseback riding often, especially when troubled. She had seen marvelous horses in the famous stables of her hometown, and yet those most fondly recalled are the three white horses hitched to the troika of her lover, Grand Duke Andre Petrovich:
"I had at my disposal the troika of my lover to which the three most beautiful horses of all Russia were harnessed. They were as white as snow and estimated to be worth one million each. With their tails dragging almost to the ground, they moved like the wind, and the coachman who guided them was the biggest we ever saw. "
From childhood, Elvira had a flighty mind and a remarkable memory. Though not ever religious, she never ceased being superstitious. Her dreams have always been about love. Thus, as a child, she dreamed of pins, stakes or barriers, which can be interpreted as indicating carnal desires.
Her first lover was a doctor, a married man, both very kind and very debauched. When she was fifteen he was thirty-six. When she was slightly ill he came to give her some care. He was one of those keen men who knew all love’s refinements and so could corrupt the bodies and minds of young women who didn’t know how love was made. Their affair began with a scandal, because Elvira's mother discovered some revealing evidence. Though the seducer was indicted, he remained free thanks only to Elvira who affirmed before the judges that she had not been a virgin. Once acquitted, he gratefully acknowledged her.
As the initial step was taken toward a depraved education, Elvira let Georges, the doctor, teach her femininity. She became an avid pupil. During the winter of 1913 he took her to Monte Carlo, where, having had to return hastily to Paris, he left her alone. It was at a casino that Old Replanoff, a lawyer from Petrograd, when it was still St. Petersburg, noticed her. "You will be happy," he said to her, inviting her to follow him to Russia. You will replace my daughter who is dead and who resembles you. Come, you will have nothing to fear. You will be like a queen. I will treat you as my daughter." And respectfully but passionately, he kissed her fingertips.
Replanoff left first to return home; and as George was slow to return, Elvira decided to leave for Russia. She went to get her ticket at the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits; but, as she was and seemed so young, she had to obtain the prior consent of her father. To him old Replanoff wrote a letter that is a monument of hypocrisy. As soon as Elvira arrived in Petrograd, he sold her to a company of debauchees to which he belonged, and she became the mistress of the Grand Duke Andre Petrovitch.
After spending seven months in Russia, she spoke to me once about her stay there: "The Grand Duke, my lover, was twenty-six years old. He was very handsome. I have never seen a man so beautiful or so brutal. He loved both women and boys. He was more depraved than George in the sense that cruelty dominated all his activity and his pride made him almost delirious. The women, mostly French, who were the mistresses of the other debauchees, were neither young nor attractive. To me they appeared to be business women who lent themselves to all that their lovers’ extreme depraved imagination could suggest. The prettiest, a Russian, was also the most lascivious, as her tastes concurred with those of the men around us. With an unimaginable stomach capacity, both for food and drink, she drank as much champagne as any woman I’ve ever known.
"I remember an orgy at General Breziansko's; there were about fifty guests, among whom were two Grand Dukes. After the servants withdrew, this young Russian woman undressed herself. Like a disheveled frenzied bacchante, she passed under the table and gave those who pleased her, men or women, the opportunity to show their most extreme desires, to the joy of other guests.
But Elvira hated that life where repose, tenderness, and gentleness had no place. Otherwise alone, she befriended a twenty-eight-year-old French restaurant dancer, without whom she could not have stayed a month in Russia. The dancer was the secret mistress of old General Breziansko, who, having become spoiled, extended to her a devotion at once excessive and uncertain, as he confused what the Gospels said about the resurrection of the flesh and what they told about flagellation. This brunette Georgette, so gentle with Elvira, became a real demon when it came to pinging the old skin of General Breziansko. To offer such pleasure she devoted so much minute care that, each time success crowned her efforts, she received a sum equivalent to twenty-five thousand francs.”
Such occasions were rare, but Breziansko usually was no less generous, and Georgette was satisfied with her arrangement. Not so fortunate was Elvira, who, growing thin, was impatiently suffering assaults on her pride from her lover and his friends. What irritated her even more was that no dinner in the restaurant ever ended without some terrible dispute, where the managers, masters of hotels, mostly French, were treated in a way that disgusted her.
Elvira tried to console herself with Georgette's love, and also by drawing flowers, little pigs, and, of course, horses, to which she immediately added color, on paper to use as stationery. These won the admiration of the old Replanoff who came to see her sometimes and exclaimed, "She paints like my daughter. I told you, Elvira, you look like her miraculously. That's why I look after you as a father and introduced you to the best society in Russia.&rduo;
One day Elvira escaped, her heart a little heavy leaving her beautiful Pentelemongkasa apartment. She simply couldn’t take it anymore, and she had grown very thin. Georgette alone knew about her flight. At the border was another obstacle, as the officials did not want to let her go, because her passport was not in order. Luckily on the platform she saw an officer whom she had met at Petrograd; he smoothed out all the difficulties.
Landing back in Paris at the Gare du Nord, Elvira regretted leaving behind only the strange and nostalgic songs that she had heard, she did not know where in Russia, perhaps in a restaurant or in the country, and the three snow-white horses, swift as the wind, that the greatest coachman in all Russia had always led with outstretched arms.
Georges welcomed her as a prodigal daughter and, through one of his friends, got her a role performing in a music hall where she took to wearing a monocle. Here she met and lodged with Mavise Baudarelle, whose parents were wine merchants, and who revived her spirits until a young Russian painter of good family, Nicolas Varinoff, took Elvira away from the Baudarelle family. Nicolas Varinoff divided his time between his sister, Princess Teleschkine, and his mistress Elvira, whom he settled in a studio on rue Maison-Dieu. Whenever Nicolas was at his sister's, Elvira painted, in a delicate, fantastic style not lacking power, brilliant bouquets featuring daisies with black petals; and thus did this life animated by art, love, dancing, and cinema continue until the declaration of war.
The year 1914 began as a mad party dominated by a carnival atmosphere. Fashionable dance was everywhere; so were masked balls. Feminine fashions were so predisposed to disguise that women dyed their hair in bright and delicate colors reminiscent of the luminous fountains that astonished those who remembered the 1889 World’s Fair. This year, stellar glamorous and fashionable Parisians were entitled to be called Berenices, since their hair deserved to be placed among constellations.
Naturally dances at the Opera flourished. The clever idea introduced at the first of these new balls, where each woman received a locked box, while each man received a key requiring him to find the lock fitting his key, seemed an excellent omen for general gaiety. Life seemed to become light. Perhaps later, when the World War and its "funeral bombs" will be forgotten, it will it be said of the peaceful 1914 time, as in Paul Gavarni's famous lithograph: "She will be forgiven much for having danced a lot.”
One masterpiece of performance was the Tank Top favored especially by a female transvestite deliciously ambiguous who portrayed the character of a legendary woman longshoreman. It was necessary also, for the new joy of the time, to invent a new cancan, the former having been relegated to the rank of the hieratic dances by the devotion of great painters like Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat. If, in 1914, no one had Gavarni's imagination to invent new performances, they also lacked his gift of observation to record in short stories the thousands of reflections of those who amused themselves. In 1914, as well as today, we only savor short legends, or rather no one knows how to make long ones anymore.
I noted in Gavarni lithographs some legends that relate to this world of balls, to these longshoremen whom fops admired, and which also have the merit of evoking for me a little of those drunken 1914 balls that, to repeat, no observer artist has depicted.
A fop to a longshoreman: "Lilie! Lilie! ... Nothing tells you that it's me, Lilie?”
A laundry boss to a longshoreman: "Dachu! Dachu! You're annoying me!"
"No, Norinne, it's you who are annoying.”
The mother of the longshoreman: "Unhappy child! What did you do with your sex?”
Two longshoremen: "Are there any women, there must be some! .... And when I think that everything eats every day what God made; that's what gives a skeletal idea of a man!”
Husband: "Riding on the neck of a man you do not know, you call that joking, do you!”
Mari-Pierrot to his tank-topped wife: "Who is more to be pitied in the world than a man united to a stevedore?"
"She is a woman of with the power of Pierrot.”
Domino to a young man who is courting a masked woman: "She's old and ugly, my dear; you are lost in the woods.”
Two dominoes to a ragman: "What can you be looking for here, philosopher?"
"I gather up all your old love jokes, my doves: we're remodeling them.”
The man in a tank-top: “Don’t talk to me about having fun with carnival men. Happily for me, my carnival girl is married. She’s being held.”
The postilion coachman: “As for me, mine is married too, but to me ... That means I hold her myself.”
A domino that passes. "I'm holding them both ... They'll pay me."
"Well! they say that some colonel is getting married ... you’ll be a widow, my poor dancer.”
“Alas, yes, my poor baron, and your wife too."
Two longshoremen, man and woman: "Agatha and you, my old Ferdinand, won’t last long; This little one is too sly for you because you're more sly than she ... and for that to last, one of you has to give in first.”
Two longshoremen, man and woman: "Let's see if you remember! Number?"
"Benevolent . . . and there’s a cup ‘a tea at the doorbell.”
Tank-Top to a Pierrot: "Hey! No, sir, no! These ways don’t suit me! Your behavior is too dissipated!”
Two longshoremen, male and female: "I cancanned so long that I lost my legs, my neck hurts from screaming ... and I drank so much that the palace swept me up ...”
“So you're not a man?"
Two longshoremen, man and woman: "We will pinch her little cancan, but very smoothly ... must not disparage the government.”
Eunuch to a boatman: "As you see me, Chaloupe, it is I who cares for the camels of the Great Turk.”
“And you get paid what for that?"
"Some sequins, Chaloupe, and the satisfaction of a pure heart.”
“And you get fed.”
Tank-top man to another young man in a frock coat: "We laugh with you and you get angry ... that’s a funny gun!"
Musketeer to a young woman being combed: "That's how you get ready to go out?"
"Don’t talk to me about it! It's this damned hairdresser that takes forever.”
The tank-topped woman to a little young man in a frock coat: "Go tell your mother to blow your nose.”
When Gavarni went to the Opera, he said, "I am going to my library." By dint of watching dancing, he had come to regard love itself as a dance. The word that Goncourt used, by which Gavarni wanted to express the sense of loving with the head, with the imagination, this word “boo-googing,” so expressive, which deserves to be preserved, does not it resemble the slang term boogieing, which means dancing?
In a small theater, a few months before the war, I saw the furlana dance (pronounced in Italian fourlana), what the dancers called, before they danced, the pope's dance. So lascivious were their steps that the pope would be astonished to be mentioned in this connection. And while one dancer, almost naked, more than naked, excruciatingly naked, because the g-string of this pretty girl made her look like an orthopedic Venus, danced with her partner, I thought of the graceful scene of the Memoirs where Casanova danced the forlane in Constantinople. And this pretty page whom I remembered, better than the dancers I had before my eyes, showed me this Venetian folk dance if not recommended, at least mentioned by Pope Pius X as a sure alternative to the tango. This venerable and wonderful dance, which seems born on a transatlantic voyage and which for me evokes the motto that I had chosen at the beginning of my life as a tango writer, tango not tangor, I later had reasons to give up, adopting a more brilliant if simpler motto: "I’m amazed."
But let’s get back to the pretty Casanovian page on Forlane: A few days later, I was at the home of Bacha Osman my Ismail-Effendi for dinner. After he declared a great appreciation of our friendship, I replied in kind, letting slide how he reproached me for not having gone to lunch with him for so long. I could not refuse going to his house for dinner with Bonneval, and he let me enjoy a charming sight of Neapolitan slaves of both sexes presenting a pantomime and dancing Calabraises.
As M. de Bonneval spoke of the Venetian dance called forlana, Ismail expressed a keen desire to see it. I told him that it was impossible for me to satisfy him without the assistance of a dancer of my country and a violin. Taking a violin then given to me, I performed the dance music; but even if another dancer had been found, I could not play and dance at the same time. Ismail, standing up, spoke privately to one of his eunuchs, who went out and returned a few minutes after Ismail had whispered in his ear.
When the effendi told me that a dancer had been found, I replied that a more professional violinist could accompany us, if he wanted to send a note to the Venice Hotel, which he immediately did. The concierge sent me one of his people, a very adept musician for this genre. As soon as the fiddler was ready, a door opened to a stunning woman, her face covered with a black velvet mask, such as those in Venice call Moretta. The appearance of this beautiful masked woman surprised and delighted everyone, because it is impossible to imagine any object more interesting, as much for the beauty of what we could see of her face as for the elegance of her form, the charm of her shape, the subtle voluptuousness of the contours of her figure, and the exquisite taste exemplified in her finery.
The nymph took her place, and we danced together six forlanes in a row. I was burning up and short of breath, as no national dance is more violent; but the beauty remained standing, and without showing the slightest sign of weariness, she appeared to be defying me. During the ballet section of the dance, which is the most difficult, she seemed to hover above the floor. I was astonished beyond measure because I didn’t remember having ever seen forlanes danced so well, not even in Venice.
After a few minutes of rest, still a little ashamed of the exhaustion I felt, I approached her and said in Italian: “Six more, and that’s it, if you don’t want to see me die.” She would have answered if she could, but beside her was one of those masked barbarians who prevent any word from being spoken. In the absence of speech, a squeeze of her hand that no one could see made me guess everything. As soon as the second six forlanes were finished, a eunuch opened the door and my beautiful partner disappeared.
So we had in 1914 extravagant dances. It was a period of balls and masquerades that greatly attracted the attention of artists, and many of my acquaintances attended them. The mood was light as we never danced more like a volcano than we did during revolutions and wars. Here I would see Elvira again, with her lilac hair, her white furs, and her monocle, all of which would have doubtless come into general use the following year if the war had not arrived.
Other innovators of the time should not be forgotten. M. and Mme. Robert Delaunay, painters, redesigned costumes. Not embarrassed by imitating old fashions, yet wishing to be of their time, they sought not to innovate in the form of clothing’s cut, but to influence by using new fabrics infinitely varied in color. For example, Robert Delaunay’s costume had a purple jacket, a beige vest, and black trousers. Another one had a red coat with a blue collar, red socks, yellow and black shoes, black pants, a green jacket, a sky-blue vest, and a tiny red tie. Mrs. Sonia Delaunay Terck’s purple tailored outfit had a long purple and green belt and, under a jacket, a bodice divided into zones of bright colors, where an old rose, a tango color, a nattier blue, scarlet, etc., appeared in different fabrics, such as wool, taffeta, tulle, flannelette, moiré, and silk were juxtaposed. Such high variety deserved being noticed, as she added fantasy to elegance.
And if they weren’t immediately seen when entering the theater, one knew these costume designers generally sat at the front of the orchestra, from where they contemplated not without contempt the monotonous clothes of the dancers. Elvira intrigued them because of her monocle and color-changing hair, but she still refused to bond with the artists, preferring to spend her time dancing with Mavise. Nicolas Varinoff also sometimes led them in balls-musettes, such as that of Les Gravilliers, where the musicians stood on a small balcony; the "Bal de la Jeunesse," rue Saint-Martin, whose patron had such a fine collection of ling cod fish that he gave as a bonus to his clients; that of October, rue Sainte-Genevieve, which belonged in 1914 to M. Vachier; the Petit Balcon, which opened in a cul-de-sac near the Bastille; the ball at the rue des Carmes; La Fauvette, rue de Vanves, and the Boulodrome de Montmartre, a charming place where the music was, in my opinion, more pleasant than that of M. Strauss. Marvelous all these venues were.
The war killed all these "rendez-vous of noble company," taking what was up down, to the regret of us all, breaking like glass this lovely night life, which Elvira later remembers with a tender melancholy. More upset than most by this unforeseen war, Nicolas Varinoff a few days after the Marne declared to Elvira, who was pressing herself against him and caressing him like a cat, that the time for love had been interrupted and thus their nighttime pleasures would resume, as far as he was concerned, only at the end of the hostilities. But as Elvira showed only a mediocre interest in the war, this decision seemed incomprehensible to her; and, in the heaven of their affair, disdain began to rise like a red moon.
Guillaume Apollinaire (26 August 1880 – 9 November 1918) was a poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and critic of Polish descent. Born Wilhelm Albert WÅodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki in Rome, Italy. He emigrated to France in his late teens, adopted the name Guillaume Apollinaire, and soon became one of the most popular and important members of the artistic community in Paris.Richard Kostelanetz
Richard Kostelanetz is an author, artist, and critic based in Brooklyn.