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I.M. Shusha Guppy, 1935-2008
by Ben Downing
Remembering the Persian expatriate and London editor of the Paris Review.
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Persian: that’s the word I’ll always associate with Shusha Guppy. Uttered with a luxurious protraction of the first syllable—Purrrzhen, as if a … well, Persian cat were being stroked—it conjured up all those Oriental refinements rudely swept aside by the ayatollahs, a lost world of Hafez recitations and elaborate compliments (taarof, as she taught me to call them) paid in jewel-like gardens. Though she’d occasionally employ the bare geopolitical term “Iran,” the adjective was always “Persian,” and so was the name, in English, of her mother tongue—Allah help anyone who referred to it in her hearing as “Farsi,” which, she would witheringly point out, was like saying “Deutsch” or “français.”
Yet Shusha was no exile. While she abominated the revolution of 1979 as roundly as anyone, she had voluntarily left home long before it, and found for herself, first in France and then England, a life at least as rich as the one she’d abandoned. Just how rich I learned for myself during the seven years it was my privilege to know her. With an almost American forwardness that was one of her virtues, she’d written me about a piece I’d published on Patrick Leigh Fermor, who turned out to be a close friend of hers. Her letter, disarmingly heart-on-sleeve and full of the most generous praise, concluded by inviting me to a party to be thrown for her later that month by another friend, George Plimpton. (Until 2005, she held the aptly cosmopolitan title of London Editor for The Paris Review—which is, of course, based in New York.) We hit it off at once and thereafter met up whenever possible. Over time I cobbled together the main parts of her story, supplementing what I gathered at first hand by reading her two fine memoirs, The Blindfold Horse and A Girl in Paris. The lineaments that gradually took shape were unique.
Born Shamsi Assar (“Shusha” was a childhood nickname) in 1935, she belonged to a distinguished intellectual family. When, ten years before her birth, Reza Shah came to power, he put her jurist grandfather in charge of drafting a new civil code, to which her father, a philosopher and theologian at the newly founded University of Tehran, contributed as well. Determined to combat illiteracy, Reza Shah also spurred Western-style education, including for girls, and before long Shusha had fallen hard for European literature. “The Persia in which I lived,” she writes, “was very much like the nineteenth-century Russia described by its great authors.” French authors also mirrored her own reality—“my paternal relatives came straight out of Balzac and Flaubert”—and it was to their country that she found herself most drawn. Having won a scholarship to the Sorbonne, she moved to Paris at sixteen, all by herself and with absolutely no foreign travel under her belt. Her initial loneliness and disorientation were severe, but she eventually found her way into the Left Bank demimonde, carrying on the obligatory flirtation with Communism (soon renounced with proper disgust) and mingling with Café Flore types; one scene in A Girl in Paris finds her comforting a friend who’s just been seduced and tossed aside by Camus. She also stumbled, to her own surprise, into a music career. For several years in Paris she’d been taking classical voice lessons—“Since you are Persian,” one teacher announced, “we will start you with the aria in Handel’s Xerxes”—without giving much thought to her native traditions, until Jacques Prévert (who became a lifelong friend) encouraged her to try her hand at Persian folksongs and helped arrange a record deal. The result was a string of fourteen LPs, with songs—mostly written by Shusha herself—in Persian, French, and English, as well as countless performing engagements, both in France and England.
England had never been in her plans. In 1961, after a decade in Paris, she’d decided to return to Iran by way of London, where she meant to spend only a week. A friend had urged her to look up an art dealer and Amazon explorer named Nicholas Guppy, of the eponymous Anglo-Trinidadian fish family. On her first night in town she did so, and by the next day the two were engaged, having been poleaxed by the kind of coup de foudre one associates more with Paris than London. The marriage produced two sons —one of whom, Darius, is something of a tabloid celebrity in Britain for his scrapes with the law and misadventures with his Old Etonian cronies Earl Spencer and Boris Johnson—but ended after fifteen years. London, however, became her permanent home. She continued as a professional singer for a time before shifting primarily to writing—memoirs, a travel book, literary journalism, all of it shot through with her distinctive avidity—interspersed with the occasional documentary film or radio broadcast.
But in a sense her ultimate vocation was friendship. The number and variety of people she knew never ceased to amaze me: besides Leigh Fermor, Plimpton, and Prévert, she was on close terms over the years with everyone from Lady Diana Cooper to Ted Hughes, A. J. Ayer to Francis Bacon—hardly a predictable accumulation. She seemed to have friends positively everywhere; when I told her I was going to be in Aleppo, she at once insisted I look up the Italian consul and his wife, a French novelist (and I was to inflict myself on other friends of hers in Beirut). On her own turf she enjoyed playing the salonière, hosting some formidable polyglot assemblages of charm and brainpower. Yet she was no mere collector of people. Fame and an illustrious pedigree probably counted a bit, but only when backed up by real character, and even her fanciest friends were devoid of stuffiness. One of my fondest memories is of a party in Shusha’s honor, thrown by a granddaughter of Churchill, at which an uproarious food fight broke out. (With full Winstonian zest, the granddaughter at one point nailed me between the eyes with a hunk of baguette.)
What made Shusha such a magnet for so many? I can’t speak for others, but for me the attraction had to do in part with her approach to friendship, which she took more seriously and raised to a higher art than anyone I’ve known, fusing a somewhat mystical reverence for the abstract ideal—both her Sufism and the Persian “cult of friendship,” as she called it, informed this touching exaltation—with all the reality-tested, on-the-spot qualities one could wish for in a friend: loyalty, thoughtfulness, and so forth. Even more alluring, though, was her sheer personal presence. A hint of the gypsy in her look combined with the Zsa Zsa Gaborian huskiness of her voice (“Dahling, how mahvelous!”) to produce a certain crystal-ball manner. Yet this slight otherworldliness was offset by an earthy torrent of ebullience, curiosity, and, above all, warmth; to see her again after an interval was to be instantly swept up into a whirlwind of affection and fun. At the same time, she could be openly egocentric; on hearing that I was about to start her Blindfold Horse, her reaction was, “My dear, how I envy you the pleasure!” Initially taken aback, I came to appreciate her frank self-regard as a welcome change from the usual false modesty. One thing I learned from her example, in fact, is that those who are well pleased with themselves often make the best friends, since they are in a better position to toast one’s own little triumphs and mourn one’s defeats wholeheartedly—no sour grapes or Schadenfreude from such as she.
Last December, I saw her in New York, and she was in top, sparkling form as always. A few days later, after returning to London, she felt dizzy, went to the doctor, and was told she had terminal brain cancer, with no more than a few months to live. In February, I went to see her for what we knew would be the final time. Wearing a scarf to conceal her ravaged hair, she looked more than ever like an optimistic Madame Sosostris. No tarot cards had foretold her own sudden reversal of fortune, and I expected her to be at least somewhat bitter at having abruptly to give up a life she so relished. But during the three days I spent at her bedside—she was resolved to die at home, in her modest Chelsea flat—I detected not a trace of self-pity, nor of fear. Except for her diminished stamina, she was the same gregarious dynamo as usual. The phone seemed to ring every ten minutes as word of her illness continued to spread, and she’d effortlessly switch from English to French to Persian and back again. (Once, after she finished an animated long conversation in Persian, I asked her who’d called. It turned out to have been Empress Farah, widow of the last Shah of Iran.) Also in three languages, she quoted reams of poetry, as if taking inventory of a lifetime’s absorption; particularly compelling were her recitations of Baudelaire. There were flashes, too, of the old scornful fire, which had always given point to her essential sweetness; when I brought up the notoriously feeble and corrupt Qajar dynasty, deposed by Reza Shah, she reviled it as vehemently as if it had been ousted only yesterday: “I’d die of shame,” she thundered, “if I had a single drop of Qajar blood in my body!” And she was full of surprises to the end. One day she mentioned in passing that Prince Charles had been by to see her just before my arrival. Prince Charles? Though I’d never previously heard a word about it, they’d been friends for years. It takes a special kind of restraint not to drop a name like that.
The week after my visit, she published in The Guardian a fervent paean to the prince, whom she praised in terms of the ideal of Persian kingship articulated in the national epic, the Shahnameh, which had been much on her mind. The editorial concludes with this paragraph: “Well, the doctors have told me that my cancer is terminal, and so I am having to dictate what is certainly my last piece of journalism. I shall end, perhaps unjournalistically, by declaring precisely what I feel: God save the Queen! And God bless the Prince of Wales.” How like her, how stubbornly and gloriously like her. She was one of nature’s aristocrats.
About a month later she died, on March 21. Since then, I’ve thought often of a Persian proverb or line of poetry (I never learned the source) I heard her quote in translation several times over the phone, whenever the friend she was talking to began to crumble at the prospect of losing her. “The bird dies, but the flight remains,” she’d gently say. She meant the soul, presumably—firm was her belief in an afterlife—but I picture something like a contrail, a bold lingering arc through the ether, described by a rara avis of magnificent plumage.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 October 2008, on page 76
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