The Quality of the Affection, Part One
In the first of a two-part story, Lloyd Lynford writes of the lives of Ezra Pound and his mistress Olga Rudge, who was a concert violinist.
That night at Natalie’s in Paris, Olga was wearing her most boyishly cut jacket and a low-waisted skirt so she’d be ready if someone asked her to foxtrot. But before any of that could happen, before the dancing, before she could remove her jacket or display herself at her flexible best, he came up to her and touched her on the arm. Why the arm? If Ezra liked a woman, she’d heard the gossip, he would become paternal, kiss her on the forehead or draw her onto his knee. But he touched her arm. Then they began to tease, describing each other’s eyes – Ezra went first. Botticelli, he said. How could Olga not flush at being compared to Venus? She knew to stay away from art or literature – but she should reciprocate – so she scanned the room, both in English and French. The ice chest, perfect, so she covered as much of his hand as she could with her own long fingers, and whispered cadmium. Or, no, now she was unsure, maybe he’d seen her eyes searching behind him, so she took it back – not cadmium, no, more amber. Surely he was playing a joke, turning away from her like that, surely he couldn’t have been disappointed – hadn’t the Botticelli reference been in jest? – had she misread his intentions? – One more chance, she pretended to plead, and when Ezra turned back and smiled she said, Your eyes are topaz in Chateau D’Yquem.
When Olga Rudge met Ezra Pound he had just put the last flourishes on his theory establishing the link between complete and profound copulation and cerebral development. The brain is a great clot of genital fluid held in suspense and the woman’s role, Ezra had written, was to be the passive receptacle for the poet’s sperm. Not any woman – for a permanent liaison, only a woman of artistry and classical beauty would do.
Olga had nothing to gain by becoming Ezra’s lover. She was no third seat in a provincial orchestra. She’d performed in London – he’d seen her – that night she’d been the soloist at the top of the bill. If only Mama were here, but Olga was alone in the elegant flat near the Bois. She was secure – knew Paris like a native, travelled in better circles than Ezra, who after all arrived just before Christmas. He was a decade older than Olga, was rarely seen in public with his wife Dorothy. He’d been sleeping with three or four women she knew and just last week she’d heard about one recent late – night prowl of Ezra’s that began on Boulevard Arago and ended . . . or did it ever end? So Left Bank, she thought. How could she converse with a man who complained he’d spent the whole summer of 1921 without finding a congenial mistress? That was the word he used, congenial.
Olga feels lost as the black gondola pushes off from the mooring and into the Venetian lagoon. Her present is in the process of being swamped by the past, and the rushing in of those tidal waters is so confusing she doesn’t know which way to look. So she looks through the pink morning haze over the lagoon, she looks across at the cypresses on the island of San Michele, and then back on San Giorgio, before turning her eyes to what rests behind her, to Ezra’s coffin.
She had won, had run off her rival, Dorothy Pound, the wife – Miss Rudge, you are no lady! As the four funeral gondoliers gather speed she can feel the Adriatic breezes in her hair. Of course he hadn’t been the Ezra she first met, but she had him all to herself for the final ten years. Few women would count that as a triumph, many friends probably laughed at her, taking in a geriatric poet, a philanderer, only a few years out of the lunatic ward. But they’d never seen him young, never read those first pneumatiques that shuttled through the underground tubes from Left Bank to Right, the faded blue paper, his letters always closing with the same endearment—she was Cara, una bella figliuola, a beautiful young girl. She pictures Dorothy in England with the telegram in her hands –‘After three days illness, Ezra died in his sleep’ – but too frail to attend the funeral. The newspapers call Olga his nurse, his housekeeper, his companion, but which of them picked out the grave? I was the sea in which he floated. One of Ezra’s friends wrote that, and Olga is always happy when she thinks of that line, thinks of herself as Caro’s sea. One day they’ll overwrite the word nurse with muse, companion with lover.
Olga took down the photo album from the attic and placed it in front of Ezra. He’d been sullen all morning since the letter and the bank draft arrived from Dorothy: For Ezra’s keep, please reimburse yourself for a warm undershirt. We generally allow 60,000 lire a month for food. Olga felt the slap. An undershirt! She turned the pages of the photographs while she stroked Ezra’s beard and told him it was turning back from ash white to paprika. Mephistopheles returns, she teased, and finally he relented – the Dordogne, he said softly. He’d never been sentimental, and Olga knew he was indulging her, peering into their remote past, for him such a conventional gesture of tenderness. But at least he’d remembered and there was playfulness in his eyes and he said, yes, Ventadour, August of ’23. She reached down to press her hand on the photograph of the sunlit Ezra standing in the late afternoon light of Montségur and said how elegant a gentleman could look after hiking twenty-five kilometers in a rucksack.
Olga looks straight down into the lagoon, at the water gliding under the prow of the gondola, green clear then blue clear. She looks over the flat water in front of her, then behind her at the receding palazzi, and despite the fact she’s been in a thousand gondolas, she thinks, my, this gondola is soundless, and she is sure she won’t forget the quiet, the absence of gulls crying or any noise of waves moving. At first Olga had been shocked, then delighted by the appearance of Ezra in his apricot pyjamas at the top of the stairs at Hidden Nest, her house on calle Querini. She’d thrown the I Ching, as always, before feeding Ezra a few spoonfuls of porridge. He was feeling pressure in his stomach, but he was not in pain. Just after midnight, Olga became concerned about his breathing and called the ambulance boat to take Ezra to the municipal hospital. Refusing a stretcher, he walked along the calle Querini to the mooring and climbed into the gondola unassisted.
Olga reaches back, touches the petals of one of the thirty-five coral roses in the gondola’s stern. What thou lovest well cannot be reft from thee. But maybe Ezra was mistaken, maybe it can be reft, but maybe that was her fault as much as Caro’s. Youngstown was certainly reft from her, those first years gone when her mother took Olga and her two younger brothers to New York, leaving their father behind forever. She didn’t remember much–but what she did recall was the smoke from the mills, how it tasted and stung, and how, in summer, she and her brothers would escape to Mill Creek Park where there’d be tub races on the Mahoning River. She also remembered two occasions of tears: once when her mother scolded her for skating onto soft ice in the middle of the river and the other time in the second act of La Bohème at the Youngstown Opera House, her mother scooping her from her orchestra seat and carrying Olga sobbing up the center aisle. Julia Rudge had been Youngstown’s finest contralto, and she would sing while Olga played the violin. Mother never met Ezra, but she would have loved these roses – she would have loved the service, the four gondoliers in black hoisting the coffin through the Palladian doors of San Giorgio Maggiore.
‘Dearest Fluffy,’ ‘My Darling Girlie,’ these were how Julia began her letters to Olga after the nine-year-old had been sent to England to board at St Anthony’s Convent. ‘Let me tell you out of my own experience that when you feel inclined to find fault with circumstances, that the best thing to do is work. I have been through so many years of ennui and disappointment, and if I only had someone to show me how to make my conditions or surroundings – instead of letting them make me – I should have been saved much suffering. Make your music your first duty. Concentrate on it and try to love it and then use it to drive away the little devils of unrest which always haunt us.’
Maybe it can be reft, all of it. The beautiful flat Mama took at 2 rue Chamfort, reft. Sometimes Julia and the children went to the Latin Quarter, and Olga saw acrobats performing in the street. Reft, reft, torn away by the first war, by the German zeppelin raids and Olga can’t forget how the concierge would shimmy up the lamp post to extinguish the gas lights. Ezra was wrong. Year by year, everything is reft. The violin, reft, or rather put away on a high shelf in the closet; she had been proud of her superb lower register, her flowing cantabile, but no one would dream of asking an old woman to play.
Olga didn’t complain about sharing Ezra with Dorothy. Once she wrote to him saying she wasn’t a pushy person, despite the fact he went around covered with signs saying Keep Off the Grass, Don’t Touch, Open 10-12, Closed 12-2, By Appointment Only. She wouldn’t have suggested having a child, except, after ten years of marriage, Dorothy didn’t want one; she loathed children. By mutual consent, that’s how Olga always described their decision, that curious phrase suggesting that she and Ezra shared a vision of the future. But Olga knew Ezra could not begin to raise a child, especially their child, and she also knew she had no capacity to mother. So when Mary arrived Olga decided to board the baby with a peasant family in the Tyrols. Olga was never sorry she had Mary by Ezra. And when Dorothy, almost forty, retaliated by getting pregnant – and promptly shipping the boy off to his grandmother in England – Olga said nothing, she told Ezra she was happy he finally had a son.
But then Ezra pulled back. He rarely visited his daughter, but Olga too once went a year and a half without seeing Mary. Olga wrote to him: I only want to be sure in most selfish manner that in duty to offspring not going to lose the amante. There was coldness between them. Olga didn’t write, Ezra didn’t write, but then he did, referring to himself and Olga in the third person, and he was nasty: He never said she was more bother than she was worth; he said she had given him more trouble than all the other women on the planet.
Quotations from The Cantos by Ezra Pound reproduced with permission of Pollinger Limited and New Directions
Read the second part of The Quality of the Affection here.