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Life, Love-Letters & Literature…

We will keep our Love a Secret… this will be entirely Our Own…
Guillaume Apollinaire – the French poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist and an art critic of Polish-Belarusian descent – had written this in a letter to his fiancée Madeleine Pagès on July 1, 1915. He had scribbled these lines, while experiencing the Horrors of War! Considered one of the foremost poets of the early 20th century and a forefather of Surrealism, Apollinaire had received a serious shrapnel injury at one of his temples in 1916 during the World War I. He passed away later on November 9, 1918. Despite spending years in the battlefield, he tried to forget the destruction through his letters and poems… and that was why he had sent a number of letters to his fiancée from the Army camp!
Apollinaire had met Madeleine for the first time in a railway compartment. Later, they spent a little time together only once… from December 26, 1915 to January 9, 1916. Apollinaire wanted to marry Madeleine and requested her to keep all his letters with her so that he could publish those in future! Madeleine accepted his request… but, they never could get married!


Guillaume Apollinaire & Madeleine Pagès in December 1915

Apollinaire was an illegitimate child of an Italian-Polish mother, while his father was an Army officer. He was born on August 26, 1880 in Rome. The most important movement of 19th Century French (Russian and Belgian) poetry was ‘Symbolism’ and the four pioneers of this movement were Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine! The movement ended in the beginning of the 20th Century, as the three poets triggered a new era. They were Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars (real name Frédéric-Louis Sauser) and Max Jacob. It is to be noted that the term Surrealism was first used by Apollinaire concerning the ballet Parade in 1917. The term appeared for the first time in March 1917 in a letter by Apollinaire to Paul Dermée. “All things considered, I think in fact it is better to adopt surrealism than super-naturalism, which I first used,” he wrote. Later, André Breton accepted the term and brought a new era in French literature, which, at a later stage engulfed the Dada movement then prevalent!
Apollinaire’s girlfriend Lou arrived at Nis railway station to see off him on January 2, 1915. After spending 48 hours with her, the poet was leaving for Marseille. After boarding the train, Apollinaire found a beautiful 22-year-old schoolteacher sitting in front of him. Madeleine told him that she used to teach French literature at a school. As she lived in the Algerian port city of Oran, Madeleine would catch a ship from Marseille. It was love at first sight for Apollinaire! He ended his relation with Lou within three months and then contacted Madeleine through letters. Apollinaire did never hesitate to tell Madeleine about his past, either!


During the train trip from Nice to Marseille, Apollinaire was equally smitten. (Sweetheart Postcard: T Brack’s archives)

Apollinaire proposed to Madeleine on August 10, 1915. Since then, he had sent many letters, full of passion, to Madeleine. Those were not mere love letters, as the sender discussed various issues – like paintings, music, literature, Greek mythology – with the teacher, there. For a third person, it would be difficult to even understand the context that had made Apollinaire write those letters from the fields of battle, the jungles or the trenches!!! His love for Madeleine allowed Apollinaire to tolerate the Great War. In one letter, he wrote: “Madeleine, let’s just talk about love. That’s the only thing I can talk about. Love is also a warrior!
Before his departure for Marseille, Apollinaire had told Lou: “You want to read poems? Okay, read Baudelaire’s ‘Les Fleurs du mal’ (The Flowers of Evil).” Madeleine could not believe her ears when she had heard this… she was enamoured with his love for literature, and the quest for knowledge! Literature brought them closer to one another. During the journey, they thoroughly enjoyed watching the sea, sand, fishing vessels and pine trees. Apollinaire’s voice, looks and especially his expressive blue eyes impressed Madeleine a lot! “Have you read Villon’s poems… my favourite!” he asked Madeleine. “Yes…,” replied the lady. Apollinaire continued: “I have published a collection of poems… ‘Alcools’ (‘Alcohols’) in 1913.” He also noted down her address in his diary as he would send the book. Madeleine wanted to touch the poet’s hand. She dreamt of Apollinaire kissing her lips. Meanwhile, they reached their destination… and bid ADIEU!


Rekindle the fire with all those memories! After all, the journey is almost always more important than the destination. (Sweetheart Postcard: T Brack’s archives)

Enemy forces bombarded the area a couple of hours ago and silence grabbed the battlefield in the evening. A soldier informed Apollinaire that someone from Algeria sent a letter to him. In her first letter to Apollinaire, Madeleine wrote: “I looked at the sky. It’s not the sky, but your blue eyes… What is the relationship between the heart and war?” Apollinaire was shocked to know that Madeleine had taken haircuts. For the poet, it was an insult to HER beauty! However, he kissed Madeleine’s photograph passionately! Meanwhile, Apollinaire had urged his sweetheart not to have haircuts in future! In his poem Flare (dedicated to Madeleine), Apollinaire said: “The curl of black hair from the nape of your neck is my treasure/My thought finds you out and your thought meets mine/Your breasts are the only bombshells I love/Your memory is the searchlight focusing the night for us…” On July 18, 1915, Apollinaire stated that “life is strange” and “the world is very small”. He also said to his sweetheart that he planned to pen a novel, although he did not get time to write every day…
Apollinaire was physically present in the battlefield, but his heart was full of thoughts of literature! In one letter, he told Madeleine that he had found a person reading a Walter Scott novel, and another one Goethe’s Faust at the Army Camp. Through his letters, Madeleine got an idea about Apollinaire’s love for world literature! The most impassioned defender of Cubism liked Arabian Nights, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and the biography of Coleridge! Apollinaire used to believe that Dostoyevsky was a highly talented novelist and Tolstoy’s novels contain all the elements of classical tragedy. Yet, in his opinion, the best Russian novelist was Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol! Apollinaire didn’t enjoy Milton’s Paradise Lost, but admitted that it was a masterpiece! Commenting on Pablo Picasso, he said that the Spanish painter was a great artist, but a heartless person!


Madeleine Pagès

Fairy tales were his childhood love, and Apollinaire read Robinson Crusoe, apart from enjoying Racine’s plays, too. In many letters, Apollinaire advised Madeleine to choose books carefully while indulging in reading! According to Apollinaire, Émile Zola was a great novelist, but his novels are not interesting! Similarly, Maupassant was one of the greatest French short-story tellers, but his approach was too journalistic!
In many letters, Apollinaire was seen describing sexual intercourse in different manners! He was very much sensitive about scent. In one letter, he clearly mentioned that he was eager to enjoy the scent of Madeleine! Once, he wrote to his sweetheart that he wanted her to speak to the eye as well as to the mind and senses… He said that Madeleine was just like a poem to him. She was with him even during his loneliness!
This, in a way, may be connected to a short story by Valeri Osipov, titled ‘Letters that were not Sent’, which was later made into a film by the same name… In that story, Kostiya Sabinin, the leader of a team of geologists, was found dead, not far from a dwelling of pastoralist and hunter gatherer Evenks, and with him was found a map showing Kimberlite deposits in the Taiga region in the wilderness of Central Siberian Plateau, and a passionate diary type of letters to his wife Verochka back in Moscow that is never sent…


Guillaume Apollinaire

Again, taking a cursory look at the night before the last duel that he had fought, we come to know that Évariste Galois – the French mathematician and political activist – that was so convinced of his impending death that he stayed up all night writing letters to his Republican friends and composing what would become his mathematical testament, the famous letter to Auguste Chevalier outlining his ideas, and three attached manuscripts…
It’s a fact that Apollinaire had to go through depression in the end. He wrote: “Mud, what mud, you cannot imagine the mud you have to have seen it here, sometimes the consistency of putty, sometimes like whipped cream or even wax and extraordinarily slippery.” Perhaps, he realised that he would have to experience a nervous breakdown… He wanted to sleep, but the environment prevailing in the battlefield did not allow him to close his eyes. Two years after getting wounded in World War I, Apollinaire died of the Spanish flu, then pandemic in 1918, at the relatively young age of 38!
Madeleine, too, never got married. She passed away in Antibes on March 2, 1965, aged 73!

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