Anna de Noailles — a prodigious life
- June 16, 2021
- Agnès Poirier
Socialite and literary pioneer - Anna de Noailles was a bright star in the firmament of the Parisian Belle Époque.
Anna had just turned three when her father, Prince Gregory Bibesco Bassaraba de Branconvan, moved the family to an hôtel particulier at 34 avenue Hoche in Paris, a stone’s throw from the Champs Elysées. The date was 1879 and the wealthy Romanian prince had embraced Belle Époque interior fashion with passion. His daughter grew up in a bonbonnière of a home filled with oriental carpets, Venetian mirrors, rich tapestries hanging from every wall, and console tables displaying silver ewers and incense burners. The prince had eclectic tastes. He boasted a collection of Japanese art objects and liked having guests for supper in his medieval-inspired dining room. There was also an Algerian fumoir where male guests smoked cigars after dinner and stained-glass windows filtering the light in every room, giving it a rich orangey glow.
As for the crimson and golden salon, with its two grand pianos placed on either side of an imposing palm tree, the effect it had on first-time visitors, even the most reserved ones, was never lost on small Anna. It was something she particularly enjoyed watching. ‘The look on their face’, she wrote in her diary, later in life.
This early love of both socialising, impressing her guests, and writing became running themes in the life of Anna de Noailles, as the Romanian-French writer, poet and a socialist aristocrat later came to be known.
Romanian on her father’s side, Ottoman Greek on her mother’s, Anna was taught three more languages: French, English and German. However, it was French that Anna felt the most affinity with. Like her father, she was absorbing the young Third Republic’s ardent ideals: on Bastille Day, the family always celebrated by dancing and mixing with the people in the streets, among them their own concierges, Monsieur et Madame Philibert. Republican and revolutionary ideals would never leave Anna.
She was the first woman to be made Commandeur of the Légion d’Honneur. She founded the first literary prize dedicated to female writers, today known as Prix Femina. She was also the first female writer to be elected at Belgium’s Académie Royale de Langue et Littérature. In thirty years, she published four novels, an autobiography, hundreds of articles and fifteen poetry collections and anthologies, while leading a very intense socialite’s life. And she inspired generations of aspiring poets.
Her intellectual curiosity continued throughout her childhood. The sudden death of her father in 1886, led to her mother, a young and attractive widow not yet forty, taking Anna and her sister Hélène on the Orient-Express for a year-long tour of the Bosphorus, Austria, Romania and Greece. Ten-year-old Anna happily took it all in, but soon missed France. She was happy to return to life in Paris and her friends, among them Marcel Proust, who she started spending holidays with. At 16, politics and mysticism interested her in equal measure. Like Proust, she chose sides in the Dreyfus Affair, convinced as she was of the Jewish officer’s innocence. Anna, a keen poet, showed her work to Madame Bulteau, a columnist for the literary pages of the daily newspaper Le Figaro. A talent scout in her spare time, Bulteau said she would help publish Anna’s poems.
It wasn’t just her poetic talent that made Anna popular, however. Her big black round eyes and cascading black hair contrasted with a very pale complexion to give her an intensity enhanced by her romantic and passionate personality. Small and thin, her peculiar beauty started turning heads. Just one glance at a ball and a 23-year-old aristocrat, Matthieu de Noailles, fell madly in love with her. After a long courtship, Anna finally agreed to marry him. The young couple became the darlings of Paris’s salons but it was Anna and her eloquence that shone. She became a Belle Époque darling, the kind that inspired writers. Proust, who had started writing Jean Santeuil,modelled his character the Countess Gaspard de Réveillon on Anna.
Anna was now a countess as well as the daughter of a prince, and lived in luxury. But she was also a writer with aspirations, even ambitions. Too cerebral to be fulfilled by a life of frivolity and pleasure, Anna attempted to reconcile the contradictions within her with her dazzling wit and conversation each time she went out or received guests at her new home at 109 Avenue Henri Martin. Astounding the world would always be her own way out. It would also become a trap.
Madame Bulteau kept her promise and at age 22, Anna’s poetry was published in La Revue de Paris. Proust organised a dinner at his parents’ home to celebrate her success. Her first book, Le Coeur innombrable, was embraced by both critics and the public. Deemed ‘accessible and yet refined’, it was a best-seller. She became a rising star of literary Paris.
‘I am a socialist, perhaps even an anarchist. I believe in the people. I have faith in science’ she told a journalist, not quite measuring the repercussions of her words in her milieu. Her husband was too smitten to object to his wife’s politics but his family was not impressed. De Noailles was also too weak a character to react when his ‘Red Countess’ fell in love with the ultra-conservative and nationalist novelist and politician Maurice Barrès. Their politics could not have been more opposed and yet, for the two writers, it was love at first sight.
For de Noailles, who dreamt of a political career to distract himself from his wife’s infidelity, his crushing defeat at the municipal elections in Paris in 1906 put a definite end to his hopes. He had to swallow them hard: his wife’s lover was victorious at the same elections but in a different quartier of the French capital. After seven years of public humiliation, de Noailles finally left his wife, and then so did Barrès. Anna’s all-consuming passion had worn them out.
Anna de Noailles, still young and beautiful, kept feverishly writing, being published, enjoying success and arriving late at dinners where she was the centre of attention, expected as she was now to perform; to simply be Anna. Every artist wanted to draw her, paint her, sculpt her. She accepted Rodin’s invitation to his studio at Rue de l’Université. She wanted to meet the genius and observe him at work. His manners, however, did not please Anna – too much of ‘a peasant’, she wrote in a letter to Barrès. The countess found the son of a policeman rough and uncouth. He also smelt of Burgundy wine and his studio was too cold. So cold in fact that she reluctantly, or not, let him heat up her small feet in his enormous hands. She also let him pass his hands through her hair. Rodin liked her poetry and found her attractive; he had always enjoyed the company of intelligent and creative women. While he started working with clay for a bust of Anna de Noailles, he asked her to recite some poetry. She chose Les Charmettes, a poem she had written for her former lover Barrès:
Religieuse pâmoison ! Mon cœur, de douceur va se fender. Je pousse votre porte, j’entre, Voici l’air de votre maison.
Religious ecstasy! My heart, from softness will break. I push your door, I let myself in, Here I breathe the air of your home.
‘Your face has the shape of primitive Athenas,’ Rodin told the poetess. Despite her apparent dislike of him, she returned four times to pose. She did not like the result. ‘My nose is too long!’ she told the sculptor. Like a spoiled child, she demanded he did it all over again. Rodin refused. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York chose it for a retrospective of Rodin’s works, she insisted it shouldn’t bear her name. Her bust was exhibited as ‘Madame X.’
Anna kept on fascinating whoever approached her. ‘Anna de Noailles speaks with such prodigious volubility that it is impossible to take notes,’ wrote André Gide in his diary, on 20 January 1910. ‘Sentences rush to her lips, crashing there; she utters three, perhaps four sentences at once. It makes a savoury compote of ideas, feelings, and images, a tutti-frutti accompanied with hand and arm gestures, not to mention her eyes. (…) It is impossible not to be completely charmed by this extraordinary poetess with so much sang-froid and such an effervescent brain.’
Anna de Noailles seemed to hold a special appeal for a younger generation of poets and writers such as Jean Cocteau, Paul Valéry and Colette. They wrote to her, lavishing her with compliments and praise; they all fought for her attention and friendship. However, behind her back, some of them mocked and imitated her in Paris’s salons. Prisoner of the character she had built, she was also trapped in passionate and tragic love affairs which in turn fuelled her writing. Her life became a vicious circle. She began leaving behind her a trail of distraught young lovers, from the author of Cyrano of Bergerac, Edmond Rostand, to Maurice Barrès’s own nephew who took his own life when he realised she was playing with him just to get back at his uncle. Before killing himself, he left her a note: ‘Je me tue. Je vous ai follement aimée. Merci.’ (‘I kill myself. I have loved you madly. Thank you’).
She was exhausted, wearing herself out with prodigious writing, heightened emotions, tragic love affairs, and pain killers. She died in 1933, age 56. Yet she achieved much, not just as a socialite but as a literary pioneer. Anna de Noailles lived fast, loved and worked hard. No wonder France has given her name to so many schools at home and French lycées abroad.