THE POLE. In pre-war Europe, which was also even more the Europe of before the Russian Revolution, a curious sect was established in the watering-places of Brittany. Its members were generally known by the peasants as ‘Poles.’ The so-called ‘Pole’ was a russian exile or wandering student, often coming from Poland. The sort that collected in such great numbers in Brittany were probably not politicians, except in the sentimental manner in which all educated Russians before the Revolution were ‘radical’ and revolutionary. They had banished themselves, for purely literary political reasons, it is likely, rather than been banished. Brittany became a heavenly Siberia for masses of middle-class russian men and women who made ‘art’ the excuse for a never-ending holiday. They insensibly became a gentle and delightful parasite upon the French. Since the Revolution (it being obvious that they cannot have vast and lucrative estates, which before the Revolution it was easy for them to claim) they have mostly been compelled to work. The Paris taxi-driver of today, lolling on the seat of his vehicle, cigarette in mouth, who, without turning round, swiftly moves away when a fare enters his cab, is what in the ancien régime would have been a ‘Pole.’ If there is a communist revolution in France, this sort of new nomad will move down into Spain perhaps. He provides for the countries of Europe on a very insignificant scale a new version, today, of the ‘jewish problem.’ His indolence, not his activity, of course, makes him a ‘problem.’
The pre-war method of migration was this. A ‘Pole’ in his home in Russia would save up or borrow about ten pounds. He then left his native land for ever, taking a third-class ticket to Brest. This must have become an almost instinctive proceeding. At Brest he was in the heart of the promised land. He would then make the best of his way to a Pension de Famille, already occupied by a phalanstery of ‘Poles.’ There he would have happily remained until the crack of doom, but for the Bolshevik Revolution. He had reckoned without Lenin, so to speak.
He was usually a ‘noble,’ very soberly but tactfully dressed. He wore suède gloves: his manners were graceful. The proprietress had probably been warned of his arrival and he was welcome. His first action would be to pay three months’ board and lodging in advance; that would also be his last action of that sort. With a simple dignity that was the secret of the ‘Pole,’ at the end of the trimestre, he remained as the guest of the proprietress. His hostess took this as a matter of course. He henceforth became the regular, unobtrusive, respected inhabitant of the house.
If the proprietress of a Pension de Famille removed her establishment from one part of the country to another, took a larger house, perhaps (to make room for more ‘Poles’), her ‘Poles’ went with her without comment or change in their habits. Just before the war, Mademoiselle T. still sheltered in her magnificent hotel, frequented by wealthy Americans, some of these quiet ‘Poles,’ who had been with her since the day when she first began hotel-keeping in a small wayside inn. Lunching there you could observe at the foot of the table a group of men of a monastic simplicity of dress and manner, all middle-aged by that time, indeed even venerable in several instances, talking among themselves in a strange and attractive tongue. Mademoiselle T. was an amiable old lady, and these were her domestic gods. Any one treating them with disrespect would have seen the rough side of Mademoiselle T.’s tongue.
Their hosts, I believe, so practical in other ways, became superstitious about these pensive inhabitants of their houses. Some I know would no more have turned out an old and ailing ‘Pole’ who owed them thirty years’ board and lodging, than many people would get rid of an aged and feeble cat.
For the breton peasant, ‘Polonais’ or ‘Pole’ sufficed to describe the member of any nation whom he observed leading anything that resembled the unaccountable life of the true slav parasite with which he had originally familiarized himself under the name of ‘Pole.’
Few ‘Poles,’ I think, ever saw the colour of money once this initial pin-money that they brought from Russia was spent. One ‘Pole’ of my acquaintance did get hold of three pounds by some means, and went to spend a month in Paris. After this outing, his prestige considerably enhanced, he came back and resumed his regular life, glad to be again away from the siècle and its metropolitan degradation. In pre-war Paris, ‘Poles’ were to be met, very much de passage, seeing some old friends (en route for Brest) for the last time.
A woman opened a smart hotel of about thirty beds not far from Beau Séjour. I was going over to see it. She advertised that any artist who would at once take up his quarters there would receive his first six months gratis. Referring to this interesting event in the hearing of a ‘Pole,’ he told me he had been over there the previous day. He had found no less than twelve ‘Poles’ already installed, and there was a considerable waiting list. ‘If you like to pay you can go there all right,’ he said, laughing.
The general explanation given by the ‘Pole’ of the position in which he found himself, was that his hosts, after six or nine months, were afraid to let him go, for fear of losing their money. He would add that he could confidently rely on more and more deference the longer he stopped, and the larger the amount that he represented in consequence. Ordinary boarders, he would tell you, could count on nothing like so much attention as he could.
That such a state of affairs should ever have occurred, was partly due perhaps to the patriarchal circumstances of the breton agricultural life. This new domestic animal was able to insinuate himself into its midst because of the existence of so many there already. Rich peasants, and this applied to the proprietors of country inns, were accustomed in their households to suffer the presence of a number of poor familiars, cousinly paupers, supernumeraries doing odd jobs on the farm or in the stables. The people not precisely servants who found a place at their hearth were not all members of the immediate family of the master.
But there was another factor favouring the development of the ‘Pole.’ This was that many of them were described as painters. They seldom of course were able to practise that expensive art, for they could not buy colours or canvases: in their visitors’ bulletins, however, they generally figured as that. But after the death of Gauguin, the dealer, Vollard, and others, came down from Paris. They ransacked the country for forgotten canvases: when they found one they paid to the astonished peasants, in the heat of competition, very considerable sums. Past hosts of the great french romantic had confiscated paintings in lieu of rent. The least sketch had its price. The sight of these breathless collectors, and the rumours of the sums paid, made a deep impression on the local people. The ‘Poles’ on their side were very persuasive. They assured their hosts that Gauguin was a mere cipher compared to them.—These circumstances told in favour of the ‘Pole.’
But no such explanations can really account for the founding of this charming and whimsical order. Whether there are still a few ‘Poles’ surviving in Brittany or not, I have no means of knowing. In the larger centres of villégiature the siècle was already paramount before the war.
The Russian with whom translations of the Russian books of tsarist Russia familiarized the West was an excited and unstable child. We have seen this society massacred in millions without astonishment. The Russian books prepared every Western European for that consummation. All the cast of the Cherry Orchard could be massacred easily by a single determined gunman. This defencelessness of the essential Slav can, under certain circumstances, become an asset. Especially perhaps the French would find themselves victims of such a harmless parasite, so different in his nature to themselves. A more energetic parasite would always fail with the gallic nature, unless very resolute.
Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957 Beau Séjour, in, The Wild Body, A Soldier of Humour and Other Stories,1927
Image 1: Horace Brodzky, 1885-1969, Viewing Kermesse 1917, Drypoint, 11 x 9.5 cm. © The Estate of Horace Brodzky; Image supplied courtesy of the Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2011
Image 2: Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957. Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro, a self-portrait, 1921. Oil on canvas, 73 x 44 cm. Ferens Art Gallery, Hull City Museums and Art Gallery. © The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis: The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust
Wyndham Lewis describes a particular group of resident ‘artists’ in Brittany, known as the ‘Poles,’ who were political and economic refugees, mostly Little Russians, Finns and Germans, who live modestly in auberges on the charity of the Breton landladies. As well-mannered êmigrês they found a niche in the social structure and are accepted as dilettantes adopting the role of poverty-bound artists. “The Soldier of Humour, appeared in its original form in The Little Review (an American publication) of 1917-18. In it the showman, Ker-Orr, is, we are to suppose, at a later stage of his comic technique than in the accounts of his adventures in Brittany. Beau Séjour is the first hotel at which he stops. (This, except for the note at the end, is a new story.)” Foreward, Wyndham Lewis, July 6, 1927. Harcourt Brace,