I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography

I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography

by May Sarton


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Sarton's memoir begins with her roots in a Belgian childhood and describes her youth and education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her coming-of-age years, and the people who influenced her life as a writer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393312485
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/17/1996
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 589,106
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

May Sarton (1912-1995) was an acclaimed poet, novelist, and memoirist.

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I Knew a Phoenix

Sketches for an Autobiography

By May Sarton


Copyright © 1959 May Sarton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-8553-6


The Fervent World

"I knew a phoenix in my youth, so let them have their day." W. B. YEATS

"In My Father's House"

"In my father's house—," my father used to begin, wreathed in an enormous smile. As he grew older, after my mother's death, his memories of this rather somber house opposite the church of St. Michel in Ghent, took on a rich patina. Sitting opposite him in his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for our ritualistic Sunday dinner, I savored the short pause while some shadowy glory took on substance in his mind. I could hear the sound of herbs being chopped for the soup in that faraway kitchen, for in my grandfather's house this was the sure sign that dinner was about to be served. I could see the long table set for a dinner of twelve, the hard rolls wrapped in damask turbans at each place, the rows of wineglasses, including flûtes for champagne at dessert. (Of this glittering army, one survived the '14–'18 war, a green glass on a crystal stem). My father and I poured ourselves another glass of American Pinot, but our palates were far away, soothed by the glowing sequence of Chablis, Burgundies, Sauternes and Champagnes poured by my grandfather with proper solemnity, and honored, no doubt, with a long and flowery toast by Oncle Adolphe, the literary member of the family, who taught French literature in a Lycée in Brussels, and was convinced that anything written since Chateaubriand had better be passed over in silence. "In my father's house," my father used to remind me, "at formal dinners we allowed two bottles per male guest and one per female guest."

Certain moments, certain foods introduced the magical phrase—meat loaf was one. It raised without fail the ghost of that ineffable pain de veau which haunted my father's American cook as an old mistress may haunt a wife. However much care she had put into the seasoning, however delicately browned and firm the meat loaf might be, its appearance on the table was always followed by a nostalgic reference to "my father's house" and to that soupçon of sage—was it sage? —that made all the difference. What could the present do against that savory past?

The frame of these memories was as bourgeois as a Balzac novel, from the yearly calls of the wine merchants (Germans who dealt in French wines, which the customer bought by the barrel and bottled himself), those solemn and prolonged negotiations, to the rolls of fine linen stored in the attic, to the enormous dinners—fourteen courses lasting late into the night. But within the frame, life was rich and eccentric. This was perhaps partly due to circumstances, to the fact that the house was inhabited only by an old man (was my grandfather ever young?) and his only son, George Sarton. Alfred Sarton, my grandfather, was a confirmed bachelor, who had for a brief interlude happened to be married, or so, at least, he appeared to me, as the little phrase brought him into focus (ultra-sensitive, sardonic, with bright deep-set eyes) before he disappeared again into the dark house where only the dining table shone in a bright light.

What of the mysterious young woman who moved so briefly in and out of that house, who died of a hemorrhage a year after George's birth because she was too modest to call for help, while her husband, swinging his cane, ready to go out, waited for her in vain? Here the little phrase does not help. Here all is in shadow, except for the large photograph in an oval gold frame that always hung over my father's bed, the photograph of a dark, not pretty, but charming woman in an elegant riding habit, the long ostrich plume in her hat curling round her neck, and a small crop in one hand. Of her we know almost nothing: that she shocked her husband's family by buying her gloves by the dozen, that she loved candied violets and drank fleur d'oranger, that she played Chopin. Innocent and extravagant she was-and perhaps lonely, for she had been brought up by her Uncle Hippolyte Van Sieleghem, a notary in Bruges, a man of high principles and no sense of humor, whose idea of child education was to spread a table with candies and then make the children put them all away without tasting one; and she left Bruges to marry a man twenty years older than herself. She had the rich musical temperament of her family, the Van Halmés, set a key higher than the rather somber Sartons. "Vive le désordre," she wrote her adored brother Carlos. "Your necktie has been unearthed in a corner of the house." When she was twenty-four and expecting her first child, Carlos came to Ghent for a visit. "The cradle had arrived the night before," he writes in his Journal, "and they showed it to me. It couldn't be more coquet. Frankly, I find it charming. The inside is lined with blue satin; the outer edge is ornamented with lace and ribbons. The cradle itself is walnut. It represents a basket resting on two elegant feet, one of which rises above it to about five feet in height and supports a huge cream-coloured curtain lined in blue silk. The child has not arrived but everything has been foreseen including the manner in which it will be brought up. Léonie intends to bring him or her up in the English fashion, which is to say without swaddling clothes or bonnet. From the very first day the child will wear a long dress." And four months later Carlos confides to his journal: "Alfred and Léonie are delightful to see. They are so happy to have a baby that one wants to have one oneself at once." This is the only note of happiness to be found among the family papers to do with my grandfather Sarton, for a year later Léonie was dead. And all around her hangs the perfume of sadness, the silence her husband never broke to tell little George something of that vanished young mother who so soon became younger than her son. Her charm, her little ways, her smile, the tenderness for which the boy starved, were locked up with the piano, and never opened again.

Instead George was pampered and neglected by the maids. If he was ill, they kindly took his medicine for him, especially if it had a nasty taste, but, ignorant and irresponsible, they were about as far from an English Nanny as can be imagined. Loneliness haunted his memories of babyhood, but it was an active imaginative loneliness, not without a streak of Flemish humor. When he was still eating in a high chair, George was allowed to be present at dinner, but if he so much as babbled a single word, his father, without raising his head from his newspaper, reached forward to touch the bell (a round brass bell on a stand, tapped with one finger) and when the maid appeared, said simply, "Enlevez-le." When George was alone at a meal, formally served him in the dining room in his high chair, and he did not like something he was given to eat, he repeated the lordly gesture and the lordly phrase and was delighted to see that, like "Open Sesame" in reverse, he could thus have the unhappy cabbage, or whatever it was, removed from sight.

His grammar school, too, was filled with chances for dramatic action. One teacher so often came to class in a highly inebriated state that the field for practical jokes was wide open. George trained the students to disappear under their desks at a given signal, while the bewildered master who had been fumbling at the door, entered a silent and apparently empty classroom. Hardly had he adjusted himself to this phenomenon, when, at another signal, the entire class popped into view. Was it this master who, at the end of his patience, relegated George to the back bench alone? And then, while the boy pretended to smoke a pipe in sublime indifference, suddenly shouted, "Sarton, tu pues la paresse jusqu'ici!" ("I can smell your laziness from here!") And is this why my father, great scholar though he was, always had a special tender feeling for the weak student, the ugly duckling? For so many years he must have seemed one himself, a, little boy whose new clothes were bought two sizes too big for him so they would last longer. This may have worked pretty well when the clothes were too large, but especially in the case of shoes, it made the third year of their wearing an agony. He was then further isolated by his clumsiness in a coat too long and shoes, perhaps, too small; thrown more and more inward, or into that love of practical jokes which is, perhaps, always the desperate attempt of the solitary and the shy to communicate.

Still, there were compensations. It was surely a grand sight to see one's father dressed in his Civil Service uniform as Engineer in Chief to the State Railroads, a uniform that looked rather like that of an admiral in a Gilbert and Sullivan Opera, heavy with gold braid and accompanied by a cocked hat with a plume. I can remember my awe as a child, finding in the attic a box of his decorations, including a sunburst from a Persian potentate who must have rated a very grand special train. When my father was at boarding school in Chimay, he sauntered down to the station one fine morning and ostentatiously let it be known that he was waiting for the eleven o'clock from Brussels.

"There is no train at this hour, young man," the station guard told him in the self-important tone dear to minor civil servants.

"Wait and see," the young man answered, and, sure enough, at precisely eleven his father rode in on a special train. I feel that this triumph, this shared family joke against the bureaucracy was typical of the Sartons, and that my father's relationship with his father, in many ways helplessly impersonal, found its moments of intimacy on just such occasions, and their deep-set eyes, so alike in their mischief and melancholy, twinkled at each other then in perfect understanding, as father and son went off to have an apéritif.

The high-spirited little boy was turning into a young man full of intellectual curiosity and innocent arrogance. In his last two years at Chimay he not only devised a system by which, on the nights when the school was given mussels (a great delicacy) for supper, the younger boys had to serve themselves first, a meal composed chiefly of empty shells and juice, but he also wrote a four-act drama in German and conceived the idea that Greek was the only ancient language worth bothering with, but that he must also be given lessons in Sanskrit. The Director of the Athènée took umbrage and George received a series of characteristically amused, tender letters from his aunts and uncles, suggesting that he hold his horses. The tone of these is best conveyed by a letter from his bachelor Oncle Arthur when, a year later, young George suddenly decided that the University was simply an impediment to his own studies. "Belle affaire!" Oncle Arthur wrote, and one sees the smile hiding itself behind his black mustache. "University studies would be simply a waste of time, of that precious time you owe to philosophy, and your relations with the civilized world. I'm afraid, for my part, that you have been led to feel this profound disgust for universities in general and professors in particular because each and several, far from weaving you laurel crowns and leading you in triumph to the Capital, have the unfortunate pretension to cling somewhat to their own ideas, to their own persons, that is to say their authority, in refusing to consecrate an adolescent king."

My father, when we had embarked on a third glass of wine, liked to refer to himself as an impertinent young man. And often cited as an example his friendship, when he was still at Chimay, a boy of sixteen in fact, with an old Count, a member of the aristocracy of Ghent, who was a well-known bon vivant, and enjoyed the young man's company over an apéritif. Expanding on life in general on one of these occasions, the old Count asked George what he thought of the idea of fasting one day a week. The young man's eyes must have twinkled behind his glasses very much as his own father's did, as he suggested that he himself would advise going on a humdinger of a binge one day a week and fasting for the other six. "I did not see him much after that," the story ended, but the ripples of my father's beaming smile seemed to go on and on.

Once in a while, on rare and festive occasions, perhaps over a glass of sparkling burgundy at Christmas, my father went back a generation and spoke of his grandmother's house. His grandmother came from France (her name had been de Schodt) and brought with her, perhaps, a grace of heart lacking among the Flemings. At any rate those memories were always, it seemed, like a burst of sunlight, as if there at his grandmother's the boy had known something of tenderness and warmth. She looked rather like Queen Victoria, placid and maternal, and was followed to Mass (so my father often told me) by her fourteen cats. The cats waited quietly at the door and after Mass accompanied her home again, their tails in air. At his grandmother's there was escape from the long Sunday dinner to the garden at the back, to the Victorian grotto at the end, which may have been ornamental, but was also useful, at least to the cats who managed to steal-on one occasion—a partridge and, pursued by the Flemish cook, chased each other around the Gothic protuberances like some grotesque vision by Hieronymus Bosch.

It is clear why this house was always spoken of as "my grandmother's house" and not that of her husband, Séverin Bonaventure Sarton of the glorious name, but the somewhat inglorious character. He was a Receveur de Contributions, collector of city taxes, and conducted his business in a small front room in his own house. If more than three people accumulated in the waiting room, he lost his head completely and rushed back to his wife, wringing his hands, and crying out, "What am I to do with all these people?" Then Agnès Thérèse answered calmly, "Just take them one at a time, dear. It will be all right," and went on turning the pears ripening on cotton wool in a drawer in the dining room. And, meek as a lamb, soothed by this sight of order in chaos, her husband returned to face the terrifying "crowd."


Excerpted from I Knew a Phoenix by May Sarton. Copyright © 1959 May Sarton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


"In My Father's House",
A Wild Green Place,
The Fervent Years,
Wondelgem: The House in the Country,
O My America!,
"I Knew a Phoenix in My Youth",
A Belgian School,
"The High and Latin",
The Civic Repertory Theatre,
That Winter in Paris,
Impossible Campaigns,
Two English Springs,
Image Gallery,
A Biography of May Sarton,

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