Shusha Guppy: Singer and writer acclaimed for a memoir of her Persian childhood
Monday 24 March 2008
Shusha Guppy was a singer of ballads and chansons who, in the middle of her life, became better known as an author of memoirs, notably of childhood in her native Iran, which she had left at the age of 17.
The Blindfold Horse: memories of a Persian childhood, published in 1988, evoked with nostalgia civilized life in patrician Tehran long before the fall of the Shah had sent others of her family into exile. The book won several awards including the Royal Society of Literature's Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize. She was born Shansi Assar (taking the name Shusha while a student in Paris). Her father was a leading thinker and teacher in the Iran of his day and her lifelong interests reflected that legacy.
She was ever spiritual and philosophically oriented. "Always be on the side of life, darling," she remarked to one of her sons during her last illness. Those who visited her bedside – and they were many and varied – were likely to be met by the large brown eyes sparkling open and the famously sonorous voice reciting passages of Shakespeare, Racine, Rumi and Baudelaire.
The voice will be remembered for her singing, not only songs from Iran – she recorded several albums in the 1970s and 1980s – but also poems by her friends Ted Hughes and Christopher Logue, as well as greats of an earlier epoch such as W.B. Yeats. Shusha Guppy's performances were always emotionally felt, if not pedantically accurate. She was a self-styled romantic and sometimes known to inveigh against the perceived decline of standards in contemporary culture. Her friends came to include literary editors, writers, publishers and booksellers whom she considered to be among the happy few in keeping a great tradition alive.
This tradition for her was substantially francophile. She loved Paris, where she had lived as a student; it became the subject of a second volume of memoirs, A Girl in Paris (1991). Serving for decades as London editor of The Paris Review, she occasionally wondered why she was not back in that city: "Buy a flat there, darling; I'll come visit – I'd buy one myself if I could afford it." At her soirées, peppered with international types, one often felt as if one had one foot across the Channel. The London to which she had migrated in the 1960s on marrying the explorer Nicholas Guppy was most tolerable in this guise of a Nouvelle Athènes or Left Bank of the mind.
She came to love England, though she would never write a third volume of memoirs about it. With Nicholas she settled in Chelsea and, once the marriage broke up, remained there. The French attachment led her to send her two sons to the Lycée nearby; she featured for decades in the programmes of the French Institute, as both introducer and star-turn.
Her interest in matters English was deepened through a growing, well-tended circle of friends. Particularly influential were the poet Kathleen Raine, with whom she shared enthusiasm for the Temenos Institute; later Anthony Smith, President of Magdalen College, Oxford 1988 to 2005, with whom she shared political and social attentions characteristic of her later years.
Though active in "the visible world that exists", to quote a favourite French poet, Shusha also inclined towards the view that "la vraie vie est ailleurs". The first led her to interview living authors, results of which appeared in Looking Back (1991). The second prompted her to collect old Persian tales, published as The Secret of Laughter (2006). Somewhere between lay her travel writing, a taste of which was included in Three Journeys in the Levant (2001). She also wrote reviews and obituaries, notably for The Independent.
As her work developed, Guppy found ways to express a growing belief that the great religions were fundamentally united in purpose. Though Shia Muslim by background, she was fascinated by Sufism and attracted to Christianity. Nor did she let disillusion over western policies in the Middle East dissuade her from close study of many thinkers in the Anglo-Saxon cultures to which her family had fled.
If this made for the occasional anomaly or dichotomy in her pronouncements, Guppy would rarely let an argument or petty difference get in the way of interpersonal warmth. "I feel strongly that loyalty in human relations is the most important thing," she would say, noting that during a period of trouble for one of her sons, "my friends came up trumps". She considered herself lucky in this and ascribed it to the fact that she came from a place where "the cult of friendship is kneaded in its history and culture – the verb for 'to love', dust dashtan, means literally 'having for a friend', so that 'I love you' is in Persian: 'I have you for a friend' ".
English was Shusha Guppy's third language. Though a fine stylist in it (she believed that French was the perfect grounding), it was the Farsi at base that was most determining for her worldview. "I think language gives an insight into the psyche of the people," she said. "We say in Persian about someone who is generous: 'He/she is open-handed and hearted' – dast o del vaz – the two often go together. Not that anybody is after someone else's wealth or possessions, but people who are mean are mean also with their time, care, affection, love."
As a hostess and friend, Shusha was the opposite of mean-spirited, tempting though it may have been on occasion. Nor was her ability to love as described least in evidence at her passing.
Shansi Assar (Shusha Guppy), singer and writer: born Tehran 24 December 1935; married 1961 Nicholas Guppy (two sons; marriage dissolved); died London 21 March 2008.
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