Friday, 1 May 2009

French Brothels in Wartime

A story about French brothels during the Second World War will have to serve as sufficient cause to write something about French brothels during the First. Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That, reports that there were two kinds of brothels: a 'blue lamp' for officers and a 'red lamp' for men. Graves wonders wrily whether the Blue Lamp women 'had to show any particular qualifications for their higher social ranking'.

The best poem I've read about wartime brothels is a sonnet by John Allan Wyeth, an American poet of the First World War recently re-discovered by BJ Omanson and Dana Gioia. Wyeth's sole publication was This Man's Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets, a superb book to which I'll return in a future blogpost. Published in 1928, the book disappeared virtually without trace until being reissued to great acclaim last year.

The sonnet in question opens diligently enough as the girls 'defile' (rather than 'file') 'Into the sordid room'. They are described as 'dreary mimes, unhappy and impure'. But Wyeth is brilliant at stringing slangy interlingual idioms across sonnet lines; the brothel Madame's reply to the clients' request for champagne --- 'tout d'suite / Messieurs' --- is met hilariously with 'Toot sweet is right'. The final lines, as a girl makes her obligatory approach to the poet, plunge into desolate longing:

---"Allô, chéri"---a low voice sleek with guile---
here come her thin arms and the ancient lure
of pathos in her unfamiliar eyes.

This is made even more dreadful by the inescapable memory of Wyeth's opening sonnet, in which he says farewell to his mother before sailing for Europe:

our almost happy casual embrace,
your strange "A...dieu," and as you go away
my dreary smile and your appalling eyes.

The casual embrace with the mother becomes a casual embrace with that haunted girl, all the more powerfully prefigured by the mother's broken French. Appalling eyes at parting become unfamiliar eyes at a parodic reunion. What the poet wants is mother love, and he finds some horrible sexualised version of it in the brothel.


  1. Tim,

    Do you read the woman in the opening sonnet as Wyeth's mother, or his lover? Consider the lines,

    "It seems more real to sit here hand in hand
    indoors, at tea, and know that you are mine,
    all of you mine for just a little space."

    Could be read either way, I suppose. The fact that the book is dedicated to his mother and that this sonnet follows immediately after the dedication suggests you may be correct.

    But then consider the sonnet that immediately follows the brothel sonnet, the only other sonnet in the entire sequence addressed to a "You". It is quite a romantic poem, ending with the lines:

    "And something in my heart leaps high to find
    that you are somehow all the more with me
    because of this great reach of sea between."

    Like the opening sonnet, it can be read either way. I guess the question I would ask is, Who would a soldier be more likely to think of after a visit to a brothel, his lover or his mother? Again, no certain answer. A young soldier away from home for the first time might very well think first of his mother; an older, more worldly soldier, with a lover waiting for him back in the States, would probably think first of her.

    If we restrict ourselves to the internal evidence of the poems themselves, I think they could support either reading.

  2. That's very interesting, BJ. I did think of that other possibility, and it would be interesting to know whether biography and/or other of Wyeth's writings might help. On their own terms, as you say, the poems support either reading. What persuades me is the dedication 'TO MY MOTHER' immediately before the first sonnet, and the direct address to 'you' in that sonnet.

    Either way, the brothel sonnet is set up as a horribly subverted reunion.

    It puts me in mind of Bert Chaney's report quoted in the anthology Minds at War. Seeing a queue outside a brothel, he is told that such places 'were not for young lads like me, but for married men who were missing their wives.' Later, he records that the women, standing on the stairs leaning over the banister, 'all looked like disapproving mothers watching with distaste the antics of their young offspring below.'

  3. In response to a request for a translation of the image at the top of the post:

    'Each soldier is strongly required to use the freely distributed condoms.'

  4. What a priceless and apropos quotation from Bert Chaney! On reflection, I think your interpretation is correct, Tim. Certainly those young soldiers of the First World War were devoted to their mothers! As to Wyeth's biography shedding any light on the matter, what little we know of Wyeth's life would only strengthen the interpretation that the woman in question is his mother.

    Ordinarily I would hesitate to draw too literal a correspondance between the poet and his dramatis persona, but in Wyeth's case such a correspondance may well be justified.

    And this leads to another aspect of Wyeth's poems worthy of investigation, if I may raise it in passing: throughout his entire sonnet sequence there is a remarkable adherence to factual accuracy -- even to completely minor details -- that is, as far as I know, unprecedented in any comparable cycle of poems, or any other poet of the First World War. (I spent several years, intermittently, comparing the details of Wyeth's sonnets to 33rd Divisional records and the diary of a fellow officer).

    And as to whether such literal accuracy might contribute to or detract from, or, indeed, have any bearing at all on the poem as an aesthetic artifact is, of course, very much open to question. But that topic, perhaps, for another time...