The Revealing Crop Top
In the sweet summer of 1963 I stood picking grapes in the kibbutz vineyard, while a long black car belonging to the diplomatic corps climbed with royal calm the path leading up between the vineyards to the packing shed. The limo-like car stopped at the packing shed and out of it emerged, in swift gear, a French tourist wearing a crop top rolled up above her navel. "This," said my mother, who accompanied her, "is Clara Malraux." And so opened a short but fascinating chapter in the annals of aliens from the wide world visiting our Francophone kibbutz, and in the annals of our family.By Elisha Porat,
translated from the Hebrew by Cindy Eisner
I liked Clara Malraux, the Jewish ex-wife of the famous writer and politician Andr© Malraux, right from the start. A not young woman, but one who ignored the impediments of age and the requirements of respectable behavior. She strolled among the rows of grapes in her shirt rolled up to the heat of the day, giggled with the pickers, and in a minute would have taken off her shirt completely, as she saw the young French female volunteers do. Clara Goldschmidt, a German Jewess, devoted communist, distinguished fighter in the Spanish war, the woman who made the great Andr© Malraux with her own hands, was as mischievous as a young girl on her visits with us.
Her journalistic mission to Israel became a fast and long-lasting friendship with Father-Mother Porat in Ein Hahoresh. Father taught her to hold the picking shears, to clean the spoiled bits from the bunch of "Ein Hahoresh Pearl" grapes, and to lay the bunch extra carefully on the tray. And she, like a devoted pupil, chatted with him in French about the literary greats, the well known dramatists and writers of her land, and once in a while retrieved a grape that had fallen into her generous d©colletage. Myself, I was able to swallow the sight of the aging fashion plate with an ironic pleasure. But Father? I guess I did not take enough time then, in that sweet long ago time, to observe that sweaty flirtatious woman, who had been the wife of the French Minister of Culture, one of the closest confidants of General De Gaulle. A shame, what a shame, that I was not open then to that marvelous spectacle.
And in the evenings, after dinner in the sweltering dining hall, Mother convened a real intellectual salon on our porch. All of the local Francophones and Francophiles were summoned for coffee and cake, and of course they all appeared. No one tried to escape. The renown of Clara Malraux, who had come to write an article about the kibbutz, spread far and wide. Once a week the ambassador's discrete limousine would arrive and the cultural attach© would huddle with Clara and with Mother. I would sit in the corner of the porch, hiding behind our infant daughter, but at the same time closely examining the charms of the aging Frenchwoman who had landed in our midst like a UFO. And she would shine on those summer evenings, with a real European and Parisian radiance. Later Mother told me that she had apparently noticed my inquisitive glances. And even though I was then only a young man wasting away his days in the kibbutz vineyards, Clara told my mother with confidence that my serious gaze was a certain sign that I would be a writer! Or at least a well known journalist or famous critic… And I learned my lesson well from that smart Jewess. Her revealing crop top, up to her navel, had nothing at all to do with her wisdom, her penetrating eye and sharp instincts.
Clara Malraux returned to us a few years later for another visit. Father had died in the meantime, we had had more children, Mother's apartment had been renovated and extended, but the cheerful happiness of her first visit did not return. Our oldest vineyards had been uprooted in the meantime, and among them "Ein Hahoresh Pearl", the pride and joy of the devoted vinedressers. This time she dedicated her visit to an inquiry into the status of women on the kibbutz. Not one of the female guests invited by Mother spoke at that time of feminism, not in Hebrew on the kibbutz, and not in French on the porch. She was ahead of our female militants by a decade and more. She missed the grape harvest at dawn, and the carts overloaded with comrades that would leave for the vineyards before sunrise. And she also missed Father and his intelligent conversation. We made it up to her with a swim in our new pool. There she could roll up whatever she wanted. The spoiled Parisian waged a bitter war against old age. And she was extremely shocked at the rough, rustic, unkempt appearance of the free kibbutz women.
My mother lived a long time after the death of Clara Malraux in 1982. The French cultural attach©, who glided out of his official vehicle, broke the news of her death to Mother, probably according to some list prepared at the embassy. He brought with him newspaper clippings about Clara, and suddenly we became aware that she was an actual piece of French history, she was born in 1897 and was 85 at her death. Her photographs, her travels with Andr© Malraux and without him, her stance at the forefront of public struggles, her warm affection for Israel and the kibbutz, all of these were spread over the pages of the French newspapers, surrounding her images. Of course the photograph of her during the grape harvest, waving the picking shears given to her by Father, and revealing more than a smidgen of skin in the folds of her rolled up shirt, was the picture that was our favorite of all.
The attach© told Mother that in France there was great interest in Clara's life. And that there were young writers who were eager to document her colorful life in a biography. And indeed a few years later Mother was contacted by a French writer, Christian de Bartillat was his name, and told that she should prepare herself to tell him about Clara. And he came to Israel just as promised and Mother travelled to meet him at a hotel in Tel Aviv, and later on he also came to us. He took endless pictures and I of course did not understand a word of his French. English he didn't want to speak and I quickly lost interest in him. But the man promised and delivered. And in 1985 he sent us a copy of the voluminous biography that he wrote about Clara. Mother said, with a note of slight revulsion, that he had probably lived with her during her last years. As is customary among the French bohemians. And Dr. Eli Ben Gal, the historian from Kibbutz Baram, testified to that firsthand, and as Jean Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir conducted themselves. Each of them, at the end of their days, took a young lover, Jewish of course, out of an agonizing concern for their future biographies.
Either way, after Mother died, in 2004, I made an error and got rid of the volume of Clara Malraux's biography. The enthusiastic dedication written by Christian de Bartillat to my mother didn't speak to me. And so I got rid of the book along with other superfluous books from my parents' house. But as the years passed I began to long for that summer adventure, of the sweet summer of 1963, and the revealing crop top, and the captivating mischievousness of the Parisian Jewess. Her daughter, Florence, is I believe still alive, but we are not in contact. And every morning, as I sit down at the computer, I stop myself from framing a nostalgic letter to the writer Christian de Bartillat, or to his Parisian publisher, Perrin, in which I request a copy of the book. Such and so, I am the son of Mme Lola Porat, who became very friendly with Mme Clara Malraux, and she is even mentioned in the book by de Bartillat, and her pictures with her family on the kibbutz, and with Mme Malraux, were printed in an appendix to the book. And thus due to reasons of nostalgia, commemoration and longing, would you be so kind as to send me a copy? My address is…
Yes, I too can sigh a sigh of elderly longing. Greatness and celebrity touched us as well. In my parents' small room, in that long ago summer, the well groomed hand of a French Jewess who refused to grow old, who was part of the history of France in her difficult and proud times, was outstretched to them, and indirectly to me as well. That daring and mischievous woman, a familiar item from the glorious days of the De Gaulle administration. Many politicians in Israel, sycophantic journalists and mere public figures went out of their way to touch the passing glory of the long-nosed general. But she chose my mother, and my father, and our kibbutz, and our well kept vineyard. And the confused youth who sat opposite her and engraved the memory of her visit in his memory. And she even took the time to notice his gaze, and to predict for the young man, that a day would come and he would write these words as a memorial.