Paris 2

Issue 3/1987 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Paholaispoika (‘The devil boy’, 1987). Introduction by Austin Flint

You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
(George Herbert)

The city was the sum of the whole century, the capital of the eighteen hundreds, of no particular country. Like millions of others, I passed time reading the newspapers and keeping up with what was happening in Europe. Acorns would get crushed. There were many omens of how everything would turn out.

There were still a few remnants of the World’s Fair over by the Palais Royal. Not very many. The latest and most shocking incident was that the Lipschitz sculpture, ‘Prometheus Strangling the Vulture’, had been chopped to bits. Then it was put into storage, in some secret place. Crumbling rough grey stone that gave no idea of its shape. Rumour had it that the statue had offended official policy, and all sorts of things were certainly in the air. There was no longer any sign of the sculpture near the Palais Royal.

I had seen photographs of it. I got an impression of an almost baroque dynamism, of taut strength and defiant gesture which was not abstract but rather, in my view, quite realistic even though it was by a modern artist Prometheus is grasping the monster by the throat with his right hand. His muscles are bulging and the Phrygian headgear hugs his straining neck. The monster’s mouth gapes wide. The open beak resembles giant stone tongs. The statue seems to depict the triumph of science and technology, the conventional explanation of the Prometheus myth. But in those days everyone in Paris knew that the sculptor’s real aim had been to reveal, through the statue, the dangers threatening mankind. That Prometheus as the archetypal hero was a symbol of democracy, and ultimately of France itself, while the monster stood for the powers of darkness, Nazism, and the Third Reich. But in those days it was questionable and even dangerous so much as to hint of anything like that in public. Right then the French government was actively pursuing a policy of conciliation with Hitler’s Reich. The whole situation in Europe, not only between France and Germany, was confused and uncertain. An artist could depict one aspect or other of this situation as a battle between good and evil and thus simplify and the same time deepen the impression we all had of these events. But many people failed to notice what was going on. They didn’t think, didn’t really take it in, didn’t care; they just went on living their own everyday lives. Perhaps I did, too.

The sculpture was removed from public view very quietly after someone had lodged a complaint against it. Many thought that was as much a triumph as a loss for art. I don’t know. To me it seemed mystical and ominous, and I began to expect all kinds of alarming news, which was not at all like me. But I couldn’t help seeing the motley, tattered clouds of the times. Nightmares were just as real as these uneasy signs.

I met John at Le Rotonde late one afternoon, just as before. I didn’t know how he was spending his time in Paris. I assumed he had many friends. Many more than I did, that’s how it seemed. He sat down at my table and began to tell a story about a friend of a friend: a wild, terrible story with all sorts of grotesque details scrambled together. In any case, it had happened. Before the big opening of an exhibition, a well-known artist had been found in a bloody bathtub with his wrists slashed. With his blood, he had written on the door a farewell to his beloved, who had found another man. It seemed like a senseless act. John said that the times were flooded with stories like this. The tales spread in people’s conversations, sometimes even in different versions. Now and then people may have added details, made up names. But they were always the same stories, telling in their own ways of people’s despair, of abrupt loss of faith, of sorrow and grief at a moment when losses tested the strength of people’s sense of humor, and when the whole world was mocking, showing that in any case nothing would last very long because the world had not been created to endure if people were to give up. And here and there, people were giving up and losing faith in themselves and in each other.

‘It’s odd,’ I said after a while.

‘Yes, people are being tested,’ John sighed. He looked at me intently.

And at once it seemed that every wall in the restaurant sighed with him. The cheerful clatter changed into muffled cries, a moaning that echoed off ceiling and windows and fled outside where it gathered strength and changed into howling. Alarm sirens rang in my head. Bright chandeliers burst into flames. Without noticing, I squeezed a glass between my palms until it got slippery with my sweat, slid out of my hand, fell to the floor and broke.

I was shaking all over. I looked at the shattered pieces of glass on the floor. I stared at the glistening fragments.

‘What’s the matter?’ John asked.

‘Nothing,’ I answered. But in some sudden inexplicable way I had lost all contact with the outer world, couldn’t see it as it was. Or rather, as I had seen it a moment before. Figures were moving around me; they gave off a dim, phosphorescent glow. At the same time, John ordered me a new glass of champagne and offered me a cigarette he had already slipped into a holder. Friendly and caring gestures. He did not grasp the state I was in. He begged me to say something. But I could neither react nor move. I sat there motionless and my mouth went dry. I could hardly breathe. I had to get out. But for some reason it was terribly difficult for me to say what I wanted. It was painful for me to get up. The chandeliers faded, dimmed into the faint candlelight of a monastery or cathedral. The sounds were dying down. The joyful noise and bustle, and the howling into which all the noise had changed, all fell silent. It was very quiet. I don’t know how long I remained in that state. When I woke up I was fully alert and wanted to know what John had said. I made a move to leave. The waiter was standing by my side. The same moustached waiter who had served me earlier. I noticed that he and John were conversing with voices lowered. The white tablecloths were shimmering like sails. I managed to say that I wanted to get out. The smells of the restaurant food grew stronger. Waiters were running from one dinner guest to another. Blinis and roe, fried oysters, sizzling in grease. Doughnuts were spreading a sweet foody odor. I wanted out.

They looked at me curiously and with concern. The waiter lifted a glass of water to my lips. He said I had fallen asleep. Well, I had been out of it for about half an hour. Part of the time, I had apparently been in a deep sleep or trance. John had his overcoat on. My own coat was hanging over his right arm. About to leave, he slipped a bill to the waiter. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I could make out only fragments, recited in low voices. White car… ivory tower…Eiffel… things… heavy traffic… the time is… wouldn’t it suit… hundreds of francs… Marseilles …Toulon… papers… a couple of weeks…in a tight spot … tiger lilies… harbour …Then they shook hands.

‘I have to leave here right away,’ I whispered. John looked at me but didn’t say anything. ‘What’s going on here?’ I asked.

‘We were just talking about some people we both know,’ John said. ‘By the way, this is Max,’ he said, and gave a tug at the waiter’s sleeve.

Of course he was Max, my head was pounding. In my field of vision, the gilded bands of the ceiling lights and the shell-like brass shades of the sconces were crisscrossing. At the same time, I gave him a feeble greeting because I had a headache and desperately wanted to get out. I asked John whether there wasn’t something strange going on. All of a sudden I had no idea what my old friend was up to. He had, after all, been leading his own life ever since he had left Solesmes. I didn’t know a thing about it.

‘I’ve got some important things to take care of tonight. I was only waiting until you felt better. I’m sorry. I have to go now,’ John said, and handed me my coat. He nodded to me and to Max.

I asked the waiter to call a taxi. On his way to the telephone he exchanged a few words with John, who was heading for the door. ‘Some other day. I’ve got work to do now,’ he added. Then he vanished into the street.

Outside, it was clear. The air was thin, I felt light. Above the lamp-lit street you could see a brilliant cluster of lights, masses of twinkling stars, the constellations of the evening sky against the darkness.

Through the ages, mankind has gazed at stars in the sky and felt it was seeing patterns, regular features, shapes, mythological, characters, and explained those random clusters as gods and events in the divine world, so that a sailor who was charting a sea voyage or a farmer who was planning to sow his crops would have an easier time simultaneously keeping in mind the start of the rainy season and the story of the Pleiades, or the scorching hot season and the ascent of the Dog Star. I was often filled with the wish that I could have managed to grasp hold of some such illusion, so that somewhere in the extreme distance there could be some sense and order even though you couldn’t observe it. It seemed vital to me right then, in a way I had not grasped before.

I was sitting in a taxi, thinking. John had got himself mixed up in something, I didn’t know what. I wished he had told me more. He was extremely tense, and when I thought more closely about it, he had been nervous all during our Easter trip, different from before. I began to look at myself with more understanding. What did I know of John? When you came right down to it? What irritated me most of all was that I couldn’t get a sense of whether my old friend was on the side of the powers of good or the powers of evil. At least as I defined them. I had in mind the ways in which each of us strove to grasp what was going on during those times. Not by conforming or going along; that could not be a definition of good, nor, for that matter, could its opposite, rebellion or anarchy. I myself actually took no sides. When it came to political questions, I did not act, but only reacted. Perhaps that’s why I was the greatest fool of all.

John was a riddle to me. And because I didn’t see him again for many years, I couldn’t satisfy my curiosity. He had remained in France during the war. It wasn’t until much later that I heard he had been active in the resistance movement, helping people to get across borders and to England, securing them passports, and so on. He’d already started working with the resistance when we’d seen each other that spring. Max had been one of his contacts. He had also met with Simone a few times although they didn’t know each other very well. After the war, John returned to England and went on with his literature studies. He wrote a couple of books about Shakespearean drama which hardly anyone noticed. He created for himself the steady and useful career of a university teacher. In his ivory tower, he was one of the most broad-minded professors, and therefore he had a rather good reputation as an educator and teacher. Such was his journey toward the stars.

When I think of him in retrospect (for one must keep in mind that I am thinking and writing about all this much later, although I now live through the experiences as if they had occurred quite recently – that’s what memory is like, brilliantly clear and sharp yet at the same time muddled and obscure) I am full of confusion and disbelief. He was the most important person in one phase of my life. He was my alter ego, an angel boy, but I didn’t know whether dividing my ego in this way had any real significance. For a time, we were very close to each other, so close that the edges of my own self would blur and for a moment I was like a photograph – a bit out of focus but still an exciting image in sepia tones, in the manner of a daguerrotype – and he was the original living figure. I am certain the angel boy did not think of himself or of me in this way. He sensed naturally that we were close, but perhaps he needed me as little as calm waters need a diving wild duck.

We had come close to another person and then drifted apart. That happens. I was always ready to plunge into anything. I forgot about the dangers inherent in meeting another person – all the wounds and bruises and scars you end up carrying for the rest of your life – and I know that a person like the angel boy would think of them all the time, would avoid them in advance and protect himself in all possible ways. How amazing that we met each other just then, at the only time in our lives when our meeting would have been possible. Of course, now it could never happen. For what in the world would a college professor accustomed to the rules of a good life have done with a friend who took off in his own direction in his early days, devoted himself to living according to certain personal convictions after first blemishing body and soul in heaven knows what storms of the world. No, he would no longer even recognize me. If, in fact, he is still alive. According to some other sources of information, he vanished right after the war.

I did not see John again after that evening. I think that somewhere around that time I began to feel it would be best for me to leave Paris and return to England. I was alone. I was looking for company. I searched the streets for prostitutes and somehow managed to pass the time. They were charmed by my gentlemanly manners and treated me well as soon as they noticed my kindness and generosity. Nights would close up like huge black tulips, one after the other, and fold me to sleep. I didn’t want to think why. The city around me spread wide. It swelled into a giant observatory suffused with the cool night air of outer space. The white cupola stood out against a dark night sky filled with friendly stars.

The observatory was immense, enormously high and wide. I was outside it. A moment before, I had been inside it but had not grasped its immensity because I had not looked around me but only upwards to the starry nocturnal sky that was infinitely far. I found stars that I hadn’t been able to make out with the naked eye but which were twinkling and sparkling somewhere, multitudinous and real heavenly bodies. It was dark. My eyes drew away from the eyepiece of the telescope but my thoughts were still on the place I was unable to see (because I couldn’t see what there really was in the stars and nebulae and meteors and comets), not on what was right around me. Only after I came out of the observatory could I grasp the enormous size of the building, but it took some time, perhaps a very long time, before I realized that the white wall of the building pierced the air at a spot seven times as high as my human figure.

When I looked a while longer, light began to flood the landscape. And as soon as the night sky began to grow pale, the observatory shrank, its white mass melted away, just as the walls and roof of a snow castle sink lower and become more fragile when the rays of the sun hit them, even though the general shape of the structure stays more or less the same. Was it an observatory at all?

In the evening light the Pantheon was startling. Here and there people were walking nearby. They looked like black blotches. The echo that rose from the pavement belonged neither to them nor to the street. A car drove past. The windows of the car were open and it was chock full of noisy passengers. It was speeding away somewhere, down the steep incline of the street next to the library. Backfirings from the exhaust pipe ricocheted off the walls of the narrow street. The night was knotting the shadows into a gloomy sack. I was inside it.

That’s when I had the feeling that I saw her. I was sure of it. On this last night, I was really lucky. For a few weeks I had constantly thought about the significance of our meeting. I had come to notice that among books written, paintings painted, sculptures cast, there was always one that for some reason spoke to us more than any other. So there had to be something that offered us a perfect mirror into which we could stare deeply and no longer quite recognize ourselves. Simone was such a work of art. I knew for certain that she was on the side of good. She was able to see fearlessly all the way down to what impelled people to their actions, whether magnificent or terrible, particularly in these times. She was on the side of good because she was true, first to herself and then to others. She acted according to her own truth.

After these few weeks, my imagination managed to conjure her up in front of me. A small figure in a black cape. The woman was hurrying across the square. Gesturing animatedly, she was in lively conversation with a couple of other people. Had she ever read the message I had sent her? I wondered. Instinctively, I wanted to run to her, take her by the sleeve, and give her an intimate greeting as I had done before. But I couldn’t even move. Why should I have? I was cold, but I had forgotten about being chilled. The three began walking faster. Suddenly she turned around. She saw me. Her face lit up with a smile. Her serious, white face was all the more lovely when it was smiling.

‘Charles! What are you doing here? I heard that you’d left a long time ago.’ She was surprised, pleased.

‘I’m leaving tomorrow. Everything is in order. How are you? Did you ever get my message?’

‘So you’re leaving.’

‘Yes. Tomorrow.’

‘I certainly did read it, dear friend. And you really can write. But I still think differently about everything.’

‘You’ll call me, won’t you?’

Simone was almost running. She didn’t have the patience to stay and chat with me. The others were waving for her to hurry along.

‘Well, I’m going to Italy! Someone told me about a place to stay near Florence. I’m going to look at mountains and valleys and think there.’ She hurried off.

‘I wish you’d stay for a bit. Or wait, I have a better idea. I’ll come with you!’

After all, everything was the same to me at that time.

She looked at me for a long time. Then she burst out laughing. She was friendly and surprised.

‘I’ll write to you some time! And now, my dear boy, go away and be by yourself!’

The three of them vanished down the narrow alley.

The square was quiet again for a while. Then a silent couple plodded across it. The woman was walking a small dog on a leash. The leash was so long it looked as if the dog were running loose. But it was still struggling to get free and the woman shouted something at it. The man was walking slowly and breathing heavily, as if it were hard for him to carry his weight. Then all was quiet again.

What had I seen of her? I thought and thought, felt a growing pressure around my heart. I never received her letter.

Translated by Aili and Austin Flint


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