We were sitting under the colossal green umbrella – Marianne, François and I – that covered the white chairs and the breakfast table in her garden. Tiny slices of toasted baguette with thick dollops of honey lay on the plates. Marianne’s café au lait bowl smelt of fresh beans. She was drinking coffee with me till she felt the urgency to go into the house. It was always like that – this perpetual need to run around her domesticity. Wasn’t Pomplomusse, the highly obese cat denying others their morning share of bread? Wasn’t the dog, Noir, not quite intelligent, but earnest, chasing the bees away and the hoverflies from the edge of the separating wall? The whole neighbourhood knew it had a strange and visceral animosity toward those harmless beings. And the cat, whose name literally meant grapefruit, was greedy as hell. The other day she jumped on an unsuspecting sparrow in the garden and smoothed it off. Before any of us could bat an eye.
We all hated her for that.
It was drizzling. I saw the goldfinches flying across the garden, over the hazelnuts, blue on their breasts, the red patches around their eyes looking taut with desire. They flew over the pear tree, snow-white with flowers, then over the maple and the spindle onto the hedge with blossoming privets. My eyes followed them until they were too small to see, and the mythical yellow of their body dissolved into the horizon. From where I sat, I could see the virgin ivy that were gradually taking control of the western wall of the house. Nearly shorn of their leaves, they had turned vengefully red that Autumn. Although there was something disconcerting about them, it was hard to take one’s eyes off those creeping beauties. Upon looking closely, one could see the forlorn crimson leaf with its translucent veins on top had gently touched the curtains of one of the garden windows. It was a white-framed glass window with four rectangular partitions on either side, covered with ruffled lace curtains that were tied and tucked away with taupe silk ribbons. The window would be open on the few days the sun decided to show itself. The rest of the time, the mildewed smell prevailed. Across the window, at the base of the wall, stood a shelf made of ebony. An antique clock with a gilt-bronze frame, brass inlay and tortoise shell veneer sat upon it. On the wall opposite, the mirror above the sink had a ferruginous appearance, and reflected a room whose door would was always open. A painted wicker basket meant for used clothes lay at the door, and its empty interior contained the same musty smell as the rest of the objects.
The room had a bed that seemed to have forgotten its use for long. The thick couette with intricate floral patterns on it gave the impression that someone was lying there, draped up to the neck, paralyzed by a century-old memory. The wooden floor in the room creaked painfully when one walked up to the window, beyond which the steeple of a medieval church could be seen. On the balconies across the road, scarlet geraniums hanging from the vases half-hid the face of the ornate streetlamps, and the two sides of the cobbled road that led to the town market were dotted with bac-a-fleurs, holding the white and purple neighbours of the scarlet ones.
Just across the street was a shop that I found perennially closed, probably because I had never looked at it during the day. Alimentation biologique — it read. It had green shutters on it, one that always stood for me as a permanent symbol of separation from Forges – Forges-les-eaux – the town where François and Marianne Gardinier lived. Every night before leaving Forges, I would invariably press my eyes on the window- pane to see the otherwise quiet view of the street ravaged by the flitting lights of the cars.
There in the nights, alone in a room that smelt of old books and damp alcoves, dreams of vegetation sometimes took hold of me. It was a dream where I would become an anchorite. I often dreamt of tree-roots coming out of my whole being, entwining the rest of the house and the garden, overflowing onto the streetlights, the church and the market hall, continuing until the château de Catillon and its couple of leafless birches. They could be endless, capable of holding everything within them. Often on the day of my departure, these protracted dreams would not let me be, and in the morning after Marianne called out, voilà, is it time for breakfast or not, I would try and deracinate myself from the infinite tangling of roots that had thus overpowered me. I would throw the couette out on the bed, sit up, and still feeling those tendrils all around me, would totter down the stairs hanging on to some imaginary stem.
On some other days, upon descending, I would feel the morning outside the closed garden doors had retained the mist of the prior night, in no sense could one call it morning, for it was still very dark outside, while the dying embers between the two brick-mantles added a shade of grey to all the bric-à-brac around, and in the deadness of that silence, I would see François and Marianne playing cards by candlelight, sitting across the garden door, concentrating on the game as if possessed by a spectre. Their hands moved alternately in ritualistic gestures. My eyes by then were so used to the household and its tenebrous corners that it would be easy to figure out the silhouette of the wooded frame that sat on a flowered wallpaper with the names of seventy-eight people, who in 1788 sought to regain their health in the iron- water of the town The wall on the left contained pencil drawings of Greuze’s Head of a Woman Looking Back Over Her Shoulder and an old reprint of Rembrandt’s the naughty boy.
That was the year of the insurrection and it did not start off well with the master, looking at the baby strawberries François told me from the entrance of his study at the other end of the garden, my strawberries will come big and nice, I hope, stooping over the grass Marianne looked expectantly at the two of us, for, the first season after she planted them was about to come, yes, there was the break-up with Louise in the beginning of the year, and Alfred was mortally sick for the last few months, François said, the place was Neuville, Neuville-chant-d’Oisel, where Alfred slowly wasted away, maybe not that slowly either, for it was only the third of April, and with the onset of another spring Gustave prepared himself for another vigil, much longer than Caroline’s, for three nights he watched over the body, reading Cruezer, Hugo and Alfred’s Bélial, and since Alfred was as putrefied as Caroline was unsullied, Gustave had to wrap him up twice in two shrouds, at dawn when the silvery fog lifted itself, and from Alfred’s room he could get a view of the woods, an overwhelming sense of relief came over Gustave, in his mind’s ears he could hear Alfred’s voice reciting – the cheery bird will go and greet the sun coming out of the pines, so that was that, with gutful of sobs he buried the person without whom he never thought life could go on, a part of himself was buried on that very day, François said, well you see, I do not know how the foxgloves came to be here, in that corner of a little hedge, neither of us have any memory of planting anything that even vaguely resembles them, Marianne said, and good heavens, they came off beautifully, haven’t they, my gorgeous delights, Marianne said, yes, they are, their glassy purple seemed to daub the morning with a sheen that mingled with the lugubrious daylight easefully, I thought, the year of the insurrection, François said, that was it, Gustave went to Paris to witness the republican uprising against king Louis-Philippe with Bouilhet, not far from Max’s flat was Boulevard des Capucines, where the king’s army killed the marching protestors – the workers and the republicans alike – not that it was a result of deliberate atrocity, only the demonstrators wanted traditional street illuminations to celebrate their victory in replacing the reviled minister for foreign affairs, whose office happened to be in the Boulevard, and the guards in the minster’s house felt threatened and opened fire, France standing on the top of golden hours/And human nature seeming born again, Marianne said, her hands stroking a bunch of lilacs, it was a night of agonizing wait for Gustave, François said, for while at Max’s doorstep he heard the shots capable of waking the dead from his grave, Max dissuaded him to go and enquire, because the general confusion still prevailed as to what could cause such a ruckus, and when they came out to see on the next day, pools of blood incensed people so much that Paris became nothing but a city of barricades, the dead were loaded on to the carts, which were then paraded through the streets of Paris, there were calls to arms; angry mobs overthrew trees, gas lamps, public urinals, railings and benches, church bells were made to go off, drums beaten every so often, gently, of its own accord, the monarchy was melting away, that is what the master would write many years later, from where I stood I could see Marianne weeding out at the western end of the garden, one could make out the bunch of hawthorns just above her head, the edge of their petals and the stamens falling upon in a gesture of sublime acquiescence, it was the Tuileries that they were led to next morning, Max and Gustave, François said, insurgents pushed the army to a corner, but the king’s army was still trying tooth and nail to save the palace and the royal family, the people soon defeated them and crushed the gates of the palace, the heavy wrought-iron gates, none of which weighed less than two hundred pounds gave in, and people went inside, and with them went Gustave and Max, I keep saying pansies are sometimes most difficult to grow, Marianne said, at least my pansies give me headaches instead of heart eases as they are supposed to give, last year the flowers shriveled long before I thought any measure was necessary, Max and Gustave entered the palace, yes, François said, but the king had narrowly escaped after abdicating and amongst the fierce fighting an elderly Napoleonic Marshal appeared in a black coat, Gustave would later write about this Old Marshall Gérard who rode a white horse with a red velvet saddle, riding off after almost dying to make himself heard about the announcement of the king’s abdication, his olive branch, I daresay, faltered out of his hand, because by then like in every war the fighting took strange turns, whose senses could not be derived any longer, château d’Eau was attacked to release fifty prisoners who were actually not there, arsons were taking place without arsonists fully wanting it, wounded men and dead limbs made a veritable carpet on the square, I love peonies but could get only the hybrid type, its whitish pink is too intoxicating, you got to see them in June, Marianne said, yes, Gustave’s unruffled cynicism at the beginning of February days, his not- too- intended participation thereafter, his burst of gallantry, and the desire to dig fingers in the ecstasy of victory all tells of a bewildered, beleaguered dreamer, banal yet lovable in his inconsistencies, I will go fix the lunch, Marianne said, but it was all like a stage show, a nightmare with a dosage of exuberance in it, François said, a sense of displacement, of chaos, caprice and carnival prevailed, I have a headache from listening to François talk for so long, Marianne said, now tell me chicken cream soup with endive and mushroom, baguette and cider from our neighboring Villequier, how does that sound as lunch, sounds quite Norman and undeniably haute too, I said, bon, I go then, Marianne said, so that was it, François said, the mood of the carnivalesque gaiety made a bearded proletarian sit on the royal throne, savouring the positional inversion, while some others used royal silvers to initiate a banquet, but the true mayhem ensued when mobs from the direction of Palais Royal stormed in, and started destroying mirrors, statuettes, chandeliers, fire was made to eat up the figurines, porcelain, paintings, François said, orgy of the commons, I said, sure, François said, whores posing as virtuous statues, men making gestures of fornication in royal beds, aristocratic delicacies finding their place in the hands of the working class, the wine cellars getting emancipated, this is what it came to, this grotesque revelry whom Gustave paints with such unmistakable acuteness, and not long after the provisional government proclaimed a republic in the Hotel de Ville, François, please do come up here and lay the table, Marianne said, all this chiaroscuro is in some sense the sentimental education about life, love, money and war in the Paris of Gustave’s young protagonist, but also of a people, of a continent, and of us, his readers, centuries apart, François said, I would not call you two for lunch once more, I swear, Marianne said.
A sudden downpour had taken no one by surprise, since it never does anyway in Normandie, and a pleasant breeze came to replace the obstinate, scorching, somewhat overpowering heat of the day. Marianne and I were sitting near the makeshift shade in the garden under the clear, starry sky. We could hear François whistling from the kitchen.
“An old tune from Bretagne that we used to sing when we were small,” Marianne said.
I tried to visualize what it was like when Marianne was small, what it is like being small and singing an old Breton tune. I thought this could have some semblance with the vapour that was rising from the soil beneath us with its fallen leaves and ruined petals, and transient buds. That, mingled with a brackish smell wafted toward the house.
“Do you realize we are not far from the sea” Marianne said.
Looking at the gossamer that formed a thin haze on the foliage, I kept thinking that I am never far from the sea anyway.
It was a sunny day in May when I first drove into Forges with my friend Olivier from our harbor town in basse Normandie. The dazzling sun fell straight on the windscreen of Olivier’s battered car. He drove tenderly, almost haltingly, as if fearing hurriedness was not meant for a journey such as this. The lush, green Norman meadows with rows of apple orchards, aspens, and poplars, and the undulating terrain of farms filled with flax and beet went past us in silence. Light shimmered through the shadowy groves of oaks amongst the pasturelands, The heat affected me so much that I felt we would never reach Forges.
At midday Olivier pulled into the town. Not far from us was the grand casino. Built in the first quarter of the past century, the casino had a patrician look about it with sparkling chandeliers, gleaming parquet floors and neatly polished stairs. Oaks, alders and birches populated the large plots around the building. Across the small wooden jetty, inside one of the numerous lakes around, one could see the swans pecking at each other, and the geese quarreling for bed crumbs, thrown in by the weekend visitors.
The young man at the counter told us he certainly knew François Gardinier, who he thought was a superb writer, and gave his number from the yellowing town directory. When we reached their house at 7 rue Naûfchatel, Marianne and François were busy tending a tree that they introduced to us as their favourite purple beach. Their fat cat Pomplomusse was walking around with a supercilious gait. Tits, magpies and sparrows flew across the length and the breadth of the garden.
The gregarious Gardiniers took me in as if they knew me from a distant past.
I started staying with them often after that. And often when the time for taking leave would come, François drove me off to Rouen amid mist, haze, rain and darkness. Once I told him I wrote a few lines about this parting.
“Read that to me out aloud”, he said, whistling an aria from his favourite Debussy opera.
When François drove me to Rouen from Forges, they were all over the edge of the road, les coquelicot rouge – the red poppies. I asked him to stop the car once.
I plucked a single one. Its crimson sheen splattered up into our elegiac morning.
The early morning sun still hid its face within a thick layer of moving clouds.
I stored the coquelicot among the pages of my book, in hopes that one day I could stumble upon its dusty relics. Of a day when François drove me away from Forges. Away from divinity, into a handful of undying solitude.
“I did not know poppies could arouse such intense lines,” François said.
“I am not sure poppies alone did,” I said.
“Ah, yes, dearest, I could see that, I was kidding,” he said.
From Rouen, that early morning train would transport me back to my forlorn sea town.
It was in that silent harbor town that Olivier Le Gal came over to talk to me one Sunday. It was the open market day, and I was standing before a locksmith’s stall, from where I watched a group of musicians perform. When the rain came, and people huddled together under the makeshift canopy, I discovered that Olivier and I were talking about everything our little town stood for — food, calvados, the old Abbey of St. Étienne, the porte des champs, the moats of the dilapidated château that was our only claim to fame, and the ancient, hopping pigeons of rue St. Pierre, who exuded a profundity not to be found anywhere else in the world. Olivier and I did not stop before I told him that I was on an outlandish quest, in which he could perhaps help me out.
“Do not worry, traveling companionship is not a role I do not aspire for” he let me know.
A huge, blue-lacquered woodwork rested imposingly on François’s mantelpiece. Its excesses seemed almost fascinating to me. I kept touching its curves and quirky protuberances as if expecting to make some sense out of those wild dimensions. A crystal structure stood beside it – its dainty dimensions reposing in sharp contrast with its fierce neighbour. While I slowly turned back, I would get a glimpse of the beige-white crests of Pissarro’s orchard hanging by the door that led one to François’s room.
A spray of hydrangea would greet me from the top of the piano when I entered the room. Often, they were from days before, much of their colour lost to time. Whenever I walked past them, I stuck my nose to the bunch whose smell had long faded away. “Pauvre hortensia”, I would whisper, and blow out my breath to see them doubling up with a shiver that resembled a sigh. A crystal chandelier and half of a disarrayed book-shelf shared the space in the long mirror behind. A ceramic plate stood on top of the shelf, whose whiteness seemed to permeate into the tiniest specks of dust around.
Sometimes at daybreak, the yellow tinge of the dim light inside the embroidered light shade made the room look unfamiliar, almost cluttered. Even at that early hour of the umbrageous morning, I would see François and Marianne playing cards and noting down the scores intermittently. François’s desk had some of the pages of his play on Pierre Corneille scattered carelessly. After winning a game, his face would assume the same semblance of happiness as much as it did when he had finished writing one of the endless acts of his play. While the four hands moved in studied silence over the cards, I would slowly go back to the salon, and open the garden door. If it was still summer, amid the mist and the blue haze, the flowers in the privet hedge stood out at the western end of the garden.
The shutters of the boulangerie were up by now, cafés bustled with people demanding their first cup of coffee and brioche, and the church bell, whose chime was not entirely without melody, had started ringing for the Angelus. Leaving behind the last potentilla shrub at the end of the house, I would cross the garden by the time voices could be heard outside. The war memorial statue in front of the church would be abloom with flowers. Crossing the two-winged posts from which lantern-shaped lamps hanged, walking past the brasseries, old book joints, bric-à-brac shops, and children’s park, my feet would invariably stop in front of the elegant, red-bricked municipal theatre with its pinewood doors and its window-sills occupied by flower tubs with violets and blood irises.
Les halles, the old town market a few meters ahead, was almost as beautiful as the ancient one at Buchy with its uneven oak-wood pillars. The cross-hatched cane cover ornamented with bead-like tiny golden bulbs on strings gave it a perpetual nocturnal look. It would have the best fruits, ham and vegetables on display brought from all over the Pays de Bray – the Bray country. On market days the air inside would be heavy with the smell of a slice of Camembert or Neufchâtel.
The road paved with flagstone would bring me across a wrought-iron gate that opened onto a gravel walk. I noticed I had arrived at avenue des Sources from rue de Neufchâtel. Probably it was a Sunday afternoon — unusually sunny. As I stepped inside, a beige and red well-proportioned house with a tiled roof greeted me with its face half-hidden behind hedgerows. The courtyard in front extended beyond the house and transformed itself into a long narrow path lined with daffodil, crocus, morning glory and daisy. Upon reaching the end of it, if one turned around, one could see the structure of a house called the Beaufils mansion, behind the beige- red house in front, about which François once told me he had a story.
une histoire – both a story and a history.
I was looking at the flowering dogwood that Marianne said was a rare variety in this region, the white clusters in the hedge shining like some distant stars when François said, our republic was proclaimed on the 25th of February, festivals were held to mark the installation of the Republic, trees of liberty were planted and later consecrated, but as you can guess, things were not rosy, far from it, in Rouen the commissioner for the republic was a pro-worker socialist Deschamps who was trying to organize national workshops for the proletariat, but the public prosecutor Jules Sénard, who represented the bourgeoisie was thoroughly antagonistic to those, a clash followed after Deschamps lost the elections, and Sénard used forces to quell a peaceful demonstration at the town hall, killing no less than forty, and injuring only the heaven knows how many more, this is not counting the end of March killing of mill workers by the police, remember the name Jules Sénard, defendant of Gustave in the Bovary trial, who fished him out of the severe trouble that the book fell into with the imperial court, and who was to later become the minister of the interior, class struggle in its worst form came about, and you can understand how things worked among the bourgeois kinship structure in a small provincial town like Rouen, Gustave certainly was not the person to go beyond his own class boundaries, despite his deep abhorrence towards the bourgeoisie, true, I said, the flower on our right could be the bee balm, that Marianne collected from L’Orne when she went there last year, knocking beauties they are, I thought, the fighting, the brutal one, erupted just on the afternoon of June 23, François said, the ateliers nationals, our workers’ workshops, were dismantled, hungry people who roamed about on the streets for days on end were not ready to go back, bread or bullet was their only slogan, no less than ten thousand demonstrators once gathered on the streets of Paris, and the famished insurgents were gunned down in thousands by the republican government with the help of all the tiers of the militia – Parisian and provincial – but this time the government also lost five generals and the archbishop of Paris, Max himself received a bullet in his leg in trying to fight out the insurgents, from where I stood I could see the sprawling Medlar Marianne said she had planted ages ago along the boundary wall, this wretched one never bore any fruit, although I planted it thinking how many times name of the tree occurs in Shakespeare, Marianne said, the Flaubert family arrived at Forges around 25th of June that year, and stayed for a good three weeks, they had to rush out of Rouen within a short notice, for, there was a family crisis brewing for the past few weeks, they stayed in the Beaufils mansion, not far from here, I would show the house to you one of these days, François said.
A bird trilled wistfully on the farthest corner of the garden, it could be merle, the blackbird, Marianne talked about, which brings rains on its wings when it warbles.
And it would be so good if it rained, I thought.
To Ernest Chavelier, Monday, July, 1848
I mourned Alfred the same way a dervish mourns the loss of his amulet – over something irreplaceable, unfathomable, arcane. I think I have never loved a man or a woman more than him. And I have lost him twice – once in his marriage, and once in his death. On one of his last days when the windows were open and sunlight was streaming into his room, he said, close it, it is too beautiful, too beautiful. Ancient troubadours that we are, we remain far too helpless before beauty’s murderously raging faculties. You can understand that, can’t you? In all of this, he was like me, he was me, and I him in our entirety, nothing could separate us, none could come between us, not even death. Tell me, otherwise, how in the church after his service, during the choirs, amid the fragrance of perfume rising like a mass of immaculate clouds, flashes of indescribable ideas kept coming back to me? How did I feel ecstatic on his behalf when we wrapped him up in two shrouds, and he looked like an Egyptian mummy swathed in antiquated bandages? How did I ever dream a long, strange, uninterrupted dream on the day of his burial which I wrote down lest I lost it, and never thought of finding it again?
Two days after his death, I walked all afternoon with a bitch called Diane. She accompanied me without being summoned. From time to time, I sat on the moss; I smoked. I stared at the sky. Diane had become attached to Alfred to the extent that she always accompanied him when he went home. The night before his death, she howled frightfully, and could not be quieted down.
And I did it all by myself. I gave Alfred the farewell kiss, and saw him sealed in his coffin. I watched beside him two nights. They were splendid. The windows were open. I could hear a cock crowing, and a night moth circled around the tapers. I shall never forget all that, or the look on Alfred’s face. I kept coming upon poems that were his favourite, or that had special meaning for me under the circumstances. Now and then I got up, lifted the veil covering his face, and looked at him. I wrapped myself in a cloak that belonged to my father, and which he had worn only once, on the day of Caroline’s wedding.
Alfred went on Monday. On Thursday at daybreak, about four o’clock, the attendant and I began our task. I lifted him, turned him, covered him. The feeling of coldness and rigidity of his limbs stayed in my fingertips throughout the next day. He was horribly decomposed; the sheets were stained through. There was a whitish mist, the trees were beginning to be visible through it. The two tapers shone in the dawning whiteness; two or three birds sang, and I recited to myself this sequence from his Bélial: ‘the cheery bird will go and greet the sun coming out of the pines’ – or rather I heard his voice saying it to me, and for the rest of the day was deliciously obsessed by it. As long as he was capable of doing anything, he read Spinoza in bed each night until one in the morning.
He was laid in the coffin at the entry, where the doors had been removed, and where the morning air poured in, freshened by the rain that had started to fall. He was carried to the cemetery on men’s shoulders. It was almost an hour’s walk. From behind, I saw the coffin swaying like a rolling boat. The service was atrociously long. In the cemetery the earth was muddy. I stood by the grave and watched each shovelful as it fell: there seemed to be a hundred thousand of them. Then I walked away, smoking.
I returned to Rouen in a carriage with Bouilhet. The rain beat down, the horses went at a gallop, I shouted to urge them on, we were back in 43 minutes – 5 leagues. The air did me much good.
But here I am, three months later writing to you, prancing like a wild horse from one problem to another. I seem fated, dear, and it is me always who gives you nothing but sad news. You know the atrocities of June that have taken place in Paris, during the fighting Max was struck by a bullet and is now confined only god knows for how long. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law, quite unhinged in every respect after Caroline’s going, came here to claim his daughter. The question of handing over little Liline did not arise, given his condition. We, therefore, had to leave hurriedly, and take refuge in the first place that occurred to us, and the first place that did was Forges, Forges-les-Eaux. I tried to put mother and Liline up in a respectable inn there, but since my mother started trembling at the sound of every carriage that came into the town, she begged shelter from Monsieur and Madame Beaufils, a respectable family she knew from before. They welcomed her in a manner that I’ll never forget -- perfectly.
These have been my misfortunes. As for me, I am living in hell; all conceivable blows are falling upon my head. Even then I have not told you everything. At each new misfortune, I think the limit has been reached, but they keep coming and coming! You can count on me that I have many more, but I must sign this letter off, so as not to miss today’s mail.
“Victor-Martin Beaufils’s house fascinated Gustave, and so did the town,” François said. “He did not have much to do here in terms of his own writing. The few pages of St. Antoine that had been initiated, and the capacious library at Croisset built for that purpose remained steadfastly inaccessible. But he felt strangely serene before the enormous expanse of the Beaufils house that he dubbed les jardins – the gardens in plural, since it was truly halfway between a garden and a wood.
We were strolling on the other side of rue de Neufchâtel, towards the quiet train station. The station master who wore a shining blue overcoat greeted us after he passed the train for Gesors. Beyond the fences, the hedges were full of blooming mountain ash, dogwood and mayblossom.
“Do you realize where we are?” François asked me. “This is Avenue des Sources. From the station we crossed half of rue de Naufchâtel to take rue Marette, and finally stumbled upon avenue des Sources. No. 11. Right across the street, is the Mayor’s house. Almost half a century before Gustave came in, emperor Napoléon, then not quite the emperor, passed through Forges one October. At that time, the village was entering its industrial era through the newly established ceramic production. The future emperor visited a few factories and stayed for long at George Wood’s on Avenue des Sources, not far from the house of the village mayor at number 11. You know who Georges Wood was, don’t you? He was the famous English potter who arrived in Forges a couple of years before the coup of Eighteenth Brumaire. He, along with his wife Isabelle, brought over his entire extended family here. Anyway, as the story goes, Napoléon being Napoléon, thought traveling between the two houses – Wood’s factory and the mayor’s house – through the main road was a sheer waste of time, and so, he went to the backyard, and with a grand hack of his saber fell a few trees to make an instant shortcut through the thickets.”
That was when I first looked at the white well-proportioned house with a tiled roof whose face half - hidden by rows of hedges was almost beseeching. Its wrought-iron gate opened onto a gravel walk, accompanied by a grassy lawn and a cobbled courtyard. The serenely misspelled English of the triangular plaque that talked about Gustave’s ‘sajourn’ at the house looked ethereal in the afternoon light. The lawn that one had to cross had the beautiful house on the left with a beige and red combinational façade. From its long casement windows, posies of geranium protruded gaily.
“This is the house where the emperor came, and the other white house at the back with a tiled roof is the Beaufils house,” François said. “In Forges one is at the source of literature –Voltaire wrote this to a close friend of his ages ago – the year he came down here. There is every evidence to suggest that he came down to a house on Avenue des Sources, probably the one that was to be owned by Beaufils later on, and where two centuries and a quarter later Gustave would step in. Assuming, that truly happened, that Voltaire did come to a house occupied at that time by a certain bailiff, and which through several changes of hand would become the property of the Beaufils, Gustave’s amis de la famille, how is that for a single house?”
My mind completely dazed from all that I had heard for so long, I could only say, “Not bad, not bad at all, François”.
“Finally, of course, my friend Monsieur Beaumont had decided to buy this house. This was about two decades back,” François said.
It was a warm Sunday in May that François, Olivier and I finally crossed the lawn, and knocked on the door of the Beaumonts – present owners of the Beaufils house. Madame Beaumont, a brunette with a graceful figure, welcomed us. She was sculpting on the terrace, her hands full of ceramic clay. Two pear trees formed an arch on the ground where she was working. Under that tenuous shade lay a table on which her painter’s colours were lying. Three wicker chairs formed a semi-circle around that.
“We did not alter anything in the house, absolutely nothing, it was not easy to take a decision that way, not for a house much more than a hundred and a fifty years old, but I stood my ground and you see I may not have done a bad job.” Madame Beaumont said, smiling. “My husband has always agreed to what I did to the house. He is an architect. We bought the house only twenty years back, but we have researched enough to have an idea about its original look.
“Where is Vincent now?” François asked her.
“In Marseille on a mission,”
By the time we reached the second living room, I thought Madame Beaumont could be right, her fetish with white, and with very long opaque curtains could actually mean a clinging, an embracing of a certain past. Her wallpapers were often torn, and she had a habit of spattering white on greyish brown, or making a muted brown come out of white surface by irregular, unfussy strokes. There was a recurrent hint of older layers outdoing the new in her work. Some of her bedrooms contained ancient uneven oak pillars built inside with a blackthorn tinge, and one had distinctive blue daubs around capricious patches on the wall. The mirrors in the rooms were mostly ill-proportioned, placed at various oblique angles to the walls. Sometimes the positioning was so unreal that I failed to see where the true object was. While Olivier and Madame Beaumont started a discussion of the white-stone candelabra that she had sculpted last summer with the labour of two full months, I went to a back-room, the windows of which opened on the garden. There, one of the wrought iron grills held a ready- to- fly eagle, whose copper- red left wing had a faded look compared to the deeply rusted right one. From that window, a large part of the garden was visible, and I could just make out the contours of the foliage that rustled endlessly through the wind.
The parquet floor creaked. François came in.
“Some of the trees could be from his time — the master’s I mean,” he said.
I was still contemplating the patterns of the floorboards beneath the curtain. A few of Madame Beaumont’s framed paintings hung on the white-patched auburn wall. They were clearly visible even a few minutes before. Before a grey shadow descended upon the vast field outside and lent its colour to everything around.
“Madame Beaumont’s accomplishments are incredible, this house could make one feel that nothing has changed for one full and a half of a century,” “But I should now get going, cherie, my Corneille awaits me, you two come when you finish.” François said.
I came to the end of the nearly uncountable rooms of the Beaumont household’s ground floor. Beyond the small living space, the stairs now led to the attic. From this part of the house, Olivier and Mme. Beaumont’s conversations could not be heard any longer. In the waning daylight, amid blurred objects, I felt stifled by the confined heat within the space.
While I walked up, the pallid wooden staircase groaned, and the dank walls gave out moist air, from which flakes of plaster seemed to have broken away ages ago. The edges of the walls were so hollow and so brown that the moss-ridden, frayed borders of the stairs merged seamlessly with them. As I stepped into the attic among dishevelled rugs, scruffy books, and a tousled mattress, breaking up cobwebs, shuffling past the broken chaise-longue, inadvertently crushing pigeon eggs, and reached out for the shelf that contained handwritten notes and photograph albums gone green with dripping moisture, I felt for reasons beyond myself that he had been here, once, twice, maybe more, contemplating the setting sun beyond the lines of poplars and the church tower, smoking his evening pipe, thinking of the exact word, the absolute word, which none other can replace and still, which, at its best, closely resembles a situation, or a feeling, and never the situation or that feeling, by virtue of the fact that language is intrinsically limited, and in a derivative way writing is even more, and the author thus maimed in every visible mode is left with no other alternative but to become a hunchback who holds the globe on his afflicted shoulders, so I, G.F. will write about nothingness one day, I will write a story about nothing, back in Croisset after my Bovary comes to an end, that is what I am going to do, to embrace emptiness as an authorial subject – emptiness – nothing more, he must have thought this aloud, one hundred and fifty years back in this moth-eaten attic, among the stifling dust and the captive heat, he must have said this to himself, the sloping windowpanes on the roof would bear some signs of it, the oak-wood panels with which the shafts were made up would have some evidence, that of a day coming to a close, of a languorous evening folding its wings, of a man howling about a perpetual lack of what he needs the most, more than he needs to breathe perhaps, and the only consolation he could give himself was to write about nothingness one not-so- distant a day.
Over his shoulder night had fallen.
© Rongili Biswas