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The looking glass, p.21

The Looking Glass, page 21


The Looking Glass

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  My mother used to declare how sorry she felt for Madame Colbert, having such a terrible life. It was typical of her, to stress her own superiority, that she concentrated on the difficulties experienced by others. She and Madame Colbert were neighbours in Jumièges, and a certain rivalry existed between them, just enough to add salt and spice to their relationship, which would otherwise have been flavourless and bland.

  Together they put the gristle and sinews back into the soft flesh of ladies’ friendships. Since they could not throw off their corsets to don shirt and breeches, and learn to fence, or follow a code of honour that encouraged the fighting of duels; since they were not allowed to swagger in gold-braided uniforms and send armies into battle, or ruin each other on the Stock Exchange; they sparred instead with domestic weapons. Combat ensued, employing whatever missiles came to hand: the earliest flowering gladioli, recipes for sole normande, crochet patterns, digestive problems, exploits of children and grandchildren.

  Of course, if challenged, they would vehemently have denied this. A feminine lust for war was quite unthinkable. Ladies were not aggressive, ambitious and power-hungry, which qualities did harm to your reproductive organs and rendered you liable to be whisked off to the clinic in Le Havre for corrective surgery, but spent their lives blamelessly taking care of their families and doing good to all around. And so on and so on.

  Both participants in the struggle wanted to be top dog in the village. Each tried to patronise the other, in the politest possible way. At mass on Sundays, they always sat in the front pews, one on the left of the aisle and the other on the right. When it came to the moment for going up to receive Holy Communion, they would wait for everyone else in the church to go up first, since humility demanded that one gave others precedence. They would emerge from their pews at precisely the same moment, to join the very end of the single file of villagers walking modestly towards the high altar with clasped hands and downcast heads. Bumping into each other having been so narrowly averted, they could then enjoy a little theatre of giving way. My mother would pause, and gesture gracefully, as though to say: after you, Madame Colbert, after you. To which Madame Colbert would respond with a little bow and flourish: no, no, Madame Polpeau, after you. After several minutes of this, one or the other would be forced to proceed and her friend could count the victory her own.

  Madame Colbert would drift back from Communion as slowly as possible, in a state of exaggerated mystical rapture, her eyes turned heavenwards, her black lace veil floating around her soulful face. Down the side aisle she would pace, keeping exactly in time with my mother on the far side of the church, and then back up the centre aisle to their pews they would both come, sometimes one in front and sometimes the other. They would sink to their knees and bury their faces in their hands to make their thanksgiving, and after five minutes you could catch them peeping sideways at each other, to check who was going to raise her head first, and so prove herself the less holy.

  Madame Colbert, I felt, won many of these competitions. Her widowhood raised her above common humanity, as though she were a nun. No ordinary sister, mind, but a Mother Superior. I expect you’re a protestant, aren’t you, rather than a Catholic? You may not know that the Church had established hierarchical categories of virtuous feminine states. It was best, really, to be sexless and dead. If you couldn’t be a martyr, then virginity came next, followed by widowhood. To be a repented prostitute carried a certain cachet. But ordinary married women, such as my mother, who went to bed with their husbands and had children, were at the bottom of the list.

  I was a bad child. One Sunday, having witnessed the usual performance of black lace piety and slow, ecstatic steps, I found myself, coming out of church, pressed in the crowd against Marie-Louise, and I whispered to her: your grandmother is called the Walking Corpse.

  What I thought unfair was how often my father got out of going to mass. He was a believer but he had little time for priests. He was scornful of our local curé, who had grown fat as a result of so often having to eat two Sunday lunches, one at our house and the other with the Colberts. Illness can’t wait till Monday, my father was fond of declaring, and off he would go to visit some stricken person on a far-flung farm, which involved a pleasant outing in the trap, and perhaps a drive through the forest on the way back. Sometimes Monsieur Gérard Colbert accompanied him. He did not go to church either, but that was because he was a strict atheist, quite a militant. One of his poems, you must know it of course, describes him, as a young man, wrestling with God in the shape of a huge raven, and finally killing him. Marie-Louise insists that the raven represents evil, not God. Well, she would.

  Her uncle tolerated Marie-Louise being taken to church, out of respect for his mother. He himself steered clear not just of church but of most occasions of meeting people. Provincial life bored him. I heard him say more than once that he only lived in Jumièges because it was cheap, and quieter than Paris, good for getting on with his work. He loathed the social round of the village, such as it was, but he made an exception for my father. They went fishing together in season, or walking, or they went sailing on the river in my father’s boat.

  To the anxiously snobbish shopkeepers and so forth Monsieur Gérard preferred the ordinary people. The peasants and farming people. He said they were real. The salt of the earth. That was his own form of snobbery, really, and shows what a bourgeois he was himself, doesn’t it? Because though he admired it in others he didn’t have to do hard physical work himself. He wasn’t prepared to try and change society. He wasn’t a socialist. He was an artist; he kept his head down; he insisted that poetry and politics did not mix. But he respected the local people for their industry and fortitude, their honesty, which was like a physical quality not a virtue. Seeing and naming things exactly as they were, not exaggerating, then cracking a joke or swearing.

  He also had a great regard for the maid Geneviève, who worked for the family for a time. She was not from a peasant background, but she gave him a lot of material for the folkloric motifs in his poems, and she served as the model for the servant in his celebrated novella The Cook. She came from the pays de Caux, where she had worked in a café. Her old employer, Madame Montjean, turned up in Jumièges one day, with her young son, looking for her, but Geneviève had gone off to Rouen for some reason, and was not to be seen. Madame Montjean knocked at all the houses in the village, including ours, enquiring for her. Monsieur Gérard invited her in, and then later on accompanied her back to the ferry, carrying the child for her. Treating her as a social equal was behaviour considered deeply unconventional, even bizarre.

  What my mother perceived as Monsieur Gérard’s oddities as a person, and indeed inadequacies as a man and a son, fuelled her complacent pity for Madame Colbert, who, with so many advantages, such as a house of her own and a small private income, had led a disappointing and disappointed life. Thirty years a widow, my mother would exclaim: and then she herself died while she was still quite young, a woman in her prime, only fifty-five or so, only a few years older than I. Her daughter dying so young; a son-in-law who vanished, leaving her with a granddaughter on her hands, for whom she was solely responsible; a son who was little consolation, involved in no respectable profession such as medicine, but a poet, which meant a layabout, a bit of a rogue, she hinted, one for the ladies, a little too much so. Madame Colbert did not approve of me, believing me to be badly brought up, a bad influence on her precious granddaughter. So I rarely spent time with Marie-Louise. And I was away so much, either at school or staying with relatives in the holidays, that I cannot say I knew the Colberts well. I viewed Monsieur Gérard Colbert from a distance. I felt he despised women such as my mother and myself. He moved in a higher society than ours. To me he was a source of speculation and stories rather than a real person.

  You probably know all those stories about Monsieur Gérard already, don’t you? They’ve circulated for ages. People enjoy gossiping, telling stories about each other. It’s our way of weav
ing ourselves into the social fabric, I think, of testing out our humanity, finding out what we can tolerate and what we can’t. It enlarges our understanding of what’s possible. Just like novels do. Perhaps gossip is only harmful when it purveys false information. Lies and fictions are certainly best left to writers! And Monsieur Gérard, by becoming famous, finally, was quite a hero to the village, in the end. People were proud, eventually, of his exploits, the amatory ones included.

  Marie-Louise wrote an entire memoir about her uncle. I haven’t read it. She never published it because she was not satisfied with it. She could not decide what to put in and what to leave out, torn between feeling she should tell the truth and wanting to present her uncle as solely heroic. She might show it to you, if you can find a way of persuading her. It’s there in the house somewhere, I expect, buried in a box in the attic. That’s where Marie-Louise keeps all the bits and pieces that don’t fit the image of his life she has constructed. She has put this composite holy portrait on show in a series of display cases. You can study the beautiful pink and red decorated porcelain plates off which he dined every day, the very smart blue silk robe he wore (copying Balzac perhaps) for composing, the handsome leopardskin rug on which he lay while in the throes of inspiration. Unlike his infinitely greater compatriot Flaubert, he kept no parrots. Unlike his infinitely more illustrious rival Mallarmé, who named his troupe les petits académiciens, he kept no parakeets. So there are no stuffed animals or birds on view. You can look at the bottle of lime eau-de-Cologne presented to him by his mother, his rosary, his crucifix, along with his books and all the other memorabilia, the famous pipe, the box of cigars. It’s a pity, really, she hasn’t included a stuffed poet, as well. It would be just as authentic as anything else.

  No, you’re right. I don’t admire his writing. Modish, superficial stuff in my opinion, which is why, I suppose, it finally did so well. His famous novella, for example, pretends to understand women, but it idealises them in a really wishy-washy way. Some of the poems speak in a woman’s voice, but to me they all sound exactly like men talking. There are several female poets of the period whose work is far superior to Colbert’s, in my opinion, but of course they aren’t allowed to be called great. Only men at that time were considered great writers. Marie-Louise, I have to say, bears considerable responsibility for the Colbert myth. Turning the house into some ridiculous sort of shrine and encouraging his admirers to venerate him as though he weren’t just a flawed human being like anyone else.

  She has rearranged the study as she claims it originally was, but in reality making a kind of stage set, stretching a red cord across the doorway to stop the public from invading and stealing souvenirs. Across this barrier you peep in at the Japanese cabinet, the armchair, the engravings, and so on. There are some watercolour sketches in glass cases, some of his letters. His collection of pornography’s not on show, of course. Though Marie-Louise was the one who told me about discovering it, after his death. Rather fine examples of early black and white photographs he presumably collected as a young man. One is a reproduction of a Courbet painting L’Origine du monde—a beautiful painting of a cunt. I wondered about the rest of the woman. Who she was. Gérard’s photographs of naked cunts, surrounded by silky black hair, had the same impact on me. I wondered who the women were.

  Marie-Louise had one particular story she used to like to tell about her uncle, in the days before she turned his home into a temple and constituted herself guardian angel of his spotless reputation. Because she won’t tell you this tale herself, I shall. But please remember, I’m not vouching for its truth. It’s one of the legends, that’s all.

  Monsieur Gérard was involved, at one and the same time, with three different women. At a certain period in his life. Three love affairs running concurrently. Of course, I shan’t mention any names. But I dare say you know the life story sufficiently well to be able to guess them. He had a mistress in Rouen, who was a dressmaker; he was sleeping with his mother’s maid; and he was also involved with Marie-Louise’s governess. That sounds like something of a harem, doesn’t it? Quite a powerful position to be in. I expect he found that quite exciting, to see himself as some sort of pasha. He could play them off one against the other, if he wanted to. I think, as far as possible, he tried to keep them ignorant of each other’s existence. Or significance, I should say. That way, of course, he could stay in control. His defence, I expect, would be that artists are different from other people, with complicated needs. But in my view he was no different from any other bourgeois male complacently assuming he was entitled to large doses of female adoration. He wouldn’t have thought about it. He just took it as his due.

  One day the three women got together, quite by chance, and compared notes. Marie-Louise claims she was there. Hers is an eyewitness account, she says. They met in a house in Rouen, behind the cathedral, in which the dressmaker had her shop premises and rented a flat. She was a young widow, rather hard up, trying to make ends meet, and so she had decided to take in a tenant. She had begun letting a room to the young governess, who had been sacked by Madame Colbert for flirtatious behaviour and general carrying on. Madame Colbert was not one for spelling things out. She liked to encourage my mother to guess the worst. The governess was presumed by the family to have gone straight back to her family in London, and to her fiancé, whereas in fact, unable to tear herself away from her hopes for the love affair with Monsieur Gérard to reach a happy conclusion, she had chosen to stay in the vicinity, find work locally as an English teacher, and wait and see what happened. She existed in a kind of dreamy state, constantly re-imagining her next meeting with the poet, and the beautiful consequences which would ensue.

  Running across the dressmaker by chance in the street, recognising her from a brief encounter months before, she had renewed the acquaintance. In her desperate need to talk about her feelings for Monsieur Colbert, to open her heart to someone who knew him, she had confessed to the dressmaker, whom she knew to be her rival, that she had intercepted a packet of her letters to Gérard at a certain point and had thrown them in the river. This dramatic announcement, worthy of the most crude type of stage melodrama, amused the dressmaker rather than enraging her. Perhaps she was a little less in love with Gérard than formerly, and so able to take things with a certain nonchalance. At any rate, whether or not she was playing some deep game, trying to appear cool and keep in control of the situation, she ended up forgiving the governess her jealously interfering behaviour. The two women even made friends, and the governess moved in.

  Marie-Louise and the servant-girl arrived at the house one morning by a series of coincidences, worthy of a romance, that I don’t need to relate since they don’t belong to this story. They recognised the governess immediately, of course; there were introductions and greetings all round, and an orgy of explanations.

  Rather than spitting and scratching, as women in this situation are traditionally supposed to do, they sat down and ate breakfast together. Bread and butter and coffee. They began to discuss the predicament in which they found themselves. The three of them all interested in the same man.

  The servant-woman, a rather over-emotional person, was not very well that morning. She felt awkward and nervous, clearly, in this odd situation; she was also exhausted because she had been suffering from insomnia; and she was in a somewhat agitated state. The dressmaker therefore put a generous tot of calvados in her coffee, a country habit as you undoubtedly know, to cheer and fortify her. The others all decided to partake too. Except the child, of course. Marie-Louise was only seven or eight at the time. Drinking calvados first thing in the morning, they soon became rather tipsy, which is the only explanation for their subsequent behaviour. Marie-Louise is sure they were all completely drunk. She remembers their reddened cheeks, waving hands, and raucous laughter. The servant-girl sat with a beatific expression on her face and apparently did not believe that what was happening was real.

  The first suggestion was that they continue exactly as they were and si
mply share Gérard between them. Pass him round between the three of them. Each could be a part-time mistress. It was the dressmaker who proposed this. She was a busy woman, with not a great deal of free time. She explained that while she loved Gérard with a certain passion she didn’t need him always to be there. She could love him quite well when he was not present. Seeing him once or twice a week would suffice her quite nicely. On the other days she could get on with her mending, and so on, or take a walk, or go to visit her old client Madame Flaubert of whom she was very fond, and generally enjoy herself contemplating the next meeting. And if she knew that at that very moment he was busy satisfying one of the other two, then so what? He had plenty of stamina; he had proved that often enough; and she would happily wait her turn to enjoy him.

  The governess vehemently disagreed. She thought the dressmaker’s suggestion cheapened the very notion of true love. She wanted the three of them to act nobly and heroically. At least, two of them should. Two of them should renounce their love for Gérard and give him up to the third. Obviously, she hoped this would be herself. She spoke eloquently about the inspiration of unconsummated love as an ideal, troubadours serenading their ladies from afar, and so on. At the same time she spoke wistfully of marriage.

  The servant-girl said that where she had worked before, people often settled their disputes by drawing lots. Also they were very fond of betting.

  Marie-Louise was not clear who made the final, definitive suggestion. They were all talking at once, spluttering, interrupting each other and laughing. But the dressmaker pushed back her chair and opened a drawer in the table at which they were all sitting, and took out a pack of cards. She cut and shuffled, shuffled and cut, dealt them each a hand. And so they played for Gérard. The victor would be able to say: I won him at cards.

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