"The Cross of Berny"1
[Pauline de Dives to the Abbot]
Paris, 4 August 93
No I am not neglecting you my dear abbot but I prefer not to write to you at all than not to write everything to you. Since it is best that I reply to you, let us enter again into a correspondence that will give me much pleasure and do me much good. Allow me only to leave, along with a greater part of my heart, a blank margin. It is all very good being sincere, but it does not do to be cynical. Nevertheless, what good me confessing intentions which through that would assume a definite reality. And then you are good enough to say to me "it is not the priest, it is the friend", which is even more alarming. There are things I would say to the priest that should not dwell in the memory of the friend. Distract me, I am deep in sadness and I have great need of you. The Princesse d'Alériouvre put on an absurd play at her house the day before yesterday. In addition to which I have never witnessed such a stupid and vulgar body of hired applauders. The whole of Mexico and Paraguay must have been there. There weren't ten people there I knew. Never mind that this soirée had much melancholic charm being the last soirée of the year. You well know that this is not through love of others and that I hardly ever go there. But imagine what it means to be the last soirée of the year. Imagine that a person (and evidently there are several of them there) who is falling in love goes to the last soirée of the year with the consciousness that she will not see the one she loves again for several months. At the very most, and anxiously arranging all the circumstances, she learns that that will not be until the winter. Just enough to spend her days and nights, at Trouville or at Saint-Moritz, dreaming of Touraine or Spa. Yes, I pity all those poor fragile lives that this early autumn wind disperses so cruelly so that their love is always far away from them. In the same way, dear abbot, each time it rains, I am sad in memory of the times as a very small girl when I would spend hours at my window to see if the weather was fine, if my nurse-maid would take me to the Champs-Elysées where a young boy used to play with me who I loved more than I have ever loved anyone in my life. The slightest cloud would fill me with gloom. A few drops of rain would bring tears to my eyes. Each time it rains I pray for all the little girls who are in love and who cannot go to the Champs-Elysées and whose suffering nobody knows. Before every ball I pray for all those who have no other occasion of seeing the one they think about all the time, who would suffer terrible disappointment if he does not come to the ball, if even at the last minute their mother has not made up her mind whether to go or not. Truly the life of a young girl in society who is in love is an all the more moving silent poem of melancholy and suffering. Like sorrowful anniversaries I solemnize the afternoon downpours, balls that do not live up to their expectations, and more than anything the last soirée of the year. And I was too sad (without, my dear abbot, any personal reasons for being so) at Mme d'Alériouvre's to be bored with it as I would have been and the horrible people who were there assumed in my mind a certain desolate grandeur. None of this is of any pleasure to you, but I am speaking to the friend, so that the abbot is not offended. God protect me from turning into a bluestocking, as you know nothing could be more loathsome to me. But I want to say my piece in order to shake off my sadness which will break I hope like a storm at sea. With the frame of mind I have been in in recent days you can well see how tragic this would all be. But I am rather embarrassed; if you see Chalgrain2 ask him the causes. I have only found two that would be sufficiently tragic. For one, the postmen who carry about with them so many joys and disappointments. I assure you that for a woman in love, it is in all the letters that she is waiting expectantly for and all those that do arrive that are not the ones she is waiting for that lay the greatest dramas of her every day. Even if she is not allowed to receive the letters that she is wanting, if the one who could write them doesn't know that she would dearly love to receive them or even who she is - those are the letters that she waits for all the same; and she calls to the help of her absurd hope all her superstitions, mysticism,, her oldest romantic nature that it does not die from its self same impossibility. Which too is truly a drama of every day. To thwart in her heart the arriving postman with the certainty that he is not bringing what for him would be so easy to bring, that is not a banal encounter but I paint it only from this side of the subject. And all the bad news about invalids, telegrams about mortal accidents to a mother, those harsh letters from a son to a mother, or from a husband to his wife, where they place something insurmountable between themselves against which every burst of tenderness gets dashed to pieces, all this will be there. My second truly tragic subject would be the dowagers who spend their time planning marriages, and who sometimes succeed alas in this abominable labour of destruction and death. We know all about that, do we not my dear abbot? You will see them busy with their needlework, exchanging their awful schemes with a self-satisfied air and I will try to extend my portrait of them as far as to lend them such a character that they appear to be the Fates (truly the Fates) in the act of spinning our destinies. Also, I think that that would be to such good effect that the scenery of such a salon in the Faubourg that you know well my dear abbot, all of a sudden lays itself open and from the depths you see, beforehand, the whole irrevocable effect of the miseries these old women are in the act of weaving, the lives drenched in tears, husbands going off with their mistresses in front of their disconsolate wives, suicides, murders, etc. There we have it, my well-intentioned abbot. But I think all that is for later and I hope all the same so as not to disgust my friends and so that Chalgrain continues to come and see me, that that will never happen. I thought the article in the Gaulois about Chalgrain's snobbishness idiotic. If Chalgrain prefers our world to the others, it is mainly its artists, it is because he prefers Poitiers or Rome to Chicago or to new industrial towns that have lost all their soul and any memory of their past. God knows he makes exceptions for young Americans (you understand me abbot) and that he leaves aside plenty of old Poitivingians and austere Romans. But if I had believed all this about him (although in the end he must be much more pleased with my severity and that way there is much more excuse for him) I would have made so many acquaintances that before too many years my salon would have become something nameless, something (horror of horrors!) like Princesse d'Alériouvre's salon. Let me know if you are coming to see me one of these months my dear abbot because that will make up my mind perhaps to rent a large and very beautiful property in Touraine where you can hunt to your heart's content. Till now, I have been making week long excursions and I always come back to Paris for 2 or 3 days which is lovely: there is nobody here. Do you think I should get myself involved in the elections this year? Write to me at greater length won't you. I love you with all of my heart.
[Pauline de Dives to the Abbot]
I have been here since yesterday, my dear abbot and my departure had been decided upon too quickly to let you know about it. Even today, I only have time to write to you without really having time to write. I simply want to thank you for your letter which did me a lot of good. How - like in the photograph frame of your salon in which I am just the same at every age - I continue to resemble myself in character and in spirit from the time when you were already so good to me as a little girl. This is for me, particularly at this moment, so scattered, so searching - without finding myself - for me, a great support, a little bit of certainty, like something to hold onto. I can no longer stay in Paris so nervous was I there and not being able to go out where I would have wanted, I preferred to go far away, feeling myself at least protected from wild temptations and at least putting between them and me, for want of any will-power on my part - a very great distance and a long way to travel. Alas, alone like this, the sadness I always feel in new places far from home, especially in new lodgings, crueller still in a new bed, has this time become a real grief of exile. I hope to make myself well and truly thrive in this countryside which is superb, astonishingly Wagnerian, with its lakes the green of precious stones,and above the mountains, the clouds, trailing their vast blue shadows as they do at sea (you know those vast patches of sea) and all around are pine forests, ideal for a descent of the Valkyries or for encounters with Lohengrin. On the road that takes 14 hours by coach from Coire, there is on a truly inaccessible and vertiginous crest a ruined castle that makes me dream about defunct lords. What crimes, what hereditary vices lingered through generation to generation in this eagle's eyrie to defend against prying, against all manner of hatred and violence. To attack them would have been folly, to see them against their wishes impossible. All around them, the grandiose desolation of the violet mountains and the intoxication of absolute solitude must have carried to excess all their sensual pleasures, made them poetic, freed them, made them boundless, without making them less piquant. Because you know, my dear abbot, Baudelaire said "there are certain sensations whose vagueness does not exclude intensity, and there is no sharper point than that of Infinity". What a place to fall in love! I write these last words without, at the same time, thinking deeply about them because my feeling for them is too strong and love, like mountain peaks, has a sort of vertigo. I have no thought for this director at the moment of course; when I am back I shall do what you wish, Father. But is the man as admirable as you say - or rather would I not be too beneath him now to be illuminated by his celestial light now that the humility of my spirit and of my still so imperfect heart is once again at such a low point, when I am in such profound collapse. Would it not be better to wait for the end of this crisis, when my soul has regained its composure, when this weight upon me is lessened, when I have risen back to the surface, still so abject, but in the end as you really want to believe that out of divine clarity can be made to shine a little virtue. I will do everything you tell me, I am your friend and servant. Open your arms so that in them can weep, be comforted, rest and be refreshed, your
You cannot imagine the elytral shades of the lake as I write to you. It revives in me this desire I was telling you about the other day to have peacocks and an opal. But peacocks, where, my dear? I would really love to see them in winter and if they are at Haître, what is to be done? At Rue Barbet-de-Jouy, the garden really is to small, and they would keep me awake. Did you know that you can get used to their cry? I don't know if you have got Robert de Montesquiou's Chef des odeurs suaves. The book is not on sale yet but there are de luxe editions. I mention it because there are two marvellous pieces about Peacocks. If you don't have it I will copy them out for you. If you do have the book, look for the piece entitled "Pavones" and the following one "Paon, l'oiseau Paon est mort, le Dieu Pan l'a pleuré". [Peacock, the Peacock bird is dead, the god Pan wept for it] That's all. I have been told that your niece d'Alériouvres is expected here. Is that true?
[Pauline de Dives to the Abbot]
Ah! my dear little abbot, you do not like me submissive and you want me offended. Your heart "will swell with happiness if I told you, my dear abbot, you are nothing but a fool". Well well, let your heart swell then. How can you reproach me for seeing Valkyries behind the trees? But, my unfortunate one, what do you see there then? And if I ceased to see them, do you think that I would still love the trees. You do not then know the story of the madman who believed he could see the Chinese princess again in a bottle. Somebody broke his bottle for him. From the madman he was he became a brute. Is it upon universal cretinism that you wish to lay the foundation of virtue? The kingdom of God must be very well populated! As for me, father, if you permit it and even if you don't permit it I shall pray to God every day that he lets me see Valkyries behind the trees in Engadine for a long time to come, being convinced that they are beautiful and innocent creatures that it is good to see anywhere one can, and far from striving not to look at their warlike graces I shall ask myself whether one does not see them better still by not thinking about them, being of the opinion that there is no reason at all to harden our heart before offering it to God but rather to bequeath to Him all our foolish blooms the better for Him to rejoice in them. I should also tell you, my dear abbot, that it is very strange to hear you say that by not listening to confessions other than from poor country girls, that you have lost your talents as a spiritual director. The noble director who wants only souls of choice, of interest, capable of serving as the model for studying a case in a psychological novel.
"Christian love, father, there it is!" Do you also insist that your clients are rich, of good birth, beautiful and hold forth elegantly on the passions of love? I will no longer be docile, I will no longer be malleable, if I am able. It's too stupid. We only respect people who talk of insults. It is in those that speak harshly that we recognize in life the people we must obey. So much the better for me, my dear abbot, that you know I will remain tender and amiable because I don't know how to do otherwise and that I am the same little Pauline who you have always predicted could do nothing but love. So much the better for me, because if amiability serves for anything, the imbeciles and the spiteful who say that our amiability is nothing but a ruse of ambition could have the appearance of good sense. Whereas in that way the skill would be to be disagreeable with everyone with a few moments of respite in which they would be grateful to you as if from a last caress... A bad character is a force against which nothing can vie. You see how I have contradicted you completely and if I have the time, I will do the same for Judea for which I no longer find in you any very Christian feelings. For myself I would still have some excuses, but you who are under no obligations to it for troublesome invitations, it is unpardonable of you not to open your heart to it. The sun is scorching. A breeze is getting up on the lake. My boat is ready. I leave you now to take a breath of cool air fishing for trout before dinner. I will be thinking about you in these delightful moments and I embrace you.
1. Abandoned epistolary novel inspired by a novel of the same title by Théophile Gautier and three of his friends. In this collaboration, Proust played Pauline, Daniel Halèvy an abbot, Louis de La Salle an army officer and Fernand Gregh an artist. The project was abandoned after only a few of the letters were written. Letters translated here are only the ones written by Proust.
2. Chalgrain is the artist whose letters were to be written by Fernand Gregh.
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