Letters from Persia and elsewhere

Players from the drawing-room

Bernard d'Algouvres to Françoise de Breyves

 

Les Reis-Boisfrisieux, by La Roche-en-Marche.

My Dear,

   you are a darling to have had those strawberries and cream sent to us. They are exquisite. I wish you could have seen me crushing the strawberries and then stopping at exactly the right moment, when they were quite pink, without even needing to taste them, with the experience of a watercolourist and the divination of a gourmand! Where you are less nice is when you want to know everything that has made me jealous. You say that you don't want me to be, but I know perfectly well that you do want me to be! And then you go and say: "Who told you that?" and yet I won't be able to call off my spies, the spies I have, without wanting it of course, because you well know that I am not having you followed.
   But there are people who pass in the street. There's nothing remarkable about that but sometimes that is enough to cause much pain. Also, since the worldliness of my sister and the obligations of your life have sent us one to the North and the other to Touraine, like some geographic necessity that flings two rivers, initially unified and sharing a common course, to two different corners of France, I can't say to you, apart from that you read "places to stay in the country", anything that would cause me pain! Of course we don't get Le Figaro here, but page four of Le Gaulois is enough. It makes melancholy reading. Each time I see the name of somebody who might appear alluring to you has moved to Indre-et-Loire, it hurts me! So much so that I read only: "Never in Tourangeau's memory, have we had so much amusement as this year in Touraine; parties followed one another without interruption", when I see that Tournefort was dressed as a monkey and Mlle de Thianges as a gas lamp, it doesn't upset me. But these are names of some guests which - if you were at the party - would make me want to weep. And when they come to the traditional ending: "After a cotillion led with incredible gusto by Vicomte de Tournefort and Mlle de Thianges, we part company off into the dawn, not without having promised the very gracious mistress of the house that we will give up one more day in the very near future to this supremely elegant festivity; tomorrow the races etc.", I know very well that it's a cliché, I rage against all those wretched guests who have promised the mistress of the house to shortly renew my torment.
   Whereas if, on the other hand, I was there, I would find it charming and I would wait impatiently for this coming day when we could dance together. To tell the truth I bumped into Porbois (Guy de Porbois) who had been there. What I wouldn't have given to question him about all the people that had been there! There was one question in particular that was burning on my lips. Was Thierry there? I was heroic. The question was never asked. It goes without saying that if by any chance my darling agreed to answer it herself I wouldn't stop her and that would be an end to it. You see how I am begging you. I leave it to your charity my good lady.
   What! You don't know who Bonami is? Wooden Heel! But primarily he is vice-president of the club, if you please. His wooden leg has made his social fortune. In the first place it has given him an identity in society, the first indispensable element in creating a personality. Just think for how many years, if Bonami had had two legs, the person about to inscribe his name on the list of society people would have inquired about him to no avail. "I dined with a M. Bonami, who is he by the way? - Oh yes, I know, was it Georges Bonami? - Oh I don't know whether he's called Georges: a fair-haired chap. - Perhaps... I'm not really sure." And the memory banks ready to welcome this slippery waif, which no nail could fix in the sand, would have been thrown back into the tides of doubt and into the vast unknown. Bonami never had to go through this first stage, and his disability, like the injuries of soldiers, made his advance more rapid. Even if one hesitated for a moment "Bonami Jacques? - Jacques I don't know, but Wooden Heel, a gentleman with a wooden leg? - Oh yes, that's him. Yes that's Bonami, a great friend of the Estouflac la Tornes."
   But that's not all. Bonami being a handsome man, and above all having what we call chic, and in which a shuffling gait could be seen as an important element (giving him an air of "birth"), the slight hesitation in his walk, his coquettish wooden leg draws women's sympathy, or even more, their curiosity, just as a slight squint or a carefully worn monocle are sometimes more expressive than the beauty of a clear eye, or a straight gaze. Beneath impeccable trousers, in a little well-polished boot, to have a wooden leg and not to betray its presence other than by a gait whose irregularity has an air of elegance and its slowness one of refinement, is to possess something more than distinction, almost a vice which seems to promise to a woman caresses of a brutal slowness and artificial resources that no one could ever imagine. (I say this without fear, because I know that you only love nature.) Also, it always has to be said, after only ten years, to all the little snobs: "I can't understand how a woman can be attracted to a man with a wooden leg." With what contempt do they reply: "Nobody is as chic as he is", as if to say: "Not like you, with your two legs!..."
   But what admirer of the great actress would love her quite so much were it not for her flawed pronunciation? Yet, among women, Bonami has encountered adversaries, old joke partisans with beautiful equipages, with living legs, who can't understand why people sell their carriages to buy motor cars. Did you know that he married a niece of old Duc de Tournefort! Decidedly, born d'Étampes, she is dead and a little time after her marriage she seemed not to be submitting to Bonami's charms as much as did the young women who only saw his studied gait at his strutting arrival at the turf. Alas! it always happens in relationships that little by little things lose their attractions of singularity for us and, at the end of the day, it is no longer a chic gentleman that his wife has before her, when she sees his abscesses, his fear of arriving late, the dye he uses every morning to make his greying hair look younger.
   You grumble about the flies; we have lots of them too; but I like to hear them in the bedroom when the curtains have been drawn to try to keep out the heat.
   It is one of the sensations of summer and it is divine because we would never have it had summer not arrived. It is not the open-air concert of robin redbreasts, of of nightingales, that is like singing. No, the buzzing of flies is the only chamber music of summer. And they invoke it so much more of course in that they not only sum up the poetry of summer, but proclaim its presence. And do you know, when it is very hot and you are lying on your bed, it is very pretty when they settle upon you. Try it. That will remind you of something rather nice, I hope.

 

Your Bernard.

Being a faithful and true copy:    

Marcel Proust.

 


 

Amstel Hotel, Amsterdam.

My Dear,

   what a week! To begin with, as soon as Mme de Tournefort saw the announcements for the party at Eaux de Saint-Cloud, which you must have heard all about in the papers, she was determined to take us all there. While we were there, by the way, I saw the original whose portrait I had seen at your cousin's house. Do you remember it? It was painted by Hubert Robert more than a hundred years ago. But it still looks just the same. It shows the great fountain at Saint-Cloud. From a distance I recognized the ancient charm of the hills surrounding it, and there it was at the centre, quivering in the breeze and the sunshine like a huge white plume. I recognized it for what it is, that is something more than water constantly renewed over the intermittent course of its venerable and yet momentary life. It has lost none of its nimbleness or its freshness, and, erect in its trembling impetus and, its melting smoothness, letting drift its restless and murmuring plume, gilded like a beautiful cloud by the sun which it crosses in its ascent at each moment, or rather, so immobile does it appear, at every point it seems to furiously discharge into the lake, like a ballast, of small watery masses that drop down and carve out individual ripples, with a small sound that enhances the following silence and on which, sure and rushing forward, more harmonious, the shaft of water splinters and regathers. And all the length of its aerial course little droplets fall back as they run out of momentum. It was absolutely charming.
   Then we discovered that the Van Dyck exhibition at Anvers was about to finish; old Tournefort was absolutely determined to go so we pressed on as far as Amsterdam, from whence I am writing in a room overlooking the canal and huge gulls are passing by so quickly, beating their great wings and from the street at the corner of the square they appear to seek out, to scent out, to sense the sea as if their instincts were telling them that it is there beneath them, giving to this town a feeling of the seaside as they sail around as if they were above the clouds, and their cries are sucked in and are greeted by the wind because of their continual restlessness, the joyous rapture, the force of their acknowledged element.
   What a beautiful soaring and chattering host these birds make in a town! But it's you I want to talk about, about your letter in which I was so proud to find my darling so knowledgeable, quoting the very tone of the eighteenth century. The things which I have learned to love, which I have come to know through you, all the gifts which we take from our love, are like precious jewels to me which sparkle with past acts of tenderness and which are sweet to hold. Alas! there are in the one that I foolishly call my Françoise so many things that are before my eyes, that I don't know and over which I have no control, so that I prefer the things where I find myself again through you and which in moments of fatigue or doubt are like a material token of a love which is not love.
   Do you remember the day when you recited some verses which I had taught you? I have never loved you so much. Listen to this letter written at Mont-Dore and see whether it does not resemble yours and the things you say about the hotels of Auvergne, Mont-Dore and Royat: "Everyone greets me with an 'is Madame unwell' which I lose patience with, even though I am only too convinced by it. There is a vast crowd at the waters, which grieves me. A legion of hungry fleas has made my bed into a hell. I wanted to see the walks. They showed me a dozen paces one could take in a quite disagreeable spot. I am returning sadder than when I left. By dint of moving up a step and taking advantage of the departures, I found myself in a quite acceptable room with a fire, at least by Mont-Dore's standards, opposite the fountain which people drink from." "By taking advantage of the departures". Don't you remember, Françoise, the same thing being said by a porter at the hotel we were staying in when he said to us: "There are a lot of departures this week."
   And yet this letter, written from Mont-Dore, is dated August 1803. And the porter never suspected that he was using the same expression as Madame de Beaumont. Because it was indeed she who wrote those things to Joubert. Yes it is she, 'that Herculaneum figure, who glides noiselessly through the air, scarcely sheathed in a body', that Pauline de Montmorin, who is so like my darling, because of which for a long time when I still dared not call you Françoise, I used to call you Pauline. It was her Christian name. But it was not yours. But to call you by a Christian name all the same, to touch you in effigy, I was already half way down the road. In any case isn't it astonishing that at that time she was saying 'departures', just as we say today.
   Because as my darling pupil knows things change very little, she who knows better than some old scholar that page in Aristotle where, in order to show that one cannot experience at one and the same time pleasures of a different order, he gives this example: "It is when the play is bad, when one's interest begins to wander, that we start eating sweets in our boxes." I know of another place where Madame de Beaumont's chamber still exits. It is the odious novelist X... who lives in it. As the chateau tour guide says: "This is the spot where Mary Stuart used to kneel, which is now the place where we keep the brooms." The romance of Auvergne that you told me about is very pretty. The one that took place in the hotel at Mont-Dore in 1803 was quite worthy of those of today: it was the novel Atala. It was in order to give it to Chateaubriand that Madame de Beaumont wanted to prolong her life. It had been two years earlier that she had rented a house for Savigny so that he could finish the Génie du Christianisme in peace. He was deceiving her already, getting Chênedollé write to tell her that he had left for Avignon when he was in Brittany with Madame de Chateaubriand who he had not seen for ten years.
   But she was made to believe from his books that he led far too Christian a life to trample under foot a sacrament like marriage. Madame de Beaumont left Mont-Dore to go to Rome, much to the scandal of the diplomatic world, to seek the person who would dare to say later, after her death, that he had never felt any true attachment before he knew Madame Récamier. How tiresome! I have a thousand things to tell you but if I don't stop myself this letter won't get sent. I shall write to you tomorrow with regard to M. de Thianges and a thousand other things. The day after tomorrow I shall be back at Boisfriseux. It would be madness to stop. Just imagine, Lapenard is furious that he was not warned that there was a plot, or at least an alleged plot. He would have given a hefty sum and would have formed some very distinguished connections.
Instead of applying to their supporters Princes will have to tap up snobs. They will donate their money to the plot just like they would donate to a charity sale. There are plenty of people for whom changing the form of government is nothing to them if it can get them invited to hunts. They would make a play of a return to the monarchy. But do you really believe that they would concern themselves with the reconstruction of the basilica at your house? They would like to be invited to your garden parties and would give to the plot just as they would give to a sale where one is less concerned with the interest of the work than the quality of the patronesses. Regards to the prince, when you see him.

Your Bernard.

Being a faithful and true copy:    

Marcel Proust.

 

First letter appeared in La Presse 19 September, which was followed on 20 September by a reply from Françoise signed: Robert de Flers. The third and final letter appeared 12 October 1899.

 


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