The Salon of Comtesse Potocka
It seems to happen very often
that novelists have portrayed, through anticipation, with a kind
of prophetic accuracy in every detail, a society and even
individuals who could not have existed until a very long period
after them. For my part, I have never been able to read Les
Secrets de la princesse de Cadignan where we see that the
princess, "now leading a very simple existence, lived just a
few steps away from her husband's mansion that no fortune could
buy, on a ground floor where she was in possession of a very
pretty little garden full of shrubs in which the always green
grass brightened up her seclusion"; - I have never been able
to come to the chapter in La Chartreuse de Parme where
we see that on the day comtesse Pietranera left her husband,
"all the carriages from high society came there nonetheless
to stop all afternoon outside the house where she had taken an
apartment", - without thinking that Balzac and Stendhal had
"by virtue of a nominative decree" forseen and
predicted the existence of comtesse Potocka, to the extent of
conforming to the most minute details.
Comtesse Pietranera! Princesse de Cadignan! delightful figures! neither more "literary" nor more "alive" than that, yet so different, of comtesse Potocka. How many times have I thought of you (I mean to say the outward appearance of your life, not your life of course) upon seeing a little-known figure ringing at the small mansion in rue Chateaubriand only to receive from the concierge a pitiless: "Madame la comtesse has gone out", while the duchesse de Luynes's carriage driving up at a walking pace outside the door or the parked motor car of the comtesse de Guerne proclaim only too clearly that "Madame la comtesse" is well and returned some time ago. And so as not to add further humiliation to the sadness of the scorned visitor I wait until he is far away. Only then do I approach the concierge who concedes to me that: "The comtesse is at home". With the door closed heavily onto the rue Chateaubriand, it seems that by some strange enchantment one is now twenty miles from Paris, while the "little garden full of shrubs and grass" as described by Balzac immediately bewilders the imagination by eagerly appealing to it in the language of its silence and the clamour of its scents. Never was a zone of initiation more fertile to cross before approaching a goddess.
At the moment of arrival in the comtesse's vestibule one has already shed all memory and all thoughts of the town and the day. One arrives as changed as if one has had to make a long pilgrimage to reach some remote dwelling. But for reasons, which are also very Balzacian, which we shall explain presently, this exile of the heart, even from Paris, was not sufficient for the comtesse. For her it had to be total exile. And it is now quite in the depths of Auteuil, almost at the gates of Boulogne, between the plane trees in the rue Théophile-Gautier, the chestnut trees in the rue La Fontaine and the poplars in the rue Pierre-Guérin, that every day the "little flock", to take the expression used by Saint-Simon about Fénelon, is obliged to go to find their beloved empress who, having no need of anyone else, cares little about living in an area which is inconvenient for the rest of the world, and which shows fresh proof of her disdain for humanity and of her love of animals by her making her home in a spot where, she would say, maybe no other human being ever came, but where she could take care of her dogs; for in this way, this woman who devotedly, when she is so loved, has never shown anything less than total detachment from any human affection in her whole life, has shown a contemptuously cynical philosophy towards humanity, doubting all affection; mocking philosophy, this woman renounces her impassibility, abases her splendour before the poor crippled strays that she takes in. In order to care for them, she had not gone to bed for a year. Although one could say of her, as did Balzac about the princesse de Cadignan, that "She is today one of the most fastidious women in Paris in her manner of dress", she no longer has her clothes made, does not bother, allows herself to put on weight, does not concern herself with anything other than her dogs. She will get up at all hours every night to care for a poor epileptic dog which she successfully cures. She does not go out other than for them, at times when it is convenient for them, like her friend the great artist Mme Madeleine Lemaire, who only went to the Great Exposition once "so that her Loute could see the Eiffel tower". And occasionally, in the heart of the Bois de Boulogne, in a secluded avenue, through the morning mist, "taking the paw of her frightened Collie", followed and preceeded by a yelping pack of hounds, the comtesse can be seen emerging, her pale beauty equal to that of the indifferent Artemis, who has been portrayed in poetry in the same situation:
It is the hour when through bramble and grass,
Surrounded by mastiffs, ... superb,
Invincible Artemis strikes fear throughout the woods.
And as they were too noisy in
Paris and disturbed the neighbours they all moved to Auteuil. But
her "little flock" followed her. All of the faithful,
the dowager duchesse de Luynes, Mme de Brantes, the marquise de
Lubersac, the marquise de Castellane, comtesse de Guerne, that
great singer whom I cannot help but mention today, the marquise
de Ganay, comtesse de Béarn, comtesse de Kersaint, M. Dubois de
l'Estang, the marquis du Lau, a gentleman of the first order, who
was only prevented from serving at the highest level and
flourishing in the highest offices by the vicissitudes of
politics, the charming duc de Luynes, comte Mattieu de Noailles,
whose superb, distinguished and life-like portrait has just been
exhibited by the duc de Guiche at the Salon; comte de Castellane
(who we have already spoken about in connection with Mme
Madeleine Lemaire's salon, and of whom we shall have course to
speak about again soon), the marquis Vitteleschi, M. Widor, and
finally M. Jean Béraud, whose glory, talent, prestige, charm,
kindness and wit we have already spoken of in that same salon of
Mme Madeleine Lemaire's - all of them would go to the ends of the
earth to seek her out because they cannot do without her. At the
very least, to begin with, feeling that they were losing her,
something which she appeared not even to notice, they would make
very difficult journeys in order to see her. "It is very
pretty here," the comte de Rochefoucauld told her, after
having undertaken the pilgrimage for the first time. "Is
there anything interesting to visit in the neighbourhood?"
Among the regular vistors to the comtesse is one whose name is
especially beloved to readers of this newspaper, who are used to
finding in his articles a kind of philosophical opportuneness, of
striking diligence, such as his article about writing style which
touches from afar, even if he does not endorse them, so many
young men in society who have taken the mistaken path of a
literary vocation. He is comte Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld. You
have all seen this remarkable young man who carries on his brow,
like two precious hereditary jewels, the bright eyes of his
mother. But rather than talk about him myself, as it is not the
custom here for our collaborators to praise one another, I would
prefer to quote the opinion of an authorized judge on the
subject: "He will show extraordinary talent", M.
Eugène Dufeuille said yesterday, "he will be the glory of
his world and also its scandal".
Born Pignatelli, comtesse Potocka is descended from Innocent XII whom Saint-Simon described magnificently. "He was a great and saintly Pope, a true shepherd and universal father, such as is very rarely seen on the throne of St Peter and who swept away universal regrets, overflowing with blessings and merits. He was called Antoine Pignatelli, from an ancient Neapolitan family for which he was archivist until his election on 12 July 1691 ... He was born in 1615 and had been inquisitor in Malta, Nuncio of Poland, etc. ... this pope whose memory is precious to all Frenchmen and especially dear to the royal family." (Saint-Simon, pages 364 and 365, volume II of the Chérnel edition.) This side of comtesse Potocka's genealogy is by no means unimportant to us. It seems to me that in her I see the ardent patriot, the friend of France, the faithful royalist and, if I may say so, a little of the great inquisitor who was her ancestor. Among those of her heretical friends (naturally I am excluding in the same way as one or two others, the exquisite Mme Cahen, for whom she has a deep affection, and that remarkable woman who is Mme Kahn) who she willingly takes to the Opéra, I sometimes ask myself whether, in former times, she might not have led some of them with even more pleasure to the stake. She has an intellect which is free from all prejudice, but faithful to social superstitions. She is full of contradictions, richness and beauty.
She knew all the most interesting artists from the end of the last century. Maupassant visited her house every day. Barrès, Bourget, Robert de Montesquiou, Reynaldo Hahn, Widor go there still. She was also the lover of a well known philosopher, and even though she was always good and faithful to the man, she enjoyed humiliating the philosopher in him. Here again I recognize the little niece of Popes, keen to humble the arrogance of reason. The tales of the jokes she played, so it is said, on the celebrated Caro unavoidably make me think of the story about Campaspe making Aristotle walk on all fours, one of the only stories from antiquity to be depicted in cathedrals during the Middle Ages in order to demonstrate the powerlessness of pagan philosophy to preserve man from his sufferings. So in the jokes attributed to comtesse Potocka by legend, of which the spiritualist philosopher was the smiling and resigned victim, I believe I can see along with the Neapolitan gaiety which is like an atavistic preoccupation, the unconscious solicitude of Christian apologetics. Those people who have once managed to surmount the magnificent caprices of this proud and singular creature have taken a sudden and marvellous leap into a friendship with her, into a habit which excites the passions, so that they are unable to renounce those pleasures, they are captivated because the comtesse is always herself, that is to say somebody that no-one else could be, drawn in because one never knows what is going to happen with her from one moment to the next, because she is, not inconstant, but constantly changing.
We know how very seductive she can be with her antique beauty, her Roman majesty, her Florentine grace, her French manners and her Parisian wit. As for Poland which is also her homeland (since she married that charming and good man comte Potocki), she has said herself what part of it there is of it in her in one of her street urchin expressions which contrast with her statuesque majesty, in her sing-song voice (the sweetest of instruments which this great musician knows how to play so well) and which we could quote to finish this piece. One day when she was cold and was warming herself, not replying to the faithful who greeted her, and who were somewhat intimidated by her lack of welcome, soliloquizing in an earnest and uneasy voice and respectfully kissing the hand that she distractedly held out without appearing to notice them (I am one such, oh mortal one, like an illusion in stone), she indicated the stove before which she had come to warm herself to one especially favoured person and in a melancholy or joyous return, I don't know which, she cried: "My Choubersky! It is all I have left of Poland!"
Article appeared in Le Figaro, 13 May 1904 and reprinted in Chroniques (Libraire Gallimard, 1927).
Return to Front Page