The evening heat was humid, heavy. Henri stopped for a moment to examine, one by one, the reproductions of photographs he had clipped from various sports newspapers and pinned on the walls, after going over them in color: brawls among soccer players, red lines against cerulean lines, mustached pugilists, rectangular fields crossed by a rugby ball’s path.
Henri often used photography to work on his paintings. For example, every detail of the grocer’s family portrait, which was still on the easel, could be found in the chiaroscuro of the photo of his cart that lay on the adjacent table. Monsieur Junier sat holding the bridles, the painter himself next to him, and in the back, his wife and their two little girls. Sure, it wanted some sort of embellishing touch; the decrepit nag became a nervous colt with a defiant forelock over its eyes, old Claude’s baldness changed into a thick chestnut mane parted in the middle; not to mention the adjustments needed to transform the sinister emptiness of a street in the city’s impoverished outskirts into a wide, lizard-green plain. For the task of the artist, thought Henri, is sensing the terror of his models’ miserable souls and portraying it, perhaps with a disguise. Because all painting is essentially a kind of storytelling; and therefore, just like any story, it cannot be a copy of nature. The narrator must exaggerate the common view, in such a way that he transforms things from nothing into extraordinary objects.
Exactly: for Henri, doing a painting had always been like a voyage into chaos; every night three nights and a jug of wine. An adventurous penetration of the world of dreams, without the limitations of the body but with the infinity of the imagination; feeling his little room lose its weight, the light of the full moon filling the courtyard like a lake, the waves of light fluttering over the canvas sitting on the easel.
He heard Aline’s shouting from the concierge’s apartment. Although Henri lived in the fourth floor attic, he could hear the girl’s voice from the window, which was open because of the heat. He could not, however, make out the discussion she and Antoinette must have been engaged in. Even straining his ear did not help Henri make out anything but a mumbled conversation, overtaken every now and then by a sudden explosion of laughter.
Aline . . . In another era, that girl would have been a fairy, one of those superhuman creatures capable of transforming the men who come across their path. So beautiful and young was she, with her braid of thick red hair; and her full mouth, a peach; her freckled cheeks, the fine, golden down on her arms when she rolled her sleeves up to her elbows to do the laundry in the courtyard. Then her eyes, a flash of light. And those tiny breasts that just barely stretched the fabric of her blouse.
Since the beginning of summer, when Aline had come from the country to stay with her aunt, the concierge at the building on Rue Gassendi, there had been no peace for Henri. He found her in front of him every time he was on the stairs or looked out the balcony, and unfailingly, he was overcome by a frightening timidity.
Aline, girl-flower, a radiant light that calls to love, a desire that scalds your skin, reinvents your life. He would have loved to do her portrait, paint her naked like a wild Eve with her languid gaze, in a fantasy forest of blackgreen bluegreen pinkgreen. No, better not-every image of Eve carries the idea of an illicit desire, a transgression, a sin of seduction. Better paint her like a muse, with her budding chest modestly concealed behind the pleated blue tunic, with a crown of lilies encircling her brow, her fingers raised to point toward the sky; and around her, a sprouting profusion of violets, like a rind or the walls of a room, in a space frozen by art for time eternal.
He felt feverish, his leg hurt terribly. And his throat was dry. Damn it, he would never dare ask her to pose for him. Aline didn’t seem to him the type of person who was particularly interested in art. Like all the rest of women: always lost in a load of laundry to do, a shelf to dust, the crostini for the onion soup or the new dress to wear to the party; where could they find the time to take an interest in art? Henri thought. Even more so for a girl like Aline, still with milk on her lip.
But he knew that wasn’t even the conundrum. The real problem was that Henri had caught fire like tinder and had fallen in love with Aline. Head over heels. That is why he froze when he came upon her. Because there was a notable age difference; she was only seventeen but he . . . “She’d consider me old,” Henri kept telling himself, despondent: he had clearly seen those little faces Aline made when he passed by, as he heard her snickering and chattering with her cousin, Antoinette. “She’d consider me old . . .” To be able to go back to being the foolish boy of long ago, to be able to relive the sense of exuberant hopes and incredible delights that life holds at Aline’s age: in that magical space of discovery and games of love, when our name resounds constantly like a bell in the mouth of the one who loves us. How short youth is, for with the passage of the years our original glory fades away, burns out: at the point when the earth swallows first our name and then our body.
But his thoughts could not stop spinning around Aline. Like the moth to the light. Almost as if meeting her would have made Henri realize that, beyond the canvas, there existed a world he had never imagined: the world of losing your head at age sixty-six, of a love difficult, risky, uncertain, yet appealing for precisely that reason. During that brief summer Aline had become for Henri an obsession, from which he couldn’t-wouldn’t-free himself.
It was too hot, but the late summer had proved to be so muggy. Furthermore, his leg ached; since last month, when it had been badly wounded by a rusty nail, the limb had become tremendously swollen from the knee down, and Henri dragged it behind him, increasingly heavy. He sat down at the table. The desire to drink tormented him; bad thoughts always made him thirsty. After a second of hesitation, he poured a glass of the cloudy cheap wine that filled the bottom of the jug. He swallowed it in a single gulp and immediately felt overwhelmed by an unreasonable fear. He had promised the doctor that he wouldn’t drink any more; his liver was wrecked and the medications he was taking for his leg injury didn’t allow the consumption of alcohol. Not even in the tiniest quantity. But this idea seemed sad, like a despondent death knell at his desire to live: to Henri, drinking had always signified a happy, enthusiastic mood. And so, fairy-girl-Aline, why aren’t you merciful with me?
He looked out the window. The evening courtyard was tinted violet. A gorgeous painting. A new explosion of laughter distracted him: Antoinette and Aline must have been talking about something really funny. Bless them. The voice of his beloved made him oddly excited. The heat in the attic where he lived had become truly suffocating.
Henri nudged open the door that led from his little room into the corridor. He went down the stairs with effort, one flight at a time. After reaching the bottom, he caught his breath and silently approached the concierge’s kitchen door. The two girls had to be home alone; only their voices could be heard.
He heard Antoinette speaking. “But love is too important a matter for . . . ” she said.
In a slightly lower, ingratiating voice, Aline retorted: “My dear Antoinette, I’m afraid you don’t even know what love is.” The other girl didn’t respond. “Is that true or not?” Aline persisted, laughing nervously. “You could also say that about me. I didn’t have much experience, until three years ago, that was when I met that man for the first time, the country doctor, once I took a basket of eggs to his house and his wife wasn’t there . . .” A moment of silence, then: “You know, men, once you’ve had a taste of them, you can’t go without . . .”
Was that Aline-the-flower who was engaging in dirty talk and giving in to that vulgar laughter? Fairy-girl-Aline?
Henri should have retreated, but instead opened the door (who knows why) without making a sound and now stood there in the doorway, his head spinning, enveloping the two girls in his desolate look.
The surprise in their eyes cast his image back at him: a little old man, a bit tipsy, his bare feet in tattered slippers, his pajamas wrinkled, unbuttoned enough to reveal the white hair on his chest. A pathetic retired customs officer, a common swindler, two-time widower, crackpot artist who goes out of town on Sundays, a drunkard . . . Aline’s irritated tone wounded him: “What are you doing, Monsieur Rousseau? Were you spying on us?” The way she scowled; her tiny breasts that seemed to bounce aggressively under her blouse. That dazzling beauty.
Frightened, he retreated, muttering excuses.
Back upstairs, he sat down again at the table and resumed drinking. May the sky fall on his head, the police come and seize his easel and canvasses, his friends snub him: all this would scare him less than the contemptuous laughter of that ferocious child. He pictured her under the full moon on an evening a month ago. Aline, wearing a little white apron, was idly rocking in a chair in the moonlit courtyard; and he, from the fourth floor, heard her laugh. Henri watched the circle of apartments that enclosed the horizon and felt lost, recognizing the depth of his love: no way out. He closed the window and took a few steps across the dirty rug spread out in front of the big, empty double bed; and there, without quite understanding what was happening to him, he knelt and wept, whispering Aline’s name.
Barely a month had passed but everything seemed changed. The ancient serpent had put himself to work, on the destruction of the useless splendor of Paradise. Now another night opened before him: with the trap of dark shadows, the hiccups of fresh sins, the vague voice of doubt, the cobwebs in the corners of time. With the intolerable sultriness and the solitude of cheap wine. He opened a new jug and poured a glass, then another. He felt a mild nausea coming over him. It wasn’t wise to drink, but there was in Henri the hope that a delightful sense of lightness would soon wash over him.
But nothing. Only vertigo and liver cramps.
Well, what did you expect? That a lovely little filly like Aline would fall at your feet or throw her arms around your neck? Henri suffered, stupefied and nervous, but didn’t quite know why. His eye fell on the blank canvas leaning on the easel and the tubes of paint. Where did this sadness come from, in which it seemed to him that those things-his things-didn’t concern him any more? Perhaps what gnawed at him most was the fact that Aline wasn’t an innocent child, but an amateur queen of naughtiness. What an ass you are, he said to himself. Attractions should not be built by fantasy. If you hadn’t spied on Aline tonight, if you had stayed in your room and cradled yourself in the endless emptiness of your rocking chair . . . But not you, you wanted to erase the days of your age, flaccid and vacillating; to take a risk, to seek who knows what, to pursue the sinuous fragility of a white throat. And the ancient serpent has made you pay.
Grimacing, he looked in the mirror: a lock of hair crossed his lined forehead, his unshaven beard sullied his cheeks, his mustache was ungroomed, his eyes bloodshot. It is not white hair that engenders wisdom, the proverb rightly says . . . Two deep furrows starting at his nostrils framed his half-open mouth in its bitter expression. It would never be like it was before.
Finally he extinguished the lamp and stretched out on his back in the big empty bed with his eyes open. His leg sank down as if the sheet consisted of a ton of bricks.
He again felt weak and disgusted; it had been foolish to give in to that absurd infatuation, without worrying about securing a path of retreat. He reheard Aline telling her cousin about her amorous adventures. He pictured her before his eyes in the most obscene poses. His imagination, honed by his craft, was able to compose terribly lifelike pictures. Tossing nervously in his bed, he tried to stop thinking about Aline making love to other people, but he did not succeed; by nature, Henri possessed the art of creating images, but not that of exorcising them and removing himself from the intense activity of fantasizing.
He lighted the lamp, got up, drank again. Why hadn’t the wine given him any perceptible euphoria tonight? How impatient he was to spot the first light of dawn.
He lay back down. The image of Aline was still there behind his closed eyelids. So much the worse! Useless to fight this absurd obsession; so why not give in to it?
Said and done. He imagined her in a house in the country. In his mind he sketched a mildly pretentious sitting room swathed in darkness; the shutters were closed due to the excessive heat. There’s the doctor materializing in the doorway, circumspectly closing the door, pulling little Aline to him, fondling her raw flesh after lifting her light organza summer dress.
Another glass, and it became completely different: it was fall, the rain pouring down on the dead vineyards, on the muddy paths, those sad afternoons when you want to light the lamp before four, so black was the darkness produced by the trees that surrounded the house. As the water flooded over the gutters full of decaying leaves, Aline entered the doctor’s living room and lay down on the sofa . . . No, it didn’t work. A juicy love scene needed the ardent heat of summer, that drowsiness of animal life when neither the body nor the spirit knows how to fight against the smallest thing; when the ancient serpent regenerated, strengthened by the annihilation of the universe. That’s it, it must have happened in a sultry, late summer evening; he saw Aline going wild in the lazy mess of the doctor’s sitting room, the clothes haphazardly strewn across the floor, the languid blackness of the room broken by the agitation of her blood-colored braid, the swelling of her lips contorted into a smirk of vulgar pleasure.
He felt the darkness of that August night invading him with ferocity. For the color black has a huge mouth, when alcohol together with the passage of time intoxicates us. The dirty years, years empty and blackened by the vain expectation of happiness.
He made an effort to imagine the face of Aline’s first lover. That doctor. What might he have looked like . . . ? He imagined him with the hazy look of the lustful, the dissolute. Had Aline really loved him? What did love mean to Aline? He felt like vomiting, the pangs in his liver had become extremely painful. Poor idiot, you drank too much. And suddenly Henri understood, with undeniable proof like nothing else that had value in his eyes, as if his spirit could not stick to those lame shadow tricks, phantom disputes, which he couldn’t believe in, which he didn’t believe in. He again heard Aline’s shrill laughter in his ears; he couldn’t manage to shut it out any more than he could cats in heat yowling on the roofs in June.
The sorcery of good sleep. To be able to attain it, sink into it. Once he had painted a gypsy sleeping on a sand dune; he had given her a dress with wide, colored stripes rumpled by the night breeze, hair of pink bananas. To drown in the collapsing exhaustion of someone who has reached the smoky caverns of sleep. The paralysis of time, for sleep is always the greatest defense.
But sleep didn’t come. Just the opposite, a discomforting lucidity that pain inflicted upon him. What was this love Aline had blathered about? One speaks of love without knowing what it is. Unexpectedly, Henri’s malaise was infused with an excruciating sense of solitude, as if he were the only man in the world to know the vacuity of what excited Aline and so many young people like her. What they called love appeared strangely insipid to Henri’s eyes.
A ray of light illuminated the window. The gray color of Aline’s eyes fixed on him through the open blinds. Here was another sad dawn when a host of men and women prepared to get out of bed to carry the weight of a new day on their shoulders. And likewise for Henri; or perhaps not: more fortunate than others, seeing that he at least had the gift of painting. For painting, like writing, is a way of remaining alert, lending one’s senses to the flow of stories that courses over us. Or not? Seizing the most insignificant aspects of a life in the flash of an instant, that fluttery unraveling that leaves other people indifferent, but which for the artist is the heart of things: the stolen letter no one notices, the handkerchief concealed in the puffy sleeve, the mustache oiled for a lovers’ rendezvous.
He had to get up, get over the drinking, get back to the easel. In work he would forget Aline and that absurd crush; or, if nothing else, work would lessen it. For only in the paints he squeezed onto the palette could he perhaps find happiness, a way to evade reality and at the same time reenter it by losing himself in the stories of other people.
He tried to sit up in bed. Out loud, he repeated: “Art is my love, my only love,” but that statement sounded as if it was mocking him. Instinctively, in a gesture of protest, he folded his arms tightly over his chest to embrace the happiness that he could not name. And he fell to the floor.
Later, when a friend found him face up on the ground, people rushed over. They placed him on a stretcher and transported him down the stairwell. His livid, dirty hands over the blanket; his undulating head, swinging side to side in a movement that seemed a continuous negation, as if, as the customs officer penetrated deeper and deeper into the reality of the After, he wanted to declare his renunciation of the falsity of the visible beauty of this world. From the kitchen door Aline looked on with curiosity and revulsion. “The old man had a stroke. You could tell last night that he was out of his gourd,” she said, turning to her cousin. And then: “Tonight we’re free, we can take a walk, the weather is so nice . . . ” But the shaking head of the customs officer repeated a furious no: it’s all fake; the world is gray.
Translated from “Il colore nero ha una bocca immensa.” Copyright 2005 by Laura Pariani. Translation copyright 2005 by Jamie Richards. All rights reserved.