PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Around 1895, quite how I do not know, I found myself studying Law or rather not studying Law at the University of Paris. I had been something of a drifter since adolescence and, having tried out various 'goals' in life, only to abandon each in turn, I was gripped by a desire to see Europe and I decided to take myself off to its capital, Paris. I soon became embroiled in various vaguely artistic circles and Gervásio Vila-Nova, whom I had known slightly in Lisbon, became my constant companion. He cut a curious figure, that of the great artist manqué or, rather, of the artist doomed to failure.
There was something disquieting about his tall, gaunt, angular body, with its dual and contradictory suggestion of both a hysterical, narcotic effeminacy and a sallow asceticism. When his long hair fell back from his face to reveal a broad, firm but terribly pale brow, it evoked images of hairshirts and extreme abstinence; yet when it fell forward in waves over his forehead, it evoked only tenderness, the troubling tenderness of golden ecstasies and subtle kisses. He always dressed in black, in long jackets that had a touch of the priest about them, an impression reinforced by the type of collar he wore, narrow and close-fitting. When his forehead was concealed by his hair or by a hat, there was nothing enigmatic about his face at all, quite the contrary. Oddly enough though, there was something mysterious about his body, something that made one think of sphinxes, perhaps, on moonlit nights. It was not his actual physiognomy that etched itself upon one's memory, but rather his strange personality. He stood out in every crowd, he was stared at, talked about, although, in fact, at first sight there seemed to be nothing very remarkable about his appearance: his clothes, albeit of a slightly exaggerated cut, were black, his hair, though long, was never extravagantly so, and his hat, a woollen beret, whilst certainly odd, was no different from that worn by many artists.
The truth is that Gervásio Vila-Nova had an aura about him. He was the sort of man you look at in the street and say: he must be someone important.
Women utterly adored him. They would watch in fascination whenever he wandered, tall and arrogant, into a café... But they looked at him more the way women look at some exquisitely beautiful and bejewelled member of their own sex.
'You know, my dear Lúcio,' he often said to me, 'I never possess my lovers, they possess me.'
When we talked, his flame burned even brighter. He was a brilliant conversationalist, lovable despite his many solecisms, despite his mistakes which he would defend passionately and always successfully), despite his repellent but nonetheless glorious opinions, despite his paradoxes, his lies. He was a superior being, there was no doubt about it, one of those people who remains engraved on our memory, who troubles and obsesses us. He was fire, pure fire!
However, if you examined him with your intelligence, rather than with your emotions, you would see at once that there was, alas, nothing beyond the aura, that his genius - perhaps too brilliant - would consume itself, remain unsublimated into work and end up dispersed, fragmented, burned out. And that, in fact, is exactly what happened. He avoided failure only because he had the courage to destroy himself first.
It was impossible to feel affection for someone like that (although deep down he was an excellent fellow), and yet even today I recall with nostalgia the talks we had, the nights spent in cafés and I can even convince myself that, yes, the fate of Gervásio Vila-Nova really was the most beautiful of fates and that he was a great artist, an artist of genius.
My friend had many contacts in the artistic world: writers, painters and musicians from every country. One morning, he came into my room and announced:
'Yesterday, my dear Lúcio, I was introduced to a most interesting American woman. She's fabulously rich and lives in a mansion she's had specially built - on Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, if you please - on a site previously occupied by two large buildings which she simply ordered to be demolished. She's an enchanting woman. The man who introduced her to me was that American painter with the blue-tinted spectacles. Do you know who I mean? I can't remember his name... Anyway she can be found every afternoon in the Pavillon d'Armenonville. She takes tea there. I'd like you to meet her. You'll see what I mean then. A fascinating woman!'
A month went by. I had already forgotten all about the flame-haired woman, when one night, Gervàsio suddenly announced to me:
'By the way, that American woman I introduced to you the other day is giving a big party tomorrow and you're invited.'
'Yes. She told me to bring some friends and she mentioned you. She likes you a lot. It should be interesting. There's a performance at the end - apotheosis and dance or something... If you don't want to come, don't. I know how that sort of thing bores you...' As usual, I protested, like the idiot I still was, and declared that, on the contrary, I had every intention of going with him, and we arranged to meet the following night at ten in the Closerie.
On the day of the party, I regretted having agreed to go. I felt such an aversion to society life... Quite apart from having to put on a dinner jacket and waste a whole evening... Oh well...
When I reached the café, I found, much to my surprise, that my friend had already arrived. He said to me:
'We still have to wait for Ricardo de Loureiro. He's invited too. And I arranged to meet him here. Look, there he is.'
And he introduced us:
'The writer Lúcio Vaz...the poet Ricardo de Loureiro.'
And we, in turn, said to one another:
'Delighted to meet you.'
Along the way we struck up conversation and, from the very first, I took a great liking to Ricardo de Loureiro. His Arab-dark face, with its strong lines, revealed a frank, open nature, illumined by intense, dark brown eyes, bright with intelligence.
I spoke to him about his work, which I admired, and he told me that he had read my volume of short stories and had been especially intrigued by a story called 'João Tortura'. Whilst I found this opinion flattering, it also made me feel even more warmly towards the poet, perceiving in him a nature that might understand my own soul a little. For that story was far and away my own particular favourite, but it was the only one that no critic had ever mentioned, and one that even my friends, without actually saying so, believed to be my least successful.
The artist's conversation was both brilliant and captivating and, for the first time, I saw Gervàsio, who normally dominated every group he was in, fall silent and listen.
At last our coupé pulled up outside a magnificent mansion on the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne. It was fantastically lit from within by a blaze of light filtered through red silk curtains. A large number of carriages stood at the door, an odd mixture of shabby fiacres and a few splendid private carriages
We got out.
At the entrance, a servant took our invitations from us, as if we were in a theatre foyer, whilst another immediately ushered us over to a lift that whisked us up to the first floor. There an astonishing sight awaited us: a large elliptical room, the ceiling of which was a lofty, glittering cupola supported on multi-coloured columns crowned by splendid volutes. At the far end of this room, resting upon bronze sphinxes, stood a strange stage from which down a flight of pink marble steps you descended into a large semi-circular swimming pool full of translucent water. There were also three tiers of galleries, so that the whole room looked exactly like some fantastic, sumptuous theatre.
Somewhere a hidden orchestra was grinding out waltzes.
When we went in - inevitably - every eye fixed on Gervásio Vila- Nova, looking priestly and exceptionally handsome in his black waisted jacket. The American woman immediately rushed up to us to ask what we thought of the room. The architects had only put the finishing touches to it two weeks before. This lavish party was being held to celebrate its inauguration.
We all gave loud expression to our astonishment at the marvellous room and she, the enchantress, smiled mysteriously and said:
'I want to know your opinion about what happens later on...especially the lights.'
The American woman was wearing an extraordinary dress, a kind of tunic made from a most singular material, impossible to describe. It was like a closely woven mesh of metallic threads - made from the most diverse metals - that fused together to produce an appearance of shimmering fire, a fire that contained all the colours in the world alternately colliding in shrill harmony or merging to produce whistling, starry tumults of reflected light. Her tunic was colour gone mad.
If you looked closely you could see her bare skin through the mesh of the fabric. The nipple of one breast poked through, firm and golden.
Her red hair was arranged in disorderly coils threaded with precious stones, which clustered like stars amidst flames, throwing off rays of transcendent light. Emerald serpents curled and bit about her arms, but she wore not a single jewel upon her deep décolletage. She was like a disquieting statue to serpentine desire, to platinum depravity. And what emanated from her skin, in that blue penumbra, was the dense aroma of transgression.
After a few moments, she slipped quickly away to greet other guests.
The room had filled up meanwhile with a strange and extravagant multitude. There were foreign women in daring ball gowns that left them almost naked and men with suspicious-looking faces above the unisonous black of male evening dress. There were red-haired, hirsute Russians, palely blond Scandinavians, stocky, curly-haired southerners, a Chinese man and an Indian. It was the quintessence of cosmopolitan Paris - brilliant, opulent and gaudy.
The guests danced and talked until midnight. Up in the galleries people gambled furiously. But then supper was announced and we all went into the dining room, which furnished us with yet further marvels.
Shortly before, the American woman had come over to us and whispered confidentially:
'After supper comes the show - my Triumph! I've tried to summarise in it all my ideas about sensuality as an art. Lights, bodies, smells, fire and water - everything will come together in an orgy of flesh distilled into gold!'
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When we came back into the large salon, I, for my part, felt afraid and shrank back.
The whole scene had changed, it felt like a completely different room. It was filled by a heavy perfume, tremulous with passion. A mysterious breeze blew through it, a grey breeze blotched with yellow - I don't know why but that, for some strange reason, is how it seemed to me, a breeze that made our skin prick and shiver. The most astonishing and remarkable thing, however, was the lighting. I feel quite incapable of describing it. I could only, with great effort, attempt to explain its singularity, its languorous power.
The light - electric light of course - came from an infinite number of strange, round glass lampshades in a variety of colours and designs and of varying degrees of transparency, but in particular from the waves of brilliant light that blazed forth from projectors concealed in the galleries. Now these torrents of light, all focused on the same chimerical point in space, came together to form a maelstrom, and it was out of that meteoric maelstrom that the beams of light, ricocheting one against the other, were projected back onto walls and columns, were scattered about the room, transforming it.
The light in the room was, in effect, a projection of itself, it was still light, of course, but the truth is that the marvellous thing illuminating us did not seem like light. It seemed like something else, some sort of new fluid. I'm not rambling here, I'm simply describing a real sensation, for we did not so much see that light as feel it. And I do not think it would be going too far to say that it did not so much affect our sight as our sense of touch. If our eyes had been suddenly torn from us, we would still have been able to see it. What's more - and this is the most bizarre and splendid part - we could breathe this strange fluid. It's true, we drank in that light together with the air, with the purple perfume of the air, a light which, in a moment of iridescent ecstasy, of dizzying elation, flooded our lungs, invaded our blood, suffused our bodies with sound. Yes, that magical light actually resonated inside us, enlarging our senses, filling us with harmonies, flowing through us, dazzling us... Under its influence, our flesh became open to every sensation, every smell, every melody!
And we, our senses honed by long exposure to culture and art, were not alone in feeling overwhelmed by that shimmering mystery. For it was soon clear from the confused faces and troubled gestures of everyone in the audience that, engulfed by that light from beyond Hell, by that sexualised light, they were all transfixed as if under the spell of some flame-red sorcery.
But suddenly the light changed, became an arcing fall, and another tremor ran through us, milder this time, like a flurry of emerald kisses after a series of bruising bites.
In this new dawn, a vibrant music jingled forth in strange rhythms - a slender melody in which clashing segments of crystal lay submerged, in which sword-sharp palm leaves cooled the air, in which moist sequences of subtle sounds evaporated...
In short, we were all on the point of swooning in one final spasm of the soul...but they had sustained us this long only in order to prolong our pleasure.
At the far end of the room, the curtain rose on an aurora stage. The light that had so troubled us was extinguished and we were lit only by torrents of white electricity.
Three dancers appeared on the stage. They wore their hair loose and their upper bodies were clothed in tight scarlet blouses that left their breasts tremulously free. Tenuous strips of gauze hung from their waists. There was a gap between blouse and gauze - a stripe of bare flesh on which symbolic flowers were painted.
The dancers began their dance. Their legs were bare. They span, jumped, then merged into one, entangling limbs, kissing one another hard on the mouth.
The first dancer had black hair, her skin was resplendent as the sun. Her legs, seemingly moulded out of golden dawn, stole forth into the radiant light, to reveal, near her pubis, a mordant flesh one longed to sink one's teeth into.
But what made the dancers so exciting was the limpid nostalgia they evoked for a great blue lake of crystalline water where, on moonlit nights, they would plunge in, barefoot and tender.
The second dancer had the look of a perverse adolescent. She was thin, though with quite developed breasts, and had dull blonde hair, a provocative face and a turned-up nose. Her legs, knotted with muscles, were hard, masculine and aroused in everyone present the violent urge to bite them.
The third and final dancer was the most disquieting. She was ice- cool and slender, very pale and gaunt, her skeletal, devastated legs evocative of mysticism and disease.
Meanwhile, the dance continued. Their movements grew gradually faster and faster until, at last, in one final spasm, their mouths met and, with all the veils torn away - breasts, bellies, vulvas all uncovered - their bodies lay entangled, dying in a frenzy of desire.
And the curtain fell returning us to that earlier luminous placidity...
Other admirable scenes followed: naked dancers chasing each other in the pool, mimicking the sexual nature of the water, strange dancers scattering perfumes that lent an eerie darkness to the already fantastical atmosphere of the room; apotheoses of bare bodies piled one upon the other - sensual visions of vivid colour, vortices of ecstasy, symphonies of silks and velvets whirling about naked flesh.
But, however perverse, none of these marvels aroused in us lubricious or bestial desires, rather they stirred up an extraordinary and delicious longing in the soul that both burned and soothed.
An impression of excess passed only fleetingly through us
But it was not only the lewd scenes that provoked the ecstasies stirring in our souls. Far from it. What we experienced created in us an all-bracing sensation identical to what one would feel when listening to a sublime suite performed by an orchestra of virtuosi. And the sensual tableaux were simply one instrument in that orchestra, the other instruments being the lights, the perfumes, the colours... Yes, all those elements fused into an admirable whole which, by expanding the soul, penetrated it, and which our souls perceived as a distant fever, a vibration in the depths. We were all soul. Even our carnal desires descended to us from our souls.
However, this was as nothing compared to the final vision.
The lights became denser, sharper and more penetrating, falling now in torrents from the apex of the cupola and the curtain drew back to reveal a vaguely Asiatic scene... To the sound of heavy, hoarse, distant music, she appeared, the woman with red hair.
And she began to dance.
She was wrapped in a white tunic striped with yellow. Her hair hung down, wild and loose. She wore fantastic jewels on her fingers and her bare feet glittered with precious stones.
How to describe her silent steps, wet and cold as crystal; the stormy surges of her undulating body; the alcohol of her lips which - a brilliant touch this - she had painted gold; the evanescent harmony of her gestures; the whole diffuse horizon tenuously evoked by her whirling figure?
Meanwhile, on a mysterious altar behind her, fire burst forth.
In slow degrees of abandonment her tunic slipped from her body until, in a spasm of restrained ecstasy, it fell at her feet. Ah, at that point, confronted by the marvellous sight transfixing us, we could not help but cry out in amazement.
Chimerical, naked, her rarefied body rose up solemnly amidst a thousand fantastic coruscations. Like her lips, her nipples and her vulva were painted gold - a pale, sickly gold. And, in her desire to give herself to the fire, her whole being swayed in the grip of a scarlet mysticism.
But the fire drove her back.
Then, in a final act of perversity, she put on her veils again and hid herself, leaving only her golden vulva uncovered - a terrible flower of flesh moving in convulsive magenta spasms.
She was all victorious, all fire.
Then, naked again, fiery and fierce, she jumped into the flames, tearing at them, ensnaring and possessing them as they twined drunkenly about her.
But, at last, exhausted after all these strange convulsions, she landed, in one prodigious leap, like a meteor - a flame-haired meteor - in the lake that a thousand hidden lights painted an ashy blue.
Then came the apotheosis.
As the blue water received her body, it grew red as burning coals, troubled and burned by her flesh which the fire had penetrated... And in her desire to extinguish that fire, the naked, possessed creature plunged in, but the deeper in she went, the brighter the light about her.
Until at last, mysteriously, the fire faded into gold and her dead body floated, heraldic, upon the gilded waters - now calm and dead as well.
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Normal light filled the room again. Only just in time. Women flailed about in the grip of hysteria; men with flushed faces made incoherent gestures.
The doors opened and we, lost and hatless, found ourselves once more out in the street, aflame, perplexed. The cool night air beat about us, forcing us awake, as if we had just returned from a dream all three of us had dreamed. Dumbstruck, we looked at each other with troubled eyes...
The marvels we had seen had made such a powerful impression on us that we hadn't the strength to say a word.