PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Mike Mitchell Cover design: Marie Lane Cover illustration: Fernand Khnopff
Every year when October returns I recall, almost with terror, the moment when, at the end of the holidays, I would go back to school. A dismal season which, from the depths of the years regards me with the white eyes of a statue on a tomb. Those who went to school in Paris know nothing of this sorrow. Here at least something of the noise of the big city comes in through the doors and windows, something of its pleasures, its music, of its vices too, intoxicating adolescent curiosity — in short something to give you a desire for life.
But out in the provinces the great colleges run by the Church are so gloomy and so grey! Mine was as enclosed as a seminary. And, all around, the dead town grieved in the tear-ridden concert of its bells. There was a central courtyard, a strip of ground as bare as a beach where the ebbing tide has left its sadness. Not even a few trees to liven it up. Alone in its gable was the implacable face of a great clock with hands that came together, parted; the hours, as they were struck, fell on us so plaintively it made them seem dark. It was like a rain of iron and ash. A dreary, invariable existence behind the high walls of the yard blocking out the sun. It was there that my soul fell out of love with life for having learnt too much of death.!
Death! It was death that the priests, who were our masters, placed among us from the moment we got back. We came from our homes with our pretty outfits of fresh, new linen. They added the funeral pall, its black velvet with yellow braid. All we wanted to do was to grow up, to learn so that we could finally walk alone, love, conquer the world, live! They taught us to prepare for a good death.
And everything had a taste of death, as if by design, even the walks the boarders took one afternoon every week. We left in a long file, three by three, going at a swift pace through the centre of the town, along the canals with their lifeless water, across the deserted districts round the Cathedral close, to get as quickly as possible to the dismal suburbs where the cemeteries are. Almost every time we encountered a hearse, a large, draped carriage with undertakers wearing black, sinister three-cornered hats. As soon as they left the centre of the town, the horses were set at a trot and the carriage sped along, swaying on the uneven cobbles. How frightening for the poor deceased who might be hurt by the severe jolts! Whichever direction our band of children took, to all parts of the town, we always ended up at cemeteries, which are so desolate in that austere province which had never acquired the art of decorating tombs: none of those bright flowers, those ribbons, all the funerary knick-knacks, those white pearls that look like tears gathered in a bouquet. Nothing but the black tresses of the willows, the geometrical firs, an arrangement betokening inevitability and abandonment.
I had the feeling that we ourselves were being led as a flock to death; the vague feeling a lamb marked with a red cross might have as it is being led to the abattoir. And we went, hurried all the way along the evening road by a tall, bony priest, black as a shepherd’s dog. That is how they spoilt our joy in nature for good. Running water, the wind shaking itself in the corn, birds, wide-open spaces, the sight of the whole sky, the elegant lines of animals, trees with the foliage making a noise like a crowd, nothing delights me, nothing intoxicates me with being alive. All I can see in the countryside is our final resting place.
Death! Even more than on those melancholy walks, we felt it around us during the religious services. Especially at the time of the annual retreat, which took place a few days after school began again in October, as if they could not wait before once more confronting our childhood with Eternity, the only thing that matters.
Generally the retreat was preached by an outside preacher and consisted of four days of sermons, meditations and pious exercises, concluding with general confession and the Eucharist. From the pulpit the priest held forth with gloomy vehemence about the shortness of life, the inevitability of death, the horror of sin; then, after some cautious circumlocution, which some of us understood clearly while others, who had remained more chaste, found rather baffling, he went on to talk about the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. It is above all the traditional sermon on hell that has remained a cruel memory; every year the preacher dealt with that terrifying subject in the evening, when the church was already submerged in darkness. He painted a tragic picture in red: an abyss suddenly opening up, the eternal inferno, bodies clothed in fire, arms tattooed with burns, lips pleading for a drop of water, a tear from God to refresh them — which will never come. Darkness reigned. Just a few candles were lit with flames which stretched out and shifted in the draught. We were terrified. The red of hell was around us already. The preacher’s voice could be heard, but he himself had retreated into the gloom, was part of the gloom. It was as if the mouth of darkness had spoken. And it addressed us in the tones of an inquisitor. Each one of us seemed to be marked out, threatened. It said, ‘There is your fate, if you die. You will be clothed in fire. And there are cases of sudden death at all ages.’
And already we were trembling, as if with a shiver of the death throes…
Since we were young, we did not feel very threatened despi te these constant reminders of death. However there were often boys who were ill among us.They were taken to the sick-bay, the room whose windows had white cotton curtains, two windows, the last of the tall building running along the courtyard. The sick-bay! What a sad sound the word had! We saw it as the antechamber of eternity. Every time one of us had fallen ill and was confined to bed we looked at the two high windows in fear and trembling. There was almost always some pale pupil to be seen, with migraine, toothache, wearing a white bandage round his cheeks or forehead. How melancholy it was to see from afar, from down in the yard, young faces with those headbands of rime, those bandages of snow. It was as if war had passed through, you felt they were little wounded soldiers and there was blood under the gauze.
During those dark years there was a suddenly a bright spot, a marvellous clearing, a heavenly moon rising from among the dark poplars. They wanted to introduce us to death — our adolescence introduced itself to love. How did the revelation take place? Through a book. I will never forget the indescribable enchantment. The college library was strict, carefully sifted, pruned, puritan, irreproachable. Nothing but the lives of saints, historical works, accounts of voyages. There was also among them, by what chance I could not say, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. We only had half an hour for reading, in the evening, after prep. As if by magic there was an apparition in the course of the mysterious book, which started to sing between my fingers like a piece of music — Lamartine! His face materialised on the white of the pages, handsome as a god… and another face emerged beside it: Elvire! Their hair intermingled… The Mediterranean drew them to its shore… The lines murmuring one after another. They were blue waves… and they broke. I too was walking there, kissed by those waves… Where was I? I was being carried off on a dream journey… The big lamps in the study room shed a radiance pale as moonlight… Their heavy shades seemed like haloes. Elvire! So she was love! Oh, her face, her hair black as night; her olive complexion, the colour of a pineapple, like that of girls from the south; and the scent of her skin which must sweeten her lips as well! Lamartine knew — since he had kissed her.
So that was love? And what else? Indescribable inner turmoil… Why did they talk to us about death, those dismal priests? There is love first. Oh, when will it come for us? Elvire was approaching. We were thinking of kisses… We were also thinking, trembling a little, of the mystery of breasts, a mystery dimly known, dimly seen on statues, glimpsed on our walks in the bared bosom of nurses. An exciting vision! Our hearts seemed to stop beating. We were out of breath, as if after a race or a sudden shock. Elvire’s breasts? Had Lamartine touched them, put his hands on them — his lips, as we did with our flasks in summer? Elvire! We compared her to girls we caught sight of on holiday, a cousin who had come to visit our parents with her family and whom we looked at, blushing. She was pink. Elvire was bronzed. But she, too, had a rounded bust we didn’t dare look at — doubtless the same breasts as Elvire…
Oh, this first revelation of love! The touch of fever that brought a flush to our cheeks… We were no longer aware of time or place… We dreamt… We drifted… We evoked images that were full of passion but not shameless, for the moment it was solely our imagination at play. We were still innocent, sufficiently so to be quickly alarmed at these mirages, at love, at Elvire, at the cousin who resembled her. Religious fear quickly raised its head, fear of sin, the sin of bad thoughts and bad desires, into which we had perhaps slipped, the deadly sin… And the thought of death returned, the fear of death, which quickly made love flee!
Because death more than love — a too distant dream — was a reality. Especially when one of our classmates fell seriously ill. He had to go home to his parents. A few weeks later we were told he was dead. Immediately each one of us thought of the words of the preacher at the retreat. ‘People die at all ages. Beware of being damned. You will be clothed in fire in hell.’ Had our poor classmate been saved? Or was he already clothed in fire? So he would have met Elvire, who was also dead… Was she damned or saved? Their memories merged… Was it him or her who was missing from that unoccupied seat in the classroom? No one would agree to sit in it. Oh, the void that we found unbearable!
It was as if an opening had been cut in a hedge in blossom to let a coffin through. A gaping hole. Were they not going to fill in the grave? His absence had to be covered over. Everyone was trembling. No one wanted to replace our dead classmate, so he seemed to keep his place, to remain with us…
A sinister emblem! Death was ever present amid our adolescence. Oh, those years when we ought to have been taught to love life but during which their sole concern was to familiarise us with death. A too-religious school. And, all around, a too-dead town! Given our fear of death, everything was transposed, took on a funereal sense, even love which approached us with the look of the dead Elvire…
To such an extent that even when the great bell rang out, when its immense sounds fell, it seemed to us, poor children that we were, that it was to fill in the silence — like the spadefuls of earth filling a grave.
No. of pages: 168
Publication date: 09.06.2011
978 1 903517 86 4
978 1 909232 32 7
World English Language in this translation.