Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Toulet in Algiers, Part 4 – the Marguerite Affair

We have already remarked, in the chapter on Mauritius, on Toulet’s precocious interest in the fair sex. With his gifts and his money, girls were easy prey, and he was always in control. When in Algiers he fell for, and was cheated on by Marguerite, he took it very badly indeed, so much so that it may well have coloured his relationships with women from then on. It has been suggested (by Guitard) that it is to this Marguerite that we owe, in part (because it was already in him), the melancholic and disillusioned irony that bathes his work.
« En plus des travaux accumulés, les aventures charnelles suivent les aventures charnelles, comme toujours avec Paul-Jean… Mais vient le jour où il tombe sur un bec…. Le conquérant est conquis. »

The best – the only account – we have of this doomed affair is that of Louis Martin, fellow student, and later judge in Philippeville, Algeria. This account is taken from a longer reminiscence that appeared in the Mercure de France, in February 1927. It should however be noted that in his Journal, dated 8th February, 1889, Toulet writes that he has already broken up with S*, who had slept with a friend, and appeared ready to take up with another, and he regrets to admit that he had already replaced her on the 7th. This can scarcely have been Marguerite, since his grand passion for her only became apparent in March. Not only that, but Casanova avers that Toulet accompanied a troupe of strolling players to Algiers, and that his “Ophelia” had left him for a wealthy merchant in the rue de la Lyre before joined the company of friends in the restaurant Fautrier.

*Casanova refers fondly to “Suzanne with the golden laugh” – was this the mysterious “S”?

This is Martin:
“Attracted, as were we all, to easy pleasures, he was a libertine, but not debauched. And it was especially as a dilettante, in thrall to novelty, that he sometimes lingered in our company in some lost house in the old Casbah, whose tiny courtyards, anaemic fountains, and shady corners held his surprised gaze, while our greedy attention, like foals set loose, went straight to this Zohrad or to that Meriem, over-painted, sumptuous and degenerate, who made us quiver with our first longings.

One afternoon in March - it was four months since Toulet was in Algiers - I went to inform him of a lightweight piece which I intended for a city revue. Wearing the Basque beret which he had made his work-dress, he opened the door, and straight away, in the half-light of the enclosed room where my short sight had not noticed anything, he introduced me to Marguerite. I knew her well, of course! The tall, pretty girl with the dark complexion who frequented, not far away, a sewing shop whose lively chatter could be heard from the street, where at the turn of the rue Dupuch one turned into the ladder-like steps of the rue Levacher ... I knew her well, Marguerite ... and her blue-green eyes, almond-shaped, shadowy with thick eyelashes, and her chignon heavy with dark braids, and her queenly walk, a little feline under the finery of a maid in her Sunday best.
But to find her there, suddenly, this March evening, timidly snuggled up in that old-fashioned pouf, the crumpled veil, her cheap if pretty hat visibly askew, like a frail skiff laden with flowers on a dark stream... no, it seemed bewildering, fantastic, that left my eyes wide and my brain empty. Toulet, however, had pulled out a chair with some ceremony, and very distinctly uttered these peremptory words: "My friend." She said nothing, nor contradicted him. I could only bow, risk an obsequious "Mademoiselle ..." and confirm inwardly that I wasn’t dreaming.

It was a long and tortuous affair. In many of the Contrerimes, Toulet speaks with a bitterness tinged at times with cruelty of the disenchantments of love and inconstancy of women who, be it for an hour, a week or a season, left their mark on his life. Indeed, as it happens to all men, he was often deceived, scoffed at, bruised. But it is also that he left himself exposed, more perhaps than others, to these bruises. Sensitive souls, precisely because they "feel" keenly, almost always have a moody side. Like a rope stretched taut, they vibrate at the slightest pinch, at the slightest shock, and this vibration, far from being attenuated according to physiological law, is on the contrary amplified in them, becomes exaggerated to the point of discomfort, in some even to suffering. Toulet, who was also cerebra and who had taken early to self-analysis, of "taking his morale pulse", as he liked to say, suffered doubly from this excess of sensitivity; and he wanted, I believe, to suffer from it, or at least he did nothing to cure his ailment; "What a splitter of hairs you make!,” I often said to him to tease him, “and how you remind me of these people of whom Chamfort speaks, who by dint of carding their mattresses are left with nothing to sleep on"

After three weeks of an intense love affair, during which time he was seen neither by the guests of the pension Fautrier nor, at the Café du Ballon, his usual partners at manille or pamphile, he returned one morning in April, haggard and broken, with drawn features and weary legs, sitting before the mid-day meal at the large oval table where we used to meet twice a day. His presence was greeted with cries of joy. He was unmoved. To a question that Casanova asked him, perhaps indiscreetly, he replied between clenched teeth: "I was ill", and nose in plate, obstinately dumb, he began to eat. Lunch was dull and quick….
He didn't touch the dessert, nodded to us all, and left the table. Before he left, however, he passed near me, leaned over my shoulder, and in a voice that sounded distant and cold, he said simply: "Martin! I'll see you tonight."

He came to see me about four o'clock, in fact, in my room where I waited patiently, having preferred to cut lectures than to miss my friend.
As I expected, Toulet was ill with jealousy. Later, grown wise with the years, he would mock this sentiment with an aphorism: 'Jealousy is a test of the heart, as gout is of the limbs.' But at that point in his life he was fiercely jealous. For an instant he seemed to reflect, collect his thoughts, then, at a stroke, as though he had thrown off a heavy burden: 'Marguerite has deceived me,' he said." 'Impossible,' I exclaimed.
He must have taken my astonishment for an demurral, for, calmly and gravely, with his nervous and staccato elocution, he confided to me the secret of his heart Opening the flood-gates, he spared no detail. Little by little he grew more animated, his own words stoking the fire. Then it was a new and pathetic Nuit d'Octobre in tumultuous prose—because, that evening, he strangely resembled Musset—he who, for a full hour, shook and trembled with indignation before me!

"She cheated on me, I tell you ... Again, last Thursday, at nightfall, I surprised her chatting with a young brown man, poorly dressed, at the corner of rue Randon. I could hardly stifle my laughter. He noticed it and got up suddenly, like a spring released. "So, you don't believe me and you make fun of me! You take me for a moron, it's obvious! ... And me who thought you were my friend! .. But no! I was wrong ... I am always wrong, me ... and I am wronged too, just say the word, I am the fall-guy! Exhausted by his sudden explosion, he sank into a creaking chair, and, his head in his left hand, resumed the usual curled up position he adopted when thoughtful or annoyed. His chest barely moved with his breathing, and I thought I could hear his heart beating. He was suffering, really suffering. Touched by his deep hurt I leaned towards him like a brother and spent long minutes calming him down.
That unexpected scene, a genuine twist, was a revelation to me. The everyday Toulet, ironic, blasé, he who coldly and cruelly behind his mask of impassibility toyed with everything and everyone, I saw him, that day, unmasked, almost broken under the moral pain which tortured him and I could not but feel pity for him. I noticed, however, that he shed not one tear and he did not avert his gaze. He felt ashamed of his suffering, and when he had calmed down, I understood how much he had steeled himself by sheer willpower in order that I should bear witness to an even greater weakness and disorder…
Thrice in less than two years, [in fact it was less than one] Toulet broke with Marguerite who, ever submissive, returned to the fold and, from the threshold, fell into the arms of her lover. And the love affair started again, like from the first. There was something singular, almost abnormal in their attachment that confounded the most penetrating psychology. While, in general, one lover does not take long clearly to dominate the other - and it is not always the male - our two lovers seemed to alternate the roles of master and slave in a manner plain to a careful observer.
Certainly Marguerite had been, from the first, drawn by the strange charm which emanated from Toulet and which, even on us, his friends or companions, acted infallibly from the first meeting; and this charm came from everything about him, from his eyes, deep and clear, in which gold dust seemed to shine, from his warm and engaging voice, a little curt, which could become harsh and domineering, from the languid nobility of his movements, but especially from the integrity of his character and the delicate grace of his wit. How could a modest working girl have resisted such prestige?
But if Marguerite was without culture, she lacked neither intelligence nor finesse, and she quickly realized that the hold she had on her "great friend" came from an eminent sensuality, and that it was particularly by the seductions of her body that she had conquered this refined artist whose first romantic conquests had not yet made blasé, whatever he may have claimed. And she knew very well that she was holding him there, that she had only to offer him, at the right moment, the caress of her fresh, brown skin, and that more disturbing caress of her changing eyes, whose long, thick lashes enhanced the mystery, to make him fall at her feet, stricken and repentant, forgetful of everything. She had also noticed, almost immediately, that she had the power to suddenly give her look such a cold expression that her friend, even in a fit of anger, calmed down, admitted defeat in seconds and begged forgiveness. This icy look of his mistress really frightened him, less by what he saw as indifference or disdain than by the idea of the ​​irreparable and of death that his restless mind took pleasure, even in the times of passion, in seeking and finding there.
Toulet never did confess this vulnerability to his mistress - he would have been too humiliated ; but one day I guessed it and he himself indirectly confessed it to me, shortly before his departure from Algeria, by sending this sonnet, which had no title, but which for me was clearly full of the girl he had loved whom he was leaving for good this time.

Ne cueillez point le myrte: aucun épithalame
Pour chanter les amours joyeux, demi-moquers, 
Mais un psaume plutôt, funebre et qui proclame
L'amertume sans fin qu’elle met dans les coeurs.

Pâle et hautaine, avec des prunelles sans flamme,
Elle a le geste las et grave des vainqueurs ;
Et dans ses longs baisers qui coulent jusqu'à l'âme
Réside le pouvoir des pesantes liqueurs.

Elle inspire la peur comme d'autres la joie :
Plaine glacée ou nul Helios ne rougeoie,
Marbre hystérieux, impassible décor !

Et je révère en vous, ô sinistre amoureuse,
L'image de la mort, qui, mieux que vous encor,
Me sera bienfaisante, et fraiche, et langoureuse.

And there is no doubt that he had Marguerite in mind when he wrote these lines:

J'admire qu'un regard ait ce pouvoir en lui
Qu'un homme en fait sa joie ou sa désespérance
Sur qui l'œil souverain de sa maîtresse a lui.

And perhaps these too, both outdoors:

J’évoque sur tes bords heureux,
O Méditerranée,
D’une amoureuse après-dînée
L’ombre, le rocher creux.

Ou ce vestige périssable
Et trop vite effacé
Qu’en témoignage avaient tracé
Ses hanches dans le sable.

and indoors:

Derrière les rideaux des fenêtres closes
Tes yeux rient et la nacre de ta pâleur
Et l’or de la chambre où naguère est éclose
Notre amour ainsi qu’une fleur.

Nous oublierons la rue aux voix étrangères
La blanche cité vide excepté de nous ;
L’heure est pleine de rêve et d’ailes légères,
J’ai mis mon front sur tes genoux.

Toulet’s Algerian poems comprise the pre-typical verses he wrote while there, and those written in his prime, but inspired by his sojourn. He already has a taste for the constraints of structure, of form. The best has been gathered by Martineau in Vers Inedits. The sonnets are not quite juvenile, and already the vocabulary is a foretaste of what is to come – myrte, amertume, dévasté – even the bees get a look in!

Fatigué de m'étendre en des couches banales,
De couvrir de baisers un front inhabité,
D’inscrire quelques noms en mes sèches annales
Avec ce qu'ils couvraient de vice ou de beauté ;

Avant que le cadran des heures automnales
Sonne le couvre-feu dans mon cœur dévasté,
J'arracherai ma vie aux vaines saturnales
Pour rentrer dans la paix et la simplicité.

Dans un bourg verdoyant de la vieille province,
Celle qui doit m'aimer a grandi, blonde et mince ;
Elle a l'éclat des fleurs et le pas des oiseaux.

Je la vis, par un soir doré, cueillant aux treilles
Le raisin transparent avec de grands ciseaux
Dont le bruit argentin effrayait les abeilles.

The sonnet appeared in La Revue Algérienne which encouraged young colonial writers. Collin calls it one of the most perfect poems Toulet wrote, and very personal, an adieu to the Old Casbah, to Marguerite, to hectic voluptuousness and vice and beauty. A vain aspiration, for one so addicted to wine, women, and opium.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Indo-China, Part 2, April - May 1903

On April 1st Toulet left Hué by sampan during the night, most probably on the An Cựu tributary of the Perfumed River (Sông Hương ) so as to reach Cauailles (nowadays Cầu Hai) by early morning. Dawn found them in the middle of the Cầu Hai lagoon, from whose south bank they entered the meandering and pretty little river that brought them to the town. In Cầu Hai they hired the chairs that were to carry them over the Hải Vân Quan (Pass) – the Col de Nuages*. They spent the day ascending, the it was nightfall when they started the final ascent of the col. Then darkness, fireflies, and the coolies huddling close to one another. Toulet kept an ear out for the cry of a tiger. (“Quelquefois Hubert est arraché de son sommeil par un cri. Il se réveille en sursaut, les yeux grand ouverts. De toute son âme il interroge la nuit : il écoute l’ombre. Et il n’entend que le noir silence, implacable.” - from the episode in Béhanzigue titled “le cri dans la nuit”).

Nothing was heard that night, but the following evening one took a pig not far from the lighthouse that illuminated the outskirts of Tourane. This experience was to inspire not only Béhanzigue, but also Contrerime XLIII:

Ainsi, ce chemin de nuage,
Vous ne le prendrez point,
D'où j'ai vu me sourire au loin
Votre brillant mirage ?

Le soir d'or sur les étangs bleus
D'une étrange savane,
Où pleut la fleur de frangipane,
N'éblouira vos yeux ;

Ni les feux de la luciole
Dans cette épaisse nuit
Que tout à coup perce l'ennui
D'un tigre qui miaule.

*From Hué to Tourane (modern Da Nang) by the Col de Nuages – this is the Hải Vân Pass, which crosses over a spur of the Trường Sơn (Annamite) Range that runs from east to east west and juts into the South China Sea, forming the Hải Vân Peninsula. The pass, which once formed the boundary between the kingdoms of Đại Việt and Champa, also forms a boundary between the climates of northern and southern Vietnam, sheltering the city of Da Nang from the "Chinese winds" that blow in from the northwest. During the winter months of November–March weather on the north side of the pass may be wet and cold, while the south side may be warm and dry.

Tourane was the last link with China. They left on April 5th on la Tamise for Saïgon, where they arrived on the 8th. On Friday 10th they boarded the Sydney at 11.00 p.m. and celebrated Easter on board on Sunday 12th April.

The experience Toulet described later, in February 1905, on a postcard of Hué: "We set sail for the island of Taprobane. The mountainous coasts of Cathay sank slowly behind the horizon. It was only the beginning of summer in Annam; the long-stemmed lotus had not yet begun to blossom on the sacred waters which reflect the tombs of the Emperors. But, on the ponds at Candy, we saw them smile; some were white as the lingerie that, in her eagerness to love, my friend strews about her room in the twilight. There were also some as rosy as her finger tips.”

But first there was a stopover in Singapore. On April 13th Toulet wrote that he had been employed by a wealthy Parsee family to teach French and translate contemporary French authors into their tongue, which may have been Gujerati – can Toulet really have known this? In his next Journal entry, dated Colombo, April 20th, he laments his ignorance of foreign languages!

Curnonsky records an instance of Toulet’s wicked wit in a memoire written fifty years after. “ As we were returning to France, as we had anchored in Ceylon and stretched out on deckchairs trying to digest this incendiary Indian cuisine based on curry which is a promise of scurvy, a colossal foreigner who spoke Pidgin (that's to say the gibberish of the Oceanian islands), tapped on the shoulder of Toulet and asked him the way to the lavatory. Toulet. who lived in Mauritius and knew all these cosmopolitan jargons, replied: - You follow the corridor on the right. You arrive in front of a door where you can read this legend: ‘Gentlemen’. But you may enter anyway.”

They arrived in Colombo on April 18th, where they stayed at the Galle Face Hotel, which Toulet described as a typical vast, dark, expensive English hotel. He continues his diatribe on April 22nd, repeating his first decription and adding that the bathrooms lack water, the cellars wine, the sea breeze replaced by mosquitoes, and good breeding by bad cooking. An escape by train to Kandy on the 21st April brought some relief, fresh air, a lake, temples, silence. Kandy is some seventy-five miles from Colombo by rail at an altitude of five hundred metres or sixteen hundred feet above the sea. The high altitude makes the climate congenial. The Queen's Hotel, said Toulet, is so comfortable that it might have for its sign "coolness". Half in banter, he wrote: "I have marked with a cross the alcove of the room you occupied, henceforth illustrious. But what one cannot see, what only the mastery of your pen can render, is the lake in front, shimmering between the drooping, trees and the balustrades; and the shade where Cakya-Mouni meditated; and the flowery walk perfumed with red jasmin, where a black serpent is erect and whistling, until a handsome bonze, dressed in yellow like a beetle, tenderly puts it to one side with his naked foot."

Kandy, Toulet remarked, is like England of fifty years previously, large simple houses with verandas, nothing Victorian about ther style. The people he met at the hotel were old-fashioned gentlemen, completely unlike (Joseph) Chamberlain, which made him reflect on the distance that separated Dickens and Thackeray from Kipling and Rider Haggard!

The stay in Kandy was brief. They were back in Colombo on April 22nd, to embark on the Dupleix for Calcutta. The pair arrived in Pondichery, on the east coast of India, on April 25th – a Pondichery miserable, degraded, teeming, redeemed only by a porcelain blue sky at sunset. 

After Pondicherry, the two travellers made a quick excursion through India by the Coromandel coast to Calcutta, then Benares (Vārānasi), Agra and Delhi by Ahmadabad to Bombay.

They arrived in Calcutta on April 28th. The heat was oppressive – 58oC. Despite that they visited th Botanic Gardens and admired the snakes and the tigers. On the 29th they arrived in Benares at 11.00 p.m. The Indian landscape, what they saw of it at Benares, was "a sky the colour of tin, a kind of metallic dust which eats up the colour of everything, which settles far and wide on a confusion of temples and mosques with rickety steps and domes in ruin, and amongst all that, thousands of emaciated Hindoos bathing or praying. . . two or three dead bodies nearly burned away over a slow fire at the foot of some marble steps." 

Benares smelled of death. There were monkeys in the white marble temples, cows in the golden temples, and all around the white and gold domes in the shape of closed umbrellas.
The heat was so intense that Toulet was prostrated with sunstroke, and when he came too found that he was “deaf as a Pole.” Sailland went so far as to stick his fingers in his ears, to no avail. With Toulet unable to hear, and Sailland unable to speak English, the pair paid over their money to be conducted to the French consulate. Instead of this, their guides brought them to the Ganges and had them strip off and bathe in the sacred but unhealthy water!

On Saturday, May 2nd, the pair visited the Taj Mahal, both during the day and by moonlight. On Sunday they journeyed from Agra to Delhi, where next day they visited the Red Fort and Great Mosque (the Dewan-e-khas and Jama Musjid) before taking the evening train for Bombay.

Nearing Ahmadabad, Toulet, on the advice of Sailland, ordered lunch by telegram. "We were gloriously received," he says, "by people who were waving fans made of feathers. And the eggs were fresh but a little dear, so that we hardly had any money left and we had to live after that on a pot of jam which came from Hué and a bottle of cognac which we had bought at Hanoï. That lasted two days and we were sizzling in a train so hot that even the black leather of the seats and the pig-skin of our valises were crying out for rain; but Curnonsky simply because he was hungry. Whilst I was stirring up his memory by talking to him about marrow patties and Rhône wine, India, with its dry mud and crumbling temples, was flying past the windows. Finally, unable to contain himself any longer, he brought his fist down on the hinged table and cried: 'For G..'s sake ! I'm in the habit of eating beefsteak, I am.' "

On Thursday May 7th they finally arrived in Bombay after a train journey of 58 hours. On Sunday they embarked on the Tonkin of the Messageries Maritimes. Some difficulties with their baggage were followed by a visit to the doctor because of concerns about the plague, but at last the intrepid voyagers were on their way home.

Lettres à Madame Bulteau, p. 1209, En vue de Marseille, 25th May 1903.
“When we embarked at Bombay, Sailland and I, we had between us 5fr. 50. Since I had broken a window in the hotel, I was extremely anxious that it would be added to the bill, as perhaps window glass is very expensive in Bombay… As for Kurne, he is well. The idea that he will have to return to work is making him melancholy, which he calls “missing Indochina”. I believe that he especially misses the 18 hours a day that he slept at Hanoï. India was less kind, he had to get up, take trains, pack his baggage, everything to be done in a temperature that a lobster, even after cooking, would have thought excessive.”

What Toulet failed to relate to Madame Bulteau was a further reason for Kurne missing Indochina, a tale that emerged in the Commentaires du Night Cap:

« Vous pouvez même dire, Whynot, que, moyennant le versement d'une dot fabuleuse de cinq cents piastres, vous fûtes pendant cinq lunes l'heureux seigneur et locataire, de Mme Ti Nam, qui passait, non sans raison pour la plus jolie congaï d'Haïphong. »

Friday, October 11, 2019

Indo-China, Part 1, November 1902 - March 1903

In November 1902 Toulet and Curnonsky embarked on a six-month tour of Indochina. A report on the Hanoï exhibition and World Fair1 was the excuse. Henri Dartiguenave (Les Nouvelles Littéraires, 23, ii, 1929) claimed that “Toulet, with Curnonsky, undertook the trip to Indo-China in connexion with a Parisian newspaper on the occasion of the Exhibition in 1900”. Jacques Dyssord claimed that there was an expectation of riches (wasn’t Montpezat, there since 1894, and working on his own behalf from 1898, already rolling in gold!) or at least a good quality “bénares”.

Notes on the voyage appeared in Le Damier, May 1905 (Aller et retour) and L’Ermitage in March 1906 (Carnets de voyage) Chroniques parisiennes appeared in 1904 in L’Echo du Tonkin. Curnonsky relates some of their adventures in Commentaires du Night Cap, published in Le Journal in 1911, calling  himself “Whynot” and Toulet, “Corzébien”.

1Organised by Paul Doumer, the Hanoï exhibition was open from November 1902 to January 1903. It proclaimed the great progress made in Indochina in the previous 4 years, since Doumer’s appointment as Governor-General of French Indochina. Upon his arrival the colonies were losing millions of francs each year so Doumer introduced taxes on opium, wine and the salt. He established Indochina as a market for French products and a source of investment by French businessmen. Doumer set about creating the infrastructure appropriate to a French colony in. Indochina, especially in Hanoï, the capital. The Long Bien Bridge linking Hanoï and Haiphong was among large-scale projects built during his term. It was built in 1899-1902 by the architects Daydé & Pillé of Paris, and opened in 1903. Before North Vietnam's independence in 1954, it was called the Paul-Doumer Bridge.

On 6 May 1932, Paul Doumer was in Paris at the opening of a book fair at the Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, talking to the author Claude Farrère. Suddenly several shots were fired by Paul Gorguloff, a mentally unstable Russian émigré. Two of the shots hit Doumer, at the base of the skull and in the right armpit. Farrère wrestled with the assassin before the police arrived. Doumer is the only French president to die of a gunshot wound.
Andre Maurois was an eyewitness to the assassination, having come to the book fair to autograph copies of his book, and later described the scene in his autobiography, "Call No Man Happy". As Maurois notes, because the President was assassinated at a meeting of writers, it was decided that writers - Maurois himself among them - should stand guard over his body while he lay in state at the Elysée.)

In Toulet’s notes on the expedition, he refers in the very first paragraphs to a Hayashi kakemono and to the fashion for bonsai trees that hailed from that exasperating Lilliput that was Japan – almost the sole reference to that country despite the fact that he must have visited it. Be that as it may, on November 2nd the pair left Marseilles on board the Ville de La Ciotat of the Messageries Maritimes, whereupon Curnonsky lost no time in getting on familiar terms with both passengers and crew. Apart from some brief notes on the antics of the passengers, Toulet’s first notes were written from Port-Said on November 7th and then off Aden, remarking again on the passengers, and also on the porpoises and flying-fish. Columbo followed, as much a disappointment as Singapore was later to prove. Toulet’s disapprobation was more for the British colonial architecture than for the countryside, the horror of the Victorian style, gothic terraces and Ionic columns of reinforced concrete. The overwhelming heat, and the overcharging as he saw it at the post office, by the rickshaw drivers, the barmen, the currency changers all left a sour taste.
Although he doesn’t mention Malacca, neither in his correspondence nor in his Journal,  it is likely that Toulet stopped off there. The evidence is in Giraudoux’s novel, Suzanne and the Pacific, in which Toulet features and Curnonsky as his right hand man. Toulet, Giraudoux claims, spent a thousand piastres on lobsters so that he could drop them into the aquarium at Malacca just to see the octopus snap them up in their suckers and return the carapace empty. It sounds a likely anecdote, probably retailed on their return by Curnonsky.
By 23rd November they were off Singapore, comical and ugly, built by the British. (The following September he was dreaming again of Singapore, a Singapore more acceptable, he says, than the burning and glaring horror he experienced with its waters like metal). It seems to have been a brief landfall, because on 24th November he is writing of Saigon and his first impressions on Indochina, a green land of flat rice-paddies, and violet bougainvillea to enliven the shadows.
The pair were now on the Gironde, and not having a cabin, Toulet stayed in the bathroom, leaving the shower running to alleviate the heat. He describes with evident approval the local architecture, visible via the porthole, built of fired brick, and red as girls’ chignons.
After Da Nang (Tourane in French colonial terms), the next entry in the Journal is merely dated 1903. But in 1903 they were in the bay of Ha Long, a landscape so Chinese in character it reminded him of a garden constructed by a giant mandarin, half-submerged in the sea, reminding Toulet of a marine version of Karnak, and just a few hours from Haiphong. 

It may have been there, or more likely in Saigon, that the voyagers spent Christmas. There is no mention of it as such, just a reference to the Asiatic winters spent by the fire reading old copies of the Revue des Deux Mondes, or English adventure stories, far from the “glaring oppressiveness of this port of Cochinchina …and the pewter sky that hangs over the teeming ant-heap of Cholon” – in Toulet’s time an independent town, now a district of Saigon and considered the largest Chinatown in the world by area.

In commenting on the Tonkin landscape, (the name used since 1883 for the French colonial Tonkin protectorate, a constituent territory of French Indochina) Toulet recalls the fields of home, the reapers lying under the shade of a plane trees, and Toulet waiting in ambush behind a hedge to kiss the the harvesters returning from the well - the subject matter of Contrerime XXXI.
A Chinese parade at Haiphong caught his eye, with dancers, children riding miniature horses,  floats, firecrackers, and fakirs with cheeks pierced by enormous needles, for the most part stoical except for one misfortunate who looked as if her had been to the dentist, with a cloth held to his mouth to muffle his cries. The final figure was a toothless crone, her cheeks pierced through and through, waxen in her bloody shroud as if taking part in her own funeral procession.
In February Toulet was in north-east Tonkin, where he visited the Ky-Lua caves, near Lạng Sơn. He does not describe them, only relating with ill-concealed glee that the most serious member of his group split the top of his head on a stalactite.  (The two caves, well illuminated, with Buddhist altars, are the Tam Thanh Cave and the Nhi Thanh Cave.)  He claims to have travelled from Sơn Tây, 35 km west of Hanoï,  to Đồng Đăng by rickshaw, a distance of some 200 kilometres. Perhaps he took a rickshaw only to Hanoï, as the Hanoï - Đồng Đăng rail link was inaugurated on 1900.  Đồng Đăng is within a few kilometres of the Friendship Pass border crossing, one of three main border crossings with China. It was built in the early Ming dynasty with the name of "South Suppressing Pass" or Zhennan Pass (Zhennanguan). Toulet knew it as the China Gate - Porte de Chine. He found the place full of sacks of rice, presented by the Governor of Indochina to the Chinese Marshal Sou, military chief of Guangxi province, a regular payment for keeping Chinese bandits under control and on his side of the frontier.

Toulet was back in Hanoï for Mardi Gras, (Tuesday February 24th ) as he diverts into a longish narrative of a night spent in an opium den.

Hoan Kiem (Returned Sword) Lake, covering 12 hectares (30 acres), is possibly the most popular place in Hanoï.  There is a small, four-tier pagoda on a small island at the south end – Thap Rua, the Turtle Tower.  One of Hanoï’s most iconic attractions, it was constructed in 1886 to commemorate a local folk hero, Le Loi, who had freed the Vietnamese from Chinese forces back in 1425.
One evening Toulet and Curnonsky, in a schoolboy prank (Toulet was 35, Curnonsky 30!) and out of sheer boredom, decided to paint it. Here is Toulet’s account of the adventure, in one of his Letters to himself, on a postcard  from Tourane (Da Nang) depicting Hanoï lake, and dated 2 April 1903; and repeated in his Journal with just “Hanoï
, 1903” as date and location:

TOULET, Hanoï, 1903
To oneself. Dear Mr. Toulet, let me tell you the travails of a pagoda. Formerly a daring scholar had it "adorned" with a cast-iron reduction of Bartholdi's statue of Liberty. Another city councilor, better informed, removed La Liberté (a rather ordinary phenomenon) and replaced it with a Chinese gable. It was then that someone painted the whole a delicate chamois shade (buff, camel, ecru) that you could have admired if you had come with us in Indochina. But, one night, in our boredom, Sailland and I took a boat and a pot of indigo, and painted the unfortunate monument blue.
The city were quite surprised the next day; and, numbering 102,000 inhabitants (plus the floating population), assembled on the edge of the lake. Came a shower: everyone went home. But the indigo took advantage of the moisture to mix with the red layer of buff, and when the populace returned the pagoda had become purple like an amethyst. After night fell the indigo, continuing its unspeakable manoeuvres, reached the lowest yellow layer; after which the pagoda became green and the town Hanoï insane.

The pair were in Manilla in early March. Toulet’s brief Journal entry for February 28th is labelled “Près Manille”; and his  March 3rd Journal entry states that he had arrived (“me voici à Manille”). Francis Carco mentions, in Memoires d’une autre vie, that Léon Barthou gave him a little diary of Toulet’s in which he had noted brief impressions, including this: “1903, debarked at Manila, a Spanish town with Yankee signs. Extraordinary fuss with the customs. Promenade round the “Luneta” and the sea beneath a fading violet sky.”
The next entry in his Journal is labelled “Near Hong-Kong,  March 9th”, in which Toulet recounts his visit to the Philippines, and wonders what on earth Sailland and himself were doing there. In this note he refers to being there on a Sunday, which was most probably March 1st,  and heading back to Hong-Kong on the Hoïhao – a boat he describes as suspect, having been refloated after sinking in China. But he doesn’t state in this entry that he was on the Hoïhao  - could he have been on the Rosetta Maru ? (See March 11th entry). 
Of Hong-Kong he had little to say, taking up most of the entry with an anecdote about a Japanese colonel, and prefacing his tale with “On reproche aux Japonais de ne point nous aimer”; which may indicate that he had already visited Japan.

In the 11th March entry in his Journal, aboard the San-Cheun off Canton (Guangzhou), Toulet lists the various departures made since leaving Hanoï; the lack of organisation is evident - at Haïphong, there were no rooms available; the pair spent four hours in a sampan, under the influence of opium, searching for their boat which they were unable to recognise. Manilla, detained by customs, and dragging themselves from pillar to post looking for a hotel. Arrival at Hong-Kong to find the hotels full and obliged to sleep on board the Rosetta Maru, whose purser would not accept the local currency. Arrival at Canton – once again the hotels were full up,  the pair were obliged to sleep in an ambulance. They left Canton with the intention of going to Macao but the boat was fully booked so they ended up back in Hong-Kong! 

(Not all of their experiences in Canton were disorganised. Fifty years later, Curnonsky reminisced: “…the great Chinese Ignace Bou, who we knew from Canton, and who spoke very pure French, was able to tell me at the end of an excellent dinner, aboard a flowery boat…: Your friend Toulet has a very bad temper, but so even! ... As we had proclaimed, Toulet and I, our enthusiasm for Chinese cuisine, justified by an admirable swallows nest soup with and a delicious lacquered duckling: Yes! said Ignace Bou, I raise this glass of champagne in a toast to the only two peoples who have created the two most beautiful things in the world, cuisine and etiquette!”)

It would seem therefore that Toulet was in Japan either between 11th and 21st March; or between March 3rd and March 9th, which seems too brief a timescale, unless he sailed directly from the Philippines. But that is unlikely as he states in a letter to Mme Bulteau dated 28 March that he sailed from Manilla to China, with no mention of Japan. (The Rosetta Maru was a Japanese boat, of the Toyo Kaisen Kabushiki Kaisha, which certainly had routine sailings between Japan and Hong Kong.)

In his Letters to Himself, dated Hoïhao, 22 March 1903,  when off the island of Haïnan, he wrote on a post-card of the Bronze Horse Temple Nagasaki, so he must have been there by then. He starts off with “Que n’ai-je, très honoré monsieur, ce cheval de bronze à ma portée.He had left Quantchéou-Wan (now Guangzhouwan), a territory on the Luichow Peninsula in southern Canton (Guangdong) province the previous day, finding the French military installations praisworthy while wondering if there were more dug-outs than inhabitants  – were it not for “the multitude of fishing boats where the innumerable Chinese live out a fishy existence.” Japan was on his mind even before he set sail from France. Travelling by train among the vineyards of Guienne, a siren from the port brought to mind a kakemono in the Hayashi sale* where “perched on a rock, a species of vulture with a blue plumage on his belly, hungry watcher of the sea, seemed with his golden eye to  weep that he too could not eat nor love his fill. But the ladies preferred to buy  these tortuous little trees, Dodone or Libane, of that exasperating Lilliput that is Japan….”

*Hayashi, Tadamasa. Objets d'art du Japon et de la Chine; peintures, livres. Don't la vente aura lieu du lundi 27 janvier au samedi ler février 1902 inclus, dans les galeries de MM. Durand-Ruel. 1902.

His dissatisfaction is also expressed in this ironic Letter, dated Canton, March 1903:
How right you were, unlike me, my dear friend, of not going to Japan. Your systematic mind, the depth of which is not equalled, if I dare to write thus, but by the very breadth that it presents, would have been blunted, in a way, by the restless frivolity of this edgy race that is dying to imitate Europe before understanding it ...”.

In Comme une fantaisie, published in 1918, Toulet has M. l'Églantin, the sentimental professor of geography, refers to some quaint Japanese habits :
“Japan is a rainy country, where you can admire a mountain like a cocked hat (Fujiyama). The inhabitants are brave, and they like the patent leather boots that usually, going barefoot, they carry at the end of a stick. An American named Loefcadio who, during his lifetime, taught English at a Pomeranian elementary school, has told about them a thousand cheeky stories taken for the most part from the Jesuits of the 18th century. Thus he claims that the women bathe without any clothes, in front of their door, in blue-flowered porcelain bowls. But for a long time they have, thanks to the Protestant missions, turned to modesty, without, however, becoming lascivious; which is a hateful contradiction.”

La Jap’, qui raffole, dit-on,
De chaussure vernie,
Les porte – chacun sa manie –
Au bout de son bâton.

Ainsi l’éclat les en décore
Sans blesser leurs pieds nus.
Aimsi, sans doute, eût fait Vénus :
J’en sais d’autres encore….

Lafcadio Hearne wrote a number of books about Japan from 1894 up to 1904, the year of his death. They garnered great popularity and were much translated. It is certain Toulet came across them before he set out. About Hearn he seems to have been somewhat ambivalent, as Contrerime XLIX (first published in 1910 in La Grande Revue, under the title “Le Foujiyama”) and its earlier variant express.

J'ai beau trouver bien sympathique
       Feu Loufoquadio,
Ses Japs en sucre candiot,
       Son Bouddha de boutique ;

J'aime mieux le subtil schéma,
       Sur l'hiver d' un ciel morne,
De ton aérien bicorne,
       Noble Foujiyama,

Et tes cèdres noirs, et la source
       Du temple délaissé,
Qui pleurait comme un coeur blessé,
       Qui pleurait sans ressource.

In 1913, the early variant was published in Vers et Prose, octobre-decembre. In it these lines occur:

Je n’aime pas – je m’en explique –
Ce Japon idiot
Qu’a peint  feu Loufcadio
Du sein de l’Amerique.

The last line is quite untrue, as Hearn moved to Japan in 1890, and remained there for the rest of his life, married the daughter of a Samurai family, had four children with her, and wrote all his Japanese books there. He may have become more popular in France due to his enthusiasm for French authors, translating into English Gérard de Nerval, Anatole France, and most remarkably Pierre Loti, who was casually racist about the Japanese in some of his writings. One wonders if Toulet picked up on that, as not only does he not chronicle his Japanese visit, he is less than flattering about the Japanese he encounters elsewhere on his trip.

Japan bookends the Indo-China section of Toulet’s Journal. He began with the “exasperating Lilliput”, and concluded, in October 1910, with a Loti-like memory of Tokyo:  One evening while in Japan, the moths were banging against the coloured paper lantern. It was that of my three neighbours, one of whom was always dressed in blue and and another nude. But the third, in pink, was watching  through the bars of her window the moon play in the bay of Shinagawa.”

The 22 March note written aboard the Hoïhao on the Japanese postcard was followed by another where he views the town of Hoïhao (Haikou) on the northern shore of Hainan while aboard the eponymous steamer.
They sailed west, at Pakhoï (now Beihai), sweaty and smelly,  on March 23rd, to reach Haïphong on March 26th, when they left by the night ferry for Tourane, arriving on the 28th. He left for Hué  on Sunday, March 29th by the steam boat Thuan-an.

In the letter to Mme Bulteau dated 28th March, within view of Haïphong, Toulet says: « Tous ces paquebots, où je passe mes jours, et hélas, mes nuits, depuis cinq semaines, sont fort abominables… Il y a eu un mois et demi à Hanoï de pluie, de brouillard et de moisissure qui aurait rendu un officier anglais neurasthénique. Vous jugez si j’y ai échappé ; et malgré un beau feu de bois qui brûlait sans cesse à côté de mon lit, j’ai passé là quelques-unes des plus horribles heures de ma vie.»

At six a.m. on March 31st  Toulet took a steam sampan from Hué to tour various sites, including the tombs of Gia Long – where he was received by an elderly grand-daughter of the Emperor -  and Tự Đức . 

The tomb of Gia Long (officially Thien Tho Tomb) is a royal tomb of the Nguyễn Dynasty which is located in the Hương Thọ commune of Hương Trà district, some 20 kilometres south of the city of Huế. Gia Long ( 1762 –1820), was the first Emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam. Unifying what is now modern Vietnam in 1802, he founded the Nguyễn dynasty, the last of the Vietnamese dynasties. The tomb of Tự Đức, officially Khiêm Tomb,  is located in Huế, Vietnam. It was built for the Nguyễn Emperor Tự Đức and took three years to build from 1864–1867. It is divided into a Temple Area and a Tomb Area.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Contrerime LXVI

Sur l'océan couleur de fer
      Pleurait un choeur immense
Et ces longs cris dont la démence
      Semble percer l'enfer.

Et puis la mort, et le silence
      Montant comme un mur noir.
... Parfois au loin se laissait voir
      Un feu qui se balance.


On the ocean’s steely swell
      an immense chorus wailed
and the frenzied cries exhaled
      seem to transfix hell.

And then death, and the deathly pall
      building like a black wall.
... meantime a swaying light
      shone afar in the night.

Notes: (Published in Les Marges, december 1912) : this is about the Titanic, that went down in April 15, 1912. The “feu qui se balance" probably refers to the Californian, the nearest ship to the Titanic, that did not at first hear the alarm (it was the Carpathia that arrived sooner).

Contrerime LXIX

Quand l' âge, à me fondre en débris, 
      Vous-même aura glacée
Qui n'avez su de ma pensée
      Me sacrer les abris ;

Qui, du saut des boucs profanée,
      Pareille sécherez
À l' herbe dont tous les attraits,
      C' est une matinée ;

Quand vous direz : " où est celui
      De qui j' étais aimée ? "
Embrasserez-vous la fumée
      D' un nom qui passe et luit ?


When age, that crumbles me to pieces,
      You will have turned to ice
Who had not thought to recognize
      The sanctuary of my thesis;

Profaned by mincing goats, you too
      Will shrivel swiftly as
The splendour in the grass
      That won’t outstay the dew.

When you ask: "in what place seems
      He who loved me most?",
Will you then embrace the ghost
      Of a name that passes and gleams?

This was first published in Burdigala 1913 under the title “Quand vous serez bien vieille” - cf  Ronsard 5th ode to Hélène de Surgères:

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j'estois belle.

Lors, vous n'aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s'aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos :
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m'en croyez, n'attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd'huy les roses de la vie.

And of course one cannot omit W.B. Yeats:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Commentaires du Night Cap - Les jeux sont faits

This is the text, accompanied by an image, of the article published in Le Journal on 19.10.1911, under the byline Curnonsky in the series Commentaires du Night Cap. It throws some light on Toulet's familiarity with the Casino, and on his skill - or lack of it - at cards.

Les Commentaires du "Night Cap"

Les jeux sont faits.

Au « Night Cap », le bar qui fait le coin de la place de l’Entente-Cordiale et de la rue Alphonse-Allais… à deux pas de l'Opéra.
Quatre heures du matin. Une seule table reste occupée par cinq clients sérieux qui viennent là, chaque nuit, échanger quelques idées qu'ils se plaisent à croire «générales », et, parfois, quand le petit jour bleuit les vitres… quelques propos aigres et quelques injures sans résultat.
Un noctambule averti reconnaîtrait facilement :
TEDDY WHYNOT, Angevin jovial et ruiné (de son vrai nom, Maurice-André Monillon) que se amis ont affublé d'un pseudonyme anglo-saxon sans que ni lui ni eux aient jamais su pourquoi. Chroniqueur au Quotidien.
P.-J.-T. CORZÉBIEN, dit « Le Jeune Homme à l'Amer », dipsomane désabusé, fils d'alcoolique, alcoolique lui-même ; met son orgueil à toujours penser le contraire des autres, ce qui lui permet quelquefois de penser tout court.
ADRIEN BIDAREL, dit « Mèlé-Cass », fils des grands distilleries Bidarel-Chavard et Cie, héritier présomptif d'une de nos plus importantes « firmes » nationales. S'intéresse à tous les sports et à Mlle Margarine de Fécamp.
LACOUCHE DE PONTAYAC, ou « Inexorable Anecdotier » Propriétaire d'une immense concession en Inde-Chine. A beaucoup vu et beaucoup retenu, d'où lui vient sa manie irréductible de raconter des histoires auxquelles il finit par croire lui-même.
LE COMTE DE BRÉCHAIN, colonel de cavalerie en retraite. Le plus jeune des « cinq » malgré ses soixante-quatre ans...qui en paraissent à peine cinquante. Excellent homme, prend tout au sérieux… même les « petites femmes ». Représente la Tradition.
Ces messieurs causent en attendant le sommeil et Mlle Margarine de Fécamp qui BIDAREL a plaquée tout à l’heure chez Maxim's, après avoir « rompu » pour la vingt-sixième fois. Personne (même Adrien) ne doute que la blonde enfant n'arrivera tard ou tôt.

TEDDY WHYNOT - Alors, on boit jusqu'à l’aurore, ?
BIDAREL. —Non… jusqu'à la garde…la garde montante. Je vous répète que Margarine sera là dans dix minutes.
TEDDY WHYNOT. — Tu le répètes même tous les quarts d’heures. Moi, je m'en vais.
LACOUCHE DE PONTAYAC — Rappelez-vous, jeune homme, le principe de notre immortel Raoul Ponchon : « Il ne faut jamais se quitter sans prendre le dernier ».
CORZÉBIEN, — Je sais un autre axiome de Ponchon qui me permet en ce moment de considérer le fâcheux terme d'octobre sous l'aspect de l'éternité : « Il vaut mieux ne pas payer que d'avoir des histoires ! »
TEDDY WHYNOT. – Il ne faudrait payer que les dettes de jeu: ce sont les seules qu'on fasse avec quelque plaisir.
LACOUCHE DE PONTAYAC — Vous ne dites pas cela, je pense, pour ce brave Francfortois qui fut la proie de trois aigrefins ?
TEDDY WHYNOT. — Mais il a dû s'amuser follement ! S'il est une chose plus douce au monde que de gagner de l'argent, c'est de le perdre…M. Goescher a vécu quelques mois dans la compagnie de gens délicieux. Ces « grecs », d'ailleurs Italiens, qui cachaient des portées dans leurs souliers.
LACOUCHE DE PONTAYAC — Peuh ! des fourberies d'escarpins, comme dirait.
CORZÉBIEN. — Il l’a même déjà dit. Tout a été dit, Pontayac. Et vous venez tard.
TEDDY WHYNOT. — Il n'empêche que je me suis follement amusé à lire les comptes rendus du procès en correctionnelle où furent débinés les petits trucs de ces messieurs : les monocles à crochets, les porte-cigarettes à miroirs, et surtout cette symbolique poire en caoutchouc. Ah ! ce sont de vrais maîtres !
LE COMTE DE BRÉCHAIN, éclatant. — Des maîtres ! Mais vous n'avez jamais joué, mon pauvre enfant ! Des maîtres, ces vulgaires filous ! Des savates, monsieur, des savates ! De mon temps, oui, il y avait des tricheurs - et qui fondaient leur industrie sur la connaissance des hommes. Vous rappelez-vous Lardichon ?
LACOUCHE DE PONTAYAC — Lardichon ? Mais je l'ai connu intimement Figurez-vous qu'une fois, à Pau…
CORZÉBIEN. — Je sais. Vous m'avez déjà raconté.
LACOUCHE DE PONTAYAC. — Avec cet animal-là, pas moyen de placer une histoire.
Il se tait à tue-tête et s'absorbe dans la confection d’un gin-soda.
LE COMTE DE BRÉCHAIN, — Oui, sans doute, vous, Pontayac, vous devez vous rappeler Lardichon, puisque vous frisez les quarante-cinq ans. Mais ces messieurs sont trop jeunes. Ah ! je puis dire qu'il m'a bien amusé, ce philosophe-là. C'était un psychologue : il n'avait pas besoin de tout un attirail pour… travailler. Ainsi, son fameux « coup de l'orangeade » - Mais tout le monde le connaît!
CORZÉBIEN, par politesse, BIDAREL et TEDDY WHYNOT. — Mais non, pas du tout!
LE COMTE DE BRÉCHAIN, méfiant. Non ? Vous voulez me faire marcher ?...
Ça a couru tous les cercles! Enfin, puisque vous insistez ! Eh bien, il était simple et génial, ce « coup de l'orangeade ». Mon Lardichon, qui était brûlé partout, fréquentait alors d'innomables tripots, où la clientèle n'était même pas mêlée. Quand il s'était bien assuré que la majorité des joueurs avaient des figures sinistres, il prenait une banque et se mettait à tailler négligemment. La ponte une fois allumée par quelques petits coups habilement malheureux, il donnait soudain huit à droite et huit à gauche, et s'adjugeait une bûche pitoyable. Les deux tableaux abattaient. Sur quoi, mon Lardichon tournait le dos à la table et, s'adressant à un garçon, lui commandait une orangeade, une orangeade bien servie, avec très peu d'eau et deux pailles, dans un grand verre. Pendant qu'il avait le dos tourné, les pontes sans scrupule, et sûrs de leur coup, se livraient à une poussette acharnée et doublaient ou triplaient leur mise à qui mieux mieux. Alors, Lardichon, revenant à sa taille, s'excusait auprès des joueurs.
CORZÉBIEN, continuant. — Et abattait un neuf tardif, mais triomphal !
LE COMTE DE BRÉCHAIN, décontenancé.'— Comment ! vous le saviez! Je le disais bien que vous me faisiez marcher ! Et je vous attraperais si je n'apercevais pas notre charmante Margarine.
MARGARINE DE FÉCAMP, jolie comme les Normandes quand elles se mêlent d'être jolies. Cliché 4,616 bis. Un teint éclatant, une auréole de cheveux paille, un petit nez droit, aux ailes mobiles, d'immenses yeux verts ponctués d'or, des épaules divines. Magnifique toilette de chez Cazaloué. — Bon matin, mes enfants.
BIDAREL, sévère. — Je ne t'attendais plus, ma petite !
MARGARINE. — Non ? Tu ne faisais que ça, mon pauvre Mêlé-Cass ! (Elle s'assied et commande un milk-punch, parmi des protestations générales ; puis, sans faire aucune allusion à sa « rupture » avec Bidarel :) Imaginez-vous, mes agneaux, que je suis venue à pied pour promener mon chien.
TEDDY WHYNOT. — Comment ! tu as un chien, à présent ! Où le mets-tu ?
MARGARINE. — Le voilà ! Tiens, regarde s'il est joli, le fifi à sa mémère !
C'est un havane : il s'appelle Bock.
TEDDY WHYNOT. — Naturellement ! Et par où le fume-t-on ?
MARGARINE. — T'es bête! Et, figure-toi, ce satané cabot, il sent tout le monde, excepté moi. Tout à l'heure, j'ai été forcée de le rattraper, rue Royale, dans les jambes d'un vieux monsieur qui m'a demandé son chemin pour aller rue Saint-Florentin.
CORZÉBIEN. — A cette heure de nuit ? Un étranger, sans doute ?
MARGARINE. — Non : il avait l'accent anglais. Alors, je lui ai dit de suivre la rue Royale et de tourner à droite dans le faubourg Saint-Honoré. A ce moment-là, je me suis aperçue qu'il tenait sa canne de la main gauche. Alors, tu comprends, j'ai été forcée de recommencer toute mon explication.
BIDAREL. — Et pourquoi ça, petite ?
MARGARINE. — Dam ! puisqu'il est gaucher, s'pas ? c'est tout le contraire !
BIDAREL, attendri. — Embrasse-moi, Rinette, embrasse-moi. Je ne pourrai jamais me brouiller plus d'une heure avec toi !
Silence respectueux et approbatif.
LACOUCHE DE PONTAYAC, qui tient à placer son histoire. — Ah ! oui, colonel… je l'ai connu ce Lardichon ! Je l'ai même reconnu, une fois, à Pau, au Cercle britannique, où il s'était faufilé grâce à un déguisement qui le rendait pourtant méconnaissable : il s'était maquillé en vieux professeur norvégien, et il avait ahuri deux bons petits jeunes gens qui lui avaient servi de parrains. J'eus la discrétion de ne pas le trahir. Ce n'est pas mon métier ; et, d'ailleurs, je ne pouvais me défendre d'une certaine sympathie pour ce roi des grecs. Je me contentai de prononcer son nom à voix basse en passant derrière lui, tandis qu'il taillait avec un insolent bonheur. Cinq minutes après, il me rejoignit dans le petit jardin du cercle, me remercia de ne point l'avoir donné et me raconta les plus belles histoires de son répertoire.
CORZÉBIEN, inquiet. — Vous n'allez pas nous les redire toutes.
LACOUCHE DE PONTAYAC. — Si ! mais pas ce matin. Enfin, Lardichon se dévoila entièrement. si bien que le jour naissant nous trouva attablés dans un petit café de la rue de la Préfecture, lui, moi et deux amis que j'avais amenés pour jouir de sa conversation. Le goût de l'aventure et peut-être quelque diable aussi me poussant, je finis par proposer un petit poker intime. Lardichon se récusa, alléguant que, lorsqu'il verrait des cartes, il ne pourrait pas s'empêcher de travailler. Je lui fis remarquer que nous étions en bras de chemise et que, n'ayant rien dans les mains, rien dans les poches, il aurait fort à faire pour aider la chance… Il se contenta de sourire doucement et finit par se laisser convaincre, à condition que nous jouerions des haricots. La partie commença. Dès le premier « tour de pot », la veine s'attacha à Lardichon, et ne le quitta plus. Enfin, je me trouvai tout à coup à la tête d'un poker de rois, qui autorisait les plus belles espérances… et je me jetai dans une série de relances où Lardichon me suivit sans désemparer. Je me croyais bien maître de la situation, quand mon adversaire, haussant les épaules, abattit sou jeu et dit : « Le coup est nul ! Je ne veux pas travailler avec des amis. Mais voyons, monsieur de Pontayac, vous auriez dû pourtant deviner que j'avais quatre as. » Et il les avait, l'animal !
CORZÉBIEN, excédé. — Lardichon, que j'ai connu aussi, ne m'a jamais dit à moi qu'une seule phrase. Elle demande moins de préparations...mais je la trouve d'une portée, si j'ose ainsi parler, plus générale. Comme je venais de perdre 35,000 francs au casino de X...-sur-Mer, Lardichon, qui pontait à ma droite, me frappa sur l'épaule et me dit simplement : « Ah ! monsieur Corzébien, tant que vous vous obstinerez à prendre le baccara pour un jeu de hasard, vous êtes un homme perdu »


Monday, April 15, 2019

Commentaires du Night Cap - Réminiscences Jaunes

This is the text, accompanied by an image, of the article published in Le Journal on 25.11.1911, under the byline Curnonsky in the series Commentaires du Night Cap

Les Commentaires du Night Cap

Réminiscences jaunes.

Il commence à se faire tôt… cinq heures du matin, peut-être. Laconche de Pontayac s'est enfin tu. — Le barman du « Night Cap » a pris le parti de se faire acheter les journaux qui viennent de paraître. Maurice-André Monillon (dit « Teddy Whynot ») croit devoir insinuer mollement pour la septième fois « qu'il serait peut-être temps d'aller se lever».
Mais Corzébien, qui sent, avec son « douzième whisky-soda, les idées et les souvenirs lui remonter en foule, a pris fortement la parole et s'écoute avec déférence. Laconche de Pontayac voudrait bien l’interrompre : mais il trouve pas le joint.
Le colonel comte de Brechain se contente d'émettre, à intervalles irréguliers, des monosyllabes approbatifs.
CORZÉBIEN. - Il faut avouer que nous avons quelque mérite à reconnaître tous les quatre que nous ne comprenons pas grand’chose à cette révolution chinoise, et cela tient sans doute à ce que nous avons vécu là-bas. Depuis que la Chine est devenue, comme on dit, d'actualité on lit chaque jour des articles étonnants.
TEDDY WHYNOT. — Et qui sont de nature à nous désorienter.
CORZÉBIEN. - J'ai passé, voilà déjà bientôt huit ans, hélas ! tout un mois délicieux à Canton, avec vous, d'ailleurs, Whynot! Nous n'avions pu trouver place dans aucun des deux hôtels du quartier européen, et le docteur Masse nous avait gracieusement accueillis dans l’hôpital français, qu'il venait de fonder, de sorte ue nous disposions chacun d'une vaste salle, propre et claire, et d'une installation hydrothérapique dont je conserverai le regret toute ma vie.
Canton était alors, paraît-il, en révolution. Nous ne nous en sommes jamais aperçus. J'avais découvert, pour ma part, au cercle de Chamine, une collection complet du Magasin Pittoresque...
LACONCHE DE PONTAYAC. —— Et c'est tout ce que vous avez vu de la Chine ?
CORZÉBIEN — Non. Mais j'ai toujours pensé que les récits de voyages et les descriptions de pays lointains gagnent beaucoup à être lus sur place. Cela ne m'empêcha point, d'ailleurs, de lier connaissance avec un Chinois aimable et poli, qui parlait fort bien notre langue.
LACONCHE DE PONTAYAC. - Quoi d'étonnant ? Beaucoup de riches Cantonais font le commerce de la soie et vivent en relations constantes avec nos grands fabriciens de Lyon...
CORZÉBIEN - - - Je m'en doutais. Et je n’ai jamais en la folle prétention de vous étonner. Si je parle de mon ami Kuan Tseu Wan, c'est que je lui dois d'avoir compris a quel point les Chinois différent de nous et nous restent pourtant si sympathiques, je dirais presque si fraternels... Je me souviens qu'un soir il m'avait invité à dîner sur un bateau fleur avec deux de ses compatriotes et quelques Français de passage.
LACONCHE DE PONTAYAC. -— Prenez garde, Corzébien ! Vous allez raconter une histoire !
CORZÉBIEN - Non. Kuan Tseu Wan, par un raffinement d'hospitalité, avait retenu tout le restaurant pour que nous fussions bien chez lui…ou plutôt chez nous, et avait commandé en même temps que le repas chinois, un diner à la française... au cas où l’estomac des convives se fût insurgé contre le potage de lait d'amandes, les foies de canard au sucre, les poulets laqués ou les ailerons de requin à Ia frangipane. Mais il se trouva que chacun fit honneur au menu national : les trois Français surent picorer avec des baguettes dans les cinquante ou soixante plats disposés sur la table, et tout se passa pour le mieux dans le meilleur des anciens mondes. Au dessert, Kuan Tseu Wan saisit à deux mains son verre et but à la France et à la, Chine, « comme aux deux plus nobles nations de l'univers ». Nous nous inclinâmes, sans trop de conviction, ne voyant là qu'une de ces politesses dont les Chinois ne sont point avares.
» Mais le rusé Cantonais sut deviner restriction. Il sourit malicieusement et-reprit:
» — Vous croyez que je ne dis là qu'une banalité aimable. Mais non ! Très sincèrement, je crois que nous sommes les deux premiers peuples du monde…parce que nous sommes les seuls qui aient inventé une politesse et une cuisine. Et ces deux choses-là, résument toute la douceur de vivre.
» Il me parut que, pour penser avec un cerveau différent du nôtre, mon ami Kuan Tseu Wan ne pensait déjà pas si mal. Il lut mon approbation dans mes yeux et continua :
« - Car la vie est courte et dure à vivre, et rien ne compte ici-bas que ce qui peut nous la rendre plus supportable. Vous êtes très fiers, vous autres, Européens, de votre science et de vos inventions, — comme si nous n'avions pas inventé la poudre! Mais, dites-moi, toutes vos découvertes vous ont-elles rendus plus heureux ? Croyez-vous sentir mieux que vos ancêtres la beauté d'un paysage, la grâce d'une attitude, la mélancolie d'un crépuscule ou le doux sourire du matin sur la mer? Et croyez-vous que, parce qu'il passera des tramways sous ma fenêtre, cela me consolera d'avoir perdu un être aimé ? Et, si j'ai commis une mauvaise action, les sirènes de tous les paquebots couvriront-elles la voix terrible de mon remords ?... Comme l'a dit un de vos anciens sages: « Tout » n'est que signe, et signe dé signe. »
Et nous ne vous avons point attendus pour savoir que tout le bonheur de vivre peut tenir dans le regard d'une femme, tout le malheur dans un pli dédaigneux de ses lèvres... »
TEDDY WHYNOT. - Ce Kuan Tseu Wan était vraiment un brave homme, et grâce à lui, nous allons enfin pouvoir, avant d'aller nous coucher, parler un peu de petites femmes!
LE COMTE DE BRÉCHAIN. . – Je crains que le sujet ne soit un peu épuise et que cela ne fasse dévier l'entretien.
TEDDY WHYNOT. — Aussi bien, colonel, je ne veux parler que de petites femmes jaunes! J'en ai connu plusieurs, et qui m'ont donné cette délicieuse impression de je ne sais quelle fraternité obscure.
CORZÉBIEN — Vous pouvez même dire, Whynot, que, moyennant le versement d'une dot fabuleuse de cinq cents piastres, vous fûtes pendant cinq lunes l'heureux seigneur et locataire, de Mme Ti Nam, qui passait, non sans raison pour la plus jolie congaï (1) d'Haïphong.
TEDDY WHYNOT. — J'ai beaucoup aimé cette gamine jaune, je ne m'en défends point.
CORZÉBIEN. — Et la modestie seule vous empêche d'ajouter qu'elle vous le rendait bien. Il me souvient même qu'un soir, où j'étais venu vous rendre visite dans votre « canha », Mme Ti Nam, qui prenait part à notre entretien, vous jeta ses bras nus autour du cou et me dit avec un accent de sincère conviction — et dans son « sabir » un peu spécial : « Li Phalangtsé, li pas vini pou lien!... »
Ce qui pour tous les coloniaux, signifie clairement : « Les Français ne sont pas venus pour rien! »
TEDDY WHYNOT. — Je n'eusse point osé rappeler cet aveu dénué d'artifice. Mais il est vrai que nous nous entendions fort bien, Ti Nam et moi, et que la séparation nous fut également cruelle.
Invitus invitam… Mais vous savez que ces fleurs exotiques ne se transplantent pas. Il me fallut donc quitter ma petite amie. Je sus qu'un an après mon départ elle s'était remariée, grâce à la dot que je lui avais laissée, avec un brave Annamite qui ne la rendait pas trop malheureuse et ne la corrigeait qu'à bon escient…
» Et puis, je ne sais pourquoi, un soir de nostalgie où j'avais touché le fond de cet incurable ennui qui s'exhale des endroits de plaisir, j'écrivis à Ti Nam, chez ses parents, dont j'avais gardé l'adresse, une lettre ardente et triste, où je lui disais qu'aucune femme d'Europe ne la valait… que nulle n'avait pu me consoler d'elle… enfin, des histoires, quoi! Je restai toute une année sans recevoir de réponse, et je pensais un peu moins à Ti Nam, lorsque la poste me remit une grande enveloppe jaune où je reconnus l'écriture enfantine et démesure et de ma jeune veuve. L'enveloppe contenait une lettre et un autre pli cacheté sur lequel était écrit cet avertissement: Lire la lettre, d’abord... Je me conformai à cette prescription. Je ne puis malheureusement vous donner une exacte idée du style bizarre de cette lettre, écrite dans un intraduisible « désespéranto », mélange de français, d'annamite, de pidjinn et d'argot montmartrois. Mais le sens m'en est resté très présent à l'esprit. Ma petite amie me disait en substance — et en quatre pages d'une calligraphie irrégulière. mais appliquée:
«Il ne faut pas te faire de chagrin. Je ne veux pas que tu me regrettes. L'ami docteur Le Lan a dû te dire, quand il est allé en France, que je suis remariée avec Nguyen Van Teu, qui vend du riz dans la rue du Cuivre, à Hanoi. Si tu reviens, tu nous feras le plaisir de descendre chez nous, car nous faisons de très bonnes affaires. Mais il ne faut pas penser à moi comme à ta petite femme. Celle-là est morte. Car je suis vieille, à présent. Je viens d'avoir dix-huit ans, et j'ai eu deux enfants. Et tu sais que nous autres, femmes d'ici, cela nous change beaucoup. Alors, je suis devenue très laide, une vraie baya (2). Et, pour te montrer comme je dis vrai, je t'envoie ma photographie. »
CORZÉBIEN. —Vous l'avez gardée, cette photo?
TEDDY WHYNOT. -- Non! Elle était trop décolletée, et Ti Nam avait trop raison. Le visage seul, était resté joli… Mais le reste! On eût dit qu'une tempête avait passé sur tout cela. Et, si je vous ai raconté cette petite histoire c¡ ce n'est pas pour me vanter, mais pour vous amener doucement à vous demander quelle femme d'Europe eût trouve le courage d'écrire une lettre pareille.
LE COMTE DE BRÉCHAIN. — Oui sait ? Votre petite amie n'a peut-être montré là qu'une espèce de coquetterie posthume. Et je gagerais qu'après avoir lu sa lettre vous ne l'en avez que davantage regrettée.
TEDDY WHYNOT. -- un peu mélancolique, à cause de l'heure, peut-être. — Je la regrette encore. mais moins que ma jeunesse…

(1) [Au temps de la colonisation] Femme annamite; en partic. compagne indigène d'un européen 
(2) Vieille femme.