Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Toulet in Algiers, Part 1

Coples XLV
Alger, ville d’amour, où tant de nuits passées
M’ont fait voir le henné de tes roses talons,
Tu nourrissais pour moi, d’une vierge aux doigts longs,
L’orgueil, et esclavage, et les fureurs glacées.

Toulet stepped off the gangplank of the steamer Languedoc on a gloomy December day in 1888 to find Algiers wet and muddy, driving rain alternating with brief clear spells, the Mediterranean not quite as blue as anticipated. He straightaway set out on the perennial student quest for lodging. He was advised as to the whereabouts of the student quarters, and after a weary climb up the interminable lanes and flights of steps of old Algiers, arrived at last at the tranquil aerie of Rue Dubuch. At No 15. Madame Ritter informed him in her thick Sicilian accent that she had no vacancies. She did in fact have a number of French students lodging with her. As she was turning Toulet away, a young man passed by, tipping his hat. Toulet sought an introduction and some minutes later Louis Martin heard a knock at his door and opened to Mme. Ritter, who excused herself for disturbing him, and presented Toulet, hat in hand, correct and cold. Toulet had calculated that a fellow countryman could point him in the right direction.
Martin described his first encounter with the poet some forty years later. He had been appointed a judge at Philippeville and had met Toulet again in Paris when he (Toulet) was forty two. He wrote up his brief memoir as Une page de la vie de P.-J. Toulet, 1887-1889 in Mercure de France, 1er février 1927.
 Toulet, said Martin, spoke in short phrases, punctuated by silences, very precise and personal; he confided that he had come to Algiers for a year or two on “doctor’s orders”, his old Béarnais doctor who had treated him since childhood, having stated that only the climate of the Algerian coast could combat a natural weakness which should not be aggravated. In a low voice he mentioned his “affected lungs.” On these words he burst into laughter, unusual for him, a clear dry laugh like a clash of blades. Toulet, consumptive? He didn’t believe it, then or ever.
The good doctor was mistaken. In fact, it is not clear where or when the suggestion was made that Toulet should take advantage of the Algerian climate, as he barely touched at France, and then only at Marseilles, on his return from Mauritius. He hadn’t returned to Béarn to see his family, and he probably had not consulted his doctor. But he certainly took advantage of the diagnostic error, and arrived in Algiers full of confidence, hope and mischief, following his penchant for exotic locations, and exotic women. And whatever about the climate, the narrow winding alleys of Algiers, hilly and steep, would try his lungs soon enough.
No. 15, Rue Dubuch, sheltered not only Louis Martin, but another student of law, Joseph Casanova, a medical student, and a powerful Belgian opera singer, Madame de Garden, of ripe age and formidable talent, who, it was said, had come straight from the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, and who had been entertaining the citizens of Algiers for two winter seasons.
Toulet found lodging at 50, Rue Rovigo. In a letter to his sister Jane, he describes his new abode. “Rue Rovigo is very high up. In order to avoid the interminable winding lanes, I take a series of staircases from the lower town that comprise about 230 steps. Add to that the 120 steps in the house and you will see that my apartment would be suitable for a gym teacher.”
The 120 steps lead to a garret on the 6th floor, “directly beneath the stars” that are his “only neighbours overhead…All is this reminds me of the Great Pyramid that I had the misfortune to climb.”  But when he finally arrives panting on the 6th floor, it’s only to have the view take what’s left of his breath away.
“Though the terrace has only one aspect, it’s a view to die for. Immediately in front I have the harbour, all the bend of the bay, all Djurdjura, and to the left Algiers with its white house piled up on each other like a flock of sheep.”
He recycles this description later in Béhanzigue: “As I climb to the heights where I live – as it becomes a poet – I see Algiers unrolling itself like a carpet at my feet and the curve of the murmuring gulf.”
The view is too distracting for studying law. Toulet is 21. The Civil Code is certainly not bedside reading. At the end of a month the erstwhile law student throws in the towel and writes to Jane: “As for my studies, would you believe that I have given up on law. I am following a literature course that interests me. What will Papa say about this decision?”
Papa doesn’t have much to say, evidently. Toulet takes advantage of his silence and his absence by forgetting the way to the faculty entirely. He prefers to enrol in the school of life that delivers its lessons by night.
In January Toulet had removed to 18, rue Dubuch, just across from his friends in No. 15.  He still enjoyed a view, but the steps were fewer. In March he was to be found at 15 rue St. Augustin, where he exchanged a view for an extra room. On the 27th of June he wrote to Jane to say that he was now in his sixth apartment, overlooking the arcades of Babazoum and the Square; in the city centre he no longer needed to climb interminable steps, and he watched the world go by from his window.
Toulet’s presence in Algiers was not spontaneous. His Mauritius journal makes reference to his intent, and it was almost certainly agreed with his father. Since it was apparent that he could not continue to fritter away his time in Mauritius, the idea of taking up his study of the law, and possibly aiming for a career in the diplomatic service, became a live issue. The only thing was where, and which faculty, and Algiers was picked because its climate suited his supposed weak constitution.
Toulet ate with the other students in the lively ambiance of the pension Fautrier, rue de Tanger, where the wine was the colour of “ink and mulberry juice”. Then after supper it became his custom to install himself at the Café du Ballon, where Martin and Casanova would find him at a table “happy and agreeable, a cigarette and a pun in his mouth, bowing his head as if administering a sacrament, to offer us in a whisper, the delicious foretaste of a sonnet or an epigram.”
Toulet and company knock back some glasses, then it’s a tour of the Casbah, with its brothels and dancing girls. Martin makes it sound innocent enough:
“We all had a weakness for easy pleasures. Toulet was a libertine, but not debauched. It was rather as a dilettante arrested by new sensations that he tarried sometimes in out company in some lost house by the old Casbah, where the tiny patios and the anaemic fountains and the shady corners held his surprised glances, whilst we, greedy and frisky young colts, stared straight at those Zohrads and Meriems too heavily painted, sumptuous and sophisticated, who made us quiver with first desires.”
Years later Toulet wrote to Debussy of a “little house in the heights of the Casbah, where tawny young girls, pretty and grubby, danced seductively on the tables."
“I had the opportunity to see the Kasbah several times and at night and is truly remarkable. It is well lit, but all its rising, twisting, streets with their houses touching at the roof, their staircases, destroy all sense of perspective such that we think to walk in a dream. Add the oddly shaped apertures, the monotonous muffled sounds of a native orchestra, a Moorish figure framed in a door, and it all becomes pleasantly mysterious.”

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