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.