Friday, December 7, 2012
M. Baudelaire was walking a street in the old downtown. Three AM. He had slept between the hours of ten and two but then woke feeling as if he had slept the night through. Poetry no longer called him in the wee hours so he put on his overcoat and went out the door.
Winter. Snow which fell three days before had made its migration from purest white to tramped and coal dusted. Good thing he had put on his rubber boots. Along the sidewalks, where it had been churned by the feet of passersby, lay slush, beneath it a layer of icy water. Confident in his rubber M. Baudelaire strode boldly through. No one was about but then the section where he lived was quiet even during the day for it was inhabited by people of regular habits, close to the river away from bars, cafes and theatres.
The old gas lamps had long been replaced by electric. He sometimes missed the old lamps which spread about them a yellowish haze perfect for half dreaming, half perceiving the darkened city. The electrics were whitish. In the middle of the night when respectable citizens were in their cozy beds, they turned down the intensity so that now, all along the street, were white umbrellas of light dropping their weakened beams upon the dirty snow. Like a sailor working the waters of an archipelago he made his way between these islands of light.
After some twenty minutes he came to the front of a long brick building. In the half light it gave the appearance of a bridge tier or a blank, anonymous railway building. It had one small entrance toward the very end of its street run and he slipped into it, out of the lighted street and into almost complete darkness. He took a match from his pocket, lit it against the rough brick of the wall and inserted a key into the door. The lock turned in a heavy but well oiled fashion and he entered a foyer leading to a long corridor immediately in front of him, lit at the end by a single bald electrical bulb. To his left was an iron stair. He began his climb.
On the sixth floor he was presented with another long corridor with another bald bulb at its end. When he reached the light he turned to the door on his right, raised his cane and, with the silver knob at its top, gave one sharp knock. At first there was no response but this was not unusual. Always, as soon as there was a knock on the door, Jeanne froze. She claimed a knock on the door was the same as someone walking over her grave. After a few moments of indecision, (M. Baudelaire pictured in his mind the expression on her face, the attitude of her body) there was the sound of slippered feet moving across the floor, stopping behind the door. Then three minutes of Jeanne sensing, with the mystic methods of her people M. Baudelaire no longer scoffed at as he did in his youth, who was behind the door. O these woman have their ways and if a man lives long enough he comes to understand them as perfectly intelligent and possibly even superior to his own.
Jeanne opened the door. M. Baudelaire, as was his custom, walked past her to the small kitchen at the back where he took off his coat and began warming himself at the iron stove. Jeanne followed and sat at the table where she had been sitting when he knocked. Before her on the porcelain surface was a layout of tarot cards. Beside them was a glass of wine.
"Charles," she said, "you wet my clean floor with your dirty boots."
M. Baudelaire took off the boots and set them beside the stove. He retrieved a damp mop from the corner (kept in readiness at all times by the very tidy Jeanne) and, retracing his steps, mopped the dirty wet spots from the floor. Done, he rinsed the mop in the kitchen sink and put it back atop the rusty bucket, its resting place.
"I received a letter from my cousin," said Jeanne.
"The one who is dying?" asked M. Baudelaire.
"No. The one who is dying is Francine. This is Marcella. She is the one with twelve children."
"I thought she had thirteen?"
"One died of whooping cough a year ago. She sent a photograph of herself and the children and sends her best wishes to you , her benefactor, as she calls you."
"You are the benefactor dear Jeanne. You squeeze me for the money and send it along to her."
"Excepting in your poems you have always been a man to lie about his feelings. You know very well I do not have to 'squeeze you' as you put it but, but on the contrary I have to insist on not sending too large an amount which will only spoil her."
M. Baudelaire did not reply to this. Instead he rubbed his hands above the iron stove top and smiled in appreciation for the pleasure its warmth gave his arthritic hands.
"Is she still in the city?"
"No. She has taken my advice and gone back to the country where she bought a small farm. She has goats, chickens, pigs and a big garden. And those ragamuffin boys of hers play in the fields instead of learning to steal and fight on the streets."
"There is stealing and fighting in the country as well."
"True but less and the neighbours know you and send reports to your mama. All the older ones are going to school. You will remember the bill."
"Ridiculously small I remember."
"It is a poor country and the schooling is cheap."
"Well, as long as they learn to read they can fill in the gaps for themselves."
"The oldest already has a clerk's job in the Ministry."
"O the poor bastard, what a fate!"
"I would remind you he is not a French intellectual with an inheritance but a African colonial with a family he must help support."
"Well, at least he is not responsible for the sins of the Bourgeoise who made the inheritance in the first place."
Jeanne did not reply to this. Instead she pointed to the sideboard and said, "She sent a photograph of herself and the children."
M. Baudelaire walked to the board and picked up the photograph. A large African woman sat on a chair in the centre of a string of children. ranging from toddlers on the right to tall gangly teenagers on the left. A very chubby baby sat on her knee. The woman was smiling broadly as if she had just received a prize for first place in something, child bearing no doubt thought M. Baudelaire. Yet he had to admit she was both an attractive and pleasing looking woman, the sort of woman one seldom saw on the streets of his own city, so miserable was the condition of the Parisian poor. The family grouping was beneath a tree. The sun was shining but then in Jeanne's home place the sun was always shining. Not like in Winter Paris where it hid all winter, a faded flower peeping between rags of dirty clouds.
How handsome were the children, how full of life! How their bright smiles were so accentuated by the dark brown of their flawless complexions. The mother wore a kind of robe/dress which covered everything but her head, even her feet. But the children wore a hodgepodge of odds and ends, the girls dresses, the boys shorts and unbuttoned shirts (o what a kind mother she must be not to demand they button their shirts). The children had bare feet, healthy robust looking bare feet. The girls all had bone combs in their hair and the boys had their hair slicked to one side in imitation, perhaps, of a European dandy.
"Poems are children, dear Charles."
"Poems are ephemeral, Jeanne, and die with the man who once wrote them."
"Well, children don't last forever either. They grow up to be adults and you seldom see them."
M. Baudelaire said nothing to this. Instead he sat at the table across from Jeanne and watched her lay out cards.
"For whom?" he asked.
"Marcella's oldest," Jeanne replied. "The clerk in the Ministry."
"That's easy then," said M. Baudelaire. "At the age of thirty-three, as a result of an acute attack of boredom, he hurls himself into the harbour and drowns."
"Not all bureaucrats die of boredom," replied Jeanne.
"Not all, this is true," said M. Baudelaire. "Some have been dead some years before they enter the Ministry. These are the successful ones for having been born into the world of the dead they know no other and do not mourn."
"Nobody is born into the world of the dead, sacrilegious man."
"I beg to differ," said M. Baudelaire. "I have known many who at least seemed to be born into the world of the dead.."
"Seem and is are two different things. Why don't you make coffee?"
M. Baudelaire rose and did as Jeanne suggested. While it was brewing he watched her move the cards about.
"Well?" he asked.
"He will marry early," said Jeanne. "A rich man's daughter from the next village."
"She will ruin his life with her ambition," said M. Baudelaire. "In the end he will wish he went to the bordello or used his hands."
"No. She is good woman who loves men and children, not money."
"And the ambition?"
"He will have his own and it will be his undoing. He will be accused of plotting against the government and will be sentenced to die along with many others."
"Ah well," said M. Baudelaire, "At least it will be a relief from endless file reviewing."
"He will be given a pardon," said Jeanne.
"Friends in high places!" said M. Baudelaire. This little witticism pleased him so much he broke out laughing. When he stopped he looked at Jeanne to see if she was sharing his pleasure but she was looking back at him with a calm, steady, stare. He suddenly realized what this stare might mean.
"Me, you mean," he asked.
"Why not," said Jeanne.
"I didn't think I would have to stay alive that long," said M. Baudelaire.
"Not so long," said Jeanne. "He is already a clerk three, a great accomplishment for a African twenty year old."
M. Baudelaire had written many poems about the scented lands of colonial Africa and he had even travelled there for a brief period in his youth. But he did not take away much for his home was the cafes of Paris not the out lands of the empire. Still there was Jeanne who, despite his reputation for being sexually permissive, so vigorously promoted by himself and all those who wished to be considered his friend, was the only woman who became the resting place of his true affections. Granted, originally he had been attracted to the exotic element in loving an African woman, a creature who symbolized primitive, unrestrained desire and electrified his scorn for, his rebellion against, the moral guardians, but in the end he stayed long enough to see the sister where once only the beckoning wanton did appear.
Some months after the above scene M. Baudelaire and Jeanne could be seen standing on a pier on the Seine waiting patiently (at least Jeanne was waiting patiently, M. Baudelaire was a version of his usual impatient self, modified by age and the charm of watching the fog lifting off the dirty water) for the agents to remove the barrier across the gang plank of a rusty steamer. Beside them were six trunks upon which were piled a motley array of bags, suitcases and taped cardboard boxes. M. Baudelaire was dressed in the style of a provincial notary - black suit, white shirt with tie, leather shoes polished to a shine the envy of any bureaucrat who might lay eyes upon them, laid over his shoulders to keep off the early morning chill a grey overcoat of exquisite conservative cut,
the material, granted, far above the reach of the income of a provincial notary. Jeanne's matronly dark grey dress was covered by her own silver grey coat. Jeanne wore upon her lapel a broach given her by a rich man in her early youth and once the source of terrible quarrels between her and M. Baudelaire, but now, at least from M. Baudelaire's angle, the occasion of amused ironic glances. M. Baudelaire's only display of colour was a dark red handkerchief protruding from his suit coat pocket unseen beneath his overcoat and, fastened to his overcoat lapel by a simple gold pin, a single red rose.
M. Baudelaire would have preferred a berth on a more modern boat, one with the rust removed and great perfectly white sides reaching into the air commandingly above the water but Jeanne would not be denied what she called her 'cozy oil bucket steamer' whose bleeding plates slumped in the water like the sides of a bruised animal. Then there was the matter of money, for the school they were to establish on arrival required money, even the money to be saved from the more humble passage.
"I suppose," said M. Baudelaire as he placed his everyday scented handkerchief under his nose to escape the foul smell of goats being lifted off the pier in cages and dropped down into the ship's bowels, "the students will be the sons and daughters of dangerous criminals since you insist on establishing it near the slums where your cousins live. No doubt if one insists they write legibly and in their compositions exclude the tics of that monster Victor Hugo from their stylistic repertoire, the fathers and brothers will show up the next day and cut our throats. Oh well. We have lived far too long as it is and can hardly demand our exit be approved by aesthetic principles. Perhaps we can hire thugs to protect us. What do you think?"
"Since the tuition is free the parents will complain of nothing," replied Jeanne. "A more likely problem might be parents rushing up to you in the streets, throwing themselves on their knees and covering your hands with kisses."
"I could wear gloves I suppose."
"If you wear gloves in that heat you won't have to worry about having your throat cut for you will die of heat stroke on the first day."
There are the scents of Africa dealt with in poetry but the scents they experienced in coming into the harbour of the provincial town were mostly from the sewage laden oil glazed water which clung to the piers like a great miasma of foul syrup. The goats, making their return journey from the ship's underbelly had been freshened in their powerful odours by a week at sea with cages untended. Added to this was a great mass of animals on the pier waiting to be loaded, for the boat was to continue on down the coast to another town. One contingent was a travelling circus for there were cages of lions, tigers, hyenas, crocodiles, wired containers alive with snakes and, standing off to one side in the blessed shade of a giant tree, two mournful elephants leaning against one another, the sadness of the ages in their wise and weary eyes. Around these, in a sea which seemed endless, perhaps only terminating at the far end of Africa itself, that great and turbulent incubator of both humans and animals, were masses of farm animals - chickens, goats, cattle, ducks, strange, multicoloured exotic birds, even ostriches with long craning necks searching the crowd with irritable glares. M. Baudelaire wondered if it were possible for them to make their way through such an assembly or if the dark gods of the continent had demanded they all show up on that day to consume the few stringy Europeans which the boat was carrying into exile.
Jeanne alleviated his fears by grasping him firmly by the hand and leading him down the gangplank. He held in his right hand a briefcase filled with his latest writing while his left was being tugged from its socket by the vigorous method Jeanne used to split the crowd to create an opening. She lowered one shoulder and barged. The combination of her physical vigour and the trailing presence of M. Baudelaire, obviously a Frenchman of the educated classes, opened up just enough room to make it through. Behind them came the young men Jeanne had engaged (at twice the going rate to prevent stealing or at least minimize it) to carry their luggage, fifteen altogether, loud young men who shouted at the crowd that refusal of a passageway would force them to down the baggage and begin beating people to create one.When they finally broke through the crush they came upon a line of ancient wagons two of which Jeanne hired to take them to their new home. There M. Baudelaire immediately retired into the inner spaces of the adobe house (which were deliciously cool compared to the oven baked streets) and had a nap.
And what, you might ask, was M. Baudelaire, that great poet, critic, complainer, and aesthete, doing in a provincial town in Africa, the only thing to be said for it being it was the birthplace of his paramour, the incomparible Jeanne? Well, he had gone there with Jeanne of course, to teach children in a free school he was to bankroll out of the rag ends of his inheritance rescued from his early life of dissipation. His literary work was finished twenty years before he insisted to anyone who managed to break through the elaborate system of cut outs and covers he had assembled in the city of Paris to protect himself from mobs of celebrity seekers and lovers of art. He still wrote, or as he put it, scribbled, but he claimed this was the result of a lifelong nervous habit he was incapable of breaking. The school was in a old warehouse two blocks from the house, a building still smelling strongly of the spices once stored there.
M. Baudelaire taught in the mornings and wrote in the afternoons. He had a class of fifteen children whom he taught a variety of subjects ranging from French History to English composition. The children ranged from nine to thirteen years of age, most African but three white, the sons of poor colonial Frenchmen. The children arrived at eight in the morning and were fed milk and bread with jam by Jeanne and three of her cousins, one of them a Catholic nun. There were three classes, M. Baudelaire's, the nun's and one taught by tubercular idealist from the island of Corsica. Classes were finished at one when Jeanne and her helpers fed the children soup and buns and sent them off home.
The schedule, giving children the afternoon and evening off, was set up to attract students, for the poor needed older children to bring in a small income and could not have them attending school all day. That the children were fed breakfast and lunch also helped. The school, after it was operating for six months, had a complement of fifty- three children, the oldest thirteen, the youngest six. Jeanne hoped eventually, following the children as they aged, to raise the age of the oldest to sixteen or so. There were none in the school or the area for that matter, with the resources to attend university but some might manage a scholarship or entry into a free government technical school. Just the fact that they could read at the age of sixteen meant they could apply for a variety of jobs most could not apply for because they were illiterate. Jeanne was sensitive to these issues of employment while M. Baudelaire was rather dismissive of anything other than intellectual distinction mainly of the literary kind. In his class there were three gifted in languages and he gave them extra attention. But he did not neglect the others. In fact the student who stole his heart was a small boy from further south on the continent, a child named Jules, eleven years of age. Jules did not neglect his languages but he was most at home drawing pictures and spent all the time he could scribbling happily away on paper M. Baudelaire manage to scrounge from a local printer. He was the only child of a single mother who worked all day in a hospital laundry. After lunch he went home with Jeanne and M. Baudelaire, where he spent the afternoon in the inner courtyard drawing pictures on a table M. Baudelaire placed there for him. Once a week the two of them walked to the library of a religious school five miles across the city and took out books of images. Sometimes Jules drew whatever he wanted to draw, whatever came into his head. Other times he copied from the books of images or just sat looking at the images for hours at a time.
Old poets grow tired of words and old painters weary of images. And it is not unusual, as in the case of Jules and M. Baudelaire, for the young to influence the old. M. Baudelaire, excepting for a brief foray into drawing and painting when a very young man, had stuck to words for many many years even though in the last ten years he found little joy in them. Now, influenced by the joy and concentration of this small boy working away in his courtyard, M. Baudelaire began to draw and then to experiment with colour. At first he worked in his own study on the other side of the house but after some time of this he brought an old table from storage and set it up not far from Jules, and the two of them, happy to have with them the warm presence of the other, yet fully concentrated on the work at hand, spent every afternoon from two until six filling paper and canvas and cut pieces of composition board with both copies from their books and their own work created in the inspiration of the moment. M. Baudelaire especially liked to draw and paint scenes from the nearby bazaar. Jules preferred the waterfront and on Saturdays he and M. Baudelaire drove the old school trap, pulled by its lethargic donkey, a moth eaten fellow with enormous ears, to the piers where they drew the ships and crowds and stevedores and made a thousand experiments attempting to capture the the delirious sense of movement and colour about them. Jules was greatly attracted by the water and made hundreds of colours studies trying to catch its queer and fleeting combination of filth and beauty. He found his secret ingredient to be tar. Begging a small amount from a sailor one day he found its pitch black, overlaid with other colours, created marvellous effects which made him dream at night of the harbour water. M. Baudelaire, fastidious himself about the tar, bowed to the boy's superior intuitions in these matters and bought a barrel of the stuff the workman wheeled into the courtyard on a dolly and stood up in a corner.
There were what most people call folk painters in the town. As far as M. Baudelaire could make out the difference between folk painters and other painters was illusory, having, on the whole, to do with class and culture. Good painters were the talented ones who somehow kept themselves creatively stirred whatever people called them. He and Jules went off twice a month to visit some of these, mostly men but there were a few women among them. The studios were in the poor area around them for rents were cheap and these painters, selling their wares in the bazaars for very little money, had no choice but to live cheap. Most spoke French but some spoke only Arabic and in these cases Jules did the talking and translating into French for M. Baudelaire. M. Baudelaire, standing at the junction of the two cultures, one foot in each, although the French foot enormous, the Arabic one dependent on a now twelve year old boy, had, for the first time in his life, a business idea which ended in the construction of a small gallery in the front part of the house. M. Baudelaire advertised in the tourist hotels. He reasoned that there was nothing a middle class tourist, more and more of whom visited the town every year, wanted to take back with them than an authentic piece of Africa and what was better than a painting, lightweight, cheap, easily transportable? M. Baudelaire, and Jules sold some of their own, (M. Baudelaire under an Arabic nom de plume) but also paintings and sculptures by their friends, the 'folk' artists. Jeanne ran the money side and she and M. Baudelaire had a few heated arguments on how much could be syphoned off to support the school (Jeanne insisted on 20%, M. Baudelaire no more than 10). Jeanne won, of course, for she was the one who kept the accounts.
M. Baudelaire found the hottest days to be insufferable. He always managed to teach his classes but sometimes in the afternoon he lay on his bed naked, panting like an old dog for an hour before he could summon the energy to rise.
One day he had an appointment for mid afternoon two miles away from the house. It was useless to put the donkey in the drafts for the poor thing would bray piteously as if it were being roasted slowly over a fire like St. Lawrence and refuse to pull. Unlike many of the carters around M. Baudelaire did not have the heart to beat the creature and instead left him in the relative cool of his mud shed on the hottest of afternoons. Dressed in his black suit he feared he would collapse halfway to his destination yet felt, as a European, it was beneath his dignity to go out dressed in only a shirt and a pair of shorts. (the truth was he was more concerned about the skinniness of his arms and legs than his dignity) The gardener, a middle aged man about the same size as M. Baudelaire, suggested he wear his extra set of clothes, a shockingly white shift which dropped almost to the ankles, tied at the waist and covered by a burnoose, a hooded cloak.
"We have been living here for thousands of years," said the gardener, "and this is what we wear."
Particularly since he was going to visit the French Notary who looked after his financial affairs, a man of strict Huguenot uprightness who would rather die than be caught wearing the slightest deviation from conventional French colonial fashion, he decided to give it a go. The Notary was indeed shocked when M. Baudelaire strode into his office in Arab dress and he treated him with a the combination of care and distance his kind use in dealing with madmen. This amused M. Baudelaire to no end and, combined with the fact that his new costume was amazingly cool, making him feel as if he were covered by an umbrella and a slight cooling breeze blew so sweetly around his middle and legs, he decided to wear it all the time in the very hot season. Eventually he grew to like it and its winter additions so much he dressed like an Arab all year long.
In the Spring of the fifth year of his arrival in Africa M. Baudelaire was sketching on the docks with Jules. It was mid afternoon on a coolish day, a series of cloud banks having blocked out the sun for most of the day. Jules was some distance away drawing sketch after sketch of a tramp steamer which had just tied up at the dock. M. Baudelaire was resting in the seat of the donkey trap drinking coffee purchased from a nearby stall when he saw a man he knew come down the steamer's gangplank.
This man was a Parisian critic by the name of H. Bunot. He was some ten years younger than M. Baudelaire and a savage critic of his poetry up until the point, some thirty years ago, when it became obvious that M. Baudelaire was, by far, the most significant poet of his day. H. Bunot had then trimmed his sails to gather in the wind of the 'New Poetry' as he and his fellow critics called it, and had praised his work ever since. Unfortunately the poor man was as ignorant in his praise as he had been in his criticism. M. Baudelaire had met him many times in Paris, sometimes at the few official events he allowed himself to attend, sometimes in cafes M. Baudelaire frequented. In these establishments H. Bunot would often accost him and bore him with endless silly questions which M. Baudelaire answered as best he could for he knew the man had a large family to feed and words fresh from the horse's mouth were precious spices for H. Bunot's columns in the local newspapers. Ten years ago he had brought out a combination biography and literary criticism on the work and life of M. Baudelaire, which, despite lengthy interviews with the subject, was riddled with inaccuracies and contained an appreciation of his poetry so superficial and banal that an intelligent man would suspect it of being a satire. The life part bordered on hagiography even though M. Baudelaire had been quite frank with the man about the more unsavoury parts of his life and quite clear that he did not care one whit if he printed everything he told him. H. Bunot, of course, was writing for an audience who liked their poets to be on the saintly side and their defects explained away as the natural reaction to the sufferings attending a life devoted to art. The book mildly disgusted M. Baudelaire but he was in no way made angry or incensed by it for, when he thought about it, it was the only kind of book such a man could write, so why waste one's time expecting him to write another? When he finished reading the book (skimming it really, for the prose was so turgid, so cheapened by cliches that by the time one freed oneself from the clutches of one he was immediately jumped by three or four others, and actually reading the prose as if a man were speaking to him, as one does good work, would have caused M. Baudelaire to go stark raving mad or to have a heart attack or a stroke), he tossed it aside and never thought of it until this very moment when H. Bunot, raincoat over his left arm, walking stick in his right, two porters following behind, carrying his luggage, came walking down the gangplank. Well now, thought M. Baudelaire, as he watched H. Bunot climb into an open carriage and head off toward the hotel district.
Three days later a note arrived at the house by courier, addressed to M. Baudelaire, of course, in the long, stretched out, flourishing characters he recognized from the old days in Paris. The messenger had been told to wait for an answer, and he was doing so in the kitchen where the cook poured him a cup of coffee.
The message asked for an interview, the purpose being 'to bring the French public up to date on the current thinking and poetic practice of its greatest living poet.' M. Baudelaire, not wanting to give himself away by writing a reply in his own hand, surely recognizable even by the very obtuse H. Bunot, dictated an answer to Jules who wrote it down word for word. He then placed it in an envelope and handed it to the messenger to take back to his employer.
H. Bunot was so anxious to receive the answer he was waiting in the hotel lobby when the messenger returned. He tore open the envelope, pulled out the single page of script it contained and read the following,
Unfortunately the person to whom your message is addressed has been deceased for some time now. He, along with his paramour, a Jeanne Duvall, drowned when the boat they were travelling on in the interior was holed and sank with great loss of life. Neither the body of Jeanne Duval or that of M. Baudelaire was recovered but this is to be expected since it was the rainy season and the river, a seething torrent, carried all the bodies quickly out to sea. The house you sent your message to is owned by a M. Jules Jamalais, a merchant who never met M. Baudelaire and, other than the above and that the man's name was on the property deed before his, knows nothing at all about him.
Further messages came back unopened. A private detective's report claimed there were no Europeans living in the house. H. Bunot's own spying expeditions revealed that the house seemed to be inhabited by servants only. Inquiries at the police station revealed nothing. There was no M. Baudelaire on their registry nor was there a Jeanne Duval. An advertisement in the newspaper produced not a single response. One and a half weeks after he had arrived, H Burnot sailed back to France aboard The Purposeful Hazard, the same old tub Jeanne and M. Baudelaire had sailed out of France on some five years before.