The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.21Alan Hollinghurst
‘She’s not my girlfriend,’ he said.
‘She is very sweet to you though, isn’t she?’ said Paul optimistically.
‘No she’s not!’ said Marcel, and a big tear gathered in his eye. I thought, just you wait till your next lesson. The vocabulary of the orgy. You’re going to tell me everything just as you had it from Sibylle.
Later I was reading about Edgard Orst’s now demolished villa, which had stood so conspicuous and so secretive on the edge of a suburban housing park. Paul had given me an English journalist’s account of a visit to it in 1904:
We were privileged last month to be received by M. Edgard Orst at the Villa Hermès, his splendid new residence-cum-atelier, whose designs our readers will no doubt recall from their publication in these pages some little while since. Indeed, the house has been three years in the building, and though M. Orst has regretted the delay, it cannot be denied that every detail of the structure and its appointments speaks of the most especial care in both design and execution; the artistic visitor will be bound to exclaim with us, ‘How should it have been done sooner?’
In external appearance the Villa is tall and somewhat forbidding, its severity of openings and the plainness of the elevations, however, being mitigated by the fine patterns that are scored into the stucco along the coigns and lintels, the whole being given the most delightful brightness by virtue of being painted a dazzling white. Atop the foremost gable, of course, stands the figure of the alert young deity whom M. Orst has invoked as the guardian of his house – an admirable piece in bronze gilt from his own studio.
Arriving a little before the appointed time, and having dwelt on the exterior, we rang the bell and were obliged to wait for some minutes before the opening of the door. This door itself, let it be said, is a thoroughly imposing one, massively enriched with nails and fine furniture; and it gave rise to not a few reflections on the solitude into which M. Orst has chosen to retire, and on the strength, so to speak, of the fortifications which he has thought necessary to protect that solitude from an undeniably curious world. For in M. Orst, unlike other artists of the ‘Symbolist’ school – we think of that exquisite dramatist of the impalpable, M. Maurice Maeterlinck, with his avowed enthusiasms for the beer-hall, the velodrome, and the ring – in M. Orst, we say, we find the aesthete par excellence. As we stood at his door on that April morning (and in a light rain that had just begun to fall) we were at once in possession of the gauge of his claim to be considered the doyen of all the artistic recluses of our time. It was for us to ponder at what cost to his seclusion, and so to his art, an invitation like our own might have been made.
Our readers will know something of the unhappy circumstances that have befallen this remarkable painter in the years since his last exhibitions in London, and will be in a position to understand the dictates, in his life as in his art, of a heart, and an eye, subjected to so violent a shock: his has been, in the words of one of his contemporaries, ‘un veuvage précoce’ – a premature widowhood, indeed; and one that has imposed upon him its own high and unwavering demands. There are those (a few in Belgium herself, though more, we admit, on our own neighbouring shores) who continue to question M. Orst’s standing in the first rank of modern artists; and some who are all too ready to consign his productions to the midden of depravity, along with those of M. Félicien Rops and one or two others, to be spoken of only as one speaks of the art of the criminal or the madman. To be sure, that M. Orst’s paintings – and his admirable sculpture in plaster and gesso, not to mention his abundant work on the stone – have value as testimony to a fertile mind subjected to pressures of exceptional severity, cannot be denied; what we do deny, absolutely, is the inherent unworthiness of his subjects or of the dark sensibility which all his work reveals.
Some thoughts such as these, as we say, passed through our mind as we waited at the doorway of the Villa Hermès; which, in due course, was opened by a young woman in a pale costume (reminiscent of the hygienic dress of Ancient Greek maidens, and styled according to M. Orst’s own design), who indicated to us to enter. We gave our name, and she withdrew soundlessly – we had already been apprised that all the servants of the house are encouraged not to speak, and to make themselves understood, as far as is possible, by gesture.
We found ourselves detained in the long and somewhat sepulchral vestibule, which runs to the full depth of the house, and off which open various small rooms. At a number of these a curtain was drawn back to reveal a fragment of an Attic frieze, displayed on a high plinth, or a drawing from the hand of Giovanni Bellini or Sir Edward Burne-Jones. In all the rooms of this ground floor, it should be said, the windows are either placed too high to permit one to see out or else are filled with coloured glass, which serves to create a magical play of symbolic light.
The young housemaid returning and beckoning to us, we left the hall and climbed an imposing flight of shallow stairs which brought us at once to a domed ante-chamber, in which a most beautiful bronze figure of Andromeda, chained to her rock, is reflected in a marble pool. Through an archway beyond we were able to glimpse, between curtains of fine old brocade, the lofty space of M. Orst’s studio. In front of these curtains runs a curious brass rail, somewhat like that in the sanctuary of a church, which ensures that no one enters unless at M. Orst’s express wish; in which case a mechanism causes the barrier to retract into the wall.
Being so favoured, we pressed forward into this principal room, which indeed occupies the full height of the back of the house, with the exception of the basement, which on that side is reserved for household offices. We can say at once that the impression of the studio, with its great north window and the accumulation of magnificent and exceptional works displayed on its walls against the sympathetic background of antique tapestry, was superlative. But our closer and more prolonged inspection of the pictures was deferred by the arrival of the painter himself, who stepped forward and greeted us most cordially, as a friend, he was pleased to say, from a country he had long held in especial regard. It was a sign of that regard that he wanted at once to have news of acquaintance of ours in England, and that he seemed content to talk of those bygone days quite as if we had no other purpose in being there. Our fear of disturbing him at his work proved groundless; he was finely dressed and did not, as so many artists do, advertise the nature of his craft by appearing in a pigment-daubed smock and with his palette on his thumb. Indeed, it is said that M. Orst has never been observed at the easel by any stranger.
He led us into the dining-room, whose white walls formed a fitting background to a cycle of his paintings on the theme of the Seasons of Life; it was here, over a generous collation, that he spoke to us of his feelings about the Villa he has built as a shrine to his own calling. It was only in the course of designing it, he said, in the incessant small changes to his plans, in the conjuring of the perfect solitude from light and space and the exact positioning of objets d’art, that he had worked out to his own satisfaction what it meant to him to be an artist, and what the life of an artist, once so impetuously embarked upon, might in the end demand of him. It was not hard, under the spell of his gently modulated delivery and pierced by the momentary glint of his sharp eye through a heavy pince-nez, surrounded, what is more, by some of the most striking products of his genius, to feel the incontrovertible hand of his particular destiny.
When we left the dining-room, in order to be shown M. Orst’s library, we were witness to a most surprising ritual, in which after every meal not only the various dishes and plates but also the table and chairs, and in fact the whole furniture of the room, were removed from it by the servants, leaving it as an unsullied temple of his vision.
The study of the Villa Hermès is a charming room, in which M. Orst conducts his business with those connoisseurs who follow and collect his work, and which contains the large cabinet in which he keeps his prints. We remarked that the drawers of this cabinet were somewhat cryptically labelled with Hebrew hieroglyphs; and it was with some humour that M
I turned to the photograph at the head of the article: it was grey on grey, the windows pewtery and opaque, the dead light of certain spring days. The young trees in the garden in front were orderly, suburban. ‘Une petite forteresse de rêve’, one old acquaintance had called it; another saw it as a crystallisation of Orst’s cold, loyal nature, his ‘British’ reserve and desire not to be too intimately known. For some reason I found myself thinking of it on the morning of his death: I imagined Paul running, cycling, to the house and hearing the news, a doctor making a brief last visit; and then the servants who communicated by gesture, stunned into natural silence, closing curtains and shutters, while the telephone rang, and the tables and chairs were left in the dining-room all day.
Rough Common is a common and also a small town, south of London. The town was nothing much until the 1790s, when its principal inn gained importance as a posthouse on the way to fashionable south-coast resorts. A watercolour by David Cox, done in 1812, shows the white weatherboarded cottages with spindly verandahs that run along the common’s edge; and in the brief broad progress of Fore Street, with its pollarded limes and Wednesday market, there is still a hint of the Regency sense that a good time might be had there.
The post-road itself is now swept off into a chasmal by-pass, crossed by high footbridges that lead to new, remote parts of the town. I’d been there at night sometimes with people I’d picked up. The cars thrumming past below added a certain desolate glamour to my vertigo. The old part of town is all the quieter, as if its hubbub were subsiding to the wind-gusted calm of the common itself.
The common has always been there, in its modest, unstinting way, rising beyond low railings at the end of Fore Street to rabbit-pitted sandy heights and thicketed folds. At the top it is suddenly steep – a scribble of path, a concrete bench and the blunt monument of a trig-point against the sky. From here, you look over a large pond, sandy-edged but black-hearted, and the beginnings of a wood that runs in a long dense belt to the common’s further end. On a clear winter’s evening the view from the trig-point takes in surprising distances of sombre downland and the skyward glare of the Kent and Surrey suburbs.
The town stretches out along two sides of the common, westward past the Regency cottages on a socially aspiring curve that takes in the de Souzays’ small mansion and other large houses before reaching the leafy dead end of Blewits, home of Sir Perry Dawlish; and eastward, descending past the row of mock-timbered villas where we lived to the crumbling thirties housing-estate, the Flats, with its useful late shop.
I let myself in and shrugged my bag to the floor. In a few minutes I would lose the surprise, the disconcerting and exact sameness of everything in the house I had lived in all my life. My mother was out, it was dusk, and this was the silence that had been around us all the time, and that I had left her to. The rattle of the loose parquet, the jiggle of the door-catches and hesitant tick of the clock were sounds I had always known, echoing from surfaces my father had kept bare and polished for acoustic reasons. My mother had changed almost nothing in seventeen years – a new telly, a new Daihatsu Charade: and there were different library books on the hall table awaiting return, the latest issue of Common Knowledge, the local advertiser, caught in the letter-cage of the front door. I looked into the sitting-room, a smell of polish and lavender, the black mass of the piano, shadows thrown across the wall by the street-lamps and the tall unhusbanded privet hedge rocking in the wind.
I hadn’t meant to be back so soon in my room, with its wall of second-hand books, its air of determined privacy and make-believe. I glanced at the squeaky single bed; and there were the forlorn fauna of childhood, the one-eared rabbit and the dropsical trousered bear, passed by but still pathetically alert. I stood by my desk, where I had written a thousand adequate essays, and not a few sonnets, and looked down into the Donningtons’ garden. Gerry had a rowing-machine now; the white buttock-scoops of the seat held pools of rain which gleamed in the unshielded light from their kitchen. As always, I opened the window before I lit a cigarette.
It seemed Colin’s car had gone out of control on the Brighton road: it was the 6-litre Craxton he’d had done up, he should have known the problem with it in the wet, with just a bit too much speed the tail swings round on a bend, then you’re spinning across the lanes; you might be lucky and cartwheel down a high bank and thwack to a halt in earth and grass; or you might catch five or six other cars light ruinous blows and come out shuddering and vomiting with terror but okay; or you might shimmer sideways, seem to hover for half a second alongside the blurred rain-sluicing roof-high tyres of a twelve-wheeled juggernaut, then crumple under and be sliced to death.
Edie had seen it happen, the whole thing in the time it takes to turn up the radio or glance aside at your companion. She was a bit behind Colin and Dawn in her Peugeot; she braked and zipped through on the hard shoulder to avoid the bucking and careering of the lorry, and then ploughed into the bank to dodge the front of the Craxton, with Colin in it, as it shot out from beneath. She sat quivering and weeping, gripping the wheel, and felt the thump in her back as the severed rear end of Colin’s car exploded, fifty yards behind.
It was a couple of hours later that she got me on the phone, at the Orst Museum. She described running along to the wreckage, ready to plunge in for Dawn, but the flames took her breath; she ran back for Colin and he was all over the crushed cabin as if he had been detonated; something in the engine was still churning and banging, the radio still going, ‘The Pavane of the Sons of the Morning from Job:’ she coughed up the words as if horrified to have known what it was, and having to tell me, and dropped the phone, but I could hear her wailing and gasping.
They had been to Hove to look at a long-case clock that a friend of Edie’s father wanted to sell. Edie, as the intermediary, had led them down, Dawn accompanying Colin for the run and a change of scene from the eventless shop. The clock was a good one, and Colin brought it back in the car – you just could with the passenger seat folded forward and the whole thing wrapped in blankets. Dawn had had to sit in the back. Colin knew the way home, and when they hit the motorway he overtook and powered ahead. Edie, slightly oppressed by this male challenge, had done her best to keep up. She thought they were doing about 85 when the spin happened.
Dawn’s real name – unreal, it seemed to me, when I read the newspaper report – was Ralph, which was romantic and adventurous and didn’t suit him, but which he managed to accommodate by the age of fifteen to his strain of boisterous schoolboy shyness. Then he took part in the school reading competition, judged as a rule by a stone-deaf old actor, a pupil of the school during the Great War, well-known for his portrayals of clergymen. Each aspirant would take the rostrum, like a witness, announce his name and his selected extract, and then deliver it in a sufficiently loud and commanding manner to get through to the judge. Ralph, flushed and nervous, appeared at the lectern and immediately began a rather sensitive account of the Gordon Bottomley passage he had chosen from Poets of Our Time; it was not until he had confided three or four lines of it that the old actor cheerily called out ‘Name?’ and Ralph, humiliated, bellowed ‘Dawn …’ adding a ‘by Bottomley’ that was lost under a roar of laughter.
The first day people tried out Bottomley, which seemed apt, as Ralph was a sturdily bottomly boy; but it was Dawn that stuck. After initial petulance he let it happen and blossomed into it, like a drag-name, much as he came to understand that his bottom wasn’t a laughable encumbrance but a majestic asset. He never used the name himself, and up to the end would say on the phone ‘
I went up over the common with my mother next morning. It was grey and blowy and our macs were stippled once or twice with flung raindrops, threats of a storm we saw stagger aside and discharge in a slanting fume a mile away. She had the disconcerting habit of talking indignantly about something other than the obvious subject of concern: in this case my elder brother and whether she could afford to visit him in Melbourne. She felt very keenly that Charlie’s wife had stolen him away from her, that she had set out deliberately to break the mother’s bond with her son … They were married within a year of my father’s death, so grief and joy were followed again by grief when Lisanne (‘Always a calculating cow,’ said Edie) abruptly cancelled visits, in due course kept the children from their grandma and finally persuaded Charlie (who was an electronics boffin) to go for a job almost as far away as it was possible to go. My mother pined for him and the two little girls terribly; they were twelve and fourteen now, they wouldn’t recognise her, she said. Charlie promised they would fly her out for a lovely long visit. Then Lisanne had written to say they couldn’t afford it this year, Charlie wasn’t doing so well … ‘Charlie’s so weak,’ my mother said, and gripped my forearm as we started on the steep top path to the trig-point. She seemed somehow grateful that I at least would not get married, and so would spare her this particular pain. I remembered how at five or six I had said that I only wanted to marry her.
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