The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.31Alan Hollinghurst
‘What about some new undies, to go with it?’
‘I can’t afford anything else, I’m afraid.’
Cherif came and hugged me and I sniffed in the expensive and assuaging wool smell. ‘Thank you, my friend,’ he said. It struck me that it wasn’t a practical coat for going to the docks. I supposed he’d carry on wearing his old what was it?, bolero?, to work and the coat would at once be elevated to luxury evening wear. The whole exercise was a useless indulgence.
Alejo bobbed back with some slithery packets of underpants. ‘You can have one of these with the compliments of the house,’ he said quickly – obviously an offer to be kept from the management and the one or two other customers moodily riffling the shirt-shelves.
‘Which would you like, darling?’
‘He’d better try them on,’ said Alejo demurely.
Cherif was helped from his coat and sent into a curtained cubicle, wondering if he was being made a fool of.
Alejo drew me aside. ‘Whatever did you do to my poor cousin from Bilbao?’ he said.
‘Oh dear …’ I laughed guiltily. ‘Agustín. Well, I think I …’ I didn’t quite know what I’d done, of course. ‘What did he say?’
‘He was too shocked to say anything,’ said Alejo solemnly.
‘I certainly didn’t do what I wanted to,’ I said. ‘I guess I just fell madly in love with him for two or three hours.’
‘He breaks everyone’s heart,’ Alejo confirmed. ‘And you know he is still a virgen – his parents are very strict and religious. All my queer friends are crazy about him, they keep sending him flowers and asking him to imaginary parties.’
‘I haven’t seen him around lately, you know he sometimes stays next door to me.’
‘Oh, he’s moved from there! He couldn’t stay next to you!’ I was aghast. ‘Only joking’ – he laid a hand on mine – ‘he has a room of his own, I’ll tell you where.’
‘There’s not much point, is there?’
‘None at all,’ he said complacently.
‘You’re clearly a very attractive family,’ I pressed on.
‘Come with me,’ he said, and led me through a door into the shop’s back room – bare bulbs, a sink, a white work-table, clothes pinned and chalked for alteration. I wondered if I was about to go down on him. ‘Look at this,’ he said.
Mounted on a ledge at the side was a small black-and-white TV set, a security monitor for the shop. It showed the central area in an odd convex perspective, a customer passing beneath looming with enormous cranium and dwindling curved body ending in tiny shoes. It made me instantly suspicious, the distortion seemed to challenge you to notice the thief’s shifty recce or his smooth concealment of some small pricey item. The lack of sound enhanced the sense of stealth.
Alejo turned a knob and the scene changed to the front vestibule, if anything even more sinister for its emptiness. In the bottom corner little Rudi was lolling at the desk, staring at nothing, unaware he was being spied on. He looked at his watch.
‘Now let’s see what’s up in number three,’ said Alejo and switched again. We had a steep-down view on to the row of changing-cubicles. ‘It’s amazing what you catch on this camera – I don’t mean sex, just the things people do.’ I knew uneasily that he must be right – those crises of contemplation, envisaging the changed future some garment seems for a moment to guarantee. Over to the left the naked upper part of my rival could be seen, pale and powerful, clouding his underarms with talc.
‘What the hell’s he doing?’ I demanded.
‘You have to do that for the rubber vests, you know, or you never get them off.’ Alejo kept watching professionally, like a policeman waiting for a hesitation to turn into a crime. ‘We’ve had a lot of trouble with him.’
‘I’m not surprised.’
‘He’s weird, he keeps trying things on but he never buys.’
‘Why don’t you ban him?’ I said, though my indignation was sapped by the view of the cubicle immediately below. It was clear that Cherif could not be less interested in the chi-chi underwear he was being tricked into trying; he hadn’t even opened the packets. I was pleased and somewhat possessive. My friend was simply sitting on the narrow bench and turning a piece of paper over in his hands. Then I knew, despite the plunging perspective, that the paper was a letter I had written to him, in our very first week, full of unguarded declarations, and marked by me in various shamefully personal ways. The two of us frowned into the little screen as he tilted his head back and ran the letter contentedly under his nose.
Later that week we put the triptych together. Paul was jumpy and hard to please, and when he asked me to do things for him I got in the way. The facilities of the Museum were so cramped, he needed to close the first-floor gallery to assemble his new acquisition, and brusquely dismissed a polite young student who was already in it copying, as well as the woman who came in to do the typing. On the threshold of his fulfilment we all seemed potential obstacles, who needed to be thrust unsentimentally aside.
We were waiting for an overnight courier from Munich, bringing the central section, the townscape. I knew these were special art-transport experts, but I couldn’t banish the image of a lad on a mud-streaked motorcycle, with the canvas strapped on the back. At the same time the loaned wing from Switzerland was being flown to our little airport, the whole thing being destined to converge in a nerve-racking climax just before lunch. As Helene was abroad on her honeymoon I opted to get out of the way and sat at the front desk, with my chair tipped back against the dim warmth of a radiator.
I was reading the text of an article Orst had contributed to The Studio about his childhood summers in the Ardennes. He described the days of preparation, the tremors of anticipation that ran through their well-ordered household as the morning of departure approached. Then it was the train to Brussels, the ‘stupendous and terrifying impression’ of the capital after the empty thoroughfares and grass-grown quays from which they had come; a second train to Namur, and after a long wait, ‘when it seemed that for all our efforts we might never arrive’, on to St Hilaire,
where the great towers of the basilica, glimpsed from a distance through the forest as we approached, gave the first assurances that our pilgrimage was ending and that we should shortly be traversing the blessed domain of Givre-court. On descending from the train we were welcomed by my grandfather’s coachman and conveyed to the house in a great black carriage which quite resembled, to the imagination of my sister and me, a stage-coach of the last century, sent to bear us off into the regions of romance.
The manor of Givrecourt is a low old house, from the time of Charles V, with tall old trees about it, a mighty barn and stables and a hamlet of ancient cottages. It lies in a safe declivity among the pine woods and oak forests, the bleak sandy heaths and upland bogs of that high country so astonishing to a child reared on the level Flemish plain, with only the theatre of the skies and the plains of the sea itself for contrast. In Flanders, for those with an eye for landscape, there is extent without contour; a design ruled by the single and inflexible horizontal, which cuts the picture in two and advances indefinitely before and all around, and is not without its force and grandeur. But here the straight line was everywhere turned awry – in the quaint old work in stone and plaster and the time-worn floors of the manor-house itself, in the gnarled and ancient giants of the Forest of St Hilaire, whose boughs dropped wearily to earth and then rose up again in fantastic forms, in the rocky outcrops above, which reared against the sunset like wind-bitten visages of heathen gods.
I have been at Givrecourt since then in other seasons: when the woods were full of snow, or in the autumn twilight – loveliest and most tragic of times. Among the pictures I have lately exhibited in London were a number of studies of a pond there among the pines, done on a spring morning or in the winter dusk; as well as others of the village people as the evening finds them, the forester in the lane, the gamekeeper ready with his bag and gun. They were said by som
The article was dated October 1898. I knew that a year later he would have met Jane Byron, and that she would be dead.
The three pieces of ‘Autrefois’ didn’t fit. Paul had leant them against the wall, side by side, like some classic puzzle, simple in its elements but requiring genius IQ to solve. The left-hand part was the one the Museum had already, the candle-lit image of the woman whose face was seen only in the mirror. It appeared on postcards and posters and I thought of it as an icon in itself. It had its original frame of dull gilt wood. The right-hand wing, the seascape, had been reframed and stood several inches higher, its intense dusk colours heightened by a broad surround of silvery pearwood. The larger middle panel, the deserted town, which had undergone so many vicissitudes, should have had a huge recessed frame, into which the hinged wings could be folded, and a broad plinth. Paul showed me the murky old studio photograph, in which the triptych could be made out, its doors open as if on an altar, and for the first time I caught the shock of its arrangement, the figure of the virgin displaced from the centre, the gothic townscape, such as often clustered behind a Flemish nativity, unpeopled and sepulchral, and where at the edge the donors might have knelt only the grey sea and violet sky.
‘I’ll have to get Mr Pauwels in,’ said Paul, ‘our historical framemaker. The right panel has obviously been cleaned quite recently, only last week by the look of it, whereas the dentist’s part is relatively filthy and more damaged than I realised when I saw it before. Of course the light was very bad …’ He appeared both thrilled and forlorn about the work, and inspected it with extraordinary technical thoroughness. I wondered what it was he read in it inch by inch.
‘When do you think it was painted?’ I asked.
He stood up and steadied himself with a hand on my shoulder, as though momentarily dizzy. ‘That’s a very good question.’ We contemplated the slightly pathetic reunion of the three canvases, which now seemed to me like long-separated friends who no longer have much to say to each other. ‘And one that you should be able to start answering by now,’ he said, giving me a tutorly shake.
‘I’m afraid I’ve only been looking for spelling mistakes,’ I said.
‘Well, there’s a kind of spelling mistake in this.’ I scanned the pictures again, knowing I wouldn’t find it, and gave a shrug.
‘I suppose the seascape is quite different stylistically.’
‘It is indeed. One can be pretty sure that it was painted at least ten years after the other panels, possibly as late as 1932. His sight was deteriorating steadily then, and he only painted from memory. You can see how broad the handling is, and the composition is of the simplest. I mean, I think it’s a very beautiful picture, and a very moving one – his later works sometimes have that kind of force.’
‘Helene was telling me about the white pictures,’ I said, not without a certain nervousness. I saw his twinge of weary annoyance.
‘Yes, I’m afraid that’s all a lot of nonsense,’ he said, as though determined to be reasonable. ‘I refuse to show them as finished works – they’re only prepared canvases in many cases. Helene, bless her, was very taken in by a young art-historian from Paris who worked here for a while and started giving them titles like “Dans la Neige”. The fact is, Orst couldn’t see. As you must have realised he was riddled with syphilis, he tried bravely to keep on painting, almost as a kind of optical experiment, while the fog closed in. If they do have any interest then it’s purely medical.’
‘I see. I’d no idea – that he had syphilis.’
‘He could still paint, with vision, as it were, up until about ’33. The other two panels can be dated much earlier, as they’re both copied from known photographs. As for the syphilis, yes, of course.’
‘I suppose I should have worked it out,’ I said uncertainly. ‘I don’t think you mention it in the guide, do you?’
‘I’ve never laboured the point. I mean, it’s known, obviously. I’m afraid I’m of the school that rather disapproves of publicising artists’ private lives,’ he said, with an unhappy stiffness that was quite at odds with his normal shy cleverness.
‘I’m not sure.’
‘You forget that I knew him; and – I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m lecturing you. It’s simply a matter I have strong views on.’
I spread my hands to deny any wish to contradict him; though it was surprising to learn that the monkish Orst, the exquisite recluse, had been the victim of this quaint, almost romantic, sexual disease. I thought Paul could tell from my expression that I was going to want to know more.
‘It’s ironic of course’, he went on, ‘that he could never see very well anyway – at least from about Marcel’s age onwards.’
‘Really. Well, I’ve noticed the thickness of his glasses. But his work is usually so incredibly fine.’
‘Oh, close up he was all right, his sight was superhuman, but anything more than a few feet away gave him increasing trouble. He was just very myopic, as so many artists of all kinds are.’ Paul squinted sympathetically at the pictures against the wall, and I felt as if my own short sight had been flatteringly vindicated and explained. ‘I remember he said to me when he was completely blind how strange it was that into his fifties he had had an eye like a microscope.’
‘So what about the portraits, and the landscapes even?’
‘Oh, they were all done from photographs. Of course he gave up portraiture after about 1900 anyway. The later landscapes, all the Givrecourt pictures, were simply based on earlier pictures, with brilliantly imagined or remembered changes of light. They used to create the impression, in the galleries, that he went there year after year, but actually, no. Not after the turn of the century and all that change in his own life. Well, you can see he didn’t need to. And he couldn’t. The old house there was sold to finance the Villa Hermès.’
‘It’s strange, I was just reading his piece about Givrecourt this morning, and thinking about what lay ahead for him.’ I was never quite sure if Paul grasped the full extent of my innocence about his man. ‘So did he not travel at all?’
‘Hardly at all. He still went occasionally to London. Once or twice to northern Germany and Jutland. There was a brief trip to Italy, but he didn’t like the abruptness of the southern sunsets, and never went back there. In general he followed Rembrandt’s advice, that artists shouldn’t travel. What is rather revealing – I can’t remember if it’s in what you were reading, but he tells how as a boy at Givrecourt he was set to study and copy his grandfather’s collection of English watercolours, and how he was painting Suffolk scenes and the Lake District indoors before he was allowed to go and paint the forest just outside.’
‘I used to think how odd it was that he photographed Jane so much, but perhaps it wasn’t after all, if he needed the photos to paint from.’ It seemed an explanation of something I knew I had never liked about him, the work prolific but not abundant, the passion chilled and codified, almost menacing.
‘I often ponder it,’ said Paul, and drifted across the room as if lured by another image of her there with an orange lily beside her, and an amulet in her open palm. I was very touched, even so, by the way his subject absorbed him, and made him seem both formidable and childl
‘I was wondering if the photographs still exist.’
‘Oh yes – well, a large number of them. His sister kept everything, religiously. She wasn’t a scholar, by any means, but she did have a high sense of what posterity would demand of her, she wasn’t like those famous obstructing widows who make scholars’ lives a misery. She passed everything on to the Museum – even things that must have shocked or disturbed her.’
I noted this impassively and asked another question: ‘But you say the seascape wouldn’t be based on a photograph or earlier picture?’
Paul paced back. ‘As it happens, there are much earlier sketches for it. And it is also the subject of one of his blackest lithographs. But the forms are so simple it hardly required any model. With the woman, we have a photograph of 1899 as the terminus post quem; with the city picture we have a photograph – in an English volume on Historic Flanders published in 1911, on which it is modelled directly. There are complications, which I won’t go into at the moment. For the seascape I offer a date on strong stylistic grounds – it comes from a different phase of his career, though I’m sure it won’t have escaped you that it is in fact the emotional fulcrum of the whole work.’
‘There’s a sort of movement outwards,’ I hazarded. ‘From the interior, to the city, to the open sea. It’s like a kind of … spiritual journey?’
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