The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.33Alan Hollinghurst
‘But he must have been much older,’ I objected. ‘Surely too old, too self-conscious, if he didn’t know what sort of woman she was, to go chasing after her.’
‘He was in his mid-fifties, that’s all.’ Paul did look rather piqued at this. ‘Besides he was infatuated, so age was hardly a consideration he would let stand in his way.’ And he gave me a complex little smile that referred perhaps to me, perhaps to his own past, I couldn’t tell.
‘So he came to the church.’
‘He came many times before he spoke to her; he hired a fiacre every Sunday morning to bring him and take him back. He could really hardly believe his eyes, he longed to be with her, but dreaded meeting her and being disabused.’
‘Was she really so similar?’
‘It’s rather touching, at first he thought identical, but myopically he couldn’t be sure – the whole impression, the slow but electrifying movement, what he called Jane’s Lady Macbeth quality, seemed to be perfectly reproduced. It was only when he had, well, picked her up, and taken her for a drive that he conceded the single difference – in place of Jane’s virtually colourless eyes, hers were what he called chrysanthemum brown – a tarnished gold colour.’
‘Presumably he got her to go with him without too much difficulty.’
‘Of course. I think she virtually leapt into the cab. But then to him that only confirmed the sense of reincarnation, of a destined meeting. And she was no fool, she went along with it; she must have had a bit of the actress in her too, although she didn’t have anything of the real Jane’s artistic background or family connections. She was just a woman of the people. There is an awful kind of unintended humour in his diary if you know what she was and what he thought about her. He simply believed what he so very much wanted to believe.’
‘He can’t really have believed there was any connection between the two women, surely?’
Paul looked mildly around the church. ‘Belief’s a funny thing,’ he said. ‘It’s the little obstacles to belief that spur one to make the leap of faith.’
When we were outside again, he had the air of someone who has dragged you to see a cult movie at a remote suburban cinema and suspects that it wasn’t an unqualified success. ‘That was very fascinating,’ I said.
‘I’d hoped to show you something else; but we can’t wait all day. It’s simply that this church is still used by the prostitutes. I’d hoped some painted ladies might be praying to St Vaast.’
‘I think I’ve got a much better picture of what happened without seeing the real thing.’ Though it was true I didn’t quite feel the thrill or shock of it as Paul clearly hoped. My own obsessions made it hard for me to grant the force of someone else’s – and besides it was long ago and part of the never fully plausible world of heterosexual feeling. I started trying to convert it into my own terms; if I had met someone physically identical to Luc would he have done just as well as the object of my wild longings – which flooded into my throat for a second and pricked my eyes as we turned a corner into the cold wind.
‘You say that I’m secretive,’ he said, in a tone that admitted the charge but showed his pride had in fact been scratched by my remark of a few minutes before. ‘But I’ve always been prepared to tell, if I could first find the right person. That’s why I’m so glad you’ve got the point: I very much want you to get the point, since you’re helping me so much to get all this done.’
I shoved my hands into my pockets and nursed this to me in a silence I hoped he didn’t feel was negative. I wondered if I had got the point. I had the sense that my importance, my helpfulness, were being flatteringly exaggerated. Proof-reading, fact-checking, were necessary of course; but they could be done just as well by somebody else, better perhaps by somebody who didn’t share my groping remoteness from the subject. At the same time I was warmed and bucked up by the confidence Paul put in me, the tone of urgency I had sometimes heard before and the implication that I could meet the crisis, even if I didn’t quite know yet what it was. It was as though he saw some virtue in me that I had lost sight of myself, or never believed myself to have possessed.
Towards the end of lunch I pressed him further about the war. I’d had two or three, perhaps four, glasses of wine, he’d drunk more than usual himself and seemed cautiously to be celebrating. He was giving a comic account of some French art critics and their notions about Orst. I got a very clear impression of their style and their theoretical obtuseness, and also of the disquiet beneath Paul’s mockery. Lilli listened to everything he said with her usual, rather stolid, attentiveness, sometimes repeating a phrase when he fell silent as though to memorise it or to help me to. I said simply, ‘Tell me about your visits to Orst’ – and saw her gaze settle on his down-turned face.
After a while he said, ‘I only hesitate because it’s hard to know where to begin.’ He smiled at me distantly, but seemed reluctant to meet Lilli’s eye. Marcel, opposite me, bundled up his napkin and pushed back his chair – I saw he waited for Lilli’s nod before he got down. Then she too stood up and reached for our plates and asked us about coffee. Paul watched her go out with the kind of exasperated tenderness I remembered noticing sometimes between my mother and father.
‘I wish I’d seen the Villa Hermès,’ I said, unsure if he was going to tell me about it or not.
‘I’d like to have seen it in its early days,’ Paul agreed promptly. ‘Yes.’
‘Do you mean it had fallen into disrepair when you knew it?’
He fiddled with some breadcrumbs on the tablecloth. ‘The thing is, I never did know it. Orst had moved out years before that brief period when I used to go and see him. It was let to an English artist up until the war, and then stood empty. I knew it as a landmark, of course, if I went to visit schoolfriends on that side of town.’ I had been hurriedly revising the scenario I had been loosely carrying, of young Paul’s visits there and the aesthete blind in his own treasure-house. ‘No, the only time I entered the villa was in the period before its demolition in the early sixties, when several of us tried to save it and there was a petition signed by, well, by almost nobody really. The Symbolists were still seen as a bit of a sick joke then. Even the children of Symbolist painters were teased about it, as if they had convicts or madmen for fathers. Things which would fetch a fortune today were being sold for their frames.’
For a moment I found myself regretting those missed chances; I wasn’t someone who would ever own anything. ‘But he was still a well-known figure when you met him?’
‘Honestly, no,’ Paul admitted. ‘He was remembered in the town, but rather as someone from long ago. His great London days were forty or fifty years before – when he was your age, more or less. He was a blind, half-paralysed, half-mad old man, who might as well have been dead for all anyone cared. I was quite frightened of him, and of course determined to prove I wasn’t. If I say so myself, I was very tolerant of him, and came to be fond of him. I used to do a few chores in the house, read to him, listen to him muttering and raving about the past, and the beautiful woman who’d ruined his life and brought him to this state – I didn’t understand it all, but I gained a sense of his own mythology, you might say. I knew my way around a place I’d never been. And he could still be quite lucid about the world: “You be my eyes,” he used to say. “Tell me what you saw in the street, what was the sky like, what colour were the clouds?” Often, of course, I had no idea, and he would shake his blind head and pretend to be angry. And really he did teach me to see for myself: I did start to take notice. I remember starting to imitate his expressions of aesthetic pleasure – a rather feminine and troubling language for a fifteen-year-old boy, this charmant and exquis and ravissant, all in French, which was the language of his kind.’ I nodded slowly with recognition – how music had demanded something similar, like the language of endearments which I never voiced except inside my head. ‘Well, it was a lesson in real life, and I discovered I needed it, I wanted to come back for more. He was my best teacher, not the brave monks who ac
I felt great wide-eyed questions welling up, about what it had been like; and then shamefaced doubts about what could tolerably be asked by someone who knew nothing about it, who had never known anything like it. ‘Your parents weren’t worried about your spending so much time with him?’ was all I prudishly came up with.
‘No, no. It was they who arranged for me to go.’ I thought Paul was cross with me for a moment, then saw that perhaps it was only with himself. ‘Put simply: when Orst became too infirm to stay at the Villa he had moved back to his sister’s house – now, as you know, our Museum. I’m not sure when he contracted the pox. You probably know there was a great spread of it during the war – it may have been soon after he returned from England, in 1919. I suspect the tertiary stage was very delayed, and when it came it was clearly very prolonged. Anyway, Delphine took him in: she was very tough and capable and … unsentimental. That would have been in about 1930. She looked after him with her old servant, who was married to the cook – dear old people. The paintings and most of the contents of the Villa were brought over and stored, a lot of them in this house that we’re in now, which had been left to Delphine and which stood unused for years. It was she who made the little passageway that you go through from our sitting-room to my office.’
‘Oh!’ I said, with slightly more wonder than I could account for.
‘And there he stayed, painting until he could see no more and taking a long time to die.’ This was what Helene had hinted at on our evening walk – it seemed the embodiment of something I had always felt about the old town, and found shadowed forth in many of Orst’s eerie lithographs, a sense of dying life, life hidden, haunted and winter-slow. ‘The trouble came with the new war. Edgard and Delphine’s mother had been Jewish – oh, quite assimilated, but Jewish. Obviously, they must have watched the deepening of race-hatred among the Belgian fascists with alarm; but when the Germans made their move, it was all so incredibly quick and so feebly resisted, they had to make a plan. She fled to England again, at really the last possible moment – it was almost Dunkirk. She stayed with friends until the end of ’44, in Chislehurst – they were old patrons of Edgard’s.’
‘Chislehurst!’ This trivial detail surprised me much more than the lightning progress of the German army. She could have known Aunt Tina. I remembered Orst’s love of the legendary sentiment in English art.
‘Of course there was no way Edgard could be rushed out of the country, so they did the simplest thing, by pretending he no longer existed – which to all intents and purposes and in most people’s minds was the case anyway. The cook and her husband stayed on and looked after him, and if asked they would say that he was either dead or in England too.’
‘He lived a kind of ghost existence, a premature ghost.’
‘Indeed so. At first, the measures weren’t quite as drastic as had been feared. I think initially the Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David – I remember those in the street; but not for long: the next thing was they weren’t allowed to leave their houses. The final stage, of course, was the order that they must go off to work elsewhere, which many thousands of them, with no freedom or civil rights, did without any great reluctance. Or they had persuaded themselves that the summons to the train-station offered them a positive chance of a better life, rather than … what it did.’ And I shared Paul’s evident reluctance to name their destination: I felt it on the pulses, hearing his bleak summary of the facts. ‘On one occasion, quite late on, the house was searched – I believe in a routine way. Orst was wheeled and bumped through the secret passage into the other house and no one suspected anything.’
And there he left it hanging. I wanted to help him on towards the story’s wretched climax, though my sense of it as an adventure had withered. I looked round and saw Lilli in the doorway.
‘Ah,’ said Paul, both relieved and confused. ‘Why don’t we go through?’
I cleared a space on my side of the desk and sat there as if about to be served a second meal. I pictured Cherif back at my room, gaping with boredom, stirred slowly into resentment and jealous fantasy. I hadn’t actually said I’d be back for lunch. Paul came in with a large old box-file and set it in front of me – I felt I’d rather jumped the gun, he still had this stage of my education to lead me through.
The file contained all that survived of the painter’s photographs of Jane Byron. They were creased and curled and compressed and when I lifted the restraining spring they rose with a ghostly tremor to the brim of the box.
I was looking at a large-faced woman wrapped and scarfed like a desert-dweller in a length of dark material, her pale, heavy features set off in half-profile by the silky cowl. Her skin was rough and pouchy, there was a pitiless quality to the photo, heightened by its metallic register, which rose out of black through obscure leaden greys to glaring blurred highlights. In the next picture her hair was down, she was gazing up from within it, in pained adoration, her long, powerful hands twisting a lily. In the next she lay on a kind of day-bed, her hair dragged backwards, eyes staring at nothing. It was the first one I recognised as the basis of a painting – the Ophelia that hung upstairs – and it gave me, across nearly a century, a quick shudder to see her acting out that particular death.
Paul stayed in the room, abruptly taking down books and putting them back, not hovering exactly, but there to watch my progress, commenting occasionally, as I picked another photo from the box, on the picture it had become. ‘That of course is “Le Collier de Médailles”,’ he said when I paused on a staring full face, chin pushed up by an elaborate heavy collar of what?, Roman medals, the impressive white slope of the bosom wrapped in a sheet – it was sexy and monumental at once. And then, at a very shadowy little study, a reverie, the eyes averted, a pale gloved arm gleaming against darkness – ‘Ah, that’s a lost picture, it disappeared in the war, it was called “La Musique” or “Palestrina” – oddly enough, I only know the painting itself from a photograph.’
Many of them were torn at the edges, or showed the little tooth-marks of pegs or rusty pin-holes. On several a white crayon had added its own emphases or drawn a detail out of darkness, like a picture touched up and sharpened in an old magazine. On one or two there were smears of paint, lemon or violet thumbprints that were disconcerting evidence of the man himself, who took care never to be seen at work. Sometimes there were splashes of that intense blue he used, which Paul said was the costly blue of a Bellini Madonna but given a further resonance – the Symbolists’ infinite azure.
Almost at the bottom of the box was the photograph that Orst had based the famous triptych wing on, where Jane was seen at the mirror, seen in the mirror, hidden from us by the shimmering high-necked cope figured with lilies. The photo was brighter than the painting, but it seemed to me just as accomplished, with the sheen of the fabric disappearing into folds of shadow, and the sources of light subtly diffused. In a way I liked it more than the finished work, I liked it before it had been coloured in, while you could still see details in the background – a littered desk, a doorway with a tacked-up curtain – that Orst would blur and dissimulate into shadowy panels and dim thresholds.
Sometimes Jane smiled, was required to smile, either distantly, at some soft recollection, or close up, with a kind of lustful fixity that I registered with a shock through the momentary delay, the fluted dusk, of a veil. Paul helped me with reproductions of paintings, and I looked at them with a dwindling sense of amazement, side by side with their originals. They had the unintended effect of making the paintings seem predictable and the photographs more and more mysterious. Or perhaps they were just two different kinds of mystery, one deliberate, the artist making things vague and portentous, and the other to do with two lovers in a Brussels studio and the things they did for each other on certain mornings, the posing and play-acting given solemnity by the long exposures, the need for unblinking stillness. There was even a touch of irritation in one or two of the ex
And there was a further minor mystery, to do with famous beauties, beauty as it seemed to have been judged in the days before cinema and running water: sallow skin, broody jaws, great hanks of greasy dark hair, a greasy sheen too to collars and lapels and sweated-in satin, but no faltering of confidence in front of the camera, no suspicion that they might not appeal to the fastidious viewer a century ahead. Jane wasn’t as grim as some I had looked at bemusedly, but she was big and middle-aged close to as she might not have been in the magic of stage-lights, and was never to be in the necromancy of Orst’s art. Perhaps her skin was spoilt by corrosive paints, it was only natural that he should give her this radical, classicising face-lift; I wasn’t sure I could say so to Paul, but I liked her best as she came solid and unembarrassed before the camera, when she was only acting. I liked a sexy sense of latent power she had, a cleverness in those large eyes, so colourless they seemed faintly fiendish and barely changed between photo and painting, pupils of grey ice. I knew nothing about her, but I felt she could make her own way, she wasn’t just the silent screen of the artist’s fantasy – or at least, wasn’t meant to be, wouldn’t have been if she’d lived.
I laid the pictures carefully back in the box-file and looked up at Paul, who swept it away like an attentive waiter. ‘That was very …’ I said, able after a few seconds to produce only a rather special smile, which he seemed to find adjective enough.
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