The kites, p.1
The Kites, p.1
Nowadays, the little museum in Cléry devoted to the works of Ambrose Fleury is only a minor tourist attraction. Most of its visitors drift over after lunch at the Clos Joli, a restaurant that guidebooks unanimously praise as one of France’s most celebrated landmarks. These same guidebooks note the little museum’s existence with the words, “worth a side trip.” The museum’s five rooms hold most of my uncle’s work — the pieces that survived the war, the Occupation, the Liberation fighting, and all the vicissitudes and lassitudes our people has known.
Whatever their country of origin, all kites are born in the popular imagination, which is what gives them their slightly naive look; Ambrose Fleury’s kites were no exception, even the final pieces he made in his old age bear that stamp of innocence and that freshness of soul. Despite lagging interest and the slim funding it receives from the municipal government, it’s unlikely the museum will close its doors anytime soon — it’s too much a part of our history. Mostly, though, its rooms are deserted. These days, the French are mostly looking to forget, not to remember.
The best existing photograph of Ambrose Fleury can be found at the museum’s entrance. It shows him in his rural postman’s outfit: his uniform and peaked cap, his big clodhoppers, his leather bag slung over his belly, standing between two of his kites, one in the shape of a ladybug, and one representing the fiery statesman Léon Gambetta, whose face and body form the balloon and the basket with which he made his famous flight during the siege of Paris. There are lots of pictures of the “certified postman,” as he was long known in Cléry — most visitors to his workshop snapped a photo or two, just for a laugh. My uncle posed willingly for these portraits. He was unafraid of ridicule, and didn’t mind being nicknamed the “certified postman” or labeled a “harmless eccentric.” If he was aware that the locals had dubbed him “crazy old Fleury,” then he seemed to see it more as a sign of their admiration than of their scorn. In the nineteen thirties, when my uncle’s reputation began to grow, Marcellin Duprat, the chef and owner of the Clos Joli restaurant, came up with the idea of printing postcards that showed my guardian posed in uniform among his kites, with the words, Cléry: Celebrated rural postman Ambrose Fleury and his kites. Unfortunately, the cards were done in black and white, and so they betray no hint of the kites’ joyful colors and forms, none of their smiling bonhomie — none of what I’d call the knowing winks the old Norman was always aiming skyward.
My father was killed in the First World War, and my mother died shortly thereafter. The Great War also took the life of Robert, the second of the three Fleury brothers; my uncle Ambrose came back from it after taking a bullet through the chest. For the sake of clarity in this story, I should also add that my great-grandfather Antoine perished on the barricades during the Paris Commune. I do believe that this little feature of our past played a decisive role in my guardian’s life, though nothing left a deeper mark on him than the names of his two brothers carved onto Cléry’s war monument. The man he was before the Great War — people say he was quick to go the knuckle back then — had come home someone very different. Many found it surprising that a decorated combatant like my uncle would take every opportunity to express his pacifist sentiments, defend conscientious objectors, and condemn violence in all its forms, with a glint in his eye that was probably just a reflection of the flame burning at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Physically, there was nothing soft or gentle about him. His sculpted features and cropped gray hair gave him a hard and ready look, with one of those big bushy mustaches that are usually qualified as “Gallic” — thank God the French have managed to hang on to at least some of their historical memory, if only by the hairs. His gaze was somber, which is always a good foil for merriment. It was generally believed that he’d come back from the war a little bit “touched,” which explained the pacifism, as well as his funny passion for his kites: he spent every spare minute with his gnamas, as he called them. He had discovered this word in a book about Equatorial Africa, where apparently it refers to everything that has a breath of life in it: men and mosquitoes, lions and ideas and elephants. Most likely he chose to become a rural postman because his Military Medal and his two War Cross citations gave him special priority for restricted civil service jobs. Then again, maybe he felt this was a good line of work for a pacifist. Often, he would say to me, “If you’re lucky, my little Ludo, and you work hard, then someday maybe you can get a nice office job with the postal administration, too.”
It took me many years to find my way through which things were matters of great consequence and faith to him, and which ones he drew from a wellspring of irony that seemed to flow from some pooled source where the French go to find themselves when they are lost.
My uncle always said: “Kites need to learn to fly, just like everybody else,” and from the time I was seven, as soon as school let out, I would accompany him to what he called “practice.” Sometimes we’d go to the field beside La Motte, and sometimes farther, to the banks of the Rigole, with a gnama that still smelled deliciously of fresh glue.
“You have to hang on tight to them,” he would explain, “because they pull, and sometimes they break loose and fly too high — they take off in pursuit of the blue yonder and you never see them again, except when people bring them back here in pieces.”
“But if I hang on too tight, won’t I fly away with them, too?”
My uncle would smile, which made his big mustache look even kinder.
“It could happen,” he’d say. “You can’t let yourself get carried away.”
My uncle gave all his kites pet names: Cracklemunch, Gambol, Hobbledehoy, Fatsy, Zigomar, Flutterpat, Lovey. I never understood why he picked the names he did. Why the name Bumble belonged to a kind of silly frog whose front legs waved “hello” to you in the wind, and not to Swash, who was a fish wreathed in smiles that wiggled its silvery scales and pink fins in the air. Or why he chose to fly his Patooty above the field by La Motte and not his Martian kite, Meemy, who I thought was a lovely creature, with round eyes and wings shaped like ears that quivered as the kite began to rise. I practiced until I could imitate him with great skill, and bested everyone in schoolyard competitions. When my uncle launched a gnama with a shape I didn’t understand, he would explain, “You’ve got to try and make them be different from everything else in the world. Something really new — something that’s never been seen or known before. Those are the leads you have to hold on to the hardest, though. They really go after the blue yonder if you let them go, and can do a lot of damage when they fall back down.”
Sometimes it seemed to me that it was the kite holding Ambrose Fleury at the end of the line, and not the other way round.
For a long time, my favorite was the brave Fatsy, whose belly would puff up in the most wonderfully surprising way as soon as he got up in the air. With only a little breeze, he would execute comical flips by flapping his paunch with his paws, depending on how my uncle pulled or let out the line.
I allowed Fatsy to sleep with me, because on the ground, kites require a great deal of friendship. The shape goes out of them when they come down, and living flat on their faces like that makes them highly susceptible to the blues. For its beauty to really shine, a kite needs height, fresh air, and wide-open skies.
As a rural postman, my guardian spent his workdays crisscrossing the countryside, picking up the mail at the post office each morning and delivering it to the people in our community. But he was nearly always back home by the time I’d finished the walk from school, a good three miles away, standing in his postman’s uniform in the field by La Motte — the wind at our place was always better in the late afternoon — gazing up at one of his “little friends” bobbing and fluttering high above us. And yet, when we lost our superb Fourseas — all its twelve sails filled up in one big burst and ripped kite and reel right out of my hands — I burst out sobbing and my uncle said to me, his eyes following his work of art as it disappeared into the blue yonder: “Don’t cry. That’s what they’re meant to do. He’s happy up there.”
I was ten years old when the Honfleur Gazette published a slightly mocking article about “Ambrose Fleury, our fellow citizen, the country postman from Cléry: a charmingly original character whose kites will no doubt make a celebrated name of our region, like lace did for Valenciennes, porcelain for Limoges, and mints for Cambrai.” My uncle cut out the page, framed it, and hung it on a nail in the workshop.
“You see I’ve got my share of vanity,” he remarked to me, with a little wink.
A Paris newspaper picked up the Honfleur Gazette article and its accompanying photograph, and our barn, thenceforth known as “the workshop,” soon began receiving not only visitors, but also orders. Marcellin Duprat, an old friend of my uncle’s, began recommending this “local curiosity” to his customers at the Clos Joli.
One day, an automobile pulled up at our farm and a very elegant-looking gentleman emerged from inside it. What impressed me most about this man was his mustache, which went all the way up to his ears and disappeared into his sideburns, dividing his face in two. Later, I learned that he was the great English collector Lord Howe; he came accompanied by a valet and a trunk, which was opened to reveal a magnificent collection of kites from all over the world — Burma, Japan, China, Siam — carefully arranged against a custom-made velvet backing. My uncle was invited to admire them, which he did with the utmost sincerity: there wasn’t a shred of prejudice in him. The one tiny point of national pride he clung to was his insistence that the kite had only acquired its true nobility with the French Revolution. After he had paid his respects to the English collector’s showpieces, he brought out some of his own creations, including a Victor Hugo kite inspired by the famous Nadar photo: when flown, the poet seemed to be borne aloft by clouds, giving him a slight resemblance to God the Father. After an hour or two of inspection and mutual admiration, the two men went out into the field. Courteously, each one chose the other’s kite, and then they entertained the Norman skies until every child in the area had run up to join the fun.
Ambrose Fleury’s fame continued to grow, but it didn’t swell his head at all, not even when his Young Lady in a Phrygian Bonnet — he was fiercely and viscerally devoted to the French Republic — won first prize at the Nogent competition, nor when Lord Howe invited him to London, where he demonstrated a few of his masterpieces at a gathering in Hyde Park. Europe’s political climate was clouding over then; Hitler was consolidating power and occupying the Rhineland, and this was one of many demonstrations of Franco-British friendship taking place at the time. I saved a photo from the Illustrated London News that shows Ambrose Fleury holding his Liberty Illuminating the World as he stands between Lord Howe and the Prince of Wales. After this semiofficial vesting, Ambrose Fleury was elected to the Order of the Kites of France, first as a member and then as its honorary president. We saw more and more curiosity seekers. Lovely ladies and handsome gentlemen would motor in from Paris to lunch at the Clos Joli and then show up at our place to ask if the “master” might show them one or two of his pieces. The lovely ladies would sit in the grass, the handsome gentlemen would clench cigars between their teeth, hiding their smiles as they watched the “certified postman” hold his Montaigne or his World Peace at the end of a string, gazing up at the blue sky with the fixed stare of a great explorer. It occurred to me that there was something insulting in the titters of the lovely ladies and the superior expressions of the handsome gentlemen. Occasionally, I would overhear their comments, some of them unpleasant, some of them full of pity.
“Apparently he’s not quite all there. Shell shock from the War, you know.”
“He claims he’s a pacifist and a conscientious objector but I daresay he’s quite the clever self-promoter.”
“Marcellin Duprat was right, it’s well worth the trip!”
“Don’t you think he looks like Field Marshal Lyautey, with that crew cut and mustache?”
“Bit of a crazy gleam in his eyes, don’t you think?”
“But of course darling, it’s the creative spark, don’t you know?”
Then they’d buy a kite, just like you’d pay for your seat at a show, and toss it carelessly into the trunk of their car. All the more upsetting was my uncle, who, when absorbed in his passion, became completely oblivious to what was going on around him. He didn’t even notice that some of our visitors were poking fun at him behind his back. One day on the walk home, fuming about some comments I’d overheard while my guardian was flying his favorite kite of all time, a Jean-Jacques Rousseau with wings shaped like open books whose pages fluttered in the wind, I couldn’t hold back my indignation any longer. I marched with giant steps along behind him, my eyebrows furrowed, my fists thrust into my pockets, stomping so hard that my socks fell down around my heels.
“Uncle, those Parisians were making fun of you. They said you were an old nutcase.”
Ambrose Fleury stopped in his tracks. Far from being angry, he seemed rather satisfied.
“Really? They said that?”
I drew myself up to my full four and a half feet and repeated what I’d heard Marcellin Duprat say about a couple of Clos Joli customers who’d complained about the bill: “They are lesser people.”
“There are no lesser people,” my uncle replied.
He leaned over, laid Jean-Jacques Rousseau carefully on the grass, and sat down. I sat down beside him.
“So they said I was crazy. Well, you know what? Those handsome gentlemen and those lovely ladies are right. Obviously, a man who’s dedicated his entire life to kites is a bit touched. But really, that’s a matter of interpretation. Some say it’s touched in the head, some say it’s touched by a sacred spark. It can be hard to tell the difference. But if you really love somebody or something, give them everything you have — everything you are, even. And don’t worry about the rest.” A flash of merriment appeared briefly in his big mustache. “That’s what you need to know, Ludo, if you want to become a good employee of the postal administration.”
Our farm had been in the family since one of the Fleurys had built it, shortly after what my grandparents’ generation still called “the events.” When I became curious enough to ask which “events” they were referring to, my uncle explained that it was the French Revolution. In this way I learned that all the Fleurys have long memories.
“Oh yes, maybe it’s the result of mandatory public education, but we Fleurys have always had surprising historical memories. I don’t think a single one of us has ever forgotten anything we learned. Sometimes my grandfather would make us recite the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and it got to be such a habit with me that I still find myself doing it.”
Though my own memory hadn’t yet taken on its “historical” bent, I knew at the time — I’d just turned ten — that it was already a source of surprise, and ultimately of concern, for Monsieur Herbier, my teacher, who sang bass in the Cléry choir in his spare time. He ascribed the ease with which I recalled everything I learned — after reading them over once or twice I could recite pages at a time from my textbooks — as well as my unusual aptitude for mental math, to some kind of malformation of the brain, rather than to the skills, albeit the exceptional ones, of a good student. He was all the more inclined to distrust what he referred to not as my gifts, but my “predispositions” — the rather sinister accent with which he said the word made me feel almost guilty — because my uncle was touched in the head, which everyone took for granted in him, and which made it appear that I had been stricken by some hereditary defect, which might turn out to be fatal. The words I heard most frequently from Monsieur Herbier’s mouth were, “Moderation in all things.” He would stare at me grimly as he pronounced this dire warning. When my predispositions became so glaring that a schoolmate ratted on me for pocketing an ample sum after successfully betting that I could recite ten full pages of the Chaix railway timetable, I learned that Monsieur Herbier had referred to me as a “little freak.” I made matters worse for myself by trotting out square roots from memory and executing rapid-fire multiplications of very long numbers. So Monsieur Herbier came to La Motte and spoke for a long time with my guardian. His advice was that I be sent to Paris and examined by a specialist. My ear pressed up against the door, I took in every word of their exchange.
“Ambrose, this is not a normal proficiency we’re talking about here. It’s happened before, children with amazing gifts for mental calculation turning out abnormal. They end up as circus freaks and that’s the end of it. One part of their brain develops at lightning speed, but they’re gibbering idiots when it comes to everything else. In his current state, Ludovic could practically sit for the entrance examinations at the Polytechnic Institute.”
“That is very curious,” observed my uncle. “With us Fleurys it’s always been historical memory. One of us even ended up in front of a firing squad, under the Commune.”
“I don’t see the connection.”
“Just another one who remembered.”
My uncle observed a moment of silence.
“Everything, probably,” he replied, finally.
“You’re not saying that your ancestor was executed for an excess of memory?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. He must have known it all by heart, every single thing the French had been subjected to over the ages.”
“Ambrose, you have a reputation in these parts … I’m sorry to say this, but as a … well, as a bit of a fanatic, but I didn’t come here to talk about your kites.”