Georges Rodenbach: The City

 

They had been in the dead city for a few days. They’d made a hasty departure from Paris, as though fleeing. They’d decided on the spur of the moment, weary of the concealments, the lies, the hurried meetings, the fleeting kisses – all the wretchedness of adultery that puts true love to shame, like a king who, to protect himself, dresses as a beggar. Their passion was noble and dared to reveal itself. She would leave her husband; he would leave his wife, since misfortune had decided that they had, each one of them, married badly. They would put right their destiny. And thus it was.

Now, at last, they possessed each other!

And this was what was req            uired, a new country for their new life. A new beginning. Yes! Before this, nothing. They looked like a young married couple, well suited, self-sufficient and who, as with every all-absorbing passion, wanted, to be surrounded by solitude and a silence where nothing is heard beyond the self alone.

They had chosen a dead city, now become fashionable thanks to books and the enthusiasm of travellers, up yonder, altogether in the North, in the mists. It seemed so far away and was so close. They found themselves there after scarcely a day’s railway journey. Paris was suddenly so far away. And was the life left behind also distant? Ah! This sudden perspective provided by absence and travel. How different everything was here: the passers-by, the houses, the colour of the air, the sky above the roofs, a low sky, very near, with clouds in relief, and with the look of a sky in a painting. A unique décor, a delicate silver-grey atmosphere, the patina of centuries on the old walls – altogether, a changing marvel for the eyes of a painter. He told himself that he’d work there, in seclusion, replicating these incomparable cityscapes. Virgin material. And the glory of being the painter of all that…

The lovers had taken up residence in old hostelry on the Great Square, opposite the Belfry. They’d chosen it on account of its antiquity; the rose-red brick façade with its cool white lacework of plaster pointing was bordered by the fine steps of the gable-end. And then they’d read that on his travels the great Michelet had stopped here sixty years before. He who had written caressing pages, full of light, on Love and on Women, would be there, invisible, in the air of the mirrors, like a smiling presence, a good patron saint…

Delight of the first days spent together. They were overcome. They became aware of themselves. They became aware of the city. It was a sober inebriation…

The days flowed by monotonously. But isn’t it the case that true happiness is monotonous? They strolled along the quaysides where inanimate waters lay in dream. They sometimes gazed from the high point of bridges into that canal water. Empty water where there was nothing but they two… Their faces came close together and were reflected, but very pale, very distant, in a far perspective comparable to that of absence or memory. Reflected, they looked so sad! One might have said that they were afflicted by already being nothing but a reflection, an ephemeral image that wavers and is going to sink to the bottom…

A grand melancholy hovered. And their love acquired something more tender and languid. It was like the love that is felt before a separation. It was like love in a country at war, in a city where there is an epidemic. Love that was strong from feeling itself close to death. Here death reigned… It might have been said of the city that it was the Museum of Death. Every day he thought of settling down to work. But what was the point of making living works, of creating, in this silence where everything decays? He’d admired with an ecstatic emotion the tableaux of the Primitives conserved there; triptychs of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, reliquaries with medallions as delicate as miniatures, portraits of kneeling donors on the triptych panels – definitive masterpieces of the old painters whose fingers, like the priest’s, touched God!… They’d painted – like one prays.

After them, what was there to do? The futility of the effort was evident. And then, too, the lure of renown, the days speeding past, the cruelty of life that, with less pity for men than for things, preserved intact here all those painted faces while faces of flesh had become who knows what indistinguishable mud and dust.

The lovers passed their days in slow promenades… They chanced to go into some church or other.  But here too the funereal obsession was renewed… The ground was paved with great memorial slabs, the tombs of bishops, churchwardens, illustrious parishioners, whose names, titles dates of birth or death, had little by little been effaced under the tread of the centuries… And they felt the impression that their love walked amidst the dead.

Even during the night, their nights punctuated with interminable kisses, they were sometimes unnerved by the chimes that, from the heights of the Belfry opposite them, resumed their carillon every quarter hour. Slow and vague tolling that seemed to come from so far away, from the depths of the ages… It was like the fall of a funeral bouquet, an autumn of sounds littering the city with their leaves… The lovers listened, – disquieted by they knew not what. Their kisses stopped. Was it that the religious city opposed itself to their love? Hesitantly, their lips met again after the carillon. In a long moment, the kisses retained the taste of dead cinders…

To them the carillon too was like the discouraging proximity of death…

 

The woman was bored. It was she who had the idea of coming here. Thus do all lovers desire solitude, the better to possess each other. They create, both one and the other, a new universe where there are only the two of them. But these two had not counted on death, which suddenly interposed itself here… Yes! Their love walked on the dead. There was no end of dying in the dead city. The woman, like a smart Parisienne, stimulated by her fondness for perfumes, had a subtle, educated nose, a refined sense of smell.

Here, everything smelled of death… The age-old walls sweated all along the quays… The salt odour of old tears! Stains of damp on the antiquated façades prompted thoughts of poisonous tattoos. In the churches there lingered a reek of mould, of faded communion-cloths in a sacristy cupboard whose key had been lost for centuries. Smell of death, dispersed and uniform in every part of the city. It was as though somewhere or other the coffins of mummies had been opened – or as though the old tomb of the dead centuries had been re-opened…

The woman suffered from that obstinate smell which every day stole from her a little more of her joie de vivre. Above all in that her lover also seemed, little by little, to distance himself from her, and from everything. Their kisses became less frequent. The peal of night-time bells no longer harassed them. They slept without embracing, with their love between them, already cold and immobile, like the waters of the canals between the stone embankments… Seeing that he was bored and unoccupied, she said to him, ‘Why not get on with some work?’

‘Tomorrow.’

He always replied ‘tomorrow’. He made plans, chose a favourable location, started a sketch, then stopped, put it off yet again. He felt himself dispirited, he who believed that he would work so well here, who started out with so much enthusiasm for these arrangements of water, trees and turrets under a unique silver sky. To render that light! To be the painter of this dead city as Turner was of Venice.

Here was an impressionistic ideal, and a modern one too. This was what he’d initially thought. In continuing to stay, by what sorcery was it that, after having admired, adored, these Primitives of the race, he was little by little subordinated to their influence? The tones darkened on his palette, as though covered by the shadows of the dead. The gestures of his brushes clotted. He started too to paint Virgins, merchants weighing gold, donors. He imitated the old masters. Soon thereafter he found himself doing no more than copying them. Here it seemed that any ideal of art other than theirs was sacrilegious. What a mockery, to want to be oneself in their midst! It was the poverty of a candle that burns in the sunlight… The painter was defeated. Here once more death was triumphant. Death got the better of life… The dead city withered the new art just like it had withered their new love.

The lovers felt more and more distant from themselves and from everything. The man seemed to have changed so much! He was morose, wearied… He didn’t complain, but regret wept in his eyes. He was once more seized by his old life. When his companion on occasion talked about Paris he quickly interrupted her, as though to banish a temptation that he couldn’t continue to vanquish… A great coolness fell between them. They seemed detached from each other, almost indifferent. And to think that during the months of clandestine love they had so desired to belong to each other, completely, day and night… And yet nothing had happened, no disillusioning of the one by the other through complete intimacy and a shared existence. Neither was there any conflict or quarrel.

What was it then that occurred between them? The man now went out all the time and always alone… He was away for entire afternoons, returned late, retired to bed without speaking. One evening he announced that he’s received a letter from Paris. His dealer wrote to him; an important matter and he needed to deal with it personally.

‘Don’t lie. You no longer love me. And you want to leave,’ the woman said in a tone of resignation, one that was not darkened by any inner annoyance, merely sad, as one is before the inevitable.

The man didn’t try to deny it. ‘Yes, it’s the city’s fault!’

The woman agreed, pale and mournful. ‘It isn’t our fault. Here, death is stronger than love.’

They remained in a long silence, thinking about the dead city, about their dead passion, about themselves, who had, as it were, effectuated a mutual suicide at the zenith of their love, and who now, resurrected like Lazarus, had to relearn how to live, – each one separately!

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