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this obsessive idea

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Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness. This obsessive idea is above all a child of giant cities, of the intersecting of their myriad relations.

—Dedication of Le Spleen de Paris

 

*

Olympia does not visit you at night, though you may wish it so. Instead, you set out to reach her – limbs infirm and body unprepared – though it is plain to you that it is useless. You will not leave this bed for some time yet.

Édouard has written you most graciously to thank you for your support. He is still hurt, he says, of how the Salon rejected his Dejeuner sur l'herbe out of hand, for although he knew that it would be shocking, he did not find it as indelicate as the Jurors declared.

He is, Édouard says, uncertain if the Salon will accept Olympia, despite having invited him to submit a nude. They are scandalised that he should exhibit the Dejeuner at the Salon de Refusés, for they believe their rejection should be the final word. He also anticipates that a great rage may be provoked by his lady’s beauty, which may make the Salon refuse Olympia on that basis alone. This last concern makes you laugh ‘til the coughing comes. You forebear to answer: she is no lady, and she is not yours, though you may have captured her, however briefly. Her beauty you do not dispute, though it is not the thing worthy of notice.

No: the things to notice are the orchid in her hair, and the way her hand curls down so very firmly and with such control. It is the black cat with its promiscuity, and the startlingly luxurious shawl she lays upon. Her gaze is frank and challenging, and she is so much in control of herself and of whoever gazes upon her that she bears no resemblance to those poor, pitiable souls you used to visit along Place Pigalle as a young and foolish man. I wanted, Édouard says, to show them someone unafraid.

You close your eyes and try to bring back the orchid she had tucked behind one ear, as if you can steal that feeling away. My dear, you think, as Olympia melts into a reclining Jeanne, you already have.

Sometime later, Mlle Peyroux knocks upon the door, and enters with a frozen look to take your chamber-pot away. For all the coin you spend in this pensione, it is a poor care she gives you, though you cannot fault her for her diligence: each task is performed as promised, but with that same neutral look, a trained kind of unnatural stillness, as if someone is watching her. As she bends to straighten your linen, you see what it is: it is the shadows in the far corner, gathered ‘round the armoire, moving as the curtain moves. Mlle Peyroux straightens and turns and moves away and, before you can call out a warning, is swallowed by them.

The door swings shut, its latch a broken chime against the frame.

You blink, and the armoire’s gargoyles are just sun and shadows again.

In your hand, Édouard’s perfect cursive seems impossibly complex, and your eyes are tired. If you sleep, you think, maybe Olympia will come.

*

You are eighteen when you first meet her. Truthfully, ‘meet’ is the wrong word. You are eighteen when you are first brought to her, no callow youth but someone used to women. She is unremarkable – dark hair, bright eyes, and something firm about the mouth – and she is passing pretty, but she is not a demimondaine, not in her wildest dreams. She does not introduce herself and so you do not meet, not in the true sense of the word. Instead, her legs are around you and she feels wet and hot and if not precisely tight, you are still too young to notice.

There is a mark upon her thigh that she covers with the edge of a shawl.

In retrospect, the handful of francs you pay her is overly generous. You are no youth but of that awkward age when money is a thing to treat casually, and so you give her far more than she was ever worth.

It is odd that Édouard should capture the half-forgotten memory of her so well, that Pigallese fille en carte. He has given her a name and a position, and an orchid in her hair that you are not entirely certain is actually present, or whether you have dreamed it repeatedly, but it is undoubtedly her. You are certain that if you could remember her more precisely, or perhaps see her again, the hazy memory would resolve in a face that is not Olympia, and not your Vénus noire, but another's face entirely. You go so far as to trying to find the street again – a street from decades in your past, when the city was so very different – and you are soon by the flower-sellers on the bank, staring at the Seine in defeat. She is long gone, of course, if she even existed. Perhaps it pleases your mind to conjure her up, like the gargoyles in your room, or the teeth beneath the water. Perhaps she is no more real than the statue that has hold of your hand right now, and if you turned your head to look, she would fade just as quickly.

You pull your hand away, but do not turn to look: there is no sense in tempting fate.

By the time you are back in the pensione, Mlle Peyroux has made cassoulet, and is waiting impatiently to fulfil her duties. You sit at the table and eat the food and watch the table’s whorls turn into tiny perfect whirlpools, swallowing up your fork and bread. You tell yourself that Olympia – though that was not her name – most likely did exist, as your memory would choose to torment you thus. Perhaps you are simply old, now, and maudlin, and it is only that she reminds you of Jeanne.

Mlle Peyroux scolds you over the dropped bread, and tells you that she is not made of money. You choose not to explain about the treacherous table and instead put the bread in your pocket, to liberate later.

You climb the stairs to your room, past the peeling strip of wallpaper on your left, and push the door open with a foot. Its latch jangles at the motion, and something in your room answers back.

That night is like most nights; endless, endless.

*

In your dream, you are in an earlier Paris, the grand city of your dreams. It smells like Calcutta and Montmartre combined, and you drift along the smell of it, hanging on to opportune scents as they waft past. You are headed for the Basilica, of course, because there is something important to do there, but the scent you have chosen – jasmine – does not wish to cooperate. It veers away, down the cobbles of a small street, and your head is nearly knocked off by a hanging basket of flowers. The cobbles grow slippery underfoot, and the smell changes to something sharper, something you can taste. You smell moss, perhaps, from where the puddles dip and never truly clear, and your feet slip across the cobbles, trying to keep your purchase. The walls are huge around you, the city enormous, and the scent of moss is overwhelming now. It reaches up and curves across the lines of washing laid between the balconies above your head.

I’m looking for someone, you tell the moss, and it seems to understand. The haze briefly clears, and a woman with dark hair and a ribbon around her neck is visible for a fraction of a second. Her face is turned away.

Hey, you say as loudly as you dare. Hello, mademoiselle! You there!

You do not remember what the woman’s face looks like; only that she turned around just as you woke up.

*

There is a café near Parc Monceau that serves perfect Turkish coffee and will not trouble you if you choose to write. It is not where the fashionable artists congregate, but you are no artist, fashionable or otherwise, and so perhaps it is allowed.

Jeanne was to meet you here at three o’clock, and it is now well past that hour, with her nowhere to be seen. It is very like her, you think, and order another coffee. I would do well to spend more time with my Olympia than with my Venus. The waiter brings the hookah you do not remember requesting, and your lungs feel, briefly, better.

More coffee, you tell the waiter, and the coffees keep coming, one after the other. You think that Jeanne would like Olympia, maybe especially for the orchid in her hair. Perhaps she’d like the ribbon à la victime, too; Jeanne is awfully fond of ribbons herself, and adorns her hair and body with them to hide any imperfections. I do not see any imperfections, you have told her, time and again, and she does not listen but reaches, instead, for the shawl once again.

Another coffee arrives at your elbow, as if by magic. You look down at your notebook, and note the time. 4.30pm. She is late, you think, irritated. With your second-best pen, you carefully write, « La modernité est la moitié de l'art, dont l'autre moitié est l'immuable. C'est le transitoire. » in a clean new page, then scratch it out again.

« La modernité, c'est le fugitif, le transitoire, le contingent, la moitié de l'art, dont l'autre moitié est l'éternel et l'immuable ».

Better.

You give up on Jeanne and collect your coat. My lady has abandoned me, you tell the waiter, and are surprised by his discomfiture. I am sure she would be with you if she could, monsieur, he says, and you are baffled by this platitude.

Walking back, you pass the gates of the Cemetery of Saint-Vincent and remember why she will not be meeting you again.

(The stone angels seem to doubt this. Their eyes follow you as you hurry past.)

*

Your bed is framed with flowers. This is not as unlikely as it first sounds: Jeanne would sometimes do this if they had the money and she was feeling whimsical. It made you feel as though you were being prepared for some sort of pagan funeral, which you found delicious enough to encourage. (Those days, of course, were of the days of youth, when immortality seemed less a dream than something lived in.)

Today, you wake to find black orchids peeping out from beneath the neat corners of your bed-linen. Exasperated, you sweep them to the floor, and resolve to speak to Mlle Peyroux about her house-keeping later in the day. For now, though, you are tired and do not wish to be awake. I’ll deal with you in the morning, you tell the orchids, which seem confused at this scolding and shrink from your touch. You have a most displeasing scent, you add for good measure, and kick them under the bed.

When you wake (again) the flowers have all gone, slunk away to lick their wounds. The shadows sit, claws out, across the top of the armoire, and point silently towards the door. I’ll deal with you later, you tell them. The gargoyle mouth grimaces in reply.

*

Each city, you inform the armoire gargoyle, is a body. The populace may crawl across it as lice do our flesh – well, perhaps more yours than mine…

The gargoyle seems affronted by this, and the shadows flex as it turns its face away.

You try again, leaning towards flattery this time. There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill, and to create.

The gargoyle seems to find this particularly amusing, and your gaze is drawn, once again, to Édouard’s letter, left open on your table. Édouard is a poet, you tell the gargoyle. Or perhaps a priest, I have not decided yet.

This elicits no reaction. You look down towards Édouard’s letter again, where he has written Olympia with such force that the ink has smudged.

*

You sit down to write to Édouard. It is a bad day, and your hands shake. You think often on Jeanne’s suggestion that you should move to Belgium, just the two of you, and leave Paris and Honfleur behind. It would be good for us, she said, as if one place was different from another.

Édouard, dearest friend, you begin, then pause. We should go away, Charles, Jeanne says again, and her voice is coming out of Olympia’s mouth. The black cat sits in the corner and watches you with interest, its eyes red and malevolent.

You have great talent, you write, and resolutely do not look up at the cat. It will stand the test of time. But you must not be swayed by your urge to turn away and hide from the shock of the world. The world must be shocked, and if all we produce are safe platitudes and pleasing things to look at, there is no joy to it.

Édouard, you care so much what people think. It is your greatest flaw.

Well. You most certainly cannot send him that.

The cat, yawning hugely, seems to agree.

*

You wake the following day, bewildered, and for the longest moment are surprised that Jeanne is not there. Why are you awake?

M. Baudelaire, Mlle Peyroux says, walking in after another perfunctory knock. You have a visitor.

Behind her is a moustachioed, bearded young man, with a pale face and unnaturally bright eyes.

Édouard, you say in surprise, sitting up. What are you doing here?

Despite the relatively short distances between you, you have communicated most efficiency through carefully-penned epistles. You see each other but rarely, and the last time was when you had viewed Olympia.

My dearest Charles. I am here to tell you, Édouard says, then stops, and swallows with difficulty. His eyes are bright and glassy. I am here to tell you that I have decided to submit Olympia. Not this year, perhaps, but the next. I have written to tell them so, and to ask them to wait. The Jury, they may decide it is not so very shocking after all. And - if they decide against it, I can always exhibit at the Salon de Refusés, perhaps beside the Dejeuner.

Why, that is good news indeed! you say, and now you understand why Édouard is here. His skin looks pale beneath the shock of his whiskers, and his knuckles are bone-white. They will adore it, my dear. It will be a great success, I am sure.

At this, some of the colour returns to Édouard’s face as he laughs. They will hate it, Charles. I should withdraw it from consideration, if I am a sensible man. I will be reviled!

Yes, you tell him, as you know you must (as you are the only one who would). But you will be in good company.

He laughs at this, too. Something seems to come undone in him, as if a great weight pinning his shoulders down has finally lifted. He is easily led, you think to yourself, a weak character too easily influenced by what others think. Suzanne has made him agree to submit Olympia and you have made him agree to embrace whatever the Jurors decide. How freeing to be so easily directed!

Yet, for all his weakness, how you love him! It pains you to think that the Jurors may prove themselves cowards a second time, at his expense.

He touches your hand solicitously. You will come to the first day, yes? You will join Suzanne and myself for the unveiling, wherever it may be.

Atop the armoire, the shadows shift and the gargoyle mouth opens in a yawning laugh.

Yes, you say, and you are lying. I would not miss it for the world.

Édouard nods, and presses a kiss to you, briefly. He has always been this familiar with you, as if a brother, and the rasp of whiskers against your forehead feels as a benediction. I must go, he says, for Suzanne is waiting for me at home. But I will see you soon, Charles.

The latch of the door clicks shut behind him.

Jeanne sits atop the armoire, leaning against the shadows. She is stroking the gargoyle mouth beneath its chin. You really should go to Belgium, dearest, she says. You are drowning here.

I will drown there, you tell her.

Yes, she says, but the scenery will be different. She tugs at the black ribbon tied around her neck and it comes free in spurts of blood.

You close your eyes against the smell of it and burrow beneath the covers. Paris closes over your head, the city enormous and carnivorous and endless, endless.

*

fin