Thursday, 16 September 2010

Balzac's cafetiere

Much as I love Victor Hugo, I can't commend his taste in interior design. The intricate elaborations and extravagances that delight me in his prose style seem heavy and unnecessary when used to decorate a room. The reconstruction of the sitting room he designed for Juliette Drouet in Guernsey – moved to the Maison Victor Hugo on the place des Vosges – leaves me filled with admiration for Juliette's patient and tolerant love. I hope for her sake that Hugo's wife had more of a say on domestic interiors.

I returned to the Hugo house and the Musée Carnavalet, wondering if I would view them in a new way after reading Hugo novels and histories of Paris. Although I saw them with greater knowledge, it was the same things that struck me. In the Hugo house I lingered over his drawings, letters and the display connected with the death of his daughter, drowned when travelling with his new husband. I noticed a poem about her which I hadn't observed before, written for the fifth anniversary of her death – and, because such things trouble me, I wondered how I might translate it, given that the final stanza sets an impossible task. The rhymes give way to exact repetition: “tombe” is used first in its more usual sense of “fall” and then with the meaning of “tomb” while the second rhyme, which matches the place, Harfleur, with “fleur,” the word for “flower,” ends the poem on a lighter syllable than any English equivalent I can imagine. I suspect I'll keep returning to this poem for many years, as I do to Callimachus's recollection of Heracleitus and Catullus's early declaration of passion for Lesbia. I don't expect to solve the problem.

In the Carnavalet it was again the section on Revolution and war that held my attention longest. I noticed how the thoughtful declarations of rights gave way to the rigid imposition of a military discipline which forbade all question. The words “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” seemed out of place on a soldier's drum. Once again I admired the souvenirs made from the stone of the demolished Bastille, especially the doll's-house-sized solid model of the Bastille itself. But I wanted more – Paris deserves a bigger museum, though none would be sufficiently complex to do justice to the city's history and people.

But revisiting museums wasn't enough for me. With my urge for self-education, I looked at the list of Paris Museums and settled on Balzac's house. My reading of Hazan's book on Paris (not yet finished) has made me guiltily aware of how little French literature I have read. Although names from Balzac's fiction lurk at the fringes of my awareness, I don't think I've ever read any Balzac novel. His name and the titles of his books are heavily forbidding as were the pictures on the covers of the black-backed Penguin classics editions. I assumed the house would be a similarly forbidding presence but found a simple bus route with the aid of my Indispensable.

The street was steep, lined with tall and heavy houses, dating, I would guess from the late 19th century. There was nothing of the lightness of the Montparnasse apartment blocks. I counted my way by house numbers. The quiet in the street was almost oppressive – evidently there was no rush of devoted Balzac enthusiasts.

I passed a striking and very heavy 19th century building and then, just as the numbers told me I was reaching Balzac's house, there was a gap in the buildings, a garden and a small, light, white building with a grey roof and green window-frames and shutters. It looked like a bungalow and, compared to the heavy surrounding buildings, could have been an elaborate shed. The garden was small but delightfully leafy with archways and paths. Sitting there you would believe yourself far from the city, until you looked up to see the Eiffel Tower.

A few steep steps took me into the Balzac house and an interior as quiet and calm as the garden. It seems that Balzac liked quiet. His house was simple – not a bungalow, as I first thought: the uneven terrain meant that the main living quarters were on the upper floor, which led to the garden, but there was also an airy lower storey below. I decided that I would have liked to live in Balzac's house. He had a fine desk and chair. I could imagine myself sitting there and getting things done.

I found his method of working sympathetic too. He would start writing at midnight when the city was cool and quiet, and work through till 8 in the morning, fuelled by coffee from his personal cafetiere. I admired the cafetiere. It's now kept in a glass case, which makes it hard to photograph. I'm not entirely sure Balzac should have added his initials. Perhaps he wanted to make sure no-one walked off with his coffee-making equipment. I can understand that. Anyone would feel possessive about so fine a cafetiere.

As an additional and unexpected treat, the house offered the screening of a complete Japanese “ganime” version of Balzac's early novella “La Grenadiere” directed by Koji Fukada. I was charmed and moved by the fusion of pictures, music, Japanese voices and French subtitles. I'd love to find a copy for myself so that I can share it with friends. At the moment all I can locate is the trailer on youtube.

After leaving the Balzac house, I sat in the garden for a while, enjoying the light breeze and soft fragrances. Eventually I left, walked up the road past the late 19th century apartment blocks and caught a bus that would take me across the Seine and towards the Eiffel Tower. As I walked, I resolved to buy and read something by Balzac. I doubt it will surprise and delight me quite as much as his house.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful, utterly wonderful. I appreciate all the links and so many ideas, Balzac and immediately I see the Rodin sculpture.

Reason I comment is that a couple of years ago one of my sundials went to Idaho, engraved with some Catullus, now I know the source. Thankyou. kllrchrd

Anonymous said...

ps .. forgot to say, I could also quite fit into his way / hours of working.

Alan Baker said...

Thanks for reminding me of the poem "Demain, dès l'aube..." Kath. It's a wonderful, haunting poem that I first read about 20 years ago. Snatches of it have stayed wih me, but I'd forgotten some of the lines. It'd be difficult to translate, but if I tried I wouldn't try and match the rhyme scheme.