As I write these words, it occurs to me that I have never known a tale to be so beyond belief as that which I am about to relate to you, dear girl. Yet nothing I have written has ever been so true. Paradox, all is paradox. Perhaps I have taken leave of my senses once and for all. You see, as a youth, I contracted the pox, no doubt from Jeanne Duval. This scourge is known, in old age, to drive its victims to madness, so that they know not the difference between the real and the unreal. I live in the permanent shadow of my impending lunacy. But as you will learn, it is not the only way in which Jeanne haunts me still. Indeed, if I am writing to you at all, it is because of Jeanne.
We are not strangers, you and I. I am the gentleman you met this afternoon in the Church of Saint-Loup, accompanied by Madame Édmonde. Your name is Mathilde. You are a sullen, bovine 16-year-old girl. Despite the assurances of the nuns who discharged you into Madame Édmonde’s care, you can barely read. Admittedly, you recognize the letters of the alphabet, but that can hardly be called reading. You can scribble your name, but that can hardly be called writing. Still, I trust that Madame Édmonde knows what she is doing. I have no choice.
As you know, I am a poet. I am 43 years old, though I appear much older, due to many years of deprivation. Success, at least of the worldly variety, has hitherto eluded me, despite the excellence of my verse. In April last year, in poor health and low spirits, I left Paris, where I had lived almost all my life, determined to see out the rest of my days in Brussels as an exile. I had somehow convinced myself that I had better prospects here. I was following in the footsteps of my publisher and dear friend Auguste Poulet-Malassis, who had left Paris hoping to make some money by publishing pornography—the Belgian censor is less prudish than his French counterpart—and smuggling it into France. I arrived filled with an élan I had not known since my youth.
Upon my arrival, I rented a room in an old, decrepit hotel called the Grand Miroir on the sole basis that I liked its strange and poetic name. It had little else to recommend it. I asked for the cheapest room. It was on the uppermost floor, up three flights of a tortuously winding staircase. There was a small bed with a mattress of old damp straw, a tattered divan, a rickety writing desk, a stove that emitted more smoke than heat, and a chest of drawers. I was, at least, able to observe through a solitary window the clouds drifting across the sky, above the cityscape of rooftops and chimneys. It was one of my few remaining consolations. As long as I have a glimpse of sky, I can tolerate almost any hardship.
I had hoped my self-imposed exile would bring an end to the daily humiliations of my Parisian existence. In fact, my prospects in Brussels were no better than anywhere else. I was soon beset by the same trials and tribulations that had dogged me before: cold, damp, penury, sickness, and calumny. I have been unable to keep up with my expenses and the only reason the proprietors, Monsieur and Madame Lepage, have allowed me to remain is the hope that, should I die, they might be paid their due out of my estate—with interest, of course. They not only hope for my death, they are counting on its imminence.
The evening on which this tale begins, early last month—that month being March of 1865—I had just dined at Madame Hugo’s. Madame Hugo has always been unfailingly kind to me despite my occasional fits of distemper. Like me, her husband is in exile, but he lives in comfort in Guernsey with his mistress, playing the part of the national hero.
His wife shares a large bourgeois house on Rue de l’Astronomie with her son and his family. A little colony of Parisians has formed in Brussels lately, despite its backwardness. We have taken flight from Napoleon’s grand-nephew and his overzealous prelates. As Auguste was also invited to dine at Madame Hugo’s, he met me at the hotel and we walked there together, as we had many times before, arm in arm in case one of us should trip on the paving stones—the streets here are in a lamentable condition. As we walked, complaining about Belgium as we habitually did, I felt the wetness of the paving stones ooze into my shoes through holes that had opened up in the soles, which for lack of money I had not had repaired. As we neared the Hugo residence, Auguste urged me to guard against my usual outbursts of slander and to preserve my honor, and his too, which was linked to mine by friendship.
The maid, Odette, opened the door and ushered us in to the light and warmth. A consoling odor of roasted meats pervaded the house. There were eight of us in attendance that evening. Other than Auguste and myself, Madame Hugo, her son and his wife, there was a trio of young ladies whose names I instantly forgot. I kissed my hostess’s hand with an exaggerated bow. Wine was served in the drawing room—bad wine, of course, in tiny glasses. When we took our seats, I lowered my head and devoted my attention to the soup—an excellent consommé. All around me I heard a literary conversation begin, which I studiously avoided joining. I was concerned solely with the spooning of the soup into my mouth. I did not touch the bread, knowing it would be moist, soft, and burned, as is all bread in this country.
As much as I tried to keep my mind on this simple task, however, it strayed near and far according to its own desires. I heard one of the three ladies ask me my opinion of Belgium. Auguste interrupted and attempted to steer the conversation in another direction, but another of the three demoiselles repeated the question not a minute later, by chance at the very moment there was no more consommé left in my bowl.
This time I could not resist the temptation. I paused to gather my thoughts as the maid removed my soup plate and replaced it immediately (as is the custom here) with a plate of the ubiquitous parboiled beef. Auguste’s face was crumpled in a supplicating expression. I ignored it. “Where do I begin?” I began, wiping my mouth with my napkin and studying the faces of the three ladies before me. “For one thing, in this country, people’s faces are ill formed and pale. Their jaws are strangely built and display a menacing imbecility. At every level, people are lazy and slow. Happiness here is an accident of imitation. Almost everyone wears a pince-nez or is a hunchback. The physiognomy of the inhabitants is shapeless and flabby. The typical Belgian is part monkey and part mollusc. He is thoughtless and heavy, easy to oppress but impossible to crush. He hates to laugh but will do so to make you think he’s understood you. Beauty is despised, as is the life of the mind. Non-conformism is a heinous crime. Dancing consists of jumping up and down in silence. No one speaks Latin or Greek, poetry and literature are loathed, and people study only to become engineers and bankers. The landscapes are like the women: fat, buxom, humid, and somber. Life is insipid. Cigars, vegetables, flowers, fruits, cooking, eyes, hair—everything is bland, sad, tasteless, and drowsy. The dogs are the only creatures who are truly alive.”
Other than some uneasy laughter emanating from one end of the table, my provocations elicited only silence.
“As for Brussels,” I continued, “there is nothing sadder than a city without a river. Every city, every country, has its own odor. Paris smells of sour cabbage, Cape Town of sheep. There are tropical islands that smell of sandalwood, musk, or coconut oil. Russia smells of leather, Lyon of charcoal. The Orient, in general, smells of musk and carrion. By contrast, Brussels smells of black soap. The hotel rooms, the beds, the towels, the footpaths—everything smells of black soap. The buildings have balconies but one never sees anyone on them. The only sign of life is shopkeepers cleaning their shopfronts, which seems to be a national obsession, even when it is pouring with rain.”
“Charles, please,” I heard Auguste mumble.
“The difference between Paris and Brussels is that in Paris one is permitted to visit a brothel but not to read about it. In Brussels, it is precisely the contrary. It’s a small town, teeming with jealousy and slander. As a result of indolence and impotence, the people take inordinate interest in the affairs of others—and pleasure in their misfortunes. The streets, though lifeless, are somehow noisier than Parisian streets, on account of the irregular paving, the poorly constructed buildings, the narrowness of the public thoroughfares, the savage and immoderate local accent, the prevailing rudeness, the constant whistling and the barking of dogs. The shops have no window displays. Dawdling, so dear to people endowed with imagination, is impossible—there’s nothing to see, and the paths are unnavigable. Everything but the rent is expensive. Wine is a curiosity, drunk not for the taste but out of vanity and conformity, to ape the French. As for the food, everything is parboiled, never roasted, and smothered in rancid butter. The vegetables are execrable. The Belgian cook’s idea of seasoning is limited to salt.”
I paused. My diatribe was garnering some nervous chuckles and an occasional tut-tutting from Madame Hugo. The three ladies in front of me seemed unsure of how they should react—whether this was a performance intended to amuse or injure. Once again I heard a distant plea from Auguste: “Charles, please stop this nonsense.” But when in this sort of mood, I cannot help myself.
“There are no women in this country. No women and no love—no gallantry among the males and no modesty among the females. The women are physically comparable to sheep, pale and yellow-haired, with enormous, tallow legs—not to mention the horrors of their ankles. They appear unable to smile, due no doubt to some congenital muscular recalcitrance and the structure of their teeth and jaws—”
“Enough!” This time it was Charles Hugo who interjected, throwing his chair back as he rose to his feet, his face scarlet, his clenched fists visibly trembling with rage. “I will not have my guests humiliated thus!” He threw his napkin on his plate and strode out of the room, which was left in a frosty quiet. The three ladies were blushing crimson, and two of them had tears in their eyes.
“Charles,” said Auguste, “please, let us take our leave.”
Auguste offered to accompany me to the Grand Miroir. I expected him to berate me for once again humiliating the both of us with my antics, but instead he packed tobacco into his pipe and smoked it quietly as we walked arm in arm over cobblestones rendered slick by the foggy evening. My nerves were soothed by the closeness of my friend, the fragrance of the burning tobacco, and the night’s icy stillness.
As we walked, I put my free hand, tingling with cold, into my coat pocket and felt it rub against soft, thick paper. I stopped and took it out and held it up to the light of a gas lamp. It was a note for no less than one hundred francs, presumably slipped into my pocket by Madame Hugo as we were bidding each other farewell. I was delighted: I would be able to buy more laudanum in the morning. I suggested we go to a tavern and have a drink to warm ourselves. Auguste stopped walking and considered me with an odd look on his face, a look at once loving and sorrowful. “No, my friend,” he said, “I think I’ll go home to my wife and children.” Home. Wife. Children. The words cut me to the quick. If only I was worthy of uttering such a simple phrase. He embraced me and walked away without another word, huddled over in cold and worry. As his silhouette retreated and faded into the dim fog, I saw for the first time the extent to which he, too, was a defeated man, this lifelong friend of mine, my publisher and protector, my staunchest ally and closest confidant. It was evident that he had, without my even noticing it, perhaps without even noticing it himself, joined me among the ranks of the vanquished. There is a mysterious alchemy that overtakes a man when he tastes the bitterness of one of life’s definitive routs: a shrinking and a stooping, a seeping away of vital energies, a realization that the best is behind him. While I had been prophesying my own demise my whole life, anticipating it, relishing the foretaste of it, his defeat was still new and unfamiliar to him. His palate was not yet habituated to its flavor. Worse still, I was partly to blame. He’d lost a small fortune publishing my poems, defending them in court when the censor deemed several among them on the subject of sapphic love to be indecent, and then pulping the lot when the trial was lost. As his silhouette slinked away in the pale lamplight of that frigid Brussels night, even the hat on his head seemed smaller, and his shoulders disappeared under the scarf he’d wrapped around his neck.
With Auguste gone, I headed down the Rue des Paroissiens in the direction of the Grand Miroir, turning my collar up against the drizzle. The streets were empty and silent, except for the sigh of burning gas in the lamps and an occasional flurry of footsteps behind me. I slipped on a paving stone and landed with both feet in water up to my ankles.
As I turned a corner to face the railway station, wading miserably through one ankle-deep puddle after another, I heard the echo of a stately carriage in a nearby street ahead of me. It turned the corner and was suddenly careening toward me. In my rush to remove myself from its path, my left ankle twisted on a protruding paving stone and, thrown off balance, I landed face-first in the slush with the two horses bearing down on me. Intending to dive toward the gutter, I was getting back to my feet when a wheel collided with my right shoulder, throwing me askance once more and spinning me around, so that I landed—this time on my back—in yet another puddle. Needless to say, the carriage continued on its way, turning left into Rue des Colonies, the driver in all likelihood oblivious to the fact that he had just now bowled over, and very nearly finished off, the greatest lyric poet of the age.
Lying on my back in the filth, icy water seeping through my coat, I was convinced my life was finally nearing its pitiable conclusion. It occurred to me that I ought to have jumped in the other direction, under the horses rather than away from them. As I lay there in that puddle, on those slick paving stones, in that strange city, on that icy evening, all my hopes extinguished, I found the prospect of my imminent demise unexpectedly consoling. In the cold and the damp, I began to shiver with a violence that would not be brought into abeyance. Presently the pain of my injuries began to recede, the wild beating of my heart slowed and my breathing became less frantic. I realized I would not be dying there and then. My accursed existence would continue, at least for now. At the dawning of this thought, I began to scream, abusing that tenacity of life that seems to override every wiser instinct. And once I had begun, I continued, wholeheartedly cursing, stringing beads of curses together to make garlands of curses, which I hurled at Victor Hugo and Madame Hugo, at her sons and her guests. I cursed the Grand Miroir and Brussels and Belgium and the Belgians. I cursed the King of Belgium and for good measure I cursed the Emperor of France. I cursed men and women, mankind and womankind too. I cursed poetry and literature and art and love, and when I had finished cursing all those things I cursed life and God Himself. And it was while I was cursing God that I noticed, standing above me, the silhouette of a man’s body, wearing a round hat and a cape. A gaunt whiskered face leaned down to study me closer. “Are you in pain, monsieur?”
“I hardly know,” I said, “but it seems I cannot raise myself.”
“Here,” he said, “let me help you to your feet.” He bent down and put his gloved hands behind my shoulders and under my arms. He smelled of black soap. “On the count of three,” he said, “un, deux, trois.” I was lifted to my feet and the stranger released his grip slowly so that I might bear the weight of my body. I felt a sharp pain in my left ankle and let out a strangled cry. The stranger had to catch me to stop me from falling again. “You are injured, sir, and your wounds must be treated. Allow me to take you back to my mistress’s quarters so that you may receive the rest and medical attention you require.”
Naturally, my first inclination was to refuse him, to insist on continuing to the tavern. But a wave of weariness descended upon me, and all I wanted to do was sleep. “Yes,” I said, swaying on my feet until I sank into his arms, “rest and attention. That is precisely what I need.”
Excerpted from Crossings by Alex Landragin. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, St. Martins Press.