Lydia Davis in search of enough rope.

Last fall Lydia Davis, the short story writer, translator and MacArthur Fellow, gave a reading for the Curiosity Forum at Battenkill Books. Davis is known for her spare stories, some not more than a sentence. To make the reading interesting for herself, she brought new unpublished stories. Among them, she explained, were stories that she had “found” while reading Flaubert’s letters. As a translator of Madame Bovary, she read Flaubert’s letters to find his natural voice; the way he sounded when addressing friends.  From these letters she extracted sentences that appeared to her to be complete stories.

Having spent much of the last ten years in my own excavation of all things French, I thought Davis might be able to identify for me the name of a story by Baudelaire that I had read about, but had not been able to find. The story, as I understood it, was about the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Edouard Manet’s studio assistant. I asked her if she had ever heard of the story.

She hadn’t, but she promised me she would ask a colleague and let me know what she found out. Well, you can’t ask for more than that: a MacArthur Fellow and distinguished writer doing research for me!

To be honest I didn’t expect to hear from her, but within a day I received an email that said, “Its not a short story, its a prose poem.” No sooner had I opened a new tab to type  “Baudelaire prose poems” into Google, than I received another email from her with the title of the piece: La Corde [The Rope]. The story, dedicated to Manet,  in deed is about the suicide of a painter’s assistant.

Here is the “prose poem” in its entirety, first in English, then followed by the original French:

The Rope

For Edouard Manet

Manet, Boy with a Dog, 1860“Illusions,” my friend said to me, “Are perhaps as numberless as the relations between men, or between men and things.  And when the illusion disappears, that is to say, when we see the being or the fact as it exists outside of ourselves, we experience a bizarre feeling, complicated half by regret for the disappeared phantom, half by agreeable surprise in the face of novelty, in the fact of the real thing.  If there is one obvious, trivial phenomenon, a phenomenon the remains always the same and about whose nature it is impossible to be mistaken, it is mother love.  It is as difficult to imagine a mother without maternal love as a light without heat.  Then isn’t it perfectly legitimate to attribute all of the words and actions of a mother to mother love, at least as regards her child?  And yet, listen to this little story, about a time when I was singularly mystified by the most natural of illusions.

“As a painter, I am driven to pay close attention to the faces, the physiognomies, that offer themselves to me on the street, and you know what enjoyment we draw from that ability, which in our eyes renders life more alive and more meaningful than it is for other men.  In the remote quarter where I live and where vast grassy yards still separate buildings, I often saw a child whose ardent and mischievous physiognomy, more so than all the others, seduced me from the very first.  He posed more than once for me, and I transformed him sometimes into a little gypsy, sometimes into an angel, sometimes into a mythological Cupid.  I had him hold the vagrant’s violin, the Crown of Thorns, the Nails of the Passion, and the Torch of Eros.  Indeed, I took such a sharp pleasure in all of this urchin’s drollery, that one day I begged his parents, who were poor people, to agree to give him to me, promising to dress him well, to give him some money, and to impose no other labor on him than cleaning my brushes and running errands for me.  Once cleaned up, the boy proved charming, and the life he led with me seemed to him a paradise, compared to what he would have been subjected to in his father’s hovel.  However I must say that this little fellow sometimes astonished me with singular outbursts of precocious sadness, and that he sometimes demonstrated an immoderate taste for sugar and for liqueurs, so much so that one day, after I had ascertained that, despite numerous warnings, he had again committed a theft of this sort, I threatened to send him back to his parents.  Then I went out, and my business kept me from home for quite a while.

“You can well imagine my horror and astonishment when, returning to my house, the first thing that struck me was my little fellow, the mischievous companion of my life, hanging from the panel of this armoire!  He feet were almost touching the floor; a chair, which he had undoubtedly pushed away with his foot, was overturned next to him; his head lean convulsively on one shoulder;  his swollen face and his eyes, wide open and staring with a frightening fixity, at first gave me the illusion that he was still alive.  Unhanging him was not as easy a task as one might think.  He was already very stiff, and I felt an inexpicable repugnance about letting him fall abruptly onto the floor.  I had to hold him up with one arm and with my other hand cut the rope.  But that done, I was still not finished: the little monster had used a very cord and it had cut deeply into his skin.  It was now necessary for me to use small scissors to draw the rope out from between two swollen rolls of skin, in order to extricate his neck.

“I forgot to tell you that I had called loudly for help, but that all of my neighbors refused to come to my aid, faithful in this to the habits of the civilized man, who never wishes to get mixed up in the affairs of a hanged man, I know not why.  Finally, a doctor came and declared that the child had been dead for several hours.  When we later had to strip him for his burial, the rigidity of the corpse was so great that, giving up any hope of bending his limbs, we had to tear and cut his clothes in order to get them off.

The police officer to whom, naturally, I had to declare the accident, looked at me oddly and said: “There’s something fishy about this!”, moved undoubtedly by the inveterate desire and the professional habit of, in all events, scaring the innocent as well as the guilty.

“One final task remained, the very thought of which caused me a terrible anguish: I had to tell his parents.  My feet refused to carry me to their house.  Finally, I found the courage.  But, to my great astonishment, the boy’s mother remained unmoved, and not a tear leaked from the corner of her eye.  I attributed that strangeness to the very horror she must have been feeling, and I recalled that well-known adage: “The most terrible sorrows are silent sorrows.”  As for the father, he satisfied himself with saying, half brutishly, half dreamily: “After all, maybe it’s for the best — he would eventually have come to a bad end!”

While the body was stretched out on my sofa and I was occupied with the final preparations, aided by a serving woman, the boy’s mother came into my studio.  She wanted, she said, to see the corpse of her son.  I could not, in truth, stop her from getting drunk on her misfortune and refuse her this final, somber consolation.  Afterwards, she asked me to show her the place where her son had hung himself.  “Oh!  No!  Madame,” I said, “That would not be good for you.”  As my eyes turned involuntarily toward the deadly armoire, I noticed — with a disgust mixed with horror and anger — that the nail was still stuck in the panel, with a long piece of rope still trailing from it.  I quickly darted over and tore down these last vestiges of the misfortune, and as I was about to throw them out of the open window, the poor woman seized my arm and said to me in an irresistable voice: “Oh!  Monsieur!  Let me have that!  Please!  I beg you”  Undoubtedly, it seemed to me, her despair had driven her so mad that she was now struck with a fondness for that which had served as the instrument of her son’s death, and wished to keep it as a terrible and beloved relic. — And she grabbed the nail and the rope.

“Finally!  Finally!  Everything was done.  Nothing was left to me but to get back to work, more briskly than usual, in order to chase away little by little the tiny cadaver that continued to haunt the corners of my mind, and whose phantom was wearing me out with its great, staring eyes.  But the next day I received a whole pile of letters, some from the tenants in my building, several others from neighboring buildings; one from the first floor, another from the second, another from the third, and so on; some written in a half-joking tone, as if to disguise under an apparent playfulness the seriousness of the request, others completely shameless and filled with misspellings, but all asking for the same thing: that is to say, seeking to obtain from me a piece of the deadly and blessed rope.  Among the signers there were, I must say, more women than men, but not all of them, believe you me, belonging to the lowest and most vulgar class.  I have kept these letters.

“And then, suddenly, a light went on in my head, and I understood why the boy’s mother had been so concerned with taking that cord away from me and through what sort of commerce she planned to console herself for her loss.”

[Scroll to end of post for books of interest and other information.]

La Corde

À Édouard Manet

Manet«Les illusions, — me disait mon ami, — sont aussi innombrables peut-être que les rapports des hommes entre eux, ou des hommes avec les choses.  Et quand l’illusion disparaît, c’est-à-dire quand nous voyons l’être ou le fait tel qu’il existe en dehors de nous, nous éprouvons un bizarre sentiment, compliqué moitié de regret pour le fantôme disparu, moitié de surprise agréable devant la nouveauté, devant le fait réel.  S’il existe un phénomène évident, trivial, toujours semblable, et d’une nature à laquelle il soit impossible de se tromper, c’est l’amour maternel.  Il est aussi difficile de supposer une mère sans amour maternel qu’une lumière sans chaleur; n’est-il donc pas parfaitement légitime d’attribuer à l’amour maternel toutes les actions et les paroles d’une mère, relatives à son enfant?  Et cependant écoutez cette petite histoire, où j’ai été singulièrement mystifié par l’illusion la plus naturelle.

«Ma profession de peintre me pousse à regarder attentivement les visages, les physionomies, qui s’offrent dans ma route, et vous savez quelle jouissance nous tirons de cette faculté qui rend à nos yeux la vie plus vivante et plus significative que pour les autres hommes.  Dans le quartier reculé que j’habite et où de vastes espaces gazonnés séparent encore les bâtiments, j’observai souvent un enfant dont la physionomie ardente et espiègle, plus que toutes les autres, me séduisit tout d’abord.  Il a posé plus d’une fois pour moi, et je l’ai transformé tantôt en petit bohémien, tantôt en ange, tantôt en Amour mythologique.  Je lui ai fait porter le violon du vagabond, la Couronne d’Épines et les Clous de la Passion, et la Torche d’Éros.  Je pris enfin à toute la drôlerie de ce gamin un plaisir si vif, que je priai un jour ses parents, de pauvres gens, de vouloir bien me le céder, promettant de bien l’habiller, de lui donner quelque argent et de ne pas lui imposer d’autre peine que de nettoyer mes pinceaux et de faire mes commissions.  Cet enfant, débarbouillé, devint charmant, et la vie qu’il menait chez moi lui semblait un paradis, comparativement à celle qu’il aurait subie dans le taudis paternel.  Seulement je dois dire que ce petit bonhomme m’étonna quelquefois par des crises singulières de tristesse précoce, et qu’il manifesta bientôt un goût immodéré pour le sucre et les liqueurs; si bien qu’un jour où je constatai que, malgré mes nombreux avertissements, il avait encore commis un nouveau larcin de ce genre, je le menaçai de le renvoyer à ses parents.  Puis je sortis, et mes affaires me retinrent assez longtemps hors de chez moi.

«Quels ne furent pas mon horreur et mon étonnement quand, rentrant à la maison, le premier objet qui frappa mes regards fut mon petit bonhomme, l’espiègle compagnon de ma vie, pendu au panneau de cette armoire!  Ses pieds touchaient presque le plancher; une chaise, qu’il avait sans doute repoussée du pied, était renversée à côté de lui; sa tête était penchée convulsivement sur une épaule; son visage, boursouflé, et ses yeux, tout grands ouverts avec une fixité effrayante, me causèrent d’abord l’illusion de la vie.  Le dépendre n’était pas une besogne aussi facile que vous le pouvez croire.  Il était déjà fort roide, et j’avais une répugnance inexplicable à le faire brusquement tomber sur le sol.  Il fallait le soutenir tout entier avec un bras, et, avec la main de l’autre bras, couper la corde.  Mais cela fait, tout n’était pas fini; le petit monstre s’était servi d’une ficelle fort mince qui était entrée profondément dans les chairs, et il fallait maintenant, avec de minces ciseaux, chercher la corde entre les deux bourrelets de l’enflure, pour lui dégager le cou.

«J’ai négligé de vous dire que j’avais vivement appelé au secours; mais tous mes voisins avaient refusé de me venir en aide, fidèles en cela aux habitudes de l’homme civilisé, qui ne veut jamais, je ne sais pourquoi, se mêler des affaires d’un pendu.  Enfin vint un médecin qui déclara que l’enfant était mort depuis plusieurs heures.  Quand, plus tard, nous eûmes à le déshabiller pour l’ensevelissement, la rigidité cadavérique était telle, que, désespérant de fléchir les membres, nous dûmes lacérer et couper les vêtements pour les lui enlever.

«Le commissaire, à qui, naturellement, je dus déclarer l’accident, me regarda de travers, et me dit: «Voilà qui est louche!» mû sans doute par un désir invétéré et une habitude d’état de faire peur, à tout hasard, aux innocents comme aux coupables.

«Restait une tâche suprême à accomplir, dont la seule pensée me causait une angoisse terrible: il fallait avertir les parents.  Mes pieds refusaient de m’y conduire.  Enfin j’eus ce courage.  Mais, à mon grand étonnement, la mère fut impassible, pas une larme ne suinta du coin de son ?il.  J’attribuai cette étrangeté à l’horreur même qu’elle devait éprouver, et je me souvins de la sentence connue: «Les douleurs les plus terribles sont les douleurs muettes.»  Quant au père, il se contenta de dire d’un air moitié abruti, moitié rêveur: «Après tout, cela vaut peut-être mieux ainsi; il aurait toujours mal fini!»

«Cependant le corps était étendu sur mon divan, et, assisté d’une servante, je m’occupais des derniers préparatifs, quand la mère entra dans mon atelier.  Elle voulait, disait-elle, voir le cadavre de son fils.  Je ne pouvais pas, en vérité, l’empêcher de s’enivrer de son malheur et lui refuser cette suprême et sombre consolation.  Ensuite elle me pria de lui montrer l’endroit où son petit s’était pendu.  «Oh! non! madame, — lui répondis-je, — cela vous ferait mal.»  Et comme involontairement mes yeux se tournaient vers la funèbre armoire, je m’aperçus, avec un dégoût mêlé d’horreur et de colère, que le clou était resté fiché dans la paroi, avec un long bout de corde qui traînait encore.  Je m’élançai vivement pour arracher ces derniers vestiges du malheur, et comme j’allais les lancer au dehors par la fenêtre ouverte, la pauvre femme saisit mon bras et me dit d’une voix irrésistible: «Oh! monsieur! laissez-moi cela! je vous en prie! je vous en supplie!»  Son désespoir l’avait, sans doute, me parut-il, tellement affolée, qu’elle s’éprenait de tendresse maintenant pour ce qui avait servi d’instrument à la mort de son fils, et le voulait garder comme une horrible et chère relique. — Et elle s’empara du clou et de la ficelle.

«Enfin!  Enfin! tout était accompli.  Il ne me restait plus qu’à me remettre au travail, plus vivement encore que d’habitude, pour chasser peu à peu ce petit cadavre qui hantait les replis de mon cerveau, et dont le fantôme me fatiguait de ses grands yeux fixes.  Mais le lendemain je reçus un paquet de lettres: les unes, des locataires de ma maison, quelques autres des maisons voisines; l’une, du premier étage; l’autre, du second; l’autre, du troisième, et ainsi de suite, les unes en style demi-plaisant, comme cherchant à déguiser sous un apparent badinage la sincérité de la demande; les autres, lourdement effrontées et sans orthographe, mais toutes tendant au même but, c’est-à-dire à obtenir de moi un morceau de la funeste et béatifique corde.  Parmi les signataires il y avait, je dois le dire, plus de femmes que d’hommes; mais tous, croyez-le bien, n’appartenaient pas à la classe infime et vulgaire.  J’ai gardé ces lettres.

«Et alors, soudainement, une lueur se fit dans mon cerveau, et je compris pourquoi la mère tenait tant à m’arracher la ficelle et par quel commerce elle entendait se consoler.»

Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis on the right


Here is a wonderful article in the Paris Review about Lydia Davis and her translation of Madam Bovary:

Books of Interest:







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