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Once Upon a Time in London

By Philippe BESSON Sofitel London St James

The carriage has now passed. The monarchs waved to the crowd. The young men did not fail to notice that the shah is fat and that Victoria seemed tired. The parade is over. All that remains is the memory of the horses’ steps, the military band’s muffled refrain, and confetti strewn in the road. It’s time to go. Already the crowd is thinning. They look at each other, not wanting to part. The afternoon promises to be beautiful, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of such unusually fine weather. Arthur is in no hurry, no hurry at all to return to Verlaine, who, exasperated by the mass of bodies, refused to wait for the cortege, preferring to return to their lodging in Great College Street. So Arthur says to Vincent:
“How about if we go have a beer? I know a place.” And so in the radiant sun they are off to their intoxications. They enter the first pub they come to. They had not walked far. In the small tavern, they take in the joyous atmosphere, with loud men around sticky wooden tables knocking pints together amid hearty laughter, although some of the faces show hints of darkness and distress. These are the common people, a melting pot of eternal London, youth and workers, veterans and office clerks, robust men and feisty women who aren’t to be messed with.

As soon as they have settled in, Vincent bombards Arthur with questions. He wants to know everything. Everything. His hunger for knowledge is at first discreet, his pale complexion projecting a deceptive impression of placidity. But there is an intensity under the mask. Arthur recalls something one of his professors said long ago: “This child will come to no good.” He wonders to himself whether anyone has ever said that about Vincent. He answers the flurry of questions. To earn his living he teaches French. He finds students through ads that he places in the newspapers, but he admits that he doesn’t earn much with this activity: “A dozen francs a week.” Practically nothing. He tries to write “foreign correspondence” for the French press, but publications aren’t really interested in news from London, too preoccupied with their own “little world.” He spends hours in the reading room at the British Museum, where books are lent for free. He improves his English that way. Vincent listens and realizes how fortunate he is to have a steady, paying job. Yet, at the same time, he envies this precarious, bohemian existence.

And what does Arthur do when he’s not looking for ways to earn money? Well, he says, “I sail on the Thames.” Nothing pleases him more than boarding a steamer at the Charing Cross pier and heading up river. He gazes at the boat’s tall chimney spewing its black smoke, then darts to the back to watch the paddle wheel thrash through the churning water before rushing back to the front to study the riverbanks. He says he dreams of the sea, of interminable horizons, of travel. He says his life will be a never-ending voyage and Vincent believes him. “And the theater?” Vincent asks. “If you like operetta, you have chosen the perfect city.” In fact, at the Saint James a troupe from the Alcazar in Brussels is now playing. At the mention of Brussels, the two young men say at the same time how much they love that city. Rimbaud had spent the previous summer there, and Van Gogh had done a brief internship there with Goupil. They are amused to note that Brussels is something of a mid-point between their countries. Rimbaud does not know that three weeks later it will be the scene of a dramatic event in his life, for it is there, in a hotel room, that Verlaine will fire two gunshots at him.

I have always liked hotel rooms. Because they are impersonal places, where no one remains yet where we all leave something of ourselves, because they are temporary, a pause in our hurried existences. And also because they are witnesses to so many slices of life, taking in a vast array of humanity, watching so much. Indeed, they have seen embraces and solitudes both speedy and languorous, from professional obligations to tender intimacies. At the moment, this room is witnessing a man writing and another, 20 years younger, sleeping, tangled in a white blanket, his arm hanging over the edge of the bed, dangling in emptiness.But back to Verlaine. Mention must be made of him. Arthur had carefully concealed him until now; but under Van Gogh’s insistent questioning, he finally answers. No, he did not come to London alone. He is with someone 10 years his senior. They met two years ago. It was at the end of August. Arthur had written to him from his province, telling him how he wanted to leave Charleville, how he wanted to escape Charleville, to come to Paris, and the older man had paid for his ticket. They have since seen quite a bit of each other. This is the expression that he chooses to employ, a neutral expression, which is not a lie although it hides the truth. But Vincent insists, he wants to know more. Who is this Verlaine, whom he has never heard of? A poet?

He doesn’t know contemporary poetry, he has read only religious texts, those that his father gave him or those that he was made to read at school. Otherwise, he reads the Bible, passionately. Arthur lowers his eyes: Verlaine’s words are those of a heretic, he knows, those of a man who has turned away from God. He himself rages against the men in black, against Catholic obscurantism, and he pisses on the walls of churches. He refrains from saying any of this, though, not wanting to lose his new friend. Instead, he abruptly gulps down his beer and rushes to the bar to order another. His companion senses that something is being withheld. He observes the fellow’s awkward self-consciousness. When Arthur sits back down, Vincent asks more questions. His big eyes, his innocence, his purity, his desire to understand, are irresistible: Arthur is forced to tell the truth. This man, Paul, is a bit more than a friend. The words sting his mouth, deform his face. He has never pronounced them before. He has always refused to do so. He didn’t want to have to justify himself to the imbeciles in France; he takes pride in fiercely defying their bourgeois order. He has been loath, too, to specify the precise nature of his bond with the author of Poems Under Saturn because he doesn’t believe in love, he believes only in freedom.

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