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Once Upon a Time in London

By Philippe BESSON Sofitel London St James

There’s a crowd in London this June afternoon. The streets are adorned with flags flapping in the breeze. Before the stately facade Buckingham Palace, proud red-clad guards are as unflappable as ever atop their fine mounts. Barriers have been erected to control the throngs of onlookers who have converged for what is expected to be a sumptuous parade. The monarchy’s full panoply of pomp has been deployed in honor of the day’s guest, the sovereign of an exotic, far-flung kingdom rich with the splendors of the Orient. Protocol is most dear to the queen. She knows that her country is best governed and her subjects ultimately won over by a scrupulous respect of secular law and an uncompromising adherence to pageantry and pomp. Her authority, otherwise, is unquestionable. The throne has been hers for so long. The truth is that in England it’s the women who have always been most resilient: Once they assume the reins of power, they don’t relinquish them. The men, on the other hand, preoccupied by their mistresses and quick to go to war, are prone to violent and premature deaths.

A curious, although slightly distracted, young man has made his way into the crowd. He is French, yet it was from Belgium that he arrived three weeks ago, from Antwerp, to be exact. There, he had embarked on a Great Eastern Railway steamer, and, after a breath-taking 15-hour crossing — he was not yet accustomed to the beauty of the sea and its endlessly elusive horizons — he arrived in Harwich. At that point, he boarded a train, which passed through languid countryside en route to the capital. This is not his first visit. He knows the city, a teeming and industrious metropolis in a frenetic race to modernity, the upper classes errified by the expansion of the working-class quarters. He had once lived in London for a few months. He had worked there. Now he has returned. He rents a small, furnished room in the northwest, near Camden Town, at 8 Great College Street. His landlady is named Mrs. Smith. Are English landladies ever called anything else? He feels good there, it’s a street with old-fashioned charm, lined with row houses and impeccable gardens. He should hate its provincial flavor, given his love for the commotion of cities. Yet it’s the opposite: He is able to write there, the cries of children at play and merchants hawking their goods filling the air.

Today he was drawn to the parade by the festive atmosphere. And the throng had sparked his interest: He loves the common people and the crush of the crowd. At first he doesn’t notice a blue-eyed youth with reddish hair who has drifted into the crowd not far from him. In this month of June 1873, his attention is focused on the imminent arrival of the cortege bearing Queen Victoria and her guest, the Shah of Persia. It’s also the month of June. Nearly a century and a half later. Elizabeth’s birthday is being celebrated today, although she was born in April. But since 1748, the birthday of an English monarch has always been celebrated on a Saturday in June. For no other reason than because there is a greater chance that at this time of year the saluting of the colors will not take place in torrential rain or thick fog. The monarchy bows only to the laws of nature. Indeed, the queen’s guard is now approaching in glorious sunshine. They march in perfect step and the band plays the anthem with appropriate solemnity. The queen will soon review the troops. I love such unwavering rituals. I love the idea of their permanence amid upheavals and convulsions of the ever-changing world. I love the grotesque grandiloquence of it all, as humanity doggedly pursues its road to ruin. I notice a young man among the onlookers, a few meters from me.

So he is a redhead, with milky skin. He is 20 years old. He comes from Holland. He is the son of a pastor, claims to have had a “cold, somber and sterile childhood,” and has been living in The Hague for nearly four years. There, he feels alive, frequenting artists and drawing. And, most importantly, he works for an art dealer. Which is why he is in now London, having been transferred to the local branch of the art dealer Goupil, his employer. It’s a promotion for him, and he now earns more than his father did at his age. It’s also an opportunity to perfect the English that he learned at school.
He had arrived only five days before. Europe’s young bohemians have all been flocking to London, fed up with life on the Continent and dreaming of a new world that seems to be dawning here. The young Dutchman has been staying in a furnished room, but he will soon move out in favor of a boarding house that will provide both room and board. Since his arrival, the city has been captivated by the Persian monarch’s visit. So, his drawing materials in hand, he had made his way to the parade, guided first by seeking directions and then by following the clamor of the crowd. He does not feel completely out of place in London, however, for The Hague is similarly agitated. The two cities are ports, and their feel is familiar to him. But he notices that the scale is different. Everything is bigger in London, more vibrant. The city’s dimensions and flow excite him. Turning his head, he notices a strange fellow wearing an odd sort of limp top hat that is a bit crushed and tattered. It’s difficult to say his age. He looks like an adolescent who has grown up too fast, as if he were trying to look older than he is. He immediately thinks:
“This fellow is certainly not English.” He finds this amusing, and also reassuring, for it means that he’s not the only foreigner in the crowd. He decides to move closer to him. At that moment, the cortege can be heard in the distance. Horses nay amid the halting cadence of their hoofs on the pavement, the sun glints in the gleaming helmets, even the flags seem to snap
more vigorously in the warm wind that has suddenly gained force. The young Dutchman asks, “You’re not English, are you?”, to which the other, turning toward him, replies in French, “It’s really that obvious?” The Dutchman smiles, pleased to learn that he was not mistaken and also delighted to hear French, which he also speaks. With an unidentifiable accent, he introduces himself:

“My name is Vincent.” The other youth tips his head and says simply, “Arthur.” So it goes. Two young men, 20 years old, two voluntary exiles, have just met in London, city of infinite possibilities, as summer begins to unfold and the monarchy unfurls its grand display. The story can begin. They know what we don’t know: They know that they are alike, that they are both passionate, tormented, unaccomplished. They know it because they have recognized each another. For the moment, however, they are still nothing. Almost no one has read the poems of Arthur Rimbaud. And Vincent Van Gogh has not yet begun to paint The calm has returned and I’m writing. In my luxurious hotel room, at a walnut desk with a vase of red roses, I’m writing. I’m writing of the fortuitous encounter in the British capital between the greatest French poet and the greatest Dutch painter. They were born one year apart, they will die one year apart, each at the age of 37. I have always been struck by that coincidence. I know that they had the same lifespan by chance, and that by chance they were united chronologically in the grand sweep of history, but I nonetheless like to think that chance is sometimes akin to destiny.

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.

But the young Vincent is so pure. And London is far from Paris, after all. What danger is there in confessing? And who knows, perhaps it will be a relief to get it off his chest. Maybe it’s a good idea to stop hiding. Immediately, however, Vincent frowns. He knows nothing of this abominable vice, except that it is just that, an abominable vice. He is not of that inclination, has never even imagined what it means to be so inclined (moreover, in a few months he will fall in love with his landlady’s daughter, only to be cruelly spurned — love stories all finish badly). Now he is troubled, upset, uneasy. This Arthur who seemed so angelic, so full of fire, now suddenly seems dark, perhaps even evil. Observing his comrade’s changed demeanor, Rimbaud thinks it best to explain that the relationship in question is in fact coming to an end. “We fight a lot,” he admits. In truth, the stay in London has been nothing but a series of cries and crises. There have been interminable scenes, often without motive. Quarrels over nothing at all that nonetheless leave them dazed and fatigued. It’s a vicious relationship, riddled with sarcasm and resentment. As is often the case when a great love begins to unravel. Arthur adds, “We drink profusely.” And he tells of their debauchery, violent nights finishing in the gutter with drunken fist fights and threats. He confides, “Someday, one of us will kill the other.” He can’t know how close to the truth his words will prove to be. This statement touches Vincent. He has compassion for such lost souls, hoping they will be saved from their demons. He doesn’t know that one day he will succumb to his own.

We had hardly spoken, the young man and I, as we walked in the direction of the Saint James Hotel after the parade. I was admiring the city, with its dance of black taxis and double-decker buses, and his eyes were fixed on his feet. We both knew what was going to happen. I no longer seek anything but passing adventures, one-night stands. I want only easy, anonymous bodies. Falling in love involves too much passion and fury. And passion is a sickness. I won’t fall victim to it again. I know all too well how it ends. The young man had looked surprised when he saw the majestic facade of the hotel, the Union Jack flying high, and when we entered the vast lobby, the bellboys gliding about discreetly. He was no doubt imagining the fine sheets awaiting him.

It was better to talk about something else. “So you write poetry, Arthur?” Vincent asks like a curious child. Yes, as a matter of fact. At the moment he is working on what he calls his “Negro” or “pagan” book, he is not sure yet of the title (it will be A Season in Hell). He is absorbed in this vocation, not the least bit weary of it. Poetry had seized him when he was 15, and it has not left him; it’s an overwhelming passion. He creates visions, invents words, dreams of new expressions, they are original and incomprehensible, yet people feel them; he pursues what he calls a derangement of the senses. Sometimes he thinks he is delirious, even possessed. It takes hours for the fever to subside. Vincent, forgetting the din of the pub, listens with fascination to the young Frenchman. Has he ever encountered such impetuosity, such passion? His own upbringing was austere and ascetic, and he now feels wild impulses rising that he forces himself to contain, raging storms that his heightened sense of duty and morality compel him to repress. But isn’t he wrong to censor himself in this manner? Wouldn’t it be better for him to let his deepest desires and aspirations emerge? He has been drawing since he was a child. And he senses that this is what is essential for him. He is a man now, he has obeyed, followed the right paths, he is earning money. Isn’t it time he did something for himself? Shouldn’t he go his own way? Let himself be free? Arthur’s fervor suddenly pushes him to reveal himself:
“I want to paint. I think I might have talent.” His comrade studies him more attentively now. Just as he had suspected: Behind the youth’s placidity a more complex temperament is concealed. A drive lies waiting in the bottomless depths of those excessively blue eyes, there are exalted flights and desperate descents veiled by that skin paler than pale, he senses here the stuff of an artist.

Clearly, these two expatriates are brothers. Thus, like a dam bursting, they open their hearts to each other. Torrents gush forth, crashing like powerful, seething waves. They agree that art should govern life. They can’t know then that one of them will one day renounce art definitively, without warning or explanation, before fleeing to arid, hostile lands, and that the other will succumb to art, like one succumbs to madness. The conversation goes on and on, as the pints accumulate amid the drunks and revelers in a springtime without end. Their talk unites them more than any infatuation ever could. It’s a perfect moment.
When they are finally thrown out of the pub, night has fallen. They find themselves in the street, joyful, amused, excited. They exchange a brief look of happiness tinged with regret, knowing that the moment has passed, its grace inevitably gone. They part, promising to see each other again. The truth is that they won’t have time. Their parting embrace is genuine, and they are sorry to be going, truly hoping to meet again, although circumstances will decide otherwise. In fact, two weeks later a clash more violent than any before will force the two infernal lovers, Rimbaud and Verlaine, to separate, only to be reunited in Brussels for a final confrontation at gunpoint. Van Gogh will stay in London, hoping to make his mark, although without much success. From then on, he will be subject to impulses that will
make a vagabond of him, leading him here and there, most importantly to France, where at last his art will flourish.

In the miraculously sweet London night, I see the two figures wandering away and then moving off in opposite directions. There. It’s over. I can now put my pen down, smell the red roses and admire the immaculate buildings of Waterloo Place from my window. I’m done. I’ve told the story of the only meeting between Rimbaud and Van Gogh, in June 1873. Two things, however, before I take leave of you and return, perhaps, to London’s effervescence: The young man wrapped in the sheets is still asleep, and this encounter never took place; I made it up.
Translated by Amy Hollowell