JEAN (From Ribbentrop's Chair)
Pour soulever un poids si lourd,
Sisyphe, il faudrait ton courage!
Bien qu'on ait du coeur à l'ouvrage,
L'Art est long et le Temps est court.
Loin des sépultures célèbres,
Vers un cimetière isolé,
Mon coeur, comme un tambour voilé,
Va battant des marches funèbres.
— Maint joyau dort enseveli
Dans les ténèbres et l'oubli,
Bien loin des pioches et des sondes;
Mainte fleur épanche à regret
Son parfum doux comme un secret
Dans les solitudes profondes.
— Charles Baudelaire
To lift a weight so heavy,
Would take your courage, Sisyphus!
Although one's heart is in the work,
Art is long and Time is short.
Far from famous sepulchers
Toward a lonely cemetery
My heart, like muffled drums,
Goes beating funeral marches.
Many a jewel lies buried
In darkness and oblivion,
Far, far away from picks and drills;
Many a flower regretfully
Exhales perfume soft as secrets
In a profound solitude.
— William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)
Our cousin Jean read a lot of poetry: especially the works of Lorca, Rilke and Baudelaire. Laurie discovered in later years that Jean had bookmarked his leather-bound copy of Les Fleurs du Mal with carefully chosen mementos. To be precise:
Le Guignon (brown & white feather)
La Vie Anterieure & La Chevelure (a blue-striped feather and a picture of P.J. Toulet by S. de Clausade,
L’Aube Spiritualle (a picture of Durer’s hands)
Betende Hande (a photograph of Albertina)
Les Chats (a picture of “one of 200 cats living in a British Rail station & “Frede et son ane” – a picture of old man with ass)
Tableaux Parviens XIV + XV (bookmark, Librairie Galgnani 224 Rue de Rivoli, Paris. Plus feather.
Confession (fern leaf)
One magical summer when Jackie and I were aged 10 and 12 respectively, we stayed for a night at your apartment in the Rue Damremont while our parents stayed at a hotel. Jackie and I slept soundly in your parent’s enormous old bateau-lit, innocent as Yorkshire roses. You woke us up the following morning with sunlight, a big bowl of peaches and Prokofiev’s “Troika” playing on your old gramophone. That tune always transports me.
You gave me a copy of ”Le Petit Prince” to help me with my French, telling me that during the war the writer of this story Antoine de Saint-Exupery – an experienced aviator - flew up very high one day in his plane and was never seen again.
When you were young you were tall and slim, with an intelligent chiselled head, piercing blue eyes and a crippled leg withered by polio as a child. You were warm, kind and introspective.
In your twenties you travelled across Europe with your friend Jean Claude, painting landscapes and ruins. You sketched the remains of Hadrian’s Palace, trying to capture the sublime in every line, like a Georgian on a Grand Tour. You wandered around the world and then came back to where you started.
Apart from catering for your spartan bodily needs, you never bought anything new or replaced anything old. You preserved the family furniture and artefacts – decaying but intact – as a memorial to your beloved parents, whom you cared for until they died – first Jacques, then Raymonde.
Jean’s maternal grandfather had been one of the court dressmakers to the Tzar, imported from Paris with his family. His Catholic mother Raymonde was born and raised in St. Petersbourg in the homes of the Russian aristocracy. Jean once showed me a sepia photograph of a little girl surrounded by women in snowy white dresses sitting stiffly on a vast lawn, with a stucco palace filling the background like a stage set.
During the Russian Revolution the Dumontets returned in a hurry to Paris, where Raymonde’s father integrated himself into the Paris tailoring fraternity – many of whom were Jewish and lucky to have escaped Russia with their lives, including the Avadis family.
In record time the Avadises had built up a fashion business on the rue St. Honore, just down the road from where Robespierre had masterminded the French Revolution a century earlier. Lovely Raymonde modelled dresses for her father and in due course for Jean’s father Jacob - now Jacques - becoming his second wife. This in spite of the fact that after his first gentile wife Marie died Jacques took to sack cloth, ashes, begging and extreme orthodoxy in an attempt to win back favour with God.
So her father looked the other way while Raymonde took up with her boss – many years her senior and unlike the rest of the lanky Avadises, half a foot shorter than herself. It was a passionate marriage of opposites. Gentle, generous Raymonde gave birth first to Jean Etienne and then a year later to little Victor, who tragically died aged only 6 months.
As he grew up surrounded by impoverished White Russians and Paris fashion royalty Jean – whose limp caused him great shame - turned more and more inwards . He was madly and unrealistically in love with his cousin Rose – 4 years his senior – whose parents’ apartment at 45 Rue Damremont faced his own home across the courtyard. He used to watch for Rose at her bedroom window. Rather than extinguish the unrequited passion which immured him from the real, turbulent world of early twentieth century Paris, Jean nurtured his secret love, feeding it poetry and travelling far and wide knowing he would never find what he was looking for. Raised as a Catholic, Jean was a Wandering Jew by nature.
Jean was mathematically gifted and politically aware and would eventually become a government economist. However as a boy his father had sent him to study at the Academy des Beaux Arts , intending his only heir to train as a designer and follow in his footsteps and, no doubt, inherit the family’s thriving couture business. Jean disliked his father – not only for this fundamental disregard for his son’s true mission but also, it has to be said, because he was a Jew. Jean was fond of his mother’s reserved French Catholic family; much fonder , indeed, than he was of the vivid, volatile Avadises. He especially disliked his older cousin Bernard, Rose’s brother: robust and athletic, unlike Jean. However he hero-worshipped Bernard’s rakish, elegant father Marcus. And his fondness was reciprocated. My grandfather Marcus was fonder of his shy, neurasthenic nephew than he was of his own son. Perhaps because Jean neither challenged his superiority nor aroused in him any artistic jealousy (as I suspect my father did).
What exactly did Catholicism mean to you, Jean? Did the celibacy of priests chime with your own fear of physicality? Did the depiction of a crucified Christ reflect your tortured soul? The French have a lyrical but conflicted take on Catholicism. The French Catholics have suffered terrible persecution in the past and the religion has struggled since The Revolution to survive the philosophical and cultural forces of the Enlightenment pitched against it. But this was the religion of your mother and you lived in the benign shadow of the Sacre Coeur: built on the Mount of Martyrs to instill renewed hope in the nation after defeat in the Franco-Prussion War. Did its soaring architecture raise your spirits and images of the Madonna inspire you? Did the sensuality of the sacred art fill you with rapture? Did you ask yourself which birds the angel’s wings were modelled on? Were you thrilled by the Annunciation ; touched by the Pieta? Moved by the sublime music? Messiaen’s Sacrum Convivium, Jean Racine’s Cantique, Durufle’s Requiem…..?
Once on your travels you saw an angel descending the domed ceiling of an ancient church and dreamed of a golden dawn when a messenger with a flaming torch would emerge out of a blazing sky and touch your heart, and make you whole.
During the War, after his cousin Bernard had gone on the run, his Aunt Sadie had been tucked away with a group of Jewish children by brave Catholic nuns in the crypt of a monastery and the rest of the family including his cousin Rose had been dispatched to the camps, some never to return, the Gestapo came knocking on the door for Jean’s father, Jacques. It was of no interest whatsoever to the Germans that Jacques had married a Catholic, and Raymonde’s tearful pleadings were to no avail. Jean, only 16 years old, offered himself as a substitute for his 60-year-old father: and surprisingly the guards agreed - probably satisfied that this act would cause great pain to his parents - and carted the crippled boy off to the Auto Union factory – a company now owned by Audi - in Germany, where Jean worked as a slave labourer, and somehow survived the war. Separated from his family young Jean actually bonded with his German captors, who were reduced to eating grass just like their prisoners as the Allies closed in. Poor Jean – even his nights were torture, trying not to imagine what might have happened to his beloved Rose.
After the war when they were masters of their own destinies, Bernard and Jean reversed roles. Jean studied economics and worked for the Department of Education and Bernard returned to England where he studied fashion, married my mother, and became a designer for a large clothing firm in Yorkshire.
Jean eventually stopped travelling and stopped painting. He never married. His closest relationships ended with his parents’ deaths. However there are elusive relationships which defy description and Jean created definitions for the loves which existed only in his head. His housekeeper (who could tell he had one?) came weekly and from time to time his French cousins and occasionally his English and American cousins. My husband’s young Canadian cousin Jackie – an artist, stayed in Paris for a while and befriended Jean. In later life his lifelong friend Jean-Claude, who owned a chateau in Tourraine, kept in touch and visited when he could. We were all drawn to this quiet, charismatic man who seemed to know all there was to know about art, literature, music, and the ways of the human race.
In your old age, back bowed, blue eyes clouded, you were much like the Man of Glass in “Amelie”, fixated on beauty viewed from a safe distance, re-painting the same scene again and again. You suffered not only from fragile bones but from fragile self-deception – the attribute that keeps most of us going. Every so often, beloved cousin, you saw through the chinks in the hermetic seal you had built around yourself and lapsed into deep depressions for which you had yourself hospitalised.
Climbing a dark spiral staircase in the quiet apartment built around a courtyard in the Rue Damremont, at the foot of Monmartre, we would reach your eyrie where you perched in a haze of dust surrounded by bookshelves bowing under the clamour of all those politicians, poets and philosophers and the stacked portfolios of life drawings from your Beaux Arts student days (the supple women who would never be yours) and the heavy Rococo furniture your parents had bought when they married; the grand, grotesque armoire embellished with carved scallop shells, the leather- seated dining chairs embossed with the bearded faces of forest fauns, the bow-legged dining table at which you and your parents ate, your well-used writing desk, the delicate marble-topped cabinets and consoles, the art nouveau coat stand, the silk-curtained wardrobe and the Napoleonic bedroom furniture; a towering, mirrored mahogany wardrobe and an imperial bed adorned with smiling brass caryatids modestly covering their breasts with their hands. Furniture which was out of out of scale for the small Paris apartment, but expressed the tastes and aspirations of your parents.
You squinted through yellowing lace curtains at a threatening world but followed humanity’s activities from the small print of the broadsheets in five different languages delivered daily to your door. You lived a rich and adventurous life. Like Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man you contained the world within you.
Between our illusions about ourselves and the illusions others have of us, where does the truth lie? Is there, in fact, any truth – or are we all simply multiple illusions?
And now, Jean, your family’s Parisian furniture graces a limestone farmhouse in the valley of the Loire – a part of France you always loved and visited often, and where Jean Claude and his wife nursed you through bouts of melancholy.
Your languid Mediterranean landscapes, and tumbling roses painted in the dusty light of Monmartre, now grace this rambling old house which Catherine has painted in Matisse hues – cerulean blue, lilac-pink, Tuscan red.
And here again, after travelling half-way across France, is the very same bed in which Jackie and I once slept as children. It reminds me of that summer long ago; my sister and I in our starched white dresses, shining like two moths in the shady courtyard of the Rue Damremont. The preposterous, overblown furniture now has breathing space and has acquired a surreal beauty in its simple surroundings. More than anyone, this farmhouse was rebuilt by Laurie for you, Jean. He calls the ground floor bedroom “Jean’s Room”.
At our request, Jean painstakingly hand-wrote a family tree for his cousins which was both illuminating and libellously insulting. He applied his magnifying glass to every member of his sometimes misbegotten and invariably ill-fated kith and kin, and set them spinning in their graves. Because of this, he who had led the quietest life of all became the family’s commentator. This gave him a power over his relations he had never possessed when they were alive.
I blame you, Cousin, for what will be told in the chapters to come.
I visited you in Paris with my young husband before we had children of our own. We ate oysters and wild strawberries in the Champs Elysee. You knew which wines to order and graciously picked up the enormous bill. A few years later when we visited you with the children, you made crème caramel and orange cake for us and let the kids drink out of your parents’ Lalique glasses. You loved our children more than your parents’ old tumblers.
Well into your seventies you still burned a candle for Rose. She could never understand or return your feelings. Do you remember we got her on the phone for you once when we were visiting her in New York (was this horribly insensitive of us?) and all she could be was quietly courteous, and after that you closed up like a clam.
When the time came and we told you over the phone that Rose had gone, we could hear the change in your voice. When Rose died your dream of Rose died with her. It was as if all the beauty and light had just rolled out of your universe, sucking it empty of life like an errant sun.
Marcia and Michael visited you the summer before you died. They managed to get you dressed and down the stairs and took you out one last time into the bright lights of a Paris evening.
In the weeks before your final voyage you became obsessed with a greeting card my mother had sent you with a watercolour of a small boat setting out to sea. Maybe your final fascination with the sea was because it is always in motion – always alive. You died in your own bed, in the night.
A few of your own poems have somehow survived the dissolution of your life’s small estate. Kept between the leaves of your old dusty books – and lovingly carried to the Loire by Laurie to be discovered and read once more. Your legacy has been greater than you would have imagined.
You were buried by one of your cousins, under a fine tree in the Catholic corner of the Cimetiere Pantin in north-eastern Paris. While still alive you arranged for the Avadis Family tomb to be cleaned every year and had your own birthdate inscribed on the tomb, awaiting the date of your death. It seems you wished to be buried with your parents, amongst your Jewish family. The moment you died the acid rain started to erode all the names on the tomb. They are fading fast.
This year we placed a plaque on the tomb in your name with an inscription suggested by our daughter Kiri:
May 1923 – December 2001
A blue-striped feather in the book of our lives