Masters and Servantsby Pierre Michon, Wyatt Mason
One of Pierre Michon’s most powerful works, this book imagines decisive moments in the lives of five artists of different times and places: Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino, a little-remembered disciple of Piero della Francesca. Michon focuses on particular moments when artist and model collide, whether… See more details below
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One of Pierre Michon’s most powerful works, this book imagines decisive moments in the lives of five artists of different times and places: Vincent van Gogh, Francisco Goya, Antoine Watteau, Claude Lorrain, and Lorentino, a little-remembered disciple of Piero della Francesca. Michon focuses on particular moments when artist and model collide, whether that model is a person or a landscape, inner or outer. In the five separate tales he evokes the full passion of the artist’s struggle to capture the world in images even as the world resists capture. Each story is a small masterpiece that transcends national boundaries and earns its place among the essential works of world literature.
The prevailing mood is melancholy, albeit in the service of the highest pursuits. "Trust this Sign," is about the near-unknown Lorentino in the Quattrocento, who did in fact receive from Vasari only a few lines about the "miracle" of a farmer, when Lorentino's family was starving, appearing to offer a pig in exchange for the painting of a saint. And the resulting masterpiece? It hung in a country church, never seen by anyone influential, was later placed before a hole in the wall, and was reduced graduallyto dust. Slightly less engaging but equally attuned to the nuances and raw details of its time is Michon's study of the humble Goya's life in a fiercely class-bound Spain; and the same is true of the fine but clearly least ambitious, "The King of the Wood," in which an illiterate boy herds pigs and sheepuntil Claude Lorraine adopts him as a disciple, raising him to a princely caste. Without question, though, one of the truly great pieces here is the wrenching ". . . Io mi voglio divertir," about the passionate life of Watteau, who wanted the love of all women but died at 38 (in 1721) racked by consumptionwatching stacks of his own erotic paintings, by his own command, being burned. Most breathtaking, though, is "The Life of Joseph Roulin," the postman who knew, and was painted by, Van Gogh, a simple man who came to understand that Van Gogh was "someone who had believed so devotedly in this theory [of art] that he had become theory himself, ascended to almost the same height, and died of it."
Stylistically demanding, but a book often as passionate, beautiful, and skilled as the paintings it springs from.
“Michon demonstrates the independence of voice that marks a true writer. . . . His supple prose, dappled with chiaroscuro effects, is used in straight forward chronicles. But his writing can at any time lift or lower into semi-hallucinatory effects that recall Arthur Rimbaud’s assaults on conventional perception.”—Roger Shattuck, The New York Review of Books
"From the silence of paintings Pierre Michon evokes marvels. A portrait becomes a person of such complex depth as to suggest the mentality of an era. A color becomes an idea. A painting becomes the painter, and words become painting. Most generally, in the flow of Michon's meditations and narratives, the visionary becomes actual, and the actual becomes visionary. These are critical moments to which such names as van Gogh or Goya are attached, names that suggest the poignancy and pathos of art amid the beauty and incoherence and destructive nightmare of life. Wyatt Mason’s translation is excellent in its energy and precision.”
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MASTERS AND SERVANTS
By PIERRE MICHON, Wyatt Mason
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1996 Editions Verdier
All rights reserved.
The Life of Joseph Roulin
Marthe: Is everything worth its price? Thomas Pollock Nageoire: Never.
Paul Claudel, The Exchange
One of them had been stationed there by the Post Office, arbitrarily or perhaps according to his own wishes; the other had gone there because of the books he had read; because it was The South, where he believed that money might go further, that women were more favorable, and that the skies were excessive, Japanese. Because he was running away. Chance dropped them into Aries, in 1888. Different as they were, they enjoyed each other's company; in any case, the appearance of the one, the elder, pleased the other enough that he painted him four or five times: so we believe we know what he looked like that year, at forty-seven, the way we know how Louis XIV looked throughout his life, or how Innocent X looked in 1650; and in his portraits, he wears his hat as a king wears his crown, he's seated like a Pope, that's enough. We also know a few trifles about his life that he would be surprised to see, beneath his very face, in the verbose footnotes of all-knowing books. We know, for example, that at the end of 1888, the Post Office transferred him from Aries to Marseille; whether a promotion due to his zeal or a demotion due to his hangovers, we don't know; we're certain that he saw Vincent for the last time at the Aries hospital in February of the following year—this Vincent who was well on his way to being transferred from the bedlam of Aries to the bedlam in Saint-Remy, before the big transfer to Auvers that in July of '90 did him in. We don't know what they said to each other at the very end. In what little van Gogh wrote about him, it's clear that Roulin was alcoholic and republican—which is to say that his words and beliefs were republican, and he was, in fact, an alcoholic—with an atheistic deportment that the absinthe encouraged; he was a big talker, voluble and occasionally profane, but a good guy, and his fraternal behavior toward the suffering painter made this clear. He wore a great beard, shaped like an axe, rich to paint, an entire forest; he would sing woeful old songs from his youth, songs sung by topmen, Marseillaises; there was something Russian about him, but van Gogh doesn't make clear whether it was muzhik or boyar: even the portraits seem undecided on this point. He had three children and a wife gone to wrack and ruin. What can be done with him? I look at his portraits, and while they're all contradictory, I always notice his blue sleeves, his drowning eye, and his sacred cap. Here one could say he's some sort of icon, some saint with a complicated name, Nepomucen or Chrysostom, Abbacyr mixing his flowering beard with the flowers of the sky; there he's more of a sultan with an Asshurian beard, square, brutal, but he's tired of all the bloodshed, you sense that his wide open eyes yearn to close, his soul to surrender, and his glance to turn inward to all the yellow behind him; elsewhere he comes a bit closer, holding in his laughter like my grandfather, a Chouan, a postman, or perhaps it's a day when he and the painter took one drink too many; and once he's even on the brink of the hole that all drunks fall into every evening. But everywhere there's something defenseless about him, a degree of stubbornness about his destitution, a destitution upon which he had grown cozily dependent; there's his inspirited, startled gaze, the sort usually given to a minor character in a Russian novel who's forever hesitating between the Heavenly Father and the nearby bottle, rationalizing their combination by some strange casuistry, leaning toward one and then the Other, interchanging them without a second thought; but always he's the devoted muzhik, the grumbler, driving his boyar's sled onward with strong prayers and mild impieties, the sleigh bells jingling: and this pale lord bundled up in back, wearing astrakhan and red beard—it's van Gogh—rich by chance and quiet by nature, riding beneath the fat sun of a Mother Russia that he doesn't paint. Sure, postman Roulin could drive a sleigh—but he could also ride in back, a less distinguished boyar, though more robust than the redhead; amongst growling trains in Saint-Charles station, he could open a big bag that swallows up the daily mail and find no letters to him and then grumble about his luck and the trains; or, just as easily, he could be tinkering in a Melvillean foretop, accumulating gripes against his captain's madness, but sympathetic and understanding underneath it all; and I also see him standing in front of paintings in the yellow house, agape, neither for nor against, tolerant and unconvinced: because he doesn't know anything about Art, so how could he teach us anything? Beneath his tolerance or his doubt, we don't know what there is. He's a character of little help when one is foolish enough to write about painting. But he suits me. He appears exhausted, but he could be as lively as his shape. He's as empty as a rhythm. This hollow scansion, an inner rhythm of language, inflexible and deaf, that strangles what one is struggling to say, feeds it and fatigues it—I want it to bear his name; so that words and the rhythms of language instantly endorse the great peacoat and hat of the post office; so that words and their rhythms grow old in Marseille and remember Aries; so that words end up sprouting beards; they'll appear in Prussian blue; they'll be alcoholic and republican; they won't make sense of one drop of the paintings; but with some luck, or by kidnapping, perhaps words will once again become a painting; they'll be muzhik or boyar as the spirit moves me—and completely arbitrary, as usual—but will come visibly to light, manifest, and die.
JOSEPH ROULIN OUTLIVED VAN GOGH by quite some time.
I assume he received several letters from Saint-Rémy. And as usual their writer—as when writing to the brother, Théo, who had money, or to Gauguin, or Guillaumin and Bernard, all of whom had a knack for painting, something he did not have—said not that things were improving but that things would improve; not that he was painting well but that he would: the great despair, the cockroaches floating like black ideas in his soup, the unconditional surrender to the benign and ferocious hands of Charcot's disciples—these things were simply the fault of wind and circumstance, of the poorly supplied paint-seller, of Delacroix's yellow that was so hard to get right, of nerves; but never due to the fact that one is, uncompromisingly, Vincent van Gogh. How would Roulin have read them? Certainly not as I read them, not this conniving and inaccurate reading that we're all guilty of, so very interpretive, as if each phrase were meant as a final polite gesture to destiny, as if, without any illusions, they were written to Hope herself: "It's a difficult time," they read; "It's wind and circumstance"; and we don't want to believe them, to take their word for it; we know that beneath their words they're spinning out of control, beyond salvation; we've become arrogant since we learned that all language lies. We've learned the worst and have gotten used to it. For Roulin, it wasn't quite so simple: the letters made him think; think as when one doesn't read between the lines, but reads the lines themselves; when one simply wants to believe what is written; when you work for the post office at the end of the last century. Therefore, idyllically, I imagine him handling van Gogh's letters in his kitchen, opening them; reading them word by word, attempting to envision the things and events described clearly before his eyes: the Saint Paul Hospice in Saint-Remy; the little room with pale gray-green wallpaper and two sea green curtains; the madness, a sickness like any other (why not, we say the same of the clap, odd as that might seem); and outside, the fields of wheat. When the other frolicked in metaphor, he frowned a little, lifting his head, looking at the portraits of Gambetta or Blanqui (or why not someone a little more radical, younger, or even someone executed, like Rossel or Rigault—none of them would have been absent from a wall in his kitchen): once again he thought that the beaux arts and politics were complicated things; but then he would smile, starting over, with a satisfied little laugh that made Mother Roulin raise her head from her corner and, making the most of this attention, say: "It seems to be going better, he's gotten back his taste for living"; or: "Anyway, he did two paintings the day before yesterday. But the mistral is really bothering him." This was when he wasn't drunk. Because when he had been drinking, one duke or another—Tonkin or Grevy—was suddenly to blame for having sunk both Rivière's gunboats and Vincent's sanity in the same great hole government malfeasance always seems to dig; and he cried while thinking about the road on the outskirts of Aries where they would settle beneath the plane trees in the morning, one to paint and the other to chat, when life was less dear and people were of better spirits, when one was elsewhere. So he received letters from Saint-Rémy. But none from Auvers, because his boyar got too carried away toward the end, his sleigh, sans muzhik, flying toward the polders of his youth, the tombs of Zundert; Vincent made too recklessly for the black within the golden trumpets, too recklessly to dare or to deign to pretend any hope for himself by corresponding. So no letters from Auvers. After about a year, Roulin began to worry about this silence; after two or five, he wrote to Théo, whom he called Monsieur Gogh, as is borne out by the letters he sent him: he didn't know that the two brothers, after having dueled for years with toy swords, were to end up felled by the same blow, and that Théo, the charitable brother, guilty and tyrannical, had waited barely three years to follow the cracked brother who, in a way, was his boyar as well; so he too filled himself with lead and was laid to rest beside Vincent, whence no letters would come; maybe next he wrote to Monsieur Paul, the topman, le casseur d'assiettes whom he had also known in Aries, but the address had changed; le casseur d'assiettes had been broken like the rest. Paul Gauguin went softly to sleep in the Marquesas, where neither our tongues nor our letters can follow. Finally, one day, his letters to Vincent were returned with a note that I'd like to believe was signed by Adeline Ravoux, the daughter of a hotel owner from Auvers whom Vincent had painted in the flower of her youth, also in blue, but in cobalt, not in the Prussian blue of Roulin; this little Adeline whom he'd perhaps desired at the end simply because she had been around, whose blue dress was perhaps the vision he took with him, as they say, for certainly it was she who had taken care of him in the smoke-filled attic during the most lamentable two days of agony the world has ever known, as he burned pipe after pipe without stopping until his death, as the witnesses confirm, while above this morbid smoking room the sun beat down upon Auvers. In this letter she said: "Monsieur Vincent killed himself while he was lodging with us"; she didn't say: "In the wheat fields"; she didn't say: sur le motif. She didn't know how to write this novel that has been written too often ever since. She added that he had been buried there, in Auvers, and that gentlemen from Paris had come.
Therefore, one day, the big Saint-Charles train brought this letter, and it fell into his bag at the very end of the Mediterranean Line. Roulin read the young girl's words; and maybe it was early in April of '93 when the sky expands and unfolds from Estaque to Cassis and one's spirit is as fresh as the leaves of a plane tree; when the day is full of promise; it was Chez Jean Marie or A la Demi-Lune, bistros where you might have a morning glass of white. His wine in front of him, he read these words and learned of a downfall that shocked him no more than had Badinguet's, but that pained and perhaps revolted him as much as the recent topple of rebellious, red-scarved youths, falling in groups at the wall of Père-Lachaise, under machine-gun fire, in this Paris he didn't know. That Vincent had fallen too? He wasn't shocked at all. He had been undergoing such shocks for so long that they had sunk into his skin and wouldn't leave, so he kept them hidden beneath the little veil of alcohol and his postal routine, just as he kept his balding head hidden beneath his hat; these shocks, however, remained unchanged, remained juvenile, without his even knowing it; and without even knowing that it was astonishment he was feeling, which is to say emptiness—the fear of this emptiness and the taste for that fear—he had placed his convictions behind barriers like absinthe and his cap. And it's time we talk more about these shocks.
He was born in Lambesc, not far from Aries, near the middle of the century. I have never been there; they tell me that it's one of those desolate places right off a highway where you happen to stop and eat a slice of leathery pizza, and you see nothing but a dusty sky, a few people on a street, a vague dome that shines in the background, decapitated plane trees in the fore—nothing. No doubt little has changed. Still, it's a place that figures in his memories. It's the place of his childhood, and from it he must carry with him memories of almonds he swiped, or of the derelict house that was a haunt for runagate kids, or of the earliest emotions that were overlooked, once or several times, that got mixed all together in one head with the memories of the living silhouette, the rage and the red beard of a man as massively notable today—and perhaps for as few reasons—as the Manhattan skyline. There, in Lambesc, nothing had shocked him; or, if you prefer, everything had, ever since he was a very young child: the name of Eugenie de Montijo, Empress; the Algerian infantrymen on parade; perhaps the rooster's cry; father clutching mother close; the great ochre facades exposing themselves to the sky; the cymbals atop the slanting veils trailing a hearse—memories of all that is brutal and delectable. And it was no more of a shock to be promised to a minor occupation, to have to earn a living, and to have to lose it someday, and face it all honorably, cheerfully, as if it were all just tinkering in a forecastle. The time came when he let his beard grow. Perhaps an uncle pulled some strings and he joined the Post Office, and there he wasn't even a postman, as legend tells us and I amuse myself to imagine, not a mail carrier, but a desk clerk, or more precisely, a guard, something like a custodian for the mail that the trains unload in the stations of Aries and Marseille.
There—when a young sultan's beard was beginning to grow, when he was still a little uncomfortable in the big peacoat and fringed cap that weren't really designed for his gestures, for his body that hadn't yet become the liturgical second skin, dalmatic or pschent, that one now sees in the holy sanctuaries of Boston or New York—he underwent his first shock (and of course it was, in fact, his second, because at about the same time he'd had the surprise of the female body first unveiled, its massive appearance, its weight; it happened near the exit of a dance hall in Lambesc, in Rognes or Saint-Cannat, at night beneath a tree, lifting up a skirt interminably, trembling, or maybe in a whorehouse where everything is stripped away and given in one shot, but, of course, one trembles less; and it doesn't really matter here, because that surprise is universal. It matters no more to me than does that other trembling—the fissure of light penetrating the soul, striking once and for all the first cymbals of alcohol, as high and strong as those in the sky: but this too is a commonplace). I think that what surprised him, while his beard was growing and while, little by little, his body was becoming the Prussian blue peacoat, was the idea of the Republic, the eternal republican Utopia, whatever name one might choose to give it; and if someone had asked him what about it had fascinated him since his youth, since he had developed the means or the curiosity to study a little and to think for himself, he would have responded with the eternal radical arguments; he would have said that he only wanted this: that men have dealings without spitefulness, or at least without the spitefulness that usually is the bread of their dealings, as if Cain's were a Mother Goose tale, as if both words and teeth weren't made to bite, the value of money were not the only thing people could see, as if other things were visible, were valued as highly; that bread be broken each day across the Earth in a perpetual Eucharist, with everyone cast as both messiah and apostle, where there was no Judas; that the last became the first, and a postman's cap a crown amongst all others. He would have responded this way and he would have been lying. Because what he loved about this idea that he couldn't acknowledge was that, nourished by it, he could leap outside the law: when he walked toward the postal wagon with his heavy stride, when he heavily opened the door that creaked on its hinges, when he bent docilely as his shoulders received the weight of the mailbags, trudging under it—all the while, watching him work and fooling around right next to him, there was another Roulin, unburdened, clandestine, and idle, a prince Roulin whose beard was perfumed and whose youth was eternal, wearing a sky blue frogged-dolman and a simple naval officer's cap that the princes wore out of modesty or to affect a more casual air. And this unburdened prince—who fluttered around him while he toiled, who burst into easy laughter when Roulin got bawled out, trumpeting in the notes of absinthe and charging like a soldier while a Marseillaise resonated impeccably—the world simply did not want him; the world did not see him; he was off-limits and invisible, perhaps as incomprehensible as the idea of the republic itself. And Roulin enjoyed this prohibition, this little outlaw prince who lived within him. He had grown up under the rule of the Empire during an era when the republic was truly off-limits; when later it was instituted for good and was in some way compulsory, he decided once again that it hadn't yet arrived, because when it was declared, when it had a clear president and a clear flag, prince Roulin still remained invisible; therefore, the day when the playful prince would finally, patently appear, probably with red flag in hand, ready to leave the old clothes of the old Roulin behind, was put off indefinitely, until the sun would rise in the West, until the Grand Soir. I wonder if the postman had really wanted that advent, because he knew too well that this frolicsome prince was also ferocious; he had a taste for vengeance, and so it happened that at the end of Roulin's long days of humiliation the prince would appear in Roulin's kitchen, forever young, but no longer larking about, his face long like a day without bread, pale, romantic, contrived, impeccably topped by Fouquier-Tinville's great, black-plumed hat, and above the weary head of mother Roulin, who didn't see this prince, he would read the names of another cartload of people sentenced to death. The republic was something ferocious: and that he loved this impeccable savagery, this promise of black plumes, and of names to cross out of existence—that, above all, is what long ago had upset good little Roulin.
Excerpted from MASTERS AND SERVANTS by PIERRE MICHON, Wyatt Mason. Copyright © 1996 Editions Verdier. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Pierre Michon is an author of high acclaim in France and Europe. He was winner of the Prix France Culture in 1984 for his first book, Small Lives, and of the 1996 Prix de la Ville de Paris for his body of work. He lives in France. Wyatt Mason, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor at Harper's, has translated writing by Pierre Michon, Eric Chevillard, Michel de Montaigne, and Arthur Rimbaud. He teaches at Bard College.
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