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The following spring, in April 1847, Louis Daguerre stopped by the brasserie where he knew Charles Baudelaire took his meals. It was a single long room inset like a cave, wedged between a tobacconist and a haberdasher. The poet sat in the corner, brooding behind a bottle of absinthe and a demitasse of coffee. His hair had been shaved off several weeks earlier in celebration of his new prose poem "The Fool and the Venus" and his ponderous head seemed to gather the room's light to a focal point. On the table in front of him smoldered a wooden pipe with an amber mouthpiece. Baudelaire looked up as Louis approached and saluted. "Mind your manners, gentlemen, here comes a member of the Legion of Honor." A few of the drunken poets nearby raised their glasses to Louis, then returned to their brandied rants.
Louis sat opposite Baudelaire and took a kerchief from his pocket to wipe his forehead.
"How's the end of the world coming?" asked Baudelaire, eyes scanning his twin drinks.
Louis examined the kerchief a bloom of sweat. "Fine. Good of you to ask." So far he'd mentioned his prophecy only to Baudelaire. He needed to be careful; The End was a delicate matter and he didn't want to find himself in a straight waistcoat at one of the meetings of the Institute.
Baudelaire looked up. "I was about to order food. Will you join me?"
"I'd be delighted," said Louis.
"I was thinking about some bouillon and bread for me. But that's hardly your pleasure. We must keep our national dignitaries well fed. The true artists, on the other hand, produce better when they're emaciated."
"I'd be glad of some herring and eggs," said Louis.
Baudelaire picked up his pipe and went to the counter to order. He was dressed in his customary English black, from lacquered shoes to satin cravat.
Louis looked around the brasserie. It was the kind of smoky venue where painters, philosophers, and poets huddled in a din of verbiage, where the dandies and the rag-cloth romantics argued about the sheen of a winter apple, the role of virtue, the beauty of the comma. Men with pipes and chapbooks sat around the scuffed oak tables or reclined on the threadbare rose-print divans. A grave-looking man in a woolen jacket, a fez, and Cossack boots nodded repeatedly and said, "Yes, we all knew him. He was a ladies' poet moonlight and taffeta and all the rest of it." Whenever Louis had come in here before, he couldn't help feeling hated. Now he found himself avoiding eye contact with the fieriest of the fellows the particularly rabid poets, the sullen painters in Basque berets who might attack his bourgeois attitudes, the national pension he'd been awarded for his daguerreotype invention.
Louis watched Baudelaire return from the counter with another demitasse of coffee.
"Voltaire drank seventy-two cups of coffee a day," Baudelaire said. "He must have had to shit between paragraphs. Where would the Enlightenment be without the brown goddess?"
Baudelaire plunked down and said, "And what's Armageddon without a good cup of Costa Rican?"
"I have serious business to transact." Louis took out a piece of paper and placed it on the table. It was a list of all the things he wanted to daguerreotype before the end of the world.
Baudelaire picked it up and scrutinized it as if it were an insurance contract waiting to be signed.
- 1. a beautiful woman (naked)
- 2. the sun
- 3. the moon
- 4. the perfect Paris boulevard
- 5. a pastoral scene
- 6. galloping horses
- 7. a perfect apple
- 8. a flower (type to be determined)
- 9. the king of France
- 10. Isobel Le Fournier
Baudelaire moved his lips as he read the list several times, then placed it back on the table, facedown. He looked appalled. "The end amounts to this?" he said, his nose at the rim of his porcelain cup.
"I'd like to find a woman to pose naked for a daguerreotype. Can you help me find one?" It was not easy to find nude models, though Louis had heard that artists in the studios around the Luxembourg Gardens were convincing street waifs to pose for a bowl of soup and a pinch of snuff. But he needed something more than the bared frame of a rag-and-match seller; he needed a high-blown frailty, something worthy of oblivion.
Baudelaire relit his pipe and puffed on it meditatively. It was this posture and his ethereal poetry that had earned him the nickname the Prince of Clouds. He removed a speck of tobacco from his tongue and prepared to speak with some gravity. He believed in Louis Daguerre's apocalypse as an invention of the artistic mind, no different than a belief in God or Beauty or Piety. He enjoyed watching Louis, the pensioned scientist and artist, hatch and unfold inside this epic delusion, seeing his mind clamor at the fidget wheels of madness.
Baudelaire said, "You know how I feel about this photography. Let the tourists use it to ogle the pyramids or the Louvre, let the geologists capture fossils, the excrement of the ancients; but don't touch art. Leave that to the painters."
Louis said, "I won't have this argument again. I'm willing to pay you a finder's fee. A hundred francs if you find me the right woman."
Baudelaire looked down at the list, then chased a sip of coffee with a swig of absinthe. He said, "Have you established some criteria? The world's last naked woman captured with a camera that's quite momentous."
"Yes, I'm aware." Louis ran his hands along the edge of the table.
The young counter-girl arrived with a plate of hard-boiled eggs and herring, and a bowl of bouillon. They watched her as she laid out cutlery, a wisp of tawny hair hanging down from her bonnet.
"What is it you want in a nude?" Baudelaire said loudly. The counter-girl smiled, then blushed and wiped her hands down her apron. She fled to a nearby table. "She's new here," Baudelaire added.
Louis cracked an egg on the side of the plate and began to unpeel it. "She must have grace and youth."
"The curvature of the neck must be gentle, perhaps a slight sway in her back."
"A vitality in her cheeks."
"You've done some work in this area," Baudelaire said, suddenly delighted.
"Neither too noble nor too common-looking. She must carry herself between airs and humility."
"A shopgirl with fiery green eyes."
"Full and crimson lips."
"I don't think I can eat." Baudelaire clasped his hands together and rested his chin for a moment on his fingertips. He looked out the window into the street, where a group of mourners was walking home from a funeral. "I would reconsider the apple on your list," he said.
"The apple is not exotic enough. Apple is plain, like the English. The Frenchman wants something darker and juicier. The end of the world, it seems to me, is a peculiarly French idea."
Louis looked down at the list and tapped his lip with his index finger. "What would you think of a pear?"
"You know I am a poet," Baudelaire said, "and having said that, I should say that my sensibility is one of integration. I seek coherence in the cockerel cries and the street dung. I would choose your fruit the same way you choose your woman. Clearly, the queen of the fruit empire is the greengage plum strange, juicy, sinister."
"But the apple represents the original sin, the fall from grace."
"Yes, and the plum represents seduction and lust," said Baudelaire.
"I knew you were the right person to consult."
"I have opinions about flowers, too."
"'Aroused flowers burn with the desire to outdo the sky's azure by the energy of their colors, and the heat, turning scents visible, seems to make them rise to the stars like smoke.'"
"My point is, there needs to be some symmetry among your flower, your woman, and your fruit. I suggest wild roses. There it is, the divine trinity: wild roses, greengage plums, and green-eyed shopgirls."
A brief silence settled over the table.
"The sun and moon were not my ideas," Louis said. "François Arago, a friend at the observatory, has asked me to make some plates of them." The fact that an esteemed man of science such as Arago wanted the sun and moon to be cataloged further suggested to Louis that human enterprise was winding down.
"Seems fine. Everyone likes the sun and the moon." Baudelaire took several mouthfuls of his bouillon. "And who is this Isobel Le Fournier?"
"A woman from the past."
"Lost love and all that how tiresome."
Louis took a bite of his egg and refused Baudelaire the eye contact he wanted. Isobel Le Fournier was his first and only substantial love; she had occupied his thoughts and longings for forty-four years, six months, and eleven days ever since that day she had kissed him in a wine cave outside of Orléans.
Baudelaire said, "Don't look so glum. After we eat, we'll go walking in the Latin Quarter in search of our Madonna. We'll trawl the streets. And I'll think of some names as well. I must know some nudes."
People stared at Baudelaire as he tapped out with a Malacca cane, his bald head tilted, shouldering into a headwind. Wooden barrels belched tar smoke, men shoveled horse manure into potholes, flanks of meat hung marbled and sinister in the darkened doorways of butcher shops. But what Louis noticed was a cabaret festooned in yellow paper lanterns and bunting, an outdoor bookstall towering with hundreds of green and vermilion clothbound volumes. The mercury poisoning was beginning to filter out the unsightly. He was growing blind to the squalor of the dying days of King Louis-Philippe's reign. He didn't see the plank-board alleys in the Carousel District, the dark rows of bird-seller shacks, the mud-daub shanties of the tooth pullers and the dog clippers. He saw only the markets full of honey and tulle, ladies in poplin sitting for open-air concerts under a Nile-blue sky. The world, it seemed to Louis Daguerre, was drowning in plenty.
As they walked through the serpentine streets of Montmartre, Louis mentally auditioned the women as nudes maidens in two-wheeled charabancs, ladies in bonnets and cashmere shawls, wives and daughters displaying the subtle inflections of the body beneath calico and merino.
Baudelaire said, "See anything you like? How about that Botticelli in the blue brougham?"
Louis reeled and looked at the compact carriage. Sitting high was a woman with pinned raven hair and the raised chin of nobility. She looked as if she were being borne aloft, floating above the hubbub of the street.
"A little haughty," said Louis.
Baudelaire stopped beside a fruit and vegetable cart. "Do you have any plums?" he asked the vendor.
"No plums yet this year," replied the man. "But I have some oranges from Spain."
Baudelaire's face filled with infinite regret. Louis looked down the street and noticed a woman stepping across the flagstone pavement in front of a restaurant. She was wearing a merino dress and carrying an apple-green parasol at her side. She sat on a wooden bench in front of a fountain, impatiently waiting for her driver to fetch her.
"Why are there so many queens in the Latin Quarter today?" Louis asked.
"The charm of the uncivilized," said Baudelaire. He took Louis's arm and led him towards the bench. "Good day, mademoiselle, may we impinge upon you for a moment? You see, my friend and I surely you know him the esteemed inventor of photography, Monsieur Louis Daguerre, well, he has been commissioned by the king to find a lady of refinement to pose for a new series of daguerreotypes."
"How splendid," the lady said, her eyes darting over the approaching traffic for her man and carriage.
"May we sit awhile?" Baudelaire asked.
Louis bowed and said, "Madame, you must forgive my colleague's conduct, he is a little brash in these matters. I'm sorry if we've troubled you." The woman smiled curtly, then stood and walked down the street. Her green parasol flashed open and shielded the back of her neck. Louis watched her disappear into the throng of people, her parasol floating through the multitudes like an apple bobbing downstream.
"Friendly," said Baudelaire.
"You lack all manners."
They sat on the bench and Baudelaire took out his pipe and lit it. He stared into the bowl of the pipe, at the pulsing orange eye of the tobacco plug. "Did you smell our mademoiselle?"
"I certainly did not."
"A woodland herbage, I assure you."
"God help our country," said Louis. He dusted his sleeves. "Come, we're going to execute the science of this. We'll walk the grid, down to Palais Bourbon and east to the Pont Neuf."
"Yes," said Baudelaire, raising his malacca cane like a sword, "we will map the city in the name of nudity."
Louis stood and clicked his heels together in a sudden display of officiousness. There was something regimental about him the groomed mustache, the pomade-heavy wedge of gray hair, the Napoleonic jacket with epaulets. At fifty-nine he looked and dressed like a retired admiral. But he had a painter's eyes: Antwerp blue and prone to fits of moisture and reflection.
They walked up a small hill, Baudelaire now in front, his amber-tipped pipe clenched between his teeth. He waved at a passerby and called, "We are on a mission of the apocalypse."
Louis caught his reflection in a bakery shopwindow and noticed that his mouth was ajar, as if in profound thirst. He pursed his lips, then settled his mouth as his figure floated across the aqueous frontage of glass. But the seizure was already coming. The sun flared and whitened. Rivulets of sweat formed along his spine. His cravat and neck cloth restricted his breathing, and the mercury cough ascended from his groin, producing silver flashes in his peripheral vision. The taste of green copper in his mouth. He leaned against the brickwork of a building and was aware of Baudelaire standing beside him. Then the noise of the street bounded towards him, the clop and clatter of the wagons, the shriek of the vendors' cart horses. He doubled over, hands in spasm, and fell to the street. He felt the dankness of the macadam against his cheek. A small crowd ringed him in and he could see their glaucous faces, their eyes narrowed. In the midst of the seizure, a woman stood preening her gloves. He was aware of everything his own pulse, his blood breaking its banks, the kettledrum of the street, this lady's chamois gloves. He could feel his head banging against the pavement, then Baudelaire's hand and then the slowing, the release of pressure in his jaw and rib cage, his teeth coming apart, air being drawn back into his lungs. He lay there for some time, panting. The crowd dispersed.
"Are you all right?" asked Baudelaire.
"Yes," said Louis, sitting up.
A deep calm always followed the seizures. He felt hollowed out, capable of great insight. He took in the street again, became aware of the light. It was now dusk and the objects of the afternoon were slipping away; one would position the camera obscura from a loft window to catch the diffusion of day. Nearby, a woman's face floated inside a window. Her skin a smoky pearl, jade-green eyes, lips that curved with the grace of violin hips. Louis stood in front of the deserted wineshop and looked within a cavernous interior of empty shelves. A dusty crate stood in the middle of a floor covered with editions of La Gazette de France.
"I saw her," Louis said.
"Where? In here?"
Louis nodded. He placed a hand against the windowpane and became aware of his own reflection looking back at him. The entire shopfront was a photographic plate, and here was his own specter trapped inside the waterfilm of glass.
"I don't feel very well," Louis said.
"Let's get a cab. I'll take you home."
"She's out there somewhere," Louis said. "The woman I once loved."
"Every woman we once loved is out there alongside the women we are yet to love. They exchange tips about how to ruin us." Baudelaire stepped into the street and flagged down a cab. As he did so, he composed the first line of a new poem: "Twilight agitates madmen."
As they rode through the Paris dusk, Louis leaned his head against the leather seat back. Baudelaire was talking to the driver about socialist causes and the rumblings of insurrection in the garrets. The air was cut with the smell of paraffin and rotting oysters. Several times Louis had to cough and spit in the road, and he prayed that nobody would recognize him. When the cab pulled up in front of Louis's apartment, Baudelaire told the driver to wait, and he helped his friend down from the carriage. Together they climbed the long flight of stairs that led to Louis's rooftop studio. Louis gripped the railing, careful not to stumble. At the landing, he handed Baudelaire the key from his waistcoat and they went inside.
"Let's put you to bed," Baudelaire said as they moved through the darkened interior. The main room was cluttered tripods, zinc cameras, copper plates, tall glass jars filled with briny-looking solutions, salts heaped into earthenware bowls. Baudelaire found the air decidedly pickled. He helped Louis into the bedroom, where the walls were covered in daguerreotypes, portraits and landscapes framed under glass. Baudelaire set Louis back on the cotton mattress and removed his shoes. "We're having a party at my house in a few weeks. It's going to be very elaborate," Baudelaire said. "There will be schools of minnow."
"What does that mean?" asked Louis, his eyes closed.
"Women fluttering by the curtains. I've thought of some nudes for your project."
Baudelaire patted Louis on the shoulder. "Should I pour you some brandy?"
"No, thank you. I'll be asleep by the time you get to the bottom of the stairs."
"The nervous attacks are getting worse," Baudelaire said. "You should see a doctor."
"With their invoice pads and leeches no, thank you."
"Take care of yourself," said Baudelaire, turning to leave.
Louis heard the door close at the bottom of the stairs. His chest was on fire, a tightness that made him pinch-eyed. He reached for the brandy decanter and drank a small swig straight from the glass lip, spilling some on his bedsheet. It loosened his breathing enough that he could relax and wait for sleep to settle over him. The bedroom window was open and he heard the noises of the street below the submerged sounds of Paris descending into night, the shrill bell that announced showtime to the actors at a nearby theater, the street mongers calling their wares out against the brickwork alleys. Louis felt more of the deep calm. He took off his clothes and got under the swansdown quilt. He looked up at his daguerreotypes and saw that they were more eerie than beautiful. Portraits of bankers with waxed mustaches, their faces grim, old brasserie maids with henna cheeks, a sea merchant with sad tea-brown eyes, a riverside picnic where a wooden boat rippled in a wave of amber and the sun appeared as a pale ball of wax. The portraits appeared to him now as images of the dead the shipwrecked, the drowned, the hangdog.
Copyright © 2006 by Dominic Smith