What do you do when you’ve lost the love of your life?
Seb Fowler has arrived in Paris to research his literary idol, Henri Fournier. It begins with an interview granted by a woman whose affair with the celebrated writer trails back to World War I. The enchanting Pauline is fragile, but her memories are alive—those of an illicit passion, of the chances she took and never regretted, and of the twists of fate that defined her unforgettable love story.
Through Pauline’s love letters, her secrets, and a lost Fournier manuscript, Seb will come to learn so much more—about Pauline, Henri, and himself. For Seb, every moment of Pauline’s past proves to be more inspiring than he could have imagined. She’s given him the courage to grab hold of whatever life offers, to cherish each risk, and to pursue love in his life.
Intimately epic, The Lost Love Letters of Henri Fournier spans generations to explore every beautiful mystery of falling in love, being in love, and losing a love—and, most important, daring to love again and discovering just how resilient the human heart can be.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)|
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September 1975, Paris
When she opens the door to him, the shock of his young face is nearly overwhelming. Henri? No, of course not. She is too old, Pauline thinks, to be made to feel like this. She almost wants to shut the door in his face. But she holds it open to him, shaky and out of breath as she is.
He sticks out his hand, a long wrist beneath a too-short cuff. He's tall, skinny, his dark hair ruffled. He wears a black jacket, jeans, and he's carrying a leather bag. But it's the face that threatens to stop her heart.
It's September, another autumn. She's at home, in Paris. Then, she remembers. It's the young man from London. It's today, and he's here. She forgot it was today, that he was coming. Perhaps she can keep this visit short, offer him an hour or so of her time, then be rid of him.
"My name is Sebastian Fowler. You were expecting me, Madame?" He's nervous, jittery on her threshold, like someone delivering unwanted news.
She wants to reassure him; he looks so uncertain. "Oh, yes. Of course. Come in." Only, she had no warning that his arrival would revive such memories. A copy, a spitting image. Isn't that what they say in
She leads him down the corridor toward her salon, where today's newspapers lie about and it looks, with another person here, rather a mess. He follows her closely as if eager to get into the room. The photograph of Henri on the wall looks down at them both.
"Do sit down. Can I get you something? A glass of water? Coffee? I'm sorry the place is such a mess. My cleaning lady wasn't able to come this week."
He looks about him as if the concept of untidiness mattering is new to him. He puts down his worn leather satchel and produces a little cassette recorder that he sets on the coffee table. He sits down on the edge of the sofa, opposite her chair.
"You don't mind?"
"Is that a tape recorder? It's so small."
"Yes, isn't it? Saves a lot of heavy lifting."
She sits up, opposite him, brisk. "So, Mr. Fowler, you are writing about Henri Fournier?" Talk covers her agitation. She has had his letter from England with its black spiky handwriting open on her desk for at least a week. Did she answer it? She must have, or he wouldn't be here.
Sebastian thinks, Now I'm actually here, I don't know what to say. The tape recorder sits between them like an obstacle. What was he thinking, asking this ancient woman to talk about her long-ago lover? He's read about the actress whom Fournier loved, the woman called Madame Simone, with whom he had a passionate affair before the First World War. But how to bridge the gap? It's all very well reading about it, but how do you go about asking intimate questions of a stranger?
Seb got the address by mail from the Comédie Française. He found that the living Pauline, still in Paris, was a real woman, surprisingly present and of this time, and so here he is. Baffled. Too young to know what to say.
He doesn't want to tell her it's his first live interview. He clicks his pen, recrosses his legs, glances around the room as if it may help him. Sitting in his room in south London, with the chimneys of Battersea power station to remind him that he was nowhere near Paris, it wasn't hard to write that letter. But to be here, now, with someone who not only knew Fournier but had been in love with him ... well, it feels as if he's overstepped the mark. It would almost have been easier if she had died, if this were just a matter of history. Yet, she did write back to him. She did say that she would be delighted — yes, delighted — to talk to him. He remembers this. And she's smiling, waiting for him to speak.
"Yes. I'm writing a book about him. A biography. Well, I hope I am."
"And you wanted to meet someone who actually knew him, rather than rely on secondhand gossip?"
"Well, yes," he says, the polite boy his parents raised. "Madame Simone, it's really good of you to see me."
"You can call me Simone. Madame Simone sounds too much like a concierge. Don't you think? You know my real name is Pauline? Simone started out as my stage name."
"Oh. All right. And I'm usually called Seb."
"Seb, like the pressure cooker?"
"Just a stupid joke. There is a pressure cooker called Seb. Kitchen utensils."
She thinks, Oh, God who does not exist, get me through this panic. Jokes about pressure cookers, what next? He is not Henri. He isn't even all that like Henri. He's a young Englishman, come to do an interview. Get a grip on yourself, idiot. Just answer his questions, and be done by lunchtime. But, start by putting him at ease.
"Tell me about yourself," she says. Always ask about the other person, especially if they are younger than you, which means everybody these days.
Seb is thinking, Jesus, she's so old, and what on earth can I ask her that isn't going to be desperately intrusive? Tell me all about your love affair of sixty years ago? I want all the details. This is, after all, 1975, we talk about such things. And, she looks like she's sharp as a tack, as my mother would say. She'll disappear back into her shell like an old tortoise if I start off too nosy.
But she's asked him about himself. He looks around him at the table with the blue cloth, the lamp — must be art nouveau and worth a fortune — the pictures on the walls. What did he imagine? Her letter to him was, after all, on headed writing paper, in an antique but perfectly legible hand, hardly a tremor, a clear signature. Formal, but friendly enough.
"Where are you from? Who are your parents?"
"My dad's English, my mother's American. I grew up on both sides of the Atlantic, but we came back to England when the war in Vietnam began, so I wouldn't risk being drafted. I read Modern Languages, at Oxford, did my doctorate on early twentieth-century French writers — Claudel, Péguy, Rivière, Fournier. Then I decided I wanted to do a book on Fournier. I love his writing. It's extraordinary. And, it was tragic that he died so young. And then, well, I found out about you, that you existed. Exist, I mean."
"Yes, I exist. Just about. I'm ninety-eight, did you know that? And he, poor man, only got to twenty-seven. Tell me, what do your parents do?"
"My father taught at Berkeley, where he met my mother. She was in the theatre then, she still is, on and off. She does more stage design now. Dad's attached to New College, Oxford. He teaches American history."
"And they didn't want you to be sent off to the war in Indochina."
"Very sensible. Nothing worse than having a son go off to war. Or, anyone one loves."
There's a silence in which she wonders, as she often does these days, if she has actually said the words that exist in her head.
"You know, it's amazing to meet you. To be actually in the same room with —"
"His lover? I've aged a bit, you know. It's quite a surprise for me, too, but then I don't get many surprises these days. I have to be grateful for them." She thinks, I can't tell him; it will make him too self-conscious. Poor boy, he doesn't want to hear an ancient woman tell him he's the spitting image of her lover of more than sixty years ago. So she simply smiles and pulls herself up by the chair arms to hobble to the kitchen to pour coffee for him, while he gets up and walks around her room examining the paintings on her walls and the books in her bookcase, as if this is how he always makes himself at home.
She sets down the coffee, watches his roaming. He makes the room seem smaller. It's so long since anyone has been here who doesn't already know its every detail, who bothers to look.
"Moravia. Fuentes. Woolf. Hemingway. Genet. You have a pretty eclectic collection."
"Well, I'm a pretty eclectic person, I suppose."
"Is that really a Chagall?"
"Yes, it is."
"He signed it to you!" He's standing in front of the drawing, staring thoughtfully.
"It was after a performance. It was my birthday. So, you like the beaux arts too?"
"Well, yes. Yes, I do." He pauses. "But I mean, Chagall!"
He stops before the photograph of Henri. "Was that when he was in the army?"
"Yes, on military service."
"Amazing. He looks so young. Younger than anybody does now, somehow. You know what I mean?"
"I'm surprised that anybody looks young to you. But I suppose it's relative. Perhaps what you are seeing is a certain innocence. Now, what was it you wanted to ask me?"
The pain of it lives still in her body like an old injury; most days she doesn't feel it anymore. Henri departing that day: his face already drawn with fatigue, the last touch of a hand through a train window, then the last sight, that hand waving. You looked, long after the train was gone. You couldn't tell, in the end, one hand from another. A soldier waved from a departing train; a woman stood on the platform. Multiply it by a thousand, even a million. You saw it later in so many films; it became a cliché of war: men departing, women staying. You buried the anxiety deep inside yourself and hurried away to try to be useful somewhere else, but part of you, the part that mattered, was still on that deserted platform, waving as a train disappeared.
Seb is fiddling with his machine, so luckily he can't see her face as she tries to compose it. She's shuffled all the objects on the sofa to one end — newspapers, library books, her magnifying glass, her shawl. "Are you in a hurry?"
"No, no. In fact I've several days in Paris; my flight isn't till Thursday."
She thought, Well, perhaps it could take an hour or so, and we might have lunch afterward. But he's planning three days with her? Surely not.
"So could we chat for a minute first?" she asks. "I'm not keen on interviews. They make me nervous, always have. Sit down, have your coffee. You do like coffee? I'm afraid I'm still an addict." Too bad, it will speed her heart, but she needs the energy.
He sinks down in the sagging leather armchair in which she usually sits to watch television. He exhales, as if it's all been a physical effort. She observes his long legs in the blue jeans that everyone seems to wear these days, as if whole generations were at work on construction sites, his black corduroy jacket, his shirt white and open at the neck. His brown eyes, in clear light the color of coffee sugar. His cup clinks in its saucer. He's anxious; she can feel it coming off him like sweat. How hard life is for the young, she thinks. They care so much how they are seen.
He says, "Well, interviews make me nervous too. It always seems like too much to erupt into people's lives and ask them questions."
"Particularly about old love affairs, eh? Still, it's what you're here for, isn't it? Now, I've asked you a few questions, so it's your turn. Fire away."
He glances through the high windows to the slate roofs of the buildings opposite. A pigeon walks the iron railing. It's like being lost in time. Chagall. He signed it for my birthday. "Have you always lived here?"
"A long time, now."
"It used to be better, before all the traffic on boulevard Saint-Germain, and before all the shops turned into fashion boutiques and shoe shops. It's getting hard to buy a baguette even."
Silence. His spoon rattles against his saucer. She thinks, He's used to mugs and Nescafé, most likely. He looks up again at the photograph on the wall, Henri in his military cap, his eyes points of light.
Has she imagined or remembered that quick upward thrust of the head, that suddenly dreamy gaze? Seb flicks his hair back from his eyes. Men are wearing their hair longer now; it makes them sweetly androgynous. He picks up a tiny spoon to stir sugar into his coffee. He has such big, young hands.
She waits for him to speak.
"I know I shouldn't, but do you mind if I smoke?"
"Well, I'd rather you didn't. I like the smell, but it makes me cough."
"Of course. Sorry, I shouldn't have asked."
"Feel free to go and smoke in the courtyard, whenever you like. Now. You can ask anything. As long as I have the right not to answer."
"Shall we talk about the book? Lots of people are reading it in England, you know; it's had quite a renaissance lately. Some critic said he thought Fitzgerald must have got his idea for The Great Gatsby from reading it in translation. Though you can't exactly imagine Gatsby having a baby, can you?"
"Not really. No. But you say it's having a renaissance in England? I'm surprised. People here find it rather old-fashioned. Tell me, why do you want to write about Henri? What does he mean to you?"
He takes a breath, blows out his cheeks, as if after running. "Well. He writes about adolescence and adult life, both. He joins them — as if, well, it seems to me — as if we remain the same person, caught in a sort of dream, for our lifetimes. Only the life around us changes, and challenges us. Not only that, but there's a mystery at the book's heart that never really gets solved, or explained."
"And you think it should be solved, or explained? Or, that it can be?"
"I don't know. I'm just rattling on, it's probably nonsense."
"Relax," she tells him. "I have absolutely nothing else to do today except listen to you, and tell you what I can. If you live to your nineties, you'll find that's true of most of your days. I'm delighted you're here. Now, if we can entertain each other for an hour or so first, I'll send out for some lunch. There's a very good restaurant down the street, and I just have to telephone, they deliver. I find talking gives me an appetite. Don't you?" At least, she thinks, I can feed him. Poor boy, he looks half-starved.
"Don't mind the dog. He doesn't like men, but you can push him down if he annoys you."
The Pekinese sits up, his face like a black pansy, his fawn body and curled tail tense. He is a dog bred to sleep in the sleeves of princes.
"No, he's all right." The young man's hand lies on the dog's loose ruff, rolling it between his fingers. Henri always got on well with her dogs.
His tape recorder is running now, and she takes a deep breath, hand on her chest.
"Life," she says. "It's so all over the place. There's an order to it, perhaps, but it certainly isn't obvious. Well, maybe it's not like that for you; you're still young. But I find I can plunge in anywhere, and the 16 The details come to life, and at the same time it's as if it all happened to someone else. Everything shifts about. Like a kaleidoscope, you know? I had one when I was a child."
"Kaleidoscopes have definite patterns, don't they?"
"So they do. Or is that an illusion, created by the eye? Do we simply have such a need to see patterns that we create them in spite of ourselves?"
He doesn't know. "Any way you want to tell it will be all right."
"Well, I was his lover, as you know, and he was killed in the first months of the Great War, and he wrote this one book that everyone found extraordinary, and it has never I think been out of print. It has something that fascinates people. It's like a puzzle. And yet it's also very clear and precise. You know, one line of a book can change a life? Have you felt that?"
"When Meaulnes walks into the schoolroom and you know that something is going to happen."
"Exactly. When I first read it — and I was his first reader, you know — it gave me a frisson. Because it is what we all want. To have our lives transformed, and preferably for someone to walk in and do it for us. No?"
This boy with the miraculous face. He would have been born well after the Second World War, brought up in a postwar England that only slowly freed itself from austerity. Or, luxurious, gadget-ridden America. He lives in London, where the IRA is blowing up mailboxes and the garbage lies piled in the streets. There have been strikes, miners' strikes, she's heard, and three-day weeks, people sitting by candlelight, threats of government collapse. Perhaps nobody in any generation has it easy.
Seb feels the furniture crowding him, the piles of stuff getting in the way of any movement he may make. As if he may be stuck here forever. All these glasses of water and boxes of tissues, these piles of books, these shawls thrown about, these little tables. Yet what she has just said has made them equals.
She asks, "So, what do you want to know about Henri that you don't already know?"
"Well, what he was like, really. It's different, finding out about him from books."
"Did you ever see the film with Gérard Philipe, Les Grandes Manoeuvres? About the first war?"
"No, I don't think so."
Excerpted from "The Lost Love Letters of Henri Fournier"
Copyright © 2018 Rosalind Brackenbury.
Excerpted by permission of Lake Union Publishing.
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