Paul Morand was a diplomat, traveller, socialite and one of the most erudite and original writers of the twentieth century. Venices is his typically unconventional autobiography: an evocative account of a remarkable life lived surrounded by the remarkable. Its poised, impressionistic, poetically vivid scenes add up year-by- year to a rich meditation, full of astonish- ing portraits and memories, joy as well as melancholy.
Though Morand's reputation was mar- red for years by his involvement with the collaborationist Vichy government, this book, in its effortless elegance, demonstrates why his influence has been so great. The thread that holds it taut throughout is Venice, the city to which Morand always returned.
About the Author
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
By Paul Morand, Euan Cameron
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1971 Editions Gallimard
All rights reserved.
THE PALACE OF THE ANCIENTS
All of our lives are letters posted anonymously; my own bears three postmarks: Paris, London and Venice; fate, often unwittingly, though certainly not thoughtlessly, has decreed that I should have settled in these places.
Within her restricted space, Venice, situated as she is in the middle of nowhere, between the foetal waters and those of the Styx, encapsulates my journey on earth.
I sense a disillusion with the entire planet, apart from Venice, apart from the Basilica of St Mark's, whose blistered, declivitous paving looks like prayer mats set side by side; the fact that I have known St Mark's all my life thanks to a watercolour that used to hang in my bedroom as a child: it was a large wash-drawing painted by my father in about 1880 — bistre and sepia, and sketched in Chinese ink — a piece of late romanticism, in which the red of the altar lamps pierces through the domes of golden dusk, and in which a turbanned throne is illuminated in the Western light. I also possess a little oil painting that belonged to my father, a view of the Salute on a grey day, which is of unusual delicacy and which has always been with me.
"One must see Venice after it has been raining," Whistler used to say: it is after experiencing life that I have returned here to think about myself. Like the tarred spars that stake out her lagoon, Venice has delineated my life; yet she is merely one among other points of perspective; Venice has not been my entire life, but she constitutes a few fragments of it that are otherwise disconnected; her tide marks fade away; mine do not.
I remain impervious to the absurdity of writing about Venice, at a time when even the primacy of London and Paris is no more than a memory, at a time when the nerve centres of the world are remote spots such as Djakarta, Saigon, Katanga and Quemoy, where Europe can no longer make her authority felt, and where only Asia matters. Situated at the gates of that continent, Venice had understood this, and had penetrated as far as China; it is to Marco Polo that St Mark's should be dedicated, not the other way round.
In Venice, my insignificant being had its first lesson on this planet, as I emerged from classrooms in which nothing had been learnt. School for me was nothing but endless boredom, exacerbated by justified reprimands; if there was still ink on my fingers, nothing remained in my head, and the weight of those books! Lugging the Quicherat dictionary from the Champs-Élysees to the Lycée Monceau, along a route which those who have not climbed the rue de Courcelles each morning reckon to be flat crushed my narrow city-dweller's shoulders. The tarmac was hard beneath my feet; I was already thinking of Venice, and I was determined to celebrate that aquatic city, in which every street was the Seine.
The classic authors did not appeal to me; they had written for the courtiers of Versailles, or for teachers; nothing about our great writers intrigued, gripped or shocked me; what connection was there between the Atreids with their golden masks, which Schliemann had just excavated, and the bewigged Atreids of the seventeenth century? Starting one's life with Bérénice! Appreciating Bérénice at the age of thirteen! First I would have had to have fallen in love with someone who loved Racine; who could explain Racine to me, explain this heart of a woman grafted on to a man's body? No one provided me with a key to words, every other one of which meant something different to what it does today; I went from one misinterpretation to another: la gloire? reasons of State? A king who cried? Nuances are not children's toys. How could a woman be both gentle and violent? On the other hand, I became thoroughly involved in Shakespeare, with his crimes and his ghosts, as I listened to Marcel Schwob and my father, who were translating Hamlet together for Sarah Bernhardt — an infinitely more appetising translation than Gide's — searching among the English for some old French word, rather as one might discover a primitive painting beneath a later work. Shakespeare, that towering puppet-master, in whose plays everything, instead of being sliced into four parts, was reconciled and overcome.
I have never learnt grammar; it's nothing to be proud of, but it seems to me that if I were to learn it today, I should no longer be able to write; my eye and my ear were my only teachers, the eye especially. Good writing is the opposite of writing well. "There are not enough words to express what I think ...": that's because instead of thinking, you were searching for words; it's up to the words to search for you, up to them to find you. You should be able to say of any one of your sentences: "it's the spitting image of its father." A writer should have his own wavelength.
The philosophy classes of my youth were merely the annexe of some miserable psychiatric hospital; geography merely provided me with a catalogue of gulfs and islands, an inventory of mountain tops and rivers, a repertory of peaks as bare as the mountains of the Moon; apparently no human being had ever lived there; as for History, its artificial discontinuities, its famous "turning-points" and the arbitrary divisions of its reigns precluded me from appreciating anything apart from battles, or treaties that were destined to pave the way for further battles.
As I look back with hindsight over the long years, what astonishes me are the curious omissions and the possibly tendentious silences of the early instruction I was given. I was taught nothing about pre-history, Byzantium, China and the Far East, the United States or Russia, about religions or music; I left my lycée knowing neither the names nor the voyages of the famous explorers, being totally ignorant about economic geography, the history of art, biochemistry and astronomy; not having read Montaigne, Hugo or Baudelaire, or the poets of Louis XIIV's reign, not Dante, Shakespeare or the German Romantics ... Colonna d'Istria, my philosophy teacher, who was fascinated by malfunctions of the will, devoted six out of nine months to this subject, before dashing off logic, morals, metaphysics and the history of philosophy in a few hours; at Sciences Po, Émile Bourgeois made us spend two years dozing over the King's dusty secret. Who was responsible for these Ubuesque gaps which life had been unable to fill, for this inadequate instruction, wedged in between primary school certificate and the final degree, for this pit-ridden educational landscape through which I stumbled: the syllabus, the teachers, or my lapses of application and intelligence?
I hungered for nothing.
It may seem scarcely credible that I should speak of being uncivilised and narrow-minded. On top of my instinctive pessimism, education came and added the books that I was surrounded with, those from the family library: the Renan of the post-1870 years, Schopenhauer, Zola, Maupassant, Huysmans, the grinding of their teeth, their grim laughter.
I was an only son, a solitary child, and the first adages my father taught me were the following, so typical of Mérimée: Remember to mistrust yourself or Your friends may one day be your enemies; he was a father whose philosophy could be summed up as follows: "The Creator failed with this world; why should he succeed with the next one? Everything has been bungled, and always will be. It is only Art that does not lie."
This may explain my anxious, withdrawn temperament, for during my first fifteen years, although not shy, I kept myself very much to myself and I was unaffectionate and unsociable; my childhood was not the precocious state of wonderment at the outside world that it was for the majority of writers, from Gide to Alain-Fournier, from Proust to Montherlant. I remained on my guard. As a result, I was late developing.
I have always felt that childhood was an inferior form of existence. I was sensible, accustomed to a quiet life, and respectful of the God-given virtue of thrift. I had reached my student years never having loved, understood, seen or experienced anything. Are the great dis coveries of life reserved for old age?
Venice is the backdrop to the finale of the grand opera that is an artist's life: Titian died there after his Deposition, Tintoretto after San Marziale, Verrocchio after the Colleone. The one consolation is that one lives to a great age there: Giovanni Bellini was eighty-six years old, Longhi eighty-two, and Guardi eighty-one.
Is it fate, or is the fault to do with me: I always arrive when the lights are being switched off; no sooner had it started than it was over; I have witnessed the end of the nineteenth century; the end of a secondary education system that had lasted forever (1902); of one-year military service (1906); of the disappearance of the gold exchange (1914); I have seen several Republics die as well as one État; and two empires expire; beneath my gaze I have witnessed a whole herd of staunch or foolish famous men disappear, as well as a few moments of glory. I am drawn towards that which is ending; it is not merely the fact that I have attained a great age, it is also a curse, the burden of which I can feel.
I am bereft of Europe.
I have inherited my father's physique, a robust one what is more; as well as almost everything else. My energy stems from further back. Did I love him, or was it what I saw of myself in him? Even today, I cannot manage to make the distinction. As a child, I had the sense that my existence depended on him, and that if he were to disappear, the house would collapse.
When famous men extol the virtues of their mothers, they describe them to us as exceptional people, as victorious athletes in the dedication stakes, breaking all records of selflessness, as monsters of magnanimity or phenomena of goodness. My mother was so united to my father, so serene a soul, so self-contained, and so perfectly Christian that she would have hated to be held up as an example. She was a Jansenist, but one possessed of such charm! Her patience, tolerance and her good humour were very much in evidence, and it was these very qualities that made for such an equable home life. Her gentle virtues, her natural reserve and her moral qualities were a challenge to no one, and were not put forward as an example, as was the case with Proust's mother, or Gide's; her cultural background was a humble one, neither Jewish nor Protestant, but one appropriate to the religion, country and class to which she had been born, in the heart of the Marais. She wore very flowing clothes, known at the time as kasha, their muffled beige colours, like her blonde hair, relieved only by her black gloves or the veil of black chiffon that fell from her hat and wrapped itself around her neck.
I was a non-believer, more in imitation of my father and in order to become a man than to upset my adorable mother; the men in my family would set off to meet their wives after Mass, but they ventured no further than the entrance to the church. The State was hostile to religion, silent, not anti-clerical, but extremely radical. I was unable to understand the catechism, a dialogue in which I was interrupted without obtaining the answers to the questions I wanted to ask. It was not the unknown that disoriented me in matters of religion, but the way the subject was presented to me: this far-off oriental land, with its bearded kings, dressed in sandals and robes, its women in baggy trousers, its water-towers, its unleavened bread, its donkeys and palm trees, its Hebrew names, its circumcised males, the gourds attached to the staffs of those anchorites you could see in the stained-glass windows at Saint-Philippe-du-Roule, that sad church outside which well-to-do gentlemen expressed their dissatisfaction with the government, their shiny "huit-reflet" top hats perched above their walking-sticks, as they poured scorn on the Jews, without seeing that it was they themselves who were the true Pharisees.
At the age of seventeen, I opened the window; the air of the stadium blew in; the springy turf, the cinder tracks, the mud of the rugby field in which so many statues were instantaneously sculpted, the diving boards in the rare swimming-pools, the sound of swords echoing in fencing halls ... Suddenly, I felt alive! Up until then, I had lived like a robot assembled by some stranger; I could only escape this vertical sleepwalking through exercise, and it was thanks to this that I came to understand that we have only one life and that we must give it all the attention we can.
Muscular energy stimulated strength of mind; physical effort and work suddenly became enjoyable; my cavorting found a rhythm; conserving one's breath meant that I developed a horror of chattering; I learnt that gentleness could go hand in hand with firm muscles; all that education, religious instruction and civic training ought to have taught me, I acquired in a curiously roundabout way through sport; I came to terms with laws and rules, I discovered the collective conscience, a liking for teamwork, and love of one's neighbour, things which nobody had ever spoken to me about. I had only ever seen duty in an abstract, off-putting way; sport allowed me to feel it, to experience it and to love it; I understood that you had to pass the ball.
It doesn't do to be young in France, for this beautiful country does not lend itself to love at first sight; who was there to explain to me how one loved one's country, or even that I had one? I loved my family, my city, my classmates, my neighbourhood, my home; in 1900, my country was the universe. At the time it would have been unthinkable, and even indecent, to have to comment on the good fortune of having been born in France; who, after all, would have considered being born anywhere else? The miraculous survival of the nation over the centuries was something that went without saying, by some divine gift; in any case, la patrie had recently given far too much service to the "scoundrels on the General Staff"; the Théâtre-Libre, the Sorbonne and the Naturalist novels were making sure it did not begin again. France was so powerful, so unique, so vast, filling double-pages of the atlases in pink, that she did not need anyone to love her: to love someone was to be afraid for them: this France which the world took under its protection, shored up on her right by the Tsar, resting on the arm of Edward VII on her left, nothing could happen to her; nothing does happen to the rich. Such was the charming ethical nineteenth-century view, when the centre of the universe was the Earth, and that of the planet, Europe, with Paris as its hub; so many nuclei created in order to sustain the pulp of a matchless fruit offered to mankind by God: France.
I realise how astonishing this state of mind may seem today; there was very little miserableness around in 1900. Yesterday, in Geneva, I heard Marcuse denouncing happiness "as objectively reactionary and immoral"; the happiness of the turn of the century, with its three-franc restaurants and its belief in progress, was radical. It was a carefree period, in which no one had a bad conscience, and in which those who suffered did not protest. The word "culpability" was nowhere to be found in the old dictionaries; the Christian-Democrats had scarcely begun to graft social conscience on to the tree of religious remorse. In improving my mind I thought only of enjoying myself, and from the moment I left school each day, this became one and the same thing for me. The nation states scarcely existed then, though they made a pretence of doing so; there was no spider at the centre of the web to mastermind the captive flies; tax collectors wore the blank expression of indirect taxation. Only the Tsar required a passport. My days were empty and were not filled with meetings, so no hours were lost. There was space to breathe between people (something unimaginable today when a Guide to Deserted Villages — that really takes the biscuit — can be published); there was no "demographic pressure"; political parties were like provincial rallies; no one bothered and there was no commitment; high-rise flats and public examinations were still a thing of the future. Time was unimportant, wealth was not measured, it was like sunshine or oxygen. Our currency retained its purchasing power, which only began to slide after 1918, a date when the government was controlled by Treasury executives; ever since then, by a curious coincidence, it has not stopped dwindling. Earning money meant you had to spend money, talking about money was ill-mannered. My father was considered to be "comfortably off"; this was due to the fact that he had no needs; "it's easier to do without things than to waste time acquiring them", he liked to say; his only riches being a small Breughel, a tiny Trouville by Boudin, a Renoir Head, and a Crozant by Guillaumin. Eugène Morand never entered a bank, and if he needed a pair of shoes, he wrote to Noren, his bootmakers in the rue Pierre-Charon; every year, Jamet, his tailor in the rue Royale, would send him, without a fitting, the same navy-blue serge suit; my father roamed tirelessly around Paris on foot, leaving the hired coupé known as the SENSATION to my mother; he never had a penny on him; occasionally, in the evening, I would hear him say to my mother: "I'm going to the Opéra, in Mme Greffulhe's box; put some money (he never counted in louis d'or, that was mundane) in my waistcoat pocket, in case she asks me to take her to supper at Paillard's."
Excerpted from Venices by Paul Morand, Euan Cameron. Copyright © 1971 Editions Gallimard. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.