When the Trees Danced with the Sky

Jean-Michel Guenassia

Translated by Sandra Smith

 

It’s important to me to be honest with my readers, but especially with myself. These happy memories are all I have left and I don’t want them spoiled. One day, this diary will be found, and this story discovered. To keep it secret, as it will have been until that day, I would have had to burn this notebook, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that for it remains the only link I have to him, and, in these pages, I can re-read our story and rediscover my youth. And I couldn’t make the decision to erase that. Afterwards… who cares? I have not always been witness to the facts I’m going to report now. I gathered them together, by chance or patiently, and, in some cases, forty or fifty years after they happened. I pieced them back together like a detective, through deduction and logic, or like when you look for the missing piece in a puzzle, the only one that fits perfectly and allows you to complete the whole picture. What I can assure you is that I am sincere in telling this story, and even if I am involved, I don’t allow myself to be blinded nor try, in any way, to give myself the nice role or diminish my responsibility. There is a good reason for that. Time has passed. Time that wipes away everything. I am not writing these lines in the heat of the moment, out of anger or emotion. Dozens of years have passed. Two great wars have ravaged the world. In this year of 1949, how many of us are still alive who had known him well? Four, five at most. So many people have expressed definitive opinions about his personality, made risky deductions about his behaviour and attempted to explain his character that I have often been outraged by their self-importance and revolted by their stupidity, but I did not wish to point out their pettiness, they weren’t worth the trouble. Why do mediocre people give themselves permission to say whatever they want about geniuses? What do they know about genius? Why aren’t they just content with looking at the paintings? And only that. I am the only woman to have loved him and the only woman on earth he ever loved. I am an old woman now, who has nothing in common with the silly little thing I used to be. These days, I watch myself react the way I did at the time with a detachment that is almost clinical, as if I were talking about someone else. As far as I’m concerned, it is a matter of bearing witness. Of coming as close as possible to the reality that I alone can know. Without omitting anything, or hiding anything. On the contrary, in fact, I want to dedicate the little time and strength I have left to fight against the mass of layer upon layer of lies that has come to formal the official belief, since it suits everyone. There are too many people who prefer to support rumors and legends, pretty and poignant as they surely are, but with no foundation. My only interest is to establish the truth, not to distort it, to justify myself or lessen my guilt, nor to uphold the myth. I am accountable to no one, apart perhaps to God; and yet, I renounced and cursed him a long time ago. But now my turn has come, I will soon appear before his tribunal, and I regret nothing.

*

With more than thirty million visitors, the 1889 World Fair is an immense success. It celebrates the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution as well as France’s economic prosperity, the expansion of its colonial Empire, the discovery of electricity and technical progress. The Eiffel Tower is the highlight of the exhibition.[1]

*

I was born of an enigmatic woman, who was stolen from me. I was three years old when illness took my mother, and for a long time, I believed that no portrait existed anywhere that would reveal to me what her face looked like. At the time, photography was not as extensively used as today. My father regretted not having thought of having a daguerreotype made of their marriage. It wasn’t fashionable then. I would have liked it so much if he had kept a souvenir. He stares at me and claims that her traits are fading from his memory and that he has to make a considerable effort to see her the way he loved her. But he isn’t telling the truth: the first time, it hadn’t occurred to him and the second time, he shied away from doing it because of the expense. He spends his time sighing. He stares into space until he almost faints. Intense sighs that escape in spite of himself, at every moment. Will he be weighed down with her loss for the rest of his life? He insists she was the best wife anyone could be, that he will remain forever inconsolable, and that I look nothing like her, except for my wavy hair. He barks that no two people ever looked less alike, to the extent that he doubts I’m his daughter. He wonders where I got my insolence and rebellious, spiky, detestable character, which causes him so much concern. He claims that no father ever had a daughter who pleased him so little. I don’t reply when he fires off such hurtful remarks, for I am the way I am because he made me that way. I turn my back on him. That’s all he deserves.

 

            I miss her a little more every day, the mother about whom I remember nothing, as if she had never existed. I go to the cemetery every day, even if it’s raining or there’s a storm. Not once in my entire life have I missed going – it means so much to me. I stand opposite her grave, as if she were about to send me a message from the beyond, give me advice and help me to fulfil my destiny. I speak to her, and I know she is listening to me. When I was little, after she’d died, I apparently couldn’t stop calling for her, that I asked my father when she was coming back a hundred times a day; he couldn’t bear my stubbornness, and it took Louise’s infinite patience to succeed in getting me to sleep. I often asked her to talk to me about my mother. Louise, she knew her well. It was my mother who hired her when my father bought this house, he had just received his inheritance from his own father and wanted to live in the countryside, but close to Paris. Louise isn’t very talkative. Every time I question her, I can sense that she is embarrassed; she shrugs her shoulders and reels off two or three banal remarks. Your mother was kind. Everyone loved her. It’s very sad that she died so young. Then she gets back to her chores, leaving me alone with my ghost.

***

Le Charivari

“Claude Monet and Cezanne, eager to exhibit, have shown thirty paintings and fourteen paintings respectively… They are laughable and nevertheless lamentable. They attest to the most profound ignorance of drawing, composition and use of color. When children play with paper, they do better.”

***

            I climbed up the grand staircase full of a crowd of fans and, in a small room, noticed my father in deep conversation with Monsieur Pissarro, who stood out because of his white smock, bushy hair and full beard. He lived in the suburbs and my father had accepted some of his paintings in the past, in lieu of payment for his consultations. Pissarro was sniffling, tears in his eyes, which he wiped away with a handkerchief stained with bits of paint. I joined them; he greeted me with a miniscule smile, and continued talking:

            “If anyone had told me, I wouldn’t have believed it. Degas, yes, he’s raging mad, a vile man, but Renoir, it isn’t possible!”

            “There’s no point in worrying yourself sick; he meant no harm,” my father replied.

            “How can you say such a thing? Renoir, a friend of mine for twenty years, declares that from now on he refuses to have exhibits with me because he would consider himself tainted by continuing to be associated with the Israelite Pissarro, and I shouldn’t react?”

            “He said that without thinking.”

            “But that’s odious.”

            “You know Renoir as well as I do; he’s a good man; the next time you run into each other, he’ll throw his arms around you.”

            “Do you think so?”

            “These are things one throws out during a discussion without meaning any harm; everyone has Jewish friends. Especially in this milieu. Even Degas, I’m sure of it. Do you think he’s stopped selling his paintings to Jews? That would surprise me indeed. You’ll see, by next week, Renoir will have forgotten all about it and so will you.

            “I can’t stand this injustice any longer; I’m Jewish and poor. No one buys my paintings, none of my fellow Jews help me out because I’m Jewish; I’m dying in a corner.”

Every month, his situation got worse, his paintings piled up in his studio, even though there was no shortage of buyers. His neighbors who had produced inspirational or morbid religious knick-knacks had sold them without the need to haggle over the price while he still held on to his apple trees in blossom inundated with light, his red rooftops floating in the air and chestnut trees shimmering in the snow, the abstract Louvecien landscapes, even his fragile views of Pontoise had no buyers; even the people from those regions didn’t want them, not even for the give-away price of the frame and paint. He had to suffer unkind criticism, sneering and sarcasm; he was in despair, full of anger, wishing he could plant a bomb, blow everything to smithereens, burn down the town hall, the landmark of everything that was the most stupid and crass. He wanted to give it all up, exhausted by never being able to see the end of his struggle and disheartened by the stupidity of his contemporaries. My father took it upon himself to lift his spirits, he told him that his painting was magnificent, that it made him happy to admire him, an honor as well, and that one day his work would be recognized and famous; he stressed the originality of his talent and showered him with compliments. My father’s comforting words made him feel better, and he thanked him for his support. My father was terribly sorry that his current financial situation prevented him from buying the painting of the Market in Pontoise, which he found delightful, but it was a difficult time for everyone. The painter nodded several times and smiled knowingly; my father could see very well that he didn’t believe a word.

            “My dear Dr. Gachet,” he continued, “you can do me an immense favor. I have a friend, a young painter whom I admire greatly, an exceptionally gifted artist. He is soon to leave the Saint-Rémy Hospital in Provence where he is now and wanted to come and stay with me so we could work together. He wanted to stay as a paying guest but my wife wouldn’t hear of it, he’s a bit unstable and she fears his extreme moods and occasional outbursts. He exhibited two paintings last year at the Independents’ Show and you could not have helped but notice Starry Night, an incredible work, one of the most beautiful paintings that could be. This painter’s brother is my agent, and even though he sells nothing, I have great admiration for both brothers and would like to help them; it would be wonderful if you could take care of him and help him get back on his feet.

            “I don’t practice in Auvers.”

            “In his condition, city life is not suitable, he needs to be in the countryside, in the fresh air. He only ever paints outside, winter or summer, and the area offers much he would like; he could stay in Auvers and you could take care of him. It would not be a heavy burden.”

            My father doesn’t like it when people interfere with his routine, but he couldn’t easily refuse Pissarro’s request, especially after refusing to buy one of his paintings.

            “Tell your agent to come and see me in my Paris office and we’ll see what the best treatment would be for his brother.”

[1] Author’s note: The passages in italics are, for the most part, extracts from press articles or correspondence reproduced in their original written form.