Paul Morand: Venices

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Paul Morand Venices
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Venices: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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DIPLOMAT, WRITER AND POET, traveller and socialite, friend of Proust, Giraudoux and Malraux, Paul Morand was out of the most original writers of the twentieth century. He was French literature's globe-trotter, and his delightful autobiography is far from being yet another account of a writer's life. Instead it is a poetic evocation of certain scenes among Morand's rich and varied encounters and experience, filtered through the one constant in his life — the one place to which he would always return — Venice.

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Paul Morand



Comtesse Greffulhe

Marcel Proust in Venice

Théophile Gautier photographed by Paul Nadar

Gabriele D’Annunzio at the regatta on Lake Garda, 1930

Henri de Régnier

Jean Cocteau, 1934

The Groupe des Six (from left to right): François Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey, Jean Cocteau, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger and a drawing of Georges Auric by Cocteau, 1931

Serge Lifar at the exhibition celebrating twenty years of the Ballets Russes at the Pavillon de Marsan, 1939

Serge Diaghilev’s tomb on the island of San Michele, Venice

Max Jacob

The Grand Canal, Trieste

Self-portrait of Cecil Beaton at the Marco Polo Ball, Venice 1951


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;1 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,2 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.

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