To Isabell G. who told me this story
I had never heard of Ikebana until the day I met Madame Huppert. I was very much on the defensive that afternoon. I had prepared myself psychologically to tell many little lies if it seemed they would “promote” my cause. At that time I considered little lies a necessary ingredient for appearing interesting, for avoiding mediocrity, and practiced telling them with conviction. All in all, I thought I was pretty convincing when I lied, maybe even more so than when I told the truth. But when confronted with a direct question for which I had no point of reference, not the slightest idea of who or what was an Ikebana, all my fine readiness to lie completely collapsed and I was forced to admit my ignorance.
For the interview, Madame received me on the terrace. She was wearing a pale blue kimono and lying on a very simple wicker chaise lounge, without pillows, like those that are used for yoga meditation. Right up to the last minute I was undecided whether to wear a blue pleated skirt with a red sweater top that said “adolescent-from-a-good-family-with-a-tennis- club-membership” or my brown tweed suit with the beige blouse. I had decided on the suit but not without reservations because it really wasn’t the season for heavy tweeds. That year, a dazzling October seemed determined to prolong what had been a glorious summer. The last tourists were still wandering around in shorts on the shore of the lake as if to store up the last warmth of the sun.
But damn, that suit had cost me nearly a month’s wages, despite the fact that I bought it on sale at the end of last winter, and then, I still hadn’t had a chance to wear it. It was a ‘forties style, Saint Laurent pantsuit: culottes and jacket with padded square shoulders, a man’s wide lapels and buttons. It had class. Debora Kerr was wearing one just like it in Vogue Magazine, leaning against the veranda rail on her ranch. But in that stupid school, nobody would have appreciated a Saint Laurent like mine. My colleagues came to work dressed in frightful rags, all they were lacking were the curlers. So I thought, why not wear the Saint Laurent for my interview with Madam; at least she would be able to appreciate it. At least that’s what I presumed and believed so with good reason. I mean a villa like that would never have appealed to one of those stupid women…like the wives of the rich delicatessen owners who had contaminated the lake’s hills with their tasteless houses that could have competed with Disneyland, and who descended into the gallery at the end of the season for the owner’s “unprecedented sale,” and carried away some daubs that would have sickened a horse, to hang on the walls of their lodgings. Moreover, it was enough to see the wrought iron gate with the two straight rows of cypresses leading up to the villa, the early 20th century arabesque towers with lightning rods, the Italianate garden and the terrace covered with bougainvillea to know with whom I was dealing. And then it occurred to me that for the discerning person trying to learn something about the class of a prospective employer, even a simple newspaper advertisement could be enough. The want ads that I avidly perused on Saturday mornings were full of crass insinuating, or at best, uninspiring and obvious proposals, where the “possibilities for a brilliant career” masked the squalor of door-to-door sales of encyclopedias written for half-wit children. An ad like that didn’t show up very often…a request for a secretary: “Intelligence, discretion, culture. French indispensable.”
I deemed them to be four qualities that I unequivocally possessed. It’s a shame that the principal of the school, scandalized because I talked to the kids about the Maja Desnuda, and the owner of the gallery who thought only of fleecing the Varese women, never noticed it…too bad for them.
To say that Madame was “charming” might seem hopelessly vague but nonetheless conveys the idea. If she was fifty years old, she certainly carried it well; if she was forty, she carried it with dignity, but I went for the first hypothesis. Her hair color was such an unnatural blond that one ended up by accepting it immediately since the declared fiction is much more acceptable than the masked fiction (at that time I had a complete theory on the full range of fiction), and thank God, she didn’t have a permanent. I don’t have anything against permanents in general, for heaven’s sake, but the fact is my colleagues came to school with such monstrous permanents that I came to detest them.
Madame began the conversation in French. She used French, evidently, to test my knowledge of the language, a requirement of the ad. But, thanks to Charleroi, this was a skill about which I felt absolutely secure, even though I was careful not to say so. In any case, I didn’t do anything to camouflage my distinct Belgian accent even if it wouldn’t have been difficult.
We began with literature. To relax me, Madame, very discretely, inquired about my taste in books, not without telling me something about hers, which included Montherlant of La Reine Morte (“so human and poignant,” she said) and the enchanted melancholy of Alain- Fournier. Pierre Loti, anyhow, wasn’t too bad, ought to be brought back, especially his story, Ramuntcho. She was sure that sooner or later, someone would do it, perhaps an American critic; the Americans had an indisputable nose for repechages. To tell the truth, Loti’s name reminded me of the stagnant smell in the classrooms at the Sacre Coeur di Charleroi College where one of his works, Pecheurs d’Islande, was one of the few novels allowed, but I tried to be agreeable. It had taken me eight years to erase the memory of Charleroi College and I wasn’t about to let Madame’s taste in literature take me back there so easily. I could have aimed for the intellectual and mentioned Sartre, of whom I had read one story (a horrendous one at that), but decided to be cautious and cited Francoise Sagan, who after all, had something to do with existentialism. Then I mentioned, The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway (I had seen the film with Ava Gardner) and The Big Rain by Louis Bromfield. Madame asked me if I knew anything about the tropics. I responded, “Unhappily no,” but that sooner or later I wanted to go; I just never had had the chance. And then we moved on to painting.
Here I could relax because this was my field, and if I told a few lies, it wasn’t at all for “promotional” reasons but only to embellish a little. I told her that I had graduated from the State Institute of Art two years ago (which was the truth) but that Italy was intolerably stingy with its school jobs. What did it have to offer today’s young artist?… substitute teaching in a middle school.
Fortunately, I was able to advance my interests working summers in a local art gallery (I fervently hoped she had never been there), only that, the gallery closed at the end of tourist season, plunging the town into a philistine darkness, and so, here I was.
I guessed the moment had arrived for the more pointed questions. In particular, I feared Madame would ask me about my typing skills, something I deemed necessary in any secretary. Mine were non-existent. The rare times I had to write a letter back at the gallery, it took an entire afternoon (I typed with my right index finger only) and even after all that effort, the results weren’t exactly brilliant. But Madame didn’t seem to have any intention of asking me “technical” questions; she seemed totally preoccupied by painting and it didn’t seem right not to indulge her. At first, we talked about the yellows of Bonnard. I don’t remember why…probably because of the autumn light and the golden grove of chestnut trees we could see on the other side of the lake. Then I decided to be clever and focused on the fauve artists. About Matisse, it had all been said, of course, I considered that obvious. But personally, I adored Dufy, the Dufy of the beach scenes, of the geraniums and date palms of Cannes. “With Dufy,” I said, “the joy of the Mediterranean sings on the canvas.” On the wall next to my desk in the Tavolozza del Lago’s back room, there was a Dufy calendar with reproductions for every month of the year. I was a survivor of thirty consecutive afternoons (thirty-one for July and August) each spent with a different reproduction from 5:00 until 9:00…the Tavolozza del Lago never closed in the summer. Let’s just say, to be exact, that I had Dufy coming out of my ears. But out in the gallery, the view varied from the Dufy reproductions to the vacant stares of the women admiring the rubbish on the walls, to whom, what’s more, I had been instructed to direct a welcoming smile. It was no wonder, then, that I preferred Dufy. I knew all of his works by heart.
I asked Madame what she thought of Bal a’ Antibes (the June reproduction) with those splashes of blue and white in the foreground, representing the sailors, in the middle of that whirl of colors…and the azure enchantment of La Mer (July), with those sails that looked like little smiles? (I really said it like that.) And the harmony of the pastels in Plage de Sainte-Adresse, done in 1921, (August I thought), didn’t it make her think of a little symphony? Madame agreed. In any case, I added conclusively, Jardins Publique a’ Hyeres (September) is incomparable…“definitive.” For me, after that picture, Dufy ceased to exist (and that was the actual truth).
The calendar had a certain effect on Madame who didn’t skimp on her compliments. The Fauve artists?…“well,” I said with all the naturalness in the world, I had purposely gone to Paris to study them. Naturally I was careful not to say too much about Paris because everything I knew about it came from a school trip I took with the nuns when papa worked for the Charleroi mine. It was a four-day bus trip with quick stops for sandwiches and pee- pee…and then everybody back on board to sing “En Passant par la Lorraine” behind the indomitable gaiety of Sister Marianne who, fearing long conversations and long silences, both causes of mischief, resolved the dilemma with the cheerfulness of a healthy song. Of Paris, all that I was left with was the abominable memory of the Musee du l’Histoire du France, the Pantheon, my feet that had swollen up like hot water bags and my first menstruation that arrived the second night after a walk I’ll never forget. The last day, Sister Marianne piloted us through a fifteen-minute visit of the Louvre, just to place our noses before Corot and Millet. At the exit kiosk, we all had to contribute a small amount for a reproduction of l’Angelus, which Sister Marianne attached to the rear window of the bus for the ride home. I was thirteen years old, felt ugly, unhappy and misunderstood, and for the duration of the trip, dreamed of a vendetta: one day after I became a famous artist with an important studio in the Latin Quarter, Sister Marianne came to me on her knees and begged me to fresco the dining hall at Charleroi College where I, the great artist, had begun my career. But I responded haughtily that it just wasn’t possible, that Paris wanted to honor me, that I had to prepare my triumphant exposition for the Gran Palais. The entire world was demanding my pictures and even the president of the republic would speak.
“And Ikebana?” said Madame, “Do you like Ikebana?” I answered that I knew “absolutely” nothing about it. (I felt trapped and decided to be definitive and dry.)
“What a shame,” said Madame, “but it’s not important. I’m sure you will learn to love it. Please pass me that bottle of gin and tell Constance to bring me more tonic water.”
As I waited for the tonic water, Madame questioned me about my hobbies, if by chance I was knowledgeable about wines…Ah yes? splendid, she was not. She preferred her cocktails but the signor engineer, her husband, was passionate about wines like any good Italian…adoptive Italian but just the same, Italian. Oh! He knows a lot about rare wines. You could learn a lot from him but she certainly couldn’t require the signor engineer to give me lessons, he was always traveling, always so wrapped up in his work, poor dear. And, by the way, my French was excellent.
I responded, yes, that in effect it was true. My education had been very important to my father despite how hard he worked all his life (he was in mining). My Belgian governess had wanted French, obviously…my dear old austere Francine. (I became slightly emotional at the thought of her.) She had practically raised me. This unmistakable Belgian accent that I used to detest but today found delightful, I owed to her. Oh, no, no, my mother wasn’t dead. It was just that mama was so fragile, so delicate, and then her piano never left her free time.
Madame pushed the aperitif cart towards my lounge chair and invited me to help myself.
“And so teaching doesn’t interest you, it isn’t your vocation?”
I said that as for vocations, I might still have one in teaching, but that two years had already passed since my graduation and that they still only wanted me as a substitute, and my God, I was almost twenty-one. I explained the concept behind substitute teaching, about which Madame seemed to be totally ignorant, and summed it up by saying that, the following week, when the teacher returned from maternity leave, the principal would tell me how grateful the school was for my commendable contribution, and wish me good day and arrivederci. And pregnant teachers who needed a sub weren’t exactly sprouting like mushrooms. Nowadays, people thought twice before having children, and with the cost of living, you can hardly blame them. I wondered if she was up to date on the statistics relative to the birthrate in Italy.
Evening was falling over the lake and from where we sat, it was just like a painting, forget about Dufy. The view from the terrace was dominated by the garden, by the lemon trees and cypresses, by the geometry of the hedges that delineated the gravel paths. The town, situated on a spur projecting into the lake, was already in shadow with vague streaks of pale blue light lingering on the rooftops. The last light of the day that fell on the landing in front of the villa’s gate, on the towers, was warm and yellow, as if toasted by time. The swallows made a marvelous noise, madly swooping above the trees. Madame was explaining to me that she was afraid of getting too bored during the winter, accustomed as she was to Paris. She couldn’t exactly say she had need of a secretary, let’s just say she wanted the company, some letters every so often to certain Swiss galleries from whom she did her buying and other matters. But basically, she was looking for a person with good taste with whom to share impressions and discuss interesting things. “Naturally,” she wasn’t requiring that I decide right away. I could give my answer tomorrow, but “naturally,” room and board were included. Indeed, would I like to give a peek at my prospective room? She called Constance.
For the rest of October, Madame was very busy with the creation of a nonrealistic Ikebana, an extremely delicate balance of multiple autumn shades. Its base was an antique- gold Belle Epoque vase with a long slender neck, a glass piece by Galle’ from 1906.
Madame gave me the task of naming the composition. All fantasy compositions had to be titled because one of the aims of Ikebana was precisely to elicit names, to make sure that the sensations aroused in our soul were solidified in words. What struck me most about her composition, I said, was “its heart of light,” and Madame decreed, I couldn’t have chosen a better name. Actually, I began to get pretty good at this job. I had literally devoured Ikebana: L’Art des Fleurs, Les Fleur et l’Antique Tradition Japonaise, Ikebana et Hai-Kai and finally, La Peinture Japonaise, a magnificent volume of reproductions, all on quality paper. At night, on Madame’s advice, I read Kawabata, which was, “so very Zen from the first page to the last.” It bored me to death, with all those idiotic women staring sadly at winter landscapes, although I was careful not to say anything for fear of seeming materialistic. Madame detested materialism…Kawabata was “a petit soufflé that caresses the plains of the soul.”
With my October earnings, which Madame insisted on paying in full even though I hadn’t begun on the first of the month, I bought myself a dark green suede jacket that I felt I needed and a bright red tortoise skin, combination compact, comb and cigarette lighter for my purse. With the money left over, I bought a very elegant necessaire for my writing table, which I deemed indispensable for a secretary of a certain level. This included a tiny silver letter opener, a lacquered fountain pen, a little bottle of blue ink and a small packet of writing paper with matching envelopes made from a splendid light yellow rice paper. I found that it gave my bedroom a more intellectual look. I made a few small adjustments: I moved the jade lamp from the dresser to the small table near the window, arranged the objects I had bought next to it, and voila’, I had a genuine writing table. As a final touch, I displayed in plain view Poesie Complete by Vittoria Aganoor Pompili and La Vie des Abeilles by Maeterlinck, which I had recently purchased at a street stand.
At the beginning of November, Madame entrusted me with two important tasks for which the purchase of the stationary was perfectly timed. The catalogue for a gallery in Zurich had arrived with two Utamaro prints highlighted but with no further information. I had to request dimensions, prices and photos if they were available. And then I had to write to a company in Sanremo and request that they send us certain bulbs shown in their catalogue.
In elegant calligraphy, I wrote a dry but polite letter on my new rice paper to the gallery in Zurich. I asked that they be very detailed in their response…to indicate the prices in Swiss francs and to send at least two 16x24cm color photographs. Finally, I suggested that an immediate acquisition seemed very likely if they turned out to be high quality works, and signed it, “For your attn.: Lisabetta Rossi-Fini, secretary to Madam Huppert.” I decided I should begin using both my father’s and mother’s surnames united by a hyphen. I was after all, the daughter of both; I wasn’t using names to which I had no right. In addition to the bulbs from the Sanremo company, I ordered a dozen blue carnations I had seen in their catalogue that fascinated me. The carnation is a simple popular flower that signifies freshness and amiability. But that intense blue hothouse variety, bleeding into violet along its ruffled edge, was truly unique. They were exotic and mysterious with something of an orchid but without its cold vulgarity.
In those days, I worked tirelessly for Madame on the creation of a Gashu, a traditional Moribana that required not just sensitivity and imagination but an exact knowledge of the ancient Japanese painting style that inspired it. Moribana is a type of Ikebana fashioned on a large flat plate, usually rectangular, but often round. To tell the truth, my participation in the production of the Moribana was limited to the hunt for its basic materials…a rather tedious walk I had to make into the hills above the lake in search of walnut and juniper sprouts. It had rained recently and the ground wasn’t really ideal for woodland walks. My ankles broke out in an irritating rash, perhaps attributable to pollens and decomposing leaves, which caused me to scratch for a week.
The gallery in Zurich responded by the very next post. It sent photographs of the Utamaro prints, apologizing for the less than accurate colors and for the non-conforming format, but it was all they had in their files. The photos were of two small watercolors: the first, a rather obvious female figure, the second, an insect sitting on a water lily leaf done completely in green and brown tones, which really excited Madam. The related background data the gallery had sent in addition to the dimensions and prices were the following: “Utamaro, 1754-1806. Num. 148/a: Femme de Yedo, 1802 approx, gouache sur papier de chine, etat de conservation parfait. Num. 148/b: Libellule sur nenuphar, 1790 approx,gouache sur papier de chine, quelche legere tache d’umidite’ sur le dos.”
It was pure chance that that evening before going to bed, I took a look at the chapter in Peinture Japonaise, dedicated to the works and school of Utamaro. The first discrepancy in the Swiss catalogue to catch my attention was the date of death, 1797, which I confirmed looking in Madame’s copy of Larousse. I found it very interesting that a serious gallery like this could make such a silly error and set out to probe deeper. The gallery was decidedly unlucky that night. My book devoted ample space to Utamaro’s followers, including a certain Torii Kiyomine (XIX sec.)…full of talent and fertile designs but without the sweet sadness of his maestro and who had dedicated his painting to courtesan life. I realized immediately that these Swiss folk had made a serious blunder and that it didn’t seem right to just ignore it. That same evening at my writing desk, I composed a masterpiece of a letter, which I submitted the next day for Madame’s approval. Stating that the person for whom I was obliged to write was an international expert on Japanese painting, and that the humble signatory of this letter was only doing her utmost to assist her in the research, I politely observed the following: 1) I found it truly peculiar that the year of Utamaro’s death, generally accepted by the most authoritative contemporary scholars to be 1797, had been arbitrarily misstated by more than nine years. 2) Such an error, which evidently wasn’t typographical, suggested an even more lamentable error: that the maestro would paint a picture when he was already dead. 3) The feminine figure, listed as 148/a in the catalogue entitled, Femme de Yedo, by Utamaro, was in reality a courtesan by Torii Kiyomine, and could be attested to, even for those incapable of reading the ideograms on the left of the figure, not only by the swirls of the fabric and the clearly nineteenth century positioning of the figure, but by the unmistakable high black clog sticking out from under the folds of the kimono. I led them to believe with a certain guile that the gallery’s clients would be certainly alarmed about the authenticity of works already in their possession if they came to find out, by chance, of such a deplorable error. I was taking this opportunity, therefore, to suggest an immediate “errata corrige” in the catalogue which would reassure “all of us.” And finally, I proposed the purchase of, in addition to the authentic Utamaro for which I was ready to pay a fair price, the courtesean of Kiyomine for half the requested price. I signed, “For your attn. cordially, Lisabetta Rossi-Fini, secretary to Madame Huppert.
At the beginning of December, Signor Huppert returned from a long trip to the Ivory Coast with a precious gift for Madame. It was a small stone statue depicting a squatting man holding a curious old-fashioned rifle. He explained that stone sculptures are extremely rare in Africa because they require an artisanal sophistication only possible in civilizations with a fairly well developed social structure. As an example, this piece came from a Mintadi population in the high Congo where it was used to decorate their ancient burial grounds. It was an ancient religious relic whose antiquity was already attested to in 1514 by the chronicles of King Afonso I of Kongo. But of greater interest, at least for me, was the bracelet the figure bore on its wrist: a thin strip of gold with a row of tiny diamonds…a true splendor. “This, however is a modern piece,” the engineer said smiling, as he slipped it onto Madame’s wrist. I found it to be extremely delicate.
Monsieur Huppert was an amiable, slightly timid, exquisitely mannered man, and displayed how pleased he was that Madame had found an agreeable companion “that would make her convalescence less oppressive.” (He said it like that.) With the exception of the day Monsieur Huppert arrived, I had always dined with the family. It was a practice begun with my arrival at the villa and it seemed wrong to Madame to change it now. Moreover, it was I who was responsible for the table, for the flowers (every evening I composed a simple, gracious Ikebana) and the wine. That stupid woman Constance, although a marvel of a cook, was lacking in delicacy and, of course, couldn’t be counted on for matters of taste. As for Giuseppe, it was already a miracle that the jacket and white gloves suited him so well, and so if he carried the tray as if it were a pair of pruning shears, well, one had to be indulgent; after all, he had been employed for the garden.
The conversation usually revolved around Monsieur Huppert’s passion, namely the black continent, for which he harbored a love that bordered on idolatry. Ten years of travel in his job as an importer of raw materials for important European companies had allowed him to consider Africa his adoptive land. And listening to his stories, Africa still seemed the continent of Livingston, of Stanley and of Savorgnan di Brazza’. Monsieur Huppert knew its secret heart, its most arcane witchcraft, its least frequented tourist destinations. Listening to him speak, I felt myself immersed in my childhood reading, in my infantile dreams, in the stories of Tarzan and the adventures of Cino and Franco, in the films of Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart. He knew everything about the paths less traveled. For example: which safaris to choose amongst those leaving from Fort-Lamy and from Fort-Achambault, which periods to avoid in order to not end up in a crush of rich Americans in search of thrills, he knew the best guides in Nairobi, the Paleolithic caves of Olor-Gesalie, the rock paintings of Cheke, the mysterious ruins of Zimbabwe that some believed to be the mythical mines of Solomon. But he also knew the fascination of Victoria Falls, the luxury of the N’gor di Dakar Hotel, the picturesque cottages of the Kilimanjaro hills where rich Rhodesians spend their vacations, the emerald green of South Africa’s golf courses.
During dinner I sat in silence listening to his stories…what else could I do moreover? One time, after returning to my room, I jotted down some confusing notes that I entitled, “Voyage en Afrique:” an ideal itinerary on which, sooner or later, I was certain the Hupperts would invite me. I realized, with perfect objectivity, that my prestige with them was clearly on the rise. Amongst other things, the victory with the gallery in Zurich, which had written to congratulate me and accept my conditions, scored an indisputable point in my favor.
I was alone in the house when the telephone call arrived from Monsieur Delatour. The Hupperts had gone into town to do some shopping (Madame had to buy some Christmas ornaments) and had entrusted the villa to me as they normally did now when they went away. At such times, I answered the telephone, signed for certified letters, paid the suppliers and arranged supper with Constance.
Surprise doesn’t begin to describe the agitation that overtook Madame when she learned of Monsieur Delatour’s arrival the next day. She called it a catastrophe; my God, we didn’t have anything in the house. We were so unprepared, and then, was he coming alone or with Madame Delatour? I didn’t know? For heaven’s sake, that was “critical!” It was so embarrassing receiving guests in such a haphazard way, and the Delatours at that! Oh how stupid not to have bought flowers in town; there weren’t even enough for a decent Ikebana.
The following day was one of feverish activity. In the morning, Madame tried to compose a Shinsei with pine needles and magnolia leaves but decided it came out shabby and awkward and immediately dismantled it. I suggested a good luck Jushoku with chrysanthemums, ferns and a persimmon branch. It had the advantage of being an easy composition, and then the persimmon from the garden with its bright orange fruit was truly a splendor. For the base we used a modern, turquoise blue, very elegant vase by Venini. It turned out satisfactorily enough, though as a centerpiece, it really wasn’t much to speak of. At most, it was suitable for the sideboard, or better still, for the buffet. Placing in the middle of the fruit on the table gave it a painter’s touch but not much more.
Arriving unexpectedly to save us were the blue carnations I had ordered from the Sanremo company; I had almost forgotten all about them. A company van came to deliver them together with the bulbs. An expert eye could see immediately that they weren’t a natural color. I had never understood if the coloring agent was introduced through the soil or sprayed on the flowers. At any rate, they arrived in perfect condition, extremely fresh…a true godsend. At lunch, Madame and I excused ourselves from Monsieur Huppert, we hoped that he understood…that day he would just have to eat alone. We ate a quick snack, sandwiches and grapefruit juice, and quickly moved on to the Ikebana. We aimed for the majestic. To tell the truth, the composition wasn’t really orthodox but we guessed Monsieur Delatour probably wouldn’t know the difference, and so we took more liberty. Our Moribana leaned a little towards the “epater” with its milky white tray, ferns and patch of six blue carnations in the middle. But as a table centerpiece, it had a powerful personality, enough to influence everything else…everything else, that is, that then fell to me because Madame went to her room to put on her makeup and left me in a mortal state of uncertainty. I decided to go for a very contained elegance, without ostentation: a very simple white linen tablecloth, nineteenth century Dutch porcelain and long stemmed crystal glasses. I finished at 7:00, just as I heard the crunch of a car’s tires pulling up on the gravel. I could see from the window that it was a dark blue Bentley, with chauffeur, but couldn’t make out how many people were in the rear. In any case, there was no time to lose; I had just one hour to rush to my bedroom and make myself presentable. I had been entrusted with the responsibility for the flambé at dinner and hadn’t had time to try on Madame’s evening dress, but was certain it would make me look too old. I was exhausted.
Madame was a dear to present me as her “artistic secretary, Mademoiselle Rossi- Fini.” It helped me to find the self-confidence I needed. Not that I was embarrassed, heavens no, but a little nervous, yes, I don’t deny it. And then, the Delatours weren’t exactly the kind of people who put you at ease, especially Madam Delatour. As a girl she must have been very beautiful. Now she projected an austere kind of beauty, on the order of Grace Kelly’s but more arrogant and cold: very thin eyebrows, ash blond hair pulled back at the neck…the taut look of a woman who frequents the Swiss clinics. On the other hand, the years had bestowed a touch of fascination on Monsieur Delatour, as happens sometimes to otherwise plain men: graying temples, crow’s feet, a light tan, blue eyes…a Von Karajan type but more solid, less ascetic.
Giuseppe entered carrying the avocado hors d’oeuvres. The pistachio green cubes of avocado, covered with a light veil of crushed ice and a drop of ketchup, looked magnificent in the silver bowls. Oh, “just a little trifle,” I said shyly, making it clear that I was only feigning shyness. My old governess, Francine, taught me how to make it. Papa’ loved avocados. Actually, he adored all exotic fruits…maybe for aesthetic reasons, who knows. He had a terrible aesthetic sense, my father. Artist? No no, mining. That’s right, truly a terrible aesthetic sense. However, certain exotic fruits are truly pleasing to the eye, don’t you agree? Put a pineapple, a papaya, a guava, and an avocado together and they make an Ikebana in their own sort of way…an Ikebana without a title, plain and simple.
“And this one here, what’s its name?”
Madame Delatour’s question caught us off guard, the proverbial cold shower. In the rush of preparations, in the agitation of the unforeseen arrival, Madame and I hadn’t given a single thought to its name. I froze, awaiting Madame’s reply. Instead, Madame elegantly turned, and with a gesture, invited me to respond, saying, “Please dear, you should be the one to tell her,” implying, I don’t want to deprive you of this pleasure.
I desperately floundered for a name equal to the situation. Madame Delatour’s eyes were piercing me like two needles; skeptical and probing. “Paradise…Heavenly Paradise,” I said. “It’s a traditional Moribana,” I continued in one breath. “It refers to the enchantment that is born in the hearts of the hosts on the arrival of welcome guests.”
The glacial expression on Madame Delatour’s face finally melted. Her tense expression relaxed (became less attractive, I have to say) and opened up into a friendly smile…she was about to give in. Giuseppe saw to her definitive conquest when he entered pushing the serving cart. The roasted pheasant, arranged on its tray, was superb. Before entrusting the cart to me, Giuseppe gathered up the tail feathers that decorated the tray, popped open the champagne and then the cognac with impressive assuredness, and only then said, “Monsieur Delatour, there’s a phone call for you from Paris.” The good Giuseppe had some unexpected gifts; perhaps I had underestimated him. In the meantime, the women united against Monsieur Huppert. Starting with the pheasant, the discussion had turned to hunting in general, at which point Monsieur Huppert, quite unadvisedly, confessed his passion for the safari.
“What? (Madame Delatour spoke in her usual detached tone but was visibly scandalized). Kill a gazelle? that mass of ‘élan vital’ wrapped in the grace of that slender body? Wasn’t killing that marvel of creation a crime against nature?”
Monsieur Huppert tried to explain without displaying too much enthusiasm that gazelles are not the only game taken on safaris, or at least, not exclusively hunted. He spoke about the thrill of the hunt, man against beast…even cited Hemingway. But he was clearly at a disadvantage and ultimately isolated. I was careful not to offer my opion; it seemed rather risky.
Monsieur Delatour returned with a worried look on his face and took his seat; he seemed distracted. The conversation resumed with a certain weariness but, thank goodness, it was time for the competition
It was sure to enliven the evening. “Voila’,” I said, holding the fireplace match like a torch. “The infidel is condemned to the stake; let justice be done.” It seemed to me like an amusing quip but nobody laughed. I bombed.
“So you didn’t make the contacts in Dakar as we agreed?” asked Monsieur Delatour suddenly, staring at Monsieur Huppert.
Monsieur Huppert flinched slightly, went silent for a moment, obviously ill at ease…took a sip of champagne. “I’ll explain later,” he said. “It wasn’t so easy this time.”
“I don’t believe that will be necessary,” responded Monsieur Delatour. “I have just received a very confidential report from Paris…you know very well from whom.” He spoke in a cold neutral tone without a hint of cordiality, as if he had never met Monsieur Huppert. “The Germans closed the deal as could have been expected. Now we can just leave everything in the warehouse to mellow.”
The cognac was burning merrily on the pheasant with a sputtering, pale blue flame…full of promise. The recipe called for at least a minute of burn but it probably didn’t last that long; I had used too little cognac. No matter, it was better that way. The show was over and it was time to eat. I hastily carved and called for Giuseppe to serve. Madame Delatour took a tiny piece of breast that lay directly under a truffle…she was on a very strict diet: beauty embalmed (yikes). Madame Huppert, perhaps not to embarrass her guest, followed her example. When Giuseppe offered me the serving tray, I wasn’t sure whether to do the same. There was a small strip of meat on the upper thigh, a very small portion, which perhaps would have sufficed…I could always drop in on Constance later. Then it flashed through my mind that Giuseppe and that greedy Constance would finish off the leftovers, happy as clams that the signori had eaten so little, and I served myself a generous piece of breast. I mean I practically hadn’t eaten since breakfast. The sandwich at lunch had merely whetted my appetite. The day had been stressful, and all things considered, that pheasant was all my doing.
“I wonder if you realize the problems you’ve caused us with your lack of timeliness,” said Monsieur Delatour in the same tone as before.
Monsieur Huppert responded that he did indeed realize it.
“Good,” continued Monsieur Delatour, “then try to convert these problems into dollars.” Monsieur Huppert probably made a mental calculation because his face turned pale, the truffle on his fork stalled in midair and his forehead beaded up with sweat. “Monsieur Huppert,” said Monsieur Delatour in cutting fashion, “do you realize that we pay you to sell? You cease to sell, we cease to pay.”
I blessed Giuseppe who entered with the dessert. It was a chilled pineapple mousse garnished with candied cherries, one of Constance’s masterpieces that I was crazy about. When Giuseppe served me, I whispered for him to bring out more champagne (I had put two other bottles in the frigde one hour before, just in case) and to be quick about it. Then I got up to light the fire in the fireplace, not without pointing out that that evening, I was feeling just like a vestal; vestal or pyromaniac, the choice was theirs. Madame Huppert broke out in a healthy laugh and Monsieur Delatour joined in. The mood was actually cheering up. It occurred to me that there was nothing better than a nice fire in the hearth for relaxing frayed nerves. Then Giuseppe entered with a bucket of ice and the Dom Perignon wrapped in an immaculate white towel. (Impeccable; the old Giuseppe was behaving like a grand-maitre d’.) He popped the cork and filled the glasses.
“You realize,” said Monsieur Delatour to Monsieur Huppert (but now his voice was more calm, more conciliatory), “You realize, I hope, that if you want to regain the lost ground at this point, you have no other choice but the X-21. And what’s more, if you had followed my advice, you would have signed them up last year.”
Monsieur Huppert didn’t seem completely recovered from the earlier discord. He was still pale; I noticed a slight tremor in his lips. With his eyes lowered, he began to speak in defense of himself…it seemed that that fool was purposely trying to ruin an evening that had held up till that point, even if rather precariously.
“But it’s not possible,” he mumbled. “You understand Monsieur Delatour, it has nothing to do with some whim of mine…I mean, it’s one thing…”
As I expected, Monsieur Delatour completely lost his patience at that point. Blood rushed to his face and his neck muscles tensed. Monsieur Huppert, that mule-headed man, had succeeded in ruining the evening.
“It’s one thing, what?…said Monsieur Delatour, trying to control himself. “What do you mean, ‘It’s one thing?’”
“Let’s just say that it’s causing societal changes,” said Monsieur Huppert.
“Now look my dear Monsieur Huppert,” muttered a distressed Monsieur Delatour, “progress has its risks, don’t you agree? We always pay for civilization in one way or another. We don’t ever pass from the cave to the refrigerator without paying a price.”
Monsieur Huppert said nothing, staring obstinately at the pineapple mousse left on his plate. There was a long moment of silence. The only sound was the crackling of the embers in the fire.
Monsieur Delatour assumed a conciliatory tone, almost kindly: he was talking to a child who had done something foolish, unknowingly. “Further, allow me to say that one doesn’t conquer the market with methods like yours. I don’t mean to teach you your trade, heavens no, but well, one can’t truly claim to be placing certain products in the market while accompanying them with certificates of guarantee. How many other times have you brought those poor devils the refined products of our civilization without advising them of ethical conventions? It takes tact…do you understand me…delicacy. Try to find a name that’s a little more innocent…more conventional, that’s it…and possibly attractive. They are primitives, Monsieur Huppert; believe me. Primitives love poetic names, mythical names. Of course, if you have to leave something in writing, it’s always best to sign with…how should I put this…a pseudonym.”
His eyes roamed around the room. His gaze fell on the fireplace, on Madame Huppert watching the fire, on me watching him, on the champagne and finally on the Ikebana in the center of the table.
“For instance,” he murmured in an suggestive way, like someone who’s had a great idea…“for instance, begin by selling them a million dollar’s worth of “Heavenly Paradises.”
Just at that moment, Giuseppe reappeared, to ask if he should serve the coffee. “In a few minutes,” said Madame. “We’ll take it next to the fire.”
Antonio Tabucchi, Italian writer and scholar (born Sept. 24, 1943, Pisa, Italy—died March 25, 2012, Lisbon, Port.), crafted lyrical yet frequently humorous stories and novels, many of which reflected his special love of Portugal, notably the melancholy and pantheistic elements in Portuguese literature known as saudade. Tabucchi’s best-known works include Notturno indiano (1984; Indian Nocturne, 1989; film 1989), Piccoli equivoci senza importanza (1985; Little Misunderstandings of No Importance, 1987), and Sostiene Pereira (1994; Pereira Declares: A Testimony, 1995; film 1995). The latter novel, the story of the 1938 crisis of conscience of a Lisbon journalist under the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar, was frequently interpreted as a criticism of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whom Tabucchi critiqued more directly in essays and newspaper columns. Tabucchi, who studied literature at the University of Pisa, taught Portuguese literature at the Universities of Genoa and Siena, served as the director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Lisbon, produced translations of such Portuguese writers as Fernando Pessoa, and wrote one novel in Portuguese.
Cover image: Collage by Basseck Mankabu