translated by Burl Horniachek and Ian McMillan

XI. The Wild Woman and the Fine Lady

Really, my dear, you exhaust me without measure or pity. To hear you sigh, one would think that you suffer more than one who gleans in the fields at sixty or a beggarwoman who gathers crusts of bread at the doors of cabarets.

If your sighs at least manifested some remorse, they might do you some honour. But they convey only the satiety of well-being or the discontents of ease. And then you never cease to pour yourself out in worthless phrases: “Love me truly! I really need it! Comfort me here, caress me there!” Hold on, I will attempt to cure you. Perhaps we will find the way, for two sols, in the midst of a carnival, and without going very far.

Consider well, I ask you, this solid cage of iron behind which stirs, howling like one of the damned, shaking the bars like an orangutan driven mad by exile, imitating sometimes, to perfection, the circular leaps of the tiger, sometimes the stupid waddle of the polar bear, this hairy monster whose form somewhat vaguely resembles your own.

This monster is one of those animals which are generally called “my angel,” that is to say a woman. The other monster, the one screaming his head off, stick in hand, is a husband. He has chained his legitimate wife like a beast, and he puts her on display in the outskirts, during carnival time, with, it goes without saying, permission of the magistrate.

Pay close attention! Observe with what voraciousness (perhaps unfeigned!) she tears apart the live rabbits and squawking fowl thrown to her by her trainer. “Come,” he says, “one must not eat one’s fill in a day,” and, with that wise saying, he cruelly snatches away her prey, whose unwound guts remain, for a single instant, caught in the teeth of that ferocious beast, of the woman, I mean.

Come! A good whack of the stick to calm her down! For she shoots her terrible, covetous eyes over the food that has just been removed. Good God! That stick is no comic prop. Did you hear the flesh reverberate, in spite of the fake hair? As her eyes now stick out from her head, she howls more naturally. In her rage, she flashes all over, like beaten iron.

Such are the marriage customs of these two descendants of Adam and Eve, these works of your hand, O my God! This woman is unquestionably unhappy, though after all, perhaps, the titillating delights of fame are not unknown to her. There are misfortunes more irreparable, and without compensation. But in the world into which she has been thrown, she has never believed that a woman deserves any other fate.

Now for us two, my precious dear! Having seen the hells with which the world is populated, what would you have me think of your own pretty hell, you who lie only on fabrics as soft as your skin, who eat only cooked meat, and for whom a skilled servant takes care to carve it into pieces!

And what can they mean for me, all these little sighs that swell your perfumed breast, lusty coquette? And all these affectations learned from books, and all this unremitting gloom, made to inspire in the observer a feeling completely other than pity? In truth, it sometimes makes me want to teach you what real adversity is.

To see you like this, my delicate beauty, feet in the mire and eyes turned mistily to the sky, as if asking of it a king, one might say you closely resemble a young frog who invokes the ideal. If you despise this log (which I am now, as you well know) watch out for the crane who will munch on you, swallow you, and kill you as he pleases.

As much of a poet as I am, I am not so easy to fool as you might wish. And if you exhaust me too often with you precious whining, I will treat you like a wild woman, or I will throw you out the window, like an empty bottle.

XXXIX. The Racehorse

She is really ugly. She is delicious for all that.

Time and Love have marked her with their claws and have cruelly taught her that every minute, and every kiss (or fuck), carry youth and freshness away.

She is truly ugly; she is an ant, a spider, if you will, a skeleton herself; but she is also a potion, a magistery, witchcraft! In short, she is exquisite.

Time could not break the sparkling harmony of her gait nor the indestructible elegance of her frame. Love has not spoiled the sweetness of her child’s breath; and time has pulled out none of her abundant mane, from which wild perfumes exhale all the fiendish vitality of the South of France: Nimes, Aix, Arles, Avignon, Narbonne, Toulouse, cities blessed by the sun, passionate and charming!

Time and love have bitten her keenly in vain; they have not diminished the vague but eternal charm of her boyish chest.

Worn, perhaps, but not tired, and always heroic, she makes one think of those horses of great race which the eye of the true amateur may recognize, even hitched to a hired coach or a heavy wagon.

And then she is so sweet and so fervent! She loves as one loves in autumn; one might say the approach of winter lights a new fire in her heart, and the submissiveness of her affection is never tiring.

XLII. Portraits of Mistresses

In a men’s boudoir, that is to say, in a smoking room adjoining an elegant dive, four men were smoking and drinking. They were not exactly young or old, neither beautiful nor ugly; but old or young, they bore that unmistakable distinction of the veterans of delight, that indescribable I-know-not-what, that cold and mocking sadness which clearly states: “We have lived fiercely, and we look for that which we can love and esteem.”

One of them threw the conversation onto the subject of women. It would have been more philosophical not to speak of it at all; but there are people of spirit who, after drinking, do not despise trivial conversation. You then listen to the one speaking, as you would listen to dance music.

“All men,” said this one, “have been Cherubino’s age; that is the age when, due to the dryads, one embraces, without disgust, the trunks of oak trees. This is the first degree of love. In the second degree, we begin to choose. To be able to deliberate is already a decadence. It is then that we are definitely looking for beauty. For me, gentlemen, I am proud to have long ago reached the climactic era of the third degree, when beauty itself is no longer enough, if it is not seasoned with perfume, parure, et cetera…I will even confess that sometimes I aspire, as to an unknown happiness, to a certain fourth degree which must be designated absolute calm. But in all my life, except at Cherubino’s age, I was more sensitive than anyone else to the annoying foolishness and irritating mediocrity of women. What I like most about animals is their candor. Judge, then, how much I must have suffered at the hands of my last mistress.

“She was the bastard daughter of a prince. Beautiful, that goes without saying; else why would I have picked her? But she spoiled that great quality by an improper and deformed ambition. She was a woman who always wanted to play the man. ‘You are not a man! Ah! if I was a man! Between us two, it is I who is the man!’ Such were the unbearable refrains coming out of that mouth from which I would have liked to see fly nothing but songs. Concerning a book, a poem, an opera for which I let my admiration slip: ‘Do you think that that is all that powerful?’ she said immediately, ‘What would you know about power?’ And she argued.

“One day she took up chemistry; so that between my mouth and hers, I henceforth found a glass mask. With all that, very prudish. If sometimes I unsettled her with a slightly too amorous gesture, she recoiled like a touch-me-not that has been violated…”

“How did it end?” said one of the other three. “I did not know you were so patient.”

“God,” he went on, “put the remedy in the evil. One day, I found this Minerva, starved for ideal strength, one-on-one with my servant, and in a situation which forced me to withdraw discreetly, so as not to make them blush. That evening, I dismissed them both, paying them their wages in arrears.”

‘For myself,” said the one who had interrupted, “I have only myself to blame. Happiness came to live at my house, and I did not recognize it. Not long ago, destiny had given me the enjoyment of a woman who was the sweetest, the most submissive and the most devoted of creatures, and always ready! and without enthusiasm! ‘I don’t mind, since you find it pleasant.’ That was her usual answer. Thrash this wall or sofa and you would draw more sighs than a torrent of the most frenzied love could draw from the breast of my mistress. After a year of life together, she confessed to me that she had never known pleasure. I got sick of this unequal duel, and that incomparable girl got married. Sometime after, I had a fancy to see her again, and she said to me, showing me six beautiful children: ‘Ah well! my dear friend, the wife is still as much a virgin as your mistress.’ Nothing in this person had changed. Sometimes I miss her: I should have married her.”

The others began to laugh, and a third said in turn:

“Gentlemen, I have known pleasures which you have perhaps neglected. I would speak of the comical in love, and the comical aspect which does not exclude admiration. I have more admired my last mistress than you, I believe, could have hated or loved yours. And all the world admired her as much as I did. When we entered a restaurant, after a few minutes, everyone forgot to eat so as to contemplate her. The waiters themselves and the barmaid experienced this contagious ecstasy so as to forget their duties. In short, I lived for some time one-on-one with a living phenomenon. She ate, chewed, demolished, devoured, engulfed, but with the lightest and most carefree look in the world. She had held me thus a long time in ecstasy. She had a sweet, dreamy, English, and romantic way of saying, “I am hungry!’ And she repeated these words day and night, showing the most pretty teeth in the world, which would have mollified and gladdened all at once.—I could have made my fortune by showing her in fairs as a polyphagous monster. I fed her well; and still she left me…—For a commissary, no doubt?—Something close, a kind of employee in the supply corps who, by some turn of the baton known only to him, gives this poor child the ration of perhaps several soldiers. At least that’s what I suppose.”

“As for me,” said the fourth, “I endured atrocious sufferings from the opposite of what the egoistic female is generally reproached for. I do not think you in any position, you too fortunate mortals, to complain of the imperfections of your mistresses!”

This was said in a very serious tone, by a man of a gentle and composed appearance, of an almost clerical physiognomy, unfortunately illuminated by light gray eyes, those eyes whose gaze says: “I want!” or “It must!” or else “I never forgive!”

“If you, as neurotic as I know you to are, G…, as cowardly and superficial as you are, you two, K… and J…, had you been coupled with a certain woman of my acquaintance, either you would have fled, or you would have died. As for me, I survived, as you can see. Imagine a person unable to commit an error of sentiment or calculation? Imagine a devastating serenity of character; devotion without playacting or exaggeration; gentleness without weakness; power without violence. The history of my love is like an endless journey upon a surface pure and polished like a mirror, breathtakingly monotonous, that would have reflected all my feelings and gestures with the ironic accuracy of my own consciousness, so that I could not allow myself an unreasonable gesture or feeling without immediately perceiving the mute reproach of my inseparable specter. Love seemed to me like a guardianship. What foolishness she prevented me from doing, which I regret not having done! How many debts repaid in spite of myself! She deprived me of all the benefits I might have derived from my own personal madness. With a cold and insurmountable rule, she blocked all my whims. To compound the horror, the danger passed, she required no recognition. How many times have I not restrained myself from jumping at her throat, shouting at her: “Be therefore imperfect, you wretch! so that I can love you without discomfort or anger! For several years, I admired her, my heart full of hatred. In the end, it was not me who died!

“Ah!” said the others, “so she’s dead?”

“Yes! it could not go on like this. Love had become an overwhelming nightmare for me. To conquer or die, as politics would say, was the alternative imposed on me by destiny! One evening, in a wood…at the edge of a pond…after a melancholy stroll where her eyes, her own, reflected the sweetness of the sky, and where my heart, my own, was tense as all hell…”



“What do you mean?”

“It was inevitable. I have too much sense of equity to beat, outrage, or dismiss an irreproachable servant. But I had to reconcile that sentiment with the horror which this being inspired in me; to rid myself of this being without failing to respect her. What would you have me do with her, since she was perfect?”

The other three companions gazed at him with a vague and slightly dazed look, pretending not to understand and implicitly confessing that, furthermore, they did not feel, for themselves, capable of such a rigorous, though otherwise sufficiently explained, action.

Then they had new bottles brought in, to kill time, which has such lasting life, and to speed life along, which flows so slowly.

XLIII. The Gallant Marksman

As the carriage was going through the woods, he had it stopped in the neighbourhood of a shooting range, saying that it would be nice to shoot a few balls to kill Time. To kill that monster, is that not the most ordinary and the most legitimate occupation of everyone? And he gallantly offered his hand to his dear, delightful, and execrable wife, to that mysterious woman to whom he owes so much pleasure, so much suffering, and perhaps also a large part of his genius.

Several balls hit far from the intended target; one of them even buried itself in the ceiling; and as the charming creature laughed wildly, making fun of her husband’s ineptitude, he turned abruptly towards her and said, “See that doll, over there, to the right, sticking her nose in the air and looking so haughty. Well! my dear angel, I picture it as you.” And he closed his eyes and released the trigger. The doll was cleanly beheaded.

Then, bowing to his dear, his delightful, his execrable wife, his inevitable and pitiless muse, and respectfully kissing her hand, he added: “Ah! my dear angel, how much do I thank you for my ability!”