That was when I met little Lola from America in the lobby of the Opéra-Comique, and it was thanks to her that I really found out what was what.
There are certain dates that stand out after months and months when you might just as well have been dead. That evening at the Opéra-Comique with my medal was a turning point in my life.
Lola made me curious about the United States, because of the questions I started asking right away and that she hardly answered at all. When you start traveling that way, you never know when or how you’ll get back …
At the time I’m speaking of, everybody in Paris wanted a uniform. Practically nobody was without one, except neutrals and spies, which to all intents and purposes were identical. Lola had a genuine official uniform, and it was really natty, decorated with little crosses all over, on the sleeves and on the tiny cap that she perched at a rakish angle on her wavy hair. She’d come to help us save France, as she told the hotel manager, to the best of her humble ability but with all her heart! We understood each other right away, but not completely, because the transports of the heart were beginning to give me a pain, I was more interested in the transports of the body. You can’t trust the heart, not at all. I’d learned that in the war, and I wasn’t going to forget it in a hurry.
Lola’s heart was tender, weak, and enthusiastic. Her body was sweet, it was adorable, so what could I do but take her all together as she was? Lola was a good kid all right, but between us stood the war, the monstrous frenzy that was driving half of humanity, lovers or not, to send the other half to the slaughterhouse. Naturally this interfered with our relationship. For me, who was dragging out my convalescence as long as possible and wasn’t the least bit eager to go back on duty in the flaming graveyards of no man’s land, the absurdity of our massacre was glaringly obvious at every step I took in town. Whichever way I looked, I saw cynical grasping cunning.
Still, I hadn’t much chance of keeping out of it, I lacked the indispensable connections. The people I knew were all poor, people whose death is of no interest to anybody. And I could hardly count on Lola to keep me safe at home. Even if she was a nurse, I couldn’t have conceived of anyone more bellicose than that sweet young thing—except maybe Ortolan. If I hadn’t been through the muddy fricassee of heroism myself, her little Joan of Arc number might have stirred and converted me, but since my enlistment on the Place Clichy I had grown phobically allergic to heroism, verbal or real. I was cured. Radically cured.
For the convenience of the ladies of the American Expeditionary Force, the group of nurses Lola belonged to were quartered in the Hôtel Paritz and, to make things even more delightful for her personally, she had been put in charge (she had connections) of a special service, whose mission it was to supply the Paris hospitals with apple fritters. Every morning thousands of dozens of them were handed out. Lola performed this benign duty with a touching zeal, which, as it turned out, was later to have disastrous consequences.
Lola, it has to be admitted, had never made a fritter in all her life. She therefore hired a number of mercenary cooks, and after a few trials the fritters were ready for delivery, as juicy and sweet and golden as anyone could wish for. All Lola actually had to do was taste them before they were delivered to the various hospital wards. Every morning Lola got up at the stroke of ten, took her bath, and went down to the kitchens, which were situated deep in the basement. This, I repeat, she did every morning, clad only in a black-and-yellow Japanese kimono that a boyfriend in San Francisco had given her the day before she left.
In short, everything was running smoothly, and we were happily winning the war, when one fine day at lunch I found her shattered, refusing to touch so much as a single dish. I was seized with foreboding: what misfortune or sudden illness had befallen her? I begged her to entrust herself to my watchful affection.
After conscientiously tasting fritters every day for a month Lola had put on two pounds! Her little belt bore witness to the disaster, she found herself obliged to move on to the next notch. She burst into tears. I did my best to comfort her. In a turmoil of emotion we repaired by taxi to several pharmacies, situated at a considerable distance from one another. The scales proved implacable. As ill luck would have it, they all confirmed that two pounds had indeed and undeniably been gained. I suggested that she turn her job over to a friend who, on the contrary, was eager to enlarge her allurements. Lola wouldn’t hear of such a compromise, which she regarded as shameful, as a kind of desertion. That, I recall, is when she told me that her great-great uncle had been a member of the crew of the eternally glorious Mayflower which landed in Boston in 1677, and that in view of such a past she couldn’t dream of shirking her fritter duty, which may have been humble but was nevertheless a sacred trust.
The fact remains that from that day on she barely touched her teeth—which, incidentally, were evenly set and very very enticing—to the fritters. Her dread of putting on weight completely destroyed her enjoyment of life. She began to waste away. Soon she was as afraid of fritters as I was of bullets. Because of the fritters we spent most of our time taking long healthful walks on the riverbanks and boulevards, and we stopped going to the Napolitain, because ice cream is another thing that makes ladies put on weight.
I had never dreamed of a place so comfortable to live in as her room, all pale blue with a bathroom adjoining. Photographs of her friends were all over, with dedications, not many women, lots of men, handsome, dark with curly hair, that was her type, she’d talk to me about the color of their eyes and read me the dedications, which were tender, solemn, and every last one of them absolutely irrevocable. At first those effigies embarrassed me, I felt I was being rude, but then I got used to it.
The moment I stopped kissing her, I was in for it, she’d start on the war and her fritters. France figured prominently in our conversation. To Lola’s way of thinking, France was some sort of chivalric being, not very clearly defined in space or time, but at the moment dangerously wounded and for that very reason too too exciting. When anybody mentioned France to me, I instantly thought of my guts, so I wasn’t nearly so open to patriotic ardor. Each man to his fears. Nevertheless, since she was sexually accommodating, I listened and never contradicted her. But when it came to my soul, she wasn’t at all satisfied with me. She’d have liked to see me bubbling and bursting with enthusiasm, whereas I couldn’t see a single reason for adopting that sublime state of mind, in fact I could see a thousand, all equally irrefutable, for persevering in the exact opposite disposition.
Obviously Lola was nuts with happiness and optimism, like all people on the good side of life, the ones with privilege, health, security, who still have a long time to live.
She kept bothering me with the soul, she was always going on about it. The soul is the body’s vanity and pleasure as long as the body’s in good health, but it’s also the urge to escape from the body as soon as the body is sick or things are going badly. Of the two poses, you take the one that suits you best at the moment, and that’s all there is to it! As long as you can choose between the two, you’re all right. But I couldn’t choose anymore, my die was cast! I was up to my neck in the truth; death dogged my every step, so to speak. It was very hard for me to think of anything but my suspended sentence to be murdered, a fate which everyone else regarded as just the right thing for me.
In this kind of deferred death agony that hits you when you’re lucid and in good health, the mind is open to nothing but absolute truths. Once you’ve been through it, you’ll know what you’re talking about till the end of your days.
My conclusion was that if the Germans were to come and pillage, massacre, and burn everything in sight, the hotel, the fritters, Lola, the Tuileries, the cabinet ministers, their little boyfriends, the Coupole, the Louvre, the department stores, if they were to swoop down on the city and unleash the wrath of God and the fires of hell on this putrid carnival, to which nothing in the way of sordidness could possibly be added, I would have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
You don’t lose much when the landlord’s house burns down. Another landlord will always turn up, unless it’s the same one, German or French, English or Chinese, to collect the rent … In marks or francs? What difference does it make, seeing you’ve got to pay …
In short, my morale was low. If I’d told Lola what I thought of the war, she’d have taken me for a monster and banished me from the ultimate joys of her boudoir. So I was careful to keep my sentiments to myself. Besides, I had outside difficulties and rivalries to worry about. Quite a few officers were trying to filch her away from me. Their competition was redoubtable, armed as they were with the seduction of their Legions of Honor. And just then the American papers were beginning to be full of this damned Legion of Honor. She cuckolded me two or three times, and I’d go so far to say that our relationship would have been in serious danger on those occasions, if it hadn’t dawned on her that I could be put to a higher use, namely, made to taste the fritters every morning in her stead.
This last-minute specialization saved me. She could accept me as a substitute, for I was a valiant comrade-in-arms, hence worthy of so sacred a mission. From that moment on we were more than lovers, we were partners as well. The modern age had dawned.
To me her body was a joy without end. I never wearied of exploring that American body. I have to admit that I was a terrible lecher. I still am.
And I formed the pleasant and fortifying conviction that a country capable of producing bodies so daringly graceful, so tempting in their spiritual flights, must have countless other vital revelations to offer, of a biological nature, it goes without saying.
I made up my mind, while feeling and fondling Lola, that sooner or later I’d take a trip, or call it a pilgrimage, to the United States, the sooner the better. And the fact is that I knew neither peace nor rest (in an implacably adverse and harassed life) until I managed to go through with that profound and mystically anatomical adventure.
So it was in the immediate vicinity of Lola’s rear end that I received the message of a new world. Of course Lola wasn’t all body, she also had a wee little face that was adorable and just a bit cruel because of her gray-blue eyes that slanted slightly upward at the corners like a wildcat’s.
Just looking at her made my mouth water, like a sip of dry wine, that flinty taste. There was a hardness in her eyes, unrelieved by the amiably commercial orientalo-Fragonard vivacity you find in nearly all the eyes in these parts.
We usually met in a café nearby. There were more and more wounded men hobbling through the streets, many of them very bedraggled. Collections were taken for their benefit, “days” for this group and “days” for that group, especially for the organizers of the “days.” Lying, fucking, dying. A law had just been passed prohibiting all other activity. The lies that were being told surpassed the imagination, far exceeded the limits of the absurd and preposterous—in the newspapers, on posters, on foot, on horseback, on pleasure boats. Everybody was doing it. In competition, to see who could lie the most outrageously. Soon there wasn’t a bit of truth in the city.
The little that had been left in 1914, people were ashamed of now. Everything you touched was phony, the sugar, the aeroplanes, the shoes, the jam, the photographs … Everything you read, swallowed, sucked, admired, proclaimed, refuted, defended was made up of hate-ridden myths and grinning masquerades, phony to the hilt. The mania for telling lies and believing them is as contagious as the itch. Little Lola’s French consisted of only a few phrases, but they were all patriotic: “On les aura! … “Madelon, viens! …” It was enough to make you cry.
Stubbornly, shamelessly she harped on the deaths of those doomed to die, actually all the women did, as soon as it became fashionable to be brave for other people.
Just as I was looking within and discovering such an extraordinary taste for everything that took me away from the war! I often asked Lola questions about America, but her answers were vague, pretentious, and manifestly unreliable, calculated to make a brilliant impression on me. But by that time I distrusted impressions. I’d been taken in once by an impression, and nobody was going to hoodwink me again. Nobody.
I believed in her body, I didn’t believe in her soul. I thought of Lola as a charming goldbrick, miles away from the war, miles away from life.
She flitted across my nightmare with the mentality of the patriotic press: the poilus in the trenches, our own Lorraine, the cadets in their white gloves … In the meantime I made love to her more and more, I’d convinced her it was a good way to lose weight. But she set more store by our long walks. I hated long walks. But she insisted.
So we spent several hours every afternoon being athletic in the Bois de Boulogne, walking around the lakes and back.
Nature is a frightening thing … Even when it’s solidly domesticated as in the Bois, it gives real city dwellers an eerie, anxious feeling. And that puts them in a confiding mood. The Bois de Boulogne may be damp, fenced in, greasy, and trampled, but there’s nothing like it for sending memories rushing irresistibly to the minds of city dwellers strolling under the trees. Lola was not immune to that melancholy, confidential anxiety. As we walked along she told me, more or less truthfully, a thousand things about her life in New York and her little girlfriends over there.
I couldn’t quite make out how much of the potpourri of dollars, engagements, divorces, dresses, and jewelry that seemed to have made up her existence was worth trying to believe.
That day we headed for the race track. In those days and that neck of the woods you still saw lots of horse-drawn carriages, children on donkeys, other children kicking up dust, and cars full of soldiers on furlough, always in desperate haste, between two trains, to track down the women strolling on the side paths, raising more dust in their hurry to go to dinner and make love, jumpy, oily, peering this way and that, tormented by the implacable clock and the lust for life. They sweated with passion, but also with the heat.
The Bois wasn’t as well cared for as usual, it was neglected, in a state of administrative suspense.
“It must have been pretty here before the war,” Lola observed … “So chic! … Oh, tell me about it, Ferdinand! … Your races here … Were they like ours in New York?”
To tell the truth, I’d never been to the races before the war, but to amuse her I instantly made up dozens of colorful details, drawing on stories various people had told me. The toilettes … the ladies of fashion … The gleaming carriages … The start! … The joyous, imperious horns … The water jump … The President of the Republic … The undulant betting fever, etc.
My idealized account was so much to her liking that it brought us together. At that moment Lola seemed to discover that we had at least one taste in common, well concealed in my case, namely, a taste for social functions. She went so far as to kiss me in a burst of spontaneous emotion, something, I have to admit, that she seldom did. And then she was touched by the sadness of bygone fashions. Everyone has his own way of mourning the passage of time. It was through dead fashions that Lola perceived the flight of the years.
“Ferdinand,” she asked, “do you think there will be races here again?”
“When the war is over, Lola, I should think …”
“We can’t be sure, can we?”
“No, we can’t be sure.”
The possibility that there would never again be races at Longchamp overwhelmed her. The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time.
“Suppose, Ferdinand, suppose the war goes on a long time, maybe for years … Then it’ll be too late for me … to come back here … Do you understand, Ferdinand? … You know how I love beautiful places like this … so grand, so chic … It’ll be too late … Forever too late … Maybe … Maybe I’ll be old, Ferdinand … When the races start up again … I’ll be old … You’ll see, Ferdinand, it will be too late … I can feel it will be too late …”
She was as desolate as if she’d put on two more pounds. I said everything I could think of to comfort her and give her hope … She was only twenty-three after all … The war would be over soon, oh very soon … Good times would come again … as good as before, even better … For her at least … being so adorable … the lost years … she’d catch up with no harm done … She wouldn’t run short of admirers … so soon … To please me she pretended she wasn’t sad anymore.