My French Great-grandmother
written by Lucia Sallustio
I’m tired, it was a long journey and I had to change train four times before arriving in this place, which has been impressed in our family’s DNA for four generations. It runs like blood in our veins and would risk overflowing if it did not silently flow back into the channels of memory.
It is shadow and memory, joy and torment. It is me, who would not exist without this subtle, contorted thread that re-connects me to a distant story, a banal story of times past that smells of faded violets, of humiliation and deluded hopes, of the scent of my skin, tanned by the July sun, burnt like the arid, cracked earth of my south homeland.
For years I’ve been planning this journey into the past, this dive with a double twist into the shadows that I carry inside myself.
The hotel room has obviously been renovated, although it preserves a classic, refined, slightly retro flavour in the choice of colours and patterns for the furnishings. I had reserved the one with a view of the piazza and the Teatro del Giglio, to help me reconstruct the story of love and passion that had made me cry and boil with anger as it unfolded, line after line on pages made ragged by silverfish. I think it is indeed the room alluded to in the letter. I told reception that I wanted the room from the othe-r time again.
I have to smile when I think that what is left to me of the great-grandmother in the story is above all this habit of the throaty ‘r’, which has been passed down to me and has given a certain French elegance to our way of speaking.
I was talking about the silve-r-fish, they had devoured parts of the letters which surfaced by chance one day as I was tidying up, from the drawers of Grandmother’s dressing-table, which I had inherited from my mother.
They were in a box of men’s handkerchiefs, the long, narrow kind, and smelt of mould and violets. About fifteen letters, written at intervals of time that became increasingly close between the first and the last and covered a span of three years.
Three years, then, the love story between Lisette and Arcangelo had lasted.
“Lisette, ma chérie, ma petite Lisette, lumière de mes yeux et flamme de mon cœur…” and the gentleman went on, employing metaphors and similes that must have made the French girl’s heart beat more than a little faster, surely flattered by such a refined, knowing courtship.
Poor Great-grandmother, or poor Arcangelo, I wouldn’t know which. I wouldn’t want to take sides, also because there is a vagueness around Lisette’s arrival in Lucca and her final departure from the town. My parents never spoke openly about it, if not with small, distracted mentions of that Great-grandmother, a frivolous singer of drawing-room melodies, who had naively given in to the flattery of an already-married philanderer. An awkward story, evidently, which I had laboriously tried to reconstruct when it was by then too late. I don’t know if my mother had purposely not wanted to get rid of those letters, or if she simply hadn’t had time before she died. I like to believe that she had wanted to entrust them to me, the archaeologist of the heart. Perhaps she had not wanted to cancel that love story, so romantic despite everything.
“Mon amour, Arcangelo, mon adoré,” replied Lisette, and went on to enjoin him to break off the relationship, telling him that she couldn’t go on in that way, that it was impure and that God would have punished them. There was an interval of a year between the first letters and this one. Evidently Lisette had found out that Arcangelo was married and wanted to leave him, but he pushed to see her again. It is certain that by that time the affair had crossed the line of no return, that line after which all rationality loses lucidity and the mind is clouded by the heart.
The bells of the Cathedral behind the hotel toll. Long, sombre, vibrating tolls. They pass through the body, thundering like the word of God. Shameless and trembling, they must have perceived them like that, the two lovers surprised by the Creator in their Universe. And this hotel was the whole Universe for them in those moments of solitude that had by then lost their bliss and were just heartbreak and anguish.
“My nostrils are still full of the scent of your skin as I bury my lips in the perfumed folds of your neck. I am lost, bewildered, my Lisette, by the immensity of this love that does not let me sleep, does not let me live, does not let me desire anyone but you. I am adrift in the memory of you. Your statuesque body, your delicate, velvet skin, your silken hair that caresses your shoulders. Furtive lovers damned by the tolling of the bells that still disturb my dreams that have become nightmares.”
Poor Arcangelo, the father my grandmother never knew, the grandfather my mother never had. The damned lover who believed he had got away scot-free after a few crumbs of love, and instead had been caught in the meshes of his own net. A casual affair, he had told himself over and over again, a betrayal like many others during a business trip to Lucca. And instead, he had fallen in love like a schoolboy with that French girl. With her, love had been tinged with passion and yearning desire, it had been coloured with the dark red of the carpet in the hotel Universe, the green of hope and the velvet of the furnishings, and when he was with her, her eyes shone with all the lights that lit the hall and the rooms.
They had both lost themselves in that love born under an unlucky star, an unfavourable season, in a bed of chance that belonged to neither of them, and which had entertained and reinvigorated other bodies.
I can almost see them, my great-grandparents. She, tall and sinuous, a wasp waist squeezed by a corset, a little black hat with a veil on her ebony hair, long satin gloves. She peels them off slowly, with charm and seduction, seemingly spontaneous yet studied movements. An artist no longer recognizes the limit where illusion becomes reality.
Her large eyes made deeper by a bewitching black line, fathomless vortices that attract like black holes. And Arcangelo drowns in those eyes, burns with desire, he imagines drowning with his whole being in that woman he has been pursuing for days, that he met at the theatre, that he met and deliberately followed through the rooms of the hotel. He followed her into the hall, where he pretended to read the newspaper, to the restaurant, where he ate his meal slowly so he could watch her for longer, to undress her with his eyes and his mind, into the sitting room where he finally managed to speak to her.
“Pardon Madame, ce mouchoir est-il à Vous?” He may have pretended to ask her if that finely embroidered handkerchief, perhaps bought on purpose to feign that gallantry, belonged to her.
Yes, that love story will have started just like that, with a lie. How could an affair born of the falsification of the truth have lasted?
“Love affairs at the theatre give the illusion of eternity, but they are paper loves and they last as long as the play.” This is how Lisette answers him in the last of the bundle of letters, when she is at last convinced that their affair will not continue. It is a dignified farewell, without the melodrama that I would have expected of a woman of her times. Nowadays we would say that Lisette is a tough one, a woman who knows how to suffer with dignity. He is the one who cuts a poor figure, who acts like a silly woman. He implores until the end, he invokes his love, promises her heaven and earth and almost blackmails her when he knows that Lisette is pregnant. He would like to tie her to him, to go and see her in Lucca for as long as he wants her, until he is over his whim, his appetite for the forbidden. Who knows, had Lisette accepted perhaps she would have suffered an even greater humiliation.
“Ton amante? Jamais! Oublions tous les deux cette histoire malheureuse et amère comme du poison à mon âme,” thunders an infuriated Lisette in her last letter. An ill-fated love as bitter as a poison that slowly enters the fibres and kills. There is an alarming letter from Arcangelo, dated 3 August 1912. My great-grandfather, at least biologically speaking, implores his Lisette to never repeat the gesture that has robbed him of his serenity, that makes him wander along country lanes like a lunatic, praying to God on his knees among the brambles, that makes him beat his chest overflowing with guilt. Perhaps my great-grandmother had attempted suicide or had just wanted to frighten him into hastening his decision. Then the letter takes on a biblical tone, Arcangelo threatens eternal damnation, makes the blandest compromises. He promises to make a queen of her, they will be husband and wife of the heart, and she will be more than a wife for him, will be a friend and lover, she who taught him l’Amour, the kind which joins body and soul and will last for ever.
Poignant words, with a flavour of other times. They seem sincere on Arcangelo’s part, he would not have been able to stage everything if it hadn’t been true. He could buy himself the love of thousands of little actresses and singers if he had wanted only the physical intercourse, to lose himself in the forbidden delights that the frigidity of a wife acquired only for convention would never have shown him.
As far as my great-grandmother is concerned, after the last letter dated 31 May 1913, full of hard words to brand guilt on the beloved man’s soul forever, I have lost all track of her. I don’t know if she continued to be a singer after the birth of Grandmother Angela. From conversations overhead as a child, I know that she married a landowner from the south, and that my grandmother was born in the same town where my mother was born and where, fifty years later, I was also born. Here, in this town of the Daunia, where the wind sings through the ripe, waving wheat and the heat dries everything, even the memory of the past. The one from which I arrived after ten hours of train and four changes, the one which, with the warmth and affection of its people, restored serenity and the will to live in Lisette. A journey à rebours my great-grandmother would have said. I speak French too, I studied it at university and travelling around France and I speak it well. It was already running through my veins, it is the repressed language that comes to the surface with memory and that French ‘r’ of ours. It seems to me that I have always spoken this melodious language. It may be pure coincidence, but when I speak French I feel as if I were singing.
My gaze lingers for a long time on the façade of the theatre beyond the window, where Lisette really sang and Arcangelo scrutinized her through his binoculars from the boxes, down to the most intimate folds of her body, desiring her with an increasingly uncontrollable ardour. It is there that love was born and it is in this room that watches over the Theatre building that love began to burn and was consummated in a perfect marriage of body and soul.
The sparkling evening air comes through the open window, bringing with it the chatter of passersby, the cheeriness of the tourists and the words of people making arrangements for tomorrow at the door of the splendid late-nineteenth century hotel hall. King Umberto stayed here in these rooms, some of which have been modernized to satisfy guests with an allergy to the past. Puccini and many famous and not so famous artists spent the night, like great-grandmother Lisette on tour in Lucca, madly in love with one of the audience and then married for convenience to someone else. There are no traces of Arangelo, but I imagine him to have been handsome. Great-grandfather Giacomo, instead, was an unattractive man, small and shy, who in the photos from those times shields himself behind his Umberto-style moustache and behind the imposing Lisette.
“I love you”, someone shouts from the piazza, followed by the silvery, impudent laugh of a girl. They must have had a drop too much to drink, or love, as we know, plays bad jokes and needs to be shouted, otherwise it doesn’t seem true.
Lucia Sallustio– The author was born in Molfetta, in the province of Bari, where she lives and works. The author of numerous published stories and poetry, she divides her time between literature, teaching, translation and her family. She loves travelling, learning languages, getting to know places and people, all the things that provide her with inspiration for her other great passion – writing. She writes for literary reviews, including on-line ones. She has just finished her first novel.