Monday, May 25, 2009
(excerpted from Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural)
“If you have not been to the cabaret Le Chat Noir,” said Alexandra, “you have not seen Paris.” And so we set out this past afternoon for Montmartre, meaning only to stay until the supper hour. But Alexandra’s eagerness for adventure has carried us into a place where I would never have ventured on my own, and where I saw and heard things that have left me sleepless and overwrought.
The afternoon began pleasantly enough as we climbed the steep streets and stairs of Montmartre in late afternoon sunshine. Le Chat Noir is as much art salon and theatre as it is cabaret. The ground floor is decorated in a sort of mediaeval theme, with a stained glass bay window and a lot of imitation tapestries. The walls are entirely covered with paintings and drawings by Montmartre artists who have been refused by the academic galleries, and so display their work in the cabarets instead.
We had arrived, it seemed, at ‘l’heure verte” – which is two hours, really, from 5 to 7 p.m. As we looked for a quiet corner table not too close to the illicit piano, Alexandra explained why this was known as the green hour: it was the time of day when the poets and artists of Montmartre were fond of sipping absinthe. As for Alexandra and me, we were content for the moment to order coffee and madeleines.
... Later there were performances by the poet-chansonniers . One pale, gaunt young man dressed all in black sang a strange lament in the manner, Alexandra says, of M. Baudelaire. Here, en anglais, are some of the words as well as I can remember them, translated with Alexandra’s help:
You come to me at twilight
under the broken walls
of the old city
where the Aubergine's dark waters
sigh like tattered silk.
You come to me from the shadows
under a bruised sky, heavy
with unshed rain.
Your small feet make no sound
on the lichened stones.
I feel on my throat
your insubstantial touch,
your chill sweet breath.
Our days apart
are a fever-dream, a torment,
a small exquisite death.
...Then “Mademoiselle David! Mademoiselle Guthrie! How very pleasant to find you here!” I looked up and there, quite as though I had conjured him up, was M. Etienne d’Artois, resplendent in an evening suit of claret coloured velvet. And now he was settling in at our table, clearly inclined to chat.
“What was your impression of that last singer, Mademoiselle Guthrie? An interesting performance, was it not?”
“His voice is pleasant enough,” I agreed. “But did you find the song a little ...” “I hesitated over the right word – “a little morbid, perhaps?”
“Morbid! Précisément! That is exactly what I should have said – a delicious morbidity! The perverse beauty of the fevered imagination!” (“Perverse”, I do believe, is M. d’Artois’s favourite word.)
Summoning our waiter, he asked “Is this your first visit to Montmartre, Mademoiselle?”
“And you are drinking coffee? Non, non, that will simply not do.” And over our faint protests, he ordered absinthe.
“Voila, mesdemoiselles,”said M. d’Artois, “Elixir of wormwood – the green fairy!” The waiter had brought us three tall footed glasses, each with a portion of pale green oily liqueur, along with three long slotted spoons, a bowl of sugar cubes and a jug of ice water.
M. d’Artois led us through the ritual, resting the spoon over the glass and placing a sugar cube in its bowl, then pouring cold water over the sugar, until the liquid in the glass turned cloudy.
I did not much like the sound of “elixir of wormwood”, and besides, I have read that absinthe drinking can drive you mad, but I took a cautious sip for politeness’ sake. Tasting of anise and bitter herbs, it was not as unpleasant as I had feared, but there is little danger that I will become addicted to it.