The Marquise was Never Content to Stay at Home


Sergio Pitol
translated by George Henson

For Margo Glantz

A feeling of disaster is haunting the world. The novel records it and, in doing so, is resplendent. The more rotten it smells in Denmark—and today Denmark seems to be a large part of the universe—the more indispensable the novel becomes. Ultima Thule: a reflection of an indomitable impulse to survive, of the preservation of form over chaos, sacrifice over apathy, spirit over unformed matter—the novel is that and more. Fueled by extreme tensions, witness to violent upheavals, nourished at times by caviar and quail and other times by carrion, it reappears on the international stage today with enviable health. It blooms with a fullness that roses would envy. Behold it: protean, generous, bold, ubiquitous, skeptical, cheeky, and unmanageable. Each crisis of society causes it to regenerate. When necessary, it sheds its skin. It grows with adversity. It is experiencing today one of its greatest moments, and, as a result, there are probably those among us who are beginning to predict its next extinction. Perhaps they have already chosen its coffin and burial place. This prophecy is part of the customs of our century. Each time the novel is reinvigorated, someone announces its death knell. The truth is no one can defeat it.

Ortega y Gasset announced its death, as did Breton. Paul Valéry alluded to it in passing with a phrase that became instantly famous. André Breton reproduces a comment by Valéry that refers to his refusal to write one because he is incapable of anything as banal as “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Is it possible that the author of The Cemetery by the Sea might have, out of politeness, uttered this sentence just to please Breton—who scorned this literary genre—that is, by chance, just to move the conversation along and thus avoid a lull? Or, perhaps at that moment, Valéry was thinking of some of the novelists fashionable at the time, Paul Morand or André Maurois, for example, in whose pages one might always see a marquise leave her home at five o’clock to take tea at the Ritz, perhaps a few minutes late? God only knows!

The truth is, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock” is an ideal incipit for stimulating the affectation of a certain type of reader who rejoices at hearing about marquises, princesses and baronesses, as well as the Cinderellas who, after enduring every imaginable hardship and humiliation, end up marrying marquis, princes, or barons. The absence of her ladyship’s name in itself instills a degree of confidence; it takes for granted that the novel is about the marquise, or one of the marquises, from the neighborhood. Perhaps reading about the Marquise de La Rochefoucauld or the Marquise de Varennes would have intimidated the reader a bit, but a simple marquise inspires confidence; there is something comforting in her concise, almost homespun simplicity, an aroma of hot chocolate and freshly baked cinnamon buns.

It is also possible that Valéry, distracted by other interests or busied by other subjects and other times, did not recognize that the novel was no longer what it once was, and that far from Morand, Maurois, and Montherlant, who had their own appeal, new writers in France and, above all, in other latitudes were determined to transform narrative language and were beginning their novels in a very different way:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: —Introibo ad altare Dei.

There is an explicit coarseness present in this paragraph. Its reading does not produce a delightful chill heralding the appearance of a marquise on the street. Instead of a lady dressed by Molyneux or Schiaparelli, frantic to arrive promptly for an engagement, which could well change her life, with the handsome son of an Italian banker, or to go to her jeweler’s shop to have him adjust the setting to one of her famous emerald stud earrings, or to the office of a seedy pawnbroker to hock them then and there, we find ourselves in the presence of a fat man, a few pedestrian barber utensils, and an untied yellow gown that establish a pronounced oxymoron, that is still very funny, with the liturgical Latin: “Introibo ad altare Dei

Let’s consider the beginning of another novel:

He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut.

The reference to the gender of the protagonist, his aggressiveness toward the head of a Moor hanging from the rafters, the similarity with an old soccer ball immediately produces in us a slight bewilderment. What world have we entered? The brutality of striking a head, whether of a Moor or anyone else, immediately dissolves, and is made unreal by the levity of the narrative tone. There is instead a kind of peculiar humor that is enhanced by comparing the head to a soccer ball and his dry hair to a coconut. We cannot be sure whether the exquisite lady wished to leave her home at five to witness such an uncommon spectacle. She was not prudish, no, nothing of the sort, rather she lacked humor and was therefore extremely disquieted by certain eccentricities; she did not know how to behave, and that was the worst thing that could happen to her. Instead of going out that evening she was left to play with a pair of moss-green kid gloves, waiting for a telephone call that never came. In the end, she was so prostrate with anger that she could have chewed the gloves to shreds.

The first quote is from 1922. They are the first lines of James Joyce’s Ulysses; the second, from 1928, belongs to the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. A few years later, in the heart of Europe, Vienna to be precise, a young military engineer began a novel that would fill four large volumes that would remain unfinished on the author’s death. A novel that still radiates throughout universal narrative:

A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising and the setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapour in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.

You have probably recognized it by now; this is the first paragraph of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, published in 1930. A stunning twist, a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn, has occurred in writing. It would seem to be a section of a scientific essay, or rather a weather report written by a highly skilled employee. However, it is a novel. In these ten lines, full of isotheres and isotherms, of monthly aperiodic fluctuations and phases of the moon, of Venus, and of the rings of Saturn, in addition to other phenomena that are incomprehensible to us mere readers, a mystery is communicated, in just eight words of quiet language, that, in the end, clarifies for us that it was a beautiful day in August 1913. This wordy pomp and, moreover, its subsequent clarification, grates on the nerves of our acquaintance, the marquise. For as long as she can remember, she has detested those Teutonic witticisms that, in her view, demonstrate a monumental lack of tact and taste. That beautiful day, she did not go out at five or any other time; she spent her time leafing through some magazines and writing several drafts that she angrily crumpled up, until she was finally able to write a dry, so very, very dry letter, in which she ended a long-standing romantic relationship. She then began to laugh like a mad woman, took sedatives with champagne, and soon had to be put to bed.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, a North American, a Southerner to be exact, began one of the most beautiful novels ever written as follows:

From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that—a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them. There was a wistaria vine blooming for the second time that summer on a wooden trellis before one window, into which sparrows came now and then in random gusts, making a dry vivid dusty sound before going away: and opposite Quentin, Miss Coldfield in the eternal black which she had worn for forty-three years now, whether for sister, father, or husband none knew, sitting so bolt upright in the straight hard chair that was so tall for her that her legs hung straight and rigid as if she had iron shinbones and ankles, clear of the floor with that air of impotent and static rage like children’s feet, and talking in that grim haggard amazed Voice until at last listening would renege and hearing-sense self-confound and the long-dead object of her impotent yet indomitable frustration would appear, as though by outraged recapitulation evoked, quiet inattentive and harmless, out of the biding and dreamy and victorious dust.

These are the first lines of Absalom, Absalom!, the brilliant novel that William Faulkner published in 1936. If our friend—I imagine that by now we can allow ourselves such familiarity—had gone out that day at five to take part in the conversation that Quentin Compson held with Miss Coldfield, she would surely have been on tenterhooks. She had dealings in recent years with many highly esteemed Americans: the Gereths, the Prest-Coovers, Mrs. Welton, and Howard Blendy, a young diplomat of whom she was a trifle enamored. Aristocracy of another kind, so to speak; rich, sophisticated, lighthearted, quite the opposite of that sleepwalking couple from the South that reminded her of a pair of ill-tempered crows who mumbled in some nonsensical language. Her education—although she’s not entirely sure about this—is firmly rooted in Descartes, which, combined with other limitations that the reader has probably noticed, cause her to rebel against that ecstatic verbal delirium. To hear that children’s feet have an air of impotent rage and that the summer dust was “biding and dreamy and victorious,” affects her in such a way that she could have slapped anyone who dared repeat those words to her.

Several years passed, almost forty since Ulysses appeared, until, in 1960, Julio Cortázar took Paul Valéry’s remark and crushed it with joyous abandon. The first sentence of The Winners reads:

“The marquise went out at five,” Carlos Lopez thought. “Where in the hell did I read that?”

Our poor, dear, old, powdered marquise! The years have taken their toll on her. She had imposed on herself a long and strict internal exile, and had completed it with exemplary rigor. The Argentine writer’s attack had wrested her out of her lethargy.

She lay awake all night, plagued by two opposing impulses. On the one hand, she felt the temptation to repair to a convent where she would take a vow of perpetual silence. An innate pride compelled her to punish the world by turning away and making her contempt known. The sacred music, the smell of wax and incense, the proximity of angels, the locks of hair on the floor around her, the coarse habit of cloister, the tears, all of it, everything, drew her closer to God. It was possible, she thought, hopeful, that some writer understood the nobility of her gesture and would one day be tempted to write: “The marquise went out at five o’clock. A simple black tailleur by Patou accentuated her elegance as she left the house alone. A car took her to the gate of the convent that would house her earthly body for the rest of her days.” An instant later, she recalled the allegations against Ives-Etienne, her niece’s fiancé, who was also a distant nephew of hers, a brash and insolent boy, though not devoid of a certain charm, who, to the astonishment of his entire family, sympathized with the so-called popular causes. Suddenly, the old woman saw herself marching through the streets, erect like a steel stiletto, her left fist raised. She heard her voice suddenly become powerful, her cries of hatred for militarism, and her commitment to the fight in Algeria. Her brave decision to betray her class to march arm in arm with the downtrodden and the oppressed moved her to tears. Her courageous attitude would certainly inspire some author, who would one day write: “The marquise went out at five o’clock only to fall all at once into a sea of flags.” And then he would describe with elegance the moment she leaned her arm on the arm of a metal worker to continue the march. They were wrapped in the music of L’Internationale, and they felt protected, secure in their cause, convinced that victory was near.

For a moment some other ideas swirled around her feverish mind. She dreamt, for example, that she was the heroine of libertine novels; she smiled ambiguously as she thought of certain terribly lascivious images, but those visions did not last, and the woman returned stubbornly to the previous dichotomy. At times she trembled, sobbed, admired the courage that was needed to cloister herself in the strictest order of silent nuns and, immediately, was even more dazzled by her own erect figure, rallying from a platform of the Mutualité to a throng of workers and students, or by the feat of having chained herself to the bow of a ship that would deliver arms to Southeast Asia. But such is life. Clinging to the possibility that she would once again grace the pages of some yet-to-be-published extraordinary novel, her heart grew weak, faltered, until a sudden blow shattered it completely.

The next day, the marquise went out at five o’clock. She did it inside a modest coffin. So far, to my knowledge, no one has recorded her departure.

Xalapa, July 1994


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This text and others can be found in The Art of Flight (Deep Vellum 2015). 

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Image: “Sky West” by Marisela La Grave.

henson-george-270-2012-01George Henson George Henson has published translations in a variety of venues, including The Kenyon Review Online, Words Without Borders, and World Literature Today. Among other writers, George has translated Elena Poniatowska, Alberto Chimal, Leonardo Padura, and Andrés Neumann. His published books include Poniatowska’s The Heart of the Artichoke (Alligator Press 2012) and Luis Jorge Boone’s The Cannibal Night (Alligator Press 2013). For the last two years, George has been in a quasi-monogamous relationship with Mexican writer Sergio Pitol, translating his memoirs The Art of Flight and The Journey, both forthcoming with Deep Vellum Publishing. He’s hoping the affair will continue until all of Pitol is translated. Like Pitol’s Marquise, he is never content to stay at home, so he goes out at five o’clock every morning to teach Spanish. At night, when not translating, he works on his dissertation on Sergio Pitol.
pitol1Sergio Pitol was born in Puebla, 1933. Mexican novelist, essayist and translator. His novels are exercises in style which, with erudite humor, bring forth a disenchanted gaze upon reality. He’s published twenty novels and a book of essays, The Art of Flight, forthcoming by Deep Vellum Publishing, of which The marquise… is a chapter. In 2005 he received the Prize Cervantes for his lifelong contribution to literature.

Published on February 13th of 2015 in Essays.

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