Cyprien has been on my mind since last week, when I put on again the blue Daum earrings that I brought back from Paris a few years ago. I hesitate to wear them when I am going out, although they don’t seem loose, and the hooks are not flimsy. What makes me nervous is just the thought of having more than $100 worth of an artisan’s work in glass dangling from my ear lobes, as I walk on the sidewalk or get into the streetcar. Nevertheless, I wore them to a wedding last week in the French Quarter, since they are such a perfect match for the blue garden-party dress I had chosen, and since the wedding was that of John Howard, a former student of mine who truly is steeped in French art.
I bought the earrings because of Cyprien, but not for him, as a coquettish woman might buy something to please a man. That summer, I was in France for a few weeks. He had come up to Paris just for a day, especially to see me, from Bordeaux, where he is one of the museum curators. It was the first time I had seen him since the 1960’s—thirty years or so. You could call it a reunion, but perhaps it was more a coda to the music of the past, the old phrases replayed briefly, in a different key. Not that the past had been dramatic; we had been friends, with just a bit of romance thrown in, of the passing sort that flavors a friendship between a man and a woman without changing it into something harder to manage. I suppose, had things been different, that it could have been transformed into love. The instruments for our approaching sentimental coda were ourselves, considerably aged; as the date of our meeting approached, I did not know whether the effect of time should be counted as mellowing or destructive, or perhaps some of both . . .
His full name is Jean-Luc-André-Cyprien Cazenave. Born on Saint Cyprien’s Day, he received that name along with those of his father and a grandfather, and it was that one which stuck. His father’s family was from Bayonne, where he was born; his mother was a Spanish immigrant who ended up working as a chambermaid in resort hotels in Biarritz and later in Bordeaux. She was probably a very intelligent woman, though her schooling had not advanced far; Cyprien was, I thought, brilliant as well as a very good painter. Social mobility was so limited in Europe, for so long, that circumstances weighed heavily on a person’s chances. His mother was, after all, a foreigner, a sort of Gastarbeiter, from a relatively poor and politically retrogressive country; France had looked good to her, but, without family connections or any higher education, she could not hope to go far. She was very pious, in the typically Spanish way. Cyprien’s father, a teacher, was the opposite, a freethinker and left-winger—a communist, I had suspected, though Cyprien had never admitted it to me, fearing, I suppose, an American’s knee-jerk negative reaction to the very word. Having a free-thinking father and a devout mother is so common in France that it scarcely needs comment; in many communities, few men go to Mass. But theirs appeared to be an extreme case. At any rate, Cyprien’s father died, in circumstances unclear to me, toward the end of the German occupation; quite how, I’m not sure, but I know now that he was involved with a communist Resistance network. As a boy, Cyprien received help for his schooling from his father’s family and thus was able to finish the lycée and go to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts; he also had some help from an association of former members of the Resistance.
We had first gotten acquainted, long ago, at a café right near the Ecole, and learned that we would be students there together. I remember that I was seated by myself, with a coffee cup long emptied. From his table, he had examined me, looking doubtless like the foreigner I was, but obviously an artist, since I had a large portfolio with me. He had nodded slightly, then spoke, using the all-purpose student greeting, “Salut.” After a pause, he added: “Would you like to come join us?” He gestured to his friends: Christine, André, Claire, Philippe, Marie-Hélène, and so on. We shook hands all around. That was my introduction to the little band of fellow students who remained the center of my social life throughout my year’s study in Paris. Thinking about it after three decades and walking along the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the rue de Seine to the art quarter to meet Cyprien again brought back details as though I had returned to the stage set of my past.
We had decided to meet again in the same neighborhood, but we would do things more elegantly this time. We would have lunch in the handsome dining room of L’Hôtel—that is its full name—where Colette had lived and Oscar Wilde had died, in the rue des Beaux-Arts. Then, we would go to the Musée Nissim de Camondo, which I had never visited, on the Right Bank near the Parc Monceau—a collection of eighteenth-century furniture, objets d’art, and paintings in a handsome townhouse that a rich collector gave to the nation as a memorial to his son, killed in the Great War. Cyprien’s curatorial responsibilities in Bordeaux cover a vast area, but his scholarly speciality is eighteenth-century art—porcelain, faïence, furniture, bibelots, paintings. That was how I had discovered him again, after years when we had lost track of each other and neither had any idea what the other was doing: In an art-history magazine, I had come across an article signed Cyprien Cazenave, concerning some of the everyday objects in Chardin’s still lifes, and had written to him at his museum address in Bordeaux. Subsequently, I had informed him about my forthcoming stay in Paris, and we had decided to meet.
Having a few extra minutes, I walked rather slowly—on the very narrow sidewalks of those old streets near the Seine, crowded at midday, you can’t make fast progress anyhow, especially near the open market stalls—and I cast a leisurely glance or so at the windows of the antique shops and art dealers. I was looking at some engravings of ships when I sensed someone at my elbow. “Pardon,” a voice said, “might you be Harriett D’Aquin—I mean my friend Harry?”—the name pronounced Arree, of course, as a Frenchman would say it; we had always used French together, his English being halting. “It’s really you?”
I turned quickly. “Yes, Cyprien, it’s I.” We shook hands, in the French manner. “I was going to wait for you in the lobby of L’Hôtel, where you would have guessed that I was the gray-haired woman in the green jacket. How did you recognize me here on the street, after all these years?”
“Ah, Arree, I couldn’t have missed you. How many women in the rue de Seine have your style—your very American French style? You are as charming as ever—the same tilt to the chin, the same eyes. Those eyes! How good it is to see you!” (He used vous, of course, as I had in writing to him—the familiar tu of distant student days replaced by suitably professional address.)
“Oh, Cyprien, it is grand to see you, too. Such a long time it’s been since we were students here! And you are still the dear flatterer. Come, let’s go have a drink and lunch.” And off we went, turning into the rue des Beaux-Arts, finding the right number, and making our way to the rear of the dining room, where a table was set up for us near the fountain. He ordered a kir royal for each of us—“You would enjoy that, wouldn’t you?” Signaling clearly to the maître d’hôtel that this would be a leisurely meal, we laid aside for a while the menus that had been thrust into our hands. Time to talk, it was; we would oblige time to give us back a bit of what it had taken. And what it had taken was, I acknowledged, all too obvious, despite the cordial greeting, the display of Gallic charm: Cyprien could not have missed noticing the changes in me, and what I saw was an ascetic-looking man of “a certain age,” as the French say, bel homme but a bit stooped in the shoulders and thin-chested, with a thatch of white hair and thick lenses, his forehead deeply lined, his skin stretched taut over prominent cheekbones.
Where does one begin, at a retrospective? He inquired about my life and my work, of course, following up on the bare sketch I had given in my letter, so I filled it in briefly: my return to New York after Beaux-Arts, getting my degree, my struggle to paint and get my works shown, my first curatorial positions, then my settling in New Orleans and marriage to Jack. He told me more about his position in Bordeaux, where he had ended up, some years after finishing not only Beaux-Arts but also the prestigious Ecole du Louvre.
“And your painting? You still paint, surely; you were one of the most gifted, Cyprien, much more than I.” Looking at his stretched, yet lined, face, I thought of the masks that some great painters acquired over their features—the masks of their true selves, exteriorized and molded to their face by an intense identification with their art.
“Arree, I must tell you the truth: I have not painted for many years. My painting is still . . . latent, as it were. Only recently I have thought that I might . . . ” The words trailed off.
His admission fell like a stone onto the table. We had finished our kirs by then. The waiter, sensing a pause, came over to enquire about another apéritif.
“No, thank you,” Cyprien replied, “but please bring the wine list, and now we will look at the menu and order.” He changed his glasses, putting on a pair of small reading spectacles.
We chose according to taste, and according to our ideas of what such a luncheon should be: I had snails provençal, followed by a Basque paella in honor of Cyprien’s home region, while he ordered prosciutto with melon—it looks so lovely on the plate, like a small Chardin painting—and Dover sole, the latter, perhaps, an oblique homage to Wilde. He selected a dry white Bordeaux to accompany the meal. As we ate and drank, we wove a conversation composed of bits of information on ourselves mixed with comments on the food and wine, reiterated exclamations on the time that had passed, and some news, which he shared with me, of our fellow students, now scattered around Europe.
“Cyprien,” I ventured shortly before the plates were cleared away and the dessert menu was announced, “please tell me why you gave up painting—you must tell me what happened.” There are dozens of questions that, out of politeness, I would refrain from asking, but to remain silent on what he had cared about so deeply, at one time, would have betrayed old friendship and commitment to what we had been. Anyhow, artists can be like that—mercilessly probing a wound or a rip in the vision, reaching for the hidden springs of creativity or the source of paralysis, in themselves and others. I knew why I had left the brushes alone for quite a few years; but then, I am a woman. I now imagined the worst—some critic’s column having devastated him so that his creativity was paralyzed, perhaps a vow he had made to the Virgin (I remembered his mother’s piety) in exchange for the cure of a sick child, or an obscure mental or physical disease that gnawed him from the inside and took away the inner vision.
“You remember Corinne Lapeyre.” Indeed I did. She was from Bayonne and went to the university in Bordeaux while Cyprien was in Paris at Beaux-Arts. After I had known him for some months, she came to visit for a few days; I understood that their relationship was not the same as ours. He told me then that he would marry her when his studies were over—that he had loved her for years, and that was why he couldn’t quite love me.
“Of course I remember Corinne. You did get married, didn’t you?”
No, they had not. He paused, then began to explain what had happened. She came from a conservative upper-bourgeois family, very right-wing, which all along had viewed the youthful romance with disfavor, in light of Cyprien’s origins—his mother, an immigrant of the working class; his father, an intellectual, a radical, perhaps worse. Her parents objected also, he told me, to the fact that he was an artist: Among proper families, the old stigma against pursuing literature, the stage, music, or art as anything but a pastime had not disappeared. It is true that, in the 1960’s, even conservative French parents did not often presume to forbid outright such a marriage, and they had to acknowledge, he added, that, by going to the Ecole du Louvre, Cyprien was preparing himself, officially, for a career in the national museum system, thus a stable and respectable position.
“But they made inquiries.”
“What sort of inquiries do you mean? Into your finances? Your exam results? Your circle of friends?” I could not imagine what he meant—his own finances amounted to nothing then, and they knew it, and French examination results are public. Did they think he was a fraud, claiming to be a student, living instead a life of dissipation in Paris on who knows what unsavory means?
“They . . . Arree, they . . . inquired into my father’s activities during the war. You know, I never told you; all that was too close to me then, too fragile—since my memory of him was all I had and I didn’t want to touch it—and you might not have understood how it was possible for someone . . . ” He paused, then resumed. “Anyway, my father was a communist, in the maquis in the Southwest. After the landings in 1944, as the liberation troops moved closer to Bordeaux, he and some other maquisards began their program of clearing out some of the worst of the collaborators in the Gironde—factory owners who had profited obscenely from furnishing goods to the Germans, and actively collaborationist mayors and other officials. Those were terrorist operations. For years, I had known he had done things of that sort—my mother told me. But I didn’t know exactly what actions he took part in. M. and Mme. Lapeyre, at any rate, had ways of finding things out and learned that my father had been in one of those Resistance cells that didn’t wait for official justice.”
“But, Cyprien . . . ” My impulse was to say that, by the mid-1960’s, that was water under the bridge; but, of course, it was not true and still isn’t true for those whose families were closely involved in what, toward the end of the Occupation, had turned into a civil war.
“That’s not the worst of it, anyhow. They found out—or at least claimed so to Corinne—that my father was one of those who assassinated the mayor of Castelfort. He was Corinne’s uncle.”
His voice had fallen, and he looked down, as though dismayed all over again. By then, we had ordered sorbets of black currant and lemon, and, as he spoke, I had taken small spoonfuls of mine, letting the cold sweetness dissolve in my mouth. “My poor Cyprien,” I murmured.
He went on to explain that M. and Mme. Lapeyre had then forbidden absolutely that he and Corinne see each other. Corinne herself had written to break the engagement. “It is better this way,” she had added.
He was, he said, devastated. Paris, Beaux-Arts, and the Ecole du Louvre had been for him not only a threshold to a career but a way of earning Corinne. Nevertheless, he took his competitive examinations, one after the other, and got a position as a curator in a very small provincial museum, before he moved to Bordeaux, where he was happy to remain. She married someone “from her world,” as he put it. He had never married (and I reflected how that helped explain the long, severe, almost ascetic face, which had not smiled over a child nor been rejuvenated by seeing itself renewed in a grown son). He had not stopped painting immediately; rather, for a while, he had thrown himself into his studio work, seeking release or oblivion. “But unhappiness did not help me to paint; I don’t know how to make art out of anger and pain—not from that kind of raw hurt, anyway. It paralyzed me.”
Luncheon was over, and the sorbet dishes had been cleared away. We drank our coffee without dallying too much. Two hours or so had passed; we needed to get on to the museum. It was sunny and almost hot in the streets; Cyprien put on his dark glasses. We walked to the métro. To get to the Monceau neighborhood, it would have been possible to choose an itinerary allowing us to change trains only once; but Cyprien—whether because he was upset from having told the Corinne story, or because he had really lost the art of being a Parisian—got out one of those booklets that show the subway lines and every section of the city and decided on another route, with two changes. I could have advised him but didn’t wish to. After waiting on three different platforms, we finally emerged at Villiers and started along the rue Monceau toward the museum. Suddenly, he stopped me, saying, “Let me look at the map again.” He fumbled in his pockets, got out the métro booklet, then reached in his shirt pocket for his reading glasses. They weren’t there. “I must have put them in my jacket pocket.” He fumbled again and pulled out a pair—but they were obviously not the right ones, for they had oversized tortoise-shell frames.
“Cyprien, how many pairs of glasses do you have with you?”
“Four,” he admitted, “counting these sunglasses.” He continued searching in his pockets—jacket, shirt, even trousers pockets; finally, he had to acknowledge that the reading glasses were missing, though the slim leather case was in a coat pocket. He looked panic-stricken.
“You must have left them in the restaurant.”
We found a street telephone back at the Villiers intersection, and he called. Next to him, I could half hear the answer through the receiver: “No, Monsieur, no one found any eyeglasses on the table when you left. But we shall look again.”
Cyprien whispered to me, “He’s sending a waiter back to look.” But no glasses could be discovered anywhere.
“Do you suppose you dropped them in the métro? Did you take them out to look at the map on the platform or in the train?”
He could not remember, but it was plausible. So we went down the steps to the ticket booth. Villiers is a large station, and it was quite crowded; he had to wait in line to report the loss. He said afterward that it had been necessary to list the three different lines we had taken to get to Villiers and the station where we had begun the trip, as well as describe the glasses and give the name of his Paris hotel and his Bordeaux address. He had been told to call the Lost and Found later in the afternoon.
He fretted as we turned up the stairs to the intersection and once again started for the museum. “They were a new prescription, you know. And I cannot read without them.” Nevertheless, he seemed determined to act as a good guide and attempted to be cheerful, once we had gotten our tickets and were walking around the spacious salons of the house, which displayed paintings by Hubert Robert and Guardi and the very finest of eighteenth-century furniture and art objects. His knowledge was detailed and dazzling. “That piece of marqueterie is from the 1750’s,” he would say; or, “That cabinet was made by Riesener; that splendid example of orfèvrerie, by Roettiers.” He was especially good with porcelain and faïence, identifying pieces by their region and workshop simply by a glance (he was wearing by this time yet another pair of spectacles—designed especially, I supposed, for viewing art displays). Our visit was thorough; it’s the sort of museum you do in a couple of hours, and few other visitors were there to interfere with our movement and examination of the collections. But I could see how preoccupied he was still.
When we left, the afternoon was drawing on. We had already planned to have an apéritif somewhere before we said goodbye at the end of the day; I was obliged, unfortunately, to attend a semiofficial banquet at eight. I was staying, that summer, on the Right Bank near the Louvre; it was decided that we would go back and stop at a café in that neighborhood. We walked toward the Villiers métro, talking about the collections. Though I had been looking at Cyprien, I happened to turn and cast a glance toward the street. Prominently propped on the hood of a car was a pair of eyeglasses, of the reading sort. “Cyprien! Look! Might those be your glasses? There, on the car!”
He turned quickly and, after the moment required for him to grasp what I meant, ran toward the car. There they were, not crushed, not bent, waiting for their owner. Earlier, he must have gotten them out absent-mindedly and then dropped them at the very moment he had stopped to look at the map; then a stranger, considerate but probably in haste, had seen them and propped them on the car hood. Cyprien almost wept with relief. “Oh, Arree! It’s wonderful.” Feverishly, he put them in the empty case. I embraced him—the sort of thing I don’t do much with anyone, and particularly not on a Paris street. “You know,” he said, almost embarrassed, “I had said a little prayer to Saint Anthony.” I thought of his Spanish mother; whatever other views Cyprien might have on the world, including, possibly, his father’s radicalism and surely his own aesthetic vision, which constituted, perhaps, the most important lens of all, those views had not overcome entirely a faith he must have learned from her.
We continued walking down to the intersection; Cyprien was beaming. In the métro station, he went to make another report, saying that the lost glasses had been found. I don’t know whether he told the clerk he’d picked them up on the street; if so, she probably didn’t believe him, concluding that they’d been in his pocket all along. We rode to the Palais-Royal station, near my hotel. In the huge square and the rue de Rivoli, the stores were still open. “Let’s go look a minute in the shops over there,” Cyprien suggested, his high spirits showing in his step and voice and easing a bit the lines of his face. We passed by the Daum shop windows and, drawn by the pure colors and graceful designs, went in. He looked at the glass birds and vases; I was drawn to the earrings. In the euphoria of the found eyeglasses, I felt the strong need to make a gesture—a sort of offering in acknowledgment of the way Fate, or Providence, had taken care of Cyprien this time, and so often takes care of us all. To acquire something beautiful by which to remember the day and the friendship it celebrated seemed fitting; I chose a pair of eardrops of a frosted blue.
With my purchase in hand, in a white box, tied with ribbon, we went over to the place André Malraux and sat down at the Royal. Cyprien had not bought anything chez Daum, but he, too, felt the need to mark the end of our day as extraordinary. He ordered champagne, and, in the long, almost motionless cocktail hour—not twilight, since night would not fall for a good three hours or more—we sat, as intoxicated with pleasure as by the wine, studying obliquely the nuances of pale and darker blue in the sky, watching the passers-by, with the fountain and leafy chestnut trees and theater in the corner of our eye, and the time we had spent together already slipping into the past, in a mellow way. It was drawing on toward eight; soon, I would have to say goodbye, run back to the hotel, and then leave for the banquet. I hoped that Corinne had vanished from Cyprien’s thoughts, to which my questions had summoned her, and that, perhaps, when he returned to Bordeaux, he would find it easier to take up again the painting that had helped make us friends. I could imagine him in his studio, getting out his brushes and a clean canvas, telling himself that it was time to start afresh, under the good geniuses of friendship, beauty, and the reconciliation that comes with time—and watched over by some angel with great wings, who would see the masses of blue and green taking shape on the easel and think, “Yes, those are the skies and trees of a Paris afternoon, when you were happy again.”