CHARLES DE GAULLE (January 8, 1958–April 28, 1969)
And my mother fell to her knees. I had never seen someone collapse so suddenly. She hadn’t even had time to hang up the telephone. I was at the other end of the hall, but I could hear every sob and see her whole body shaking. Her hands seemed like a pathetic bandage over her face. My father went over to her, hung up the phone, and then he collapsed as well, sinking into the armchair in the front hall. Bowing his head, he began to weep. Silent, terrified, I remained motionless at the far end of that long hall. By not approaching my parents, I felt as if I were buying time, protecting myself for a few more moments against the awful news that I could guess at anyway. So there I stood, teetering on the edge of grief with my skin on fire, studying with a watchful eye how quickly calamity can spread, and waiting for it to overwhelm me in turn.
My brother, Vincent, died early on the evening of Sunday, September 28, 1958, in Toulouse. The television had just announced that 17,668,790 French citizens had finally approved the new constitution of the Fifth Republic.
Neither my father nor my mother had taken the time to go vote in the referendum. They spent the day at the bedside of my brother, who had been operated on for appendicitis complicated by acute peritonitis. His condition had taken a turn for the worse the previous evening, and around midday, he had lost consciousness.
I remember that the doctor on duty had spoken at length with my parents to prepare them for an outcome that he now felt was inevitable. During that discussion I had remained sitting on a chair out in the corridor, wondering what they could be talking about, behind that door, that I wasn’t supposed to hear. I thought about my brother, about everything he would have to tell me when he came home from the hospital, and I was already envious of the status this heroic survivor would enjoy over the next few weeks. At that time, I was eight years old and Vincent barely ten, a modest difference that was in reality quite important. Vincent was a giant of a boy, a perfectly proportioned child who seemed built to lay the foundations of a brand-new world. He was surprisingly mature for his age, and would patiently explain to me the ups and downs of the adult world, protecting me all the while from those same vicissitudes. He was the most popular boy in school but did not hesitate, when he felt he was in the right, to stand up to a teacher or to our parents. And so, in my eyes, he was a colossus. When I was with him, I felt sheltered from life’s troubles. Even today, forty-six years after his death, when I think back on our childhood, he is still the same towering figure, so beloved and admired.
When my father rose painfully from his chair and came toward me, he looked like an old man. He seemed to stagger, as if hauling some invisible burden behind him. I watched him come closer and somehow knew that he was going to tell me that the world had come to an end. He laid a hand on my arm and said, “Your brother has just died.” Without any consideration for my father’s anguish, without showing him the slightest sign of affection, I rushed into Vincent’s room and grabbed his chromium-plated metal coach pulled by six white horses. This toy, or rather, this souvenir, had been brought to him from London two years earlier by our uncle, a shifty sort of person, short and unpleasant, but a great traveler. The object doubtless came from an ordinary souvenir shop near Buckingham Palace, but it was so heavy, and shiny, and the details of the carriage—in the lanterns, the wheels—were so precise, and the high-stepping horses exuded such power, that to me it was a talisman, and if my brother had not already been an exceptional child, this object would in itself have endowed him with an aura of supreme prestige. Vincent never let me borrow the coach and team, claiming that they were too fragile and I much too young to play with such a thing. Sometimes he would set it on the floor in the living room and tell me to lay my ear against the parquetry. “Don’t move,” he would say. “Don’t make a sound, and close your eyes. You’ll hear the horses’ hoofbeats. . . .” And of course, I did hear them. I even saw the team flash by me in full gallop, with my brother as their bold driver, perched atop the sparkling carriage as it rocked on its springs. Then I would vaguely sense that I was at the very heart of childhood, that world we nourished with our vital energy, day after day. The child is father to the man—and I wanted to grow, to grow up, faster, and stronger, like this princely brother, this cavalry master.
At the moment of his death, my first reflex was therefore to despoil him and seize the object. To steal it. With the feverish usurpation of a treacherous heir. I must have been afraid that Vincent would carry that coach off into the grave. Perhaps I was hoping, through that sacred and forbidden possession, to acquire a share of his glory, his legitimacy, and to become an older kid at the very least bold enough to plunder the dead and whip stolen lead horses into a trot. Yes, in the hour of his death, I robbed my brother. Without remorse, without regret, without even shedding a tear.
My name is Paul Blick. I am fifty-four years old, an awkward age that hesitates between two perspectives on life, two contradictory worlds. With each passing day my complexion shows my age a little more. I take Norpace and Inderal for my arrhythmia, and like everyone else, I have stopped smoking. I live alone, I dine alone, I’m growing old alone, even though I do try to keep in touch with my two children and my grandson. Despite his youth (he’s going on five), I sometimes recognize on my grandson’s face not just some of my brother’s expressions, but also that confidence, that serenity Vincent displayed as he went through life. Like my brother, the child seems imbued with a peaceful energy, and to meet his gaze, so bright and curious, is always unsettling. For Louis’s fourth birthday, I lifted the coach down from the top shelf of the bookcase and set it in front of him. He examined it for a long time—the wheels, the horses—without touching it. Not the slightest bit entranced, he seemed rather to be taking mental inventory of its every detail. After a moment, I told him that if he laid his ear to the parquet, he, too, might hear the sound of hoofbeats. Although skeptical, Louis did crouch down, and in that posture, gave me—for a fleeting second—the joy of glimpsing my childhood go galloping by.
Vincent’s funeral was a dreadful experience and I can say that from that day on, despite our efforts, my parents and I never managed to constitute a real family. After the service, my father handed me my brother’s Kodak Brownie Flash camera, never imagining that this object would later change my life.
Vincent’s death amputated part of our lives and some of our essential feelings. It changed my mother’s face so profoundly that within a few months she looked like a stranger, while her body shrank, wasting away as if consumed from within. Vincent’s disappearance also paralyzed all her gestures of tenderness, turning this previously affectionate woman into a kind of distant and indifferent stepmother. My father, once so lively, so talkative, walled himself up inside silence and sadness, and our formerly exuberant family meals now resembled suppers served for so many graveyard statues. Yes, after 1958, happiness abandoned us, singly and collectively, and at the table, we left it to the television announcers to fill our hours of mourning.
My father had just bought a TV set of varnished wood in February or March of 1958: a Grandin, equipped with an iron-cored choke allowing us to tune in the single channel stingily available in France at the time. This newfangled item had made my brother and me extremely popular at school, especially on Thursday afternoons, when we invited our friends to come watch the latest episodes of Rusty, Rin Tin Tin, and the adventures of Zorro, but we reached the pinnacle of our success that summer, with the dazzling performance of the French soccer team at the World Cup matches in Sweden. During the afternoon, when the events were broadcast, the living room of our apartment resembled the packed stands of a stadium as we all followed Remetter’s tackles, Vincent’s deft footwork, Fontaine’s shots at the goal, the dribbling of Kopa and Piantoni. I can still recall with uncanny precision the details of the 5–2 match between Brazil and France in the semifinals in Stockholm: the tartness of the lemon sodas; the sickeningly sweet cherry pound cake; the grainy black-and-white image that occasionally—heart-stoppingly—began scrolling up the screen; the slatted shutters we closed to block the glare of the late-afternoon sunshine; the suffocating heat of that dramatic, shadowy interior; my brother’s booming voice urging the team on; the flurry of goals; and then, gradually, the shouting dying down, hope slipping away, and the living room emptying out almost reluctantly until only my brother and I were left, off in a corner, exhausted, disappointed, completely crushed. A few days later, in the finals, Brazil would trounce Sweden 5–2, and France would beat Germany 6–3 to take third place. I don’t remember a single thing about those last two events. Probably because they were now simply soccer matches, untouched by that unique grace of the afternoon when I had supported my brother in his support of France. And after so many years, despite all that we forget throughout our lives, in my memory that little island is still safe and sound, a tiny, radiant territory of shared fraternal innocence.
That was the last summer I spent with Vincent. Soon his place across from me at the dinner table was taken by de Gaulle. What I mean is, the Grandin TV set was put behind the chair where my brother had sat for ten years. I saw this change as a usurpation, especially since the general seemed to spend his whole life inside the TV, and I quickly came to detest that man. His conceited profile, his kepi, his lighthouse keeper’s uniform, and his haughty bearing all bothered me, plus I couldn’t stand his voice, and I was absolutely convinced that the distant general was actually my grandmother’s true husband. Her other half, her natural counterpart. They had a certain arrogance in common, plus a taste for severity and order. A woman of another era, my grandmother was for me the archetype of ugliness, meanness, bitterness, and treachery. After my brother’s death, and for reasons that were never revealed to me, she left her imposing house to come spend every winter in our apartment, where she commandeered the master bedroom, which looked out over Square Saint-Étienne. During her stay, I was absolutely forbidden, without exception, to enter what she referred to as her “apartments.” The widow of my paternal grandfather, Léon Blick (a landed proprietor, as one said in those days), this woman commanded her family like a brigadier. Toward the end of the 1920s, Léon went AWOL several times by abandoning that barracks life for Tangier, where he would live it up for a month, gambling at the casino. His returns home were always tumultuous, it seems, with my grandmother meeting him each time at the front door backed up by a priest, to whom the poor man was obliged to confess all his North African depravity then and there. That was Marie Blick: harsh, strict, bad-tempered. And Catholic. I can still see her during those winters in Toulouse, transfixed in front of her fireplace, endlessly saying her Rosary, her head always covered with a mantilla. From the hall, through the half-open door, I would watch her almost pray the skin off her lips. She was like an implacable machine, wound up tight, with a single goal: the salvation of lukewarm souls. And while she was at it, she would sometimes sense my heathen presence: I would glimpse the iceberg glint of her gaze and feel my blood run cold, yet I remained petrified, unable to flee, like a rabbit in headlights.
Marie Blick had vowed undying hatred to Pierre Mendès-France, the Jewish prime minister who had negotiated the French armistice with Ho Chi Minh in 1954, but she reserved her fiercest curses for the Soviet Union, homeland of the bloodthirsty and the godless. The slightest allusion to that nation during the evening newscast would literally hypnotize her. But one man in her rogue’s gallery outshone all others, a man we sensed she would happily have strangled with her bare Christian hands: Anastas Mikoyan, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. My grandmother took a wicked pleasure in massacring his name by calling him Mikoyashhh, dragging out the last syllable with a hiss. Whenever she saw this apparatchik on the TV screen, she would strike the floor a few times with her cane, draw herself up like a creaky automaton, fling her napkin dramatically onto the table, and always grumble the same phrase: “I will withdraw to my apartments.” Reinvigorated by this transfusion of hatred, she would then set out down the long hall, and we’d eventually hear her door slam shut. In her lair, the waltz of the Rosaries would resume. I recall having tried for a long time to discover why Mikoyan, that little man in a black hat, could trigger such outbursts from Marie Blick. When I asked my father one day, he smiled vaguely and said, “I think it’s because he’s a Communist.” But Khrushchev and Bulganin were Communists, too, yet they never merited my grandmother’s wrath for Anastas.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Vie Francaise by Jean-Paul Dubois. Copyright © 2007 by Jean-Paul Dubois. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.