A Memory

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A Memory:  On the First Anniversary of the Death of Jules Vallès[1]

When he fell back with a heavy sigh and I knew that death, that wretch, had just taken him, I cried out in revolt against anyone who tried to comfort me. “Leave me alone! Ah, you don’t know what he was to me. He was my father… He was my child!”

My father! He did, indeed, instruct my mind and form my convictions. He pulled me out of the middle class muck. He took the trouble to knead and shape my soul in his own image. He made a simple and sincere creature out of the doll I was. He gave me the heart and mind of a citizen.

Ah, yes, dear father!

All those people who whispered to each other when they saw us passing by or who smiled seeing my twenty springtimes next to his fifty autumns do not know how unimportant their ironies and innuendos were to my utter indifference or to the deepest joys I experienced in the role I accepted by his side.

It would be easy to laugh at Antigone if she were not Oedipus’ daughter—and especially if Oedipus’ eyes were still young under his helmet of white hair. But how little did I care! And what sweet revenge for me when we sat at his desk and he sketched the legend of the proletariat, perpetually wounded, perpetually defeated. His style was visual, to create images—beautiful images always tinted with red… the blood of the oppressed that has run for centuries without its source ever drying up. And then he cradled my young beliefs with the carols of Dupont, the songs of Clément and the refrains of Pottier![2] And at his side, like a good little girl, I recited the alphabet of the Revolution.

My father, certainly, yes! And yet, how much better the second word: my child.

Ah! I am fully aware that for anyone who does not care or who disapproves this motherly name sounds funny coming from a young woman talking about an old man more than a quarter of a century her senior. But it is not for the indifferent or the hostile that I am writing this. Those who are reading me today on this anniversary are those who were part of Vallès’ funeral procession a year ago and escorted me in my grief. This is the family I have chosen as my own, the anonymous relations of the lower classes, the great crowd of sufferers to whom I give all my heart and for whom I hope, one day, to give my life!

To them I can tell my sorrow—they respect tears.

But they only knew Vallès when he was rowdy and full of life, loud and spirited, when his voice filled up the room, his laughter shook the windows and his grip crushed, though it was the grip of such a warm hand.

I did not know this Vallès very well. My Vallès is the one with whom I fought through sickness for three painful years and the one for whom I grappled with death for six dreadful weeks.

In his life, which was almost happy and fiercely free of the old resistance, I was just some fun, some glitter, a common tease, a socialite signed up by his talent, as he strolled around the suburbs with his new recruit. I smiled at this sometimes, when he looked so naïve showing off and his eyes sparkled with cheer in front of the scandalized astonishment of the bourgeoisie yelling, “We’ve been robbed!”

Except, I also felt good that I was such a little thing to him, that I had missed his vagabond years and that our literary collaboration—the strong bond between us—which was developed with so much appreciation on my part, was for him merely a master patronizing his apprentice. I was an extra in his life—nothing more.

But after!

When the sickness cast him down and hounded him like a vulture circling battlefields to finish off the wounded; when it tore off his flesh and gnawed at his lungs with its claws and beak; when nothing remained of the Hercules of old but a kind of ghost, thin as a skeleton and weak as a child, oh, then I was needed in his life and I was, I can say with pride, life itself for him!

In his old Christ’s face, whose skin was as frightfully thin and pale as wax, his eyes burned warmly, full of tenderness and pain, as they followed me around the room. And I found the energy to laugh and cheer him up and distract him, all the while talking his ear off about the coming spring, about getting better, about the hot sun and the green grass that we would go find far away, very far away…

And while his face lit up, he huddled in my arms almost in fear and I felt It prowling around us—That which we cannot avoid—implacable Death waiting for me to let go of him so It could steal him away.

My child! I will never take that back.

He weighed less than a child when I carried his poor, wasted body from bed to bed. He called for me like a child, day and night, every minute, just to see me leaning over him and to feel me near. And I buried him myself like the brave mothers who sew the flesh of their flesh into a shroud.

I am saying all this, I swear, not to talk about what I did. We do not deserve praise for doing our duty when we get such bitter joy from it. And again it is not an “article” I am writing—it is my grief that I express, good or bad, come as it may!

But today on this anniversary there will be no shortage of people screaming out about the selfishness and inhumanity of Vallès…

Well, do you really believe that he was so selfish, cruel and inhuman? He who was able to inspire such motherly and daughterly tenderness and passion? He whom we keep in memory like a religion?

 

Next:  Battlegrounds

[1] February 14 1886, include in Pages Rouges, 1893.

[2] Pierre Dupont (1821-1870), socialist songwriter; Jean Baptiste Clément (1836-1903), writer of “Le Temps des Cerises”; and Eugène Pottier (1816-1887), writer of “L’Internationale”.

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