Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Ghosts of Père Lachaise

I just got home from Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. It's on the Metro line that runs past my apartment, about thirty minutes away, no transfers. It seemed like an easy afternoon journey, and it was. It's challenging to walk though, the cobblestone is very rounded and its hilly. I ended up climbing more hills than necessary too. And then I missed Jim Morrison's grave. Sorry Jim, but I wasn't willing to climb back up the hill to try again to find you. Maybe next time.

I did find Élisa Mercœur, very much abandoned. Élisa was a poet who died at 25, a fascination for the Parisian society for a brief time and a character in my book. She was a country girl from Nantes in Brittany—clever, someone who learned easily and became the village school teacher at 13. I don't think she really understand the social scene that she became part of in Paris and she died broken-hearted. I intend to return with flowers for her grave. Today, as I kicked through the yellow leaves falling near her tomb, I asked her to assist me in my efforts on this book. One of her poems was styled after Byron's Childe Harold. Here's one that I attempted to translate this summer.

WILTED LEAF by Élisa Mercoeur

Why art thou already fallen, dear yellow and wilted leaf?
I have loved thy sweet aspect in this sad valley.
A spring, a summer is thy life,
Then thou sleeps in the pale grass.

Poor leaf! Thou art no more,
The hour when thy greenery gave shade to the branch
is stripped away.
So fresh in the month of May; must the cold
abandon thee anew to uncertain times?

Winter, the season of night, advances,
fading what has sheltered the creatures of the sky.

You die!
An evening wind comes, embracing thee again
But these icy kisses are thy farewell.

I also passed by the tomb of Théodore Géricault. By the time The Appassionata opens in 1830, Géricault is dead at age 33, but he was another pioneer of the Romantic movement, a painter with an "impulsive temperament." He abandoned his formal studies for the Louvre, where for about six years he learned by copying from Rubens, Titian, Diego Velázquez and Rembrandt. He was injured in a riding accident, but, like so many others, died of tuberculosis. His death shocked his friends and contemporaries. Ary Scheffer painted Géricault on his death bed.

Perhaps his most famous painting is The Raft of the Medusa, which was political in character and influenced Delacroix. Delacroix was thirty (in 1819) when he posed for one of the dying figures. The painting is based on an actual shipwreck in their day. The captain abandoned his crew and passengers and the incident became a national scandal. There was a crowd around Géricault's grave.

And of course, I found Chopin's tomb. I did back track uphill to get to it. It is lush with flowers and greenery, growing things. A well-tended tomb. A beautiful tomb. There's a little marble staircase that runs up along side it. I had not noticed it in the photographs I studied. I liked it very much. It feels like a landmark for my characters. I can see Saint Genevieve sweeping Tori down those stairs, or perhaps Chopin sweeping her up them. I'm not sure yet. But I liked it very much.

There is much more to see at Père-Lachaise. In fact, it occurred to me that I need to come back in the rain and weather. The cemetery closes at dusk in the winter. I got the idea I should come back on a stormy day near dusk and walk around until I get too scared to stay. When I was very young, probably about five or six and tagging after my older brother, he and his friends pushed on a tombstone that was leaning. It rocked back and forth and I experienced super-natural terror. I thought the dead were going to rise from their graves. I don't know why, but in retrospect, I seemed to be able to "feel" the dead even at that early age. I certainly feel them now.

My other adventure for the day was the grocery store. Not nearly as dramatic, but in its own way, equally compelling. I chose a new grocery store, just a couple of blocks away. It was about the same size as the one I've been in, maybe a little bit bigger. I managed to buy olive oil and Balsamic vinegar and mustard and some herbs. I got more condensed milk because I found nothing that looked like cream, even though they had fresh milk. Not every store carries fresh milk products. I've no idea if what I want exists, though it seems it must.

I bought a leek and some shallots and some mushrooms. I came home with two plastic bags of groceries, including the all important toilet paper. So, from the sacred to mundane, it was a busy day. The picture of Théodore Géricault is just eye candy. I have such a thing about young 19th century men, I can't help myself, they're so gorgeous, they take my breath away.

Tomorrow we go to the Louvre where I'll see The Raft of the Medusa.

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