Loving Le Corbusier (excerpt)
Here are the opening pages of my novel ‘Loving Le Corbusier’. If you’d like to read more, the whole novel is available as an ebook here.
I can tell that you’re surprised he married a woman of my sort. Don’t worry, I’m used to the way people raise their eyebrows, unsure if they’ve heard me right. I can see you wondering how such an educated man, the most famous architect in the world, ended up with an ordinary girl like me. Ha, a girl of sixty-five. Hard to believe he once said I had the best arse in Paris when you see this cripple lying here, broken and thin, gasping for breath. Thank God the light is dim in here. Wherever this is.
I know you want to ask about my husband because that’s all anyone wants from me. But I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to tell you about me and how I was the perfect wife and his model girl. My rock, he called me. You see I can remember every word, every moment.
They say that happens when you’re about to die, but how can anyone know?
Look at him sitting there with his sketchbook on his lap, dozing. He was holding my hand a moment ago. I’ve tired him out and it’s his birthday tomorrow. I’ve let him down again.
Oh, I can’t bear to leave him. It’s always been the other way around and never anything final like this. He’s the magic in my life, did I remember to tell him that? The whole reason for my existence.
Quick, let me tell you.
Yvonne Gallis climbed down to the platform of the Gare de Lyon and took a deep breath. A passing soldier gave her an appreciative whistle but she was too absorbed in the moment to notice. Other passengers bumped past as she gazed around her, suddenly feeling overwhelmed. Fingers of sunlight poked through the soot of the great glazed roof, tickling the heads of the people below, and clouds of choking smoke rose from engines that heaved and shuddered to a standstill at each platform. The clashing sounds of the place rang in her ears, sharp as a storm and every bit as thrilling.
She had barely slept during the overnight journey from Monaco, frightened that thieves would steal her bag, although it held nothing of value, and too stirred-up to allow herself to slide into anything more than a fitful drowse. While those in her compartment had snoozed and snored and, in the case of an elderly clergyman, had farted through the night, she had stared through the window and watched the dull lights of towns and villages flash past, aware of the dim silhouette of mountains and trees in the distance and of places which mattered only because they lined the route north to the capital. Paris was the city where her future belonged, she had always known it, even when stitching the flowers and braids on caps and hats in the attic workroom of the milliner’s in Monaco, where she had worked since leaving school. And now she had arrived. She wanted to close her eyes so that she could savour every piece of the place, even if the air tasted of metal and there was a sour tang from the smoke.
No one had seen her off at Monaco, neither her mother nor her best friend Esmée who was at home nursing yet another newborn. It felt as if no one cared but she had talked of nothing else for months before her departure and she supposed that they had grown bored of it and were glad to see her gone at last. For years she had not behaved well, making bitchy comments about the dullness of Monaco to anyone who would listen and spending her wages at the bars and cafés of the tiny port, desperate to meet a man who would take her away from the overblown town that seemed to care only for its wealthy visitors. Her mother had railed at the pitiful state of her daughter, arriving home stinking of spirits and with the bruise of a savage kiss on her neck, received in a dark alley before she could stop it.
At least that had been the case before 1914. Now the tiny principality perched on the rocky shores of the Mediterranean was filled with the pervasive reek of antiseptic. The terraces of its grand hotels were peopled by those whose bandages barely concealed torn faces and mangled or missing limbs. The palm trees still shaded the carefully tended gardens but the rows of vivid blooms and the surprising colour of bougainvillea now felt funereal, like flowers left on a tomb. They did nothing to subdue the nightmare memories of friends blown to meaty shreds or maimed beyond recognition in the blink of a startled eye.
Yvonne had always avoided the invalids, knowing that they were too keen to tell their terrible tales, but it had been difficult when the whole town seemed to have become transformed into a kind of hospital. Where she had once heard music drifting through the brightly-lit windows of ballrooms filled with foreign royalty and careless men from Mayfair and Minnesota who lost fortunes on the tables of the famous gambling halls, now the gilded chambers decorated with cherubs and visions of Venice held hospital beds and echoed with the soft calls for mothers and morphine.
When Yvonne had been a girl she had poked out her tongue at the ringletted girls in ribbons and sashes who sat outside the Café de Paris as their parents indulged them with confections of cream and cherries. It had turned her against those who looked at her threadbare smock, dusty bare legs and scuffed espadrilles and saw nothing. She had been invisible to them, or at least someone to be shooed away like a tiresome mutt from the grander portals of the palatial buildings. As a young woman she had known only the back-lane entrances of these places where she was sent to deliver a hat from her work or occasionally a bouquet of flowers from her mother’s stall in the market of the Condamine. When the smart men with fortunes and breeding had looked at her then it was only as a thing that might be bought, a commodity for a few hours’ pleasure. In her own town she had felt more and more like an outsider, out of place, always less.
But that was when she was Jeanne Victorine Gallis. Now, at the age of twenty-six, she had become Yvonne, a confident young woman with a straight back whose glossy black hair and flashing dark eyes caught the attention of young men around her. At Monaco station, she had left Jeanne behind like a discarded plaything, along with her friends and her family and that little life. Her brother, Louis, had mocked her when she told him of her new name but he understood nothing of the larger world. He had escaped the mire of the war by working along the coast in the naval yards at Toulon, where the Mediterranean sun still shone and people knew only of the horrors of the Western Front if they used their imagination or read between the lines in the reports carried in the newspaper.
Yvonne preferred the fashion papers. It was there that she had found the name of a salon in Paris which had sounded a note in her head for no reason at all. It was as though Fate held a bell that tinkled when you stumbled across the things that mattered, or at least would matter. The name of Germaine Bongard had stood out and Yvonne had puzzled over it for a while, confused by its sense of familiarity. It had seemed strange to her when she knew so well the names of others such as Poiret and Chanel and even the venerable Worth. Bongard’s salon was called Jove and the advertisement had given an address. She couldn’t explain why but she had decided to write a letter and that was surely Fate again. Her mother would have called it the Hand of God.
She had practised the content of that letter for some time before she had found it neat enough to send and was relieved and elated when she had received a response some weeks later. It was written in the odd way that rich people had, as though they were never alone.
‘We are recently back from Bordeaux to avoid the bombing but now things are settled and we have reopened our salon at 5, Rue de Penthièvre. We can offer you a week’s trial with the understanding of employment if all parties are satisfied.’
Even better, Madame Bongard had said there was a room in the attic that Yvonne could share with one of the other girls. It never crossed her mind that it wouldn’t work out. It was Fate, she was sure of it.
Now Yvonne took up her bag and hurried towards the large doors of the Gare de Lyon. She had never been anywhere bigger than Nice, a city whose boundaries of hillside and sea were always visible, but Paris was very different, even at first glance. If this was a city worn down by war then there was certainly no sign of it that day and she felt foolish for not coming sooner. Every particle of it hummed with life. The boulevard outside was filled with such clatter and activity. Everywhere she looked she met the casual glances of people gazing from trams and buses or marching along pavements. There were horse-drawn carts and the sound of their iron wheels drummed on the tar-covered cobblestones. Taxis drew in at the station steps to release hurrying passengers and boys swerved past on bicycles. The sound of klaxons jarred the air like fretting birdsong in a forest. Yvonne had to stand still again to take it all in and her heart thumped in her chest with the stupid joy she felt.
She took the steps down to the metro and bought a ticket from a window set in the tiled wall where a woman with flaming red hair sat like a strange animal caged in a zoo. She tried not to think about being underground and reminded herself of the railway tunnels from Monaco to Nice, but her legs still trembled as she made her way further down to the arching space of the platform.
The air was stale and there were beggars, women mainly, some with children and all with dirty clothes and such pitiful expressions that she couldn’t help giving them a few coins from the paltry amount in her purse. She was certain they were women from the country whose lives had been shattered by the war, their husbands killed or their farms ruined, the sort she had rarely seen in the south. It struck her then how the war still rumbled on not so far from where she stood, although everyone said the conflict was in its death throes, having sucked the life from France and spared no town or village from the spectres of its dead.
Yvonne gave a start when a train surged from the gaping tunnel and glided to a halt by the platform. She took a breath and pretended that she knew exactly what to do, thanking a man with a monocle as he stepped aside to let her enter the carriage. The train moved off slowly into the dark tunnel and she ignored a mounting queasiness as it gathered speed and slipped so suddenly into stations that her eyes were dazzled by the flashing lights. She remembered hearing how the city’s river, the Seine, had burst its banks some years back and flooded the entire underground system of tunnels, and despite the fact that the day was free from rain, she couldn’t push from her mind the image of her train now meeting a wall of water. She had always feared the worst, having once witnessed the quick death of a chuckling toddler playing by a wall that collapsed without warning and crushed him. Life could turn in the space of a second and she grasped her bag tightly on her lap because she’d been warned of pickpockets. And yet it was exhilarating, too, and she had to bite the inside of her lip so that she wouldn’t grin like a country girl at a fair. She was sure everyone was looking at her and that the stamp of Monaco was as obvious to the whole world as a watermark through silk.
She managed to change platforms to the other line and felt relieved when it arrived at the Madeleine stop and she was able to walk up to the street again. The classical columns of the Madeleine church loomed above her, the stone so blackened with dirt she thought at first they were painted. She had to pick her way over several boulevards that were busy with cars and it took a policeman with white batons to stop the vehicles so that people could cross.
Eventually she found Rue de Penthièvre. It was a narrow street basking in the peace away from the main boulevards and was lined by tall, handsome houses with green wooden shutters and shops that displayed paintings and expensive furniture in their windows. The air itself seemed perfumed. The pavement ahead of Yvonne was suddenly blocked by a grand old lady in a complicated hat, who fussed with her furs and umbrella as she stepped from a taxi. When Yvonne cleared her throat, the old lady made no sign at first of having heard but then she turned and glared as though Yvonne’s presence was the height of rudeness. Somehow Yvonne found the courage to stick out her tongue and laugh as the old bag’s mouth fell open.
She skipped past, giggling at her audacity, yet almost at once she felt the blood chill in her veins with the terrible thought that the old lady was Germaine Bongard. She saw now exactly where she was. A gateway with the number five above it led through to a courtyard and there was the name “Jove” on a brass plate. She had arrived.
Jove was unlike any dress shop Yvonne had ever seen in Monaco. For a start, its entire ground floor was occupied by an art gallery, the walls covered by paintings of the modern sort, all in thick paint and bright colours and nothing she found that was pretty to look at. Purple trees and red fields had never made much sense to her. There were sculptures, too, that were terrible, misshapen things in marble and bronze. The thought crossed her mind that maybe the dresses sold in the salon above might be equally odd and she braced herself to be appalled.
Daunted by what she might discover, and fearing that her joy in finding this work was about to turn to disappointment, she made her way up a creaking staircase painted black and into a lofty salon that was odder still. It was furnished with all kinds of mismatched pieces of furniture, as though someone’s mind had kept changing. A large gilded sofa was upholstered in crimson silk and scattered with cushions made from silvery fur. Behind it, a pair of wooden oars with red-painted paddles was propped against the wall, and there was also a small table made from nothing more than a sawn-off tree trunk, its radiating rings lovingly waxed. Through an arch she noticed a wall that was covered with rows of stuffed animal heads, their blank glass eyes glinting in the dim electric light, their mouths shaped in useless snarls. It was all so strange that she felt as though she had walked into some kind of fairground sideshow where the floor would suddenly tilt or a skeleton might swing out from an unseen door. What worried her more was that there was not a single dress or hat on display and she wondered if she had mistaken the address for that of a taxidermist or a circus proprietor. But then she heard the murmur of voices drift through a closed door, which almost immediately swung open. A tall and exquisitely beautiful young woman appeared like a vision, sheathed in a shimmering Egyptian gown like an empress.
‘Fuck,’ said the empress and her hand darted to her throat. ‘You gave me a start, dear. I didn’t hear the bell.’
‘Madame Bongard?’ Yvonne asked and swallowed hard.
The empress gave a throaty laugh.
‘Me the boss? No fear. I’m just the clothes horse.’ Her face was as fine as china but her accent was straight off the street. ‘And by the way we call her Germaine, you know. Never had a boss who didn’t like a title but there you go. It’s very modern here. You’re here for work, I expect?’
It felt like a good omen hearing the way she spoke and Yvonne relaxed a little.
‘She’s expecting me,’ she said. ‘I’m Yvonne Gallis from Monaco.’
The empress curtseyed as though Yvonne had announced that she was the Queen of Sheba.
‘And I’m Lisette Leclerc from Ménilmontant,’ she said and they both giggled. ‘Come on, darling, I’ll show you where you can wait. Germaine is with Madame Matisse. You know, the painter’s wife?’
She showed Yvonne into a side room where bentwood chairs were set around a table covered with a paisley shawl and lit by an immense crystal chandelier with sinuous arms that almost touched the walls.
‘She won’t be long,’ said Lisette. ‘It’ll give you a chance to check your make-up, eh?’
And she winked as she left.
It took Yvonne a moment to understand the hint and when she brought out a mirror from her bag she cringed when she saw that there was a mark on her cheek, a smut from the station, probably, and she spat on her handkerchief to rub it away. Ten minutes later, when she had grown bored with tracing the design of the paisley tablecloth with her finger, she heard voices outside that were bright and cultured.
‘Yes, of course we shall see you at the Salle Huygens. We wouldn’t miss it for the world.’
She didn’t catch the reply and after a pause the door flew open and in strode Germaine Bongard. Yvonne knew it was her because only the posh had that kind of bearing. She wasn’t much older than Yvonne, but she was dressed in the latest fashion in a lovely soft skirt of pleated jersey and a matching grey cardigan with a diamond pattern along its edges that fell so perfectly that Yvonne knew it must be weighted in the hem. Her face reminded Yvonne of a ragdoll’s with its frilly frame of auburn ringlets and the dark eyes like embroidered dots, and a red-lipped mouth that could have been applied with a crayon, as if she had herself been run up in the workroom.
‘So here you are, how lovely to meet you. I’m Germaine Bongard.’
Her voice was sharp but friendly. They shook hands and Yvonne noticed how the other woman’s palm felt rough as though it had been pricked by too many pins over the years.
A slender man slunk in behind her. His dark hair was plastered down and parted in the middle like a waiter’s, and he had a long, thin nose like a villain in a German film. The darkness of his suit was relieved by the flash of an emerald necktie.
‘I’m Monsieur Ozenfant,’ he said as he looked Yvonne up and down. ‘I manage this establishment. Although what that means is anyone’s guess. Tell me, do you prefer velvet or satin?’
It was such an odd question that it took Yvonne a moment to come up with any kind of answer.
‘I lined the pockets of my winter coat in velvet,’ she managed to say.
‘And colour? Do you have an opinion?’
She wondered if he was joking and she laughed, but then saw by his expression that he was perfectly serious.
‘Well, no,’ she said and began to feel flustered. ‘I mean, I like colour, of course, doesn’t everyone?’ She cleared her throat. ‘But I have very much more to learn and here will be the perfect place to do that.’
She had rehearsed the last bit on the train and Monsieur Ozenfant’s mouth twitched with amusement.
‘Well, I’m sure that’s exactly the right thing to say.’
‘I hope you’ll like us here,’ Germaine said. ‘We’re not the most conventional types, you know, but we take beauty very seriously.’
‘I’ll make sure I suck in my cheeks, then,’ Yvonne said and was gratified that they seemed to find that funny.
Germaine stared at Monsieur Ozenfant.
‘Well?’ he said, staring back.
‘Well indeed. Aren’t you going to tell Yvonne what she’s going to be doing? Isn’t that your job?’
He gave a salute and clicked his heels. ‘She’s learned new ways from the Boche,’ he said to Yvonne with a wink and Germaine gave a chuckle. ‘Leave your bag here and let’s start the tour.’
He took her up to a warren of rooms on the next two floors and introduced her to the girls who worked there. There was a pale young woman called Hélène and an older woman called Clotilde who reminded Yvonne of a rabbit, the way her pink nose twitched. There were younger girls, too, who did the sewing and a gangly boy in knickerbockers called Claude who cut all the fabrics and ran errands on his bicycle. The walls were smothered by hanging dresses so that even the air felt choked with thread. Everyone greeted her with warm smiles and she felt relieved that the Parisian reputation for unfriendliness had obviously been exaggerated.
‘You’ll be happy here,’ said Hélène as she dabbed her nose with a lace handkerchief. ‘Everyone is.’
‘Nothing is ever what it seems,’ added Clotilde and she gave Yvonne a significant look as she disappeared through a curtain of diaphanous scarves.
‘It appears that our Mademoiselle Clotilde has become a surrealist,’ said Monsieur Ozenfant with raised eyebrows. ‘Do you care for art, Yvonne?’
He was a man for questions, that was for certain, and all she could think of were the paintings she had seen in the gallery windows in Monaco, where boats had billowing sails and vases were stuffed with colourful flowers. She couldn’t say she really cared for any of them. And then she thought of the decorative posters that she had seen outside the Opera House in Monaco.
‘I like the posters for the Ballets Russes,’ she said, glad to dredge up something. ‘But I don’t know if that’s what you mean.’
Monsieur Ozenfant seemed absurdly delighted by her reply and gave a little shudder.
‘That’s precisely what I mean. Posters are the pulse of art, you know, so immediate. And machine-made, of course.’
‘There you are then,’ she said and laughed with relief. ‘Seems I’ve got my finger on the pulse and I didn’t know it.’
At the end of that first week Germaine offered Yvonne a permanent position in the workshop and Monsieur Ozenfant told her to drop the “Monsieur” nonsense and call him Amédée because, he informed her, formal names were bourgeois. She found it very unusual to work in a place where formalities were so minimal, although proper titles were strictly observed whenever clients were present. It was hard work but Yvonne didn’t mind because she was in Paris and it was so much better than making boring hats in Monaco. While Germaine and Amédée were easy-going most of the time, there was never any doubt who was the boss – one look from Germaine and the workroom would fall silent. Yvonne could chat too much, but she soon learned to keep quiet whenever Germaine was around.
The showroom was popular with women who were desperate for colour and texture after the gloomy years of war. The gowns were splendid without being ostentatious and certainly nothing like those covered with hand-stitched gemstones that Yvonne had seen in Monaco. There were simpler outfits for luncheons and parties in rich colours and soft fabrics which were given flair with a velvet collar or a clever line of contrast stitching. Bongard’s brother was France’s most famous couturier, Paul Poiret, known for his layered designs and whose voluminous harem pantaloons had been all the rage in Monaco. ‘They’ve had a falling-out, though,’ Clotilde whispered to Yvonne as they sorted through spools of thread.
The clothes at Jove had something of Poiret’s love for looseness and the corset was forbidden, although Yvonne spent a difficult day sewing wires into the bodice of one outfit as the client wanted to flatten her overgenerous bust now that bosoms had fallen out of fashion. The clothes were as expensive as they looked, which was important given that some of the clientele came from the top tier of the oldest profession in the world.
‘We had Otero here once,’ Hélène said. ‘She actually had a negro to carry her coat. Black as coal, he was.’
‘Divine, he was,’ chipped in Lisette.
One evening as everyone tidied up, Amédée opened a bottle of champagne to share with all the staff. A client had congratulated them for the success of her daughter’s wedding trousseau and sent a case as a thank you.
‘It’s our responsibility to create beauty, it’s the imperative of our times,’ Amédée said in his grand way when glasses were raised.
Yvonne didn’t ever know what to say when Amédée spoke like that but she joined in when the girls agreed enthusiastically. What, she thought, could you say? She decided that he was a man who simply enjoyed declaiming, like a teacher she remembered from school who spoke in riddles. Lisette told her that Amédée had run a magazine a few years back.
‘All about artists, you know, and art movements. Totally unreadable, but he’s very brainy and knows everything and everyone. He’s a painter as well. Does abstract ones like the works in the gallery downstairs. You can never tell what they’re meant to be, but I tell him they’re very interesting. They like it when you say things like that, artists do. Just say the word “interesting” and they’re happy.’
‘I’ll remember that,’ said Yvonne. ‘But didn’t he fight in the war?’
‘Some kind of disability,’ said Lisette. ‘Uses too many words, I suspect, but he’s that type, can’t help himself. Far as I can see all his friends are the same, all a bit strange in the head.’
Yvonne’s main job was to create the large fabric flowers that had taken the town since Gabrielle Chanel showed them off in the fashion papers. There were brocades and passementerie to stitch onto cuffs and collars as well, some of which were stiff with gold thread, and at times it was back-breaking work and she had to concentrate, especially if the light wasn’t good. Occasionally she was asked to model outfits.
As Germaine told her, ‘You have the shape of many of our customers.’
‘A big arse, you mean?’ Yvonne said before she had a moment to think about it, and Germaine roared with laughter.
‘Yvonne, you’re the devil.’
Yvonne was proud of her figure, especially her shapely hips and backside. Men liked it, too, she could tell from the way they gawked at her in the metro or on the street. She found it funny to stare back just as boldly so that most of them – bank clerks and legal assistants with inky fingers – shrank away, blushing. She had even developed a special walk, more of a wiggle, slow and confident, which was guaranteed to draw admiring glances.
After a few weeks she moved into the flat that Lisette and two other girls shared in Ménilmontant, although it was more like a boarding house. There was a wonky-eyed concierge called Madame Dufour who darted out of her rooms at the bottom of the stairs the moment anyone came through the courtyard door. ‘She can hear a fly fart,’ as Lisette put it. Men were absolutely forbidden, even young Claude with his pudding-basin haircut when he brought around a cast-iron umbrella stand that Germaine was going to throw out. He had to leave it in Madame Dufour’s lodging for Lisette and Yvonne to lug up twelve flights of stairs to their tiny warren of rooms. Lisette swore like a fishwife but agreed that it was worth the effort when they placed it by the door filled with their fancy parasols.
Lisette’s passion was dancing and she knew places all over the city, from Pigalle to Montparnasse, where the best music was played. Yvonne would often accompany her to one or other of the liveliest bals-musettes in Ménilmontant or further afield where they almost wore out the soles of their shoes whirling around the sawdust floor with a hundred others as an accordion thumped out a good tune. They always attracted admirers.
‘Like bees round honey,’ Lisette purred to Yvonne.
Over the following weeks, Yvonne discovered that some Parisian men could be a handful. A couple of times she found herself in a delicate situation with a man she knew she would never see again, but a drunken embrace at a dance hall could easily lead to other things that seemed entirely natural at the time. She was always very careful and consoled herself afterwards that at least she was not doing anything awful in the street. The sense of the war coming to an end seemed to infect the air with a kind of reckless energy and the night-time streets were often full of drunks, especially the young men on leave who seemed determined to celebrate their good fortune in remaining alive. There were bizarre sorts among them who seemed filled with rage and shouted at anyone about the smallest thing, but there were decent men, too, who would step in and sort things out. On countless occasions Yvonne found herself running with Lisette down rain-streaked streets as a fight played out behind them, but she was never truly frightened. On the contrary, these times made her bloom, even when she twisted an ankle on the cobbles. It was everything that she had hoped Paris would be.
All it lacked was a special man. She didn’t want these men who grabbed her wrist too hard or whose hands fumbled under her skirts when she had only agreed to dance. In Monaco she had gazed out at the horizon and dreamed of a life where she would be looked after by a man who would make her laugh. Her friend Esmée’s husband, Mario, had lovely forearms and strong shoulders and the sort of flashing smile that made other girls act silly, but Yvonne considered him a dull sort who relied too much on the charm of his curly black hair and lopsided grin and his corny banter. Not that she had wanted a rich man like the sort she had glimpsed so often in Monaco, the ones who swanned out of the Hotel de Paris or the Hermitage in loud checks and driving goggles, with a dead-eyed beauty on their arm. She wanted a man like those she read about in the women’s papers where a shared glance would set into motion a whole chain of events that led eventually to the altar. They were the stories that filled the pages of the cheap novels she devoured on the tram, and even if she knew they were only romantic stories, it didn’t stop her from believing that her future beau was somewhere in Paris, and that a single glance would be enough for them to recognize each other. It was a certainty she felt in her bones.
In November Yvonne and Lisette joined the crowds to watch the parade on the Champs-Élysées to celebrate the armistice. They watched the British monarch, George V, ride past in his carriage and Yvonne said that he might have at least raised a smile given that he was on the winning side. All the streets had a carnival atmosphere with streamers and flags, and because it felt like a holiday the two women took themselves for a celebratory drink in a café close to Les Halles before returning to work. It was packed, mostly by market workers who had finished for the day.
Squeezing through the mass to the bar, they found that they were standing practically next to Amédée, who was nursing a cognac. He didn’t seem at all surprised to find them there.
‘Look at these men,’ he said as though they had already been speaking for the past hour. ‘The working man. So honest.’
‘Honest? They certainly know how to charge for their apples,’ Yvonne said with a giggle.
‘I meant honest as in being true to themselves.’
Yvonne wondered if he meant something else entirely. Amédée was recently divorced and she didn’t know the reasons for that, but he did spend time with some very fashionable types. She had seen him once greeting a man who was wearing purple leather shoes and had a scarlet scarf wound extravagantly around his neck and she had wondered then if Amédée was one of those types at whom the local boys in Monaco jeered and flapped their wrists.
‘Some of them are certainly very strong,’ she said, and then she felt brave and added, ‘but I thought you and Germaine were together.’
Amédée raised his eyebrows and gave a shrug.
‘Well of course we are. We are on and off,’ he said. ‘But that’s neither here nor there, is it, and rather forward of you to mention at all, if I may say so. And you know, I’m not admiring these men for anything more than the simplicity of their lives, although that will change now this despicable war is over. Soon everything will be run by machines of all types and that’s to be celebrated, don’t you think? And yet one can’t get away from the fact that this place has a keen industry. The smell of sweat.’
‘Certainly got that,’ said Lisette and she waved her hand in front of her face. ‘Nothing wrong with a wash now and then.’
‘I’ve never seen your paintings,’ Yvonne said. ‘Do you paint naked men?’
Amédée threw up his hands in horror. ‘Oh my God, do I look like someone from the classical tradition, an artist who wants to emulate the Greeks and who thinks that the Renaissance is the apex of artistic evolution? Do I seem traditional to you?’
She made a comical show of examining his fine dark suit and stiff collar and navy-blue necktie.
‘I have no idea what you look like,’ she replied. ‘But that’s what people paint, don’t they? Men and women in the raw. That’s art. I was told that anyone can get a job as one of those models if they just sit outside the art schools, because that’s what everyone paints.’
He gave a grunt. ‘Many do, it’s true, and technique is most important at the beginning to train your eye, but later, well, you need to bring in something more. The purpose of art is to say something new, not embellish what has already gone before otherwise what is the point of creating? Copying is the lowest form of creation. That’s why it’s so wearying to find Cubism still being flogged to death, nothing more than a decorative style peddled by every Pierre, Jean and Jacques. We need to find a new way of expressing the fundamental essence of form that speaks to the modern age.’
She stared at him, completely lost, and he gave an exasperated sigh as he noticed her expression.
‘Look,’ he said patiently. ‘I’m having an exhibition in our gallery next week with a close friend. We paint together every Sunday. Come down one afternoon and take a look and then you’ll see whether or not I paint like a bourgeois traditionalist.’ He gave another sigh as though he knew he was asking too much. ‘There’s even a remote chance that you might like what you see.’
The following week she did as he asked, or at least she stepped over the threshold of the gallery, which was named the Galerie Thomas so that it wouldn’t be confused with Jove upstairs. The white walls were covered by canvases, most of them plainly framed, and there were a few drawings, too. Some looked like boats and bottles and boxes but everything was slightly flattened and Yvonne thought that nothing looked very finished, as if the artists had started and then gone off to have a drink. What was clear was that there was not a single naked man or woman to be seen.
She didn’t step any further because Amédée was there with another man whose back was to her. Both of them had their jackets off and their shirt sleeves rolled up and they were talking to each other loudly, which stopped her from letting them know that she was there.
‘Of course you’re making progress,’ Amédée said and he threw his arms out as though opening a show. ‘You have to let the nature of the paintings speak for themselves, my friend. You have to trust yourself and trust your instinct. Look how far you’ve come.’
‘But I’m struggling with the thought of larger canvases,’ said his friend, and Yvonne thought that he had an accent, northern or perhaps Swiss because it was more ponderous than Amédée’s. ‘Scale must always count for something.’
‘No, the size of the canvas means absolutely nothing. The universality of the object we depict is what matters, not the size of it and where it begins or ends. We’re Purists, dear friend, not copying a Dutch still life.’
Yvonne slipped quietly away and rushed up the staircase back to the showroom.
What strange creatures these artists were, she thought, the way they were always so fervent. And about what? The pictures she had glimpsed were not exactly pretty. In fact, the only thing she had liked the look of was the slender neck of the man she couldn’t even see properly. It was the most artistic thing in the room if she thought about it.