Meaume leur dit: “Je suis né l’anné 1617 à Paris. J’ai été apprenti chez Follin à Paris. Chez Rhuys le Réformé dans la cité de Toulouse. Chez Heemkers à Bruges. Après Bruges, j’ai vécu seul. À Bruges, j’aimais une femme et mon visage fut entièrement brûle.”
Thus begins the story of Meaume the engraver in Terrasse à Rome, an extraordinary short novel by Pascal Quignard, one of my favourite French authors, along with Pierre Michon and Michel Tournier.
The young apprentice is in love with the gorgeous 18-year-old daughter of Jacob Veet Jakobsz, elective judge of the city of Bruges. He gazes at her in church, looks for her in processions, follows her in the street, without her being aware. But she is aware. In turn, she learns to spot him in the crowd, following her. She gets used to expect his presence behind her.
Elle, elle cherchait sa silhouette. Elle le voyait se dissimuler derrière les parapets des ponts au-dessus des canaux. Derrière la margelle de pierre des fontaines sur les places. Elle le voyait mêler son ombre à l’ombre noire des porches et à celle plus étroite et plus jaune que projettent derrière elles les colonnes des églises. Chaque fois sa présence entraperçue l’emplissait de bonheur.
Eventually they meet, discreetly. They do not exchange any words at the beginning. There’s just a fleeting caressing of hands. They start seeing each other. In a garden, in her room, in his mansard. They enjoy the furtive minutes they spend together. They get used to their bodies, their nudity, their joy. Nanni Veet Jacobsz is engaged to a man called Valancre. One day, at Meaume’s atelier, the lovers are beginning to dress when Nanni’s fiancé breaks in. Meaume and Valancre fight. Valancre throws the acid Meaume uses to engrave his works to his face, injuring him badly. Amid excruciating pain, Meaume is taken to his Master’s place. He would recover. His eyes were not hurt, but his face is irremediably and seriously burnt. After a while, he sends her letters, and tries to talk to her, in vain. She would not talk to him, apparently deciding to terminate the affair. Her absence is torture. One night, he is sleeping when she appears in his room. He wakes up. More beautiful than ever, she holds his hands. “You must leave inmediately.” “Why?”. “Because he wants to kill you.” “But why?”
Elle lui adresse un beau sourire. Mais elle dit en cessant de lui sourire: “Parce que je lui ai dit que je vous amais.” Brusquement, elle pleure beaucoup.
Meaume leaves the city. They would see each other once more. He would learn then she got married and gave birth to a son. He leaves for good. Until his death in 1667, he would be constantly ‘leaving’ -Paris, Bologna, Toulouse, Como, Utrecht, Rome-, avoiding daylight and seeking relief in the shadows. He would devote his life to art, becoming the best engraver of his time. His eyes, the only part of his face untouched by the acid, would always be looking inward, searching for his intimate view of the world in order to create astonishingly detailed drawings and etched artworks, which nearly always would display a figure in the background whose face remains in the shadow. His eyes, however, find inside him no prospect for love. He cannot love any woman he happens to be with. He would always miss her.
Je n’ai jamais plus trouvé de joie auprès d´autres femmes qu’elle. Ce n’est pas cette joie qui me manque. C’est elle.
As in some of his other novels, –Tous les matins du monde, for instance-, Quignard masterfully describes how an individual sublimates love into art, grasping the unlimited power concealed in the mourning for the loved one in order to transform it into sheer beauty. But, is this possible? Can someone display such an extreme impossibility to love and, at the same time, be so aware of the world around, as to portrait it in all its details, reproduce it so vividly, and arise deep emotions in those who contemplate his art? May a human heart be so impervious to love after a loss and, simultaneously, so wide open to sights, odours, voices, touches, tastes, thoughts, anything we may apprehend with our senses and our mind? How can one be so detached and altogether so connected to nature?
Je ne réside plus beaucoup dans mon corps…. Je sens ma peau beaucoup trop fine et plus poreuse… Un jour le paysage me traversera…
Pascal Quignard, Terrasse à Rome, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2000.
Photo: Church in Trastevere, Rome © Paco Beltran