A genie has granted your wish to build your perfect space for reading and writing. What’s it like?
This is not a story about a genie who granted me a wish. It is, rather, a story of a writer who discovered a writing space belonging to writers from the past. He was Jean Lorrain, a French belle époque novelist and poet. This is my translation of a couple of paragraphs in which he describes a place to read and dream; in them he introduces his story, Useless Virtue, published in 1897.
In my grandmother’s house, the very one where I spent my holidays, a Louis XIII house with a high roof, its dormer windows always closed, there was, across the entire length of the dwelling, an immense attic. Old things from centuries past were piled up under the dust; sleeping there, bathed in a soft glow, just brushed by the light slipping between the tiles, was a pile of extraordinary things which made us dream…, especially me, a small boy already curious and anxious, imagination always aroused and of a precocious excitability; any occasion was good for sneaking away from the linen room where Norine was busy sewing while keeping an eye on our games. I would climb the stairs four at a time, my heart aching with a delicious emotion. I would stop, out of breath, at the door of this coveted attic, fearing I would find it closed and dreading no less I would find it open. I always hesitated before going in; it was for me a place of mystery, a sort of retreat that was strangely populated. Its inhabitants were tall armoires filled with books, and in those books there were pictures; and then there was an old secretaire with drawers and a writing tablet bound with green morocco, on which the ink had made stains; then a large clock with figures that were supposed to appear, but this clock didn’t work any more; there was also a map of the world all painted with bluish continents, an old paintbox and other things like it that I gazed at in ecstasy for a long time, hardly daring to touch them. And I loved to stay there for hours and hours, because, there, I felt far away from everything, in an atmosphere supernatural and bizarre, in a kind of light that was like no other, transparent and green, as at the bottom of the sea. Yes, in this silence, amid all these old things fallen into neglect, antiquated, forgotten, it was an undulating and murky atmosphere of watery abysses. Then there were all those books, most of them in German which I didn’t understand, but I would look at the pictures and there were such a lot of pictures! Of all of them, one volume appealed to me; it was a book of stories. The title, I can’t remember; on the first page there was a plate depicting Death with an hourglass and a young girl, it was hideous; then there were others with churches, palaces, streets and large vessels that go on the sea; I read all the stories in that book but I remember none; still, I would know them if I heard them: a child’s brain is made of wax and it takes only those sensations that are pressed into it. But when I think of that attic, I immediately see a blue-green vision, with seaweed moving through it, and shimmering reflections, and large crushed things: they’re yardarms, masts and cathedral naves, spectres of flotsam from bygone days, ghosts from very old shipwrecks, and from all these phantoms I can truly produce only one story, a vague story about a symbol, fleeting and sad, that escaped me at the time. Did I read this story as it was, or is it rather the confusion of several other stories gathered haphazardly and inconsistently and badly digested by my young imagination?
Such as it is, murky, trembling and diffuse, it still pleases me like a reflection remaining in a mirror clouded by verdigris: so I will call it Story from my Attic, for that is its real title, rather than this paraphrase of its symbolic text: Useless Virtue.
Translation Copyright – Patricia Worth, 5th February 2013