The Marquis left the house at eight in the morning.
Just before that he had stood framed in a large mirror, suitably dressed, with an expression on his face that showed he eagerly awaited what was to come. His eyes took on the depth needed for passions to cross over to the imperative. His hair was neatly combed, his walking stick in hand, and his knife under his belt. You have to dress with taste and go out with easygoing charm on church holidays, whether you believe in them or not.
He looked at himself closely for a few moments more, just enough for his countenance to sink into his thoughts. The preparations, he thought, demanded angelic attention, full concentration and foresight to allow him to predict every situation that could arise. Things had to have a firm base so that they might blaze up later. That was his maxim: enjoyment has to be worked out down to the finest detail; it always rests on a clear plan and anticipation of the episodes to follow. There must not be any improvisation here: spontaneity is for amateurs. Rather, the freedom of pleasure grows out of a strict ritual repeated as often as necessary for the apex to be reached. Enjoyment comes from initial reflection and subsequent activity to see a conceived project through to its end.
And yet even when everything is implemented with an iron hand, when the desired sequence of objects, characters and events is fleshed out in detail, there is still a possibility of chance taking a hand. But that should be seen as an added thrill, an extra effort required to attain the goal. The stage is decorated, the scenery set up, the protagonists are conversant with their roles, and then an unexpected variation can come, a small shift in design. I can hardly wait to see what the result will be, he thought, and returned to his focus again.
The plan for this day, whose sanctity was to be tested, had been elaborated with the meticulousness of old exegetes. Now, when things were getting under way, it remained to be seen what the effects would be of this story formed in hours of leisure, in daydreaming and cool-headed rationalism. Would it provide material for further paraphrasing, new narrations and different iterations?
The Marquise remained in bed upstairs, in the inertia that held her both when asleep and awake. Since giving birth recently, she had been constantly tired, and moreover tetchy, the Marquis would say, but still she didn’t show it beneath her parvenue manners. When she woke up and saw that her husband was well and truly gone and that she could not count on his presence on this important day, where every family, especially the most respectable ones – she now belonged to those circles – demanded unity and an ingratiating closeness, she would perform all the recommended religious rituals with the same sense of duty, however limited her understanding was. And she would be sincerely sad that the family wasn’t together again because the Marquis always had some pressing things to attend to, urgent business that demanded his complete commitment. That, at any rate, is how he later explained his absences to her, while she increasingly suspected that something fishy was going on and that her husband possessed too adventurous a spirit to consider his home a privileged place.
At least her maman consoled her with all her expertise: “When you become the mother of his child, the Marquis will acquire a degree of responsibility, and the escapades with the theatre will cease to fascinate him. Theatrical obsessions are the worst –,” her anxious mother continued beside the dancing flames in the fireplace (the Marquis loved to evoke those conversations for himself and play them through in their stiff conventionality) “because they are shamelessly expensive and so unnecessary, a pure waste of money, and the smallest invoice gives me a headache,” maman claimed in the Marquis’ retrospective interpretation. She immediately grasped her head in her hands, complained of an unbearable migraine and went off to her room with the pose of a true martyr. “We all have our little ‘Calvaries’,” maman confided to her daughter, teaching her the deepest wisdoms and holiest secrets of married life. “But I’m sure, and the Marquis confirms it himself, that Louis-Marie will change him radically – there are already some signs – so there is cause for hope,” she said.
The Marquise slept upstairs in a bulky, king-size bed, soundly, like the sleep of the just. As with all simple-minded people, he thought, she was happiest when she didn’t have to worry about everyday problems. She never cared about the circumstances of their arranged marriage and was never interested in how that complete stranger – she didn’t even know he was followed by a certain reputation from forged police dossiers and malicious rumours – ended up in her bed and immediately demanded the fulfilment of all her conjugal duties, and perhaps also some that were not on the list. If she had asked herself these questions, she certainly should first have sought answers from her esteemed mother, beside the very same fireplace where she was now being given belated, futile marital instruction and advice. Only simple-minded people, he thought, could be so dissatisfied deep inside with their fate, and yet not rebel against it.
The Marquise was graced by the quality of awaiting the outcome of events with meek equanimity. Had she been a philosopher of any kind, he would have termed this characteristic divine apathy. An unreachable ideal that is substituted by intensified dramaturgy that enthrones the lie not as a sleight of hand, not as an illusion, but as an essential dash of spice to what we really think about life. He recalled with a smile – the mirror automatically accentuated the change on his face – one spring at Château d’Évry when everyone had to accept new roles, briefly step out of their closed selves and trust his director’s hand, which not only placed people in the small proscenium but also reworked and rounded off the celebrated pieces.
Even the Marquise relaxed and accepted her roles in a remarkably good mood, probably because she was trying to see similarities between theatre and life, falsely confident that the latter must submit to the former, and that written laws were stronger than the chaos of reality. She would take on her character without hesitation, convinced that she was going to hear just what she wanted: moral edification and a declaration of love from the man whom, once she accepted he was her destiny, she loved both passionately and dutifully. She sang improved verses with changed meanings that promised harmony and a happy end, although her feeble voice prevented her from getting the intonation right. There was more charm than clumsiness in all that, he recollected, particularly in her poses when she played self-confidence, all shook-up inside by the possibility of gaining something unexpectedly, although maman never stopped complaining about the cost of the fully constructed open stage, the embroidered costumes and the handful of professional actors hired for the festivities.
But irony’s main blow, so to speak, lay in the fact that maman herself – still furious about the sizeable deficit – ended up on the stage that spring in one of his small dramas, the Marquis thought. It was a farce, to be exact, because, in line with the latest aristocratic fashion of seeing facts as just a reflection of an unattainable, cynical ideal, the repertoire consisted purely of trivial comedies, light pieces that were supposed to trick those both on and off the stage into thinking that they offered plain amusement, when they actually harboured dark intentions. People are easiest to cheat with the help of a happy ending, a convention we are quick to believe, as if our personal happiness depended on it. Led onto the boards of the theatre, torn away from her everyday concerns for a moment, Mme de Montreuil was condemned to enthralling pleasure and creative vanity, which even her perpetual grouchy avarice was unable to impair.
Maman stepped out onto the stage slowly, he thought and raised his right eyebrow as if he was actually scrutinising that spectacular entry. At first she was sincerely bewildered, angry at herself for having been so simple as to unthinkingly walk straight into a trap like a greenhorn, and nervous because she had let herself be persuaded without offering a dignified show of resistance. She needed some time to get used to the surroundings and accept the power of fiction. Then she let go, her cheeks went red from a surge of pleasure, she identified with her role and was prepared to forget her petty-minded quibbles.
Maman on stage – that was a sight worth remembering so it could later be used for the benefit of irony. In a rather large costume that made her body seem rotund, she fancied herself the mistress of the story, but things had long been laid down and the dialogues hindered the autonomy of the acting in advance. As he waited for his own parts in the performance, the Marquis enjoyed watching mother and daughter acquiesce to go along with the laws of the trite farce for opposite reasons. The one thought that theatre ennobled, that it would be a catharsis for her marriage, whose purpose she had already begun to doubt, although ominous information was always painstakingly hidden from her; the other was convinced that, with a little flattery, she would be able to gain full control on both sides of the curtain, and nothing would escape her attention. That is the lowliest and most shameful effect of theatre: you make people believe in an illusion, you provide a space where they can compensate for what they lack and cast off what vexes them. Simple-minded people are the best, but also the most ignorant audience, especially when their minds play the roles assigned to others or imitate the actions of others.
Theatre is something else, he thought – a completely different agency. It produces neither lies nor truth, it neither returns nor promises anything. There is nothing for you to emulate and nothing you should cling to. There is no cleansing and penitence, the laughter is never heartfelt, and the tears are never touching. Theatre is a suspension of the logic of morals and therefore can be used to scourge hypocrisy and convention, but not in order to make the world a better place or to send a message: this is bad, this is immoral, steer clear of sin. No, theatre is a place where you govern people and words, make ruthless calculations, dispose of things and heroes beneath the proscenium arch, combine bodies in poses, positions and schemes, and cast every bond, all speech and the whole of nature in an artificial mould.
Most of all he liked the preparations, the anticipation before a show and the delay before the story was put on. Then he would go out onto the stage to have a good look around; he would walk the length and breadth of it several times to get a sense of how much space he could gain if he exploited the full depth at the rear. Later he would think about how to place the light and direct the gaze of viewers, because the stage has no purpose if there is no place for the shades that give all things their hue, including the false nonchalance of the farce and the strained morality of the tragedy. Fiction is great not because everything is possible, but because nothing is prescribed.
By Aleksandar Bečanović
Translated from the Montenegrin by Will Firth
Aleksandar Bečanović, born in 1971, is a Montenegrin writer, film critic and screenwriter. He is the author of five poetry books, Ulysses’ Distance (1994), Being (1996), The Pantry (1998), Places in the Letter (2001) and Preludes and Fugues (2007); two short story collections, I am Waiting, What Will Happen Next (2005) and Obsession (2009); and a novel, Arcueil (2015). He has also published two books of film criticism, Genre in the Contemporary Cinema (2005) and the 900-page long Lexicon of Film Directors (2015). He received the Risto Ratković Award for the best book of poetry in Montenegro in 2002. He writes film reviews and essays for Montenegrin daily Vijesti, and is one of the contributors to the books 501 Movie Directors (2007), 501 Movie Stars (2007), 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die (2009) and 101 Sci-Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die (2009).
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Thank you to the European Union Prize for Literature for allowing us to republish this translation.