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Douanier Rousseau Revisited

Rose Malone


On a hot August day in Zurich, Alice sat by the lake, reading. Money sparkled in the sun. Weariness inhabited her limbs. She was in Zurich unwillingly, to meet her daughter, Isolde, who was coming on a long-haul flight from Bangkok. Isolde was continuing to Dublin; Alice was going on to conferences in Riga and Warsaw, where she would interpret the words of others, translating smoothly and skillfully from French to English, English to French. The Warsaw conference was on climate change. She had received the keynote paper in advance and was familiarizing herself with the terminology. She found it interesting and was absorbed in her work. She knew that the Riga conference was about preparing for EU entry and was dense with economic terms. Her brain recoiled already from the anticipated boredom.


By the time she returned to Dublin, Isolde would have left again to take up a scholarship in Boston and David, Alice’s husband would be at a conference in Cincinnati. Alice longed to see Isolde, but wished that their itineraries could have meshed in a more manageable and economical way. She felt an ongoing sense of unreality and disorientation, a sort of white noise of the spirit, about the mobility and extravagance of their lives. The ease of travel, the disorientation of shifting time zones, the speed of re-location, the accusatory contrails, unsettled some deep atavistic need for roots and naturalness. The proximity of so many banks, so much hoarded wealth, filled her with a nameless malaise. She wanted bogs, an endless vista of wet sedge and black, watery earth. She was pleasantly surprised by Zurich, by its lake, its brightness, its links with James Joyce, but nevertheless felt a sense of dislocation, a conviction of flimsiness and temporality. If she blinked it might all disappear – the shining lake, the improbable mountains, all the weight of cathedrals and cobble stones, might shimmer into a mirage.


Alice looked at her watch, assembled herself and walked towards the main railway station. The seediness of its immediate surroundings pleased her in an obscure way, but even the seediness, being Swiss, was limited and mild. On the lower concourse of the station, a young man approached her. He was strongly built, well dressed, and well nourished. It took her a moment to realise he was begging, alternating between French and German. She turned from him with a small shake of her head and he spoke angrily, in English.


‘If I were your son …’, he said, in French.


‘If I had a son who was strong and good-looking and could speak several languages, I hope he would be too proud to beg’, she said in her own mind, in French. In the real world she turned away with a slight shrug, but felt her face redden.


She stood at the bottom of the escalator and watched the feet and legs as they descended. Men’s brogues, creased trousers, not Isolde. Flip-flops, long skirt, maybe … no. Long, tanned legs, very short shorts, not Isolde. Not Isolde, not Isolde. A tap on her shoulder – “Mum?” and there she was, somehow missed in the descending throng. They held each other at arms’ length for a long moment before melding into a close embrace, then moving back to arms’ length to scan each other’s faces. Alice felt heat rising through her body, in spite of the chill of the airport air-conditioning and noticed a quick frown gather on Isolde’s face as she recognised her mother’s discomfort. Isolde’s face was lightly tanned and her hair was lightened by the tropical sun, but did those shadows beneath her eyes result from more than the fatigue of a long-haul flight? Their questions and exclamations overlapped one another.


‘You look so well. A tan suit …’

‘You look well too. I missed …’

‘How is D…?’

‘He’s well. Busy. He can’t …’

‘Cincinnati, Boston …’

‘Warsaw, Riga …’

‘How long have we?’

‘When is your flight?’


They laughed breathlessly at their own excitement. Their talking and laughing conveyed very little real information beyond the indisputable fact of their love and concern for each other. They managed to establish that they had a precious four hours before they need return for their train to the airport. ‘Such a civilized country! Such great transport!’, Isolde exclaimed and Alice smiled tolerantly. They walked out of the station, passing the begging young man. Isolde pressed some coins into his hand and bestowed her dazzling smile on him. He turned away, sullenly, without thanking her. Alice felt obscurely justified.


They decided to find a place to eat as Isolde was “starving” and was overcome with a longing for pizza. ‘They just don’t have the concept, in Thailand’. They settled into the air-conditioned comfort of the chain restaurant, and talked more thoroughly, at greater length. Isolde spoke animatedly about her great Asian adventure, her time doing voluntary music therapy in orphanage, her travels in remote areas, her visit to a home for abandoned dogs. Alice was happy to listen and simply absorb the glowing presence of her daughter. She noticed absences and elisions in their conversation – references to Fergus, the boyfriend with whom Isolde had been traveling, seemed to peter out. Should she ask? Isolde seemed to create a force field that made questions impossible. Alice decided to relax and enjoy Isolde’s performance, take it at face value. She caught her own reflection in the mirrored wall and thought that she looked fat and flushed. Slightly half-witted. Was Isolde looking anxious about her?


Isolde reached for the bill and said, ‘My treat’, then recoiled in horror when she saw the amount. Alice slipped the paper from her hands and smiled, fishing out her credit card.


‘I guess I’ll have to get used to European prices again. And American’, Isolde said. When they stepped back out into the sun, Alice exclaimed at the heat and Isolde shivered slightly.


‘Where could we go for the afternoon? Have you been here before?’ Isolde asked.


‘I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I know I was in Geneva.’


Isolde raised her eyebrows, wordlessly.


‘If I was here, it was on a very long camping trip, all over central Europe. It was thirty years ago.’ Alice was aware that she sounded defensive. Thirty years sounded so old and distant. Literally unimaginable to twenty-two-year-old Isolde. She thought that she had clear, almost total recall of that camping holiday of 1976. She had such a strong impression of the heat and drought, of the daily task of hammering the bent and twisted tent pegs into the parched ground. She remembered being on the walls of a town in France and hearing English voices floating up to her, panicking about the drought at home and worrying that vegetables would be in short supply. She had a sharp, almost surreal, recall of individual scenes and places – a bend in a cobbled street; the whisk of a long skirt in a narrow alley; a gum-chewing young man leaning against a wall in a railway station, emanating sex and danger; a Bach toccata troubling the dust in a cathedral. The bigger picture, the overall itinerary, eluded her. They had not felt at home in Switzerland, had passed on quickly to seedier and less expensive destinations.


Isolde was looking at her expectantly and a little anxiously.


‘We could go to the cathedral where it’s cool’, Alice sounded tentative. She’d already been to Mass there that morning, lured by the prospect of a sung liturgy and respite from the heat. It had been long. Isolde shuddered dramatically.


‘I don’t find it warm here’, she reminded her mother.


They agreed on the art gallery and located it on their free tourist map. It looked quite near on the map but involved a trudge up a steep, cobbled hill in the blazing afternoon sun. Parked cars were prudently dressed in grey protective covers to shield them from the rays. Alice felt perspiration running down her sides, between her breasts, down her back. She needed to stop at increasingly short intervals to catch her breath. Her face blazed. Her scalp seemed to be burning through her hair. Her knees hurt. The cobbles snatched at her ankles. Isolde was walking ahead in her flat, thin-soled sandals, glancing back over her shoulder at intervals and slowing to wait for her mother. Her steps were poised and cool.


As they came to the top of the hill, Alice saw the delicate ironwork of a peacock sign and suddenly remembered that she had, in fact, been here before. It marked the site of what had been the Pfauen Café – the Peacock Café – once frequented by James Joyce, but now a pharmacy. She could have done with a café at that moment. She had no memory of climbing the hill on her past visit. Evidently, it had not been an issue then. The Kunsthaus, Zurich’s art gallery, beckoned them with its bright, modernist design and promise of air conditioning. As they went into the gallery, her presence in the space suddenly brought back the memory, not just of the gallery itself but the clear, physical memory of that time in Zurich and their stay in the lakeside campsite.


They agreed to travel independently through the spaces of the gallery. Alice wandered about rather aimlessly and was surprised to find herself standing before a painting by Henri Rousseau, a print of which she had bought on her remembered camping trip. She thought of Rousseau, not entirely accurately, as a strange customs officer whose imagination ran riot in jungles while he stamped passports.


The print still languished, unframed, in a portfolio but she had never forgotten it. It was a very romantic picture of a girl in a long dress among remarkable trees. It was the trees that she remembered most clearly. Each leaf was painted separately, exactly the way she herself had painted leaves as a child. She remembered painting tree after tree, leaning on the broad wooden windowsill of their home. The window looked out to the west, across the plains and she could watch the sunsets, turning the windows of the houses below to flame. For some reason, she always painted trees, and always to a particular formula: a single branch traversing the page, replete with leaves and flowers and birds and nests. Her pictures had no depth, no perspective.


Rousseau’s painting was really nothing like that. His trees had multiple branches, like fossilized seaweed and each leaf was painted carefully and separately. The branches formed fernlike patterns against the blue sky. There the resemblance to her pictures ended. Rousseau’s picture had depth and solidity. The trees alone retained the character that they had had in her memory. They had inspired some lines in a poem that she had written a few months later, at a time when she had still believed that poetry was something she could do. The poem was called “Afterglow” (no subtlety there). The lines were:


I can remember tiny lines, like fronds

Of moss, or branches of trees

In pictures by Henri Rousseau.


She was given to putting line breaks in odd places, so she wasn’t quite sure that she remembered them accurately, but she was sure about the words and the odd simile. The “tiny lines” in question were on the frail skin of his closed eyelids. She remembered waking, in the early dawn, light filtering through the green canvas of the tent, turning the sky pink. She lay awake while he slept, looking at his closed eyes and thinking of the picture. The memory of the weight of his hand on the smooth skin of her inner thigh - the blunt, strong fingers half-curled towards his palm – was so clear that she now felt the warmth of it through her light cotton trousers. The colour rose again in her face and neck.


The picture recalled him so clearly that she caught her breath, raising a hand to her throat like the woman in the picture. She was surprised by the force of her emotion, even after all those years since their paths had diverged so thoroughly. She looked up and saw Isolde approaching and felt a strange embarrassment at the idea of remembering, in the presence of her daughter, a relationship with someone other than her husband, Isolde’s father. It felt like she had been unfaithful in some odd, proleptic way.


‘You have that picture at home, don’t you?’ Isolde said, startling her. ‘You never framed any of the pictures in that portfolio. I like the jungle ones.’ She turned to study the picture more closely.


‘I haven’t looked at it in years. I remembered the picture as showing a young girl’, Alice said, ‘but I see now that I was wrong.’


The subject of the picture was in fact a woman with a heavy, severe, rather masculine face. Alice cast her mind over what she knew of Rousseau’s work and could not immediately recall another picture of a woman to which she could compare this one. She ran in her mind through a catalogue of strange animals and exotic plants and men in striped bathing suits. There were also some rather sinister children, but she couldn’t recall any romantic pictures of girls or women.


She had remembered the subject of the painting as a girl with long, loose hair, who carried her hands spread widely in a gesture of vulnerability, who had seemed a rather fey creature, wandering aimlessly in some wood. The woman in the real picture was quite different. She was older and her hair was bound in a school-teacherly bun. She had a solid, well-upholstered presence in her blood-red dress. Her hour-glass figure was probably shaped by stays. There was a ruffle of white lace at her throat and a little white rim to each blood-red sleeve. She was carrying a furled umbrella: a sensible precaution, given the dark smudge on the horizon which might presage the gathering of clouds. She was looking to her left – towards the right of the picture – and carried her left hand raised, just in front of her breast, as if alarmed or startled and about to bring her hand to heart or throat. The woman was alone in a landscape, surrounded by the slender, sparse trees. The bushes in the foreground had feathery foliage that would not snag or grasp your clothes. Alice could not remember noticing any sense of menace or danger in that landscape when she had first seen it, nor any great need to look for clouds on the horizon.


She thought about the strangeness of memory. Certain scenes and events seemed to be embedded, not just in the mind, but in the physicality of her skin and blood. How could it bring her back to such an acute recollection of the texture of his skin, that it was as though she were feeling it from within? She had thought then that the intensity of her vision implied that they shared an intimacy that was more than physical. She recognized now that that perfect clarity of vision could co-exist with an almost infinite capacity for self-delusion. What she thought she knew was just slightly, but crucially, out of kilter with the real situation.


Now it seemed that the picture, like herself, had grown older. The girl had grown up, had lost the bloom and confidence of youth, had learned to anticipate danger and take precautions. ‘Like Dorian Grey’, she thought, but unfortunately it hadn’t worked to keep her ever youthful. She surprised a worried look on Isolde’s face.


‘I’ve reached the age when my daughter worries about me’, she thought. They decided to take a taxi back to the station. They took the excellent fast train to the airport, had a last cup of coffee together and separated for their different flights. Alice watched Isolde walk away, dwarfed by her backpacker’s rucksack. She turned, smiled and waved. Smiled and waved.

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