You must have been surprised when I left so suddenly. I apologize for that but do not regret it. I cannot tell whether you too can hear the hurricane of internal music stirring inside me over the last few days like Tristan da Cunha’s towering flames. Oh! I would so like to succumb to the tempest that, only the day before yesterday, in the forest, urged me to touch your white dress. But I am afraid of love, Isabelle, and of myself. I do not know what Renée or anyone else may have told you about my life. You and I have sometimes talked of it; I have not told you the truth. That is the charm of new acquaintances: the hope that, in their eyes and by denying the truth, we can transform a past that we wish had been happier. Our friendship has gone beyond the point of overly flattering confidences. Men surrender their souls, as women do their bodies, in successive and carefully defended stages. One after the other, I have thrown my most secret troops into battle. My true memories, corralled in their enclave, will soon give themselves up and come out into the open.
I am a long way from you now, in the very room in which I slept as a child. On the wall are the shelves laden with books that my mother has been keeping for over twenty years “for her eldest grandson.” Will I have sons? That wide red spine stained with ink is my old Greek dictionary; those gold bindings, my prizes. I wish I could tell you everything, Isabelle, from the sensitive little boy to the cynical adolescent, and on to the unhappy, wounded man. I wish I could tell you everything in complete innocence, exactitude, and humility. Perhaps, if I manage to finish writing this, I will not have the courage to show it to you. Never mind. It is still worthwhile, if only for my own sake, to assess what my life has been.
My two greatest companions were Andreé Halff, an intelligent but rather touchy young Jew I had met at law school, and Bertrand de Jussac, a classmate from Limoges who had enrolled at the Saint-Cyr military academy and came to spend Sundays with us in Paris. When I was with Halff or Bertrand I felt I was diving into a seam of perfect sincerity. On the surface was the Philippe my parents knew, a simple creature sharing some Marcenat conventions along with some feeble elements of resistance, then came Denise Aubry’s Philippe, prone to bouts of sensuality and tenderness and reacting to this with brutality, then Bertrand’s Philippe, courageous and sentimental, and last the one Halff knew, precise and uncompromising. I was also well aware that, somewhere underneath, there was yet another Philippe, one who was more real than all the others, and he alone could have made me happy if I had coincided with him, but I made no effort even to get to know him.
Have I told you about the room I rented in a small house on the rue de Varenne, furnished in the austere style I favored at the time? A mask of Pascal and one of Beethoven hung on the bare walls. Strange witnesses to my exploits. The divan that served as my bed was covered with a large gray cloth. On the mantelpiece there was one book by Spinoza, one by Montaigne, and a few scientific volumes. Was that out of a desire to surprise or a genuine love of ideas? A mixture of the two, I would say. I was studious and inhuman.
Denise often told me my room frightened her but that she liked it all the same. She had had many lovers before me; she had always dominated them. She grew fond of me—I mention that in all humility. Life teaches us all that, where love is concerned, modesty is easy. Even the most underprivileged can sometimes appeal and the most alluring fail. I can tell you that Denise felt more for me than I did for her, but I will be just as sincere in describing the far more significant episodes in my life when the situation was completely reversed. In the period we are looking at, that is, between the ages of twenty and twenty-three, I was loved but I loved little myself. If the truth be known, I had no idea what love was. The thought that it could cause pain struck me as intolerably romantic. Poor Denise, I can picture her lying full length on that divan, leaning over me and anxiously asking questions of my face that remained so utterly closed to her.
“Love,” I would say, “what is love?”
“Don’t you know what it is? You shall . . . You’ll be caught too.”
That word caught struck me, I found it crude. I did not care for Denise’s vocabulary and resented her for not talking like Juliet or Clelia Conti. I responded to her person with the sort of exasperation some might show for a badly cut gown. I drew back, then came closer, trying to find an impossible balance. I learned later that over this period she earned a reputation in Limoges for her intelligence, and that my efforts had helped her win the heart of one of the most difficult men in the province. It seems women’s minds are made up of the successive sediments laid down by the men who have loved them, just as men’s tastes retain jumbled, superimposed images of the women who have come into their lives, and the appalling suffering inflicted on us by one woman often becomes the reason we inspire love in another . . . and the cause of her unhappiness.