Here there are, listed in the index, twenty-two petites suites,and each consists of three or four pieces (unindexed), very loosely related to one another. Analogously, Baroque and modern composers have put together sequences of dances — sarabande, allemande, courante, minuet, gigue, and so on — related by being in the same tonality, or, sometimes, by sharing a basic theme. A rough computation shows that there are about a hundred such pieces —or dances— in Wexelblatt's new book, having an average length of about three-and-a-half pages: that length will not accommodate more than a single, fairly simple governing idea, and the execution requires a sure sense of rhythm and a spare and nimble hand. Two things I find astounding: the inexhaustible variety of Wexelblatt's imagination, and how often the result succeeds as a work of art.
No small part of the success is due to the author's skill in pulling great endings out of his sleeve. Sometimes, as in the second piece, the final phrase (below) works as the moral of the fable: for twenty years a group of women had met periodically for the fun of excoriating people they didn't like, especially men who had been part of their lives; until one day they took to criticizing each other, and then there were no more reunions: "They scattered to lives which now felt colder, smaller, and irremediable." (Page 18)
In the piece that follows, one of my favorites and twice as long as the average, the ending doesn't work as the moral of the fable, but rather as an unexpected and profound revelation of character. Paul Vareille, a widower in his seventies and a famous painter, meets a young and pretty waitress at a bistro in Nice. They strike a conversation, he learns that she's an art student and that her name is Chloe Chatuchat; she gets only his first name, and calls him Monsieur Paul, not guessing that he is Vareille, the famous master. After a few more meetings and conversations, it is evident that both relish the chaste contact with the other, suffused in a vaporized eroticism.
Before we go on to comment on the ending, we must pause and ask ourselves: what sort of name is Chloe Chatuchat? Sounds French, of course, but although Chloé is a common French given name, Chatuchat is very improbable, even ridiculous, and the author knows that: he didn't pick it by chance. It sounds awfully close to Clavdia Chauchat, the name of Thomas Mann's main feminine character in The Magic Mountain, that mysterious, seductive incarnation of the Goethian Ewig-Weibliche. By calling her Chauchat, Mann may have wanted us to think of the homophonous chaud chat, of a warm cat and feline graces (remember, too, that chat or chatte are common vulgar words for the female genitals, and thus "elle a la chatte au feu" means "she is in heat.") Wexelblatt throws a t in the middle of Chauchat and gets Chatuchat. This destroys the sexually aggressive connotations of the "warm cat," but, while keeping the cat, creates a chaster if equally seductive association with the French verb chatouiller, to tickle.
The above are conjectures, needless to say; what follows are well-known facts, mostly. In 1942, Henri Matisse was in his seventies, confined to bed or chair after an abdominal operation. He placed an ad in Nice-Matin, looking for a nurse "jeune et jolie", young and pretty. In those days that did not raise eyebrows, apparently. Monique Bourgeois, a twenty-year old nursing student, responded to the ad (much later she commented: "Jeune, je l'étais. Mais jolie ? On me disait que non ..." Her parents told her she was plain and good for nothing). She had never heard of Henri Matisse before, but was interested in art, so the old painter showed her some tricks of the trade; he also taught her that she was beautiful, with a "majestic inner poise and strength." She nursed him and sat for at least four portraits — never in the nude. Their relation was intense, chaste, and erotic. Mlle. Bourgeois became a novice in 1944 and a Dominican nun in 1946; by a strange coincidence, the type of thing the French like to call "l'hasard objectif", she was assigned to a convent in the town of Vence, and Matisse had moved to Vence in 1943. Their collaboration continued, and culminated in the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, which Matisse considered his greatest achievement, and which opened in 1951.
Now for the similarities and differences. Wexelblatt doesn't tell us where, exactly, Paul Vareille's farmhouse was located, but Vence and its alentours is a good guess, since, in the first phrase of the story, we read that "he sometimes drove his big old Mercedes down into Nice or up to Grasse for a meal": look it up on a map. The relation between an old painter and a young and pretty woman who is interested in art is, of course, the obvious similarity between the two stories; one difference is that Mlle. Bourgeois had no idea who Matisse was until she met him, while Mlle. Chatuchat knew and admired Vareille's work, though she didn't know his face; so when, by chance, she learned that Monsieur Paul is the great Vareille, she felt mortified. But she recovered, and when he apologized, "she put a finger to her chin and looked stern," then tells him she will pardon him if he paints her portrait, to which Vareille naturally assents.
The crucial difference, though, between Mlle. Bourgeois and Mlle. Chatuchat is that the latter "was used to being noticed"; she knew she was pretty, while the future nun had been inculcated from childhood that she was plain and good for nothing. This comes out brilliantly at the end of the story:
"When the picture was finished, Vareille offered it to Chloe, but she wouldn't have it. She insisted that he keep it as a souvenir, write her name and the date on the back, and hang it in the farmhouse."
She waitressed to support herself through art school, yet she would not accept the gift that could be sold for a fortune; instead, she wanted the master, the high connoisseur of the beautiful, to have her portrait always nearby, always under his eyes. She was, in fact, telling him: "Tu te souviendras de moi". So godesslike sure was she of her beauty.
I don't mean to suggest that endings are the only component of Wexelblatt's narrative virtuosity. His dialogue between two children, "Cimetière colombin", pages 31-35, shows at once his ability to mimick childspeak and his skill at counterpoint, that is, at combining the rhythms and dynamics of the conversation and the action. Katie and Brick are cousins; I'd say Brick is nine and Katie's eight; they are in a playground, talking about the death of pigeons:
"Katie went on throwing her head back and pumping her toes high in the air.
'No such place,' she snapped on her way down.
Brick sat on his swing, at rest, watching his little cousin whose pumping and skepticism had both improved since last summer. 'Ever seen a dead one?'
'They die in trees,' said Katie on her way up and, on the way down, 'or on roofs.'
'No, they don't. They go to the Pigeon Cemetery.'"
What follows is as delicious.
Or go to pages 242-249, the story about the protests against the new teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, to enjoy some rhetorical pyrotechnics. Read here and there, mostly anywhere and no matter in what order: you'll think you're in Wonderland.