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French Perspectives - Achille

( Originally Published 1916 )

WHEN I want to know what the literary Paris of the late nineteenth century was like, I pay a visit to my friend Achille. Before I go I make some necessary psychological readjustments. Barrès and his nationalism; the jeunes gens d'aujourd'hui with their aviation, their cult of gayety and activity; the Unanimisle poets with their social consciousness; Mme. Claude with her feminism — all these people and topics of the hour must be forgotten when one spends an afternoon with Achille. In his day poets were poets, writing in traditional metres, instead of being chemists, philosophers, and picture-dealers, writing in a jargon of their own. In his day Academicians were glorious personages, and famous novelists wore top hats and gardenias. In his day melancholy was the fashion; taste was more important than morals; and the only thing you could be sure of was that you could be sure of nothing. In his day, in brief, the man of letters was supreme, and second only to him was his understudy, the literary bookseller.

Achille is the last living example of the species, and his move from the boulevard to a small apartment up several flights of stairs in a back street marked the end of an epoch. To Achille himself it seemed equivalent to a burial, and all the leading newspapers bore him out by publishing obituary notices. The special occasion for his failure was the infidelity of a trusted clerk, but the real cause lies deeper: in the fact that books are now sold, even in Paris, like shoes or neckties, in-stead of like works of art. When Achille set up for himself in the eighties, on the still un-Americanized boulevards, one of the regular daily occupations of the Frenchman of the world— writer, lawyer, banker, artist, actor — was a visit to his book-seller. Even now Achille is unable to realize that a customer is a person who gives two minutes and three francs fifty for the first common "yellow-back" that catches his eye. The traditional "Je suis a vos ordres, Mademoiselle," which terminates one's afternoon, always comes as rather a shock, though it be spoken with royal condescension. To him a customer is a friend: somebody who spends from half an hour to an hour and a half turning over all the books on the counter; some-body who must be discreetly guided, cajoled, and amused.

Because Achile is a fatalist, and I happened in on him for the first time, with an introduction from Mme. B., on the saddest day of his life, — the day preceding his move from the old shop, — he assumes that our friendship is written in the stars. It was one of those thick, gray, slimy afternoons of the Paris winter, when ennui stalks abroad. The women in the boulevard kiosks had withdrawn into the depths of their black shawls; the wet sidewalks were tented with dripping umbrellas, and as I opened the door of Achille's distinguished store I asked myself why I had come so far. For it was half-dismantled; an indifferent youth was packing books in a corner; and instead of the elegant literary figure I had expected to see, here was only a dismal, shabby old man, with a black handkerchief tied over one eye, lost apparently in a neuralgic dream.

"M. Achille?" The old man stirred. "My friend Mme. B " Ah, there I had given the countersign. The black handkerchief vanished, and a courtly, erect Parisian of the old school was bowing over my hand.

"Quelle charmante femme!" Mme. B., bonheur; they began with the same letter, and it was certain that I brought him luck. When he heard that I was interested in literary pursuits he found another b for me —"Vous qui êtes de la boutique" — you who are in the trade." It put me on a plane of intimacy and gave me a right to the best seat in the new shop.

This best seat is a Louis XV chair, and the shop is nothing more nor less than Mme. Achille's salon. So do Frenchwomen meet circumstance. Shelves have been neatly put up on the blue satin striped walls, and all through the long entrance corridor too; they extend, Achille told me in a whisper, even into the kitchen. The salon-shop, to those who have no memories, is certainly a jolly little place. Between the windows stands a glass-fronted bookcase of elegant design, which contains Achille's chief treasures: a collection of authors' copies, all heavily inscribed. "À mon ami Achille, l'arbitre des réputations littéraires": when Anatole France has written this dedication in your copy of "Thaïs" and Lamartine has made you smoke your first cigar, even adversity cannot bring you low.

Achille in his old age is a little deaf. One of his eyes turns up. There is often a suspicion of red flannel about his waist-line, for he suffers from lumbago. But both his personal appearance and his manner still manage to convey an impression of what the delicate culture and liberal dilettantism of the last century were like. His eyes, when he is interested, have a blue flame, and there is real distinction in the poise of his pale head, with its fine white skin and carefully curled white hair and beard. The Couture drawing over the mantelpiece - his second greatest treasure — is still very like him, though it represents a young dandy of twenty-five.

The yellowing photographs of actors, and painters, and writers that hang between the book-shelves date from the same enchanting but disenchanted quarter-century that preceded the birth of the twentieth. There is Sarah Bernhardt at the height of her allurement; Ludovic Halévy, dark and melancholy; Dumas fils, foppishly detached, and so on: all inscribed, like the books, "To my friend Achille." With the same words, "Achille, mon ami, ça va-t-il?" spoken with affectionate solicitude, the clientèle that remains faithful comes puffing in. It seems to consist almost entirely of stout, fashionable gentlemen who have lived well and long. They wear decorations in their buttonholes, carry canes, and usually bring, in their immaculately gloved hands, a little box of chocolates "for Madame."

Madame is something of a mystery. I have never really seen her, though I am just conscious of the shadow of a black gown and a quiet, re-signed, tender face behind the door that stands ajar into the neighboring bedroom, — a shadow that watchfully guards the old man in the black skull-cap whom I usually find deep in a Balzac novel by the window.

It is so customary for a wife to be the genius of a Paris shop that the separation of functions in Mme. Achille is striking. I have no doubt that she is really at the bottom of such business as remains. Yet because his tradition of elegance forbids the cooperation of a wife in the petit bourgeois manner, Achille never calls her in, however hard it may be to find a book. He speaks of her very often. The locked bookcase is her heritage, he tells me. She will sell the famous autographs and have a guaranty for her old age. He describes to me, too, how, as he lies in his bed reading Balzac in the evening, she sits always beside him.

"Ah, que c'est joli, les `Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées' — I declare it's the prettiest thing I ever read. I believe I wept a little last night when one of them lost her baby — you remember ? My wife had to scold me. Sometimes I drop off in the middle of a chapter, then I wake a shade sad and speak to her, and she is always there, always. Elle est charmante, ma femme, et elle m'aime bien." To Achille the first need of man, outside of literature, is to be loved well, and the first virtue of woman is charm. When we talk of George Sand, he always ends, rather disparagingly, "A genius, yes, but she looked like a petite bourgeoise mal arrangée" — a badly dressed, unpretentious little woman.

Stories about the great writers of his youth are Achille's chief stock in trade. I made in the beginning the almost fatal mistake of asking him to procure me modern novels and vers-libre poets. As a consequence, his manner of greeting me now has in it something of admonition. He considers me a brand to be saved from the burning, and when he hobbles to the bookcase — his lame, and tired, and flabby lower parts recall his fallen for- tunes, though his head towers above them — it is in the hope that one of his sacred copies of Maupassant or Daudet may prove to me the unworthiness of " Jean Christophe." He keeps his piercing blue eye on me as I turn the pages, to see whether the magic is working; though I must say no col-lector I know is so generous with his loans. He offers me all sorts of precious volumes, on the strength of "la boutique" and for the secret end of conversion. His lack of comprehension of the modern note struck me at first as pure snobbery, affectation. But I believe he really cannot make out what our incoherent age is up to. Literature used to be more important than life. Now life has become bewilderingly more important than literature. Elegance, nuance, form, have given place to content, and a content with which he has no sympathy. The suggestion that Paul Fort is a poet makes him tremulous with indignation.

"Do you know him, M. Achille?"

"Moi? know that wretched bohemian?" He drew himself up with almost a sneer.

"The romantic poets were so different, then?"

"Je crois bien!" And he goes back to Lamartine, who was such a great seigneur and gave him a cigar when he was just a little publisher's devil waiting for proofs. "The last time I saw him he bought a copy of Erckmann-Chatrian from me at my own shop. He was always interested in les jeunes. Now if you want nationalism, Mademoiselle, why not Erckmann-Chatrian, instead of that narrow-minded Barrès you are always asking for?"

"And de Musset?"

"Ah, he was exquisite. So was Heine. I preferred Heine, but they were something alike, with their faces of the dying Christ, and they perished of the same disease. Hugo, in his grand old age, Sully Prudhomme, all fire and flame, de Vigny — but he was an unapproachable one — I knew them all well. How crass they make the modern men seem. Indeed, it is almost as much pain as pleasure to take one's mind for a walk among those dead whom one has known living, as Jules Lemaître puts it."

A friend of mine who happens to be the son of one of the fashionable novelists of the past, whose photograph hangs on Achille's wall, is the inheritor of a wonderful sketch-book in which Degas, during a long series of friendly evenings, noted down his impressions of the vie de Paris as it passed in the eighties and nineties: ballet girls, æsthetes, heroes of Dumas plays, painters and their models, Academicians and their mistresses, first nights, last nights — the jumble is keyed exactly as Achille's stories are, and reveals the same leisurely interrelations of the acting, writing, painting worlds which have now gone so much out of date. A Mme. Mathilde Shaw, though a ward of Dumas, would find no book-seller to make her reputation in Paris today.

One of the most consoling memories of Achille's declining years relates to this authoress, of whom I confess never to have heard, though he assures me she is "well known in America." In any case, she wrote a book of memoirs, which Achille found ravishing. He created in his customers a furore to the same effect, and sold a thousand copies within a week. The lady, who had no other sale, having heard from her publisher of the book-seller's appreciation, went to thank him when fortune took her to Paris. They had, as Achille said, an exquisite hour together. "When she came to go, she asked me if I found her displeasing. `Far from it, chère Madame.' `Then, cher Monsieur, take me to my carriage.' On the curb she stopped and said: `We have never met before, we shall never meet again, embrassons-nous.' So we did embrace there on the boulevard." Achille wiped away a sentimental tear.

The decline of the understudy is always more pathetic than that of the hero, and Achille's rôle has never been anything but secondary. The Unanimistes would probably dismiss my old friend as a hanger-on or valet of the world of letters. But his literary tastes and preferences are first-hand, after all. I happened to be in the shop one day when a certain countess, a favorite customer, telephoned an order for "Marie-Claire."

"Are you sure you heard correctly?" he demanded crossly of the clerk. "People speak so indistinctly over the telephone," he apologized to me. "Now if she had only come in herself, I might have persuaded her not to waste her money on that intolerably dull volume. But nobody has time to take advice in these days. Can you tell me, Mademoiselle, what they do with the hours they used to spend hunting old books and new?"

Bouquiner, flaner: those are indeed nineteenth-century words. They went out of fashion when the Dreyfus Affair shattered raffinement and irony into bits; when the voice of the working classes began to rise; when German ships began to appear on the Moroccan coast and French business methods had to be," whooped up" to match those from beyond the Rhine.

Imagine a banker in 1912 giving an hour a day to turning over new books and old; imagine a clerk at Brentano's growing emotional over a customer's choice of a novel. Literature, it is true, is still a social art in France to a greater extent than in any other country: the flowering, the synthesizing of a "general sense of mankind" gathered from talk as well as from life, at the café as well as in the study. But the day of the literary bookseller is done. And when the salon-shop is closed for the last time and the faithful customers have, for Madame's sake, bid against one another for the autographed copies, Achille and all that he stands for will be forgotten, save by a few sentimental antiquarians.

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