Titus did not love Berenice. That is the title of the novel that Leonie gives to the hostess of a dinner party. An enigmatic title that certainly ignites passions and sparks off a heated debate between the guests. It is also the title of a novel by Nathalie Azoulai who, in a skilful mise en abime, brings to life those heroes of Racine’s tragedy. We all know Titus’s dilemma: whether to choose Berenice or the national interest. Duty and desire are at the heart of this new escapade. The author, following in the footsteps of the playwright, continues to sound the depths of love. Pure, interested or steeped in blood, love takes a thousand forms, even losing itself in the abysses of a dream.
On the fourth floor landing, out of breath, Leonie just has time to smooth her hair with one hand whilst with the other she consults the time – almost ten o’ clock. She smooths down her fringe, then her skirt, takes a deep breath and makes up her mind to ring the bell. The door opens, she smiles.
“Sorry, but I missed my train, I had to wait for the next one, you know I’m never late, I can’t bear it, I’m so embarrassed ... I’d have liked to have brought you some flowers but I just jumped into a taxi and this was all I could find.” She holds out a rectangular package. “I don’t know if it’s any good, I haven’t read it, but the title amused me...”.
“Come in then, everyone else is here, we were just waiting for you,” her hostess replies.
This is exactly what she was dreading, to be the last to arrive in the large living room with its walls of celadon green where the guests would already have taken their places next to their other halves on the u-shaped sofa before the glasses, the champagne, the olives, cherry tomatoes and almonds ... Suddenly, as she scans each face, a list of aperitif fare floats irresistibly through her mind, slices of salami, taramasalata, tapenade and anchovy paté, “here aperitifs are always extremely copious,” she thinks, “varied, endlessly replenished, sometimes interminable.” “Hi, Leonie, how are you?” If she could already see the scene while still on the station platform, the colours, the eyes raised to meet hers, the smiles, she could also hear the conversation, the same for the last fifteen years. “And Leon? Another business trip?” But she didn’t mind, they were old friends, friends from law school, long-standing couples, solid, perfectly compatible, each welded to the other, even down to the matching first names, of a symmetry approaching magic, or a joke. Paul and Paula, Louis and Louise, John and Jean, Charles and Charlotte, Leonie and her Leon, when he hadn’t been sent to the other side of the world. Not to mention their host and hostess who, in an excess of zeal, were called Claude and Claude and who were melted together in an unorthodox plural when you said you were going round for dinner with the Claudes for, boasting the largest living room in a flat equidistant from everyone else’s, inevitably, it was always they who played host. Apart from Leonie’s late arrival, her hair dishevelled and still a bit breathless, this was a classic drama in full swing: the hall of a 17th century palace, a marquetry stage, aesthetically perfect down to the smallest detail.
“Here I am like a fly in the ointment!” thought Leonie to herself, advancing towards the sofas, “a spanner in the works, a cloud on the horizon, a flaw in the fabric, a ...”. Her list syndrome seized her once again, stronger than she’d ever experienced it before, the result of her embarrassment, when suddenly, opening the package, the hostess exclaimed,
“Now, let’s see, what have we here?”
An imperial silence drew ten pairs of eyes, one after the other, to the object now revealed.
“Titus did not love Berenice” Claude stated, followed by, “How about that?” proffered as an echo by the other Claude.
“What nonsense!” said John unhesitatingly.
“Why?” asked Jean.
“It shows a complete lack of understanding of the dilemmas imposed by national interest,” said Paul.
“Or of love,” rejoined Paula.
“One can love and have to renounce that love,” said Louis.
“Except that in real life, one generally does what one really wants,” Louise objected.
“Dinner in five minutes,” the hostess got up, her departure sparking off an even more lively discussion.
“That’s not true, one also does what one can, and Titus can’t face the anger of an entire people,” said John.
“He wants glory more than love, that’s where his desires really lead him,” said Paula.
“But that’s without understanding anything of the public good!” threw in Charles. “You speak as if the Nation were nothing.
“Others would have looked after the public good in his place, emperors die and are replaced, history doesn’t lack examples,” Louise observed.
“It was all because of Paulinus, I never liked Paulinus, he was a bird of ill omen,” declared Charlotte.
“He represents the national interest, it’s a good thing he’s there,” replied Paul.
“I detest Paulinus,” Charlotte repeated, as if prey to some unpleasant, personal memory.
“What did he ever do to you?” Charles teased.
Stunned, Leonie sat down and reflected that never had the arguments hammered out round the low table been so divisive in terms of gender, the men defending Titus and the women Berenice, or more like a hail of chromosomes suddenly become articulate creatures. She noticed that to her initial thought process, which had sheltered behind the reassuring and vertical litany of her lists, had now been added a more horizontal, more anarchic and amorphous turbulence, threatening to turn itself into a mad, disagreeable vortex. If she had known, she would have chosen a detective novel, a cookery book, a handbook on well-being or self-esteem, inner peace or universal harmony ...
Then the hostess reappeared and, in measured tones, directed her guests towards the dining table. A wave of calm enveloped the table for a few minutes then, when everyone was seated and after a few meaningful glances, the debate was taken up again.
“Which of us here has ever had to choose between love and something else?” asked Louis.
“I did, when I divorced Lea to marry Jean,” said John.
“I did, when I gave up my job in Brazil because Louise didn’t want to go,” said Louis.
“I did, when I agreed to move here,” said Paul.
“I did, when I refused to stand for election,” said Charlotte.
“That doesn’t compare”, Paul interjected.
“A different case entirely,” Louis added.
“Why?” Paula broke in. “It’s exactly the same thing!”
“Titus inherits an empire,” Louis continued, “his father’s just died, he doesn’t have the choice, he’s got to take over, this is Rome after all! Plus the fact that he’s had a miss-spent youth, he’s got to make amends.”
“The classic story, at the death of his father, he becomes all grown up and responsible,” added John.
“The real question is, does it cost him?” Jean threw in.
“Obviously!” Paul replied.
“Of course but...” from Louis.
“I would remind you that he only lasted two years,” said Charles, “then he died of the plague.”
“A plague on all liars!” stormed Charlotte.
“It’s as if you were the one Titus left,” teased Paul.
“But during those two years, was he obsessed by the woman he’d lost?” asked Jean.
“We can never know” pursued Charlotte.
“I’m certain he regrets nothing, that he didn’t want to see her again and that he did exactly what he really wanted to do,” Louise remarked.
“It’s rarely a question of duty, more often a question of desire,” added their hostess who, until then, had refrained from taking part in the discussion, limiting herself to comments on the cooking of the salmon and its various possible accompanying dishes.
Her grave, thoughtful intervention gave Leonie the impression that the discussion had entered a new phase and began to think of her late arrival as an unpardonable fault with tragic consequences.
“Goodness,” she thought, “why ever didn’t I ask the taxi to stop so I could buy a bottle of wine?” She had thought of it but was not only afraid of making herself even later but also feared her hands might tremble so much she would drop the bottle on the stairs. This dinner was becoming thoroughly unbearable. She looked at what remained of the huge salmon on the platter and began to imagine each intervention like a long, sharp fishbone: piercing looks flashed across the table, the remarks were becoming increasingly acid, no one got up to smoke at the window, and all this amid a concert of the noise of cutlery clattering more and more loudly. In the middle of this new agitation, she noticed that only Charlotte remained inert and sad, as if caught up in an inner agitation more tempestuous than the phrases she dropped in here and there. Then, suddenly, Charles’s bass thundered out:
“That’s incredible, you’ve all been completely taken in!”
“Taken in, oh yes, and by what?” Paula enquired.
“By Berenice, by that so-called love of his life. You’re all the victims of women’s magazines! All of you, whatever your gender.”
“Fortunately, you’re here to enlighten us,” Louis sneered.
“Titus was her last chance,” Charles continued. “Berenice was the wrong side of forty when their liaison began, she was ten years older than him.”
“So?” ventured Paul.
“So, she’s also counting on Titus to give her back her status, history’s given her a rough time, she’s a widow, she’s defended her people but she’s losing ground and she has to more or less share the crown with her brother. Marrying Titus and Rome would mean greatness for her.”
“Are you insinuating that she loves him out of self-interest? That she’s even more avid for glory than Titus?” John bristled.
“As if any love were disinterested” remarked Paula, smoothly.
“I find what you’re saying detestable,” Charlotte riposted.
“Why?” asked Charles in surprise. “Paula wouldn’t love Paul without his job at the tribunal, his prestige, his tennis medals. Louise wouldn’t love Louis without his American hero’s name, John wouldn’t love Jean without her prizes from the conservatoire...
“What about you, Charlotte, you wouldn’t love Charles if he didn’t ...”, Paul began.
“If what?” Charlotte cut in so violently that he didn’t finish his sentence.
“Love is never pure, it dresses itself up, prettifies itself,” Charles continued. “Call it self-interest if you will, for me, these are the qualities that mean that you love someone, this person rather than someone else, that you find them unique, otherwise what’s the point?”
Leonie began seriously to tire of their general considerations on love. She even preferred the vitriol of a quarrel to the pontificating honey of those who know and bestow their certitudes upon others. The one thing that consoled her was that Charles’s hypothesis had made the arguments undifferentiated in gender terms. Everyone rose up with the same virulence against his interpretation. Their hostess took away the salmon and their host stacked the dirty plates. She wanted to help but they signalled to her to stay where she was. The Claudes came back with the cheese, some bread and a pile of clean plates which they handed slowly round the table as if at a children’s tea party.
“Well, it so happens that I too must choose between love and something else,” the hostess put in suddenly, beginning to slice bread on a board.
All eyes turned towards her with an air of stupefaction, then fearfully surveyed her calm face and descended the length of her arm in the hope of finding a clue, some sign of trouble. Her hand, the knife, they were expecting her to tremble, cut herself, flood the table with her blood, that the bloodbath that had been simmering since the beginning of dinner, containing its outpourings, its effusions, in well-argued phrases, concise and biting, would now be released by her. But no, she continued cutting the bread in perfectly equal slices without the least tremor. Then when she reached the end of the loaf, she placed the slices one by one in a basket. Her arm then held out the basket over the centre of the table for a long moment, while her eyes avoided those of her husband. If only the lights had gone out just at that moment, that one would not have to witness such an affront, and in a rush of pity and terror, each looked at his or her other half. Except for Leonie who had no choice but to fix her eyes on Claude whose gaze wandered from one face to another. But, just as the arm holding the basket was finally lowered, so also did Claude lower his gaze. Not a word was uttered, not a cry, not the least invective and the hostess left the living room as if to fetch more bread. Except that this time, she did not reappear. They all heard the sound of the front door clicking shut and that was all.
On waking up, Leonie felt a little sad but consoled herself with the thought that she had slept for almost the entire journey and that her train was pulling into the station precisely on time. She was looking forward to the dinner that awaited her and remembered the present she had found in extremis at the station in Bordeaux. A book with a surprising title that could not fail to amuse the gallery.