Literary breaks

One Final Ordeal

Worthy of the theatre

By Claire Berest 11 October 2018


© Monika Rittershaus / OnP

One Final Ordeal

During the Roman Empire, love was opposed to the logic of the state. The Nation convinced Titus to favour his people over the passion that united him with Berenice. Under the French 5th Republic, power and love continue to cohabit on rocky ground. Political games and game policies interweave leaving a trail of confusion. The writer Claire Berest plunges into the arena and carries her reader along the course of a dazzling rise to fame: that of a Titus intoxicated by power and of a warlike and amorous Berenice. Their destinies seem predetermined, but life at the top is often stranger than fiction…    

The first time Titus saw Berenice, he was disorientated by her disturbing beauty. Politicians mistrust passion, it is too fierce an enemy. One must choose passion for oneself in this calling, since the other person risks being too unpredictable, the other person challenges one to improvise, no dossier for over-heated blood nor prompt cards for the angular circumflexes of the soul.

The first time he saw her, he was a rising star, he was for the time being the man of the moment, wily, devious, a superior brain in ordinary clothes. Berenice carried herself like a queen, a body wide open to impossible choices and deaf to the routine of meagre constraints, a smile so fragile that it was given like a short-lived fruit of summer.

SHE had risen from nothing; she had made herself ALL. Journalist, politician, a too gracious grasshopper in the cloud that pursues the public man with the determination of a shadow to penetrate him, trip him up or, if not, to uphold him or destroy him if necessary. An opposing force.

For Titus, in love with the routine of the media, the presence of Berenice, all grace and charismatic intelligence, reduced the buzzing swarm of press cards tarred with commonplace seals to inner silence.

People never said of him that he was a handsome man. Neither did they say that he was remarkable, nor yet charismatic. Early in his career, he had suffered from an instinctive mistrust of the wan smile he wore before the nation, a smile more painted on than living, fixed like a useful accessory onto the lower part of his round face. He had belonged to the political landscape for too long, a subject already marked on a dull chequer board; he had acquired a place, his place, his own, damn it, without, it seemed, really overshadowing the agitators on the front benches. He counted in the equation: reference, opposition, argument, counter-argument. The business of words and speeches. He had hauled himself up to the rank of the possible heirs with chance horizons, seconds in command but with primordial influence all the same; he had eliminated the popular idealists, gently without ever allowing his serenely affixed, affable smile to slip. He had caressed power. As one caresses the knee, so soft, of a too stunning woman, going so far as to push one’s hand suddenly along its curve.

He had, then, a brilliant career. Then came a dry patch; he was still young. He had singed his ammunition, dampened his powder too quickly, made choices that were dubious, unfortunate, inappropriate. Outstripped in the corridors of power by stronger and better men, he had fallen off the chequer board. Naked, worn out, as if awoken from the long tunnel of his dream of democracy in which successive combats had soft-soaped the ideal only to betray it in headless intrigues. Titus was wrung out. Finished. He had been mayor. Member of parliament. He had been party leader.

But a party isn’t France.

And Titus became aware, with the feverishness of a man who had never allowed himself to fall ill, that if he had not been able to marry her, la Belle France, he had slept in her bed, and Berenice was well worth a country. So he turned more blue than white, discarding his well-written textbooks, because Berenice brought him out in a sweat, hot and salty, one single second for an eternity. How could he renounce that? How could he knowingly take the straight and narrow way when the other path tasted of stormy skies? He was still a man; even when the suit so coveted had moulded his backbone. A man, that’s all, not much, but the potential, so infinitessimal, of saying: “Your voice, your hair, your unbearable siren’s neck, your verve, in a moment, a moment so brief, have annihilated the efforts and the fruits of thirty years. Don’t stop. Neither talking. Nor living, Berenice. Live for my pleasure, for a moment, a moment so brief, so flimsy, Berenice, that it doesn’t exist.”

Titus leaves his wife, it’s OFFICIAL.

Titus indulges himself. He transgresses. He suits himself. Breaks the palette of dormant perfection, the kids, et cetera. And Titus begins his ascension again, by chance. His ideas? You’ve got to believe in something. Left-wing? Fill my head with dreams, darling. Help me go on dreaming during my nightly gymnastics.

Berenice is calm. Berenice is a warrior.

Berenice, frenzied embers of a life already violent, of unpardonable choices, Berenice already mother, already whore, as women are, almost all women, who let the Other's destiny pursue its course, “go with the flow, it’s a waltz, because the Other raises you up. Isn’t that right? He stirs you up, moulds you, it’s okay to fade into the background, because it’s not just in books that one surrenders, life has a narrative too, Titus. And so Berenice accompanies, arranges, adulterates, assassinates. Berenice exists. Titus is followed by a shadow, amusing and annoying. And why not. She is there, Berenice, the queen of Sheba. The glossy magazines need cover subjects, and when the queen is beautiful, that’s what people want.

The mayor-MP-party-secretary, consecrated by his ad hoc defrocking, makes his sortie, at last, leaving the oblique trenches just as, suddenly, - masterly artistry and sleight of hand, his obvious rival has an accident. No slight accident, more than that, a major pile-up on the ring-road. Charged with rape, beat that.

So Titus smoothly takes over, takes over in muted tones – nothing wild, fills the gap right to the edges, because he speaks true. Because he talks and the people need words, sometimes more than they need bread, sacre bleu. And projects. Project me. Project me unstoppably into the lead, make me dream the dreams of people without love. All the people want is to still be able to put their trousers on straight at the end of the month, so that their children won’t see the disgusting creases. Or not too much.

Berenice hadn’t foreseen this. Her love affair, transformed into an affair of State. History-with-a-capital-H inviting itself into her bedroom. Who can accept that without piercing their heart on the nails of the petty-minded? But Berenice is a queen, she has the greatness of souls that abrogate themselves. I shall make you proud of me, say the popular songs. In perfect harmony.

The mayor-MP-party-secretary throws himself into the game, the hunt, the aphrodisiac soup. They’re talking about president, baby, make love to me. Again, again.

And there he is, the ordinary chap with the classic, impeccably cut suits, leading the opinion polls, it’s getting by. Going down well, with a comfortable lead. The French don their coats to go to the polls. Not the scenario I had in mind, but who knows what life has in store, eh, Aphrodite?

Titus is elected.

Titus is president. President of the Republic of French men and French women.

Titus, that’s a great name for a president. Because image, my friend, is the name of the game. And history will judge and replay our choices. The people want symbols, the people are in the here and now, because you only die in the here and now. And the people are bleeding. So AVANTI POPOLO.

Berenice doesn’t know what to wear anymore. That’s what’s expected of a woman, isn’t it, to add a decorative touch to visceral experience? So you do your hair, powder your nose, groom yourself. Because for you, Titus, for our affair and the hazards of unforeseen demons, I can have immaculate hair when the time comes.

Titus is elected. The ballot boxes have belched him out. They want the left. Flirting with a socialism in the service of capital; before the moment of death, give us barricades, scorching and in trompe-l’oeil, like those sublime ceilings in churches that make a virtue out of counterfeiting the sky.

Guillotine and historic dialogue:

“This evening, Titus, you are no longer your own man. This evening, the nation requires you to forget yourself once and for all. Night is not included in your timetable, there are only emergencies. You are no longer a man, you’re the president. The embrace is over.”

“Berenice, these words are too grand. I’ll be president in an hour, on stage, and here, right now, before the cement of my disguise has set, I can’t ignore the man, and the man sees you, Berenice. And around us nothing is forever. Love, you are a stranger to my destiny. You’re not part of the original picture.”

“Titus, who defines origin? Which side decides on origins?

But it’s no longer a question of living,

are you up to playing your part?”

“Once again, I want to hold you before becoming president. Hold you in my arms, simply press you against my chest, there where I breathe; because I can’t breathe. Because nobody is ready to be president. We’re not ready. We don’t falter. We bear up. Berenice, you are too intelligent for this costume.”

“Go on, you wear it. My angel.

And don’t give away a heart that cannot be accepted.

Tenth election of the Fifth Republic. April. It’s warm. Expose yourself. Eighteen million voters. You’ve never been a minister, who cares? You’re going to run France. You are the master of anaphore, I, president.

It’s the village fete, oompah, oompah in the heartlands, paté on toast and dancing to youthful songs, tarted up a bit. Life seen through rose-tinted spectacles. What colour is life with you, Titus? I’m a woman, I’m ready for any colours, providing you make them sing. Good and loud.

Des yeux qui font baisser les miens
un rire qui se perd sur sa bouche
voilà le portrait sans retouches
de l’homme auquel j’appartiens
Eyes that make me lower mine
a laugh that fades on his mouth
that’s the portrait, warts and all
of the man to whom I belong.

You want it popular, have it. Men have been singing it for a thousand years, their smiles full of teeth. They have.

After the provinces, we must attain the capital with all speed. Direction Paris. Presidential cars at a thousand kilometres an hour on the motorway, in a blaring escort to honour the newly crowned monarch.

At Bastille, the crowd wants flesh and blood. The entire delegation is waiting, fingers on trouser seams. Flags ready to be pulled out of the linings of freshly cleaned jackets. The people roar. The guards line up. You’re on. The Nation is waiting for you, my sweet. The Nation hopes.

Choreography, car-horns, resuscitated tri-coloured stumps, jubilation and not by chance, we’re off. We’re crossing the Rubicon.

What about me Berenice?

I agree to make my body weightless, like a little semi-colon, because life outdoes fiction. Because for you, being a woman means muting my aura, leaving behind the little girl, and then the woman that I once was. It means forgetting the woman who arrives in the capital, who gets the phone numbers of conjurors, of seasoned journalists, who learns to be queen of the frozen wastes, inventing a kind of Marquise, when all Nature bewails the heat, when all Nature is looking for its monkey in winter. That’s the game, and the game is roulette, poker, bankruptcy and bingo. I am BERENICE!

Bastille, you’re on stage, the crowd sings, the crowd desires, the crowd sweats, the guards stand to attention, it’s all an act, my love, there’s no room for me, I don’t know where to invade the right understudies. I’m in a study in black, I’ve followed, I’ve submitted, I’ve prettified. Now, where do I put myself, the crowd has turned murderous, the crowd blocks the view, and love, love, do you remember it? I am dressed and groomed and waxed by your hold-up. I’m a silhouette. Where am I supposed to stand?

Berenice, crazy, free, violates the protocol. The law is harsh but isn’t it the law?

Well, I ride roughshod over it.

Berenice walks towards Titus and, from his lips, during the Marseillaise, over and above the Marseillaise even, - go on children of the fatherland the day of glory is come -, she asks for a kiss. What do they want, that horde of slaves, of traitors, of conniving kings?

Give us a kiss! Imprecation, prayer and oath for ghosts with no agenda.

Titus, nothing exists but you and me, your lips, your body, our time, kiss me, just one second, something that no longer exists, that languidness that accepts no reasons of State. That light perspiration above your top lip, I can feel it, you’re still a body even this evening when you become a star on credit that brings the world to its knees, kiss me.

And Titus kisses Berenice.
Next day, the people rise up. Fury and media commentary.
For a kiss.
Let’s dance the Carmagnola.
And you now, kiss me. And be quiet.
Long live the canon’s roar.    

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