Literary breaks

Transfigured Night

Like barren dust in the sun

By Sarah Léon 04 October 2018


© Charles Duprat / OnP

Transfigured Night

Tristan and Iseult. Isa and Tristan. Of the mythical amorous passion, of which Wagner made an opera just as legendary, the young author, Sarah Léon, has transposed the heroes to a contemporary winter landscape, in which the cold finally freezes the broken heart of a delirious young woman. Delirious with love, for the handsome Tristan seems to have betrayed their lovers’ pact. From the moment of their meeting at the Longing Bar, toasted with an Irish love philtre, to their passionate exchanges, Isa ceaselessly tries to detect the deception and lies as the heroes' destinies become forever sealed by a love triangle. Alone, Isa flees her love the better to bewail her despair.   

Flee. Flee this bar, this town, those glances, either sneering or sympathetic, flee from myself out into the snow and the night, endlessly walk, wear myself out on the icy pavements, until I can no longer think, not of anything and above all not of you whose eyes, voice, hands caress me still – you – you at the piano, laughing, carefree, you so young, you – Tristan – beloved, faithless, wonderful Tristan.

Flee, flee those images that whirl in my brain like snowflakes around the street lights, the tears drying on my cheeks, these rags of memories, now shredded up. Flee that poisonous, intoxicating music, and the black hole growing inside me, seeking to devour me from within, ever stronger and more insatiable. If only it spread silently, like an oil slick in the wake of a tanker, dark and surreptitious – but no: it is like an animal tearing at my entrails, gorging on them until I scream with pain, on my knees in the snow.

Gone forever. Gone forever our evenings at the Longing Bar, gone forever the gentle pink light of the Nirvana, gone forever your smile from the other side of the bar. And those nights when you taught me to pick out a few notes on the keyboard, and when I watched you, fascinated, in the half-light, improvising on themes suggested by the clients. And that evening when you took me to the Paris Opera to hear the story of the hero whose name you bear. Gone forever.

Oh, our first meeting. Oh that evening when you erupted into my life just as you erupted into the pub, tousle-headed, radiant, a little drunk, to order an Irish coffee. And I, Isa, queen of cocktails, a magician in the matter of skilfully mixed potions, she whom all the barmaids in the area acknowledge to be the expert, handing you the glass crowned with cream, my hand trembling a little, already under the spell of your laugh, your eyes. Then our first words, your invitation – “In the evenings I play at the Nirvana, come and listen whenever you like” – and on the evenings that followed, when I wasn’t working, our complicity growing, and the hope that grew within me little by little, the certainty too, that you were the one, at last, the right one for me, that – it seems laughable doesn’t it – that we were made for one another, made to go through life side by side, live and grow old together, strong in our twoness, supreme.

And that certainty became obvious, not just for me but for all those who saw us, so much so that things seemed to go without saying – they would come in their own time – it was enough to enjoy each evening at the Longing Bar, to listen to you play, to talk late into the night, roaming the city streets, those street I run through now beneath a murky pinkish sky, a snow-laden sky, streets I long to lose myself in, never to see another morning – what’s the point?

Yes, to wander forever in dark alleyways, drawn like a moth to the flame of a shop sign, of neon lights in purple or mauve, of a luminous garland. Or disappear in the night, letting myself be lured by the banks of fog, by the maelstrom of snowflakes. Yes, to meander in the cold, and forget all about this body, this soul, leaving behind me only tears on a window pane before I dissolve.

And the black hole that engulfs me little by little, in which I sink and drown, struggling in vain, perhaps it too will disappear, absorbed by the starless night. Unless the whiteness of the snow overcomes it, filling it up and hiding it, as it has already hidden the tarmac and the pavements, blanketing the entire town bit by bit, burying it, and me with it, in endless oblivion.

I could have seen it though, should have – in spite of our complicity, not the least gesture of affection – never once did you ruffle my hair, never once did you rest your head on my shoulder – you shrouded your past, your liaisons, in silence and remained evasive when I tried to find out more. I put that down to your natural discretion which, all things considered, rather pleased me.

About Marc, you simply told me that he had taken you in on your eighteenth birthday when you ran away from home, that he had helped you, before giving you a job as a pianist in the bar over which he reigned. I saw him as your adoptive father, dazzled by your musical talents, intending to give you a chance – after all, it would only take some one, one evening, to spot you and engage you somewhere else, for your career to be launched. I liked that man, somewhat in the background, crazy about jazz, whom I sometimes used to talk to at the end of the evening, waiting for you to finish playing.

I remember one evening – I was listening to you, sitting not far away with a liqueur in front of me – an evening when Marc came and sat at my side. His eyes, which were fixed upon you, shone; I thought he was savouring the harmonies that you strung together with careless virtuosity, the caress of the melodies, the frisson of the arpeggios – perhaps also pride in having recognised your worth and knowing what an asset you were to the Nirvana. That evening, however, he didn’t talk to me about music, as he usually did; he talked about you, about your glorious, medieval name, of the exploits of the other Tristan from Cornwall. At his words, the Nirvana seemed to fill with eerie forests, wandering knights, swords and dragons, and I listened, fascinated, like a rabbit mesmerised by the eyes of a serpent.

Did he know, Marc? Had he understood what was going on, had he resolved to enlighten me or to let things take their course and amuse himself at my expense? I wasn’t supposed to be there that evening, I didn’t usually turn up without warning, but it had been days since we had seen each other, and I wanted to enjoy the snow with you – like children we would have chased each other, bombarded each other with snowballs, skidding on the ice, stars of frost in our hair – oh, my beautiful dream melted away, gone for ever...

I believed it all though, I believed in the transparency of our words, our gestures – I thought you knew, just as I thought I knew, I believed that all was limpid, clear water like a mirror in which, leaning over, we would each see the reflection of the other – a mirror that cracked this evening when I saw you together. Marc and you, face to face, entangled in an embrace that left no room for doubt. One gesture, a simple gesture like a knifeblade between my shoulder blades, like acid spreading through my veins, like poison - and yet I must not betray myself, must keep up appearances for a few more minutes, until I can flee into the night and give free rein to the suffering of the wild beast that beats against my ribs.

Oh fallacious light of day, the purple lights of the bar that hid the truth from me, the only truth worth anything, that of self-negation in the snow and the night. Such self-inflicted blindness, only to find myself here, alone at the heart of a place as livid as a shroud, staggering on the edge of the abyss, ready to annihilate myself.

Never did I try and see you anywhere but at the Longing Bar, or the Nirvana, in the city streets; never did we see each other at your place or at mine. What you did with your days, I could only imagine: practise the piano doubtless, sleep of course, listen to music. That you frequented other people didn’t concern me. I thought that the whole truth resided in those stolen moments in the night! What mockery! Your truth began elsewhere, when you went back to Marc’s, when you played the piano for him and him alone. And Marc himself – never, I admit, did I think of him except when I saw him behind the bar; for me he was one of those acquaintances that one appreciates and forgets as soon as one’s back is turned. He was so much a part of the Nirvana that in a sense, it never occurred to me that he had a life outside the bar.

What is life but a comedy, a string of illusions we forge for ourselves, we nurture against all odds, blinded by the light of day, when only night can dissipate the chimeras that dance around us. Before him who has lovingly looked on death’s night, and has known its deep secrets, the lies of daylight, honour and fame, power and fortune, glittering so bright, are scattered like barren dust in the sun.

But perhaps my life is already behind me. Perhaps these streets I roam are those of hell, and here and there, these vague silhouettes, the souls of the dead, wandering in eternal twilight. These white petals whirling around me, are they not those of asphodels torn from their stems by an icy wind? Perhaps the dawn will come no more now, perhaps I have already passed over onto the other bank, a shadow among shadows, in the city’s night.

Oh the kiss of snowflakes that bite into my flesh, engendering long frissons down my spine, cold and burning, oh my breath panting in the night, the tremors that seize me. I stop the better to feel the snow melting on my lips, brushing my shoulders with its icy fingers – spin round, my heart pounding, my eyes half closed, and give myself up to the caress of the wind, my arms outstretched, my head thrown back towards the sky, offering myself.

I am delirious, perhaps I have a fever, I must go home. Go home? Back to that stifling room only to feel the brutish pain engulf me, pinning me against my bed, crushed by a blind force – no, no, never. To sob within those sheets that will never enfold our naked bodies, will never welcome our embrace – how long must I bear it before I find a draught of death more potent than my love philtre?...

No, no, better the mindless wandering, the cold that grips my chest with its talons of ice, rifling through it as if to tear out my heart, better the endless watch for a pale dawn. Better oblivion and the fleeting repose it might bring.

Or go to you now, naked beneath my coat, and denude myself, offer myself to you, because nothing else justifies my existence, you understand, because without you I am nothing, nothing but a poor envelope of flesh on the brink of putrescence.

Or perhaps come across you, suddenly, in a bend in the road ... I imagine you there, glowing in a halo of lamplight, frost sparkling like diamonds in your hair, regal, dazzling. And I advance, slowly at first, then faster, and a few seconds before we meet we stop, immobile, we look at each other, your face close to mine, your breath on my cheek, and then very gently, at last, your lips that brush mine, your arms that pull me into the shadow of a gateway, no names, no parting, one consciousness for all eternity.

How beautiful they are suddenly, the moths fluttering in the night. And the neon signs lit up for some obscure celebration, and Tristan, radiant, advancing towards me – it was only a misunderstanding of course, how could I have believed otherwise, how could I have doubted you, doubted our love, Tristan – Tristan and Isa, this sweet little word "and", binding love's union, and suddenly nothing else counts, all is forgotten, all is forgiven, for, yes, he is really here, I’m not dreaming, I see him approach, silent and serene. How gently and calmly he smiles. How he shines ever brighter, soaring on high, stars sparkling around him ...How softly and gently from his lips sweet breath flutters!...

Why don’t these occasional passers-by, wandering shadows, night-roaming souls, stop to look at him? Do I alone hear this melody which, so wondrous and tender in its blissful lament, all‑-revealing, gently pardoning, sounding from him,
pierces me through, rises up, blessedly echoing and ringing round me? Resounding yet more clearly, wafting about me, are they waves of refreshing breezes? Are they clouds of heavenly fragrance? As they swell and roar round me, shall I breathe them, shall I listen to them? Shall I drink of them, plunge beneath them, to expire in sweet perfume? In the surging swell,
in the ringing sound, in the vast wave of the world's breath – to drown, to sink unconscious –bliss supreme!   

       N.B. The quotations in italics are from Tristan and Isolde.

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