Thursday, June 26, 2014


            Just at the end of summer in 1901, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa, artist, roué, alcoholic and celebrated dwarf, died, a few months short of his 37th birthday. Since I was born in spring, something more than a half-century later,  I was nervous when I went to his funeral, fearful that I’d strike a jarring, anachronistic note. I needn’t have feared; no one even looked up when I entered and found a seat towards the back of the church.

          The atmosphere, except for his mother who sat weeping at the very front, was relaxed, and the general attitude seemed to be that a unique friend would be sorely missed, but that it was astonishing that, given his health and his habits, he’d lived as long as he had. Occasionally a snort would be heard from one portion of the church or another, as someone tried to suppress a laugh from a remembered story, or from hearing one in an undertone from his neighbor. The whores – all quietly dressed – were mostly seated on the left side of the church. Briand was seated among them, occasionally turning his head slowly to the left and right, that more of the audience could have the chance to enjoy his profile.

The man next to me, who was wearing immaculate evening wear and a fresh flower in his lapel, at 10 in the morning, looked familiar, but so did many in the church. The artist had populated his paintings with his friends and relatives. Although I normally speak very poor French – the sort no one in Paris would ever admit to understanding – I had been temporarily been granted the gift of tongues, and understood my neighbor when he asked if I had been a friend of the deceased.

“No, monsieur, simply an admirer. And you?”

“It’s hard to say, exactly. Consider me a sort of relative.”

We sat, then, in companionable silence, listening to a recitation of the deceased’s many virtues – his kindliness, his wit, his devotion to his friends, his refusal to give in to despair. While his artistic talent was praised, no mention was made of his sexual prowess or his penchant for  inventing strange and wonderful cocktails. Perhaps to compensate, quite a lot was said about the Counts of Toulouse and that sad affair, the Albigensian Crusade, in which they had played an equivocal part.

This went on for some while before I noticed that an elderly fat woman in front of me seemed to be melting. Gradually, she grew slimmer, and her hair became red, and I recognized – as what admirer of the artist would not? – La Golue, the Glutton, as she had looked when she had danced with Valentin the Boneless at the Moulin Rouge.

“I need some air. Will you walk with me?” My neighbor put his request so courteously that I couldn’t say no. Outside the church, the streets were filled with automobiles.

“Surely it’s too early for there to be so  many cars about?” I said.

“Your pardon. This is 1920; we have exited through La Golue’s entrance, which leads to and from the day she died, collapsing onto a bed in a Marseille brothel. Sadly, she was employed there only as a maid.”

“But is Lautrec’s funeral still going on in 1920?”

“As far as I know, it never ends. If it wasn’t sometimes so merry, if I couldn’t sometimes slip out for a drink, if there wasn’t always money in my pocket, I would suspect it was an aspect of Hell.” With these words, we entered a bar, dim and peaceful in the late afternoon, where a few peaceful, dim men were drinking and a young woman was talking in a quiet, intense voice to a parrot.

{{I may be gone a few days. As always, you are encouraged to leave comments and chat among yourselves until I get back. Or even afterwards}}

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