Daemon in Lithuania
A kind of spirit which, as the ancients supposed, presided over the actions of mankind, gave them their private counsels, and carefully watched over their most secret intentions …
(Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary)
I was born within the confines of a country that it would perhaps be better not to name – for even though I mention it in the title and in the course of this narrative, it is by no means certain that it is really Lithuania. It was a region of moors, ponds, and dark, marshy forests, against a background of mountains with eternally snowcapped peaks. The castle in which I first saw the light of day contained no less than some fifty rooms, most of which were neglected and unused. It stood on a hill, and was built in the neo-Gothic style very much in vogue at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The surrounding park was so overgrown that its paths were very quickly hidden under tall grasses and dense thickets. It was impossible to tell the difference between the silver birch, lime, and alder trees of the estate and those of the neighboring woods, and even though a tall iron fence marked the boundaries of our land, it had almost disappeared under the assault of all the climbing plants intent on destroying it. It formed a false vegetal barrier that reconciled a park – which in former days, it was said, had been very well kept – with the wild, luxuriant plant life that insinuated itself between the stakes, merrily overran their pointed – though certainly blunt – spikes, and advanced towards the castle, like a very slow but inexorable tide; green, shining, quasi-liquid. Every so often a group of servants, secateurs in hand, would attack a bush or a few brambles. A task that was purely symbolic, and in a way very muddle-headed.
“What an undertaking!” groaned my grandmother Casimira …
“What a foul weather!” sighed my grandfather Emeric.
And it must be said that it was always raining. When it wasn’t raining it was snowing, and when it wasn’t snowing it was blowing a gale. Often, it was snowing, raining and blowing a gale at the same time, and the thunder, which echoed darkly in the deep mountain chasms, shook the walls – and then we used to shiver in delightful fear. This was the country of long winters … They began in October, and ended in April …. At that moment a pale, tepid sun drew vapors up from the ponds, and the fogs of the winter months were succeeded by the mists of the summer months – when the weather was said to be “fine”, though in fact it was much worse. It revived our aches and pains; the furniture and our joints creaked. At a very early age I suffered from rheumatism.
As we could never see anything more than a hundred meters away – (if I spoke above of the mountains and snowcapped peaks, it was just to give a fleeting impression of the region, as the horizon was always obscured) – we were all horribly shortsighted. I wore round spectacles, with narrow metal frames, like Schubert … I liked my grandmother’s jet black, searching eyes, with their dilated pupils, and I liked my grandfather’s deep-set, equally dark eyes. I liked mine, too, which I qualified as “imperious and melancholy”, and – I make no secrets of it – I often used to look at myself in the mirrors, and then slowly move closer to them, staring at my own reflection. At those moments I was in a kind of hypnotic trance, and I only came back to life when I bumped my nose on the surface of the glass. My face became blurred in the mist of my own breath. I wiped it off gently, stepped back a little, and contemplated with delight – and some trepidation – two dazzling fixed points: my eyes, my myopic eyes. I allowed myself to believe that the gaze that exists – providing they don’t mar it by pulling faces (screwing up their eyes, frowning, the better to see what they never will see better) … “I would much rather mistake almost anybody for almost anything, than present a wrinkled, grimacing face,” my grandmother used to say wisely – and her features had remained sweet and serene. So, when anyone turned up unexpectedly, she would come down the great staircase with outstretched arms, vociferating, in French: Chèr, chèr, chèr …” She could thus mistake neither sex nor person. It was only when she had come face to face with the unknown person (of whichever sex), that she could then call out – really, much too loudly, sometimes: “Chère Irice …”, “Cher Witold …”, “you haven’t changed a bit, either from a distance or from close to …” People said she was expansive. And yet she had no great liking for visits – with the exception of those of my beloved Uncle Alexander – but I shall speak of them later …
The entrance hall was, in a way, the castle’s prop room. It was enormous, and very dark, with finely-carved panelling on all sides. The great staircase started there; then, after some fifteen spacious steps and a wide landing, it divided into two branches leading to the bedrooms. It was impossible not the admire the elegant curve of the banisters, and their over-elaborate posts. When the lamps were lit, and oscillating in the treacherous draughts, these posts projected eerie, entangled shadows which resembled tropical creepers or crawling snakes. In this décor, you might have expected to find those horrible trophies, the heads of the unfortunate, decapitated stags … No, though; hunting was forbidden on our estates. The walls were hung with imposing romantic paintings. They depicted a series of mountain catastrophes: a party of roped climbers falling head over heels down a silver-blue glacier; a nice, neat little village just about to be buried under an avalanche; a foolhardy girl being carried away in a foaming torrent – and you could see her outstretched arm, holding a diaphanous scarf, twisting and turning in the swirling eddies … There was one picture missing, I was told – an erupting volcano. One of my aunts – Georgina, I believe – had it taken to Messina – it looked more impressive there. Under the pictures there was an accumulation of umbrellas, sunshades (but why ever sunshades?), shawls, and long, dark capes, hanging from pegs carved in the shape of outstretched hands. When they moved (the draughts again), they could be quite frightening, and we sometimes found ourselves hurrying past them, in what has been called the Grey-hooded Even … My grandfather Emeric had invented an ingenious system for our boots. The moment we got indoors, we took them off. We put them on a sloping contraption, to the right of the front door, and the rainwater or the melting snow trickled down into a narrow gully leading to a trough – which simply had to be changed. Without this clever construction, we should have come from the muddy paths into a cloaca … On a long oak table there were two enormous saucer-shaped trays. In the one, our inevitable pairs of spectacles were all jumbled up – and, in our impatience, it used to take us some time to find our own. In the other, the letters were piled up. We received an enormous amount of mail, because we wrote a lot. There was talk of peasant revolts, of violent deaths, of storms – but what a pleasure it was, despite our fascinations with tempests and turmoils, to abandon the violence of nature and come back to the castle, feel the thick carpets under our feet, go up to Grandfather, who was collecting, or Grandmother, who was reading … I never really understood the piles of bizarre objects that Grandfather accumulated; it was obvious that I was disturbing him, but he never seemed to resent it. At the very most he would show some slight embarrassment, or hurriedly conceal something – I really don’t know why … As for Grandmother, she was always delighted to see me; she would say out loud the last sentence she’d just been reading, and, by an extraordinary coincidence, that sentence was invariably either poetic or pessimistic … It would remain engraved in my memory. When Grandmother turned towards me, her long silken dresses, the color of dead leaves, would rustle, and that slight swishing sound was like that of the innumerable pages she turned over so passionately … She used to abandon half-open books on tables and chests of drawers, and there were faint arrows in the margins, marking the passages she had particularly liked. These were never sentences or aphorisms, but felicitous juxtapositions of words which, even if I didn’t really understand them then, were evocative of tenderness, violence, passion, love, nostalgia, sadness, escape, death. I studied them eagerly. Grandmother Casimira, with her slightly hoarse voice, with the poetry she remembered and recited (I believe she wrote some in secret) gave me the marvellous, unique gift of love of reading.
I won’t speak of my parents. I lost them when I was very young. At the age of three I was an orphan … They perished in an atrocious manner. My mother was on her way to take the waters, accompanied by my father. She was growing impatient on the station platform, where she was surrounded by at leas a dozen trunks (she had the reputation of being a great coquette, and – I have to admit – somewhat frivolous.) When the steam locomotive arrived, she slipped, holding a book by Tolstoy in her hand. She had no time to suffer: in a single second she had been crushed to death. There was a hideous coincidence: my father stepped back in horror. Another locomotive arrived – and in his turn he was crushed to death! And I am telling nothing but the gospel truth when I say that my maternal grandfather and grandmother died together in a famous shipwreck; that their own parents succumbed, the ones to a no less famous fire, and the others to a stagecoach accident … Dying by pairs has become a tradition in my family. But what I hope with all my heart for Grandfather Emeric and Grandmother Casimira – and as late in life as possible – is a peaceful death. Weeping copiously (I rather enjoy that), I imagine them sitting by a log fire. Grandmother is reading aloud; Grandfather is falling asleep … Grandmother breaks off in the very middle of a sentence, her head gradually drops … They have gone, without surprise, one of Grandfather’s hands resting on one of Grandmother’s … They look peaceful, yet in spite of everything, watchful … Later, I follow their hearses. I am elegantly dressed in black. I don’t give a fig for any kind of dignity, I sub uncontrollably … But one shouldn’t let oneself indulge in such reveries.
I haven’t yet mentioned my sister Kinga (Cunégonde), perhaps because she plays only a minimal part in my memories of my early childhood. She always wore white dresses, which went rather badly with her very pale complexion. Her long hair was dressed in a multitude of braids which were coiled up on top of her head in such a complicated, absurd fashion that I blamed their weight, and their laborious construction, for the doleful airs she used to adopt. She sighed a great deal, she used to sink down on the divans, and sometimes even faint. She would interrupt her wearisome embroidery, raising her eyes to the heavens (she was subject to strange mystical states), or let the heavy anglo-saxon novels, which she never finished, drop on to her knees. She often held a delicate batiste handkerchief to her lips, and coughed faintly. In those moments she paraded an ostentatious discretion, and a truly unbearable resignation. I kept a pitiless watch on her, and I can positively state that she never coughed the slightest drop of blood. But she had cultivated the art of languishing gracefully, and no doubt her head had been turned by romantic examples of phthisis, of homecomings from balls where you catch cold in the snow. She would often hum waltz tunes, and then place a hand on her migraine-racked forehead. The waltzes were pretty (Kinga was musical, and had a lovely voice which she was anxious not to force), but her attitudes exasperated me. Later, though, I began to like her more, when everything in the castle changes abruptly, on a certain autumn evening …