Today sees a historic state visit to the UK by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife the former model and songwriter Carla Bruni. It is the first full state visit by a French President in 12 years, and Sarkozy has said that he would like to extend the “Entente Cordiale” between France and England to and “entente of friendship”. In that spirit, then, I bring you an extract from ‘A Nightmare’ by French Victorian writer Guy de Maupassant. This really is an eerie tale; a real favourite of mine. It appeared in a collection of Parisian short stories called Paris Tales, translated and edited by Helen Constantine. Constantine is translating another collection of stories with OUP this year called French Tales.
I love the night passionately. I love it as I love my country, or my mistress, with an instinctive, deep, and unshakeable love. I love it with all my senses: I love to see it, I love to breathe it in, I love to open my ears to its silence, I love my whole body to be caressed by its blackness. Skylarks sing in the sunshine, the blue sky, the warm air, in the fresh morning light. The owl flies by night, a dark shadow passing through the darkness; he hoots his sinister, quivering hoot, as though he delights in the intoxicating black immensity of space.
The day exhausts me, irritates me. It is brutal, noisy. I struggle to get out of bed, I dress wearily and, against my inclination, I go out. I find each step, each movement, each gesture, each word, each thought as tiring as if I were lifting a crushing weight.
But when the sun goes down I feel strangely happy, my entire body fills with happiness. I wake up, I spring into life. As the shadows lengthen I feel quite different: younger, stronger, more alert, more contented. I watch the great soft darkness fall from the heavens and become denser. It swamps the city like a great wave that I cannot seize nor fathom, covering, blotting out, destroying colours and shapes, and enfolding houses, buildings, and living things in a silent embrace.
And then I want to hoot with pleasure like the owl, run over the roofs like a cat; and in my veins I feel the warmth of a sudden and irresistible desire for love.
I go, I walk, sometimes in darkened streets, sometimes in the woods near Paris, where I hear my sisters, the animals, and my brothers, the poachers, prowling.
Whatever you love passionately always destroys you in the end. But how can I explain what has happened to me? How can I make anyone even understand that I can write about it? I don’t know, I don’t know any more; all I know is that it is so.
So yesterday—was it yesterday?—yes, I’m sure it was, unless it was before that, another day, another month, another year—I don’t know. But it must be yesterday, since the day has not begun, the sun has not reappeared. How long has the night lasted? How long? Who knows? Who will ever know?
So yesterday I went out after dinner, as I do every day. It was a lovely evening, very mild and warm. As I went down towards the boulevards I was looking up at the black sky above me, etched out by the roofs of the street, like a river with a rolling stream of undulating, heavenly bodies flowing through it, just like a real river.
In the evening air everything, from the planets down to the gas lamps, was brightly lit. So many lights were shining in the sky and in the town that they seemed to illuminate the shadows. Bright nights delight me more than long days of sunshine.
On the boulevards the cafés blazed with light; people were laughing, going in and out, having a drink. I went into the theatre for a moment or two. Which theatre? I have no idea. It was so dazzling in there that I found it depressing, and came out again somewhat cast down by the violent shock of the lights on the gold of the balcony, and the artificial sparkle of the enormous crystal chandelier, the lights leading down to the pit, and that harsh, false glare. I reached the Champs-Élysées, where the cafés-concerts seemed to be burning like so many fires among the green leaves. The flecks of yellow light on the chestnut trees made them look painted; they looked like phosphorescent trees. And the electric globes, just like pale but brilliant moons, like moon eggs fallen out of the sky, like monstrous living pearls, made the dirty, ugly gas filaments and the strings of coloured glass pale beneath their mysterious, royal, mother-of-pearl brightness.
I stopped under the Arc de Triomphe to look at the avenue, the long, wonderful starry avenue leading into Paris between its two rows of lights, and the stars! The stars in the sky; unknown stars flung out here there and everywhere into the vastness of space, drawing their crazy patterns that fill a man with dreams and wonderment.
I went into the Bois de Boulogne and stayed there a very long time. A peculiar trembling had seized hold of me, an unexpectedly powerful emotion, a mental exaltation bordering on madness.
I walked for a long long time. And then I retraced my steps.
What time was it when I passed beneath the Arc de Triomphe once more? I don’t know. The city was falling asleep and large black clouds were gradually spreading out across the sky.
For the first time I had the feeling that something novel and untoward was about to happen. It seemed to me that it was cold, that the air was getting denser, that the night, my beloved night, was weighing heavy upon my heart. The avenue now was deserted, except for two policemen walking along near the rank where the cabs were drawn up, and on the cobbles, only faintly lit by the dying gas lamps, a row of vegetable carts on their way to Les Halles. They were driving slowly, loaded with carrots, turnips, and cabbages. The drivers were asleep and invisible, the horses walked with an uneven tread, silently following the cart in front on the cobbles. As they passed under each pavement light, the carrots glowed red, the turnips white, and the cabbages green. And one after another, these carts, red as fire, white as silver, green as emerald, moved along the road. I followed them, then turned into the Rue Royale and came back along the boulevards. There was no one there, no lights in the cafés, just a few laggards hurrying home. I had never seen Paris so dead, so deserted.