Writing about music: _Tous les matins du monde_ and Pascal Quignard
I saw Tous les matins du monde at some point while I was in France in the mid-’90s. I thought it was a wonderful film, and probably thought about it some more for some time, and then forgot about it, as there was a good deal going on at that point in my life.
Some time later, much later—perhaps 20 years on—I ran across it again. I don’t remember the details. I just know that for some reason I watched the film again. This time, as soon as I’d seen it, I immediately tracked down the short novel on which it was based and devoured that. I found other things the book’s author, Pascal Quignard, has written and read them. I wondered how I had not heard of him previously, and why I had not looked him up way back when. Perhaps I meant to on exiting the theater after seeing the film for the first time, but then I walked out into the Parisian streets and the city swept me up into some other adventure that erased the plan from my mind.
This is the kind of experience that makes me feel with acute pain how little time we have here. It took me two decades after seeing the film to follow up enough to track Quignard down, and he has turned out to be a writer of importance for me. How many other such figures will I never discover in time?
The story of the novel is Quignard’s fictional account of the master-disciple relationship of Jean de Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais, two late 17th/early 18th century French virtuosi of the viola da gamba. Marais was in fact the student of the older man, but all the details of the relationship are lost to history.
Quignard gives us a compelling account of how the younger man achieved great popular fame with his art, something his purist teacher warned him against incessantly as contrary to the very purpose of music. Marais parades off to Versailles to play for the King, leaving Sainte-Colombe’s daughter Madeleine pregnant with a child who will be stillborn. Soon after, the mother wastes away and takes her own life in bitter sadness over her emotional manipulation by Marais. Sainte-Colombe plays his masterpieces alone in a shed on his property, while Marais glories in his renown and his riches.
But at Versailles, as he ages, Marais reflects on what he had failed to learn from his master and on his mistreatment of his daughter. He recalls the otherwordly compositions Sainte-Colombe has produced but refuses to publish. That indescribable music will die with its creator. Unless Marais returns to undertake, as he puts it, “a final lesson” with the master. The master corrects him: It will be a first lesson.
In the film, the older Marais (who in the screenplay, but not in the novel, narrates the action as recall of the past from his perspective after Sainte-Colombe’s death) is played by the ever-formidable Gerard Depardieu, and the younger Marais by Depardieu’s then dashing young son Guillaume (who died in his late 30s after a turbulent brief life). But do not be misled by this visual artifice. Marais is not the novel’s central character.
That is the extraordinary Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. The novel centers on the marking of his life by an unrelenting sorrow over the early death of his adored wife (she regularly visits him as a ghost), and his use of his music to communicate the things about his love and his lament that he cannot speak. During their final/first lesson, Marais finally grasps the essence of music as Sainte-Colombe understands it. It is a watering hole for those whom language has deserted, the dead and the not yet born, those who are without breath and light.
The final ten pages of the novel are among the most perfect I have encountered in literature. I will say no more about them, other than “Go and read!”
Quignard writes about music in a way that is closer to my own experience of it than just about any other writer who comes easily to mind. He was himself a musician up until shortly after the publication of Tous les matins du monde. Just a few years later, he published La haine de la musique, in which he witheringly criticized the many profanations of music we encounter in the modern world.
The contrast of Sainte-Colombe and Marais, shut up just the two of them in a practice shed in the woods, far from the world, accompanied only by the ghosts of the dead, producing melodies that reduce the two of them to tears as they play, to a contemporary American department store, with its infernally inescapable soundtrack of brutal aural junk food blaring unsolicited into the ears of any unfortunate soul who enters, yields something of a synopsis of much that has gone wrong in our world.