Madame Chrysanthème, by Pierre Loti

Chapter 35

Through a Microscope

The small garden of my mother-in-law, Madame Renoncule, is, without exception, one of the most melancholy spots I have seen in all my travels through the world.

Oh, the slow, enervating, dull hours spent in idle and diffuse conversation on the dimly lighted veranda! Oh, the detestable peppered jam in the tiny pots! In the middle of the town, enclosed by four walls, is this park of five yards square, with little lakes, little mountains, and little rocks, where all wears an antiquated appearance, and everything is covered with a greenish mold from want of sunlight.

Nevertheless, a true feeling for nature has inspired this tiny representation of a wild spot. The rocks are well placed, the dwarf cedars, no taller than cabbages, stretch their gnarled boughs over the valleys in the attitude of giants wearied by the weight of centuries; and their look of full-grown trees perplexes one and falsifies the perspective. When from the dark recesses of the apartment one perceives at a certain distance this diminutive landscape dimly lighted, the wonder is whether it is all artificial, or whether one is not one’s self the victim of some morbid illusion; and whether it is not indeed a real country view seen through a distorted vision out of focus, or through the wrong end of a telescope.

To any one familiar with Japanese life, my mother-in-law’s house in itself reveals a refined nature — complete bareness, two or three screens placed here and there, a teapot, a vase full of lotus-flowers, and nothing more. Woodwork devoid of paint or varnish, but carved in most elaborate and capricious openwork, the whiteness of the pinewood being preserved by constant scrubbing with soap and water. The posts and beams of the framework are varied by the most fanciful taste: some are cut in precise geometrical forms; others are artificially twisted, imitating trunks of old trees covered with tropical creepers. Everywhere are little hiding-places, little nooks, little closets concealed in the most ingenious and unexpected manner under the immaculate uniformity of the white paper panels.

I can not help smiling when I think of some of the so-called “Japanese” drawing-rooms of our Parisian fine ladies, overcrowded with knickknacks and curios and hung with coarse gold embroideries on exported satins. I would advise those persons to come and look at the houses of people of taste out here; to visit the white solitudes of the palaces at Yeddo. In France we have works of art in order to enjoy them; here they possess them merely to ticket them and lock them up carefully in a kind of mysterious underground room called a ‘godoun’, shut in by iron gratings. On rare occasions, only to honor some visitor of distinction, do they open this impenetrable depositary. The true Japanese manner of understanding luxury consists in a scrupulous and indeed almost excessive cleanliness, white mats and white woodwork; an appearance of extreme simplicity, and an incredible nicety in the most infinitesimal details.

My mother-in-law seems to be really a very good woman, and were it not for the insurmountable feeling of spleen the sight of her garden produces on me, I should often go to see her. She has nothing in common with the mammas of Jonquille, Campanule, or Touki she is vastly their superior; and then I can see that she has been very good-looking and fashionable. Her past life puzzles me; but, in my position as a son-in-law, good manners prevent my making further inquiries.

Some assert that she was formerly a celebrated geisha in Yeddo, who lost public favor by her folly in becoming a mother. This would account for her daughter’s talent on the guitar; she had probably herself taught her the touch and style of the Conservatory.

Since the birth of Chrysanthème (her eldest child and first cause of this loss of favor), my mother-in-law, an expansive although distinguished nature, has fallen seven times into the same fatal error, and I have two little sisters-in-law: Mademoiselle La Neige — [Oyouki-San]— and Mademoiselle La Lune — [Tsouki-San.]— as well as five little brothers-in-law: Cerisier, Pigeon, Liseron, Or, and Bambou.

Little Bambou is four years old — a yellow baby, fat and round all over, with fine bright eyes; coaxing and jolly, sleeping whenever he is not laughing. Of all my Nipponese family, Bambou is the one I love the most.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:36