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A Fragment of the Past

ISSUE:  Spring 1975

Translated by Claudine Cowen

WHILE many things in my life have escaped my memory, the recollection of the first hours I spent in the University stays forever indelible, for very precise reasons.

It was my uncle Walter Hartridge who had taken charge of the operations that day. I had arrived from France about the twentieth of September, 1919. My uncle was waiting for me in New York, where we stayed only very briefly. After that we took a train to Washington. Never before had I traveled in a pullman car and my astonishment was great when I settled in a large armchair in which I immediately enjoyed the upholstered curves. It seemed to me that I was sitting on clouds, and that those clouds would swivel at one’s will added to my surprise; but since the stunning impression I had received from New York, I was going from discovery to discovery. Undoubtedly, the mere thought that I was not going to see Paris for a long time made me sometimes feel deadly sad, but on the other hand I felt myself caught in a sort of whirlwind, and that was not without interest.

I was wondering like a country boy. In Washington, I was bewildered by the size of the railway station. It could, I thought, have enclosed Santa Sofia (which I had never seen). Anyway, we did not stay there long because we had now to take the train to Charlottesville, the famous Virginia creeper, which led us very slowly indeed—hence its derisive nickname—toward our destination. But where was my voluptuous pullman armchair? This smoky car was very austere, I thought, with its smell of tobacco—cold tobacco. I remember hardly anything from that journey but the fact that I was struck by the name of Manassas, which stirred some historical recollections in my memory.

In the middle of the night we arrived at Charlottesville and went to the hotel which we had been told was the best, the Monticello.

I slept like a rock and in the early morning ran to the window. What I saw left me breathless, because it looked like a simplified, but indisputable, image of what my mother had taught us all about the South. On the other side of a little square, a bronze gun was keeping watch in front of a neoclassic style building. Nothing was missing from the picture: the triangular entablature and two perfectly white doric columns, which seemed even whiter because they contrasted with a background of dark brick. It was the court house flanked by magnificent sycamores, whose golden foliage was like a sunstroke. I was looking at all this as through my mother’s eyes, for it could not be otherwise. In a few seconds, I understood everything: the agonizing war, the will to survive. What I could not know then was the deep influence that moment was going to have on writing which did not yet exist. A part of myself was coming from nowhere else than this piece of land where I was now. If I had roots, they were growing here, on this side of the Atlantic. This kind of revelation was to set in motion all sorts of ideas that I was going to find again in my books. I had a sudden intuition of this. It vanished, then came back later, once in a while.

Much could be said about the fact that one is born in one country when a strong and direct heredity links him with somewhere else. Maybe it goes against the being’s inner unity, and then this unity will achieve itself on another ground? The word laceration should be set aside, though it comes to my mind. It is too clear and does not express properly what I always felt so vividly; but when one reaches the innermost, words, whichever way you take them, stay within the boundaries of the domain of emotions.

I said nothing of what I felt to my uncle. He was a man whom my own shyness finally made shy. With his slightly raucous voice, he talked to me in a kindly tone which touched me. Unfortunately, I did not understand very well what he was saying, and at long last he was getting impatient. He restrained his impatience, however, but I could sense it, which increased my reserve and my silence. If only I could have talked to him! If I could have talked to someone, during those hours of complete confusion. He most certainly would have understood me, for he was human, and kind; but he was solicitor general in Savannah and this title slightly scared me. People called him Judge Hartridge. He was taller than me by a head, his face was scarred by wrinkles, and he had inherited Irish laughing eyes from his mother.

Leaving the hotel, we went down to the main street, where we took an orange street car to the gates of the University. I did not find the town very attractive, far from it, with its small, commonplace houses; but as we came closer to the University the gardens, the trees, the white-columned porches which gave a distinctive air to the long avenues made me change my mind. An awkward railroad bridge crossed this landscape which I was just beginning to find charming. Too bad! A little further, we stepped out and I nearly cried with wonder at the tall trees and their multi-colored foliage, which suddenly revealed to me the splendor of the Indian summer. I was wondering if my uncle was seeing those things with the same eyes. I don’t think so. My mother’s family was known not to dislike the beauties of nature but more simply not to see them. While following a little uphill path paved with brick, across a large lawn, we walked under gold and purple. Through the leaves, yellow, red, or nearly violet, the light splashed us with magnificence—and my uncle did not say a word. Neither did I, for that matter. So. . . .

Soon we came in sight of a large grouping of white pillars dominated by a dome. It was there that my uncle delivered a brief speech which I remember word for word: “Son,” he said to me (he always called me that), “here we are at the heart of the South. It is a great country, with a past of which it is very proud. I have no doubt that your mother has told you about it. You shall remember that you are a son of the South. And now, I’ll take you to the office where you have to register.”

We went up a little more and then there were some steps to climb and suddenly, without a word, we both stopped. I felt absolutely sure that, for once, my uncle was seeing. He was seeing what I was seeing, but not as I did. That was not possible. Three words could sum up what was happening inside me: bewilderment, wonder, anxiety.

How many times did I see it, that University lawn which left us both speechless? During my three years of study, morning and evening, not forgetting the night? The first time is the one which impressed me the most and which the next ones could never alter. The first time is the one when I saw it really, just as it is, before getting used to it and therefore inattentive. Arriving from Europe where nothing like it exists, I looked at the endless rectangle edged with columns and neo-classic pavilions. The view was so extended that it gave you a feeling of vertigo. I felt that I was in an unknown world, closed and protected on every side, yet frightening. It looked like some vast lists, waiting for me, and what does one do in lists if not fight? But fight against what? At its far end the rectangle opened and I could see everywhere tall trees with soft or violent colors. And there was something peculiar: the immense space was deserted. “Here I am,” I thought. “The University. . . . Shall I be able to make myself at home here?” This question, which in different words I had asked myself so many times in similar situations, I was anxiously asking again that morning.

But enough of dreams! I had to register. Just nearby, in one of those long galleries which faced each other across the long lawn, we pushed a door on which was inscribed the word Registrar. An extremely courteous woman handed me a book in which I wrote my name and my uncle’s. “Write down that he is your uncle,” I was told. “Your family links are important.” I wrote Uncle, or rather (for such was my confusion) Unkle. And if the book still exists, the mistake is still there.


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