“The Lilac Trail,” an excerpt in translation from Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Eric Dupont
Promised to a lifetime of pain, between the suicide tour and her passing in October 1963, Édith Piaf gave the Paris paparazzi and the tabloid press so much to run with it seemed it would never end. Her glory at the Olympia in early 1961 proved fleeting. She’d undergone another operation or two, but never hinted that she might be stepping out of the limelight. Her haggard face as she left the American Hospital in Paris earned Thiago enough to keep both his car and his family going for a good while.
I didn’t need Yvette Renard to tell me Thiago was cheating on me. I didn’t even mind. I think he’d always realized I derived no pleasure from being with him, and so by the time I was no longer pregnant I already suspected he was looking for other women to confirm his talents as a lover. He’d come home smelling of perfume, smeared in makeup… He wasn’t especially good at it. But, as I said, I didn’t mind, and indeed I found myself relieved of a duty that bored me to tears. Every time he told me he was in hot pursuit of a dying Piaf or a drunk Bardot, I knew he’d be off having a good time in someone else’s arms. But, to be completely frank, I was more jealous of Édith Piaf and the other starlets than the bunch of unknowns I assumed his body simply needed to keep going, much like a visit to the dentist or a pedicure. I’d probably have been angry if sex with Thiago had meant anything at all to me. But I didn’t know. I didn’t think about things like that. It was a different time in my life. He, on the other hand, easily managed to excuse his infidelities. We weren’t yet married, after all, and if our relationship was modeled on Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s, then surely “contingent” love affairs were to be expected. It wasn’t Thiago who brought up contingent love affairs, of course. It was me. He’d never read de Beauvoir, he wasn’t interested. Truth be told, we’d never much discussed love and contingency. And I still think that even though he would hit me when we argued, he still loved me. But I didn’t love him. I loved the freedom he’d given me by tearing me away from Três Tucanos. I appreciated what he did for me.
I never stopped thinking of how he’d react if ever he found out I was having a contingent love affair with another man, quite simply because I never so much as looked at one. I suppose he’d have killed him. But his mind was on other matters. And so, when Doug Davis, the fiancé that Piaf brought back with her from the United States, died in a plane crash at Orly, Thiago flew into a rage because he couldn’t get away from the photography studio to race over there. It also infuriated him that he was stuck in Paris because he couldn’t afford to travel. He would have loved to have been in Cannes on that August day when Piaf left the Palais des festivals and announced she was to marry Théo Sarapo, the young Greek who was easily young enough to have been her son. Thiago made up for it the following spring, when Édith emerged from a six-week coma in a clinic in Neuilly-sur-Seine. He got there well ahead of the rest of the chasing pack, managing to take a few lucrative snaps of a visibly drawn Piaf as she climbed into a car. Then she disappeared back to the Côte d’Azur. Paris would never see her again. She died October 10 in Grasse, but Thiago was taken in with the rest of the capital’s press. Piaf was said to have passed away peacefully in her Paris apartment on Boulevard Lannes, which is naturally where Thiago raced off to. The vultures, magpies, and other birds of ill omen that made up her entourage had plundered her possessions, including a little earthenware bowl that had allegedly belonged to Cleopatra. Thousands of mourners filed past her casket in silence. No one can say exactly how many.
October 14, 1963. I’ll never forget it. I can recall the whole period with documentary precision — you could say it left its mark on me. On Yvette and Thiago, too. Yvette must think of it every day, if she’s still alive. But she’s surely dead by now, poor dear. She tried to line up with Jean-Paul on Boulevard Lannes to see Piaf’s remains. The body had been put on display in her apartment, but Yvette’s obligations as a landlady forced her to turn back before she reached the door. I was at a literature class the Monday of Piaf’s funeral. I’d been accepted at the Sorbonne. I’ll remember that class until my dying day. It was about responsibility and passive resistance. The professor spoke of Melville’s Bartleby. I didn’t catch everything. Thiago was at the Père Lachaise cemetery by then, waiting for the funeral cortege, which had passed by the Trocadéro and crossed all of Paris, inching before hundreds of thousands of Parisians, some of them perched high in trees or up on rooftops to get a better view. The voice of France was no more. Yvette couldn’t bear to just listen to the funeral on the radio. She considered Piaf to be one of the family. How many surprising parallels had she managed to draw between her destiny and Piaf’s? Widowhood, poverty, destitution, but also happiness, loves, and sources of great hope! And the way Piaf would say “Paris” like others said “forever”! When someone mentioned at the bakery that the archbishop of Paris had denied Piaf a religious funeral, when that powdered marquis Jean Cocteau, who’d died virtually at the same time, had been allowed one, her fury had been nothing short of telluric. “Naturally! Trust the men to look out for each other! I mean, he must have slept with almost every other actor!” There was no fooling Yvette Renard. For the first time in her life, she decided that Monday wouldn’t be devoted to laundry and mashed potatoes. In seconds she put Jean-Paul in his baby carriage, no matter how much he wanted to run about. I think she must have drugged him again to get some peace and quiet, to make sure he didn’t slip away from her into the crowd now that he’d started to walk. She set out for the cemetery, where the people of Paris were converging like ants toward a piece of fruit just fallen from the tree.
No one, least of all Yvette, had expected so many to come say their goodbyes to Édith Piaf. The main gates were closed, but the crowd managed to work its way in through the side entrances, then up to the plot where the casket was to be lowered into the ground. Graves were trampled on, the security forces were having a hard time maintaining a semblance of order. Jostled from all sides, Yvette clung to the baby carriage as if her life depended on it. The throng had her surrounded. It was impossible to move forward or back. All she could do was roll with the wave, while frenied hips rocked the baby carriage. No one seemed to attach the slightest importance to the fragile little life sleeping inside. And so, when a man thought it might be a good idea to shout that someone was coming to open the gates — which wasn’t true — thousands of legs stepped forward and the horde swarmed against the indifferent metal. Yvette would only vaguely remember what happened next, as she fell backward, dragged down by the human tide. The crowd was now trying to get away from the main gate. Shouts, shoe soles coming down hard on her fingers, her glasses that were nowhere be found… Later, she counted four sets of footprints across her ripped clothing. A miraculous hand helped her to her feet, then disappeared, swallowed up by the throng. She looked around, praying. Our little Jean-Paul was lying next to the baby carriage, covered in black footmarks. He was still breathing. He lived for another hour and ten minutes, until the doctors decided that was that. The little guy had punctured lungs and a fractured skull. By any rights, he should have died on the spot. Perhaps he was reluctant to deflect too much attention from the queen who was being buried.
Yvette Renard aged ten years in the space of a minute. She left Jean-Paul at the hospital morgue and trudged back to the boarding house where everyone was waiting for her, worried sick. It was past eight o’clock. She didn’t say a word when she came into the kitchen. She waited a good three minutes before opening her mouth.
“She was like a sister to me. I had to go.”
It took her a few minutes more to tell us what happened. Then we went to take care of our child’s little body. We couldn’t speak with pain. I never told Simone about the big brother she lost before she was born. I still can’t.
From La Route du lilas by Eric Dupont
Marchand de feuilles, 2018
Excerpt translated by Peter McCambridge