Friday July 15, 2011
All is vanity. Nothing is fair. — WILLIAM THACKERAY
When nicolas arrived AT the Gallo Nero, he felt as if this was not a hotel, but someone's home, a long ocher house with a dark red roof and green shutters. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, and Jaguars were parked farther off. Up a couple of steps, then the door opened. A svelte woman in a black suit uttered his name as if it were the most enchanting sound in the world. Malvina and he were shown through a lobby which looked nothing like a hotel lobby, more like the entrance to a friend's welcoming abode: tiled floors, beamed ceilings, a stone fireplace with a painting of a rooster hanging above it, comfortable white sofas, bright-colored cushions, plants, low tables, stacks of books and magazines. Through the open bay windows, he could see out to the candlelit terrace and hear the murmur of voices, laughter, the click of ice cubes, the tinkle of a piano playing "The Girl from Ipanema." The Gallo Nero smelled of cinnamon and sunshine, lemon and lavender, but also, most important, of pleasure and money.
Two weeks ago, in Paris, on a sweltering day at the beginning of July, a blue-eyed journalist from a glossy magazine, Frédérique, a pretty girl with a toothy smile, had murmured over lunch at the Cigale Récamier, "Nicolas, you must go to the Gallo Nero." She mentioned it as being the ideal place for a luxurious getaway. Easy to remember. The Black Rooster. He looked it up. Exclusive. The kind of spot the happy few discreetly flocked to. The resort was situated on a tiny island off the Tuscan shore. It had a private rocky beach accessed by a James Bond–like elevator built into the cliff, a famous chef, tennis courts, and a kidney-shaped seawater pool. The prices were indecent. But this was tempting. He was longing to escape from the stuffy Parisian summer. And he had not been back to the Italian seaside since 2003, since that trip with François, his best friend. He called the Gallo Nero, and the condescending person who answered the phone announced, "I'm sorry, signor, there are no vacancies for that week. We are booked months in advance." Nicolas mumbled an apology, and this: "Can I leave my name and number in case you do have a vacancy? It's my girlfriend's birthday, and ... well ..." A sigh on the other end of the line. He assumed the sigh meant a yes, so he muttered, "Nicolas Kolt." Before he could get started on his number, a strangled moan was heard. "Excuse me?" gasped the woman, as if someone were throttling her. "You said Nicolas Kolt." He was getting used to this, but it had not yet begun to weary him. "The writer? The author of The Envelope? Signor Kolt, you should have told me right away who you were; of course we have a room for you — in fact, one of our prettiest rooms, with a lovely view over the Monte Argentario. When would you be coming, Signor Kolt?"
They got in late Thursday evening, Malvina supine, after a long trip, a flight from Paris CDG over to Rome FCO, where a chauffeur came to pick them up, and then the drive along the coast. This Friday morning, Malvina is still asleep in the large room, which is indeed lovely. Tasteful tones of sand and beige, aquarelles of Italian villages, creamy white curtains and bedcover. White roses, small bowls of figs and grapes. An envelope with a personal greeting from the hotel director, Dr. Otto Gheza. Nicolas rises early, taking care not to wake Malvina, and peeks out from behind the curtains to the balcony with its two deck chairs, square teakwood table, and potted bay trees. He slips his bathing suit on and the fluffy bathrobe hanging on the bathroom door, and silently makes his way outside to breakfast on the terrace, clasping a black Moleskine notebook and a black Montblanc fountain pen.
Nicolas cannot help noticing that the entire staff, from the housekeeper in charge of the room to the maid who brings bottled water, seems to know his name. They know it and they pronounce it properly, à la russe, with a round o, as if they are aware it has been truncated from Koltchine. They smile at him, yet he feels no hypocrisy in those smiles, no bowing and scraping. There are few rooms here, he informed Malvina during the flight, only twenty or so. The place closes down for the winter but is full from April to September. He told Malvina what he read on the Web site, that the Gallo Nero was imagined in the sixties by an American pilot and a Roman heiress who fell in love and built this villa overlooking the sea. They had no children, so thirty years later, the estate was sold to a rich Italian, who turned it into a hotel. Malvina found this romantic, which Nicolas knew she would. Malvina was a firm believer in romance, an aspect of her personality he was often charmed by.
A breakfast buffet is set up beneath large square parasols. There is little noise. Only the whizz of a sprinkler, the chirp of an invisible bird, the muffled roar of a plane high in the cloudless sky. Despite the early hour, several clients are already having their meal. Nicolas is ushered to a table overlooking the view, and he sits down. The sea shimmers, vast and turquoise, dotted here and there with yachts, ferries, and cruise ships. He is asked whether he prefers tea or coffee; he answers Lapsang souchong. It is brought to him in a heavy teapot within five minutes. He waits a short while, then pours out the Lapsang. A smart-looking man in a dark suit glides by, nods his head, and mouths, "Have a nice day, Signor Kolt." Nicolas nods back, wondering if this is the hotel director, Dr. Gheza, and whether he should have said something, or should have gotten up. He has a sip of tea, reveling in its ashy tang, takes his notebook out of his pocket, and lays it on the table in front of him, opening it to the first page. He reads his last notes. Notes for the goddamn book he is pretending to be writing. Notes so that he can look the part, notes so that it can be said, in all earnestness, in all truth, Nicolas Kolt is writing his new novel, the one they are all waiting for, the follow-up — yes, that book. Notes so that Alice Dor (French publisher and agent) and Dita Dallard (publicist) feel relieved. Notes so that Emma Duhamel née Van der Vleuten (mother) feels relieved. Notes so that Malvina Voss (girlfriend) feels relieved. Notes so that Delphine Valette (ex-girlfriend) and Gaïa Garnier (her daughter) and Elvire Duhamel and Roxane Van der Vleuten (aunts) feel relieved. Notes so that Lara Martinvast (best female friend) feels relieved. Notes so that Isabelle Pinson (banker) and Corinne Beyer (tax expert) feel relieved. Notes so that Agneta Sandström (Swedish publisher), Carla Marsh (American publisher), Ursula Berg (German publisher), Lorenza Manfredi (Italian publisher), Marije Gert (Dutch publisher), Alina Vilallonga (Spanish publisher), and so on and so forth, so that all these worried women around him, in and out of the publishing world, feel relieved. Nicolas is writing his new novel. Look at him scribbling away, eyebrows turned down in a concentrated frown, pen feverishly scrawling. Little do they know, those anxious women, that his notebook is full of doodles and sentences that have no meaning, no structure, mere strings of words linked one to the other like beads on a necklace.
Nicolas thinks of the fluid writing process for The Envelope and feels guilty. He wrote that novel four years ago, on Delphine's rickety kitchen table, rue Pernety, with Gaïa babbling on one side, the kettle whistling on the other, Delphine on the phone with her mother or Gaïa's father. No one could prevent the words from tumbling out of him, spewing out with passion, anger, fear, and delectation. There was never a moment when his inspiration wavered. How many times had he told that story to journalists? They never seemed to tire of hearing it. "And did the idea for the novel really dawn on you when you had your passport renewed?" they asked, and still do ask. How could Nicolas ever tell them today that there is no new book because he cannot find the time, because what he likes best is flourishing in the media's constant attention, in his readers' steady adoration?
On Nicolas's left, a silent and serious couple. Nicolas observes them. He likes to look at people, their faces, their clothes, their watches. From an early age, he has noticed watches. But now, with his newfound fame, and the wealth that has accompanied it, he also notices brand names, logos, clothes, shoes, sunglasses, a trait that annoyed his ex, Delphine. During the painful moments of their breakup, she was fond of reminding him of how much he had changed. Of how vain he had become.
The man is reading; the woman is studying her nails. French, he'd say. In their fifties. He is trim, deep tan, thinning hair (which no doubt upsets him). A Bréguet watch. A navy blue shirt with a green crocodile. Madame has those highlights women favor when they get to that age. Menopausal blond. A pale green shirtdress. He wonders if they have had sex recently. With that kind of tightness around the mouth, she probably doesn't often come. And certainly not with her husband, judging by the way her body is turned away from him. Husband is munching cereal and sipping coffee. Wife is toying with a fruit salad. She has now stopped examining her nails and is looking out to the sea. A wistful expression floats over her face. She must have been pretty, once.
On his right, another couple. Younger. She is perhaps thirty. Mediterranean type, olive-skinned, round shoulders, unruly hair, the kind you cannot comb. Dark glasses, Italian brand. He is from the Middle East, plump, hairy, cigarette hanging from his lip. A black-coated Rolex Daytona. He has three phones lined up on the table like smoking guns. He picks one up, talks loudly, puffing at his cigarette. The girl rises to admire the view. Her legs are disappointingly short, stocky, with thickset ankles. She is wearing high platform heels with glittery straps. She probably keeps them by the bed, slips them on even to pee.
Nicolas chooses his breakfast. The profusion of food is mouthwatering. He picks Bircher muesli, melon, and yogurt. The French have gone. He hopes he will never end up that way, carrying around that bitterness. He thinks of Emma, his mother. Guilt takes over. He hasn't been to see her in a while. He makes a mental note to call her. As he scoops up the muesli, he imagines his mother in the apartment on the quiet, paved rue Rollin, where he grew up. The rows of books lining the hall, newspapers piling up in the study, the faraway roar of the busy rue Monge coming up through the open windows, literature and knowledge radiating from the walls. His mother bent over stacks of exam copies, wielding her red pen. Her swift, sure strokes over the paper. He will call her, today; he must call her today. They will talk for a little while, he will find time for a lunch date with her, sometime between the Singapore event and the Scandinavian tour, and he will take her to that Greek restaurant she likes on the rue Candolle. He will sit and listen to her woes, her complicated on-off relationship with Renaud, a woebegone divorcé, her difficulties with her philosophy students from the Collège Sevigné, and he will think, as ever, that she looks younger than her fifty-two years, lovely still, with misty gray eyes and pale skin that flushes red when she is upset, his mother, with the clear-cut Belgian accent she never lost in spite of over thirty years in Paris. His mother, who has been living alone since his father's death, eighteen years ago. Nicolas is their only child. There has been string of lovers and sometimes unfortunate boyfriends, but she is still alone, despite the fluctuating affair with Renaud. He knows that during the lunch, over a moussaka, she will gaze at him with those fog-filled eyes and she will ask, "I hope all this has not changed you too much?" And when she says, "all this," she will make those delicate, vague gestures in the air, tracing bubbles with her fingers. Nicolas knows she often sees his ex. Delphine comes to lunch or tea with her daughter, Gaïa, now thirteen, the same little Gaïa he watched grow up for five years, and he knows they all sit in Emma's kitchen and talk about him. And they will say that he has changed. Yes, "all this" has changed him. And how could "all this" not have changed him?
Malvina makes an unexpected appearance at the breakfast table. Her face is puffy with sleep; she has sheet marks across her cheeks, creases in her skin that make her look older. She is strangely pale.
"Happy birthday," he says. "Twenty-two!"
She grins at him; he ruffles her hair. He asks her if she wants orange juice, tea, a muffin. She nods. He goes back to the buffet. The hairy man is still on the phone, making jabbing motions with a pudgy index finger. The short-legged brunette has disappeared. Nicolas and Malvina have their first breakfast at the Gallo Nero quietly. They do not talk, but they hold hands. Nicolas likes the way Malvina's eyes are the same color as the sea behind her. Her skin is soft under his. Fragile. The protective tenderness he feels for her makes him squeeze her wrist, grasping it the way acrobats clasp each other in midair.
Malvina's birthday present is up in the room, in his luggage. He will give it to her tonight, during dinner. A watch. It was tricky tracking down the one he wanted. He found it online, and met the vendor, a slick Serb, in the bar of the Grand Hotel Intercontinental, rue Scribe. "Why do you love watches?" He was now asked that question in nearly every interview. Yet it had been amusing answering it for the first time, two years ago. The journalist was a voluptuous blonde with a shrewd eye. In the Ambassade Hotel in Amsterdam, on Herengracht, he had an afternoon of interviews lined up one after the other: De Telegraaf, Alegemeen Dagblad, de Volkskrant. Marije, his publisher, opened the door to the private salon from time to time to check on how he was bearing up. The Envelope had scored unexpectedly high sale figures in the Netherlands, even before the movie had been released. The press was eager to find out more about the young French writer who had taken the publishing world by storm with a first novel about a taboo family secret.
"In all of your photographs, you wear a different watch," said the blonde. "And sometimes you wear one on each wrist. Why is this?" And so he had explained. His first watch, a Hamilton Khaki, had been offered by his father for his tenth birthday. It had a black face with dual dial markings, large Arabic numerals, one through twelve, and an inner ring of smaller numerals, one through twenty-four, a small date window at three o'clock, a dark leather band, a stainless-steel case, and an austere, no-nonsense military style. "Soldiers wore that watch in Vietnam," said his father as Nicolas opened the box with awe. His first watch. "You don't ever forget your first watch," he told the journalist. His father died soon after. The Hamilton Khaki became a relic. A talisman. Nicolas did not wear it, but he never let it out of his sight. When he traveled, he took it with him. He looked at it often, and just by staring at it, or cradling it in his palm, he could conjure, Aladdin-like, the image of Théodore Duhamel in his last year, thirty-three and glorious, standing tall by the fireplace on the rue Rollin, a customary cigar clamped between his long, thin fingers. His father had had an orange-faced Doxa Sub, which never left his wrist. Nicolas often thought about that watch, which was not found after Théodore Duhamel's death. "Sometimes I wear two because I can't choose. Every watch tells a story," Nicolas said to the blonde. "Who gave it to you, on what occasion, when. Or, if you bought it yourself, where and how. I'm not interested in fashionable models, although I admire them." (He thought of the Rolex he'd given his mother for her fiftieth birthday, a 1971 Oyster Perpetual, marked Tiffany & Co., which he'd bought on the rue de Sèvres, from one of his favorite shops. But he did not mention it, as he had learned to be careful with the word Rolex, especially in front of a journalist wearing a Swatch.) "I prefer a rarer kind, one that is hard to find, one that has a little wear and tear, one that doesn't glitter, as if things have happened to it."
The blonde nodded. "I see," she said. "Like your heroine, Margaux Dansor? A woman who has been around, seen a lot, but still has something to discover?" Clever move, he noted, her linking his passion for vintage watches to his middle-aged heroine, Margaux. A twenty-six-year-old man creating a forty-eight-year-old housewife, and pulling it off. Making her credible. Shaping her into one of those quaint, serious yet zany, irresistible heroines. A daughter, a spouse, a sister, a mother, a girl next door. A fictional character who made him famous around the world, later brought to life on-screen by Robin Wright in Toby Bramfield's film adaptation, a performance that earned her an Oscar in 2010.