japonisme: madame chrysantheme illustre

13 August 2009

madame chrysantheme illustre

The noise of the innumerable wooden panels which at the fall of night are pulled and shut in every Japanese house, is one of the peculiarities of the country which will remain longest imprinted on my memory. From our neighbours' houses, floating to us over the green gardens, these noises reach us one after the other, in series, more or less deadened, more or less distant.

Just below us, those of Madame Prune move very badly, creak and make a hideous noise in their worn-out grooves.

Ours are somewhat noisy too, for the old house is full of echoes, and there are at least twenty to run over long slides in order to close in completely the kind of open hall in which we live. Generally, it is Chrysantheme who undertakes this piece of household work, and a great deal of trouble it gives her, for she often pinches her fingers in the singular awkwardness of her too tiny hands, which have never been accustomed to do any work.

Then comes her toilette for the night. With a certain grace she lets fall the day-dress, and slips on a more simple one of blue cotton, which has the same pagoda sleeves, the same shape all but the train, and which she fastens round her waist by a sash of muslin of the same colour.

The high head-dress remains untouched, it is needless to say; all but the pins which are taken out and laid beside her in a lacquer box.

Then there is the little silver pipe that must absolutely be smoked before going to sleep; this is one of the customs which most provokes me, but has to be borne.

Chrysantheme, like a gipsy, squats before a particular square box, made of red wood, which contains a little tobacco jar, a little porcelain stove full of hot embers, and finally a little bamboo pot serving at the same time as ashtray and spittoon. (Madame Prune's smoking- box downstairs, and every smoking-box in Japan, both of men and women, is exactly the same, and contains precisely the same objects, arranged in precisely the same manner; and wherever it may be, whether in the house of the rich or the poor, it always lies about somewhere on the floor.)

The word ''pipe" is at once too trivial and too big to be applied to this delicate silver tube, which is perfectly straight and at the end of which, in a microscopic receptacle, is placed one pinch of golden tobacco, chopped finer than silken thread.

Two puffs, or at most three; it lasts scarcely a few seconds, and the pipe is finished. Then pan, pan, pan, pan, the little tube is struck smartly against the edge of the smoking-box to knock out the ashes, which never will fall; and this tapping, heard everywhere, in every house, at every hour of the day or night, quick and droll as the scratching of a monkey, is in Japan one of the noises most characteristic of human life.

"Anata nomimase!" (You must smoke too!) says Chrysantheme.

Having again filled the vexatious little pipe, she puts the silver tube to my lips with a bow. Courtesy forbids my refusal; but I find it detestably bitter.

Now, before laying myself down under the blue mosquito-net, I open two of the panels in the room, one on the side of the silent and deserted footpath, the other one on the garden side, overlooking the terraces, so that the night air may breathe upon us, even at the risk of bringing us the company of some belated cockchafer, or more giddy moth.

Our wooden house, with Its thin old walls, vibrates at night like a great dry fiddle; the slightest noises grow great in it, become disfigured and positively disquieting. Beneath the verandah are hung two little Æolian harps, which at the least ruffle of the breeze running through their blades of grass, emit a gentle tinkling sound, like the harmonious murmur of a brook; outside, to the very furthest limits of the distance, the cicalas continue their great and everlasting concert; over our heads, on the black roof, is heard passing like a witch's sabbath, the raging battle to the death of cats, rats and owls.

Presently, when in the early dawn, a fresher breeze, mounting upwards from the sea and the deep harbour, reaches us, Chrysantheme will slyly get up and shut the panels I have opened. Before that, however, she will have risen at least three times to smoke: having yawned like a cat, stretched herself, twisted in every direction her little amber arms, and her graceful little hands, she sits up resolutely, with all the waking groans and half words of a child, pretty and fascinating enough; then she emerges from the gauze tent, fills her little pipe, and breathes a few puffs of the bitter and unpleasant mixture.

Then comes pan, pan, pan, pan, against the box to shake out the ashes. In the resounding sonority of the night it makes quite a terrible noise, which wakes Madame Prune. This is fatal. Madame Prune is at once seized also with a longing to smoke which may not be denied; then, to the noise from above, comes an answering pan pan pan from below, exactly like it, exasperating and inevitable as an echo.

(i was delighted to find this whole thing online. there are bits of narration and illustration which are absolutely charming. the story itself is troubling, but the book, i think, is quite worth the time.)

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Blogger consciousnesswalk said...

continued applause.

14 August, 2009 18:11  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

i hope you can sense my deep bow.

thank you.

14 August, 2009 18:46  
Blogger namastenancy said...

I remember read that book - or some of it - when I was doing research on the origins of Madame Butterfly. Apparently Lotti "bought" a little courtesan when he visited Japan or said he did. A certain kind of orientalism was very popular in fin-de-siecle France. But thanks for tracking this down and posting it - your blog is a continual delight.

14 August, 2009 19:19  
Blogger Clive said...


14 August, 2009 19:32  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh nancy -- thank you so much.

it seems that after all this, he never 'got it' that he was dealing with real people.

i can't even look at the illustrations with the foreign sailors appraising the 'girls.'

14 August, 2009 20:26  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

clive--i'm so glad you feel that way.

i think it's so interesting that two artists worked on this, you'll see two different signatures, their first names aren't listed anywhere, and still, it all seems to work. some nice pieces.

14 August, 2009 20:35  
Anonymous Ed Weekly said...

Lotus, would you please consider adding to your image URLs target="_blank"? That would open your images in a new window. I think that would be good improvement for your blog. :-)

Ed Weekly

15 August, 2009 18:32  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

yeah--you know, ed--i did that for a while after willy was kind enough to teach me how (though i really wished i knew how to make them open to window size), and then the last time i did it it screwed things up --like i lost the image completely -- stuff like that. so i figured blogger no longer supported it.

so but you're saying they do -- so thanks -- i'll give it another try``````````````````````!

15 August, 2009 21:34  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. It is really interesting and I consider myself an amateur when it comes to learning about Japan but this information, small facts, and everything has shocked me in a nice way.

24 October, 2009 16:35  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

how wonderful! thanks!

i know what you mean--new learning is like many little shocks -- mostly enjoyable :^)

24 October, 2009 21:37  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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