The Road to Versailles

Giovambattista put his foot down on the accelerator as he left the crowded streets of Paris and headed south-west towards Versailles. The needle on the speedometer touched 140 kilometres per hour. It was not just that doctors are always in a hurry (and of course a physician summoned to attend the king should not keep his royal patient waiting), it was also that Giovambattista liked speed. More precisely, he enjoyed the combination of speed and control, the fluid movement of changing up gear as he moved on to the open road, the quiet purr of his Jaguar as it responded effortlessly to the touch of his foot. He liked too these moments of being alone in a secret cocoon of privacy – in a time out of time, you might think – which is why he always drove himself and refused to have a chauffeur.
 
On the front seat beside him was his discreetly monogrammed medical bag, not black as these bags so often are but of fine pale tawny pigskin; among the other things neatly ranged within it was the small velvet-lined case containing his silver blood-letting instruments. It was possible that the king’s ailment might require a moderate amount of bleeding; “Always be prudent and err on the side of caution,” he had told his students in the days when he was Professor of the Practice of Medicine at Turin. Also on the seat beside him was the box containing his freshly powdered peruke, tied in a queue at the back with three rows of tight curls to frame his thin cheeks: some people scented the powder used on their wigs with lavender, but Giovambattista found this too strong, faintly vulgar even, and preferred the more subtle essence of orange blossom. He would pull in to the side of the road just before he reached the palace in order to put on his peruke, using the driver’s mirror to make sure it was in perfect order. His manservant was instructed to shake the peruke thoroughly before placing it in its box, so that no powder would drift down on to his shoulders when he put it on. His own hair, once light brown but these days greying and cut very short, was thinning and he had an incipient bald spot.
 
“Always go for quality” was another of his dicta, this one usually addressed to his younger brothers who, he feared, tended to disorder in both their dress and their ways of life. He was rather pleased with the quality of the suit he was wearing that day, coat, breeches and waistcoat all of grey-green velvet decorated with discreet silver embroidery: distinguished, sober and not in the least flashy. He had a horror of flashiness. His white stockings were spotless and close-fitting with no wrinkles and the silver buckles on his shoes well-polished.
 
Giovambattista’s life and my life are separated by more than 200 years. But we meet in this time outside time.
 
There is so much that is private, one’s mind a kaleidoscope of thoughts and feelings never uttered, of experiences remembered or relegated to the fringes from where they intrude only occasionally. At the moment of death the patterns of the kaleidoscope are lost for ever, their colours fading instantly into a flat, dull grey. Giovambattista never formulated this thought, although he did ponder on death quite often, puzzling not about the why but about the how, about the processes by which certain illnesses lead to the death of the patient. As he drove fast along the straight road to Versailles, however, Giovambattista’s thoughts were not about death but about a) the king, b) his investments with his banker in Venice, c) how to send a present for his mother safely all the way from Paris to Cephalonia, d) whether he’d be able to get to Venice that year, and e) the king again and how best to treat the royal ailment. Royal patients are not always willing to follow their physicians’ prescriptions. Since you cannot insist, you have to find ways to make the regime you recommend palatable and to get the staff of the bedchamber on your side.
 
Giovambattista had always been rather good not only at making himself pleasant but at understanding to whom he needed to be pleasant. In a modern idiom, you could say that he knew how and when to turn on the charm. In another age, another life, he might have made a good diplomat: self-control, poise and the ability to keep his own counsel were among his qualities. In his private life he was often tetchy with his servants, stern towards his younger brothers and completely indifferent towards his wife (though he invariably treated her with courtesy). Among the shifting colours of Giovambattista’s kaleidoscope a few brilliant, scintillating patterns of light stood out; these represented moments – few and far between – in his very, very private life, conducted so discreetly that no one else ever knew of it.
 
The first thing I said to Giovambattista was “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you”.
 
For the dead are vulnerable. Their innermost thoughts and feelings may have been effaced but their reputations are in the hands of the living as we pick over the bare bones of their lives and make of them what we will.
 
We know things that the dead don’t know: we know what happened next.
 
I know that not much more than a decade after Giovambattista’s death Laennec invented the stethoscope.
 
Without it, Giovambattista sat on a stool at the bedside (a very great privilege), laid his ear to the king’s plump and sweaty chest and tapped with his fingers as he listened. The king accepted this and indeed was interested enough to ask Giovambattista what he could hear and what it meant. His principal royal patient, the Comtesse d’Artois, was less willing to submit to such auscultation; it required quite a bit of persuasion before she would allow him to lay his ear against her bosom, and she only (usually) consented in the end because of his impeccably correct and austere manner. Her father, the King of Sardinia, had appointed Giovambattista to be her personal physician and to accompany her from Turin to France on the occasion of her marriage to the French king’s brother. From the beginning she had noted her doctor’s elegant clothes and polished manner as points in his favour and always thought of this stylishness as Italian – although he was in truth Greek, from the island of Cephalonia. The fact that their consultations took place in Italian somehow made intimate medical details easier to discuss. He saw her through several confinements. He had a gift for listening carefully and telling her only what she wanted to hear.
 
We see only what we want to see. We are at the mercy of the future. As Giovambattista made his way to Versailles on that cool April afternoon with his thoughts occupied by Venice and Cephalonia, by money and by his mother, he had no inkling of the upheavals in store.
 
I know that the king would before too long be beheaded and the Comtesse d’Artois forced into exile. I know that with the disappearance of his royal patients Giovambattista’s income suddenly dried up so that, when at last he was able to leave France, he took up the Chair of Medicine at Padua in his old age instead of retiring to his native island. In the wildest quiverings of his mental kaleidoscope Giovambattista never dreamed that Cephalonia and the other Ionian islands would form part of a united country called Greece; I know however that his diligent student at Padua, Count Ioannis Kapodistrias, would abandon medicine and in time become the first Governor of this new state.
 
I know where and when Giovambattista died: Padua, 1804.
 
I tend to write in the late, late hours when perfect peace reigns. This too is in its small way a time out of time. As I wrote of Giovambattista and his brothers, I strained my ears to hear in the silence of the night the scratchy whisperings of their voices echoing faintly through the centuries, almost inaudible now. These long-dead people scrabbled insistently at the edges of my consciousness as I pondered the shapes of their lives. I thought how much Giovambattista would have enjoyed driving fast on the road to Versailles in a silver-grey Jaguar. So, in this parallel world outside time, he put his foot down on the accelerator as he left the crowded streets of Paris…
 
 
© Petrie Harbouri 2017

Giovambattista put his foot down on the accelerator as he left the crowded streets of Paris and headed south-west towards Versailles. The needle on the speedometer touched 140 kilometres per hour. It was not just that doctors are always in a hurry (and of course a physician summoned to attend the king should not keep his royal patient waiting), it was also that Giovambattista liked speed. More precisely, he enjoyed the combination of speed and control, the fluid movement of changing up gear as he moved on to the open road, the quiet purr of his Jaguar as it responded effortlessly to the touch of his foot. He liked too these moments of being alone in a secret cocoon of privacy – in a time out of time, you might think – which is why he always drove himself and refused to have a chauffeur.
 
On the front seat beside him was his discreetly monogrammed medical bag, not black as these bags so often are but of fine pale tawny pigskin; among the other things neatly ranged within it was the small velvet-lined case containing his silver blood-letting instruments. It was possible that the king’s ailment might require a moderate amount of bleeding; “Always be prudent and err on the side of caution,” he had told his students in the days when he was Professor of the Practice of Medicine at Turin. Also on the seat beside him was the box containing his freshly powdered peruke, tied in a queue at the back with three rows of tight curls to frame his thin cheeks: some people scented the powder used on their wigs with lavender, but Giovambattista found this too strong, faintly vulgar even, and preferred the more subtle essence of orange blossom. He would pull in to the side of the road just before he reached the palace in order to put on his peruke, using the driver’s mirror to make sure it was in perfect order. His manservant was instructed to shake the peruke thoroughly before placing it in its box, so that no powder would drift down on to his shoulders when he put it on. His own hair, once light brown but these days greying and cut very short, was thinning and he had an incipient bald spot.
 
“Always go for quality” was another of his dicta, this one usually addressed to his younger brothers who, he feared, tended to disorder in both their dress and their ways of life. He was rather pleased with the quality of the suit he was wearing that day, coat, breeches and waistcoat all of grey-green velvet decorated with discreet silver embroidery: distinguished, sober and not in the least flashy. He had a horror of flashiness. His white stockings were spotless and close-fitting with no wrinkles and the silver buckles on his shoes well-polished.
 
Giovambattista’s life and my life are separated by more than 200 years. But we meet in this time outside time.
 
There is so much that is private, one’s mind a kaleidoscope of thoughts and feelings never uttered, of experiences remembered or relegated to the fringes from where they intrude only occasionally. At the moment of death the patterns of the kaleidoscope are lost for ever, their colours fading instantly into a flat, dull grey. Giovambattista never formulated this thought, although he did ponder on death quite often, puzzling not about the why but about the how, about the processes by which certain illnesses lead to the death of the patient. As he drove fast along the straight road to Versailles, however, Giovambattista’s thoughts were not about death but about a) the king, b) his investments with his banker in Venice, c) how to send a present for his mother safely all the way from Paris to Cephalonia, d) whether he’d be able to get to Venice that year, and e) the king again and how best to treat the royal ailment. Royal patients are not always willing to follow their physicians’ prescriptions. Since you cannot insist, you have to find ways to make the regime you recommend palatable and to get the staff of the bedchamber on your side.
 
Giovambattista had always been rather good not only at making himself pleasant but at understanding to whom he needed to be pleasant. In a modern idiom, you could say that he knew how and when to turn on the charm. In another age, another life, he might have made a good diplomat: self-control, poise and the ability to keep his own counsel were among his qualities. In his private life he was often tetchy with his servants, stern towards his younger brothers and completely indifferent towards his wife (though he invariably treated her with courtesy). Among the shifting colours of Giovambattista’s kaleidoscope a few brilliant, scintillating patterns of light stood out; these represented moments – few and far between – in his very, very private life, conducted so discreetly that no one else ever knew of it.
 
The first thing I said to Giovambattista was “Don’t be afraid, I won’t hurt you”.
 
For the dead are vulnerable. Their innermost thoughts and feelings may have been effaced but their reputations are in the hands of the living as we pick over the bare bones of their lives and make of them what we will.
 
We know things that the dead don’t know: we know what happened next.
 
I know that not much more than a decade after Giovambattista’s death Laennec invented the stethoscope.
 
Without it, Giovambattista sat on a stool at the bedside (a very great privilege), laid his ear to the king’s plump and sweaty chest and tapped with his fingers as he listened. The king accepted this and indeed was interested enough to ask Giovambattista what he could hear and what it meant. His principal royal patient, the Comtesse d’Artois, was less willing to submit to such auscultation; it required quite a bit of persuasion before she would allow him to lay his ear against her bosom, and she only (usually) consented in the end because of his impeccably correct and austere manner. Her father, the King of Sardinia, had appointed Giovambattista to be her personal physician and to accompany her from Turin to France on the occasion of her marriage to the French king’s brother. From the beginning she had noted her doctor’s elegant clothes and polished manner as points in his favour and always thought of this stylishness as Italian – although he was in truth Greek, from the island of Cephalonia. The fact that their consultations took place in Italian somehow made intimate medical details easier to discuss. He saw her through several confinements. He had a gift for listening carefully and telling her only what she wanted to hear.
 
We see only what we want to see. We are at the mercy of the future. As Giovambattista made his way to Versailles on that cool April afternoon with his thoughts occupied by Venice and Cephalonia, by money and by his mother, he had no inkling of the upheavals in store.
 
I know that the king would before too long be beheaded and the Comtesse d’Artois forced into exile. I know that with the disappearance of his royal patients Giovambattista’s income suddenly dried up so that, when at last he was able to leave France, he took up the Chair of Medicine at Padua in his old age instead of retiring to his native island. In the wildest quiverings of his mental kaleidoscope Giovambattista never dreamed that Cephalonia and the other Ionian islands would form part of a united country called Greece; I know however that his diligent student at Padua, Count Ioannis Kapodistrias, would abandon medicine and in time become the first Governor of this new state.
 
I know where and when Giovambattista died: Padua, 1804.
 
I tend to write in the late, late hours when perfect peace reigns. This too is in its small way a time out of time. As I wrote of Giovambattista and his brothers, I strained my ears to hear in the silence of the night the scratchy whisperings of their voices echoing faintly through the centuries, almost inaudible now. These long-dead people scrabbled insistently at the edges of my consciousness as I pondered the shapes of their lives. I thought how much Giovambattista would have enjoyed driving fast on the road to Versailles in a silver-grey Jaguar. So, in this parallel world outside time, he put his foot down on the accelerator as he left the crowded streets of Paris…
 
 
© Petrie Harbouri 2017

POST RECITAL

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TALK

BR: So... another thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of writing by Petrie.
 
TN: The lovely anachronistic image of an eighteenth-century doctor driving a Jaguar is a playful musing on a character outside a book. An extension perhaps.
 
BR: What do you mean?
 
TN: Giovambattista is a character in Petrie Harbouri's novel The Brothers Carburi. He's the eldest of the three brothers, prim and disapproving of his siblings yet helpful to them and loving in his own way.
 
BR: So he's not driving a Jag in the novel?
 
TN: No. The book is set in the eighteenth century and adheres to that time. An interesting problem in writing a historical novel, at least from that period, is that you are writing about pre-Freudian characters for post-Freudian readers. In other words you have to juggle a convincing sense of accuracy in the thought of the time with a relevance to modern readers. I think she managed it well in The Brothers Carburi. But the anachronism I'm talking about only occurs in this story - The Road to Versailles, which is why I said he was a character outside a book.
 
BR: I see. So you have reasons to say the things you do.
 
TN: It can appear that way, yes.
 
BR: You're saying that in The Road to Versailles this character Giovambattista is living his own life outside the novel he came from, like those two annoying guys we had in the studio a while back, characters who had escaped their story?
 
TN: No. Not exactly. It's more that in the course of writing The Brothers Carburi, she got to know him, developed a relationship with him you might say, so now she can imagine that he might like to put his foot down on the accelerator of a powerful car, a vehicle that has style and status without being too showy. She knows what he likes.
 
BR: Of course she does. She's the author - she created him.
 
TN: Well there's a twist. Giovambattista was a real person, not just a character in a novel. As a matter of fact, the novel was inspired or extrapolated from a trove of letters she discovered. Once having read those letters, she wrote a few more herself. A blend of history and fiction. The three brothers were real people, ancestors of her husband. She learned the details of their lives from their correspondence.
 
BR: That's cool. Lost letters... I like that. A bridge across time.
 
TN: Giovambattista was the eldest, and the family patriarch. The younger brother was a civil engineer and somewhat of a rake. He was sentenced to death in Venice for committing an act of violence against a woman. The island of Cephalonia, where he was from, was ruled over by Venice at the time. With the aid of his disapproving brother, he escaped to Czarist Russia of Catherine the Great, where he gained fame by moving a really massive rock, which was to be the plinth for a statue. The rock and the statue are still there in St Petersburg; the statue is the "Bronze Horseman" of Pushkin's poem -- an equestrian statue of Peter the Great.
 
BR: Wow, quite a story.
 
TN: But the point is, Giovambattista was real. He existed just like you and I did.
 
BR: No, do. We DO exist.
 
TN: Yes. That's what I said...
 
BR: Ok....
 
TN: .... But I wasn't talking about us.
 
BR: That's the Time outside of Time that she wrote about. The place where you can communicate with the dead.
 
TN: And there's the knowledge gap, because Time stops for the dead but continues for the living.
 
BR: Yeah. That's obvious really.
 
TN: Not really. Nothing's obvious. Not to me. But it's why she promises not to mistreat him posthumously. She has a responsibility to him, including him in her novel. That's quite a close relationship.
 
BR: Yes. It's interesting what you said about Time stopping for the dead. It shows how it's inextricably bound......
 
TN: Listen to that.
 
BR: What do you mean?
 
TN: Listen……… That's the sound of thought.
 
SFX: Ghostly voices, car drives away.

BR: So... another thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of writing by Petrie.
 
TN: The lovely anachronistic image of an eighteenth-century doctor driving a Jaguar is a playful musing on a character outside a book. An extension perhaps.
 
BR: What do you mean?
 
TN: Giovambattista is a character in Petrie Harbouri's novel The Brothers Carburi. He's the eldest of the three brothers, prim and disapproving of his siblings yet helpful to them and loving in his own way.
 
BR: So he's not driving a Jag in the novel?
 
TN: No. The book is set in the eighteenth century and adheres to that time. An interesting problem in writing a historical novel, at least from that period, is that you are writing about pre-Freudian characters for post-Freudian readers. In other words you have to juggle a convincing sense of accuracy in the thought of the time with a relevance to modern readers. I think she managed it well in The Brothers Carburi. But the anachronism I'm talking about only occurs in this story - The Road to Versailles, which is why I said he was a character outside a book.
 
BR: I see. So you have reasons to say the things you do.
 
TN: It can appear that way, yes.
 
BR: You're saying that in The Road to Versailles this character Giovambattista is living his own life outside the novel he came from, like those two annoying guys we had in the studio a while back, characters who had escaped their story?
 
TN: No. Not exactly. It's more that in the course of writing The Brothers Carburi, she got to know him, developed a relationship with him you might say, so now she can imagine that he might like to put his foot down on the accelerator of a powerful car, a vehicle that has style and status without being too showy. She knows what he likes.
 
BR: Of course she does. She's the author - she created him.
 
TN: Well there's a twist. Giovambattista was a real person, not just a character in a novel. As a matter of fact, the novel was inspired or extrapolated from a trove of letters she discovered. Once having read those letters, she wrote a few more herself. A blend of history and fiction. The three brothers were real people, ancestors of her husband. She learned the details of their lives from their correspondence.
 
BR: That's cool. Lost letters... I like that. A bridge across time.
 
TN: Giovambattista was the eldest, and the family patriarch. The younger brother was a civil engineer and somewhat of a rake. He was sentenced to death in Venice for committing an act of violence against a woman. The island of Cephalonia, where he was from, was ruled over by Venice at the time. With the aid of his disapproving brother, he escaped to Czarist Russia of Catherine the Great, where he gained fame by moving a really massive rock, which was to be the plinth for a statue. The rock and the statue are still there in St Petersburg; the statue is the "Bronze Horseman" of Pushkin's poem -- an equestrian statue of Peter the Great.
 
BR: Wow, quite a story.
 
TN: But the point is, Giovambattista was real. He existed just like you and I did.
 
BR: No, do. We DO exist.
 
TN: Yes. That's what I said...
 
BR: Ok....
 
TN: .... But I wasn't talking about us.
 
BR: That's the Time outside of Time that she wrote about. The place where you can communicate with the dead.
 
TN: And there's the knowledge gap, because Time stops for the dead but continues for the living.
 
BR: Yeah. That's obvious really.
 
TN: Not really. Nothing's obvious. Not to me. But it's why she promises not to mistreat him posthumously. She has a responsibility to him, including him in her novel. That's quite a close relationship.
 
BR: Yes. It's interesting what you said about Time stopping for the dead. It shows how it's inextricably bound......
 
TN: Listen to that.
 
BR: What do you mean?
 
TN: Listen……… That's the sound of thought.
 
SFX: Ghostly voices, car drives away.

Music on this episode:

Rinaldo, HWV 7b by Georg Friedrich Händel.

License: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

THE STRANGE RECITAL

Episode 17092

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