I was the eldest,
Jean in the middle,
Pierre the youngest.
I was almost six when Jean was born. I took no offense, he was so different, and I was so convinced I had the best spot. Jean very quickly showed an independent streak. His first word was “ya” by way of “yes.” No sooner had he started walking than he would make a beeline for the dining room, pointing his index finger tellingly, saying: “kill ‘omebody.” His first friend was a winemaker I didn’t like, Conrad, who taught him to go horseback riding and brought him to tastings. We used to get a kick out of telling him he wasn’t handsome, as though it were a compliment that would strengthen his character.
Jean’s childhood and, in a way, all his life, was unknown territory to me. It was dissonant. We used to say that he hailed from the other side of the family, meaning our father’s side, but it was actually the mysterious maternal branch he took after: Odette’s folk, stallholders, bumper car concessioners! Jean had a knack for escaping my mother’s romantic plans. A partygoer, a Mr. Popular, we saw him as more selfish and more self-confident than he of course really was.
After dropping out of high school at 16, he would have gladly spent his life partying. It was despite himself that he had gone into ceramics and started to learn the trade at our grandfather’s side in Rabat. But he was more at home in the studios of local radio stations than at his potter’s wheel.
After our grandfather died, he half-heartedly took over the family business. After much resistance, bouts of rage, threats to “emigrate to the Caribbean,” he finally accepted the windfall: a unique specialty, no competition, a workshop ready to go with customers lining up at the front door. A few articles in the local press and home decor magazines featuring his new look as scion convinced him of his destiny.
More complicated to manage than the workshop were our mother’s and grandmother’s anxieties that the business stay loyal to our grandfather’s memory. Could we share production secrets with just any Johnny-come-lately, employee or friend? Between his fits of rage, mea culpas, and mischievous confidences, Jean handled Odette very well. She had started at 17 at the Bernard company: she was the blue-collar worker who had married the boss’ son and Jean knew how to rub her the right way.
It was trickier with my mother who was guardian, above and beyond these unlikely marriages, of the sacred Bernard dynasty.
Jean was the only one to have dishonored the sacrosanct order, to have barked once at my mother: “You’re a woman.”
Jean knew a little something about women. Baptized “Golden Rod” he was Apt’s uncontested stud for at least 15 years.
At first, the path to his cabin passed by the family house. He called it “the Customs House” and when the girls were too numerous or weren’t presentable, he would send them down a side path which went past my cabin and pick them up in a car a little further along, saying: “I’m here for a transfer.”
On summer nights, he would make the hillside tremble with his giant sound system, karaoke machines, and raunchy songs.
I’m Golden Rod the artist
And with a résumé like mine
Not hard to turn them on
They all wait in line
From Saint Tropez, Lausanne, Paris
From Brussels to Barcelona
By St. Sat, Apt, Cavaillon
They all end up in my cabin
Valéry, Corinne, Delphine
Agnès, Sarah, Mélusine
Gaëtane, Julie, Christine
What’s your neighbor’s name?
Mom doesn’t know I know her daughter
The daughter doesn’t know I know her mom
While the dad’s freezing his balls off
At the airbase in Albion
When I can’t keep pace
My pal Luciano takes my place
It’s no big deal
Drop them off at the customs house
I’m Golden Rod the artist
With a résumé like mine…
When in November 2001 at a Tunisian Publineti where I checked my email daily, I found this message from Jean-Claude, my world crumbled: “This is so hard to say, dear Bernard, I just spoke with Mady who called us from the hospital in Marseille. It’s terrible, but Jean died last night of a liver hemorrhage.”
I sat for a long time at the computer, stunned. This was Jean, not Pierre who had been sick for several years, and whose death haunted us. It wasn’t a foreseeable chapter of our story, it was the great unknown, the last thing we would have guessed. It scrambled the family chessboard. I wasn’t overly sad. Had it been Pierre, there would have been remorse and guilt. Jean was a different story, in a sense it was a lot more intense, all our certainties collapsed. Jean’s last prank was staggering.
We were used to Jean always getting out of a jam. He had treated his body terribly since he was a kid, and it had regularly given him outrageous troubles: horse, motorcycle, lawnmower and even bedroom-related accidents! Everything I imagined, hypochondriac that I am, he seemed to realize in his body and simply shrug off. There had been a warning two years earlier that showed us his fragility, but after a week in the hospital he had gotten better and we forgot about it. He had changed his lifestyle, had gone alcohol-free, had seen less friends, less girls, had thrown less parties.
His cabin had become a miniature temple to hedonism, with its beautiful swimming pool, its Moroccan salon, its so-called Sofitel room, its discotheque equipped with professional audio equipment, not to mention the donkeys, the caravan, every conceivable gadget a house could have, the car and the yard, leaf blowers, surveillance cameras and flashing police lights.
Even though his ceramics business ran itself—the money rolled in and he hosted princes and princesses, ministers on the right and the left, big American fortunes and Parisian CEOs—Jean always had an itch to do something else. He had a string of quixotic projects, most of which never got past the business-card phase, others lasted a season or two like the karaoke machine he was the first to introduce in the Apt valley, or FERSUD (SOUTH IRON) his final project, which got as far as producing window bars, a catalogue and a few ads.
With the advent of digital photography and Photoshop, Jean found himself one final hobby, obscene at first glance, but touching in retrospect: he had our grandmother Odette act out comical scenes which she mischievously agreed to do. Jean was her master, her secret ally against the inflexibility of her daughter – our mother – with whom I was always associated with in Odette’s eyes. Jean photoshopped the photos to look like news reports and magazine covers. Odette sang, scored goals on a soccer field, pointed her gun from an SUV disguised as a terrorist.
My mother shrugged, looked the other way, as though it was she Jean were insulting. Her mother was capable of that, Jean was implying, maybe Mady shouldn’t be such a smartass.
Jean’s dead face was amazing, I couldn’t tear myself away from it: it was like his last joke. The face of a dead brother conjures up all the ages of life; it’s all those moments of happiness and their finitude we shed tears for. It’s like a final mirror, a final abyss that sucks in all of reality, and the millions of images of youth and childhood stand still.
The whole valley of Apt was shaken up. Jean’s numerous lady friends wept outside the chapel, the very same St. Martian Chapel where we had celebrated Pierre’s wedding only a few years earlier, with the same priest sympathizing with the Faucons. Twice, first at the chapel and then at the cemetery, the priest’s tongue slipped and he called the deceased “Bernard.”
When all five of us, my parents, my bother Pierre, Nathalie, Jean’s last wife, and I, lined up to receive condolences on this lovely autumn day—we were all very old and tired except for young Nathalie—I sensed that it was the first time our family had made a spectacle of its affliction, and that this was surely not lost on the locals who must have appreciated that the inhabitants of St. Martian had for once come down off their hill.
That evening, on our way back from the cemetery, my father got the idea of setting fire to three giant piles of branches on the promontory between the family home and the three brothers’ cabins, where I had previously photographed “the City Lights.” The fire grew voraciously, producing flames of seven or eight meters and spitting incandescent twigs into the sky. It was unbearably beautiful and fitting, and so much in the image of the grandiose and tragic destiny of this family!
During those two days of crying, of intoxicating pain, of waking up in the middle of the night with the impression that there was a big hole in the hillside where the sound of Jean’s karaoke had resonated, I understood why human societies are so attached to the bodies of the dead. Why I wanted so much to perish in an explosion, disappear in a big furnace. This well-established rite of the funeral, which appears so human, is also the last insult inflicted on the desiring individual. Commemorating the life of a great pleasure-seeker at the foot of his coffin, as we had imagined doing by playing one of Jean’s songs – we tried and very quickly lowered the volume – is destined to fail, for it means killing the lesson it contains a second time with ridicule.