Variations on the Memoirs of Henri Matisse
Art by Paul Rios
In sickness, Matisse realized, there exists a strange road to deliverance. The insight popped into his head just 30 minutes before the heart attack struck, and at that moment, he recalled a similar moment some 60-odd years before. That time, the pain started in his lower abdomen. It felt like a stomach ache. A day passed, and it started to hurt when he walked and he was sweating a lot, which predicated the fever that seemed as if stoked by some undiscovered fuel inside him. The appendicitis upended him, left him bed-ridden, susceptible to the arrival of the nonsense dreams of the infection. It was a rebirth in a paradise. Those are his words.
The memory of the onset of appendicitis in his youth stirred another memory. This time, he recalled the diagnosis of cancer delivered by a doctor, a lean, stern man in his early 50s from Dordogne, still handsome enough to seduce the young night nurse, Mademoiselle Camille Marie-Benoit, who came to Nice by way of Lyon with the thought that the presence of the Vichy might be less pervasive further south. Her sister was married to a man who became involved in the resistance, thanks to his extensive knowledge of the traboules of Lyon. He disappeared one night, and expecting a similar fate if they stayed, she and her sister fled to Nice, where they settled until the affair soured. Soon Camille tired of the doctor’s wife, who found out about the affair and left her numerous passive aggressive notes describing the doctor’s grown children. So Camille and her sister moved to Marseille to be with cousins, and it was there the sisters died in the Allied bombings at the very same minute on subsequent days, Camille on a Monday, and her sister on a Tuesday at 11:43 a.m.
Camille was at the office the day the doctor gave his diagnosis, working the rare mid-afternoon shift. Upon leaving, Matisse smiled on her, observing her figure as if critiquing cherries in the market. He told her she would make a good model, but to consider herself forewarned, that he might soon be dead.
He did live on through the war. The heart attack came some years later, and Matisse died in his home, with his daughter by his side. In the minute following his death, Matisse lived the brief life of a new born girl. Born premature to an Italian immigrant mother in Buenos Aires, he found himself incapable of drawing air into her tiny, underdeveloped lungs. Before the brief candle of consciousness extinguished itself, Henri Matisse as the infant girl recalled the birth of Henri Matisse the boy in 1869, which was attended to by a midwife named Agnes Anouk who helped birth hundreds of children all around the province of Picardy and died unwed, unmarried and unknown. At her own death, Agnes Anouk noted that she never once felt despair, for she had God by her always, to turn to when the fear of losing herself to a stroke of history drew her toward despair. Funny, that.