Alexander Chee | First Chapter Exclusive: The Queen of the Night | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | Feb. 2015 | 21 minutes (5,292 words)
“In the opening pages of The Queen of the Night, we are transported to a celebratory night at The Luxembourg Palace in Paris, 1882, where a legendary opera singer, Lilliet Berne, is trying to avoid attention (self-conscious of a poorly-designed dress she must wear), only to step accidentally into an intimate conversation with a writer who wants to put her at the center of a new opera. The one trophy missing on her crowded shelf is an original role in a new work, and she throws caution away as the stranger flatters her with the offer. As the soprano with the delicate voice tempts fate, we learn of her long-kept secrets, deep ambition, quick wit, and keen powers of observation. In Berne, Alexander Chee has created a fully-formed diva from a glamorous age that has long since passed, yet her role as her own mythology builder is as contemporary as ever, as seen daily in tabloids and online, as actors, athletes, fashionistas, Kardashians, politicians, Real Housewives, and yoginis shape their stories for column inches and Instagram followers—some, like Berne, have true talent. Chee’s Queen of the Night is a spectacular and balletic historical novel, its intricacies offer insights not only about fame, but also about the Second Empire in France and its rich musical and literary history.”
WHEN IT BEGAN, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.
The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still warm, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano.
I was Lilliet Berne.
The dress was a Worth creation of pink taffeta and gold silk, three pink flounces that belled out from a bodice embroidered in a pattern of gold wings. A net of gold-ribbon bows covered the skirt and held the flounces up at the hem. The fichu seemed to clasp me from behind as if alive—how had I not noticed? At home it had not seemed so garish. I nearly tore it off and threw it to the floor.
I’d paid little attention as I’d dressed that evening, unusual for me, and so I now paused as I entered, for the mirror at the entrance showed to me a woman I knew well, but in a hideous dress. As if it had changed as I’d sat in the carriage, transforming from what I had thought I’d put on into this.
In the light of my apartment I had thought the pink was darker; the gold more bronze; the bows smaller, softer; the effect more Italian. It was not, though, and here in the ancient mirrors of the Luxembourg Palace, under the blazing chandeliers, I saw the truth.
There were a few of us who had our own dressmaker’s forms at Worth’s for fitting us when we were not in Paris, and I was one, but perhaps he had forgotten me, confused me with someone else or her daughter. It would have been a very beautiful dress, say, for a very young girl from the Loire. Golden hair and rosy cheeks, pink lipped and fair. Come to Paris and I will get you a dress, her Parisian uncle might have said. And then we will go to a ball. It was that sort of dress.
Everything not of the dress was correct. The woman in the mirror was youthful but not a girl, dark hair parted and combed close to the head, figure good, posture straight, and waist slim. My skin had become very pale during the Siege of Paris some years before and never changed back, but this had become chic somehow, and I always tried to be grateful for it.
My carriage had already driven off to wait for me, the next guests arriving. If I called for my driver, the wait to leave would be as long as the wait to arrive, perhaps longer, and I would be there at the entrance, compelled to greet everyone arriving, which would be an agony. A footman by the door saw my hesitation at the mirror and tilted his head toward me, as if to ask after my trouble. I decided the better, quicker escape for now was to enter and hide in the garden until I could leave, and so I only smiled at him and made my way into the hall as he nodded proudly and shouted my name to announce me.
Lilliet Berne, La Générale!
Cheers rang out and all across the room heads turned; the music stopped and then began again, the orchestra now performing the refrain from the Jewel Song aria from Faust to honor my recent performances in the role of Marguerite. I looked over to see the director salute to me, bowing deeply before turning back to continue. The crowd began to applaud, and so I paused and curtsied to them even as I hoped to move on out of the circle of their agonizing scrutiny.
At any other time, I would have welcomed this. Instead, I nearly groaned into my awful dress.
The applause deepened, and as they began to cheer again, I stayed a moment longer. For I was their creature, Lilliet Berne, La Générale. Newly returned to Paris after a year spent away, the Falcon soprano whose voice was so delicate it was rumored she endangered it even by speaking, her silences as famous as her performances. This voice was said to turn arias into spells, hymns into love songs, simple requests into commands, my suitors driven to despair in every country I visited, but perhaps especially here.
In the Paris press, they wrote stories of me constantly. I was receiving and rejecting gifts of incomprehensible splendor; men were leaving their wives to follow me; princes were arriving bearing ancient family jewels, keys to secret apartments, secret estates. I was unbearably kind or unbelievably cruel, more beautiful than a woman could be or secretly hideous, supernaturally pale or secretly mulatto, or both, the truth hidden under a plaster of powder. I was innocent or I was the devil unleashed, I had nearly caused wars, I had kept them from happening. I was never in love, I had never loved, I was always in love. Each performance could be my last, each performance had been my last, the voice was true, the voice was a fraud.
The voice, at least, was true.
In my year away, the theaters that had once thrilled me—La Scala in Milan, La Monnaie in Brussels, the Mariinsky in Saint Petersburg—no longer excited me as they once did. I stayed always in the apartments given over to the company singers, and soon it seemed as if the rooms were a single place that stretched the length of Europe and opened onto its various capitals.
The details of my roles had become the only details of my life.I seemed a stranger to myself, a changeling placed here in my life at some point I couldn’t remember, and the glass of the mirror at the entrance to the palace seemed made from the same amber of the dream that surrounded me, a life that was not life, and which I could not seem to escape no matter where I went or what I sang.
And so their celebration of me that night at the ball, sincere as it was, felt as if it were happening in the life neighboring mine, visible through a glass.
I tell you I was distracted, but it was much more than that. For I was also focused intensely, waiting for one thing and one thing only, my attention turned toward something I couldn’t quite see but was sure was there, coming for me through the days ahead. I’d had a premonition in accepting the role of Marguerite that, in returning to Paris this time, I would be here for a meeting with my destiny. Here I would find what would transform me, what would return me to life and make this life the paradise I was so sure it should be.
I had been back in Paris for a little more than a month now, though, and my hopes for this had not yet come true, and so I waited with an increasingly dull vigilance, still sure my appointed hour was ahead of me, and yet I did not know what it was or where it would be.
It was here, of course.
I rose finally from a third curtsy and was halfway to the doors to the terrace when I noticed a man crossing the floor quickly, dressed in a beautiful new evening suit. He was ruddy against the white of his shirt and tie, if handsomely so. His hair was neatly swept back from his face, his blond moustache and whiskers clean and trim, his eyes clear. I nodded as he came to stand before me. He bowed gravely, even ostentatiously.
Forgive me this intrusion! he said, as he stood upright. The diva who throws her suitors’ diamonds in the trash. The beggars of Paris must salute as you walk by before they carry your garbage shoulder high.
I made to walk past him, though I smiled to think of his greeting. I had, in fact, thrown diamonds in the garbage twice, a feint each time. My maid knew to retrieve them. I did it once to make sure the story would be told in the press, the second time for the story to be believed. I was trying to teach my princes to buy me dresses instead of jewels—jewels had become ostentatious in the new Paris, with many reformed libertines now critical of the Empire’s extravagance, and there was little point to a jewel you couldn’t wear.
I enjoyed your magnificent performance in Faust last night—it was tremendously subtle, very moving, he said.
He waited to see if his flattery would affect me. It did. I also believed that last night’s performance had been my finest night as Marguerite. And as he was very awkward, like someone who had never done what he was about to do, I stopped for him, thinking to be kind.
I made to curtsy to him for the compliment, as I had just previously, and he laughed. No! Please. Let me bend to you, and with that, he knelt as he took my hand. I am Frédéric Simonet, a writer. I’ve longed to meet you, he said, but never more than tonight. I have a proposition for you, if you’ll allow me a moment of your time. There are no loathsome diamonds involved, I promise, unless you insist. Will you hear me out?
I held my hands out and smiled by way of invitation.
Last year I was at a dinner in Rome, recounting a favorite memory, of a girl singer at the Exposition Universelle in 1867. Did you see her? They called her the Settler’s Daughter, and she was said to have been rescued from the savages and able to sing only a single song her mother had taught her — and was entirely unable to speak otherwise. She was performing in a show from the colonies, Canada, I think. Her song moved the Emperor to give her a token of his right there in the hall. A tiny ruby brooch of a rose. Shortly after, the papers reported she’d vanished, escaped into the Paris surroundings. I never saw any sign of her again. In the months after, I wondered what had become of her and eventually even checked with the Conservatoire, as I wanted to see if perhaps she had come to them, perhaps to be made over into one of their mediocre sopranos. They said they had no knowledge of a singer of this kind. Incredible, yes?
I nodded, and he continued.
I then thought nothing of it for years until I bought a property in the Marais, a beautiful hôtel, and as it was prepared for me to occupy, the workers made an extraordinary find. The young singer’s possessions, even the ruby brooch! And what seems to be her diary of her life here in Paris. It is quite plainly hers. She taught herself to speak French—it even contains her practice lessons. She abandoned it and her things, having lived, it would seem, in a room in that hôtel in the Marais. And it was when I saw the brooch that I remembered my search for her. It was all found in what had been the noble family’s chapel, as if she had held some private ceremony there. As if she meant to return for it all and never did—it was there the novel truly came to me. I should think they will fetch a fair price at auction, should I ever sell these things. It was such incredible luck. I was completely under her spell that day, and here were her things! Everything but her. It felt like an order from the gods to undertake this work.
Of course, I’m sure she’s some maudlin chimney sweep now, raking out stoves for a living. But a chimney-sweep ending would sell few books, he added. So I wrote my own. The novel is called Le Cirque du Monde Déchu. We follow her into a life of degradation as a fille en carte and her subsequent redemption through love. Like Zola’s Nana, but as an opéra-bouffe-féerie, of sorts. Or it will be.
He paused here dramatically. Which is why I have come to speak with you. Some of the other guests at that now-fateful dinner in Rome recalled her as well, and among them was a composer, recently a winner of the Prix de Rome and something of a protégé of Verdi’s. I believe he is planning to be here tonight. He was likewise moved by her and vowed that evening if I were to write the libretto, he would make an opera of it.
Here he paused, summoning his courage.
It is our desire to have you originate the role of the singer. It would be a stupendous coup, we feel, and would ensure the opera’s success. And you, well, who better for the Settler’s Daughter than the singer who does not speak?
Yes, came the thought at last. Who better?
For I had also seen the young singer he spoke of. I had been her. I knew all about her.
The brooch was an imperial trifle, a tiny thing to an emperor, I think, but for me at the time, so much more. Made of rubies, several to each petal, set in either platinum or white gold—I had it before I knew the difference—the stem inlaid with jade. There was even a thorn. At his mention of it, the flower had glowed in the air between us, a tiny phantom, and then was gone.
Here it was, the source of my premonition, the meeting with my destiny.
My little game of not speaking in public came from when I was her. A circus ruse, theatrics done for the audience. Not one of us in that little act had been as we said we were. “Lilliet Berne” was in every way my greatest performance, but almost no one knew this to be true.
The various shocks of this conversation—that it seemed my life had been the basis for this man’s new novel, that it was to be an opera in which they wanted me to create the role, that he had in all likelihood effects I’d long believed lost—all had the result of casting the life I led now as a disguise, assembled in haste, to cover over the one he described. I struggled to consider a reaction, but I felt as if I were misremembering halfway through a performance the role I was playing—on the verge of singing an aria from Norma, say, but within Don Giovanni.
In an opera this moment would be the signal the story had begun, that the heroine’s past had come for her, intent on a review of her sins decreed by the gods. This writer perhaps a god in disguise, like Athena, or a demon, say, as in Faust. If he were either, though, his disguise as a mortal was impeccable. He was for now the picture of a nervous if handsome man, waiting for me to answer, and still I could not move, I found.
When I did not so much as nod to him, he smiled and said nervously, Perhaps . . . you can sing me your answer, yes? Would you at least be interested? He leaned in as he said this.
I managed to offer him my arm, for I still meant to enter the garden. I intended to speak to him, and given my reputation, this also required privacy. He accepted, and I made a gesture toward the terrace. He led me that way. We passed through the doors and down the lawn, and then I released his arm and turned so that I would be in shadow and his face, lit by the chandeliers inside, behind me. I wanted to see him clearly as I spoke to him. I needed to see his reaction in his eyes.
If this was a joke, perhaps, or some strange, unforeseen malice.
He looked at me expectantly, even with fear, as I set a finger on his mouth before he could respond or interrupt. Yes, I said. I will speak to you of this.
His eyes were sincere, I noted, as I began.
The faith you have in my abilities is wonderful, I said. And the origination of a role is the one honor that has eluded me thus far. Thank you. I do admit to being intrigued. I am committed for now to Faust this season, and then Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera next, in London, but I will look into my schedule to see what room there could be in the year ahead. Do you know how far the music has come or what schedule you intend?
Forgive me my earlier impudence, he said, gesturing back inside. I . . . Thank you! You honor me. I do not have these answers. We have neither music nor schedule as yet. Perhaps you will come and meet my new friend? I believe he’s arriving with the Dumas set. When we pass through to dinner, I can bring you to him.
I can see them by the light of their cigars. There, he said. Do you see them, on the balcony above? Come, let’s see if we can find our way.
He gestured to a crowd of gentlemen shadowed by the gaslights of the courtyard, who waved back.
I waved as well.
I return to this moment frequently, for it was when everything that came next in my life was decided. Meeting the composer in this dress was out of the question, though I could not say this. I was eager, also, to leave, or at least be alone, even for a moment, for this offer no longer felt like fate but something disguised as fate, a dangerous ruse meant to draw me into a trap.
The fit of a dress determines the stride of a woman—whether she can bend at the waist, sit, or ride—and so for a woman to change her dress was to change even the way she walked and the speed at which she ran to her fate.
If I had stayed in the terrible dress, or if a better dress had been made and sent over, if I had gone up the stairs, had dinner with the writer and composer, all would have been different.
But I did not stay.
He extended his arm and made to lead me back in through the crowd.
He saw I had not accepted the invitation to walk in and let his arm drop again with a questioning smile.
Yes, I said. How incredible. The gods indeed.
It’s no use, we’ll never make it through the crowd right now, he said, looking at the stairs. We shall wait a moment. But what a pleasure it is to hear you express interest.
Thank you, I said.
I can see it right now, he said. If I can ever find a store willing to stock the book between their piles of Zola and Daudet, I think it will be quite a success. But an opera with you in it, well, Ceci tuera cela, he said.
This will kill that.
I know this, I said of his quote. What is it from?
It’s Hugo, the writer said.
Of course, I said.
I now remembered what I knew of him. I had even heard him at a salon at least once, carrying on about this very quote. He was very mortal after all, then, known for writing novels based almost entirely on the scandals of his friends. While he typically hid their identities, his most recent subjects could be guessed at by whoever dropped him for the season following his most recent book. He knew everyone, though, and was otherwise everywhere.
He nodded, pleased. It’s the complaint from a priest character of his, that the written word would destroy cathedrals. The novel would separate us from God. He smiled as he said this.
I should warn you, he said.
I waited as he tried to think of what he would say. My novels . . . it would seem they have a way of coming true. He looked away as he said this, as if ashamed.
It came to me this was perhaps how he explained the way he stole from his friends’ lives. Not theft then, but magic.
So if I accept, I said, then . . . for you have not told me of the ending.
She rejoins her circus. You would become an equestrienne in a circus, in love with an angel. He would give up his wings for you, and you . . . well, your voice.
So be it, I said.
He laughed, surprised. Very well then, he said. Caveat cantante.
He presented his card, and there, indeed, was the address. I had not seen it in years.
I set his card in the wallet at my wrist and made the excuse of feeling too poorly to stay for dinner, but I promised to read the novel and await the music.
Oh, but you really must at least meet the composer . . . He gestured at the balcony.
Perhaps we will set an appointment, I said. I would like very much to see the brooch.
His face brightened at this. Yes! You must come; I will show you everything.
I offered my hand to say good night and watched his back vanish into the crowd.
I stayed there until I could move again. It had taken all I had just to stand. I then recalled I’d not asked the composer’s name, but I couldn’t shout to Simonet without a scene. I was to dine with the Verdis the next day, though, and resolved instead to ask after this composer then.
I turned and walked farther into the dark back of the garden, full of fear. Yet once there, my feelings had changed. I was no longer sure I could wait contentedly for my dinner with the Verdis before meeting this composer. I had the impulse to strip this dress off and walk back through the bal in just the corset, for the corset, at least, was beautiful. I’d had one other dress ready at another dressmaker’s, Félix, the man I relied on besides Worth, and thought sadly of having chosen this dress over that.
The bal was full now and wheeled in the night, monstrous, the picture of the fifth act ballet in Faust, in the Cave of Queens and Courtesans. The demon Mephistopheles, having rejuvenated Faust and aided him in the seduction of the virtuous young Marguerite, finds him desperate, preoccupied by her imprisonment, as she awaits execution for the crime of killing the child he fathered on her out of wedlock. He has driven her mad. Mephistopheles convenes a ballet orgy with the most famous beauties in history—Cleopatra, Helen, Astarte, Josephine—all to cheer his sad philosopher, who will not be cheered. The queens and courtesans frolic around him with madcap ballerinos and ballerinas, all while Faust thinks only of his doomed beloved.
My cue to enter is when the dancing ends, when I, as Marguerite, appear before Faust, an apparition only he can see. He demands Mephistopheles help him rescue me, the scenery shifts, and Faust is then magically in my prison cell, exhorting me to leave. I refuse him—I refuse to be saved by devils—and beg for forgiveness instead from God and His angels, who descend finally as I die redeemed.
Standing here now, it was as if I’d escaped from the jail into the fifth act ballet, arriving before my cue, a prisoner to this dress.
I withdrew a cigar to console myself, and as I clipped the end, a man I hadn’t noticed held out a flame for me. I drew carefully, and as the tip glowed, I saw him and his companion more clearly. They smiled and nodded, and I smiled as well and began to turn away.
Mademoiselle, said the man who had offered his light to me.
My madcap ballerinos, then.
They introduced themselves, but I knew very well who they were. Brother dukes, known to most for their handsome profiles, philanthropic works, enormous wealth, and, most important to me on this evening, their reputation for returning women from an evening in their company with their dresses cut to pieces by sabers—and for supplying those women afterward with more dresses in return, presumably to meet the same fate. Their sabers were said to be quite sharp, and the women never harmed. Many had spoken of this preference but none had ever admitted to submitting to it, except to say, And if you were never going to wear the dress again . . . This was usually punctuated with a laugh.
This perhaps my destiny also, then. My luck changing from bad to good in a single trip through the garden.
Ceci tuera cela.
I drew the first saber myself, holding my first new friend’s gaze as I plunged it into the taffeta flounces and cut all the way to the hem. He uttered a soft cry of happiness and fell to his knees to press the dress to his face before he lay back in ecstasy, groaning.
When he and his brother were done, the taffeta resembled an enormous flower torn to petals in the grass. Only the gold wings of the bodice remained, the skirt now like a very short tutu, as if I’d been transformed into one of Faust’s ballerinas.
I shivered, pleased with the result. I’d learned long ago, for men with pleasures this specific, the rest was of no consequence to them. There was no mark on me as I stood there, free at last of the evening’s first mistake, and they were well satisfied.
Fantastic, said the one.
You are our goddess, said the other.
Whatever you ask of us, whatever we can provide, we are at your disposal, the first said.
As we made our way out through the back of the garden to their carriage, the jacket of one of them on my shoulders, the jacket of the other at my waist, I knew what they could provide and handed them my other dressmaker’s card.
Félix was in his evening suit when I arrived. He was about to set off for the ball himself—he’d been busy dressing clients and was only just now ready. He threw open the door and pulled us in.
My dears, what possible errand could you be on? he asked, smiling in greeting first at me and then at the young dukes.
Yes, it seemed, the dressmakers of Paris would know them quite well. I walked to Félix’s ledger, took his pen from his stand, and wrote:
These good gentlemen have said they will do anything I ask of them tonight. Let us help them keep their word.
I had Félix’s assistants box up the ruined dress and send it back to Worth, including a note that said only Pas comme ça.
I made my second entrance to the ball in a beaded black silk satin gown, the train behind me like the glittering tail of a serpent. The dukes were on each arm. As we were announced together, the crowd turned and, at the sight of us, roared with delight. The dinner had been served, so many stood on their chairs to see us as I descended again to the garden to enter under a roof of crossed swords made for us by officers who had served in the army with the dukes. As we made our way off the terrace again, I looked to the balcony the writer had indicated to see the men there watching me, their faces changing as they took in what had happened, and then I heard the cheers in the garden and the laughing as the men saluted me.
This was the entrance I deserved. This was what I wanted this composer to see. I had returned for this.
I took a breath. O Dieu! Que de bijoux! The opening words to the Jewel Song aria from Faust rang out across the garden. There was a shocked silence, and then the orchestra quickly joined in.
This was the song Marguerite sang after being presented with the demon’s gift of jewels meant to seduce her into a life of sin. The chaste girl is transformed at once into a woman in love with her beauty, a beauty the jewels reveal to her. It begins and ends in classic soprano entrance style, on long, clear, high notes, as if Gounod knew it should be sung in a palace garden at a Paris ball at night.I was weary of my fears as well as my desires, and so I sang it in simple defiance of all of it, even defying myself. I covered the night and its secrets and regrets in coloratura cavatina, until all that could be remembered was me.
La Générale! the crowd shouted as I finished and came down the stairs, and I lifted both my hands into the air to the crowd, smiling. I could feel the applause beat against my skin as it echoed and grew. A woman screamed as her dress swept the candles on her table and caught fire as she stood on her chair to see me. She was rushed to the fountain, where it was put out, and even this was cheered. The group of officers who had roofed my entrance with their swords then knelt, offering them to me, and the crowd changed from shouting my name to laughter as I took one and mock-knighted them all. La Générale! La Générale!
The fear, the feeling of the mad scene, the sense of a trap in wait, even the feeling of destiny, all faded into the applause. I looked afterward for the writer to see if I might finally meet the composer, but as in a fairy tale, he was gone.