Death Masks


The grandmother’s illness sculpts her face at it moves to conclusion.

The work of the sculptor was nearing its end, and if my grandmother’s face had shrunk in the process, it had at the same time hardened. The veins that traversed it seemed those not of marble, but of some more rugged stone. Permanently thrust forward by the difficulty that she found in breathing, and as permanently withdrawn into itself by exhaustion, her face, worn, diminished, terrifyingly expressive, seemed like the rude, flushed, purplish, desperate face of some wild guardian of a tomb in a primitive, almost prehistoric sculpture. But the work was not yet completed. Afterwards, the sculpture would have to be broken, and into that tomb–so painfully and tensely guarded–be lowered. (III,44)

For some days she could not see at all. Her eyes were not at all like those of a blind person, but remained just the same as before. And I gathered  that she could see nothing only from the strangeness of a certain smile of welcome which she assumed the moment one opened the door, until one had come up to her and taken her hand, a smile which began too soon and remained stereotyped on her lips, fixed, but always full-faced, and endeavouring to be visible from every quarter, because it could no longer rely on the eyes to regulate it…(III,452)

Cottard, to her disappointment, gave the preference, though without much hope, to leeches. When, a few hours later, I went into my grandmother’s room, fastened to her neck, her temples, her ears, the tiny black reptiles were writhing among her bloodstained locks, as on the head of Medusa. (III,455)

All this agitation was not addressed to us, whom she neither saw nor knew. But if it was only a beast that was stirring there, where was my grandmother? Yes, I could recognise the shape of her nose, which bore no relation now to the rest of her face, but to the corner of which a beauty spot still adhered…(III,458)

An  hour of two later Françoise was able for the last time, and without causing it any pain, to comb that beautiful hair which was only tinged with grey and hitherto had seemed less old than my grandmother herself. But now, on the contrary, it alone set the crown of age on a face grown young again, from which had vanished the wrinkles, the contractions, the swellings, the strains, the hollows which pain had carved on it over the years. As in the far-off days when her parents had chosen for her a bridegroom, she had the features, delicately traced by purity and submission, the cheeks glowing with a chaste expectation, with a dream of happiness, with an innocent gaiety even, which the years had gradually destroyed. Life in withdrawing from her had taken with it the disillusionments of life. A smile seemed to be hovering on my grandmother’s lips. On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the Middle Ages, had laid her down in the form of a young girl. (III,470)

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