Men I Have Loved is a series of interviews with male characters I’ve adored in today’s fiction. I am thrilled to bring you my second interview in the series. Henri de Chastenet is a hunky Frenchman with a sexy accent from Sarah Ridout’s novel, Le Chateau.
NLK: What attracted you to your wife? After all, you are a French aristocrat and Charlotte is an Australian who worked in public relations when you first met.
HDC: Ah, you say that as if it were a problem? For me, the differences were part of the attraction. Charlotte has taught me so much, broadened my views. If she had been from the same world as me that would never have happened. C’est certain.
Of course – Charlotte is also very beautiful, clever and kind – that helps.
NLK: Do you believe in love at first sight?
HDC: Bien sûr. It was like that for me. I cannot speak for Charlotte but for me, yes. When I saw her sitting at the table at Café de Flore … I knew it was a crucial moment in my life. A moment of destiny. Then when our hands touched when she dropped her napkin and I looked into her eyes so alive with intelligence and fun. Well …
NLK: What is the most romantic gesture a man can do for his wife?
HDC: That’s complex. It depends on the stage – early romance, married, children, business, after seven years, and more! But at the heart of it all is listening. A man must listen to his wife – her words, her silences, her body, her gestures and moods – and respond. Then he will really know his wife. When he understands all her interests and concerns any romantic gesture he makes will be true. Alors, if you operate from truth and with good intentions success often comes your way.
But when your wife has no memory of you, well, (he shrugs and runs his hands through his hair) all that disappears. You have to start again. Hopefully, you can end up at the same destination. But who knows if you will? It could be a better destination or a worse one. It is written in the stars.
NLK: What are your favourite lines of poetry?
HDC: I have a few, I am French after all! We learn poetry by rote from Ecole Maternelle, reciting more and more lengthy poems as we proceed through school. But I wouldn’t choose those French classics.
For Charlotte, it has to be from Neruda’s ‘Every Day You Play’ –
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
NLK: What comes first, business or pleasure?
HDC: Well, at one time I thought that a strong ‘pleasure’ or love could cope on equal footing with business, but now I say no. Always pleasure or love. What use is having a successful business if you don’t have the communication or understanding that comes from love and support? Who do you share the success with? Your accountant? No. Pleasure for me (laughs).
NLK: Do you think multi-cultural marriages work?
HDC: Evidemment! Yes, they may be more challenging but they are all the richer for it. The world would be a better place with more of these marriages. They break down walls and barriers and if the relationship is blessed with children they too extend the melding and blending.
An excerpt from Le Chateau (so you can see why I just had to interview Henri de Chastenet)
His appearance starts to change, become edgier and more urban. Cool. He was happy in Paris. He has a direct gaze, an easy confidence, comfortable in his own skin. He looks like a French film star: Gallic charm writ bold. He is the centre of attention. Feet are pointed towards him, eyes drink him in, bodies turn or lean into him always at the centre.
I turn the page and smile. What Susannah told me is true. Henri in his art school period, in his studio, paint highlighting his cheekbones and his brows as if he was an artist staged in a French Vogue fashion shoot. Hair dishevelled and tousled, with tint-smeared shirt and jeans, intense and absorbed. Sexy. Alive in a way he isn’t now. Compassion surges in me. He ’d given up his dream and was struggling through, and now he had me in this state to deal with. I start to feel a lightness, a churning: the baby or nerves?
I pick up the next collection of images and glance back at Henri. He waits patiently, intent. I open the cover to a happy couple, the woman sitting relaxed on the man’s lap, her arms around his neck. They laugh, cheeks touching, both so happy, with wide smiles lighting up their eyes. They are young and in love. It is Henri and me. I am face to face with evidence of our relationship, our connection. I feel a spark followed by a churning shame, uncertainty. What is wrong with me?
Then there is the weight of his gaze and that of his hand: I have to make eye contact. I feel the mist of tears. He squeezes my shoulder.
‘Chérie, are you OK?’ I’m not certain what my face conveys. ‘Don’t say anything, just go through them. Do you want some time to yourself? I don’t want you to feel scrutinised.’
‘Thank you.’ It is the first time anyone has given me that privilege since I arrived at the chateau. ‘Five minutes?’
‘I’ll check on Ada. Don’t worry, please.’ He squeezes my arm as he passes.
I take time going through the photos for signs, triggers for anything. It’s as if I’m snooping in someone else ’s life. Some of the clothes I saw in the wardrobe this morning are being worn by this Charlotte as she holds Henri’s hand, whispers in his ear, kisses and hugs him.
Those pieces of fabric have touched him more than I have in all my actual memory. I flick through pages of evidence of our connection. Our full life in Paris. Life pre-chateau. I beg for something to happen, a lifting of the barrier in my mind. Nothing does.
I leaf through and we are with Susannah. There are photos of Henri and Susannah taken by me, he has an adoring ‘I’d do anything for you, but another photo?’ expression. She is closer to me than he is now. I know nothing, no one in my life.
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