Memories from the Childhood of Henry Corbin

 Translated by Matthew Evans-Cockle

Henry came into the world on April 14th1903, at #47 Avenue Bosquet in Paris.  He was the first-born child to Arthur Corbin and Emilie Jeanne Eugénie Fournier.  They named him Eugène, Henry.  Happiness, however, was short lived, for the young mother died ten days later.  Unable to endure the sight of the one responsible for his unhappy loss, Arthur placed the child in the care of a wet nurse.

At eight months the infant was still so frail that Arthur’s elder sister, Mrs. Amélie Petit Henry, indignant over the lack of care, resolved to bring the child home with her, despite the father’s disapproval.  A few years earlier, Amélie had married Emile Petithenry, a man of considerable culture working at the Bonne Presse.  They had no children and occupied a comfortable second story apartment at #46 Rue Grenelle with a kitchen window overlooking the private park of a neighboring townhouse belonging to the Duke of Castries.  Many years later, while dining with the Duke himself, Henry recalled having occasionally admired, from his elevated window view, a young boy of his own age wandering about this lovely park in the company of a governess.

Occasionally Henry was taken to his maternal grandmother’s home at #26 Rue Leclerc.  Very advanced in years and surrounded by her memories, she evoked in the child, above all else, an impression of tremendous sadness.  In that cozy sitting room, without understanding why, the child felt overwhelmed.  To the point that, on one occasion, at the age of five, he started wailing and then burst into tears.  Not knowing how to calm him, his grandmother happened upon the auspicious and happy solution of presenting him with a photograph and urging him to give the beautiful woman a kiss.  Intrigued and perhaps somewhat beguiled by the mystery of that kiss, the child calmed down.  From then on he returned without trepidation to his grandmother’s home to steal a look at the “beautiful woman” (his mother) whose true identity he was far from suspecting, having always called Mrs. Petithenry “mummy”.  From that day onward, however, the seed of a doubt began to take root in him.

Indeed, shortly after this incident, while his young aunt Adrienne was giving him his bath in his paternal grandparents’ garden at Grecy, Henry said to her:

“Don’t you find it strange? I have two daddies, but only one mummy.  It’s odd.  Mummy might well be my aunt?

And so it fell to Adrienne, splashing the boy with cold water, to reply:

“Might well be…”

When, around the age of seven, he learned his true identity, he made more frequent visits to his maternal grandmother, in order to question her.  Not being one for conversation however, the latter preferred to show her grandson photographs and to describe the beautiful figure therein.  She passed away, alone, leaving her one descendant a small nest egg of savings. At the time of her death, a violent clatter in the night awakened Henry, then a student living on the Rue Daguerre.  The mirror above the fireplace had come unhooked and fallen, shattering loudly upon the floor.

During the summer months the family found themselves back with the paternal grandparents.  Originally from a Norman village, the Pieux family had had a summerhouse built in Grecy, at Seine en Marne, near Courbet.  Henry was fond of the garden with its large lime tree and herbs.  On the other side of the road and just opposite his room there lay a large rose garden.  In June, just as the sun was setting over this flowery parcel of land, the child would sit in ravished contemplation of the landscape, feeling himself as though upon the very threshold of the infinite.  In the daytime he met up with two cheerful accomplices: for music and games there was his Aunt Adrienne, and to tend the herb garden there was his grandfather, a cunning gourmand who often awarded himself a portion of the pickings before bringing them to the kitchen.

Back in Paris, with the Petithenrys, life was more orderly.  There was that painful day when it was decided Henry should be shorn of his lovely golden locks before the beginning of classes at La Rochefoucauld (on the corner of Avenue Bosquet and Rue Pierre Nicot).  There was the production of his first reviews, with premonitory titles such as “Lumière céleste” (Celestial Light) and “Nord” (North).  Carefully selected excerpts from the Larousse and other books were recopied upon sheets of colored paper that, despite being originally intended for jam-pots, were deemed of adequate format by the young journalist.  As this work could only be carried out on the Thursday, which was a school holiday, there was already, in this early period, the author’s dreaded problem of “accumulated delays”.  The “publication” complete, a reading was performed for his aunt who was wholly won over.

Henry received a children’s magazine called “Le cri cri” [“Little Voice”].  Upon each cover, within a red frame, was a drawing accompanied by a caption.  One of these covers showed a child walking along a road in the desert.  There followed the story of this same young boy who was on his way to Teheran.  In later reviews, other drawings illustrated “The Horrors of Tamburlaine”.  Teheran, Tamburlaine, a lone child in a desert landscape…  These themes were to be echoed later by a biblical verse bearing witness to moments of melancholy: “Soli! Quia si cadat neminem habebit sublivantem se”  -“Sorrowful, he who is alone, for if he should fall there will be no-one to raise him back up”. 

But such melancholy was quickly forgotten and swept away by an impetuous élan vital when Henry would meet up with his cousin Robert Chanteloup, his elder by five years, at Pieux, the Norman village his family came from, or in Saint Vaast la Hougue.  Henry conserved a horrid memory of the beach there, of a forced dunking in an ice cold sea, and the feeling of shame at the flock of spectators drawn by the wailing cries of a small child on the point of suffocation from cold and indignation.  Henry preferred the visits with his cousins, the Menants and the Chanteloups, with whom his Norman peasant’s common sense and love of the soil flourished.  With Robert he shared the memory of frolicking about in the fields and of being cheated out of a meal, the victims of their dear aunt Amélie’s unswerving sense of principle.  That day, the Petithenrys had been invited to the Pieux’s residence and had arrived a good two hours late.  As soon as he arrived, Robert had told Henry about the rabbit that was being prepared, whose delicate aroma had excited him all morning.  Just as they were sitting down to table, however, Aunt Amélie peremptorily declared that one could no longer eat rabbit at three in the afternoon.

Due to his position at the Bonne Presse, Emile Petithenry made a comfortable living, and all the more so, as having served as “straw man” for the “Assumptionists” during the “Trial of Twelve”, the latter made a constant showing of their gratitude.  At the beginning of the century, the Assumptionists owned a building at #8 Rue Francois Premier, that had been sequestrated ever since the passing of the bill of 1905, but whose chapel and outbuildings remained at the disposition of the good Catholic society of the neighborhood who still gathered there on holidays.  In one of the rooms a stock of beautiful gilt-edged breviaries awakened an envious longing in Henry, who sought to appropriate a copy for himself. Father Honoré, despite his indulgence for this young companion, thereupon threatened that he would “run into serious trouble with the state”.  By way of consolation the good father provided for his entry into a movie hall partly owned by the church.  Once there however, it was the cashier’s turn to contest the validity of the tokens that Father Honoré had given him.  This didn’t entirely prevent Henry from acquiring a degree of acquaintance with what one might call “cinema”.

Unfortunately, Emile Petithenry had kidney trouble and his health deteriorated year after year.  He died in 1912 or 1913. Despite the support of their friends at the Bonne Presse, his death was the source of significant worries for Amélie.  She had been unable to adopt Henry due to his father’s opposition, and the latter had now withdrawn into a hostile silence. The Assumptionists suggested to Amélie that she ought to make a trip to England where she could find work in a Catholic college.  Henry was enchanted by the idea of such a trip.  A new entourage of friends, the grandeur of the liturgical songs… these were like so many glimpses of another world.  Alas! The plan fell through.

Henry thus returned to the Rue de Grenelle, to his friends from the Rochefoucauld, and to his math teacher, who was happy to reclaim his most promising mental arithmetic.  The war was approaching, bringing hard times with it.