Maurice Yves Sandoz (1892-1958)
Writer, composer and collector
Maurice Yves Sandoz
Maurice Yves Sandoz was a man of many dimensions. After receiving a thorough scientific education (he completed his studies with a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Lausanne in 1916), his love of the arts, literature and music drove him to devote himself fully to those fields, not only as a patron and collector, but also as a writer and composer in his own right.
A perpetual traveller, he lived in Burier in Switzerland, in Rome and in Naples, in New York and Lisbon, also spending time in North Africa, India, England, Brazil and Mexico. He was also an incomparable host; wherever he made his home his guests included the most outstanding intellectuals and artists of his time, as well as personalities from other walks of life.
His passion for rare minerals, for the subtle mechanisms of Fabergé's creations, and the remarkable encounters that marked the stages of his life, all contributed to the exceptional character of this man of many talents.
His bibliography of about fifteen titles, spanning three decades from the twenties to the fifties, includes collections of short stories (Fantastic memories, On the Verge, etc.), novels (The Maze, The House without windows), plays (La Maîtresse, The Balance), poetry and travel writing. His work has appeared in a total of seventy-six editions in five languages, the most recent being a German edition of Der Friedhof von Skutari in 1992 and a Swiss edition of Le Labyrinthe in 1994. All of his narratives have a surrealist flavour, many being illustrated by famous artists such as Salvador Dali, whom Sandoz met in Rome in the late thirties.
As for the musical work of Maurice Sandoz, which is less abundant than his writings, it was influenced at first by Schumann, but subsequently fell into the French school of Duparc, Debussy and Fauré. Based essentially on piano and the voice, it includes a symphonic choreographic Suite, composed in honour of Serge de Diaghilev, and played in Montreux in 1913 with Ernest Ansermet as conductor.
Maurice Yves Sandoz
Selection of recent re-issues of works by Maurice Sandoz
- Contes suisses, short stories, illustrations by Fabius Gugel, Editions de l'Aire, Lausanne, 1990.
- Das Labyrinth, novel, translated from the French by Gertrud Droz-Ruegg, Bibliothek des Phantastichen, Dumont Verlag, Köln, 1991.
- Der Friedhof von Skutari, Unheimliche Geschichten, translated from the French by Luise Wolf, Gertrud Droz-Ruegg and Heidi Brang, illustrations by Salvador Dali, Limmat Verlag, Zurich, 1992.
- Le Labyrinthe, novel, Editions Melchior, Geneva, 1994.
About Maurice Sandoz and his collections
- Rencontres Fantastiques, exhibition catalogue, bibliography of his works, FEMS, Pully, 1992.
- Watches and Automata, The Maurice Sandoz Collection, by Bernard Pin and alii, FEMS, Pully, 2012.
- 1992 : « Rencontres Fantastiques », Historical Museum of Vieux-Vevey, Vevey.
- 2010 : « Masterpieces of the Sandoz Collection, restored by Parmigiani Fleurier », exposition du 20ème anniversaire du Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, SIHH, Genève.
- 2011 : « Mechanical Wonders, The Sandoz Collection », for the benefit of the Jazz Foundation of America, A la Vieille Russie, 781 Fifth Avenue, New York.
My Guest, a famous dancer, refused a tenth cigarette but took another cup of tea. Following the custom of his native Ruthenia, he put the lump of sugar I gave him under his tongue and sipped the bitter, amber fluid through it. Then he said :
“You have been present at what you are pleased to call my ‘triumphs’, which you will allow me to rename ‘successes’. My modesty, believe me, is genuine, and I am going to tell you the reason, a secret I have so far confided to no one. My chequered existence is not, I think, far from its end [politely I made a gesture of contradiction which he pretended not to see] and, in any case, the time has come to bring my career to a close. If what I am about to say were known, it could do me no harm from now on.
“Well…the real truth is this…that never, you understand, NEVER, during the forty years that I have been appearing on the stage the world over, have I had one single love-letter”.
“That's easy to explain,” I intervened. “Your admirers were persuaded in advance that you received so many, they were discouraged from trying their luck !”
But my friend shook his head. “No, no,” he said, “your reasoning is wrong because for my partner things have been very different. She asked me, rather spitefully, to open the innumerable letters spread out in her dressing-room (especially when the writing on the envelope was unfamiliar to her), These letters, I must say, were all more or less alike : ‘You do not know me and yet every day I am one of your audience, for since the time when I first saw you dance, I have had only one thought…’”
I tried again to reassure him. “If you have never had a letter like that,” I argued, only half convinced, “it is just because women are more reserved than men. They are less expansive. Besides, seeing you always with the same partner, they have probably concluded that you are an indissoluble couple !”
“Perhaps,” muttered the dancer, deep in thought. “This time I think I can follow your argument better. But,” he began again after a minute or two, talking rather loud, as Russians do when they want to persuade you, “there ought to have been at least ONE exception…the exception with a capital E. There ought to have been ONE person who would have scorned the rules of decorum, one woman who would have written to me…as a last resource !”
I should have liked to console my dancer with his greying hair by saying that his own case was far from unique and that my career as an author had never brought me, either, a single love-letter. But such a confession would have been the less sincere in that every first of the month since the beginning of the year I had received a little mauve envelope (which I learned to recognize at a distance) containing a card, mauve also, inscribed with a brief message, always the same, and made up of three words : “I love you.” No signature, no date, and, of course, no address…The stamp alone gave a vague clue; it was always postmarked at the Central Post Office of Neuchâtel. But Neuchâtel has more than fifty thousand inhabitants; so the puzzle remained unsolved. I refrained from telling my friend about this “success” and he went away with his head down, rather depressed, I thought.
A little while after this conversation I happened to have a visit from a relation who often came to stay a day or two in my house. My cousin was a graphologist, quite a celebrated graphologist…So I took it into my head to show her one of the famous anonymous declarations. To my surprise, after glancing for a moment at the three words, so clearly written, she began to look embarrassed and, it seemed to me, a little suspicious. Obviously she was in no hurry to commit herself. In the end she made excuses. “It will only be tomorrow,” she said, as if trying to gain time, “that I can give you my considered opinion.” And she went off to her room, taking with her the short message which seemed so much to have displeased her.
The next morning at breakfast it was she who began again about the notes, for I must confess that this small problem had escaped my mind, a further proof that I gave it little importance. With all the energy of shy people she burst out : “Here's a pretty kettle of fish ! The message is written by a man !” And she handed me back the mauve card in an off-hand manner that seemed to me put on.
“By a MAN !” I exclaimed, or rather repeated.
“By a man; that is absolutely certain,” went on my cousin, who appeared relieved of a great weight. “All the graphologists in the world would agree with me. But if it's any consolation to you,” she continued almost at once, “I can tell you immediately that the author of this note is no…” She hesitated, looking for her words, “…is no whipper-snapper…no, this is the writing of a man of mature years, of an aristocrat with much experience of life, as you can see from the elegance of the script and a slight trembling which shows a tendency to Parkinson's disease or…a tremendous passion for yourself.”
“I prefer the latter hypothesis,” I answered, laughing. “It is more flattering. But you see I'm quite surprised to learn that at an age of increasing baldness I can inspire a tremendous passion (to use your own words) in someone of my own sex and mature years. It really is bewildering and makes me doubtful about the value of graphology…”
“Of mature years is right,” agreed my cousin without taking up my point about her art. “The letters he makes are those given as models to school-boys at a time when the writing-master still trimmed goose quills for his pupils and taught them to make the flourishes that today are quite forgotten. As for the ‘distinction’ which I attribute to the author of these lines, or, more exactly, this line, I find it in the firmness of the writing, in the perfect formation of the f and the s, at one time so alike, as you might have noticed in examining original letters of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, his script reminds me a little of his.”
“Well, well,” I said to myself, “I had forgotten that she was a spiritualist. Perhaps she is going to attribute the origin of these messages to phenomena from the spirit world.”
“Look, my dear,” I went on after a moment, “supposing we admit that you have guessed the sex of my correspondent, could you not say more about his character, profession and personality ?”
No doubt my cousin had spent a sleepless night making a thorough study of the writing in the mysterious message, for she knew her verdict by heart and recited it like a well-learnt lesson :
“An elderly person, fond of solitude, of the male sex, elegant, distinguished, but lacking in imagination. An egoist…so terrifically egoistic that I am even surprised to find him expressing feelings of…tenderness ! As a matter of fact, everything goes to prove that this individual is in love only with himself…a perfect case of the narcissus complex. I will add that your correspondent is extraordinarily meticulous. Look at the dot on the i, absolutely round and placed exactly above the letter !”
“Oh, well,” I said, laughing. “If I should inherit a fortune from my unknown…admirer, I won't fail to let you know, and there will even be something for you !”
My cousin seemed delighted that I had not taken her remarks too seriously. And no doubt the inquiry into the origin of the mauve cards would have remained where it was had it not been for the curiosity of a girl who came from time to time to see me, hoping for little presents to keep our friendship going…as her interest in me was not entirely disinterested. Unfortunately she fell on my collection of love-letters, and she was not going to pass over in silence a discovery which, she maintained, proved the existence of a rival on whom I doubtless showered most handsome gifts. The rival was trying to supplant her in my affections and she must put an end to this “odious” correspondence.
Luckily for her, and unluckily for me, she was very friendly with a professional detective. At first the expert was inclined to show her the door and return the two cards which she had produced as “tangible proof” of my “infidelity.” Then, all at once, he thought better of it; the detective in him came to the surface.
“Unknowingly you have set before me a most disconcerting problem. These two cards have not been written on the same day nor with the same ink. Yet I could swear that they are exact reproductions of a third document which resembles them in every detail. Look how the words on both cards are alike ! They could be laid exactly on top of one another like negative and positive films. Yet there is no question here of photographic material or even of sensitive paper.”
Then the detective scratched his chin with a puzzled air…
“In any case, this mauve paper seems to me uncommon enough and perhaps might furnish a clue to identify the sender. Would you trust me with one of the cards ?”
“Gladly,” answered the girl, whose curiosity was thoroughly aroused, and who would not have hesitated to lend the policeman the Eiffel Tower if she could be sure that this weighty document would have helped him to discover her rival, whose eyes she swore to tear out. “My friend will never notice that the card is gone. There is an incalculable number of messages.”
She exaggerated, since there were only four or five, but actually she was right because I did not notice the disappearance of the mauve card, taken from a drawer that I had not locked, having nothing, in fact, on my conscience.
* * *
A month went by without the detective, who had much else to think about, giving any sign of life. Then one day he telephoned Claudine (where women were concerned, he was too clever ever to write) to tell her that he had without the slightest difficulty round the shop which sold these elegant, old-fashioned cards. Only one customer came from time to time to buy them…a well-known watch-maker whom the Neuchâtel Museum employed to look after its clocks. And he gave her the man’s name.
“Ah, there we are… !” said Claudine at her end of the line…”He has a lovely daughter…” Then, thinking that in the face of such convincing facts, I should make what she called a confession, she told me about her discovery.
“But I know the dear man,” was all I answered, “Yet I assure you I know nothing about a daughter, lovely or not.”
“Oh…go on !” shouted Claudine with a vulgarity which hurt.
“It's so true,” I said crossly, “that we are going at once to telephone him and ask if he can give me, or rather give us, the key to this mystery.”
Then, suddenly, the truth burst upon me and I began to roar with laughter.
“You're laughing on the wrong side of your mouth,” cried Claudine, beside herself (and at that moment I noticed that she was not as pretty as I had imagined). It took me some time to recover.
“No,” I said, controlling myself at last. “Listen, Claudine…it is neither the great watch-maker nor his beautiful daughter who wrote these strange messages. All they did was to transmit them !”
“But who from ?” asked Claudine with angry eyes that started out of her face like those of a lobster.
“They were composed by the watch-maker but actually written by…The Writer.”
“The Writer ? What Writer ? What story are you inventing now ?” muttered Claudine, as angry as ever.
“The Writer of Jaquet Droz. It "s an automaton that looks like a little boy…this automaton, or, more exactly, this android, which caused such a commotion in the reign of Marie Antoinette and which has since been kept in the town museum beside The Musician (who plays the organ) and The Artist. These three automats become alive on the first of each month, to the great delight of visitors, and that explains why I always then received the amorous letters which The Writer executed with such care and elegance. Well…I helped to bring back some fame to this automaton, forgotten by our neighbours in France, by promoting his journey to Paris where, at the Museum of Arts and Crafts, he performed a thousand wonders for crowds of enthusiastic visitors. To thank me for my help in a really original way the curator of the museum sends me every month these ‘autograph’ messages bearing witness to the rather overwhelming gratitude of the mechanical Writer…and his own.”
“But why repeat the messages so often ?” asked Claudine, still suspicious.
“It "s simple enough : I have several addresses; I travel enormously, and the messages were sent as a precaution in several copies to the four corners of the earth. It was only a joke, but your suspicion has turned the comedy into a tragedy and given it an importance that it ought never to have had.”
“That's a better explanation !” said Claudine, calmer now (and alas ! she again seemed to me to be quite charming).
Two weeks later I was at the Neuchâtel Museum, the only visitor that day, and I fell into contemplation before The Writer, back now in his place. I round him delightful, and the absence of any custodian left me free to make a rather childish gesture which amused me : I gave the chubby little artist a kiss (a “peck,” as they say in my part of the world).
At that moment a sigh attracted my attention. Yet I was alone in the empty, echoing room. Then I round with amazement that The Writer’s neighbour, The Musician, was breathing deeply, and from her came these heartbreaking sighs.
“She is in love with The Writer,” I thought…”and jealous, like Claudine !”
A little shiver that the inexplicable provokes ran down my back, and it was with genuine relief that I saw the curator of the museum come into the room.
“Tell me, dear Sir,” I said rather shyly, “am I the victim of an illusion or of too much of the good wine of Neuchâtel ? But I have the impression that your Musician moves and sighs… !”
“You are quite right. A little while ago we demonstrated the talents of The Musician for the benefit of the Maharajah of Coroda. The mechanism which moves her fingers and that which works the breathing are controlled by two different springs. When the former has ceased to fonction, the latter remains in action for some time still to keep alive in the spectator’s mind the illusion of life…a very striking illusion, don’t you think ?”
“Much too striking !” I said, relieved.
All the same, though I have burnt a great many letters in my life, I shall not destroy the love-letters written for me by a little boy more than a hundred and sixty yean old. Is he not the only being in the world who could, a hundred years after my death, send me similar letters, just as carefully written, just as warmhearted, just as peremptory ?
* * *
A month after that, crossing the Bahnhof Street in Zürich, I caught sight of the dancer, who recognized me and came to meet me. With the usual greetings I unfortunately took it into my head to return to the subject of his disclosure. I could not help telling him that it seemed better never to receive love-letters than to receive them, as had happened to me, from a robot.
“Robot !” exclaimed the dancer, to whom the word was new.
“Robot…automaton if you prefer,” I answered.
I saw his expression change. “Excuse me,” he muttered, looking at his wrist-watch, “but I have an awful lot to do.”
“Spokoinonotche [good night],” he added, and without shaking my hand he hurriedly crossed the wide avenue, obviously anxious to put its whole width between him and me. Since that meeting he has never again been to see me.
When a writer wishes to plunge his readers, if he has any, into an atmosphere inducive of fear and charged with mystery, he takes care to place the characters of his story on a proper stage. He conjures up at will a lonely country house, or, what is even more nerve-racking and much more distinguished, an exaggeratedly medieval historical castle. Then, having thus provided for the first necessities, he unlooses the elements. His lightnings herald the crash of thunder, the rain beats against the windows, squalls of wind unexpectedly burst open the stoutest doors, and the sound of the sad sea waves, artfully compared to the cries of the wounded on the battlefield, complete the picture.
In view of this I am afraid that I shall have some difficulty in impressing on my readers one of the most profound and unique experiences of my life. For honesty compels me to conduct them to the heart of a large and very animated town, clangorous, with the horns of the motors that pass, like a river in flood, down the wide streets; a town which even the night cannot make mysterious, for mystery flees before the blinding streamers of its electric signs and the perpetual glamour of its illuminated shop windows.
I am speaking of Zurich.
Not far from the Peterskirche there is a little restaurant well known to gourmets. For the benefit of those who may be attracted to it by greed or curiosity, I will say that the shutters are hatched with green and white, and that from its windows one can see not only the church of St. Peter, but also the charming house, now the parsonage, which once was the home of Lavater.
I have often mounted the oak staircase that leads to an ancient-looking room where one eats the wild duck that is worthy of its celebrity, a celebrity I have often deplored when I have found myself obliged to turn back, left in the lurch because I have omitted to order a table.
This staircase is separated from the exterior by a screen of frosted glass, decorated with bunches of grapes, in the center of which is a fairly good engraving representing Goethe at the age of fifty.
Some portrait of the poet is to be found almost everywhere in this house. A miniature bas perpetuated the features of his youth, a sanguine chalk drawing the grave beauty of his riper days. Finally, a portrait of the school of Tischbein shows us an imposing old man, dressed in a great-coat and wearing an immense hat, the brim of which does not completely hide his long “pepper-and-salt” hair. The master stands before a table, leaning upon it with his right hand, a long, delicate hand, bearing on the middle finger an enormous turquoise cut in a crescent, and that hand alone reveals the poet, aesthete, and writer.
This house remains faithful to the memory of Goethe. He often dined here. These stairs have creaked under his tread. At one of these tables he has sat, and here he has tasted in turn the wines of the Rhine and the Rhone. He has eaten the cream cheese of central Switzerland, and the apple fritters, the receipt for which has been so carefully preserved and which are still served with those fried cakes, covered with powdered sugar, that we call in French Switzerland “Merveilles”, and which indeed sometimes merit the name. But I must apologize for this long digression and pass on to the incident that I am about to describe.
Only a few months ago I stopped for a night at Zurich.
Force of habit, joined to the more imperious urge of greed, led me to mount the staircase of polished wood once again.
As soon as I arrived I noticed that the illumination was bad. The electric bulbs burned like night lights. In that semi-obscurity the little room regained the rather severe aspect that it must have had a hundred years ago when it was lighted only by candles.
I remarked on it to the maid.
“It is the first time it has happened”, she said. “And it has come at a good time, seeing that there is no one here.”
“What, no one ?”
“No one”, she declared again. “And it is very extraordinary. It is the first time such a thing has happened in the fifteen years I have been here.”
In truth, though the tables were laid and a few chairs fallaciously turned up gave an illusion of business, I was, in fact, the only guest of the house and I remained so, or very nearly.
While I struggled inelegantly, but victoriously, with my frogs' legs, I noticed that little by little the street noises were becoming deadened.
There were no more motor horns, no roaring of engines, not even the sound of footsteps. Gradually silence invaded the room, and its progression was so regular that I began to wonder, not without apprehension, whether it was not a subjective phenomenon, due to deafness on my part. The noisy arrival of the maid with the stuffed mushrooms I had ordered reassured me.
“It is snowing hard”, she said. “The flakes are so thick that you cannot see a yard ahead. That is why the light is so bad. They say that the cables break when they have to support a heavy load of fresh snow.”
I got up, went to the window, drew aside the curtains, and looked out. The snow was falling in thick flakes.
Their silent avalanche muffled little by little all the noises of the town. From the Peterskirche the cracked bell of the clock tolled ten strokes in the silence, and suddenly, in that badly lighted room, with sounds from the streets silenced, I imagined myself transported back a hundred and fifty years. The very voice of the antique clock seemed like a sigh of resigned old age.
All at once I heard a sound which I did not expect, an anachronism which fitted in well with my reverie. It was the tinkling of bells, accompanied by the muffled rhythm of a carriage and pair. I listened, but I was not mistaken.
The noise approached, becoming more and more distinct. I could even have sworn that the invisible equipage (I had looked out of the window in the hope of seeing it) had stopped at the door of the inn.
It is, I reflected, the mail of the old days. It used to stop here to change horses. Unless it is a phantom coach.
The stairs creaked under the weight of a firm and measured tread. Then the footsteps grew near and the door opened.
A tall man entered the room. He was wearing a greatcoat that resembled a “houppelande,” and his head was crowned by a wide-brimmed hat caked with snow.
He took off his coat and hat, threw a rapid glance at the portrait by Tischbein, and seated himself. I remained stupefied.
I saw before me, under the portrait, its exact but living replica. The same aquiline nose, the same long pepper-and-salt hair, the same haughty carriage of the thrown-back head, and a detail that seemed incredible, the same starched cravat, of a style that has now vanished, supporting the chin and overlapping it with the two points.
The maid had fetched the menu and placed it in front of him. Then, at last, he took off his gloves.
I saw a long, nervous hand, with sensitive fingers. The middle one bore an enormous turquoise cut in a crescent.
For a moment I wondered if I was dreaming. A sudden improvement of the light convinced me that I was wide awake. The individual really was there. Installed in his corner, he was peacefully pursuing his meal. And all the time he was eating I never ceased to look at him.
At first he did not seem to notice this, then his eyes, in a moment of absence, caught mine, and I thought I surprised a slightly mocking smile on his lips. Then, without taking any further notice of me, he finished his dinner. When he had done he put on his greatcoat, hat, and gloves, asked for the bill, bestowed on the maid a smile that deserved a curtsey, and departed, very quickly, without a word, as though he were afraid of being interrupted. I heard his rapid descent of the stairs. The entrance door opened, shut again, and the noise of the bells sounded outside.
I hastily paid for what I had eaten and rushed into the kitchen.
“Who was the gentleman who just went out ?” I demanded of the proprietor, who was busy with his saucepans.
My voice must have sounded strange, for he hesitated for an instant before answering.
“He is a gentleman from Weimar,” he said at last. “He came back tonight to assist at the opening of an exhibition that is being held in honor of his great-grandfather, Wolfgang Goethe.”
Shortly afterward I left and was lucky enough to find a sledge, the snow having made the roads impossible for motors. And, enveloped in the goatskin that served as a rug, my eyes closed, I listened with pleasure to the silver laughter of the sleigh bells.
They seemed as though they were mocking at our civilization.