Odds are, I wouldn’t be writing this dreary feuilleton — which has been translated from Latin to French, and then between French and English twice — if my sickbed weren’t being fumigated for an incredibly rare and discerning breed of termites that feeds only upon furniture in the Louis XIV style. That the Sun King preferred to devour his own furniture in this fashion, nibbling it to death leg by leg while his tittering courtiers looked on, has been well documented by Dorcas de la Roomette in her exhausting PBS teleplay Furniture-Eating in the Ancien Régime. Thus, I don’t feel so nearly compelled to address the connection between soft-bodied insects and royalty as I do the one question that seems to be on everyone’s minds now that I’ve emerged from my bedroom, even if they lack the basic grasp of spoken Latin to put it to me directly: What’s it like to have money coming out of your eyes?
As the Madame de Maintenon, exhausted by an interminable string of spring formals at Versailles, wrote in 1706, ‘The talk about peas goes on the same as ever. The longing to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the joy of hoping to be able to eat some more are the three topics I have heard discussed for the last four days.’ What better metaphor for the tedium of fantastic wealth than that world-weary meditation on the very legumes that came to define my own family’s legendary boodle, to which I can only add the twenty-first century cry: ‘You think you’ve had it bad, bonehead? Try being the sole heir to a pea fortune the likes of which you can only begin to imagine.’
As a child, I would visit the mansions of friends my parents were thinking of absorbing into their fiefdom and might typically see furniture that was sturdy, functional, and comfortable, not to mention strangely devoid of Baroque embellishments. It looked as though it had been made within my lifetime and not purchased from a dying vicomtesse, and you could horse around on it. Not with your actual horse, of course. Ms Rothschild (for that was our horse’s name) was reserved for afternoons spent foxhunting in the plains adjoining our 800-hectare pleasure garden. Those sturdy, functional children would’ve had no idea how to horse, clown, or even monkey around on our furniture, which was anyway usually occupied by the cobweb-covered skeletons of this or that former ducal personality. ‘If your friends don’t like skeletons, they can go outside and play in the garden maze,’ my mother used to say, coughing blood-tinged sputum into a white lace handkerchief. Mother was undoubtedly the most sporting gal every to perish from a rare strain of tuberculosis she had contracted during a very exclusive ice cream social at a super-elite sanatorium in the Swiss Alps.
Likewise, I was a teenager before I realised that all of my friends had French tutors you could actually sit on, and that weren’t antiques from the seventeenth century. Friends got to eat comforting scrapple from the drive-thru at McDonald’s; I had to choke down a three course meal of consommé a la capricieuse, chaudfroid de faisan, and slow-cooked northern spotted owl with the Spanish royal family every other weekend. Friends came down with the common cold; I developed symptoms of the bubonic plague brought on by being swaddled in medieval blankets — ancient blankets under which no child should have to crawl come naptime.
I’m not saying it was a grueling hardship or anything, but when it was finally impressed upon me that I came from a wealthy family, one of my first thoughts was that perhaps now I could bribe some starving peasant from the village breadline to assassinate my parents so that I might finally rise to power.
Speaking of which, my parents were much more demanding than your typical, run-of-the-mill family despots. If I misbehaved during one of their weekly salons, botching my usually competent gavotte, they would drag me into the library by the scruff of my neck and beat me with a priceless Dutch landscape painting, usually one in a restricted and punishing colour scheme of grey and ochre. To this day I can hardly look upon the works of Salomon van Ruysdael or Jan van Goyen without feeling the sting of oil on canvas against my still-tender hindquarters.
While not throttling me with fine art, my father holed up in his home office, sitting all day behind his imposing secretary and dictating his deepest thoughts to the latest in a string of nubile antique desks. This was, as you probably know, how the best-selling manuscripts for The Longing to Eat Peas, On the Pleasure of Having Eaten Peas, and The Joy of Hoping to Be Able to Eat More Peas came to be. Behind every great man there’s a great desk, and behind that there are, naturally, a bunch of neglected bastard ragamuffins, myself included, who are left to fend for themselves with nothing but thirty or forty servants and the clothes on their backs.
That my daily agenda remains jam-packed with misfortune today goes without saying. Consider the psychotic letters that fill my chateau mailbox on a regular basis: Just recently I received an indecipherable, runic screed from an anonymous sociopath only identifying himself by the menacing sobriquet ‘Byzantine Department of Water Resources.’ Citing a meaningless list of numbers and dollar signs, the sender inundated me with threats, claiming I owed him approximately two hundred thousand smackers after having left the bathroom faucet running for thirty years in the northeasterly wing of our modest beach house on the Black Sea. Reduced to tears, which one of my attendants collected in a vial, we waited ten minutes for each teardrop to transform into an individual sapphire and sent those as payment. Does that sound like fun to you?
So you see, having loads of cold, hard lucre isn’t exactly a kindergarten cakewalk, even if the local peasantry thinks otherwise. Clearly they just want to eat something — cake, maybe. But if only they could taste the same cake that I’ve tasted, with its icing of childhood trauma, its multiple tiers of mental anguish, its bitter filling of exotic and costly gooseberries! Look, we each have our lot in life, handed down to us by the Fates or by the Marquise de Pompadour or whoever, and after having thought about this long and hard, I’ve come to accept the fact that no amount of money can change how horrible it is to be born into a family dynasty of astonishing riches. All I ask now is that this humble orgy of suffering be counted among the tales of everyday hardship that serve as street corner currency in lean times such as these, and that the details of my self-published memoir Finish Your Peas: A Childhood from Hell be optioned by a major motion picture studio.
Peas may not be what come to mind when one hears the phrase ‘compelling American story,’ but they are peas after all, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of the trash that gets made into movies today, so without further ado: adieu, and I’ll see you in Hollywood.