n my street—I write this in Paris, eight hundred kilometers higher up on the map—there’s a burly chômeur with bleached blond hair and a large motorcycle (Wow! look at that beast, Clément says as we pass by), whose wife, an immense fake-blond chewing gum and smoking a cigarette (I’ve seen her, I could swear, chewing and smoking at the same time, which is rather impressive) is not, as one might imagine, without a certain elegance, as demonstrated through such tender gestures as when she crouches down over a stroller in order to wipe the face of her snotty-nosed child.
On my street there is an old couple, in the window of the facing apartment; like the character in Reiser’s Gros Dégueulasse, the man walks around in his briefs and a tank top a few sizes too large, obliging me to take a few steps back on my terrace; the mistral has blown away pieces of the reed barrier we use to block the view, and so nothing can deprive me of this private, appetizing spectacle. His wife, a small, apple-shaped, painstakingly coiffed woman is invisible at home; she doesn’t show her face except on the street where the three of them (they have an old dog) waddle down the block in small, flat steps.
On my street there is a diverse array of music: to the left, rap; to the right, raï, and, on the street opposite mine (the sound carries exceptionally well), the classics, with sometimes Mike Brant or even Joe Dassin, whom some women found handsome precisely because he was cross-eyed. After someone in the neighborhood moved out, techno has disappeared, which is not a bad thing.
On my street there were lots of pigeons, far too many, that shat upon the sidewalk just in front of my door, thanks to the fact that they’d built their hotel precisely underneath the shelter of a small tile roof above my room and under my terrace. This led to one day when, with the help of my friend Roger, my companion in great climbs and perilous adventures, I hung harnessed, suspended in the empty void over my street, to the great astonishment of my neighbor (for once in pants), in order to repel the birds and seal off all points of entry to the pigeons’ quarters with the help of diverse pieces of plastic. Since then, the sidewalk has been clean and I am no longer awakened at six in the morning by cooing.
On my street there are chirping schoolchildren who come and go from a sports field, the cries of mini-footballers between five and six p.m. (and even more on Wednesdays), and the noises of rollerbladers, which at first I took for the clopping of horses—something which, despite the equivalent noise level, I paradoxically prefer.
Above my street there are roofs and antennas, lots of antennas, an enormous number of antennas, and above them turtledoves, wagtails, magpies, crows, and sparrows, it depends on the season and, even higher up, a sky peopled with planes, clouds and pigeons, seagulls, swifts and swallows, also depending on the season.
Metz, Book Fair. The hawkers. A tall guy standing shouts out to customers, holding his book, large smile: “Would you like to read the synopsis?” Next to him, a small lady, blond, hair spectacularly done, sitting, smiling intensely: “Have you read my book?”
(On the port of Marseille: “She’s a beauty, my scorpionfish, elle est belle.”)
Phrases overheard in the gallery: “I consider myself a fantasy writer”; “I love poetry.”
Later, my young and dynamic neighbor, no doubt poised to become a writer of success, dedicates, with joy, his first book.
“What’s your name?”
The noise of steps. A barking dog. Faraway, children, in the courtyard of a school. The sound of a motor, a motorcycle probably. A young girl runs in the street. I hear her talking on and on. Then nothing. It starts again. The sound of shutters. Footsteps. Some running. A motor. Enveloped in sunshine, pigeons, cooing. Then nothing. Except for the kids, far away, in the school courtyard. It starts again. My clothes drying, immobile. A tepid sun. Pigeons. A wasp. A car passes, the voice of a woman: “Where are we going?”, the sound of footsteps. And then nothing. And then it starts again.
(Slice of life.)
The people next to me on the plane, returning from Greece (around 25 years old, MBA students by appearance):
“For me, the Acropolis, the rocks, the three columns, it doesn’t do anything for me.”
“Yeah, it’s all just sitting there.”
“Exactly, there’s not even an explanation.”
“You can see the Great Wall of China from the moon. And also the freeway in Brussels. It’s lit up like crazy. You can see a lot of stuff, actually.”
“Who built the Great Wall of China?”
“I don’t know, that was at the time of the samurais. I couldn’t say when exactly. Before Christ.”
“Not before Christ!”
“They were pretty evolved, huh?”
Later, talking jobs:
“Police commissioner, that would work for me.”
“I guess I’ll do politics. But if I choose politics, it’s only so that I can be at the top. The ideology doesn’t matter: Left, Right, I don’t really care. (Some time passes.) I think I’ll run on the Right, it’s the Right that... (didn’t catch what came next).
Later, evoking the Mafia as a possible job:
“Yeah, but ethically, it’s not great.”
“For me, ethics, if you believe in God, then you’re okay, if not...”
“No, ethics is doing humanitarian things, for example.”
“Yeah, but if I do the humanitarian thing, that would be to help myself out.”
“What would be cool, as a job, would be to cross the Atlantic by yourself. But now it’s no longer possible.
The same guy:
“I’d like a job where you never have to wait. Ambassadors, you see, they’re always waiting to get the posts that they want. I don’t want to wait.”
Read somewhere: the Left identifies itself by its “optimistic skepticism.” So, according to this, then I’m not on the Left? But I don’t seem to belong on the Right either. Where do “skeptical pessimists” place themselves?
The black of the night is liquid, composed of the fluids of the world, which we find reconstituted the next morning into the form of dew, the rustling of daybreak, the quivering of the leaves, of warbling. The world sets about to move. The night sets the world into a knot, having accumulated the solitude of each tree and each rock. Withdrawing, it releases itself a bit, it rediscovers movement.
Nearing the point of falling asleep (a nap), I jolt, opening my eyes widely, suddenly completely awake, with the idea that among all of the deaths imaginable, one, ineluctable, awaits me, and I don’t know it. An explosion of adrenaline inside. Animal reaction at the idea (?) of not-being.
Last book of Whomever: rather pleasant at first, a bit tedious afterwards, irritating by the end. There’s something clearly cinematic (against which I have no prejudice, to the contrary) in this succession of extending sequences, these fades. Sometimes I like it well enough, even if it doesn’t leave a lasting impression. More often, I get bored. I get the feeling that this kind of literature is all about trying to be clever, endless allusions, gossip. What most worries me is that these books might prefigure the literature of tomorrow (if it’s not already the case today): the reign of the smirking know-it-all (somewhere between “I’m so smart” and “Look how smart I am”).
The Russian novel is a house wherein, upon entering, the light is parsimonious, the furniture distinguishes itself indistinctly from a somber backdrop, little by little our eyes adjust, the atmosphere of the house installs itself inside us, we begin to distinguish the doors, whether hidden or not, the stairs, we open them, and follow their path; while the house takes possession of us, our desire for discovery continues to expand, but in the end there always remain doors that were never opened.
The American novel is a house in which, as we enter it, everything is illuminated, the objects are abundant, the décor attractive; we’re excited at the idea of penetrating a house that could be so richly furnished. With jubilation, we seize one object after another; we enter each of the rooms sometimes too quickly, or too avidly; something on each wall steals away our attention and pushes us to continue the exploration, and we are propelled quickly to the end.
A memory: six or seven years ago, at Eurodisney with the kids. I was full of good intentions that did nothing to alleviate an insistent migraine, before, during and afterwards. Afterwards, I felt a certain post-factum disgust (that’s to say, in wanting to put on a good face while there and, succeeding in this, I didn’t feel the full force of it until later). Great happiness nonetheless on the part of Camille and Clément, Camille unfazed when I explained to her that the words of that song (“From the midday sun, to the sun at midnight/We all have the same life”) summarized admirably the Disney illusion, and more generally the project of American hegemony. Or that the Kingdom of Evil in Pinocchio (Pleasure Island) was precisely this Eurodisney in which we had found ourselves.
Encounter in Lille. Probably nothing more than a perverse thought hidden beneath some layer of megalomania impels me to imagine whether it would be preferable if I were to conform more to the image of the artist who is a bit unpredictable and, above all, arrogant, not with respect to himself, but to his work. Yet I can’t keep from diminishing what I do (without forcing myself to: I doubt my work quite a bit, and more and more), something that is clearly maladroit, because at the end of the day the “public,” whoever this may be, expects something else: they expect a creator sure of the validity of his creation.
“I have three plays, ten novels, four essays, two theories of the world, one poétique, one exotic, one aesthetic, one treatise from the Hereafter, a general repertoire of unknown things, twenty or so unclassifiable works, and four-thousand sixty-three articles from two hundred to two thousand lines to offer, before I take my real retirement. After which I will prepare an edition entirely contradictory to my works— so that then one might choose.” (Segalen)
Seen online: another Christian Garcin, a mountain guide in Queyras. There’s a photo, lacking in clarity, that can’t be enlarged. But my distress is not small: he looks like me, apparently, quite a bit.
Hike at the beginning of summer. Walking among the lush meadows, punctuated by vernal gentians (or Bavarian, I don’t know), forget-me-nots, cuckoos, globeflowers, pansies, stemless gentians, globeflower, buttercups, etc., under the tender green of the larches that are reborn, crossing over the brooks, thick in this period of snowmelt surrounded by birds, gaining next on the crests and stubborn patches of snow, I told myself that the veritable place of the animals that we are, or least the animal that I am, is here, in the wilds of nature, and not in the crush of hot and stinking cities. While crossing a torrent, I raised my eyes toward the cascade, and thought I saw, up above, in the glare of the blinding sun, a silhouette, quick and furtive, perhaps a chamois: a goat-antelope. In truth, this was the result of nothing more than my desire to see one. But this sufficed to anchor myself more firmly in the certitude that in these places man is nothing more than a passerby, and in these places I feel like myself, immersed in what for lack of a better term I’d qualify as the primordial mystery, the avatar of “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” I thought of Emily Dickinson: “Nature is a Haunted House — but Art — a House that tries to be haunted.” This is very much the case. The art and the literature that interest me are those that bear witness to this mystery, this furtive presence, a path immediately perceived. I find this very little in contemporary French literature and, in any case, more so in poetry than in prose. The Japanese novel seems to testify to this more abundantly, something that isn’t half surprising, given that Japanese society has long bathed, and perhaps still bathes, aside gigantic megacities, in a proximity almost pantheistic, imaginative, and doubtlessly ontological, with nature and its mystery.
The air conditioning not working, a repairman came this morning. I knew him already, he’s a German (from Dortmund), who came to do the initial installation in 2003, and who does odd jobs for me at home. A very nice guy. An ex-soldier, I learned this morning. He was in Mayotte (basically two years of vacation, he said, where he spent his time scuba-diving); in Djibouti, where he participated in the wars in Somalia and in Ethiopia; and then in Rwanda; and in Bosnia. He told me about the piles of cadavers he saw in Rwanda, “stacked three meters high.” He also told me this: one day in the ex-Yugoslavia, he was with some other soldiers on patrol in the countryside. They overheard some screams coming from where the sheep were kept. They followed the sound, and found two Serbian soldiers raping a woman. The daughter of the woman was there. So that she didn’t miss a minute of the spectacle, they had nailed her tongue to the wooden table. The blue berets didn’t have the right to kill, he told me, so they didn’t kill the two Serbs. They simply made it so that the Serbs would “lose interest” in what they were doing and ensure they never raped anyone else ever again. I understood that they had been castrated; but no, the soldiers had simply, so to speak, ripped their crotches to shreds with their guns.
He told me all of this calmly and naturally, giving the impression that he found this action admittedly brutal, but necessary, and ultimately normal. I had a feeling that he might fear from me a reaction of violent disapproval. I tried not to force the issue, implying that one could at the same time find this act horrible and terrifying today, but not ask questions at the time when one is under the influence of war and its passions, the loss of perspective coming from the accumulation of the daily horrors one faces. But no, he feared nothing of the sort, he didn’t doubt anything at all. It wasn’t relevant that there are different points of view according to the circumstances. This had been his daily life, that’s all, and this sort of thing could at any moment become a part of his life again. It wasn’t an exceptional episode to set apart from other days. It was—yes: normal.
He said he was also more affected by the war in Bosnia than by the genocide in Rwanda—“Bosnia, they’re neighbors. The others, who kill themselves among themselves, I don’t see why France would get involved.”
Not having much of a desire to engage with him on this subject, I preferred not to respond to this last point.
In the kitchen and on the terrace, I’ve set traps with insecticide for the ants, which have begun to proliferate. This morning, slaughtered on the terrace, hundreds of ants strewn about the tiles, curled up into themselves. Strong feeling of remorse. One or two of them that had survived the massacre roamed about here and there, carrying around with them the very small cadavers. Overcome with compassion, almost moved, I decide to spare their lives.
Regensburg. Encounters at the university, later in a bookstore. A student talks to me about Cigarettes, and asks me questions in an impeccable French, but using such a degree of Structural Linguistic jargon that as a Frenchman I’m ashamed, talking to someone making the effort to speak my language, that I understand almost nothing of what he’s saying.
Dialogue between two women of a certain age overheard yesterday, during the quarter-final of the World Cup between France and Brazil, in a tavern in Regensburg frequented by French expatriates and visitors.
“Domenech, I don’t like him. He’s not very likeable.”
“Yes, he’s strange. He doesn’t seem at all like a coach. More like a writer, maybe.”
“Yes, an intellectual.”
Seen this morning, a stolen glance while I descended the stairs and passed in front of her room: my mother, entirely nude. This must have been the first time this had happened. In front of her small desk, nearly face-on, walking toward her armoire and reaching out her arm to take an item of clothing. She saw me, and neither of us were embarrassed. She was only afraid, she told me afterwards, that her old body might have “disgusted” me. But this wasn’t the case. Was this thanks to the furtive nature of the thing? I don’t know. In the fraction of a second it had lasted, I didn’t think so much of the old body of a septuagenarian (one closer to 80 than to 70) but of a painting, a Rubens, to be precise. There was something about her body that was not beautiful but, yes, rather aesthetic. And profoundly moving.
FNAC in La Valentine (Marseille): one enters not through the section designated “books,” nor the section designated “discs,” or “films,” but through multimedia, cell phones and video games. Books are banished to the sections farthest away. We can see them, there at the distant end of the store: “How to Lose Weight,” “How to Heal from Stress,” etc. Literature, or what little literature there is, is even farther away. And, under the guise of literature, the titles on display are those by Guillaume Musso or Bernard Werber. The order in which all of this is organized is very interesting.
I think of the Radetzky March: the end of Austria-Hungary and the European nobles, the approaching war, the feeling of a world about to topple, that will disappear soon. Our era has witnessed the same thing with the end of its two opposing cultures: the life of the farmlands, and the life of the mind. We are living now in an era that is violent and tawdry, urbane, fast, forgetful, and probably more intolerant, despite its humanistic and nurturing exterior. The end of this grand movement begun at the start of the twentieth century is doubtless upon us, the world tipping over, echoing Roth, Musil, Hofmannsthal, etc. The world to come is at the same time exciting and frightening (like all that is inevitable and unknown).
How difficult it is not to think of what Hitler said: “I want a brutal youth, imperious, fearless, cruel. I don’t want an intellectual education. Science would corrupt my youth.” It is as if, in the end, it was he who has won. Gide doesn’t contradict this idea: “The best way to beat your enemy is by borrowing his weapons, his method, and even his psychology: that’s why today we have vanquished Hitler, but everywhere Hitlerism is triumphant.”
I went this morning to the home of B., a schoolfriend and dentist. I like him. Always of a jovial humor, and good nature. He calls himself “a fool,” “a savage,” and says that he never reads, not even a line here and there from any kind of text, and that he knows nothing about anything, except for dentistry, in which he excels. One day he told me that he had forced himself to read the magazine Auto-moto just to have something in print to pass before his eyes—just some sentences, some words...But in fact, he possesses a vocabulary at times surprising, recherché, even affected, but never forced, similar to that of certain older people from Provence who may be lacking in culture but rich in language. He told me this morning, on the subject of a fiery young man on a scooter, that he was “beyond the age of the bellicose,” before later offhandedly mentioning, describing something else, the “inevitability of oblivion.”
Soirée at the International Center of Poetry in Marseille to listen to Jacques Rozier. A conversation, in truth, with a former critic of Cahiers. Not bad, though a bit untidy and rambling.
Rozier explained how the absence of continuity in À bout de souffle (Breathless), emerged from, as is often the case with artistic invention, a technical problem. The film was too long, Godard needed to cut it down, and for that reason he created jump cuts between the scenes, something that became one of the features of his cinema, and a part of cinema that has survived.
Arrival in Saint Petersburg. Almost disappointed by the mild temperature for a month of December, one-degree Celsius. R. and V. come to pick us up at the airport, along with S., the young sister of V., who drives us. Nightfall at just after four or so. We lose time moving back and forth among bureaucratic tasks (a stamp to obtain for R., somewhere, a missing photocopy, a race to get everything together before six p.m.), but this provides a good taste of the Russian system, not much different in this regard from the Soviet one, which is doubtlessly not too different from the way the Tsarists did things. While we wait, I take several steps onto a gray and banal avenue, onto sidewalks covered in snow, flanked by tramways and buses from the 1950s. Night is solidly installed upon all of this. People cross paths with one another, all bundled up. It’s going to snow. I feel good.
At the Doges’ Palace, in the large hall of Tintoretto’s impressive Paradise, are aligned the portraits of the 120 doges. One of them is not represented: there’s a black cloth in its place. Given that he was decapitated for treason (conspiracy to establish a “defamatory peace” with Genoa, and trying to install an autocratic power), they decided to punish him by concealing his portrait, so that he wouldn’t live on into posterity. Yet, precisely for this reason, he’s the only one we remember today. In all of the guides this anecdote is singled out, and we cite his name: Martin Faliero. Everyone else has been forgotten. His punishment has become a reward.
Midnight. I hear the scops owl nearby. Brief joy.
I’ve never seen my father with a book in his hand. When I was a child, he read the newspaper (The Provençal), Télé Poche maybe, and Mickey Mouse Magazine, which I bought every Thursday. The only books he had on his own were those he’d read in school: Nobody’s Boy, The Last of the Mohicans, Treasure Island, and several others that I had kept hold of, protected by their green and golden covers, old Hachette editions moderately used. At the end of his troisième, just before high school, in 1948, he was 16. He left school and went to work. Nonetheless, he had nice handwriting consisting of rather fine lines and strokes, and he never made orthographic errors. Just like my mother, who’d also left school before she was fifteen but who, in her case, read, though without really paying attention to the difference between what we might call good and less-good literature. I wrote this once in a book, and she was vaguely offended. But it’s true: there were books at home, very few really, two or three shelves upon which Guy des Cars for example rubbed shoulders with Mauriac without any obvious scale of literary value distinguishing the two—which shouldn’t really matter anyway. My mother, however, is what one could call a good, or even very good natural reader. One day when I visited her, quite a few years after the death of my father, by which time I lived elsewhere and Camille had perhaps already been born, I saw her arrive with a book inspired by the film Indochine. Somewhat surprised, I asked her why she had bought that specific book, and she responded that she loved the histories of the long-ago colonies, Cochinchina, Siam, Annam and Tonkin. I suggested she might then like, perhaps, some other books, and the next time I brought her The Lover, by Duras. She read it quickly, and told me that she’d greatly enjoyed Duras’ writing style. So I brought her other books by Duras: The Sea Wall, The Vice-Consul, then The Ravishing of Lol Stein, and afterwards others, The Little Horses of Tarquinia, Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night, etc., etc. Each time, she loved the book—and I was surprised, rather astonished to tell the truth, that she could so easily, without forcing herself (she would have abandoned them if it were otherwise), plunge into such writing that, in the case of some, Lol Stein for example, might put off certain readers who were used to simpler, or more traditional, narratives. I took it upon myself, then, to bring her, in the months and years to follow, other books, by other authors. It was in this way that she read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time, as did her sister, who also wasn’t a big reader, nor had ever seemed destined to become one, my mother commenting repeatedly that she didn’t understand why everyone said that it was such difficult reading, only for “intellectuals”: she simply got into it, and took great pleasure from reading it. She also read, and this shocked me no less, numerous books by Thomas Bernhard: the autobiographical tales (The Origin, The Cellar, The Cold, Breath, A Child), but also Yes and Woodcutters—which she found surlier. García Márquez, Borges, Kafka, Rushdie, Philip Roth, Dostoyevski, Bulgakov and many others, dozens of reputed authors, who were, for some, difficult, or at least writers whom people who don’t have an affirmed interest in literature don’t usually read, passed through her hands: she read them all, and she appreciated them in different ways, disproving, spectacularly in my eyes, the deceptively facile principle that the “Great Literature” is only accessible to certain people, particularly those who have finished their studies. My mother, who never went to high school, who never studied formally afterwards, and who never frequented the world of art or of culture, would have likely, if I’d never persuaded her one day to read Duras, passed her life avoiding the “great” literature, judging herself unworthy of it, or not up to the mark. This is certainly a fallacy shared by many, that perhaps relies only on imaginary presuppositions.
When was it? Three or four years ago? No, probably more. I had so often dreamed of this childhood home (or apartment, actually) between Roucas Blanc Road and Endoume Street. We would reach it either by the ground floor of a cul-de-sac on the Roucas Blanc side, or on the rue d’Endoume, via the second floor of the building. One day Isabelle and I decide to visit it. Approaching from the cul-de-sac side, I notice the French windows of the kitchen are open (or perhaps closed, but we can see through the glass). One woman is talking to another and smoking. I’m filled with emotion upon seeing this kitchen that I remember so well from the first years of my life and, farther beyond, the closed windows of what was my parents’ bedroom. The woman sees us, appraising the insistence of our looks into the house. She comes outside, the cigarette between her lips. She doesn’t look like an easy person to talk to, but I understand that she’s suspicious. Secretly, I hope that the moment I explain to her the reason for my presence in front of her windows, she’ll invite us in, that I will be able to see the layout of the rooms, my room, the family room, my parents’ room and, why not, be allowed to exit via the back door that leads to the stairwell of the rue d’Endoume. I tell her, excusing myself, that I wanted simply to show my companion—here I indicate Isabelle—the place where I resided during the first ten years of my life. But, before I can finish what I’m saying, she cuts me off, responding dryly: “Yeah, well, it’s mine now.” And she closes the door. Curtains.
The red-tail that comes each morning to the terrace jumps around ceaselessly, and with cause: he has only one foot, the right one. The other has been severed close to its stomach. It’s impossible to photograph him. In the time it takes to grab the camera, he’s disappeared. This morning he’s installed himself on the ridge of the house in front of ours, a bit too far away, alas, and he stays there for a few moments, smoothing his feathers.
Every evening at the same time, while the martins blaze across the skies and whistle, the crows regain their shelter for the night, toward the hills of the East, either in small groups of between five and fifteen, or in clouds of several dozen. While they pass above the house, a kind of exaltation seizes me, and I think of the character from the beautiful novel The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, and his intense emotion when the woodcocks fly over the roof of his cottage.
A half hour before the crows, there are parakeets, who, in their case, fly a northeast/ southwest pattern.♦
Translated from the French by John M. Keller. Copyright © 2015 by Christian Garcin. These excerpts are from the book Vétilles, published by L’Escampette Éditions in France.
 Note from 2011: It’s happened.
Note from 2014: Now it’s really happened.