You remember your childhood. Your tow-headed, reddish-tinged mother, who yelled after you all day like a Paraguayan peasant chasing her donkey. And your father flattened in front of the TV, murmuring curses against the people flickering on the screen. Your grades at school were average, pathetic, as you competed against the ones at the top of the class with their brilliance adapted to hedge-hopping teachers’ brains who flitted from idea to another on stage like macaques.
Your sexuality came out in full bloom next to a friend, masturbating at the same time in a basement, a disused bathhouse. Then a prostitute, then a kid your age, wild but inept, and a stream of others to give your childhood a feeling of recklessness. But it’s more likely that, too shy and lacking any charm, you never learned much about the world and all these years now seem to you like a black hole centred around your puberty.
Then you got married, you procreated, you bought a place to live, furniture, obedient and laborious things, and day after day tons of food, whittled away, expelled, mixed together by the sewers of the city in a communal digestion by all its inhabitants, comprising the furious ones and those who were at each other’s throats when they met each other on the street. You’ve had the same job for fifteen years, they like you, they’re getting ready to lay you off, to transfer you, it’s a promotion, a disgrace, they’re waiting for you to hand in your letter of resignation, nobody’s got a bleaker outlook than you, you’re following a useless line of arguing, they’ll make you a cardinal, you’ll become the pope of this company of fleas, of salad bowls, and if you’re a female, you’ll be the first woman to hold this post since this company was founded in the century of lights.
Every woman comes from the same orifice at first, she has an infancy, a childhood. She procreates, and she’s the one who pushes her children outside with all her strength as if she had made it her sole mission. She’s had the same disappointments, the same joys. She’s also capable of being present for this rotation of phrases, instead of being busy elsewhere, laughing, making better use of the few hundred months remaining to her, more or less, and which are for her to use like a pile of small presents, favours, wonders full of days in which she can do anything, and even nothing, instead of taking in a text as if it was going to enter her like an agreeable drug.
Close this book, open another one if you need to, one that will teach you something, that will give you a skill, that will describe a clear picture of human history, of the solar system, of the reproductive apparatus of oysters and goats. There is nothing to learn here, a desert, a string of words like a track that goes on endlessly, pointlessly, which leads nowhere, and which must finish what it has started, in boorishness and sniggering.
That is literature, this manner of refusing to take life seriously, to honour it, to drag its feet along to be grateful for being alive on this earth. It’s also noticing immediately what’s beyond, far from the humdrum, the sidewalks, the small humanity, and so we feel like floating, overhanging, describing an insignificant, frustrating story about nothing at all, a mere vehicle for this feeling of euphoria that comes piece by piece when we start writing.
If you’d rather, I love you. Or I can be long since dead. I’m not going to leave behind the memory of someone surly. Keep on deciphering me, I’ll lead you everywhere with me. Look, there’s a woman sitting on a bench in the square, she’s walked over from her apartment. She thinks about the lipstick on her lips ready to bring herself, by her kitchen sink, back to the sex she had last night, about the strange face of a friend, whose features were sculpted by illness. She gets up, she takes a few steps, she looks like she’s going into a store to pick out a bodysuit. She buys an ice cream, and eats it on her way. She doesn’t look like she’s going in any particular direction, she’s been aimless for a few years now. She worked for a long time at an office, which is where she met her husband.
They wanted to have children, but they’re still sterile and they haven’t thought about a medical procedure or adoption. He’d thought about retiring at fifty and travelling. She was already unsettled by the idea of all these flights, all these crossings, the cold of the fjords, the sun in the tropics, the blinding light of the Arctic. She knew that he’d also become unenthusiastic, but they didn’t have any other ideas for finishing the rest of their life. He could have set up his love affairs in order to distract himself, but the logistics of these sexual gymnastics bored him to tears. He didn’t have any passion, not even alcohol, which barely had any effect on him, and he couldn’t see himself spending thirty or forty years with his wife in the cocoon that was their Parisian apartment. The voyage seemed like the only remedy.
Tonight, they’ve got a couple of friends coming for dinner. The wife was wearing a small pair of glasses for astigmatism on a chain, while her husband sniffled and blew his nose periodically as if he had a bad cold.
‘We’re not going on vacation in August.’
‘Just a few free days at the beginning of September.’
‘The food is amazing.’
‘It’s late, we should get going.’
‘I thought they’d never leave.’
‘It’s almost midnight.’
‘It’s always four in the morning for them.’
‘I didn’t sleep well, that pain in my back.’
‘The sky is full of clouds, it looks like it’s fall already.’
‘See you tonight.’
‘Tonight we’re eating at the Pierrots’.’
‘The food is fantastic.’
‘I’m meeting a friend at the gym.’
‘Fifty years already.’
‘I didn’t invite anyone else, just the two of us in candlelight.’
‘I wasn’t able to sell the company, so we’re not taking any trips just now.’
‘I’m sending you my best.’
‘I’m sixty-five, but I feel like a teenager.’
‘I won’t tell a soul.’
‘The loneliness has to be weighing down on you.’
‘I’m collecting photos of windows.’
‘I’m a distant nephew, I’ve inherited this office that I can’t sell, and all these random things that this loony bought after her husband died.’
‘An embolism, according to the coroner.’
His wife took over. She died at ninety-five years old. She left behind a brood of great-grandchildren. The office had been bankrupt for years. Some of them made a mess of their lives, others were cleverer. One of them became a minister, and kept the post for six months. His bloodline trailed off into the middle of nowhere. And so the history of humanity unfurls. Study all the ramifications of this planet up close. The universe flashes in the middle of nothingness. Like a Jew’s harp in the fog. If we go too quickly we lose all the details that history doesn’t have the time to bring to light, the people run straight to the grave like the famished to the buffet. You might do well to imitate them, death fits you like a glove. I don’t need your pointed glance like two flashlights, my writing moves forward solely for the joy of forming itself, of existing instead of nothing, the space of a moment lost in the middle of eternity.
She’s always walking, she’s finished her ice cream a long while back. She likes mingling with crowds on sunlit streets, she feels like she’s everybody at once, a single wave breaking across the squares, the avenues, curling around every street corner. She forgets that she’s only 145 pounds of human flesh, a few cubic inches of thought imprisoned in a cranial cage.
When she regains her spirits, she notices that she has a black spot on her skirt as if the crowd had been a well-oiled machine that spit dirty oil. She’s in front of a movie theatre, she goes in, she sits in the hallway. Kids are buying candy and soda. Groups of people are moving, entering the theatres, she would like to be part of this flux. Then she thinks about the leg of lamb she’s going to cook for dinner, and she gets up.
Outside the sun is dragging along the horizon, the faces of the passersby are redder than they were just a while ago. She walks, but she’s along in the middle of pedestrians and she feels like they’re being hostile to her. She looks around to flag down a taxi, they go past one by one. At a taxi stand she finds one at last, and once she gets to her place she puts the mutton in the oven. She puts on makeup, she puts on a pink dress and white mules that are very stylish this year.
She sits in the lounge. She looks at her nails, she thinks about the evening ahead. There’s still a ray of sunlight on the back of an armchair and she has the impression that the light enters the room through a stained-glass window. When she was a child she went to churches often, she was jealous of the chorus boy who rang the bell. She was bored during the office, her mother’s hand pressed down when she tapped her shoe on the pew. In the afternoon they walked around a public garden with everybody else in their Sunday best, with children who had new toys and cotton candy sold by mothers at wood-panelled stands. They rented bikes with instructions not to fall into the pond where the ducks swam and the tiny boats were floating. She pedalled into the evening, and the next day she still liked school better than Mass.
In her head is a song tune that held sway through her childhood and that she heard upon waking on the radio. She’s also thinking about a vituperative letter that she wanted to write to her father when she was fifteen, about the redness of a man’s dick, about how silly they look in the nude, about the noise of the elevator when it stops at a floor. She tells herself that tomorrow she’ll call the managing agent to ask him to turn down the volume for the intercom, which hurts her ears like an explosion, and if she can work up the courage, she’ll write a small poem which she’ll then burn in the sink with the strange satisfaction of having accomplished a crucial sacrifice that will save her day from the total emptiness that frightens her.
That evening, they’re headed to the Pierrots’ and they have to swim in their indoor pool before having dinner. She just has to tell her husband that she doesn’t want to go to their place, and he’ll go there all along with his swimsuit rolled up in a bag. If he forgets, they can give him any old nylon Speedos and he’ll have to go swimming in spite of it all. He’ll have to sit at the table with his hair still wet, he’ll come back with a sore throat. She’ll call a twenty-four-hour pharmacy and go to buy medicine at the store.
Her thoughts suddenly circle around a blood test that her doctor had prescribed several months before; she’d left the prescription in a corner. She won’t be walking through the doorway of any practitioner, she’ll let her body fall apart like an old car left at the back of a garage, or restore itself in its own way with the prodigious ingenuity of being alive. And if by chance her body decides to come to a complete stop, she won’t race to the hospital so that someone can try to forestall it and use medical force to give her yet another taste of functionality and life.
She goes to the front porch, she sits down. The sun sets behind the building in front of her. She’s sure that her husband will come any minute now, and that in half an hour the guests will be ringing the doorbell. She could watch the street, wait for her husband’s car to go into the underground parking lot. She’d open the apartment door for him. He’d hug her, he’d tell her I’ve had enough of this office, once I’ve sold it we’ll travel the world all year round. She’ll be happy to see him and at the same time she’ll realise as she does every evening that he hasn’t managed to drive off his unhappiness.
He’ll go into the bathroom to shave for the second time that day, she’ll sit on the rim of the bathtub and listen to him recount an altercation with a co-worker who would be fired at the end of the afternoon owing to redundancy. She will tell him, I should write an angry letter to my father, even if he’s been dead for years. Surely the cemeteries have mailboxes for personal letters, or at least they burn the mail for dead people, rather than letting them come to the heirs and having their grief redound upon them.
She hates these gray pigeons standing everywhere and staining porches and balconies. Tomorrow she’ll call the mayor to ask him to exterminate them or to push them back to the peripheries, the countryside, so they’ll abandon the human city. If she had any children, they’d never have had the carelessness of the birds that she walks past on the street, with their streaks of colour, their awkward, mutant gait. It seems like their wings will soon weigh them down and so they’re gliding on the tops of buildings like murderers on the loose, ready to strangle any creature that teems beneath.
The meat is probably burning. She’ll get up, defrost a pizza, and her guests will walk out again in a rage. She’ll invite them over again in three weeks in order to fix the damage, but this time the fish she’ll make for them will have a slight taste of ammonia and they’ll be afraid at the least touch of being poisoned. Dreading the displeasure of the rich people who one day might acquire his office, her husband will ask for her to invite them over. She’ll be humiliated at being obliged to insist that they come once again, but she’ll succeed in winning them over. This time she’ll buy a prepared platter from the most reputable caterer in the area, everyone will eat the food on their plate and take more. For dessert, however, an argument will burst out between the guests, and they’ll leave before coffee. They’ll always wish they had been witness to that discord, but they’ll never see them again.
She would like to be on the other side of the building, watching the sun setting. She’d see the vivid red Seine and the tourists eating on the sightseeing boats. She’d like to be among those people whose language she doesn’t know. She’d let herself be seduced by a tall blond man’s gestures, they’d go visit the Eiffel tower and look down at the city from the top of the Ferris wheel. Then she’d find herself in the fifteen square metres of his hotel room, looking at his sparsely thatched genitalia, erect like an antenna. She’d take it in her mouth to please him. Five years later she’d recall that night while falling asleep after a dangerous operation that had failed. She’d regret not having met someone else in his place.
The roofs like a massive crust. Beneath they come and go from the bedroom to the living room, they climb the stairs, tumble down them. They follow the rules given by the contents of their skulls, and they exist to some degree amid thoughts and memories, they are the intersection point, the shared space, the theoretical space, imagination, a sort of volition free of the influences of the environment in which they fight and all that pierces them to the core. They are there, they live, they always feel that something is now happening, that time isn’t simply passing them by, that every one of their steps adds a stone to the edifice of their existence, the days of which they swallow up with indifference, with the arrogance of high rollers who, without even blinking twice, gamble away their inheritance piece by piece on the green baize.
She knows that she’s part of this species, a massive, global herd. She kills time contemptuously, upon her death nobody will ever suspect her of having done anything for anyone, she will not have taken part in anything other than the casual roulette of everyday life. She thinks that nothing happens anywhere else, she doesn’t care about suffering, she’s indifferent to the past, to the future, she’s only a flash of consciousness, too furtive to truly broach the night. She looks at the sky, she closes her eyes, and this moment is part of her appearance, of her life as a female, as a human, her appearance unnoticed amid the massacres of generations succeeding one another like so many fresh troops swiftly destroyed.
Tomorrow, she will go buy herself a new tube of lipstick and buy a bottle of rejuvenating gel the looks to be high-quality. At one o’clock, she will distractedly eat a salad on the terrace of a café on the boulevard Saint-Germain. Then she will bother a friend at her office, she will extort ten minutes for tea around the corner. They’ll exchange a few words that they won’t remember next time. She will walk back to her place and she will notice shoes in a store window, which will blur with other thoughts, like the pleasure of staying in bed when it’s raining outside and the more subtle one of breathing the dawn air like sweet gulps from a hookah. As she approaches, despite the gray weather, she will sit on the porch, she will remember that M. Pierrot has already survived several cardiac alerts, she will hope that the phone rings to let her know that dinner is cancelled.
‘They found him dead.’
‘Infarction on the high-dive board.’
She will dance all alone in the living room to celebrate this life-saving death.
She twitches her toes and legs to prevent ankylosis. She could get up, take a few steps, she prefers to stay lying down, on the look-out, scanning the universe like a scrupulous watchman, awaiting the least movement, the least noise.
She would like a plane to catch fire above her and flatten the building that prevents her from seeing the setting sun. She would make out in the flames pieces of the cabin and she might be able to hear the cry of a survivor who, a second later, swells the number of victims. She will not keep any appalling images, she will think back nostalgically to this smoke that forced her to barricade herself in her apartment so as not to die of asphyxiation.
She would also like for the earth to shake and to be able to see the streets disappear into a chasm. The catastrophe would distract her. The next week she’ll help bombard several strategic points, then the systematic shelling of all Paris. Like a big stake her building will stay standing in the middle of the neighbourhood’s ruins and she will see the survivors running through the concrete ruins like termites. Her husband will not go to the office anymore, they will both stay cooped up, emptying bit by bit their freezer and cupboards. One day of sunlight, then hunger will begin to gnaw at them, they will try to make their way out and end up murdered by a horde that prepares them the same night. They will make up their excrement the next day.
She recalls what could have happened just now if she had been this man she saw outside the supermarket at the moment his car door slammed and if he had driven home. She would have liked to discover for the first time and from the outside her female body, to caress it, to sniff it. Then she would have plunged that nose into her vulva. He was the brutal sort, she would have been manhandled with as little regard as he gave to a doll’s artificial flesh. She wouldn’t have felt the least leniency for this meat being tenderised by his ferocity. When the magic spell wore off, she would have returned to her own pain-filled body, marked all over with stigmata of this marvellous, barbaric encounter.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor at Music & Literature magazine and a translator from French, most recently of Antoine Volodine’s Radiant Terminus (Open Letter, 2017). Along with serving on the 2016 jury for the PEN Translation Prize, his writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, the New Republic, and Vice. With Antoine Volodine’s cooperation, he translated these excerpts from Slogans using the French edition.