Wednesday, 6 July 2016

...of vacancy

Joseph, still leaning against the wall outside the grocery, saw the landscape slowly changing into a desert; he felt the continual movement of the air entering his lungs, edging into the most secret depths of his organs. Icy breezes began to blow inside his body; his bones grew weak, his muscles ceased to obey him. His clothes hung loosely on him like tattered rags, as though upon a scarecrow, and his hands, their fingers mottled, opened and closed several times, meeting only emptiness. The wind was blowing in his head as well; it had tightened into a sort of icy, restless, tumultuous ball, which had scattered all his ideas. The whole landscape had got inside his skull, a great scene of nakedness and cold, where the street lay motionless, lined with white houses, where the pavements were taken up by earthenware pitchers in which geraniums shivered with tiny vibrations, where every object, moving, calm and ferocious - the cars, the black-glinting window-panes, the translucid sky, the concrete telegraph poles, the road - was set there as though to all eternity, immovable, disorderly, crushing in its weight and silence, stable and savage in the corridor through which the wind was rushing.

[A Day of Old Age, from Fever, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of the sea

Under the sea, beneath the expanse now turning green, the whirlpools and reefs were innumerable. Silently they were rending the layers of water, devouring space; but a sort of opaque paralysis enfolded them, slipped into their crevices, intruded into their wounds and kept them motionless. There, hundreds of yards down, in muted listlessness, life had its roots too. Fish swam blindly round and round, near the mouths of caverns. For them it was always night. Never did the sun set amid flaming clouds. Never did the moon shine with frozen brilliance in the centre of the darkness. Light and darkness ha intermingled below the liquid surface, and there reigned perpetually a sort of blurred glimmer, coming from nowhere and never lighting up anything.
But on land one didn’t suspect that. Standing on a sticky rock a few inches from the fringe of the sea, one could only see masses of black matter, probing into the liquid sphere. The sheet of silence was purplish-blue, moving its tiny wrinkles imperceptibly; it was undulating smoothly, swaying forward, breaking, returning, spreading out like a patch of oil, retreating a little, then advancing again, without fatigue, without end, with a sort of melancholy, mawkish, inscrutable obstinacy.

[The World Is Alive, from Fever, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of mountains

To left, to right, in front, behind, stand the mountains; it is they who have modified life in the valley in this way. They are responsible for this asperity and this mystery. For the mountains are living creatures; they have bodies, they have eyes, they breathe. Their vast domes are bellies, their crests bear the awe-inspiring traces of the orders they have given, once and for all, to everything around them: be hard, be hard. In the silence, in the emptiness, be hard. They rise up, bloated, sharp-pointed, massive, into the four corners of the sky; some of them even appear to be petrified in a dizzy equilibrium, seated, immovable, yet tilted in such a way that they ought to have fallen centuries ago, to have fallen softly in on themselves and dissolved into avalanches of sand. They have grown according to some confused plan, wide wrinkles of molten lava, waves of magma petrified in the act of rushing downwards. And then they stayed like that, just as the pacified earth left them, grotesque and inaccessible. The harmony of silence is already at the heart of their contortions. Their life is no longer the life of movement, of a volcano, but a weight of simple calm and menace. Tons, millions of tons of stubborn, grandiose silence, a paralysed anger that crushes everything, holds everything quelled beneath its plinth.

[The World Is Alive, from Fever, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of plants

Planted stiffly on the terraced ground, the olive-trees are drying up. There is a silent, mysterious strength in them; it keeps them upright iin the soil, it climbs up their contorted branches and spreads through their fibres. A determination to be a tree, perhaps, an implacable, intense, perfectly inanimate hardness. Inside the bark, in the narrow recesses of the wood, it works at its vertical task, perfuming, feeding, gently curving the edges of the little glossy leaves. It is in the earth, too, in the sucked-up earth that climbs into them through their roots and turns into the reinforced concrete of their branches, the dry, brittle cement that stretches their countless fingers well up towards the zenith. The stalks of the leaves point up very straight, as though straining towards an invisible sun, and the tree seems to be attached in this way to the breast of the electric clouds, so as to receive their lightning manna.
Along the edge of the road, between the blocks of stone, flowers have grown. A tall, slender stalk, covered with a kind of silvery down, with a cluster of buds and half-open flowers at the top, and at the bottom a Z-shaped root with several hairs growing out of it. All along the grass the leaves lie open, offering their tiny hollows to the dust and wind. Between two arms growing from either side of the body and each ending in a huge leaf, there is a rosette of new born leaflets, and flowers that have not yet opened. It is like a microscopic heart, crumpled, folded in on itself, where nothing is distinct. Something delicate and soft, a little green and grey ball, like a minute face, that is living withdrawn into itself, waiting until the time comes for it to open. At the top of the plant, at the end of a down-curved thread, a cluster of little white flowers, five-petalled stars with faintly yellow-tinted centres, clings in a bunch. From that, too, life must emerge, from these little hairy, scented nests. A muted, indolent life that carries you through the changing seasons, the regular succession of days and nights, the cool hours, the hot hours, the hours of dew, the hours of light, like that, without impatience, without desire.

[The World Is Alive, from Fever, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of contrition

By this time Martin had fallen on his face in the sand. And he was digging. Slowly at first, his hands paddling feebly in the liquid, dusty matter. Then faster, scuffling with his arms, sending up spadefuls of smelly dust into his face. And in the end, frantically, his whole body transformed into a digging-machine, into an insect struggling and twisting in the middle of the sand-pit, making holes in all directions, with his arms, his legs, his shoulders, his hips, even his head. He buried his chin in the sand, he was suffocating, grovelling, drowning! Delirium had taken entire possession of him, and it was like a bottomless abyss, a well that grew deeper and deeper as he fell. He was part of the falling movement, he was in the centre-line of the abyss itself, he was his own cavern, more and more a cavern, and nothing could stop him. Time had gone by, he had served as the frenzied victim of this metamorphosis, and nothing could turn him back.
But his strength was ebbing. He lay stretched out in the centre of the lists, flat on his face in the sand, his limbs hardly moving now. Only a slight tremor in his arms showed that he was still alive. The sun poured down on his motionless body and mingled with the sand that covered his skin and clothes. Martin was grey all over, now, as grey as a lizard’s cast off skin, a dull, dirty grey that seemed to cut him off from the world of the living.
Almost instinctively the children fell silent. They stood still, round the sand-pit, staring at Martin’s corpse-like form. Then Pierre put the toe of his shoe into the sand-pit and jerked his ankle to send a spray of sand on to Martin. The sand fell on the inert body, scattering over the tangled hair, the back of the neck, the shoulders, the ears. When he saw that Martin didn’t move, Pierre pulled his specatcles out of his pocket and threw them down on the sand beside the sprawling body; then he stepped down among the other children. He had no need to say a word: the others understood at once; they took to their heels and ran out of the courtyard.

[Martin, from Fever, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of evening

It was getting late by this time, nine or ten o’clock. Over the whole outstretched town one could already perceive the signs of silence that would soon fall. Slumber was gliding into everything and coiling up softly. A tranquil, frozen substance that came from nowhere, perhaps from the depths of the sky or from a spot on the horizon, the black, deep patch opposite the point where the sun had disappeared. Like animals possessed by a strange uneasiness, just like a flight of pigeons or a swarm of flies, men and women were prowling along pavements which were sometimes in shadow, sometimes lit by the pallid shine from a shop-window. And the street lamps were beginning to burn all alone in the compact darkness.
Personally, when I’d had a look at these things spread out everywhere before my eyes, I felt a sort of clear, well-defined melancholy take possession of my mind. I realised that everything was evident, pure and frozen, consuming itself eternally without heat or sparkle, like stars in empty space. I realised that time was going by, that I was on earth, and that I was wearing myself out a little more every day, without hope, but without despair. I realised that when autumn comes round again in the cycle, I cease to be anything at all.

[The Boat is Heading for the Island, from Fever, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of suffering

‘Why? Why are you telling me this? What are you going to do, now?’
Without the slightest emotion, breathing with perfect regularity between his phrases, Beaumont replied:
‘I don’t know yet. Frankly, I don’t know at all. I just told you, it’s different now, I don’t need anybody any more. Now I’m alone, I’m really alone, quite alone. I’m still in pain, of course, but I don’t know. Perhaps the pain is a bit less, perhaps it’s still the same. But I’ve forgotten it already, almost forgotten it. I have a kind of peace, you know, a sort of little sad, silent calm. In order to really suffer, one has to love somebody. And I don’t know anybody in the world any longer, everything seems to me now to be smooth and indifferent. I’m alone, and at the same time I’m everywhere, already. Yes, everywhere. Wherever there are people, sunshine, people going to and fro. Work and suffering. I’m everything that’s happening on earth, all the horrors and all the pleasures. Everything people are saying and everything they’re wanting. I assure you, everything. Because I’m empty, empty, empty. So that evrything can come into me. You understand. Like a tape-recorder, exactly like that. Or like a telephone. The sounds of human voices are running through me, for miles. You understand? Other people’s voices will pass through me, and I shall be cold and silent, all the time. I shan’t know anything any more. I shan’t say anything any more. A sheet of white, very white paper. I’ll leave you that. You’ll be able to write whatever you like on it. My name, for instance, Beaumont, Beaumont. Or a garden, with pebbles and grass. And me buried in it, under a little marble slab, and wreaths, and imitation orchids. Or perhaps a window, you know, an open window looking on to anything you like, a snowy countryside, a grey street with the dustbin men going by. Sunshine, rain, the mistral, people coming home from the cinema in the evening, and a bus pulling out. You hear?’

[Beaumont Acquainted With His Pain, from Fever, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of patience

‘I once knew a real painter,’ said Tobie; ‘it was ten or eleven years ago, in New York. I must have been sixteen then, or about that - not quite, perhaps. My father had sent me to the States for my education. That’s where I met this fellow, in New York. His name was Gobel, and I never found out where he came from. He spoke English very badly, I think he must have been Armenian or something of the kind. He was a sort of lunatic, he lived like a tramp, bumming all over the States. He only drew on the pavements, with bits of chalk. He drew extraordinary pictures, just like that, in the street, with his chalk, and then sat down beside them and waited for people to throw him a few coins. That was all he wanted. And yet in that way he made the most beautiful pictures in the world. Next day, everything disappeared. People had walked over it, or it had rained, or the sidewalk had been washed. And not a thing was left. But Gobel didn’t give a damn. He started another picture somewhere else, and waited for people to throw him a few cents.’ Tobie took another sip of coffee.
‘I don’t know what became of him. He must be somewhere around, in America or somewhere. I watched him working like that as long as I stayed in New York. He hardly talked at all. I think I got on his nerves in the end, standing there every day, watching him work. And yet he was a kind of genius, if there’s a meaning in the word. I’d have liked to be like him. Poor Gobel!’
The drawing was nearly finished now. Tobie touched it up here and there, rapidly, with the tip of the charcoal.
‘He was a very gentle type,’ he said; ‘I never saw him lose his temper. Sometimes people would walk over his drawing, dragging their feet, to needle him. He didn’t say a word. Just repaired the damage, as though it were quite natural. But I think really he was a little cracked.’

[Fever, Le Clézio, J. M. G.]

...of politesse

(A man at the next table interrupted us, thinking himself authorised to join in the conversation. Either he made out a word or sentence and tried to continue in the same vein, or else he brazenly broke in to talk to us of other things. Either way, his intervention was not welcome. Yes, we were sitting on the same terrace, but that didn’t make us a group, or a club, or a family! Who could still believe in such things? Who couldn’t feel the invisible walls separating us one from the next, so firm you might almost have knocked on them? We repelled the invader with our resolute silence, our unsociable air. His face fell. Society was a mercantile setup. Everyone could easily supply himself with bread, soap, and aspirin, without having to walk too far. We wanted nothing more from it than that.)

The jacket disappeared.
I later found it hanging in the closet.

(Nevertheless, the cafe had its regulars. They nodded on spotting each other. Some swapped banalities and information on the meteorological conditions. About as useful as reminding each other what they were wearing that day. Empty words, more an avoidance strategy than anything else. Thus did the regulars keep each other at a distance. The clouds served as a buffer.) 12

12 This is also the reason for the screen of politesse that the author unfolds between himself and others. He even adds a certain unctuousness, to prevent any friction. Can harmony exist without distance? Obeying any impersonal code, we efface anything that makes us stand out. We become any man in the street. In the end, it’s as if we weren’t there at all - and such is indeed the authors most constant desire: to be somewhere else, far from here. What to do with the hyper-presence of those boors who refuse to fade into the background, or at least  suck in their stomachs a little? Civility is a game of capes and passes by which we dodge the bull, which is more often a talkative neighbor than a savage beast blowing steam from its nostrils.

[The Author and Me, Chevillard, É]

...of bashfulness

I thought I held Anne, Florence, Méline, Susan in my arms: embraces so tight that I pawed only my own shoulder blades. Will you tell me why those girls never let themselves be caught? They weren’t always so elusive - had I not glimpsed Émile, Franck, Thierry, and Willhelm on their arm?
Look at the man before you.
Is he so hideous?
Oh, I’ve always known my appearance alone would never elicit the emotions propitious to coupling. I never left it at that. I spent a fortune on finery. My gaze smouldered with passion. Nothing worked. I might as well have been a dead fish. I might with the same success have set out to seduce a she-fox, a tit-mouse.
Can you explain this to me?
Am I really that ugly?
Do you think I talk too much?
But that’s just it, that can’t be it, because I remained perfectly mute in those women’s presence. They couldn’t get a word out of me. Not one word. The most perfect reserve. Often, in fact, I observed them from the shelter of a tree trunk or a corner cupboard. Could anyone be less importunate? Tell me, you whom I am importuning? And above tell me why they remained so distant, so indifferent? My attempts at invisibility and even inexistence left them utterly unmoved. And yet I disincarnated myself with perfect silence and distance. A real gentleman. I never got fresh, always stayed frozen. And yet my attentions were never repaid, can you believe it, I met with only their disdain!

[The Author and Me, Chevillard, É]

...of a plea

I tried again. My prayer was too short. God was a stickler for protocol.
I laid it on thicker.
Oh my God, creator of heaven and earth and all that goes into cauliflower gratin, unharden your heart.
Will you let your Naths, your Matts, your Grégoires go on floundering?
What will you do for Ernest, Violette, and Pandora?
And what for Albert?
And for Franz, and for Luce?
Nothing? Really, you’ll do nothing?
Not even for Agathe and Suzie?
For Agathe and Suzie at least?
At least don’t abandon Agathe and Suzie!
God oh God!
For pity’s sake!
My voice swelled, and I looked around for updrafts, hoping to heighten my prayer’s chances of reaching its goal, of being heard up top, of finding the Ear of the Almighty in His celestial retreat.
No answer.
It was like asking the tiger to have fewer fangs, fewer claws, fewer black stripes on its orange fur, fewer roars. Nothing would come of my complaint. Not on the agenda. I might as well have demanded an extra arm, my two hands struggling to describe and define in the air what the third would have grasped without effort: that’s what prayer is, and it’s swallowed up by the silence.

[The Author and Me, Chevillard, É]

...of a good lexicographer

Neither is it forbidden to turn to Pierre Larousse’s Great Universal Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century and consult the appropriate entry, an on-the-spot report, written while the old fart was still animate, a document all the more precious in that it issues from one who witnessed firsthand the doings of this NISARD (Jean-Marie-Napoléon-Désiré), French critic, born in Châtillon-sur-Seine (Côte d’Or) in 1806. After completing his studies at the Collège Sainte-Barbe, Monsieur Nisard embarked on a journalistic career, whereby he would prove that a man can go laces in journalism, provided he gets out of it - an axiom much in vogue under the July Monarchy. From his beginnings at the Journal des Débats and Le National, he would rise to the ranks of Representative in the Chambre des Députés, head of the École Normale, and member of the Académie Francais. As we see, Larousse maintains an uncomfortable silence on the subject of Nisard’s childhood, which is entirely to the good lexicographer’s credit, and indeed we shall have many more occasions to admire the nobility of his soul and the kindliness of his heart, not to mention his commendable self-restraint, for the young Nisard was a wearisome brat, whiny, secretive, capricious, irresolute, fearful, forever smearing his shirtsleeves with the snot that flowed unquenchably from his ridiculous nose, a filthy habit he is said to have kept until an advanced age, despite the many remonstrations doled out by his parents, whose other two sons, Charles and Auguste, nevertheless gave them every satisfaction.”My father was an upstanding man, his integrity equal to all challenges, his every act rooted in virtue,” Nisard would belatedly acknowledge, and his mother too was a very sweet lady, utterly without guile. The name she chose for her child tells us eloquently enough how eagerly his coming was awaited. In spite of which, somewhat adrift in the billows of infant apparel designed for a far more robust child, the sickly newborn continually soils his diapers and regurgitates his milk, devoting the remaining hours of his days to endless wailing. Such were the first months of an existence that would in years to come eschew no mode of expression by which complaints might be voiced.

[Demolishing Nisard, Chevillard, É]

...of a Nisardless book

No doubt the most surprising thing in a book without Nisard would be the light. I’m convinced of it: habituated as is to a certain textual obscurity born of the shadow cast by Nisard, the reader would first of all be amazed by all the light. No longer would Désiré Nisard be blocking its source. The reader would next delight in the quality of the silence that precedes and follows every truly meaningful utterance, a silence currently disturbed by Nisard’s endless carping - is he not even now grumbling and fidgeting petulantly in his chair? There is however one sound emanating from him, and one sound only, that our ear would be curious to hear: what manner of reverberation would be produced by the insect-demolishing slap to his cheek? In the book without Nisard, no more gasping for fresh air, no more nostrils pinched shut. To be sure, it’s hard to believe that the sea breeze is still blowing when the grounded sperm whale lies rotting on the shore, the atmosphere choked with the its effluvia; cart off that putrid flesh, however, and the reader will breathe a great deal easier. As will the non-reader too, in the world without Nisard.

[Demolishing Nisard, Chevillard, É]