Summer (Been)by Jean Frémon
Determined to leave, I had taken one of the lanes bordered with old timber-work houses which led to the banks of the river. A lively wind, coming from the East, had driven the clouds away and now again there was a cool breeze on the heights, which was soon to give away to the immobility of the growing heat: the drone of wasps would replace the trills of morning birds, the peonies’ heads would plunge toward the ground, and later one would see swifts, like two-seaters of the past in an aerial skirmish, plunge down to the ground to seize midges, until the sun became overcast with a pallid haze. In the concerto which would serve as the musical illustration of this scene, the cello and the oboe, would take turns as soloists, the exchange of brass and strings keeping harmony. During the night, a violent storm, which the percussion would mimic, will beat down the bean poles in the low-walled vegetable garden, and the first drops of rain, at first heavy and slow, then suddenly more frequent and closer together, as the piano passes from solemn and slow to the leaping bitterness of pizzicato, will produce, through windows left open, a coolness in the bodies of the sleepers, who will tug the sheets a little over their naked bodies and turn over in their sleep, trying to continue their dream.
I had stopped a moment to follow a chess match in the village square. The chess board is made of alternating gray and white paving stones, slate and travertine, the shaped wooden pieces about the size of an eight-year-old child, the two adversaries moving about the surface of the board like generals among their armies.
Strange army whose forces seem defeated, dispersed to the four corners of an agreed-upon territory. Protected by a rook employed just in time, the King drowses under the lone vigilance of two soldiers and a Tower, while the Queen, horses and bishops, rushing into the opening which initial moves will create, have already swept over the terrain many times, carried in the players’ full arms. The soldiers, victims of these repeated assaults, lie to the side.
I thought, in watching them, of the way in which Tadeusz Kantor intervenes onstage during the performance of the plays for which he is at once author and stage manager. He wanders, absorbed in his thoughts, among his characters, puppets or simulacras of puppets, manipulating them to the point of exhaustion, indicating to them with a gesture, like the conductor of an orchestra, the start of a sequence, the tone wanted for a certain rejoinder, ordering stage business and changes of scene, imposing his rhythm on the whole. But, ridiculous conductor of a soon to be routed orchestra, he multiplies his less and less understandable instructions, runs desperately from the court to the garden to try to slow the coming disaster, like Ionesco’s king limping from one arrow slit to the other within his besieged castle before theatrically dying.
From the low wall where I was seated, I overlooked the match and could believe myself the organizer of this little operatic war, which seemed to come straight out of a world where playing cards march past in cadence and where the Queen of Hearts plays croquet with a pink flamingo for a mallet and a rolled-up hedgehog for a ball, such as the Wonderland to which Charles Lutwigde Dodgson, mathematics professor and amateur photographer, had introduced the young Liddell Sisters after the growing heat of a summer afternoon, probably in every way similar to this one, had compelled them to interrupt their boat journey to go sit in a meadow, in the shadow of a haystack, where the little girls begged him insistently to tell them a story.
"Do you know how the fox manages to devour the hedgehog— one of the very finest foods, I’m told— without pricking his muzzle?" Dodgson might have managed to say.
"Tell, tell," the young girls cried in the greatest confusion.
"By urinating copiously upon it. Trickling with foul urine, the sea urchin of the forests unrolls itself, allowing the cunning beast to take it by the throat."
I imagine Dodgson contemplating the growing fright in the eyes of the young girls with a strange smile. Later, he had them pose, in their slips, in the barn which served as his studio; he is already imagining the marvelous photos which gelatin will reveal.
"The form of the pink flamingo’s beak," he continues, "takes the shape of a horrible rictus" (he seemed to take pleasure from making his r’s roll while moving his bushy eyebrows as an ogre might do) "which gives this animal a stupid and naughty appearance" (he punctuates the phrase with a mimicry which returns uncertain smiles to the faces of the children). "Very happily," continues the storyteller, "the awkward winged creature is furnished with a neck so long that it is obliged to turn its head completely upside down when it dips it into the water to seize the slender minnows that it feeds on. Thus, viewed upside down, the rictus is changed into a smile, which no doubt is useful for not frightening the lovely pink shrimp which give its plumage its color as well as the name to the species, and for making, upside down, a lovely hedgehog mallet for the disagreeable Queen of Hearts."
Was it the heat, added to idleness, which led to dreaming? The match had ended in checkmate and the jousters had deserted the arena without my having noticed. Their undone armies lay in disorder: the pride of their starting order fallen into disarray. That king which had not been surrounded and enclosed by its opponent, was still sitting in state, alone and useless; the other was lying in the exact place of its undoing.
I again began walking toward the river whose cool currents I already felt. On the irregularly paved descent, I felt my feet pushing against the ends of my shoes. I had in my head simple phrases, descriptive and sonorous, modeled after those which swarm in the scholarly manuals from which one draws dictation passages for children. I walked along describing my acts or my thoughts as if I were engaged in drafting a "French composition." The Promenade or A Summer’s Day would have been its title, and I saw myself as the principle character of a narration which, though unfolding in my head, was exterior to me, drew me into its circumvolutions, a narration which would have had the applied tone, the prudent rhythm, the preordained temperament of schoolwork.
Pawn which advances only a single square directly forward, bishop which sweeps back and forth along the diagonals, horse free to leap obstacles but never deviating from the angle which regulates its form: in what way was I different from these manipulated wooden tokens, even if I have been able to believe myself, for an instant, from the top of my little low wall, the commander of the players themselves; I who felt myself the subject of a phrase which seemed only a memory of reading, of a phrasing which parodied the teacher dictating to the student, taking care to make lightly audible not only the logical series which commas signal, but also the liaisons, the usual links of a plural to a vowel and those, more affected, which normally spoken language wouldn’t have singled out and which were pronounced here only to try to warn the attentive listener to avoid a trap.
Divided between the familiar, although unsettling, feeling of déjà-vu, the impression of moving myself through a conventional world, the houses themselves with their coquettish little air and their potted, balconied geraniums seeming ready to collapse at the slightest nudge, and the haunting memory of not being there, of understanding nothing, of reading a book written in a language I didn’t know; after having gone along the river at length and left behind me the houses clustered around the fountain, holding long in my head the familiar noise of the trickle of running water falling into the granite basin, I had gained a hill jutting over the village, and here I finally sat down on the grass and napped.
I saw in dream, from the top of my improvised observation post, the house of little Alice L., a child with whom I had been in love; spying on the comings and goings of the household, heart beating in the hope of seeing her blond hair appear in the sun, I saw successively and with emotion her father return a cart to the barn, her mother hang the wash on a line which crossed the garden between two poles, her brothers quarreling about a ball which finished its course in the neighbor’s lettuce patch, and I concluded as a result of that strange logic of which only love is capable that she was in her room, busy sewing or more likely absorbed in fascinating reading, reading, for example, the book I had written for her, calligraphed and handsewn between two pieces of cardboard torn from a box of chocolates, and which I had secretly passed on to her during play.
In thought, I thus entered into the room where she in fact was. It sometimes happens that dreams thwart you, that a devil pulls the rug out from beneath your feet, that at the moment when what you want the most is about the occur, though it be in the irreal form of phantasm, the story forks without warning and leaves you flabbergasted, frustrated, deceived. This time, no— at least, not yet. She was stretched out on her bed, a little child’s rosewood bed, and held my book in her hands. "I can’t understand any of this," she says, when she sees me, "even though I’m a first-rate reader." "Naturally," I tell her, all proud of my discovery, "it is a mirror book, one can only read the reflection. And what’s more, its title is a perfect palindrome, one of the four seasons in one direction, the past participle of the verb to be in the other, and inversely."1
But as I contemplate her naked legs and golden hair, the storm bursts at last and pulls me from my sleep, erasing this August day born at once from dream and from childhood.
*Frémon refers to the title of his own story, "Eté," which means at once "Summer" and "Been."
Translated from the French by the author Brian Evenson.
Jean Fremon has published numerous novels and books in France. This excerpt was taken from the chapbook Painting that was published by Black Square Editions in 1999.