from CASTLE IN THE AIR
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY ALYSON WATERS
The last word is written, the manuscript finished. I’d wanted to make it seem as if everything had happened, not to me, but to someone else, for example a close friend whose misfortunes I’d have witnessed and whose story I’d have been in a good position to relate: My God, the poor woman! How did she manage to get herself into that, I wonder? None of that would have happened to me in any case, nor to you, I suppose.
Even the least gifted novelist can manage to pull off this sort of substitution: I becomes he, blond hair turns brown, fat becomes thin. And I of all people could not manage to lay the mantle of this idiotic and impeccably horrific story on someone else’s shoulders?
I tried. I told the entire story using a false name, only to realize that, in the end--no, in fact, I couldn’t pull it off.
It was supposed to be a love story and so that no one could possibly think it had happened to me—am I not too modest to reveal my love life in public?—in the manuscript I began by calling myself Léa and by getting baptized; then I made myself French with a Russian mother. Léa of course did not look a thing like me; not only was she half a head shorter but she had light brown hair and blue eyes and in German, the language in which the manuscript was written, the expression “to have blue eyes” means not only to have blue eyes but also to be naïve or gullible, which of course I am not in the least.
The story of my, let’s say, “novel,” took place partly in Paris, which again did not prove it had happened to me because, even if I do in fact live in Paris, the city is home to several million people who are of an age and in circumstances that make them fit for love stories, so why not a Léa?
In the manuscript, which was as long as it was bad, and which I had called Castle in the Air, the male protagonist also appeared under a false name, a rare first name (Enguerrand) that had been handed down from the Renaissance in a smattering of aristocratic families, only to wind up worming its way into a failed manuscript. Enguerrand lived in a house deep in the woods—more like a castle, yes, a small castle that obviously I did not situate in the place where its real-life counterpart was located (a place about which, in this “remake,” I can give no information either). I had at least managed to grasp that much of Novel Writing 101, that is, just like some American billionaire I had succeeded in demolishing a castle stone by stone, transporting it from the banks of the Marne to the banks of the Hudson, for example, or to Burgundy.
To myself I had assigned the role of Léa’s best friend, a German writer living in Paris, a rather dull woman who closely observes the ups and downs of her friend’s love life and, sometimes moved, sometimes dismayed or indignant, comments on them. By splitting myself in two, I had hoped to gain not only an additional hiding place, but also the requisite narrative distance.
Under the cover of this definitely rudimentary fiction that I hoped, nonetheless, was believable, I began gaily to tell the story—as gaily, in any case, as the circumstances, which I shall have to talk about, would allow, until the manuscript was finished.
Then I tossed it in the trash.
And now, let’s go back to square one. The story I had survived and wanted to write about was like one you find in a bad novel, and so I wrote the bad novel to match the story. But that’s enough now! Story, be content with what I have already given you! I wrote that syrupy drivel for you; I trust you’ll understand that I am not going to take another step and get it published. I’m starting over, from the beginning, and this time I’ll tell the story as I please. Let’s take the character of Léa, for example. Despite the various disguises I forced her to don, she resembled me much too much. What am I supposed to do with a character who, with the exception of her hair color, is a better likeness of me than I myself am? Obviously, I’d made Léa act slightly differently from how I’d acted in the same circumstances and, instead of having her live in the 2nd arrondissement, where I reside, I had set her up on rue des Épinettes, near Place Clichy, that is, on the other side of the city. But who was I hoping to fool with such transparent ploys?
“I’m terribly sorry, you are the flesh of my flesh, but I no longer have any use for your character,” I said to Léa, who had landed in the wastepaper basket along with the manuscript. From now on, I’m going back to the first person. And I have the feeling that this brand-new I will resemble me less in the end than the fictional Léa, even though this I has been fashioned according to my exact measurements.
This story belongs under the sign of the blaps mortisaga. The blaps mortisaga, or Darkling Beetle, is a large black beetle I found one winter morning on my kitchen floor where, lying on its back like Kafka, it wriggled weakly about as if in slow motion, probably already on its last legs. This beetle continued to terrify me long after I first noticed it; I picked it up in my kitchen and plopped it down smack in the middle of the novel being written, right under the nose of Léa who, still drowsy, eyelids sticky with sleep, was feeling her way across her apartment in the half-light. What is that little dark spot in front of the refrigerator? she thought. A cork, perhaps, or a dust bunny? Instead of trapping the insect under an upsidemadown glass and sliding a piece of paper underneath in order to be able to pick up the whole thing and throw the beetle out the window, she opened the kitchen cabinet in search of the insecticide spray she thought she had. Not finding it, she grabbed any old spray can, an aerosol can of shoe waterproofing, and squirted the animal lying defenseless on its back—which did not cause it to die but, on the contrary, made it rapidly and desperately twitch its little legs. Overcoming her disgust, suppressing her desire to scream hysterically, she grabbed a broom and dustpan and managed to get the enraged insect to go into a plastic bag—and then she knotted the bag shut. Even captive and soaked in waterproofing liquid, however, the animal did not calm down. The plastic bag began to crawl across the floor with ominous rustling noises, so that Léa had to walk down the five flights of stairs in her pajamas, holding the bag at the end of her outstretched arm, and toss it in the building’s trash bin where it continued to move and rustle and where, in my imagination, it moves and rustles, invincible to this day.
How could I get this girl, whom I had just invented, to understand the terror this incident had caused in me? I had to make a huge effort to communicate to her the sense of fear, persecution, and menace I felt at the time of this early-morning encounter and, to do so, I had no choice but to endow her with a past that resembled my own. And no doubt that is where something started to go wrong because the experience of a character in a novel is limited by certain constraints, constraints that are, in fact, much stricter than those placed on us creatures of flesh and blood: they are the constraints of verisimilitude, or of the bearable. If I really wanted to burden that poor Léa with the series of events that happened to me, her life would, for the sake of believability, have to end in suicide, in solitary confinement in a psychiatric ward—or, precisely, in a wastebasket. I’ve now realized that I am tougher than my Léa. So I might as well take on in my own name, right from the start, all the dreadful things to come.
In order to write my failure of a manuscript, I had divided myself into one very alive person to whom unbelievably crazy things happen (Léa) and a second person (me) who, sitting at her desk as if in the eye of an urban hurricane, sees and speaks to no one all day. Out of the most alive part of myself I had created a character in a novel, and this splitting in two seemed perfectly normal to me.
When I think of everything I had to invent to transform myself into an almost believable character! I got Léa a job as an assistant in a law firm on Avenue Wagram and then, later, had her working for an art publisher, where she took care of press relations. She let me shuffle her meekly from office to office, from bed to bed. And all in vain because today Léa and I have fallen into each other’s arms to melt back into a single person. Don’t be angry with me, Léa. You’ve got to admit that, without any will of your own, you didn’t have the stuff of a heroine.
And now that Léa has been scrapped, she’s springing back to life and demanding a second chance. She’d like to get back on stage. What writer is capable of saying no to her own protagonist? OK, Léa, even if only as a character in a failed novel, as a shadow of your former self, you will make your entry onto these pages.
In the failed manuscript, right before she met Enguerrand, Léa had fallen for a Russian man named Vladimir Mikoyan, and the two of them had what was supposed to be a never-ending, hopeless love affair, a story that belongs among the multitude of illnesses, fits of melancholy, accidents, and natural catastrophes that loom on the horizon in the life of any human being. How, under these circumstances, could she have been receptive to the existence of another man, even if he were the noble Enguerrand? She would not have eyes for him for another six years.
Meanwhile, the story of Castle in the Air had begun like this:
“On 26 January 1972, a JAT Yugoslav Airlines DC-9 flying between Copenhagen and Zagreb exploded in mid-flight. The Yugoslav stewardess, Vesna Vulovic, age 22, was ejected from the cabin, fell 10,160 meters without a parachute and crashed down near the Czech village of Srbská Kamenice. She survived. The chances of Léa coming out of her affair with Vladimir safe and sound were approximately the same.”
In Vladimir I had combined all the charming scoundrels I’d ever met and then set this male concoction down one night across from Léa in a brasserie on Boulevard Montparnasse. So as not to make the task too easy for either of them, I had it so that Léa was accompanied by a man who played no part in the story and whose sole appearance this would be. I had placed Vladimir, alone at his table, across from them. Once the characters had been spread throughout the dining room, the reader could imagine, almost entirely without my intervention, Léa’s gaze skirting around her tablemate, sparing him like a knife-thrower, in order to plunge into the eyes of Vladimir, dining directly behind. Since there was no question of their losing each other when they had just found each other and since, in addition, Léa, with a companion, could not expect the initiative to come from Vladimir, she stood up and began to walk on her long legs down the stairs toward the “gentlemen” and “ladies.” Now we see Léa locking herself in one of the stalls, digging in her purse, taking out a slip of paper and a pencil, and writing, “Sunday evening, here,” folding the slip of paper until it is the size of an olive pit, opening the door, flushing the toilet—to make the scene more realistic, I had invented a tiny flood, so that Léa found herself with her feet in water, about which she gave not a damn, particularly since the reader or the moviegoer had no desire to see the heroine trying to repair a water problem downstairs, but rather meeting the man dining alone at his table upstairs. Next we see her glancing quickly in the mirror, running her hand through her hair, then climbing back up the stairs and, looking straight ahead, letting the folded piece of paper fall on Vladimir’s table by almost imperceptibly opening the hand swinging beside her body. Shortly afterwards, she leaves the restaurant with her tablemate. In the movie version, Léa would have been played by Julia Roberts or Sharon Stone.
There. The introductions have been made. Let the first of the miseries begin.
I had her marry Vladimir. In less than two months and seven and a half pages of manuscript, the deal was closed. “Marry me, stupid,” Vladimir had said to Léa in English, alluding to Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid, an allusion that Léa didn’t catch, but her knowledge of English was at least sufficient for her to understand the sentence and answer, in English, “Yes.”
Three days after the wedding, I had managed to put Vladimir in such a state that he already wanted to get a divorce. Without, however, leaving Léa. Indeed, separations and divorces are such brutal, painful events that it is better to imagine them in succession, which is in fact what most people do. What was specific to Léa’s case was that the divorce took place before the separation.
Other, more talented authors no doubt have more imagination than I, who in this instance once again went digging around in my own gold-mine of experience, my treasure of wounds. Indeed, the husband that I happened to have had (even though the verb “to have” seems terribly overstated here, but how else to express the idea?) had gotten it in his head to divorce me as soon as we were married. Because we loved each other and we had no intention of leaving one another, a divorce did not seem absolutely necessary to me, but I could not manage to change his mind.
“Don’t you think you could have thought of that a few days ago?” I queried.
No, a few days ago he had still wanted to marry me.
I asked if we couldn’t just go on living, each in his or her own apartment, and loving each other.
Of course, but we had to divorce.
Because it was marriage, the institution of marriage that was weighing on him; he had completely misjudged the importance of this social symbol, it was a several-ton load that was now weighing on him and preventing him from having a simple and spontaneous relationship with me. In addition, he was an artist and as such incapable of sharing his life, his life was unshareable and unbearable, a long trek through trials and tribulations that I could not possibly understand.
He was the first artist I’d ever met, and he corresponded perfectly to the idea I’d formed of those creatures of legend. The way he gave himself over so utterly to his every whim and mood made a deep impression on me.
“Well, if that’s all it is, let’s get a divorce!” I said cheerfully.
I was relieved that it was not I, but only the institution of marriage, that was weighing on him with a several-ton load.
Well, the divorce turned out to be a much longer and more expensive affair than the wedding. We had to let six months go by before we could even ask for a divorce. And it was yet another year before it was granted, so that my husband, who was anything but a bodybuilder, had to live for a year and a half under the immense weight of the institution and, indeed, he wound up bowing beneath his load whereas I, only bending my knees on the inside, seemed to grow taller in comparison.
Only little by little did I understand that what I had taken for a love affair was in reality an exercise in hand-to-hand combat that I had lost even before it had begun. I started by giving money to the numerous beggars and drifters I came across as I walked through the Paris streets. My gesture, however, was neither one of pity nor of generosity; it was an attempt at bribery, pure and simple. I was trying to bribe the beggars because I imagined that my happiness in love and, hereafter, in marriage was in their hands.
In order to punish my husband for having gone on our honeymoon without me, I took off for Hong Kong by myself, where I made every effort to disappear among six million Chinese people and where, in effect, for a full ten days I was the only one struck by my presence there. In Hong Kong, it was as if I had been swallowed up by the earth and did not exist. My “husband” is in Basque country, I kept trying to tell myself. In the midst of this unbelievable multitude of Chinese people, all occupied with their own lives, eating, sleeping, dragging their feet, the existence of a Basque country seemed improbable to me, mythical, unheard of, and what was even more unheard of was the simultaneous existence of this island of Hong Kong where I found myself and of this Basque country where my husband-in-quotes was.
The simultaneity of events on earth, whether on different continents or in two rooms of the same apartment, has never ceased to astound me. While I write this sentence, down in the street a child rides his bicycle in front of a murderer, the sun is reflected in a skylight in Suresnes and, in Novosibirsk, a mouse is caught in a mousetrap. It’s something unimaginable, this “rest of the world” that doesn’t give a damn about you, that fills all of space and is never still, and that is always there at the same time.