I am fully aware that I have never written anything other than fictions. For all that, I would not want to say that they were outside the truth. It seems plausible to me to make fictions work within truth . . . and in some way to make discourse arouse, “fabricate,” something which does not yet exist, thus to fiction something. One “fictions” history starting from a political reality that renders it true, one “fictions” a politics not yet in existence starting from a historical truth.
This novel takes the form of an historical fantasy consisting of letters, all imaginary and most of them unsent, which thus “fiction” an imaginary history that is at least doubly fictional: an imagined imagined life of the philosopher Michel Foucault. The novel is set in Uppsala, Sweden during three weeks of February, 1956, when Foucault was undergoing his first Swedish winter, having accepted a position as something of a cultural attaché, giving lectures and lessons while researching the madness book in the newly catalogued Waller collection at the Carolina Rediviva library. This story unfolds during the brief time at the end of his love affair with the composer Jean Barraqué after he returned home to France over Christmas, 1955, to try to convince Barraqué to join him in Uppsala. Foucault had arrived in Lutheran Sweden under the mistaken opinion that it was a country somehow more friendly toward homosexuals. The novel takes place in the first weeks after he returns in February, 1956, and before the relationship ends in March. It is an epistolary novel, consisting of a series of letters to Jean, to his mother, to a former colleague and mentor, whom he sometimes calls his former spouse, and especially to a young Swedish woman, Gabrielle. During his first months in Uppsala, Foucault had already begun developing a salon of sorts around him, as well as begun serious research into the madness book, and given very successful lectures in Uppsala on sexuality in France to packed lecture halls. Thus many of these characters and situations, except those involving Gabrielle, have their equivalents in historical events…
The language of the novel, a kind of English-French creole, with occasional Swedish words, is likewise an invention. I think of it as “mixed language” for me whose nearest equivalent perhaps appears in Christina Brooke-Rose’s extraordinary novel, Between. It is meant to create a kind of overtone like the droning of a guimbarde (jew’s harp), keeping the realistic elements suspended and rendering the experience of the sort of tuning in and out one does—like scanning across radio frequencies—living in one and a half languages and a faraway city. Even so, the French phrases and words here hew closely enough to familiar English ones such that a casual reader, even without much familiarity with French, should have no trouble following the events.
13 Février 1956 (unsent)
Mon très cher B,
Let me say directly once again at the start that I long to have you here with all my heart. If this for you is an ostinato, so be it. For me such longing is a continuo, the dark notes beneath this infernal winter, which nonetheless—and it is for this that I write you—has brightened considerably in recent days by the appearance in my life of the most unlikely creature, an ice princess if you will, a Swedish girl I happened upon, muttering—pas en suédois, mais en français, si tu peux le croire!—and walking along the path in nothing more (or less) than opera slippers and a rose colored opera cape over what seemed to be, and surely was, a diaphanous emerald peignoir, that is, a costume more or less in the same hues –and as wrapped in layers—as this my present domicile at La Maison Française with its pink stone stories hanging above the red street level like a girl’s birthday confection.
I do not write of this encounter in hopes of arousing some absurdly operatic jealousy in you as a last stratagem, nor to suggest that these severe northern climes have somehow frozen my desire for you, although vraiment I am not so certain of desire in general, not to mention ton désir pour moi, soit particulier, soit général. Of course I have never met or held a generality as I have you, nor been so pierced or so transfixed or covered in such darkness so constantly by any one man before you.
But forgive this girlish simpering and its affront to your dignity and let me tell you instead about this angel who descended, whether climbing down an iron ladder from the heaven of Luther or descending like a mystical bird from the forests of the Sagas, who can say? (Although her prénom, what the English call her Christian name, is that, je le jure, of an archange: Gabrielle, mon vieux Gabier.)
If you wonder that I write so frankly of desire or of the feminine within me, credit –or blame, as you wish—this creature who,
though I have only known her for days, seems capable of teasing out ambiguities from anyone.
And what precisely was this diaphanous creature muttering? you ask—or at least so I would have you do in the conversation intime that I’ve scripted here for want of any recent word from you. Instead there is ce théâtre de marionnettes peut-être in which I have cast you in the role of the reluctant (should I say estranged?) beloved and I the distant lover, something I devoutly wish that you could work into a grander work than my poor guignol, a divertissement, an opera in a single act. You would do it for me if only you cared.
Yet to accommodate the entrance of our archange Gabrielle into such a bagatelle without sentimentality would test even you, mon ange ténébreux, since—and here I’ll save you the suspense, because you are not only not here to ask, but also increasingly–devastatingly—mute with me in any case... For what she recited was nothing less—talk of surréalisme!—than the sad interlude within Racine’s Andromaque where Hermione laments lost love (do you think I invent all this? I sometimes think as much myself, even though I have now met her more than once and thus know for a fact that elle existe en chair et en os).
Où suis-je? Qu’ai-je fait?—you know the moment:
Where am I, what have I done, she moaned, what must I do, what frenzy’s fallen over me, wandering here aimless, and so on, ending with “Ah! ne puis-je savoir si j’aime, ou si je hais?”
How do I know whether I love or hate, exactly. Hermione’s question mine as well, although in my case a question I pose to you rather than of myself: “Ne puis-je savoir si tu aimes, ou si tu hais?”
How do I know? How will I?
Nonetheless the perfect text for a madwoman walking on a path along a frozen river in the midst of a Swedish winter, n’est-ce pas?
No one could have scripted it better.
And what did I say to her? you may wonder.
Nothing less than what gallantry comports one, quelqu’un comme moi, who holds l’auguste poste de lecteur à l’Université d’Uppsala et de directeur de la Maison de France de cette ville:
“Pardonnez moi, Madmoiselle, may I be so forward as to inquire as to whether I might offer any assistance. It’s a rather cold morning and one cannot help but to have noticed that you seem perhaps to have ventured out without clothing warm enough to suit the elements. Perhaps my cloak will serve?”
She looked at me as if it were I who had been babbling lines from Racine then burst out laughing!
“Kan du hjälpa mig? Kan du hjälpa mig!”
The mocking way she pronounced the Swedish phrase made me feel as if I were the one out in the cold in my nightclothes comme une folle.
“Bien sûr,” she said, “perhaps you could carry me on your back like Cléopâtre on her camel, or, failing that, escort me to tea at the Konditori Fågelsången juste en face outside the park.”
And that was what I did.
I must say that I expected more of a commotion within the café following the drama of our entrance, à dos de chameau ou non, but I have already learned that the Swedish people aren’t given to questioning directly how others present themselves, at least not obviously. They value privacy—or perhaps rather good order—
over convention, at least in the way they comport themselves in public. Yet with what words such public spectacles later occupy their hearts I cannot say and do not propose to test for myself, although I must say that, even before meeting my angel, I had considered, and may still buy, an opera cape for myself, mais pas rose, since in truth it seems a practical accoutrement for a land where the cold lays upon one’s shoulders like a shroud of ice.
I fully expected that milady would take her tea in the English manner but she drinks her coffee à la française, although she claimed la provenance pour this dark habit, among others, resided for her in Brazil. To evoke this magic name brings us to the present subject, a prospect que je souhaite évoquer devant toi, a magical city that hangs above the world like the gardens of Hammurabi and where our kind might be free—and, if she is to be believed, indeed they are free—both to love and be loved openly, my love. (Can you believe that once I had hoped this Swedish ice palace might furnish such a dream? Moi, je ne peux pas. At this point, nearly half a year here, it now seems a measure of my own foolishness and folly, especially now when I would offer you anything to replace the dark Decembers that you say you desire no more of.)
I begin to think I’ve become une version manichéenne of this Virgil of yours–yours, my friend, not the dying Virgil of Broch’s novel—having, comme tu disais, led you to this place where you descend, descend, descend, a triple I still hear avec la note de basse with which you sounded it in my ear.
Your December and ours, la descente dans les ténèbres. Yet how many caverns existe-t-il dans cette place below to which you descend and who, sinon toi, toi-même, has built the stairways that lead there, do you suppose?
Who now is the actor and who the spectator in what you call cette entreprise de la dégradation?
But now I’ve lost my way, my Virgil, stumbling into darkness again just at the moment that I meant to tantalize you with the luminescence
of une vision paradisiaque, the opposite of Decembers, there or here, this one in the form of an actual île flottante brésilienne.
En guise de décalage du mode to a lighter measure then, let me say that to light the way toward that isle one might have found no better lamp than the nacreous green confection upon which the princess fed herself, a local specialty that she conjured and devoured to expel the cold and, as it turned out, renew herself after dancing the night away at a ball in a chateau just above the path where first I found her.
Have you caught your breath, ma vieille? I can’t say that I quite have, neither in this telling nor the moment it recounts and wherein I played the part of a mechanical to her Hippolyta in this midwinter’s morning’s dream.
In any case the patisserie upon which she broke her fast is called— and hereafter I will forego any attempt to have you believe the truth of any of this, save one, the unflagging intensity of my desire for you—I swear, the Prinsesstårta or Princess-Torte! It consists of an almost translucent, sickly green shell of marzipan in the form of l’igloo des esquimaux but into which the snow has been invited (or invaded) in the form of clouds of chantilly cream interspersed with yellow cake and jam. In short it seems a confection for children ou pour de petits chiens, those tiny poodles favored by Empresses, either or both of which, child or poodle, at first perhaps might seem to characterize our archange.
However I assure you that would disserve her. For she could be a true archangel to us, I swear, mon amour douce-amère. She could be a herald of another world and time beside (or above, I will come to the story) the world whose darkness now engulfs and suffocates us both and keeps us apart.
The torte, she tells me, was invented more or less in recent history, in honor of the Swedish princess, Astrid, and not—thank the gods and goddesses, both Nordic and Greek—the seventeenth century Cristina, she whose fondness for early morning leçons in
her unheated bedchamber for his fealty (to be sure, an observance guaranteed by armed guards) doomed poor Descartes, whose presence I feel ever here, à la mort d’une pneumonie.
I shall try not to die for this ice princess, though I must say that more and more I come to understand what Descartes meant when he said that even ideas freeze into ice here, and thus how one welcomes vagrant warmth comme celle que cet enfant angélique apporte, like the swift and reluctant sun that races across the horizon of a Swedish February day before disappearing again for the majority of its hours.
Yet in Rio de Janeiro, the river of January’s newness never freezes. There the water is a jewel of openness unlike those few dank spots that for quite other reasons do not entirely freeze along the Fyrisån here. The river here, though it may steal its name from a fiery beacon, ce n’est pas un flux prométhéen. Rather it is but a white undulation, literally a depression, white through the surrounding whiteness, except, that is, where it opens at the two bleak falls in the center of the city, which in Autumn seemed to promise endless music, and then a little further on opens again in those dégoûtants espaces where unkempt ducks have thawed access to dark water for themselves through a slush of urine.
O désolé my dearest friend, how have I come, you may wonder, from the sublimity of a Chantilly-filled igloo to this foul scene?
Were you here to see it with me, even this pus-colored suppuration would heal over into meringue, I am sure of it; were you here the sun would rise early and stay to hear your harsh songs, mon rossignol aigu.
I remember with joy how at my suggestion, sorcerer yourself, you transformed the Sorcerer’s Lament from Nietzsche into a vision of what now is in my heart, what now is my heart:
You stop and gaze back, how long, are you mad then,
to flee the frozen world now?
white as ice you stop
a doomed wanderer in midwinter
I long to hear your Séquence, I do, my love, in the full of ses goûts et ses couleurs—you must believe me, ne doute pas de moi!—perhaps we could hear it there together in a Brazil of our making.
One day there will be rockets, I feel certain, to carry lovers through time in just such an instant. Even now the Americans, or worse still their German cousins, are working on such time machines, doing so without the imagination of Verne, turning the universe itself into a machine. It’s up to such as us to use it to transport us to other worlds.
Oh won’t you come here, now as I write, et nous allons prendre l’avion, a Constellation, Pan Am to Panair via Lisbon, going around the cold world, turning the clock back to when we were together before any December smothered us. We’ll begin the calendar again at the opposite extreme, there in le vrai Janeiro, where once we found it long ago in Paris. We’ll turn the clock back, my ugly duckling, an angel will carry us, we can be there before Carnival is over in this fortuitous year where Mardi Gras falls on the feast of the patron saint of lovers. Joins-toi avec moi, mon cri, mon christ, mon cristal!
MICHAEL JOYCE is the author of eleven books in a career as a writer in several genres?poet, critic, and collaborative multimedia artist. Joyce is best known as the author of Afternoon, which The New York Times called “the granddaddy of hypertext fictions,” and which The Toronto Globe and Mailsaid “is to the hypertext interactive novel what the Gutenberg bible is to publishing.”