The Man Who Stopped Writing

This appeared in 3:AM Magazine on 11 July 2011:

marc-edouardnabe

L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire, Marc-Edouard Nabe, 2010

Marc-Edouard Nabe has always relished playing with fire, but never more so than when he burned what would have been the fifth volume of his journal. His main motivation was to avoid being trapped in a Shandyesque race with time, ending up pigeonholed as a diarist. Nevertheless, he went on to describe this event in Alain Zannini (2002), a novel so blatantly autobiographical that it even bore his real name as its title (Nabe, short for “nabot” — midget — is a nom de plume). The implication was clear: having lived his life in order to narrate it, Zannini had gradually become Nabe’s creation. What, then, would happen if the writer were to stop writing?

This ontological question is raised in L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire (“The Man Who Stopped Writing”), which begins with the author-narrator’s paradoxical assertion — given the length of the book, let alone its very existence — that he has forsaken literature after being dropped by his publisher. “A publisher paying me to write books nobody reads,” he deadpans, “I thought this would go on for ever.”

For the best part of two decades, the real-life Nabe had received a monthly wage from Les Editions du Rocher, but this stipend was suddenly withdrawn when they were bought out in 2005. The novelist responded by taking legal action. Throughout the lengthy lawsuit, he expressed himself by means of posters, which his hardcore supporters pasted all over the walls of France’s major cities. He also maintained the fiction that his authorial days were over, so as to remain in character while secretly writing his novel about writing no more.

The appearance of L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire thus came as quite a surprise, not least because Nabe chose to go down the self-publishing, or rather “anti-publishing”, route. The minimalist jet-black cover has a whiff of piracy about it: no barcode, no ISBN, no publisher’s name or logo; the spine remains bare. On the front, the author’s name is reduced to “Nabe” as if it had become a brand, and on the back you only find a number, indicating that it is the author’s twenty-eighth published work (and seventh novel). The book is only available through an official website and a handful of highly unlikely retailers (a butcher’s, a florist’s, a hairdresser’s and three restaurants at the last count). By cutting out the middleman, Nabe claims to be able to make a 70% profit, instead of the usual 10%, on each copy sold. The initial print run — funded by the sale of paintings (Nabe is also an artist and jazz guitarist) — sold out within a month; there have been three more since. Last year, the novel was shortlisted for the prestigious Renaudot prize — a first for a self-published volume in France — and last month, the online platform morphed into a full-blown company.

This declaration of war on the publishing industry is in keeping with Nabe’s image as an écrivain maudit. “Great artists,” says the protagonist, as Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil manuscript is auctioned off at Sotheby’s, “have but one purpose: to become moral alibis for the bastards of posterity”. Initially accused of being a crypto-fascist (partly because of his predilection for Céline and Lucien Rebatet), Nabe is now frequently depicted as a pro-Palestinian leftist (whose anti-Americanism, it must be said, borders on the pathological). His first television appearance, in 1985, proved so incendiary that he was beaten up by a leading anti-racist campaigner. Every day, he declared — looking every inch the provocative young fogey, complete with centre parting, bow tie and retro spectacles — I shoot up with a Montblanc pen full of “utter hatred of humanity”. A great admirer of Jacques Mesrine, Nabe famously befriended the flamboyant bankrobber Albert Spaggiari as well as the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Following 9/11, he produced a pamphlet entitled Une Lueur d’espoir (“A Glimmer of Hope”) and argued repeatedly that bin Laden was only acting in self-defence. In 2003, he even travelled to Baghdad, where he protested against the invasion of Iraq in typically Gallic fashion: by writing a novel. These antics may have earned him a large cult following, but Mazarine Pingeot summed up the views of many when she declared that Nabe was “unfortunately” a great writer.

Despite running to almost 700 pages, L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire has no chapters or even paragraphs, as though it were shot in real time, like 24, the American TV series the narrator watches. If the dialogue is a little didactic — even Socratic — at times, there are far fewer purple passages than usual. This is the affectless, almost pedestrian, prose of someone who will not even allow himself to sign an autograph or compose a letter any more. The novel is meant to read as if it were unwritten. This tonal blankness (often reminiscent of Houellebecq’s) is marred on occasion by poor punning, but it can also be shot through with flashes of sheer poetry: a vintage sewing machine is likened to a “giant bee in mourning”; a brunette’s hair looks like it has been “soaked in liquid night”.

Structurally, L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire is a 21st-century reworking of Dante’s Divine Comedy, taking us all the way from Inferno to Paradiso via Purgatorio. The picaresque plot begins when the protagonist abandons his calling, and spans seven days during which events that really took place over several years are skilfully conflated. At a loose end, the “post-writer” wanders around town and meets Jean-Phi, a young celebrity blogger who acts as his Virgil, guiding him through his post-literary vita nuova. Nabe’s mouthpiece dreams of a “literary lobotomy” that would rid him of all the bookish references preventing him from living fully in the here and now. Try as he may, Jean-Phi is unable to wean him off his old ways, and each new stroll through the streets of Paris gives rise to a digression about Raymond Roussel‘s birthplace or Proust‘s childhood haunts. However, as the days go by, and his life becomes increasingly bound up with Jean-Phi’s youthful entourage, the narrator rediscovers the pleasure of living gratuitously, without having to worry about transmuting his experiences into words. In the final pages, Mallarmé‘s famous dictum that “The world was made in order to result in a beautiful book” appears on a poster but, crucially, it has been misquoted, so that it is now the book which results in a beautiful world.

The protagonist inhabits this inverted world. Early on, he wonders if his new condition does not necessarily imply that he has himself become a character, as if a writer and his creation were but two sides of the same coin. The names of all the famous living people who appear in the novel have been slightly doctored (Depardieu, for instance, becomes Depardieux). This is no doubt to avoid lawsuits, but it also seems to indicate that they too have stepped through the looking-glass, on the other side of which they are exposed as grotesque parodies of themselves. As one of Jean-Phi’s friends remarks, a mere typo can suddenly plunge you into another universe.

One of the key scenes is a chance meeting with Alain Delons (Delon), on the seventh day. The narrator explains that he is his favourite actor because in all his major films Delon/s goes on a quest for a doppelgänger he could replace or who could replace him. The same, of course, can be said about the novelist’s entire oeuvre, which is haunted by the figure of the double. Narrator and author are as indistinguishable as ever, here, although the former is clearly an anti-Nabe, inhabiting a parallel universe where he has been defeated by his detractors. L’Homme qui arrêta d’écrire, proof of the real-life author’s triumph, is an affirmation of the truth of fiction, as well as of the virtues of unmediated life: after all, he wrote his novel by pretending not to. Give Nabe a mask, and he will tell you the truth. Just don’t ask him — or me, for that matter — who the doppelgänger is.

Zannini/Nabe once quipped that Alain Zannini — in which Zannini meets Nabe — was told in the “double person singular”. Sometimes, however, I really is another, rather than just the other half of a divided self. Although no oil painting, Michel Houellebecq is Dorian Gray to Nabe’s picture — the acceptable face of controversy. Or at least this is Nabe’s spin on events. In the early 90s, both men lived at the same address (103 Rue de la Convention in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris) facing each other, like bookends, across a cobbled courtyard. Both belong to the same generation, come from similar lower middle-class backgrounds, had domineering Corsican mothers they rebelled against, established their reputations by courting controversy and chronicled the demise of French joie de vivre. Nabe was, in fact, the senior partner in this relationship, up until the success of Atomised in 1998.

In The Map and the Territory, which finally earned him the Goncourt prize last year, Houellebecq depicted his own murder. Nabe immediately outed himself as the culprit in the course of an interview. What he really meant is that Houellebecq had committed literary suicide, by selling out and writing a Goncourt novel. Losing the Renaudot prize, on the other hand, reaffirmed Nabe’s outsider status. Like his master, Céline, he remains untainted by recognition, alone against the world; beyond the pale. With an eye on posterity, Marc-Edouard Nabe is biding his time.

Celesteville’s Burning

A slightly different version* of this story was published online by The White Review on 22 September 2011.

Celesteville’s Burning

Zut, zut, zut, zut
– Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu

Sostène Zanzibar was not feeling himself that day; someone else was. A journalist from an English paper. Name of Phyllidia. Or possibly Petronella. Something along those lines. The interview had gone remarkably well. Such probing questions. Very stimulating, very in-depth. There was no denying that Sienna — or possibly Serena — was thoroughly a young woman. Hang on, cross that out. Was a thorough young woman. Very thorough indeed.

In a bid to impress her host, she had taken up gesticulation with all the fervour of a new convert. It was a joy to behold. Her impeccably-manicured hands would suddenly flutter away from the warmth of her lap, describing graceful ellipses as if trying to conjure up words that could not possibly exist. Ever. In any language. Even French.

When the ink ran out of her biro, Zanzibar produced a pencil from his inside pocket with a little flourish. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘alwez ave two penceuls.’ He almost winked, but thought better of it. ‘Women,’ she said a little later, sitting on his face, wearing nothing but her high-heeled boots, ‘always have two pairs of lips.’ She almost added Try these on for size, big boy, but thought better of it too.

Allegra — or possibly Anushka — had struggled to fully comprehend the answers to some (if not most) of her questions. The fact that the former usually bore little (if any) relation to the latter did not help. Neither did Zanzibar’s scattergun delivery nor his baffling habit of peppering his sentences with arcane references to Heidegger and Blanchot. Whenever he switched to pigeon English, he sounded like Jacques Derrida dubbed by Inspector Clouseau, which proved an even greater source of confusion. Of course, now that she was grinding her crotch against his salient features, that his nose kept popping in and out of her prize orifices, Zanzibar’s discourse was largely inaudible anyway. This was as it should be. She wanted to move beyond surface meaning, to experience his words at a more physical — and yet more spiritual — level. That of muffled stubble-mumbles. Warm, moist exhalations. Visceral verbal vibrations. Epic poems licked on to her clitoris, one labial consonant at a time.

Candida — or possibly Chlamydia — tried in vain to decipher the text that was presently being lapped on to her nether regions. She had long removed her horn-rimmed glasses (just before shaking her hair loose), squinting was unbecoming, the letters were upside down, Zanzibar’s tonguewriting — famously dismissed as ‘chicken-scratch squiggles’ by a one-night-stand graphologist — was indeed diabolical and, frankly, the spelling mistakes were doing her head in. It began to dawn on her that, although patently the recipient of this work in progress, she may not be its target audience. In fact, she was now convinced that she was not. Oh no. She was a mouthpiece. A conduit. An instrument. A sounding-board. A relay point. A mediator between the General Reading Public (GRP) and some obscure creative power within Zanzibar that was now being channelled through her. She felt frightfully oracular — a proper little Pythia — and more than a little empowered by the impulses her firm, nubile body was adding in to the mix. These impulses were barely perceptible, but they were definitely there amid all the crosstalk, crackle, static, dribble and thermal noise distorting the transmitted data. She closed her eyes and pictured dozens of snails leaving letter-shaped trails — crinkly slivers of silver — all over her cunt, like so many miniature calligraphers. Now the snails were topsy-turvy, à la bourguignonne, a bubbling mixture of parsley and breadcrumbs oozing from their exposed buttery apertures. Now the snails had morphed into winkles, clustered around her labia minora, in homage to Zanzibar’s controversial debut.

Published in late 1986, Je suis la Femme Bigorneau was a succès de scandale which took the literary establishment by storm; a cause célèbre that turned Zanzibar overnight into the enfant terrible of French letters. Like Leos Carax’s film Mauvais sang, also released at the end of that year, it seemed to capture the zeitgeist and polarise opinion along a generational fault line. Louis Pauwels, editor of Le Figaro Magazine, claimed the novella was a perfect illustration of the ‘mental AIDS’ afflicting the nation’s youth. ‘Makes Schopenhauer sound positively chipper,’ wrote Josyanne Savigneau in her full-page rave review for Le Monde. ‘The kind of book that exists on the slippery cusp between pure genius and utter rubbish,’ wrote a critic at Le Matin de Paris. ‘Bof!’ Philippe Sollers is reported to have said, when sounded on the subject, mid-pied de porc farci grillé, at Brasserie Lipp. Zanzibar was all over the gossip columns too. He dated Béatrice Dalle (who had recently starred in Betty Blue), wrote a song for Etienne Daho, appeared in a video with Les Rita Mitsouko (playing the glockenspiel), spent his nights at the ultra chic Bains Douches nightclub and was headbutted by Jean d’Ormesson during Apostrophes, the highly influential TV show. His parents — René and Monique — told Actuel that they had always known, deep down, that Sostène was special. ‘On sentait bien qu’il allait devenir artiste ou écrivain,’ said his mum. ‘C’était vraiment un chieur,’ his father concurred. They confided that they had done their level best to make him as miserable as possible throughout his childhood so as to provide him with a lifetime of neuroses that would feed his future creative endeavours. ‘N’empêche qu’on a drôlement bien réussi notre coup,’ said René, beaming with paternal pride: it was the gift that keeps giving. Zanzibar, however, was overwhelmed by his new-found notoriety. Béatrice Dalle soon left him and he started dabbling in too many drugs. Rumour has it that he could drink the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Antoine Blondin or Alain Pacadis under the table — literally in the latter’s case. His next three books were minor bestsellers, and one of them was even turned into a film with Juliette Binoche (La Bonniche, 1991), but Zanzibar was never able to replicate the impact of Bigorneau, which he always likened to his seminal first orgasm (1979). Each new novel resembled an increasingly faded photocopy of the original blueprint, giving rise to what Sam Jordison recently described in The Guardian as ‘a sense of perpetual déjà vu on a dimmer switch’. Bref, his work seemed condemned to a gradual, but irreversible, running down; a depletion of vital energy that implied a dismal future of erectile dysfunction, hair loss and growing inertia.

Angela — or possibly Nigella — glanced at the twit beneath her twat. She recalled how her heart had sunk upon entering the spacious study where the interview would take place. The fabled author was standing at the far end of the room admiring a framed photomontage of a lady with a Morphy Richards iron in lieu of a head. His cat — Erwin — was rubbing himself against his calves in the most wanton fashion. A rebours, Zanzibar’s rampant alopecia made him look like Kojak with a beard growing on the wrong side of his face. To be honest, she would have been hard pressed to say which of these visions was most unsettling. It was as if she had been shown the gates of Paradise only to be denied entrance by some burly bouncer with a gold medallion, a Brummie accent, a bad case of halitosis and a mullet. Covered in dandruff.

The journalist’s black Moleskin notebook lay open, face down, on the coffee table. After an hour or so, weighty topics had been dropped in favour of increasingly flirtatious small talk. Zanzibar got up to refill her glass and, instinctively, she got up too and now they were kissing, deep and slow, their tongues going round and round like the ground bass number in the background, and he gently lifted up her summer frock as the melody soared over the looping bassline, and their bodies were grinding, their tongues intertwining, her head spinning and she found herself reclining — à la bourguignonne — in a Le Corbusier-style chaise longue. ‘J’aime quand ça s’incarne,’ she whispered, drawing him into her buttery aperture with her long legs that he wore over his shoulders in the manner of a sweater casually knotted around a Continental neck. Leaning on her forearms, she tilted her head back, closed her eyes and bit her lip. A slow intake of breath — like a deep drag on a cigarette — subsided into a faint, low-pitched moan, not dissimilar to the sound a puppy makes when kicked.

Suddenly, Zanzibar was all at sea in an endless desert of snow. The ghostly whiteness of her teeth — which he instantly interpreted as Melvillian with Malevichian overtones — sent shivers down his spine, as though the absence it seemed to materialise mirrored his own. Her whole body, he now sensed with each new caress, was designed to frame the void, which, otherwise, would remain invisible — white on white.

His heart was pounding; he was perspiring profusely and his penis had shrivelled up like a salted snail. In order to get his bearings, he endeavoured to recall the journalist’s bloody name once and for all. It could have been Gemma. Or even Emma, for all he knew. Unless, of course, it was Linda. Or Belinda — he would not have put it past her, the little minx. Luella rang a bell — as did Annabella. Not to mention Tamsin and Tamara; Imogen and Iphgenia. It was on the tip of his tongue… Got it! Tippi. Ah, Tippi, Tippi, Tippi. Ze tip of ze tongue taking a trip of two steps down ze palate… Or was it Trixie? Calliope? Suki, Sadie — Parthenope?…

When he was toing, her face appeared blank and featureless: totally inscrutable. When he was froing, it seemed to run the emotional gamut from mild surprise to utter boredom in quick succession. There was either too little or too much information to process. Worlds, he felt, were splitting. Splitting all the time.

All you could hear now was a serving spoon squelching its way through a bowl of pasta. Whatsherface had long stopped biting her lip and her body had grown so limp that he began wondering if she was not asleep, in a coma, or even dead. The thought did cross his mind. Then, she started convulsing and screaming as though she were being torn asunder: ‘Sostène, where are you? Where are you, Sostène? Reviens! Reviens, Sostène! Sostène, reviens! SOSTEEEENE! SOSTEEEEEEEENE!’

‘Thanks,’ she said, upon leaving. Zanzibar stared at the outstretched hand last seen clasping his erect penis. ‘For having me?’ she added by way of explanation, but the high-rising terminal transformed her statement into a question. A final probing question that she left dangling like one of Fat Pat’s earrings as she departed with a toss of hair and a rustle of chiffon. She was marching past the cat who, curled up on a beanbag, did not even bother to look up. She was making her way down the transparent spiral staircase that seemed — like her — to be wound around nothing. Zanzibar just stood there, in the doorway, buffeted by the fragrant breeze she had generated. With closed eyes, he breathed in a lungful of her absence and just stood there. He just stood there, caught in her slipstream. Winded, he just stood there. He just stood there. ‘Putain!’ he muttered and finally closed the door.

****

Bearing a striking resemblance to Ursula Andress (had she been immortalised by Botticelli), the presidential candidate emerged from the sea to spontaneous cries of ‘Vive la République!’. She was naked save for a tricolor sash — ‘Un rien m’habille’ — that bisected the perkiest pair of Delacrucian tits to have ever stalked Le Touquet Plage. ‘Tu vois, là,’ said a young father to his son, ‘ce sont les deux mammelles de la France.’ As he pointed, tears welled up in his grateful eyes. Everything would be all right now. Everything. The crowd parted and Mme Royal glided by. Majestically. Regally. Eponymously… Photographers had a field day, fireworks were let off, babies were brandished, a brass band struck up the national anthem and, just when he was about to get an eyeful, Zanzibar found himself back home in his bathroom. He was standing in front of the mirror, trying to remove his contact lenses, which (as he would discover after plucking out an eyeball) he had forgotten to put in. The eye he was now staring at, and that stared back at him intermittently as he rolled it around in the palm of his hand, resembled a large white egg with a black dot inside — or rather the drawing of a white egg. The black dot alone contained more atoms than all the penceuls in the world.

****

Zanzibar was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe. He had opted for the last row, furthest away from the road, with the steps leading up to the theatre right behind him. He was the only one there now, a couple of German tourists having just departed. The sun was shining; birds were chirping in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens: summer was in the air. A waiter — as stylish as he was young — brought over an espresso and a glass of water, which he placed gingerly beside Zanzibar’s copy of Le Monde. They had devoted a whole page to ‘l’affaire Zanzibar’. It was all over the papers, the blogs, the social networks, the news bulletins — both radio and television, local and national. There was no escaping it, and that was precisely why he was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe.

A 58 bus turned into Rue de l’Odéon. Zanzibar followed its slow progress past the clothes shop where the original Shakespeare and Company used to stand. It stopped outside the pharmacy at the other end, on the other side, where an attractive woman he vaguely recognised — but could not quite place — alighted and started walking back in his general direction. As she crossed the road, he identified her as a celebrity graphologist who had publicly pooh-poohed his legendary lovemaking technique a few months back. Name of Amélie. Or possibly Emilie. Something along those lines. It was she too, he now realised, who had played the part of the presidential candidate in that strange dream that was still haunting him. Thankfully, she had not noticed Zanzibar and picked a table in the second row, next to an olive tree in a square metal pot. With an uncanny sense of apropos, she ordered a kir royal. No sooner had the waiter scuttled away than she proceeded to hitch up her maxi dress until vast swathes of toned thigh were exposed to the warm rays. She completed this pre-prandial routine by crossing her legs and lowering, visor-style, the designer sunglasses that had been sitting pretty on her head, like a tiara. Zanzibar’s beady eyes darted from the rear view of the graphologist to the restaurant facing him on the left, back to the graphologist’s signature legs, and on to the Flammarion building facing him on the right. He repeated this circuit many times with meticulous, almost obsessive, care until the person he was waiting for finally emerged from the building.

Théodule Meuniaire was a thirtysomething publishing whizz-kid with rock star good looks, who — it was an open secret — was largely responsible for reviving Zanzibar’s flagging career. He lingered for a few minutes outside Flammarion, talking to someone on his mobile, apparently in a foreign language (probably English), then walked over to his car (a grey Porsche) that was parked only a few metres away. He opened the door, removed his jacket and hung it on a hook inside. Before closing the door, he hooted twice in brief succession while looking over at the pavement café. He waved. Zanzibar quickly unfolded his paper and hid behind it. Peering over his crumpled copy of Le Monde, he saw the graphologist lift up her sunglasses with one hand and wave back with the other. A broad smile had now lit up her face. She sprinkled a few coins on the table and skipped across the road to join her date. They kissed like models in a Doisneau picture and walked, hand in hand, to La Méditerranée, the plush restaurant with its blue exterior and Cocteau decorations. Once they had disappeared from view, Zanzibar called the waiter and whispered something in his ear. ‘Bien sûr, Monsieur, au-cun problème,’ he said. Zanzibar got up and ran over to examine the grey Porsche. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses taunted him from the leather dashboard where they had been conspicuously displayed. With closed eyes, he breathed in a lungful of absence and just stood there. He just stood there, in front of the grey Porsche with the horn-rimmed glasses on the leather dashboard. For a minute or so, he just stood there. He just stood there. ‘Putain!’ he muttered, before making his way back.

The waiter smiled at him and Zanzibar felt obliged to order another espresso. He checked his emails on his iPhone, then glanced at the latest tweets, most of which revolved around ‘l’Affaire’. He ordered yet another smile-induced coffee and started reading again. After a brief recap, the article focused on the prime-time television show, to be broadcast live that very evening, during which a confrontation between Meuniaire and himself was to take place. Whether it would or not was a moot point, not least because the programme consisted of a series of announcements for nominally forthcoming — but, in reality, constantly deferred — features, followed by lengthy commercial breaks, themselves followed by further announcements, and so on until the closing credits. Although quite taken with the concept of a show that was for ever in the process of becoming, Zanzibar had no intention whatsoever of being party to this masquerade. He was equally determined to ensure his rival did not make it to the studio either, and that was — more precisely — why he was seated at one of the little round tables dotting the semicircle of cobbled stones outside the Théâtre de l’Europe.

He looked up, squinting into the sun as the waiter returned, just in time to see Meuniaire and the graphologist glide past in the grey Porsche with the horn-rimmed glasses on the leather dashboard.

Putain!

****

In 1992, having finally acknowledged that there was little lead in his penceul left, Sostène Zanzibar embarked on an ill-fated prequel to Genesis. Although this grandiose project would occupy him for the best part of two decades, we have precious little to show for it. A few meagre excerpts appeared at irregular intervals in obscure style magazines whose prohibitive cover prices were inversely proportional to their confidential circulations. The rest of this ‘work in regress,’ as he liked to describe it, was destroyed. One night, in November 2008, the author deleted the computer files containing the typescript and burned all the print-outs he had archived over the years. According to legend, he then took a taxi to Denfert-Rochereau, uncovered a manhole and disappeared down the catacombs where he spent the following fortnight listening to the same album over and over again on a battered old ghetto blaster believed to have once belonged to Don Letts.

Franco-Swiss all-girl band Les Péronelles (think Shangri-Las meet Slits) always maintained that they had rounded off their first (and last) album (Trois fois rien, 1983) with a hidden track. ‘L’Arlésienne’ was so well hidden, however, that no one had ever found it. With time, it became the Holy Grail of Franco-Swiss rock criticism. An early issue of Les Inrockuptibles contained a six-page feature (‘A l’écoute de l’inouï’) devoted to this unheard melody. It included interviews with the producer and sound engineer as well as cultural luminaries such as Gérard Genette, Jean Baudrillard, John Cage and assorted roadies.

Listening to this ten-minute stretch of silence over and over again was a Zen-like experience at first. Soon, though, Zanzibar was able to recognise, and even anticipate, every hum, hiss and crackle on the track: its teeny tiny tinny tinnitus quality. The song had to be concealed behind, or perhaps even within, this silence that was not quite silence. It had to. He even thought he could sense its presence in the same, almost physical, way one is always aware of being observed. It was just out of earshot; a mere whisper away.

By the middle of the second week, a melody had emerged from the static and wormed itself into his eardrums. It was the sound of music leaking from a commuter’s headphones on public transport. It was the sound of a distant party carried on the wind of time, ebbing and flowing. It was the sound of mythical monsters plumbing the murky depths of ancient oceans. It was the sound of half a dozen rashers sizzling away like nobody’s business in a big fuck-off frying pan. Above all, it was the sound of a wannabe troglodyte slowly going out of his mind.

By the end of the second week, the melody had disappeared. It had never been there in the first place; not really. Zanzibar, now at his wit’s end, had a rare eureka moment. The ghost track was not concealed behind, or even within, the silence — it was that silence itself. He had been listening to it all along, or rather he had not: all along, he had been listening into it for something else. There was, however, nothing else: no behind or within; no depth or beyond. Zanzibar had finally acceded to a heightened sense of hearing. He was now firmly convinced that this recording of real silence — silence that was not quite silence — constituted, en soi, some kind of irreducible message. Communication stripped back to its bare essentials; atomised — degré zéro.

The author’s discovery could not but chime with his long-standing interest in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. Whenever he wrestled with the blank page and the blank page won, Zanzibar would shrug it off as being of little import since it meant, ipso facto, that another version of himself was scribbling away in some parallel universe. Although this explanation was offered in jest, the author started thinking of his alter ego — hard at work on the Great Novel (GN) he was not working on — with increasing regularity. Some would say that these thoughts even blossomed into a beautiful, full-blown obsession.

In the early days, Zanzibar had tried his hand at creatio ex nihilo. Did not work. He then had a go at recreating the world within a whopping great Gesammtkuntswerk. This proved equally unfruitful. The words he used to conjure things up simply recorded their absence, instead of preserving them for all eternity: Evanescence, ou la naissance d’Eva (1992) expressed nothing but itself — if that. Writing something, as opposed to writing about something, seemed to be the way forward — or rather backward, as it implied rediscovering some prelapsarian language that merged with the reality of things. Chemin faisant, as he strived to bridge the gap between signifier and signified, Zanzibar also hoped to recapture some of that old magic which had inspired Bigorneau back in the day: a soupçon of oomph; un peu de welly. In the event, he did neither. Every single volume he ever published had thus been an approximate translation — and ultimately a failed instantiation — of the ideal book in his head. Were his novels, then, simply intimations or imitations of his other self’s works: dim echoes, pale copies? Were they inferior versions of the masterpieces his doppelgänger could come up with given half the chance? Zanzibar thought long and hard about all this, finally electing to stop writing in order to let his more talented likeness — whom he pictured as slightly better-endowed and -looking than himself — get on with it.

Flammarion ruthlessly exploited Zanzibar’s disappearance by encouraging the hypothesis of a suicide. Meuniaire claimed on television that this, après tout, would only be in keeping with his ‘fundamentally nihilistic outlook’. Arthur Cravan and Jacques Rigaut were frequently invoked by literary journalists in support of this argument. As a result, Zanzibar’s back catalogue flew off the shelves, with Bigorneau topping the bestseller lists once again. Of course, the second stage of this cunning marketing strategy — i.e. cashing in on Zanzibar’s miraculous reappearance by bringing out a new book asap — was jeopardised by the author’s decision to down penceuls. Meuniaire was promptly dispatched to resolve this delicate problem. As expected, Zanzibar adopted a hardline position (‘C’est une question de principe, un point c’est tout!’) but proved far more amenable as soon as Flammarion threatened to sue his sorry ass. A compromise was finally thrashed out between the two parties, down at Les Deux Magots, where many a bottle of Perrier-Jouët was downed almost cul sec. Zanzibar, who had always tried and failed to convey the inadequacy of words with words, came up with the concept of a novel printed with disappearing ink. Once read, each word would vanish for ever, the full text living on in people’s minds — retold, reinterpreted, reinvented… ‘There’s no such thing as original fiction,’ he said, a little worse for wear, ‘Novels can’t be set in stone.’ He climbed on the table and began chanting, ‘Li-bé-rez le texte! Li-bé-rez le texte!’ After a few phone calls, Meuniaire put a damper on proceedings: the project was too complex to pull off from a technical point of view, and would be far too expensive anyway. So it was back to the drawing board: ‘Une autre bouteille, s’il vous plaît!’ They finally decided that Zanzibar would write an entire novel in longhand, using disappearing ink, and that Flammarion would publish a facsimile of the manuscript — blank page after blank page: ‘Garçon, une autre bouteille!’ What better way to say something without saying it? ‘Allez hop, on fête ça, une autre bouteille!’ What better way to express the idea that the writer has nothing to express? ‘Vous nous remettrez la même chose.’ In between hiccups, Zanzibar explained that his blank book would bear no relation whatsoever to any of the blank books that had ever been published in the past. It would not be a gimmick, a joke, a provocation, a protest or even an artistic gesture — although there would be an element of all those things. His ‘post-literary’ blank pages would not be identical to your ‘non- or pre-literary’ common-or-garden, run-of-the-mill blank pages of the bog-standard variety: they would somehow retain traces of the novel that had once graced them. He then spoke confusedly of palimpsests and the tradition of erasure in contemporary poetry; the word biffure was used thrice. When he started claiming that the absent text would be a kind of manifestation, en creux, of the Great Novel (GN) his other self was composing in a parallel universe, Meuniaire decided to call it a day. It was probably that night, as he was walking home to clear his head that he resolved to publish Le Roman invisible under his own name. Two grown men — intellectuals! French ones, at that! — claiming rights to a blank book was bound to make the front pages. It also made Meuniaire shitloads of money as Le Roman invisible became the must-have accessory of that rentrée littéraire. Suddenly, it was incontournable and, paradoxically, everywhere to be seen. The fact that it doubled up as a handy memo pad turned it into a top seller in the run-up to Christmas too. With the royalties, Meuniaire treated himself to a luxury yacht worthy of a Russian oligarch. He called it Authorship (en anglais dans le texte).

****

A laundry van stopped outside the Michelet Odéon hotel. The words Maison Binger were painted on the side in quaint curlicue letters. A young man in a crisp beige uniform jumped out, leaving the door wide open. Zanzibar made a wild dash for it. The keys were in the ignition; the driver was talking to a pretty receptionist: the race was on.

The van picked up speed, crushing the asphalt beneath its burning wheels, like a shirt-collar under a Morphy Richards. Meuniaire’s grey Porsche was still only a dot in the distance, but it was growing bigger by the second. It contained more atoms than all the penceuls in the world. Soon, those atoms would be spilled all over the leather dashboard and horn-rimmed glasses like chicken-scratch squiggles. Zanzibar was already living in the future. He could see it all, now, with blinding clarity. The shattered glass. The chromium twisted into the shape of Byzantine rings. The gory action painting on the tarmac. The charred corpses in their chariot of fire. He was hunched over the steering wheel, headbutting the windshield, laughing manically, whooping and hollering, with the wind in his combover and imaginary music blaring away in his ears. Four cars now separated him from his prey. He was closing in.

Just as he was about to go for the kill, the grey Porsche lurched into the outside lane. A sudden but steady — and, indeed, uninterrupted — flow of traffic prevented Zanzibar from giving chase. This being Paris, no one saw fit to let him go: steaming ahead was a woman’s prerogative and a man’s virility test. To make matters worse, the cars in his lane had now ground to a halt in what seemed like the mother of all tailbacks. Those on the left-hand side, however, continued to race past as if taking part in a dry run for Le Mans. Watching them whizz by made him a little drowsy after a while. Feeling his eyes glaze over, he stretched, and noticed two large white eggs with black dots inside. The eyes belonged to the Michelin Man who was towering above him benignly from a billboard. Zanzibar fell asleep and was transported back to the tiny village in Bourgogne where he spent his summer holidays as a child. His grandparents’ house with the dark-green shutters and, across the road, the plot of land where his grandfather grew tomatoes and carrots and beans. Halfway up the hill, there was a water pump that looked like an obscene squat robot with a chunky, phallic-looking spout. It said POMPES LEMAIRE and TOURNEZ LENTEMENT (although there was no water in it) and it was green, but a lighter shade than the shutters. On the same side, further up, when you had almost reached the top, there was a little convenience store — the only one for miles. People used to go there to give and receive telephone calls. At the other end of the village, there was a big barn, and on the door of this barn there was an advertisement with the Michelin Man. It was already old and faded by the early 70s. Going back there, he thought, now waking up and rubbing his eyes, would be a little like visiting the setting of his past following the detonation of a neutron bomb. Zanzibar looked up at the billboard again, and it was at this juncture that he realised that there was no driver in the car in front. And none in the one in front of that. And so on. All along, he had been stuck behind a line of fucking parked cars.

Night was beginning to fall. He wondered how long it would take to drive back to the past, and if the Michelin Man would still be waiting for him there.

[*Zanzibar’s cat was called Schrödinger (instead of Erwin) in the White Review version and Pat Evans has become Fat Pat]

Illustration by Max McLaughlin.

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’

This appeared in Guardian Books on 31 January 2011:

Céline: Great Author and ‘Absolute Bastard’


Special case: Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Every year, the French government publishes a list of cultural events and personalities to be commemorated over the next 12 months. Compiling it is a lengthy and carefully-considered process. A High Committee of National Celebrations draws up a provisional list, which is then submitted to the Culture Ministry and, once approved, published in book form. Some 10,000 copies of the Recueil des Célébrations nationales 2011 were printed last autumn ahead of last week’s launch. Frédéric Mitterrand — the culture minister lui-même — had even penned a foreword, proving beyond a shadow of doubt that the project had received his imprimatur. However, when word got out that Louis-Ferdinand Céline was to feature alongside the likes of Blaise Cendrars, Théophile Gautier, Franz Liszt and Georges Pompidou, all hell broke loose.

Serge Klarsfeld, the country’s most famous Nazi hunter and Holocaust memorialist, expressed his indignation in the name of the Association of Sons and Daughters of Jews Deported from France. The Republic, he argued, shouldn’t celebrate “the most antisemitic” Frenchman of his day — a time, lest we forget, when antisemitism was so rife that it led to state-sanctioned Jewish persecution under the Vichy regime. Mitterrand’s decision, two days later, to remove the novelist from the list was logical in light of this backlash, but also somewhat surprising since he must have known that his inclusion would prove controversial in the first place (was he protecting Sarkozy, whose favourite author happens to be Céline?)

Far more surprising, however, was the reaction of the French intelligentsia, who were almost unanimous in their defence of the author of Journey to the End of the Night. Literary heavyweight Philippe Sollers accused the Culture Ministry of “censorship”. Frédéric Vitoux, a member of the prestigious Académie française who wrote a biography of Céline, likened this decision to the airbrushing of history under Stalin. Pop philosopher Alain Finkielkraut feared that some people would draw the conclusion that a “Jewish lobby” was dictating policy to the French government. Bernard-Henri Lévy, another celebrity philosopher, claimed that the commemoration of Céline’s death should have been an opportunity to try to understand how a “truly great author” can also be an “absolute bastard”. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the fact that Serge Klarsfeld himself felt the need to declare that he rated Céline as a “great writer” before going on to describe him as a “despicable human being”.

France is a place where authors and artists are granted a special status — a kind of poetic licence or artistic immunity. In fact, the country continues to view itself, and sometimes to be regarded as, the natural second home of all artists. It is this very liberal attitude which attracted many members of the Lost and Beat generations after the second world war, and that still attracts outsider writers such as Dennis Cooper. Some of the greatest works of contemporary fiction in English — Joyce’s Ulysses, Nabokov’s Lolita or Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — were available in France when they were banned or considered unpublishable in Britain or the US. A telling culture shock occurred on live television, in 1990, when a journalist from Quebec told Gabriel Matzneff that only in Paris would he be feted for writing — however exquisitely — about his liaisons with underage partners (of both genders). Anywhere else, she stated, he would probably end up in prison. The journalist was subsequently depicted as a philistine, unable to appreciate the subtlety of Matzneff’s feelings or the beauty of his style. Baudelaire once wrote that “literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality” and, for better or worse, this has clearly become France’s official artistic credo.

Trying to account for this “exception française” is no mean task, but I suspect it has something to do with the elevation of art to the status of surrogate religion during the second half of the 19th century. A similar phenomenon was taking place all over Europe, of course, but it probably had more resonance against the backdrop of the ongoing struggle between Republicanism and Catholicism. Both Flaubert and Baudelaire were prosecuted for public obscenity, but when French MPs called for the banning of Jean Genet‘s The Screens in 1966 (for political reasons, this time), the culture minister (and novelist) André Malraux immediately stepped in to defend the inviolability of artistic freedom. By then, artistic creation was largely considered as a value in itself, beyond morals and politics; even beyond good and evil.

The dominant French view on literature was probably best expressed by Oscar Wilde, who ended his life in exile in Paris: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Not quite, though, in this case. No one is denying Céline’s talent as one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century — probably the greatest, with Proust. Is it possible, however, to distinguish the author of antisemitic tracts from the genius novelist; the man from the artist?