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.

Inalienable Silence

Tom McCarthy, Calling All Agents (London: Vargas Organisation, 2003). 4-5.

“…And yet the Hearings left us with the impression that if (as Gil Scott Heron says) the Revolution will not be televised, then perhaps its nucleus will not be caught on audio tape or broadcast on the airwaves either — or if it will, then it will take the form of silence. For Heidegger, everything stems from the Unspoken: Being calls us, but it does so ‘in the uncanny mode of keeping silent.’ Burroughs’s revolutionary drive extends to a transformation of language that will help cast off the ‘IS’ of identity: this language, he tells us, will be a hieroglyphic one that ‘will give one the option of silence.’ Hollings, discussing Burroughs in an article, writes: ‘Recorded silence only becomes a political act once it is played back.’ There are echoes of Cégeste’s first message here. Hollings was a contributor to Violent Silence (a book about Bataille), a collaborator with John Cage and at the time of the Hearings was conducting research into the erased passages in Nixon’s Watergate tapes. What did he mean ‘recorded silence only becomes a political act once it is played back,’ we asked him. ‘Playing a blank tape,’ he told us, ‘breaking the seal on something and sticking it in a machine and listening to it, is an act of refusal.’ ‘So there is a kind of inalienable silence that is encrypted somehow?’ Anthony Auerbach asked; ‘And this potentially contains the revolutionary moment?’ ‘Exactly so,’ said Hollings. This is the violent silence of Shakespeare’s Cordelia, who tells her father ‘Nothing’ — a single word which leads to general annihilation, wars and madness; or of Stephen Daedalus, self-styled ‘Cordoglio’ who, as he brings about ‘the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame,’ says ‘Nothing!’ ‘Maybe,’ I suggested, ‘our radio project should be a quest for that silence’ — a suggestion to which Hollings answered, in what turned out to be the Hearings’ final exchange: ‘I would strongly recommend it.’…”

On p. 12, McCarthy mentions Burroughs’s “putative hushed-up language”.

On p. 16: “This silent word is so charged and so seductive, Abraham and Torok conclude [in Cryptonomy: the Wolf Man’s Magic Word], that it and it alone becomes the object of the Wolf Man’s love. To keep it safe he buries it inside the crypt ‘like a chrysalis in its cocoon’ and carries it around for all his life, showing and hiding it, saying it without saying it, ‘repeating tirelessly to one and all, especially to his analyst: ‘Here is nothing, hold it tight’.”

“‘Poetry,’ in the words of Auden, ‘makes nothing happen’ — an active construct in which ‘nothing’ designates an event, perhaps even a momentous one. In looking into the abyssal ground, reading its source code and transmitting this nothing outwards, maybe we will find that our culture also [like Freud’s Wolf Man] has a secret, silent word.”

Blank Art

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Hermione Hoby, “Nothing Ventured, Something Gained,” The Observer 16 August 2009 (page 3)

As one band asks fans to fill an album of silence, Hermione Hoby looks at the history of blank art

How to proceed when your eight albums have already plundered pretty much every musical landscape out there? The unflaggingly experimental brother-sister duo, the Fiery Furnaces, have an answer: a silent album – or Silent Record to give their recently announced project its proper name. Yet those seeking balm for overstimulated minds and ears might be disappointed – the “record” is in fact a book of music notation, reports and illustrations and includes plans for a series of “fan-band concerts” where fans will “perform, interpret, contradict, ignore, and so on, the compositions that make up Silent Record.” Sounds noisy. But the history of emptiness is a rich one …

John Cage’s 4’33, 1952

The avant-garde composer’s four-minute, 33-second recording of a pianist not playing the piano wasn’t, in fact, the sound of nothing: its unavoidable ambient sounds indicated the impossibility of silence. And, in a stroke of etymological irony, Cage’s explorations of silence paved the way for the genre of Noise music.

Yves Klein’s The Void, 1958

Klein’s empty, white-painted room at the Iris Clert gallery in Paris had just one concession to colour: blue cocktails at its opening. Thousands queued to see it.

Anne Lydiat’s Lost For Words, 2000

The only words in Lydiat’s book of 100 empty pages are those on the dustjacket: “About this book I have promised myself to say nothing,” is the sagely evasive declaration from philosopher Maurice Blanchot. Many parted with £9.99 to own a copy.

My Penguin, 2007

Judging a book by its cover becomes a tempting exercise when the cover’s drawn by the reader. Penguin’s blank-cover editions of eminently illustratable classics – Alice in Wonderland and Animal Farm among the most popular – drew on the irresistible desire to scribble all over a white space.

Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse’s Dark Night of the Soul, 2009

It was a legal impasse rather than artistic high-mindedness that prompted this pair to bypass their record company and flog a blank CD, including a note encouraging punters to illegally download their album. No marks for meditations on emptiness but all props for so craftily dodging a lawsuit.

Unheard Melodies

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This appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Garageland (issue 8, pp. 30-33).

Unheard Melodies

Andrew Gallix goes in search of the most elusive of the phantom bands — L.U.V.

garageland

“As a rock critic, when you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder if all the mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in this music was such a shrewd move,” wrote Simon Reynolds in the introduction to Rip It Up and Start Again. More recently, he wondered if “searching for utopia through music” had not been “a mistake” (Totally Wired). To ascribe such doubts to impending middle age alone would be to forget that there was a time when music truly was a matter of life and death, when days were whiled away listening to records and poring over album covers in some ill-defined but all-important quest. Instead of producing plays or paintings, the best and brightest were busy perfecting one-note solos on replica Starways from Woolies. Rock’n’ roll was central to contemporary culture: it was where it was at.

Needless to say, no band could ever totally live up to such high expectations. Malcolm McLaren shrewdly ensured that the Sex Pistols made precious few live appearances in order to enhance their mystique. Spandau Ballet would use a similar trick at the beginning of their career by playing invite-only gigs. Keats (Morrissey notwithstanding) was right: heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. After all, bands are necessarily approximations of the dreams that conjured them up. Some — like the Libertines whose Arcadian rhetoric was often far more exciting than their songs — are condemned to remain pale reflections of their Platonic ideals. By the same token, a record is always a compromise: The La’s famously spent two years recording and re-recording their first album without ever achieving the desired effect. Even at its best, music cannot vie with the silence it comes from and returns to — the silence inhabited by phantom bands.

We are not talking dead silence here, but rather something akin to the background noise during a performance of 4′ 33″ or the tinnitus burned on to the mind’s ear by imaginary songs overheard through the static in between radio stations. A living silence, perhaps. According to the great academic and critic George Steiner, “A book unwritten is more than a void”. The same could be said about songs unrecorded or unplayed: they actually exist, virtually, in some Borgesian iPod of Babel. Phantom bands themselves are not complete figments of the imagination either: to qualify, they must have some kind of shadowy existence, leave some kind of (lipstick) trace. The Chris Gray Band never existed beyond a few graffiti around Victoria Coach Station in the early seventies, but the idea of forming “a totally unpleasant pop group” designed to subvert showbiz from within would obviously be a major influence on the Pistols project (1). The London SS — whose short lifespan was one long audition bringing together most of the major players on the future London punk scene — is probably the most influential group to have neither released a record nor played a single gig. Synthpunk pioneers The Screamers were described by Jello Biafra as “the best unrecorded band in the history of rock ‘n’ roll”. Typically, their first photoshoot appeared in a magazine when they were yet to play live (2). At a later stage, they were approached to release an album cover containing no record — an art stunt which never materialised but would have been a fitting metaphor for this textbook phantom outfit from Los Angeles. The Screamers managed to become local legends although — or perhaps because — they only did a handful of gigs and never got round to cutting a record (3). The Nova Mob from Liverpool did not even try to go that far. Fronted by Julian Cope, they were a purely conceptual group dedicated to never playing a single note of music. Instead, they would hang around caffs discussing imaginary songs — a practice they referred to as “rehearsing”. Definitely one for the Borgesian iPod.

“It’s like being in love with a woman you’ve never had,” says Dominique Fury, trying to account for the enduring fascination exerted by the group in which she briefly played guitar more than three decades ago: “The relationship hasn’t been consummated”. She smiles. A ray of sunshine has crept into her artist’s studio near Belleville. Through the open window, I can glimpse the pink apple blossom in the middle of the dappled courtyard. All is quiet. All is still. When I say I’m in love, you best believe I’m in love L-U-V. For me, the most phantomatic of phantom bands has always been L.U.V., an elusive and largely illusive all-girl punk combo from Paris. I remember reading tantalising news snippets about them in the music or mainstream press at regular intervals. A quote here, a namecheck there. Just enough to whet my appetite. And then — nothing. A tale told by an idiot, full of silence and fury, signifying nothing. Nostalgia for a band yet to come.

Only one picture of the complete line-up was ever published (in the long-defunct Matin de Paris). Granted, it is worth a thousand words, but the fact that there seem to be no others speaks volumes about the fragility of L.U.V.’s collective identity. It is also rather paradoxical given that style was all the substance they had. From left to right you can see Aphrodisia Flamingo (the rebel), Dominique Fury (the femme fatale), Liliane Vittori (the cerebral rock chick) and Edwige Belmore (the It girl). Wearing matching sunglasses, Aphrodisia and Dominique — the terrible twins who formed the nucleus of the group — stand very close to each other as if they are an item. Aphrodisia stares the world down, her full mouth a smouldering moue of utter contempt — Bardot gone badass. Dominique, in terrorist chic mode, adopts a far more glamorous, almost provocative pose. Liliane, for her part, seems to be fading into the background, a faraway look on her anguished features. Edwige towers above her like some Teutonic titan, sporting a Billy Idol hairdo and the blank expression of a Galeries Lafayette mannequin.

L.U.V. (4) was the brainchild of Aphrodisia Flamingo (Laurence “Lula” Grumbach) who, having mixed with the likes of Nico, Lou Reed and Patti Smith in New York City, returned to Paris determined to launch a girl group of the punk persuasion. One night, down at the Gibus (France’s answer to CBGB), she caught sight of Dominique Fury (née Jeantet) (5). It was L.U.V. at first sight: “I just made a beeline for her because I instantly knew I wanted her in the band”. The fiery, long-haired brunette and the glacial, short-haired blonde were attracted to each other like polar opposites. Dominique speaks repeatedly of a “magnetic relationship”: “There was chemistry between us — something magical that was more than the mere sum of its parts”. Both came from very wealthy but troubled backgrounds (6). Aphrodisia lost her father when she was only eleven; Fury never really found hers (which may explain her penchant for collective experiences) (7). The latter was a revolutionary heiress who made donations to the Black Panthers and bankrolled a couple of utopian communities that she describes as “a quest for something beautifully wild”. Once the opium fumes of the communal dream had dissipated, she embarked on an equally eventful American road trip (almost meeting her fate near the Mexican border) and was soon drawn towards punk’s “dark and romantic aesthetics” — which brings us back to the Gibus circa early 1977.

Although L.U.V. revolved mainly around these two soul mates, the most famous member at the time was in fact Edwige — a striking bisexual amazon who was already a face on the local clubbing scene and would soon be crowned la reine des punks. For fifteen minutes, Paris was at her feet: she ran the door at the hippest joint this side of Studio 54 (Le Palace), was photographed with Warhol for the cover of Façade magazine, formed an electronic duo called Mathématiques Modernes, posed for Helmut Newton and allegedly had a string of affairs with the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna and Sade (“The Sweetest Taboo” is rumoured to be about her). Given her stature, Edwige seemed destined to bang the drums for L.U.V. As Fury puts it, “The group was primarily an image — a work of art — so it was great to have this iconic figure”.

This conception of the band as tableau vivant or performance art was (and indeed remains) at odds with some of the other members’ more conventional aspirations. “Aphrodisia gave me the opportunity to create something,” says Fury, but that something was not rock’n’roll. When L.U.V. petered out, she joined Bazooka, an art collective (where she famously found herself embroiled in a convoluted ménage à trois with two artists of either gender) rather than another band (8). But Liliane, the bassist (9), simply could not understand why Dominique showed no interest in musical proficiency and insisted on teaching her how to master her instrument. Fury reckons “she just wasn’t mad enough”. “She simply didn’t get it,” concurs Aphrodisia. Whenever journalists or A&R people attended rehearsals, they drafted in Hermann Schwartz — Métal Urbain’s axeman — who would play concealed behind a curtain while Fury struck guitar-heroine poses (10).

Aphrodisia, who is currently writing her autobiography, sees L.U.V. as a missed opportunity: “We never wrote a single song. We wanted to, but were probably too stoned” (11). She explains that rehearsals were constantly interrupted because someone always needed to score. She talks about major label interest. She remembers how Rock & Folk, the top French music magazine, would beg them to play a gig that they could cover in their next issue…

Some of us are still waiting for that next issue. Come, let us dance to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Endnotes:

(1) The eponymous Chris Gray was a member of the English section of the Situationist International (expelled in 1967) and the author of the seminal Leaving the 20th Century anthology (1974) which popularised Situationist ideas in Britain. Like Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid, he was involved with political pranksters King Mob.

(2) This is reminiscent of the Flowers of Romance (which included Sid Vicious, Viv Albertine and Keith Levene) who gave an interview to a fanzine although they had never played live (and would never do so). The Pistols would later cover the Flowers’ “Belsen Was a Gas”.

(3) The Screamers’ uncompromising music — all synthesizer, keyboard, drums, screamed vocals and not a guitar in sight — was unlikely to get heavy rotation, but delusions of grandeur were probably the main reason why the big time eluded them. A prime example of this was their decision to turn down a tour with Devo. There were also rumours that Brian Eno wanted to produce them, but the band felt that their histrionic live performance could not possibly be captured on vinyl. Instead, they envisaged a video-only release which would have been commercial suicide pre-MTV. It never saw the light of day anyway.

(4) The band’s name is obviously a reference to The New York Dolls’ “Looking For a Kiss,” but according to Laurence Grumbach it also stands for Ladies United Violently or Lipstick Used Viciously. Laurence’s nom de punk was chosen because she was born on 9 August which is St Amour’s day in the French calendar (hence Aphrodisia) and because she was fond of the Flamin’ Groovies (Flamingo). Apparently, it has nothing to do with John Waters’ 1972 film, Pink Flamingos.

(5) Dominique Jeantet reinvented herself as Fury in reference to Faulkner and the Plymouth Fury automobiles. She once owned a guitar with “Fury” inscribed on it.

(6) Fury recently discovered that her godfather was none other than the then future (and now late) President François Mitterrand.

(7) Fury’s father was a protean character. Among many other things, he was a spy with multiple identities who was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Before the war, he had been a member of a far-right terrorist group.

(8) The two artists were Olivia Clavel, who introduced her into the collective, and Loulou Picasso. Bazooka are most famous in Britain for producing the cover of Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces. Dominique Fury, who was once described as the Parisian Edie Sedgwick, also dated Lenny Kaye and Mick Jones of The Clash.

(9) Liliane was also a talented photographer who worked for the music press.

(10) Hermann Schwartz also acted as L.U.V.’s Pygmalion. It was he, for instance, who introduced the girls to The Shangri-Las.

(11) L.U.V. covered two songs: Nico & The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. Dominique Fury showed me some lyrics, both in French and English, that she had written for the band, but I’m not sure she ever shared them with the other members. Some are reminiscent of X-Ray Spex in that they describe a dystopian consumer society. Others stood out because of their violent imagery: “We’ll take the handle and you’ll take the blade”.

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