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.

The Young Parisians

This appeared in the summer 2010 issue of Nude Magazine (issue 16, pp. 40-43):

The Young Parisians

Why don’t you come to Paris with me?
And see the young Parisians’
– “Young Parisians” by Adam and the Ants

‘There’s something very un-British about electronic music,’ says Daniel Miller — founder of Mute Records — in BBC Four’s excellent Synth Britannia documentary. By ‘very un-British’ he means très European — German, of course, but also French. Lest we forget, musique concrète composers like Pierre Schaeffer began their sonic experiments before Stockhausen. Most Continentals in the late 70s were first introduced to synthesizers via Jean-Michel Jarre not Kraftwerk. Métal Urbain — France’s answer to the Sex Pistols — produced their scuzzy rabble-rousing pogobeat on custom-made imitation Moogs at a time when electronic instruments were still usually associated with prog rock dinosaurs. The strong French presence on Angular Records’ recent Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics compilation was generally met with dismay by British music journalists who were blissfully unaware of the existence of a thriving post-punk scene across the Channel (Indochine, a synthpop outfit in the Depeche mode, even became France’s biggest band at one point). Whereas Gallic guitar combos have always been viewed — rightly or wrongly — as derivative vis-à-vis their Anglo-American counterparts, the synth-driven ‘French Touch’ sound was successfully exported ‘around the world’ at the turn of the century. The missing link between the early 80s and late 90s was Denis Quillard, better known as Jacno, who died in November last year at the age of 52 having cemented his country’s love affair with electronic minimalism.

There are times when the past, present and future seem to collide, and one such occasion occured on 9 February 1977 when Jacno’s band, the Stinky Toys, were invited to a music press junket aboard the eponymous Trans Europe Express coinciding with the release of Kraftwerk’s album. Having a reputation to maintain as the enfants terribles of the local punk scene, the Toys went off the rails, much to the amusement of their more sedate German hosts. Legend has it that singer Elli Medeiros was sick all over the boss of EMI France, who subsequently refused to sign the band to his label and even tried to get them blacklisted. Jacno, however, had caught a glimpse of his musical future. As fate would have it, the train was bound for the Champagne region where he was buried some thirty years later in the vicinity of his family’s impressive country pile.

With his angelic features and slicked-back hair, the young Jacno bore a striking resemblance to David Bowie circa 1976. Throughout his short life he felt like a man who had fallen to earth, often describing himself as a ‘Martian’. Significantly, one of his more recent solo efforts was entitled ‘Je viens d’ailleurs’: ‘I Come From Elsewhere’. There was something of the Byronic noble bandit about him, which — along with a deep-rooted anglophobia — was in fact very much part of his vieille France DNA. The Stinky Toys’ tipple of choice was famously one of the cheapest brands of lager on the French market (Valstar), but Jacno soon reverted to type after the band broke up, making a point of only ever getting rat-arsed on the finest of vintages. In the early days, he always sported a fleur-de-lis on the lapel of his leather jacket — a symbol of the French monarchy frequently associated with the far right. This gesture was interpreted at the time as a typically punk shock tactic, but it was really Jacno’s private homage to his eccentric royalist grandfather from whom he inherited an aristocratic disdain for work and a militant nonconformism which set him aside from the herd mentality of a movement he never really belonged to. His ancestry also included several artists whose works are exhibited in the Louvre as well as one of the four generals who organised the failed Algiers putsch of 1961 designed to overthrow President de Gaulle. When his record company refused to bring out his first solo record or release him from his contract, Jacno sent the CEO a picture of old Uncle Zeller with a caption warning him that his factory was going to be blown up. Job done.

This quintessentially Gallic mixture of rebellion and tradition explains why Jacno is so often lost in translation. He belongs to a long line of elegantly wasted rock dandies that includes the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Dutronc, Yves Adrien, Alain Pacadis, Patrick Eudeline and Daniel Darc (a book of interviews, published in 2006, was aptly entitled Itinerary of a Pop Dandy). Just as Jacno himself embodied early-80s ultra-modernity while whizzing around town on a vintage scooter looking like he had just stepped out of a Nouvelle Vague movie, his post-Stinky Toys compositions managed to capture the zeitgeist while harking back, in a knowing, postmodern way, to the saccharine yéyé pop of the early 60s. The repetitive, almost dirge-like minimalism of ‘Anne cherchait l’amour’ (1979) — with its haunting, bittersweet Françoise Hardy-on-Prozac quality — perfectly illustrates this attempt to have your croissant and eat it. Whether in the past or the future, Jacno, it seems, was always elsewhere.

Along with New York and London, Paris was one of the three great centres of pre-punk activity, and France played an important part in shaping the punk template. Richard Hell’s spiky-haired wasted look was modelled on the fin-de-siècle poètes maudits. The ideological and aesthetic underpinnings of the Sex Pistols project came largely from the (chiefly French) Situationists. When the movement was still anonymous, the late Malcolm McLaren favoured calling it ‘New Wave’ in reference to the cinematic Nouvelle Vague — a monicker which ended up describing punk’s more commercial fellow-travellers. As early as 1972, dandy rock critic Yves ‘Sweet Punk’ Adrien (as he already called himself) penned a proto-punk manifesto which was the journalistic equivalent of Lenny Kaye’s seminal Nuggets compilation, released the same year and available at L’Open Market, Marc Zermati’s legendary record shop where Jacno and all the future Parisian punks used to hang out. Zermati would go on to launch the very first punk label (Skydog Records) and festival (Mont-de-Marsan, 1976). Future Ze Records supremo Michel Esteban and his then partner Lizzy Mercier Descloux (who would also play a pivotal role in New York’s No Wave scene) launched a rival emporium (Harry Cover) within gobbing distance of L’Open Market, thus sealing Les Halles’ reputation as the epicentre of Parisian punk activity. It was there that Malcolm McLaren bumped into the Stinky Toys, was impressed by Elli’s creative use of safety pins, and invited the band to take part in the 100 Club punk festival where their presence gave an international dimension to the nascent movement.

Chain-smoking Jacno — whose soubriquet was a tribute to the designer of the Gauloises cigarettes logo — had met Uruguayan beauty Elli Medeiros during a student demonstration in 1973. With three schoolmates, they formed the Stinky Toys in early 76. The name was a reference to the Dinky Toys Jacno collected (he holds a model car on his first solo record) as well as to the New York Dolls. The 100 Club punk festival, where they played on the Clash’s equipment and were attacked by Sid Vicious, was their first real breakthrough. Elli subsequently made the cover of Melody Maker and record companies started showing interest. After signing to Polydor, they released a single in spring 1977 which received very mixed reviews. Their debut album, recorded in a mere five days in October, sold as many (or rather as few) copies as the Velvet Underground’s, as Jacno liked to point out. The band were dropped by their record company, releasing their second album — a colder, resolutely post-punk affair — on Vogue the following year. Torn between increasingly irreconcilable influences, the Toys disbanded shortly after an Altamont-style gig during which a fan was killed by rampaging Hell’s Angels.

So what had gone wrong with the local punk scene? Pretty much everything. The early bands suffered from the fact that rock’n’roll still wasn’t rooted in French culture. Rehearsal spaces were hard to come by and, apart from Le Gibus (where the Stinky Toys always refused to play), there were precious few gigging opportunities. As a result, the level of musicianship was often appalling, even by punk standards. Meanwhile, the provocative flirtation with Nazi imagery in some quarters didn’t go down well in a country which was still coming to terms with the Occupation. Punk’s anti-hippie stance also appeared a trifle superfluous given the enduring stigma attached to long hair. More crucially, the movement lacked any genuine social resonance. Singing about anarchy in front of a handful of junkies, socialites and fashionistas on loan from the local gay bars was unlikely to threaten the status quo. Essentially, this was a scene in search of an audience.

France’s pre-punk promise was only really fulfilled during the post-punk years. This is when Jacno finally came into his own. He had, of course, already achieved minor cult status as a member of the Stinky Toys. He had been courted by Andy Warhol, who famously painted his portrait on a restaurant tablecloth using a make-up kit, and there were persistent rumours that the French lyrics added to Blondie’s version of ‘Denis’ (Jacno’s real name) were in fact addressed to him. In 1980, he became the figurehead of the Jeunes Gens Modernes (‘Modern Young Things’), a label invented by Actuel magazine to refer to the rather elitist, very fashion-conscious post-punk scene revolving around clubs like Le Rose Bonbon (where Joy Division played). That year, Jacno recorded several electronic instrumentals with titles like ‘Rectangle,’ ‘Triangle’ and ‘Circle’ that seemed to conjure up unfamiliar Structuralist soundscapes. All the major record companies declared that releasing the 12-inch would be commercial suicide, so it eventually came out on a tiny indie label. Contrary to all expectations, the title track (‘Rectangle’) became an overnight success all over Europe, topping the French charts and ending up on a TV commercial for Nesquick. The music provided the soundtrack to Olivier Assayas’s first short film (Copyright) in which Elli Medeiros made her debut performance as an actress. Assayas also shot a video for ‘Rectangle’ which shows Jacno playing against the suitably angular, brutalist background of the La Défense area of Paris. The only track on the record that wasn’t an instrumental — the aforementioned ‘Anne cherchait l’amour’ — was sung by Elli. It marked the beginning of Elli & Jacno who provided a blueprint for countless other synth-based duos like Soft Cell and Yazoo, and sold millions of records until they split up in 1984 having written the soundtrack to Eric Rohmer’s Les Nuits de la pleine lune.

Elli would go on to have a couple of massive solo hits in 86-87 before concentrating on her acting career and family life. She made a musical comeback in 2006. Jacno, meanwhile, released six solo albums and produced work by some of France’s greatest stars like Jacques Higelin or Etienne Daho, an early fan of the Stinky Toys. He will always be remembered, however, as the New Wave Erik Satie whose elegant electronic minuets (as Rohmer once described them) seemed to capture the essence of our adolescence. ‘True life,’ as Rimbaud once put it, ‘is elsewhere.’ That is, as ever, where Jacno is to be found.

****

Ten of the best first wave punk bands from over the Channel

Métal Urbain
Think Sex Pistols crossed with Suicide or Throbbing Gristle — or both. Hardcore political lyrics. Their second single was Rough Trade’s first release. Best track: ‘Panik’.

Asphalt Jungle
Fronted by dandy rock critic-cum-novelist Patrick Eudeline. Talked the talk but seldom walked the walk except on their third single, ‘Polly Magoo,’ which sounds like a gang of inebriated football hooligans rutting with Phil Spector. In a good way.

Starshooter
They hailed from Lyon, played a mean live set, had a sense of humour and were solidly working class unlike most of their bourgeois contemporaries. Good mates with the Damned. Listen to: ‘Macho’.

Marie et les Garçons
Also from Lyon. Heavily influenced by the NYC scene at first, then experimented with a disco crossover thang. Second single produced by John Cale. They had a female drummer (the eponymous Marie) who died in the 90s. Top track: ‘Re-Bop’.

Guilty Razors
Famous for singing in pigeon English (‘Provocate,’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Rich’!). Two of their members were of Spanish origin. They were very close to the Slits. Check out: ‘I Don’t Wanna Be a Rich’.

Gazoline
Having been a failed teenybop heartthrob in the 60s, a failed glam rock star in the early 70s and a successful gay cabaret artist, Alain Kan reinvented himself as a punk rocker. His band was named after a group of militant drag queens from the early gay liberation days. Kan disappeared in 1990; no one has seen or heard from him since. Gazoline’s second single is arguably one of the most convincing punk records to ever come out of France. Best track: ‘Radio flic’.

Les Olivensteins
Started later than most of the others and paved the way for the hardcore of the early 80s (Oberkampf, Bérurier Noir et al.). One of their most provocative lyrics described the Vichy regime as the good old days. Their name came from a psychiatrist famous for his anti-drugs crusade. Like Sham 69, they ended up attracting the wrong element and split up. Top track: ‘Fier de ne rien faire’.

1984
On paper, a kind of dystopian Clash but never fulfilled their promise. Listen to: ‘Salted City’.

Les Lou’s
All-girl band managed at one stage by Bernie Rhodes. Highlight: ‘Back on the Street’.

Electric Callas
A flamboyant Bowie/Iggy fanatic from Lyon backed by a dizzying array of line-up changes. Check out: ‘Kill Me Two Times’.