The World Without Me

This piece appeared in Necessary Fiction on 15 January 2014:
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The World Without Me

He dives out of the water on to a lilo: finds himself mounting Mrs Robinson. Her eyes are closed. Her lips ajar. In this shot, Mrs Robinson reminds me of a pietà. Benjamin reminds me of an airborne penguin, exiting the ocean, and landing on its breast. Her breasts, in this instance, as well as his. His on hers — missionary position. Just before, Benjamin is seen doing the breaststroke underwater; swimming for dear life towards the safety of the lilo, as though pursued by some phantom shark (the lilo, of course, is the shark). Although the soundtrack is Simon & Garfunkel’s wistful “April Come She Will,” a post-1975 spectator cannot but hear the ominous two-note theme from Jaws underneath. It grows louder in the mind’s ear, rising to the surface with all the inevitability of tragedy. Benjamin falls as much as he leaps; flops down on his lilo-lady like one who has just been shot, or struck by lightning. Baudelaire likens the swain panting over his sweetheart to a dying man lovingly caressing his own gravestone — a couplet from “Hymn to Beauty” that is slightly misquoted in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. Mrs Robinson is indeed the airbag that causes the crash; the womtomb on which Benjamin (like that other Robinson) is marooned. The couple’s loveless affair is an accident that has been waiting to happen ever since Elaine — Mrs Robinson’s daughter, with whom Benjamin is destined to elope — was conceived in the back of a Ford. A Ford featured in J. G. Ballard’s Crashed Cars exhibition, held in a London gallery three years before the publication of his famous novel (Crash, 1973). The future sprouts fin tales. In the beginning, of course, was Marinetti’s car crash: “We thought it was dead, my good shark, but I woke it with a single caress of its powerful back, and it was revived running as fast as it could on its fins” (“The Futurist Manifesto,” 1909). Here, one thinks of Warhol’s series of silkscreened car crashes, Mrs Robinson having abandoned her arts degree due to her pregnancy.

Soon Benjamin will need to escape, choose some course of action. He is on a collision course with Elaine, the accident that has already happened. In the meantime, he is a castaway adrift upon shimmering amniotic fluid. A young man without qualities, in trunks and sunglasses, cradling a can of beer on his belly — Bartleby Californian-stylee. I like him best when he just goes with the flow; that is, when he goes nowhere. The camera lingers longingly on the texture of the ripples. Sunny constellations twinkle on the celestial water’s surface. Benjamin, recumbent on his lilo, fades out as the ever-morphing abstract of light reflections fades in.

The foregrounding of the background — putting the setting centre stage — is perhaps what cinema does best. In a movie, the world simply is whatever meaning the director attempts to project upon it. Neither meaningful nor meaningless, it is there and there it is. End of story. Reality reimposes itself, in all its awesome weirdness, through its sheer presence, or at least the ghost of its presence. Alain Robbe-Grillet (a filmmaker as well as a nouveau romancier) highlights the way in which cinema unwittingly subverts the narcotic of narrative; the auteur’s reassuring reordering of chaos:

In the initial [traditional] novel, the objects and gestures forming the very fabric of the plot disappeared completely, leaving behind only their signification: the empty chair became only absence or expectation, the hand placed on the shoulder became a sign of friendliness, the bars on the window became only the impossibility of leaving. …But in the cinema, one sees the chair, the movement of the hand, the shape of the bars. What they signify remains obvious, but instead of monopolizing our attention, it becomes something added, even something in excess, because what affects us, what persists in our memory, what appears as essential and irreducible to vague intellectual concepts are the gestures themselves, the objects, the movements, and the outlines, to which the image has suddenly (and unintentionally) restored their reality.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, from air mattress to pneumatic bliss in one impossible match on action.

Here is a passage from “Celesteville’s Burning” where I fail to do so:

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.

I want to write like Benjamin Braddock, my words shipwrecked on the body they have been lured to. Eyes closed; lips ajar.

In an older short story — “Sweet Fanny Adams” — the protagonist happens upon a young woman in a railway station, and senses, instantly, that he has found his sense of loss:

Although he had never actually seen her before, he recognised her at once, and once he had recognised her, he realised he would never see her again. After all, not being there was what she was all about; it was the essence of her being, her being Fanny Adams and all that.
As he walked towards the bench where she was sitting pretty, Adam missed her already. Missed her bad.
‘How do you do?’
‘How do I do what? The imperfect stranger looked up from her slim, calf-bound volume and flashed him a baking-soda smile, all cocky like.

When my father took me to see The Graduate in the mid-70s, I was seized by a strange nostalgia for a homeland I had never known. In this sun-dappled “status symbol land” where charcoal is “burning everywhere” — as The Monkees sang on “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” released in 1967, the same year as the movie — I recognised my own sense of loss. The prelapsarian beach scenes in Jaws put me in similarly melancholy mood: all those healthy, happy families, and their dogs, enjoying spring break without (Roy Scheider excepted) a care in the world. Of course, a great white was about to blacken the mood somewhat, but I would experience this attack as the reenactment of an earlier trauma. The shark had already got me. Perhaps the shark has got us all, always-already.

A bespectacled woman wearing a hideous floral swimsuit and a floppy yellow hat detaches herself from the crowd massed at the edge of the sea. Like a Benjamin Britten character, she ventures into the water, calls out her son’s name, catches sight of his shredded lilo floating in a pale pool of blood. Her hat is a brighter shade of yellow than the lilo.

I reference this scene, albeit obliquely, in “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter”:

Valentin was lurking at the far end of the grand ballroom. He tried to picture himself à rebours, as though he were another, but failed to make the imaginative leap. A blinding flash of bald patch — the kind he occasionally glimpsed on surveillance monitors — was all he could conjure up: Friedrich’s Wanderer with rampant alopecia. He squinted at the polished floorboards, and slowly looked up as the world unfolded, leaving him behind. He was James Stewart in Vertigo; Roy Scheider in Jaws. He was the threshold he could never cross. At the far end of the grand ballroom Valentin was lurking.

Watching the world go by from a pavement cafe is a highly civilised activity, one we should all indulge in more often, I think. Its main drawback, however, is that we cannot abstract ourselves from the world we are observing. Like Valentin, we are the threshold we can never cross. There is a strand within modern literature that yearns for an experience of reality that would be untainted by human thought, language, and subjectivity. My hunch is that movies get closest to achieving this. As Stanley Cavell argues in The World Viewed, cinema provides access to a “world complete without me”:

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world.

Marcello Mastroianni always struck me as a character in search of a movie he had stumbled out of by accident. We used to live on the same street, Marcello and I, and we both frequented the same cafe. It was called Le Mandarin in those days; now Le Mondrian. We were both creatures of habit, always sitting in the exact same spot. We never spoke, not in so many words, but he often silently acknowledged my presence, gratifying me with a glance or a half-smile as he walked past my table. After all, we were often the only customers there. No sooner had the venerable actor been served than a strange performance, straight out of commedia dell’arte, would begin. One of the waiters stood at the entrance, on the lookout for Mastroianni’s partner, film director Anna Maria Tatò. When she finally loomed into view — often accompanied by a retinue of well-heeled Italian friends — the waiter gave a discreet signal to his colleagues, who would whisk away the actor’s glass and ashtray. Another waiter would spray a few squirts of air freshener to ensure that Marcello’s missus did not suspect that he was still a heavy smoker, while yet another produced a fresh cup of coffee to ensure that she did not suspect he was still a heavy drinker. One of Mastroianni’s friends once applauded the garçons’ performance, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” (in Italian) just as Mrs Tatò walked in, right on cue.

Simon de La Brosse was working as a waiter in Montmartre, when he was discovered by Eric Rohmer, who cast him in Pauline at the Beach (1983). I knew him a little. We attended the same school for a couple of years; lived in the same neighbourhood. It was shortly after he had told me about Rohmer that I noticed how all the girls watched him longingly that time he played volleyball at school. It could have been basketball, come to think of it now, but I am fairly sure that he was sporting similar shorts to those he would wear in Pauline — blue with white stripes down the side. Only they may have been red or orange, and unstriped. Definitely unstriped. He went on to become one of French cinema’s rising hearthrobs in the 80s and early 90s, playing, for instance, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg in The Little Thief, or Sandrine Bonnaire in The Innocents. Although he was cast in major films by the likes of André Téchiné and Olivier Assayas, it is difficult not to reinterpret Simon’s career in light of how it ended. Here are three examples:

1. In Garçon!, starring Yves Montand, Simon plays the part of a waiter in a brasserie, as though he were doomed to return to his day job. He is frequently on screen, but those appearances are so brief that he is gone by the time you recognise him. To add insult to injury, he does not utter a single word throughout.

2. Simon was given a few lines in Betty Blue. They were not very good ones, however, and the entire scene was cut from the film when it was released in 1986 (although it was reinstated in the 1991 version).

3. One of my favourite clips of Simon is a silent screen test shot at the Cannes Film Festival. The fact that we even know at what time of day filming took place (11.45 am on 16 May 1986) is particularly poignant. Here he makes the most of his theatrical training and miming talents, as well as his immense charm. He reminds me of a matinee idol, or a dashing early-20th century aviator; perhaps one who soared too high, ending up in another dimension. Simon seems to be talking to us from behind a thick glass partition, which renders his words inaudible. His career nose-dived in the 1990s. In 1998 he took his life somewhere else. Sometimes, I fancy I can almost hear him on the other side of the pane.

What seems natural in a movie is precisely what does not come naturally in real life. The on-screen character is usually pure being: she seems to coincide perfectly with herself. The experience of being an off-screen human being, however, is essentially one of non-coincidence. As Giorgio Agamben puts it, “The human being is the being that is lacking to itself and that consists solely in this lack and in the errancy it opens”. You walk out of a western feeling like a cowboy, but the swagger soon wears off, and self-consciousness returns. This self-consciousness is the consciousness of the “gap between me and myself” Fernando Pessoa speaks about. I suspect Simon de La Brosse struggled with the paradox, shared by many actors, of only feeling truly alive when he was not playing his own part. Tom McCarthy reflects upon all this in his first novel, Remainder:

The other thing that struck me as we watched the film was how perfect De Niro was. Every move he made, each gesture was perfect, seamless. Whether it was lighting up a cigarette or opening a fridge door or just walking down the street: he seemed to execute the action perfectly, to live it, to merge with it until he was it and it was him and there was nothing in between.

In real life you can only find yourself by losing yourself, and there is no happy end. This may be what Simon is mouthing through the pane.

At one point in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, the narrator confesses, “I felt like a character in The Passenger, a movie I had never seen”. Well, I frequently feel like a character in Mauvais Sang, a movie I have never seen (although that did not prevent me from mentioning it in one of my stories). In 1986, when Leos Carax’s film came out, there was a massive student strike in France. We occupied the Sorbonne for the first (and last) time since May 1968, and almost brought the right-wing government to its knees. I remember a couple of girls playing “White Riot” on a little cassette recorder during the occupation, and thinking that this moment was The Clash’s raison d’être. Joe Strummer would have been so proud of us. The voltigeurs — a police motorcycle unit created in the wake of the 1968 student uprising — was deployed in order to transform a peaceful movement (that was largely supported by the general public) into a violent one, thus triggering a cycle of disorder and repression. Behind the driver sat a truncheon-toting thug whose mission was to hit anything that moved. On one occasion, I looked on in disbelief as they beat up a couple of harmless old-age pensioners who were probably walking home after a night out at the pictures.

On another, I narrowly escaped the voltigeurs by hiding under a roadworks hut. When I got home, in the wee hours, I switched on the radio and learned that a fellow student had been killed only a cobblestone’s throw from my hideout. Some of the screams I had heard may have been his. After the strike, a group of us launched a student magazine called Le Temps révolu. We chose the title by opening Zarathustra at random until we found something we liked the sound of. Editorial meetings were held at a Greek student’s flat. He was called Costas, and had fled his homeland in order to escape military service. According to rumours, he had been a kind of Cohn-Bendit figure back in Greece. All in all, we produced two issues, which we sold half-heartedly outside our university. In the first one — by far the best — a girl called Myriam had written an intriguing review of Mauvais Sang — a film which, for me, came to embody the spirit of 86, despite having never seen it. Or perhaps it was for that very reason. Myriam (if that is indeed her name) was one of at least two girlfriends Costas was sleeping with, although not (as far as I know) simultaneously. I have absolutely no idea what the other one was called, but I can vaguely conjure up her tomboyish features. The last time I bumped into Myriam and Costas, they were scrutinising pictures from Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise outside an arthouse cinema — possibly the same one those pensioners had left before being assaulted by the police. Costas: if you are reading this, I still have your copy of Bourdieu’s Distinction that you lent me almost three decades ago.

I cannot say when I first visited New York. I can only say, for sure, when I visited it again. Again for the first time. That was in August 1981. My immediate impression was akin to the one I had had while watching The Graduate or Jaws: a sense of a homecoming to a place that was alien to me. On every street corner, a feeling of déjà vu. Travelling to this Unreal City from Europe felt like travelling forward into the future (TV on tap! Bars and restaurants open all night!) but also backward into one’s past. We were the first generation to have been brought up in front of the television, suckled on American movies and series. I grimaced at Peter Falk when I spotted him in a Greenwich Village restaurant — to keep up the punk front — but deep down I was very impressed indeed. Initially, we followed the tourist trail, always on the lookout for signs of local punk activity. We caught The Stimulators playing at CBGB’s after seeing an ad in a copy of The Village Voice we read on the ferry back from Liberty Island. Their drummer — a very intense little skinhead called Harley Flanagan, who could not have been older than 14 — filled us in on the New York scene, and gave us a few tips as to where to go, over a game of pinball. If Benjamin and Elaine in The Graduate had produced a son straight away, I reckon he would have looked a lot like this diminutive skinhead. He would have attended boisterous gigs by the Circle Jerks (a Californian band I discovered on that New York trip) where I picture him moshing to “Beverley Hills”:

Beverly Hills, Century city
Everything’s so nice and pretty
All the people look the same
Don’t they know they’re so damn lame.

There is a striking blankness, a radical affectlessness to Benjamin and Mrs Robinson’s demeanour and character; a vacancy to their mating rituals, that hark back to existentialism but point to punk. Even when Benjamin claims to be “taking it easy,” there is an angst-ridden edginess — a white suburban nihilism — to his professed aloofness. The early street and drive-in scenes may be teeming with strategically-placed beatnik hipsters; the attitude, however (in the first part of the movie at least), is pure punk.

Back in New York, we were soon immersed in the burgeoning hardcore scene — slam dancing, the A7 club in the East Village, hanging out with H.R. from the Bad Brains — which embraced us on account of our quaint London accents, as well as our look which pretty much outpunked anyone else in town at the time.

We had decided to leave our cameras at home in order to experience the city fully — to merge with it rather than remain on the outside looking in (or up at the skyscrapers). As a result, we have no record of all the adventures we lived through, all the wonderful characters we met, and our increasingly hazy memories are constantly being rewritten. Paradoxically, there must be dozens of pictures of us knocking about as people kept taking our picture on the street. At first we kept count, but within a few days we were already in the hundreds, so gave up.

It is difficult to express how thrilled I was whenever I discovered an outdoor basketball court that seemed to have come straight out of West Side Story. The more it resembled a film set, the more realistic it felt. A year earlier, I had gone to see that movie almost ten times in the space of a few weeks. Leaving the cinema was an exile. West Side Story inhabited me, and New York felt like I had moved in at last.

We cried on the day we had to go back, and resolved to return soon; for good this time. The plan was to sell hot dogs and be free. Life, however, got in the way.

The second time I visited New York was in 1999. It no longer felt like travelling into the future, and I was unable to find my way back to the past.

I once was an extra in an episode of a French TV series starring a bunch of ropey old luvvies. This must have been around 1982. They were shooting a scene that was supposed to take place in a punk club, so they rounded up a few local punks at the Bains Douches to make it look authentic. All we were meant to do was sit, hang, or dance around. And act punk. I mainly sat, when I was not skulking in some dark (dank?) corner. For some reason, the producers had also hired a handful of young actors dressed in what they believed to be punk attire. In reality, they resembled tabloid caricatures of what some part-time punks may have vaguely looked like down at The Roxy a good five years earlier. By 1982, it was all studded leather jackets and outsize multicoloured mohicans. Nina Childress and Helno, who were both members of Lucrate Milk, really stood out. Nina is now a painter. Helno, who went on to find fame with Les Négresses Vertes, is now a corpse.

The atmosphere soon became so tense that the production team almost called it a day. Each time the punked-up extras were called in for a retake, they were ambushed in an increasingly enthusiastic mosh pit. It felt like smashing The Spectacle. In the end, we were paid (200 francs each if memory serves) and asked to leave. We could not, though, because a gang of skinheads was waiting for us outside. They wanted to smash The Spectacle too, and we were it. I caught the episode, by chance, when it was broadcast a few months later. I believe you can spot my bleached spiky hair on occasion, but overall I had done a pretty good job of remaining invisible.

Someone should compile all the exterior scenes in movies where a “real” passerby turns round to look at the camera, thus shattering the illusion of authenticity. In “The Sign of Three,” which was on television last week, there is a brief sequence during which Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) cross the bridge over the lake in St James’s Park. On the left-hand side, a redhead in a skirt suit can be seen walking away from them; from us. She holds a Burberry-style raincoat in one arm, a briefcase in the other, and embodies everything that can never be put into words. I defy anyone — irrespective of gender or sexual preference — to watch this extract without zeroing on her. Naturally, I assumed that she was an extra with a walk-on, or rather walk-away, part, but on second viewing I noticed that she turns round when the camera is sufficiently remote. As she does so, she is subtly pixelated, so that she remains anonymous, and therefore part of the background, the tapestry of London commuter life. What is the status of this lady who is the secret subject of this segment? What is the status of all those passersby who do not pass by as they should? And what is the status of all those who do act as they are expected to — as though a film were not in the process of being shot? “I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me,” as Howard Devoto sang in a Mickey Mouse voice on Buzzcocks’ “Boredom”. Are such unwitting extras — the anonymous people you cannot look up on Wikipedia — truly part of the work (cinema’s effet de réel), or are they merely interlopers? My contention is that they are the element of chance Marcel Duchamp invited into his work, but which only ever turned up unbidden (when the two panels of The Large Glass were accidentally, but artfully, shattered, for instance).

One of the iconic scenes in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) sees Gilda (Julia Foster) running through a market and a side-street strewn with urchins. Its sleek lightness of touch vaguely recalls the Nouvelle Vague, but this sentimental working-class tableau is too reminiscent of cinéma vérité to be truly spontaneous. The children, who may well have lived in the Victorian houses that line the street, have clearly been strategically placed; their games choreographed. Just before, as Gilda catches a double decker en route to Alfie’s, three schoolkids can be spotted through the window walking towards a bus stop. They have nothing to do with the film, but are still part of it. Its living part perhaps. Whenever I watch that brief clip, there they are, back in 1966, walking to the bus stop after school. For ever going home.

[This essay was commissioned by Nicholas Rombes, who was Writer in Residence at Necessary Fiction in December 2013-January 2014. It was part of a series of fiction and non-fiction pieces on the theme of “movie writing”.]

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.