Je ne parle que de choses ratées.
I would have walked with you.
He didn’t know how to respond. Of all the sentences he’d written, none would be so binding. He couldn’t say no. But his yes to Her was almost a no; a disappointing yes, without emphasis. A productive yes, but an unenlightening one.
When Sophie came home after a trip around the world that took her seven years to finish, she stumbled into a hollow. She had no idea how to live her daily life. She wound up readjusting to her environment by assuming unusual tasks; she went in search of the traces left by a place she no longer belonged to; she wanted to go deep into a Paris that now proved so remote to her. Ultimately she became an artist.
Paul had studied French Literature at Columbia. He was a sailor on an oil tanker that anchored in France when he turned 24. He stayed in Paris for four years, although he’d only planned to stay for one. He earned his living by looking after a ranch and translating French writers like Mallarmé and Simenon. By the time he returned to New York, Sophie was still continuing her long journey around the world.
She wanted to become the main character in a book and asked Him to write it. To do what the words dictated her to do, to dilute herself. To be the uncertainty trapped inside a story. To risk disappearing into someone else’s life. To float without responsibility, without consequences.
Once, at summer camp, Paul saw something up close that he hadn’t much understood at the time. He was 14. A friend crawled under a wire fence while trying to get out of danger during an electrical storm in the woods. There was a clearing on the other side. While Paul waited his turn, a lightning bolt struck the fence full on, electrocuting his friend. Mere seconds separated him from death. He was still a child when he became aware, by dint of this ill-fated happening, of the shuddering moment in which all things can drastically and irrevocably change. He would later become a writer.
When Sophie was barely a teenager, she lived for a while in Camargo. She was 12 years old. Her friends were all older boys, between 18 and 20. She was like their little surrogate sister. There, she learned how to dance and ride horses. She was the only female rider for a long time. They called her “the gypsy.” Life in the country was very different from life in the city, ever precarious, hectic, dangerous, extreme. Sophie doesn’t remember things for very long, but that time in Camargo changed her forever. Her friends wound up getting married and having kids; they put down roots. Sophie carried on and, from that point forward, grew accustomed to shedding friendships every three or four years, to never staying too long in the same place.
She was a kind of known rumor, the murmur of a metaphor. Not just a teller of good tales, but also a character who embodied the silence of writing, who personified writing itself. Her works always pressed a step further: a breathtaking novella, always autobiographical, but hung on a wall.
One of the first habits Sophie adopted on her return was following people on the street; she felt this would lend her walks a sense of direction. She didn’t know that another artist, Vito Acconci, had done the same and documented it years before. When she wanted to show her work in a gallery, she sought him out and talked to him. Vito told her that the reasons leading them to perform the same actions were remote, as were their interests. It wouldn’t be a problem.
On one of her walks, Sophie spent a little while following a man who disappeared into the crowd. That night, at an opening, someone happened to introduce her to that same man. She exchanged a few words with Henri B, who told her about his next trip to Venice. Faced with such a coincidence, Sophie knew she had to follow him. The next day she went to the train station. She had limited clues, a couple of wigs and some makeup. It was the first time she had traveled to Venice. L’homme que je suis peut m’emmener où le veut, j’y vais. C’est la règle du jeu. Mais c’est moi qui l’ai choisie. Je rêve toujours de situations dans lesquelles je n’aurais rien à décider (Suite Vénitienne, 1979).
Paul was immersed in his poetry until 1979. That year he would resume stories he’d kept stashed in his drawers, texts he’d never shown to anyone. He was striving for a transparent prose. Particles dispersed in a colorless liquid. To make a colloid with which any reader could forget the words; to follow the words until losing them halfway through. To enter. To be the story told.
…In the impossibility of words,
in the unspoken word
I find myself.
She felt a strange weakness for the stories He wrote. Reading him, she understood herself as a hazardous occurrence appended to the bifurcations of his tangled storylines. She recognized herself in his characters: always lost in a vast city, alone, directionless. Victims of eventuality. She wanted to find him. She searched for him. She searched for that thread of coincidences that would one day bring her before him.
But if He wrote about a character hurling herself from the Brooklyn Bridge, She would hurl Herself, too. If the character fell in love with Him, She would have to fall in love. He could write whatever story He wanted. Tell the story that would be all stories. It was too much. He was burdened with a responsibility greater than what He could assume.
Sophie asked her mother to hire a detective who would track her for a week. She wouldn’t know the exact day he would begin his task. Nor would the detective know that the investigation had been arranged at her request. Afterwards, she asked a good friend to wait outside the Palais de la Découverte every day at five o’clock and take her photo, hoping that her pursuer would appear in the same photo and that, accordingly, she could know who he was. Sophie kept a daily record of her actions, hour by hour, much like the one that would be submitted to her mother. The day she was followed, she left home at 10:20 am, bought flowers, went to the cemetery, and left them at a stranger’s grave; met a friend in a café at 10:40; went at 12 to the hair salon; and had an appointment with an editor at 12:30. At 2:20 she was in the Louvre before her favorite painting, Man with a Glove, by Tiziano. Sophie wandered through the Tuileries gardens and spent from 4 to 6 in the Palais de la Découverte. At night, at 7 pm, she attended the opening of Gilbert & George in the Chantal Crousel gallery, left the exhibit with an acquaintance and went for dinner at the OKbar. Arrived home in the early hours of the morning, dizzy. Fell asleep. At the end of every day that week, Sophie wondered whether she truly been followed, whether that man who’d trailed her through the streets of Paris would think of her the next day (L’ Filature, 1981).
When things were whole, we felt confident that our words could express them.Paul had received a phone call. It was a wrong number. The caller asked if his house was a detective agency. In one of his first books he would write the story of a man who, after receiving such a call for the third time, would pass himself off as a private investigator. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. The subject to be investigated walked aimlessly around New York City, seemed to be tracing different letters with his path. But those letters would never turn into words, nor would they come to reveal something obscured. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality. There was a nonexistent secret, fastened to the delirium of a stranger who, little by little, stripped himself of everything that surrounded him. Hence every time we try to speak of what we see, we speak falsely, distorting the very thing we are trying to represent (City of Glass, 1985).
He couldn’t prescribe her destiny. And, in any case, who was She? Had their eyes ever met? He would give her a few lines and in this way, maybe, just maybe, she would choose to come to Him.
She needed clear signs. Precise words. Without potential misinterpretations. She had told herself the story hundreds of times and knew it by heart. He only had to write it, to take the risk. To jump. He was the only one who could write something of this kind, the only one who could bring the silence to fruition, the silence of all those years spent knowing each other without ever having met.
For Paul, a character always finds himself on an eternal voyage. Marco Stanley Fogg is a young man who inherits his uncle’s enormous library and decides to leave stored it in boxes. In his apartment, the boxes will be convertible furniture, a constant reflection of his instability, a kind of minimalist-functionalist installation. As in a journey of initiation, he will gradually rid himself of possessions and aspirations: the farther he travels from himself, the easier it will be to find himself, until he comes to inhabit himself like a stranger. He will work as a caretaker for a cantankerous old man. He will amble through Central Park and read the classics out loud to his charge every afternoon. On the verge of death, he asks Fogg to deliver some documents to his son. Fogg leaves in search of him. That encounter, planned by the old man, will signify an unexpected reencounter for Fogg: the man in question will turn out to be his own father, who will die shortly thereafter. Fogg will continue his journey all the way to the beach. Fogg’s voyage is an internal drift in the dark. I had come to the end of the World, and beyond it there was nothing but air and waves, an emptiness that went clear to the shores of China. This is where I start, I said to myself, this is where my life begins (Moon Palace, 1989).
Le lundi 16 février, je réussis, après une année de démarches et d’attente, à me faire engager comme femme de chambre pour un remplacement de trois semaines dans un hôtel vénitien: l’hôtel C. Sophie knew she would never see their faces; she just observed their daily movements. Each guest, a way of wandering the city with a stranger, the halo of an internal course. She felt she could finish other people’s stories with just a few signs of life. She observed, for example, slight changes in the fruit bowl: a few oranges transformed, day by day, into peels, tossed in the trash. She passed judgment. The people she spied on were traveling too. They wrote in notebooks, on loose pages or hotel stationery. Strolls, impressions, the menu of the day, the address of a place, a postcard to a friend, anything. She thought there was no way to imagine a trip without writing something down, as if writing were a way to not say goodbye. Travel isn’t simply making oneself absent; it’s leaving proof of said absence, of the change suffered by the person who moves from one place to another. Sophie delved into her own journey by gathering the traces of a trip in which she didn’t exist (L’ Hôtel, 1981).
He finally wrote her lines. He honored the deal. On How to Improve Life in New York City (Because she asked…). Were she to carry them out, She would have to travel to his city. His text was clear at first glance, but it contained a secret message. Would she understand? Would she hear, through the noise of the agreement, a hidden whisper?
The mail brought several typewritten pages and a handwritten letter. She read attentively. He had formally responded to her request and nothing more. It wasn’t what she had expected. She wanted to uncover a message, something hidden in the script, but how could she make sure of something like that, how could she know? She wasn’t willing to ask him. She followed his instructions to the letter.
En 1984, le ministère des Affaires étrangères m’a accordé une bourse d’études de trois mois au Japon. Je suis partie le 25 octobre sans savoir que cette date marquait le début d’un compte à rebours de Quatre-vingt-douze tours qui allait aboutir á une rupture, banale, mais que j’ai vécue alors comme le moment le plus douloureux de ma vie. J’en ai tenu ce voyage pour responsable. In an attempt at exorcism, when Sophie returned from Japan in January 1985, she interviewed all her friends, acquaintances and not-even-acquaintances in order to determine the most painful moments of their lives. She wanted to put her sadness into perspective by listening to that of other people and would only cease to ask when it had disappeared.
Every answer became a story alongside her own, again and again. The same photograph of Room 261 in a New Delhi hotel where she had planned a reencounter that never happened. Images from all the stories that weren’t hers, a car, a street: places where other people’s lives had changed. And her story, told dozens of times, always written differently: Il a rompu par téléphone. Quatre répliques et moins de trois minutes pour me dire qu’il en aimait une autre. C’est tout. It went on this way for three months. The collected reports were far more sordid and wrenching than her own ordinary love story. But Sophie had to let go of everything that could no longer be. To hasten her mourning. That abrupt, univocal, and alien decision had turned her into the stranger, after being the very most intimate. She blamed, in the solitude of her abandonment, a time that changed without waiting for her, without her being ready. The last anecdote someone told her was identical to hers. Only then did she feel redeemed. She shelved the project for fear of relapse and resumed it 15 years later (Douleur exquise, 1985-2003).
Paul suddenly learns that his father has died and writes a novel that will be an essay on grief. It will take him several years to publish. He father had concealed a terrible secret. Paul will discover the mystery in newspaper clippings and archived documents. Who, then, was this man? His writing seeks an encounter. Only memory, that space where things can happen twice; language, vehicle for the most abstract emotions; and solitude, isolation whose final destination is creativity, will manage to free him from his father’s ghost, a man who had been a total stranger. Language is not truth. It is the way we exist in the World. Playing with words is merely to examine the way the mind functions, to mirror a particle of the world as the mind perceives it. In the same way, the world is not just the sum of the things that are in it. It is the infinitely complex network of connections among them (The Invention of Solitude, 1982)
Without a doubt, what He had wanted to say was there, but you never know with words. Words are caves. Difficult to use without causing misunderstandings. Words are kilometric cables, the satellite signals that separate two people, each with his own receiver. To write or to speak, coins flung into the air: the latent danger that the meanings will settle into peculiar shapes. The confusion between stalagmites and stalactites, limestone water about to drip. But He was confident. She would understand.
She believed that strings hung naturally between them, drawing a vast skein of synchronies. Latitudes seemed to vanish, but her perception was nothing more than the edge of a delirium, of a desire. Parallel lines, those that draw very close together but never touch. The letter was not a cord, but rather a groove sketched between them, an unexpected slope. What she’d fantasized about so deliberately and for so long now fled downhill. Imagination is helplessness. She never replied.
Possibilities easily tarnish. Only the metaphor He hadn’t brought himself to write would exist. That metaphor She didn’t know how to translate. It matters little. How important can it be that a liquid conforms itself to its container and, accidentally, falls to the floor, breaks, and spills. To reach something is to very quickly arrive at the exit; arriving at the exit left them without an exit. People don’t go around the world looking at each other this way, at such close range. Literature is the true and only fate, because it doesn’t exist in real time, it doesn’t happen. The words always escape us in our memories, remorseful for this day and that time, the exact minute in which the decision between a smile and a kiss would completely change the storyline, the tangle, the plot. When points in time can’t belong with, that day cannot exist, nor does yesterday, nor tomorrow. Even though all words are false—someday— was today.
June 3, 1994
7 pages—including this one
Well, here’s something, in any case. I did it after we talked yesterday—and though it’s short on details—it might inspire some interesting activities. I wanted to leave it open enough so that you could find your own way through the ideas.
I hope you’re not too disappointed by the “lightness” of what I’ve proposed.
In any case—be well, and get in touch when you can.
(Translated by Kate Newman and Robin Myers.)