Friday, October 8, 2010

Excerpt: Tom McCarthy's C

The static’s like the sound of thinking. Not of any single person thinking, nor even a group thinking, collectively. It’s bigger than that, wider—and more direct. It’s like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush. Each night, when Serge drops in on it, it recoils with a wail, then rolls back in crackling waves that carry him away, all rudderless, until his finger, nudging at the dial, can get some traction on it all, some sort of leeway. The first stretches are angry, plaintive, sad—and always mute. It’s not until, hunched over the potentiometer among fraying cords and soldered wires, his controlled breathing an extension of the frequency of air he’s riding on, he gets the first quiet clicks that words start forming: first he jots down the signals as straight graphite lines, long ones and short ones, then, below these, he begins to transcribe curling letters, dim and grainy in the arc light of his desktop . . .

He’s got two masts set up. There’s a twenty-two-foot pine one topped with fifteen more feet of bamboo, all bolted to an oak-stump base halfburied in the Mosaic Garden. Tent pegs circle the stump round; steel guy wires, double-insulated, climb from these to tether the mast down. On the chimney of the main house, a pole three feet long reaches the same height as the bamboo. Between the masts are strung four eighteen-gage manganese copper wires threaded through oak-lath crosses. In Serge’s bedroom, there’s a boxed tuning coil containing twenty feet of silkcovered platinoid, shellacked and scraped. Two dials are mounted on the box’s lid: a large, clock-handed one dead in the centre and, to its right, a smaller disc made from ash-wood recessed at the back and dotted at the front by twenty little screws with turned-down heads set in a circle to form switch-studs. The detector’s brass with an adjusting knob of ebonite; the condenser’s Murdock; the crystal, Chilean gelina quartz, a Mighty Atom mail-ordered from Gamage of Holborn. For the telephone, he tried a normal household one but found it wasn’t any use unless he replaced the diaphragms, and moved on to a watch-receiverpattern headset wound to a resistance of eight and a half thousand ohms. The transmitter itself is made of standard brass, a four-inch tapper arm keeping Serge’s finger a safe distance from the spark gap. The spark gap flashes blue each time he taps; it makes a spitting noise, so loud he’s had to build a silence box around the desk to isolate his little RX station from the sleeping household—or, as it becomes more obvious to him with every session, to maintain the little household’s fantasy of isolation from the vast sea of transmission roaring all around it.

Tonight, as on most nights, he starts out local, sweeping from two hundred and fifty to four hundred metres. It’s the usual traffic: CQ signals from experimental wireless stations in Masedown and Eliry, tapping out their call signs and then slipping into Q-code once another bug’s responded. They exchange signal quality reports, compare equipment, enquire about variations in the weather and degrees of atmospheric interference. The sequence QTC, which Serge, like any other 
Wireless World subscriber, knows means “Have you anything to transmit?”, is usually met with a short, negative burst before both questioner and responder move on to fish for other signals. Serge used to answer all CQs, noting each station’s details in his call-book; lately, though, he’s become more selective in the signals he’ll acknowledge, preferring to let the small-fry click away as background chatter, only picking up the pencil to transcribe the dots and dashes when their basic QRNs and QRAs unfold into longer sequences. This is happening right now: an RXer in Lydium who calls himself “Wireworm” is tapping out his thoughts about the Postmaster General’s plans to charge one guinea per station for all amateurs.

“. . . tht bedsteads n gas pipes cn b used as rcving aerials is well-kn0n I mslf hv dn this,” Wireworm’s boasting, “als0 I cn trn pian0 wire in2 tuning coil fashion dtctrs from wshing s0da n a needle mst I obtain lcnses 4 ths wll we gt inspctrs chcking r pots n pans 2 C tht they cnfrm 2 rgulatns I sgst cmpaign cvl ds0bdns agnst such impsitions . . .” 

Transcribing his clicks, Serge senses that Wireworm’s not so young: no operator under twenty would bother to tap out the whole word “fashion.” The spacing’s a little awkward also: too studied, too self-conscious. Besides, most bugs can improvise equipment: he once made Bodner’s spade conduct a signal and the house’s pipes vibrate and resonate, sending Frieda running in panic from her bath . . . 

Serge moves up to five hundred metres. Here are stronger, more decisive signals: coastal stations’ call signs, flung from towering masts. Poldhu’s transmitting its weather report; a few nudges away, Malin, Cleethorpes, Nordeich send out theirs. Liverpool’s exchanging messages with tugboats in the Mersey: Serge transcribes a rota of towing duties for tomorrow. Further out, the lightship 
Tongue’s reporting a derelict’s position: the coordinates click their way in to the Seaforth station, then flash out again, to be acknowledged by Marconi operators of commercial liners, one after the other. The ships’ names reel off in litany: Falaba, British Sun, Scania, Morea, Carmania, each name appendaged by its church: Cunard Line, Allen, Aberdeen Direct, Canadian Pacific Railway, Holland-America. The clicks peter out, and Serge glances at the clock: it’s half a minute before one. A few seconds later, Paris’s call-sign comes on: FL for Eiffel. Serge taps his finger on the desktop to the rhythm of the huge tower’s stand-by clicks, then holds it still and erect for the silent lull that always comes just before the time-code. All the operators have gone silent: boats, coastal stations, bugs—all waiting, like him, for the quarter- second dots to set the air, the world, time itself back in motion as they
chime the hour.

They sound, and then the headphones really come to life. The press digest goes out from Niton, Poldhu, Malin, Cadiz:
Diario del AtlánticoJournal de l’AtlantiqueAtlantic Daily News . . . “Madero and Suárez Shot in Mexico While Trying to Escape” . . . “Trade Pact Between” . . . “Entretien de” . . . “Shocking Domestic Tragedy in Bow” . . . “Il Fundatore”. . . “Husband Unable to Prevent” . . . The stories blur together: Serge sees a man clutching a kitchen knife chasing a politician across parched earth, past cacti and armadillos, while ambassadors wave papers around fugitive and pursuer, negotiating terms. “Grain Up Five, Lloyds Down Two” . . . “Australia All Out for Four Hundred and Twenty-one, England Sixty-two for Three in Reply” . . . Malin’s got ten private messages for Lusitania, seven for Campania, two for Olympic: request instructions how to proceed with . . . the honour of your company on the occasion of . . . weighing seven and a half pounds, a girl . . . The operators stay on after the Marconigrams have gone through, chatting to one another: Carrigan’s moved to President Lincoln, Borstable to Malwa; the Company Football Team drew two–all against theEvening Standard Eleven; old Allsop, wireless instructor at Marconi House, is getting married on the twenty-second . . .His tapper-finger firing up her spark gap . . . Short, then long . . . Olympic and Campania are playing a game of chess: K4 to Q7 . . . K4 to K5 . . . They always start K4 . . . Serge transcribes for a while, then lays his pencil down and lets the sequences run through the space between his ears, sounding his skull: there’s a fluency to them, a rhythm that’s spontaneous, as though the clicks were somehow speaking on their own and didn’t need the detectors, keys or finger-twitching men who cling to them like afterthoughts . . .

He climbs to six hundred, and picks up ice reports sent out from whalers: floeberg/growler 51n 10' 45.63" lat 36w 12' 39.37 long . . . field ice 59n 42' 43.54" lat 14w 45' 56.25" long . . . Compagnie de Télégraphie sans Fil reports occasional light snow off Friesland.
Paris comes on again; again the cycle pauses and restarts. Then Bergen, Crookhaven, Tarifa, Malaga, Gibraltar. Serge pictures gardenias tucked behind girls’ ears, red dresses and the blood of bulls. He hears news forwarded, via Port Said and Rome, from Abyssinia, and sees an African girl strumming on some kind of mandolin, jet-black breasts glowing darkly through light silk. Suez is issuing warnings of Somali raiders further down the coast. More names process by: Isle of Perim, Zanzibar, Isle of Socotra, Persian Gulf. Parades of tents line themselves up for him: inside them, dancers serving sherbet; outside, camels saddled with rich carpets, deserts opening up beneath red skies. The air is rich tonight: still and cold, high pressure, the best time of year. He lets a fart slip from his buttocks, and waits for its vapour to reach his nostrils: it, too, carries signals, odour-messages from distant, unseen bowels. When it arrives, he slips the headphones off, opens the silence cabin’s door to let some air in and hears a goods train passing half a mile away. The pulsing of its carriage-joins above the steel rails carries to him cleanly. He looks down at his desk: the half-worn pencil, the light’s edge across the paper sheet, the tuning box, the tapper. These things—here, solid, tangible— are somehow made more present by the tinny sound still spilling from the headphones lying beside them. The sound’s present too, material: Serge sees its ripples snaking through the sky, pleats in its fabric, joins pulsing as they make their way down corridors of air and moisture, rock and metal, oak, pine and bamboo . . .

Above six hundred and fifty, the clicks dissipate into a thin, pervasive noise, like dust. Discharges break across this: distant lightning, Aurora Borealis, meteorites. Their crashes and eruptions sound like handfuls of buckshot thrown into a tin bucket, or a bucketful of grain-rich gravy dashed against a wash-boiler. Wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear. Serge spends the last half hour or so of each night up here among these pitches, nestling in their contours as his head nods towards the desktop and lights flash across the inside of his eyelids, pushing them outwards from the centre of his brain, so far out that the distance to their screen seems infinite: they seem to contain all distances, envelop space itself, curving around it like a patina, a mould . . .

Once, he picked up a CQD: a distress signal. It came from the Atlantic, two hundred or so miles off Greenland. The
Pachitea, merchant vessel of the Peruvian Steamship Company, had hit an object—maybe whale, maybe iceberg—and was breaking up. The nearest vessel was another South American, Acania, but it was fifty miles away. Galway had picked the call up; so had Le Havre, Malin, Poldhu and just about every ship between Southampton and New York. Fifteen minutes after Serge had locked onto the signal half the radio bugs in Europe had tuned into it as well. The Admiralty put a message out instructing amateurs to stop blocking the air. Serge ignored the order, but lost the signal beneath general interference: the atmospherics were atrocious that night. He listened to the whine and crackle, though, right through till morning—and heard, or thought he heard, among its breaks and flecks, the sound of people treading cold, black water, their hands beating small disturbances into waves that had come to bury them.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Excerpt: Stephen Fry's Moab is my Washpot


"Look, Marguerite ... England!"
Closing lines of 
The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934


For some reason I recall it as just me and Bunce. No one else in the compartment at all. Just me, eight years and a month old, and this inexpressibly small dab of misery who told me in one hot, husky breath that his name was Samuelanthonyfarlowebunce.
    I remember why we were alone now. My mother had dropped us off early at Paddington Station. My second term. The train to Stroud had a whole carriage reserved for us. Usually by the time my mother, brother and I had arrived on the platform there would have been a great bobbing of boaters dipping careless farewells into a sea of entirely unacceptable maternal hats.
    Amongst the first to arrive this time, my brother had found a compartment where an older boy already sat amongst his opened tuck-box, ready to show off his pencil cases and conker skewers while I had moved respectfully forward to leave them to it. I was still only a term old after all. Besides, I wasn't entirely sure what a conker skewer might be.
    The next compartment contained what appeared to be a tiny trembling woodland creature.
    My brother and I had leaned from our respective windows to send the mother cheerfully on her way. We tended to be cruelly kind at these moments, taking as careless and casual a leave of her as possible and making a great show of how little it mattered that we were leaving home for such great stretches of time. Some part of us must have known inside that it was harder for her than it was for us. She would be returning to a baby and a husband who worked so hard that she hardly saw him and to all the nightmares of uncertainty, doubt and guilt which plague a parent, while we would be amongst our own. I think it was a tacitly agreed strategy to arrive early so that all this could be got over with without too many others milling around. The loudness and hattedness of Other Parents were not conducive to the particular Fry tokens of love: tiny exertions of pressure on the hands and tight little nods of the head that stood for affection and deep, unspoken understanding. A slightly forced smile and bitten underlip aside, Mummy always left the platform outwardly resolute, which was all that mattered.
    All that taken care of, I slid down in my seat and examined the damp shivering thing opposite. He had chosen a window seat with its back to the engine as if perhaps he wanted to be facing homewards and not towards the ghastly unknown destination.
    "You must be a new boy," I said.
    A brave nod and a great spreading of scarlet in downy, hamstery cheeks.
    "My name's Fry," I added. "That's my bro talking next door."
    A sudden starburst of panic in the fluffy little chick's brown eyes, as if terrified that I was going to invite my bro in. He probably had no idea what a bro was.
    The previous term I hadn't known either.
    "Roger, Roger!" I had cried, running up to my brother in morning break. "Have you had a letter from—"
    "You call me bro here. Bro. Understood?"
    I explained everything to the broken little creature in front of me. "A bro is a brother, that's all. He's Fry, R. M. And I'm Fry, S. J. See?"
    The hamster-chick-squirrel-downy-woodland thing nodded to show that it saw. It swallowed a couple of times as if trying to find the right amount of air to allow it to speak without sobbing.
    "I was a new boy last term," I said, a huge and perfectly inexplicable surge of satisfaction filling me all the way from gartered woollen socks to blue-banded boater. "It really isn't so bad, you know. Though I expect you feel a bit scared and a bit homesick."
    It didn't quite dare look at me but nodded again and gazed miserably down at shiny black Cambridge shoes which seemed to me to be as small as a baby's booties.
    "Everybody cries. You mustn't feel bad about it."
    It was at this point that it announced itself to be Samuelanthonyfarlowebunce, and to its friends Sam, but never Sammy.
    "I shall have to call you Bunce," I told him. "And you will call me Fry. You'll call me Fry S. J. if my bro is about, so there won't be any mix up. Not Fry Minor or Fry the Younger, I don't like that. Here, I've got a spare hankie. Why don't you blow your nose? There'll be others along in a minute."
    "Others?" He looked up from emptying himself into my hankie like a baby deer hearing a twig snap by a water pool and cast his eyes about him in panic.
    "Just other train boys. There are usually about twenty of us. You see that piece of paper stuck to the window? `Reserved for Stouts Hill School' it says. We've got this whole carriage to ourselves. Four compartments."
    "What happens when we get ... when we get there?"
    "What do you mean?"
    "When we get to the station."
    "Oh, there'll be a bus to meet us. Don't worry, I'll make sure you aren't lost. How old are you?"
    "I'm seven and a half."
    He looked much younger. Nappy age, he looked.
    "Don't worry," I said again. "I'll look after you. Everything will be fine."
    I'll look after you.
    The pleasure of saying those words, the warm wet sea of pleasure. Quite extraordinary. A little pet all to myself.
    "We'll be friends," I said. "It won't be nearly as bad as you expect. You'll see."
    Kindly paternal thoughts hummed in my mind as I tried to imagine every worry that might be churning him up. All I had to do was remember my own dreads of the term before.
    "Everyone's very nice really. Matron unpacks for you, but you've got to take your games clothes down to the bag room yourself, so you'll have to know your school number so as you can find the right peg. My number's one-o-four, which is the highest number in the school's history, but twelve boys left last term and there are only eight or nine new boys, so there probably won't ever be a one-o-five. I'm an Otter, someone'll probably tell you what House you're in. You should watch out for Hampton, he gives Chinese burns and dead legs. If Mr. Kemp is on duty he gives bacon slicers. It's soccer this term, my bro says. I hate soccer but it's conkers as well which is supposed to be really good fun. My bro says everyone goes crazy at conker time. Conkers bonkers, my bro says."
    Bunce closed up the snotty mess in the middle of my hankie and tried to smile.
    "In two weeks' time," I said, remembering something my mother had told me, "you'll be bouncing about like a terrier and you won't even be able to remember being a bit nervous on the train."
    I looked out of the window and saw some boaters and female hats approaching.
    "Though in your case," I added, "you'll be buncing about ..."
    A real smile and the sound of a small giggle.
    "Here we go," I said. "I can hear some boys coming. Tell you what, here's my Ranger. Why don't you be reading it when they come in, so you'll look nice and busy."
    He took it gratefully.
    "You're so kind," he said. "I've never met anyone as kind as you."
    "Nonsense," I replied, glowing like a hot coal.
    I heard the grand sounds of approaching seniors.
    "Okay then, Mum," someone said.
    "Don't say `okay,' darling. And you will write this time, won't you?"
    "Okay, Mum."
    My bro and I never called our parents Mum and Dad. It was always Mummy and Daddy until years later when Mother and Father were officially sanctioned. Towards adulthood we allowed ourselves to use, with self-conscious mock-Pooterism, Ma and Pa.
    Last term, I had put my hand up in an art lesson and said, "Mummy, can I have another piece of charcoal?" The form had howled with laughter.
    There again, during the first weeks of summer holidays I often called my mother "Sir" or "Matron."
    Bunce buried himself in the Trigan Empire, but I knew that he was listening to the sounds too and I could tell that the confidence and loudness of the other boys' voices terrified him. He clutched the sides of the comic so hard that little rips appeared on the outer pages.
    On the way to Paddington after lunch I had felt more dread, infinitely more terror and despair at the prospect of school than I had the term before. During the long summer holiday Roger had told me to expect this. Homesickness was much worse the second and third terms than it was the first. Bunce had come as a godsend therefore, something to take my mind off my own fears.
    The door to our carriage slid open with a loud bang.
    "Oh God, it's Fry's Turkish Delight. And what the hell are you doing by the window?"
    "Hello, Mason," I said.
    "Come on, shove over."
    Bunce started to rise like a courteous old commuter offering his seat to a heavily-packaged woman. "Would you like ...?" he began huskily.
    "No, I want Fry's seat, if he hasn't stunk it out yet."
    Well there it was. I felt my face flush scarlet as I got up mumbling something inaudible, and removed myself to the corner seat farthest from the window.
    For five minutes I had enjoyed the sensation of someone looking up to and admiring me. Bunce had respected me. Believed in me. Trusted me. Now the little puppy would see that the rest of the school treated me as if I was no one. Just another tiresome squit. I sat in my new seat, trying to look unconcerned and stared down at my bare knees and the grazes and indentations of gravel still there from a bicycle fall. Only yesterday afternoon I had been riding along the lanes listening to skylarks high in the huge Norfolk skies and watching partridges tread stubble in the fields. Three weeks ago I had had my eighth birthday party and been taken to see The Great Raceat the Gaumont in Norwich.
    Mason settled himself into his conquered seat and looked across at Bunce with great curiosity and an air of faint repugnance, as if Bunce might be of a breed he had never run into before and hoped never to encounter again.
    "You," said Mason, kicking across at him. "Have you got a name then?"
    The reply came as something of a shock.
    "I have got a name," said Bunce, rising, "but it's none of your bloody business."
    Mason looked stupefied. There was nothing in the least bad about him. In taking my seat and remarking on my smell he had meant no particular insult, he was merely exercising the natural privilege of seniority. Seniority is pay-back time. He had been treated like a worm when he was small, now it was his turn to treat those under him like worms. He was ten, for heaven's sake. He was allowed to wear long trousers. At prep school, ten is to eight what forty is to twenty in adult life.
    "I'm going over there," said Bunce, pointing to the seat next to mine. "It smells better over there." He threw himself down beside me with a determined bounce on the springs and then ruined everything by bursting into tears.
    Mason was denied the chance of any response to this astonishing eruption by the entrance into the compartment of Kaloutsis and his parents. It was not at all done for Family to board the train, but Kaloutsis was Greek and his parents serenely above the finer points of English protocol.
    "Ah, and here's a little one," cried Mrs. Kaloutsis, swooping down on Bunce. "And no one looking after you?"
    "Thank you," Bunce snivelled, "but Fry S. J. is looking after me very well indeed. Very well. Very well indeed. I had a smut in my eye and he lent me his handkerchief."
    Train boys were generally the sons of military or colonial parents, and had flown in to London Airport to be picked up by uncles, aunts or godparents who would take them on to Paddington. Most other boys at Stouts Hill were driven to school by their parents.
    The reserved compartments filled up over the next quarter-hour with deeply tanned boys returning from hot weeks in places like Northern Rhodesia, Nigeria, India, Aden, the West Indies and Ceylon. One boy, Robert Dale, whom I liked, sat opposite me and Bunce and told us about India. Dale's father edited an English-language newspaper in Bombay and Dale always shouted "Aiee!" when he was in pain. It had amazed me greatly when I first heard him stubbing his toe against the foot of the bed in the dormitory, since I had never imagined that expressions of pain could vary. I had thought "Ouch!" and "Ow!" were the same all over the world. I had suffered a hot and bothered exchange in my first French lesson, for example, when I was told that the French for "Oh!" was "Ah!"
    "Then how do they say `Oh,' sir?"
    "They say ``Ah.'"
    "Well then, how do they say `Ah'?"
    "Don't be stupid, Fry."
    I had sulked for the rest of the lesson.
    Dale took off his shoes and socks and leaned back. He had the most splendidly fine feet, with a perfect, even spread of toes. At the beginning of every autumn term boys like him who spent their school holidays in Africa, Asia or the West Indies would show off by running across gravel barefoot without any pain. By the end of the term, with winter set in, their feet would have lost their natural tough layers of callused skin and they would be just the same as the rest of us.
    A guard looked in and performed a brief headcount. He gazed into the middle distance and told us that the last boy who had rested his foot on a seat had been arrested by the police at Didcot and put in prison, where he still languished on a diet of bread and water.
    "Sounds better than school food," said Dale.
    The guard grunted at our giggles and left. Boaters were thrown on to luggage-racks, feet put up on seats and talk turned to soccer, what had been done in the hols, who was going to be made prefect and the whole Edwardian schoolboy novel nonsense. Mason seemed to have forgotten all about Bunce's strange outburst and was delighting the boy opposite with underarm farts.
    After one of those squealing, juddering, stomach-dropping false starts with which trains so tactlessly articulate human emotion, we pulled ourselves out of the great shed of Paddington and steamed west.

The Gloucestershire town of Stroud, sanctified by the memory and to the memory of Laurie Lee, produces—or used to produce—almost all the baize that Britain and her dominions ever thought to use. Baize for the doors into servants' quarters, baize for billiards, snooker and pool, baize for card tables, baize for casinos, auction-rooms and baize to drape over the cages of songbirds to fool them into thinking it night. Some miles to the south of Stroud stands the Bury, a great green hill over whose shoulders one might believe the weavers of the Slad Valley once threw a huge bolt of their baize as a giant billboard to show off their product to the world. The small village of Uley snuggles itself into the thicker nap at the base of this fuzzy-felt hill and sleeps there contentedly, unaware of triple-thick shakes, pay-per-view Fight Nights, Lottery Winsday and driver's side air bags. The village of Uley still believes in Gestetnered parish magazines, dividend tea, sherbet dips, Heinz Salad Cream and half-timbered Morris vans. The village of Uley grows lobelias and alyssum on the front fringes of lawn that bank up to warm ham-stone cottages out of which rumble the deep tones of Long Wave wireless. The village pub of Uley radiates a warm vapour in which are mingled the vanilla richness of pipe tobacco and the malty hum of Usher's Ales. The village church of Uley has its fragrance too, a compound of Esso Blue, Mansion furniture wax and hymn books in a state of permanently suspended decay.
    High on a mound half a mile away stands Stouts Hill School, a dashing castle of knapped flint, all turrets and arrow-slits and skirted by a dragon-fly flicking, carp-snapping, mallow-flaming lake. The lane from Stouts Hill to the village winds steeply down to the Dursley Road. There is horse shit there, dropped in caramac-coloured lumps by warm-sided bay mares ridden by gymkhana-jolly girls who blush fiercely when they meet your eye.
    There is horse shit there all right.
    In the village of Uley nought-percent-financed Daewoos lurk behind remotely controlled carport doors, satellite dishes glitter from the roofs, copal-varnished slices of barked Do-It-All elmwood proclaim Mulberry Lodge, South Fork and El Adobe. A blackboard outside the village pub vibrates in three-coloured chalk with the promise of Happy Hour, pool, premium guest beers and big screen satellite TV. The smell of stale lager and Doritos leaks up the main street to the church, where laserprinted [A.sub.4] pages flap announcements from the chancel wall promising car boot sales and outreach fellowship retreats in Wales. Lard-arsed fatties in Russell Athletic sweatshirts swap Sensual Love Guide CD-ROMs with their neighbours as their Nike-ticked kids line up burger cartons on the barbecue patio and zap them with turbo-boosted water guns. The girls smear blusher on their cheeks and poke their tongues out fiercely when they meet your eye. Stouts Hill the school has closed now, to be replaced by Stouts Hill the time-share holiday home.
    Well, maybe it's not so bad. Somewhere between warm gloop and cold water is the tepid truth about the village of Uley, which gets on with life as charmingly as it can. There was a time when the very Mansion furniture wax, dividend tea and gymkhana girls of sentimental memory were themselves modern and noisomely resented intrusions; books will one day be written that recall CD-ROMs and Russell Athletic sweatshirts in a nostalgic melancholy haze as fervent and foolish as any.
    We will cut, just for a moment, to London. These days I have a flat in St. James's, that elegant parcel of metropolitan clubland bordered by Piccadilly, Pall Mall, St. James's Street and Lower Regent Street. It suits, I suppose, my self-image—or rather that image of me others have that I often weak-mindedly allow to become my self-image—to live in St. James's. St. James's has long been the natural habitat of the upper-class English bachelor. Here he may browse for shirts and ties in Jermyn Street, for hats and shoes in Lock's and Lobb's, for foodstuffs in Fortnum's, for literature in Hatchards and the London Library, and for company in Brooks's, White's, Boodle's, Buck's or (if tragically pushed) in the improbably named East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public School's Club, where the best school curry in all London can be found, served with sultanas and slices of banana, washed down with lukewarm London tap water poured into stout little Duralex glasses. I have lived in St. James's for the last five years, not a proper English upper-class bachelor at all, but tired of Islington, the proper home for people like me, and never at ease west of Hyde Park Corner or south of the Strand.
    From my window I can see the clock face of Christopher Wren's handsome church of St. James. Behind it—the other side of Piccadilly—Sackville Street leads up to Savile Row and the great Nash curve of Regent Street. In the year 1961 my parents visited Sackville Street, examining each doorway in turn until they came upon a brass plaque on which was written:


In the year 1977 I too visited Sackville Street, looking for the brass plaque that still said:


I don't suppose that any writer will ever be able to come up with a partnership that quite matches the ludicrous perfection of the names Gabbitas and Thring.
    What is a scholastic agency?
    Oh, tish now, and come, come, come ... you know perfectly well.
    A scholastic agency is a kind of public-and prep-school dating agency. It acts as a private sector pimp, procuring staff for shorthanded schools, placement for jobless teachers and schools for parents at a loss to know where their little ones might thrive. That second service was of interest to me in 1977, and the third to my mother and father in 1961.
    They wanted to find a prep school for my brother, Roger, and for me. I was four years old then and Roger well on his way to six. Today of course, what with the establishment of social equality, the smashing of the class system and the achievements of a Nation More at Ease with Itself, by the time your offspring have reached four and five it is far too late to be looking for schools: demand for private education is so high that children must be put down for admission not at birth but in utero, ideally before their first cells have divided.
    There may be some reading this who are hazy (and proudly so) about the precise meanings of "prep school" and "public school."
    A prep school is an establishment designed, as the name implies, untypically for a British institution, to prepare a child. In this instance the preparation is for public school. Public school, as the name decidedly does not imply, very typically for a British institution, is wholly private. Public schools undertake to guide, mould and instruct pupils aged between thirteen and eighteen. Prep schools accept their intake from somewhere in the region of eight, nine or ten years old, and prepare them for the Common Entrance Examination, a test recognised by all the public schools. Different public schools are satisfied by different CE results. Thus Winchester, which has an interest in only the cleverest boys, would expect CE marks way above seventy per cent, while Malvern and Worksop and Monckton Combe, by way of example, might be content with percentages in the nether fifties or upper forties. There is, it follows, no absolute pass mark in the Common Entrance. Public schools can decide whom they take according to their need to have a fully pupilled and profitable school roll, according to their own sense of academic reputation, according to a candidate's athletic, musical or artistic qualities, or according to his status as offspring of an old boy or a Great, Rich and Desirable Parent.

At the time of my infancy, the early 1960s, nearly all prep and public schools were single-sex boarding schools. Today, girls are involved to a much greater degree, sometimes only in the sixth form, sometimes all the way through. Parents are more reluctant to pack their children off early and may choose to have them attend as day pupils or weekly boarders. Headmasters are younger than they were and more likely to be married. Parents expect more say in the running of a school, to attend more PTA meetings and to complain more vocally about living conditions, discipline and the curriculum. Heating, diet, facilities, syllabus and discipline seem far less Spartan now than they were twenty years ago. But these changes aside, the system, so far as I have been able to ascertain, is much as it was.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Excerpt: Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

 She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe and the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she'd never look.

"That you, Shasta? The packaging fooled me there for a minute."
"Need your help, Doc."

They stood in the streetlight through the kitchen window there'd never been much point putting curtains over and listened to the thumping of the surf from down the hill. Some nights, when the wind was right, you could hear the surf all over town.

Nobody was saying much. What was this? "So! You know I have an office now? Just like a day job and everything?"

"I looked in the phone book, almost went over there. But then I thought, better for everybody if this looks like a secret rendezvous."

OK, nothing romantic tonight. Bummer. But it might be a paying gig. "Somebody's keeping a close eye?"
"Just spent an hour on surface streets trying to make it look good."

"How about a beer?" He went to the fridge, pulled two cans out of the case he kept inside, handed one to Shasta.
"There's this guy," she was saying.

There would be. No point getting emotional. And if he had a nickel for every time he'd heard a client start off this way, he would be over in Hawaii now, loaded day and night, digging the waves at Waimea, or better yet hiring somebody to dig them for him .... "Gentleman of the straight-world persuasion," he beamed.

"OK, Doc. He's married."
"Some ... money situation."

She shook back hair that wasn't there and raised her eyebrows so what.
Groovy with Doc. "And the wife — she knows about you?"

Shasta nodded. "But she's seeing somebody too. Only it isn't just the usual number — they're working together on some creepy little scheme."
"To make off with hubby's fortune, yeah, I think I heard of that happenin' once or twice around L.A. And ... you want me to do what exactly?" He found the paper bag he'd brought his supper home in and got busy pretending to scribble notes on it, because straight-chick uniform, makeup supposed to look like no makeup or whatever, here came that old well-known hard-on Shasta was always good for sooner or later. Does it ever end, he wondered. Of course it does. It did.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Excerpt: Brin Friesen's Sic.

That whole morning I couldn’t find my favorite coat. I looked
everywhere for it and even got my mom on the case but no matter how hard we looked, we couldn’t find it. The trouble is I have all my stuff inside it. I have a lot of pockets. I got the coat last Christmas and it’s even got secret pockets. Not just one or two either––it’s got a bunch. It’s one of those Vietnam fatigue jackets. I don’t know if it’s from there, but it has that same olive-green color you see those sour run-down crippled Vets in the movies wearing when they’ve come back from Nam and are shouting and yelling at anti-war rallies with handlebar mustaches and long hair. I loved that coat. What’s worse I knew I was missing twice as much stuff as I could remember missing. That coat’s got me out of more than a few jams and I just felt sorta naked without the damn thing.

I was excited walking to school. Fridays were always good. The weekend was right around the corner and there were the fights. Fights on Fridays were pretty common. Once a month there was a good scrap between seventh graders, either on the grass field or in the woods. Mainly the whole build up and story leading up to fights was the good stuff. The actual scrap was usually pretty forgettable really because most of the time teachers broke them up. Somebody always ratted them out. But during the lead up kids came up with all kinds of possibilities and reasons why one of the kids involved in the fight might lose something during the fight he’d never get back. In a dirty way, we loved the idea of that. Battle wounds. Scars. Witnesses. Besides who’d win or lose the fight, I guess it was the chance we’d see somebody lose something for keeps that made it so fascinating.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Excerpt: Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work. The two friends were very different. The one who always steered the way was an obese and dreamy Greek. In the summer he would come out wearing a yellow or green polo shirt stuffed sloppily into his trousers in front and hanging loose behind. When it was colder he wore over this a shapeless gray sweater. His face was round and oily, with half-closed eyelids and lips that curved in a gentle, stupid smile. The other mute was tall. His eyes had a quick, intelligent expression. He was always immaculate and very soberly dressed. 

Every morning the two friends walked silently together until they reached the main street of the town. Then when they came to a certain fruit and candy store they paused for a moment on the sidewalk outside. The Greek, Spiros Antonapoulos, worked for his cousin, who owned this fruit store. His job was to make candies and sweets, uncrate the fruits, and to keep the place clean. The thin mute, John Singer, nearly always put his hand on his friends arm and looked for a second into his face before leaving him. Then after this good-bye Singer crossed the street and walked on alone to the jewelry store where he worked as a silverware engraver.

In the late afternoon the friends would meet again. Singer came back to the fruit store and waited until Antonapoulos was ready to go home. The Greek would be lazily unpacking a case of peaches or melons, or perhaps looking at the funny paper in the kitchen behind the store where he cooked. Before their departure Antonapoulos always opened a paper sack he kept hidden during the day on one of the kitchen shelves. Inside were stored various bits of food he had collected—a piece of fruit, samples of candy, or the butt-end of a liverwurst. Usually before leaving Antonapoulos waddled gently to the glassed case in the front of the store where some meats and cheeses were kept. He glided open the back of the case and his fat hand groped lovingly for some particular dainty inside which he had wanted. Sometimes his cousin who owned the place did not see him. But if he noticed he stared at his cousin with a warning in his tight, pale face. Sadly Antonapoulos would shuffle the morsel from one corner of the case to the other. During these times Singer stood very straight with his hands in his pockets and looked in another direction. He did not like to watch this little scene between the two Greeks. For, excepting drinking and a certain solitary secret pleasure, Antonapoulos loved to eat more than anything else in the world.

In the dusk the two mutes walked slowly home together. At home Singer was always talking to Antonapoulos. His hands shaped the words in a swift series of designs. His face was eager and his gray-green eyes sparkled brightly. With his thin, strong hands he told Antonapoulos all that had happened during the day.

Antonapoulos sat back lazily and looked at Singer. It was seldom that he ever moved his hands to speak at all—and then it was to say that he wanted to eat or to sleep or to drink. These three things he always said with the same vague, fumbling signs. At night, if he were not too drunk, he would kneel down before his bed and pray awhile. Then his plump hands shaped the words ‘Holy Jesus, or ‘God, or ‘Darling Mary. These were the only words Antonapoulos ever said. Singer never knew just how much his friend understood of all the things he told him. But it did not matter.

They shared the upstairs of a small house near the business section of the town. There were two rooms. On the oil stove in the kitchen Antonapoulos cooked all of their meals. There were straight, plain kitchen chairs for Singer and an overstuffed sofa for Antonapoulos. The bedroom was furnished mainly with a large double bed covered with an eiderdown comforter for the big Greek and a narrow iron cot for Singer.

Dinner always took a long time, because Antonapoulos loved food and he was very slow. After they had eaten, the big Greek would lie back on his sofa and slowly lick over each one of his teeth with his tongue, either from a certain delicacy or because he did not wish to lose the savor of the meal— while Singer washed the dishes.

Sometimes in the evening the mutes would play chess. Singer had always greatly enjoyed this game, and years before he had tried to teach it to Antonapoulos. At first his friend could not be interested in the reasons for moving the various pieces about on the board. Then Singer began to keep a bottle of something good under the table to be taken out after each lesson. The Greek never got on to the errratic movements of the knights and the sweeping mobility of the queens, but he learned to make a few set, opening moves. He preferreeeeed the white pieces and would not play if the black men were given him. After the first moves Singer worked out the game by himself while his friend looked on drowsily. If Singer made brilliant attacks on his own men so that in the end the black king was killed, Antonapoulos was always very proud and pleased.

The two mutes had no other friends, and except when they worked they were alone together. Each day was very much like any other day, because they were alone so much that nothing ever disturbed them. Once a week they would go to the library for Singer to withdraw a mystery book and on Friday night they attended a movie. Then on payday they always went to the ten-cent photograph shop above the Army and Navy Store so that Antonapoulos could have his picture taken. These were the only places where they made customary visits. There were many parts in the town that they had never even seen.

The town was in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot. The town was a fairly large one. On the main street there were several blocks of two- and three-story shops and business offices. But the largest buildings in the town were the factories, which employed a large percentage of the population. These cotton mills were big and flourishing and most of the workers in the town were poor. Often in the faces along the streets there was the desperate look of hunger and of loneliness.

But the two mutes were not lonely at all. At home they were content to eat and drink, and Singer would talk with his hands eagerly to his friend about all that was in his mind. So the years passed in this quiet way until Singer reached the age of thirty-two and had been in the town with Antonapoulos for ten years.

Then one day the Greek became ill. He sat up in bed with his hands on his fat stomach and big, oily tears rolled down his cheeks. Singer went to see his friends cousin who owned the fruit store, and also he arranged for leave from his own work. The doctor made out a diet for Antonapoulos and said that he could drink no more wine. Singer rigidly enforced the doctors orders. All day he sat by his friends bed and did what he could to make the time pass quickly, but Antonapoulos only looked at him angrily from the corners of his eyes and would not be amused. The Greek was very fretful, and kept finding fault with the fruit drinks and food that Singer prepared for him. Constantly he made his friend help him out of bed so that he could pray. His huge buttocks would sag down over his plump little feet when he kneeled. He fumbled with his hands to say ‘Darling Mary and then held to the small brass cross tied to his neck with a dirty string. His big eyes would wall up to the ceiling with a look of fear in them, and afterward he was very sulky and would not let his friend speak to him.

Singer was patient and did all that he could. He drew little pictures, and once he made a sketch of his friend to amuse him. This picture hurt the big Greeks feelings, and he refused to be reconciled until Singer had made his face very young and handsome and colored his hair bright yellow and his eyes china blue. And then he tried not to show his pleasure.

Singer nursed his friend so carefully that after a week Antonapoulos was able to return to his work. But from that time on there was a difference in their way of life. Trouble came to the two friends.

Antonapoulos was not ill any more, but a change had come in him. He was irritable and no longer content to spend the evenings quietly in their home. When he would wish to go out Singer followed along close behind him. Antonapoulos would go into a restaurant, and while they sat at the table he slyly put lumps of sugar, or a peppershaker, or pieces of silverware in his pocket. Singer always paid for what he took and there was no disturbance. At home he scolded Antonapoulos, but the big Greek only looked at him with a bland smile.

The months went on and these habits of Antonapoulos grew worse. One day at noon he walked calmly out of the fruit store of his cousin and urinated in public against the wall of the First National Bank Building across the street. At times he would meet people on the sidewalk whose faces did not please him, and he would bump into these persons and push at them with his elbows and stomach. He walked into a store one day and hauled out a floor lamp without paying for it, and another time he tried to take an electric train he had seen in a showcase.

For Singer this was a time of great distress. He was continually marching Antonapoulos down to the courthouse during lunch hour to settle these infringements of the law. Singer became very familiar with the procedure of the courts and he was in a constant state of agitation. The money he had saved in the bank was spent for bail and fines. All of his efforts and money were used to keep his friend out of jail because of such charges as theft, committing public indecencies, and assault and battery.

The Greek cousin for whom Antonapoulos worked did not enter into these troubles at all. Charles Parker (for that was the name this cousin had taken) let Antonapoulos stay on at the store, but he watched him always with his pale, tight face and he made no effort to help him. Singer had a strange feeling about Charles Parker. He began to dislike him.

Singer lived in continual turmoil and worry. But Antonapoulos was always bland, and no matter what happened the gentle, flaccid smile was still on his face. In all the years before it had seemed to Singer that there was something very subtle and wise in this smile of his friend. He had never known just how much Antonapoulos understood and what he was thinking. Now in the big Greeks expression Singer thought that he could detect something sly and joking. He would shake his friend by the shoulders until he was very tired and explain things over and over with his hands. But nothing did any good.

All of Singers money was gone and he had to borrow from the jeweler for whom he worked. On one occasion he was un- able to pay bail for his friend and Antonapoulos spent the night in jail. When Singer came to get him out the next day he was very sulky. He did not want to leave. He had enjoyed his dinner of sowbelly and cornbread with syrup poured over it. And the new sleeping arrangements and his cellmates pleased him.

They had lived so much alone that Singer had no one to help him in his distress. Antonapoulos let nothing disturb him or cure him of his habits. At home he sometimes cooked the new dish he had eaten in the jail, and on the streets there was never any knowing just what he would do.

And then the final trouble came to Singer.

One afternoon he had come to meet Antonapoulos at the fruit store when Charles Parker handed him a letter. The letter explained that Charles Parker had made arrangements for his cousin to be taken to the state insane asylum two hundred miles away. Charles Parker had used his influence in the town and the details were already settled. Antonapoulos was to leave and to be admitted into the asylum the next week.

Singer read the letter several times, and for a while he could not think. Charles Parker was talking to him across the counter, but he did not even try to read his lips and understand. At last Singer wrote on the little pad he always carried in his pocket: You cannot do this. Antonapoulos must stay with me.

Charles Parker shook his head excitedly. He did not know much American. ‘None of your business, he kept saying over and over.

Singer knew that everything was finished. The Greek was afraid that some day he might be responsible for his cousin. Charles Parker did not know much about the American language —but he understood the American dollar very well, and he had used his money and influence to admit his cousin to the asylum without delay.
There was nothing Singer could do.

The next week was full of feverish activity. He talked and talked. And although his hands never paused to rest he could not tell all that he had to say. He wanted to talk to Antonapoulos of all the thoughts that had ever been in his mind and heart, but there was not time. His gray eyes glittered and his quick, intelligent face expressed great strain. Antonapoulos watched him drowsily, and his friend did not know just what he really understood.

Then came the day when Antonapoulos must leave. Singer brought out his own suitcase and very carefully packed the best of their joint possessions. Antonapoulos made himself a lunch to eat during the journey. In the late afternoon they walked arm in arm down the street for the last time together. It was a chilly afternoon in late November, and little huffs of breath showed in the air before them.

Charles Parker was to travel with his cousin, but he stood apart from them at the station. Antonapoulos crowded into the bus and settled himself with elaborate preparations on one of the front seats. Singer watched him from the window and his hands began desperately to talk for the last time with his friend. But Antonapoulos was so busy checking over the various items in his lunch box that for a while he paid no attention. Just before the bus pulled away from the curb he turned to Singer and his smile was very bland and remote—as though already they were many miles apart.

The weeks that followed didnt seem real at all. All day Singer worked over his bench in the back of the jewelry store, and then at night he returned to the house alone. More than anything he wanted to sleep. As soon as he came home from work he would lie on his cot and try to doze awhile. Dreams came to him when he lay there half-asleep. And in all of them Antonapoulos was there. His hands would jerk nervously, for in his dreams he was talking to his friend and Antonapoulos was watching him.

Singer tried to think of the time before he had ever known his friend. He tried to recount to himself certain things that had happened when he was young. But none of these things he tried to remember seemed real.

There was one particular fact that he remembered, but it was not at all important to him. Singer recalled that, although he had been deaf since he was an infant, he had not always been a real mute. He was left an orphan very young and placed in an institution for the deaf. He had learned to talk with his hands and to read. Before he was nine years old he could talk with one hand in the American way—and also could employ both of his hands after the method of Europeans. He had learned to follow the movements of peoples lips and to understand what they said. Then finally he had been taught to speak.

At the school he was thought very intelligent. He learned the lessons before the rest of the pupils. But he could never become used to speaking with his lips. It was not natural to him, and his tongue felt like a whale in his mouth. From the blank expression on peoples faces to whom he talked in this way he felt that his voice must be like the sound of some animal or that there was something disgusting in his speech. It was painful for him to try to talk with his mouth, but his hands were always ready to shape the words he wished to say. When he was twenty-two he had come south to this town from Chicago and he met Antonapoulos immediately. Since that time he had never spoken with his mouth again, because with his friend there was no need for this.

Nothing seemed real except the ten years with Antonapoulos. In his half-dreams he saw his friend very vividly, and when he awakened a great aching loneliness would be in him. Occasionally he would pack up a box for Antonapoulos, but he never received any reply. And so the months passed in this empty, dreaming way.
In the spring a change came over Singer. He could not sleep and his body was very restless. At evening he would walk monotonously around the room, unable to work off a new feeling of energy. If he rested at all it was only during a few hours before dawn—then he would drop bluntly into a sleep that lasted until the morning light struck suddenly beneath his opening eyelids like a scimitar.

He began spending his evenings walking around the town. He could no longer stand the rooms where Antonapoulos had lived, and he rented a place in a shambling boardinghouse not far from the center of the town.

He ate his meals at a restaurant only two blocks away. This restaurant was at the very end of the long main street and the name of the place was the New York Café. The first day he glanced over the menu quickly and wrote a short note and handed it to the proprietor.

Each morning for breakfast I want an egg, toast, and coffee— $0.15 For lunch I want soup (any kind), a meat sandwich, and milk— $0.25 Please bring me at dinner three vegetables (any kind but cabbage), fish or meat, and a glass of beer— $0.35 Thank you.

The proprietor read the note and gave him an alert, tactful glance. He was a hard man of middle height, with a beard so dark and heavy that the lower part of his face looked as though it were molded of iron. He usually stood in the corner by the cash register, his arms folded over his chest, quietly observing all that went on around him. Singer came to know this mans face very well, for he ate at one of his tables three times a day.

Each evening the mute walked alone for hours in the street. Sometimes the nights were cold with the sharp, wet winds of March and it would be raining heavily. But to him this did not matter.His gait was agitated and he always kept his hands stuffed tight into the pockets of his trousers. Then as the weeks passed the days grew warm and languorous. His agitation gave way gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be a brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Excerpt: Michel Houellebecq's La carte et le Territoire

Jeff Koons venait de se lever de son siège, les bras lancés en avant dans un élan d'enthousiasme. Assis en face de lui sur un canapé de cuir blanc partiellement recouvert de soieries, un peu tassé sur lui-même, Damien Hirst semblait sur le point d'émettre une objection ; son visage était rougeaud, morose. Tous deux étaient vêtus d'un costume noir - celui de Koons, à fines rayures - d'une chemise blanche et d'une cravate noire. Entre les deux hommes, sur la table basse, était posée une corbeille de fruits confits à laquelle ni l'un ni l'autre ne prêtait aucune attention ; Hirst buvait une Budweiser Light.

Derrière eux, une baie vitrée ouvrait sur un paysage d'immeubles élevés qui formaient un enchevêtrement babylonien de polygones gigantesques, jusqu'aux confins de l'horizon ; la nuit était lumineuse, l'air d'une limpidité absolue. On aurait pu se trouver au Qatar, ou à Dubai ; la décoration de la chambre était en réalité inspirée par une photographie publicitaire, tirée d'une publication de luxe allemande, de l'hôtel Emirates d'Abu Dhabi.

Le front de Jeff Koons était légèrement luisant; Jed l'estompa à la brosse, se recula de trois pas. Il y avait décidément un problème avec Koons. Hirst était au fond facile à saisir : on pouvait le faire brutal, cynique, genre « je chie sur vous du haut de mon fric » ; on pouvait aussi le faire artiste révolté (mais quand même riche) poursuivant un travail angoissé sur la mort ; il y avait enfin dans son visage quelque chose de sanguin et de lourd, typiquement anglais, qui le rapprochait d'un fan de base d'Arsenal. En somme il y avait différents aspects, mais que l'on pouvait combiner dans le portrait cohérent, représentable, d'un artiste britannique typique de sa génération. Alors que Koons semblait porter en lui quelque chose de double, comme une contradiction insurmontable entre la rouerie ordinaire du technico-commercial et l'exaltation de l'ascète. Cela faisait déjà trois semaines que Jed retouchait l'expression de Koons se levant de son siège, les bras lancés en avant dans un élan d'enthousiasme comme s'il tentait de convaincre Hirst ; c'était aussi difficile que de peindre un pornographe mormon.

Il avait des photographies de Koons seul, en compagnie de Roman Abramovitch, Madonna, Barack Obama, Bono, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates... Aucune ne parvenait à exprimer quoi que ce soit de la personnalité de Koons, à dépasser cette apparence de vendeur de décapotables Chevrolet qu'il avait choisi d'arborer face au monde, c'était exaspérant, depuis longtemps d'ailleurs les photographes exaspéraient Jed, en particulier les grands photographes, avec leur prétention de révéler dans leurs clichés la vérité de leurs modèles ; ils ne révélaient rien du tout, ils se contentaient de se placer devant vous et de déclencher le moteur de leur appareil pour prendre des centaines de clichés au petit bonheur en poussant des gloussements, et plus tard ils choisissaient les moins mauvais de la série, voilà comment ils procédaient, sans exception, tous ces soi-disant grands photographes, Jed en connaissait quelques-uns personnellement et n'avait pour eux que mépris, il les considérait tous autant qu'ils étaient comme à peu près aussi créatifs qu'un Photomaton.

Dans la cuisine, quelques pas derrière lui, le chauffe-eau émit une succession de claquements secs. Il se figea, tétanisé. On était déjà le 15 décembre.

Avec l'aimable autorisation des éditions Flammarion

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Excerpt: Stéphanie Hochet's Combat de l'amour et la faim

Originally published by Fayard, 2009.

Maintenant que j’avais tout dit au révérend, n’étais-je pas légitime devant le Cantique par excellence, le Cantique des Cantiques ? Je m’étais débarrassé de ma honte en me rendant transparent ; je crus même que depuis que j’avais révélé mes sentiments, le Livre ne se refusait plus à moi. Au contraire, il m’appelait.

Je pris l’exemplaire près de mon lit et lu. La Bien-aimée était Heather, j’étais son Bien-aimé, son futur époux. Je lui parlais avec passion et elle me répondait avec passion, j’entrevoyais le bonheur logé dans cet échange parfait qui m’invitait à descendre au fond de moi pour en extraire des métaux précieux, de l’or et de globules d’argent dont je recouvrais Heather. Mon corps répondait aux images lumineuses, s’exaltait et s’enflammait au rythme du poème. N’était-elle pas ma fiancée, celle que mon cœur aimait ? Et ce n’était plus en cachette, dans l’obscurité de mon âme que je la retrouvais mais au grand jour, sous le soleil du Liban, parmi les lis et l’encens. L’encens qui flottait rappelait le parfum des caroubiers de la propriété et le soleil était celui qui frappait son front quand elle marchait dans l’allée. Je rapprochai les cimes et les montagnes sacrées de nos collines et jetai les lis bibliques sur un tapis d’herbes similaire à celui où j’avais frappé son frère, c’est là même que je la renversai. La rejoignant sur ce lit végétal, j’observais Heather de si près que chaque partie de son visage devenait autre chose de vivant et de beau : des colombes pour les yeux et des brebis pour les dents, quant aux joues, j’aurais pu mordre dedans à pleines dents puisque rien n’évoquait autant des moitiés de grenades. Ma main s’engouffra dans son col et trouva un passage jusqu’aux seins. Des créatures hallucinantes émergèrent de son vêtement : deux faons, jumeaux d’une même gazelle. Je ne sus pas quoi penser de tels animaux, je m’étais attendu à des lapins, des jeunes chats à la rigueur. Où l’auteur avait-il puisé une telle métaphore ? Je m’arrêtai dans ma lecture, interdit. L’image troublait le décor de la poésie. Sans doute le poète révélait-il son emballement érotique en amplifiant ses comparaisons. 

Qu’en était-il de mon propre trouble ? L’étonnement avait causé une pause dans ma lecture, j’avais perdu le visage de Heather. Je devais le recréer de mémoire. Je la rappelai, elle sortit de l’ombre et revint à moi. J’approchai ma bouche, elle l’attrapa, me donna à boire le miel et le lait de sa langue et vola mon soupir. Après un arrêt, je repris le fil du poème. Quelqu’un frappait à une porte : « Ouvre-moi, ma sœur, mon amie ». Obéit-elle ? La voix répéta. Heather ouvrit la porte de sa chambre et m’accueillit sur son lit. Je revis les brebis et les moitiés de grenade puis mon désir me jeta sur les chars d’Amminadîb ! Je l’explorai, enivré, puis me dégageai pour admirer à nouveau sa beauté et en souffrir. N’en pouvant plus, je l’enveloppai d’éloges des pieds à la tête, la rhabillai de scandales et de colliers, recouvris son ventre des lis de notre couche tant sa beauté était redoutable. Heather approcha ses lèvres de mon oreille et dit : « Ah, que ne m’es-tu un frère, allaité au sein de ma mère ! ». Et les regrets m’assaillirent. Je décidai alors de l’aimer comme un frère : mon bras gauche accueillant sa tête, le droit l’étreignant. Introduit chez elle, je lui enseignai ce vers quoi se porte le désir. Le don de ses amours fut délicieux. Je lui donnai tout des miennes. Dans sa petite chambre, le lit grinçait et je cherchai par ma bouche à étouffer ses cris, me réservant son haleine et l’écho de sa jouissance, je nous liais l’un à l’autre. Relevant la tête, je ne sus pas si j’étais sur une colline de notre Sud à l’heure où les moustiques deviennent frénétiques, sur le matelas de ma sœur aimée ou sur mon lit.