Doctors dread fevers whose causes are hidden and
which gradually build up far more than those
whose origins are patent.
For those who know how to approach them, Georges Perec's writings not only provide a rare pleasure, they can also sometimes offer an even rarer gift: a sort of light, yet tenacious fever from which the only means of recovery—almost with regret—is to take up a pen.
The Dazzled Eye
It was a small, windowless room which had long been forgotten. It did not appear on any of the plans of the flat, and its existence had perhaps never been recorded, unless it were in a highly allusive manner, such as a subtle change in the shading of a colour, or a slight shift in the orientation of the grey cross-hatches covering the narrow triangle which depicted Hutting's studio. Was it really a room? Certainly not, according to the older definitions of the word which were at the time being hypocritically defended by certain Parisian estate agents. In reality, no matter how unscrupulous the owner was, or how ignorant of the conventions governing the coded language of small ads, he would never have referred to this area in terms other than storage space, a box-room, a cubby-hole or a lumber-room. For it was quite simply a cramped glory hole, of a depth of just over one metre. Furthermore, its existence would never have been suspected, because it was entirely hidden by the painted wall at the far end of the studio.
Shortly after moving in to the building, the painter had decided to reserve access to this convenient area exclusively to himself, and he had adopted a simple, yet effective ploy in order to ensure that it would never be noticed. With astonishing care, skill and precision, he painted on the far wall a scene depicting the very lumber-room which the wall concealed.
Standing perpendicularly on the wall, which was deformed slightly by the perspective, a large number of paintings in sculpted frames were packed together on broad oak shelves, held up by close-set struts, which formed a sort of grid. They were arranged in the squares with a deal of care, depending on their sizes, but not all of the squares were as full as other ones, and some of them were even empty. None of the paintings was identifiable, because only their external edges were visible, and these were generally brilliant and gilded, or else dimmed by an impalpable accretion of dust. On the floor stood two large sea-chests, with dark iron fittings and various shapes engraved on their lids: crescent moons, stars, rosettes, crosses, along with some monograms and the intertwined figures of anchors and laurels.
The effect was spectacular. Hutting was greatly amused by the embarrassment of certain visitors when, keen to examine the mysterious treasures lurking in the lumber-room, and putting out their hands cautiously to lift up one of the gilded frames, all they encountered was a painted wall. But none of them, of course, would have suspected that this perfect piece of deception in fact concealed from their eyes what it seemed so richly to reveal.
That evening, the painter was rather weary. Shrugging off a slight shiver, he sat down in his Voltaire chair and could not resist examining his wall once more. For he was pleased to have succeeded in placing within it what had so long mattered most to him. He had at last managed to exploit the power he considered himself to have: that of making off with reality and incorporating it into a canvas, or a wall. But this was not something he had discovered alone.
Had he not in fact spent more of his life thinking about his art than practising it? While still young, an irresistible attraction had led him to study the painters of antiquity, and he now knew everything about their schools, trends and productions. His mind was full of all those paintings which no one had seen for a good two thousand years, and which he had set about reconstructing. But each time he started to work, he despaired of being able to get close enough to their reality. How to capture the face of that Ajax, lit up by a bolt of lightning, attributed to Apollodorus of Athens? What must have been the precise position of Timanthes's Polyphemus Asleep, and exactly how many tiny satyrs had been measuring his thumb with a thyrsus? For a long time, he had also been fascinated by orators' gestures, which in ancient times had been precise, coded and as eloquent as the words they used. But mediocre modern gesturing had retained almost nothing of it - merely the equivalent of a few inarticulate cries, or confused utterances.
Such were the problems that haunted him, and finally paralysed him. Especially given the fact that he was not up to rivalling certain modern masters whom he admired, such as Holbein. When commissioned to paint a peasant dance on the walls of a public bath, Holbein had so let the matter drag on - by devoting his time to drinking and dancing - that the impatient owner had been obliged to call him to book. He had then immediately painted two dangling legs just below his scaffolding. The impression was such that the owner thought he could see the painter constantly at work, and was amazed at such a change in heart.… Then there was the audacity of Courbet, who had so perfectly mimicked Velacquez's manner in one of his paintings that the jury at the Salon, where he had exhibited his work, refused to believe it was a fake despite the artist's insistent admissions.…
This sort of anecdote - which he tracked down with inquisitorial zeal during the many hours he spent reading, and then copied into large log books bound with black canvas - kept his mind in a constantly feverish state. For he too wanted each detail of his work and each instant of this life to be submitted to the secret demands of his art. For the moment, only his wall answered to this twofold desire. But here the very degree of his success sometimes worried him and filled him with strange fears. The day would come - he was sure of it - when he too would be absorbed inside that scene and become united with it. He would be reduced to a tiny, imperceptible shadow and stand alongside the clear forms he had succeeded in bringing together. He would be there among them, as a modest dab of colour which, as soft and transparent as a petal, would suddenly spring out when light played on it.
But that day, despite being absorbed in his contemplation, his thoughts took a different direction, maybe because it was June, almost eight o' clock, and strangely enough the heat did not seem to be falling, for he felt increasingly sleepy. Pictures filled his mind and, one by one, they recounted the history of his studio. It had all started with a wedding.
Impasse des Gorges Percées
It was the day when Anton Vowl married Bérengère de Brémen Brévent. This event set off a deal of agitation in the world of letters because of the bride's and groom's pasts and personalities: he, a discreet and as yet little-known writer; she, an actress at the summit of her career. Hutting had been a good friend of theirs for some time, and knew their story in and out. He had even integrated it into his own life.
Anton Vowl had first appeared in various Parisian salons near the end of spring, 1969. His bloodline was both ancient and controversial. For many years, the best genealogists had stated that Anton's family, as well as that of his close friend Amaury Conson, originally came from the Lebanon. But an American researcher had recently shown that the two families must have become connected in Greece, and not before the eighth century. Such disputes among specialists did not really interest Anton, whose interests lay elsewhere. Having been trained as a philologist, Vowl had placed language at the centre of his preoccupations and made it his main concern. For him, each sentence and each word possessed an incomparable evocatory energy, and the slightest agglomeration of letters, sounds or syllables could set off an endless succession of echoes. He found constant opportunities for the comic or profound inventions he so relished. In this way, he had coined a sort of personal language, saturated with references and governed by rules known only to him. This produced constant unpredictable turns in his conversation, for those listening to him were incapable of detecting the thread which was guiding him through the labyrinth of language. Why, when hearing a dog bark, did he find it necessary to talk on about Caravaggio? Why did he refer to Titian or, by means of a cunning doubling up, to Ribera when referring to a child playing skittles? What on earth could be the sense of those texts of three or four lines, grouped together in little pamphlets, then immaculately printed and numbered before being sent out to a few chosen friends as new year's greetings?
His love of words was matched, or even exceeded by his love of books. He was a keen collector, always on the look-out, and in particular fascinated by the most ancient dictionaries, old encyclopaedias, bibliographies and catalogues, for it seemed to him unfair not to give forgotten authors and unknown works a second chance.
It was in fact at the back of a bookshop on Rue des Ecoles that Anton and Hutting had first met. The weather was extremely hot. Yet it was still only May. There was a holiday mood in Paris, young American girls in shorts and trainers were coming out of a Chinese restaurant on Rue Descartes and mopping their brows. For the past few days, Hutting had been searching for a book for which he had high hopes - Dufresnoy's De Arte Graphica. Of course, none of the specialist dealers he had contacted had been in a position to provide him with a copy rapidly. Instead of the first edition in Latin - published by Mignard in 1668 after Dufresnoy's death - he would have happily settled for the slightly faulty 1673 reprint which included a translation and commentary by Roger de Piles. So, counting on his usual flair, he was going round the second-hand bookshops of the Latin Quarter. He was certain that one morning, at the bottom of a case, amid volumes of dog-eared piety, among the last traces of some convent library - with its almost illegible ex libris on the first page - he would come across the book he so coveted.
The few chance words that Hutting and Vowl exchanged in the depths of this ill-lit almost airless shop, where the dealer kept his oldest books in stacks, showed they had a close affinity. Their age difference - a good dozen years separated the two men - soon faded away. They had the same taste for vanished masterpieces and reputedly impossible tasks. Thus arose a solid complicity between collectors, which before long turned into a real friendship. They took to meeting up every Saturday morning in Anton's cluttered study where, after pushing aside the books and papers to liberate a seat, they chatted for a couple of hours without constraint. Anton, sensing that the painter had a character which was more complex and rigorous than his own, enjoyed telling him of his literary activities.
At the beginning, Anton had made a sort of game of restricting himself to scholarly works, of which the most important was a lengthy thesis on 'Terence's African Disciples', published by an obscure Belgian journal. He had dared to start writing short works of fiction - brief tales covering ten or so pages - only by loudly proclaiming them to be pastiches. In fact, to his mind, his two areas of activity - learned articles and short stories 'in the manner of' - were closely related. They required the same sort of work. Anton felt at ease only with texts presenting multiple points of entry, false bottoms and triple faces, in which each word is both itself and other.
The texts which made his reputation were rather similar: they were utterly free of any trace of a story or shadow of an anecdote. They always concerned a man, alone, in an apparently familiar Parisian setting, being torn between the temptations of the world and the shifting demands of his conscience, in other words, at grips with the ambiguities of existence. And it was not necessary to be a great scholar to detect a strong metaphysical odour behind those pages which left in the mind of the reader nothing but recollections of their vaguely suggestive symbolism.
The unexpected success of these early works emboldened him. Instead of continuing to use his ingenuity to make the finest possible arrangements for his inexhaustible memories, he decided to take the risk of being completely himself and producing an original body of work. However, for some time, his projects remained uncertain. Sometimes he wanted to construct one of those great cycles of novels, which very often merely bring together the thousand and one imaginary lives of their authors. On other occasions, he was haunted by the old dream of the perfect book, completely enclosed on itself and telling of nothing apart from its own genesis. He had finally opted for the latter scheme when he met Bérengère de Brémen Brévent.
Long before meeting her, Anton had often heard about Bérengère and her dazzling career as an actress, greatly assisted by her singular beauty and firmness of character, which had made her famous. In just a few years, she had become known as 'The Legs', the scene's Hebe, French fêtes', French sprees' best belle, revered in Leeds and in Dresden, cheered from Nevers to Tlemcen and from Brême to Bethlehem. From week to week, the press reported - and often exaggerated - the most remarkable episodes of her now legendary existence. How, aged sixteen, she had been involved in the scandal of the See of Exeter and after being caught - between vespers - in an extremely compromising situation with the Reverends Spencer, Kenneth and Herbert, she had in her defence told her uncle, Exeter's elderly reverend excellence, that these were mere exegeses between respected brethren! Then came the era of her depressed letters to Mehmet ben Berek: the rebel Berber sects' peerless chef set up his tents encircling Meknes's deserted streets. From jebel to jebel, reckless, she went to seek him, but their brief entente had led to restlessness. Then there were her endless experiences with men: the seven Greek ephebes from Ephesus (excellent sleepers!), a replete Celt street entertainer (complete with rebecs and crwths) and even Essex shepherds (of an extreme tenderness between the elms and the yews).
But it was also well known that she was not happy. Such precedent events, largely dominated by the same character, had so far marked her life. And she was beginning to weary of them. She was now looking for a new approach, secretly dreaming of new elements which might enrich her world. More than just a desire, this was now turning into an obsession.
At the end of September 1972, Bérengère returned to Paris, which she had been forced to leave a few years before at exactly the same time that Anton had arrived there. This return after an unjust exile soon began to look like a revenge mingled with an absolute triumph. She had negotiated an extraordinary contract for a triple recital given in turn at the Pleyel, the Rex and the Sélect. As usual, she was being put up by her friend Hélène d'Estrées whose vast, convenient but utterly unoriginal apartment had a large balcony overlooking the Jardin des Plantes. An old feeling of tenderness attached Bérengère to these scenes. It had been on this balcony that she had first sunbathed naked with Hélène. It had been in one of these rooms that she had first known the delights of love. Little by little, this affection had spread to cover the entire neighbourhood. Above all, she liked going for a stroll there at the end of the afternoon, after her rehearsals. She then dreamt up strange itineraries through the narrow streets, whose outmoded, rustic names were charming to her ear. And, as she walked, she tried to imagine what this 'windmill blade', this 'wooden sword' or this 'iron pot' had once upon a time represented and why they had won this sort of commemoration.
One day, while out strolling near the Mosque, she noticed a peculiarly long and narrow courtyard in an otherwise unremarkable building whose door had been, for once, left open. It contained two tall trees, five or six shapeless patches of grass and shrubbery and, among them, a pathway of crazy paving with two cats playing on it. Finally, the slightly veiled light of a late afternoon in autumn gave this unexpected sight the look of a vision about to fade away into nothingness. It moved her to tears and, feeling her heart beginning to race and her body to tremble, she quickly moved on.
The next day, driven by uncontrollable curiosity, she came back. The small door of dark wood was locked. It had been raining hard for the past hour. It took a soaked Bérengère a long time before her groping hand found the button to open it. The door creaked. Bérengère slipped inside and walked into the courtyard. But the rain had destroyed the harmony of the vision she had glimpsed so fleetingly the day before. A strong scent was rising from the slimy ground - a smell of the forest, of humus and rotting leaves. For some time, she allowed this odour which was so unusual in Paris to invade her. Finally, when the rain stopped, she decided to leave and continue her stroll. It was then that she noticed that a man had taken shelter beneath the covered passageway beside the door.
Anton Vowl's presence was no coincidence. He had a plan. For he had been familiar with this building and its courtyard for some time, and had even struck up a friendship with a retired couple who had lived there (at the back of the yard, top floor, right-hand door) since March 1936. They had informed him that this courtyard had once been called Impasse des Gorges Percées (or "Cut-Throat Alley") and that it had witnessed certain events during the 1960s. His questions and subsequent research had not turned up any further information, but this courtyard had become a mysterious, almost nostalgic place for him, as if it were linked to his own story, to his own distant origin.
The sight of Bérengère de Brémen-Brévent there left him momentarily speechless. Then, pulling himself together, he drew back to let her pass by. But she stopped beside him, smiled at his embarrassment and said: "Septembers swelter here! They send me! Relent, then lend me the excesses wenches need! Let's get!" And they set off together, walking slowly, jostled by the groups of students carrying placards and heading towards the forecourt outside the University of Jussieu. It had stopped raining. Their first exchanges of words were hesitant. Anton stubbornly stuck to his usual taciturnity, and Bérengère kept her reserve. But when they parted, they agreed to see each other again.
Which they did, the very next day. Anton had anxiously kept watch beside the Jardin des Plantes during the entire afternoon. At five o' clock, she appeared, in a skin-tight dress of gathered taffeta. He stared at her, long and hard, with gratitude, without a word.
Then they spoke, and for each of them it was as if a new language had that instant been born. Sentences they had never uttered, words that had seemed forbidden to them poured from their lips. Anton discovered tenderness, while Bérengère found out about loving. The void that had inhabited them for so long was at last filled. They could not have dreamt of a finer epithalamium.
The Man that had an Astrakhan Schapska
Hutting, of course, was the first person to be invited to their wedding. But he hesitated before accepting. For the past year, he had stopped going out, and this voluntary incarceration filled him with a morose pleasure. Some days, he used up most of his energy by enumerating all the things he had given up. In such overviews, which had become quite a regular event, he never omitted the smallest detail of the delights he had renounced. Such a worldly event as this marriage was certainly no attraction for him and, if he did in the end decide to attend, it was because his curiosity as a painter won the day over other considerations.
He arrived at the reception extremely late and mingled in among the other two thousand guests whom the couple had invited to the salon at the Cercle Interallié. Allowing himself to drift with the movements of the crowd, he exchanged an occasional smile or nod with the various guests he recognised. On one occasion, he tried to draw near to one of the buffets, but the sudden arrival of a compact group of cameramen ruled out such a manoeuvre. It was then that he was accosted by a man whose dark matt features meant nothing to him, but whose extravagant garments did ring bells. For, over his smart black tail coat which was buttoned up, he was clad in a large Afghan coat decked with assorted flaps of folded cloth. Furthermore, his schapska with its tags and an Astrakhan armband were irresistibly reminiscent of a Franz Hals character. Ignoring the barely concealed smiles on the faces of the nearby guests, and the comments made in his wake, he stopped in front of Hutting and said: "Call me Andras MacAdam". And, without giving his unfortunate interlocutor any time to react, launched into the tale of his adventures in Arkansas.
Hutting politely but rather absent-mindedly listened to the obscure ins and outs of what was apparently an extremely old conflict, whose protagonists were unknown to him and which had apparently been caused by some trivial business about a letter, meanwhile awaiting the opportunity to flee without offending this talkative fellow, who then abruptly broke off his tale, stared deeply into the painter's eyes and, in a voice which drowned out the surrounding din, exclaimed: "But I know who you are! You're Hutting, the painter, aren't you?"
Already, the conversations around them were dying out. Heads turned to observe them. Absolutely oblivious to them, the man in the extravagant Astrakhan hat took Hutting firmly by the arm and, forcing a path between the guests, led him to the exit. "Come with me," he said. "You won't regret it." Hutting was utterly flabbergasted and could put up only token resistance. A mixture of curiosity, unease and fear, but which was not lacking in a certain pleasure, prevented him from reacting more strongly. And, before he knew where he was, he found himself in Andras's home.
The flat where Andras had been staying since his return from Ankara had been lent to him by one of his friends, a young linguist called Karl Kürz, whose genius and crazy whims had long been known to both Vowl and Hutting. Karl was the great-nephew of the German-American art collector Heinrich Kürz (today forgotten) and in his Paris digs he had assembled all that remained of his great-uncle's collection, before leaving for Central Australia to study the extraordinary characteristics of the Walbiri language, whose existence he had discovered at a meeting of the Cercle Polivanov one Friday evening. Then, four months after his departure, without having given a sign of life to anyone, he sent an apparently intelligible telegram to Andras: no matter how many brilliant cryptographers he consulted, no one had managed to decipher the message, which had thus remained unanswered.
Three years of total silence then followed, after which a letter arrived from a woman, who claimed to be Karl's companion in life. In her rather broken English, she explained to Andras that Karl had lost his wits, would probably never again leave the Walbiris and, as a result, he, Andras Mac Adam could consider himself to be the rightful heir of the unfortunate Karl Kürz's belongings and dispose of them as he wished, on the sole condition of not breaking up the collection.
Such, at least, were the main points of the story which Andras told Hutting, as they sat on one of the two rosewood love seats upholstered in crimson silk with gold brocade which were practically the only furnishings in this highly original room. The only other pieces of furniture were a large, almost circular mirror, an octagonal marble table and a small antique lamp full of scented oil on a high silver candelabrum.
The fascinated painter at last began to understand what was taking place. For, as soon as his tale was over, Andras led him into a tiny gallery where Kürz had deposited a good forty paintings. There, under the light of a plain globe of glass suspended on a thin golden chain, Hutting's enthusiasm continued to rise as the pictures passed before his eyes and he discovered the extraordinary richness of this unknown treasure trove. Even the most demanding collector would have been absolutely delighted.
Hutting was jubilant. His host, who had remained completely calm, let him chatter away joyfully for a while; then, with his usual abrupt style, he interrupted him in the middle of a sentence and said: "So you like these paintings do you? Then they're yours!"
The rest of the night was taken up by negotiations between the two men, then comings and goings between their two flats. By nine the next morning, the collection that had once belonged to Heinrich Kürz had been tidied away in Hutting's studio. At noon, Andras added two magnificent sea-chests which he had inherited from one of his ancestors, Count Schlaberndorf who, in his youth, had taken part in the bombardment and looting of Algiers alongside Lord Exmouth.
After that memorable night, Hutting never saw hide nor hair of Andras again.
A beautiful June night had now fallen on Paris. On the riverbanks, a dealer in used literature, about to go home, was listening to Alessandro Scarlatti's Sonate a quattro; by the Sacré-Cœur, blue-jeaned Dutch lasses were thinking that it was time to go back to their youth hostel on Rue de la Huchette and, to hasten their way, they took the funicular railway with their banjos and their binious. In Hutting's studio, all was dark.
Emerging from his meditation, the painter made a decision. He was not going to complete the portrait of the Japanese businessman which he had been working on for the past few days. He would now devote all his time to promoting the extraordinary works of art which chance had placed in his possession, and which he had until then spent more time hiding than exposing.
He suddenly got to his feet, his brows and neck sticky with sweat. With a nervous gesture, he set off the secret mechanism which made the wall swing open slowly. But in the lumber-room, which was now completely lit up, there was nothing to be found except a bouquet of artificial leaves and flowers in a cheap porcelain vase on the dusty mantelpiece of a disused fireplace.