Anne-Sylvie Salzman is a French writer and translator of fiction and also the co-editor of the French magazine Le Visage Vert. Prior publications in French include two novels and a collection of short fiction, Lamont, the title story of which we’ve reprinted here. This translation of the story is taken from the collection Darkscapes, translated by William Charlton and published by Tartarus Press in 2013 in both ebook and limited edition hardcover formats. We’re delighted to share this gorgeously written, utterly strange story with our readers. – The Editors
I met Lamont — the boat-girl — the day before the death of my maternal grandfather. It was at the end of June. Lamont, the first time I saw her, was sitting on a chair tilted precariously against the wall of the kitchen. A noisy crowd was drinking and shouting in the sitting room — a crowd in which, I told Lamont without knowing anything about her, I had not managed to find a place. Lamont nodded. She too, she said, felt herself a stranger there.
Along came our hostess, whom I shall call Estelle, a redhaired girl with prominent breasts, in a white woollen dress with slit sides: queen among the bumble-bees.
‘Oh, you’re hidden away there, you two.’
Lamont smiled without showing her teeth. One of her canines, however, slightly misplaced, flashed for a brief instant.
‘I understand: you’re waiting for a lull. Well, they’ll be leaving soon. The drink’s running out. Will you come on to dinner with us?’
Lamont looked at me with a double flicker of her eyelids, and against my better judgement I promised to go with them — I didn’t exactly know where. I hardly knew who they were, apart from Estelle, to whom one of my teachers had introduced me, and who took me up, I think, only because I wrote, or at least had written, for literary magazines.
Lamont gave a sardonic chuckle when Estelle had turned away.
‘It’s nothing to laugh about,’ I protested. ‘I’ve no great desire to stay with these people. I’d be better off at home.’
Lamont raised her shoulders and promised me a night of intense amusement. Did I know Boris, Estelle’s sweetheart?
‘Hardly,’ I replied. Lamont rubbed her nose. She was a slight, flat-chested girl with short hair dyed ash-blond. Her eyes, under thick eyebrows, were almost black.
‘Why stay here with these people we don’t particularly like? Why not slip quietly away, just you and me, before it’s too late?’
Lamont bit her lower lip. This time I saw both canines, small and pointed.
‘Where would you like us to go?’
I saw myself walking not close to her, two or three steps behind, rather, looking at her back, looking at the shadow she cast on the pavement.
‘I don’t care. Wherever you like.’
She shook her head.
‘I don’t understand you,’ I said. And I ought, at that moment, to have roused myself and said goodbye to both Lamont and Estelle, whom I should then never have seen again. We had no friends in common, we didn’t even live in the same district. But I stayed. I had pleasure in talking with Lamont; that, I believed, would surely keep me safe throughout the evening from Estelle and her set.
From the kitchen we heard Estelle’s pre-dinner guests take their leave. As Lamont understood it, Estelle was celebrating her birthday (twenty-third? twenty-fifth?) in several stages.
‘And why does she want me? Do you think she needs some chance idiot to make up her dinner party? Do you think I’m going to have a fling with her?’
But before Lamont had time to reply, red-haired Estelle reappeared, hands clasped over her chest. ‘Come and join us in the sitting room, you savages. The others have gone.’
In the sitting room of Estelle’s little flat there remained only her friend Boris and two other guests I had not seen arrive. One of these was perfidiously introduced to me as ‘a fifteen-year-old poet’, the other, older than we, took in Lamont with a single glance and then shrugged his shoulders with an odd grimace — a signal directed more at me than at Lamont. I effaced myself. Boris went into the kitchen and brought back a bottle of excellent champagne and some paper cups. Estelle laughed, and Lamont watched her laugh.
When Lamont looked at me she was not so cruel. She looked often, more so than at the others. Later in the evening when we were walking down the street in search of a fashionable bar we never found, Lamont matched her step with mine, and in her company there came to me delicious images that at first I took for memories, until I realised they were more like waking dreams, fabrications my mind produced almost automatically under the influence of Lamont’s presence. But before that she and I had had drinks in company with Estelle, and the oldest of Estelle’s friends — not recalling his name I shall call him ‘theGuru’; the young poet was called Hector — had spoken to me about post-Hegelianism and the ‘melancholy of true philosophers’. And Lamont, while he was speaking, had never taken her eyes off him. Boris watched Lamont who watched the Guru; my eyes moved from one to another. And we had dined at an Italian restaurant in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs, where the Guru had given the second half of his lecture. But facing Lamont I was a child again, standing in front of a house of bricks, and a woman took me in her arms. Someone spoke to me. I had thought only for the house and the woman captured by my roving mind. It is certain, all the same, that I took part in the evening’s debates. I was told afterwards of my tirades, which the Guru had found ‘violently anticonceptual’.
‘But do you know what philosophy is? Do you know what a system is?’ I was asked at last by this psychagogue — as he was called by the poet of fifteen years — speaking with brows raised to the roots of his hair. We were installed in a private room at the restaurant, where chandeliers and mirrors did their best to compensate for the lack of windows; and uttering these words the Guru pulled out from his waistcoat pocket a small leather box and deftly rolled a doped cigarette. Friend Boris was not so practised, and Lamont and I had an idiotic laugh. As for concepts, ‘I am,’ I confessed to the Guru, ‘quite unable to manage them.’
‘You should learn. Anything can be learnt. You need a teacher.’
The cigarettes passed from lips to lips. Neither Lamont nor I, however, touched them. The Guru did not offer himself as a teacher. His spectacles gleamed in the smoke. I heard the poet of fifteen years reciting in impassioned tones one of his own works to Lamont. Lamont allowed herself to chuckle sardonically.
Estelle was drunk. She had put her hand on my arm and was letting her head nod, not daring to speak for fear of sliding down the slippery slope of confessions and infidelities. On the other side of the table the Guru, head bowed, was retailing his adventures ‘in the wild mountains of the Lebanon, realm of the Druses and the Assassins’.
‘Godlike Hashishins,’ murmured the poet. Boris was dragging at his third or fourth joint, and muttering insults to me in a low voice. ‘Do you expect to have your dinner paid for, you sponger?’ Lamont suddenly disappeared, and we did not see her again till the moment for settling up. ‘I’m going home,’ I whispered in her ear. Estelle had slipped her arm under mine and Boris under the influence of cannabis had landed her a vicious slap. But once again Lamont gently shook her head. She needed me; had I no desire to cross the town in such good company? I closed my eyes and breathed in the heavy ripe scent of powder on Lamont’s hair.
At the till we each paid for ourselves. I wanted Lamont to be my guest, even though it would cost me, I reckoned, three days of service at the Murillo college, my source of bread and butter in those hard times. One of these days was sacrificed at The Inconvenient, a steamy establishment on the Rue Delambre, on the altar of ‘Tangiers Kisses’ — I do not know to this day what went into them — swallowed in the uproar. As the Guru, who could hardly hear himself speak, admitted, the ‘late’ bar was not a success. I drank other cocktails with crushed ice which plunged me into torpor. ‘You’re drinking too much,’ said Boris, who was further gone, however, than I. No, it was not to me he was speaking. To whom, then? The poet, who soon went out to vomit. When he came back Estelle gave the signal for departure. ‘Come on; now we’ll all go to Boris’s.’ Lamont smiled broadly and put her hand on my neck. ‘I really,’ she said, ‘must see this.’
‘Lamont! At the stage we’ve reached!’
I do not have an accurate memory of Boris’s flat — or rather the flat of his parents, who were away. I have never been back there. Nor do I remember Boris’s face, though all evening I saw it wavering between Estelle and Lamont. Nor have I any better recollection of Boris’s sister, who was waiting upon us, neither of her face, nor her name, nor her voice. And she twined herself around us all, a virgin vine with carnivorous leaves. Had we woken her up? Had Boris warned her in advance? I don’t know. But in the large room in which we were installed and drank she never stopped walking to and fro, breathing noisily, muttering, casting upon us one after another furious glances of which we did not know what to think — except for the Guru, who eventually took her in his arms. It was four in the morning. The poet had fallen asleep on Lamont’s knee with open eyes. The sister, seized with a spasm of trembling, put her hands over her groin and started a loud snuffling, until Boris went over and smacked her on each cheek.
‘Come on, wake up, you’re being a bore.’
‘Boris, leave her in peace.’
‘It’s for her to leave us in peace. She’s making an exhibition of herself.’
‘I’m making an exhibition of your nothingness. You piss me off with your nothingness,’ retorted the sister. I started to laugh. The sister disengaged herself from the Guru and staggered uncertainly. Tears flowed over her cheeks, down her neck into her corsage. She advanced towards me. Lamont wore her animal smile.
The sister kissed me on the mouth.
‘In the past,’ she sobbed, ‘I have been disembowelled, cleaned out. Can’t you feel it?’ She took my hand, and made it slide beneath the belt of her skirt. ‘Can you feel it or can’t you?’
With the tips of my fingers I must have stroked the edges of her pubic hair. Alcohol then took control of me. I took the skin of her pubis between my thumb and forefinger and gave a sharp pinch. She screamed: ‘Boris! Boris! Boris!’
Boris pushed me against the window of the room.
‘Have you hurt her, you fucking bastard?’
‘I’ve done nothing.’
‘Bastard! Bastard! I’ll have you arrested.’
But to my amazement I was bigger than Boris and certainly stronger. Over his elbow I saw the Guru consoling the sister. Estelle was asleep in her turn on the sofa. Of Lamont and the poet there was no trace. They had gone, they claimed later, to look for croissants. ‘Lamont, you’re pulling my leg.’ They had not found any, and I have no recollection of any general reconciliation in the early morning. We left, Lamont and I, after the sun had risen. The sister, having been consoled by the Guru, who was drunk at last, set off in quest of a fresh drama. Estelle was snoring, and the three others once again manufactured their mystic cigarettes with the air of conspirators. They spoke of Guenon, of amnesia and of ecstasy, subjects suggested by Lamont, who had then quickly withdrawn from the conversation; she was disheartened, she said, by this fag end that travelled from mouth to mouth like a dead cockroach.
But in the early sun we were in a mood approaching joy. I proposed to Lamont that I should escort her home. She lived, by a happy chance, at Arcueil, near the autoroute.
‘It’s on my way,’ I said.
We had a coffee at the Place Denfert-Rochereau. I had remembered a Café d’Orient which had replaced a restaurant that was shut in the morning. The pavements steamed.
‘What would be fun would be to go home on foot, if you’re up to it.’
In the light of day Lamont’s appearance was changed. Her cheeks were fuller, but she put me in mind of a boy I had known, a passing friend who had once taught me to steal wallets in the Metro, an art I had only once put into practice. I told Lamont about it. She showed her teeth. I imagined her nude, sitting in a chair with her legs spread, and started to bleed at the nose. She laughed. And I wanted to go home on foot?
We went up the Avenue Coty and the deceptive slope of the Avenue Deutsch de la Meurthe. The night came back to me in all its drunkenness. ‘Those people, Lamont, do you really know them?’ Lamont had met Boris, Estelle’s friend, at a second-hand record-shop: she worked as a saleswoman on Sundays. They had often spoken together. They had become friends. When he was on his own, Boris was not so brutish.
We crossed the park of the Cité Universitaire, which had just opened. The lawns were empty. Towards the bottom of the campus tiredness overtook me. Lamont, who was walking in silence, hands in the pockets of her jacket, regarded me with a novel compassion. ‘I used to know that church,’ I said, pointing at the fearsome angels of the church of Gentilly. Lamont lived a little further on. We walked beside the tracks of the RER, which at the meeting point of Arcueil and Gentilly crosses the Autoroute du Sud. Lamont explained that she was house-sitting for friends who had gone abroad. The french window of the kitchen, through which she made me come in, as she put it, for a ‘refreshment’, opened upon a small garden. Lamont, seated at the kitchen table, her face between the yellow walls reflecting the pale morning light, closed her eyes. I did the same. We slept for a quarter of an hour, facing one another across the table. The dream we had did not come back to me till later in the day, after my visit to my dead grandfather.
Lamont accompanied me back as far as the street.
‘It can’t be too pleasant,’ I said, groping for something to say, ‘living between the line to Sceaux and the autoroute.’
She smiled. She had the whole house to herself, paying only a ‘peppercorn’ rent. She chose this expression carefully.
Lamont wrote her telephone number in my notebook. The address I already knew, didn’t I? I shook her hand — that too faute de mieux. But the skin of her face was so pale, so insubstantial, that it made me fear I should be kissing only emptiness.
My grandfather died that afternoon, one hour, I was told, before my arrival. ‘We called your mother, but there was no reply.’ My mother had gone to Italy with her second husband. The nurse took me to my grandfather’s room — a different room from the one he had occupied for the last two months. The blinds were lowered. My grandfather was lying on his bed, the arms spread
apart a little from the body, and his mouth wide open.
‘Someone will come and close it, sir. Don’t you worry.’
The woman left me alone, and I passed my hand over my grandfather’s cheek, which was still warm — something at least above the temperature of the room — still warm and soft, so much so that I bent over to kiss it. In the passage I started to cry. My tears fell on the linoleum, squeezed out by my tiredness as much as by true grief. The nurse took me back to the waiting room and offered me coffee. In my mind’s eye I saw Lamont again, her face almost translucent in the morning light, her eyes fathomless, her elbows on the kitchen table. I nearly telephoned her from the hospital to tell her about my grandfather with his mouth open upon its dead interior, an open mouth I ought never to have seen.
‘Is it the first dead person you have seen?’ asked the nurse.
I had already seen my two grandmothers and a young motorcyclist, the top of his skull broken open. But it was my mother I called, not Lamont. My mother and her husband came back to
France next day and took charge of everything.
Nevertheless, the same evening, when I had gone to bed and was torn with spells of grief, the dream returned to me that I had had in Lamont’s kitchen — the dream I dreamt along with Lamont. It was like this. After having offered me a cup of coffee Lamont stood up and signed to me to follow her. We went out of the kitchen. The rest of the house smelt of saltpetre. Lamont opened a door that gave onto the stairs to the basement, a white clean room lit by a naked bulb. Next, another door, another room, and then a small bathroom. Lamont sat down on the cover of the lavatory and seated me upon the rim of the bath. She raised her arms upwards, and I rose precipitately. A man’s body, cut in pieces and neatly skinned, was arranged in the bath. Lamont moved me aside with an affectionate gesture, turned on the hot tap. The steaming water flowed over the pieces of the man, whose head was placed face down between his two bare feet. We both awoke at this moment and looked at each other in a quandary by the yellow light of the kitchen.
I often saw Lamont in Paris, and almost always took her back to her door; but I never again went into her house, or rather into the house of her friends, if they really existed. She invited me once or twice. I refused under various pretexts; and she did not speak of it again. Lamont, now that I reflect on it, plunged me into a blissful stupor. I walked close to her; I often brushed against her hand or her thigh inadvertently; her shoulders stiffened; and a chill spread through my legs. In these moments of weakness memories came to me — something I had experienced since that first night — memories which I took for my own, but which perhaps were only inventions by Lamont. These fragments were hard to pin down: lost worlds, pounded up in Lamont’s brain.
Then she left Paris for the United States. She had an uncle there or a cousin — I forget which — who could provide for her and give her a final year at university. What she was studying, how she really lived, I have never known and I never asked. She gave me an address in Portland, Oregon, and I went with her to the airport. The house in which she had once received me, the house in which we had slept and dreamed together, remained, so far as I could see, empty.
As for Estelle, she gave no sign of life until she visited me one September evening shortly after Lamont’s departure, in the small house which I left a month later for my grandfather’s flat in Paris. In the autumn I was still living at Plessis-Robinson in this little damp cabin at the bottom of a garden; a clump of withered lilacs grew under my window. The evening when
Estelle came I was slightly out of sorts, trying to write a letter to Lamont. I wanted to be amusing, but could not bring it off. I was lying fully dressed on the bed, my letter on my chest, a book with a hard cover within reach. On the ceiling I saw shadows passing, a flotilla of them, trembling waves: but neither Lamont nor me among them.
Someone tapped on the window pane. From the bed I saw my neighbour’s son making a face.
When I opened the window he told me two girls were looking for me, and he hadn’t liked to let them into the garden. They were waiting in the street, the noses of both of them blue with cold. One was Estelle, the other a slightly younger girl, a lithe brunette. I have forgotten her name, so I shall call her Laure. Laure was standing on the pavement beating her hands together. Estelle, a violet-coloured woollen bonnet pulled over her eyes, asked me if she could finish her cigarette. I made them come into the house; on the threshold Estelle, I think, experienced a sort of tremor. ‘The smell of poverty,’ I said to myself, only to remember that the phrase came straight from one of the conversations that night between Boris and the Guru.
I offered them tea, and I no longer have the least idea what we chatted about: Boris, perhaps, or our various occupations; possibly of Lamont, whom Laure did not know. Laure kept looking at her watch and the toes of her boots. Estelle, after several efforts, asked me what I had in the way of music. Didn’t I have some Sufi stuff? The Guru, I eventually understood, had taken them off to hear the Dervishes of Lower Egypt. Laure gave an audible sniff. Distant cousin of Estelle, she knew neither the Guru nor the young poet — but Estelle, oh yes, she’d always known her. And what was ‘always’ for this pair of geese? There was a moment when, with the two girls standing against the wall and regarding me with curiosity and, I then fancied, some disgust, I felt myself slipping into the pure darkness of Lamont’s cellar. My eyes saw in front of them the fresh faces of the two innocents, and behind them — or so I suppose — the subterraneous regions of Lamont’s house.
That did not last, Laure looked again at her watch and I said that, true enough, it was late.
‘Ah, you’re right.’
Docilely they resumed their coats, their hats, their gloves.
‘And you say,’ babbled Estelle in her high-pitched voice, ‘that Lamont is now living in America?’
The girl I call Laure kept silent.
I escorted them to the Robinson Metro station. In the forecourt Laure gave me her hand, her eyes elsewhere. Estelle moved away, shook her head, then took off her bonnet and turned to me.
‘You know, we’re not going to be able to go back to Paris right away.’
‘Estelle, listen,’ said Laure. ‘It’s idiocy. Don’t you see it’s complete idiocy? We’re off. Drop it.’
Estelle stared at me with eyes that were suddenly tragic. Darkness was coming on. Chattering groups emerged at intervals from the station.
‘We have to return to your house.’
‘You haven’t left anything behind, so far as I know.’
‘Yes we have,’ said Estelle, ‘in a way.’
Laure hid her face in her gloved hands.
‘You remember my birthday party?’ said Estelle. ‘You remember the party at my flat? After that party’ (her voice took on a curious hoarseness) ‘someone rifled the bowl I keep my jewellery in. It’s all gone. You … you understand? We don’t know each other all that well.’
‘We don’t know each other at all,’ I replied. ‘What do you think? That I’ve laid my hands on your bloody jewels? You’ve come to demand them back from me? You stupid cow! Do you really believe that I’d hand them back politely after having stolen them?’
Lights flickered in the sky from an aeroplane passing above the station.
They returned to my house with downcast eyes, and while Laure and I played cards — we had to pass the time somehow — the shame-faced Estelle ransacked the little house from top to bottom. I saw her even empty the washing machine, which was full of dirty underwear, and open my rubbish bins. There formed in my stomach a fury which made me want to hit this girl, this Estelle, until she bled. The other girl, Laure, would certainly have lent me a hand.
At last I got them out of the door. Once or twice, as I watched them, I had pondered absently on the best way of killing them. I had once, for a moment, seen young Laure pinned to the ground under the skinning knife without my raising a finger. ‘Who will come looking for them at my place? They’ve told no one of their stupid plan.’ — ‘No’ said the voice of reason; ‘there’s my neighbour’s son, he has seen them,’ and I added the boy to my list of victims.
One or two weeks passed before I was able to tell Lamont about the two silly girls. I wrote two or three letters a week to her, but I did not post them all. Lamont was lazier. She sent postcards: sea lions from the Seattle aquarium, avalanche lilies, bears standing on their hind legs, holding fish in their jaws, large red and black totem poles belonging to Indians on the Pacific coast, cherry blossom festivals. Her messages had a lapidary quality. She worked for three months in Portland, then found a job and a flat-share in Tacoma. I moved into my grandfather’s place. My mother and her husband had bought out the other heirs, and leased it to me for six hundred francs a month. In this flat I set myself almost every night to dream with greater or less vividness of Lamont. They were often amorous dreams, with Lamont making me absurd propositions. She was naked, sitting in the grass, the blades of which marked her buttocks and her knees; she was outstretched in mud, in water, her face just emerging from its smooth surface; she was smiling, putting her tongue out at me, raising her knees. I was going to join her. The dreams probably made me stray from the life I should have been leading. My days and my companions seemed equally misty. At this period I was working in a shop selling scientific books on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, and under my negligent direction it was dying of inanition. The owner, a victim of early dementia, used to come every evening, when I first worked for him, and disarrange the books; next morning it was my task to reorder them. In the end he threw himself under a Metro train. I found work a couple of stops further, in a shop that sold works in foreign languages. We often went to lunch at La Grisette, the shop girls and I — they were two girls, one undulating, the other short and chubby. I never spoke to them of Lamont.
The dreams in which Lamont appeared to me were not all erotic. Some nights she — or the inexact likeness which my dreaming brain substituted for her — received me in her home, in a middle class flat. Her husband would greet me coldly, and a child, sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy, would grasp me by the leg. Or we would go to a concert together, and lose sight of each other during the interval. I was never happier than during this period in my life, which is the reason it never occurred to me to join Lamont in America. Did Lamont on her side dream of me with the same assiduity? I never asked her. I sometimes had the foolish feeling, however, that we were making some of our dreams together. There was really a moment in the night, wasn’t there, that we shared? Then Lamont, as once in Paris, would sit close to me and draw from my head memories that were not mine. It would have been ideal, of course, to go to sleep at the same times as she, so that she would have the opportunity to dig down to the bottom of my mind.
It was the poet aged fifteen (or sixteen or seventeen, for all I know) who dragged me against my will out of this amorous dizziness. One day towards the end of August I saw him enter the shop on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, and I recognised him as he consulted a French-Portuguese dictionary and furtively noted on a scrap of paper the word he was looking for. I coughed. He raised his eyes, blushed, and came over to me with outstretched hand. ‘How are you? Do you work here? Ah, it’s so quiet.’ He had improved in looks, and was carrying by a shoulder strap a bag full of books. So what was he looking for? ‘Oh, just a word. You know.…’ The sales girls were out, one at a rendezvous, the other on holiday, and he established himself tranquilly on my side of the till.
‘You’ve seen any more of those people? Boris de — — , the professor?’
I shook my head. Hector deposited his bag under the counter, and I gave him a cup of coffee.
‘I have some little cakes I’ve just bought. Would you like a little cake?
We shared the packet.
‘It’s odd,’ said Hector. ‘I haven’t seen them since that evening of disgusting drunkenness — on the part of Boris’s sister. Funny girl, don’t you think? In point of fact I have seen Boris, but only in the distance, you know, and I ran across his sister, when was it, a month ago, yes, in July; and she told me he’d just gone off to America, to Seattle, to see that girl again. You know who I mean? What was she called?’
‘Lamont,’ I said, feeling the hand of death.
‘And then his sister told me he was no longer with Estelle, and besides Estelle had completely vanished from circulation.’
‘But how is it that you came to know these people?’
‘My sister went out with Boris, a long time ago. It didn’t last. Between you and me, he’s a real shit. But last year I wasn’t on bad terms with him, I admit. A mistake of youth.’
‘And Professor Machin?’
‘Oh, him? He’s Boris’s spiritual guide, you might say. Actually he’s no more a professor than you or me. He’s in Israel at the moment, I think refuelling himself in a kibbutz.’
I steered the poet gently out of the door after we had eaten the cakes and drunk the coffee. I had the heart-rending conviction that the boy’s indiscretion was going to drive Lamont from my dreams, never to return. Already I found myself unable to recreate her in my mind, to make her live in the tinsel theatre of waking imagination. And as I feared, she disappeared from that day forward. My dreams were always quite varied, always distributed quite unpredictably in my nights, but other girls than she played in the little charades of my unconscious. The poet, blundering fool, had plucked the flower of my dreams.
I went on writing to Lamont, but I never had the courage to ask her if what the poet had said was true. And I received two cards in reply, one showing the beach at La Push, the other Douglas firs on Mount Olympus. Had she visited those mountains in company with Boris? Jealousy devoured me, slowly eating away the whole interior of my body. I used to go to the bookshop as an empty shell, and gave myself up, when the others had their backs turned, to sterile rage. The sales girls found me changed and tried to cheer me up; they often invited me to dinner at La Grisette. I remember one evening when, after one of these therapeutic dinners, I went back to my place on foot. It was an astonishingly cold night. I lived on the slopes, near the Jourdain Metro station. I saw the moon, evilly bloated, detach itself from the roofs and float slowly up in a slightly misty sky. Why love Lamont only from afar? And being unable to remember accurately either her features or those of Boris, I could picture to myself on the slopes of Mount Olympus nothing but the grotesque couplings of monsters without heads.
I wanted to see once again the house at Arcueil. It was probably later in the year, a Sunday morning. I went back by the route I had followed with Lamont, through the campus of the Cité Universitaire, and past the front of the Portuguese church, the angels of which were perhaps reformed demons, fired in bronze and then rapidly hauled up, by way of punishment, above the Boulevard Péripherique; nothing escaped their malign gaze. The one that looked towards the south saw me at its feet take the Rue Malon and follow the track of the RER. But at the entry of the Passage Boutet the angel’s eye transfixed the back of my neck. Grief nailed me to the wall. With an irresistible iron blade it calmly opened up my back, rolled back the skin and the covering of muscles, and in despite of me, fabricated a pair of wings for my shoulders. ‘You understand, my friend? You are one of us.’ Before me I saw appear Boris’s sister, whose name I had forgotten. ‘I show you the spectacle of your nothingness, and my rage before your nothingness.’ She approached, arms extended, sex exposed. I went on my way; I had recovered my strength.
Lamont sent me from Boise in Idaho a card showing peaks one above another. She had found a winter season job in a mountain hotel, ‘perfectly modern’ she wrote. I should have liked to explain to her the company in which I found myself, but it was impossible. The angel of the South tore the pen from my hands. What haunted me above all was Boris, subtle beast; Boris in a mountain hotel with long corridors hung with bull’s blood paper, a potted plant or a spittoon every two yards — Boris opening the thousand doors of the hotel upon the sleeping Lamont. I arranged another meeting with the young poet. He was my path to the sister, and the sister to Boris, even if this familial logic seemed to me increasingly tortuous. It was not hard to make the young poet talk, on his guard as he was. I invited him to come after opening hours to a bar on the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, and I made him drink first wine and then whisky. ‘I find extraordinarily trite the idea of a poet who drinks,’ he said, ‘the idea in general that one can find inspiration only in sorrow and absence. I wish to write of joy.’
That was now, he confided to me with shining eyes, his ‘new project’. Armed with his accursed passion for the positive, he kept beating for a good hour around the bush — in which the former love of Boris for Estelle had been conceived. Or of Estelle for Boris.
‘For the last time, Hector. You’ve told me either too much or too little.’
The little wretch gave an embarrassed laugh.
‘I’ve thought about it. It’s better, as you say, to speak out, to probe the abscess. Boris from the first day took a total dislike to you. Is that what you felt? Yes, you could call it a morbid hatred. He was furious that Estelle had asked you to her birthday. He went so far as to wonder if you and Estelle were not sleeping together. He pocketed Estelle’s jewellery, and made her believe that you were responsible.’
‘What a slimy creep,’ I said. And the poet, soon to be an adult, ordered a second whisky and drank it neat at one gulp.
‘And you, Hector, what did you think? That I was sleeping with Estelle? That I was too seedy for her? That I had stolen her filthy jewels to pay myself back for the evening?’
‘I don’t know anything,’ said the cautious booby. ‘I’m no judge of people.’
‘And Lamont, poet? Where does she come from?’
Lamont, thought the poet, his tongue running on faster than ever, was a friend of Boris. ‘You didn’t know? You fancied her, all the same?’
Excess of alcohol made him explicit. There came to me, while he shut his eyes and massaged his chin, a luminous idea, a deliverance. Boris had not gone to America to join Lamont. But from here in Paris, and to humiliate me — the reason for this persecution I still couldn’t grasp — he was sending his tormentors. The poet drank a third whisky which I was so kind as to offer him.
‘And you say that Estelle has left France too?’
‘She isn’t anywhere any more,’ the poet replied with a look of vague unease.
I dreamt again of Lamont, now that I had driven her seducer from my mind. My time without her had been almost three months. Lamont came back the second or third day after I had hocused the young poet. In the dream that restored her an old gipsy had me visit her garden, in which were playing some deformed children. That was caused, she said, by the high tension wires. Lamont was waiting for me, sitting on the verge; from here she could see both the old woman’s garden and the lake in which other children were paddling among weed. There was no effusion of joy in the dream, at least my dreaming self had no consciousness of it. But I woke in the night for no apparent cause and knew that I had again found her whom I loved. I saw myself drifting down in the darkness, a pale raft, with Lamont lying stretched out on top of me, and trailing her hand through the water, her strange smile on her lips.
Lamont, oh bliss, was no longer confined to dream; after that night she came to me also at certain moments in the day, and soon in order to see her or feel her near me I had no need even to be alone or sleepy. She often came when I was working in the bookshop, and, invisible as she was, entwined herself with me and looked out at the customers or my too curious colleagues through my eyes; and when I shut them, something I never did without careful precautions, I was alone with her, alone with Lamont, and could hear her moving about within my body. Occasionally, and this could happen at any hour of the day or night, whether or not I was alone, she would grasp hold of my buttocks, and I would see on the plump swelling of her lower lip her two small canines. If by good fortune I was alone at these moments I withdrew into myself, I found my Lamont, I let my joy in her wash over me. This so to speak luminous and shining body of Lamont I now carried through the streets with a renewed pride, and I think I pitied those who could not see me. It seemed to me I could have made these insensates feel my happiness with their fingers. Sometimes shadows would issue from my sleeves, and I would make them enact scenes of my life with and without Lamont: that was when I was alone with her, and it would make us writhe in laughter. But why not speak of it to everyone, beginning with those around me? ‘No,’ I said to Lamont, ‘if they do not see this brilliance, what can we do?’ And she, delectable cannibal, nibbled the lining of my stomach while I continued to tell lies to the unbelievers, and fell asleep with her head in my burning entrails.
Thereafter I no longer saw the world except through a twoway grill which allowed particles of light to escape — but not enough to make those who still lived around me scatter, transformed by fear. No, there was no fear, and I went forward masked. People came to me, even, and asked me what news I had of the poet and other persons. The poet walked a path I did not know. But I was unwilling to say I had sent him away, and that on this road that had neither beginning nor end there also wandered other souls. Neither beginning nor end nor the faintest light, whereas I could produce it through every pore in my glorified body.
Setting out from the town early and while it was still dark, I have walked without meeting anyone; the magnificent fire beneath my skin is extinguished at sunrise, and this has caused me not distress but lightness of heart. ‘Have I still bones? Have I still a skin?’ ‘Obviously, idiot, since you are walking.’ My skin — and this makes me laugh, and spread out my arms — my skin actually separates two worlds; I am the living frontier. ‘Come on, come on,’ I should like to say to those who pass me in the morning; but not one of them thinks of treading on me, digging into my skin, and passing with amazement to the other side where nevertheless, I could assure them, all is light. I brush against them, laughing, drunkenly or soberly depending on who is looking at me. For old women I have a drunken eye, for the strong a beatific smile and extended hand. I pass beneath the four angels. Eight hands, eight rough feet of bronze, push me towards the house in the Passage Boutet; I am miniscule between their colossal legs. Boris is sitting at the kitchen table, and the golden yellow paint of the walls gives the skin of his face the shine of baked bread. He rises when I enter, he carries his hands to his mouth. I sign to him to be silent. He recoils anxiously, knocking over the chair. I shake my head and hold out my hand to him. He raises his eyes to the ceiling. Perhaps he thinks we are not alone. He comes forward, he comes towards me, and I withdraw, bowing, laughing up my sleeve. Boris’s hands take me by the waist. A step towards the door to the basement. Boris draws me towards him; I laugh soundlessly, pretending to resist him.
We cross the threshold. Boris goes down first, and I shut the door before joining him in the dark. ‘Turn on the light,’ comes his voice, suddenly mistrustful. The same bulb illuminates the same white walls, the same low door which Boris opens briskly, but there is nothing and no one in the further room, still whiter and more empty than the first.
‘There,’ I say. ‘Come.’
Boris is seated on the edge of the bath, his hands on his knees. We are both stark naked, and Boris, holding with one hand his stiffening penis, caresses the skin of my arm and murmurs ‘Lamont, sweet Lamont, you are burning bright inside here.’
‘Your return is my happiness,’ he says, and tips up into the bath. Pressing down with all my weight on his shoulders, I strangle him, happy Boris, and I shall later make him pass, piece by piece, like the others, into that other country of which I am the frontier.