65 Beginnings by Pierre Bettencourt


… and now for something completely different. Pierre Bettencourt (1917−2006) is a merry prankster, an eccentric of French letters. If the history of the French fantastique in the 20th century has gone somewhat underground, if many of its practitioners are forgotten today, Bettencourt is even more obscure, a lifelong outsider artist despite coming from a prominent family: his younger brother André Bettencourt was the head of L’Oréal and held a senate seat for 44 years (that’s three presidents), while André’s wife Liliane was involved in one of the biggest tax evasion and campaign financing scandals in recent French history. Bettencourt was also a painter, known for his layered pieces featuring such mixed media as butterfly wings, stone, eggshells, and pine needles.

Pierre Bettencourt first self-published his own work on a family-owned manual press during the Nazi occupation, and continued to do so under a variety of names: Right Hand Editions, The Library of the Railroads, the National Institute of Irrational Research… He was fond of such elaborate names; one of his own works is titled The Heads of 13 Frenchmen, preceded by Three Notes on Happiness. Under the aegis of these fictitious publishing houses, he printed works by André Gide, fantastist Marcel Béalu, playwright Antonin Artaud, poets Francis Ponge and Henri Michaux, William Saroyan, and fellow outsider artist Jean Dubuffet. Bettencourt briefly ascribed his output to a nonexistent press of the National Library, and even printed counterfeit bills until his brother André intervened.


It is difficult to track down Bettencourt’s entire oeuvre, scattered as it is among lovingly hand-sewn editions with minuscule print runs. Like Marcel Béalu, , a close friend, Bettencourt produced prose poems and flash fictions in prodigious quantity, which Béalu often published in his short-lived but influential revue, Réalités secretes. Bettencourt eschewed mainstream publication, though editor Jean Paulhan, one of his best friends, was able to smuggle a selection of his fiction through at Gallimard in the Nouvelle revue française, and later, in book form La folie gagne [Madness Wins Out, 1950]. Éric Losfeld, an editor I have also discussed in previous columns, published him in the magazine Bizarre and also managed to put out Les plaisirs du roi [The King’s Pleasures, 1963], one of Bettencourt’s few linked collections, fables tied together by the central character.

Late in his life, Bettencourt was championed by a number of small presses. The following first lines (sometimes the first few) are taken from Fables fraîches pour lire à jeun [Fresh Fables for an Empty Stomach, 1986], a retrospective volume spanning  10 collections from 1942 – 1960. They are a showcase for his caustic humor and extreme whimsy, for how much he can set up in a line, and how swiftly. Writing teachers: a better set of exercise prompts you’ll not find.

  1. The art of the caress is acclimating flesh to bone.
  2. The interesting thing is not knowing how to swim but knowing how to walk on water. Any man with a hint of culture and two licks of common sense will agree.
  3. I have an arm that caught cold and never warmed up again.
  4. I have the feeling my clothes go walking at night: I tossed my slacks over the sofa last night, but they didn’t seem to be there this morning.
  5. Only once in my life was it my lot to love a woman who had no head, but she was so beautiful I lost mine over her.
  6. To dislocate the dummy’s limbs and know to fold oneself so as not to sit legs facing forward.
  7. When you have spent your entire life writing whatever comes into your head, it may happen that at some moment, whether through distraction or disgust, nothing comes at all any more.
  8. It’s somewhere among the roof tiles, wouldn’t you say, that rain really makes up its mind to fall?
  9. Gisele has translucent fingernails. From time time, in the little mirrors of her ten fingers, the faces of loved ones appear:  one day it was her grandfather, grandmother, and their eight children – alive, smiling, and pretty as miniatures.
  10. France is the only country that possess ink springs. It exports ink to other countries.
  11. My wife and I have a way of sleeping together that might seem a bit bizarre: neither face to face nor back to back, but with the soles of our feet pressed together.
  12. Near the English Channel, I have eight acres of quicksand where I hold sinking contests.
  13. That night it was the new moon. I went to bed with my wife and woke up with my mother.
  14. I just lost my head. Little by little, my neck stretched out like an hourglass, and then tied off all by itself, without any gush of blood.
  15. I swallowed the seed of a rubber tree, which is still in my belly, hanging by a thread from one of my teeth.
  16. In this city, you can always go to prison whenever you want.
  17. I cannot make love without the smell of a horse stable around me. I know, I know – it’s a limitation.
  18. We hear that gravity has just ceased in in the northern hemisphere.
  19. I loathe killing people. I really have to force myself to manage it.
  20. One of my favorite pastimes with Gisele is to iron her skin with a tepid iron. I must say, she adores it.
  21. These days the stars make music.
  22. I had put my wife’s last words in a bottle of water.
  23. No one has the right to cut their nails here: except priests.
  24. The other day my cousin La Réolle, with whom I was spending the summer, suggested we go mouse-fishing.
  25. A fly never really becomes interesting except when you tell yourself it’s a plane and there are three men on board.
  26. Oh life in its infinite variety, where everyone is available, full of good will, ready for anything!
  27. Most men in these parts have stone sickness. Around the age of fifty, ten‑, twelve‑, and sometimes eighteen-carat diamonds materialize in their bladders.
  28. Ladyflowers, ever ready, ever available, followed by a boy with a folding bed that falls open at a touch.
  29. I have pills for dreaming.
  30. Here, the sewer mouths are alive: flesh and blood.
  31. In the springtime, their women swell like balloons and take flight. Husbands must keep them tethered with string.
  32. Although I lock myself away in my room to light my fire, squatting close to the stove as I stoke the flame with great exhalations, there is always someone to place a hand on my shoulder and say, “What’s the point?”
  33. It would never occur to the prudent traveler to take his wife with him on a long voyage. He simply stops by the pharmacy and asks for a small bottle of assorted pillwives.
  34. It often happens that in times of fog, lightened by some lunar attraction, ships heading downriver leave the water behind and venture into the prairies.
  35. I am no doubt the only man in all the world who produces blue stool. Well-shaped, may I say, and perfectly healthy.
  36. The spiders around here mean no harm. You fall asleep in a lawn chair and wake up trussed hand and foot.
  37. In these parts, eyes are so common they button clothes with them.
  38. The Earth is overpopulated. To avoid war, each person now owns a patch of land the size of a handkerchief. I plant germs in mine: I’m within my rights.
  39. Papa planted a huge carnivorous mushroom in front of the house; we feed it guests who eat too much.
  40. I don’t know if the world is round, if you can stop coming back to where you started from, but I know it’s full of holes you spend your time avoiding and, after all is said and done, holes decide your course.
  41. All beings exude a smell they rush to breathe back up for fear it should betray them.
  42. My father’s last words were, “Goodbye, I’m going whale hunting.”
  43. It is generally around page 85 of the famous Greywood manuscript that the condemned man suffocates.
  44. I have a drawing of the house where Descartes lived in Utrecht. I often study it with a magnifying glass. The house seems to emerge from the paper, but that’s nothing; the other day, as I was carefully examining some detail, one of the three windows opened and Descartes came out for some air.
  45. The Great Flying Female Flying Over the Continent!  She’s been in all the papers; still is. Sometimes she skims close to the ground like a swallow and, in passing, makes off with a farmer in the fields or any old solitary walker in the countryside, snapping him up headfirst with her prehensile genitals.
  46. My wife loves making me eat grass snakes.
  47. We coat all our women in sugar, and that is how we offer them to strangers. To be licked.
  48. My horses asked only to carry me to fortune and glory, but I preferred to take tiny steps forward in the shadow of the broad avenue where brambles were beginning to take back the neglected path, now but a trail in the grass.
  49. The mothers were on trial: what need prompted you to bring us into this world, what frenzy, what rage?
  50. One does not fashion a soul from rags.
  51. One day, I told myself, one day I too will awaken, and I will see them all as they are.
  52. Take a bath. What beautiful, translucent hands you can have upon finding the desired angle of view: spiderlike hands with fairy fingers, a light bluish tint, transparent, which shatter upon emerging pink and fleshy from the water.
  53. There was nothing left of me but a puddle.
  54. Cows have invaded my room; the gardener goes up and down the stairs with a donkey that, in passing, bites my arm right down to the bone.
  55. I have never seen myself; no mirror has been able to give me an idea of the being I really am.
  56. The king adores derrières. Sometimes he does his work in a room where there are one hundred and eighty women with their backs to him like a baseboard along the wall.
  57. Here births go rather well. Barely two months after conception, women lay an egg about the size of a coconut, put it on a pillow, and set their husbands atop it, while they go about their business.
  58. I have a friend who makes little clay balls, sculpts them into little beings, and breathes life into them.
  59. Young porcupine-women are wreaking havoc among us.
  60. A very elegant thing to do in these parts is dressing half in flesh, half in bones.
  61. I derive all my pleasure from sucking men’s skulls dry.
  62. To begin with, one night a branch entered the room of a young girl.
  63. Around here, every time you have sex you get a freckle on your face.
  64. When I’ve had enough, I suck  my face back inside me. All that’s left is smooth skin on which nothing can be read. It happens a lot: yesterday, in fact, at a salon.
  65. The other day we woke up, my wife and I, covered in dead leaves.
  66. It is in V. that all the skeletons of the province N. are made, skeletons of kiln-hardened clay.
  67. On nights of the full moon, somnambulists walk on water.

4 replies to “65 Beginnings by Pierre Bettencourt

  1. yes, wow, these are brilliant. so evocative. such juxtaposition. stepping off points into goodness knows where.

    i am reminded of a slim volume I had, which I have been wondering the whereabouts of for some months now, which collected the short story “La Fanfarlo” “and other prose pieces” by Baudelaire. it included short sketches and micro tales. i’ve been wanting to delve into it recently but have no idea where it is (if it is even) in my house-library.

    the above lines by Bettencourt are not like anything i have seen before though. Thanks for the post.