A famous French writer recalls the affair that led to the secret of her success, from a novel by Céline Minard.
I drew up my first will as I was getting deeper and deeper into my third decade and my sales were increasing like an upwelling in a sea of oil, in order to stave off any potential plundering—postmortem or otherwise—and all havoc that could result from implied rights, from all the legal consequences that might arise should I have left everything unspecified.
The day I realized, after an appalling funeral, that those generally called one’s kin were capable of fundamentally and wholesale denying relationships forged over fifty years of patience and attentiveness, I decided to go visit my Notary and have him Note in Law the first and last names and attributes of the beneficiaries I wanted to be recognized. In all frankness, in thorough forthrightness, in sound mind.
I don’t see why I should contribute to the wealth and comfort of a tiny little thing I’ve never seen but which had the random idea to spring forth from the balls or the fertile ova of one of my more or less tangentially consanguineous relatives.
Thus do I bequeath and transfer to all the agnates, lineage, and consanguinities that could be wished for the right to address my eternal soul, by written text or by whispered prayer, in the most regretful terms and in whatever tone they wish to take or affect—without any guarantee of a response.
Now, for all my possessions and most of my assets, I designate as beneficiary to my fortune, to my body and whatever may come of it, including my papers and all archives to be burned, she who stands in the light and who never wavers, Luise XX, heres esto, an artist by profession. May she benefit, as we both already have together, from the happy accident of our meeting. May she delight and appreciate how sexual unions in any time and any place are a frivolity freed from all the leaden weight of life; because we are all beneath that mortal blade. See you later, mon amour.
I know you don’t believe it. I know that whether you’ve opened the window as promised or picked me up outside or found me in the chair, whether or not you’ve carried my body in your arms, this see you later will have no meaning to you. Just like the proposition “the current king of France is bald” has no meaning. Well, as in every one of our fights, all the artfulness I can summon up, and all that results from it, has only been to prove otherwise. See you later, now and for a good long while. I won’t talk about eternity, je t’aime.
I’ve never written anything in English.
Despite everything I’ve been able to say about languages, English and French especially, despite my declared and reiterated attachment to English as my true language, as my language of creation, despite all my accounts of its suppleness, its compactness, its vigorous neutrality, and even though I’ve repeatedly argued for the choice I made—a literary choice, personally literary, a permission, the possibility of inventing my own territory because it wasn’t mine from the outset, but rather taken up, taken over, thoroughly taken in while I was an adult, fully aware, because for me it was the opposite of a heritage, a terra incognita for which I had only the coordinates, a treasure map, a space I created in discovering it, word by word, literally, because ultimately it was never truly mine but I used it and practically reinvented it, and in using it—in usurping it, rather, and extracting some added value—it was possible to see the entire construction or etiology of my identity as a writer, despite these more or less inspired—but always sincere—affirmations and declarations, the fact is (c’est bien là le point) the fact is that I’ve never written anything in English.
Aside from my shopping lists and some notes and instructions for the house staff at Mondeult, aside from a few letters, most of them for business, aside from a kind of collection of insults for personal use, I’ve never written anything in English.
The seventeen or eighteen volumes that currently comprise my life’s work were written in French, my maternal and grand-maternal language.
They were translated into English. Except for First Days, my debut novel, translated by my discreet friend Eliot, I translated them all into English. I rewrote them.
I suppose I should be at least somewhat “sorry.” This revelation is a brutal one.
The organizers of the ten or twenty colloquiums I’ve—in good faith—participated in (I’m thinking, for example, of the one at Stanford: Beckett, Nabokov, and Their Heirs: The Choice of Language in Contemporary Europe) will all have every right to feel hoodwinked.
The reviewers declaring “XXX, the first French writer working in English” or “XXX is the best thing to have happened to the English language in two decades” will end up eating their words, if necessary spinning in their graves.
The Booker Prize jury might reconvene for an unusual meeting full of booze and curses. I told you, didn’t I! Fucking Frenchie! And twice! We gave it to her twice!!
Plenty of people will remember my spoken English being too awkward and heavily accented to ever be real. And that I had trouble understanding Americans and Oxbridge dons, but not Indians from India—an undeniable sign! Some academics will rub their hands thinking about the title for their next syllabus: comparative literature, “On Impostorship around Fictional Works,” “O’Brien and His ‘Mollycules,’ XXX and Her Adopted English: Toward a History of Theoretical Bluster.” Some French intellectuals will talk about double betrayals—this one warp and that one weft—that’s how to weave a scarf, while others will be overjoyed: an author’s come back to us! And with a scandal to boot, hallelujah! Sales will be through the roof. That old French pride—always rather low—will claw its way up a bit in this coop, with a hearty cock-a-doodle-doo, although to be perfectly clear: I’m not coming back.
The English language is my counter-language of creation. My English counter-language is the space I’ve invented, explored, extracted bit by bit from my original language, the foreign space that in and of itself was what allowed me to write in French.
Calmar & Cie would be wise never to try to recover my fictive translators’ fees. I’ve entrusted a complete file to Maître Charruau, who they know. If this whole business goes to trial, I’d be pretty safe in guessing that the verdict would be wholly disadvantageous for their interests (an overloaded debit column, Monsieur Calmar, you wouldn’t like that at all) and would create a precedent. Not to mention the absurdity of it all, which would be a terrible problem for a publishing house of estimable repute.
Since, after all, the English language wasn’t a complete surprise for me.
First Days, which was a bestseller in every English-speaking country upon its publication, which was displayed in aisle end caps, set face-out, piled up in stacks and display towers in the windows of Borders and Barnes & Noble stores (which, honestly, was a huge misunderstanding), which the European counterparts to literary scouts got paid to argue over, which had been completely ignored by Calmar & Cie, B.A.L., and Machette when the manuscript had been titled Premiers Nouveaux Jours, ended up getting an advance of ten thousand. You kidding me? Ten thousand? They should have shelled out a hundred thousand!
Five years later, completely failing to recognize the slightly tidied-up text, “an especially good translation,” Calmar coughed up a hundred and fifty thousand after a drawn-out auction, acting like a gambler that’d just hit jackpot on the slot machines. And sure enough, it had.
At that point, I could have decided that I’d had my revenge and revealed both the deception and, how should I put it, the bank shot I’d made. But that felt a bit obvious. I would have ended up in a good position for my future translations but not exactly the best position possible. My theory was that the French establishment would draw my prose into its bosom and that as a result XXX, France’s first English writer, would become XXX, French writer, bound to a vernacular language of reduced dimensions and distribution within the rest of the world. Another not-so-negligible point: my income was far higher at Platypus’s Tail than it ever would be at Calmar, even if I factored in my translations—the rights being systematically divided, per our contracts, into two equal parts of which only one was de jure paid to me.
[About this, my dear Luise, ask Giacomo to run a little audit, get the money back (suspended author’s rights, adaptation and derivative rights, etc.), don’t drink it away. All the wine you could want is in our cellars. Go gamble it all at Ianarty and LOSE. Go for as long as it takes. It all needs to be gone!]
For that matter, I was the object of the most charming attention of Mr. Thorp, my (late) press officer at Platypus’s Tail, who sent me into the seediest corners of Borough and brought me fruit dripping in honey before radio interviews. He thought I was writing an extraordinarily new, fresh English, cleansed of all dregs of Commonwealth resentment—and rightly so, he insisted, the French had never been colonized, they’d had William the Conqueror! The Battle of Hastings! Case in point!—new, thereby fresh, and perfectly suited to reawaken the Latins from their three or four centuries’ slumber. Mr. Thorp had wide-ranging geo-linguistic theories that unfurled over successive rounds of Guinness—which long had me believing that he had Irish roots.
So, at Bloomsbury, I happily explained, quite straightforwardly, how, when I was about twelve, I’d discovered, with a dejectedness mixed with a regretfulness not unlike learning of a friend’s death, that the French language hadn’t been the original language of all literature. That Dostoyevsky had been a Russian writer didn’t perturb me in the least, I could imagine that easily enough, but that he had written in Russian was a thundering revelation that I immediately shelved beside all those other defamatory lies. A brother to the deeply immoral assertions denying the historical existence of Long John Silver, the pirate cook of the Hispaniola, or casting doubt upon the validity of the faculty of reason Mr. Holmes engaged in all his criminal investigations.
Years later, in accordance with an inverse movement that was proportionally revolutionary, I must have discovered that the portion of the world living in this language (that is, my own) was in fact minuscule. So much frenzied reading of the international papers that I’d devoted myself to during a stretch of my teenage years, sequestered in my room and riveted to the computer that delivered packet upon packet of information and speech from many peoples in indecipherable, sometimes half-forgotten languages—Iroquois, Guaycuruan, Otí, Kiowa—had me convinced of the inanity of French, not to mention its stupidity, not only in its expressive potential (Snow. What snow? Molten snow. Fallen snow. Blue snow melted under the moon. Warm, soft snow that had hardened again) but also in its receptive capacity or its ability to be apprehended in translation. Each year, forty percent of books published in English were translated and brought to the French book market. Which meant that sixty percent of this literature, by far the best-served one, remained inaccessible to monolingual yet curious readers. But what of the language of the peoples of Oregon? Notwithstanding the fact that the Native American peoples of Oregon don’t write (only writing interests me), the language of the peoples of Oregon was yet another gap within mine.
These contradictory yet astonishing revelations, each one opposing the other, should have resulted in my exhaustive attempt to learn all the human languages or into a career as a polyglot translator. If that wasn’t what happened, it’s because right then I also met Paige and because it became abundantly clear in the bed supporting our awestruck, hot-jazzie lovemaking, that Plato’s Sameness wasn’t a complex notion.
In Ruel, in this horrid house her parents had abandoned, we spent a complete, luminescent night that has grown dear to my heart, a night experiencing the extraordinary metamorphic power of desire. Its labile omnipotence, its versatility. The multiplicity of stories and bodies it imparts, their ability to appear and transform, in the blink of an eye, deep within the blaze of action, without breaking it or miring it, on the contrary, feeding it all the better with a welter of metamorphoses drawn from unforeseen, unexpected groundswells and wellsprings.
This night when I understood that it was possible to have sex like a man, like a woman, with this woman like a woman, like a man, like a goat, like a devil, like an incense spirit, overflowing with water even while burning—oh, sweet heart, oh how you have surprised me in the dead of the night—this night sealed, consecrated, my future as a writer absolutely. And the decision about my language: Paige was Australian.
“If she walks in Cos’s light, in a shimmer of tinted fabric, if rings clink along her arms, if she bears the nose of Clodia or Lesbia or Cynthia or Helen, then she deserves a poem.” This is what First Days did in its own way, a preliminary, interpretive movement, not the pornographic tract it was mistaken for. But what does it matter? At the very least it gave Eliot the opportunity to set Shakespeare’s old daring dancing again in contemporary language and to call a cat (a pussy) by its positions and its variations: a ruff, a scut, a crack, a lock, a salmon’s tail. This last resurrection, incidentally, was what convinced Yorg Brayton, the editorial director at Platypus’s Tail, to publish this debut novel, calling it “promising.”
With Eliot, this exercise of transposition was a total contrast, a practically criminal complicity made up of doubts and back-room accusations, arguments, wild laughter and oaths of loyalty to one another (he took ten percent for the translation and the work of selling it, five percent for his discretion) and us pushing each other to alter particular future plans radically.
At the end of the whole thing he had to put an end to all literary activity and plunged into what had been dear to his body ever since his divorce: the drag show inspired by the Moulin Rouge. As for me, I had to learn enough English to take care of things myself, even though this meant cutting myself off from everyone else, cursing myself, cheating on myself, and returning to unbearable nights and better days.
It was a long apprenticeship for each of us.
Eliot took singing and dancing lessons from the Paris ballet mistress Janet Woodson and threw unstoppable parties at my place that brought the Vᵉ arrondissement’s neighborhood watch association knocking several times.
In the Southwark loft his wife had cleared out completely, I had a convertible couch, 150-watt Sennheiser speakers, and several crates of bourbon delivered, and I started practicing greeting people and making conversation.
We each made serious progress in parallel, and while my transformation was less visible than hers, hers was every bit as profound: like a salmon, with powerful beats of this salmon’s tail I surged against the current of the Thames and the Seine, tracing in my sinewy, piscine form, the discontinuous line—here in the air, there in the water—of what would become my medium for writing: the lie.
To be absolutely clear, aside from Eliot and Luise, nobody ever knew what I was trafficking between my two languages. Not even my Swiss agent Giacomo Bisiach who I got in touch with after my second book, presenting myself as an ambitious, greedy writer terrible at reading contracts but deliberately unprudish, meaning that no, I didn’t think it suitable or honorable to be a dishwasher at some Brooklyn hole in the wall by day and a writer at night penning the greatest works of the twenty-first century on a wobbly table. Even if I were drinking Balzacian quantities of spiked coffee, lighting box after box of reeking cigarillos, ultimately descending into a Homeric alcoholism befitting my posterity. No thank you. And, more to the point, if he knew an attorney well-versed in international law, he would be doing me a service since I had some money to invest.
Giacomo was an excellent advocate from the very first day. Open, agreeable, direct: he glanced very quickly over the numbers I had brought, the press clippings, and set his immense hand on my manuscript, declaring that he would call me in three days. In the meantime, if I had a few minutes free, he would be delighted to introduce me to one of his acquaintances at Peterman’s.
Two hours later, my first bank account was open.
“Tax evasion” has never held any negative connotations for me. In this phrase, the word tax, which a priori seems rigid and carries uneasy implications, finds itself so wonderfully light that it takes on intriguing, archaic tonalities, like a red moon veiled by the warmth of a blazing day within a massive, inky-black sky, studded with billions of pinpricks. “Tax evasion,” practically an oxymoron, radiates a magical space, with a paradoxical freedom, and constitutes the Platonic ideal of a genuinely ancient rhetorical figure’s renovation for thoroughly undeniable effect. All the more so for a writer.
I don’t doubt that the French Republic, and its requisite taxation, maintains a structure that guarantees more or less clannish abuses and excesses and proofs of brute force. But when the Republic forgets or denies or tramples its own posterity underfoot, then the best course of action is to take particular safety measures oneself and with utmost respect.
Yorg Brayton couldn’t pay me a substantial advance—we were dealing with theoretical speculations—but he sent me Mr. Thorp, armed with his umbrella and his industrious, incessant activity. He found my destiny thoroughly fascinating, repeated that decisions often took you places without your realizing it, and, after a few cross-Channel phone calls, one of his friends was able to put a “very suitably insulated” Ford minivan at my disposal.
And so I spent six months amid the immense Irish stretches, each one of them peaty and black and deserted, before setting my sights on the heights of Lobinstown in an empty, ultramodern shell, like an arthropod on a bit of slimy rock. I stayed there for some time listening to the aggressive seagulls chasing each other down the seaside path and contemplating, usually in the morning, history’s ironies. Should I have washed my hair outside, in front of the parapet, with a bowl of soap in one hand and a frayed dishrag in the other before coming back to France once and for all to suffer so many twists and turns before finally achieving renown? Or did I just need to sit on this bench and pay attention to the welter of unimportant things crossing the planks beneath my ass? Get on my thin-tired racing bike to cross the moor and stop at the first church I saw to play the lonely organ in the night?
It was necessary to spend six months and one day on Irish land in order not only to benefit from simple evasion but to enjoy paradise directly. Of the fiscal sort. So, after the allotted time, I’d reached the gates of paradise. Once they were open for good, I hopped on a plane headed to Italy. As they say, I’d caught a chill.
After three months of prolonged springtime on the island of Ventotene amid the archaic Caetani, it became clear that I preferred evasion to paradise.
A decade later, I had to go back there with you, my sweet lullaby, and what an enchantment that was! Better yet: a silk-lined charm! This life bathed in light, this house with all its doors and windows open to your face on the walkway of the ship that lumbered between the island and the mainland. Open to the wind, your hands, your mouth, your blouse all open, your lips like cherries. Our unregimented days metered only by the sun, the siestas heavier than the heat, the huge hammock amid the olive trees and these deep-white paintings you made as each day began in the orchard, the canvas set on the table, outside, leaning against the irritating ocher of the decaying wall, these sumptuous Overexposed Dante paintings, the crickets’ all-encompassing song, my protracted hours under covers writing (B)racket all in footnotes, dry white wine, whiskey, apples—all that is still within me. And I shouldn’t say “still” because that’s a part of the kingdom our life had, a living part that cannot die. That remains—stare—in a gap of time. Like all successful evasions.
Thus the part I’m writing at this moment, this testament, which will carry me headlong beyond my own death toward some temporality where the opposing forces of composition and biographical decay cancel each other out . . .
From So Long, Luise. @ 2011 by Céline Minard. Published 2011 by Denoël. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation @ 2019 by Jeffrey Zuckerman. All rights reserved.