Authors: Michel Houellebecq
Tags: #Fiction, #Classics
‘You came on the TGV,’ asked the guest master; I said I had. ‘It’s fast, all right, the TGV,’ he went on, clearly hoping to start us off on a basis of mutual agreement. Then, taking my bag, he led me to my room. It was roughly three metres square, hung with light grey, textured wallpaper. The carpeting was medium grey and threadbare. The only decoration was a large crucifix of dark wood hanging above a small single bed. I immediately noticed that the sink had separate taps for hot and cold, and that there was a smoke detector on the ceiling. I told Brother Pierre that the room would be fine, but I already knew that wasn’t true. In
, when Huysmans debates – more or less interminably – whether he can stand monastic life, one of his negative arguments is that, apparently, they wouldn’t let him smoke indoors. Moments like that have always made me love him. There’s another passage where he writes that one of the few pure joys in life is getting into bed with a stack of good books and a packet of tobacco. Huysmans never had to deal with smoke detectors.
There was a fairly rickety wooden desk with a Bible on it, a thin tract by Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat on the meaning of a monastic retreat (it was stamped ‘Do Not Remove’), and an information sheet that basically just listed the schedule of offices and meals. I saw at a glance that it was almost time for None, but I decided to give it a miss, this first day: the symbolism was less than thrilling. The idea behind the offices of Terce, Sext and None was to ‘return us to the presence of God over the course of the day’. Every day there were seven offices, plus Mass. None of that had changed since Huysmans’ time. The one concession to comfort was that Vigils, which had been observed at two in the morning, was now at 10 p.m. During my first visit, I had loved Vigils, with the long meditative psalms chanted in the middle of the night – as distant from Compline, and its farewell to the day, as it was from Lauds, which greeted the new dawn. Vigils was an office of pure waiting, of ultimate hope without any reason for hope. Obviously, in the dead of winter, back when the church wasn’t even heated, it can’t have been easy.
What impressed me most was that Brother Joel had recognised me after more than twenty years. Not much must have happened in his life since he stopped being guest master. He had worked in the monastery workshops, done the daily offices. His life had been peaceful, and probably happy, in stark contrast to my own.
I went for a long walk in the park, smoking numerous cigarettes, as I waited for Vespers, which was what came before the evening meal. The sun grew more and more dazzling. It made the frost sparkle, casting a yellow glow over the buildings, a scarlet glow over the carpet of dead leaves. I no longer knew the meaning of my presence in this place. For a moment it would appear to me, weakly, then just as soon it would disappear. In any case, it clearly had little to do with Huysmans any more.
Over the next two days I got used to the litany of prayers, but I never actually managed to love them. Mass was a recognisable element, the one point of contact with religious devotion as we in the outside world might know it. The rest was a matter of reading and chanting the appropriate psalms according to the time of day. Sometimes these were interspersed with a brief sacred text, read aloud by one of the monks – readings also occurred at meals, which were taken in silence. The modern church, constructed within the monastery walls, had a sober ugliness to it. Architecturally, it was reminiscent of the Super-Passy shopping centre in the rue de l’Annonciation, and its stained-glass windows, simple patches of abstract colour, weren’t worth looking at, but none of that bothered me. I wasn’t an aesthete – I had infinitely less aesthetic sense than Huysmans – and for me the uniform ugliness of contemporary religious art was essentially a matter of indifference. The voices of the monks rose up in the freezing air, pure, humble, well-meaning. They were full of sweetness, hope and expectation. The Lord Jesus would return, was about to return, and already the warmth of his presence filled their souls with joy. This was the one real theme of their chants, chants of sweet and organic expectation. That old queer Nietzsche had it right: Christianity was, at the end of the day, a feminine religion.
All of this might have suited me fine, but going back to my cell ruined it: the smoke detector glared at me with its little red hostile eye. Sometimes I went and smoked out the window, so I could confirm that here, too, things had gone downhill since Huysmans’ day: the TGV tracks lay just beyond the far edge of the monastery grounds, two hundred metres away as the crow flies. The trains went by at full speed, and their roar shattered the meditative silence several times an hour, every hour. But the cold grew more intense, and after each of these stations at the window I had to warm myself against the radiator for minutes at a time. My mood soured, and the prose of Dom Jean-Pierre Longeat – no doubt an excellent monk, full of love and good intentions – exasperated me more and more. ‘Life should be a continual loving exchange, in tribulations or in joy,’ the good father wrote. ‘So make the most of these few days and exercise your capacity to love and be loved, in word and deed.’ ‘Give it a rest, dickhead,’ I’d snarl, ‘I’m alone in my room.’ ‘You are here to lay down your burdens and take a journey within yourself, to the wellspring where the power of desire is revealed.’ ‘My only fucking desire is to have a fucking cigarette,’ I raged, ‘I’ve reached the fucking wellspring, dickhead, and that’s what’s there.’ I may not have had, like Huysmans, ‘a heart hardened and smoked dry by dissipation’, but lungs hardened and smoked dry by tobacco – those I had.
‘Hear, taste and drink, weep and chant, knock at the door of Love!’ exclaimed the ecstatic Longeat. On the morning of the third day I realised I had to leave. The whole thing had been a mistake all along. I explained to Brother Pierre that, to my dismay, unforeseen professional obligations, of literally unbelievable importance, required me to cut my spiritual journey short. With that Pierre Moscovici face of his, I knew he’d believe me. He might even have
Pierre Moscovici, in his previous life, and Pierre Moscovicis are all on the same page. I was sure we’d get through this without any unpleasantness. As we were saying goodbye in the entrance hall, he expressed a hope that my journey among them had been a journey in the light. Not to worry, I assured him, I’d had a terrific time. And yet, at that moment, I felt that I was somehow letting him down.
During the night, a low-pressure system, originating over the Atlantic, had moved in from the south-west. The temperature had risen by six degrees; the countryside around Poitiers was wrapped in fog. I had called ahead for a taxi, and now I found myself with almost an hour to kill. I spent it at the Bar de l’Amitié, whose front door was fifty metres from the monastery, mindlessly downing Leffes and Hoegaardens. The waitress was thin and wore too much make-up. The other customers were talking in loud voices, mainly about property and holidays. It gave me no satisfaction to be back among people like myself.
‘If Islam is not political, it is nothing.’
– Ayatollah Khomeini
At the Poitiers railway station, I had to change my ticket. The next TGV to Paris was almost full, so I paid for the upgrade to Pro Première. According to the national rail service, it was a universe of privilege, with a guaranteed highspeed connection, larger tables for spreading out work papers, and electrical sockets so that you’d never find your laptop dying on you because you’d stupidly forgotten to charge it; otherwise, it was normal first class.
I found a seat by myself, with no one opposite me. On the other side of the aisle a middle-aged Arab businessman, dressed in a long white djellaba and a white keffiyeh, had spread out several files on the two tables in front of his seat. He must have been coming from Bordeaux. There were two young girls facing him, barely out of their teens – his wives, clearly – who had raided the news-stand for sweets and magazines. They were excited and giggly. They wore long robes and multicoloured veils. For the moment, one was absorbed in a
comic, the other in the latest issue of
Opposite them, the businessman looked as if he was under some serious stress. Opening his email, he downloaded an attachment containing several Excel spreadsheets, and after examining these documents, he looked even more worried than before. He made a call on his mobile phone. A long, hushed conversation ensued. It was impossible to tell what he was talking about, and I tried, without a great deal of enthusiasm, to get back to my
, which covered the new regime from a property and luxury angle. From this point of view, the future was looking extremely bright. The subjects of the petro-monarchies were more and more eager to pick up a pied-à-terre in Paris or on the Côte d’Azur, now that they knew they were dealing with a friendly country, and were outbidding the Chinese and the Russians. Business was good.
Peals of laughter: the two young Arab girls were hunched over the copy of
, playing ‘Spot the Difference’. Looking up from his spreadsheet, the businessman gave them a pained smile of reproach. They smiled back and went on playing, now in excited whispers. He took out his mobile again and another conversation ensued, just as long and confidential as the first. Under an Islamic regime, women – at least the ones pretty enough to attract a rich husband – were able to remain children nearly their entire lives. No sooner had they put childhood behind them than they became mothers and were plunged back into a world of childish things. Their children grew up, then they became grandmothers, and so their lives went by. There were just a few years where they bought sexy underwear, exchanging the games of the nursery for those of the bedroom – which turned out to be much the same thing. Obviously they had no autonomy, but as they say in English,
. I had to admit, I’d had no trouble giving up all of my professional and intellectual responsibilities, it was actually a relief, and I had no desire whatsoever to be that businessman sitting on the other side of our Pro Première compartment, whose face grew more and more ashen the longer he talked on the phone, and who was obviously in some kind of deep shit. Our train had just passed Saint-Pierre-des-Corps. At least he’d have the consolation of two graceful, charming wives to distract him from the anxieties facing the exhausted businessman – and maybe he had two more wives waiting for him in Paris. If I remembered right, according to sharia law you could have up to four. What had my father had? My mother, that neurotic bitch. I shuddered at the thought. Well, she was dead now. They were both dead. I might have seen better days, but I was the only living witness to their love.
It was warmer in Paris, too, but not as warm. A fine cold rain was falling on the city. Traffic was bad on the rue Tolbiac, which struck me as strangely long. I thought I had never seen a street so long, so dreary, dull and endless. I wasn’t expecting to come home to anything in particular, just various headaches. And yet, to my surprise, there was a letter in my mailbox – or at least something that wasn’t junk mail, or a bill, or a bureaucratic request for information. I glanced at my living room in disgust, unable to pretend that I felt any special pleasure at coming home to this apartment where no one was loved, this apartment that nobody loved. I poured myself a large Calvados and then I opened the letter.
It was signed by Bastien Lacoue, who had apparently replaced Hugues Pradier as head of Éditions de Pléiade a few years before. I hadn’t known anything about that. He began by saying that, thanks to some inexplicable oversight, Huysmans was not yet in the Pléiade catalogue, although he obviously belonged to the canon of classic French literature; as to that, I could only agree. He went on to express his conviction that, given my universally recognised contributions to the field, there was no one to whom the Pléiade could better entrust the editing of Huysmans’ work than me.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Or rather, I could refuse, obviously, but it would mean renouncing all intellectual and social ambition – all ambition, full stop. Was I really ready for that? There was no way I could think it over without a second Calvados. After thinking it over, I decided that the really prudent thing was to go out and buy another bottle.
Just two days later, I found myself meeting Bastien Lacoue. His office was exactly the way I’d imagined it, old-fashioned, up three flights of steep wooden stairs, overlooking a dishevelled courtyard. Lacoue himself was a modern-day intellectual with frameless little oval glasses, a jovial man. He radiated satisfaction with himself, the world and his position in it.
I’d done some preparation, and told him that I thought Huysmans’ works should be divided into two volumes, the first containing everything from
Le drageoir à épices
La retraite de Monsieur Bougram
(I held 1888 to be the most likely year of composition), the second devoted to the Durtal novels, from
, and of course
Les foules de Lourdes
. This division was simple, logical, even obvious, and without hidden complications. As always, the real question was how to handle the notes. Certain pseudo-scholarly editions had seen fit to provide biographical notes for the innumerable writers, musicians and painters mentioned by Huysmans. This struck me as utterly useless, even if the notes were relegated to the back. Not only would they weigh the books down, but also you could never know whether you’d said too much – or not enough – about Lactance, Angela de Foligno or Grünewald. Readers who wanted to know more could go and find out for themselves, and that was that. As for the relationships between Huysmans and other writers of his time – Zola, Maupassant, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Gourmont or Bloy – I thought these were best dealt with in the preface. Lacoue was quick to second this opinion.
Huysmans’ use of obscure words and neologisms, on the other hand, did justify a certain amount of apparatus – I was imagining footnotes rather than endnotes, so as not to slow the reader down. He was enthusiastic in his agreement. ‘You’ve already done most of the work in your
Vertigos of Coining
!’ he said heartily. I lifted my right hand in a gesture of deep reservation. On the contrary: in the book he was good enough to mention, I had barely touched on the question. No more than a quarter of Huysmans’ linguistic corpus had been dealt with. He lifted his left hand in a gesture of deep appeasement: he certainly hadn’t meant to understate the considerable work it would take to complete this edition. They hadn’t set a deadline, I could rest easy on that score.