I’d like to describe how L. came into my life, and in what circumstances. I’d like to describe precisely the context that enabled L. to invade my private sphere and patiently take possession of it. But it’s not that simple. And as I write the phrase, ‘how L. came into my life’, I’m aware of how stuffy the expression sounds: a bit overblown; the way it emphasises a narrative arc that does not yet exist; a desire to announce a turning point or plot twists. Yes, L. ‘came into my life’ and turned it upside down: profoundly, slowly, surely, insidiously. L. came into my life as though she were stepping onto a stage right in the middle of the play, as though a director had ensured that everything around her dimmed to make way for her; as if L.’s entrance had been prepared for so as to communicate its importance, so that at this precise moment the spectator and the other actors on stage (me, in this case) would look only at her; so that everything around us froze, and her voice carried right to the back of the auditorium; in short, so that she would make an impact.
But I’m rushing ahead.
I met L. at the end of March. By the autumn, L. was part of my life like an old friend, on familiar ground. By the autumn, we already had our private jokes, a shared language of hints and double meanings, of glances that sufficed for us to understand each other. Our complicity was fuelled by shared confidences but also by what remained unsaid, by unspoken observations. In hindsight, and in view of the violence that later marked our relationship, it’s tempting to say that L. broke in to my life, with the sole aim of annexation, but that would be untrue.
L. entered gently, with boundless delicacy, and I experienced amazing moments of complicity with her.
On the afternoon of the day we met, I’d been invited to do a signing at the Paris Book Fair. I’d met my friend Olivier there. He was a guest on a live broadcast from the Radio France stand. I mingled with the public as I listened to him. We then had a sandwich in a corner with his elder daughter, Rose, all of us sitting on the shabby Book Fair carpet. My signing had been advertised for two thirty, so we didn’t have a lot of time. It wasn’t long before Olivier told me I looked exhausted, truly; he was worried about how I’d get through ‘all this’, by which he meant having written such a personal, intimate book, and the reverberations that the book had caused – reverberations he knew I hadn’t anticipated, and for which I was consequently unprepared.
Later, Olivier offered to walk with me to my publisher’s stand. As we passed a dense, tightly packed queue, I looked to see which author was at the other end of it. I remember looking for the poster that would reveal their name, and then Olivier whispered: ‘I think they’re for you.’ The queue stretched into the distance, then turned the corner, all the way to the stand where I was expected.
At another time, even a few months earlier, this would have filled me with joy and maybe even pride. I’d spent hours waiting around for readers at book fairs, sitting patiently behind piles of my books without anyone coming. I was familiar with that feeling of helplessness, that rather shameful solitude. I was now overwhelmed by an entirely different sensation: a kind of dizziness. For a moment it felt too much; too much for one person, too much for me. Olivier said he had to head off.
My book had come out at the end of August and for several months I’d been going from city to city, from events to signings, readings to discussions, in bookshops, libraries and media centres, where increasing numbers of readers awaited me.
It sometimes overwhelmed me, the feeling of having hit the bull’s eye, of having carried thousands of readers along in my wake, the probably mistaken feeling of having been understood.
I’d written a book whose impact I hadn’t foreseen.
I’d written a book whose effect on my family and those around me spread in a series of waves, causing collateral damage I hadn’t anticipated; a book that quickly separated my unwavering supporters from my false allies, and whose delayed effects were to prove long-lasting.
I hadn’t imagined the book’s proliferation and its consequences. I hadn’t imagined the image of my mother, reproduced hundreds, then thousands of times, the cover photo that contributed significantly to the spread of the text, the photo that very quickly became dissociated from her and now was no longer my mother but a character in the novel, blurred and diffracted.
I hadn’t imagined readers feeling moved or fearful; I hadn’t imagined that some would cry in front of me, nor how hard it would be for me not to cry with them.
There was that very first time, in Lille, when a frail young woman, who was visibly exhausted by several stays in hospital, told me the novel had given her the crazy, insane hope that in spite of her illness, in spite of what had happened and was irreparable, in spite of what she had inflicted upon her children, that they might, just maybe, be able to love her . . .
And there was another time, one Sunday morning in Paris, when a troubled man had talked to me about mental-health issues – of how others looked at him (at them, all the people who cause such fear that they’re all lumped together: the bipolar, schizophrenics, depressives, labelled like shrink-wrapped chickens according to the current trends and the magazine cover stories) – and talked to me about Lucile, my invulnerable heroine who redeemed them all.
And on other occasions, in Strasbourg, Nantes, Montpellier, there were sometimes people I wanted to hug.
Gradually, I established a sort of imperceptible rampart, a cordon sanitaire that enabled me to go on, to be present, but at a safe distance. I developed a movement of the diaphragm that blocked the air at my breastbone to make a tiny cushion, an invisible airbag so that I could then gradually breathe out through my mouth once the danger had passed. That way I could listen, speak, understand what was being created around the book, the to and fro between reader and text, as the book almost always sent the reader back – why, I cannot explain – to his or her own story. The book was a sort of mirror, whose depth of field and contours no longer belonged to me.
But I knew that some day it would all catch up with me – the number, the sheer number of readers, of comments, invitations, the number of bookshops visited and hours spent on intercity trains – and that then something would give under the weight of my doubts and contradictions. I knew there would come a day when I would not be able to extricate myself, and there would have to be a thorough stocktaking, if not a settling of the score.
That Saturday at the Book Fair, I had signed without a break. People had come to talk to me and I was having trouble finding the words to thank them, answer their questions, meet their expectations. I could hear my voice trembling. I was having trouble breathing. The airbag was no longer working; I couldn’t face up to things. I’d become permeable. Vulnerable.
Around 6 p.m. the queue was closed off with a stretch barrier between two posts to deter latecomers, obliging them to turn around. Nearby, I could hear the staff on the stand explaining that I was about to stop: ‘She has to go. She’s stopping. We’re sorry, she’s leaving.’
When I’d finished signing for the people who’d been designated as last in the queue, I hung around for a few minutes talking to my editor and the sales director. I thought about my route to the station. I felt exhausted. I could have lain down on the carpet and stayed there. We were on the stand and I’d turned my back on the Book Fair aisles and the little table where I’d been sitting until a few minutes earlier. A woman came up behind us and asked me if I could sign her copy. I heard myself say no, just like that, without hesitation. I think I told her that if I signed her book, more people would get in line, expecting me to start again and a new queue would inevitably begin to form.
I could tell from her eyes that she didn’t get it, that she couldn’t understand. There was no one else around; the unlucky latecomers had drifted off; everything seemed calm and peaceful. I could tell from her eyes that she was thinking: who does this bitch think she is? What difference do a couple of extra books make? And isn’t that exactly why you’re here? To sell books and sign them? So what have you got to complain about . . .
I couldn’t say: Madam, I’m sorry, I can’t do any more. I’m tired, I’m not up to it. Simple as that. I know that others can last for hours without eating or drinking until they’ve made sure everybody is satisfied. They’re real troupers, genuine athletes, but I can’t; not today. I can’t even write my name any more. My name’s a fake, a hoax. Believe me, my name on this book has no more value than if pigeon shit had happened to land on the title page.
I couldn’t say: if I write a dedication on your book, madam, I’ll split in two, that’s exactly what will happen. I warn you, back off, keep a safe distance. The tiny thread that’s keeping the two halves of my self together will break and I’ll start to cry and maybe even scream, and that could get very embarrassing for all of us.
I left the Book Fair, ignoring the remorse that was already flooding through me.
I caught the metro at Porte de Versailles. The carriage was packed, but I managed to find a seat even so. With my nose against the window, I began rerunning the scene; it played out in my head once and then again. I’d refused to sign the woman’s book even though I was standing there talking. I couldn’t get over it. I felt guilty, ridiculous, ashamed.
I’m writing about this scene now, and all its exhaustion and excess, because I’m almost certain that if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have met L.
L. wouldn’t have found in me something that was so fragile, so shifting, so liable to crumble.
When I was a child, I used to cry on my birthday. When the assembled guests launched into the familiar song with words that are more or less the same in every family I know, I would burst into tears as the cake with its candles was brought towards me.
I couldn’t bear being the centre of attention, the bright eyes all focusing on me, the collective emotion.
This had nothing to do with the genuine pleasure I experienced at a celebration in my honour. It didn’t in any way spoil my delight at receiving presents, but there occurred at that precise moment a sort of feedback loop, as though in response to the collective noise produced on my account I could only make another, even shriller noise, at an inaudible and disastrous frequency. I don’t know until what age this went on (the anticipation, tension, joy, and then me, in front of everyone, suddenly sniffly and distraught), but I have a precise memory of the feeling that used to overwhelm me at ‘our sincerest wishes, and may these candles bring you happiness’, and the desire to immediately disappear. Once – I must have been eight – I did run away.
At the time when birthdays were celebrated in class (at nursery school), I remember my mother having to write a note to the teacher to ask her to ignore mine. She read the note aloud for my information, then slipped it into the envelope. The word ‘emotional’, which I didn’t understand, appeared in it. I didn’t dare ask her, aware that writing to the teacher was already something exceptional, an effort, which had the aim of obtaining from her something equally unusual, a privilege, a special dispensation. In fact, for a long time I believed that the word ‘emotional’ had something to do with the size of an individual’s vocabulary. I was emotional, and lacked the words to express myself, which appeared to explain my incompetence at celebrating my birthday in company. So it seemed to me that in order to live in society you had to arm yourself with words, not be reticent about accumulating them, diversifying, grasping their tiniest nuances. The vocabulary thus acquired would through time form a breastplate, thick and fibrous, which would enable you to operate in the world, alert and confident. But there were still so many words I didn’t know.
Later, at primary school, when I had to fill in the registration card at the start of the year, I continued to cheat when it came to my date of birth, shifting it by a few months to the middle of the summer holidays, just to be on the safe side.
Similarly, in the school canteen or at friends’ houses (until quite an advanced age), I several times swallowed or hid the lucky charm that I was alarmed to find in my slice of epiphany cake. I found it impossible to declare my victory and be the general focus of attention even for a few seconds, let alone several minutes. I’d pass up lottery wins, crumpling my ticket or ripping it up when it was time to claim the prize, even going so far as to pass up a voucher for Galeries Lafayette worth a hundred francs at the end of my last year in primary school. I remember gauging how far I was from the podium – I would have had to get there without stumbling, looking natural and relaxed, then climb a few steps and probably thank the headmistress – and concluded it wasn’t worth it.
Being the centre of attention, even for a moment, tolerating being looked at by several people at once, was quite simply unthinkable.
I was very shy as a child and young girl but, for as long as I can remember, this handicap revealed itself especially when faced with a group (that is, when I had to deal with more than three or four people at once). The classroom in particular was the first manifestation of a collective phenomenon that has never ceased to terrify me. Until the end of my schooldays, I was incapable of sleeping the night before I had to do a recitation or make a presentation, and I shall pass over in silence the avoidance strategies I’ve developed over the years in an effort to avoid all public speaking.
By contrast, from a very young age, I seem to have been at ease in face-to-face situations, one-to-ones, and to possess a genuine ability to meet the other, as soon as that other takes the form of an individual rather than a group, to link myself to him or her. Wherever I have visited or settled, I’ve always found individuals with whom I can play, talk, laugh, dream; wherever I’ve been, I’ve made friends and formed lasting bonds, as though I grasped early on that that was where my emotional safeguard was to be found. Until I met L.
That Saturday when I left the Book Fair, I’d intended to rush to the station to go to the country to meet the man I love and spend that evening and the next day with him. François had travelled to Courseilles the previous day, as he did most weekends. Over the years, the house, which he’d just bought when I met him, has become his refuge, his redoubt, and seeing him cross the threshold on a Friday night with a loud sigh of pleasure or relief makes me think of the little beep of satisfaction that cordless telephones make when you put them back on their stands to recharge. Our friends know how much of his equilibrium this house provides and how rarely he turns his back on it.
François was expecting me. We’d agreed I’d call him when I caught the local stopping train, which halts in the middle of nowhere a few kilometres from Courseilles.
When the metro stopped at Montparnasse station, I hesitated. I think I stood up, but I didn’t get off. I felt too troubled to set off again. Unavailable. The incident at the Book Fair had suddenly revealed how exhausted I was, how tense and fragile I’d become. François was already worried about this, but I had trouble acknowledging it. I travelled on to the 11th arrondissement. I sent him a text to let him know I was going back to my place and that I’d call him later.
When I got to my neighbourhood, I called in at the Super U. The children were at their father’s for the weekend. François was in the country. During the journey, I’d formulated a plan for a quiet evening, an evening of silence and solitude, which was exactly what I needed.
I was wandering the aisles of the Super U with a red plastic basket over my arm when I heard someone call me. Nathalie was behind me, looking delighted, but not entirely surprised; we ran into each other several times a year in the local supermarket. Inevitably, these chance encounters had become a sort of running gag in which we both played a role: we burst out laughing, we kissed, ‘Isn’t this funny?’, ‘What are the chances?’, ‘I never come in at this time’, ‘Neither do I’ . . .
We chatted for a few minutes in the yoghurt aisle. Nathalie had also spent the afternoon signing at the Book Fair and had done an interview about her latest book, We Were Living Beings. She’d thought about coming to see me at my publisher’s stand, but hadn’t had time and decided to go home early, as she’d been invited to a party that evening, which was why she’d come to the Super U for a bottle of champagne. How I agreed to go to this party with her within a matter of seconds, when a moment earlier I’d been looking forward to being alone, I don’t remember.
A few years ago, before I met François, I spent a number of evenings with Nathalie and another friend, Judith. All of us were more or less single and keen to have fun. We called our evenings ‘JDNs’ (Judith, Delphine, Nathalie). JDNs entailed one of us securing an invitation, along with the other two, to a wide range of celebrations (birthdays, housewarmings, New Year’s Eve parties), or even getting ourselves into the most bizarre places without any of us having been invited. In this way we managed to gatecrash local association inaugurations, dances, office leaving parties, and even a wedding where none of us knew the bride or groom.
I like parties, but almost always avoid so-called ‘dinners in town’ (I don’t mean dinners with friends, but the kind of dinners that are deemed fashionable to some degree). My reluctance stems from the fact that I’m unable to fit in with the codes they require. It’s as if my shyness suddenly returns; I revert to being a blushing little girl or teenager, unable to take part in the conversation in a natural, fluid way. I have the terrible feeling of not being up to it, of being in the wrong place, and worst of all, when there are more than four guests, I generally become mute.
With time, I’ve finally realised – or perhaps it’s an alibi to make it bearable – that relations with other people only interest me when there’s a certain degree of intimacy.
JDNs became less frequent and then came to an end, I don’t really know why. Perhaps simply because all our lives changed. That evening in the Super U, I said yes to Nathalie, thinking that a party would give me the opportunity to dance, which had become very rare. (Because although I remain terrified of the thought of having to make a good impression at a dinner, I am nonetheless capable of dancing alone in the living room at a party where I know no one.)
I realise that these details may give the impression that I am digressing, losing my thread on the pretext of filling in context or background. But that’s not the case. The sequence of events seems important to me to understand how I met L., and in the course of this story I’ll probably have to go back again, further back, to try to grasp what was really at stake in this encounter.
Given the disorder that she created in my life, it’s important for me to identify what made L.’s hold on me possible, and probably mine on L.
Anyway, I was dancing when I first saw L. and, as I recollect, our hands brushed against each other.
L. and I were sitting on the sofa. I’d left the dance floor first, when some music I didn’t care for came on.
It was not long before L., who’d been dancing near me for over an hour, sat down beside me. With a smile, she had acquired the narrow space between me and my neighbour, who moved up towards the arm of the sofa, leaving her room to sit down. She made a knowing face at me as a sign of victory.
‘You’re very beautiful when you’re dancing,’ she said, almost as soon as she sat down. ‘You’re beautiful because you dance as though you think no one’s looking at you, as though you’re alone. I bet you dance like that when you’re alone in your bedroom or living room.’
(My daughter told me once when she was in her teens that she’d always have a memory of me as a mother who danced in the living room to express her joy.)
I thanked L. for the compliment but didn’t know how to respond, and in any case she didn’t seem to expect a response; she kept her eyes on the dance floor, and was still smiling. I looked at her surreptitiously. L. was wearing loose black trousers and a cream-coloured blouse with a collar decorated with a fine satin ribbon or dark leather; I couldn’t identify the material with any certainty. L. was perfect. She made me think of Gérard Darel ads. I remember it clearly: precisely that – the simple, modern sophistication, the skilful mix of classic, conservative materials and bold details.
‘I know who you are and I’m pleased to meet you,’ she added a moment later. I should probably have asked her name, who invited her, even what she did for a living, but I felt intimidated by such a calmly assured woman. L. was exactly the sort of woman who fascinates me. L. was impeccable, with her smooth hair and perfectly filed vermilion nails that seemed to gleam in the dark.
I’ve always admired women who wear nail varnish. To me, varnished nails represent a certain ideal of feminine sophistication that I have ended up acknowledging, in this respect at any rate, will remain beyond me. My hands are too broad, too big, too strong in a way, and when I try to paint my nails, they seem even bigger, as though this vain attempt at dressing up emphasised their masculine character (the operation in itself has always struck me in any case as laborious, requiring a meticulousness and patience I lack).
How much time does it take to be a woman like that? I wondered as I looked at L., as I had observed dozens of women before, on the metro, in cinema queues and at restaurant tables. Coiffed, made up and neatly pressed. Without a crease. How much time to reach that state of perfection every morning and how much time for touch-ups before going out in the evening? What kind of life do you have to lead to have the time to tame your hair by blow-drying, to change your jewellery every day, to coordinate and vary your outfits, to leave nothing to chance?
By now I know that it’s not simply a matter of having time, but rather of your type, what type of women you choose to be, if indeed you have the choice.
I remember the first time I met my editor, in her little office on rue Jacob, I was first of all fascinated by her sophistication; the nails, of course, but also all the rest, which was simple and impeccably tasteful. She emanated a femininity that was classical but perfectly judged and controlled, and it impressed me. When I met François, I thought that he liked women of a different type from me, more prepared, more refined, under control. I recall telling one of my friends in a café the reasons why we were bound to fail; it simply wasn’t possible, but yes, because of that, François liked women with smooth, well-behaved hair (I mimed ideal hair as I said it), whereas I was dishevelled. I felt this disparity in itself encapsulated more profound differences, fundamental ones; in a general way, our meeting was just a banal error of direction. It took me some time to admit that was not the case.
A bit later, L. got up and started dancing again among the dozen or so people, slipping among them to face me. Today, and in the light of what happened, I do not doubt that this scene could be read as a seduction display and indeed that’s how it strikes me. But at the time it seemed more a sort of game between the two of us, a silent complicity. Something about it intrigued me, amused me. L. sometimes shut her eyes. The movements of her body were discreetly sensual, unostentatious. L. was beautiful and men were looking at her; I tried to catch the look in the men’s eyes, to capture the moment when their gaze became engaged. I am sensitive to women’s beauty and always have been. I like watching them, trying to imagine which curve, which hollow, which dimple, which slight defect in pronunciation, which imperfection in them arouses desire.
L. was dancing, scarcely moving, her body gently undulating in rhythm, matching each note, each nuance. Her feet were now stuck to the floor and no longer moved. L. was a stem, a liana, yielding to the breeze, to the cadence. It was beautiful to watch.
Later, though I cannot now link these two moments, L. and I found ourselves sitting at the kitchen table in front of a bottle of vodka. In between, I think I remember people I didn’t know coming to talk to me. I spent some time with them and then L. held out her hand to invite me to come and dance. I lost sight of Nathalie; perhaps she’d gone home. There were lots of people and the atmosphere of the party was happy.
I don’t know how I came to tell L. about the woman at the Book Fair, about my remorse, a bitter aftertaste that lingered. I couldn’t stop thinking about that moment and my reaction; there was something in that scene that revolted me, that wasn’t me. I had no way of contacting the woman, of apologising to her, signing her book. It had happened; the scene had been played; there was no possibility of going back.
‘Deep down, what’s worrying you isn’t just that the woman may have been hurt and maybe travelled miles to see you, left her children with her sister, that she may have had a row with her husband because he’d planned to go shopping and didn’t understand why she was so keen on meeting you. The thing that’s actually haunting you is that that woman may no longer like you.’
She said this gently and without irony.
‘Maybe,’ I admitted.
‘I don’t imagine the place you’re in is easy. The comments, the reactions, this sudden attention. I imagine there must be a risk of collapse.’
I tried to play this down, keep it in proportion.
She went on: ‘All the same, you must sometimes feel very alone, as though you were standing completely naked in the road, caught in the headlights.’
I looked at L., astonished. That was exactly how I felt, naked in the road, and I’d expressed it in those exact terms a few days earlier. Who had I confessed that to? My editor? A journalist? How could L. have used exactly the same words as me? Had I even uttered them aloud?
Even today, I don’t know if that evening L. was reproducing words she’d read or heard, or if she’d really intuited them. I realised quite quickly that L. had an incredible sense of the other, a gift for saying the right thing, telling people exactly what they needed to hear. She was never slow to ask the most pertinent question or come out with the remark that showed the person she was speaking to that she alone could understand and comfort them. L. not only knew how to identify at first glance the source of the problem, but especially how to pinpoint the flaw, however deeply buried, that each of us has.
I remember explaining my concept of success to L. without any pretence, certain that my words would not be misinterpreted. To me, the success of a book was an accident. In the strict sense. An abrupt, unexpected event caused by the chance conjunction of different, irreproducible factors. So that she didn’t take this as false modesty, I made clear that the book itself did of course have something to do with it, but it was merely one of the variables. Other books could potentially have had a similar, or even greater, success, but in their case the conjunction was less favourable, one or other of the variables was missing.
L. didn’t take her eyes off me.
‘But an accident,’ she said, emphasising the word to show that it was not hers, ‘causes damage – sometimes irreversible damage – doesn’t it?’
I finished the glass of vodka in front of me that she’d refilled several times. I wasn’t drunk, in fact I felt as if I’d reached a degree of consciousness I had rarely attained before. It was very late. The party had suddenly wound down and we were alone in the kitchen, which had been thronged with people just a few minutes before. I smiled before replying.
‘It’s true that the success of a book is an accident from which you don’t emerge intact, but it would be wrong to complain. I’m sure about that.’
We took a taxi together. L. insisted. It was very easy to drop me off, my place was on her route; it wasn’t even out of her way.
In the car we were silent. I felt tiredness take over my limbs, pressing my neck, gradually numbing me.
The driver stopped in front of my apartment.
L. stroked my cheek.
I have often thought back on that gesture, its gentleness, its tenderness, perhaps its desire. Or maybe nothing of the sort. Because, ultimately, I know nothing about L. and never have.
I got out the car, went up the stairs and collapsed on the bed fully dressed.
I don’t have a precise recollection of the days that followed, I probably had some commitments to fulfil: events in bookshops and media centres, talks in schools. I had tried to limit my trips outside Paris to one a week, so that I could be with the children, and had planned to stop all events at the end of May. ere comes a point when you have to re-establish silence around you, get back to work, recover your path. i desired this moment as much as i feared it, but i’d arranged things so as to bring it about and turned down all invitations after this deadline.
When I got home one Friday evening after two days away (I’d been invited to Geneva by a reading group), I found a letter in my mailbox among the bills. My name and address were printed on a label on the lower half of the envelope. I concluded from this that it was junk mail and very nearly threw it away without checking what was inside. But a detail caught my attention. On the label in large characters was the number of my apartment, a number that doesn’t appear on any official correspondence. I didn’t know it existed for a long time. In the real world, it appears on a little bronze plaque to the left of each door, beside the old post-office plaques. It took me several years to notice it. My apartment is no. 8 and my neighbours’ no. 5, and this lack of logic deepened my sense of the numbers’ mystery.
Intrigued, I opened the envelope and unfolded the letter inside, which was typed on a sheet of A4. What sort of person nowadays still has a typewriter? I wondered before I began reading.
I shall reproduce the text in its entirety here. Its syntax and vocabulary were presumably chosen so that I’d be unable to determine the sex of its author.
Back then, I used to get a lot of mail via my publisher, dozens of letters from readers, sent on every week in little bundles in a manila envelope. Emails too, forwarded to my mailbox from my publisher’s site.
But this was the first time I’d received an anonymous letter at my home address. And the first time I’d received such an angry letter about one of my books.
I’d only just finished reading it when my mobile rang. I didn’t know the number that came up and I hesitated before answering. For an instant, I thought it might be the person who had written the letter, even though that made no sense. I was so disturbed (and relieved) that it didn’t strike me as strange to hear L.’s low, slightly muffled voice, though I hadn’t given her my number.
L. had thought about me often since we met, she said, and suggested we went for a cup of tea or coffee, or a glass of wine, or any drink I liked, some day that suited me. She realised her suggestion might strike me as strange, a little forward. She laughed, then added, ‘But the future belongs to the sentimental.’
I didn’t know what to say. The image of the Sentimental Wolf came to mind, a picture book that I’d read dozens of times to the children when they were little, in which the hero, Lucas, a smart young wolf, leaves his family to make his own life. When it’s time to say goodbye, his father emotionally lists the things he can eat: little red riding hood, three little pigs, goats and kids, etc. Dressed in Bermuda shorts and a roll-neck sweater (I mention these details as they add to the character’s undeniable charm), Lucas sets off on his adventures, eager and confident. But every time he comes across one of the prey on his list, he lets himself be sweet-talked and instead of eating them all up, he goes on his way. Having let go several four-legged feasts – with whom he strikes up friendly relations – a famished Lucas meets the terrible ogre (in my memory he’s the ogre from Tom Thumb) and swallows him whole, or almost, thereby delivering all the vulnerable creatures of the neighbourhood from this threat.
In truth, apart from this tale, no example of the good fortune of the sentimental came to mind. It seemed to me, on the contrary, that most of the time the sentimental were the favourite prey of the wicked and the despotic.
Be that as it may, I heard myself say, yes, why not, that would be nice, or something of the sort. We agreed to meet the following Friday in a café L. knew. In the course of the conversation, she asked me several times if everything was OK, as though, from where she was, she could tell I was upset.
Later, when I asked how she got my phone number, L. told me that she had enough contacts to get anyone’s mobile number.
I found a note of this first appointment in my diary. Beside L.’s name I’d marked her phone number and the address of the café. At that time, and for a while longer, I could still hold a pen, and my life was contained in that black diary, the same Quo Vadis brand I had purchased afresh every autumn for the last fifteen years. With the help of its pages, I’m trying to imagine the state of mind I was in when I saw L. again, to reconstruct the context. In that same week, I apparently took part in an event in a Paris bookshop, and met Lutetia, a researcher at the national Centre for scientific research, who was working on a study of how writers are covered in the media. I went to 12 rue Édouard-Lockroy (the address is highlighted in green marker, though there’s no clue as to why). I ate at Pachyderme with Serge, whom I see a couple of times a year to catch up on life and work (that day we talked about the hunt for the ideal chair and serge gave a hilarious account of his passing infatuation with one seat after another, and the rejected chairs piling up on his landing). In addition to these meetings, there were about ten others that I only vaguely recollect. From this I conclude that it was a busy time. I was probably a bit tense, as I am when life runs away from me, gallops ahead. I note, too, that I had begun my English lessons with Simon. I had just had one of these when I met L. at the Express Bar.
I didn’t know much about her, as we’d mainly talked about me the first time we met. When I got home, that realisation had left me uneasy. That’s why, as soon as I sat down, I launched in to several questions without giving her time to change the direction of the conversation. It hadn’t escaped my attention that she was used to leading the dance.
L. smiled, like a good sport.
First she explained that her profession was writing for other people. she wrote their confessions, their states of mind, their exceptional lives, which only needed setting down, or, more rarely, their untroubled progress, which needed to be transformed into an epic. A few years ago, having previously been a journalist, she’d made this kind of writing her career. L. was much in demand from publishers and even had the luxury of turning down commissions. Over time, she’d become a bit of a specialist in women’s autobiography; actresses, singers and female politicians fought over her. L. explained how the market worked: most of the big jobs were shared among three or four writers. Most of the time she’d be competing with a couple of well-known authors who, in addition to their own writing, also worked as ghosts. ‘Star ghosts’, to be precise, an invisible literary species to which she reckoned she belonged. Neither their names nor hers appeared on the cover; at most it might feature on the title page as a ‘collaboration’. But in truth most of the time nothing outside or inside the book gave any clue that the supposed author might not have written a single word. She reeled off the titles of her most recent works, among which were the memoirs of a top international model and the story of a young woman who’d been held captive for several years. Then L. told me about the hours she spent interviewing these people to gather the material, how long it took to tame them, the bond that gradually formed, cautiously at first, then increasingly intense and trusting. She considered them her ‘patients’; clearly she didn’t mean it absolutely literally, but neither was the word chosen at random, because what she listened to were their torments, their contradictions, their innermost thoughts. Some of them even felt the need for her not to look at them or had to talk to her lying down. Most of the time she went to their homes; she took out her Dictaphone and her mobile (once she’d lost a whole session; the recorder stopped working during the interview without her realising, and since then she’d backed everything up with a second recording) and let the words and the memories start to flow. She’d spent the previous summer in Ibiza, living in the home of a famous TV presenter for several weeks. She’d adopted her rhythm, met her friends, blended into the background. Gradually, the confidences had started to come, over breakfast, or during a night-time stroll, or in an empty house the morning after a party. L. had recorded everything, hours of bland exchanges during which a revelation would sometimes crop up. She’d just finished the book, having spent a few months on it. L. liked mentioning this material she was given: living, raw material, which had something at its heart that contained the real. She uttered that word several times, because ultimately only the real mattered. And all this came from the encounter, from the particular relationship that gradually formed between her and them. She found it hard to finish one book and begin another. Every time she felt guilty: guilty of abandonment, like a fickle, indecisive lover, who breaks things off before she gets bored.
Later that evening, L. told me she lived alone; her husband had been dead a long time. I didn’t ask how; I felt that this piece of information contained additional pain that L. wasn’t ready to talk about yet. She told me she hadn’t had children, but it wasn’t a regret, or rather it was a regret she couldn’t acknowledge, a regret that she’d distanced herself from, like a poison. Did there have to be reasons and justifications? It simply hadn’t happened. I realised at that moment that I couldn’t have said how old she was; L. could just as easily have been thirty-five as forty-five. She was one of those girls who looks like a woman before her contemporaries and one of those women who remains forever a girl. L. asked if I lived with François (i remember she used his first name) and I explained why we’d decided to keep our own places while we had children living with us. Yes, I probably was afraid of habit, erosion, irritation, compromises, all sorts of really banal things that happen to people who love each other after they’ve lived together for a few years, but above all I was scared of upsetting the balance we had. Also, at our age, when we all have our burden of defeats and disillusionments, it seemed to me that by living like this, we gave and received the best of ourselves.
I like the easy exchange you experience with some people, that way of getting to the heart of a subject immediately. I like talking about the essential, emotional things, even with friends I see only a couple of times a year. I like the ability in other people (often women) to talk intimately without going too far.
So there we sat opposite each other in the café, L. no longer in that attitude of seduction I’d seen at the party, or slightly on the offensive. Something about her seemed gentler. We were two women getting to know each other, who shared a certain number of preoccupations and immediately sensed affinities that linked them. That always strikes me as both banal and miraculous. The conversation switched to lighter things. I remember L. quite quickly got me talking about my female friends. Who were they? Where were they from? How often was I in touch with them? Is is a subject I like and I can talk about it for hours. I have friends from nursery, primary and secondary school, my foundation course, everywhere I have been. I’ve made friends in the different companies I’ve worked for and have two from festivals or book fairs. It’s undeniable that I’m someone who forms attachments, and attachments that last. Some of my friends left Paris long ago, others have returned. I’ve also made new ones. I admire them all for different reasons. I need to know what becomes of them, what they’re experiencing, what moves them, even if our lives are very busy. I also like my friends to meet each other, and some of them have formed their own friendships that are now quite independent of me.
I was trying to explain this to L. and how much each of them, unique and singular, meant to me, when she asked, ‘But none of them call you every day? None of them share your daily life?’
No, none of them were so constantly present. It seemed to me that that’s how things go. Over time, our relationships had evolved. We might see each other less often, but it was no less intense. We had our own lives. And we always met with the greatest ease; that was true of all of these friendships, the oldest as well as the most recent. The ability we had to be instantly intimate, despite not having seen each other for weeks or even months, never ceased to amaze me. My closest friendships had turned into a looser, less exclusive link, soluble in a life made up of other ties.
L. seemed surprised. She regarded it as impossible for an adult to have several friends. Several true friends. She wasn’t talking about girlfriends, but the person with whom you could share everything. uniquely. The person who could listen to everything, understand everything, without judging. I told her that I had several such friends. each of these relationships had its own tonality, its rhythm and frequency, its favourite subjects and its taboos. My friends were all different from each other and I shared different things with them. Each of them was important to me in a unique way. L. wanted to know more about them. What were their names? What jobs did they do? Were they single or living with someone? Did they have children?
In trying to reconstruct this conversation today, I’m tempted to think that L. was testing the ground, assessing her chances of conquest. But in reality I’m not sure whether things were that clear. L. had a genuine curiosity, a deep and fresh interest that I had no reason to mistrust.
People who ask genuine questions, the ones that matter, are rare.
It had got dark and the waitress had lit candles on every table. I texted the children to let them know that I’d be a bit late and told them not to wait for me to eat.
It was all so simple.
Later, when I took a pen from my bag to jot something down on a piece of paper, probably an address or the name of a shop, L. smiled at me.
‘I’m left-handed too. You know that left-handers can spot one another?’
L. didn’t talk about my book or my forthcoming work that day.
L. was advancing ever so softly. she had all the time in the world.
At the time I met L., I was thinking about writing a novel that would have as its setting, or starting point, a reality TV show. I’d been mulling the idea over for ages and in the past ten years had amassed a lot of material. In 2001, a few months before the popular Loft Story was broadcast, I’d watched a programme on TF6 whose premise fascinated me (it seems very staid compared to what exists now): three teams of young contestants were locked up in three different empty apartments. These participants had to complete a number of tasks that determined how long they could spend on the internet ordering furniture and food. For the first time in France, people were filmed twenty-four hours a day on multiple cameras. As far as I know, Net Adventures was France’s first reality TV show. By some coincidence – I think he was the friend of a friend’s son or something – I met one of the contestants. He described what he had gone through when he left the apartment. Back then, what interested me was how young people returned to real life after being shut away for several weeks. I sensed we were on the verge of a television revolution, but I had no idea of the scale of it. Then Loft Story burst on to the scene and for a few months it was all people talked about. I don’t think I missed a single episode of the first prime-time season, and that devotion finally got the better of my desire to write.
A few years later, as reality TV further extended the boundaries of vacuousness and voyeurism, my fascination shifted. Beyond the participants and their psychological future, I was interested in how these programmes managed to shape characters, to make them experience largely scripted relationships or situations (or created them in the edit), while giving the viewer the illusion of reality. How did these alliances, tensions, conflicts – fabricated and orchestrated by invisible creators – corroborate the appearance of the real?
Through a friend, I managed to contact a producer who had worked on several consecutive seasons of a major reality show. She’d left the production company and I was hoping she’d feel free to recount a few anecdotes. On the phone she seemed quite favourably disposed and admitted straight off, ‘Of course we create characters! But the best thing is that we create them without the people who play them knowing.’
At the period when I met L., I’d been filling notebooks for a while for a novel that would deal with this issue or would be underpinned by it. I was looking for material. I almost always worked like this: first research, then writing (which is, of course, a form of research by other means). I would have an immersion, impregnation phase, during which I’d assemble my arsenal. In this documentation phase, I’d keep an especially close eye on my impulse: the impulse that gave me the desire to invent, to compose, that led me each morning to the Word file, which I soon became obsessive about saving.
It was all about the spark, the click. Then came the writing: months of solitude in front of the screen, hand-to-hand combat, during which persistence alone would pay off.
I wouldn’t be able to find the time and mental space necessary to get down to work for a few weeks. Louise and Paul were both about to take their baccalaureate and I wanted to be there for them, to make myself completely available. I’d planned to begin the new book after the summer, when everyone went back to work and autumn was in the air.
Of course, I sensed it wouldn’t be that simple. I had to recover my groove, the imperceptible markers of my path, the invisible thread spun from one text to another that you think you hold but which keeps slipping from your grasp. I would have to put everything I’d heard and absorbed aside, everything that had been said or written, my doubts and fears. I knew all that. And all that from now on was part of an equation with several unknowns to which I had to submit. At least I knew the first line of the solution: I had to recreate silence, withdraw, reconstruct the bubble.
I had a few weeks ahead of me. I was no longer so busy or tired. I spent time at home with the children. I went to see François when I could, or else he came to me. Things followed their course. I felt I occupied an in-between zone: one of those transitional, vaguely expectant phases that mark the end of one period and make way for the next. One of those times when, to avoid a short circuit, you take care that events do not overlap or collide, and you complete what needs to be completed.
I couldn’t wait to go into purdah.
Judging by my diary, I saw L. several times during this period. I don’t remember exactly how we got in touch. I imagine that after the evening in the Express Bar, one of us called the other. I think L. may have sent me the addresses of a couple of places we’d talked about. She invited me to go and see a play that had been sold out for weeks that I hadn’t managed to get tickets for. Another time, I remember we had coffee in a bar on rue Servan; she’d called me from the street straight after an appointment in my neighbourhood. By various means, L. had signalled her desire that our relations should extend beyond these first meetings.
In early May, L. suggested going to the cinema. Shortly before, I’d told her how much I loved going to see films in the middle of the afternoon – a student pleasure I’d been enjoying since leaving my former company – and the transgressive experience of sitting in the dark for two hours, away from my desk. I liked going to the cinema with other people and talking about the film afterwards, in that rather vague, sometimes emotional state just after seeing it. But I also liked going alone, so that nothing alters those first impressions, nothing disturbs the possibility of your whole body feeling like a sounding board. When the lights come up and the credits roll, being alone prolongs the moment, stretches it out, of staying seated in the atmosphere of the film, completely absorbed by its mood. We had this conversation one of the first times we went out together. L. told me she couldn’t bear going to the cinema alone: she was convinced that everyone was looking at her. so that was why she asked me to go with her to see Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s first feature film, 17 Girls. The film had come out just before Christmas but she hadn’t been able to go because of an urgent deadline. It was still showing for a few days in a cinema in the Latin Quarter. I knew Delphine Coulin’s literary work and had read somewhere that she’d written and directed this film with her sister. The idea of creative siblings appeals to me, so I was definitely tempted by the film.
I can find no mention of this outing in my diary, probably because it was organised on the same day, which explains why i didn’t write it down. We met outside the cinema. L. had arrived early and bought the tickets.
The film tells the story of seventeen girls from the same school who decide to get pregnant at the same time. It was inspired by real events in 2008 in Gloucester in the US. The Coulin sisters relocated the story to a small town in Brittany. It’s a beautiful film, suffused with a languorous sense of expectation, a kind of nameless ennui, the longing for an elsewhere that never seems to materialise. Shots of the young girls sitting motionless in their rooms are the melancholy tableaux that give the film its rhythm, like a countdown. In themselves, they speak of a time that no longer belongs to childhood, nor yet to adulthood, a hazy, uncertain in-between. For these girls, being pregnant is an act of liberation, the promise of a different life. Besides these recurring pregnancies, the film also tells the story of an influence: Camille, who is first to get pregnant, is the brightest star in the school. She’s one of those girls whom others follow blindly and long to resemble. One of those teenage idols we all knew, who eventually disappear and no one knows what became of them. When the lights went up, I turned to L., who seemed rather tense. I immediately noticed the way her jaw had tightened, and a slow throbbing in her cheek, making first a hollow, then a slight bump just below her ear, while the rest of her face remained still. Outside, she offered to drive me home. She had her car for once. She didn’t normally use it in Paris, but she’d been on her way back from a meeting in the suburbs and hadn’t had time to take it to her garage. I said yes.
L. had found somewhere to park near the cinema and we walked in silence side by side.
Once in the car with her seatbelt fastened, L. opened her window. At first she paused it halfway, then let it slide all the way down. Cold air rushed in. She remained like that for several seconds, looking straight ahead. I saw her blouse rise and fall in time with her breath- ing. After a while she eventually said: ‘I’m sorry. I can’t drive.’
She had her hands on the wheel and was trying to breathe deeply, but her breathing was short and effortful.
‘Was it the film?’
‘Yes, it was the film. But don’t worry. It’ll pass.’
We waited. L. stared at the road exactly as though the car were hurtling along an expressway at a hundred miles an hour.
I tried to defuse the situation. I was prone to this kind of reaction too, films that go off like a time bomb when the credits roll. I knew the feeling. It had happened to me several times, it had even forced me to sit down on the kerb (Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow) and rendered me speechless (Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies). I really understood. sometimes a film causes a visceral reaction. To distract her, I told L. about the day I first saw The Hours, adapted from Michael Cunningham’s novel. Though I hadn’t shed a single tear during the whole film, I crumpled as soon as it was over. It just happened without warning; I began crying hot tears, unable to leave the cinema, or explain anything to the father of my children, in whose arms I had collapsed.
Something in my internal protection system had clearly given way.
I tried a dash of self-mockery, hoping to distract her a little. L. was listening carefully, but it was clear that she could neither laugh nor nod; her whole body seemed engaged in an attempt to regain control.
Several more minutes went by in silence before she turned the key in the ignition, and several more again before she put the car in gear.
We didn’t speak on the drive home either. I thought over the scenes in the film that had moved me, looking for a clue as to what had so overwhelmed her. I didn’t know enough about L. to identify the point of impact. But I remember I thought about the character of Florence, the rather unattractive red-haired girl, who appears at the start of the film and is kept at arm’s length by the other girls. She’s the one they mock; she’s rather awkward and ridiculous, without it being possible to say quite what causes her rejection. Florence is also the first to admit to Camille that she’s pregnant. Pregnancy opens the door to the group she’d been excluded from, and, without meaning to, Florence encourages the others to follow suit. More and more girls fall pregnant. Later, in a very cruel scene, the girls discover that Florence’s pregnancy is a trick; it was just a lie so that she’d be accepted by the group, which now casts her out without any kind of hearing.
L. pulled up outside my building. she smiled and thanked me. Probably just ‘Thanks for coming with me’, but said as though I had accompanied her to a painful examination at the hospital or to hear news of a serious illness.
I felt a sort of impulse towards her, a desire to take her in my arms.
By some curious intuition, I remember thinking that L. hadn’t always been the beautiful, sophisticated woman I saw before me. Something in her, something buried and barely perceptible, suggested that L. had come back from far away, a dark, treacherous place, and that she’d undergone a phenomenal transformation.