“a terrible sexual craving squeezed my pubis like a claw”

Chapter 2, part 1 of 3

A physician was consulted about my spells and he pronounced a strange word: “paludism;” I was amazed that something so intimate and secret as my disquietude could have a name, and what’s more, a name so bizarre.  The doctor had prescribed quinine: another cause for amazement.  I found it impossible to understand how the sick spaces, themselves, could have been cured with the quinine that I took.  What disturbed me exceedingly, however, was the physician himself.  Long after the consultation he continued to exist and to stir in my memory with little automatic gestures whose inexhaustible mechanism I couldn’t shut off.

He was a man of small stature with an egg-shaped head.  The pointed end of the egg was elongated by a little black beard that was forever agitated.  His small and velvety eyes, curt gestures and protruding mouth made him resemble a mouse.  This impression was so powerful from the first moment that it seemed completely natural when I heard him prolonging each “r”  sonorously when he began to speak, as if he were continuously munching on something hidden.

The quinine that he gave me also strengthened the conviction that the physician had something mouse-like about him.  The verification of this conviction was made in such a strange way and is related to such important facts of my childhood that a part of the events is worth the telling.

Near our house there was a sewing machine store where I would go every day for hours.  Its owner was a young man, Eugen, who had just finished his military service and had found himself a place in town by opening the shop.  He had a sister who was a year younger than him: Clara.  They lived together in some workingclass neighborhood and looked after the shop during the day; they had neither acquaintances nor relatives.

The shop was a simple private room rented commercially for the first time.

The walls still kept their parlor paint with violet garlands of lilac, and there were discolored rectangular patches where the pictures had hung.  In the middle of the ceiling a bronze lamp had been left, with a dark red majolica cap, covered at the edges with green acanthus leaves set off in faience.  It was an object full of ornamentation, old and obsolete, yet imposing — something that resembled a funeral monument or a veteran general on parade wearing his old uniform.

The sewing machines were lined up smartly in three rows leaving two wide aisles to the back.  Eugen took care to sprinkle the floor every morning using an old can with a hole at the bottom.  The spray of water that flowed out was very thin and Eugen maneuvered it dexterously sketching spirals and masterly figure eights on the floor.  Sometimes he signed his name and wrote the date.  The wall painting called for such delicacy.

At the back of the store a screen made of boards separated a kind of cabin from the rest of the shop; a green curtain covered the entrance.  Eugen and Clara stayed there all the time; they even ate lunch there so they wouldn’t have to leave the shop.  They named it “the actors’ dressing room” and I heard Eugen saying one day: “It’s a true `actors’ dressing room.’  When I go into the shop and talk for half an hour trying to sell a sewing machine, am I not acting in a comedy?”

And then he added in a more learned voice: “Life, in general, is pure theater.”

Behind the curtain Eugen played the violin.  He kept the music on the table and sat bent over them, patiently deciphering the tangled staves as if he were disentangling a ball of string with numerous knots in it in order to pull forth a unique and delicate thread, the thread of music. All afternoon a small gas lamp burned on a chest filling the room with a morose light and distorting an enormous shadow of the violinist on the walls.

I came so often that in time I became a kind of furniture-guest, an extension of the old cerecloth couch on which I sat immobile, a thing that no one bothered about and that bothered no one.

At the back of the “dressing room” Clara would perform her afternoon toilette.  She kept her dresses in a cabinet and looked at herself in a cracked mirror that was propped against a lamp on the chest.  It was such an old mirror that the gilding had faded completely in places, and the real objects behind the mirror appeared through the transparent patches, commingling with the reflected image, like a photograph with superimposed negatives.

Sometimes she undressed almost completely and rubbed some eau de Cologne under her arms, raising them without embarrassment, or on the bosom—putting a hand inside her chemise.  The chemise was short and when she leaned over I could see all of her beautiful legs encased in tight stockings. On the whole she resembled a half-naked woman that I had seen once on a pornographic postcard that a pretzel seller had shown me in the park.

It provoked the same indistinct swoon as had the obscene picture, a kind of void that formed in my chest, while at the same time a terrible sexual craving squeezed my pubis like a claw.

I always stayed in the same place in the “dressing room,”  on the couch behind Eugen and waited for Clara to finish her toilette.  Then she would go out into the store, passing between her brother and me through a space so narrow that she had to rub her thighs against my knees.

I waited for this moment every day with the same impatience and the same agony.  It depended on a mass of trivial circumstances which I weighed and watched for with an exasperating and extraordinarily acute sensibility.  It was enough for Eugen to be thirsty, not to feel like playing or for a customer to come into the shop for him to leave his place by the table, which would mean that there would be enough space for Clara to pass without brushing against me . . .

When I went there in the afternoon and neared the door to the store, long vibrating antennae came out of me and explored the air to catch the sound of the violin; if I heard Eugen playing, a great calm would come over me.  I went in as quietly as possible and at the doorway I would even announce myself so he wouldn’t think a customer had come and interrupt his playing for a second: it was possible that in that second, the inertia and the mirage of the melody would stop abruptly and that Eugen would abandon the violin and not play at all the rest of the afternoon.  That wasn’t the end of the possibility of unfavorable events.  There were still so many things that passed in the dressing room . . .  While Clara performed her toilette, I listened for the smallest sounds and followed the smallest movements for fear that somehow from those would issue the disaster of the afternoon.  It was possible, for instance, for Eugen to cough lightly, to swallow a little saliva and to say suddenly that he was thirsty and that he was going to the cafe to get a pastry; from the infinitely trivial cause as this cough, a lost afternoon resulted, monstrous and enormous.  The whole day would lose its importance and at night in bed, instead of ruminating at leisure (and stopping a few minutes on each detail in order to “see” and remember better) about the moment when my knees touched Clara’s stockings—to dig out, to carve and to caress this thought—I would toss and turn feverishly under the sheets, unable to sleep, waiting impatiently for the next day.

“It was a vagabondage that broke my heart in the end.”

Chapter 1 continued, part 2 of 3

It was always the same places in the streets, in the houses or in the parks that set off my spells.  Each time I entered these spaces, the same swoon and the same vertigo overtook me.  Veritable invisible snares placed here and there in town, not any different from the things that surrounded them—with ferocity they lay in wait for me to fall prey to the special atmosphere they exuded.  Were I to take a step, a single step, and enter such a “cursed space,” the spell became inevitable.

One of these spaces was in the town park in a small clearing at the end of a path that no one ever used.  Bushes of sweet briar and dwarf acacia that surrounded it opened up on one side to the desolation of a deserted field.  There was no place on earth sadder or more abandoned.  The silence lay thick on the dusty leaves in the stagnant heat of summer.  From time to time the echoes of the trumpets from the regiments could be heard.  Those drawn-out calls in the wasteland were heart-rendingly sad . . .  In the distance, the air ignited by the sun quavered vaporously like the transparent steam that rises above a boiling liquid.

The place was wild and isolated; its loneliness seemed endless.  There I felt the heat of the day was more tiring and the air I breathed heavier.  The dusty bushes baked yellow in the sun, in an atmosphere of perfect solitude.  A bizarre sensation of uselessness floated in the air in that clearing that existed “somewhere in the world,” somewhere that I myself had happened upon without purpose, on some summer afternoon that was likewise without any meaning.  An afternoon that had strayed chaotically in the heat of the sun, through some bushes anchored in space “somewhere in the world.”  I felt more profoundly and more painfully then that I had nothing to do in this world, nothing other than to tramp through parks—through dusty clearings burnt by the sun, deserted and wild.  It was a vagabondage that broke my heart in the end.

Another cursed place was situated just at the other end of town, between the high and pitted banks of the river where I used to bathe with the other kids.

In one place the bank had caved in.  Above the shore a factory had been set up for extracting oil from sunflower seeds.  The shells of the seeds were thrown into the pit of the riverbank where it had caved in, and with time the heap had risen so high that a slope of dried shells had formed above the shore to the edge of the water.

The others would go down to the water on this slope, cautious, holding hands, stepping deeply into the carpet of decay.    The walls of the pit on either side of the heap of dried shells were steep and full of fantastic irregularities.  Rain had sculpted long streaks of fine cracks like arabesques but hideous like badly healed wounds.  They were veritable rags in the flesh of the earth, horrible gaping wounds.

I too had to go down to the river between these walls that affected me beyond measure. Even from far off and much before arriving at the riverbank, my nostrils were filled with the smell of the putrefying hulls.  It prepared me for the “spell” like a short period of incubation; it was an unpleasant smell though mild.  Much like the spells.

My olfactive sense separated in two somewhere inside of me, and the two effluvia of the odor of putrefaction reached different regions of sensation.  The gelatinous smell of decomposing hulls was separate and very distinct, though concomitant, from the pleasing, warm, domestic aroma of roasted hazelnuts.

As soon as I smelled it, this aroma transformed me in a few instants, circulating fully throughout all my internal fibers dissolving them and replacing them with a more airy and uncertain material.  From that moment on I could avoid nothing.  A pleasing and intoxicating swoon began in my chest, which propelled my feet toward the shore, toward the place of my definitive defeat.

I would descend to the water at a crazy speed on the mound of hulls.  The air opposed me with a sharp and hard density like a knife blade.  The contents of the world hurtled chaotically into an immense hole through mysterious powers of attraction.
The other kids watched my insane flight with horror.  The gravel strip down below was very narrow and the smallest misstep would have hurled me into the river, into a place where the whirlpools on the surface of the water showed its great depth.

I wasn’t really aware of what I was doing.  Once I arrived at the water, I went around the mound of hulls with the same speed and ran along the bank down the river to a certain place where there was a hollow.

At the bottom of the hollow a small grotto had formed, a cavern shaded and cool like a small room dug out of rock.  I entered and fell to the ground, sweating, exhausted and trembling from head to toe.

When I revived a little, I found near me the intimate and indescribably pleasing decor of a grotto with a spring that spouted slowly from the rock and that trickled along the ground, forming a basin of limpid water in the middle of the gravel, above which I bowed to see, without ever tiring of it, the wondrous lace of the green moss at the bottom, worms hanging from bits of wood, pieces of old rusty iron with silt on them, animals and a whole variety of things at the bottom of the fantastically beautiful water.

“I no longer know who I am or where I am…”

Chapter 1, part 1 of 3

When I stare at a fixed point on the wall for a long time, it sometimes happens that I no longer know who I am or where I am. Then I feel my absence of identity from a distance as if I had become, for a moment, a complete stranger.  With equal force, this abstract character and my real self struggle to win my conviction.

In the next instant my identity finds itself again, as in those stereoscopic views where two images separate by mistake, and only when the operator lines them up, superposing them, do they suddenly give the illusion of relief.  The room then seems to have a freshness that it didn’t have before.  It returns to its former consistency and the objects within it are deposited the way a clod of rubbly earth in a glass of water settles in layers of different elements, well-defined and variously colored.  The elements of the room stratify into their proper contours with the coloring of old as I remember it.

The sensation of distance and isolation, in the moments when my everyday self has dissolved into insubstantiality, is different from any other sensation.  When it lasts a while, it becomes a fear, a terror of never being able to find myself again.  In the distance, an uncertain silhouette of me remains, surrounded by a great luminosity in the way some objects appear in a fog.

The terrible question “who am I?” lives in me then like an entirely new body, sprung up with skin and organs that are completely unknown to me.  Its resolution is demanded by a more profound and more essential lucidity than that of the brain.  Everything that’s capable of being agitated in my body becomes agitated, struggles and revolts more powerfully and in a more elementary way than in everyday life.  Everything implores a solution.

A few times, I find the room as I know it as if I were closing and opening my eyes: each time the room is clearer—as a landscape appears better and better focused in a telescope as we go through all the intermediate veils of images in adjusting the distance.

At last I recognize myself and find the room again.  There is a sensation of light drunkenness.  The room is extraordinarily condensed in its substance, and I am implacably returned to the surface of things:  the deeper the trough of uncertainty, the higher its crest; at no other time and under no other circumstances does it seem more evident to me than at those moments that each object must occupy the place that it occupies and that I must be who I am. Nor does my struggle in this state of uncertainty have a name; it’s a simple regret that I’ve found nothing in its depths.  I am only surprised by the fact that a total lack of meaning could be bound so profoundly to my intimate substance.  Now that I’ve found myself again and I look for a way to express the sensation, it appears completely impersonal to me: a simple exaggeration of my identity, self-generating like cancer from its own substance.  A tentacle of a jellyfish that’s extended itself too far and that’s looked through the waves in exasperation until at last it has returned under the gelatinous bell.  In this way, in the few moments of anxiety, I have gone through all the certainties and uncertainties of my existence to return definitively and painfully to my solitude.

At that moment my solitude is purer and more pathetic than at other times.  The sensation of the world’s retreat is clearer and more intimate: a limpid and delicate melancholy, like a dream that we remember in the middle of the night.

It alone recalls to me something of the mystery and sad charm of my childhood “spells.”

Only in this sudden disappearance of identity do I regain my falls in the cursed spaces of old, and only in the moments of immediate lucidity that follow the return to surface, does the world appear in that unusual atmosphere of uselessness and desuetude that formed around me when my hallucinatory trances ceased wrestling with me.