I find myself hiding in the dark again. You come into the room and ask to turn on a light and I say “okay.” But it mustn’t be the wrong light or it could be deadly. The difference in volumes between those two lights is like the difference between afterlives. Choose the quieter light. Choose the quieter afterlife, I tell my dream-self, which I am following in the labyrinth inside the soft blanket where my face is buried. I am watching myself like the characters in the garden maze in The Shining. Maybe no one came into the room and I said “okay” to myself, because spiritually I was already in the blanket watching my projected, miniature self negotiating the labyrinth. Linseed oil is dripping down a canvas in a room with late evening light. My dream-self has fractured cheekbones, but it is painless; it is only to be part of the landscape through that single window, the still-smoking bay.
I find the liberated “I.” I lose it. I walk around a few movie theaters without deciding whether. It’s raining against the mall’s gigantic skylight. I try to call you, but then I don’t. I look at the calculated greenery inside the mall, leaves the size of children that don’t know they’re in a shopping mall and not a rain forest. A television is talking surreptitiously about family. There are windows even on the inside, facing more inwardly. This is the definition of a mall. There may be an agenda in every image. I try to call you, but then I don’t. I find the liberated lie. I use it.
Marguerite Duras has been one of my favorite writers since almost my childhood.
No other writer of prose quite does for me what her strange, preternatural tone of address does for me. The address is to her reader, a very direct form of address, quite often, but also an address to the world as subject matter. As subject matter remade in the act of writing, which is mostly the acts of looking and listening. It is a tone of intimacy but, somehow, an earned one. This stranger is no stranger. Already, she is under your skin.
I find her voice hypnotic and addictive, a drug.
I only recently found this later book, titled simply Writing, brought out by Lumen Editions (Cambridge, MA) in 1998.
This book includes five works, each of them unclassifiable in terms of genre or form. The safest thing would be to call them “essays,” but if they are indeed that, they are certainly mutations of the form.
But then Duras is generally conceded to have created a new genre with The Lover. It fell somewhere between the memoir and the novel, a strange amalgamation whose loosely-basted, deconstructed vignettes could probably only have been written by a creator versed in dramaturgy (as Duras was).
The works, in order, included in this little book are “Writing,” “The Death of the Young British Pilot,” “Roma,” “The Pure Number,” and “The Painting Exhibition.”
I wanted to share some of my favorite passages from the first essay, “Writing,” because I find her so astute in this nearly hallucinatory piece. She puts her finger on so much of what makes writing not merely an avocation but a qualitatively different life.
Maybe you will find something here that resonates with your process or acts as a sort of confirmation to continue in exactly what you are doing.
(These are excerpted in the order in which they appear in the essay, the paragraphs, but are presented discontinuously.)
“The solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced, or would crumble, drained bloodless by the search for something else to write. When it loses its blood, its author stops recognizing it. And first and foremost, it must never be dictated to a secretary, however capable he may be, nor ever given to a publisher to read at that stage.”
“The person who writes books must always be enveloped by a separation from others. That is one kind of solitude. It is the solitude of the author, of writing. To begin with, one must ask oneself what the silence surrounding oneself is–with practically every step one takes in a house, at every moment of the day, in every kind of light, whether light from outside or from lamps lit in daytime. This real, corporeal solitude becomes the inviolable silence of writing. I’ve never spoken about this to anyone. By the time of my first solitude, I had already discovered that what I had to do was write. I’d already gotten confirmation of this from Raymond Queneau. The only judgment Raymond Queneau ever pronounced was this sentence: “Don’t do anything but write.”
“One does not find solitude, one creates it. Solitude is created alone. I have created it. Because I decided that here was where I would be alone, that I would be alone to write books. It happened this way. I was alone in this house. I shut myself in–of course, I was afraid. And then I began to love it. This house became the house of writing. My books come from this house. From this light as well, and from the garden. From the light reflecting off the pond. It has taken me twenty years to write what I just said.”
“In life there comes a moment, and I believe that it’s unavoidable, that one cannot escape it, when everything is put in doubt: marriage, friends, especially friends of the couple. Not children. Children are never put in doubt. And this doubt grows around one. This doubt is alone, it is the doubt of solitude. It is born of solitude. We can already speak the word. I believe that most people couldn’t stand what I’m saying here, that they’d run away from it. This might be the reason why not everyone is a writer. Yes. That’s the difference. That is the truth. No other. Doubt equals writing. So it also equals the writer. And for the writer, everyone writes. We’ve always known this.”
“When I was writing in the house, everything wrote. Writing was everywhere. And sometimes when I saw friends, I hardly recognized them. Several years were spent like that, difficult ones for me, yes, this might have lasted for ten years. And even when close friends came to see me, that, too, was horrible. My friends knew nothing about me: they meant well and they came out of kindness, believing they would do me good. And strangest of all is that I thought nothing of it.”
“A writer is an odd thing. He’s a contradiction and he makes no sense. Writing also means not speaking. Keeping silent. Screaming without sound. A writer is often quite restful; she listens a lot. She doesn’t speak much because it’s impossible to speak to someone about a book one has written, and especially about a book one is writing. It’s impossible. It’s the opposite of cinema, the theater and other performances. it’s the opposite of all kinds of reading. It’s the hardest of all. It’s the worst. Because a book is the unknown, it’s the night, it’s closed off, and that’s that. It’s the book that advances, grows, advances in directions one thought one had explored; that advances towards its own fate and the fate of its author, who is annihilated by its publication: her separation from it, the dream book, like the last-born child, always the best loved.”
“I wrote every morning. But without any kind of schedule. Never. Except for cooking. I knew exactly when to come to make something boil or keep something from burning. And for my books I knew it, too. I swear it. I swear all of it I have never lied in a book. Nor even in my life. Except to men. Never. And this is because my mother had terrified me with the lie that killed children who lied.”
“I don’t know what a book is. No one knows. But we know when there is one. And when there’s nothing, one knows it the way one know one is not yet dead.”
“Personally, I’m like everyone else. i don’t believe anyone ever turned around to look at me in the street. I am banality itself. The triumph of banality. Like the old woman in my book Le Camion [The Truck].”
“One is never alone. One is never physically alone. Anywhere. One is always somewhere. One hears noises in the kitchen, noises from the television, or the radio, or the neighboring apartments, throughout the building. Especially when one has never demanded silence, as I always have.”
“The death of a fly is still death. It’s death marching toward a certain end of the world, which widens the field of the final sleep. When you see a dog die, or a horse die, you say something, like poor thing…But when a fly dies, nothing is said, no one records it, nothing.”
“I’m going to speak of nothing.
“Often with the end of work comes the memory of the greatest injustice of all. I’m talking about the ordinariness of life. Not in the morning, only in the evening does this come, even into the houses, to us. And if one isn’t that way, then one isn’t anything at all. One is nothing. And always, in every case, in every village, this is known.”
“Deliverance comes when night begins to settle in. When work stops outside. What remains is the luxury we all share, the ability to write about it at night. We can write at any hour of the day. We are not sanctioned by orders, schedules, bosses, weapons, fines, insults, cops, bosses and bosses. Nor by the brooding hens of tomorrow’s fascisms.”
The poor old man was not right. When we opened his fridge, we saw that it was filled beyond our wildest imaginings, if people actually had “wildest imaginings” about the insides of refrigerators. Do you get excited about a refrigerator’s guts? Some people do. But only a small number of the items in the Frigidaire were actually food. The shelves were chock-full. Ass to mouth were rocks, tools, books, chewed gum on a pink plate, tiny oil paintings of cats he had known, anything really. Anything he could fit in there he had crammed in. Old loon non-censorship universe. There was a brick. What is the expiration date of a brick, we wondered. We asked him why he felt the need to keep such items in there. He said he didn’t want his refrigerator to feel “unrealized.” He knew it existed to make things cold. And he was sympathetically “feeding it things” that it could chill. We understood that he meant in his own schizophrenic way to say that this is what some people do in relationships. They give things to the other person to freeze. Sometimes things get frozen to death. It was confusing to him. Whether the fridge was his lover or not. There was a goldfish in there frozen to death in the ice cube of a Mason jar. He also said he liked his milk to be so cold that he couldn’t even hold it. He was a very, very old man. Now the fridge is out on the concrete in front of his house. So I guess we don’t have to go inside today. Or ever. “Your refrigerator rocked,” Katy said to the air. So we smiled and left.
Abra and Jamal sit in a cafe of sad people.
The cafe people are sitting in wire chairs that pretend they are
chairs on the Parisian street. The people are sitting at small marble tables
that want you to know that they are small marble tables, that they are smooth
and round and grey, and conscious of being small and round and smoothly
grey marble tables.
This is how it is in a cafe that has a name like this one.
The furniture is aware of being special like the children of those
with money, it is too sad to talk about any further.
There are thoughts designed to shut the mind down and there
are thoughts designed to set the mind flowing the way rivers
do when you look at them.
A random crowd of people can be either of those things. It
Abra was sitting in the cafe in the past tense and Jamal
was in the future tense. They were neither of them looking
down at phones, but looking at the other people looking
down at phones. The people were leaking sadness the way
the small phone screens were leaking light.
So Abra and Jamal wanted to finish their pastries, drink their teas,
and get up and walk away down the sidewalk.
Just then it was all about the sadness of the sidewalk ambience
about them. Abra pushed her napkin towards Jamal in a gesture
of dissatisfaction. Jamal stared at the napkin and nodded almost
subconsciously. A timer had been started that was set to begin
the walking away, and the timer was set to anytime soon
The ambiance that was sad people looking down at phones would soon be
retreating behind their backs. They would not look back
but would look into the excitement of oncoming headlights
and honking horns, the silhouettes of people running
across the street, in front of all these headlights, crossing
the dangerous river of people’s will to be somewhere else,
which is the most of that thing of which the world is made. If
we are to tell something like the truth.
There was Abracadabradara.
She was known to be and held to be, when in the arms
or voices of those who loved her, just Abra.
And there was Jamal.
He was Jamal everywhere.
They were poor when it comes to money, but not everything
comes to money. So they were not poor.
The relationship of Abra and Jamal in the world was unspecified;
that is, the world didn’t know what to call it. But that was a problem
for the world and not for Abra and Jamal, who were often
just together. This is how people with unspecified relationships
often are. They are just together.
Sometimes, they liked to eat toast together and read books
together, sitting in a rainy window nook or the window
in the back that looked down on the trainyards.
And sometimes they liked to read books and eat toast
in the rainy nook or the trainyard window. They liked
to mix it up. They did not read toast and eat books,
as some people do. Doubtless, those people were around
Abra and Jamal at many different times, as they walked through
the city on their innocent travels, as they walked down the
sidewalk together, which is what sidewalk is about. Innocent travels.
I mean, If we examine the matter of sidewalks. So many people
seem to get it confused, what sidewalks are about. But sidewalks
are for that. The sidewalk is for innocent travels. Yet this gets
so twisted up everywhere. Maybe there should be a guide.
Doubtless it is true, that they were around them
as they walked. The readers of toast and the eaters of books. They were
not horrid people, they were just different. Probably they were
innocently different as all the flowers are. As flowers are in a field
which is all wild. Everything is wild. Wild doesn’t mean bad.
You know that and I know that but there are some people who pretend
horribly not to know that. What gives them the horrid idea to pretend?
Maybe they are not horrible people, maybe they only have horrible ideas.
I don’t know. You go and check. I will stay here. These people against
wildness are often the wildest people of all. They are the people
who want so often, so terribly, to bite.
You never know what is behind a wall until you get there, and then,
sometimes then, it’s much too much, much too late not to know. Then it is.
Probably you have learned this by going behind a wall and seeing
for yourself. This happens to everyone.
A frustrated man in an unhappy marriage traded in his wife for a gorilla.
It was a male gorilla, but the man put it in a truly vavoom pink polka dot dress, put makeup on its face, and placed a smart, pink toque on its head. The he took the gorilla out, everywhere, just as he had been accustomed to do with his wife.
The man was able to take the lead when they walked together and even steer this “ship of two,” and the gorilla didn’t run away from him in the stores to look at clothing or jewelry or other shiny things such as would formerly happen with his wife.
The man was now able to speak first. He was able to speak as much as he wanted also. But he didn’t know how to speak first and the gorilla couldn’t speak, so they went everywhere together in total silence.
Other men in shopping malls would see the man and his gorilla walking together, the man’s right arm wrapped around the hairy, left arm of his companion in a somewhat forceful, proprietary manner, and use this example, this object lesson, to demean the wives or girlfriends walking beside them.
“She might not be much to look at,” they would say while staring directly into their partners’ faces with the searchlight of an unstated accusation, “but just look at how well he’s got her trained.”
And then the wives or girlfriends would look at the sarcastic, smug expressions on the faces of their husbands or boyfriends and immediately think about replacing them with gorillas.
Archibald’s mother was looking for him. She went into her son’s bedroom to find Archibald’s skin, but not Archibald, lying on the bed.
She hadn’t known that boys could do snake tricks like that sometimes. But it didn’t really surprise her. She had learned not to be surprised at anything boys do. She ran in her silly, marvelous little heels to the back door and put one hand against the wrinkled screen. Her fingers nervously tapped across the gritty, orange-rusted, orange-frosted metal of the screen, as though it were a decayed typewriter. At the same moment, her other equally manicured hand went up over her brow to perform the function of a hat visor as she stared into the full-bore assault of a summer sunset. She was trying to see if Archibald was playing in the field of wildflowers behind their house, as he so often did.
The glare was too much, so Archibald’s mother had to step outside. She could see that many boys were playing.It looked like a spirited game of tag. But she still couldn’t make out any details yet. They were all just silhouettes against the ridiculous histrionics of light the sun was engaging in as it left the earth, or rather, as the earth left it.
Then she saw that all the boys had shed their skins. It wasn’t just her Archibald. All the boys looked like mice that had just been born. It disturbed Archibald’s mother when she realized how much all the boys looked alike now. Which one was her Archibald?
But she had her answer as soon as she asked, since one red (well, actually, his exposed musculature was almost pink) boy came zipping over to the woman, only to laugh, “Hello, Mother!”
She was not amused.
“Archibald, I’m going to make a roast, and when I stop in your room in fifteen minutes, I expect to see you in there and back in your skin. You will be going to bed early. But I may bring your supper to you there if you’re there the first time I check. If not, not.”
And then she turned and stalked off to her kitchen. She wasn’t going to dignify any possible disagreement by listening further.
Archibald’s mother trusted that he would be a good boy and listen, so she prepared a plate for him. The generous slices of tenderly bloody roast were still steaming among the baby carrots as she carried the plate up the plush stairs, walked it down the plush hallway and entered Archibald’s plush room.
Archibald was in his bed, a stuffed animal laid over his face like a mask. He looked like a little shaman. It was a raccoon. The fake animal covered his eyes. The tail hung down over the side of his face, the side of the bed. It was a realistic looking tail.
“Now that’s my boy!” said his mother. And she brought the plate to his side.
She saw that Archibald had not only gotten back into his skin, lickety-split, but he had also discreetly put pajamas over it. She loved how the pajamas had feet in them that glowed in the dark. They glowed a shade of green that only exists in the movies.
Mother served Archibald in bed. She even tucked his napkin like a bib. It was the royal treatment.
She had been stroking his belly while he ate. The child found it disturbing. The mother did not.
“I’m quite enjoying your roast, Mother. And the baby carrots are sooo succulent.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re enjoying it, sugar flakes.”
“But, Mother, have you looked in my eyes?”
And it was like a lightning bolt. Archibald’s mother looked into the eyes inside Archibald’s skin. They were not Archibald’s eyes. They were the same color, almost the exact same hue, but they did not have the sparkle unique to the eyes of her son Archibald, which was a bewildering sparkle like lightning in a lake where somebody is politely drowning. These eyes presently inside her son’s skin were more mischievous eyes. They were more monkey eyes.
“Bobby? Bobby Wilkins? Is that you? Is that you inside my boy’s skin?”
He giggled like a drunk in Las Vegas then, though he was just a boy. He felt himself an accomplished prankster, a Loki, the monkey at the top of the tree. And he had even gotten some mature female companionship out of his shenanigans.
“And I have something else to tell you,” Bobby said.
“Go on,” Archibald’s mother said, seemingly without trepditation.
“My Daddy has been wearing your husband’s skin for a week. And you never even knew! Aren’t daddies funny?”
Bobby threw himself back on the bed, clutching the stuffed raccoon, and squealed like a freak.
“Bobby, I knew. Look closely into my eyes now. It’s Mother.”
Bobby leaped forward, puzzled. He realized she spoke the truth. His mother was now wearing Mrs. Hassenpfeffer’s skin. How had he missed that one?
“I’m sorry to inform you, Bobby, that your father is dead. Now we need to get our things together and get out of here. Please run to wherever Archibald is and tell him you need your skin back immediately. Tell him we’re going on a family trip.”
Bobby hesitated. He was to the door but he hadn’t exited yet. He stared with horror and fascination as his mother slipped out of the dress and skin of his best friend’s Mom.
He stared at the crumpled breasts lying on the floor.
He wondered whether it should have turned him on. He was at that age. After all, wasn’t he someone else? Wasn’t she? But wait. They were both the same.
“I mean it!” Mother suddenly bellowed at him. Bobby saw her teeth had blood in them. Or was that just lipstick?
All he wanted to know, really, was who started it.
But that would take thirty years.
And by then, he would have started collecting skins. Skins nobody really wanted to give him.
“It all began as an innocent prank,” he would often be heard telling anyone who would listen to him. But this was on death row. And he had written a celebrated book about tattoos by then. He had published it the year before the FBI closed in. Nobody reading this bestseller had realized at the time that their enjoyment of the erotic images contained in the book was actually necrophilia.
The name of the book was Skin Jobs.
In the Dollar Tree located right across the small street from the rather deadly housing projects, there is an interesting cashier.
She is young enough to be a natural artist. She is old enough to feel death crowning in her. In other words, she’s an aging kid.
Whenever she gets a customer all by himself or herself, young or old, when there’s no one else in line, no one else in the store, she pauses before handing them their merchandise in those depressingly bright cellophane bags with the store’s name printed on them.
She clears her throat in an almost undetectable way, and then she launches into this fantasia: “You are standing in your grave. This is as good as it’s going to get. The happiest days, all the most oblivious ones, are well behind you. It will not get better. It will get worse. At first, it will be like a record skipping. It will happen subtly, it will happen slowly. You’ll have little dips, little trips to the emergency room, little jaunts to the psychiatrists. Then it will increase. The aftershocks will outdo the earthquake. You will spurn friendships as nothing more than shared miseries. You won’t even possess the imagination or willpower to cheat on your spouse. Parts of you will begin to turn to Playdoh and other parts to steel. Your pubic hair will look like a dead ferret. And then you will realize, near the end, self-stripped of all friends and family, that someone is standing on your head. Someone is standing on your head as you stand in your grave and you begin to sink. You can’t even tell who it is. You can’t look up. But they’re there for sure, and you have the pain of those constantly shifting shoes on the top of your skull to prove it. Because the floor of your grave is wet mud, it’s quicksand, and you’re just going down into it. Like dogshit. Inch by inch. And your hands are tied up. Your hands are holding these cellophane bags full of shit from the dollar store. Your cat food and batteries and off-brand pudding boxes are causing you to sink deeper into the final quagmire, which will probably be a struggle for breath and a prayer to a nonexistent deity, beseeching him for merciful help in stabilizing your skipping heart, which is now like a stone sent skittering over a rain pond in an auto graveyard. Your fate is ricocheting off other’s people’s faces, they’re talking behind your back in your hospital room, and your sinking blood pressure won’t let you even argue with them. You will no longer be able to even do the basic things a body must do to remain a viable blood balloon floating around this planet. That’s it. The earth like a too-thick chocolate milkshake closes over your head and then the top of your head, which is bald anyway, already showing your skull through its skin, and you begin drinking that milkshake of death through all the holes in your face and skull. You sink down into nothingness It’s the best day you ever had. The End.”
And she always ends with “Thank You. Have a nice day.”
The respectable thing is that she delivers this in a really dead monotone. It’s like she doesn’t even care whether you’re listening.
Most of the people just say, “Thank You” back like being dead is no big deal. Probably most of them already knew all this shit. She did cause a few to go into deep depressions. But probably she thinks that is good for them. Maybe she’s right. Who knows.
One day, she will be gone from that Dollar Tree. In her place will be a man who has all the spirit of a broken calculator on a card table at a yard sale.
And that cashier will attempt to smile, and it will feel as though someone has just stapled your body. It will feel as though someone has just stapled your body somewhere very unpleasant to be stapled.
Some young men are playing pool and watching as the sails of a small boat become pure distance out on the bay. When the sun gets low enough, it breaks up their syntax. Their young women are holding their babies in hard chairs, in dark corners of this room. The young women are going deep inside themselves and watching, jogging their babies on their knees as young printers will do with sheaves of paper. The room’s high ceiling is covered with a ridiculously ornate, white boiserie that fell from a high style so long ago that nobody can even remember. It looks like swallows should nest in it. Drinks move at an agreed-upon level in space, and space is agreed upon too, except where certain emotions flare up like sunspots or the fringes of a corona. A handful of hours later, after night puts a bandage to this scene, the thing mistakenly called silence plays like the faintest old record in there. The smoky bay is the last to leave this room (and, really, not until morning). The bay turns the blue walls of this room even bluer, gives out many somnolent shades that percolate in drizzled dark, and when the light finally comes around like a headache, it collects all these synonyms for the night and leaves.