Out this month from NYRB Classics
When I wake up, my mouth is open. My teeth are furry: it would be better to brush them in the evening, but I am never brave enough. Tears have dried at the corners of my eyes. My shoulders do not hurt any more. Some stiff hair covers my forehead. I spread my fingers and push it back. It is no good: like the pages of a new book it springs up and tumbles over my eyes again.
When I bow my head I can feel that my beard has grown: it pricks my neck.
I lie on my back, the back of my neck warm, my eyes open, the sheets up to my chin so that the bed will not get cold again.
The ceiling is stained with damp: it is very close to the roof. In places there are air-bubbles under the wallpaper. My furniture looks like the wares of a junk merchant out on the pavement. The pipe of my little stove is tied up with a rag, like a knee. At the top of the window a blind which no longer works hangs askew.
When I stretch out, I can feel the vertical bedrailings under the soles of my feet, a bit like a tightrope walker.
My clothes, resting heavily over my legs, are flat, warm on one side only. My shoe-laces no longer have any tags.
The room is cold as soon as it rains. You would not think anyone had slept there. Water, streaming down the window-panes, eats into the putty and forms a puddle on the ground.
When the sun blazes out, all alone in the sky, it throws its golden light into the middle of the room. The flies make a thousand straight lines on the floor.
Every morning, my neighbour sings wordlessly while she moves her furniture about. Her voice is deadened by the wall. I feel as if I am behind a gramophone.
I often meet her on the stairs. She works in a dairy. At nine o’clock she comes to do her housework. Her felt slippers are stained with drops of milk.
I like women in slippers: their legs seem more accessible.
In summer her breasts and the shoulder-straps of her camisole show through her blouse.
I have told her that I love her. She laughed, no doubt because I am not good-looking and am poor. She prefers men in uniform. She has been seen with her hand under the white belt of a garde républicain.
Another room is occupied by an old man. He is seriously ill: he has a cough. There is a lump of rubber at the end of his walking-stick. His shoulder-blades make two projections on his back. A prominent vein runs across his temple, between skin and bone. His jacket does not touch his hips any more: it swings out as if the pockets were empty. The poor man climbs the stairs one by one, holding on to the hand-rail. As soon as I see him I breathe in as deeply as possible so that I can pass him without taking another breath.
On Sundays his daughter visits him. She is very smart. Her coat lining looks like the feathers of a parrot. It is so splendid that I wonder if the coat is inside out. As for her hat, it must have cost a lot, because to protect it, she takes a taxi when it is raining. This lady smells of scent, real scent, not one of the cheap varieties.
The tenants of my house cannot bear her. They say that instead of leading a life of luxury she would do better to relieve her father’s poverty.
The Lecoin family also lives on my landing. At dawn their alarm-clock rings.
The husband does not like me. I am polite to him all the same. He holds it against me that I get up late.
He comes home at about seven o’clock every evening, with his working clothes rolled up under his arm and smoking an English cigarette — which makes people say that labourers are doing very nicely.
He is tall and brawny. It is possible to make use of his strength, if one pays him compliments. Last year he carried a trunk down for a woman on the third floor, with some difficulty, it is true, because the lid would not close.
When people speak to him, he stares at them, because he thinks they are making fun of him. At the hint of a smile he says: “You see . . . four years of war ... The Germans didn’t get me . . . You won’t get me today...’
One day as he passed me he muttered: ‘Lazy bugger! I went pale and did not know what to reply. I could not sleep for a week because I was afraid I had an enemy. I imagined that he was looking for an opportunity to get at me and was deadly jealous of me.
All the same, if Monsieur Lecoin only knew how I like people who work, how sorry I feel for their way of life! If he knew what I have to go without to maintain my little independence!
He has two daughters and he beats them— just with his hand — for their own good. They have sinews at the back of their knees. Their hats are held on by elastic.
I like children, so I greet these two girls when I meet them. Then they turn round and suddenly, without replying, they run away.
Every Tuesday Madame Lecoin does her washing on the landing. The tap runs all day. As the big jugs fill up, the sound changes. Mme Lecoin’s skirt is old fashioned. Her bun is so scanty you can see all the hair-pins.
She often stares at me, but I do not trust her, for it seems very likely she is setting a trap for me. Anyway, she has no breasts.
I get out of the sheets and sit on the edge of the bed. My legs hang down from the knees. The pores of my thighs are black. My toenails are long and sharp: a stranger would find them ugly.
I stand up. My head spins, but the giddiness rapidly disappears. When it is sunny, a cloud of dust from the bed sparkles for a minute in the rays, like rain.
First I put on my socks; if I did not, matches would stick to the soles of my feet. I put on my trousers holding on to a chair.
Before I put on my shoes, I examine the soles to see how long they are likely to last.
Then I put my wash-basin, which is ringed by the previous day’s dirty water, on top of the slop bucket. I am in the habit of washing in a stooping position, with legs apart, my braces attached only by the back buttons. When I was in the army I used to wash like that in the narrow mess-tin. My basin is so small that the water over-flows it if I put both hands in at once. My soap does not lather any more: it is so thin.
I use the same towel for my face and for my hands. It would be just the same if I were rich.
I feel better once I have washed. I breathe through my nose. My teeth are clean. My hands will stay clean until midday.
I put on my hat. The brim has been put out of shape by the rain. The ribbon is fashionably knotted at the back.
I hang up my looking-glass on the window. I like looking at myself in full light. I look better. My cheeks, nose and chin are lit up. The rest is in shadow. It is as if I were having my photograph taken in the sun.
I have to take care not to get too far away from the mirror, because its quality is poor. At a distance it distorts my reflection.
I examine my nostrils carefully, and the corners of my eyes, and my back teeth. They are decayed. They are not falling out: they are crumbling. With the help of another mirror I catch sight of my profile. Then it feels as if there were two of me. Film actors must be familiar with this pleasure.
Then I open my window. The door shakes. A First World War print rattles against the wall. I can hear people shaking carpets. I see blue zinc roofs, chimney stacks, a mist which shivers when a sunbeam pierces it.
Before going out, I cast an eye over my room. My bed is already cold. There are some feathers sticking out of the eiderdown. The legs of my chair have holes where the stretchers should be. The two leaves of a round table hang down.
This furniture belongs to me. A friend made me a present of it before he died. I disinfected it myself with sulphur, because I am afraid of contagious illnesses. I was frightened for a long time in spite of this pre caution. I want to stay alive.
I put on my overcoat with some difficulty, because the lining of the sleeves is coming unstitched.
I put my military pass-book, my key and my dirty handkerchief which crackles when I unfold it into my left pocket. I have one shoulder higher than the other: the weight of these objects helps to bring it lower.
The door does not open properly. In order to get out I do up my coat and go through sideways.
The tiled floor of the landing is broken. A strip of metal, with three holes, hangs from the window frame. The hand-rail ends in the wall, without a knob.
I go down the stairs, hugging the wall where the steps are wider. I do not hold the rail in order not to get my hands dirty. Bunches of keys swing from the key holes.
I am light-hearted as if I were going out without my overcoat for the first time. My eyelashes and the inside of my ears are still damp with washing-water. I am sorry for people who are still asleep.
I always see the concierge. She has put the doormats over the banister while she sweeps a landing, or else she brushes a corridor with a yellow broom. I say ‘Good morning’. She scarcely replies and gazes at my shoes.
She would like to be alone in the house after eight o’clock.
I live in Montrouge.
The new blocks of flats in my street still smell of cut stone.
My own house is not new. The plaster on the front is falling off in bits. There is a rail across the windows. The top floor has no ceiling, just the roof. The shutters are hooked back against the wall when it is not windy. The architect did not carve his name above the number.
In the morning the street is quiet.
A concierge is sweeping, but only in front of her own door.
When I pass her, I breathe through my nose because of the dust.
Through the open windows, I can see some potted plants which have just been watered, the copper fittings and the narrow, polished strips of parquet flooring, forming zigzags.
I am embarrassed when my eyes meet those of a tenant.
Sometimes there is a white cloth moving behind a curtain, at a man’s height: somebody is having a wash.
I have my coffee near where I live, in a small café. The zinc counter is wavy at the edge. The wooden floor, which is washed without soap, seems very old. A gramophone, which used to work before the war, is turned to the wall. People wonder what it is doing there, as it does not work.
The proprietor is pleasant. He is small like a soldier at the tail-end of a platoon. He has a glass eye which is so like the real one, that I never know which is which — and this bothers me. It seems to me that he is annoyed when I look at his artificial eye.
He told me that he had been wounded in the war: but people say he was already blind in one eye in 1914.
The worthy man is always complaining. Trade is falling off. It is no good for him to polish the glasses in front of customers; it is no good for him to say: ‘Thank you, sir; goodbye, sir; never mind the door’, nobody comes.
He would like the war to be forgotten. He is sorry it is no longer 1910.
At that time, according to him, people were decent and friendly. The army looked like the army. It was possible to give credit. People were interested in social problems.
When he speaks of all this, both his eyes — the real and the artificial — become moist and his eyelashes stick together.
The time before the war vanished so quickly that he cannot believe it is nothing but a memory.
We too tackle social problems. He attaches great importance to doing that. It proves to his own satisfaction that the war has not changed him.
Every day he assures me that in Germany, a better organized country than ours, there are no beggars. The French authorities ought to prohibit begging.
‘But it is prohibited!’
‘Oh, come on! Look at all those tramps selling boot laces! They are richer than you and me.’
As I do not like arguments, I take care not to reply. I swallow my coffee, made brown by a drop of milk, pay and go out.
‘See you tomorrow!’ he calls, as he puts my still warm cup under a trickle of water that can only be turned off from the cellar.
Farther on there is a grocer’s shop.
The owner knows me. He is so fat that his apron is shorter in front than behind. His skin can be seen under his crew-cut. His American-style moustache blocks his nostrils and must stop him breathing through his nose.
In front of his shop there is a display — a small one, which is sensible — of sacks of lentils, prunes and jars of sweets. He comes out to serve, but does the weighing inside.
Formerly he used to chat to me when he stood on his door-step. He used to ask me if I would like anything, or else tell me that I looked in excellent health. He would go back into the shop with a gesture of his hand which meant: ‘Until next time’.
One day he asked me to help him carry a box. I should have been glad to do so, but I have always been afraid of ruptures.
I refused, mumbling:
‘I am not very strong, I was badly wounded.’
He has never spoken a word to me since.
There is also a butcher’s shop in my street.
Quarters of meat hang by a tendon from silver hooks. The butcher’s block is worn down in the middle like a step. Fillets of beef tied up with string bleed on to yellow paper. Sawdust sticks to the customers’ feet. The polished weights are arranged in order of size. There are bars at the windows, as if someone feared that the meat might escape.
In the evening I see through these bars, which are painted red, some potted plants on the empty marble of the shop-window.
The proprietor of this butcher’s does not remember me: I have only ever bought four sous’ worth of scraps for a flea-ridden cat and that was last year.
The baker’s is very well looked after. A girl washes the shop front every morning. Water trickles down the sloping pavement.
Through the window the whole shop can be seen, with its mirrors, its Louis XV woodwork and its cakes on wire trays.
Although only people who are well-off frequent this baker’s, I am one of its customers too — bread costing the same price everywhere.
I often stop in front of a shop where the boys of the neighbourhood buy caps.
Outside on a table there are some newspapers folded so that only half of their titles can be read.
The Excelsior alone is hanging up like a table-cloth.
I look at the pictures. The over-sized photographs always show the same thing: a boxing-ring or a revolver with its cartridge-cases.
As soon as the shop-keeper sees me coming, she comes out of her shop. A smell of painted toys and new cotton comes with her.
She is old and thin. The lenses of her spectacles look like magnifying-glasses. Her meagre bun is imprisoned in a hair-net. Her lips have retreated permanently into her mouth. Her black apron fits tightly over a stomach which seems to be in the wrong place. She disappears into the back room to change five francs.
I ask her how she is.
It would be extremely rude not to reply; so she shakes her head. She has left the door open, so I can see she is waiting for me to go.
One day I picked up a paper to read the small type. She said in an ill-natured voice: ‘That’s three sous.’
I wanted to tell her that I had been in the war, that I had been badly wounded, that I had won a service medal, that I was receiving a pension, but I immediately saw that it would be no good.
As I left, I heard the door closing with the noise of a scraping mudguard.
I have to go past the dairy where my neighbour works. This embarrasses me, because I am sure she has not kept my declaration of love to herself. People must be laughing at me.
So I walk quickly, picking out in a rapid glance pats of butter scored with wire, pictures of the countryside on the lids of the Camembert and a net put over the eggs, because of thieves.
When a longing for luxury comes over me I go and walk around near the Madeleine. It is a wealthy district. The streets smell of wood-block paving and exhaust fumes. The swirling air behind the buses and taxis buffets my face and hands. In front of the cafés the rapid rise and fall of voices seem to come from a revolving megaphone. I look at the parked cars. The women leave a trail of scent behind them in the air. I only cross the road when a policeman is holding up the traffic.
It seems to me that the people sitting at tables on the terraces notice me in spite of my shabby clothes.
Once a woman sitting behind a tiny tea-pot eyed me from head to foot.
Happy and full of hope, I retraced my steps. But the customers smiled and the waiter looked at me hard.
For a long time I remembered that unknown woman, her throat and her breasts. I undoubtedly pleased her.
When I was in bed and heard midnight striking, I was sure she was thinking about me.
Oh, how I should love to be rich!
Everyone would admire the fur collar of my over coat, especially in the suburbs. My jacket would be open. A gold chain would hang across my waistcoat; my purse would be attached to my braces by a silver chain. I should carry my wallet in my revolver pocket, as Americans do. I should have to make an elegant gesture in order to look at the time on my wrist-watch. I should put my hands in my jacket pockets, with the thumbs outside, and not, like the nouveaux riches, in the arm-holes of my waistcoat.
I should have a mistress, an actress.
We should go, she and I, to have an apéritif on the terrace of the largest café in Paris. The waiter would roll away the pedestal tables like barrels to make way for us. Ice-cubes would float in our glasses. The cane of the chairs would not be coming to bits.
We should have dinner in a restaurant where there were table-cloths and flowers elegantly arranged.
She would go in first. Polished mirrors would reflect my form a hundred times, like a row of lamp-posts. When the manager bowed his greeting to us, his starched shirt-front would bulge from the waist to the collar. The solo violinist would sway backwards and forwards as if on a spring-board, balancing his body. Locks of hair would flop over his eyes, as if he had just come out of a bath.
At the theatre we should have a box. I should be able to touch the curtain if I leaned forward. All round the auditorium people would look at us through opera glasses.
All of a sudden the footlights behind their zinc screen would light up the stage.
We should have a sideways view of the stage-set and, in the wings, actors not moving a muscle.
A fashionable singer, with jet buttons, would throw us a glance after each couplet.
Then a dancer would spin round on her pointes. The yellow, red and green spotlights which followed her would fall unevenly like the colouring of a picture by Épinal.
In the morning we should go by taxi to the Bois de Boulogne.
The driver’s elbows would move.
Through the shuddering glass of the windows we should see people standing still and others who seemed to be walking slowly.
Skidding round a bend, the taxi would throw us from our places and then we should kiss.
When we arrived, I should get out first, lowering my head, then I should give my companion my hand.
I should pay without looking at the meter. I should leave the door open.
Passers-by would watch us. I should pretend not to see them.
I should receive my mistress in my bachelor’s flat on the ground floor of a new house. The building’s plate glass door would be protected by flat, wrought-iron palm-branches. The bell-push would glitter in the middle of its bronze surround. The mahogany of a lift at the end of the corridor would be visible from the doorway.
I should have had a shower in the morning. My linen would smell freshly ironed. Two of my waistcoat buttons would be undone, making me look relaxed.
My mistress would arrive at three o’clock.
I should take off her hat. We should sit on a sofa. I should kiss her hands, her elbows and her shoulders.
Then we should make love.
My mistress would throw herself back, drunk with passion. Her eyes would become glazed. I should unfasten her dress. To please me, she would be wearing a chemise with lace on it.
Then, murmuring endearments, she would give herself up to me, moistening my chin with her kisses.