July 15, 2011
All is vanity. Nothing is fair.
WHEN NICOLAS ARRIVED AT the Gallo Nero, he felt as if this was not a hotel, but someone’s home, a long ocher house with a dark red roof and green shutters. Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Porsches, and Jaguars were parked farther off. Up a couple of steps, then the door opened. A svelte woman in a black suit uttered his name as if it were the most enchanting sound in the world. Malvina and he were shown through a lobby which looked nothing like a hotel lobby, more like the entrance to a friend’s welcoming abode: tiled floors, beamed ceilings, a stone fireplace with a painting of a rooster hanging above it, comfortable white sofas, bright-colored cushions, plants, low tables, stacks of books and magazines. Through the open bay windows, he could see out to the candlelit terrace and hear the murmur of voices, laughter, the click of ice cubes, the tinkle of a piano playing “The Girl from Ipanema.” The Gallo Nero smelled of cinnamon and sunshine, lemon and lavender, but also, most important, of pleasure and money.
Two weeks ago, in Paris, on a sweltering day at the beginning of July, a blue-eyed journalist from a glossy magazine, Frédérique, a pretty girl with a toothy smile, had murmured over lunch at the Cigale Récamier, “Nicolas, you must go to the Gallo Nero.” She mentioned it as being the ideal place for a luxurious getaway. Easy to remember. The Black Rooster. He looked it up. Exclusive. The kind of spot the happy few discreetly flocked to. The resort was situated on a tiny island off the Tuscan shore. It had a private rocky beach accessed by a James Bond–like elevator built into the cliff, a famous chef, tennis courts, and a kidney-shaped seawater pool. The prices were indecent. But this was tempting. He was longing to escape from the stuffy Parisian summer. And he had not been back to the Italian seaside since 2003, since that trip with François, his best friend. He called the Gallo Nero, and the condescending person who answered the phone announced, “I’m sorry, signor, there are no vacancies for that week. We are booked months in advance.” Nicolas mumbled an apology, and this: “Can I leave my name and number in case you do have a vacancy? It’s my girlfriend’s birthday, and … well…” A sigh on the other end of the line. He assumed the sigh meant a yes, so he muttered, “Nicolas Kolt.” Before he could get started on his number, a strangled moan was heard. “Excuse me?” gasped the woman, as if someone were throttling her. “You said Nicolas Kolt.” He was getting used to this, but it had not yet begun to weary him. “The writer? The author of The Envelope? Signor Kolt, you should have told me right away who you were; of course we have a room for you—in fact, one of our prettiest rooms, with a lovely view over the Monte Argentario. When would you be coming, Signor Kolt?”
They got in late Thursday evening, Malvina supine, after a long trip, a flight from Paris CDG over to Rome FCO, where a chauffeur came to pick them up, and then the drive along the coast. This Friday morning, Malvina is still asleep in the large room, which is indeed lovely. Tasteful tones of sand and beige, aquarelles of Italian villages, creamy white curtains and bedcover. White roses, small bowls of figs and grapes. An envelope with a personal greeting from the hotel director, Dr. Otto Gheza. Nicolas rises early, taking care not to wake Malvina, and peeks out from behind the curtains to the balcony with its two deck chairs, square teakwood table, and potted bay trees. He slips his bathing suit on and the fluffy bathrobe hanging on the bathroom door, and silently makes his way outside to breakfast on the terrace, clasping a black Moleskine notebook and a black Montblanc fountain pen.
Nicolas cannot help noticing that the entire staff, from the housekeeper in charge of the room to the maid who brings bottled water, seems to know his name. They know it and they pronounce it properly, à la russe, with a round o, as if they are aware it has been truncated from Koltchine. They smile at him, yet he feels no hypocrisy in those smiles, no bowing and scraping. There are few rooms here, he informed Malvina during the flight, only twenty or so. The place closes down for the winter but is full from April to September. He told Malvina what he read on the Web site, that the Gallo Nero was imagined in the sixties by an American pilot and a Roman heiress who fell in love and built this villa overlooking the sea. They had no children, so thirty years later, the estate was sold to a rich Italian, who turned it into a hotel. Malvina found this romantic, which Nicolas knew she would. Malvina was a firm believer in romance, an aspect of her personality he was often charmed by.
A breakfast buffet is set up beneath large square parasols. There is little noise. Only the whizz of a sprinkler, the chirp of an invisible bird, the muffled roar of a plane high in the cloudless sky. Despite the early hour, several clients are already having their meal. Nicolas is ushered to a table overlooking the view, and he sits down. The sea shimmers, vast and turquoise, dotted here and there with yachts, ferries, and cruise ships. He is asked whether he prefers tea or coffee; he answers Lapsang souchong. It is brought to him in a heavy teapot within five minutes. He waits a short while, then pours out the Lapsang. A smart-looking man in a dark suit glides by, nods his head, and mouths, “Have a nice day, Signor Kolt.” Nicolas nods back, wondering if this is the hotel director, Dr. Gheza, and whether he should have said something, or should have gotten up. He has a sip of tea, reveling in its ashy tang, takes his notebook out of his pocket, and lays it on the table in front of him, opening it to the first page. He reads his last notes. Notes for the goddamn book he is pretending to be writing. Notes so that he can look the part, notes so that it can be said, in all earnestness, in all truth, Nicolas Kolt is writing his new novel, the one they are all waiting for, the follow-up—yes, that book. Notes so that Alice Dor (French publisher and agent) and Dita Dallard (publicist) feel relieved. Notes so that Emma Duhamel née Van der Vleuten (mother) feels relieved. Notes so that Malvina Voss (girlfriend) feels relieved. Notes so that Delphine Valette (ex-girlfriend) and Gaïa Garnier (her daughter) and Elvire Duhamel and Roxane Van der Vleuten (aunts) feel relieved. Notes so that Lara Martinvast (best female friend) feels relieved. Notes so that Isabelle Pinson (banker) and Corinne Beyer (tax expert) feel relieved. Notes so that Agneta Sandström (Swedish publisher), Carla Marsh (American publisher), Ursula Berg (German publisher), Lorenza Manfredi (Italian publisher), Marije Gert (Dutch publisher), Alina Vilallonga (Spanish publisher), and so on and so forth, so that all these worried women around him, in and out of the publishing world, feel relieved. Nicolas is writing his new novel. Look at him scribbling away, eyebrows turned down in a concentrated frown, pen feverishly scrawling. Little do they know, those anxious women, that his notebook is full of doodles and sentences that have no meaning, no structure, mere strings of words linked one to the other like beads on a necklace.
Nicolas thinks of the fluid writing process for The Envelope and feels guilty. He wrote that novel four years ago, on Delphine’s rickety kitchen table, rue Pernety, with Gaïa babbling on one side, the kettle whistling on the other, Delphine on the phone with her mother or Gaïa’s father. No one could prevent the words from tumbling out of him, spewing out with passion, anger, fear, and delectation. There was never a moment when his inspiration wavered. How many times had he told that story to journalists? They never seemed to tire of hearing it. “And did the idea for the novel really dawn on you when you had your passport renewed?” they asked, and still do ask. How could Nicolas ever tell them today that there is no new book because he cannot find the time, because what he likes best is flourishing in the media’s constant attention, in his readers’ steady adoration?
On Nicolas’s left, a silent and serious couple. Nicolas observes them. He likes to look at people, their faces, their clothes, their watches. From an early age, he has noticed watches. But now, with his newfound fame, and the wealth that has accompanied it, he also notices brand names, logos, clothes, shoes, sunglasses, a trait that annoyed his ex, Delphine. During the painful moments of their breakup, she was fond of reminding him of how much he had changed. Of how vain he had become.
The man is reading; the woman is studying her nails. French, he’d say. In their fifties. He is trim, deep tan, thinning hair (which no doubt upsets him). A Bréguet watch. A navy blue shirt with a green crocodile. Madame has those highlights women favor when they get to that age. Menopausal blond. A pale green shirtdress. He wonders if they have had sex recently. With that kind of tightness around the mouth, she probably doesn’t often come. And certainly not with her husband, judging by the way her body is turned away from him. Husband is munching cereal and sipping coffee. Wife is toying with a fruit salad. She has now stopped examining her nails and is looking out to the sea. A wistful expression floats over her face. She must have been pretty, once.
On his right, another couple. Younger. She is perhaps thirty. Mediterranean type, olive-skinned, round shoulders, unruly hair, the kind you cannot comb. Dark glasses, Italian brand. He is from the Middle East, plump, hairy, cigarette hanging from his lip. A black-coated Rolex Daytona. He has three phones lined up on the table like smoking guns. He picks one up, talks loudly, puffing at his cigarette. The girl rises to admire the view. Her legs are disappointingly short, stocky, with thickset ankles. She is wearing high platform heels with glittery straps. She probably keeps them by the bed, slips them on even to pee.
Nicolas chooses his breakfast. The profusion of food is mouthwatering. He picks Bircher muesli, melon, and yogurt. The French have gone. He hopes he will never end up that way, carrying around that bitterness. He thinks of Emma, his mother. Guilt takes over. He hasn’t been to see her in a while. He makes a mental note to call her. As he scoops up the muesli, he imagines his mother in the apartment on the quiet, paved rue Rollin, where he grew up. The rows of books lining the hall, newspapers piling up in the study, the faraway roar of the busy rue Monge coming up through the open windows, literature and knowledge radiating from the walls. His mother bent over stacks of exam copies, wielding her red pen. Her swift, sure strokes over the paper. He will call her, today; he must call her today. They will talk for a little while, he will find time for a lunch date with her, sometime between the Singapore event and the Scandinavian tour, and he will take her to that Greek restaurant she likes on the rue Candolle. He will sit and listen to her woes, her complicated on-off relationship with Renaud, a woebegone divorcé, her difficulties with her philosophy students from the Collège Sevigné, and he will think, as ever, that she looks younger than her fifty-two years, lovely still, with misty gray eyes and pale skin that flushes red when she is upset, his mother, with the clear-cut Belgian accent she never lost in spite of over thirty years in Paris. His mother, who has been living alone since his father’s death, eighteen years ago. Nicolas is their only child. There has been string of lovers and sometimes unfortunate boyfriends, but she is still alone, despite the fluctuating affair with Renaud. He knows that during the lunch, over a moussaka, she will gaze at him with those fog-filled eyes and she will ask, “I hope all this has not changed you too much?” And when she says, “all this,” she will make those delicate, vague gestures in the air, tracing bubbles with her fingers. Nicolas knows she often sees his ex. Delphine comes to lunch or tea with her daughter, Gaïa, now thirteen, the same little Gaïa he watched grow up for five years, and he knows they all sit in Emma’s kitchen and talk about him. And they will say that he has changed. Yes, “all this” has changed him. And how could “all this” not have changed him?
Malvina makes an unexpected appearance at the breakfast table. Her face is puffy with sleep; she has sheet marks across her cheeks, creases in her skin that make her look older. She is strangely pale.
“Happy birthday,” he says. “Twenty-two!”
She grins at him; he ruffles her hair. He asks her if she wants orange juice, tea, a muffin. She nods. He goes back to the buffet. The hairy man is still on the phone, making jabbing motions with a pudgy index finger. The short-legged brunette has disappeared. Nicolas and Malvina have their first breakfast at the Gallo Nero quietly. They do not talk, but they hold hands. Nicolas likes the way Malvina’s eyes are the same color as the sea behind her. Her skin is soft under his. Fragile. The protective tenderness he feels for her makes him squeeze her wrist, grasping it the way acrobats clasp each other in midair.
Malvina’s birthday present is up in the room, in his luggage. He will give it to her tonight, during dinner. A watch. It was tricky tracking down the one he wanted. He found it online, and met the vendor, a slick Serb, in the bar of the Grand Hotel Intercontinental, rue Scribe. “Why do you love watches?” He was now asked that question in nearly every interview. Yet it had been amusing answering it for the first time, two years ago. The journalist was a voluptuous blonde with a shrewd eye. In the Ambassade Hotel in Amsterdam, on Herengracht, he had an afternoon of interviews lined up one after the other: De Telegraaf, Alegemeen Dagblad, de Volkskrant. Marije, his publisher, opened the door to the private salon from time to time to check on how he was bearing up. The Envelope had scored unexpectedly high sale figures in the Netherlands, even before the movie had been released. The press was eager to find out more about the young French writer who had taken the publishing world by storm with a first novel about a taboo family secret.
“In all of your photographs, you wear a different watch,” said the blonde. “And sometimes you wear one on each wrist. Why is this?” And so he had explained. His first watch, a Hamilton Khaki, had been offered by his father for his tenth birthday. It had a black face with dual dial markings, large Arabic numerals, one through twelve, and an inner ring of smaller numerals, one through twenty-four, a small date window at three o’clock, a dark leather band, a stainless-steel case, and an austere, no-nonsense military style. “Soldiers wore that watch in Vietnam,” said his father as Nicolas opened the box with awe. His first watch. “You don’t ever forget your first watch,” he told the journalist. His father died soon after. The Hamilton Khaki became a relic. A talisman. Nicolas did not wear it, but he never let it out of his sight. When he traveled, he took it with him. He looked at it often, and just by staring at it, or cradling it in his palm, he could conjure, Aladdin-like, the image of Théodore Duhamel in his last year, thirty-three and glorious, standing tall by the fireplace on the rue Rollin, a customary cigar clamped between his long, thin fingers. His father had had an orange-faced Doxa Sub, which never left his wrist. Nicolas often thought about that watch, which was not found after Théodore Duhamel’s death. “Sometimes I wear two because I can’t choose. Every watch tells a story,” Nicolas said to the blonde. “Who gave it to you, on what occasion, when. Or, if you bought it yourself, where and how. I’m not interested in fashionable models, although I admire them.” (He thought of the Rolex he’d given his mother for her fiftieth birthday, a 1971 Oyster Perpetual, marked Tiffany & Co., which he’d bought on the rue de Sèvres, from one of his favorite shops. But he did not mention it, as he had learned to be careful with the word Rolex, especially in front of a journalist wearing a Swatch.) “I prefer a rarer kind, one that is hard to find, one that has a little wear and tear, one that doesn’t glitter, as if things have happened to it.”
The blonde nodded. “I see,” she said. “Like your heroine, Margaux Dansor? A woman who has been around, seen a lot, but still has something to discover?” Clever move, he noted, her linking his passion for vintage watches to his middle-aged heroine, Margaux. A twenty-six-year-old man creating a forty-eight-year-old housewife, and pulling it off. Making her credible. Shaping her into one of those quaint, serious yet zany, irresistible heroines. A daughter, a spouse, a sister, a mother, a girl next door. A fictional character who made him famous around the world, later brought to life on-screen by Robin Wright in Toby Bramfield’s film adaptation, a performance that earned her an Oscar in 2010.
Will Malvina like her present? He studies her as she eats her muffin. Malvina is sallow-skinned, slender, perfectly proportioned. She has a mixed background: a Polish mother and a Welsh dad. She is not talkative. All her gestures are intense. They have been together for nine months. He met her in London, when he was there for an event at the French embassy in Knightsbridge. She was a promising student at the Royal College of Arts. She had attended his conference, and came to get her book signed. There was something serene, gentle, about her face, her smile. Nicolas was still dealing with the choppy aftermath of the end of his five-year relationship with Delphine. After a succession of faceless women, one fling after the other, this quiet, dark, blue-eyed creature entranced him. He persuaded her to have dinner with him, in a Chinese restaurant on Brompton Road. During the meal, she revealed a tongue-in-cheek humor he relished. He laughed outright, nearly choking on his spring rolls, and for the first time since Delphine, he felt a glimmer of hope, that somehow this lovely girl might be the one to help him forget Delphine, or at least to help him turn that page at last. He took her back to the Langham hotel on Regent Street. She hugged him so hard during sex, it moved him deeply. When she fell asleep in his arms, he had felt unexpectedly safe with her, safer than he had ever been with any woman since Delphine.
Nicolas likes the fact she doesn’t talk much. She wouldn’t be here with him now had she been a chatterbox. As Malvina pours herself another coffee, he reflects on what he is supposed to be doing here at the Gallo Nero. Writing the new book, of course, but also taking a break, a well-deserved one after the hectic year he’s had. How many trips? He cannot count them. He’d have to check his calendar to make sure. Short trips around the country for book fairs, book signings, meeting classes, students, presiding at literary award ceremonies, and then the same schedule abroad, in a dozen different countries, for the international publications of The Envelope, and finally the added and recent excitement with the movie release, Robin Wright’s Oscar, the press junkets in the United States, in Europe, and the movie tie-in editions, which had gone high on the best-seller lists. He had indulged in a series of whims his French publisher and agent, Alice Dor, had not approved of. Those glossy ads for a men’s fragrance, shot off the coast of Naxos, where, half-naked, he languorously reclines in a yacht. The black-and-white commercial for a watch, which seemed to grace every magazine he opened. “Was that necessary?” barked Alice Dor. “Don’t tell me you need more money.” No, with thirty million copies sold around the world and an Oscar-winning movie, he did not need more money. In fact, Corinne Beyer, his financial adviser, was working on that. If the money kept rolling in as such, she announced, he’d have to think about living somewhere other than France, because of the taxes.
Malvina and he slip back to the room. She is a tender and sweet lover. So fervent, it sometimes brings tears to his eyes, although he fully knows he does not love her. At least not the way he loved Delphine. Malvina lies back on the bed and opens her tanned knees to him. Later, as they take a shower, Malvina’s fragile shoulder blades bring him back to another shower, Delphine’s milky skin, his hands on her hips, in the bathroom on the rue Pernety, and he wonders with dismay whether he will ever love another woman the way he loved Delphine. It has been two years. When will her name sound like any other woman’s? When will he stop wondering if she takes showers with other guys, and who has been stroking that white skin? Coming to the Gallo Nero is also a way of keeping Delphine out of his mind. So what is he doing? “Come on, Malve, let’s go have a swim,” he says, shutting out Delphine and showers with Delphine.
They go down to the private beach, using the James Bond elevator. All the staff here wears black. A waiter says Nicolas’s name and room number; then they are ushered over to another, who proffers deck chairs—“Signor Kolt, a parasol, a towel, in the shade, no shade, near the sea, up by the cliff?”—and lo and behold, yet another one appears—“Would you like a drink, something cold, maybe, a newspaper, an ashtray?” They choose near the sea, with one parasol, a Coke for Malvina, iced tea and Libération (yesterday’s issue) for him.
This beach is not really a beach. No sand. It is a thick slab of concrete lining the bottom of the cliff, studded with parasols, deck chairs, pool ladders, and a diving board. More and more guests emerge from the elevator as the sun climbs into the clear July sky. Nicolas hears them talk and guesses where they are from. A Swiss couple, particularly fascinating. Impossible to determine their age. Anywhere between forty and sixty. He is as bald as a kneecap, tall, stooped, bony yet fit. She is even taller, firm flesh, wide shoulders, flat breasts, a true daddy longlegs. Short silver hair. He watches them as they meticulously arrange their clothes, towels, magazines, sun cream. They don’t speak to each other, but he senses great companionship. The man has tight-fitting swim shorts; she, an Olympic-style bathing suit. Suddenly, they get up, like two large, skinny birds taking off. She squeezes a swimming cap onto her head; he adjusts plastic goggles over his eyes. They both slip flippers onto their feet and hobble to the edge of the concrete slab with a peculiar elegance, in perfect harmony, and Nicolas guesses this has been repeated over and over again for many years. They dive into the sea and break into an effortless crawl stroke. They swim without a pause, reaching the brown reef that must be half a mile away. When they return, they shower in the nearby changing cabins and reappear wearing dry bathing suits. As they pass near him, he notices the man’s Girard-Perregaux Sea Hawk. They see Nicolas looking their way and they smile. They spend the next ten minutes rubbing sun cream over themselves and each other with precise movements and grim concentration.
A Belgian family now. Nicolas picks Belgians out easily, because of his mother. Father and son are stocky, ginger-haired, red-skinned. The son is Malvina’s age and already running to fat. His nose is sunburned and freckled. He is wearing a fashionable French-brand bathing suit. Dad is an older version—same bathing suit (red) and a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms on his wrist. The mother is one of those lithe muscular types, with a green bikini she looks good in. She is reading a paperback. Nicolas strains his eyes, but he already knows. De Envelop, Flemish movie-tie-in edition, with Robin Wright on the cover. He is also getting used to that, being confronted with his readers wherever he goes. The daughter is pear-shaped but appealing. Earbuds clamped into her ears. Reading a magazine. Nails bitten to the quick. Not half as high-maintenance as her mom. The father dishes out twenty-euro bills to the waiters in black. His gestures are smooth and blasé. “Grazie, prego.” Waves of a plump pink palm.
Nicolas lies back on his deck chair, his face turned up to the sky like an avid sunflower sucking in the golden light, flaring nostrils catching the particular scent of the wind, hot and dry, sprinkled with the perfume of cypress and pine trees, the tang of lemon and salt. Summer of 2003 is the last time he reveled in that fragrance, during his trip to Liguria with François. Nicolas has been back to Italy (Milan, Rome, Florence) since Hurricane Margaux overturned his life in 2008 (that was how he described the book to journalists). But he had never been back to the Italian shore. He remembers the dusty night train from Paris to Milan, then the smaller train from Milan to Camogli. They stayed at an unpretentious bed-and-breakfast run by a jovial Canadian couple in their fifties, Nancy and Bob. When they got to San Rocco, they discovered they had to walk to the house (no taxi, no car) and drag their suitcases along tiny paved paths.
Camogli was also where a disheveled Margaux Dansor, his heroine, arrived one morning, hot on the trail of her quest for the family secret that was about to disrupt her life. Margaux had also dragged her suitcase—bump, bump, bump—all the way to the white stone house. Nicolas smiles, thinking about how “tickled pink” Nancy and Bob were when they found out he had put them in The Envelope. He had changed their names to Sally and Jake, but they were easily recognizable, Bob with his jaunty ponytail and eye patch that gave him a Captain Jack Sparrow attitude, and Nancy’s Hottentot Venus bottom, which sparked lewd sotto voce exchanges between François and him. In the book, Nicolas described Bob and Nancy’s abode exactly as it was. The patchy walls, the tiled crooked terrace, where every evening he would knock back limoncello until mind-blasting migraines took over, transforming his brain to putty, blurring the astounding view of the bay. The small, high-ceilinged, cool bedrooms, painted blue and green, the faltering plumbing system, the kitchen and its aromas: fresh pasta, glistening pesto, mozzarella and tomatoes on a bed of arugula. The other guests were a beautician from L.A., emaciated and tanned like crisp toast, and her shy, overweight daughter, who read Emily Dickinson in the shade. In Toby Bramfield’s movie, they all ended up looking exactly like how Nicolas had imagined them.
Nicolas suddenly wonders how François is. When was the last time they talked, sat down for a meal? He cannot even recall it. That is what comes with living this way, always on a train, on a plane, hours in waiting rooms, too many messages to respond to, too many e-mails piling up, too many invitations, propositions, solicitations. Not enough time to see friends, family, those who count. Again the pang of guilt. He should call François. They have been friends since their teens, when he was still Nicolas Duhamel, attending the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand, then the grueling hypokhâgne and khâgne classes, specializing in humanities. Nicolas ended up being held back his second year, dubbed a “khûbe,” as student jargon would have it. While François soared upward and onward, Nicolas fumbled and stumbled, to his mother’s despair. Although he was aware of what he was letting himself in for, he had been overpowered from the start by the workload, the permanent stress level, the sarcasm of the teachers. This was part and parcel of the demanding legend of the prestigious literary preparatory courses his mother had brilliantly succeeded in during her youth. In addition to class time and homework, Nicolas spent several hours each week laboriously completing exams and colles (spelled khôlles to look like a Greek word, another “khâgneux” insider joke). But there was nothing remotely funny about the khôlles, which soon became a nightmare for Nicolas. One hour to prepare a short dissertation on a given topic. Then, in twenty excruciating minutes, he had to present his work orally to a scathing teacher. François excelled at the dreaded khôlles, and even the harshest teacher, with the keenest expectations, begrudgingly bowed down to such supremacy. François never showed any signs of discouragement or apathy, contrary to Nicolas, who lost weight, lost sleep, lost his spirits. Like a fighter pilot dodging missiles, François triumphantly angled toward the highly competitive national exam that awaited them, the holy grail of a concours that a tiny elite would pass. Nicolas knew, from early on, that he did not have that ambition within him. François did, and he was aware of being the nugget those schools hungered for, the breed that formed professors, teachers, future Nobel Prize winners. The first time Nicolas flubbed the final exam, not even scraping through to the no-man’s-land of the sous-admissible category, the second-chance gang, François was already embarked on the firmament of the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris, nicknamed “Ulm,” for its address on the street that bore the same name.
The trip to Italy had been their way of patching up, of getting their friendship back on track after the strain of the khâgne and Nicolas’s failure. François earned a salary as a proud normalien, while Nicolas went on struggling halfheartedly, still living at his mother’s place, barely making ends meet by giving philosophy lessons to reluctant students. François remained the one who had succeeded, the one for whom it all seemed easy. But that changed when Hurricane Margaux blew along five years later. Except for François and Lara, the only ones from the past who have remained part of his life, Nicolas’s new friends are from the publishing world—writers, journalists, editors, publicists, booksellers. He sees them at literary events, on TV or radio shows, at cocktail parties, book launches, nightclubs. He has their e-mail addresses, their mobile-phone numbers; he is their friend on Facebook, their follower on Twitter. He hugs them, slaps them on the back, ruffles their hair, but very few of them are truly close. He gets drunk or high with them, occasionally has sex with one or two of the women, but what do they know about him, apart from what they may glean in the papers, or on Twitter? They know nothing. And he knows nothing about them, in return. He is fleetingly aware of the emptiness of his life, of the cruel fact that the entire world has learned his name but that he is, in truth, alone.
Every time Nicolas thinks of François, like at this very moment, as his eyes roam over the splendid sea, the guests basking in the sun, the servers bringing drinks and fruits, he is confronted with his own inadequacies as a friend. Did he not let François down? Did he not stop calling, meaning to call, always leaving it until the next day, and then simply forgetting to do it in the end? Yet François had been the brother he’d never had, the one he went to judo classes and tennis lessons with, the one he could confide in when girls became an obsession, the one who gave him support when his father died. François had a long, serious, bespectacled face, even as a kid, and adults trusted him. This had proved useful when they were children, indulging in devilish pranks. The “cheese incident,” for example. Nicolas had been punished by their principal, the odious Monsieur Roqueton, for not handing his homework in yet again. During a lunch break, on a stifling summer day, François innocently found his way into Monsieur Roqueton’s office, armed with a stinking Camembert. He deftly unscrewed the mouthpiece of the man’s old-fashioned telephone and squashed bits of cheese into it before replacing the top. A few days later, the stench became unbearable. One could not use the telephone without retching. Nicolas grins, and nearly laughs out loud, remembering. They were never caught. It had been a triumph.
There is another memory Nicolas is fond of. Granville, Normandy, summer of 1999. Nicolas and François were seventeen. François’s parents owned a half-timbered white-and-brown house, with a sloping garden giving on to the beach. Every summer, Nicolas went to spend two weeks in August with the Morin family. He felt like he was one of them. François had two younger sisters, Constance and Emmanuelle, and an older brother, Victor. His parents, Michel and Odile, gave a summer party each year while Nicolas was there. About a hundred people came. The girls wore their prettiest summer frocks. Odile went to the hairdresser. Michel showed off his tan in his favorite white jeans and a denim shirt opened to his navel. Victor, Nicolas, and François wore clean T-shirts and shorts. It poured one summer, and the party was held inside, an amusing squash. But that summer, the summer that Nicolas and François would never forget, Odile invited a new couple in town, Gérard and Véronique, who came with a Parisian friend of theirs, Nathalie. The women were in their early thirties; the husband was older. Véronique was plump and blond. Nathalie was tall, slender, and dark-haired, with the longest legs Nicolas had ever seen. They were wearing the same tight dress, but in different colors: black for Véronique and white for Nathalie. Gérard mingled with the older crowd, but Véronique and Nathalie took their drinks and crossed the garden, going out to the beach, daintily kicking off their high-heeled sandals. The sun was setting, staining the sea red. There was no one on the beach. The two young women waved, gesturing for Nicolas and François to join them. For a while, the four of them sat on the sand and chatted. When their glasses were empty, Nicolas rushed back to the house and smuggled a bottle of champagne under his T-shirt. The sun disappeared and the darkness drew inviting shadows around them. Nathalie, the long-legged brunette, puffed away on a cigarette, held delicately between two slim golden fingers. From where they were sitting, they could hear the music and laughter of the nearby party. Nathalie wanted to know if they had any girlfriends. This embarrassed François, who was less successful than Nicolas with girls. Véronique, the blonde, then asked, in a low, intimate voice, what they had already done with a girl sexually. Nicolas noticed how close the two women were, how Nathalie’s tanned thigh brushed against his naked calf every time she moved. In the soft blue light, Véronique’s cleavage was a deep, milky cleft. He told them, frankly, that all his girlfriends had been from the lycée, girls of his age. He had had sex with six of them so far, at parties, in a drunken stupor, in the bathroom or in someone’s bed. Only one of them had been a pleasant surprise, willing to try everything with the fierce energy of a Stakhanovite. Once the novelty wore off, Nicolas found her exhausting. The two women on the beach with them that night were in another league. They exuded a mysterious, languorous sensuality. “Does your girlfriend kiss you like this?” murmured Véronique, and before François could respond, she glued her lips to his, while Nathalie’s silken arm found its way around Nicolas’s neck. Then she kissed him in a way that Nicolas had never been kissed before in his life. Could they be seen from the house? he wondered fleetingly, stroking the soft skin under her dress, enraptured. Suddenly, Véronique was in his arms, and Nathalie moved to kiss François. Nicolas gave in to the new mouth on his. He could not resist touching her breasts, and when she pulled his lips down to their fullness, he thought he was going to pass out from ecstasy. What would have happened, he often wondered, if Véronique’s husband had not started to call her name from the garden? Had he seen them? They all got up quickly, brushing the sand off their clothes. The women patted their hair, giggling. Nicolas felt dizzy and nearly stumbled. François’s face was white, his lips swollen and red. He seemed about to faint. The women nonchalantly picked up their glasses and their shoes and strolled back to the house arm in arm, shouting out gaily to Gérard that they were coming. François and Nicolas waited a while before joining the party. When they turned up, nervous and blushing, Gérard, Véronique, and Nathalie had already left. Nicolas never saw them again. But he knew he would never forget that night. For years, he had only to whisper “Granville” to François with a knowing smile, and the memories of that evening would flood back, intact.
Nicolas gets up now for his first swim. He will text François later. He glances down at Malvina, curled up under her parasol like a little animal, fast asleep. Her face still seems pale. He dives into the sea, and when he comes up for air, he finds himself gasping with a mixture of pleasure and joy, the pleasure of the velvety caress on his skin, the joy of coming back to the exact sensation he had missed since Camogli. The water here is deep immediately. It is absolutely transparent. Nicolas can stare all the way down to the seabed, paved with pale oval stones, and watch silvery fish flit past. He flings his arms and legs out like a starfish and floats on the surface. Underwater, his ears make out the tranquil putter of a nearby boat.
Three days. Three blissful days. Three days just for him. This beautiful, quiet haven. The blue of it. No one knows where he is. He did not even Tweet it, refrained from posting it on his Facebook wall. Should he be needed, his BlackBerry is there to do its job. “Have a good rest, signor,” the beach attendant had said, beaming as she spread out a towel for Nicolas on the deck chair. Three days to pretend to be writing the book. Three days of laziness.
Malvina opens one eye as he is drying himself.
“You should have a swim,” he says.
She shrugs. “I don’t feel too good.”
“Maybe something you ate?”
She nestles back into her deck chair.
It is getting on toward noon. The sun pounds down. The frizzy brunette and the hairy guy arrive. He is still on the phone (is he ever off it?), and she totters on her glittery platform shoes. Once they have decided where to sit, once they have been handed the thick black-and-white towels stamped with the letters GN, she stands up. Slowly and tantalizingly, she takes off the top of her bathing suit, like Rita Hayworth removing that glove. Her breasts are round and pert, with dark pink nipples. Not fake bosoms, but glorious real ones that wobble ever so slightly and that Nicolas can imagine frantically cramming into his mouth. She starts to anoint them with sun oil, and Nicolas can hardly believe she is doing this, right here, right now, with such deliberate, slow movements. All the men are staring. The staff members seem transfixed, sweating under their black shirts. The Belgian goes pinker, the Swiss adjusts his dark glasses, and the French ogles to such an extent that his wife gives him a dig in the ribs. Only the boyfriend seems impervious to the scene. Nicolas neatly takes his eyes off her just before Malvina notices.
Nicolas has learned to be clever where Malvina is concerned. Her intensity harbors a powerful strain of silent jealousy. She picks up the remotest sign of what she imagines is danger—an overadmiring fan, a too-friendly reader, or simply a pretty girl. When Malvina left London two months ago, giving up her studies and all her friends there, to come to live with him in Paris on the rue du Laos, Nicolas discovered her unhealthy obsession with his past, with his relationship with Delphine. He found it impossible to make Malvina understand that Delphine and he have been friends for the past two years, since their breakup, and that he needs this special bond with his ex. Malvina cannot fathom how he can be “friends” with Delphine. She is convinced Nicolas and Delphine are still lovers. And any reasonably attractive woman is a threat to her relationship with Nicolas.
As a result, his BlackBerry never rings or even vibrates. He is too careful for that. He gave up his beloved iPhone when he started dating Malvina in 2010. The iPhone 3GS, he told a friendly male journalist in Oslo, is an unfortunate device if you are being spied upon by a jealous partner. Picture messages show right up on the screen, along with the name of the person sending them, as well as missed calls. A nightmare. “Switch to a BlackBerry if you have secrets to keep,” he had said, chuckling. Malvina had not seen the Norwegian article with that exact caption and a picture of him brandishing his BlackBerry over a shot of Løiten Linie Akevitt. A small miracle, considering she spent hours keeping track of him online, checking every comment he posted on Facebook and Twitter, and, worse still, every comment posted by a female in response. He had 150,000 followers on Twitter and over 250,000 on his Facebook fan page, so Malvina was certainly busy.
His BlackBerry is protected by a code he changes constantly. The only sign of an incoming text or e-mail is the little red signal that blinks. The screen remains black. Nothing shows up on it. He knows how to look at the phone swiftly when Malvina is occupied with another matter. It is a risky daily battle. He knows how to smuggle the BlackBerry into the bathroom, tucked into his sleeve like a stash of drugs. In the privacy of the toilet, he knows how to hastily peruse his e-mails, his text messages, check his Facebook page, scroll through his Twitter feed. This morning, as Malvina visits the ladies’ room (that will leave him four to five minutes), he sees there are new e-mails on his private account—one from Alice Dor, his French publisher; one from Dita Dallard, his publicist; one from Bertrand Chalais, a French journalist he is friendly with; another from a writer friend, Patrick Treboc, whom he parties with. And on his other e-mail account, the one used for his Web site, there are about fifty new messages from readers around the world. He used to answer them all in the beginning, when the book was just out, not yet on the charts or translated into all those languages. When he first started to receive the e-mails, they were a gratifying surprise. But when the messages poured in as the book gained recognition in more countries, on more charts and lists, and when the movie came out, he found he was swamped. “Hire an assistant who will answer them for you,” suggested another writer friend, but Nicolas felt that wasn’t right. “Just read them and don’t reply,” said another. And that was what he ended up doing.
This morning, the most important element on Nicolas’s BlackBerry is the blue-spotted logo on the screen. A BBM. He knows it is from Sabina. He will not have time to answer right now, but he reads it fast (heart pumping) and erases it promptly. “I am wearing nothing, it is hot in my room, and I am thinking of you. Shall I tell you what I am doing right now, Nicolas?” He has to delete every single message from Sabina as soon as he reads it. There is no other way.
Last April. Berlin. A book signing at the Dussmann das Kultur Kaufhaus on Friedrichstrasse. She had stood in line patiently for a long while. She had handed him Der Umschlag (German edition, with the postcardlike sepia cover of Camogli in the fifties, a glimpse of sea, the village clustered by the cliff, the inky green cypress trees). He had said blandly, “Your name, please?” like he always did, and she had answered, “It’s not for me; it’s for my husband. His name is Hans.” There was something about her eyes. An ash blonde wearing a trench coat. Fifteen years older than he was, he guessed. Fine catlike features, small smile. Reminiscent of Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. He had signed the book. Just as she was turning away, she swiftly slipped a shred of paper into his hand. Then she was gone and the next reader was already flourishing his book. He hadn’t had the time to read the paper till twenty minutes later, when his German publisher, Ursula, managed to pluck him away from the winding line of readers for a short break. The only thing written on the paper was a series of numbers he immediately recognized—a BlackBerry PIN number, BBM, for instant messaging.
Later that night, after a never-ending event at the Institut français on Kurfürstendamm with a fastidious journalist who asked only the most obvious questions, the ones he could no longer face answering but knew he had to (“How much of the book is taken from your own life?” “Did you ever find a letter like that for real?” “Is Margaux Dansor modeled after your mother?” “How did your family react when it was published?” “Did Toby Bramfield buy the rights the week the book came out?” “Is it true you have a cameo in the movie?” “What is your second book about?”), he got back at last, very late, to the refined privacy of his junior suite at the Ritz-Carlton on Potsdamer Platz. He kicked off his shoes, turned on the TV, zapped through the late-night news and porn channels, delved into the minibar for champagne, and sprawled out on the sofa, shoving aside boxes of chocolates, welcome cards, baskets of goodies, books to sign for the sales reps. It was too late to call Malvina. He’d do that in the morning. He took the scrap of paper from his pocket and stared at it for a while. On the TV screen, a frenzied threesome was going at it with gusto. He turned the sound down, had a gulp of champagne, watched them for a while. Then he typed the BBM PIN code into his phone.
He should not be doing this, he knew. That catlike green-eyed woman spelled trouble.
Copyright © 2013 by Éditions Héloise d’Ormesson, Paris