MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The doorbell rings. I go. Peephole. Nobody. I grab my keys. I open the door. The 3rd-floor hallway. Empty. A glance. The stairwell. “Anybody there?” I can’t have been dreaming. I go up some steps. I go back down. I’m in front of my open door.
This door isn’t standard. Squat, shoved into its frame, it evokes some brutish epoch when people might have stood in front of caves, expecting monsters to poke their heads out. Its orange tinge is jarring, like primer paint before the final coat. It’s old, it’ll stay orange, with its uneven crust. Just looking at it, anyone would guess that the ceiling was low, the whole building too, this modest late 18th-century structure with 6 floors but only 2 façade windows. Ancient but inglorious: I live on 1 of those Paris streets Prefect Haussmann’s equalizing regime left unrazed.
He Rings His Doorbell
If he wants to listen once again to that muted, shrill tone, which caught him by surprise, he’ll press the little white disc embedded within its black plastic rectangle mounted on the right side of the doorjamb. He hears it rarely and rings it even more rarely still. His visitors generally don’t notice the discreet button and so they knock on the door. Knocking on the door makes them seem more neighborly, since the doorbell’s timbre is as impersonal as a luxury residence or a doctor’s office. There’s no name on the door. He enters.
He Enters His Home
I push open the door with the momentary twinge I always feel when coming back after some long absence or voyage: here’s hoping nothing’s happened. The molding on the inside panels makes it impossible to reinforce this door; only its old oak offers any bulwark against attacks. The Italian-style lock that I engaged with 1 double turn (€500) is really just makeshift: the vertical bar with multiple rivets wasn’t properly sawn off at both ends, the screws are unevenly tightened along the doorframe, and the circle bored into the wooden floor for the bar to sink into is more hole than precisely cut ring. 1 small wooden doorstop wedged/jammed behind the bar is supposed to protect it from crowbars, but this rudimentary safeguard positively reeks of amateurishness, even though I let a specialist do it. I can’t really say I regret doing so, considering that the burglary I suffered on February 8, 2006, was accomplished not by breaking through the door but rather by shattering the living room window, contrary to all those statistics indicating that 80% of burglars come through the front entrance. It was then, out of sheer precaution, that I had my lock changed. Even though the burglar entered through the living room window, I can’t be sure that he didn’t go back out through the door, relocking it with 1 of the keys I (idiotically) keep in the entryway, so that he could come back later. The scenario may be unlikely, but I can’t rule it out entirely. If I’d known how many copies I’d made of my keys, I could have deduced whether he had stolen 1; but, like so many other people, I never pay attention to these sorts of things and so the theoretical stolen key is simultaneously present and absent: by describing my apartment as faithfully as I can, by presenting this detailed inventory to my reader, not only will I be in a position to calculate the number of keys in my possession, but I’ll know how to correct the mistake of leaving my keys out for everybody to see. Isn’t writing a form of material proof, an observation that collapses uncertainties? Since there was no way I could allow myself to go on living in fear of yet another break-in, even without forced entry, I hired 1 of those locksmiths that we in France call “Louis XVIs” (it’s a long story) to come and change this undamaged lock that was now threatened by Schrödinger’s key.
Keys make their power felt only in being lost, thereby turning doors into walls, if not outright barricades—as in the classic misadventure that befell me on October 5, 2005, just as I was heading out. Grabbing my set of keys and shutting the door as usual, with 1 firm yank, I immediately realized on the landing that I had thoughtlessly taken along the keys for my Nanterre office instead of the keys for my apartment and was now locked out. Without my wallet or phone or anything more than 1 pair of office keys, I very quickly descended into frustration, worry, despondency, and self-hatred. No question about it: my day had been ruined.
This mistake has 1 identifiable cause: that same morning, I had learned of my dear friend the writer Guillaume Dustan’s death at 39 (I, too, was that age). Perturbed as I was by this news, which I’d heard just before leaving to teach, on the threshold of my apartment, unsettled by the idea that someone of my own generation could die so early and so brutally, I found myself, immediately after my lunch at home, in the situation I have described, alone on the landing, helpless, reeling dizzily, heading toward the 1st café I could find and using their phone so someone could get me out of this mess.
Having crossed the doorway and shut the door with its 2 massive hinges so reminiscent of primitivist works of art in their 13-centimeter height and diameter that they aroused whistles of admiration from my locksmith (compliments carry 0 value save when delivered by experts), I step into the entryway. At the moment I enter my place, I reflexively slam the door: the burglary I’ve just described doesn’t have any bearing on that action, since I’m not obsessed with security the way my colleagues are. The breach of my domicile, as unpleasant as it may have been, didn’t drive me to reinforce my home with heavy-duty security doors, alarms, surveillance cameras, door chains, bars over the windows, or any other such paranoiac apparatuses. No, it’s more my desire to remain hermetically sealed from the outside that prompts me to twist my wrist and shut myself in. This sanctuary in the heart of the city, this warm or cool oasis standing sentinel against the street. With that essential gesture, I dam the deluge: I enter my kingdom. The key’s metallic click as it turns 2 times in the lock prefigures my passage into this other world. I do so even when some visitor leaves: as soon as he’s out, he can hear me turning the key right behind him, setting off laughter on both sides of the door: the loon is locking himself in.
The Key to All Keys
At which point I leave the key in the lock, in its natural place. While my eyes stay fixed on the cluster of keys hanging and swinging like a clock’s pendulum, in regular undulations that soon slow and come to a stop, I look for other elements bearing this double function (both organization and utilization). These keys are 3 in number: the largest 1 governs the entrance to my apartment and opens 2 doors—the door leading to the street, for which it isn’t really needed, since punching the code (54 B 68) does the trick; and the door leading to the courtyard, for which it is very much necessary—while the 2nd key, with a black plastic cover on its bow and its short, crenellated shaft, is used for the apartment door; the last, very small key opens the mailbox. In 1 sense, these keys aren’t mine; I’ll have to return them when I get to the end of this book and I’ve left this apartment. These keys, weighted not so much by their volume as by their symbolism, signify ownership without wholly embodying it. The persistence of keys through history astonishes me: unlocking a door remains a terribly human, antiquated gesture forever haunted by the risk of failure.
In the Poe House
The 1 ideal, enduring key chain design I’ve always sought is now finally in my possession: a miniature book made of silvery metal and about 2 cm by 2.5 cm, with ring attached, the book’s cover reading EDGAR ALLAN POE, the 3 words arranged vertically. The “book” has a spine also debossed with POE, and on the back cover, in small engraved letters, is the sentence I BECAME INSANE WITH LONG INTERVALS OF HORRIBLE SANITY. I bought this superb key chain in New York on July 26, 2009, while visiting the Poe Cottage, an antiquated wooden house tucked into some corner of the Bronx, on 1 small square right between 2 massive unwelcoming avenues, and which I found only through sheer perseverance, even as my queries to passersby went unheeded; nobody in the population of poor black people and working-class white people milling around that neighborhood had any apparent knowledge of Edgar Allan Poe’s house.
The book’s $1.50 gleam, weighting the fetters of my small key ring, is testament to my reverence for the author of “The Philosophy of Furniture.”
A door, like a sheet of paper, has 2 sides, and on the verso of mine I see unappealing wood. Deceptive ornamentation barely hides its defects, which I’ve tried to cover up with wood filler. A useless undertaking: gaps and bumps still hint at the oak’s paradoxical fragility, which my slipshod job only accentuated. When I feel it with my hands, the door seems knobbly, but not solid; it’s more screen than proper door. Like a cardboard cutout of a knight that I could simply knock over.
A Peephole Named Judas
The peephole is at neck height for me, so I have to bend down slightly to use it. A position rarely employed: few and far between are those who seek to breach the boundaries of my apartment, fewer and farther still are those who arrive unexpectedly, and fewest and farthest are those occasions when the 2 categories meet and warrant a preventive glance, which is to say the moments when strangers present themselves at my door. The peephole’s rounded magnifying lens creates a visual distortion, an effect I would say approximates anamorphosis. Since the French word for peephole is judas, sometimes I decide to play the betrayer and use this tiny panopticon as a base from which to spy on all the people going up or down the stairs—and when I’m also able to hear their voices too, then all that’s left would be for me to scribble down their conversations here … But at heart I can’t bear to be a backstabber. The only secrets I’ll betray are my own.
Having slammed the door, I double my foyer’s defenses in the winter with a portière that keeps the draft out. It’s always cold in my entryway since the stairwell leads directly to the courtyard and outside air: a defect perhaps due as much to its builders’ indifference as to the modesty of means at their disposal. (I wonder who actually built my building? Some artisan who left no signed work behind, as opposed to those great architect-engineers who took pride in forever engraving the letters of their last names into the flesh of bourgeois stone…) In the 19th century, interiors started being insulated from the elements; but in my apartment I have to do this work myself, stuffing the door’s crevices with foam and hanging a rod above the doorframe for holding 1 thick green velvet curtain bought at the Saint-Pierre Market and hemmed by a Kurdish tailor at Château d’Eau. The length of the cloth is incorrect—a flaw that continues to annoy me, since I was the 1 who miscalculated the door’s dimensions, as well as those for hemming the portière and then the relationship between the 2: the velvet lets cold air trickle out the left and right sides, while most of the wintry chill sits in 1 big heavy mass down low, held in by all the extra velvet on the floor. Sometimes, when I’m bored in the winter, I wave my hand around to enjoy those faint currents of cold air that, despite these defense systems, permeate my apartment; I sweep them from place to place as, with a slight frisson, I savor the carelessness of the unmodern world and of France itself, with its centuries-old architecture so ill adapted to the needs of the present day.
I note the small rod’s awkward position: to get out, I have to push the curtain to the left, but because it isn’t set on the door but above it, the cloth’s thickness prevents the door from opening all the way. Of course there’s no real need to open the door all the way, but at certain moments (several people coming in at once, or the sheer width of a new piece of furniture being brought in), this causes a huge pile-up, as we might say on the road. The curtain’s way of hampering the door is an affront to the natural order of things: cloth somehow being elevated above wood. If by chance someone insisted on pushing the door all the way open, the curtain’s thickness would, as it resisted, drag down the all-too-light rod holding it up, and so pull its screws out of their wall mounts, bringing the curtain and everything else attached crashing down to the floor. The internal limits of a system are endlessly fascinating. Luckily, nothing and nobody ever reaches 100%.
1 wall switch mounted on the left controls the room’s lighting, so that anyone entering the apartment is temporarily refused entry to the kingdom of light. This instrument, which manages to merge technology and poetry, execution and idea, is, in French, called an interrupteur: it interrupts the Darkness in which we dwell, and within which we must search for the Light. A little pressure from 1’s finger and the hallway appears: 3.3 luxurious meters by 1 narrow meter—its white walls, its window on the right, its wooden floor, its 2 doors side by side on the left, and the egress at its end, obscured by another cloth.
Illumination comes from an oblong, white glass ceiling light—the only real 1 in the apartment—light falling gently down from above. Its shape, somewhat softened by the thin layer of dust coating its globe, hardly interests me, but beneath this lack of interest is outright deception: this fixture is merely a far less sophisticated substitute for the beautiful restaurant chandelier I lost in tragic circumstances. 1 afternoon, bound to my desk, I hear an enormous noise tear through the quiet of my interior. I leave my seat, I go to the entryway: the chandelier lies, shattered, in the middle of the hall, in a jumble of glass shards. Propelled by its own weight to the floor, it had subsequently flown into 1,000 pieces. The metal sconce, its poorly anchored weight having been underestimated, had abruptly come loose, bringing down the massive glass rotunda as well. What a shame that it couldn’t have fallen on some burglar’s head, knocking him out in the act, committing a crime of its own as it was destroyed. The thief laid low by inanimate objects, a tale too tall to be true, lit up my caricaturing imagination for an instant as I used a dustpan to collect the fixture’s scattered glass slivers and its orphaned metal base. I’ve hardly ever suffered any similar domestic accidents, but this 1 shed light on the 2 major problems with ceiling lights: the blinding risk of just such brutal drops, which I’ve never let myself forget since, and the sinister gleam they cast over a room, crushing it with light forced downward rather than gently spread in all directions.
I can’t stop fixating on an odd thing about my replacement light: it’s cracked. But it could only have become so subsequent to contact with some object or else some violent individual, which wouldn’t have been me. Upon reflection, it must be a legacy of my (actual) burglar, whether because he was looking for something hidden in the fixture (as in Family Plot, Hitchcock’s final film, where a diamond is secreted in a crystal chandelier) and then broke it out of spite, or else, more likely, he simply collided with it, somehow, in his haste. As such, the 2 ceiling lights in my entryway (past and present) have each suffered damage, total or partial—as if their position overhead paradoxically doomed them both to injury.
Window on the Walls
In this light, it’s possible to walk into this hallway-entryway and appreciate the natural illumination streaming from the right thanks to the window looking onto the building’s courtyard. As the sight of this small, walled-in courtyard strikes me as depressing, if not sordid, considering the 10th arrondissement’s relative paucity of lavish courtyards, the original inhabitants’ relative modesty of social status, and the 3rd floor’s relative inadequacy of panoramic views, I’ve draped some large white cotton curtains in front of these double casement windows. Thus filtered, their light adds to the space’s serene ambiance. Held in place by 1 gray brass rod identical to the portière’s, along which several small ring-clips slide, this curtain is always kept shut, even when I open the window for some air. Its natural-fiber cotton, acquired at the Roissy IKEA, protects me from the walls of facing buildings and the windows of fussing neighbors.
I’m caressing the curtain’s slightly quilted texture; I’d like not only to give my readers a guided tour of the museum-of-sorts that I consider my apartment, but also to make them rub their fingers over every inch of it; literature moves me because it respects nothing.
Around the sides of the white curtain I peer out at the courtyard. I bring my eye to the lateral gap and, like a silent spy, I let my gaze take in the slow, lugubrious rhythm of this interior space, largely uneventful, but not always—as when snow falls.
Like all the other rooms of my apartment, the entryway is painted white, and while I do happen to have a personal preference for all that is bright, I’m also following the current cultural taste, which has established white as the color par excellence, and which divides interiors into 2 hermetic categories: “contemporary” spaces, and everything else. Pared-down classical styles have become equal to modernist interiors that disdain all decorative and chromatic excess. As I welcome Adolf Loos into my place, he whispers Ornament is a crime while sipping a Mauresque aperitif. In fact, all this whiteness only reinforces the greenery-bereft-greenhouse or charmless-clinic effect of my little entryway.
On the Ground
Continuing to creep forward, on the left wall of the hallway-entryway (which will lead us to the main room in due time) we’ll find the bathroom and, immediately thereafter, the toilet. But taking in the whole space means we mustn’t ignore the floor.
Buffet Down Low
With any luck, nobody’s toes will get stubbed on the low Buffet on the right wall; and I don’t mean buffet as in side table, but rather as in this painting by Bernard Buffet (or, at least, this reproduction thereof) set on the floor, depicting some harbor town I’ve never managed to identify on a canvas measuring 94 × 58 cm and in a sickly green typical for this painter. It’s not actually all that serious if I accidentally kick this daub I found on the street, thrown out from the by-the-hour hotel under renovation nearby, because the attachment I feel toward it is uncertain at best. It’s not this wall decoration’s woeful state of preservation (its upper left corner is damaged; the picture is just glued onto hardboard) so much as the sheer fact of its existence, owing to Buffet’s style—alluring due to its horrendousness—that’s brought it low; allowing all who walk past to appreciate just how necessary some famously bad artists may be: their radically poor taste serves as a reprimand to our hubristic self-confidence. We can all be brought low.
As for the floor itself, the entryway’s is adorned, like pretty much the rest of the apartment (aside from the bathroom and the toilet), with old oak parquet, once covered by linoleum, a bequest of the previous owner, which then had to be sanded and varnished away. The beautiful wood paneling’s pattern unfortunately does little to hide its structural problem: sloping slightly from the entrance to the bathroom, the floor forms 1 small depression over 10 cm2. Determining the origin of this indentation is fairly easy for anyone well versed in the colossal amount of structural work that my home has required: it’s likely that the floorboards beneath the parquet are in terrible shape and that, as with the bathroom, before I had it completely redone, the rafters holding the ceiling of the floor below have rotted away. Since repairing this trench would be far beyond my financial means, I tend to avoid this area … and yet, when I’m at my most anxious, visions of this sinkhole yawning open beneath me tend to plague my mind, and I see myself falling through the floor and landing in my 2nd-floor neighbor’s apartment. At the same time, I can’t deny the positive appel du vide this potential rift holds for me. When I feel the floorboards sag beneath the pressure of my toes, I relish the act of pushing deeper, testing the physical integrity of the entryway, an action that terrifies and excites me all at once, or maybe like a sore in my mouth or toothache that I can’t keep from probing with my tongue. Reducing the problem by fortifying the floor with a massive injection of concrete would certainly be 1 practical solution; but, then, shouldn’t these structural problems be solved with a complete and proper overhaul? I leave the sagging area for terra firma.
The only furniture in the entryway stands at its end, filling the right-hand wall, sneering at everyone who enters. It’s no more or less than a gray metal filing cabinet with 4 drawers, its height 1.32 meters, its width 41 cm. This piece of furniture, blandly functional in style, and hard to date precisely—just think of all the “modern” eras it must have endured over the course of its reign—adds to the room’s understated tone. Its bureaucratic grayness accentuates its bulk, which provides a gentle reminder of the Balzacian fortitude I had to summon in order to capture it: during a stroll down the rue du Dahomey in my old neighborhood, I stopped in front of a social security office under renovation and, seeing this filing cabinet among a heap of discarded furniture, I decided to claim it for myself. As its weight and my inability to get a good grip on it would have made this a backbreaking prospect for me, I went to the Kiloutou equipment-rental company nearby and got 1 of those things that delivery people use all the time and that we simply call a “dolly,” to cart this filing cabinet 500 meters. I managed, with much huffing and puffing, to get it up to the 4th floor, thanks to the furniture mover I had no idea was buried deep within my muscles. This is how people form attachments to their belongings: by paying the price with their own bodies.
The delight I take in my accidental discovery of this monolith, a phenomenon called serendipity, is compounded by the pleasure of having salvaged it myself from the junkyard, by the spontaneous nature of such urban redistributions, and by their near-total unexpectedness. This fortuitous furnishing therefore bears witness to my self’s particular tendencies, my self’s agency within this urban ecosystem.
1 has to reckon with an ingenious constraint when opening the cabinet’s drawers: only 1 of them can be drawn out along its runners at any given time, because having 1 open locks all the others shut, which in turn makes it possible to concentrate solely on the open drawer. Coherent and authoritarian: functionalism follows the form of its function. In the 1st drawer from the top are all my school papers in color-coded folders: these are, in the main, handouts for the classes I attended at various points in my education and which I kept because they were so well done—some are so good, in fact, that I reuse portions of them, thereby reinforcing the stereotype that teachers just copy their work from each other ad nauseam. But, really, what else could a class (or a book) be, anyway, if not a patchwork of other, older material, served up with some personal flair? Everything’s here in this 63-cm-deep reserve that I like to open all the way, pulling the drawer out to its fullest extent so as to appreciate the metal’s resistance against the weight of so much paper and to hear the click! as the runners hit their limits.
In the 2nd drawer are my financial files (bills, bank statements, pay slips, tax forms, etc.), kept in an ever-changing order, because I can never decide whether it’s easier to reach a folder closer to the inside or the outside of the drawer. I like the shifting positions. Anyway, the red folder specifically dedicated to my 2nd job as maître-conférencier, or lecturer, labeled ADMINISTRATION NANTERRE, is usually easily accessible, so it’s simple enough for me to produce whatever documents are needed for everything to go smoothly in that sphere. The requirements of social life force me to open this drawer often: all in all, the irritation most people feel when confronted with “paperwork” is unfamiliar to me; on the contrary, I like the idea that a life could be summarized thus, could be made to fit into a single envelope. I once knew a famous actress who told me about a member of her family who had brandished an old yellow envelope bearing, in black letters, the word JUIF: documents conferring upon her an identity at once fundamental and contemptuous, as seen through 1 particular administrative lens—giving her life substance even while putting it under threat. There’s a bit of the archivist in me, after all; I’d never have undertaken this massive documentation of myself if I weren’t convinced that archives, like capital L Literature, tell the truth. And while it’s true that a conversational approach might do more justice to a person’s biography than a dry presentation of all the evidence pertaining to it, the problem is that this argument has so often led to our being made to gloss over the material conditions of these lives—as if the “soul” were more noble than a tax form!—that I find it’s completely out of the question for me to pass over these documents and even the least element of my interior in silence.
The money file contains all my statements from the Banque populaire Nord de Paris, which I’ve kept since I opened my account there in February 2002—the beginning of a new stage in my life. The pitiful state of my finances deserves a novel of its own, but I am barred from belaboring those details here owing to the self-imposed constraint that there be 0 discussion in these pages of any subject that might be the focus of some future literary work. In effect, talking about money—rich vein that it is—would wind up producing a hypertext to this project contrary in spirit to the surfacist descriptions intended for it. All the same, anybody perusing this drawer could easily see that my €3,000 per month suffices to rank me among the 20% best-off French people, which in fact grants me the right to buy this 50 m2 2-/3-room apartment in Strasbourg–Saint-Denis that you’re visiting in absentia.
While looking over my bank statements, 1 overpaid consultant noted that, for the year so far, my monthly mortgage payment of €925 hadn’t changed, nor had my €150 in maintenance fees, whereas my taxes had gone from €645 to 715, suggesting that my financial situation is improving. As this apartment’s owner knows all too well what it costs to own, and especially not to own anything, it can be concluded that the tranquility any apartment provides its owner is a preview of social transformation: a room of 1’s own, that’s the start of the Revolution. The thick cardboard box bound with a strap and holding smaller folders related to the apartment (files pertaining to the property deed, fees, insurance, and so on) is the administrative counterpart to these lines I’ve sketched out here on my computer. A folder titled “miscellaneous pay slips” specifies the various supplementary payments I receive that allow me to improve my daily life: alongside my main métier in academia, I practice the thankless art of criticism, the unappreciated art of being a columnist, and the scenic art of performance.
Leaning against these folders (unless it’s the folders that are leaning against them—with any 2 objects in relation there can be at least 2 relationships) is a shoebox into which is welcomed all evidence of my recent outings: invitations, programs, prospectuses. “Recent outings” isn’t exactly right, because it’s only when the box has been filled, which might take several months or even years, that it’s moved to another part of my apartment (? BEDROOM) and a new box takes its place. Given their multitude, it’s impossible to inventory all these pieces authoritatively. My need to preserve these traces of my activities shouldn’t surprise any reader aware of my propensity for building monuments to myself. The only rule I have for conservation is this: I have to have been physically present at the event thus memorialized (plays, concerts, soccer games, etc.), so that the evidence might figure in this social cartography of my existence.
Examining the older shoeboxes of this sort reveals that I spent 1 particular stretch of time carving out a cultural life for myself: if I hadn’t attended my share of films, performances, and other such outings, I wouldn’t really have felt as though I’d truly “lived” … a stance that could only ever be considered contemptible by such despisers of worldliness as those socialites who seem to believe that the pleasure of beholding anything other than their own selves each day must be some sort of vice. In their presence, standing all alone in a corner just looks pathetic—whereas escaping just feeds into their system of exclusion. Nothing could be more unsavory than these false hermits striving to proclaim their insularity—but I can sidestep the dangers of such disagreeable duplicity if I just make use of my strong, incontestable propensity to sit watching the entire French Open on TV without feeling the least discomfort. Leaving my apartment, as will be clear by the end of the book, is something I believe I must earn.
The 3rd drawer is where I keep everything needed for home maintenance: tools, light bulbs, extension cords, etc.—piled up in no order, stashed out of sight thanks to this furnishing’s setup, which, by concealing items of 0 aesthetic interest as easily as it does the choicest baubles, thereby fulfills its egalitarian design. I open this drawer, which I equate with misfortune, as little as possible: it’s not just that I have so little equipment in here, but also that I feel nothing but dread and terror as regards this array of tools. Since utopia, in my mind, would be a place where machines work quietly all by themselves, devoting so restricted a space to this “toolbox” of mine follows from 1 secret strategy: deep within myself is the foolhardy belief that “I don’t need what I don’t have,” and that accumulating more and better tools would simply increase, almost reflexively, the reasons to use them … In other words, that things anticipate the needs they serve, and as I don’t know how to make any sort of minor improvement to my apartment, or indeed how to fix anything, I have instead succumbed to this especially fragile superstition: that catastrophes may be averted by divesting myself of their remedies (a tactic equally useful for the medicine cabinet ? BATHROOM).
Hammer Without Smith
This hammer, my only real tool, was stolen from the worker who came to fix the hot water tank in my bathroom, and who absentmindedly left it behind on the tile (the advantage of having practically 0 furniture is evident here): as an unpremeditated theft, an appropriation by omission, a countertax levied against the exorbitant rates charged by a category of professionals intent on plumbing home-repair budgets to their fullest, this vengeance exacted by an intellectual against a technician delights me. As much as I’m in favor of homeownership necessarily being private, I’m also in favor of sharing tools, consistent with a communist ethos. The semicommunism I aspire to consists of collectivizing everything that’s uninteresting. Mr. Green, in the entryway, with the wrench, would thoroughly approve.
The sheer lack of space granted to tools in this drawer results in general disorder, since I keep numerous wholly unrelated things there, thereby giving this shambles an atmosphere much like the 1 the surrealists attributed to flea markets: 1 map of France assembled out of cut-up pink carpet (a gift from my friend Bruno Gibert during his “contemporary art” phase); 1 Polaroid camera, unused for eons; 1 water gun for attacking rhetoricians; 1 flashlight sans battery; some spare light bulbs; 1 cassette labeled THOMAS CLERC DEFENDS HIS THESIS; 1 disk drive; 39 road maps; 1 rectangular metal lampshade in which I’ve stuffed the box for 1 Montblanc pen that I’ve never used; 1 3-meter tape measure the same size and color as a wasp; elegant copper nameplates meant to make 1’s front door look especially sophisticated; 1 Lip watch, definitively stopped; some cables; and a cookie tin full of nails—all in all a mass of what people from the Pays de Loire region might refer to with that odd regionalism la jaille and what we here just call junk. There’s also 1 travel chess set, the memento of a bygone era when I was obsessed with this game for months, before eventually giving it up as violently as I’d taken to it, obeying a particular corollary of the law of caprice, namely, that 1 can avoid exhausting a primary enthusiasm by trying out some alternate dilections, the better to go back to the original with fresh eyes—just as a trip to a foreign country makes it easier to love 1’s home upon returning. Chief among these manias would be soccer, for which I save my televisual fervor, or the used bookstore that occupies the Sunday mornings of whosoever agrees to accompany me there.
Finally, in the lowest drawer, the humblest 1, shoved there for convenience’s sake, are all the old folders underscoring the geological strata of my past: the residue of bread-and-butter work for various publishing houses, trip tickets and other travel papers kept in manila envelopes, souvenirs of my time as a student, and other now distant activities I could easily call to mind, but rarely do, like the particulars of a book read out of obligation. These papers, and the memories they summon up, have to be laid out horizontally: roles both on- and offstage at the Artistic Athévains theater (1983–1996); the archives of the literary magazine Le Mérou (14 issues), which I founded along with some young Turks in 1986 and which fell apart in 1995; the minutes from a secret society—Les 4 Fages—founded that same year and scuttled in 1996. 3 activities (the theater, the literary magazine, and the secret society) that only call for 1 brief description, the point they share in common—aside from a delight in life’s pleasures—being that of communal living: I don’t live in a house but in an apartment. Apartments contain rooms that contain some furniture that contain folders wherein a life has been stored away; life isn’t a simple directory of personal belongings. Life overpowers death.
Sliding Along the Runners
As I pull open the heavy drawer, I’m amazed by how smoothly it comes out of its recess. The system of sliding runners surpasses the rough friction of wooden drawers. It simplifies the process of managing memories.
Each drawer bears 1 small rectangle where 1 small piece of card stock is supposed to indicate its contents. Only the 1 on top—WARNING PLEASE READ SAFETY INSTRUCTION PROVIDED IN TOP DRAWER—has been kept. I’ve handwritten CONFIDENTIEL on the other 3, which makes 0 sense because Literature only pretends to be secret.
I keep 2 types of objects on top of this cabinet: category 1 contains such objects as 1 round ashtray, which I’ve repurposed (I don’t smoke) as a key holder—it’s deep enough for the job. This tinplate ashtray, stolen from a waterfront café on some Saint-Raphaël beach in 1994, under the disapproving gaze of my friend, who at the time had a business relationship with the café’s owners, is midnight blue with a world-map design, and holds 1 copy each of the keys to my apartment, the keys to my Nanterre office, and the key to my cellar space: keys, keys, keys. I’ve put this key tray here specifically to be within arm’s reach whenever I enter or leave my apartment, so that I won’t have to go through the same ludicrous experience that drives me nuts every time I see it happen to other people: trying to find their keys before heading out; but this seeming convenience could pose serious problems should there be another burglary. Keeping my keys in full sight is a security risk; it would be better to hide them away, far from their respective locks, in a place known only to myself (I’ve now done so).
Keys to the Kingdom
Rusty like tombstones, lonely like men, chilly like corpses.
Made in Cogolin
The other item belonging to the 1st category, here, however, was purchased—from the Romanies in the flea market at Cogolin, a town in Var well known for its pipes and rugs: this 26 cm metalloid rectangle composed of trapezoidal shafts, with 4 black rubber-coated feet and a row of 36 engraved numbers—or, if it’s better for each item to be given a name, this record rack (for vinyl singles)—can also be used to organize mail; even so, I leave its beautiful structure devoid of all paper.
The item on top of my filing cabinet belonging to the 2nd category transcends its status as a mere object to achieve the status of “work of art”: it pertains to 1 52 cm × 52 cm color photograph that my vice-friend Édouard Levé gave me in thanks for a piece I wrote on his work. This photo, in a pine frame, is part of his Homonyms series, and depicts The Homonym of Raymond Roussel; it was shot in 1998, back when he and I were very close; I chose Raymond Roussel’s homonym, among the other possibilities on offer (Emmanuel Bove, André Breton, Eugène Delacroix, Georges Bataille, and Yves Klein) in a coded homage to the identity of the man who gave it to me, rather than any aesthetic reason, which would in any case be antithetical to this work’s conceptual nature. Conceptual art is, in my view, the most beautiful of all the arts, and if I had to choose here, for myself, the sort of classification that, as a critic, I easily impose on some of my colleagues, I’d consider myself a postconceptual writer.
1 last glance brings to the fore those items that no apartment dweller could possibly forget: that aggregate of inalienable objects preceding 1’s own presence and in time succeeding it—objects belonging not to the resident, as such, but rather, being necessary to the apartment’s proper functioning, acting as its real masters: pipes, outlets, meters, drains, etc. 2 different elements are most prominent in this array of wholly impersonal objects that the law calls property in mortmain: 1st, on the right wall of the entryway, the electrical panel, made up of the fuse box, the circuit breakers, and 2nd, the gas meter itself. This equipment is so visually interesting because it’s mounted on 1 slab of extremely old dark wood, which contrasts with the plastic switches. Out of this block of backcountry wood come 4 thick wires sheathed in fraying cloth, which once caught the eye of an extremely French electrician from Électricité de France: “You’re running a risk,” this electrician sighed, reinforcing the dilapidated setup with some black tape. This patch, as touching as a beggar’s rags, sets these other details in harsh, cold relief.
The impressive number of fuses (15) in my fuse box causes me some anxiety: I don’t see why there should be so many, and I only ever touch the 4 main 1s, which I only consider “main” because they’re labeled on a single placard listing the names of their corresponding rooms: I assigned the role of “bedroom” and “office” to their respective rooms only because of these preexisting labels. Fortunately, the fuses almost never blow, but when they do it’s in the winter, because having 3 heaters, the lights, and the washing machine all running at once (I don’t count the computer because it’s practically always on) inevitably results in blown fuses. Restoring power by flipping the breaker from 0 to 1 is the only act of technical proficiency that—once I’ve gotten the better of my paralyzing fear of being stuck without any heat through the worst of January—I am able to carry out.
Gas on Every Floor
The 2nd inalienable object demanding our attention is on the opposite wall, facing the 1st: the gas meter, 1 small brass block hanging from 2 pipes that run the entire length of the room. Only its grommet touches the wall, so subtly that the pipe almost seems to be floating. At the moment I’m writing these lines, the reading on the counter has gone up to 22/04, which is nearly my birth date. The last official to have taken an official reading from this piece of unseizable property was 1 fairly butch woman who, perched on a stool, kept praising my taste in music as the strains of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black reached our ears, mere days after the news of the singer’s death.
The 3rd impersonal object, a white-corded intercom, which unlocks the courtyard door, is fixed to the wall. It was manufactured by the Acet company, and presents me with 1 unlock button and a 2nd button bearing a logogram I simply can’t decipher. I don’t know what this 2nd button does when I press it (maybe it’s producing an unexpected effect at this very moment, with consequences that affect me only later—such as flashing my name on the intercom screen downstairs?), but I’ve been forced to accept that this supposed intercommunication device doesn’t allow any actual communication to occur. In some cases, its function has even been overpowered by the unadorned human voice: certainly, in the summer, when my window is open and someone rings downstairs, if the door doesn’t unlock automatically, as is supposed to happen when I utilize the object under discussion, my visitor will yell “It’s not working!” and I’ll yell “Wait!” It feels particularly absurd to shout a capella what should have been intoned through the intervening intercom; but this noncoincidence between handset and entrance, and thus between my visitor and myself, generates a small yet fascinating physical tension.
Several scenarios draw attention to this object’s shortcomings: the impatient visitor who, ringing and not getting any immediate response, simply presumes the proprietor absent (though I remember that when I used to ring at the door of the massive bourgeois apartments of my childhood, I always had to wait a fairly long while before anyone opened the door, indicating the affluence of the owners thus summoned, forced to cross not only a succession of rooms but a hallway and an entryway before being able to answer my call, wealth being measurable in both space and time); the timorous ringer who, not having pushed the intercom button long enough, waits in vain for me to respond when a 2nd, longer press is all that’s required; not to mention the frequent hysteria resulting from the 2 parties involved simultaneously doing contradictory things and so preventing the door from properly unlocking, for example X giving it a shove before I’ve even been able to unlock it. 1 of the most bizarre cases I can relate was that of my friend who, impatient to see me, pushed the lowermost button so hard that the entryway buzzer’s subsequent blare knocked the handset off its perch, with only the tangled braid of its cord preventing it from hitting the ground; the doorbell’s violence had been so extreme that the momentarily unusable device had barred me from buzzing in my dear friend. Still, this minor domestic downfall at least underscored just how all our domestic telephonic devices struggle in vain to mediate our overflowing humanness—the object in question being brought low by the simple transmission of desire.
It’s time to leave this room, but not before looking back and noticing, on the floor, against the wall separating the entryway from the bathroom, the 2nd artwork I own; it’s also by Édouard Levé and also framed under glass. This 35 cm × 18 cm black-and-white photograph, dating from 1998, is titled Thomas Clerc refuse le prix Goncourt and depicts me during a conference at the Canadian embassy on the topic of failure. I would have liked to appeal to Édouard Levé to take another photo with a different caption. This possibility having unfortunately been made impossible, I’ve set this lucky charm out of harm’s way.
As I turn around to glance 1 last time at my entryway, seeing this room as more of a patchwork than an artwork, the synthesis of its elements (the green portière, the parquet, the white cotton over the window, and the glass-brick wall of the bathroom, which we’ll get to in due time) communicating a distinctive sparseness resulting in a “light, chic feeling” … I have to say I do like it. Considering its modest objective qualities, I’ve tried to make the best—or anyway the least worst—of it. Playing the presumably-minimalist-but-not-radically-so card, what I wanted was to set up the rest of my apartment along a qualitative slope leading toward contrasting, increasingly impressive effects. My life’s work!
But then it hits me. The room’s very name is a deception, because even though 1 must certainly enter an apartment in order to be inside it, dedicating a whole room to that function isn’t strictly necessary: 1 has either entered or 1 hasn’t (indeed, some small apartments without front steps don’t even have an entryway). And yet, though its congruity with the hallway partially deprives it of any specific identity, my entryway exists a bit all the same. Some days, I’m touched by this effort it makes to exist; others, its smallness annoys me as it would any beleaguered bourgeois.
There’s nothing to do in the entryway but enter or exit: interior architecture hasn’t managed to invent any other functions for the space, though I sometimes dream of adding a sliding glass door that might somehow sanctify it. But what else is there to do here? Head in. Open the door. Walk through. Turn on the light. I never linger there.
The Doorbell Rings Again
There’s the sound of the doorbell ringing again. This time, since I’m right by the door, I open it more quickly. Nobody. I glance through the peephole again. I slam the door shut, then take 2 steps from the entryway into the 2nd room.
Copyright © 2013 by Éditions Gallimard