Biographies & Memoirs

8

The Scorpion, or The Imaginary Confession (1969)

The Scorpion is Memmi’s most complex and challenging novel, as it jettisons conventional narrative forms, character development, and contextualization. The book uses five typefaces to visually map its multiple narratives and subplots, which nonetheless intersect on the page. We were unable to duplicate this typography in these short selections.

The primary story arc follows an ophthalmologist, Marcel, who, while searching for a lost novel by his brother, Emile, reviews a collection of diverse writings stashed in a drawer. He comments on his own memories of family life and obliquely references the issues raised by Tunisia’s move to political independence with its “new politicians . . . not much better than the old ones.”

Blindness, vision, and the evocation of color suggest Memmi’s interest in exploring how writing conveys truth, as well as the aesthetic and sensory qualities of literature. These themes emerge most starkly in a series of conversations with a character named Uncle Makhlouf (selection one). In the second selection from the novel, Emile searches in vain through his travels for an unproblematic identity that remains elusive. Marcel’s commentary on this snippet reveals his surprise at his brother’s persistent estrangement, even as it acknowledges that only in the utopian space of literature could such reconciliation be possible (selection two).

Uncle Makhlouf—1 (Notes for a Portrait)

I listened to Uncle talk, and he talked and talked in his broken, often inaudible voice that shush-shushed softly and would have been unbearably distressing if it had been anyone else’s, on and on all afternoon until the room became completely dark and for some time already I hadn’t been able to make anything out, whereas he continued to follow his silken threads, coming and going from one wall to the other and talking all the while, mingling fables, meditations, quotations from the Cabala, from the Mishna, from the Sages, but always linking everything together perfectly, questioning one author to find the answer in another, confirming, consolidating his advancing thoughts with a certainty that never failed.1 And above all (what I admire most and try to understand), without any trace of the anxiety, the voluptuous uneasiness that gripped me each time we moved on to another level. How does he manage to rise that way, effortlessly, fearlessly? How does he manage to go ahead always with no other feeling but that peaceful joy? To contemplate our discoveries in that bold but unbragging way?

If a writer tried to say everything, in a single book, would it heal him, reconcile him to himself and to others, to life, or would the effort be fatal to him? Intolerable for others and for himself? Or would he find peace at last? And if so, what would that peace be worth?

If now and then we encounter pages that explode, pages that wound and sear, that wring groans and tears and curses, know that they come from a man with his back up, a man whose only defenses left are his words. If there were a man who dared to say all that he thought of this world, there would not be left him a square foot of ground to stand on.

Uncle Makhlouf:

“What am I? What are we? Nothing! A bug, a mosquito! Fine, and yet: if you have a little dog, a little bird, you can talk to it; sometimes, in the dark reaches of unhappiness, if you haven’t got a little dog, a little bird, you go mad.

“So then, take God, all alone—can you see him all alone, in the vast vastness of the seven heavens? What would become of him in the long run, in the vast duration of eternity? May God forgive me, he’s not in danger of going mad, no, of course not; but he needs to talk to someone just for the sake of checking up on his power and exercising it.

“So, he made man, you and me. I am his little dog, his bird, I am nothing but he can talk to me, he’s not alone any more.

“So, although we exist only through God, you see that God who is everything needed not to be everything, not to be alone.”

Or this:

“The Hara district is just the area between the place where Sidi Mahrez2 was standing and the place where his cudgel fell when he threw it so as to assign us a place. So, the Hara is not very big and yet it’s the entire world. In it you will find goodness and wickedness, intelligence and stupidity, greediness and prodigality, unhappiness and every possible joy and, in any case, twenty-one places for prayer, that is, twenty-one of the most direct paths by which to reach God.” [ . . . ]


I ask him questions about his work, to give us a rest and because he is always pleased when I do that. Besides, we won’t stay on this first level for long. He is poor, half blind, his children have all gone away, married, settled down, but he won’t ask anything of them or accept anything from them. Tirelessly, using the huge wheel that fills the whole room, he puts the threads of silk together, yellow, red, green, white, making large, gorgeous, twisted coils.

“If you don’t want people to treat you like a beggar, begin by treating yourself like a nobleman.”

“But what if you’re poor, helpless, overlooked by others, Uncle Makhlouf?”

“All the more reason to do so, my son, all the more reason! . . . But whom are you talking about? Me, I’m not poor and I’m not powerless. Are you trying to say that sometimes you don’t show yourself enough respect? That’s always a mistake. It’s always more important than other people’s insults. Are you trying to say that you are angry with yourself? Hurry to make peace, my son, or else you’ll remain poor and divided indeed.”

I talk to him about other things and he does not insist. I ask how his health is, how his eyes are. How does he adapt to his gradual loss of sight? [ . . . ]

“Because of that, now I have to concentrate only on the texts I know by heart. A step in the right direction, certainly.” Yes, that may in fact be the other solution.


The perfect man is as dead. Does he move? It is as if he were fettered. He knows not why he is on earth nor why he should not be on earth. Before the gaze of others, he does not alter his outward behavior. Nor does he alter that behavior when he is sheltered from the gaze of others. Alone, he goes away and he comes. Alone, he goes out and he comes back.


Colors. He came back to the subject himself, as if by chance, without any apparent link with what went before:

“What is more, colors talk; each of them speaks to me in its own language, each with its own timbre and degree of strength. Perhaps this is because I need to hear them.”

(He even added, “Do they speak to you?” which made my heart beat faster, but already he had shifted gears, moving on into quotations.)

“Is not death called ‘the red’? Is not caraway called ‘the black’?”

I preferred not to interrupt him; I’ll let him go ahead, giving me the maximum number of suggestions, and that way they will have come from him. Then we’ll see.

What Uncle says is never false, never ridiculous. A way of speaking which is surprising at first and may seem childish but always proves to be astonishingly coherent because—how shall I put it?—fortified from within. In the last analysis, it expresses all the other possible ways, in its own way.


To sum up:

1. 1) The various types of wisdom may not all be equally valid (but, after all, I don’t really know), but they all talk about the same thing. About what?

2. 2) If that is so, then how shall we distinguish the degrees of truth in each of them (and in all of them) amongst the childishness, the daydreams, the picturesque, even in the words of a humble craftsman or in a naïve folk tale as well as in the pronouncements of a learned man?

3. 3) How can these degrees and these differences be expressed in a common language? How can we go from one wisdom to another?

Always: the need to have a key.


Coincidence: this morning, weekly visit with Uncle. Fridays from now on because there aren’t many patients at the Dispensary, or even at the Center. I take advantage of it to go and see relatives, friends, and the few chronic illness cases that don’t get around very easily. I must admit that until now, I had avoided that day, convenient though it is, because it was the day Emile chose to go and chat with Uncle. I did not like the idea of a possible three-way meeting, where I would seem something of an intruder, or even the idea of seeing Uncle after Emile had been there.

What’s this business about colors? Another one of their little secrets. How can Emile take pleasure in chatting so seriously about problems that are outworn and—worse still—gratuitous?

No way of convincing Uncle; he refuses to let anyone treat him. No way of convincing our father either, until it was too late; no one could do anything for him by then and nothing mattered to him any more.

“I can see well enough.”

That’s not true, he bumps into his big wheel and he checks on his threads with his fingers or brings them up close to his nose.

“Excuse me, Uncle Makhlouf, soon you won’t be seeing anything at all.”

“What is there to see? Answer.”

“It seems to me that sight is the most important sense.”

“No, your ears are all you need if your eyes don’t work, or your eyes if your ears don’t work. Above all, a man must know. And anyhow, you haven’t answered my question. . . . How can you expect to move ahead if you leave unanswered questions behind you?”

“What questions? Ah yes, well, let’s not get into a pilpul.”

“Don’t you want to see better? How will you live?”

“I am too old now to live any other way. I know all the prayers by heart. My children are grown up. Who’s going to refuse me a bit of bread and some water, in exchange for a coil of silk? And I’m always ready for a group prayer.”

No way of getting the slightest help from his children either: “He doesn’t want to.” I can’t tell whether they say that because they respect their father’s decision or because they’re indifferent. I remember Emile took the same attitude toward our father—“He doesn’t want to”—and I was very shocked.

I decided it would be smart to play along with him a little. How can a man lose interest in his eyes, even in the strange phenomenon of sight itself? Why shouldn’t Uncle Makhlouf, who handles so many “important” problems, be excited by sight? I don’t mind admitting that it is the only thing that makes me enthusiastic enough to feel like using the word “miracle.” Such a tiny area of the body and it localizes one of the most complex, delicate, and extraordinarily efficient systems. The crystalline lens, transparent flesh, long before glass was thought of; the allotted number of cells used for sight, that doesn’t change from the day we’re born till the day we die, as if the noble tissue were meted out to us for all time—and what a tragic situation that is; the astonishing distribution of retinal cones and rods in color perception and peripheral vision; and even now, even after all the progress we’ve made, all the ground we’ve covered, the veritable continents we have already explored in what is an almost magical universe because, minute though it is, it turns out to be inexhaustible, always capable of new revelations and unsuspected landscapes—suddenly new instruments allow us to enrich our store of knowledge so much that those landscapes take on a totally new aspect. We may have to postpone the explanation once again—a really inexhaustible, dizzying prospect!

This endless postponement of the explanation is as disturbing as it is thrilling. In spite of all the progress we have made, our powers of investigation remain limited, whereas the world is unfathomable. Now, how much of all that do we manage to take in? Hardly anything—between four thousand and seven thousand angstrom units. Ah, our perception of the world is terribly limited! And yet all of that acts on us, transforms us. . . . Just think of the X-rays in the atmosphere. . . . Why couldn’t there be creatures that we cannot perceive but that do exist, that perceive us, on the contrary, that go through us, invade us?

In my enthusiasm, I nearly said to Uncle Makhlouf: and even a sort of God, why not? In all events, a mystery of some sort envelops us, no doubt about it, even if that’s a word I don’t like to use. Let’s say I hesitate between two ways of putting it: “I don’t know, but I know there’s an explanation,” and “There’s an explanation, but we’ll never know what it is.”

Was Uncle Makhlouf looking at me ironically? I don’t know why it is, but that devil of a man always wins. Let’s put a halt to all these speeches; that isn’t what I came for. I came to practice my profession as a doctor, to reassure and to cure.

“And yet,” I hastened to add, “we act, we decide, we get results. . . . Uncle Makhlouf, do you know the most marvelous, most reassuring thing of all? People find these things so natural—all that complexity, ingenuity, and wealth, the whole incredible machinery of sight that works for us, it’s such an obvious thing—that our patients aren’t terribly grateful to us, the way they are after undergoing some ordinary kind of surgery; especially (oddly enough) those who recover their eyesight completely. It’s as if, once the difficulty was removed, they forgot it had ever been there.”


Uncle’s conclusion, once I had treated him and had spent half an hour slyly (or so I thought) trying to convince him:

“Do you know,” he said, “I had exactly the same conversation with Imilio—may God bless him wherever he is. He also was worried about my eyes but he—he doesn’t try to be right. He asks only the questions which should be asked because they alone have answers. That’s very important, believe me.”

This kind of scholasticism always leaves me nonplused. I have the feeling that anything I might say to him would slide off without touching him, like water off a duck’s back.

Same impression when I talk with the new politicians. Now that the initial euphoria has worn off, I discover that they’re not much better than the old ones. There’s not one problem that can be looked at or solved directly, on its own merits. Everything seems to be judged on the basis of something else, I don’t know what. Yet the Minister is a doctor, or was at least; he wants to cut back the budget for the Center by almost half, whereas even up until now we haven’t had very much, and he knows it. “There are other matters needing urgent attention.” More urgently than the country’s eyes! Or else was I supposed to understand that those urgent matters were really others, indeed? When I said that to him, his grand ceremonious politeness surfaced again: could it be that I doubted his esteem and confidence? He annoys me. [ . . . ]

My Travels

The truth is that all of my attempts to leave for good have failed miserably. And yet I’m considered a great traveler! A hundred times I’ve gone away, and I continue, in a ritual way, to go on trips that are so long and so improbable for the people about me, and without ever promising to return or taking any of the customary precautions, that they’ve come to look on me as a sort of nomad, an iconoclast. [ . . . ] Each time I went away for good, or almost, vowing that this time I would really find it, I would settle down—until the day I realized, admitted what I already knew, it was so obvious: I couldn’t live anywhere else but here. Algiers, first of all. It was on our doorstep, despite the distance in miles, and, as a student, I had a first pretext—my degree to get. But it was just too near. I realized that the very first evening. I was in a little alley just like our own; the walls almost touched. Behind a piece of perforated cardboard that covered their window, a family of some uncertain tongue, French-Italian-Spanish, all screeching at the same time.

“But where’s that saucepan gone to?”

“Inside your ass! Hey, there it is, sitting on your nose!”

Tired though I was, that put me in a good mood, and I felt like chiming in through the silly cardboard, telling them that the pan couldn’t be in two such different places at once.

Moving in, if it can be called that, into that bare place with nothing but sacks of chickpeas and beans inside, where Jacquot and I slept on two doors we’d taken off their hinges. The only trouble was, there was no toilet, so we had to wait until six in the morning when the public toilet in the Place du Gouvernement opened; you had to stand on a line that was often twenty feet long before you could relieve yourself. It reminded me of the camp, the waiting in front of the urinals, seven of them for two thousand men. We figured they must have functioned thirty-seven hours out of every twenty-four. Then the Casbah, the voluptuous uneasiness I feel in all Arab cities. The blood of the butcher’s stalls—all those severed heads—the cobblers’ broad sharp knives—the light held captive under the arches—the shops like long windowless tunnels—the spices, the candles, the acid-colored sweets, the close smell of fabric—one song common to them all, sung over and over a hundred times, always in tune, always grips me by the guts. . . .


Only perhaps an Arab city of which I would be the prince.


In short, I could have stayed in Algiers, if only I hadn’t come there for another reason. It was Jacquot who gave the signal that it was time to leave again. Barely three months after we’d arrived, he told me that he absolutely had to go back to be operated on for a cryptorchid condition. This, he explained to me, meant that one of his testicles had never descended and was still up inside the abdomen. In the long run, staying on in a place that was too comfortable, and a climate that was too warm was likely to stifle all his love-making capacities. He was leaving me in the lurch and I was furious. I would gladly have left Algiers but not to go back home.

“Maybe it’s too late by now anyhow,” I suggested slyly. “Maybe your balls have had it.”

“They have not! My mother’s been to see a lot of doctors.”

“Your mother! She’s the one who’s cutting them off, by making you come back!”

We separated on bad terms, and it was somebody else who told me that when he got out of the hospital, he let himself be married to a cousin who was rich and homely. I shuddered. I too had a rich cousin; she was even pretty, and people kept trying to bring us together, all eager to see us get married. Even today she’s the prettiest heifer you’ve ever seen, fat, dumb, and covered with frills, but after all, her husband seems happy enough.

Then came Argentina and the fooling around with Henri that I’ve told about elsewhere; prairies and horses. Only to discover that I hated nature, especially the too-green kind you find in countries that are too well-watered. Ah, for the red clay that crumbles silently in sun-blazing fingers! Besides, what could be sillier than a tree? And as for horses, what stupid, cowardly animals! The myth that’s been built up around horses—of course, idealizing the steadfast and faithful servant. An animal-servant, that’s what a horse is. Ah men! men my brothers! how I need you! How lonely I would be without you! Anyway, Henri hadn’t come looking for his uncle’s ranch any more than I had; we never found it, by the way, since there’d never been any ranch, just a small bar and a sort of a country house—which explains the ranch. After only a few months, Henri went back to Italy on a freighter and I, after making a roundabout detour by way of Mexico, New York, and Canada, went back to France, each of us to attempt a personal showdown. Henri had studied at the Italian high school and the Dante Alighieri, then in Bologna; I had been to the French lycée, then the Alliance Française and the University in Algiers.


France. Would I ever come to terms with that country once and for all? All that it stood for from a distance, the great disappointment it was when seen close up—so disappointing I could have died, literally, since it meant the collapse of all that part of myself which I thought was given over to it and held up by it. When I remember how hopefully, how feverishly I arrived in Marseille for the first time after sleeping night after night on the decks of freighters or on waiting-room floors with travelers stepping over me, and waking up with sticky cinders in my mouth and down my neck; anything, to get to Paris at last—Paris! And then, the dream came to an end, dully, in a way that was not even violent or painful, just ordinary, bland. The Eiffel Tower didn’t even seem ridiculous or touching. The Arch of Triumph wasn’t even a piece of jingoism or a provocation. It was worse. I had seen them so many times in films, in my books and, best of all, in my daydreams, that they produced the same effect as Algiers: old hat. It wasn’t really true, just a trick my eyes and my memory were playing on me. After some time I discovered that this false familiarity was part of the French politesse: you can be on good terms with someone for twenty years but if, one day, you take a slightly more cordial tone, you find you’re guilty of bad taste, you’ve made the error of forgetting that you’re not “one, of them.” But I’m getting ahead of myself. A few days later I went to see Marrou.

“So you too have come to ferret out the secret of the West,” said he, solemn, always the same.

“As a matter of fact, the West hasn’t got any more secrets,” I replied sharply.

He went on to make every possible mistake that day. I had brought back five or six pounds of coffee and I gave him a little. To avoid showing that he was pleased, he said, “You trying to bribe me?”

I nearly snatched it out of his hands.

He asked me why I hadn’t shaved. I hated having people take any notice of how I looked. I snapped at him so fiercely that he finally forgot to be haughty and looked at me and smiled. It was through Marrou that I had the chance to earn my first money—and in the field of letters, I kept exulting to myself at first—until I realized that this fine literary work boiled down to reviewing dull books. Then I felt an overwhelming, definitive disgust for any and all literary tasks. Never would I accept that kind of literature. A book, any piece of writing should be a piece of your own skin that you rip off. At this time I read L’homme à la cervelle d’or, and it moved me to tears.

But the real disillusion as far as I was concerned, the one that finally made me leave, was the Sorbonne. A complete misunderstanding. My fellow students came to immerse themselves in discussion sessions, polish their store of knowledge, and acquire a professional diploma. I could not have said exactly what I was looking for. In all events, I suffered a decisive defeat; the idea I had had of philosophy fell in ruins. Eagerly I had entered this temple of meditation, after waiting all through the war and all my life long, after crossing two continents and half the oceans of the world. There I expected to reflect on the most grave and cruel problems affecting the fate of man, under the guidance of the most outstanding thinkers and in the company of students selected from among the best in the country. Instead, what did I find? Whole courses spent on detailed exegeses, exercises, formal lessons in which the way of saying something was far more important than the truth and the real weight of the problems that were taken up. Cautious professors systematically screening themselves behind other people’s thought until they had become mere historians and had expended all their energy on securing their posts; from there they were supposed to send forth rays of enlightenment but the effort of getting there had made their own light dim and go out.

Pale and desperate students, waiting in dread of the final examination that would either open up life to them at last—or else relegate them once and for all to the murky ranks of University failures. What I found most revolting was their resignation, the total lack of any inclination to rebellion. It can never be emphasized enough how many generations of what were, to begin with, the richest, most intelligent young men this system has destroyed! The work team I belonged to included five people in all, and here’s what became of them: one died of tuberculosis, brought on by privation and overwork; one was a genuine neurotic whose face twitched with tics and who kept saying that once he had passed his exams he would earn money and then be able to afford to have himself psychoanalyzed; one dropped out, and one succeeded—but what a success!


My first paper was disastrous. We had been told to discuss the finite and the infinite. So I described and analyzed the bewilderment I felt before our inadequacies, our fragility, the poorness of our consciousness, the narrowness of our senses when the world was so threatening, varied, complex and . . . infinite. I added that philosophy was essentially just that—a vigilant astonishment, a painful becoming aware of our limits and the constant effort to take them into account in the way we behaved. In short, I conceptualized one of my own sources of distress as best I could. Judgment was immediate and final: “Irrelevant; you have not quoted Leibniz, although he is on the reading list.”

This was the comment written in red ink on my paper and read aloud to a full lecture hall by the historian of philosophy, Jules Barrier. It was true, I hadn’t exactly quoted Leibniz or any of the other philosophers on that fancy reading list, but it seemed to me I had followed their thought processes, or at least explained my own thought process—still shaky, no doubt, but deeply felt and lived, and I thought that that was what philosophy was. Even today I can’t reproach that awkward paper with anything more than making banal and obvious statements, not with being irrelevant. What could be more relevant, more worthy of meditation? A few days later, the first-year students played a horrible trick on Barrier, who had only one arm: they pinned back the other sleeve of his overcoat. He called me into his office and, using what he must have thought was a tried and true police interrogating method, accused me point-blank of having committed the crime in order to get revenge. His theatrics struck me as grotesque and laughable. Most of all, I was outraged that he could have suspected me, me! who had admired him so—from a distance. I don’t know whether my indignation convinced him, but from then on, I found everything that had to do with the Sorbonne quite nauseating. I must admit that I had also come looking for a way of living and would have been glad to take one of those highly respected men as my model. I quickly decided that there wasn’t one of them whose existence or reactions or even whose success I would have liked to call my own, not if the price to be paid was that cautious conformism they displayed in their way of thinking and living. Besides, something odd was happening: soon the reading of certain texts became unbearable—actually, physically unbearable—to me. I remember I was reading Spinoza one day, when I had an intuition that these cold and seemingly transparent phrases were the precarious outcome of his desperate effort to overcome his own anguish and the chaos of the world. Abruptly, it seemed to me that these abstractions were materializing, taking on palpable shape, and they began to weigh upon me to such an extent that I had to let go of the book. I was panting and my hands were trembling.

I was off again, around the Mediterranean this time, to check up on a few places—Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Palestine of that period. But great God, what (I’m still wondering today) do you really look for when you travel? Scenery? It’s all alike; except for maybe two or three times when it came as a total surprise, a genuine novelty—the desert, for example—a picturesque landscape soon bores me. My eyes grow swollen with fatigue, bringing on severe headache. People—that’s what interests me most, in the long run. But the few people who form my familiar circle are inexhaustible as it is—Uncle Makhlouf, Qatoussa, Bina. Do I really have to go thousands of miles away looking for other people who will still be inaccessible to me because of the tedious obstacles of language and picturesqueness itself? Actually, the only thing I like and understand is the genuine process of settling down in a city and slowly taming it until it almost becomes mine; immediately I become intimate with certain people, I am their brother, and from then on I feel them and recognize them as if I’d never left them. But then can anyone tell me why I have to go off and leave my own people?

When I returned to Paris from this swing around the Mediterranean, I became engaged to Marie and decided to go back home. We got married almost right away at the mairie of the XIVth arrondissement, with no one else present at the ceremony. I wrote to the Board of Education to ask for a job, any kind of job. Nothing available in the high schools, they told me, but something in a normal school. I assented. A few days later, a cable: nothing left in the normal school; something in a technical school and I would be teaching only a little philosophy, at least for a while. I agreed again. I’d have taken nursery school! A far cry from the time when A. M. Benillouche meant to be a university professor at twenty-five and a philosopher by profession and sole inclination.

Of course I kept finding all sorts of excuses for myself. The main thing was to go home, find a suitable setting again, find people you know and who understand you, harness yourself to daily, meaningful work. That was real life, that was equilibrium and health. I had countless plans, and I actually began to carry some of them out. I wanted to found certain institutions and overthrow others, and I did it, more or less. I had ideas on housing, on nutrition for grown-ups and children, on race relations. The local psychiatrist and I founded an anthropological society that is still active, and opened combined psychology-sociology consultations—the only kind, I think, that are suited to this country, where the most disturbing problems are those of cohabitation. Before long I even found an opening in philosophy and had pupils whom I liked, including YM. With the help of an architect friend, we built a little house on the hill that people came to admire and copy. But all of this went on in a sort of dream, as if it wasn’t quite I any longer who was taking part. Moving closer every day to a bland indulgence, that I dared to call my “wisdom,” I didn’t even recognize that austere rage that had driven me for so many years.

Yet I had returned to my native country and I had brought my wife with me from that wondrous West that I had traveled over in every direction, devouring it. Hadn’t I achieved the main thing? My wife was admired, handled with care; we were made much of and treated with such grateful emotion that it wasn’t clear whether the rejoicings marked the start of a long festival of homecoming or were really a taunting sign that the group had won the final victory and was parading its hapless prisoners. Personally, I didn’t even need to ask myself; I knew the answer to that question even before I set foot on the boat.

A week before going on board, I suddenly decided to write a long narrative. This had been a project of mine for a long time and I’d kept putting it off until I could find the necessary peace and quiet. Feverishly I set to work as I never had before, as if I had to pile up as many pages as possible before going back, as if I already knew that soon that would be the only thing left to me. I don’t mean this as an expression of regret, exactly, or as an attack on literature: what would I have done without literature? It allowed me to survive. It was thanks only to my books that I was able to straighten up some of the clutter inside myself and devote myself a little to philosophy as I understood it. It’s just that this activity was soon going to supplant all the others, and it’s never a good idea to have only one way out.


I must admit I never realized that he looked on his Paris period as such a failure. He never mentioned anything but minor difficulties, food or lodging, and joked at the same time about the morals of the French in metropolitan France . . . until the day Marie appeared on the scene, which supposedly changed everything. The classic love story, infusing all with its glow and embracing all mankind in its tenderness. From what he says now, it was disastrous, he never became resigned to those people or that atmosphere.

All right then, but why does he seem to feel that his return here was another disaster? Apparently his ties to this country are visceral, like mine, and he can’t live elsewhere for any length of time. Yet he never stops knocking it and making almost vicious swipes at it. He’s not usually the talkative type, but once he gets going, he goes on and on, taking off everybody’s accent and being sarcastic about every one of our customs—for instance, saying our beans make an ideal poultice to soothe the burning effects of boukha and our meatball couscous is a potent factor in the general lethargy. You’d think it was Marie talking, if only she’d opened her mouth, and in fact we did at least suspect her because we found it so unbelievable that one of our own people could be so continually corrosive. Especially since it’s such a contrast with his books, where he talks about those same dishes and the same people with lyrical enthusiasm.

Maybe I’m not being fair to Imilio; maybe I still don’t understand anything about writing and writers. I recall the anecdote about André Gide that Emile told me himself. Delighted to welcome his illustrious fellow author at his dinner table, Emile had gone to an enormous amount of trouble to find him grapes in the middle of winter. To his dismay, Gide refused even to taste them: he didn’t like grapes. “I thought you adored grapes, you’ve described them so magnificently.”

“Oh, I like them very much—in literature,” answered Gide.

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