The Attraction of Things

Roger Lewinter, trans. by Rachel Careau

November 15, 2016 
The following is from Roger Lewinter’s novel, The Attraction of Things. Roger Lewinter was born in Montauban, France, in 1941, to Austrian Jewish parents. The family moved to Switzerland during the war, and he has lived much of his life in Geneva. For more than forty years he has worked as a writer (of both literary and scholarly works), an editor, and a translator (of Georg Groddeck, Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser, and Rilke, among others). Among his dozen books are three works of fiction.

It had been a year now since, in breaking things off, I had declined the choice made for me by my mother before her death; as she had been doing every two months, however, Michèle had called, and we were supposed to see each other that Wednesday, December 17: to begin with, I wanted to show her the second Kashmir shawl that, just at the end of Le pasteur, I had found at the flea market—a Marseille jacquard square that had nevertheless fascinated me at once, since it constituted the necessary counterpart to the Rose Garden, setting against its sixteen dispersive swirls on the outside a concentrated sphere on the inside, of red tracery, floating in a diamond of metallic-gray ether itself set in a green-and-black square that incorporated into  its  corners  sections  of  the  central globe—; turning away from it, Michèle observed, “I don’t get the radiance of your Kashmir shawl”; and we went to the station buffet where, toward the end of the meal, officially in our engagement period, she announced to me that she had a new boyfriend; giving me, by this fait accompli, formal notice, if I wanted to proceed, to make my own choice; and so when we parted at midnight, I returned home full of a feverishness that the sleeping pills increased, so that, around one thirty, I got up and went out, to go to the public toilets, on place Saint-Gervais, in the basement, where for years I persisted in looking for what, already stunning me in the stench of the public urinals in Paris, at age twelve, evading my grasp, captivated me—before Pentecost, returning home from the classes in Zurich, around one in the morning, I had encountered someone there who didn’t appeal to me but whose waiting affected me, not realizing that he was drunk and that, in this state, I was intruding upon him with my aimless concentration, whose misbehavior, the next evening, when I saw him again, in the guise of sudden passion at first moved me deeply, when, without segue, he called out to me in German, “Why are you so stupid?” then made me freeze when he continued in French, “You belong to me, I want your body, I want your soul”; and I had driven him away, only to attempt, several days later, to find him again, in vain, a hallucination to which I refused access in reality—; while now, a reeling lout suddenly looming up, seeing me, fell to his knees at my feet.

He had spoken to me about withdrawal, about an empty bottle of whiskey on the ground there, and about a brawl in which he had torn the sleeve of his anorak; and when we arrived at my apartment—outside, we had had to wait a quarter hour for a taxi, during which, in fits, in order not to fall, he had hung on to me—, he had flopped down on the bed, asking me, before sinking under, not to forget to wake him at five o’clock: when the telephone rang, I wasn’t sleeping, but he was unconscious; rubbing his face with a towel moistened with cold water, I finally managed to pull him from sleep: he looked at me; then, slowly putting together what had happened, he came around, suddenly ecstatic, in a trance enveloping me in a worshipful embrace within which I remained, stunned: it was seven thirty when he recalled that he was supposed, at six o’clock, to have opened the bistro where he had been working for only three days, and telephoned his boss to ask him to find someone to fill in, saying that he would be there as soon as he had found a taxi—outside, it was snowing—; but, now, he couldn’t manage to unknot the laces of his putrefied Clarks, which I had pulled off him to put him to bed: I took them in my hands then, and at the moment when, detecting their odor, which at its most extreme—unbearable—was an invading force that suddenly made me hyperventilate, I knelt down at his feet, he released in one breath, “I will marry you, you have only to say the word, wherever you want, whenever you want”; and when, at quarter past eight, having finally gotten a taxi, a rendezvous having been set for that evening at nine at the Colibri, a bistro downstairs from his place, unable in the entryway to pull himself away, he kissed me, beside himself—“I love you and I worship you, and I am very jealous, and if you betray me, I will kill you”—, I discovered to my elation that, while this was what I had wanted to experience, convinced that there had to be a difference, there was none, between man and woman, none whatsoever, since it is negated for the body that in its fulfillment is escaped.

During the month that followed, I saw him only when he was drunk: he would telephone then without warning, in the middle of the night—every time, whatever the hour, that he called, he pulled me from the unconsciousness of the most profound sleep, even though I otherwise remained, as usual, awake—, and, from the bistro he hung around at, taking a taxi, he would suddenly appear ten minutes later at the door, a genie released from his bottle, gaze piercing, body luminous; without my seeking—even though he insisted, at first, that I intrude— ever to have a hold on him, making me realize, and this filled me with an acute exultation—which, three weeks earlier, as I was throwing myself into Le chercheur, had finally made me buy the Psalms of David, by Schütz, the joyous intensity of which, at first hearing, years earlier, had enthralled me, without my having, until now, dared to listen to them—, that, for him, I didn’t exist in reality outside of drunkenness; the asceticism consisting in being only this, which made of two bodies brought together the mere stopping-off point in an impersonal connection that, through the necessary surrender to his arbitrariness ravishing my body, was draining me completely through this dissipation, about which, by telephone, at the end of January, in response to a remark I made to him about his increasing discontinuity, he stated abruptly, “Hollywood, it’s over.”

At the end of January, when the draft of Le chercheur was advancing rapidly, I went to the Théâtre du Caveau to see Moriaud, with whom I had remained in contact, although the relationship had soured when, after the Musset, Moriaud having asked me what exactly I wanted, disconcerted, I hadn’t known what to answer, while he pressed me to finally choose, whoever it be, a body, at which  I expressed my reluctance, claiming, dishonestly, to have already done so besides; and, backstage, after the performance of Point d’eau—in which he played the guru of a group of survivors of some cataclysm—, I was recounting to him my news when Sandra, a Romanian refugee, who had staged the play, her curiosity obviously aroused, invited me to have a drink with the troupe, so as to offer me out of the blue—we hadn’t exchanged three words—the part, in February, in her next production, initially conceived as a montage on the theme of Antigone, of the announcer, then, should the need arise, in the play by Sophocles, which was being staged in May, that of the leader of the chorus.

Article continues after advertisement

At the thought of working again with Moriaud, who was playing Tiresias, but, still more, struck that, when I had known her, eight years earlier, Svetlana, giving up ballet, had rightly tried her hand at theater in a montage of the trilogy by Sophocles in which she played, in addition to the Sphinx and Jocasta, Antigone, I accepted, fascinated by the logic of the proposition: for if I had, initially, given up the theater, it was with the awareness that it would be impossible for me to act without consenting to homosexuality, which would have overwhelmed me, whereas I was aiming for control over it; for which the Fränger had supplied me with a technique whose significance I had long failed to see, similar to the disruption of sleep that, systematically, I had brought on by taking sleeping pills, with an obviousness I didn’t wonder about, as soon as I undertook the Diderot—culminating, when I met Moriaud, in three months of total insomnia, which was losing its agonizing nature only now, with the sudden appearance of the lotus—: the Adamite heresy, as re-created in The Millennial Kingdom, elaborated, in actual practice, tantrically, by the man who, indefinitely postponing his ejaculation in orgasm, with his mind sent it back like a fire into his own body, thus sublimated.

Starting with three academic conferences on Antigone, which she was responsible for chairing, and the project, soon abandoned, of staging the single play by Sophocles, in the version by André Bonnard; also dangling the prospect of a series of performances at the ancient theater at Delphi in August, after the fifteen performances now set for the Caveau, Sandra had succeeded, for this production, in putting together a professional troupe in which  I was the only amateur, moreover the one in charge of the dramaturgy: though every time we had discussed Antigone she would take the words out of my mouth, I didn’t suspect, despite the way she had of leaving her cigarette butts lying around everywhere, that, lacking any substance, she was concerned only with charming whoever was drawn into her obsession with staging one show after another.

After two weeks of rehearsals, when, the croaks piercing the hoarseness, her voice had become unbearable to me, and although it seemed that, precisely because of the contracts she voluntarily signed, we had to act for the mere beauty of the gesture — which no one, while he was able to withdraw, had apparently noticed—, at the beginning of April, I acknowledged that Sandra was only the opportunity, rare according to Moriaud, for whoever knew how to use it, to be forced, having been driven back onto oneself, to break through one’s own limits; and, as the fraud was on the point of being discovered, my double function making the actors uncertain whether I hadn’t engaged in manipulation by proxy, I had to take on the dramaturgy where the leader of the chorus, the link between the human and the suprahuman, like the third eye opening up to the blind vision of Tiresias, was solely an impassive seat of concentration; adopting, in order to make it perceptible, little by little a bearing taken from yoga: during the performance, which lasted an hour and a half, standing, immobile, on the proscenium, a presence, in the midst of the actors, with a phrasing at first floating but, on the advice of Moriaud, whose attention was focused on me, projected with an increasingly embodied force, to the point where Creon, on the evening of the premiere, and even though, during the rehearsals, he had conspicuously avoided all discussion, before coming onstage being unable to resist any longer, blurted out, “You don’t want to be the Exterminating Angel, either.”

The health of my father, since the previous September, had been deteriorating, the drugs having less and less control over the tremor that was now paralyzing him in spurts, disjointing his day with gaps to which, not wanting to hear of another hospitalization, he reconciled himself, and which I likewise trivialized; while, returning after the three months’ interruption occasioned by Antigone to Le chercheur, I finished the word-for-word translation in June, to find myself confronted with the difficulty unresolved, since I still didn’t know how to convey in French what showed through in the German, in my version rendering, as I was aware, only a state of amazement, not, in its magnetization, the torrent  of a life; and, the more I advanced, the more I was losing my way, when, on August 13, I had to have my father admitted, despite his refusal—“because you die there”—, to Thônex so that they could try, by gradually changing his medication, to stabilize his condition; but it was the balance found upon the death of my mother, three years earlier, that was undoubtedly slipping away.




From THE ATTRACTION OF THINGS. Used with permission of New Directions. Copyright 1985 by Roger Lewinter. Copyright 2016 by Rachel Careau.

More Story
Why Americans Need to Pay for
Real Journalism
The following is from Paulette Jiles's novel News of the World, a National Book Award finalist (winner announced on Wednesday).   Wichita...