The following is from Noémi Lefebvre's novel, Blue Self-Portrait. Flying from Berlin to Paris, a woman is caught in her obsessive thoughts, continually circling around a romantic encounter with a pianist she met in a bar. Noémi Lefebvre is a French author living in Lyon. Blue Self-Portrait is the first of her three novels to be translated into English.
The pianist’s entrance is always a big moment, I had expected this moment to be a big one and I wasn’t disappointed. He was admirably himself, pianist and composer and himself all at once, did not appear as the pianist making his entrance but entered, made his entrance without ostentation or affectation or complication, nor in any other manner but simply and authentically without care for
authenticity, not trying to make an authentic entrance and not presenting himself as a pianist entering but simply came in. The simplicity of the pianist’s entrance struck me like a bullseye in my club chair, already I was under his spell before he’d said a single word and without his having to play a single note, in any case there wasn’t a piano in the Kaiser Café and he wasn’t there for a recital, wasn’t dressed as a pianist but in everyday things, was not wearing his pianist’s black polo-neck or his standard black trousers with the crease at the front or his black polished recital shoes, presented himself au naturel but not naked, in casuals, I instantly noticed the pianist’s lack of elegance, elegant at Café Einstein but not at the Kaiser, the pianist quite as awkward and under-cover as the para in his civvies, the pianist komisch in civvies, laidback like any friend coming by for a coffee in the company of any lady friend, as one does now and then when one is well brought up and this pianist was that, had no need of any special education to make him well brought up without, for all that, having to comply with the requirements of collective happiness. Not a trace of collective happiness in our pianist. Nothing in his eyes to make you think that the pianist might at some time or another have been burdened by the quest or the realization of this collective happiness, no trace of happiness in this smiling, warm and friendly person, sitting in the club chair beside
mine, I began to shiver from head to toe, couldn’t stop shivering although it wasn’t cold and I didn’t have the flu, but was trembling like a sick sheep. From cow to sheep my bestiary is domestic, I realized to my annoyance, I should have preferred a wild animal without a pack on its back, I could just see myself galloping across the steppe or the pampas or the taiga and gamboling unwittingly like a savage without a stitch on, skin and bones nothing more, what a stupid sick Dolly I am, the pianist has noticed, he has seen the sheep’s shivering but made no comment either agreeable or disagreeable, he has counted to ten unlike others such as myself, ordered a blended rather than a single malt, topped up to the brim with water and ice, so straight away, despite my sheepish and shaky state, I allowed myself to use the whisky to break his ice. Why I started with the whisky I’ll never know but what I do know is that’s where I started and nothing now can make it so I didn’t. He’d hardly ordered his tall blended whisky on the rocks when I pointed out, in the thoughtless way I’ve made my own, that he was a real American to be drinking a thing like that; why I said that I’ve no idea however I turn it around in my head, perhaps because I couldn’t make myself wait, sat like a sheep in my club chair, for him to begin the conversation himself, perhaps because as soon as he arrived I noticed a slight malaise about the pianist, and
by way of reassurance could muster only an old-fashioned bit of chaffing, perhaps a way of establishing our relationship on a level of frank camaraderie from the outset. If I’d been able to show off my frank camaraderie by taking a spin round the table while sat backwards astride my chair like those imbecile Nazis of course I’d have done it, I thought there in the plane, I could see myself singing one of those Nazi hymns to the glory of comradeship, schmettern die hellen Fanfaren, I established my relationship with the pianist thoroughly indifferent to collective happiness on this repugnant platform, calling him American in a stupid and frankly Nazi-comradeish fashion despite knowing nothing at all about his personal feelings towards America. You never know what kind of bond an American may have with America, one not only American but also German, not only German but also a pianist, that not only but moreover a composer, not only him but actually anyone at all with America, it’s a mystery this bond any Tom or Dick can have with America, the pianist’s America was measured out in bourbon, topped up with water and chilled with ice, that was the only way to appreciate whisky in its American incarnation, which is what I was missing, I was sticking with
my well-known good taste, not innate but belatedly acquired, in the context of an apparently successful marriage which had led me to encounter though not necessarily recognize all kinds of whiskys, single and pure malts, and to despise fans of blended whisky, those drinkers being not enlightened enthusiasts but a lower class of consumers, as conceded by all true enthusiasts distinguished by their refusal of admixture, consumption combines while good taste defines, this is what I’d learned in the context of my marriage, my objective then: success founded on the theoretical knowledge of whisky, I therefore pursued the single-mindedness particular to good taste which cannot be learned for lack of a particular upbringing. These were my prejudices around taste, acquired belatedly and still channeling my judgment in accordance with conventions whose universally relative nature I didn’t always understand, I judged without considering the pianist’s capacity to judge which had enabled him serenely to sip his tall blended whisky on the rocks without in any way snapping back at this my anti-American sarcasm of the lowest kind, the most questionable sarcasm given the knee-jerk anti-Americanism that the pianist was always condemning and which I’d never meant to be part of, in which I was participating despite myself, which I made no attempt to resist: pro-Americanism would
have been equally poorly received, the pianist has never been pro-American, has never supported America for America’s sake nor America versus the rest of the world, he has more than once taken a stand against America but without anti-Americanism either knee-jerk or of any other kind, ordering a blended whisky on the rocks was not a pro-American decision and called for no further anti-American critique, yet I criticized the pianist’s choice without first taking a deep breath and counting to ten or any other number, criticism he thought uncalled-for, being first and foremost a pianist-composer well up on America, better informed than he is hard to find. The pianist’s bond with blended whisky was in some way loaded, so I gathered from the nervy way the pianist had placed his order, as if it were quite a complex order and called for lengthy explanation to the Kaiser’s waiter, who it seemed did not serve tall blended whiskys on the rocks every day, the way he snatched up the glass and made the ice swirl inside it. Doubtless the pianist felt a personal bond with blended whisky, not in the way an alcoholic effectively fosters a personal bond with her drink, the pianist, I’d observed right from the start, has nothing remotely alcoholic about him, nothing could be further removed from the pianist than alcoholism, since our first encounter he’d behaved in that naturally unalcoholic manner typical not of teetotalers, for to be dry one must once have drunk, I mean drunk the way an alcoholic drinks, teetotalism is quite as excessive as alcoholism, one high-flying alcoholic used to say who knew what he was talking about. I knew an alcoholic, he used to practice moderation in his abstinence and
overdid nothing else; he’d disabused me by stealth, shooting down anything that moved, he was a crack marksman, taught me to aim and to fire into the crowd, he would shoot at point-blank range till none were left, till Auslöschung and would drink moderately till he could drink no more, would prep himself the night before for the last drink of the day to come, unfailingly downed propped upright till first light and would hold forth upon significances, philosophizing about the world, understanding the earth’s tendency to spin as his world tilted and the deep meaning of everything in the depths of the bottle, with his lubricated ideas resisted non-lubricated ideas which express nothing definitively true only half-truths for the alcoholic to denounce. Denouncing the world’s half-truths by means of unarguable alcoholic truths was the alcoholic’s ceaseless work, it’s my job as an alcoholic, he would say, wetting his ever-thirsty whistle, never missed the chance to do his job whatever the working conditions, he was that reliable with work, never put off even when it was obviously a good deal too much for one man alone. The para used to drop from the sky and skip right over the facts, swinging from his parachute he could see the army’s colorful lies in Africa’s outline while the alcoholic was penetrating the quintessence of the world and analyzing that quintessence which no one would ever see from a parachute, explaining how bodies fall, the free-fall of inertial bodies and Africa’s free-fall down the woozy truth of the
world’s luge, truth lies not in the leap but in the slide, it’s in the full but not the empty; at the Kaiser Café the pianist was neither between heaven and earth nor between one drink and the next, simply keeping up his unalcoholic bond with blended whisky, an intimate and precious connection, perhaps even more intimate and precious than the pianist’s bond with his car, a relationship one doesn’t enter into just like that, in open comradeship, but that remains for ever mystical and personal.
From Blue Self-Portrait. Used with permission of Transit Books. Copyright © 2018 by Noémi Lefebvre.