The Man Who Sleeps (by Georges Perec)

Your alarm clock goes off, you do not stir, you remain in your bed, you close your eyes again.
It is not a premeditated action, or rather it’s not an action at all, but an absence of action, an action that you don’t perform, actions that you avoid performing.
You went to bed early, you slept peacefully, you had set the alarm clock, you heard it go off, you waited for it to go off, for several minutes at least, already woken by the heat, or by the light.
or by expectation itself.
You do not move; you will not move.
Someone else, your twin, conscientious double is perhaps..
perhaps performing in your stead, one by one, the actions you have eschewed:
he gets up, washes, shaves, dresses, goes out.
You let him bound down the stairs, run down the street, leap onto the moving bus, arrive on time, out of breath but triumphant, at the doors in the hall.
You get up too late.
You will not set down on four, eight or twelve sheets of paper what you know, what you think, what you know you are supposed to think, about alienation, the workers, modernity and leisure.
about white-collar workers or about automation, about our knowledge of others, about Marx as rival to de Tocqueville, about Weber as an opponent of Lukacs.
In any case, you wouldn’t have said anything, because you don’t know a great deal
and you think nothing at all.
Your seat remains vacant.
You will not finish your degree, you will never start your diploma.
You will study no more.
You make , as you do everyday, a bowl of Nescafe;
you add, as you do everyday, a few drops of sweetened condensed milk.
You don’t wash, you hardly bother to dress.
In a pink plastic bowl you place three pairs of socks to soak.
You don’t go and wait for the candidates to come out of the examination hall
to find out what questions were devised to test their perspicacity.
You don’t go to the cafe
as custom would have demanded
like everyday to join your friends.
One of them, the following morning
will climb the six flights of stairs that lead to your room.
You will let him knock at your door.
Knock again.
A little louder.
Wait again.
Knock gently.
Call your name quietly.
Then stamp back down again.
Others came, the day after, the after that, knocked, waited, and called to you, slipped you messages.
You stay lying on your narrow bench, your hands crossed behind you back, your knees up.
You don’t want to see anyone, or to talk, or to think, nor to go out, or move.
It is on a day like this one, a little later, a little earlier, that you discover, without surprise, that something is wrong, that you don’t know how to live and that you never will know.
The sun beats on the sheet metal of the roof.
The heat in your room is unbearable.
You are sitting, wedged between the bed and the bookshelf, with a book opened on your lap.
You stopped reading it long ago.
You are staring at a whitewood shelf, at the pink plastic bowl in which rots six socks are rotting.
The smoke from your cigarette, abandoned in the ashtray, rises, in an almost straight line, and then spreads out in a blanket against the ceiling which is fissured by minute cracks.
Something has broken.
You no longer feel
some thing which until then fortified you until then, the feeling of your existence, the impression of belonging to
or being in the world, is starting to slip away from you.
Your past, your present, and your future merge into one:
they are now just the heaviness of your limbs, your nagging migraine, the bitterness in your Nescafe.
This converted cubbyhole that passes for your bedroom, this hovel two metres ninety-two long
by one metre sixty-three wide, that is to say, a little over five square metres, this attic from which you have not stirred for several hours, for several days.
You are sitting on a bed which is too short
for you to be able to lie on it, too narrow for you to be able to turn over on it without precaution.
You are staring, almost fascinated now, at a pink plastic bowl which contains no fewer than six socks.
You stay in your room, without eating.
without reading, almost without moving.
You stare at the bowl, the shelf, your knees, you gaze in the cracked mirror, the coffee bowel, the light-switch.
You listen to the sounds of the street, the dripping tap on the landing, the noises that your neighbour makes, clearing his throat, coughing fits.
the whistle of his kettle.
You follow across the ceiling the sinuous lines of a thin crack
the futile meandering of a fly, the progress – which it is almost impossible to plot – of the shadows.
You are 25 years old, you have 29 teeth, three shirts and eight socks, 55 francs a month to live on, a few books you no longer read, a few records you no longer play.
You don’t want to remember anything else.
Here you sit, and you want only to wait, just to wait until there is nothing left to wait for.
You do not see your friends again.
You do not open your door.
You do not go down to get your mail.
You do not return the books you borrowed from the library.
You do not write your parents.
You only go out after nightfall like the rats, the cats, and the monsters.
You drift around the streets, you slip into the grubby little cinemas on the Grand Boulevards.
Sometimes you walk all night, sometimes you sleep all day.
You are an idler, a sleepwalker, a mollusc.
you do not really feel cut our for living, for doing, for making;
you only want to go on, to go on waiting and forget.
You reject nothing, you refuse nothing.
You have ceased going forward, but that is because you weren’t going forward anyway, you’re not setting off again, you have arrived, you can see no reason to go on any further:
all it took, practically, on a day in May when it was too hot, was the untimely conjunction of a text of which you’d lost the thread, a bowl of Nescafe that suddenly tasted too bitter, a pink plastic bowl filled with blackish water in which six socks were floating, this was all it took for something to snap, to turn bad, to come undone, and for the truth to appear in the bright light of day, as sad and ridiculous as a dunce’s cap.
You have no desire to carry on.
Only the night and your room protect you:
the narrow bed where you lie and stretched out, the ceiling that you discover anew at every moment;
the night in which, alone amidst the crowds on the Grands Boulevards, you occasionally feel almost happy with the noise and the lights, the bustle and the forgetting.
You are the wave that ebbs and flows, from the Place de la Republique to Place de la Madeleine, from the Madeleine to Place de la Republique.
The dead hours, empty passages, the fleeting and poignant desire to hear no more, to see no more, to remain silent and motionless.
Crazy dreams of solitude.
An amnesiac wandering through the Land of the Blind:
wide, empty streets, cold lights, faces without mouths that you would look at without seeing.
It’s as if, beneath the surface of your calm and reassuring history, the good little boy, as if, running beneath the obvious, too obvious, signs of growth and maturity –
scribbled graffiti on bathroom doors, certificates, long trousers, the first cigarette, sting of the first shave, alcohol, the key left under the mat for your Saturday night outings, losing your virginity, the baptism of air, the baptism of fire –
as if another thread had always been running, ever present but always held at bay, and which is now weaving the familiar fabric of your rediscovered existence, the bare backdrop of your abandoned life, veiled images of this revealed truth, of this resignation so long deferred, of this appeal for calm –
hazy lifeless images, over-exposed snap shots, almost white, almost dead, almost already fossilized:
a street in a sleepy provincial town, closed shutters, dull shadows, the buzzing of flies in an army post, a lounge blanketed in grey dustsheets, dust particles suspended in a ray of sunlight, bare countryside, cemeteries on a Sunday, outings in a car.
Man sitting on a narrow bed, one Thursday afternoon, a book open on his knees, eyes vacant.
You are just a murky shadow, a hard kernel of indifference, a neutral gaze avoiding the gaze of others.
Speechless lips, dead eyes.
Henceforth you will be able to glimpse in the puddles, in the shop windows, in the gleaming bodywork of cars, the fleeting reflections of your decelerating life.
Water drips from the tap on the landing.
Your neighbour is sleeping
The faint chugging of a stationary diesel taxi emphasizes rather than breaks the silence of the street.
Your memory is slowly penetrated by oblivion.
The cracks in the ceiling trace an implausible labyrinth.
The heat in your room, like a cauldron, like a furnace, the six socks, indolent sharks, sleeping whales.
in the pink plastic bowl.
That alarm clock that did not ring, that does not ring, that will not ring to wake you up.
You stretch out.
You let yourself slip.
You drop into sleep.
Your room is the center of the world
This lair, this cupboard like garret which never loses your smell, with its bed into which you slip alone, its shelf
its linoleum, its ceiling whose cracks you have counted a thousand times, the flakes, the stains, the contours, the washbasin that is so tiny it resembles a piece of doll’s-house furniture, the bowl, the window, the wallpaper of which you know every flower, these newspapers that you read and re-read, that you will read and re-read again;
this cracked mirror has only ever reflected your face
fragmented into three unequal portions;
the shelved books:
thus begins and ends your kingdom, perfectly encircled, by ever present noises, which are now all that keeps you attached to the world:
the dripping tap on the landing, the noises from your neighbor room, his throat-clearing
his coughing fits, the incessant murmur of the city.
The measured succession of car noises, braking, stopping, accelerating, imparts a rhythm to time almost as surely as the tirelessly dripping tap
or the bells of Sainte-Roch.
Your alarm clock
has been showing 5:15 for a long time now.
In the silence of your room
time no longer penetrates, it is around
a permanent medium, obsessive
warped, a little suspect:
time passes, but you never know what time it is.
It is ten o’clock, or perhaps eleven, it’s late, it’s early, the sun rises, night falls, the sounds never quite cease altogether, time never stops completely, even if it is now reduced to the merely imperceptible: a hairline crack in the wall of silence, a slow murmur
forgotten, drop by drop, almost indistinguishable from the beats of your heart.
Your room is the most beautiful of desert islands, and Paris is a desert that no-one has ever traversed.
All you really need is your sleep, your own silence, your stillness, the rising and falling of your rib-cage, evidence of your continuing and patient existence.
To want nothing.
Just to wait , until there is nothing left to wait for.
To wander, and to sleep.
To let yourself be carried along by the crowds, and the streets.
To follow the gutters, the fences, the water’s edge.
To walk the length of the embankments, to hug the walls.
To waste your time.
To be without desire, or resentment, or revolt.
In the course of time your life will be there in front of you:
a life without motion.
without crisis, without disorder, day after day, season after season, something is going to start that will be without end:
your vegetal existence, your cancelled life.
Here, you learn how to last.
At times, you are the master of time itself, the master of the world, a watchful little spider at the hub of your web, reigning over Paris:
you command the North by Avenue de l’Opera, the South by the Louvre colonnade, the East and west by Rue Saint-Honore.
You have everything still to learn
everything that cannot be learnt:
solitude, indifference, patience, silence.
You are alone, and because you are alone you must never look to see what time it is.
You are letting yourself go, and it come almost easily to you.
You allow passing time to erase the memory of the faces, the addresses, the telephone numbers, the smiles and the voices.
You forget that you learnt how to forget, that, one day, you forced yourself to forget.
You no longer enter the cafes, checking the tables with a worried expression on your face, going into the back rooms in search of you no longer know whom.
You no longer look for anyone in the queues which form every two hours outside the seven cinemas in Rue Champollion.
You are alone.
You learn how to walk like a man alone, to stroll, to dawdle, to see without looking, to look without seeing.
You learn the art of transparency, immobility, inexistence.
You learn how to remain seated, or supine, or erect.
You learn how to look at paintings as if they were bits of wall or ceiling, the walls, as if they were paintings whose tens of thousands of paths you follow untiringly, merciless labyrinths, texts that no-one will ever decipher, decaying faces.
You plunge into Ile Saint-Louis, you take Rue Vaugirard
and head towards Pereire, towards Chateau-Landon.
You walk slowly, and return the way you came, sticking close to the shop fronts.
You go and sit on the parapet of Pont Louis-Phillipe, and you watch an eddy forming and disintegrating under the arches.
Barges pass by, eventually shattering the play of water against the piers
Motionless anglers sit, their eyes following the inexorable drift of their floats.
You walk round the fenced gardens, overtaken by children clattering an iron ruler against the palings as they run past.
You sit down on the benches with green slats and cast-iron lion-paw ferrules.
Disabled, ageing park-keepers pass the time of day with nannies of a different generation.
With the tip of your shoes you trace circles on the sparsely sandy ground, or squares, or an eye, or your initials.
You walked round and round near the entrance to the Catacombs, you went and stood beneath the Eiffel Tower, you went up a few monuments, you crossed all the bridges, walked along the embankments, visited all the museums, the Palais de la Decouverte and the Aquarium du Trocadero, you saw the rose gardens of Bagatelle, Montmartre by night, les Halles at first light, Saint-Lazare station in the rush-hour, Concorde at midday on August 15.
In the Luxembourg Gardens you watch the pensioners playing bridge, belote or tarot.
On a bench close by an old man stares into space for hours on end; his is mummified, perfectly still, with his heels together, his chin leaning on the knob of the walking-stick that he grips tightly with both hands, gazing into emptiness, for hours.
You marvel at him.
You try to discover his secret, his weakness.
But he appears to have no weak point.
He doesn’t even dribble, or move his lips, he hardly even blinks.
The sun describes an arc about him:
perhaps his vigilance consists solely in following its shadow;
he must have markers placed long in advance;
his madness, if he is mad, consists in believing that he is a sundial.
You would like to look like him, but – and this is probably one of the effects of your being young and inexperienced in the art of being old –
you get restless too quickly:
in spite of yourself, your foot starts scuffing the sand, you let your eyes wander, you are continually crossing and uncrossing your fingers.
Sill you keep walking, wherever your feet take you. You get lost, you go round in circles.
Sometimes you set yourself derisory goals:
Daumesnil, Clignancourt, Boulevard Gouvion Saint-Cyr
or the Postal Museum.
You wander into bookshops and leaf through a few books without reading them.
stopping conscientiously in front of every painting, leaning your head to the right, squinting, stepping back to get a better view.
On your way out, you sign the book with large illegible initials accompanied by a false address.
You sit at a table at the back of a cafe
and read Le Monde, line by line, systematically.
It is an excellent exercise.
Five hundred, a thousand pieces of information have passed in front of your eyes so scrupulous and attentive.
But your memory has carefully avoided retaining any of this.
You read with an equal lack of interest that Pont-a-Mousson was weak
whilst New York remained steady, that one may have complete confidence in the experience of the oldest credit bank in France
and its network of specialists, that the damage caused in Florda by typhoon Barbara would cost three billion to repair, that Jean-Paul and Lucas are proud to announce the arrival of their little sister Lucie.
You are still capable of being amazed by the way in which the combination, according to a few ultimately very simple rules, of thirty or so typographic signs is able to generate, everyday, these thousands of messages.
But why should you eagerly devour them, why should you bother deciphering them?
All that matters to you is that time should pass and nothing should get through to you:
your eyes follow the lines, deliberately, one after the other.
Indifference to the world is neither ignorance nor hostility.
You do not propose to rediscover the robust joys of illiteracy, but rather, in reading, not to grant a privileged status to any one thing you read.
You do not propose to go naked, but to be clad, without this implying either elegance or neglect.
you do not propose to let yourself starve to death, but simply to feed yourself.
You eat, you sleep, you walk, you are clothed, let these be actions or gestures, but not proofs, not some kind of symbolic currency.
Your dress, your food, your reading matter will not speak in your stead.
Never again will you entrust to them the exhausting, impossible, mortal burden of representing you.
you ingest, once or twice a day, rarely more, a fairly precisely calculable compound of proteins and glucosides, in the form of a piece of grilled beef, strips of potato quick-fried in boiling oil, a glass of red wine.
In other words it’s a steak, but it is definitely not a tournedos, and chips that no-one would dignity with the name French fries, and a glass of red wine of uncertain, not to say dubious origin.
But your stomach can no longer tell the difference.
Language has proved more resistant:
it took a while for your meat to stop being tough, your chips to stop being greasy, the wine vinegary, for these pejorative adjectives, which at first evoke the sad fare of the soup-kitchens, to lose little by little their meaning, and for the sadness, the misery, the poverty, the need, the shame that has become inexorably attached to them – this fat become-chip, this hardness-become-meat, this bitterness-become-wine –
stop hitting you, stop leaving their mark on you.
No explanation marks punctuate your meals.
You drink your red wine, you eat your steak and fries.
You devise complicated itineraries, bristling with rules which oblige you to make long detours.
You go and see the monuments.
You count the churches, the equestrian statues, the public urinals, the Russian restaurants.
You go and look at the major buildings works on the banks of the river, and the gutted streets that resemble ploughed fields, the pipe laying, the blocks of flats being razed to the ground.
You go back to your room and collapse onto your too-narrow bed.
You count and organise the cracks in the ceiling.
You often play cards all by yourself.
You deal out four columns of thirteen cards on the bed, you remove the aces.
The game consists in arranging the forty-eight remaining cards, by using the four spaces left by the removal of the aces, if one of the spaces happens to be the first in a column, you are allowed to put a two there;
if it follows, say, a six, you can insert the seven of the same suit, a seven can be followed by an eight, an eight by a nine, a jack by the queen;
if the space follows a king, you may not lay anything and the space is dead.
Chance has virtually no role to play in this patience.
You can foresee a long time in advance the moment when the four cleared spaces would bring you up against kings, and therefore failure, if you were to play them in order;
you don’t have to: you are allowed to use one space, then a different one, come back to the first, jump to the third, the fourth, back to the second again.
Nevertheless, you rarely succeed;
there always comes a point when the game is blocked, when, with half or a third of the cards already in order, you can no longer fill a space fill a space without turning up a king every time.
In theory, you have the right to two more attempts, no sooner does the game appear lost than you scoop up all the cards, shuffle them once or twice, and deal them out again for another attempt.
You shuffle the cards, deal them out, remove the aces, and take stock of the situation.
You begin more or less at random, taking care only to avoid laying bare a king too soon.
Gradually, the games starts to take shape, constraints appear, possibilities come to light:
there is one card already in its proper place, over here a single move will allow you to arrange five or six in one go, over there a king that is in your way cannot be moved.
You hardly ever get the patience out.
You cheat sometimes, a little, rarely, increasingly rarely.
Winning doesn’t matter to you, for what would winning mean to you anyway.
But you play more and more often, for longer and longer, sometimes all afternoon, as soon as you get up, or right through the night.
There is something about this game that fascinates you, perhaps even more than the game with the water under the bridges, or the imperfectly opaque twigs which drift slowly across the surface of your cornea.
Depending on where it is, or when it crops up, each card acquires an almost poignant density.
You protect, you destroy, you construct, you plot, you concoct one plan after another:
a futile exercise, a danger that entails no risk of punishment, a derisory restoration of order:
forty-eight cards keep you chained to your room, and you feel almost happy when a ten happens to fall into place
or when a king is unable to thwart you, and you feel almost unhappy when all your patient calculations lead to the impossible outcome.
It is as if this solitary silent strategy were your only way forward, as if it had become your reason for being.
It’s dark.
You close your eyes, you open them.
Viral, microbial forms, inside your eye, or on the surface of your cornea, drifty slowly downwards, disappear, suddenly reappear in the center, hardly changed, discs or bubbles, twigs, twisted filaments, which, when brought together, produce something resembling a mythological beast.
You lose track of them, then find them again;
you rub your eyes
and the filaments explode, proliferate.
Time passes, you are drowsy.
You put down the book beside you on the bed.
Everything is vague, throbbing.
Your breathing is astonishingly regular.
As the hours, the days, the weeks, the seasons slip by, you detach yourself from everything.
You discover, with something that sometimes almost resembles exhilaration, that you are free, that nothing is weighing you down, nothing pleases or displeases you.
You find, in this life exempt from wear and tear and with no thrill in it other than these suspended moments, an almost perfect happiness, fascinating, occasionally swollen by new emotions.
You are living in a blessed parenthesis, in a vacuum full of promise, and from which you expect nothing.
You are invisible, limpid, transparent.
You no longer exist:
across the passing hours, the succession of days, the procession of the seasons, the flow of time, you survive, without joy and without sadness, without a future and without a past, just like that: simply, self-evidently, like a drop of water forming on a drinking tap on a landing, like six socks soaking in a pink plastic bowl, like a fly or a mollusc, like a tree, like a rat.
In the course of time your coldness becomes awesome.
Your eyes have lost the last vestige of their sparkle, your silhouette now slumps perfectly.
An expression of serenity with lassitude, without bitterness, plays at the corners of your mouth.
You slip through the streets, untouchable, protected by the judicious wear and tear of your clothing, by the neutrality of your gait.
Now, your movements are simply acquired gestures.
You utter only those words which are strictly necessary.
You never say please, hello, thank you, goodbye.
You do not ask your way.
You wander around.
You walk.
All moments are equivalent, all spaces are alike.
You are never in a hurry, never lost.
You are not sleepy.
You are not hungry.
You let yourself go, you allow yourself to be carried along:
all it takes is for the crows to be going up or down the Champs Elysees.
all it takes is for a grey back a few yards in front of you to turn off suddenly down a grey street;
or else a light or an absence of light, a noise of an absence of noise, a wall, a group of people, a tree, some water, a porch, a fence, advertising posters, paving stones, a pedestrian crossing, a shop front, a luminous stop sign, the name plate of a street, a haberdasher’s stall, a flight of steps, a traffic island…
You walk or you do not walk.
You sleep or you do not sleep.
You buy Le Monde or you do not buy it.
You eat or you do not eat.
You sit down, you stretch out, you remain standing, You slip into the darkened auditoriums.
You light a cigarette.
You cross the street, you cross the Seine, you stop, you start again.
You pall pinball or you don’t.
Indifference has neither beginning nor end:
it is an immutable state, an unshakeable inertia.
All that remains are elementary reflexes:
when the light is red you do not cross the road, you shelter from the wind in order to light a cigarette, you wrap up warmer on winter mornings, you change your sports shirt, your socks, your underpants and your vest about once a week.
Indifference dissolves language and scrambles the signs.
You are patient and you are not waiting, you are free and you do not choose, you are available and nothing arouses your enthusiasm.
You hear without ever listening, you see without ever looking:
the cracks in the ceilings, in the floorboards, the patterns in the tiling, the lines around your eyes, the trees, the water, the stones, the cars passing in the street, the clouds that form…cloud shapes in the sky.
Now, your existence is boundless.
Each day is made up of silence and noise, of light and blackness, layers, expectations, shivers.
You slide, you let yourself slip and go under:
searching for emptiness, running from it.
Walk, stop, sit down, take a table, lean on it, stretch out.
Robotic actions:
get up, wash, shave, dress.
A cork on the water:
drift with the current, follow the crowd, trail about:
in the heavy silence of summer, closed shutters, deserted streets, sticky asphalt, deathly-still leaves of a green that verges on black;
winter in the cold light of the shop-fronts, the street lights, the little clouds of condensing breath at cafe doors, the black stumps of the dead winter trees.
It is a life without surprises.
You are safe.
You sleep, you walk, you continue to live, like a laboratory rat abandoned in its maze by some absent-minded scientist.
There is no hierarchy, no preference.
Your indifference is motionless, becalmed: a grey man for whom grey has no connotation of dullness.
But insensitive, but neutral.
You are attracted by water, but also by stone;
by darkness, but also by light;
by warmth, but also by cold.
All that exists is your walking, and your gaze, which lingers and slides, oblivious to beauty, to ugliness, to the familiar, the surprising, only ever retaining combinations of shapes and lights, which form and dissolve continuously, all around you, in your eyes, on the ceilings, at your feet, in the sky, in your cracked mirror, in the water, in the stone, in the crowds.
Squares, avenues, parks and boulevards, trees and railings, men and women, children and dogs, crowds, queues, vehicles and shop windows, buildings, facades, columns and capitals, sidewalks, gutters, sandstone paving flags glistening grey in the drizzle.
Silences, rackets, crowds at the stations, in the shops, on the boulevards, teeming streets, packed platforms, deserted Sunday streets in August, mornings, evenings, nights, dawns and dusks.
Now you are the nameless master of the world, the one on whom history has lost its hold, the one who no longer feels the rain falling, who does not see the approach of night.
All you are is all you know:
your life that continues, you breathing, your step, You see the people coming and going, crowds and objects taking shape and dissolving.
You see a curtain rail in the tiny window of a haberdasher’s, which your eye is suddenly caught by, you continue on your way, you are inaccessible, like a tree, like a shop window, like a rat.
But rats don’t spend hours trying to get to sleep.
But rats don’t wake up with a start, gripped by panic, bathed in sweat.
But rats don’t dream and what can you do to protect yourself against your dreams?
But rats don’t bite their nails, especially not methodically, for hours on end until the tips of their claws are little more than a large open sore.
You tear off half of the nail, bruising the spots where it is attached to the flesh;
you tear away the cuticle nearly all the way back to the top joint until beads of blood start to appear, until your fingers are so painful that, for hours, the slightest contact is so unbearable that you can no longer pick things up
and you have to go and immerse your hands in scalding hot water.
But rats, as far as you know, do not play pinball.
You hug the machines for hours on end, for nights on end, feverishly, angrily.
You cling, grunting, to the machine, accompanying the erratic rebounds of the steal ball with exaggerated thrusts of your hips.
You wage relentless warfare on the springs, the lights, the figures, the channels.
Painted ladies who give an electronic wink, who lower their fans.
You can’t fight against a tilt.
You can play or not play.
You can’t start up a conversation, you can’t make it say what it will never be able to say to you.
It is no use snuggling up against it.
painting over it, the tilt remains insensitive to the friendship you feel, to the love which you seek, to the desire which torments you.
You drift around the streets, you enter a cinema;
you drift around the streets, you enter a cafe;
you drift around the streets, you look at the trains;
you drift around the streets, you enter a cinema where you see a film which resembles the one you’ve just seen, you walk out;
you drift around the over-lit streets.
You go back to your room, you undress, you slip between the sheets, you turn out the light, you close your eyes.
Now is the time when dream-women, to quickly undressed, crowd in around you, the time when you reread ad nauseam books you’ve read a hundred times before, when you toss and turn for hours without getting to sleep.
This is the hour when, your eyes wide open in the darkness, you hand groping towards the foot of the narrow bed in search of an ashtray, matches, a last cigarette, you calmly measure the sticky extent of your unhappiness.
Now you get up in the night.
You wander the streets, you go and perch on bar-stools and there you stay, for hours, until closing time.
with a beer in front of you or a black coffee or a glass of red wine.
You are alone and drifting.
You walk along the desolate avenues, past the stunted trees, the peeling facades, the dark porches.
You penetrate the bottomless ugliness of Les Batignolles, and Pantin.
Your only chance encounters are with Wallace fountains which long since ran dry, tacky churches, gutted building sites, pale walls.
The parks whose railings imprison you, the festering swamps near the sewer outlets, the monstrous factory gates.
Steam locomotives pump out clouds of white smoke under the metallic walkways of the Gare Saint-Lazare.
On Boulevard Barbes or Place Clichy, impatient crowds raise their eyes to the heavens.
Unhappiness did not swoop down on you, it insinuated itself almost ingratiatingly.
It meticulously impregnated you life, your movements, the hours you keep, your room, it took possession of the cracks in the ceiling, of the lines in your face in the cracked mirror, of the pack of cards;
it slipped furtively into the dripping tap on the landing, it echoed in sympathy with the chimes of each quarter-hour from the bell of Saint-Roch.
The snare was that feeling which, on occasion, came close to exhilaration, that arrogance, that sort of exaltation;
you thought that the city was all you needed, its stones and its streets, the crowds that carried you along, you thought you needed only a front stall in some local cinema, you thought you only needed your room, your lair, your cage, your borrow.
Once again you deal out the fifty-two cards on your narrow bed.
Your powers have deserted you.
The snare: the dangerous illusion of being impenetrable, of offering no purchase to the outside world, of silently sliding, inaccessible, just two open eyes looking forward, perceiving everything, retaining nothing.
A being without memory, without alarm.
But there is no exit, no miracle, no truth.
Your legs dangling above the Seine.
You withdraw the four aces from you fifty-two cards.
How many times have you repeated the same amputated gesture, the same journey’s that lead nowhere?
All you have left to fall back on are your tuppeny-halfpenny boltholes, your idiotic patience, the thousand and one detours that always lead you back unfailingly to your starting point.
From park to museum, from cafe to cinema, from embankment to garden, the station waiting-rooms, the lobbies of the grand hotels, the supermarkets, the bookshops, the corridors of the metro.
Trees, stones, water, clouds, sand, brick, light, wind, rain:
all that counts is your solitude:
whatever you do, wherever you go, nothing that you see has any importance, everything you do, you do in vain, nothing that you seek is real.
Solitude alone exists, every time you are confronted, every time you face yourself.
You stopped speaking and only silence replied.
But those words, those thousands, those millions of words that dried up in your throat, the inconsequential chit-chat, the cries of joy, the words of live, the silly laughter, just when will you find them again?
Now you live in dread of silence.
But are you not the most silent of all?
The monsters have come into you life, the rats, your fellow creatures, your brothers.
The monsters in their tens, their hundreds, their thousands.
You can spot them from almost subliminal signs, their furtive departures, their silence, from their shifty, hesitant, startled eyes that look away when they meet yours.
In the middle of the night a light still shows at the attic windows of their sordid little rooms.
Their footfalls echo in the night.
But these faces without age, these frail or drooping figures, these hunched, grey backs, you can feel their constant proximity, you follow their shadows, you are their shadow, you frequent their hideouts, their pokey little holes, you have the same refuges, the same sanctuaries:
the local cinema which stinks of disinfectant, the public gardens, the museums, the cares, the stations, the metro, the covered markets.
Bundles of despair sitting like you on park benches, endlessly drawing and rubbing out the same imperfect circle in the sand, readers of newspapers found in rubbish bins.
They follow the same circuits as you, just as futile, just as slow.
They hesitate in front of the maps in the metro, they eat their buns sitting on the river banks.
The banished, the pariahs, the exiles.
When they walk, they hug the walls, eyes cast down and shoulders drooping, clutching at the stones of the facades, with the weary gestures of a defeated army, of those who bite the dust.
You follow them, you spy on them, you hate them:
monsters in their garrets, monsters in slippers who shuffle at the fringes of the putrid markets, monsters with dead fish-eyes, monsters moving like robots, monster who drivel.
You rub shoulders with them, you walk with them, you make your way amongst them:
the sleepwalkers, the old men, the deaf-mutes with their berets pulled down over their ears, the drunkards, the dotards who clear their throats and try to control the spasms of their cheeks
the peasants lost in the big city, the windows, the slyboots, the old boys.
They came to you, they grabbed you by the arm.
As if, because you are a stranger lost in your own city, you could only meet other strangers;
as if, because you are alone, you had to watch as all the other loners swooped down on you.
Those who never speak, those who talk to themselves, The old lunatics, the old lushes, the exiles.
The hand on to your coat tails, the breathe in your face.
They slide up to you with their wholesome smiles, their leaflets, their flags, the pathetic champions of great lost causes, the sad chansonniers out collecting for their friends, the abused orphans selling table-mats, the scraggy widows who protect pets.
All those who accost you, detain you, paw you, ram their petty-minded truth down your throat, spit their eternal questions in your face, their charitable works and their True Way.
The sandwich-men of the true faith which will save the world.
The sallow complexions, the frayed collars, the stammerers who tell you their life story, tell you about their time in prison, in the asylum, in the hospital.
The old school teachers who have a plan to standardize spelling, the strategists, the water diviners, the faith healers, the enlightened, all those who live with their obsessions, the failures, the dead beats, the harmless monsters mocked by bartenders
who fill their glasses so high that they can’t raise them to their lips, the old bags in their furs who try to remain dignified whilst kicking back the Marie Brizard.
And all the others who are even worse, the smug, the smart-Alecs, the self-satisfied, who think they know, the fat men and the forever young, the dairymen and the decorated;
the revelers on a binge, the Brylcreem-boys, the stinking rich, the dumb bastards.
The monster confident of their own rights, who address you without further to do, call you to witness, The monster with their big families, with their monster children and monster dogs, the thousands of monsters caught at the traffic lights, the yapping females of the monsters, the monsters with moustaches, and waistcoats, and braces, the monsters tipped out by the coachload in front of the hideous monuments, the monsters in their Sunday best, the monster crowd.
You drift around, but the crowd no longer carries you, the night no longer protects you.
Still you walk on, ever onwards, untiring, immortal.
You search, you wait. You wander through the fossilised town, the intact white stones of the restored facades, the petrified dustbins, the vacant chairs where concierges once sat;
you wander through the ghost town, scaffolding abandoned against gutted apartment blocks, bridges adrift in the fog and the rain.
Putrid city, vile, repulsive city.
Sad city, sad lights in the sad streets, sad clowns in sad music-halls, sad queues outside the sad cinemas, sad furniture in the sad stores.
Dark stations, barracks, warehouses.
The gloomy bars which line the Grand Boulevards.
Noisy or deserted city, pallid or hysterical city, gutted, devastated, soiled city, city bristling with prohibitions, steel bars, iron fences.
Charnel house city: the covered markets rotting away, the slum belt in the heart of Paris, the unbearable horror of the boulevards when the cops hang out:
Haussmann, Magenta – and Charonne.
Like a prisoner, like a madman in his cell.
Like a rat looking for the way out of his maze.
You pace the length of Paris.
Like a starving man, like a messenger delivering a letter with no address.
Now you have run out of hiding places.
You are afraid.
You are waiting for everything to stop, the rain, the hours, the stream of traffic, life, people, the world;
waiting for everything to collapse, walls, towers, floors and ceilings, men and women, old people and children, dogs, horses, birds, to fall to the ground, paralysed, plague-ridden, epileptic;
waiting for the marble to crumble away, for the wood to turn to pulp, for the houses to collapse noiselessly, for the diluvian rains to dissolve the paintwork, pull apart the dowel-joints in hundred-year-old wardrobes, tear the fabric to shreds, wash away the newspaper ink, waiting for the fire without flames to consume the stairs, waiting for the streets to subside and split down the middle
to reveal the gaping labyrinth of the sewers;
waiting for the rust and mist to invade the city.
You are not dead and you are no wiser.
You have not exposed your eyes to the suns burning rays.
The two tenth-rate old actors have not come to fetch you, hugging you so tightly
that you formed a unity which would have brought all three of you down together had one of you knocked out.
The merciful volcanoes have paid you no heed.
Your mother had not put your new second-hand clothes in order.
You are not going to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience
and forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race.
No old father, no old artificer will stand you now and ever in good stead.
You have learnt nothing, except that solitude teaches you nothing, except that indifference teaches you nothing:
You were along and you wanted to burn the bridges between you and the world.
But you are such a negligble speck, and the world is such a big word:
to walk a few kilometres past facades, shopfronts, parks and embankments.
Indifference is futile.
Your refusal is futile.
Your neutrality is meaningless.
You believe that you are just passing by, walking down the avenues, drifting through the city, dogging the footsteps of the crowd, penetrating the play of shadows and cracks.
But nothing has happened:
no miracle, no explosion.
With each passing day your patience has worn thinner.
Time would have to stand still, but no-one has the strength to fight against time.
You may have cheated, snitching a few crumbs, a few seconds:
but the bells of Saint-Roch, the changing traffic lights at the intersection between Rue des Pyramids and Rue Saint-Honore, the predictable drop from the tap on the landing, never ceased to signal the hours, minutes, the days and the seasons.
For a long time you constructed sanctuaries, and destroyed them:
order or in inaction.
drifting or sleep, the night patrols, the neutral moments, the flight of shadows and light.
Perhaps for a long time yet you could continue to lie to yourself, deadening your senses.
But the game is over.
The world has stirred and you have not changed.
Indifference has not made you any different.
You are not dead. You have not gone mad.
There is no curse hanging over you.
There is no tribulation in store for you, there is no crow with sinister designs on your eyeballs, no vulture has been assigned the indigestible chore of tucking into your liver morning, noon, and night.
No-one is condemning you, and you have committed no offence.
Time, which see to everything, has provided the solution, despite yourself.
Time, that knows the answer, has continued to flow.
It is on a day like this one, a little later, a little earlier, that everything starts again, that everything starts, that everything continues.
Stop talking like a man in a dream.
Look at them.
They are thousands upon thousands, posted like silent sentinels by the river, along the embankments, all over the rain-washed pavements of Place Clichy, mortal men fixed in ocean reveries, waiting for the sea-spray, for the breaking waves, for the raucous cries of the sea-birds.
No, you are not the nameless master of the world, the one on whom history had lost its hold, the one who no longer felt the rain falling, who did not see the approach of night.
You are no longer inaccessible, the limpid, the transparent one.
You are afraid, you are waiting.
You are waiting, on Place Clichy, for the rain to stop falling.

The Man Who Sleeps (by Georges Perec)

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