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This article is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.

We Defy Augury translated by Beverley Bie Brahic
Chapter 7
Translated from the French by Beverley Bie Brahic (Paris: Editions Galilée, 2018)
Hélène Cixoux
You never know who to expect

My books are nautical self-constructions, I tell my daughter; free in their movements and in their choice of routes, they can take to the air or water, founder, fly, be composed of several stories, of jokes, of eye-witness accounts, true or false. They are enriched with alluvial deposits from all the worlds, deposited in this or that chapter. A gracious contribution from the gods. They are the product of many makers, dreamed, dictated, cobbled together, augmented with fantasies, whence the plurality of their birthplaces. If, to take notes on the voyage, I am at anchor in my Aquitaine study, my spirits come and go among the Cities and times that inhabit the different floors of my mental library.

The readiness is all. Whatever the hour, the page, the rule of hospitality is what directs the Book. You never know who to expect, I tell my daughter. What the weather is like. How old you are. For which country you have a ticket. With whom you are about to quarrel. Today I encountered an ancient tortoise I hadn’t seen since Algiers. She went away. Her going left me with a small ache of fatality. That she should depart was written. In spite of myself I was forced to love her. Because she loves music. Because the tortoise folk were in the garden a long time before the human colonisation. Because you’ll never hear her sob and wail.

Must the Book adopt her? – Did she leave a long time ago? my daughter asks.

– Sixty years. Nothing could have kept her. That’s why I have never forgotten her.

– Tortoise rhymes with stubbornness, my mother says.

– I am a little worried I say to my daughter. – Because of the tortoise? – Isn’t it incongruous? – She’s part of the family, my daughter says. – Do we lead destiny or does destiny lead us? – Uncertainty is the soul of literature. – The fear of being incongruous is what’s incongruous, my daughter says.

I seem to recall having been jealous of the tortoise. Because of her age. Because she carries time on her back.

There you had someone who listened to no one. She followed her being.

– I had a friend who used to say: Ich bin so unanständig: I am so indiscreet! my mother says. – Who was she? – I forget if it was Frau Engers or me. Says my mother.

And we laugh.

Even in 1930 she was headstrong. She was a modiste. She was modest. She made hats too beautiful to be believed. She gave my mother her husband on a Friday. In 1925, perhaps.

Do we know where we are going? the Book asks. And you, where are you going? I remember Jacques, the Book says. The fatalist. A genuine hare-tortoise. A book that went very fast very slowly. Imagine a tortoise galloping. Jacques followed his master1 as you follow yours and his master followed his master as Jacques followed him. But who was the master’s master?

I follow Jacques as I follow my mother. I would follow Isaac as if he were my mother. When Isaac went away, the tortoise came back.

My mother is a tortoise. Everything about her is tortoise­-like: the slowness, the longevity, the neck, the indestructibility. Isaac sleeps. He’s hibernating under the paper. I go out with my mother. We take tiny steps against the wind. My soul folds under a gust of grief. Jacques weeps without constraint for his captain who dies on page ninety-five and is resurrected on page ninety-eight. In the gust of wind, I become teary. During the whole of our walk my mother tells me about Pauline her hostess’s niece. The next day: today I’ll tell you about the nephew, my mother says. And so we come to the small observatory. I say: starting now, you stop. What do I have to do with nephews? My mother bursts out laughing and goes right on talking. She says ‘the things of the past’. I listen with the ear of the future that will be bereft the day the sempiternal ‘things of the past’ no longer turn up.

I should have asked her what she was doing in the 15th arrondissement of Paris in the summer of 1942 instead of being in Oran sewing her couture robes, but that’s a question no one can answer any more; and how she managed to escape from the cordoned-off district, which would have interested me, but without Pauline I would never have been born. Without Pauline from Oran the young Eve from Osnabrück would never have met Doctor Georges Cixous; in 1935 she didn’t yet have a chic-ish studio in the 15th.

This morning it is the year 2017, July 16th. When I wanted to get out of the house, to continue my memory walk, I couldn’t open the gate. We are captives. It is written up there, the Book told me. By dint of following Jacques-who-follows-his master-as-you-follow-yours, we find ourselves in prison like Aesop. Do I need to refresh your memory? ‘Like me Aesop heads for the beach this morning. The police stop him: where are you going? – Where am I going? I say, says the Book, says Aesop. I have no idea. – You have no idea?! Off to jail with you. Surely you know that you must know? What sort of book doesn’t know where it’s going? – All right, says Aesop, didn’t I just say I didn’t know where I was going? I wanted to go for a swim, and now here I am in prison.’

I have just finished reading what the Book tells me, I arrive at the gate. The lock is stuck. In my dreams, I’m always looking for a way out, a taxi, my car, my plane ticket for New York, the toilets, Isaac’s phone number, Isaac’s exit door, the tortoise’s, I want to run the road is barred,

but here, this is happening in reality like in a dream, reality itself has metamorphosed into an anxiety dream, into a prison, it’s awful! Reality is a prison, I was standing, beach bag in hand, everything came to a halt, be unable to exit reality and without warning, a moment ago I was free, suddenly I’m stopped, a hopeless Sunday, I felt Adam and Eve’s dread on the day and hour the story began, suddenly the gate is barred, I didn’t think of the Metamorphoses, that’s a fable, I was banished into myself in reality, no one around, the gate is so high, so hostile, the very picture of irony and cruel indifference, it’s July 16th, Pauline is rounded up on the Rue du Docteur Finlay, my mother’s best friend. No Pauline.

I didn’t think about it. I was petrified. I was up to my neck in anxiety, up to my brain. Trapped. Oh! I can understand the tortoise’s flight. Later, I’ll ponder the state of soul of the freed tortoise. The most humble and archaic of the Prometheuses. Right now later is far away and faceless. I note that from the very first moment of being shut up, time coagulates in my mind; instead of flowing, the minutes harden into a chaotic wall, they construct a Dantesque dam against thought. Maybe you can’t see it but I’m walled in. I gasp through a chink borrowed from Pyramus and Thisbe.

My house is isolated.2 All writing houses are intentionally isolated. One spring day you retire there for good. After a death. You write a contract-letter to yourself: the testament of birth. You speak of an ‘I’ who is a You. You take yourself as witness. Today you are thirty-eight years old, you bear witness to dedicating yourself istas sedes et dulces latebras avitasque libertati suae tranquillitatique et otio to your freedom your peace and quiet and your leisure. You go into hiding. I began hiding at the age of twenty-three. This is the first time that the seat of my freedom has been transformed into a cage

I have always feared prison, perhaps I have not always avoided it, according to my mother the vault preys on me, at night shaking with fear she comes: I can’t sleep for worrying, the vultures sit there and you feed them, what’s this kollok you’re gibbering about? – It’s about Derrida and me – But Derrida is a philosopher, going to kolloks is bad for you, they bury you alive, all these people who exploit you, who cooks for you? That’s why I brought up the croissants. – What croissants? I say – The midwife who used to bring me croissants, she wanted a job at the Clinic. In a twinkling I said: Out! No corruption! These kolloks are poisoned croissants. Be reasonable, listen to your mother, it’s not because he’s a philosopher you have to give them something palpable, a whole life’s work you want to hand it to them? Don’t fatigue people, they aren’t philosophers, get out of your cage, get down to the level of ordinary people, quit overdoing it, why bother, no one listens, you don’t help anyone. It’s like your friend the poet, you think a poem is worth suffering over? Proust! You think he had a good life? A kollok on Proust? I say: Forget it! Your mother is a sage3 but nobody listens to her message

In the blink of an eye the garden has turned into a citadel, the hedges palisades, I should never have locked the gate, I should have listened to Montaigne, I armed my house instead of trusting its safekeeping to heaven. All the buried-alive I know of have surrounded me, I had always read A Premature Burial as Poeian exaggeration and now here I was walling myself in

And without the help of Marcel, the Book and I might have perished in the labyrinth.

Every cloud has a silver lining says Jacques. The Fatalist. Without the gate disaster I’d never have managed to slip Marcel into the book. It was about time. Marcel is the living pillar of everything I write. I cannot imagine concluding my life without signalling my gratitude. No place to rest, no temple, no book; no tower no Essays, no place to call home no bookshop, no anonymous maternal figures no cathedral; I know the name of the little man who bears the cathedral of Rouen on his back and with whom the cathedral shares the secret of immortality, the little man in whom Ruskin recognises the most modest technician of the work of art, the representative of hardworking humanity, the direct descendent of the historical Adam, the Adam who set to work.

Marcel4 freed me. He came like the Messiah. He came from the next town. I was shouting: I can’t get out! And the voice of the old woodsman scarred by his battles with the elements responded: I’m coming! Here I am! And three hours later he clambered over the wall on a tall ladder. ‘For as long as I still can,’ he says. He’s the handyman of last resort. The divine sculptor doted him with big hands, of a beauty that Time cannot attack, the hands of genius, in his image. Stronger than anything. My hand is small and quick as a squirrel, and weak and fearful in equal measure. My hand leaps unhesitatingly and anxiously. Perches a moment like a wren on the broad back of Marcel’s Hand, and flits off. For fifty years the tranquillity of my writing hand has been kept safe by Marcel’s big vigilant hands. ‘I support you,’ his hand says. My hand trips off, where it goes, what it does, the guardian hands know no more than I do. ‘Off you go.’

As for me, ‘I won’t budge’, Marcel thinks, no need for a speech.

My true freedom, my principal retreat and solitude are so well founded on Marcel that if I didn’t have an ever-on-the-alert squirrel heart, I could settle into my human tree right to the outskirts of oblivion.

We can’t do everything. Very often my books have been protected by demi-gods from the mythological regions of my life.

Marcel is consubstantial with my writing house. You will find him nowhere else. Like the forest men who once were trees, he will never leave his land. A root does not go jaunting about.

Today the Twin Towers are trees without roots, Isaac says, one cannot imagine such unstable colossi. When we alight on them in on our annual migration I’m always afraid that they will have been carried away by a storm. But they are still here, a powerfully fragile miracle. We have no earthly roots either. We are bound to one another by memory and repetition. By dint of secretly returning to New York and then lifting to the 107th floor, we grow a strange mental garden where we stroll for a few days, as in eternity before the Fall, two growing trees whose roots reach for the sky, one time we were there for Rosh Hashanah. ‘Today,’ Isaac writes, ‘I see them as pyramids that will shelter us and live on without ever having been aware of anything.’

One day he sees them dead. One day he sees us dead, they live on and see us dead

Since our celebration at the Tower, I see the book as a boat now adrift, now at anchor, that skirts abysses; the holes and the chasms are also part of the whole. Where am I? is its name. It may make for land somewhere, each time it gets close, it veers off so quickly I’m afraid we’re going to break, I never flee it, it often seems to me that it is under the influence of my mother’s travelling soul, city-hopping as the winds of curiosity dictate, Isaac too moves between Berlin Cairo and Calcutta to Chicago

At any moment I can find my mother between Paris and Osnabrück

I understand that the book like any true voyage governed by nostalgia is perpetually intensely anachronic.

Such is the destiny of characters expelled from their native place by violence and wars.

The minute Ulysses arrives in a port, hardly has he had time to refresh himself than he is off again: he recounts his stay in another port. If he is in Algiers he is at that very moment in Athens. No borders separate the two theatres.

Only Marcel has never left his dog. He was born with the animals. In my coffin I want there to be photos of all the dogs I have loved.

Marcel has a dog which is itself a Marcel. I’m coming, he says. And here he is.

18 July 2017: short conversation with Marcel
– Today I put you in my book.
– What book?
– The book I am writing. With my dead. With those I have loved and those I love
– With my name?
– With your first name the real one.

A smile flits across his lips, surprises Marcel, fades quickly, anxious to protect the dignity of the chief. Marcel is happy to be in a book. According to the knightly code of honour one doesn’t show one’s emotions. This is courtesy. The more violent the emotions the more discreet they remain.

– And my dog?
– With your dog.

With your name and your dog. I wouldn’t like to risk giving the impression that you are a fiction.

Your date of birth?

- 10 March 1935. I was born in the middle of the Forest of Eden, all eleven children were born in the forest. With the eleventh we won the 1936 Cognacq-Jay Prize for the biggest family in all of France and that was me. Thirty-five thousand francs in those days. We bought two cows. Later we had up to thirteen.

Me too, I’m happy. At last! At last Marcel has arrived. I announce the news to my daughter: this morning Marcel entered the book. – Oh! That’s good.

My daughter is the witness, she can tell me all she likes that Jacques (the fatalist) was surrounded by Marcels and Marcelles, nonetheless for a long time, I’ve feared displeasing him.

My life with him takes place only in the Forest. We never speak of the City or any city. I am his guest in his domain. With the beasts. He loves my mother. With my mother one is in the company of beasts and babies. My mother too is a being with large practical hands. The large hands recognise one another.

The beauty of this man, who gives the name of Marcel a nobility I shouldn’t like to deprive it of, is that of a weathered Greek statue with damaged joints. He has the lineaments of an emperor still. His empire is Nature, the nature that saved Rousseau and will outlive us.


who has never read a book-of-paper, who half-reads half-doesn’t-read, each of them taking turns one week the cows one week school,

the whole of the Forest of Eden, poor-man’s-ferns, they loved it the cows they knew where to go

who knows where to go, who understands everything, knows everything, when he sits down to ruminate I put my arm around his thick neck I kiss his head, his cheeks, he laughs, I hug Marcel the dog, he has large eyes brimming with kindness, this is a fact, thoughts, according to whether they are somber or transparent, are what light up a gaze

and without which my books would not exist

before he attacks he studies the gate. The gate is Marcel’s exact adversary. A robot in aluminum, its face is stubborn as a Teutonic chevalier, its rust-proof lock thermoplastic lockstop and steel strike plate have rusted, it could care less about us, it is a perverse gladiator of a gate, Passion is the brand name – illegible, so we feel its ill-will. Who knows why. Except for some obscure technological spite, the inhuman soul of an age stripped of memory. How far we are from the Forest of Eden!

– It’s not a piece of poop.

This is the first time that I have heard Marcel express himself using antiphrasis. Therefore the situation is serious. I would be suffering torments had I not faith. In him alone.

Just as I see Philia the geometer plot her leap to my desk make her secret calculations measure height and distance, transmit the results to her spine, hind legs and tail, launch the operation and bring it to completion with mathematical elegance

so I see Marcel calculate his assault. He will be victorious, it is written.

– What would Isaac say? He’d say, is he good-looking, your Marcel? I’d say, Yes. In my opinion Marcel is good-looking. A little worn down. Work has broken him. He walks a little crookedly. His hips are rusted. His knees block, like the lock. Tinnitus cicada-buzzes his ears. He lifts hedges. He up-ends gates. He accompanies me to the industrial zone to buy a vacuum cleaner. He wears a clean, pressed, sometimes pink shirt when he leaps to my aid with his blue trailer. I am not his sister.

He is handsome as a man who has never lost the Forest of Eden.

– I’m reassured you say he’s good-looking, Isaac says.

You can tell Isaac is jealous.

I have never mentioned Isaac to Marcel. What would be the point? Isaac is a genius of Cities. The forest is not interested in the City. The forest writes its history differently. I’ll give you an example: Marcel’s father harvested resin from pines. There is no such thing any more. The resin secrets have all gone to Portugal. The species is extinct. Marcel’s species is endangered. Isaac’s species too, but differently.

For fifty years my house has been my writing refuge and hence on many occasions an anti-Isaac shelter, for the writing is more jealous even than Isaac; in order to follow it, it demands that one forget, unconditionally, father mother beloved child, at least for a time, and it is now one of the mystical places where I work at maintaining Isaac’s Perpetual Presence, as in our other sacred places: Montaigne’s Tower or the Twin Towers and after the Towers’ death, Saint Paul’s Chapel, which he didn’t want to enter, Strasbourg Cathedral where we prayed each time and where my mother, having entered against her will, promptly exited through a side door.

– Fortunately I am not jealous, Isaac used to boast, I say to my son. And I believed him. All the same our life was buffeted by storms of jealousy. True jealousy, the kind that does not exonerate the jealous, that gnaws at hearts and transmits rage. Isaac’s jealousy can be summed up, more or less, by the following list, which I don’t want to present in chronological order as my master Henri Brulard would no doubt have done because in no case can I fix a date, the storms were always unpredictable. Nothing let me foresee his outbursts.

In alphabetical order: A (the only person I thought I could love in the place of Isaac)
my friends
    The President of the Republic

Here I add ‘Beethoven,’ the hero of one of my books under whose name Isaac sees a succession of floppy-haired candidates. Really I was intimate with none (masculine) of these suspects I say; none (feminine) of these suspects, I add. I love Isaac and Isaac alone, this one could be my son, that one is gay, Isaac is my sole desire. –As if that precluded a fling, does love heed propriety? Isaac growls, and I look at him apprehensively, – It’s good Montaigne is dead, I say. – No jealousy is crueller than jealousy of the dead. Do I know where you are when you sleep?

And when, worn out by trips and meetings, by the suffering one speaks of and the suffering one doesn’t; when, fearful of the silences, passive, a victim, anguished, I seduce sleep with Lexomil, while you think I sleep and I do too, I meet you all in white like a department-store bride, and do you know who you are marrying, or pretending to marry!? That slut! I was utterly floored, a bride, all in white, in the most conventional manner, smelling of church, with that slut, and Saint-Paul into the bargain, how can you do this to me, leave me felled by the dragon and not wake me up. What have you done to me? I await an explanation.

But the worst I say to my son, is the anti-jealousy. A sort of mute, cold, invisible jealousy, a specter, that can go to ground for decades, a slow virus no more detectable than herpes, then one midday, in January 2000, when we are sitting down to lunch in a charming guinguette on the edge of the Garonne, this is the bridge Montaigne took when he went to Bordeaux, where he should never have agreed to be elected mayor in 1581, do you recall our 1981, we had just resuscitated, you were coming from Rome where you couldn’t not agree to be elected Prince of Poets, a burden all the more pleasant in that there is neither rent to pay nor wages other than the honour and sensation of being buried alive by so much praise – ‘élu mais pas lu,’ ‘elected but unread’ – you tell me, and by the fleeting smile on your lovely pinched lips I read that in spite of yourself you were glad and secretly proud of being so honoured, the sky before us was a fine dust of gold and I liked to picture the little man over there on his little horse trotting off to Parliament, and that’s when

I don’t know whether I was the one who knocked the glass of red wine over onto the tablecloth and thence to the trousers or whether it was him; or whether the glass fell over because of the violence of the attack or whether the spark that caused the powder keg of the unconscious to explode was the knocked-over glass and the red splash on the cloth and white trousers, is it the horror of blood on white, is it – I have no idea what is cause, what is occasion, what is metaphor, or perhaps it’s

do you know what an eruption of burning lava is like when you don’t see the volcano? I ask my son. And he says: – What happened with L. in 1981? And in 1968?

Stupefaction and panic, I tell my son, do you see what that means? I answer: ‘Nothing’ and this is the truth. Not much, nothing, and this is the truth. You don’t halt an earthquake with Nothing. For thirty years a fire smoulders. For thirty years a worm gnaws at the beams of the brain. And suddenly the roof bursts into flame and comes crashing down on us

or does the anguish engender an excess of happiness, that paroxysmal form of too-good-to-be-true of which Freud speaks, and following him L. or Othello’s hysteria, or that pyre to which Dostoyevski consigns his demon-love-possessed characters?

– How to explain this structure with two souls, this body with two hearts, the one confiding the other mistrustful? I asked my son the scientist. For in truth Isaac was not jealous fortunately.

– It’s not a structure, my son says. It’s different levels of the mind. At different depths, and therefore at the same time as at different times therefore not at the same time we are jealous on the ground floor, whereas up on the fifth we have never been jealous. Or vice versa. On the fourth floor you are affected. Down below, nothing. At the bottom, Isaac is not jealous. Up above, it’s

regarding the fourth floor, I say, at 54 rue Philippe in Oran, that was where Monsieur Émile the magician lived to whom I was apprenticed in 1940 and without whom it would never have crossed my mind that one can invent truths. I had just lost my first paradise and come into my first exile, overnight in a doomed military garden I had become a detritus, a spider, a roach, a piece of dirt, always about to be crushed by the powerful black machine of religions, I wasn’t Catholic and I found myself ringed by streets off-limits to miscreants, at the corner of the Street of Jews and the Street of Rats, in my head windowless as a prison.

But on the fourth floor of the house besieged by an awfully bleak neighbourhood lives Monsieur Émile who, like Helvetius for Stendhal, is to be my predictor of things to come, my master magician, first among the angels and doctors, with his

  1. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master is a French, eighteenth­ century novel by Denis Diderot, in which during a journey a servant, Jacques, is asked by his master to entertain him with stories, but the stories are constantly being interrupted by other characters and their stories. Diderot is believed to have been influenced by Laurence Sterne’s digressive novel, Tristram Shandy.
  2. South-west of Bordeaux, near the Atlantic shore.
  3. In French a midwife is a sage-femme (wise-woman). Eve Cixous was a midwife by profession.
  4. The handyman’s name is Marcel. ‘Marcel’ is also the protagonist in Marcel Proust’s À la recherché du temps perdu.

This article is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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