Authors: Nicolas Barreau
“Where on earth have you been? Have you any idea what's up here? I'm up to my neck in it, and you don't answer any of your crazy phones. Why's there no one in your office? Everyone's stressing me out about bloody Miller. Feral old women are ringing up here asking for his address. Monsignac wants a reading.
wants a story. And do you know what'll happen when the old man finds out there's no Miller? I can pack my bags here and leave!”
At this point I had to pause for breath, and Adam used the opportunity to say something himself.
“Calm down, my friend,” he said. “Everything's going to be all right. And which of your questions should I answer first?”
I growled into the phone.
“SoÂ â¦ I was in New York for a couple of days visiting publishers, Carol came with me and Gretchen stupidly had food poisoning at the same time, which is why there was no one at the agency. My family used the opportunity to go and visit Grandma in Brighton. Emma had her mobile with her, but had forgotten the charger. And there's something wrong with my mobile at the moment, and perhaps the reception was poorâanyway your message only arrived in fragments and was so confused that I didn't understand what was happening. A classic case of Murphy's Law.”
“Murphy's Law?” I asked. “What kind of stupid excuse is that?”
“It's not an excuse. Anything that can go wrong, will,” said Adam. “That's Murphy's Law. But no need to get your knickers in a twist, Andy! First of all, you
have to pack your bags. And secondly, we'll sort it out.”
“You mean you'll sort it out!” I replied. “You'll have to make it clear to your nice dentist brother that he's got to show up here in Paris to play Robert Miller. After all, the idea of the photo was yours. I didn't want any photos at all, remember? But you couldn't get enough of all your silly details. Photo, dog, cottage, sense of humor.” I interrupted myself for a moment. “Lives in a cottage with his little dog, Rocky.
” I literally spat the word out. “Who could land on the idea of calling his dog Rocky? That's completely gaga!”
“Completely normal for an Englishman,” Adam insisted.
What's he like, your brother? I meanÂ â¦ does he understand a joke? Can he express himself? Do you think he's actually up to making a convincing appearance?”
“OhÂ â¦ wellÂ â¦ I think soâ¦,” Adam muttered, and I heard a note of hesitation in his voice.
“What is it?” I said. “Don't tell me that your brother has since emigrated to South America.”
“Oh, no! My brother would never get on an airplane.” Adam fell silent once more, but he didn't sound as relaxed as usual.
“AndÂ â¦ so?” I pressed.
“Well,” he said, “there's just one teensy-weensy problemâ¦”
I groaned, and wondered if our English non-author had shuffled off this mortal coil.
“He doesn't know about the book,” Adam said calmly.
“What?” I shouted, and in a novel the letters would have been in a font size of at least 150 points. “You didn't tell him about it at all? I meanâis that supposed to be a joke, or what?” I was beside myself.
“No, not a joke,” said Adam succinctly.
“But you told me that he'd said, âHow very funny.' âHow very funny'âthose were his exact words!”
“WellÂ â¦ to be honest, they were actually
words,” Adam said. “There didn't seem to be any point telling him about it at the time. The book has never appeared in England. And even if it hadÂ â¦ my brother never reads. At best technical manuals about the latest developments in implant technology.”
“My God, Adam,” I said. “You've got a bloody nerve! And what about the photo? I mean, it is a picture of him, after all.”
“Oh, that! D'you know, Sam's grown a beard since thenâno one would recognize him from that picture.”
Adam had regained his self-control. I, on the other hand, hadn't. “Oh, great! How very funny!” I shouted. “And now? Can he shave off the beard again? That's
he's even prepared to play along.
you haven't told him a single bloody word? Oh, hell! Oh, hell!
Phew. That's it then.
I might as well start packing up here.”
My gaze wandered across to the overflowing bookshelves and the piles of manuscripts waiting to be edited. To the big poster from the last Bonnard exhibit in the Grand Palais, showing a cheerful southern French landscape. To the little bronze statuette on my desk that I'd once brought back from the Villa Borghese in Rome. It was of Daphne, at the very moment when, fleeing from Apollo, she is transformed into a tree.
Perhaps I ought just to turn myself into a tree, I thought, fleeing not from a god, but from an enraged Jean-Paul Monsignac.
“You have good eyes,” he had said, when he gave me the job. “Such an open, honest look.
I like people who can look you straight in the eye.”
My melancholy gaze wandered farther to the pretty little windows with the white glazing bars and the double panes, where I used to look out over the roofs of the other houses and be able to see the spire of the Church of Saint-Germain and, on spring days, a patch of blue sky. I sighed deeply.
“Now don't get your knickers in a twist, AndrÃ©,” the voice of Adam Goldberg rang out from far away. “We'll sort it out.”
“We'll sort it out” was obviously his motto for life. But not mine. At least, not at this moment.
“Sam owes me a favor anyway,” Adam continued, without noticing that I'd been struck dumb. “He's a good guy, and I'm sure he'll play along if I ask him. I'll ring him this evening and explain everything.”
I wound the telephone cable round my finger without saying anything.
“What would be the best time?” asked Adam.
“Beginning of December,” I muttered, staring at my cable-wound finger.
“So, then we've got more than two weeks!” said Adam happily, to my amazement.
To me, time was inexorable. To him it was an ally.
“I'll call as soon as I've reached my brother. Nothing to get worked up about,” he said. And then my English friend ended our conversation with a little variation on his favorite phrase. “Don't worry. We'll sort it out in no time!”
The rest of the afternoon passed unspectacularly. I tried to work through the pile of manuscripts on my desk but wasn't really able to concentrate.
At one point Gabrielle Mercier dropped in to let me know, with a self-important expression, that after reading the novel by the Italian ice-cream parlor proprietor (beginningâmiddleâend), Monsieur Monsignac saw no hope of ever making a new Donna Leon out of him. “An
ice-cream parlor proprietor
who writes, that's supposed to be extremely original or what?” Monsignac had said contemptuously. “If you ask meâit's junior high school prose. And not even exciting! Damn cheek asking so much money for it.
Ils sont fous, les Americains!
” Madame Mercier then came to the same conclusionâafter all, she'd been agreeing with the boss for about twenty-five yearsâand so they'd happily agreed that the manuscript could be rejected.
About half past five Madame Petit came in with some letters and contracts that needed signing. Then she wished me good evening and departed with the news that today's mail was in the main office.
“Yes, yes,” I said, nodding my acquiescence. On good days Madame Petit brought my mail in and personally put it on my desk. Usually she'd then ask if I wanted a nice cup of coffee. (“What would you say to a nice cup of coffee, Monsieur Chabanais?”) When she was mad at me, like today, I was obviously not allowed to enjoy this double privilege. Madame Petit was not only a well-built secretary with a bosom that was, in Parisian terms, enormous. She was also a woman of principle.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Normally I came into the office at about ten and left at half past seven. The lunch break could be quite extensive, especially if I was lunching with an authorâthen it could last until three o'clock.
“Monsieur Chabanais est en rendez-vous,”
Madame Petit would then say busily, if anyone asked for me. After five it would finally get quieter in the offices of Ãditions Opaleâusually a hive of buzzing activityâand then you could get down to some real work. Time flew, and if I had a lot to do it sometimes happened that I looked at my watch to see that it was already almost nine. Today I decided to leave earlier. It had been a tiring day.
I turned off the old radiator beneath the window, shoved Mademoiselle Mirabeau's manuscript in my old briefcase, pulled on the brass chain that dangled from the dark green desk lamp and turned out the light.
“That's enough for today,” I murmured, and pulled my office door shut behind me. But the eternal plan of divine providence had obviously decided that my day was not to end here.
“Excuse me,” said the voice that had got totally on my nerves that afternoon. “But could you tell me where I can find Monsieur Chabanais?”
She stood before me as if she had just emerged from the ground. But it wasn't a crotchety eighty-year-old who was bothering me with her presumably missing letter. A slim young woman with a dark brown woolen coat and suede boots was the possessor of the voice. She had a knitted scarf slung carelessly around her neck. Her hair, longer than shoulder-length, swished and gleamed in the pale light of the lobby like spun gold as she now hesitantly took a step toward me.
She looked at me inquiringly out of dark green eyes.
It was Thursday evening, just before half past six, and I was suffering from dÃ©jÃ vu in a way that I could not immediately understand.
I didn't move, but stared at the shape with the dark blond hair as if it were an apparition.
“I'm looking for Monsieur Chabanais,” she repeated earnestly. And then she smiled. It was as if a sunbeam were passing through the lobby. “You don't happen to know if he's still here?”
My God! I knew that smile! I'd seen it once before, about a year and a half ago. It was this unbelievably enchanting smile that the story in my novel began with.
That's the thing about stories. Where do authors get their stories from? Are they just lying dormant within them to be brought to the surface by particular events? Do writers pluck them from the air? Do they follow the course of real people's lives?
What is true, and what invented? What really existed and what never existed? Does the imagination influence reality? Or does reality influence the imagination?
The illustrator and cartoonist David Shrigley once said: “When people ask me where I get my ideas from I tell them that I don't know. I think it's a stupid question. If you knew where your ideas came from they wouldn't be your ideas, they'd be someone else's, stolen by you. Ideas come from nowhere, put in your brain; maybe by God or evil spirits or something.”
My theory is that people who write novels and tell stories to us fall into three main groups.
The first group always write only about themselvesâmany of them are among the literary greats.
The second group have an enviable talent for
stories. They sit in the train, look out the window, and suddenly they have an idea.
And then there are those who might be seen as the impressionists among writers. Their gift is finding stories.
They travel the world open-eyed and pluck situations, moods, and little scenes from the trees like cherries.
A gesture, a smile, the way someone brushes their hair back or ties their shoelaces. Snapshots behind which stories are hiding. Stories that become pictures.
They see a pair of lovers sauntering through the Bois de Boulogne on a balmy summer evening and try and work out where life will take them. They sit in a cafÃ© and observe two women friends chatting animatedly. They don't yet know that one of them will soon betray the other with her boyfriend. They wonder where the woman with the sad eyes who's sitting in the Metro with her head against the windowpane may be going.
They're standing at the cinema box office and chance to hear an extremely amusing discussion between the ticket seller and an ancient married couple who are asking whether there's a
âyou couldn't make it up! They see the light of the full moon pouring over the Seine like a sheet of silver and their heart fills with words.
I don't know if it's presumptuous of me to describe myself as an author. Well, anyway, I have just written a little novel. But if I did call myself one, I'd definitely put myself in the last category. I'm one of the people who
And so I found the heroine of my novel that time in the little restaurant.
I still remember it exactlyâI was strolling alone through Saint-Germain that spring eveningâpeople were already sitting outside the restaurants and cafÃ©sâand for once went along a little street that I normally hardly ever use. My then girlfriend wanted a necklace for her birthday and had raved about a tiny jeweler's shop run by the Israeli designer Michal Negrin, which was on the Rue Princesse. I found the shop, left it a short time later with a brightly colored, old-style package, and thenâwithout being prepared for it in any wayâI found
She was standing behind the window of a restaurant that was about as big as the average living room, talking to a guest who was sitting with his back to me at one of the little tables with the red-and-white-checked cloths. The soft, yellowish light gleamed in her long, center-parted hair, and it was the way her hair flicked up with every movement that first caught my eye.
I stood still and absorbed every detail of that young woman. The simple, long, greenish dress of fine silk, which she wore as unconcernedly as a Roman goddess of spring, its broad straps leaving her arms and shoulders free. The hands with their long fingers moving charmingly as she spoke.