Words and Things

How can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books? Erica puts her books aside and sets off to pursue the great literary critic and theorist, Jacques Simon, across Paris. It is 1991 and Simon is already ten years dead. She is armed with just one book, Simon par Simon, and the conviction that, in this autobiography, most of the subject is missing. She will find the elusive Simon in Paris, or at least be there to imagine who he might have been. Images of the missing Simon come to mind: a Simon who lived as daringly as he wrote, a lover Simon, a novelist Simon lurking behind the great critic.

Soon she is navigating her way through the Paris of Jacques Simon. She dines with Derrida, she takes a lover, she discovers a Paris that is beyond the romanticised Paris of art and literature, a Paris that is everyday. Her pursuit of the famous Simon leads her everywhere and nowhere. Nothing is as it seems: not Jacques Simon, not the French lover, not Paris itself. 

At the heart of Erica’s pursuit of Simon is the question of words and things. It is a question of relationships, of writing to other writing, of ideas to lived experience, of literature to life. It is, she discovers, how words and things matter.

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extracts from chapters 9, 12, 15, 19 & 36

Jacques Simon steps out into the street and hesitates, looks immediately left then right. It is not the morning for exchanging pleasantries, he feels, not the morning for hearing of someone’s trip to Spain, or the problems someone else’s daughter is having with the demands of her course. There are pedestrians ahead, going in the same direction, but he can avoid them. He will walk slowly and keep a safe distance behind. He turns into Rue de Vaugirard. At the Palais du Luxembourg there is a heavy police presence. The Sénat must be sitting; the traffic will be intolerable in the evening.

Outside the Odéon he pauses to light a cigarette. The seminars are not going as well this year; he doesn’t seem able to draw the same enthusiasm. The students are bright enough. Perhaps it is him. He needs a break. He says that often, You need a break. A week or two in the south away from all the demands. But the end of semester is ages away. The traffic lights are green as he approaches Saint-Michel, but he slows down. He knows he will not have time to get all the way across before they change again, and he does not want to run, and he does not want to get caught in the traffic like last time. He lets the lights turn red, standing back from the kerb. Others can stand in front.

He flicks the cigarette away as he crosses the Place de la Sorbonne. Then he arrives at his home that is not a home. How many times has he crossed the pedestrian crossing, walked the few metres along the narrow pavement, and stepped into that courtyard, this creature of habit, this devotée of routine? He delays his entrance sometimes; slips into the booksellers opposite. What is new on the shelves? The usual, the not-so-unusual. Does he really have to read them all? This particular morning he pauses outside, looks at the display in the window of Simon par Simon. There are no reviews yet, no decent ones, at any rate.

Inside, Erica finds an attendant in a small booth. He is reading a book and seems irritated by the interruption, but at the mention of Jacques Simon, he becomes at once helpful. She is in luck, he explains, as the rooms on the second floor, where Simon’s old office was, are all empty, awaiting a re-fit during the summer vacances. He insists on escorting her and they set off together, Erica one step behind on the stone staircase. The building is virtually deserted and each step echoes in the stairwell like a small, refined explosion.

Jacques Simon would have mounted the staircase when it was crowded with students and colleagues. He would have known them and they would have known him. She sees him on the stairs: the roman nose, the silver hair, the impeccable English clothing. There are greetings at every step. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Simon mounts the stairs deep in thought, head bent, the observed rather than the observer.

The second floor offices are open and empty. All the furniture has been stripped out and piled in the corridor outside. The attendant apologises for not knowing which office was Simon’s but the epoch of Professor Simon was before his time. They walk slowly past the offices, peering inside, and at one the attendant stops. Suddenly he decides that this had been Simon’s office. ‘Certainement!’, he pronounces confidently. Erica cannot see why; all the offices look the same.

She steps into the office; there is nothing much to see. Even empty, the office is dark and small, surprisingly small when she thinks of Richard’s office, which is large enough for modest parties. There is a desk outside that could have been Simon’s. She examines it, running her hand over the cracked and worn leather on the desktop, opening the drawers. Of course they are empty.

There are so many photographs of Jacques Simon at his desk. Most famous is the Cartier-Bresson, a pin-up photo of a youthful, handsome Simon, full of confidence. Leaning back in his chair, arrogant almost, cigarette in hand, boxes of his ubiquitous index cards on the shelves behind him. In Simon par Simon he included snaps of himself at work: at the Sorbonne, at home in the Quartier Latin, at the villa in the south. There is a sameness to these images: the desk, the chair, the piles of papers, the index cards, and Simon writing and smoking. For the writer, the desk is the most private space imaginable. To be photographed in that intimate space has to be a deliberate choice. Simon must’ve been saying, ‘Here, this is Jacques Simon. This is the writer at his desk.’

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At Le Molière, they come to a standstill immediately inside the door. The restaurant is packed and chaotic: people trying to find tables, shouting and laughing, the noise level overwhelming. The waiters appear at a loss. Surely this is a ridiculous place to conduct an interview? With anyone, let along a famous French philosopher! She is almost despairing, but then they are lead through the crowd to a room at the back. Somewhere private and a lot quieter, Erica hopes. They step inside the private dining room and the day gets worse: this is no ‘interview with Jacques Derrida over lunch’; there are more than thirty people here!

What has gone wrong? Madame Chupin never mentioned this lunch! Is this some terrible misunderstanding? It is obvious that the guests have only just arrived. There are greetings and introductions, handshakes and kisses; it is busy and noisy, even if nowhere near as loud as the scene outside. Madame Chupin disappears immediately and Erica is suddenly alone. Surreptitiously, she looks around the room, trying to make herself as small as possible, invisible even.

It could not possibly be a misunderstanding! Her French is too good for simple misunderstandings; but she struggles for another explanation. Has Madame Chupin played the role of the censor, perhaps? Disapproving of the idea of interviewing Derrida about Simon, (she thought it an insult!), she never passed on the message. Instead, she added Erica’s name to the luncheon’s guest list to provide a dash of youth and prettiness amongst the mélange of professorial grey hair, wrinkles and expanding waistlines that she now sees before her. It is obvious that Erica is the youngest person there.

But what if Chupin had passed on the message and Derrida said non? The famous temper Philippe Serrant warned her about! Non! Assez de cettes interviews! And is this lunch, then, actually a consolation, a gift from Madame Chupin, who feels sorry for the young academic over his refusal? At least now, the young academic can tell everyone when she returns to Australia that she ‘lunched with Jacques Derrida in Paris’. Erica has no idea, except to think that the explanation probably lies deep in the recesses of French culture, recesses to which she has not yet been able to gain access.

Madame Chupin — she who could be either villain or saint — suddenly reappears and pulls Erica towards the table. There he is: Jacques Derrida, the most famous of the famous, right in front of her! Her mouth goes dry, she trembles, she feels she might lose control.

‘Professor, j’aimerais de vous présenter Mme Nahum, une jeune professeur Australienne.’

Derrida takes Erica’s hand and squeezes it gently. ‘Nahum?’ He raises his eyebrows in acknowledgement.

Erica is embarrassed at that, because it is only her name that is Jewish. Her ancient ancestor bequeathed her neither culture nor religion.

‘Enchanté, Mademoiselle. Le plaisir est pour moi.’

Derrida doesn’t look like she thought he would. He is shorter, not quite the image of the ‘French Brando’ she is familiar with. He looks more like a father figure, good-looking perhaps, but not young-looking. His smile is measured and warm, and there is a certain thoughtfulness in his face. He seems wise; at least, she wants to say ‘Derrida seems wise’. She remembers the importance of French formality and manages the introduction without stumbling. It is an ‘honneur’ to meet him, she says.

‘Bien!’, he responds. But then in English, ‘I have made it in Australia! ‘Who would have thought!’ And he laughs at his little joke.

But his English and his laughter only serve to tarnish this precious moment. In the fantasised image Erica had long ago constructed of Jacques Derrida, he did not speak English, nor did he make small talk or joke.

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They come out of the restaurant into the bright sunlight, squinting as they try to adjust their eyes. Some of the shops in Rue des Blancs-Manteaux have re-opened after lunch and there is a sprinkling of customers on the street to add to the stream of patrons leaving Le Molière. Small groups are forming outside the restaurant for reluctant goodbyes.

Erica sets off down the street with Jean-Pierre. He wants to show her the apartment where Jacques Simon had gone for his fateful lunch with the future President of France. They are alone together for the first time as they walk along the narrow pavement. Without the constraint of their luncheon companions, Jean-Pierre suggests they address each other in the familiar ‘tu’ rather than the formal ‘vous’.

There is a particular detail about Jean-Pierre’s last contact with Jacques Simon that he wants to impress on her. The day after news of Simon’s accident appeared in the press, Jean-Pierre had received in the post a dedicated copy of Simon’s La vérité des images, which was shortly to be published. Simon must have already sent it before their last meeting, but Jean-Pierre chose to see the book as Simon’s parting gift, as if Simon had a premonition of what was about to happen. There is no way of knowing whether that was true or not, but if you read the dedication, Jean-Pierre suggests, you can’t escape the air of finality, the sense of ‘un dernier adieu’.

The apartment building is a typical six story walk-up from the 1880s that sits rather awkwardly, its size and proportions demanding more space from its surrounds than the narrow street can offer. The apartment on the second floor is rather grand with three French windows opening onto a long balcony decorated with planters of red geraniums. There must be people inside as none of the shutters are fastened and one of the windows stands wide open. The tip of a white lace curtain has languidly curled itself around the window frame and come to rest against the stone façade. Has there been a luncheon there today?

It is a historic site in Paris, the apartment where Jacques Simon had eaten his ‘last supper’. Erica tries to focus her thoughts on the building, to give it the sense of gravitas that she feels it demands and somehow to bring back to life the events of that wintery afternoon in February, 1980. It is about this time in the afternoon that the Mitterand luncheon had broken up and the guests departed. Jacques Simon would have just said his goodbyes and come down the staircase into the street.

It is cold, now. He has a thick coat on and a heavy woollen scarf. He calls something back upstairs and then pulls the door closed. He stops to light a cigarette in the street and the flame of the cigarette lighter momentarily illuminates his distinctive Roman nose. Why had he gone? he scolds himself. Why had he not listened to his better counsel? He could’ve made some polite excuse; he could’ve feigned illness, a bad back, maybe; he could’ve protested the demands of his work. Because it was just as he had expected: not uninteresting and not unintellectual, but an afternoon’s discourse in which he had made no tangible contribution. He will turn the corner now for the walk back to the Quartier Latin, but there is a moment’s pause, almost of confusion, as if another decision is possible, as if there is another direction, another way home. But then his mind is made up; he turns into Rue des Archives and heads towards the river.

Erica looks up at the apartment, expecting answers to her barely formed questions, but the afternoon sun shines brightly, bleaching the creamy stone façade of its dark secret, the white lace curtain flutters happily in the faintest of breezes and the Paris-red geraniums smile down. They tell her nothing of the tragic demise of Jacques Simon.

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After lunch the lovers walk up the hill to the Arènes de Lutèce, the amphitheatre from the Roman city of Lutetia. Erica is still carrying the bouquet of flowers, holding them, (you would have to say), like a bride might, but in jest. A day earlier, they had stood before the scale model of Lutèce in the basement of the Musée Carnavalet; now they are standing in part of the ancient city. It still carries the sense of a Roman structure, the old Roman walls buttressing the eighteenth-century apartment buildings that have been built against it. 

They are standing where, two thousand years earlier, a Roman governor might’ve stood to applaud a performance or a contest between gladiators. Gladiatorial combat has now given way to a game of boules. There is a certain flair in the way the men toss their boules in the air: some are subtle, throwing as if they hope to surprise their opposition; while the extroverts fling their boules high, attempting to knock their opponents off the pitch.

The game is accompanied by the thudding of a football against the old Roman wall as three adolescents take turns to shoot imaginary goals, while around the arena, a game of pursuit is taking place. Kids clamber up walls and over railings, disappear and re-appear, shrieking constantly. Jean-Pierre and Erica climb up the terraced seats past the few spectators who seem absorbed in the scene, and  then sit down on the top terrace, bodies against each other.

She had mismanaged the discussion the night before; she had been too eager, too upfront, lacking an appreciation of ‘French discretion’, it seems. But Erica is certain that Jean-Pierre knows a lot more about the love life of Jacques Simon than he is letting on. Probably he doesn’t trust her; it is too early for either of them to trust the other, but she tries again, slipping her hand into his.

‘There has to be a special lover, n’est-ce pas? He wrote a whole book about love. It was important to him.’ She squeezes his fingers to encourage an answer.

Jean-Pierre nods, but does not yet elaborate. He lights a cigarette, slowly and deliberately. Puffs of blue-grey smoke rise up and slowly disperse into the trees above them. On the arena the boule players have finished and are shaking hands. Such formalities, even amongst friends. But it is not the end of their afternoon together, merely the end of a game, and soon they take up their positions once more and the puck is sent spinning in the air.

‘It wasn’t Jacques who told me. He would never have talked about this to me. I heard it from one of his friends. But there is no reason to doubt it.’ He pauses perhaps weighing up the exact words before he speaks. ‘What sort of person do you think could have written Paroles amoureux?’

‘The librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale thinks Simon spent his entire life in search of love. That suggests he never really found it. I’m not so sure. But the work is full of lamentation. I think it has to be about someone special.’

Jean-Pierre’s story is at once fascinating and disappointing, because the special someone is not the ‘famous lover’ she’s been imagining, and not even a lover at all, but the object of love, of an unrequited love. The story is almost predictable, how the young Jacques Simon had been admitted to a student sanatorium with tuberculosis, and in that strange surreal environment, he had fallen in love with another patient.

‘Was he really in love for the first time?’

‘I think so. It’s the only way one can make sense of the story.’

Jacques Simon was in an agony of love, and this agony was doubled and then redoubled, because the loved one was not homosexual and so could not return the love, and because the loved one soon recovered and went back to Paris, to his normal life, leaving Jacques Simon alone in the emotional turmoil of a broken heart. 

‘He wrote letters to the loved one every day. Pages and pages of letters. And in these letters he begins to explore the themes that appear later in Paroles amoureux. It was the discovery of the language of love that was the real experience of Jacques Simon’s first love.’

‘It’s an extraordinary story; and yet, you know, it’s completely believable.’

‘That’s how he was.’

Not Simon ‘the lover’ but Simon ‘the writer’. So everything leads to the writer, even falling in love. She is reminded of how many times the theme of letters appeared in Paroles amoureux, how many times the loved one is absent, how many times the lover is left alone. These themes of unrequited love, themes explored in the most sensuous of language, language as good as any poetry.

She has never tried to write about love herself, but the memory of this love is as clear as any memory she’s ever had. It was summer. A group of them had gone camping on the peninsula. On their last day there, they went down to the beach and played cricket all afternoon until they fell into the water, exhausted. The day was warm and the air was saturated with that unforgettable scent of crushed eucalypt. She was falling in love and she remembers the way the boy threw his brown body about chasing the ball and she remembers the thick softness of the sand and the weight in her legs as she ran between the wickets and she remembers that wind-in-the-hair feeling of freedom, and the sheer endlessness of the day.

It is a precious memory, captured like a snapshot, because nothing ever came of it. Not of the boy who she never saw again, nor of the beach she never went back to. It is a moment of being in love that is frozen in time, and so, she feels, perfect in its completeness.

She squeezes the hand she is holding once again, as if that squeeze might somehow transport her back to that place, back to the intoxicating scent of eucalypt, back to that precious moment. But the beach is long since lost to her, and that time of being seventeen, and that sense of pure promise just waiting to be fulfilled.

The incessant thud of the football into the Roman wall approaches a crescendo and then abruptly ceases. In the silence that follows, she can hear the gentle sound of the boules landing on the gravel. The three boys have exhausted their interest in their game and now they sit around, talking in that physical way boys do. There is a certain timelessness about the scene. It isn’t the timelessness of the Roman ruin or that feeling of time gone that sitting in a Roman ruin and imagining the past can bring. It is the timelessness of this moment: Paris on an evening in late summer, the young boys jousting, the old men crowded around the boules, and this strange pair sitting together on the terrace.

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Words and things. When words cannot express the things we have seen. It is literature that Erica is thinking of as she stands here, how literature struggles against realities like this, realities that simply defy writing. But also that literature does struggle, because the alternative to struggle is silence, and even when faced with the sense that it is impossible to write    or perhaps because of that    the effort to forge a literature from experience must still be made.

She doesn’t know who they were, but there were those who had written of this reality, passionately, convincingly or perhaps awkwardly, writing it however they could. There is no mention of them in this far corner of the Père-Lachaise cemetery, but they were also heroes of the Resistance: the writers who understood how writing could be the enemy of silence.

Jacques Simon had not been one of them. He had nothing to say about this experience. But she understood that. Simon had not missed the war, he’d had his own war, his battle with disease and incarceration. In La Peste, Camus uses the metaphor of the plague for the German occupation of France, describing the Algerian city of Oran in the grip of a pestilence, and Simon had a metaphor for the Occupation, too, the personal metaphor of his body in the grip of a disease, sealed off from the outside world for fear of contagion, just like the citizens of Oran. And there was something poetic about it, because the disease had occupied Simon’s body for much the same time that the Germans had occupied Paris.

Just as the Occupation was defining for the rest of his generation, Simon’s ‘war’ had been defining for him: a life in limbo, the threat of death lurking in the shadows on the x-rays. This had been essential in forming who Jacques Simon would ultimately become: incarceration, isolation. What could he do, apart from wait for it to end? And read literature, and learn to read literature, and learn to write, and fall in love perhaps, and pen love letters to a lost cause.

It was the experience of the sanatorium that turned Simon into the writer, that turned him into the sort of writer he would become. It was the disease, ironically, that gave Jacques Simon his chance. It was there in the sanatorium that he immersed himself in literature; there, his attitudes to it formed. So it was not an anomaly, that in Simon par Simon, Simon had dismissed that crucial time as the ‘unproductive life’, the life before the ‘life of the writer’; his silence was conscious. Life in the sanatorium, for all that it ultimately meant for the writer, had been deemed unworthy of his writing, because that was the writer he had become.

It is raining now as Erica heads back towards the main gate, a gentle misty rain that seems almost suspended in the air rather than falling. It moistens her face as she walks and creeps along her sleeves where her hands are jammed into the pockets of her coat. Rain like this belongs in cemeteries. It is not depressing, it is sobering. It suggests a sense of proportion, it encourages a balanced view of a situation.

If there was one person who was never going to write a novel, it was Jacques Simon. She wanted Simon to be the novelist, to fulfill the promise of a ‘secret life’, and so she shared the American’s fantasy of Jacques Simon ‘transcending theory and criticism’ to write a great novel, but that never happened. Jean-Pierre is right. Le roman en préparation did not transcend Jacques Simon’s literary role, it confirmed it. He was only doing what he always did, he was reading texts. Simon was never ‘that sort of writer’, Jean-Pierre insisted, and he wasn’t. Simon had approached the task of writing a novel as only he could, by writing a series of lectures on the ‘preparation’ for the writing of a novel. No-one has ever written a novel doing that.

A lifetime of writing, of theorising and analysing literature: the pleasure in the writing and in the thinking; the pleasure in the reading of texts. The love of words, the cleverness of literary references, the ever-present wit, imagining and re-imagining what a text might be. No-one can deny Jacques Simon’s love of literature, it’s there on every page he wrote. But it is not straightforward, it is not as it once seemed. For alongside this love of literature, there also appears a curious ambivalence, perhaps it is even a fear.

Literature is about literature, Simon writes, writing about other writing, the text a tissue of quotations. If that is true, it is only one truth amongst others, and it is never completely true, and if, for Erica, it had ever been a compelling idea, it was no longer. Simon delighted in meanings and signs and the intertextual play of the ‘readerly’ text, but his was an understanding of a literature constrained, a literature self-sufficient to the critic, a literature closed off, a literature that bears little evidence of the blood and sweat of the world. It springs from a desire to write from ‘outside’ perhaps, a desire to avoid the ‘getting-one’s-hands-dirty’ that another writing demands, that writing that rubs up against experience and is formed by it.

‘As if’, Jacques Simon had said. As if. And it had to be ‘as if’, because he could never be that other writer, the writer who sees life and writes from it, the writer who sees life and writes because of it.

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