Readings — From the April 2017 issue

Grim Sleeper

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By Michel Leiris (1901–90), from Nights as Day, Days as Night, a chronicle of the author’s dreams between 1923 and 1961. The book was published last month by Spurl Editions. Translated from the French by Richard Sieburth.

i

A beautiful American woman, a writer or an artist, makes an appointment to meet me in a huge, ultramodern luxury hotel. I suspect she is affiliated with some secret society that is out to get me but I decide to meet her nonetheless. I am shown into a sitting room that connects to a smaller room through two open doors. I wait for a while. The American woman arrives and invites me into the adjoining room. As soon as we cross the threshold, two men suddenly appear and lock the doors behind me: I am a prisoner. The American woman laughs. I notice a window, open it, and prepare to leap. Just at that moment the American woman whistles: a groom in livery hurls himself at me, seizes me around the waist, slams me against a wall, and claps me into irons that tightly bind my arms, wrists, and ankles. He pushes the button of a hidden mechanism: the section of the floor that I am standing on begins to sink slowly. Anticipating ghastly tortures, I want to wake up. Normally when I want to put an end to a dream that’s turning nightmarish, I throw myself off a cliff or out a window. But in this case, to what avail, since I am bound hand and foot? After several atrocious moments of anxiety, the idea occurs to me that if I jerk my right leg, I will be able to hurt myself on the ankle-iron that is binding me. I give myself a swift kick, scream out in pain, and wake up.

ii

I am to be executed because I am a member of the resistance or a hostage or because of some entirely different reason, and this fact occasions a sort of fiesta on the part of my friends. I say my goodbyes to Z. I also say farewell to one of our friends of whom I am very fond — Simone de Beauvoir. No guards around me; I appear to be completely free. My friends are lined up in front of me two deep, like a crowd at the finish line of the Tour de France, and through them Z escorts me as though I were a child that needed reassurance. We arrive at a wall of rock, irregular in shape and pocked by bullets, where the execution is to take place; I place my back against it with Z to my right, I believe, squeezing my hand. I jam my back hard against the wall, as if I were trying to embed myself in it, not so much in order to disappear into it as to muster in myself some of its rigidity; in other words, courage. I hear horses and perhaps the sound of marching troops. I feel all my bravado melt away. Then I grow furious and tell Z that I’m not going to let myself be killed like this. I scurry off and plunge headlong into a sunken alley that runs parallel to the row of our spectator friends. The fall awakens me, or rather takes me into another dream.

This second dream features a rectangle of white paper that is given to those who are about to be shot to death. They are allowed to write their last words on it, and when the time comes for them to be executed, the piece of paper is placed not over their eyes but over their mouth, like a gag.

iii

After a protracted series of adventures — escaping from nighttime assaults in the gardens of Ranelagh, a trip on an ocean liner during which there are thieves masquerading as detectives — I find myself with Z (now my wife) in a sordid furnished room, making love to her while looking at a picture painted by our friend Georges Bataille.

Rectangular, wider than it is tall, the painting is cut in half by the line of the horizon. Above, the sky; below, the sea. In the upper-right-hand corner, a winged horse falls down — at a small distance above this, as if borne along by the same movement, there is a piece of seaweed covered with blood.

iv

My father has made himself an armband insignia of his profession as a stockbroker. It is a sleeve of black fabric toward the top of which he has embroidered in gold the image of a coat hanger whose shoulders are sloped like two parentheses.

He loads people into this armband in order to transport them to the stock exchange.

v

Condemned to death by the Germans, I take the thing manfully enough until I am told that they are going to come give me a shave in the early afternoon — a final grooming before my execution. Having concentrated all my attention on this grooming, I had lost sight of the ultimate fact of my execution. But now that I know the hour at which it will take place, my mind can move beyond it, and the screen that had been placed between death and myself by this detail of protocol now disappears. As there is no longer anything separating me from my execution, my courage gives way to indescribable anguish. I feel I will not be able to face up to the ordeal, that I will be led to the stake kicking and screaming.

I subsequently dream about the publication of the memoirs of my colleague Anatole Lewitsky (who was in fact shot by the Germans on February 23 of this year). Noting all the last-minute impressions of a man condemned to death, he tells how the execution took place on some abandoned fairgrounds at the foot of Mont Valérien. He was lined up with his friends with his back against a reconstructed African roundhouse made of dried clay. Lewitsky reports that in front of the door of the hut that was serving as an execution stake, there was a chicken or the skeleton of a chicken on the ground. He closes with a political testament or credo: rallying cries, confident predictions as to the outcome of the war.

vi

On a tomb (mine?) someone has affixed a sign providing an epitaph that condenses the life of the deceased into a few lines. The sign is entitled argument.

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