From “The Fool,” which appears in The Fool and Other Moral Tales, a collection of stories published last month by New Directions. Translated from the French by Mark Hutchinson.
I came across this little figure rather late in life. Not being familiar with playing cards, still less with the tarot, I was uncomfortable when I first set eyes on him. I believe in magic figures and distrust them. They have powers. A color can derail a train.
One day a friend called Michel gave me a tarot pack. Some friends play a peculiar role in your life. You think your friendship is based on certain shared tastes and interests—and there’s some truth in that—then you discover—time has to have gone by—that your friends have sprung up just when you were least expecting them, like traffic police on the highway of the imagination, to hand you a secret package or message, though they themselves know nothing of their role, and you had no idea that they were on a mission. You part, and the message slowly deciphered—late in the day, since nothing ever happens on time—starts to unwind its coils in you. Ten years later, you examine this tarot pack you have been given, and you see the fool, who gives you quite a shock.
When I read the instructions for the tarot (in the booklet that comes with the pack), I felt ill at ease. I don’t like esoteric language. Esoteric language is evil, unlike the language of poetry, which has only healing powers. The language of poetry—we know this, but it’s worth repeating—is a medicine.
I read the little handbook and couldn’t help thinking that the friend who had given me the tarot was much more agile than I was when it came to understanding a language of which I could make neither head nor tail. Michel is the kind of young man whom some people think fantastical. I don’t. His flights of fancy are woven in a poetic web: he has to work through them, flitting about like a bottle-imp—and laughing about it all the while—before making his way among the more valuable threads of his books. We were on holiday in the Alps with Mark and other friends. It was the summer when Michel was so taken with his tarot pack that girlfriends would ring up to find out about their future while he, at the other end of the line, would play with his cards, doing his utmost to reveal their fates. Sometimes he would tell us he had work to do and would go off in his car for a couple of days.
We were walking in the Alps with Mark and had made our way down into a dry riverbed. I was picking red flowers, I think. Mark then said something extremely important, which needless to say I have forgotten. A phrase like the one Hans Castorp heard one day in the mountains. A farmer was walking by and said to someone: “Good day to you.” And it changed Hans Castorp’s life.
At the chalet, we swam in a very cold lake; some of us would go walking in the mountains (I stayed behind). I was very fond of the little vegetable plots that the local people had laid out in their enormous meadows and their way of stacking wood for the winter under a lean-to next to the house. I’ve always liked things arranged in rows.
I wasn’t ready yet to meet the fool. The image of the vagabond was one with which I’d long been familiar; it was taking shape, but very slowly. Things need time to take shape, especially if you’re burdened with a whacking great neurosis.
When we were children we used to play Mistigri. And whenever one of us—a cousin, a sister, it may even have been me—found the Jack of Clubs in her hand, she would let out a cry of terror, not in jest but because she was genuinely afraid. One figure in particular has always frightened me: that of a young or a grown-up girl, utterly bizarre and abnormal, lying in bed in a Fellini film. I certainly wouldn’t write a book about an image that has frightened me. I would try, by writing a book, to reach the point where the terrifying image is canceled out and rendered innocuous.
What’s strange is the fool’s way of placing the staff his bundle hangs from over his right shoulder while holding the staff in his left hand. The gymnastics involved is so acrobatic that even in a sentence it’s hard to give an account of it: sometimes I place the left hand first, followed by the right shoulder, sometimes the staff first, followed by the bundle, then I switch round, trying a different order without ever finding a proper balance. the fool, to begin with, prevents you from writing properly.
I wasn’t particularly fond of walking but I knew quite a lot about the activity of walking from the novels I had read and from my daydreams and desires. Then one day with Carl, because we needed to pass the time and because, all things considered, the idea of a walk was the only thing that really appealed to us, we started walking in real landscapes, and always, given the choice, in the mountains. With his knife, Carl would lop off hazel branches and make walking sticks for us. At first, we would set out unprepared. Little by little, we got ourselves kitted out: a small backpack with a picnic, rainproof clothing, and proper walking shoes.
It wasn’t reaching the summit I liked—views and panoramas leave me cold—it was the act of walking. Carl had a knack, so that, at one stage or another, every time, on every walk we undertook, we would stray from our appointed path for an hour or two. At first, it worried me. Being a city dweller, I was afraid we would lose our way. Then, little by little, it became the high point of the walk: the moment when we were so completely lost in the mountain expanse that we had to abandon any idea of a past existence or turning back and were forced to make our way through unknown defiles and venture forth. On my own, I could never have managed this.
From time to time, I would observe Carl with his staff and bundle out of the corner of my eye. I would see him making his way across mounds of grass or stones in a desolate landscape that we didn’t understand. Then one day, a good ten years or so after my friend Michel had presented me with the tarot pack, as we were making our way along a sunken footpath under the trees, I saw that I was walking with the fool and realized that the fool was not only Orpheus or the pied piper of Hamelin, not only a revenant or a vagabond, but was also love. And that love, perhaps, was all of these things contained in one.
It took place in the mountains, far from the world, that is, far from life in society, under conditions of the utmost solitude. When I saw him arriving, with his cap and bells moving about among the bracken, and had taken stock of just how isolated I was, with no possibility whatsoever of turning back, I naturally put on my mental armor. Here he is, I said to myself, don’t be too afraid. If you’re destined to meet like this, it’s because you’re able to face up to him. Don’t try to flee, you would miss the most important meeting in your life. Meanwhile, the fool’s cap was drawing nearer. Face up to him, I repeated to myself. You’re about to find yourself in the presence of death, you have the necessary dispositions to confront him. Speak to this man as you would speak to anyone, don’t for heaven’s sake try to put on clever airs, don’t slink off—in any case, he wouldn’t let you.
So he emerged from the undergrowth and I began to make out his face and attributes. Yes, I thought to myself, with a kind of melancholy horror, it’s him all right, it’s the fool. You think things appear only on playing cards; you couldn’t be more wrong. In reality, they exist in life.
A child can confront an apparition of this kind. Knowing that, I became a child again. The moment I did this, I found a way—someone must have taught it to me in the past—I began telling a story at such high speed that it came as a surprise even to me. There was nothing he could do since I was speaking, and the story I was telling was quite good, it hung together well, unlike the fool who did not hang together well, if anything was falling apart. I managed to create a real landscape. The elements came easily, slotting exactly into place; I even managed to introduce a bit of color. There was no end to it and I wasn’t tired. Time, of course, as in any experience of this kind, had stopped. A different form of time came about, which in homage, ever since, I always write with a capital T. This particular form of Time—I understood this many years later—is that of narrative.
At this point, it’s not a wall I come up against but a void: I have no idea what became of the fool during our discussion—a discussion in which I did the talking but which he responded to in a way. Sometimes I think that I put new life in him, and having started out as a dead figure, he went off alive with his arms and legs henceforth in the right places. Sometimes I think he vanished and, having rid myself of the Mistigri on the road to Yonville, I was able to return home, have pleasant little affairs, watch Berthe growing up and live a splendid life.
The fool is not only this, however, since he’s also the walking companion, love. When Carl appeared to me disguised as the fool, we were walking along a sunken footpath under the leaves. Moving by below us on our left was a very clear stream where trout were darting about. Carl pointed out the trout to me, which I hadn’t noticed. During our hikes, he often points out fish or birds to me in this way. I never see them. Somehow I can’t disentangle the landscape.
I also go walking with Carl, then, so that he can point things out to me that I can’t see. It’s as though I was blind and the fool had eyes. the fool describes the landscape to me and I listen in order to learn. Thanks to the fool I possess an additional set of bearings with which to find my way about in life: without him, I’d have to fumble around in a world where everything is so thoroughly tangled that all I can make out is one puzzling image, not the component parts of that image, each in its proper order and place.
I’d like the frame to grow larger, that way I’d no longer be frozen by this small strip of cardboard in the position of a revenant-vagabond-piper.
Writers want to die. It’s a family secret. People think they want fame; they think that, too, but what they actually want is to be carried off as a small child in the arms of their father on that marvelous horse making its way through a German forest.
Recognizing the fool in the man I loved gave me quite a shock. There comes a moment—at first, it’s not like that at all—when life and literature become so closely entwined that it’s almost as though you possessed magic powers and could conjure up in your existence things that happen in your books. This man you loved suddenly becomes a man in your book. You even managed to get him in. If you’re a bit fearful, you try to keep them separate. No, no, you beseech I-don’t-know-who, I don’t want him mixed up in the landscape as well! I want him to stay behind in life! I want him as a counterpart to these bizarre and fascinating constructions. But it’s not to be. He comes into the book. And, to make matters worse, he wants to. If he has loved you it’s because he was there already or else wanted madly to come in.
I look at Carl who has chosen to come into my book, and I’m at once skeptical and enchanted. I can’t help thinking that it’s a bit odd to want to be in a book and that, for once, it’s a desire I’m not familiar with. I question him about this in the act of love. Do you really want to be inside my book? Yes, yes, his body and feelings cry out in reply. He wants to be in my book, not so that he can be a character there but so that he can take part in it and live that form of life: being on the outside doesn’t interest him at all. the fool wants to come into a book.
I’m going to go back to the beginning. It brings me a kind of peace, a feeling of pleasure, like being curled up between the sheets of your bed in a quiet, warm flat. That’s how writers advance.
Orléans—a town where I was so unhappy. I lived there between the ages of eleven and seventeen. The town was gray, the sky was gray, everything was gray and ice-cold. Fortunately, I had a blue moped that saved my life. On my moped I would go speeding along through the gray fields, under the gray sky, among the apple trees. To my mind, there was only one pretty thing around Orléans: the trees in blossom, there were lots of trees in blossom in spring. The trees in blossom and the moped saved my life. I was horribly unhappy at the time. I was in thrall to the fool in his most baneful incarnation. the fool held sway over my poor little life as a frail young girl, he was extremely powerful, he made me want to die, to throw up. So, to get some air, I would climb onto my blue moped—a Peugeot 120—and go speeding off into the December cold, traveling twenty, thirty, forty kilometers, with sheets of newspaper stuffed under my pullover—my grandmother had taught me this as a way of protecting yourself against the cold. Sometimes I would deliberately go into a skid. Sometimes I would deliberately injure myself on the gravel and kill myself on the bank of the road.
The little apples were pretty. The region around Orléans, thank heavens, is a region of market gardens and orchards. Without that springtime, I would have died. the fool wanted me dead and I responded to that desire, which was much more powerful than me, by a tactic I have adopted successfully ever since: impeccability. I was an excellent pupil, I did my homework with scrupulous good care. There were other pupils more gifted than me, but I had a constancy and earnestness that ensured I always got very good marks. Faced with the fool: behave impeccably. At that point, he can’t touch you, he can’t exert that destructive influence over you, he jumps about with all the attributes of a pernicious, murderous fool, he tries in vain to kill you. You’re impeccable, things wash over you like water off a duck’s back, you go about your life on your moped, you twist the gray throttle, and away it goes. How good it is to escape!
And that’s how I became a writer. Because of the fool and the tactics I employed to escape his clutches. Apart from writing a story, there’s nothing I like better than driving a car, alone. Each time, I escape—I live through spring, the apple trees in blossom, I’m born again, I come back to life.
To go back to the beginning is to see him over and over again rambling through the mountains in his fool’s motley that separates him forever from the world of the living. Animals follow behind him, uneasy but entranced. He’s a figure from a fairy tale who performs miracles as he advances: the moment he happens by, everything is named. He happens by? The leaf he grazes with his shoulder shines brightly for an instant, named leaf all of a sudden, where prior to that it had been asleep in a dark mass of foliage. It’s the same with grass or stones, his labors are at once unending, miraculous and doomed to fail, for the moment he has happened by the things that have been named cease to be named, right behind his back.
He doesn’t enjoy company, as we have seen. Anyone who spots him coming feels very uneasy; indeed, in a good many novels, and in life as well, we have seen families abruptly torn asunder, couples who loved each other hate each other, children in good health suddenly drop dead, horrific car crashes or worse in the vicinity of his ghastly, magisterial presence. He happens by and turmoil ensues. He happens by and you get one of those inexplicable moments, just when you were feeling happy and at peace with yourself, when everything clouds over, grows dark, comes crashing down. Even Virginia Woolf, who knew a great deal about the subject, went and threw herself in the Ouse when the fool happened by. There are times, however, when you want to be carried off by him, you want to curl up in his icy chill, you want to gaze into his eyes which do so much harm and yet so much good. You’re crazy when you’re a writer.