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Georges Perec : A Man Asleep





Extract from:


Georges Perec

A Man Asleep

1967



"It is on a day like this one, a little later, a little earlier, that you discover, without surprise, that something is wrong, that, without mincing words, you don't know how to live, that you will never know.


The sun beats down on the sheet metal of the roof. The heat in your garret is unbearable. You are sitting, wedged between the bed and the bookshelf, with a book open on your lap. You stopped reading it long ago. You are staring at a whitewood shelf, at a pink plastic bowl in which six socks are stagnating. The smoke from your cigarette, abandoned in the ashtray, rises, in an almost straight line, and then spreads out in a quivering blanket against the ceiling which is fissured by minute cracks.


Something was going to break, something has broken. You no longer feel — how to put it ? — held up: it is as if some thing which, it seemed to you, it seems to you, fortified you until then, gave warmth to your heart, something like the feeling of your existence, of your importance almost, the impression of belonging to or of being in the world, is starting to slip away from you.


And yet you are not one of those people who spend their waking hours wondering if they exist, and why, where they came from, what they are, where they are going. You have never seriously agonised over the chicken and the egg. Metaphysical torments have not significantly ravaged your noble countenance.


But nothing remains of that arrow-like trajectory, of that forward movement in which, for as long as you can remember, you have been led to recognise your life, that is to say its meaning, its truth, its tension: a past rich in fruitful experiences, lessons well learned, joyous childhood memories, sun-bathed country idylls, bracing sea breezes, a dense present, compact and taut, like a coiled spring, a productive, verdant, airy future. Your past, your present and your future merge into one: theyare now just the heaviness of your limbs, your nagging migraine, your lassitude, the heat, the bitterness of the lukewarm Nescafé.


And, if your life needed a setting, it would not be the majestic esplanade (by and large a spectacular trick of perspective) where the chubby-cheeked children of triumphant humanity fly past and frolic, but rather, irrespective of any effort you may make or any illusions you may still harbour, this converted cubbyhole that passes for your bedroom, this garret two metres ninety-two long by one metre sixty-three wide, that is to say, a little over five square metres, this attic from which you have not stirred for several hours, several days: you are sitting on a bed which is too short for you to be able to lie on it, full length, at night, and too narrow for you to be able to turn over on it, without extreme care. You are staring, almost fascinated now, at a pink plastic bowl which contains no fewer than six socks.


You stay in your room, without eating, without reading, almost without moving. You stare at the bowl, the shelf, your knees, your own gaze in the cracked mirror, the coffee-bowl, the light-switch.


You listen to the sounds of the street, the dripping tap on the landing, the noises that your neighbour makes, clearing his throat, opening and closing drawers, coughing fits, the whistle of his kettle, you follow across the ceiling the sinuous lines of a thin crack, the futile meandering of a fly, the progress - which it is almost possible to plot - of the shadows.

This is your life. This is yours. You can establish an exact inventory of your meagre fortune, the precise balance sheet of your first quarter-century. You are twenty-five years old, you have twenty-nine teeth, three shirts and eight socks, a few books you no longer read, a few records you no longer play. You do not want to remember anything else, be it your family or your studies, your friends and lovers, or your holidays and plans.


You travelled and you brought nothing back from your travels. Here you sit, and you want only to wait, just to wait until there is nothing left to wait for: for night to fall and the passing hours to chime, for the days to slip away and the memories to fade.


You do not see your friends again. You do not open your door. You do not go down to fetch your mail. You do not take back the books you borrowed from the Library of the Institute of Education. You do not write to your parents.


You only go out after nightfall, like the rats, the cats and the monsters. You drift around the streets, you slip into the grubby little cinemas on the Grands Boulevards. Sometimes you walk all night, sometimes you sleep all day.


You are a man of leisure, a sleepwalker, a mollusc. The definitions vary according to the hour of the day, or the day of the week, but the meaning remains clear enough: you do not really feel cut out for living, for doing, for making; you want only to go on, to go on waiting, and to forget.


Such an outlook on life is generally not much appreciated in modern times: all around you, all your life, you have seen the esteem in which action is held, and grand designs, and enthusiasm: man straining forward, man with his gaze fixed on the horizon, man looking straight ahead.


A clear gaze, a purposeful chin, a confident swagger, stomach held in. Staying power, initiative, strokes of brilliance, success: all of these things map out the too transparent path of a too exemplary existence, constitute the sacrosanct images of the struggle for life. The white lies, the comforting illusions of all those who are running on the spot, sinking deeper into the mire, the lost illusions of the thousands left on society's scrap heap, those who arrived too late, those who put their suitcase down on the pavement and sat on it to wipe their brow.


But you no longer need excuses, regrets, nostalgia. You reject nothing, you refuse nothing. You have ceased going forward, but that is because you weren't going forward anyway, you're not setting off again, you have arrived, you can see no reason to go any further: all it took, practically, on a day in May when it was too hot, was the untimely conjunction of a text of which you'd lost the thread, a bowl of Nescafé that suddenly tasted too bitter, and a pink plastic bowl filled with blackish water in which six socks were floating.


This was all it took for something to snap, to turn bad, to come undone, and for the truth to appear in the bright light of day - but the light of day is never bright in the garret on Rue Saint-Honoré - this disappointing truth, as sad and ridiculous as a dunce's cap, as heavy as a Latin dictionary: you have no desire to carry on, no desire to defend yourself, no desire to attack.


Your friends got tired of knocking on your door. Now, you rarely ever frequent the streets where you might run into them. You avoid the questions and the eyes of strangers whom chance occasionally places in your path, you refuse the beer or the coffee they offer you.


Only the night and your room protect you: the narrow bed where you lie stretched out, the ceiling that you discover anew at every moment; the night in which, alone amidst the crowds on the Grands Boulevards, you occasionally feel almost happy with the noise and the lights, the bustle and the forgetting.


You have no need to speak, to desire. You follow the tide as it ebbs and flows, from Place de la République to Place de la Madeleine, from Place de la Madeleine to Place de la République.


You are not in the habit of making diagnoses, and you don't want to start now.


What is worrying you, what is disturbing you, what is frightening you, but which now and then gives you a thrill, is not the suddenness of your metamorphosis, but precisely the opposite: the vague and heavy feeling that it isn't a metamorphosis at all, that nothing has changed, that you've always been like this, even though you only now realize it fully: that thing, in the cracked mirror, is not your new face, it is just that the masks have slipped, the heat in your room has melted them, your torpor has soaked them off. The masks of unswerving conviction, of the straight and narrow.


Did you never have an inkling, not once in twenty-five years, of that which, today, has already become inexorable ? Did you never see any cracks in what, for you, takes the place of a history ? Times when nothing was happening, times when you were simply ticking over in neutral.


The fleeting and poignant desire to hear no more, to see no more, to remain silent and motionless. Crazy dreams of solitude."


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