XX: Hello, darling XY, it’s been too long. I do miss having these talks with you about books.
XY: As do I, my dear XX. I feel as though I’ve been shut up in a musty box these past months.
XX: Indeed. But life … yes? If we used these exchanges as markers in our other lives, our lives away from these letters, well, it struck me what different things lie between each!
XY: Speak for yourself, darling. Without these indiscretions it is fair to say I barely exist at all.
XX: If you didn’t exist, I would have to write you, XY—but here you are, thankfully. Now, back to what brings us together. We spoke some time ago about reviewing a different book, a fine and worthy book, but then I saw this—Trysting, by Emmanuelle Pagano—and I just had a feeling it might be perfect. The moment I started to read, it felt like quenching a particular thirst, even going so far as to think of her fragments on love, heartbreak, and desire as bits of ice in the glass. As I read many of them, I felt the burning ache of a similar memory inside me, as if that ice was slowly melting, the shock of it releasing these feelings about past lovers.
XY: Your taste in such things is always exquisite, my dear, and the sentiment is perfectly expressed. But tell me, does the book build to any sort of arc? And did it bother you to never be sure how the fragments might connect, one to another? It reminded me of a memory game, and I’m terrible at memory games.
XX: This is a book where satisfaction and pleasure lies in taking it as you find it: in the way you might once have walked a beach picking up stones and sea-smoothed glass, all of them looking seemingly the same, but on closer inspection, all of a sudden certain shapes and colours calling out to you to touch. I wondered briefly if there would be something more formal in structure to Trysting; but then some of the fragments called to me in that way and I found myself gathering my own memories like those beach treasures. It made me think of what artist Marc Quinn says about fragments of body parts in his sculptures, which still rings true in reading Trysting: ‘fragments can have such a powerful impact, [they have] so much locked up in them, somehow embodying the whole object but often with an even stronger emotional impact.’
XY: It feels like a cut-up method: we keep returning to familiar themes or motifs—something about a saxophone, or a hunting party, or a particular illness—but we are never quite sure since nothing is labelled. But it isn’t random, is it? Please tell me it isn’t!
XX: I think with other people’s memories, everything seems random until you can identify part of yourself within them. But surely this is the same as people themselves: some you never understand, and then there are the ones you are drawn to so strongly that it feels like you always had some sort of connection.
XY: That said, I felt some of the fragments were altogether too pointed, and I found that the ones I liked best had the least pointy points—
they left my mind free to wander in the realm of possibilities, or simply to observe without being led this way or that. Did you not find the book to be a bit like people watching from a café window?
XX: Oh, yes. After a while, reading the fragments, I started to think of characters in literature: if they were the ones speaking here, what would they say of their loves and heartbreaks? And I thought of Eugenie in Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, the provincial girl who, on seeing her handsome cousin from Paris in her home, is struck by love, even though she does not recognise it as such yet, being as artless as she is. And so she wishes to extend her love in the only way she knows, asking the servant Nanon to bring forth the riches of her miserly father’s locked larder in order that Charles might have fine things. I imagined her within Pagano’s pages:
I felt that he was grand, and so he should have grand things, even in this poor house, not like what he must be used to in Paris. I begged Nanon for cream from the milk, extra sugar, flour, and fruit to make him a galette; she laughed at my sudden extravagance, but knew how I felt, seeing this man as beautiful as a god lighting our dark house. And made so bold, we both dared to risk the wrath of my father, in order that Charles should be comforted by some small luxuries. I wished that he might feel my regard in these simple things.
And then I thought of Ovid’s Heroides, where the stories famous in mythology and epic poetry show another perspective, specifically, that of the character opposite to the protagonist—their great love. What Ovid did, as Pagano does, is tell the story of love by showing all its facets in the reflection of the other.
Each fragment is a pool of water, the speaker telling their tale to it; the reflection speaks in return, but silently—only the reader can hear their words.
She recognises this even when love is lost. In the fragment of the man who talked to himself when he was a bachelor, until he met ‘her’, she gave him a voice to combine with his; when she leaves, what is left is his silence, communicating with the ghost of her voice. ‘The absence of her voice and mine responding’—absence is the negative, but it still has presence in the context of love.
XY: ‘In the reflection of the other’—you hit the nail on the head, XX. And speaking of the ‘absence of her voice’, what did you think of that beautiful long fragment in the first half, the one about the man who goes off to be with his mistress every day under the pretence of writing, and his wife knows this, or thinks she does; and then he dies, and she goes to his office and finds only words, endless words, in thousands of letters written to this mystery woman over fifty years—and it turns out the woman herself is only a fiction, a sort of ideal reader? ‘He asked her’—the mistress—‘to destroy the letters so that no trace of them was left behind, but in fact he had carefully preserved every draft.’
What a devastating thought! And what a perfect description of the writing life.
XX: How strange you should mention that first. It was the one that I found the most—to use your word—devastating! Of course I was glad for his wife, but to think he had created this woman on paper who was so real as to be almost flesh, and yet in the end only so in his words, although how could she have not become that in his mind after so long? I wanted to know how he shaped her, what words he filled her with, this ideal but silent reader, listener … companion, for indeed that is what she was. I wonder, after her relief, if the wife was not still a bit unnerved? I think of all those words—how greedy I am for words—and I know part of me would be undone.
XY: Now that I think about it, there are a number of writers in the book, usually men, who have trouble making the transition from fiction to real life, especially where love is concerned.
‘He couldn’t live within a story that he hadn’t written himself. He didn’t know how to live. He was always detached, observing.’
She falls for him, thinking he’s deep, but inevitably he retreats to his writer’s world:
‘It didn’t take long for him to leave me. He went back to his books. He left me so that he could write this story, our story, and it was then and only then, as he said in interviews, that it all came back to him, or rather it all came to him: the emotion, sensation and experience of love, but, he was careful to stress, only so that he could write it down, only for as long as it took to write it.’
What an absolute cad! And yet it is the writer’s conundrum, isn’t it? The word or the world?
XX: It is mercenary, in its way. But perhaps that is the lot of some writers: to tear apart the real world in order to shape their fictional ones in a manner that gives them the satisfaction they can’t—not have, but connect to. Maybe this is a reader’s problem (in extreme): retreating into a world that is safer, more vivid, less disappointing than the one they move around in. I can understand it, but I would never want to do it. Good, bad, or indifferent, I crave the experience as much as the control of creating one on paper. But I can’t imagine simply taking from one to feed the other in a completely callous way. With this particular fragment I found myself thinking this is what it is like to be read, no control over who turns your pages, or what information they take.
As terrible as that was, the fragment that made me draw in my breath audibly upon reading was the one about the person who elaborately fools someone into believing that they are their partner, to the extremes of moving into his place ‘I waited till he left a few days over Christmas and I moved into his apartment. I knew where he hid the key’, and convincing him they have a history—even managing to make their friends complicit in the deceit. If the writer was a cad, what is this person? The layers of thought involved in trapping someone into love make the cad writer look terribly simplistic now. Taking advantage of someone’s absent-mindedness to insert themselves into their life, like the cuckoo in the other bird’s nest, it’s a sharp reminder in between the beauty and sadness of most of the book that love and desire are also terrible things, that lead people to act in unfathomable ways.
But let’s talk about sex, shall we, darling? We haven’t spoken enough of it. The moments I loved most were the quiet ones:
‘I love his cock. The most moving thing about the cock of the man I love is when it’s soft, during trivial, everyday activities, in the shower or when he’s asleep.’
When the cock is described, it is in one extreme or the other, usually: either stiff and heavy with lust, or flaccid with disappointment or frustration.
It’s so significant, the soft everyday cock, the one that can just be—and be loved for it. It’s yet another finely tuned observation of the reality of desire by Pagano, which I applaud.
And you, XY? What fragments moved you, in thought or action?
XY: An excellent idea, XX. Let’s talk sex. Which passages moved me—moved my cock—is that what you’d like to know?
There were not as many ‘blue’ passages as I’d expected to be honest. Not that I was disappointed, because that’s what hard core pornography is for—or god forbid, ‘literary erotica’—but it was subtle, wasn’t it?
Observations of a lover’s body on the sly, intimacy without the tedious inevitability of the money shot.
There were a couple of fragments about a woman after pregnancy, for example, that I liked: her darkening areolas, the ‘line of hair stretching from her public bone to her navel, sharp and black like an upside-down exclamation mark’, which her lover ‘read’ lying beside her ‘top to tail’. Or this fragment:
‘I love it when he goes around naked in my house. It’s as if he lives here.’
Which rings true, doesn’t it?
Then there were the intimate scenes that may be read as sexual or not, including plenty to do with body fluids and so on:
‘She gets a kind of rash from contact with semen, which gives her skin a cute, slightly blotchy look. I wipe it off quickly before the reaction shows, but she often says, Leave it, it’s not bad, it’ll go, it doesn’t bother me, it hardly itches. Sometimes the red patches appear even before I come, on her neck and her belly, as though her body is anticipating mine.’
I love this fragment. Why? Maybe because I’ve had lovers like that, whose skin burned or flushed red when they were aroused, that rash on the neck or chest, and it was so—what, affirming?—to see that, even in public, and know what was happening, like a shared secret.
On the other hand, I was a bit squeamish reading some bits—you know, the hair plucking and that one about the mouthwash: ‘We burst out laughing, spitting everywhere. Our joy splatters the whole mirror.’ I wanted to avert my eyes and pass them a towel. But I suppose my repulsion is a testament to the subjective nature of intimacy and desire.
XX: It just goes to show in what curious and mundane things we find intimacy, no? Your ‘repulsion’ there seems to me, to be because you understand even in reading, that you have intruded on a private moment, not necessarily the act itself—I know you too well for that; of course you cannot avert your eyes in this manner of seeing, but neither can you avert your mind. It’s the ultimate voyeurism, isn’t it?
XY: Then there was the beautiful desolation of heartbreak—so many fragments in the book dealing with separation and endings.
‘I walked out before dawn with my wheelie suitcase into the streets of this vast southern city with its filthy town centre, so dirty and empty … hanging garlands of ragged plastic bags in the spindly branches of the trees. The New Year’s Eve parties are over; soon it’ll be the sales.’
Who hasn’t done that early morning walk with their wheelie suitcase in a strange city?
XX: Doing that without a breakup is solitary enough; to leave someone at that time of day—of year—the word that comes to mind is echo: the echo of footsteps, of memories … and the worn-out feeling one has on leaving or being left, as if it is you in those sales. Marked down, sitting on a shelf. Will we be given a new life?
XY: Before we go, darling XX, we should say a word about the translation itself, which was very good as it always is with And Other Stories and Two Lines Press. Like the best (and worst) translations, it made me want to read the book in its original language. What did you think?
XX: Yes, it is a testament to the strength of a good translator—or in this case, translators, as it was done by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis—when they capture the nuance of emotions in words the way it has been done here: it reminds you that it is so much more than word for word; it is feeling that is being translated.
XY: I suppose we should wrap this conversation up, XX, though I hate for it to end. Can we linger a little by the fire with a glass of cognac? Share a blanket and pass the night together? Just talking, of course.
XX: It only has to end when we want it to. Why don’t you read some more lovely fragments from Trysting to me, but in French, as I know you speak it well, XY: let’s see where it takes our memories and our … conversation tonight.
Emmanuelle Pagano was born in 1969 in the Aveyron region of southern France, where she studied fine art and the aesthetics of cinema. She now lives and works on the Ardèche plateau. She has written more than a dozen works of fiction, and in France is primarily published by P.O.L. She has won the EU Prize for Literature and her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. She regularly collaborates with artists working in other disciplines such as dance, cinema, photography, illustration, fine art and music.
Jennifer Higgins is a freelance translator and editor based in Oxford, U.K. Sophie Lewis‘s translations include The Earth Turned Upside Down by Jules Verne, The Man Who Walked Through Walls by Marcel Aymé, and Thérèse and Isabelle by Violette Leduc. An editor at large for And Other Stories Publishing, she lives in London.
XX and XY are contributors to minor literature[s].
Trysting is published by Two Lines Press in the USA and And Other Stories in the UK. Author bio courtesy of And Other Stories, translator bios courtesy of Two Lines Press.