Translated from French by S.C. Delaney and Agnès Potier
First it was two false incisors falling on his plate. In the past he might have laughed, written some pages, maybe a decent story he’d have put away with some others that went with his real work—that of a painter who was better at drawing than at painting. But this was like the end of the world, the end of himself merged with universal decay; worse even: the rescinding of actions and former starts. Fortunately his dentist hadn’t left for vacation, and he put in two temporaries while waiting for new implants to be made.
Evidently, white gold is stronger than any other material, yet isn’t very aesthetic when it comes to the front teeth. The reinforced resin had just shown its fragility; the pivots held firm but the teeth’s “façades” detached like large, grayish scales. Leaving the porcelain . . . At any rate, the dentist explained to him, teeth, whether false or real, don’t last forever, so, for example, the development of the jawbone isn’t without consequence . . . We’d choose a porcelain that wasn’t too white.
Then there was a set of six small bottles of Badoit water purchased at the corner shop. Each bottle with a capacity of eleven fluid ounces, independent of the mineral water and wholly in keeping with this water, seeming to him an irreformable, technically perfect object: efficacy of a simple shape, thickness of the “bottle green” plastic, metal screw-on cap, this last part a real extravagance since these containers would wind up in the trash. A scandal. Beyond the ecology, the economy, the greed. A scandal or rather an incredible pain that went right to the head, particularly in his temporary incisors.
Only a nameless dread linked the teeth to the small empty bottle of Badoit he’d let rebound atop the table; perhaps he lacked that modicum of energy, of vitality, that would have made him indifferent to this matter of packaging: he admired the little bottle no longer knowing how much, no longer finding the real force of his own interest; he thought of his teeth with a fear of eating. A sort of fear at its purest—ghastly.
Then this reprint of a painting by Prassinos, part of the Torments series, which appeared in Libération on August 23, 1986. A black-and-white photo that struck him at once as fearsome, incontestable beauty. Everything there was to say about time, about the pointed indifference of landscapes, was there. The appearance of a landscape as seen by a man, when it’s the physical intensity of the awed and contrived gaze that creates the world’s allegory.
Perhaps the painting was more benign, more habitable; here the black and white proclaimed a grandiose and overwhelming eternity. It’s no longer a matter of teeth for humanity nourished with its body the black band of earth, its breath had already exhaled out to the horizon, in an endless day of impossible advent. A luxurious earth, without waste, where the symmetry holds the perfect imperfection of life, where the hardest light sweeps over everything like a great transformation. At the top of the work between the symmetrical trees, at the level of the branches with the same light and the same shade as the bare trunks—relatively high and straight—a small white indistinct ball: purely the effect of the medium used, or of the moon.
Even lit as it is here by the moon, this is still a solar landscape. Integrating toil and hardship, night. And it’s this landscape that’s rendering a verdict against men, for this beauty is too strong for them. For they have incisors, they drink water, they . . . He returned to the little plastic bottle that had nothing to do with art, or with teeth, or above all with his boundless fatigue. He blamed the neuroleptics; he’d never get over this.
He’d tell himself that this abulia, his disconnection with things and this terrible gulf between them, that must have, in fact, existed within himself beforehand, before his treatment, that everything had worsened all at once. Not long ago he would have been able to analyze, would have thrown away without the slightest concern a nonreturnable bottle of mineral water—except that the small bottles of Badoit seemed perfect to him, and of a dangerous insignificance. Was it a danger he could still recognize? He would die and the world had gone off course.
In the meantime, upon his return to his apartment after an absence of forty-eight hours, he contemplated the disaster, the work of ten years ruined, and that he’d never redo these drawings. Certain works had gone through the blender, which must have jammed it; he read the inscription on the bathroom door: AFTER THE HAMMER OF PHILOSOPHY (Nietzsche), THE BLENDER OF ART. Some drawings had been burned in the bathtub, others doused with table oil; crushed paint tubes nearly everywhere, around fifty pencils—no, all of his pencils—lay on the floor . . . It wasn’t so much depressing as it was sickening; he thought less of the loss of his drawings and the planned exhibition than of the effort to put it all back in order now. He didn’t consider informing the police (to what end?); as for insurance, how could it ever compensate? Surely there was a little money to recover, his modest income requiring a declaration, a report, some application or other.
Who could have resented him so? What pretentious, no doubt spiteful, individuals had drawn this lame inscription? While it’s always disturbing to find oneself an object of hate, still he didn’t hold it against “them,” not even really revolted by so much bosh. In the past if he’d imagined a similar scenario, he probably would have shuddered, then been overtaken by that wretched indifference that clearly bespoke his depression, but something was left to understand—pain, the intolerable, this self that no longer managed to provide gestures on an everyday level. He breathed deeply, saw in the kitchen four bottles of Badoit, in the same place, intact. He took one.
Curiously, after having drunk a bottle of whiskey they seemed to have spared the others—one of which was full—that they could have carried off. Or they could have spread alcohol like the oil on his drawings. They’d had no resolve or their excitement had been brief; perhaps they were also without conviction and . . . exhausted, so very exhausted, and lacked imagination. Without for the second time pitying the bastards or himself, he noted that no one was flying very high right now, he let the small bottle of Badoit dance on its flexible base—almost as if his hand were holding evidence.
Among a folder’s strewn contents, the reprint of a work by Prassinos from the Torments series. For the first time he read the title, thought to hear it without probing its meaning. Everything that was happening to him seemed to merge in this black-and-white reprint (of a painting he would have liked to see), he himself dissolving into a minuscule material detail or the vast nothingness of this radiant work. He had an odd idea: all told he was glad the vandals had chosen him, his drawings, rather than Prassinos. At the same time he’d thought: rather than life. Perhaps he saw, in the same instant, the bastards already in the black band of earth at the bottom of the reprint. Along the vertical centerline a small tree takes root in the middle of the bottom black and,* an absurd and sacred tree, spiritual, irreformable like himself. He would have liked to be this tree. But where? He read on the greenish bottle: naturally carbonated mineral water. He had to regain some pleasure in this sort of small wonder; otherwise he’d be dying in some corner. He unscrewed and rescrewed the cap—merely in order to see.
* and? For land? band? I don’t know which word I meant now.
Michel Vachey (1939–87) was an experimental French artist and author. He was a founder of the Textruction movement, which sought to blur the line between image and text, and his writing likewise probes expectations of genre. His work includes poetry, novels, collages, and hybrid story-essays.
S.C. Delaney has translated, with Agnès Potier, Tony Duvert’s prose collections Odd Jobs and District. His work has been featured in, among other places, Black Sun Lit, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Paris Review: The Daily.
Agnès Potier was born and raised in Paris and now lives in the Pyrenées. She is currently translating, with S.C. Delaney, the uncollected and unpublished texts of Michel Vachey, some of which may be found in Vestiges, Asymptote Journal, and Kenyon Review Online.
“Suspensions” originally appeared in TLR: Feverish