I’m five or six, on holiday with my father at his parents’ place in Soissons. My grandfather is seeing patients in his surgery at the end of the garden, my grandmother is busy doing I don’t know what, I’m alone, I’m bored. Suddenly I have an idea. I get my grandmother’s lipstick from the bathroom and I set about painting my father: two circles on his cheeks, another on the end of his nose. I take him by the hand and say, “You’re a clown, Dad, come on, I want to show everyone.” Together we go out into the street and sit down on the doorstep in the blazing sunlight of a summer afternoon. He’s in profile. With my finger I spread the color over his left cheek. He lets me do it with a weary, nasty smile. Seeing him like this I’m filled with shame, sorrow, and pleasure. My grandmother suddenly appears from nowhere, a small, elegant, measured woman, her dress, makeup, and hair always just so. For the first time I hear her raise her voice. In a tone that brooks no answer she orders me to stop it at once, to go back inside.
Twenty-five years later, when my grandmother was long dead, my father went back to live, or rather to stop living, in Soissons. He moved into an apartment with his father. After my grandfather’s departure and subsequent death a few months later, my father was hospitalized in a clinic right opposite the house he grew up in. It was then that he really went downhill.
I would take taxis so I would not see the surroundings on my own, I would buy drinks for barflies in exchange for a few words, I was waiting for I know not who, I know not what, at a table in the sun outside a cafe. I had lost my identity (and my papers too). The law that means so much to me was not enough to restore me to citizenship. I was “out of laws.” I would sit outside the law courts where I had once been a trainee. One day I bought a broom and swept the courthouse steps. Every age has its pleasures they say. And the unconscious pleasure of playing the clown in the town where my father had forged his career manifested my sadness (they also say that clowns are sad). It gave me no pleasure to play that clown and I do not think there is any social code linked to the sorrow that drives you mad. My father liked to kid around, he liked stupid jokes and word play: “A horse meets St. Thomas on his path and swallows him whole. Christ passes by and says, ‘Laisse Thomas dans l’etalon.’* Isn’t that silly?” and he would burst into delighted laughter. He didn’t like tragedy. He also had a real talent for mimicry: he could put on any accent amazingly well and do animal calls too.
From this I deduce that he used to make me laugh as a child. I can still see him, already very ill, playing with my daughter when she was a baby and laughing with her, his laugh the same as hers, effortlessly, no distance between them, without that air of constraint, the bending down of adults acting like children, as though she had awoken within him an element of comical chaos and mindlessness that was very much alive and wanted. He was fond of gaffes. One day in court he presented an important case with a clothes hanger hooked onto the back of his robe. He liked nothing more than these involuntary deviations and permissible skids that cause the social order, of which he was otherwise so careful, to jam. At the end of his life, in the little white room, he imagined himself as a wise monk, a man of the shadows, and also as a clown:
My little girl went to the circus on Sunday and I thought, “Why not a clown?” It is not socially unacceptable. In a lovely little caravan, going from town to town, making children laugh and sleeping till the next day. But it is a fantasy, I know, even though, before, I used to keep a clown’s nose in a drawer in my chambers. If a client had come in and told me stories, I would have put on my nose and asked, “Do you take me for a clown?” I never did it. You lose your clients and destroy your reputation with such behavior.
That clown’s nose in his drawer, that jack- in-a-box, was his violent desire to reverse roles and overturn codes, to mock dignity. But he kept it hidden away, shut up in his drawer and, costumed in gray, he would act the lawyer, deal with his dossiers, receive his clients, corseted by his reputation to protect,
his rank to retain. He played his role, he adopted the ways of being and speaking of those around him, jurists, senators, men of power, all ponderous with importance, pickled in arrogance. In so doing he used the same talent, the same flexibility—that inconstancy that Aristotle describes as characteristic of the melancholic—that he used, when I was a child, to mimic the call of a cow or pig. Often, in his voice, on his face, I would catch the intonation or grin of a right-wing politician, seen on television the day before. But it wasn’t simply to be expected, it wasn’t just him. There was a wavering, a distance, an incredulity. He played the role but did not inhabit it. He acted the man of law, but he was out of laws. In his family they didn’t play with codes. Nor did they worry about justifying them. They were bourgeois without hatred of the proletariat, Catholic without faith, affluent without greed, educated without curiosity. The main thing was to save face, or rather surface (the gleaming furniture in my grandmother’s house, the large mirrors that reflected her beautiful face, the polished apartment in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, where she later gave refuge to her son’s distress). In psychiatry there’s an illness they call the as if syndrome. Sufferers act as if they weren’t ill, as if everything were normal, as if something like normality existed. This as if syndrome is, in a way, the illness of the bourgeoisie. At any rate it was the illness of my paternal family, and that of the parents of Fritz Zorn (I discovered Mars in my grandfather’s library). Zorn died of cancer, my father of melancholia; but sometimes I think he died of not having the as if syndrome, of not having known how—or of being unable—to pretend all the time, to act as if everything were fine, as if everything were simple, as if what Zorn calls the “complicated” (sex, politics, religion, ideas, and also the dark, opulent upheavals in which a person is forged, a life decided) had to be rejected, always, silently, prudently. Perhaps that clown’s nose, had he worn it, might have saved him.
One summer—I might have been seven or eight, my sister three or four—he rented a caravan, a rickety old thing made of wood with a tarpaulin cover, pulled by a mare known as Cuddles, a real old gypsy caravan. We set off on a trip somewhere, in the Cevennes I think it was. We made our way very slowly along little mountain roads lined with meadows and forests and in the evening we would stop at an inn, let the mare out to grass, and the next morning, in the clear, clean air, we would set off again, my sister and I perched on the driver’s seat in our flared dungarees and multicolored smocks, eating ice cream and singing at the tops of our voices, songs he’d taught us by Brel and Brassens, he’d be down on the road ahead, walking in front of the mare with a bucket of water or a bit of hay to keep her moving forward, laughing with us whenever she stopped. It was the end of the 1970s, he was young and slim, he had a moustache and a denim jacket, in fact I wonder if he didn’t bring his guitar along. What I remember is that throughout that week everything went
well, and my uneasy joy, and my disbelief.
Perhaps that was what he needed—to weigh anchor, cast off, leave watching eyes behind, and take to the road, alone but for a lazy old mare and two scruffy, giggling little girls. And yet his mask mattered to him, maybe it was he who held it in place. When I learned that the Latin for mask is persona, I immediately thought of him. For a moment I felt I understood his concern with codes, order, and hierarchy. The reason he wore himself out so much acting the adult was perhaps that, beneath his mask, there was no one, and that “no one” was not the saving, cunning anonymity of Ulysses, but emptiness, a gap. If he had dropped the mask we might perhaps have realized that the king has no clothes.
I did see my father like that, stripped, dethroned, fallen, my father become nothing and nothing but nothing, my father drained of the abscess of being someone. It was in the last years, during his last stay in a mental hospital—a real hospital this time, not one of those three-star clinics where exhausted teachers would go before summer to get treatment for incipient depression. Out of the question there to sit down at a café table in the sun or take a taxi ride around the local area. He was in what they call a “secure unit.” To see him we had to go to a door with a small frosted-glass window and ring the bell. Then we had to wait for the nurse behind the counter to identify us, my sister and me. We would hear the electronic lock click and we would step into a room full of sickly colors—creamy white and chlorophyll green—where patients in slippers would slide silently toward the television through a cloud of smoke. All eyes would turn toward us, two girls wearing the air of outside, of life, of health, like an indiscreet perfume. I would avoid meeting their glances (but one day I recognized a boy I’d been at school with, tall, thin, and dark-haired, with a childlike face and glasses. I nodded to him, he didn’t respond. Later my father told me he had recognized me too and that he hadn’t wanted to talk about it). I was ashamed, ashamed of our appearance of health and normality, of our clothes, though we had chosen them to do him honor, to please him, perhaps also to show him that we were fine, that we were coping, and to protect us from all that, the dirty walls, the grim suburb, the pajamas and slippers. We were both very thin and silent, our faces drawn, clinging to our cigarettes just like the patients, but I found us noisy, arrogant, and overwhelming. My father wasn’t in the day room. He was the patient in the room at the end. A lively, chubby nurse took us down to him. He was standing in a bare room with windows overlooking the garden and, in the distance, the Seine. My first thought when we went in was to open them, but they were locked shut. No mirror, no photos, no books or flowers. In a corner, piled up, the newspapers my mother had subscribed him to, still in their polythene wrapping. He was standing by his bed, dressed in a black turtleneck and gray flannel trousers that hung from his hips, with bare feet. They had confiscated his belt, the way they do with prisoners. For years we had seen him fat, swollen up by medication. He was thin, frighteningly so, he had almost disappeared. He seemed smaller too. We looked at each other, and what was in his eyes wasn’t fear, or distress, it wasn’t even nothing. It was absolute nakedness.
[*Literally, “Leave Thomas inside the stallion,” but it sounds like “L’estomac
dans les talons,” meaning “ravenously hungry.”—Trans.]
– – –
No One will be released by Tin House in February 2012.