By Michèle Lesbre
Translation from the French by Katie Assef
The last time we went to the Hôtel des Embruns, you were returning from Trieste; you had gone to take some photographs of the old port, of what remained of it, an immense, abandoned corpse washed away by the sea, and where the silence, you believed, failed to drown out the murmur of a previous life—that of men at work, the coming and going of boats, the singing of pontoon-cranes, a flamboyant past. You spread out a few of your snapshots on the bed and narrated them to me. You would show them at several galleries on your way back to Paris. You liked this border town that hurtles down from the mountain, where you had walked for days. You showed me the Ursus crane, its long neck overhanging the surrounding ruins, protected by a few nostalgic souls refusing its destruction. You were a regular at Café San Marco, which had been frequented by Umberto Saba, Svevo, Joyce, and probably Claudio Magris, too, in those days. You had found Saba’s bookshop, still there more than fifty years after his death, on San Nicolo street, identical, you told me, to what it looks like in the photographs of the poet in his little universe, where books climbed and still climb the walls, packed tightly together and yellowed with age. I love the cities you capture in your lenses, your zooms, your wide-angles, they offer themselves to me through your gaze, and at times seem so much to belong to you that I cannot imagine reaching them. I can only dream of them through your photographs, your stories.
It was at one of your exhibitions that we found each other again, a retrospective of the work you had done at the end of the sixties in Saint-Ouen, a few shots of the strike at Wonder, of the bar La Chope des Puces where the gypsies still came to strum their guitars for the Sunday crowds. Ordinary lives. Your first projects.
We had lost sight of each other a long time before, I remember recognizing your voice even before I spotted you among the people mingling in the room. You were saying that the skies in Turner reflected the torment of the Industrial Revolution, I found you a bit pompous and wondered if these words were your own, I suspected not. I didn’t approach you right away, I looked first at the photographs, a few of which remain clear in my memory. I can still see the man, bare-chested and shaving in front of a tiny mirror hung from the wall, emerging only vaguely out of the heavy mist of showers after labor. I remember too the boy standing before the assembly line in a sheet-metal workshop, handsome as a Greek god, smoking a cigarette on his break, with a radiant youth in his eyes but an uncertain smile, and the old couple at table in a modest and outdated kitchen, drinking coffee, she feeding a sugar cube to the dog on her lap, he gesturing to accompany inaudible words that might be addressed to anyone. There was in all of these black-and-white snapshots something of you that I recognized, something you must know how to express only in these furtive moments whose essence you capture so well. Words, you once confided in me, never seem to measure up.
When I approached, you were arguing over the phrase I had heard from across the room. You interrupted yourself mid-sentence and we burst out laughing while your audience looked on, perplexed. It was five or six years ago, I don’t know anymore. You said, We’re not far from the sea, let’s go, and we left.
At the Hôtel des Embruns we rented the blue room, and we went running on the beach, not saying a word, there was nothing to say, we had known each other a long time. I heard you gasping at my back, I was flying, you begged me to slow down. And then we ran back to the room, transported by desire. Our bodies smelled of the sea, we heard it smashing against the cliffs and you whispered that it was coming to join us, and we dove beneath the sheets until night came. Madame Odette, whose first name we did not know, telephoned to ask if we would like our dinner, but we needed nothing and went back to bed. We returned nearly every week as long as our schedules allowed it, then a little less often, then we stopped, without a precise reason.
Last night was supposed to be the grand reunion, as Madame Odette noted when I called to reserve the room. You won’t recognize it! she declared, we’ve renovated all the rooms. I was upset by this news, as if it might foretell other changes. But the sea is still the same, she continued with a brief, malicious laugh.
I recall one time when you arrived very late, your car had broken down in the open countryside and you hadn’t been able to reach me. I had waited on the beach until sunset, walking back and forth along the shore, thinking that perhaps you wouldn’t come, that this story we were attempting to play out had eluded us again, that you were incapable of admitting to our failure and had chosen to run away. Then you appeared suddenly in the middle of the night, exhausted and sweaty. I didn’t ask a single question, and we went to sleep on the sand.
You smelled of hot oil and gasoline and wanted desperately to explain the breakdown that had held you up so long. I listened without understanding the mechanical terms, and kept watch over the sea as it approached, slow and determined, black beneath the moon, white at the waves’ crest. The lights of a far-away beacon flickered. High sea of our solitude, I thought with grandiloquence. I walked to the shore and, turning around, felt lost in the darkness where I could barely distinguish the outline of your shadow on the sand. I was afraid, I went running back to you. You were sleeping like a child, I took you in my arms.
It was morning when we awoke. You wanted me to follow you to Ireland, all the way to Sligo where we would rent a horse and caravan to ride along the coast and visit the pubs in the evening. We never took that journey, we took others. Our travels have always carried us far; it’s the coming home that loses us.
French author Michèle Lesbre has published twelve works of fiction, including Le canapé rouge (SW Editeur, 2007), which was a finalist for the Goncourt Prize. She is a retired member of the militant far left, and her work often deals with themes of class, justice, violence, and political utopia. After the Rain (Ecoute la pluie) tells the story of a woman who exchanges a smile with a man moments before he leaps to his death in the Paris metro. Afterwards, she is too shaken to board her train for Nantes, where she’d planned to meet her estranged lover for a weekend by the sea, one last attempt to salvage their relationship. Instead, she walks the streets of Paris, in the rain, until dawn. Her internal monologue is addressed to her lover, and at its heart is the question: What will remain of our lives after we die? This excerpt is the third chapter from the novel.
Translator Katie Assef’s prose and translations have appeared in journals such as Weird Fiction Review, PANK, Alchemy: a Journal of Translation, and Cerise Press.