From a fragment by Raymond Queneau.
By AUGUSTUS YOUNG.
ANTOINE ORLAN HAD DIFFICULTY getting an entry card to the National Library. He had no letters after his name, or letter of introduction. But he saw it as his last resort to make something of his writing, having tried everything else with no success. His application had not been even acknowledged. All summer he waited for the post and, just as he was becoming resigned to dogging on alone, an official letter arrived offering him a place if he registered for a course on the classification of burial inscriptions.
He presented himself at the reading room and found a seat where he could observe the workings of this vast assembly line for learning. He saw that everything revolved around the catalogues. Readers made a beeline for them, thumbed through the cards, scribbled something, handed it in at the desk, sat down and the books arrived. He decided to get to know the system.
The index of author names drew him to his own. He was amazement to find it in file 48, not only his name but also the titles of his three published pamphlets. Seeing the World Without Newton, Le Havre (1841), The Sky Is the Limit, Lyon (1843), and The Newtonian Dark Age and the Void of Truth, Caen (1859). Hitherto his searches in dictionaries and learned journals had come up with nothing.
He requested copies and in less than an hour the library assistant brought three tracts black with dust. The pages were uncut. His joy fell to earth. He remembered their creation: burning the midnight oil, inspired by moments of genius, the rage for expression, the ardor of enthusiasm, oblivious to the outside world. Then the pride of publication, and afterwards the deadly silence, not a word from anyone. And now the one record of their external life confirmed the worst. Nobody had troubled to read them.
His first reaction was to wish he was as dead as his writings. But since they hadn’t an existence in the minds of others, his death wouldn’t mean anything. It couldn’t even be a literary suicide as, without a reputation, it wasn’t in his gift to commit one. He left the library in despair and wandered the streets all night thinking of what was to be done. The cul-de-sacs of Paris all echoed the same counsel. Nothing.
Next morning, he returned to the library to watch and wait. Over several weeks he became expert at knowing what everybody was reading. He learned to be unobtrusive and read upside down and backwards what was tabled. Soon he was intimate with the intellectual life of, say, that one-legged gentleman with the beard, or the pretty blond girl. Their respective delving into the death of Louis XVI and Jansenism gained his complicity but did nothing for his case, until he fixed his interest on an erudite scholar whose investigation into nineteenth century French writers was informed by a relentless determination. The scope and depth of his researches lacked a perceptible purpose. It seemed to him like a random plunge into the unknown.
ANTOINE ORLAN’S SPYING became personal. The erudite didn’t seem to have any other life. Even the way he dressed accommodated to his reading. A short-sleeved jacket to facilitate turning pages, gloves to keep his hands clean. He had no friends amongst the readers and lodged in rooms with service where the lights went out exactly at midnight.
One evening as the library closed they exchanged nods and Antoine was emboldened to talk to him. The erudite divulged that the object of his excavations was to compile a compendium of unknown French writers of the nineteenth century. His probings in dark corners had already filled a quarto of over five hundred sheets.
‘Do you know Antoine Orlan?’, Antoine said, and rolled off the titles of the pamphlets. The erudite murmured an interest. So, he wrote them down, spelling out the name in block capitals. For the next few days Antoine was walking on air and avoided the library to give the erudite a chance to read his work. On their next encounter, the erudite asked for the name again. ‘I lost the slip of paper’, he explained.
Antoine returned a few days later and the erudite waved to him. ‘I’ve consecrated four pages to your man. I’m indebted to you.’ Renewed joy took hold of Antoine. He was not going to be merely a citation in the National Library. He would have an afterlife, inscribed in a magisterial tome. And live forever. Or as long as books exist.’ He was carried away by the prospect of surviving hundreds, even thousands of years like the Greeks. It made him feel part of a civilisation that would outlive those printed on poorer quality parchment, for he had spent the last of his heritage to pay for prestigious folio. It was conceivable that his would end up the only written record extant. Why not? After all we are only paper. His joy knew no bounds.
They spoke from time to time and the book’s progress was assured. ‘Just a few more touches.’ However, one day his erudite did not turn up, and Antoine called at his lodging house to be told he had retired to the country in the environs of Paris. The concierge confided that on the way to the printers the bag containing his ‘manuscript’ was stolen and in disgust the erudite had given up all further scholarly work.
Antoine paid him a visit. But there was no way that he could be encouraged to start again. As the possibility of living on in the minds of men receded, Antoine’s joy was replaced by a terrible rage at the inevitability of the total extinction of his life’s work. The rage gripped him with such a force that it could only be appeased by strangling the erudite, and burying him under the boards of his library.
However, once his last hope was dead, Antoine Orlan had nothing to live for, except haunting antique shops on the off-chance the manuscript could have found a home. He moved on to second-hand book fairs, waste paper depots, and ended up a phantom in town dumps. And there he began to disintegrate like desiccated parchment, fragmenting in the air and scattered by the wind until not a trace remains. Phantoms don’t have phantoms.
— June 1918.
Augustus Young’s latest Webzine 2017/8 features a tempting morsel from Heavy Years: Inside the head of a health worker (Quartet Books, 2018), reviewed in The Fortnightly here. Born in Cork, Ireland, in 1943, Augustus Young now lives in a port town on the border between France and Spain. During the year, a reissue of the book-length poem The Credit (1980 -1986; Book 1, Books 2-3) will mark his tenth book since coming to France in 2002.