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The goddess of emptiness.

By Jean Frémon.

Translated by John Taylor.


The hotel terrace, with its English-style trimmed lawn and hibiscus groves, dominated the Sabarmati River.

WE WERE ALONE in the gardens of the hotel, awaiting fruit cocktails that were not arriving. After the many years that I have come to this country, I should know that time is not the same here as elsewhere, that showing one’s impatience is the height of bad manners. I know this, but this does not prevent astonishment, even annoyance. One never changes.

The hotel terrace, with its English-style trimmed lawn and hibiscus groves, dominated the Sabarmati River. On the other bank, the buildings of the new town. On this side, the contrast was striking: beggars, street vendors, an accumulation of rickshaws waiting for unlikely clients. Down below, on the riverbank, black-eyed children were playing on the strand among garbage battled over by scrawny dogs and goats.

All this was improbable, since except for the hotel, there were only poor stalls with canvas tents in this street, offering small services ranging from repairing flat tires to selling second-hand objects. After the morning departure of the airline pilot and the three flight attendants, the hotel essentially seemed empty.


We had arrived in town in the middle of the previous night. These were the last days of the Diwali Festival, which celebrates the return of Rama and his wife Sita to their realm, after his victory over the demon Ravana. This festival lasts about ten days during which houses and buildings are lit up. It is the beginning of the Hindu New Year. Shops are whitewashed, new bookkeeping registers are opened, new clothes enter wardrobes, fireworks are shot off, good wishes are expressed to one’s entourage; a gentle euphoria reigns throughout the town.

Night in India breathes; it peers at time like an animal lurking in a thicket; then it unfolds and invades you in a way unlike that of any European night.

It was a small hotel, definitely the best in town, without much charm however. The princess S. had reserved the most beautiful suite for us and I later learned, upon our departure, that she had taken care of the expenses. We had comfortable quarters, but were completely isolated in the middle of the rundown popular district offering not even the interest of handicrafts or colorful local shops. Affected by jet lag, I had spent part of the night on the terrace, observing the changing lights of the town, listening to the chants and rhythms of the end of the festival which rose here and there into the warm air. Night in India has always disturbed me; it is supple, velvety, wavy, silky; it slips through one’s fingers. Night in India breathes; it peers at time like an animal lurking in a thicket; then it unfolds and invades you in a way unlike that of any European night.

The flight had been calm but a little long, with a technical stopover in Bombay; we did not leave the airplane. The old woman kept sitting on the floor. We had chosen this Indian airline because it was the only one with a direct flight from Paris to Ahmedabad. When we embarked at the Charles-de-Gaulle airport, the airplane was nearly full; it had arrived from New York. Behind us, an old woman was sitting cross-legged on the floor, her head covered with a part of her sari. She spent the entire trip in this manner, sitting on the floor in front of her seat, without anyone dreaming of preventing her from doing so or of asking her, during the takeoff or the landing, to buckle her seatbelt. She was probably a person to whom one does not give orders.

A little after the takeoff, we both fell asleep. I awoke two hours later, rather rested, while Émilie was still sleeping. Farsightedly, I had taken enough to read. I had long planned to read Joseph Conrad, a big volume comprising all his short tales, which had just appeared, and I had brought it along. At the last moment, I had also tossed into my bag the French edition of Antonio Tabucchi’s Indian Nocturne, a book which had long been in my personal library yet which I had never opened. Surely it was its title that I had spotted as we were leaving. If I didn’t read it now, when would I do so?

A last novel, like a farewell to the very genre. A last dance. Desire and disillusion offering themselves one last fling. 

In the seat pocket in front of me, I had found a booklet probably forgotten by a previous passenger. The cover and the title page had been torn off. I thus had no idea who the author was and, suddenly, I was intrigued. It was a kind of short story in English. The narrator introduced himself as an aged novelist who had lost his inspiration. He was dreaming about writing a new novel. Not twelve novels, not five, but a single one, the last one. A way of saying farewell. He was asking this of Providence, without any great illusions. A novel—he didn’t know very well what he meant by that. Who would know? he asked. The genre had aged, he admitted. And had received repeated blows from innovators: the form had lent itself to this, which is its outstanding quality. But by dint of being crumpled, spread out, cut up, burst open, not much remained. Defined negatively, a novel was that which was not clearly and specifically something else. Yet this definition was rather slight. A last novel, like a farewell to the very genre. A last dance. Desire and disillusion offering themselves one last fling. Everything, he said, lasts only so long. Tragedy, opera, and symphonic music are hardly more than vain grandiloquence once the freshness of their conception has gone stale. The tone of the sentences was not without charm, so, in spite of myself, I continued reading this accidentally anonymous opusculum. It was by no means an essay or a diatribe, but instead the disabused account of a failure. The best writers had long given up using this obsolete form. He knew perfectly well that there was no hope to reinvigorate it, and yet he still felt nostalgic for it. Therefore, without knowing what would be the novel that he aspired to write, as the last stone in a shaky edifice, at least he knew what it would not be, could not be. In this lay the paradox of the matter: the object of his desire was negative, as it were. As if it were hollow. This did not simplify the procedure and he was not the first writer to come up against it. He thus began to glimpse clearly what he had suspected from the very first word: his endeavor was vain and, furthermore, would be the interminable narrative of a shipwreck. Writing a novel which would be the destruction of the novel, the disintegration of the novel, the explosion of the novel, the collapse of the novel, the absence of the novel, the novel of the emptiness of the novel. This had already been done so many times.

It was more or less at this point in my reading when I was interrupted by the meal service, after which I drowsed off again and vaguely dreamt of what I had just read. The vagueness came as much from my dreaming as from the subject matter of the dream. To the extent that when I awoke, I no longer knew very well what belonged to the dream and what stemmed from reality, the reality in question being merely the reading of a written-down dream. As a prisoner of altitude for several more hours, I did not see, moreover, what interest I would have in distinguishing these two mental levels.

ON THE COVER of Nocturne indien, which had been published twenty years earlier by Christian Bourgois, was reproduced a detail from a drawing, in colored pencils, by David Hockney. Émilie had taken the book from my hands and was looking at the drawing. The publisher, who had just died from cancer, as had been reported in the newspaper the day before, was notorious for not letting anyone, except himself, choose the covers of the books that he published and he indeed showed in this task a finesse and a sense of communication that made him successful. I knew him only a little, but I had always nurtured for him a gratitude born of flattered vanity. I was still a student in the history of oriental civilizations when I allowed myself to write a bad little novel that a friend, who was at the time an intern at the publishing company, gave to Bourgois to read. To my great surprise one day, I received a telephone call from Bourgois, who announced to me that he was ready to publish my manuscript. I was taken aback by panic and renounced in a stammer. And then he, with a British-like nonchalance, gave me an unforgettable reply: You are very young and I am not very old, so it is very likely that we will meet up again.”

Indeed, we would soon meet up again, in the emptiness in which we will all meet up again. Over a period of forty years, we would occasionally cross paths at cocktail parties. Fortunately, I had abandoned all literary ambitions and now dealt in Indian antiquities, which, as a result, was a prosaic activity and in which I had acquired a modest reputation. I was indeed sure that the publisher had forgotten the little non-anecdote which had brought us together for a moment and saw in me, when we ran into each other, each with a glass of Champagne in his hand, only the tribal art dealer who I had become.

“As for me, I am sure that it is the opposite that is true,” remarked Émilie. “You both pretend not to remember, a kind of savoir-vivre. And Hockney?”

Although still young, he was already a famous painter: his big round-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses, his blond hairstyle, and his dandy’s silhouette were all easily recognizable.

It was precisely in Bombay where I had met him, probably at the same period of time when he made this drawing. He was staying at the Raj Mahal Palace Hotel for a few days, accompanied by a young friend whom he called Gregory. Although still young, he was already a famous painter: his big round-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses, his blond hairstyle, and his dandy’s silhouette were all easily recognizable. Although he went about in a natural, unostentatious way, nothing could prevent others from turning around and gazing at him. Such is the privilege of a celebrity. On that day, he was looking for a guide who could accompany him and Gregory to the Elephanta Caves, but because it was Sunday he couldn’t find anyone who was free. Hockney and his companion were vexed. The hotel concierge, who had long known me and had noticed that I had listened in on the conversation, considered himself authorized to ask me if I would agree to accompany an important client. I found the proposition amusing. We met at the appointed hour at the pier, beyond the arch of the Gateway of India. I had reserved an old motorboat in which we were alone with the fisherman. Hockney showed himself to be talkative and curious about everything.  He was surprised that the visibility was so diminished, with thick fog enveloping everything to the extent that shortly after our departure the shoreline could no longer be made out. “Pollution,” he said ruefully. “I like to see far. We’ve no luck. Fortunately, I also like to see up close.” He contented himself by observing the swirls that the motorboat made on the water and he regularly drew from his pocket a sketchbook in which he roughed out a visual impression.

When we arrived at the landing stage, he spontaneously opted for porters to ascend the countless steps off the path lined with stalls teeming with trinkets for tourists and leading to the summit of the island and the caves. He seemed delighted with his team and from the top of his palanquin he sized up the world. “Don’t be stupid,” he said, surmising my reticence, “take one as well. Can’t you see that our money is their dinner?” I complied. One would have said that he was the guide; in any case, he was the boss. So there we were, all three of us in the air, like princes, conversing at six feet above material contingencies. Hockney was in seventh heaven. His yellow suit and straw hat embellished with a black band, turned him, from the elevated position to which he had been hoisted, into the overall eye-catcher. As I complimented him on his elegance, he replied “Saville Row,” smiling contentedly.

“People who do not sleep well always appear more or less guilty: what do they do? They make the night become present.”

Moreover, I’d swear that it is the same suit whose coat is draped over the back of the wicker chair, the same black-banded hat placed on an elegant red-leather briefcase, the same sketchbook in which I had watched him tracing attentive lines as we were heading towards Elephanta, that I found on the cover of Nocturne indien. A good choice, I thought, while mentally doffing the hat that I was not wearing to the memory of Christian Bourgois. Still Life, the caption says, but the hat and the coat are more than a still life; they marvelously represent absence, the ungraspable character that the narrator of Tabucchi’s book hunts for in Bombay, Madras, Mangalore, and Goa. A shade, the invisible in the visible, a figure of emptiness. “This book is not only a spell of insomnia, it is also a journey,” specifies the author in an introductory note in which he explains that he has provided an index of the places where his story unfolds, as he is borne along by the illusion that a topographical directory, with the force possessed by reality, could elucidate this Nocturne in which he seeks his shade. He also envisions the unreasonable conjecture that any lover of illogical itineraries could one day use the book as a guide. I had no need of a guide for Bombay and yet it was indisputably because I was going there that at the last moment I placed the book in my bag without even paying attention to the cover nor thinking of its publisher. “People who do not sleep well always appear more or less guilty: what do they do? They make the night become present.” It is with this sentence by Maurice Blanchot that Tabucchi’s book opens.

The sun is setting and we doubt that we will ever be served our fruit cocktails. (It’s useless to order a whisky here since the state of Gujarat strictly enforces prohibition.)

Like David Hockney’s yellow hat, the disk vividly descends. At the precise moment when it vanishes behind the line of apartment buildings that stand along the other side of the river, the noises change in intensity. The muezzin’s chant rises; the crows gathered in the nearby trees redouble the ardor; the children celebrating the end of Diwali light their firecrackers. At last, a server who is wearing a blue tunic and whose head is turbaned in yellow brings the fruit juice on a platter. He had added tooth-picked pieces of pineapple and watermelon. We raised our glasses to the success of our mission. The sun is but a memory. Night falls quickly. The air is sweet, it is November.

A FEW DAYS after this visit to Elephanta, as I was in London for a transaction, I had read in the newspaper that an exhibition of Hockney’s work was opening the next day at the Royal Academy. My hotel was in New Bond Street, within walking distance. I had enough free time to attend, so I went to the private show. I doubted that he would recognize me. The artist was surrounded, greeting everyone cordially, and, always finding it natural that people were drawn to him, seemed not at all surprised to see me. The exhibition consisted of a single painting, perhaps the biggest painting in the world. It was titled Bigger Trees Near Warter or Peinture sur le motif pour le nouvel âge post-photographique. It was a group of trees in winter against a pale sky. The symmetry of the composition, with one trunk being taller, larger, and darker than the others and placed nearly in the center of the painting, made the two lateral groups of trees also stand out. This arrangement suddenly made me think of a crucifixion, a Christ between two thieves, a triptych with neither Christ nor thieves.

Hockney was standing behind me, alone at this instant.

“One would say a crucifixion without a crucified Christ,” I told him.

“You’re right. There is something of Grünewald in it. One is sometimes visited by shades.”

“The desolation is the same.”

“The proportions of the canvas as well.”

“The figure is absent.”

“Such is our lot.”

THE NIGHT COULD now be felt, as during insomnia. We stopped speaking. An appointment with the princess had been made for the next day. Émilie was accompanying me for the first time. It was perhaps my tenth trip and the ritual with the princess was always more or less the same. But this time I felt a kind of stage fright—a dry throat, moist hands—a mute unease. I wanted this object and was not sure about being able to carry it off. I slept only a little, and badly.

The Princess S. lived in a vast palace built by her grandfather in the heart of the city. Or perhaps it was the city which, growing over time, had ended up surrounding the gigantic park sheltering the palace. A guard, standing in a kind of sentry box, opened the gate which then closed behind us. A stylish majordomo emerged from a small turreted house and greeted us, getting into the front seat of the taxi to accompany us to the parking lot where the driver was asked to wait for us. With the majordomo walking ahead of us, we headed up a path through the park. A park or, rather, a forest teeming with relentless agitation beneath our feet and above our heads: small howler monkeys, quarreling green parrots, squirrels proud of their panache chasing each other on the eucalyptus branches, peacock couples with their chicks scurrying headlong into the underbrush, snakes streaking over the carpet of dry leaves, colorful butterflies fluttering off to another flower as we passed by. For several generations, the S. family had amassed a fortune in the cotton industry and had put together an impressive collection of antiquities, from Punjab and Bengal, from among which they occasionally selected an object to contribute to their many charitable activities. By being diligent, I had obtained the privilege of being called upon in such cases. After climbing the few stone steps, we found ourselves on a kind of esplanade embellished with basins in which big red carps were swimming. One palace wing, which could be visited if one were invited to do so, was entirely reserved for the collection; the current exhibition was titled “Invisible Presences, the Deities of India.” The majordomo, who had clearly been given orders in advance, had us proceed quite quickly through the series of adjoining rooms. It was obvious that he was in charge of keeping us waiting, but not long enough for us to linger in front of the showcases. At the end, he led us onto a patio and left us there. Servant women wearing saris immediately brought us cool beverages and grilled peanuts on a platter decorated with white flowers. A few moments later, the Princess appeared, cautiously climbing the few steps of the perron while holding on to a servant woman’s arm and followed by three other servant women who hurried to place cushions on the armchair where she would sit down. We were beckoned to approach.

We were not there to negotiate. I knew the object, which was identified and catalogued, and I had proposed a price that was accepted without bargaining. The statuette had received its export visa, the amount of the transaction had already been deposited in an independent local bank account and needed only my green light to be released. In other words, the meeting with the princess was merely a matter of protocol. However, without her, nothing could be done, for she had required that I see and inspect the object in person before it was handed over to the transporter whom I had arranged to come from Delhi and who was waiting there with his padded crate custom-built to the size of the artwork.

There was neither body nor head, only two arms and two legs provided with bracelets, standing out symmetrically from the frame.

There was neither body nor head, only two arms and two legs provided with bracelets, standing out symmetrically from the frame.

It was a small gilt bronze statuette which mainly consisted of a hollowed-out rectangular frame. There was neither body nor head, only two arms and two legs provided with bracelets, standing out symmetrically from the frame. The frame itself showed a guilloche pattern around its entire perimeter as if to enhance the empty space that it surrounded. A woman who has no shadow, I thought. Here it is called the goddess of emptiness. It is a traditional form of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Tantric art, and quite a few specimens are known. This one is exceptional, with precious craftwork, with dating and origin guaranteed. I have long coveted it—this the princess knows. Until now, she had ignored my allusions. The Guimet Museum owns a very beautiful model. I know of another one in Barcelona, on a bookshelf of the fabulous personal library of the painter Antoni Tapies, a great lover of mystery. For him, she is, like Fang reliquaries or Songye fetishes, one of those objects possessing power that he loves for the charge of energy that they contain. Several of his paintings find their source in them.

After exchanging courtesies, old memories, evoking common relations and the usual comments about passing time, the princess grew silent for a long moment and then said, pronouncing each word distinctly:  “We know each other well. You have bought many pieces in my collection and I do not believe that you have ever had to regret doing so. This piece is not like the others. I thought that I would never consent to part with it. Something told me that it would be an error. But I gave you my word, and you have kept your promises. I will not retract. However, if you wish, you can still renounce. You only have to say so and I believe that this is what you should do.”

“There is no question of my doing so. After all the time that I have been waiting for it, nothing will ever be more precious. This statuette is the culmination of my career.”

“That could not be better said. Well, let it be as you have decided.”

The princess got up and again said, rather ceremoniously as if to conceal an emotion: “Thank you for coming, once again, all the way here. I am very old. We will likely not have the opportunity to see each other again. I wish you peace and happiness.” She raised her two hands in front of her heart and her forehead and added: “And remember that only life is precious.”

The audience was over. The princess gave the order to put the statuette back in its crate and the transporter gave each of us a receipt, then made a sign to his assistants to place the crate in the fourgon. Is it the word “fourgon” that induced this thought? When the assistants were horizontally sliding the crate into the back of the fourgon, I had in mind the image of a coffin. So now you are the owner of the goddess of emptiness, I said to myself.

Fruit cocktails that don’t arrive, rickshaws without passengers, an empty hotel at the end of the world, the book without a title and author’s name found in an airplane, the negative object of desire, the absence of the novel, the unknown person who will have worn for an instant a drawn yellow suit and a straw hat, the memory of the late Christian Bourgois, the ghost sought out in Bombay, in Madras, in Goa by the narrator of Indian Nocturne, the epigram borrowed from Maurice Blanchot, the master of effacement, the absent body of the crucified man and the thieves on David Hockney’s painting, a spell of insomnia, a trip, the goddess of emptiness in her little padded coffin, the overwhelming melancholy of the night in India.

One attempts to join things but has no idea of the form that will emerge.

Making something with nothing. Tying together little facts. Proceeding by bringing closer. Drawing on connections. As one does with a puzzle. A line, a color, the curve of a cut-out piece all make a sign, attract. One attempts to join things but has no idea of the form that will emerge. The form takes time to appear and one fears that a wrong road has been taken. Persisting. In the darkness. Putting one’s hope in the unknown for the pleasure of seeing it fleetingly appear, a form deriving from the intersection of reality and reverie to make the emptiness present.

We have returned to Paris. The crate containing the statuette has cleared customs and been delivered. There it is, in the middle of the living room. During all this time, I was merely doing my job. I believed that my only goal was to buy a statuette and sell it to a collector. I saw nothing else. I negotiate dreams. A statuette is a dream. I facilitate its passage from the dreamer who made it to the dreamer who wants it. But I know that I will no longer part with this statuette, now that it is with me: I am its prisoner. A prisoner of emptiness.

I will not sell this statuette, nor ever any other one. A transaction, one last one, will have sufficed to turn me from an art dealer into a former art dealer. The princess knew this, though without knowing why. She knows the attraction of emptiness, the weight of mystery, the force of destiny.

Days follow days, an infinite prose. I henceforth live, guiltlessly, in a kind of permanent insomnia, which makes the night present. Without acts, without words, in suspense. The world belongs to me. Or it doesn’t—which is the same thing.

from Rue du Regard (Paris: P.O.L., 2012)

Jean Frémon, born in 1946, is a French novelist, poet, art critic, and the president of the Galerie Lelong. Many of his books are noted for the engaging ways in which they blend biography, history, art criticism, ekphrasis, and fictional narrative. Eleven of his books have been translated into English, most recently Nativity (Les Fugitives / Black Square Editions, translated by Cole Swensen), a new expanded edition of The Paradoxes of Robert Ryman (Black Square Editions, translated by Brian Evenson), and Portrait Tales (Les Fugitives, translated by John Taylor).

John Taylor is an American writer, poet, translator, and critic who has lived in France since 1977. A contributing editor to The Fortnightly Review, he has published two books in the Odd Volumes series: his “double book” with the Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis, A Notebook of Clouds and A Notebook of Ridges, and his translation of Philippe Jaccottet’s Truinas, 21 April 2001. His most recent book of poetry is Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press). Besides Jean Frémon’s Portrait Tales, his recent translations include Franca Mancinelli’s All the Eyes that I Have Opened (Black Square Editions), Elias Petropoulos’s Mirror for You: Collected Poems 1967–1999 (Cycladic Press), Philippe Jaccottet’s La Clarté Notre-Dame & The Last Book of the Madrigals (Seagull Books), and two books by Pascal Quignard, The Unsaddled and Dying of Thinking (also Seagull Books).

Image credits. Sabarmati River as seen from Subhash Bridge, Ahmedabad by Brihaspati; Lord Rama, Lord Lakshmana and Goddess Sita, Carved Idols on the Gopuram of the temple, On the way to Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, India, by ePhotocorp; peacock by Elena Malgina.

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