Archimbault-roll

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From Artists Go to Hell

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Having seen his author photos on the back of his books from the 80s, one might expect to see Jacques Archimbault in a crowd wearing a leather, studded jacket, his hair in large black spikes, a pack of Turkish cigarettes sticking dented out of his breast pocket and an expression that you might call pouty if he wasn't also frightening-the punk bad-boy of French letters. However, surveying the patrons in the waiting area of the deli, I spotted a man whose face looked like an areal view of the Nevada deserts-someone now paying for having put in years of hard living. Nevertheless, he pulled off an old-man-chic in a denim jacket and a blue button-up shirt that covered the frailty of his heavy-smoker's frame. His eyelids were hooded but he was warm and cheerful when he greeted me in careful, accented English.

‘I spent two semesters in England,' he told me over coffee as we waited for our sandwiches. ‘I was kicked out of three boarding schools before I turned fifteen.'

‘Do you consider this an accomplishment?'

‘My father sure didn't think so,' he told me. His father was a lawyer, a heavy drinker and a merciless bully. ‘But I don't really talk much about it.'

‘Too personal?'

‘Too boring. It's so French, isn't it? Every tortured artist from the country grew up that way.'

‘With lawyers for fathers?'

He shrugged.

‘Tortured' is one unwanted title Archimbault has had to deal with. His novels feature blue collar workers with messianic complexes, dinner parties with misogynistic monologues, nihilistic Bahia services, erotic extraterrestrial encounters and talking animals that refuse to save the day.

‘It's all in jest,' he said. ‘My novels have nothing to say. They're exaggerations of reality, not representations. I'm not writing anything like Animal Farm.'

‘In that sense you're doing something closer to Jonathan Swift,' I suggested.

‘I wouldn't consider myself a satirist,' he said. ‘If anything, I'm an exaggerationist.'

He was evasive about his influences. We got into a peculiar discussion about French literature in which he concluded that Roussel was ‘deliberately confusing,' Stendhal was ‘out of touch,' Balzac was ‘a man of the stupidest sort of intelligence,' Proust was ‘boring as hell,' Queneau was ‘Fatuous,' Breton was ‘unpleasant as circumcision,' and that Georges Perec was ‘a linguistic masturbator.' He referred to one of his male contemporaries as a ‘stubborn teenage girl.'

One would suspect, having read his tone, that he was simply being difficult. It wouldn't be surprising if, in a later interview, he praised these very same. He keeps the public continually on its toes.

When I asked him about the stream of creepy websites that have been popping up all over the internet featuring minute details about his habits and personal life, he confided that he is quite spooked about the whole thing.

‘It's a kind of pornography, isn't it?' he said. ‘The worst of it are those damned video clips.'

The said video clips were edited by obsessive fans (male fans seem to outnumber the female). My personal favorite is the clip, originally taken from a dramatic promotional video of his novel Le Chien Blanc, which features him as one of his own characters. The fan-clip takes a repeated image of Archimbault sliding his jacket off as he sits down, over and over, one shoulder bobbing followed by the other as his head slides from side to side, and eases himself out of the sleeves.

‘There are far less flattering videos of celebrities posted on the internet all the time,' I said. ‘It could be much worse.'

‘As I fear it will be soon if things keep going the way they have,' he said. ‘It's worse than being naked … The repetition of so short a movement, the distinction of muscles and tendons and face-ticks … It's humiliating, really. I never would have imagined being fetishized, or that it would be quite so alarming.'

One clip loops brief footage of Archimbault with a look of gross derision on his face as he makes a jerk-off gesture into the air with his holed-hand. ‘That,' he told me, ‘was in response to something a journalist asked me about Mitt Romney.' I laughed but he looked away and shook his head. ‘This brief, schoolyard scatology is now echoing forever … forever and ever for all eternity out in cyber space.'

We continued the interview at his apartment; a large, bare space decorated in monkey bones. There were molds of fossils framed on the wall. There were cubby-holes in the hall full of skulls. ‘I like monkeys,' he said. ‘It's an obligation, I feel. We're up here, driving cars, wearing nice suits, being civil. They're still out there picking fruit and eating fleas off of one another. We left them behind, didn't we?'

‘Do you think monkeys are more humane than us?' I asked. ‘I mean, for taking care of one another's fleas?'

‘Well, they may be more humane in that sense, but it's not like humans go around ripping each other's scrotums off,' he said.

‘We just go to war instead,' I said.

He nodded sadly.

He showed me his office with a large window facing the street.

‘Does the city street inspire you?'

‘No. The skyline does,' he said.

He took me to his room and said, ‘Nothing happens here, I'm afraid.'

‘Oh?'

‘Well, I'm in between marriages,' he said. I wanted to ask him what this meant but hesitated. He continued: ‘I'm sad to say, I'm popular at the brothels.'

‘Do you worry about infections?'

‘Oh, the worry is always there. That reminds me, I'm due for a checkup.'

His smile is always there to tell me that his remarks require no follow-up. It's all part of his whacky, surreal sense of humor … which we suffer with the utmost patience since we love him, even though he thinks he's so damned clever for it. I could have almost guessed his next move and his next word better than he could. As if I didn't travel all the way down here to see him. Like I haven't read all his work and all his interviews. Like I haven't been anticipating this. Surely, he thinks he can hide himself from someone like me. He's wrong

He opened one of his top drawers and produced a small, black object that looked like some kind of picking tool. ‘This here,' he said, ‘is one of the oldest crafted hand tools in the world. Prehistoric man made it before there was any such thing as an economy. God knows if there was even such thing as a barter system yet.' He laughed. ‘They were working for their need. Imagine that kind of world.'

We left the room.

He left his drawer open long enough for me to pass it again. ‘And you just keep it there with your underwear?' I asked as he turned his head to look thoughtfully toward the window. I dipped my hand into his dresser drawer.

He shrugged. ‘Well, where else would I keep it?' he said. ‘It's the most important place. Don't you Americans keep your guns there?'

We got onto the subject of politics for a while but he requested at the last minute that I not include it in the interview, which I wanted to honor because it was all very boring anyway.

We shared a few glasses of port before I left and he insisted that I stay for more and more drinks. When I left, he showed great concern, wanting to call me a cab, but I ensured him that I was staying at a hotel just down the block. He asked me to come by and see him again before I left. This was convenient since I didn't and don't have any intention of leaving.

I've been at a hotel for the past seven months, just waiting for the moment I would meet him. Now that I have a monopoly on his private world, I'm not about to let it all go.

I saw my ridiculous face in the reflection of a shop window. There was a droplet of dried wine on my cheek and purple patches all over my lips. I reached for my handkerchief, wiped my mouth, but realized far too late that it was not my handkerchief but the pair of briefs I'd snatched from Archimbault's drawer. I pulled them away from my face, the elastic band collapsing like a yawning mouth, and stuffed it back in my pocket as a blond girl looked at me in horror. I went on walking as though nothing had happened.

It was nice to see Archimbault's place again. I'd only ever visited it alone, in the darkness, making dexterous moves to sneak in and out of the window on those occasions that he left it open when he went on walks or went whoring or whatever else he did. But it was so good to be inside with him. When I was there alone, it was only haunted by his ghost. I could never go back to his place in secret as I'd become accustomed to doing. I am now forced to return as his friend. If I were to go again in secret, there would be traces of me all over his neat home, just as there are now, thanks to myself and those many others who love him, traces of him all over the internet-his most sensuous movements repeated forever and ever, all his involuntary little ticks resting now alongside photographs of his freshly-nicked briefs.