A novel. The manuscript of a novel. No author listed, and a subject that, to go by the subtitle, was curiously close to my own concerns. I shut the book and gave the binding a good smack to clear off some of the dust. Then I set to reading the first chapter. I read three or four pages straight, still standing, before sitting down at last to continue more comfortably. As to the quality of the work, my mind was made up. When it comes to style, what dazzles some inspires only sniffs of disdain in others. Let’s just say I would’ve readily stuck my left hand in a bonfire to be able to write like this.
When it came to dating the manuscript, the look of the paper, the ink’s faded green, the condition of the binding—all these led one to believe it must have been written a good fifty years ago. And yet the tone, the style, even down to the mindset peeking through—nothing in the work supported such an estimate, so strongly did it give off the here and now. And something else bothered me. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but the nausea-tinged pleasure I took in reading it should have warned me. The manuscript felt like me. I could, from that moment on, have recognized my horizon, my viewpoints, my slopes and abysses. An entire inner panorama, till then pondered and dwelled on in vain—and the author of this novel had somehow managed to reconstruct its exact topography.
My tea was cold. I dashed back down to the kitchen to brew a new pot, hands moving mechanically, head in a daze. My discovery had taken me over completely. The two shelves had to hold enough material for a good twenty or so books. Was it the work of a former tenant, or the landlady’s late husband, or her son, a dilettante genius whose work had never set foot outside the house where it had been written? How to be sure? As much as we might read, we have never read everything. Perhaps the author of these volumes was not so unknown as all that. Perhaps he wasn’t unknown at all.
My tea ready, I returned to my reading. The morning, then the afternoon, flew by. I was still at it when night fell. Around ten, I supped on a trifle and took to bed with two manuscripts. When the neighbor’s rooster woke me up the next morning, I felt like I was no longer my own person. In forcing the door to the armoire, I’d set something in motion. Like a boulder long poised precariously on a peak, some fatefulness had shaken loose and was sliding now, if only slowly still.
Besides the house I was renting, my elderly landlady also had a little apartment in town, where she lived with her cat and her piano. She regularly entertained a small circle of friends, and had invited me to “honor with my presence” her next get-together, which had been postponed till next Sunday due to my arrival. There would be conversation, singing around the piano, games of whist. I’d accepted out of politeness, but now told myself this might be a chance to glean some information about the manuscripts.
I spent the bulk of my time on them. Sometimes, to get some air, I’d go for a walk. It was often raining. On the paths around Eparvay, alone, sullen, haunted by thoughts of the abandoned body of work, I squelched through the slick mud overflowing the waterlogged fields. Some slow labor was taking place inside me. As the days passed, and the reception my landlady had invited me to drew near, I grew to dread the moment when she might unburden herself of the secret of the armoire. An insinuating complicity had set in between me and the author of the manuscripts. Time and again, about to turn a page, I’d be unable to stop myself from finishing the sentence at its bottom. And almost word for word, I’d be right. These coincidences—their frequency, their regularity—which amused me at first, soon began to terrify. For indeed, nothing could be less predictable than the way this unknown author turned his phrases. Under a facade of sober classicism was a constant toing and froing between reason and absurdity. A “rumpled classicism” might have been the most fitting description.
The party was set for Sunday afternoon. Friday morning, as I was exploring the ruins of a farm a few miles from Eparvay, the first lines of a poem came to me—inspired, I thought, by the desolation of my surroundings. But no sooner had I jotted the stanza in my notebook than its rhythm and overall style reminded me of the unknown author’s, though I had till now read only his prose. As soon as I got back, I began going through the ledgers for anything that looked like a poem. And in the seventh, found a dozen or so. The unknown author had gathered them under a mysterious title, Flaming Nothing, and the first opened with the four lines I’d written down.