Issue 213, Summer 2015
The academic study of literature leads basically nowhere, as we all know, unless you happen to be an especially gifted student, in which case it prepares you for a career teaching the academic study of literature—it is, in other words, a rather farcical system that exists solely to replicate itself and yet manages to fail more than 95 percent of the time. Still, it’s harmless, and can even have a certain marginal value. A young woman applying for a sales job at Céline or Hermès should naturally attend to her appearance first and foremost; but a degree in literature can constitute a secondary -asset, since it guarantees the employer, in the absence of any useful skills, a certain intellectual agility that could lead to professional development—besides which, literature has always carried positive connotations in the world of luxury goods.
For my part, I knew I was one of those “gifted” few. I’d written a good dissertation and I expected an honorable mention. All the same, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a special commendation, and even more surprised when I saw the committee’s report, which was excellent, practically dithyrambic. Suddenly a tenured position as a senior lecturer was within my reach, if I wanted it. Which meant that my boring, predictable life continued to resemble Huysmans’s a century and a half before. I had begun my adult life at a university and would probably end it the same way, maybe even at the same one (though in fact this wasn’t quite the case: I had taken my degree at the University of Paris IV–Sorbonne and was hired by Paris III, slightly less prestigious but also in the 5th arrondissement, right around the corner).
I’d never felt the slightest calling to teach—and my fifteen years as a teacher had only confirmed my lack of vocation. What little private tutoring I’d done, to raise my standard of living, soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the diversity of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality. Worse, perhaps, I didn’t like young people and never had, even when I might have been numbered among them. Being young implied, it seemed to me, a certain enthusiasm for life, or else a certain defiance, accompanied either way by a vague sense of superiority toward the generation that one had been called on to replace. I’d never had those sorts of feelings. I did have some friends when I was young—or, more precisely, there were other students with whom I could contemplate having coffee or a beer between classes and not feel disgust. Mostly I had mistresses—or rather, as people said then (and maybe still do), I hadgirlfriends, roughly one a year. These relationships followed a fairly regular pattern. They would start at the beginning of the school year, with a seminar, an exchange of class notes, at any rate, one of the many social occasions, so common in student life, that disappear when we enter the workforce, plunging most of us into a stupefying and radical solitude. The relationship would take its course as the year went by. Nights were spent at one person’s place or the other’s (in fact, I’d usually stay at theirs, since the grim, not to say insalubrious, atmosphere at mine hardly lent itself to romantic interludes); sexual acts took place (to what I like to think was our mutual satisfaction). When we came back from summer vacation and the school year began again, the relationship would end, almost always at the girl’s initiative. Things had changed over the summer. This was the reason they’d give, usually without further elaboration. A few, clearly less eager to spare me, would explain that they hadmet someone. Yeah, and so what? Wasn’t I someone, too? In hindsight, these factual accounts strike me as insufficient. They had indeed met someone, I concede that; but what made them lend so much weight to this encounter—enough to end our relationship and involve them in a new one—was merely the application of a powerful but unspoken model of amorous behavior, a model all the more powerful because it remained unspoken.
The way things were supposed to work (and I have no reason to think much has changed), young people, after a brief period of sexual vagabondage in their very early teens, were expected to settle down in exclusive, strictly monogamous relationships involving activities (outings, weekends, vacations) that were not only sexual, but social. At the same time, there was nothing final about these relationships. Instead, they were thought of as apprenticeships—in a sense, as internships (a practice that was generally seen in the professional world as a step toward one’s first job). Relationships of variable duration (a year being, according to my own observations, an acceptable amount of time) and of variable number (an average of ten to twenty might be considered a reasonable estimate) were supposed to succeed one another until they ended, like an apotheosis, with the last relationship, this one conjugal and final, which would lead, via the begetting of children, to the formation of a family.