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Letters & Essays: J-L

Letters & Essays of the Day

Diary, 1988

By Annie Ernaux

On November 16, 1989, I phoned the Soviet embassy in Paris and asked to speak to Mr. S. The switchboard operator did not reply. After a long silence, a woman’s voice said: “You know, Mr. S. returned to Moscow yesterday.” I immediately hung up. I felt as if I’d heard this sentence before, over the phone. The words were not the same but they had the same meaning, the same weight of horror, and were just as impossible to believe. Later, I remembered the announcement of my mother’s death three and a half years earlier, how the nurse at the hospital had said: “Your mother passed away this morning after breakfast.”

The Berlin Wall had fallen a week earlier. The Soviet regimes established in Europe were toppling one after the other. The man who had just returned to Moscow was a faithful servant of the USSR, a Russian diplomat posted in Paris. I had met him the previous year on a writers’ junket to Moscow, Tbilisi, and Leningrad, a voyage he had been assigned to accompany. We had spent the last night together, in Leningrad. After returning to France, we continued to see each other. His trajectory, which I pieced together over the course of our meetings, was typical of a young apparatchik: membership in the Komsomol and then in the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union), time spent in Cuba. He spoke French quickly, with a strong accent. Though outwardly a partisan of Gorbachev and perestroika, when he’d had a drink he mourned the time of Brezhnev and made no secret of his veneration of Stalin. I never knew anything about his activities, which, officially, were related to culture. Today, I am amazed that I did not ask more questions.

During this period, the only place I truly wrote was in the journal I had kept, on and off, since adolescence. After he left France, I started to write a book about the passion that had swept through me. I published it in 1992 as Simple Passion.

In January or February 2000, I started to reread my journals from the year of my affair with S. It had been five years since I had opened them. (For reasons that need not be specified here, they had been stored in a place that made them unavailable to me.) I perceived there was a truth in those pages that differed from the one to be found in Simple Passion—something raw and dark, without salvation, a kind of oblation. I thought that this, too, should be brought to light. I neither altered nor removed any part of the original text while typing it up. (The text below is excerpted from the original.) For me, words that are set down on paper to capture the thoughts and sensations of any given moment are as irreversible as time—are time itself.

 

Tuesday, September 27, 1988
Three scenes stand out. That evening (Sunday) in S.’s room, as we sat close to each other, touching, saying nothing, eager for what would follow, which still depended on me. His hand brushed my legs each time he put his cigarette ash in the container on the floor. In front of everyone. We talked as if there were nothing going on. Then the others leave (Marie R., Irène, RVP) but F. hangs back. I know that if I leave S.’s room now I won’t have the strength to return. Then F. is outside the room, or almost, the door is open, and S. and I throw ourselves at each other. Then we are in the entry hall. My back, pressed against the wall, switches the light off and on. I drop my raincoat, handbag, suit jacket. S. turns off the light.

The second moment, Monday afternoon. When I’ve finished packing my case, he knocks at the door to my room. We caress each other in the doorway. He wants me so much that I kneel down and lingeringly make him come with my mouth. He is silent, then only murmurs my name like a litany, with his Russian accent. My back pressed against the wall—darkness (he doesn’t want the lights on)—communion.

Mishima in 1958

By Donald Keene

Yukio Mishima was born Kimitake Hiraoka on January 14, 1925 in uptown Tokyo. His father was the deputy director of the Bureau of Fisheries in the Agriculture Ministry; his mother, from a family of educators and Confucian scholars, was herself well-versed in literature. The family lived in a well-to-do neighborhood in a rented two-floor house with a houseboy and six maids, an unusual extravagance. But for the first twelve years Mishima lived downstairs with his grandmother in her sickroom, leaving the room only with her permission.

Bagatelles

By Daniil Kharms

The life of the Russian avant-garde author Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) was every bit as absurd, as abrupt and as symbolically charged as one of his stories. The son of a populist-radical writer with religious leanings, he began a promising career as a poet in the freewheeling artistic scene of late-twenties Leningrad; he knew the great avant-garde artists Malevich, Tatlin, and Filonov, the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky and the famous children s authors Evgenii Shvartz and Samuil Marshak. Kharms was one of the founders of OBERIU, the Union of Real Art, an artistic society heavily influenced by constructivism, futurism and the za'um (Trans-sense) poets.