Where There Is Danger 9781644690406

Writer, professor, translator and editor Luba Jurgenson lives between two languages—her native Russian and her adopted F

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Where There Is Danger

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Where There Is Danger

Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe and Their Legacy Series Editor Maxim D. Shrayer (Boston College) Editorial Board Karel Berkhoff (NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies) Jeremy Hicks (Queen Mary University of London) Brian Horowitz (Tulane University) Luba Jurgenson (Universite Paris IV—Sorbonne) Roman Katsman (Bar-Ilan University) Dov-Ber Kerler (Indiana University) Vladimir Khazan (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) Alice Nakhimovsky (Colgate University) Antony Polonsky (Brandeis University) Jonathan D. Sarna (Brandeis University) David Shneer (University of Colorado at Boulder) Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto) Leona Toker (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) Mark Tolts (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

Where There Is Danger LUBA JURGENSON Translated from the French by MEREDITH SOPHER



Luba Jurgenson Where There Is Danger Original copyright © 2014 by Éditions Verdier English translation copyright © 2018 by Meredith Sopher The author and translator thank Professor Maxim D. Shrayer for including the English translation of the book in his book series, Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe and Their Legacy. The publication of the book was made possible by a grant from Boston College. The translation was financed with the aid of the Centre National du Livre.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Jurgenson, Luba, 1958- author. | Sopher, Meredith, 1992- translator. Title: Where there is danger / Luba Jurgenson ; translated from the French by Meredith Sopher. Other titles: Au lieu du peril. English Description: Boston : Academic Studies Press, 2019. | Series: Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe and their legacy | Includes bibliographical references. Identifiers: LCCN 2019007921 (print) | LCCN 2019009615 (ebook) | ISBN 9781644690406 (ebook) | ISBN 9781644690383 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781644690390 (pbk.) Subjects: LCSH: Jurgenson, Luba, 1958- | Translators–France–Biography. | Russian language–Translating into French. | Translating and interpreting. | Authors, French–21st century–Biography. Classification: LCC P306.92.J87 (ebook) | LCC P306.92.J87 A313 2019 (print) | DDC 418/.02092 [B] –dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019007921 ISBN ISBN ISBN

9781644690383 9781644690390 9781644690406

(hardcover) (paperback) (ebook)

Book design by Lapiz Digital Services. Cover design by Ivan Grave. Academic Studies Press 1577 Beacon Street Brookline, MA 02446 P: (617) 782-6290 F: (857) 241-3149 [email protected] www.academicstudiespress.com


1 Conversation in the Mountains 1 A Republic of Two Versions 3 Tools4 Physics of Bilingualism 5 Twins5 2 The Third-to-Last 10 Saying “I” in the Third Person 11 The O’s12 Streets and Courtyards 13 Brodsky and Bruno Schulz 16 The Silent “e” 18 3 The Sidewalk Across the Street 20 The Glass Vestibule 23 Mission Report 24 The All-seeing “Luba” 27 Westonia28 Birth Certificate 30 4 Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R Coming and Going Physiology of the Reverse Side Two Shames Abandoned by Language The Bolshevik Revolution on the Loire The Lumps and Bumps in Time

31 36 38 39 49 51 53

5 The Sidewalk Across the Street, Part 2 56 Колокольчики (Kolokol’chiki) 59 Equality59 Birth Certificate 2 60 6 Forgetting Babel 63 Things66 Exiting a Language? 68 Things 2 70 More Sounds Again 71 Silent “e” 2 72 The Diminutive 73 Masculine and Feminine 74 Dreams76 Identity78 Address79 Language is Talkative 80 Voice-over81 The Arbitrariness of the Sign 84 “I” and “We” 86 7 Stumbling Block


References English translations used in this text

90 92



Conversation in the Mountains There they stand, the cousins, on a road in the mountains, the stick silent, the stones silent, and the silence no silence at all. No word has come to an end and no phrase, it is nothing but a pause, an empty space between the words, a blank—you see all the syllables stand around, waiting. —Paul Celan, Conversation in the Mountains

I’ve never thought of photographing the landscape that unfolds from the top of a mountain. The panorama, the chiseled clarity of the depths, the beyond and the just-now fixed on the film: better to escape it. That’s why you leave the house before dawn and climb the slope as the day begins. You aren’t there or then anymore. The point of reference: here and now. But look: the point of reference is gone. The slope can’t stay still. It’s crawling down toward the valley, into the green and blue depths. The rocks are running down like gray mice, disappearing into the gaping mouth with an endless hiss. They like to move as a herd. Below is dissolving into a swarm: rocks, the path, buttercups, bellflowers, and in particular rocks and more rocks, and on their heels, imminently: my fall. In the mountains, the now is won bit by bit. It’s in the details that appear in a close-up: rock, path. The chalice of a buttercup or a bellflower, which bloom later here than in the valley. Колоколы-балаболы, Колоколы-балаболы, Накололи, намололи, Дале боле, дале боле…Накололи, намололи, Колоколы-балаболы. While hiking up, you save your breath, you don’t talk, you content yourself with the words that roll around inside your head without fuel—thirst, buttercup, beyond, I’m straying too far from the others, bellflowers—a


Where There Is Danger

mishmash of words without French or Russian wrapping, words outside language. Barely brushed, the words fall and free the mountain from their trembling noise, leaving it to the dry and silent duo of rock and foot and to the miserable guests of this steep and sun-scorched land; these shrimpy mountain plants called “immortals” in Russian and in French for the good reason that nothing ever seems to overcome their ascetic transparency, their blandness floating in the eye of vastness. They fall, humble and consenting, these words from my languages—from behind language, not wandering but marching along at their own pace. Bellflower: my eyelashes flutter, the word blinks at the edge of my vision without the time to fall into my mouth—blue scent, that’s it. No need to know which side of the word—Russian or French—sticks in the pupil of the language-eye. No need to pick it up. The words roll down smoothly, draped in their unpronounced Russian or French petals. Now that the summit seems to be within arms’ reach, the path is no more than a sliding mirage. The rocks crumble under my feet, they crumble under my fingers. A word that hasn’t been chewed, or bitten off, that hasn’t crossed the threshold of the throat is a word in limbo, pure image, a thin glow above it like the halo around the depiction of a saint. Curled up in its shell, like energy sleeping in ore while waiting to be extracted, this verbal shadow isn’t duplicated in Russian and French syllables any more than the outlines of things we see are split up. Somewhere at the periphery of our vision, we see double—each pupil sneakily takes its own photo, our field of view is bordered by two noses—but officially, our two eyes roam hand-in-hand. As long as a word remains unpronounced, its image is whole. Imagine then the moment when the rocky treadmill begins to roll under your feet. There is nothing else but the ground and your feet, the moving ground and your groundless feet, terrified. In that wavering moment, another grounding is needed: that of sounds and syllables. Brutally thrust back into their languages, the names have seized power. These kings are ready to leave the shadows, insisting on being carried in their sonorous litters. Two monarchs per word. Each one wished to be pampered, proclaimed. Each says, “Say my name in both languages!” Each bit of the mountain demanded to be named in two languages. How do you say bellflower in Russian? Kolokol’chik, little bell. (Колоколы-балаболы, Колоколы-балаболы). How do you say “scree” in Russian? How do you name this kind of grass in one language, in the other? How do you say immobility, crumbling, the summit whisked away, unattainable? Each stem, each twig demanded imperiously to be named—in

Conversation in the Mountains

both languages. The immortals, these high-altitude survivors, in both languages. Chaos, capsizing, shelest— “rumbling.” As long as I can keep an eye on the rapidly shuttling words, as long as I track their flow from one world to the other, from the world in Russian toward the world in French and vice versa, I won’t fall. They give me an infinitesimal but ungraspable refuge: the refuge of passage. In this interstitial space, warding off everything plummeting around me, the clattering of the scree—but how do you say scree in Russian, for heaven’s sake?—I’ll hold on and I won’t fall—won’t fall. Help finally comes. Leaving the group, which had taken another path, one of the hikers comes over to me and gives me a hand, and soon the crumbling of the mountain and the frantic circulation of words stop. When you’re on loose rock, you have to set your feet on a flat surface, he tells me. So that’s it: to avoid skidding off the mountain, you must have both feet in the same language. However, since I haven’t fallen, it’s certainly because there was, between the two shuttling languages, a small immortality to hold on to. Salvation wasn’t in the names, those eternal migrants, but in their losing hold, their disintegration from language to language, from one world to the other. Hölderlin: “Mais au lieu du péril croît aussi ce qui sauve.” But where there is danger, the rescue grows as well.

A Republic of Two Versions The body takes root not at the feet but in the throat. Sagittal slices through the speech organs, used in phonetics class to show the pathways of sounds in language, look like geological cross-sections to me: the larynx (which contains an animal name: lynx), the pharynx (pax) and the vocal cords. Intended to show the origins of sounds, the different varieties (not of plants but sounds)—labial, dental, guttural or hissing, even fricative or approximant—that grow from my body, that are nourished by myself and that sink their airy roots into me—form colorful strata, the geological layers of my terrain, of my res publica where two versions of the world live. In this one, pax usually reigns. The sounds of my two kingdoms don’t clash any more than those of far-flung provinces. At rest, bilingualism is no more noticeable than a part of the body that doesn’t hurt. On waking, you rediscover the world without noticing that it’s split in two—that would be like noticing, “Oh! I have teeth.” When we examine our bilingualism, it



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turns its back on us, because we examine it in one language or the other, not both. It’s impossible to look at it directly. It can present itself as a non-experience: nothing happens. Heidegger says that man must have a homeland. The homeland is the “nothing” that happens: the interstitial space. I’d like to sketch its physical geography. Draw up a soil map. Show the “horizons” of bilingualism—this is the name for the parallel slices that make up the “profile” of a soil.

Tools Bilingualism is waiting for its chronicler, someone down-to-earth who will follow each step of the bodily clues to the constantly shifting center. This is the task that I’ve given myself: to track the physical signs and the palpable traces from this reciprocal inhabitation. It’s a kind of report. The material that I’m trying to describe is the same that I’m using to describe it. It’s like telling the story of a flood with water or the story of a fire with flames. The musician will tell you about his instrument, and so will the tailor, the furniture-maker, the shoemaker, the gardener, the sailor—all of them have stories to tell about their tools and the materials that they work with. For the writer, the tool and the material are one and the same. Language works with language. The writer fashions her own tools. The writer’s tool is bolted fast to her body—to talk about it is to display the body that writes. Bilinguals who write—a category I belong to—use double-edged tools. The goal of this book is to show them at work. There is a time in one’s life when one feels the need to talk about her profession: for me, it’s the concrete experience of living inside language—being inhabited by language—and in duplicate. I said “tool.” Of course, this is an optical illusion. We say that we “use” language like we say that the sun orbits the earth. In reality, language uses us in order to live and evolve. We are its instrument and it shapes us by letting us shape it. We are the material that it works over while it lets itself be worked on. What ideas does language have for bilinguals, and what instruments has it set aside for us? When you devote your life to questioning words, you must at some point make space for the body they create: language itself. This book isn’t a reflection, but a cross-section.

Conversation in the Mountains

Physics of Bilingualism To live in a language other than one’s native language shouldn’t be perceived as a loss or abandonment. No more than an amputation or atrophy. It’s the physical experience of toggling back and forth. Inside and outside. Physics is a science that teaches us that things are not as they seem. In a world where almost everyone wields a second language, where half of the planet is on the road while the other half tries desperately to put up roadblocks, sketching out physics of bilingualism seems almost medically necessary. Not because I see pathology there, but because I see a singularity called on to expand. Each case of bilingualism is probably unique—the languages we come from and the languages we moved towards are different and our minds evolve in different worlds. But our bodies are identical, and physiologically there’s something in this experience that transcends individual cases and rings true for every language. Examining bilingualism unveils a truth familiar to linguistic expats: the language that we call our native, that we spoke as children with our parents, will always be something of a language of the past, even if we don’t have another one. Unable to confine us under house arrest, it confines us to where we come from. We return to it as archaeologists investigating ourselves. If I was writing in Russian, I’d use the verb vyrasti to express this idea. Vyrasti, from the root rasti, to grow or get bigger, and the verbal prefix vy-, which means “outside of ” but also “starting from.” When a piece of clothing gets too small, we say vyrasti iz: to have grown toward the outside. We grew starting from our native language, and we’ve grown toward the outside of it. But I’m not writing this text in Russian. I’m not observing myself bilingually—that would be like watching myself sleep.

Twins When I’m in Moscow—never for more than ten days at a time—I can smoke, drink, and stay up all night. Not without damaging my body, but it’s my-body-there that’s damaged and not my-body-here. So there are no consequences for “me.” Elsewhere in Russia, like in Siberia, that’s no longer the case. I’m traveling, like when I go to the United States. This natural law is purely local and only applies in the city where I was born. There, a possible body is at risk, the one I could have had: invulnerable.  Let bilingualism speak: make it talk about what living between two languages does to the body, the twinned body dressed differently.



Where There Is Danger

This is the tale of a transplant. The story of a transplant. A whole body has been invisibly grafted onto yours. The graft is so successful that no one can tell which body is the original. You have duplicates of every limb and organ. You have a head and a golova, two legs and two nogi, a heart and a serdtse. All of this seems to occupy the same space. Anyhow, when other people see you, they don’t pinch themselves, make the sign of the cross, brandish heads of garlic, vow to stop drinking, or call up their eye doctor. They only see one of your hypostases, the one that appears in the field of their own language. (Language is an organ of sight, too.) For them, there’s only one version of you, as there should be. Even when they know. A Russian friend said to me recently, “It’s strange to think that you live your whole life outside yourself, somewhere else.” But it’s not somewhere else! There are two “heres,” two “insides.” A bilingual person can’t be seen in entirety by others. I extend either a Russian or French hand, never both at the same time. I don’t speak “bilingual” except with myself. I’m never seen in 3D. Never head-on, always in profile. One of the two bodies is always an “astral body” that I take along but can’t make visible. I can only talk about it or mime it. And the inhabited body is always ready to withdraw and fade into immateriality to make way for the other one. These bodies are a little different. A golova is never exactly the same thing as a head. A noga is never exactly the same as a leg, not least because it’s both leg and foot. In Russian, when you “fly with your own wings,” you stand on your own nogi. A hand is not exactly the same thing as a ruka, which is both hand and arm, and wearing your heart on your sleeve is “having your heart on your palm”; the palm, crisscrossed by fate lines, is present in all the gestures I make, whereas in French, it’s just the inside of the hand, but in French, rivers also have arms—while in Russian they have sleeves—and arm is masculine, so by definition different from ruka, which is the extension of the hand (feminine) and not the other way around, and when saying ruka I think “hand” before thinking “arm,” because hands write and do everything in life, and in French the hand is the extension of the arm, because you carry something “with arms held up,” you take someone in your arms, and so in French I have more strength in my arms than in Russian. The languages aren’t born from the same part of the body. To use a somewhat archaic vocabulary, they can be carried in the “bosom” or the “womb.” It depends. The bodies of each language move differently in space. We—“she” and “I”—don’t have the same schéma corporel. We don’t have the same body image. We don’t take up the same space in the universe.

Conversation in the Mountains

We gesture differently. Facial expressions change too. The set of my shoulders, the incline of my head, my pace. My gaze. My breathing. It starts as soon as you pick up the phone: “Allô!” In French, the o is closed and drawn out a bit, as if leading to a secret that we’re going to share. An allô that stretches out the moment before the speaker identifies himself—but I’m not revealing myself yet, I’m hiding under the hat of the ô. In Russian: a wide-open o verging almost on a—“alloa!”  sometimes tacked down at the beginning by an e: allioooa. In French: l’accueil, welcome—the a at the beginning followed by a curtain dropping down. In Russian: a wide-open, waiting door. Fear of intrusion in the former—and fear of no one showing up in the latter. If, when picking up the phone, I don’t know who the speaker is, I never say “allô” the Russian way. It would be like opening the door to a stranger while in a dressing gown and slippers. Showing my French side is being “dressed up.” In Russia, when you return home, you put on your dressing gown (for my generation and those above) or your “home clothes” (for the younger people). If it’s hot, men might strip down to their underwear. One hot morning in September, my father was doing some work on the counter in my kitchen in Paris when the doorbell rang. He was alone in the apartment and was only wearing bright red boxer shorts. He went to open the door and saw a woman with her arms full of shopping bags. It was my mother, who had decided that day to bring my children some raspberries from the market. My father said, “Vera, why are you carrying such heavy bags?” My mother retorted, “And why are you in your underwear?” They hadn’t seen each other in more than forty years. In 1988, on the Paris-Moscow line that took me back to my birth country, at the first small squeak of the wheels—the Gare du Nord falling away in the distance—keys began to click in luggage locks: everyone on the train took out their dressing gowns. The corridor filled with colors like a field scattered with flowers: the ladies left their compartments to look out the windows. I didn’t have a luggage lock or a dressing gown. Just my arms, hugging my ribs, clinging to my French armor. When I arrived in Paris, I spoke French with a bit of an accent. People asked me where I came from. I threw myself into losing the accent so no one would ever ask me that again. I choose who gets to know where I come from.



Where There Is Danger

The French are perpetually astonished that someone can learn their language. I’ve often received the question, “How is it that you speak French with no accent?” Keeping your accent is like never being able to close the door of your room all the way: anyone can barge in. I insist on the ability to keep the door closed. Rabinovich from the well-known Jewish joke takes the name Dupont, then changes it to Durand to be able to answer the question “What was your name before?” I don’t want anyone to ask me, “What language did you speak before?” My Russian body is my “home” body. Parading it outside (for example, when with Russian friends in Paris) is like going out in pajamas, a nightmare that everyone is familiar with. If I spoke French in the streets of Moscow, it would be like wearing a suit to a meeting where everyone else was in jeans. (Don’t take this example too literally. These days, Muscovites are much more elegant than Parisians.) But if I return home in Moscow and speak French there, it’s back to the dressing gown. In Russian, I almost never say the word “body.” If I was writing this book in Russian, I wouldn’t talk about the body but about physiology, flesh, silhouette, and muscles. The body, in Russian, at the time when I left, was either a corpse or the counterpart to the mind, or the transfigured body from the Gospel. Since the borders opened, which coincided with changes in translation practices as well as in hygiene, the body arrived in Russia: these days, people take care of it. That means two showers per day and not a weekly bath, an updated version of the well-known Russian bania (sauna). The word “body” made its way into Russian via television series translated with the same toneless voiceover for every character, which reproduced the original dialogue almost word-for-word. But also via theoretical works from Western researchers that were translated literally as well. The word is a calque. To me, it still sounds like a body made of transparent paper. The body in Russian provokes more pity than the body in French. In Russian, I walk more slowly. I inherited the pace from the era when Russians had eternity before them, because the simple act of living took an unimaginable amount of time. They stopped constantly to contemplate life, as if in front of a shop window. They brought a healthy supply of atemporality to Paris with them. Having friends over was like a journey to the

Conversation in the Mountains

country of hours lost, and I remember the sensation of thick, viscous time trickling through my veins whenever I walked with a Russian in Paris. Try running in water! In Moscow, my time, which is already naturally sped-up, becomes even more dense. My accelerated time squeezes even more tightly together. There are no more pauses between moments. In a week, I live through several lives and when I come back, the air seems rarefied and I float weightlessly—a little like when you walk after running. It’s strange to think today that everything I said or thought before June 1, 1975—that is, before I was seventeen—was said and thought in Russian. That was my past life. It’s as strange as saying, “I used to be a blonde.” My childhood has been translated (relived?) in French. “I” and “She.” But rather “I” and “You”—reversible up to infinity.


The Third-to-Last Starting in 1998, I began to travel to Moscow regularly. Each time, it was more like a passage to another world than a return home. (This had nothing to do with the huge Russian financial crisis that struck the day before my arrival in Moscow on August 17. Not even the young woman at the exchange office knew the value of the ruble.) A first-person subject makes the return trip; and yet (besides) I have to call the person who arrives there “she.” About the “I” in Russian, I can only say “she” in French. A twin body narrated differently. The RER stops on the way to the airport become stops for nothingness. Drancy, Aulnay-sous-Bois, Aubervilliers: names of nothing. What’s out there, anyway? Absolutely nothing. The Lord has some tricks up his sleeve, though, to make up for the empty names. For example, as you approach Sevran-Beaudottes, you see two cranes rising over a hill, two elegant red-and-white marvels, one a little bigger than the other like an older sister, both transparent, as if made of words. Smack in the middle of a landscape of lines and hills where construction seems reluctant to emerge, the two birds are wholly devoted to their silent flight. But they’re there, although there’s truly nothing in Sevran-Beaudottes. The land there is made of a unique substance, like the lakes and hills that you spot from an airplane and that reveal themselves to be nothing more than convolutions of clouds, sometimes sluggish, sometimes suddenly piling up. SevranBeaudottes could be lacking even this strange substance, which isn’t white but greenish or rusty or tawny. Sevran-Beaudottes might be just a ripple in the eye that, not expecting to see nothing, draws shapes behind the name; it might be the mental shape of the an in Sevran, the ot in Beaudottes, its imprint on the retina drawn from the reserve of images that our eyes use to compensate for the lack of things—like a sensible girl who always has a sewing kit in her bag in case something rips. When you close your eyes, strange shapes start to move on the inside of your eyelids. They slide down slowly, cross the dark pool at the edges of your vision and disappear. But the slightest movement, an involuntary

The Third-to-Last

twitch of the eye, brings them back to the beginning of their journey like board game players who’ve landed on an unlucky square. The eye doesn’t know how to stay silent, and when it has nothing to say, it speaks to us only in commas. The involuntary speech of the eye. Ponge called these creatures “shrimp.” Through their movements, they reveal a frail anatomy: they are made of tiny segments. Similar segments make up the crane jibs that you see near Sevran-Beaudottes, and yet these red and white cranes surely exist. Maybe they are there simply to mark the limits of the eye’s kingdom, where something ends and nothing begins, where eye-creatures lend some of their substance to things but don’t completely replace them as is the case in Sevran-Beaudottes where there is truly nothing.

Saying “I” in the Third Person This image was promoted by the darkness that still covered the suburb when the train passed by early in the morning. Sevran-Beaudottes wasn’t the last stop before the airport, but it was the third-to-last syllable of my departure, the line I crossed to enter an in-between state. No longer Paris, not yet Moscow. At the next stop, the game was up. My distress left me, and I had moved outside the walls, beyond the walls of my two bodies, suspended. In the airplane, between “I” and “she,” between “she” and “I,” which language is mine? I know that there are borders in the sky too: you do hear, “A plane was shot down in the airspace of....” I know that planes are an extension of the land. When a baby is born on a flight, regulations dictate that he claims the nationality of the country where the plane is registered (future mamas, always fly SWISS!) or the nationality of the country that the plane is flying over when he is born (a Serbian child could thus become Bosnian if his mama was flying to Switzerland to give birth). Falling short of these possible births and within their potential, within every possibility imaginable, I fly over these unhappened things like a pure stream of words, and words start to come to me in one language or the other as they wish. Words falling from the sky. As soon as you fall asleep, you forget about the sky. Sleep is an archaic state; it brings you back to earth. Dreams demand something more concrete than a fantastical airplane. The humming of the engine and the slight vibration of the floor become the sensations of a train ride. The engine chugs and makes a landscape appear through the window. A sudden jolt into



Where There Is Danger

wakefulness—and the mechanism of these sensations of the landscape, the distance, and the engine falls to pieces. In a plane, the humming doesn’t make the sky scroll by. Another calculation takes place. Muscles count up immobility and you measure the distance by their numbness. Inside you is the same mechanism held within all train passengers throughout history, and in an instant, it’s thrown off-kilter. Our ancestral motor has failed: we’re going to crash. Did train passengers in 1850 feel the same way when they fell asleep and their body started to count the miles or versts as if on horseback? In my family’s memory, trains bring grief. Trains took the ones who couldn’t ever come back, and trains returned empty of the people who had been seen leaving. Airplanes are blank slates with regard to pain. My mother and grandmother had never taken a plane before we left Moscow permanently for Vienna in March 1975. Airports are filled with the scent of spring, of fuel and makeup, of voluntary departures. But train stations smell like the rusty metal of boxcars ferrying crowds of “them” to hazy destinations. Sevran-Beaudottes is just a city outside Paris, so you can’t see it on a world map. But it was powerful enough to swallow up infinity. Although “Sevran” left a tiny possibility of salvation, “Beaudottes” closed the door on you for sure. Sevran was a peak to climb, Beaudottes was a black hole. Instead of seeing the “beau” and the “dot,” I could only see the hollowness of the two os. I couldn’t pinpoint the moment when I crossed. At a certain point, I realized that I was “severed” from the world and that my distress had left me, that’s all. Neither “I” nor “she”: an in-between.

The O’s I’m thinking of a poem by Tsvetaeva dedicated to the White Army. Who survived—will die, who died—will rise up. And then the descendants remembering the past: “Where were you?” The question will peal like thunder. The answer will peal like thunder: “On the Don!” “What did you do?” —We suffered, Then got tired and lay down to sleep. — And in the dictionary the pensive grandsons Will write after the word “Duty,” the word “Don.”

The Third-to-Last

When Tsvetaeva read her poems on the White Army to soldiers from the Red Army, they applauded and cheered for her. She concluded that what the listener takes away from a poem isn’t its content, but its rhythm. The soldiers heard the abyssal o’s that threatened to engulf Reds and Whites alike. O: both death and memory. In French, these two words have similar sounds. In “commémoration” there is also “mort.” In French, the Don River, the “remembrance place” of the Russian Civil War, is twinned with Nabokov’s Le Don (Russian Dar, English The Gift). The don (gift) of writing as a place of passage: Berlin, the ephemeral refuge of Russian émigrés. The narration in this novel switches imperceptibly from first person to third person and back again. The Styx is crossed in both directions: as a character on the way there and as an author on the way back.

Streets and Courtyards In 1981, the year when my first book came out (in French), my mother tongue tried to reclaim me. It was during a trip to the United States. I had never left Europe: the change in urban scenery broke down the mental walls separating my languages. The issue was the spaces between the buildings. In Paris, the street is sealed shut. The buildings are sandwiched together tightly enough to protect you from the idea that a world beyond could snatch you up at any moment. The “within” is sheltered from the outside, and vice versa. Chaos won’t infiltrate the inside, while private life won’t spread outside. Outside: sidewalks, roads, gutters. Inside: an elevator cage, a little courtyard—we call it a “well” in Russian. In Paris, the beyond is muzzled. In Moscow, the street is just an idea. A fiction. You say “such-andsuch street” but it’s really more like a direction, a shape, or a datum of consciousness. For drivers, there is certainly a road with intersections and red lights (however rare): passing through so quickly shrinks the gaps so that the city unfolds continuously, as if on a screen. Moscow is like this book: it takes an observer in motion to give it a sense of continuity. In Paris, when someone gives you an address, you’re sure to get there. A street is already a destination. In Moscow, it’s an abstraction. People tend to say, “I live near such-and-such movie theater,” or store, or park, or embassy, rather than, “I live on such-and-such street.” In Moscow, it can take half a day to walk from one end of a street to the other. A building number doesn’t mean anything, because it usually refers to several buildings.



Where There Is Danger

(In Irkutsk, I’ve even spotted a cluster of buildings with no numbers at all. I was looking for an Internet café and I had the address, on Lenin Street if I remember correctly. However, on this street, there was a whole stretch of numberless houses. I asked, “How do you get your mail?” It turned out that the houses had hidden numbers that corresponded to the cross-streets.) To find the building you want, you have to walk between two apartment blocks or under an archway to get to the courtyard. It’s not a “well.” The courtyards are never closed off. In Moscow, between the city and the home, the courtyard serves as an intermediary world. Everything happens in this in-between space. Here, there are stores, children’s playgrounds, publishing houses, bars, and travel agencies. Dog walkers and dominoes players. Lovers and alcoholics. A city within the city—hidden and exposed at the same time, like the tails side of a coin. When I was a child, this is where we learned to swear, smoke, and cook potatoes in the ashes of fire. This is where we hid our little treasures and shared what we knew about the mysteries of procreation. There’s a concept in Russia that doesn’t exist in Western cities: going for a stroll. When a child says he’s going for a stroll, it doesn’t mean he’s going out with his parents or babysitter. It means he’s going down to the courtyard. I remember that a French cousin who came to visit Moscow was horrified by the idea that the children were supposed to fend for themselves (in reality, their parents kept an eye on them from the upstairs window). “In Paris, children never ‘go for a stroll’!” he told me. “Then it’s a dog’s life!” I retorted. I couldn’t shake the idea of all of the city’s children shut up in apartments, but in Paris, even being a dog would have made me happy. (Moscow’s courtyards did more to civilize me than any other space did. Streets and building fronts were for other people. In Moscow, the old buildings all have a servants’ door that leads to the courtyard, called the “black door,” and a guests’ door that leads to the street, called the “great door.” There have been times in history when the existence of a black door [or black exit, rather] could save your life.) In Moscow, you never go straight where you’re going, you cut through the courtyards. No matter where you’re going, there’s always a shortcut. The Haussmannian perspective and the tight seal of Parisian walls limit your gaze—but these limits are shattered in New York. Here, in this discord, among the staggered buildings, the city-up-high—cloaked in alien

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transparencies that firefighters’ ladders puncture like probes sent into the future—is superimposed on the city-on-the-ground, with its human scale, brick-footed buildings and shards of our little Europe, our shared Troy. Here is where my mother tongue rose up to give voice to a need for something shapeless and uncontrollable. There are compact cities—Paris, London, Vienna, Amsterdam—and cities with holes in them—Moscow, Berlin, New York, Chicago. There are fully mature cities whose past becomes richer with each transformation, where every innovation immediately becomes history. And there are cities that are irremediably unfinished, intended for an unattainable future. Cities for the “always-already” and others for the “not-yet.” Architecture has its own language, visual and in 3D like sign language. The language of architecture has a “timeline” perpendicular to the observer: the past is behind him, the present at the same level as him and the future ahead. In Moscow, places only exist ahead of you. What’s behind you has disappeared. The city is in front of you—forever. In Paris, the landscape behind you doesn’t wait for a gesture to cue its appearance. It sticks to your shoulder blades. From Paris, Moscow is inconceivable. I can only imagine it by removing Paris from my mental map and vice versa. In one of these spots—Paris or Moscow—the map stays silent. A blank spot. Seen from the United States, Moscow is believable. I’m not talking about Moscow as the large village it was in the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth, but as the city it is today, where successive waves of destruction have shaped a quirky modernity. Moscow not only sculpted a face turned toward America (since the 1920s); she intended to compete with the New World as the capital of the Novy mir (New World). However, New York and Chicago have sought to manage the observer’s gaze. The skyscrapers, all sporting different caps, reflect each other. A symphony of colors. These places think of a city as a single organism, a whole being. Moscow laughs in the face of this idea. She is a cruelly ironic city. The chattering colors, escaping their structure in a redeeming halo, console humans about their fate. Little crumbs lost in space, we’re not abandoning you, we’re sparkling just for you, we’re putting on an enchanting show to make you forget, a show for you who are swarming below; to make you forget what we know, we whose heads are up in the clouds: humanity will soon disappear. In Moscow, redemption is anachronistic and always commented on via voiceover by one Ivan Karamazov, who “returns his ticket” to God.



Where There Is Danger

(You’ll tell me that I’m not being fair and you’re right. There are certainly places in Moscow where people feel “saved,” or at least that they’ve been allowed to borrow time. However, if you get settled in, you expect a man in uniform to yank you out of your dream and show you his badge… It’s a metaphor, of course.) In 1981, in New York, I wanted to leave French and that boxed-in gaze, I wanted to conquer the outrageousness and inhumanity of piling words up ever higher and instead give them some texture and unharmonious curves. What I wrote in Russian at that time got lost and scattered over intersections in New York streets. It probably served no other purpose than to sketch a distance and locate the view of the language. In Russian, there are only three verb tenses: past, present, and future. There is no particular way to express anteriority. No “I had been,” no “I will have finished,” even less “when he had finished writing,” no “going,” no subjunctive. There’s a conditional form, but sometimes, plausibility is expressed in the future tense. In Russian, there is not always a distinction between what is real and what is not. In Russian, the past doesn’t want to pass away. You will hear stories told in the present tense to make them easier to visualize or to “replay the film” in a way. Verb tenses are as simple as could be. Why do people say that Russian is hard? Beginners rejoice. And then a chasm opens under their feet. The past and the future each split into two: the perfect and the imperfect. In Russian, the language carries the idea of “unfinishedness” with it permanently—and here students start hitting their heads against the wall and yelling in the perfect tense: I will do! I will act! I will be fulfilled!

Brodsky and Bruno Schulz In New York, I feel nostalgic for “unfinishedness.” So I call the poet Joseph Brodsky, soon a Nobel prizewinner and already the god of poetry in Russians’ eyes. He’s a little reluctant to invite me over, since young writers are already overwhelming him with copies of their work, but he has nothing to fear from me. And I have nothing to fear from his judgment either. I’m bringing him a mute book, in French. (When it was published, a French journalist claimed to detect a voice similar to Bruno Schulz’s, but I hadn’t yet read any of his work at the time. Someone had given me The Street of Crocodiles, which I didn’t open until I returned from New York.)

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Brodsky is also a minor god of English prose. He wrote Less Than One on his childhood under Stalin—or rather, his remembrance of childhood. I want to talk to him about all of this back-and-forth. He receives me in his writer’s lair in Greenwich Village. “It’s like Moscow,” I think to myself. What does that mean? Well, he has a sagging couch and old armchairs in an apartment that’s black and white and sepia. The same colors as photos of my childhood. The atmosphere of Muscovite bohemia in the sixties. There’s a cat, which I would say is black. (Those who have known this New York home may correct me.) An old gas cooker that he uses to heat up water, in a soot-blackened kettle, for the coffee we drink in the courtyard. (Seriously, you must be exaggerating, you might say.) A window opens above, and someone pours a bucket of dubious liquid onto us: an extremely Muscovite turn of events. I suspect, of course, that Brodsky arranged the scene. I ask him, “How do you live between two languages?” He replies, “I don’t see why that’s a problem. Write in Chinese if it pleases you.”  My question testifies to a particularly European discomfort—Europeans cling to their languages like limpets to rocks. My head is organized like the Parisian streets. We all know that America is a country of immigrants, but… Brodsky wasn’t entirely truthful. His essays in English were widely praised but his poems in English were soundly criticized. How can a modern poet write rhymes? What an outdated idea. (In one of my books, which was translated into German, there were several rhyming poems. The translator asked me who their author was, assuming that it was a poet from the nineteenth century, although there were some modern elements (a cigarette in the wind). Upon learning that I had written them, he yelped, “That’s impossible! No one writes rhyming poetry these days!”)  In Russian, rhymes sit astride poets’ words like seafoam on a wave. Varlam Shalamov wrote to Boris Pasternak: Rhyme isn’t just the cement and screws of verse, not just its main tool or the key to harmony. It is—and this is its main role—an instrument for searching for comparisons, metaphors, thoughts, turns of phrase and images, a powerful magnet that sticks out of the darkness and before which the whole universe passes, depositing within the poem the merest traces of what has been grasped. Rhyme is the instrument of choice, the tool of poetic thought and of knowledge of the world, the fishing hook of the poem. (Letter from December 24, 1952)



Where There Is Danger

Although Brodsky had written in English, the rhymes came from somewhere else, far away. They landed in front of startled readers like the hull of a boat that had washed up on their culture’s shores, covered in seaweed and barnacles. Oh God, another book! you think to yourself on receiving the latest accomplishment of a friend (or a stranger). My gift was the ideal one, since it didn’t demand to be read. “Another book,” yes, but also “one fewer.” “Let me take a look at it,” Brodsky said, and after he’d gotten his hands on it: “Something tells me you’re in the same literary family as Bruno Schulz.”  Sevran-Beaudottes lost its power over me the year I went to Kolyma, seven thousand kilometers east of Moscow, following the (nonexistent) tracks of the camps where Varlam Shalamov had lived. My mental pendulum shifted and placed Moscow in the West. Kolyma’s mineral landscape and shimmering stony mountains returned Moscow to another world, the European world. The mass graves in Kolyma rearranged my geography. Moscow’s spaces-between, its passages and its gaps no longer threatened to engulf me. (However, Kolyma, an industrial and labor-camp empire from the 1930s to 1950, was indeed Moscow’s creation. In a certain sense, that makes Kolyma a European invention.) They became as tame as dragons and snakes in children’s rooms that the light of day reveals to be clothes thrown over a chair or toys piled in a corner. In one of the villages of Kolyma, I saw a shop named “Lalita.” Without a doubt, its owner too was afraid of o’s.

The Silent “e” In French, words are stressed on the last syllable. There are no exceptions to this rule, so it isn’t even perceived as a rule. Most French speakers wouldn’t even understand what you were talking about. What do you mean, stressed? It would be a little like telling them, “You know, in order to walk, you put one foot in front of the other.” Is it possible to do otherwise? My grandmother always complained that the French were accent-crippled. We lost the contours of our first names in France. They were disfigured by this sonic current that pushed all of a word’s weight to the end: Tatiana, Vera, Luba. Bam, bam, bam! This pattern of stress strikes all words without mercy. French words all slant in the same direction and make you slide down the interminable slope of sound.

The Third-to-Last

When someone says the last, stressed syllable, you know: the end is here. In Russian, the accentuation tends to wander, which is a nightmare for students. The accent chooses its target wherever it wants to. (There are rules, of course. But don’t bother trying to learn them. You’ll get there a lot faster if you learn the words by heart.) A certain prefix might attract it. The vy mentioned earlier likes to grab it—vy meaning “toward the outside.” But as soon as a similarly imperious suffix competes with it, the prefix loses its privilege. The stressed syllable is the one that gets developed fully and the place where the word blossoms. The syllable before it is just a bud, and the one after it is withering. An o before the stress will be pronounced a, and after the accent it will be like a silent e. The sounds chased to the periphery of words become weaker, gaunt and bloodless. When the word changes forms, they rush toward the accent, gobble up air and come back to life. The sides of the o fill out once again and its flesh fills the mouth. With my eyes, I can follow the unrelenting struggle of sounds fighting for their place in the sun. The accent pulls them from the limbo where they lay curled up in the shadow between two consonants and puts them in the spotlight. A stressed vowel brightens up: this is its time to shine. It lives fully and lasts. In each word, only one vowel gets this opportunity. In grammar class, this phenomenon is called “vowel reduction.” The stress is like the façade of the word or its “great door.” The unstressed vowels are servants’ doors. Shadows surround the stress, wastelands, yards, and somewhere—at the beginning, in the middle, at the end—one fully furnished sound grabs you. Lit up as if by a spotlight. At any moment, the window of the word will open, and the main show of the word will begin—unpredictably. Maybe this is why the heroes in Russian novels die so often in the middle of the book. Physically or symbolically, the accent—a culmination, a disappearance—falls in the middle of the story. I like Polish because the accent always falls on the second-to-last syllable. It’s Sevran-Beaudottes syndrome: the end before the end. The end doesn’t wait until the last stop. It jumps in earlier. I tell myself that after crossing a certain border, I won’t exist anymore. There will only be “her.” But the border has already been crossed. At the heart of this “she”—the murderous third person—there was an “I” curled up inside like a fetus. To stress the second-to-last syllable is to thwart death. In French, after the last syllable—invariably and ruthlessly stressed— there is a silent “e.”


The Sidewalk Across the Street Bilingual existence is situated somewhere between “you never step in the same river twice” and “never say never.” 1988. I live in Rome, in the Villa Medici. It’s from there that I will return to Moscow for the first time since my departure in 1975. The Soviet Union has only three more years to live. But it still has three years to live. For years, a dream has been haunting me—the dream of an émigrée. I have a green or purple plastic bag in my hands, the only souvenir of my life in the West. I can remember exactly when plastic bags became part of our daily life—at the beginning of the 1970s—thanks to the memory of my grandmother packing our suitcase for vacations; around then, the medications, sewing kit and other small items were suddenly covered in transparent wrapping that she praised for its practicality. The same went for our picnic lunch on the train—fried chicken and hard-boiled eggs. However, “polyethylene bags,” reserved for these rare occasions, were considered a luxury and would never replace cloth when wrapping food and its containers, bowls, jars, and pots. Plastic bags were never thrown away after they were used. We saved them, washed them, and took care of them. In stores, clerks packaged your items in paper. Colorful plastic bags stamped with brand names appeared at the same time as contraband Western products, and they became signs of prestige to flaunt when walking around town—they showed that you had connections in the West. The fetishistic fascination with plastic bags is just one short chapter of the long book about plastic in the late Soviet era. Like Papuans scrabbling for necklaces with false pearls, we were ready to “release the prey for the shadow,” which proves that “prey” and “shadow” are things that no one has ever precisely identified. The vendors in Italian groceries always made me swoon because of the skillful way they wrapped food in thick gray paper or a kind of translucent paper that

The Sidewalk Across the Street

looked like parchment. Even the grease stains on the paper seemed like secret winks from Europe. (Anne Coldefy-Faucard told me that when she had to pass herself off as Russian in Moscow in the 1970s, her friends advised her to stop wearing her green socks, because in a black-and-white world, they were a provocative sign of the West. Once she had changed this aspect of her clothing, only her eyes betrayed where she was from, because they remained “free”.) All of my other belongings fell apart after spending some time in my native city, which I had been foolish enough to return to and which I couldn’t leave again. I watch the plastic bag slowly rip apart, and with it, my Western life disappears from my memory. The last object to witness my Western life was then an orange that I had picked in the garden of the Villa Medici. You can hold an orange in one hand. This one was a little shriveled since it was December. Sunny Rome was decorated with miniature stars; the Gabriele d’Annunzio alley was lined with persimmon trees. Two thousand kilometers and thirty degrees away, the bright greenish glare off the snow filled the airport in Moscow, and men in uniform ran this way and that—the same gray uniform that they had worn thirteen years earlier. In the plane bringing me to Moscow, people are speaking Russian. The only passengers are Russian women who married Italians and are coming back to visit family. According to them, Russian women are irresistible. Next to them, Western women don’t even have a chance. Russian women just take such good care of their darling husbands! Their Italian men are crazy about them. “I cut his toenails for him. He never even imagined that!” The women loosen up, speak Russian, are already at home. It has been thirteen years since I’ve spoken Russian “with the people” and I’m not very confident in my reflexes. I’m not afraid of having forgotten my language, because it’s like riding a bike. However, I’m not sure how the person who speaks it will sound. If you took a photo of me right now, my face would be a blur. The women say, “I haven’t been back to Moscow in three months!” “And it’s been six months for me, can you imagine?” Now, they turn towards me. “How long has it been for you?” “Thirteen years.” “Thirteen years! I would have died!” The city hadn’t yet begun the grand costume trick that would transform it, less than ten years later, from “Soviet” to “Russian” for its 850th birthday. The churches were mostly used as storehouses, the omnipresent slogans hadn’t yet metamorphosed into ads, there were no Latin characters on the signs, the abbreviation “com” still meant “communist” and not



Where There Is Danger

yet “commercial,” there were no traffic jams, store windows were invariably piled with cans of peeled tomatoes to hide the empty shelves, the cashiers used abacuses to add up totals, a ruble was officially worth seven dollars (but ten times less on the black market), and the familiar silhouettes of kerchiefed babushkas in heavy felt shoes hadn’t yet given way to those in parkas and ski boots. Women over forty years old were shapeless, men’s pant legs ended in a puddle of folds on top of their shoes, and schoolchildren still wore uniforms. Only one thing had changed: the language. Capital cities are breeding grounds for new words and fleeting expressions; some live a butterfly’s lifespan, others a few years. Long-dead turns of phrase came back to life whenever I opened my mouth. To those who heard me, I didn’t sound like a foreigner, but someone from the seventies. Muscovites still weren’t used to rubbing elbows with émigrée ghosts. Was I from the countryside? (Country folks were hopelessly behind the times.) Or from a republic on the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union? I asked a bus driver to let me off at the stop closest to the Saint-Nikita gate, a place that any Muscovite can find with their eyes closed, and he thought I was Ukrainian. He made a detour to drop me off at my specific destination. These were times of changing directions, it’s true. Today, Moscow is used to seeing émigrés like me, who left in the seventies with visas for Israel and scattered all over the world. Some live astride two countries: Israel is seen almost as a “republic” of the new Russian state. I don’t need to explain further. One day, at the passport check station at the airport, a young official noticed that I had been born in Moscow. He asked me, “Are you coming back of your own free will?” It was a joke. In 1988, a joke like that would’ve made my heart stop. But at the time, an official would never have dared say something like that. In Siberia, however, things are different. The Jewish emigration in the seventies and eighties and the movement of people who return temporarily or permanently to their birthplace are phenomena from another planet. Moscow seems like another planet, anyway: Siberia now looks to Asia. People wear Chinese clothing there, cars’ steering wheels are on the right, and vacations mean trips to Thailand. In Siberia, you meet more Korean tourists than Muscovites. When I traveled to Lake Baikal, the people I spoke to in Russian, who had also heard me speak in French with my family, could only think of one category to put me in since I don’t look especially Slavic: I must be a Buryat guide leading a group of Frenchmen—one of the best-paid jobs around. Some of them even came up to me to propose their services, offering to show my “clients” some out-of-the-way places on the condition that we share the jackpot.

The Sidewalk Across the Street

Traveling with impunity around a country that you previously fled is like playing with the shed skin of a venomous snake: a victory, but one that falls a bit flat.

The Glass Vestibule I made it halfway across an avenue without stoplights, with a relentless flood of cars streaming in both directions at eighty miles per hour. Then I stopped for an indeterminate amount of time in the middle, trying to take up as little space as possible—standing sideways with my stomach sucked in, like I was about to engage in a pistol duel—before managing to turn back. I was in Moscow, you understand. During that infinitely long moment when I wondered if I’d have to stay there until nightfall, one of my father’s favorite jokes came to mind. “How on earth did you cross the street?” “Oh, I was born on this side.” A typical joke from Moscow where, after a certain point, pedestrians were evicted. At times, my memory plays tricks on me. I’d forgotten that the avenues were uncrossable in my childhood city. My father had told me, however, to take the underground passageway. I was on my way to meet him at the French consulate on the other side of the street—where the man from the joke was born—in order to help him through the process of getting a visa. He was going to go to France for the first time on my insistence. I had finally managed to convince him after years of hesitation and despite his dread of travel and especially of administrative hassles. Having come to assist him, I found myself turned away because I was French. The consulate was only open to Russians. In my previous life, on this side of the road, when this stupid visa allowing me to reach the other side—the French side—was inaccessible to me, I had wandered around this pseudo-Russian palace that was forbidden to ordinary Soviets, just to see what there was to see. This time, I had to wait in a glass vestibule, separated from the Russians by a transparent partition behind which the Muscovites, now free to go where they wished, waited anxiously to be called so they could step up to the window. I sat on the stairs, probably looking quite cavalier to the lucky people who passed me on the way out with visas in their pockets. My presence unsettled them. They couldn’t have guessed that I had been thrown into this limbo simply because I was French—I was still on the other side of the street, but not the same one. In their minds, I must have been stationed there. Every single one of them stopped to ask me how to open the door,



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and, transformed into the guardian of the consulate by our confused, dismayed gestures from each side of an uncrossable street, I repeated again and again, “You have to press the button to the left of the door.”

Mission Report I’m going to play Luba in the show. The voice on the other end of the line had really said, “I’m going to play Luba in the show.” I bit back the question, “Then who will I play?” It’s 1998, and I’m returning from Moscow, which I hadn’t visited in ten years. In my absence, the roles have been reassigned. This had already happened to me once when I was little. I had to play a part in a show, but my mother forgot to wake me for the rehearsal, and at the next rehearsal I learned that I had been replaced. If the person on the other end of the line had recorded me, the tape would have had a white space. Well, not completely. Let’s say an off-white space. So I won’t be the one staging the show about my life? As if I didn’t know. A troupe of young women in Lyon is putting on a show based on Fathers’ Ways, Daughters’ Voices. This play is ten years old and no longer relevant as far as I’m concerned because it was written before I met my father. I wrote the dialogue for one voice. Not a monologue, but a dialogue with the void. I wrapped the nonexistent speaker in words to give him a shape. You could talk to yourself for three thousand years, but it wouldn’t make the Other appear. When I first visited Jerusalem, I wept and wept at the Western Wall, not because of the destruction of the Temple, but because of the tiny papers that carpeted it like the folded wings of butterflies. The wall wasn’t smooth, I discovered. It was studded with little snags that hopeful climbers clung to, depositing their requests here like prisoners in the gulag who slid their pleas into the slot of a letterbox intended to be emptied regularly—into the trash. The wall was like an enormous collection of butterflies, the work of an immemorial entomologist. The absence sketched by a monologue doesn’t require the Other to appear. The Other owes me nothing. I may speak to it, but it commits to nothing—not even to existence. Pinpointing muteness: to speak is not always to call out. It could be to assign, resolutely, the label of absence. But you should never say never. In Russian, “never” is composed of the negative particle “not” and the adverb “when.” Not-when. “Never” is a creature of the present. Less than a year after writing that script, still in 1988, I went to the USSR and met my father for the first time. The USSR disappeared soon after.

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The voice on the other end of the line is Russian. I know it immediately from the slight accent and especially the speaker’s intonation and breathing. That’s why she was given the role. She will play me in French (her accent will disappear on stage). My voice isn’t Russian: “You don’t have an accent.” No, she didn’t want to meet up. Didn’t want to know what I was like—that would prevent her from being me. Didn’t want me to know what she was like—that would prevent me from being her. Measure the distance between me and me, which plays out over stretches of time: ten years and open borders. In walls falling down—not the Western Wall but the other one. In degrees of absence abolished, in periods of absence discontinued since my father answered my call. I am invisible: I arrived in Lyon just before the show and right now, the theater is submerged in darkness. In one corner of the stage are six young women dressed in white, a group of mute sculptures. The statues start to come alive. One of the figures breaks off and moves into the middle of the small lighted space. She is going to speak. Which one is me? Maybe this one, with the light steps. Or that one, with long hair. I don’t have any distinctive traits. Any one of them could be me. When one actress starts speaking, even before recognizing her words, I think instantly, “That’s me.” Then: no, that isn’t me. There’s something about a spoken or recited text that belongs to everyone, something that precedes the distinction between “me” and “other.” (Among the many optical illusions is the one that makes you believe that you remove yourself from a text after writing it: it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Did it ever belong to you? Text is more primal than the self. One day, in a hallway in the Radio France headquarters, the words flowing out of a loudspeaker suddenly caught my attention. I had a memory of reading them before, in another life, a long, long time ago. In an instant, I was seized by nostalgia for this other life that would be forever inaccessible. It was in fact an extract from one of my books that the actors were rehearsing for the show I had been invited to.) Speech precedes the location of oneself in space. The words are mine, undoubtedly mine, before they tell me who I am. Theater turns all verb tenses into the present. You can’t act in the past tense, just like you can’t translate in the past tense. The stage belongs to the present, and the audience to memory. She finally enters onstage—the third to last—tall and thin, a wisp curled over like I was as a child, she isn’t me, but she’s me from the moment when she takes the stage—takes it from me. She, onstage, is alive. In the audience, I remember. No, it’s the other



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way around. I am alive onstage, brought back to before Moscow, before my father. She, in the audience, remembers what will have happened ten years later. Ten years earlier, in December 1988, I returned from my first trip during which I’d met my father for the first time, and I had to write a mission report. One page, just one, I’d been told. (I owe this first stay in Moscow to Jean-Marie Drot, then the director of the Villa Medici. He was interested in Perestroika and Russia in general, and my writing projects and personal background as well. This influenced my decision to go to Moscow as part of a tourist group. He helped me conquer my fear by promising his assistance in case of a problem. The Villa Medici paid for this trip as well as the next one, which took place in July 1989.) But the page wouldn’t come to me. The words split open limply and revealed their formless, tasteless insides, disintegrating as if they’d been chewed for a long time and had lost their taste. No more words—a flurry of noise. Writer’s block, something I hadn’t yet encountered when I was starting to write in French—although the only literature that had achieved the status of real writing was the kind that presented itself as a survivor of this initial silence—caught up with me in an administrative document. What should I write about? The feeling that I got in Moscow of never having left, of having dreamed up my life in the West, of a thirteen-year-long dream? The things that had remained where they were? The refrigerator that we’d left to some cousins who’d faithfully kept it? (“Soviet means excellent,” this ad from my childhood, tested and verified for household appliances. They were made to last a lifetime.) The same empty displays in the stores? The unleashed verb taking its revenge on decades of muteness, and real life unchanged? (In the lines, people yelled, “Call Mishka [Gorbachev] so he’ll give us something to eat!” At the Arbat supermarket, the saleswoman showed me two sticks that were identical except for the color. “This one is sausage and this one is cheese. It’s the same product painted differently, but there’s less chance of getting poisoned with the cheese.”)  Since I grew up in Brezhnevian Moscow, there were words and expressions that I just couldn’t imagine in Russian. I remember the shock I felt on arrival in Vienna when I saw the newspaper Russkaia mysl’ (Russian Thought) for the first time. Inside, printed in Russian clear as day, were anti-Soviet statements that I had thought were locked firmly inside the black box of my skull.

The Sidewalk Across the Street

Should I talk about the return trip in a plane that turned into a marketplace as soon as it took off, with people trading watches for caviar—and men and women who all suddenly become businessmen? Should I recount my father’s words, heavy like buckets of water pulled from a well, prepared in advance and placed before me like an offering? These words of a man who had unlearned how to speak, who a long depression treated with psychotropic medication had rendered mute? And who, knowing that we might not see each other again, had learned his lesson, a few crumpled phrases to respond to my questions—but I didn’t have any questions. The magic spell of French had lifted. In a story that I read as a child, a prince gained immortality at the price of never again being able to set foot in his native city. On one fine day, he decided to visit his relatives, and then, so the story went, “he fell into dust.” My French had fallen into dust. I decided to write my report in Russian and translate it. Impossible. Well, could I expatriate myself again, in Italian? That resulted in a purely bureaucratic text: I went, I saw, I did. Straight and square sentences. I had nothing to say in any language. It was entirely impossible to creep back into the folds of a language where what I had experienced could be said without me. I couldn’t know at the time that this report had to be written in the future tense, and that it would take me more than twenty years to get to the end of it. All this for the good reason that it was a “long stay” mission.

The All-seeing “Luba” Fate—or History?—offered me two more possibilities for visiting the other side of the street. In 2004, when I traveled to Kolyma, the agency I was using to get my visa required me to spend two nights in a hotel in Moscow, both going and coming. And so, I went to the Rossiia, which had been exclusively for foreigners when I was a child. This city within a city, built at the beginning of the Brezhnevian period (but designed under Krushchev), a good example of 1960s architecture two steps away from the Kremlin, replaced the historic Zariadie district (which had been demolished for the project) with its four towers crowning long hallways of hundreds of rooms (3,182 in total, for 5,300 people). Already on its way to being demolished itself, it gave me a view of the Moskva River as well as of the places where, as a child, I gazed at the windows of this forbidden Western paradise. The faded grandeur of former homes of gods—worn carpets, peeling walls,



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squeaky floors—does not soothe our frustrations of bygone days. Since I was a child, this city for foreigners in the heart of my city, this island of the free world that we did not have the right to enter, besieged each day by all kinds of speculators and each night by throngs of prostitutes, has disturbed my sleep by reminding me constantly that we are creatures in limbo. (In 1977, when we were already in France, the hotel was ravaged by a terrible fire that killed forty-two people. We realized that basic safety standards hadn’t been respected during the construction of this luxurious enclave.) The towers of the Rossiia were like the big chocolate rabbits perched on mountains of whipped cream in pastry shops’ windows: unattainable. The monumentalist pastry style of the sixties mimicked official statuary, as if the cakes had been designed by the sculptors of the giant Lenins. Divine figures of yesteryear still haunted the halls of the Rossiia: several hallway attendants on each floor, fallen priestesses who were no longer likely to denounce you to the KGB but would happily accept a box of chocolates or perfume in exchange for minor services. There were still guards outside the elevator on the bottom floor who asked to see your passcard and forbade you to invite anyone up to your room. The sumptuous Moskva River still flowed below, but now it was framed by huge ads for Coca-Cola and Adidas above the buildings on the opposite bank, instead of slogans and images of Lenin. And, at one of the hotel entrances, a sign invited passersby to come consult the all-seeing “Luba.”

Westonia When I was a child, we also had our own piece of the Western world: Estonia. Vacationers from Moscow and Leningrad flocked to the Pärnu beaches for the bustling markets, freshly painted palisades (without drunks lying under them) and the clear seas. It was said that on a clear day, you could stand in Tallinn and see Helsinki on the other side of the Gulf of Finland. We were worse than colonizers. We were invaders. Despite catering to tourists, the saleswomen gazed over our heads when we spoke to them in Russian, which was the language of the enemy. That gave them prestige in our eyes. They were resisters. We listened delightedly to the incomprehensible music of their language, the cooing of their fourteen unlearnable declinations. We were in a foreign country. Rejected but pleased about it—and

The Sidewalk Across the Street

how could it be otherwise? If the Estonians had let themselves be Russified, we wouldn’t have been interested in going there anymore. It was in Estonia, in the Russian Literature department of Tartu University—a thousand kilometers west of the classroom where we wrote essays on poverty under tsarism and man’s exploitation of man in the ancient world—that the semioticians of the Yury Lotman school had discovered, through observing the metamorphoses of signs, that the world is only given to us in translation. To be human is to translate. New worlds are passages to a new language. And sometimes, we encounter a stumbling block: the untranslatable. When you can’t find an equivalent, a new meaning springs up. But at the time, I wasn’t dissecting signs at Tartu. I was gathering ladybugs in Pärnu. At a certain point in the summer, they started attempting mass suicide by throwing themselves into the sea in droves. (I had very little contact with Yiddish as a child. Our choice of vacation spots contributed to that: Russian-speaking Jews frequented Pärnu while Yiddish was spoken on the Palanga beaches in Lithuania. During the seventies and eighties, the flow of Jewish vacationers to both places dried up.) When I was invited to a semiotics colloquium at Tartu a few years ago, I wasn’t tempted to make a detour to the seaside city. It was shortly after the Bronze Soldier was relocated to the Defense Forces Cemetery of Tallinn: in the streets, restaurants, and taxis I didn’t resort to Russian until I’d let my colleagues try in vain to use English and identify themselves as Westerners. (The statue was seen as the symbol of the Soviet occupation and its relocation provoked riots within the Russian community as well as strong reactions from the Russian government.) Russian wasn’t one of the languages of the colloquium, because it was the language of the occupier. I was invited to preside at the session dedicated to the riots that had broken out after the relocation of the Soldier. I presented the Estonian speakers in French. But beforehand, in the hallway, I had asked for their biographical information in Russian. I wasn’t an occupier anymore, but a visitor. I still heard the melody of Estonian—a language that had moved from west to east—without understanding it. I was representing a French university with my contraband Russian, an undesirable currency that was nonetheless useful for covert exchange.



Where There Is Danger

Birth Certificate Here’s a question I get a lot: is French a foreign language for me? Certainly not. Does my family speak French? Not that either. I definitely worked to learn French in the past, but today it’s my language. French lives within me as a master, not as a guest. We are consubstantial. I naturalized it. Language is a kind of time machine: it shapes our retrospective selves. One day, French gifted herself to me. Your native language, at the beginning, is where you come from (de). All other languages are directions you move toward (vers). Then there comes a moment when your native language is one you have to move toward, too. Maybe this is why, when I write in Russian, I can only write in verse (vers). French is not my mother tongue and yet it is my native language, of my second birth (the birth of myself in French and of French in me). I have to produce a birth certificate, so what date should I choose? 1966, the year when I started learning French at a school in Moscow? 1975, the year of my arrival in France? 1977, the year when I decided to write only in French? None of those, if you believe a 1990 text I wrote called Écrire entre deux langues (Writing between two languages) in which I talked about French as a “foreign” language. How startling to reread that today—was that really me? Everything falls into place, then. My new official linguistic status dates back to 1991, the year when my native USSR disappeared from the map. And then there appeared a country called Russia where people spoke my mother tongue, Russian. This isn’t the country I fled. The one I fled no longer exists. After 1991, my Russian no longer testified to my escape, no longer marked a radical and definitive statelessness. It barely marked me as an outsider. It no longer distinguished me from the tourists who rushed en masse to visit the previously forbidden outside world. Nor did it distinguish me from the new migrants who fled the empty windows of stores undergoing privatization. My Russian had lost its political color, flavor, and smell, becoming a purely geographical signifier. Up until then, I had been able to say, “I’m Russian,” meaning, “I’m not a Soviet.” It meant that I belonged to the community of émigrés and the Russian enclave in France, which was probably the most anti-Soviet group on the planet. What a crazy identity: my Russian dubbed with my émigré French! And it disappeared in the blink of an eye. Emigration stopped. There were Russians living abroad, and Frenchmen of Russian origin. That’s all. And there was Russia, where I could travel as I pleased to listen to the murmuring of my native language and remember its birth within me an uncrossable eternity ago.

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R In many languages, the term “birth language” is used for one’s native language. However, we don’t speak our birth language at birth. First comes a long period of babbling and stammering. Children hear and repeat. Words form in their mouths and larynges, vibrate in their vocal cords, cross through their selves entirely, develop a taste and color. Children produce these sound objects the way spiders secrete their webs. We make words when we recognize ourselves in the mirror for the first time, and we make words when we see things and people. It’s like coloring: we dress things and people with sounds and they start to exist in a new way, full of color instead of being dotted outlines. We create ourselves this way too. We say words that we don’t understand as if toying with an object whose purpose is unknown. A word: a res publica. It belongs to everyone. We borrow it and return it. Communism reigns in the republic of words: from each according to ability, to each according to need. There is no private property and all words are collectivized. (In theory, of course. In reality, as we all know, words are like labels on our clothing—if they’re not our whole uniforms.) Bilinguals also make hybrid words for their own use. For example, shupotis—a mix of the French chuchotis, whisper, and the Russian shchupat’, to touch or to palpate—which means a whisper that touches, the act of brushing up against something by saying it. As for its etymology, utopie (utopia) must come from utopit’, to drown. Traviata is from travit’, to poison, and Tosca means “anguish,” from the Russian toska—melancholy. It’s opera grammar. By the way, the word “opera” appears in Russian as the genitive of


Where There Is Danger

OPER, an abbreviation of “special envoy” and a term inseparable from the reality of Stalinist repression. Dreams are a factory of hybrid words that sometimes make fun of us. Somebody asks me, “What do you do?” and I answer, “I’m studying the Hologag.” Holocaust plus gulag. There used to be a time when the birth of words within us was a physical process that we paid attention to and watched closely. We felt them rise in our throats, tickle our tongues, and disappear into their air like birds that had learned how to fly. Some were misshapen and couldn’t use their wings. I remember the crushed sounds that came out of the mouth of a disabled little boy. They were like those paper packets you take out of a shopping basket that has been carted all over town (my mother: “Oh, the strawberries are crumpled!”). His words were similarly creased and squashed, not like clothing that can be ironed flat again, but like cakes or strawberries that one would have preferred to see and eat intact. The words retained their meaning—their taste—but their shape was ruined beyond repair. Smooth, unfolded words are so amazing! Little Igor was living proof of the primordial chaos of words that, articulated by his guttural voice, arrived in the world as crippled runts, unfinished little creatures. One should take care of words like newborn kittens and feel gratitude for having been present at their miraculous birth. As a child, I spent hours trying to figure out what words were and what they were made of. I governed my phonetic territories with proper discernment, which required a meticulous system of classification. Over these hours spent poking around with sounds and pulling them apart, I had noticed that consonants could be divided into voiced and voiceless ones; I preferred the former. Within my color scheme, voiced consonants were the brightest and purest, and that’s how I could spot them. The voiceless ones were almost white, as if bleached, or vaguely beige. (I recently came across an article by one Emile Laurent, dated 1897, in which the author discusses the color of words. He attacks the “colorful” language of the Decadents with barbs like, “Neuropathologists identified ‘colored hearing’ long ago as a relatively common symptom of serious cerebral or auricular afflictions.”) Consonants could also be hard or soft. Their color didn’t change, but their consistency did. The first kind were round, with solid curves, and the second kind were sharply tapered. The roundness or slenderness came of course from the trailing vowels whose plumpness or skinniness bled over.

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R

Who could deny that an i is thinner than an o? Some words ended with the cliff of a hard consonant, and others with the gentle slope of a soft sound. Vowels had no meat except for those preceded by an invisible y. I had identified these by stretching them out and singing them. There are actually six vowels in Russian instead of the ten the alphabet would have you believe. I spotted the four intruders: ie and io, which in reality are just e and o; ia, which is also the pronoun “I” and the last letter of the alphabet; and the one just before it, you, the first letter of my name. The whole group creates a fine lattice, a lasting landscape of sound. During the time when I thought myself one of Molière’s bourgeois gentlemen, I saw a word doctor regularly—a speech therapist. She tended to the sounds I produced, which, though they were not as damaged as the sounds from little Igor, presented serious anomalies: w instead of l and some kind of g instead of r. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to cure them for good. My mouth was full of l and r from repeating, “Larry’s lawn rake rarely levels rivers!” and “Lessening levels of lead really lure river lily pads.” These tongue twisters always mention rivers. Later, when listening to The Queen of Spades, I was able to appreciate the lovely couplets sung by Tomsky just before the tragic finale. “If the noble ladies flew like larks, alighting in leafy bushes, I would molt into foliage to welcome lovely young women, to listen to sublime songs….” This homage to young women had been stripped of its r’s, its vulgarity. R for roaring and rage. And, during pre-refrigerator times, the necessary letter in the names of months during which one could eat fish. Devouring. I wonder if in my case this difficulty in pronunciation came from concerns about manners. I didn’t know how to roar. W’s instead of l’s came from my mother. Bullies targeted me because I gutturalized certain sounds, but at the time I didn’t know why. Jews were supposed to not roll their r’s. Besides, Maria Issakovna, a lady who often came over to visit, turned her r’s into g’s. One day, my mother was about to pay a fortune for some walnuts at the market (it’s well-known that the poorest are also the most extravagant; in Russian, at least, it’s the gypsy—the beggar—who buys the first strawberries) when suddenly she heard behind her, “Vega, you’re crazy!” She loved to retell that story, without telling me, however, that Maria Issakovna was my paternal grandmother. I didn’t find out until many years later, when I was already in Paris. So I played games with sounds, but also with other things. I hid things since I couldn’t hide myself. The grown-ups always unearthed them in the end. That gave me the idea to outsmart them by inventing an unfindable hiding place right under their noses. I took it on myself to stick



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the house keys to the ceiling light in the living room. However, my mother entered the room before I had finished (the living room was also her room). It wasn’t easy to maneuver while perched on a stool on top of the table. I needed an emergency magic spell for invisibility, and I found it. “Vega, you’re crazy!” I yelled, and then I disappeared into thin air. When I started learning French, I had to unlearn how to roll my r’s. It took months of staring into a mirror and gargling the air. The virile, vulgar, combative r I had fought hard to learn would be useless over there, on the other side of the road. Devouring. My attempt to devour France dates back to this time of rediscovering r, before I lost it in French. In a package that our Paris family members had sent us, there was a Bella-brand doll. Bella was to Soviet dolls what Catherine Deneuve was to the Kolkhoz Woman statue at the entrance to the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy. (This sculpture, designed by Boris Iofan and built by Vera Mukhina for the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair, where she faced the eagle atop the German pavilion [and towered over it at twenty-five meters and 185 tons] is the Russian sister of the roaring Hollywood lion: she has been part of the Mosfilm logo since 1947.) Not knowing anything about brands, we thought that Bella was her first name. The name stuck for as long as I had her, and she only got a Russian name much later, when I gave her to my little cousin. Bella had arrived with her own trousseau. A dining set including a gas stove, a full set of dishes, pots and six white doilies trimmed in blue that looked like fabric although they were made of thick paper. Bella led the life of a princess, ate exquisite meals from her personal dishes and dressed in ball gowns. You can play princess while living in a shack; that’s nothing new. The objects that Bella brought didn’t represent Western life, they were this life: a real miniature kitchen, perfectly real, with a multitude of details that I would discover a good ten years later in Parisian apartments. The life of these Westerners was too comfortable, and what’s more, it was too beautiful. The beauty of these objects from Paris looked at us—our two rooms in a communal apartment whose filthy kitchen I was forbidden to enter—and did not see us. We did not exist for it. This nonexistence is what allowed the unspeakable, guilty joy of the dining-set game to blossom. But it wasn’t really a game: the pieces were too real, which prevented us from playing pretend. They became intrusive, like a quotation from another world within the story of our life.

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R

(Besides, you could get caught up in this world without having ties to France and without intending to leave the Soviet Union. One day, I was playing in the courtyard with my Bella’s toiletries bag, and a three-year-old neighbor girl was taken aback by the miniature bar of soap. This doll soap, in a country where the stocks of soap and salt disappeared from stores at the slightest alarm—the first items to run short—set off such a hysterical fit that we had to run off to buy a bar of soap at the grocer’s and cut it into tiny rectangles for her own dolls. I remember my mother trying to reason with her. “Do you want some ice cream?” “No, a little bar of soap!” “Some cake?” “No, a little bar of soap!”)  They refused to remain simple decorations; they were samples from a reality that would not dissolve into the game and their use became a pure ritual during which, all things taken into account, the sacrificial lamb was the reality around me, mine: me. But the hardest part to accept wasn’t the pots. The most unbearable part was the doilies, which had no practical use. Bella needed to beautify beauty itself. The doilies were a striking sign of our poverty; they were our condemnation. I looked them “in the eye,” those white eyes rimmed with blue, and they didn’t see me. Embarrassing witnesses to our special situation—we had family in France, we weren’t like the others—and at the same time, to the Soviet limbo we were irremediably stuck in, the doilies stared at me with their empty Greek-statue eyes, flooding me with their all-destroying whiteness. One day, a friend I had met during vacation came to visit. When we settled down to take a nap after lunch, I decided to show her Bella’s treasures. Their beauty sparked blasphemous impulses: my friend found the princess airs of my little Parisian absolutely ridiculous. She couldn’t stop laughing at the doilies. Her laugh was contagious; I cracked up alongside her. We methodically shredded them one by one. They didn’t want to give in, the paper was thick, we attacked them with our teeth, and—I don’t know which of us started it—the contrast between their magnificence and their flavorlessness provoked our rage: we wolfed them down the way members of the resistance swallowed secret messages in movies and games. We ate them first to remove all traces of our savagery, then to punish them for intruding in our coarse daily lives, and to feel their bland flesh melt under our teeth, which reduced them, in this final moment, to the misery common to all matter: the primary motive for every murder. We swallowed their sublime fragility, which passed into our veins, while reducing them to the mortal fate of everything that exists—while degrading them to match



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our world. We succumbed to a jubilant, cannibalistic feast, ripping the pieces and tearing them with our teeth, swallowing our prey still trembling as it strangled us, predators of gray. Full-screen roar. Devouring. I think that we fell asleep after that. After my friend left, I knew that I had done something irreparable. I set about putting away the dining set—an act of mourning—and, O miracle! Over her dress, Bella wore a little coat that, of course—realism demanded it—had a pocket. There, I found one last doily hidden and folded. I took it out and uncrumpled it; the serene whiteness of an escapee shone on me. I smoothed it out, caressed it, spoke to it, cried over it. I told it, “My poor little one, you’re the only one left. The others were eaten.” The irisless, pupilless, blue-rimmed eye gazed at me without blinking, ready to reflect the murderer’s face for all eternity. “What will become of you, my poor little orphan?” I asked it. Receiving no response—or rather, a response that was all too clear—I brought it to my mouth and ate it seasoned with tears, this time slowly, bit by bit, without joy. Borges wrote the story of a barbarian who decides to serve Ravenna (then called Municipium by the Romans), the city that he had come to destroy. What stops him in his tracks is “an incomprehensible inscription in eternal Roman letters.” Suddenly he is blinded and renewed by this revelation, the City. He knows that in it he will be a dog, or a child, and that he will not even begin to understand it, but he also knows that it is worth more than his gods and his sworn faith and all the marshes of Germany. In this city that showed itself to me through Bella’s dining set, I knew that I would always be a child—or a dog. And so, I acted as a dog. Destroying the untranslatable: a barbaric act.

Coming and Going We maneuver between the strange and the familiar. We tame and soften things—and make them wilder. The return path is never the same as the path we took to get there, although it seems faster. (It’s like reading. You never read every word of the text, unless it’s in a language that you haven’t completely mastered.) Recognizing things takes time. Speaking a foreign language all day is as tiring as hauling boulders. A bilingual person has appropriated two worlds and possesses two languages. But at any time, he can call either of them “the other language.” Something that’s clear here isn’t clear over there—you have to cross the threshold. What doesn’t need explaining here needs explaining there. And vice versa. A bilingual person

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R

is never recognizable in her entirety. Seen from “over there,” my bedroom looks strange. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to tidy it up. Why I manage to create chaos in five minutes, even in a nearly empty hotel room. Never content with a common meaning, always decrypting something further, that’s what bilingual people do. I’ve been told that I write “myopically”: in fact, I always have to squint in order to unwrinkle reality. Coming back, stopping, examining—no image is ever given all at once. It’s as if the collective memory informing our sensations fails me. Not “renaming the world,” the poet’s mission according to Tsvetaeva, but sweeping my vision clear—a child’s task. The expressions that come to us from others, that sleep within the language—like “the icing on the cake” or “beating a dead horse”—come alive, wiggling and quivering, and shine with all their scales once translated. Or the reverse: some expressions that are too hairy in one language become smoother when adopted by another. In Dead Souls by Gogol, the greedy Plyushkin keeps collecting the most useless objects until he himself becomes a piece of trash. His clothes are rags, and he becomes nothing more than a “human rag.” In Russian: his clothes are “holed,” and he becomes nothing more than a hole in (the fabric of) humanity. A shell of a person: something with the same relationship to humanity that a rag has to torn clothing. You can throw it out or sweep it away and it doesn’t affect humanity. But a hole in humanity is irreparable. You can try in vain to mend it, but it’s always ready to reappear, perhaps in the spaces between buildings. When you see a sign saying “grand-duc” in a zoo, do you necessarily think of the Romanov family, assassinated or dispersed? But we also encounter these stuffed birds of prey on a cabinet in Nabokov’s “The Visit to the Museum”: how could one better evoke the dusty memories of the revolution? In Russian, “like raspberry” refers to jubilation or endless delight. “Each execution is like raspberry for him,” Mandelstam writes in his poem about Stalin. The association with the fruit has been lost, and the color barely appears at the edge of one’s field of view. (Jerome Rothenberg brought back the taste of raspberry by translating thus: “Whenever he’s got a victim, he glows like a broadchested Georgian munching a raspberry”—and he transforms Mandelstam into a surrealist poet.) Figures of speech: one way for language to tame the bizarre. Once they’ve been converted back to the other language, they show their wildness.



Where There Is Danger

I can’t say, “my language,” because my language is there where I am. In Russian, like in French, one “has” a language. But no one knows better than a bilingual that he doesn’t “have” any language. A child will always say, “my house,” even if he was born a slave. This is one of the first things that my grandmother revealed to me: our house didn’t belong to us because we lived in a country where everything belonged to the government. (She who had been dispossessed of everything she owned couldn’t put up with the idea that I could call the horrible shack that we lived in “mine.”) This made possessives forever suspect. The names that I give to things are moving names. The world is a dialogue, an irrepressible dialogue. Translating, always translating everything in one direction, then in the other, an endless back-and-forth. Always pouring the contents of a word into another glass—and there’s always some left over. What do languages converse about in the mountains? The dregs.

Physiology of the Reverse Side Children like to look inside themselves, peer under their skin—under the skin of different phenomena too. They’re hoping to spot the translucent flow under their eyelids, the unseen language of the eye. Andrei Bely plunged his characters, persecuted by the nightmare of history, into the incandescence of phosphenes, these starbursts with red halos that explode under your fingers when you press on your eyeballs. Children attempt to pierce the secret of the image born within them. When they look at something far away, their nose stuck to their hand, their hand has ten fingers. They practice photography without knowing it: they examine the negative of the world until it completely disappears in the darkroom under their eyelids. Green imprints in red on the retina when your eyes are closed, and vice versa: this is how children learn about complementary colors. The swarming of vision-creatures makes words and images swim together in the eyes like girls and boys at the public baths before a certain age. Children explore the physiology of the reverse side, but adults forget it, finally free from that larval stage of life, pulled away from those intermediary spaces where one can watch the microorganisms of sight and language being born. Except for bilinguals, who are constantly brought back into the in-between spaces. For bilinguals, the smooth surface of language is punctuated with lumps and cracks from history—their own history of the physical emergence of these sounds within them, and of the movement of

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R

words within their bodies. It’s as if bilinguals embody all of evolution; reptiles, birds, mammals; as if each successive skeleton lives within them. A bilingual person can’t detach himself from the way the language has grown inside him and made him its instrument. He is always redirected inside himself where language hatched, where the words formed as imperiously and incomprehensibly as “shrimp” and phosphenes do. A bilingual can never be cut off from himself. This space inside, which closes up in a normal person like a fontanelle, continues to gape in a bilingual, purply red like a side of beef in a Soutine painting.

Two Shames Creatures of the eye are memory’s spies. Dostoyevsky asks if a person should feel ashamed of an ignominious act committed on another planet. (A premonitory question that the law will have to answer when judging crimes against humanity. “We were on another planet,” Nazi criminals and their henchmen say.) Shameful acts committed in another language, this language that I only live in intermittently—that I live in differently—are separated from me by a verbal blink. To write is to transform past shame into glorious stories. When you exchange verbal money, you lose nothing. You only gain. The wicked coins come back to you shimmering with gold. Here are two tales of shame from my childhood and adolescence: a little one and a big one. First, the little one. The entry exam for a “French” school. In reality, it was a Soviet school like all the others, but you learned French there. In French, you studied class struggles and the wealth of the native country that knowledge of a foreign language would rightly give you the chance to flee. How? No one knows. We have family in France, so one day, maybe, we’ll be able to join them. And if we can’t go, you will. Any way possible. Flee, flee. Flee at all costs. Get married if you have to. Try to get sent on a mission abroad and request asylum there. So what if your mother and grandmother remain hostages. So what. French: the language of flight. My grandmother always dreamed of it. My mother always dreamed of it. I always dreamed of it too. We dreamed as a family. Dreams need to be nurtured by something real, so I have to learn French. The adults send the children to fish for treasure with lines of desire. I can’t catch anything less than France. We can’t talk about it to anyone,



Where There Is Danger

because it’s forbidden. I live in a country where children have to protect adults’ dreams (and protect the adults from their dreams). For the test, I learned one of Kipling’s songs by heart, “I’ve Never Sailed the Amazon.” It was translated from the English by Samuil Marshak, who made a poem out of it. Marshak—his name ricochets like a bullet—is a poet who became an author and translator of children’s literature in order to escape the purges. (Marshak translated English children’s poetry into Russian. I don’t know if English children were as familiar with “This Is the House That Jack Built” as we were with the Russian version. How can we tell if Brodsky, who wrote “Berlin Wall Tune” to the same rhythm in 1980, was addressing English readers or those who lived behind that wall? “This is the house destroyed by Jack. /This is the spot where the rumpled buck/ stops, and where Hans gets killed. /This is the wall that Ivan built...” Brodsky didn’t take off his seven-league boots, which allowed him to step over the lines demarcating verses and languages.) At the time, many writers were seeking asylum in children’s territory. Some saved themselves this way. It’s well-known that children have an extraordinary power in Soviet country. (The only privileged class, according to the propaganda.) Others, like Daniil Kharms, were extradited. Maybe he did it too late. It’s absurd, isn’t it? Reciting a poem translated from English to convince the jury to admit me into a French school? Why not something from Victor Hugo in French? (The art of being out of step. Two years earlier, when taking another exam at a music school, I had sung “La Marmotte” by Beethoven with lyrics by Goethe. [Ich komme schon durch manche Land… Und immer was zu essen fand.] The refrain is chanted in French, “avèque la marmotte,” and that’s how I had learned it, although there is a Russian version of it. “Why are you singing the refrain in French?” I was asked. Regarding this marmot: it turned out that all parents who wanted their children to be “cultivated” made them learn this song. It wasn’t until I got to France that I saw marmots for the first time: so, this animal really did exist! Then in 1998, Lev Rubinstein’s writing taught me that Beethoven’s “marmotte” was a kind of small suitcase that people carried everywhere with them. This Russian Barthes had dealt a blow to one of the longstanding myths from my childhood—I felt real joy in watching the culture I had grown up in crumble, in being able to dance on its ruins with one of the greatest modern Russian poets. The problem

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is that, during Goethe’s time, there actually were marmot tamers. So, what should I do? Start picking up the pieces? Deconstructing a deconstruction isn’t the same thing as rebuilding, but it’s something like the state of Europe today: my marmots have made peace amongst themselves.) In fact, the Kipling poem bore a message that you could see from a mile off. I staggered under its weight. It was more than a message—it was a full-on declaration, no, a manifesto! A PROVOCATION! A political agenda. I’ll reproduce it here in English, but only the Russian translation unmasks the breadth and audacity of the message. I’VE NEVER sailed the Amazon, I’ve never reached Brazil; But the Don and Magdalena, They can go there when they will! Yes, weekly from Southampton, Great steamers, white and gold, Go rolling down to Rio (Roll down — roll down to Rio!) And I’d like to roll to Rio Some day before I’m old! I’ve never seen a Jaguar, Nor yet an Armadill O dilloing in his armour, And I s’pose I never will, Unless I go to Rio These wonders to behold Roll down—roll down to Rio Roll really down to Rio! Oh, I’d love to roll to Rio Some day before I’m old!

Imagine. We’re in Moscow in 1966, Brezhnev is in power, the Iron Curtain is in place for all eternity, but we’re dreaming, dreaming, dreaming . . . A little girl about to start primary school declares that she would like to see Rio before she grows old. She is accompanied by a grandmother who still has a few years ahead of her before said age, but who should get going if she wants to leave “some day before she’s old.”



Where There Is Danger

(My grandmother never saw Brazil, but she spent the final years of her life in Paris and even witnessed the fall of the Communist regime.) The grandmothers ate sour grapes and the granddaughters’ teeth are set on edge. The sour grapes of the family dream are spread out in front of the committee. Its members are from the same generation as my grandmother—all the adults have the same age, in my view. They would love to go to Rio too, but they are here, sitting around a table at a Soviet school. They have all shared Ostap Bender’s dream: to stroll around in Rio wearing white pants. Ostap Bender, “son of a Turkish subject,” originally from Odessa (read: Jewish), a fantastic con man who never stops defying authority, is the hero of The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf (by Ilia Ilf and Evgeny Petrov). It remains to be seen how Kipling could appropriate the dream of a Russian Jew expressed a quarter-century later. (By this point, Kipling was so ingrained in the Russian imagination that throughout my whole childhood I confused his “exotic” poems with Nikolai Gumilev’s “African verses.”) And so, in front of the committee, I’m revealing the family dream of leaving the USSR. This is why I need to learn French: it will be my vessel. The Don will take me there. The Don is a Russian river, a nice and peaceful one, isn’t it? If you follow it with Kipling, you could end up in Brazil. In French, it’s also the name of Nabokov’s last Russian novel in which “I” becomes “he” and vice versa, anticipating his metamorphosis into an American writer. But that’s not all. Marshak, who turned this song into a lyric poem, didn’t settle for saying that he had never seen a jaguar. He went a step further to satisfy the rhythm and rhyme: “You will never find a single jaguar in our northern forests.” Marshak described my situation. Beyond the immense forests of the Urals and the round mountains of Kolyma, the natural world of the North has little effect on me. I like the Southern seas, palm trees and mimosas. I like rolling countryside and red dirt. I was born in the wrong place. I dreamed of Brazil while learning this poem and the Moscow streets peopled with leopard furs transformed into a jungle. The committee sat before a large table covered in a green cloth that hung down to the floor, hiding the venerable professors’ legs. I imagine these legs shaking with suppressed laughter. I have finished. The question was posed: “Where is the Amazon?” 

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R

A gulf opened up under my feet; I was unaware. However, it was mentioned in the poem. But “Brazil” is a code word to evoke the unspeakable: our plan to escape. “Brazil” is our whispers; it can’t be a country. “Never tell anyone what we talk about at home”—how then to know what can be divulged and what can’t? This is the mental map I had unfolded in front of the jury, with its rivers of desire, fear and shame. (In addition to the Amazon and the Don there is the Vistula, which will flow through my fingers the same day, during the exam at the music school, where I will play a Polish folk song.) I hold my ground. They won’t get me: the Amazon is in Poland. (By chance, the family anti-Sovietism would later move from “Brazil” to Poland. When my grandmother discovered a stockpile of books that couldn’t be found in Russian at the Polska Księgarnia (the Polish library in Moscow), she learned Polish and read her translations to me, all the way from Sienkiewicz’s patriotic trilogy to Janusz Korczak’s books. I took as my own the territorial nostalgia of divided Poland and wanted it to be reestablished according to the 1771 borders, ceding Ukraine and Belarus.) (The choice of an entirely foreign repertoire for my two exams already gave me away as an enemy of the Soviet people. The Polish song said, “You run toward other lands, you flow toward a foreign country.”) The burst of laughter that rings out in the room still echoes a hundredfold in the corridors of my memory. The committee members may even be stamping their feet under the table. Swayed by this choir, I end up laughing with them. Choirs are impossible to resist, even if afterward you’ll shoot yourself in the head. No, there was no reason to commit suicide. They had accepted me, not for the quality of my performance, but because they also had dreamed once upon a time of strolling along the banks of another life. This memory remained vivid throughout my entire childhood. Within my internal landscape, the Amazon irrigated a region of minor shame that nevertheless opened onto a victory. (A victory over the future too: my current bilingualism is proof of a successful escape.) The Amazons that inhabited it served as a living rebuke because oh, they were bold! Yet later, around age fifteen, I came across an Amazon horsewoman in The Plague and understood that against their babbling language, their virile virtues were good for nothing, and they were powerless to escape the labyrinth of words. The slim and elegant Amazon who took the air one beautiful May morning on her superb chestnut mare, trotting through the blossoming paths of the Bois de Boulogne, was the messenger of language itself. The words chased



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eternal circles around their prey—reality—without being able to seize it. I read Camus after innumerable other novels that had beautiful Amazons on chestnut mares “for real” and after some attempts at writing that could rival those of Joseph Grand, Camus’s scribe. At the time, I had already spent three years writing a three-thousand-page novel about the Hundred Years’ War. As soon as I turned over the last page, I’d go back to the first page and start revising it again. I was rewriting it for the third time when Camus took pity on me and sent me this character. I still resisted modernity a bit—I’ve always been attached to my anachronisms. I had to overcome my love for the classic. Reform the language I wrote in. Every book is written in a new language—another language. A language that is a transgression compared to the preceding one. It has already happened to me that a book came fully formed into my head. But it was ready in an obsolete language and I had to translate it (that is, rewrite it). The already-published books are organized in the library as if they were works in a foreign language. You know how you talk about your latest book despite not having started writing another one yet. Then, you forget it. The published books seem like manuals for unknown languages. (That may be why I started dreaming about the Book of Sand, which contains everything and swallows everything. The book to be written can never be pulled out of the sand.) After high school, I wanted to study Classics, but since I had never studied Latin or Greek, I was directed toward Modern Languages. Dead languages were not taught in the USSR. The Soviet state caught up with me by swearing me to modernity. To languages of transgression. The present day has always been violence for me. Where Camus did not succeed with The Plague—making me love the language of modernity—Saint-Exupéry did with Night Flight. Saint-Exupéry was one of my grandmother’s favorite writers. She had cut his portrait out of the flyleaf of a heavy book of his works in translation in order to frame it and hang it on the door that separated our room from my mother’s room in my childhood apartment. He could be seen in profile with his officer’s cap, his face slightly puffy, his hand open and the collar of his aviator jacket turned over so that one of the edges jutted out and made him look to me like a man chewing on a pencil. Friends who came over would ask me if he was a family member. I would say: “No, that’s Commandant Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.”  I didn’t know what the rank meant and thought that “commandant”—in Russian, “major”—was

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another first name. Before even this heavy book, before even words, modernity entered my life through this empty frame. The book was untouchable. I was forbidden to underline interesting passages, and still to this day, I can’t bring myself to touch a page with that sacrilegious pencil. Each book was The Book. But there was something worse than a pencil scrawl: absence. All literature emerged in this void, surrounded by white. Later, my grandmother cut her own image out of family photos in the same way to leave no trace. The story of Saint-Exupéry is the following: he disappeared. To talk about him, people used a word whose exact meaning I didn’t understand: pogib, “he perished.” I understood it to mean something like a swallowing up, a collapsing and crumbling, but with the awareness that we wouldn’t know until the end. I understood that he wasn’t here anymore, but since no one had told me that he had died, there was some doubt about his fate. “Perished” didn’t sound definitive and gave rise to an anxiety that “dead” did not. Essentially, he was neither dead nor not-dead. There was a third state designated by pogib. In reality, the word “died,” which is umer in Russian, is reserved for natural deaths, which include death by starvation. No one had explained to me at the time what “perished” meant, and all the violent deaths of family members were hidden in this empty frame. Saint-Exupéry had disappeared without a trace, but he had left books behind, and I admired the way the body had transformed into books. In Russian, one disappears generally without a trace (bessledno), which is almost a fixed expression. When a person’s whereabouts are unknown, like in the case of my grandfather, we say there is “no news” (bez vesti). Each stratum of my interminable historical novel was written in a different language. Like all of the historical novels I had read, it showcased a parade of horrors. Combats, massacres, pillages, and torture followed one after the other. One evening in winter, the mother of a friend knocked on our door: was her son with us? He had disappeared. My grandmother got dressed (that is, she put on warm tights, pants, an undershirt, two sweaters, felt boots, a coat, a hat, and a shawl over the hat) and went to look with her. Brave little soldier that he was, my friend was waiting valiantly in the winter night for his mother to pick him up from the art school we often went to together, as she had promised she would. But, believing that misfortune had befallen him (pogib?), I felt the shame of fiction, the gulf that separated real life from imaginary adventures, that separated my real self from the ones that my words called into being. The shame of literary pleasure. No, I didn’t think I was responsible for what had happened. I wouldn’t



Where There Is Danger

have tolerated a thousandth of the lie I had just grasped. The present suddenly pierced me. (Not too long ago, an experience of intense distress gave me another interpretation of this story. My daughter was taking a long trip in southeast Asia and ended up in Myanmar during an earthquake. I had no news from her for ten days. I was able to get out of some of my regular tasks, like writing an announcement for a colloquium on gulag testimony. Reading documents and reflecting on theory gave me a sort of refuge. On the other hand, I couldn’t read even a single line of fiction, let alone read it or think about it, or watch any film that wasn’t a documentary. I understood then what one of my friends, whose parents had both been assassinated, had meant when she had said she couldn’t read novels. Every plot for a novel has something to do with anguish. Writing, reading: a game with death that you tease with different plots. You can only let yourself get carried away when you believe that you’re safe.) That evening, I swore that I would never kill a character again—a promise I kept twenty years later. Saint-Exupéry weaned me off of Joan of Arc. He talked about the great feat of getting up in the morning and crossing the space that separated him from the stove. (I might be mangling it. I haven’t reread these lines since then.) At the time, I wrote and read at night. The effort it took in the morning, to remind myself what day it was and which manuals that hadn’t been opened in months I had to pick up, suddenly seemed worthier of interest to me than the exploits of French soldiers during the Hundred Years’ War. But real, active modernity marked our point of departure. For the first time, there was a present to set my teeth into. Filling out forms, going door to door in administrative offices, liquidating possessions: that can’t be done in the past tense. Emigration forbids the historical novel. However, today, when I think back on this period, I realize that it’s already part of history. Documents and testimonials relating to the Jewish emigration between the sixties and eighties are plentiful, but its living memory, memory of the details, bureaucratic phrases, color of the official dossiers, tasks accomplished by government workers, and behaviors becomes more and more difficult to conjure up. Today, my point of departure is a historical novel. I insisted on bringing my manuscript that I had spent so many sleepless nights writing during my adolescence. The customs officers were sympathetic in this instance. After flipping through the ten or so fat notebooks

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covered in minuscule handwriting with no margins or spaces, they stamped them, mockingly, and so authorized their emigration. I still have them. Recently, I poked my nose into a text from 1993 where I had briefly recounted my Amazon story. Stupefied, I read the following lines: “I know that Brazil is not what she [my mother] is dreaming of. It’s France. [...] But we don’t have the right to say it. [So far, all of that is true.] I was asked where the Amazon is. I immediately said, “In France,” and ran out of the room with the feeling that I had betrayed my family.”  It’s a habit of mine to look for the fiction in other people’s accounts. But it’s not often that one gets to review one’s own work that way. I had completely forgotten that “lie.” The lie that reveals a piece of the truth. Only, look: this story of the “little shame” from 1966 hides another, the “great shame” of 1974. We were gathering papers with the intent to create a dossier at the visa office. For a final departure to Israel. Among these papers, we needed a document certifying the workplace or school of each family member. The head of my high school refused to give me one. That was part of the game. Candidates for departure laid siege to the administration, and the officials resisted down to the last cartridge. Some of them were absolute diehards. The head of my school was one of those: to break him, you’d need reinforcements in the form of a Komsomol leader. While I was waiting for backup, he’d often call me into his office. Our conversations always followed the same path: he would try to persuade me that Israel was a hostile country and that Soviet Jews were the happiest in the world (he would know, he had some Jewish friends), and I would repeat that I had an elderly aunt there who needed us and that for Jews, nothing is more sacred than family. (The invitation that we had received thanks to a Jewish solidarity organization came from Bella Erlich, who lived in Ashdod.) Each of us knew our lines by heart. A perfect duet. There was no reason for it to stop. Then, he found another angle. He knew, he said, that we would not go to Israel and that we had family in France. No, no, to Israel! We have an aunt… So why had my mother told him that we were going to France? She had really told him that? He had pierced through my defenses. I faltered. “If my mother said that, then maybe...” I hedged. Yielded a half-confession. Left with the feeling of having sunk our family battleship. And understood, on the way home, that this Soviet Ulysses had gotten the better of me.



Where There Is Danger

In stories of failed escapes, there’s often a traitor. This time, it was me. And I hadn’t betrayed my allies—I had betrayed my family. My family, who hoped and believed that I would make it out. To see Rio—or rather, Paris. How can a person live with that? I hadn’t even been tortured or deprived of sleep. None of that. I told this story for the first time in 1986, in Another Life. All of our conversations were there in detail, but not my slip-up into confessing. My shame, my mother’s anger, but not my confession. I couldn’t do it. And in the text from 1993, I included the shame of my betrayal, but not the real reason. I attribute this shame to a child eight years old. A child too young to take responsibility for her actions. I absolve myself (her) of responsibility. Why? In 1993, I couldn’t put words to it yet. However, there ended up being no consequences for that moment of weakness. Under pressure from the Komsomol leader, the head of the high school finally yielded the document. Given the passage of time and the changes that were rocking Europe, didn’t these bitter setbacks seem ridiculous? Weren’t those acts of courage and cowardice erased by the fact that the country where everything had happened was foundering in laughable nonexistence? While yesterday’s marble and bronze tyrants were transforming into stuffed dummies? And hadn’t Planet Soviet Union been fully eclipsed, relegating interrogations, confessions and traitors’ shame to history? There’s only one explanation for that: at the time, French wasn’t yet bolted to my body. It was an “adopted language.” (Every time I fill out the form to get a copy of my birth certificate, I stumble at the question: “Were you adopted?” which followed an empty space after “Father’s name.” But there is no box for “acknowledgment,” which since 2006 I can check off.) My life in another language hadn’t yet fully separated me from my action. In 1993, I happened to read Claudine Vegh’s book I Didn’t Say Goodbye. In this book, there’s the story of a hidden child (whose father won’t return from the camps) taking a geography test. To get highest honors on her final high school exams, she only needs two more points. The professor asks her to name the river that passes through Lyon and hints that “it starts with an R.” She answers: “The Rhine, which separates us from Germany!” 

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R

Always this r, the unpronounceable r from my childhood! I envied this child for having found a formula that worked so well for my own problem! Rivers have mouths, especially the rivers whose names we can’t manage to say. Mouths have tongues. At the time, I had a recurring dream that rivaled the one where I was sent back to Moscow. You guessed it: I was taking my final high school exam. (This exam, the most terrifying one I’d ever taken—the first one I took in France, having used a correspondence course to prepare, a real rite of passage—was well suited to its name: le bac, the boat allowing me to reach the shore of adult life and start deciding my own path, which was the main motivation for leaving the USSR. Everyone who has passed the bac has had the same nightmare: the administration can’t find your diploma, so there you are retaking the exam with eighteen-year-olds while you are...how old? Twenty, thirty, thirty-five? Test centers in the country of dreams are almost as full as the ones in real life.

Abandoned by Language Claudine Vegh said that she had always avoided competitions. I’m the opposite: I don’t let any opportunity pass me by. Sometimes, when facing the jury, there’s a moment when you “lose your wits.” Everything that you know fades away, and the soft paste of words in your mouth has lost all power to signify meaning. The words seem to have drained down into your legs—which are also limp because they’ve turned to jelly. You can’t stand on your own words anymore. The kind of crisis that necessitates a call to the Emergency Verbal Services. Imagine me standing alone among heaps of shredded words. That’s how, in elementary school, I discovered a place in myself within the language passageway, a zone of uncontrollable indecision. It was during the French Olympiad, a sort of open competition for all Soviet students. The text that I was supposed to read crumbled away and brought me down in its collapse. I left the room trembling, sweaty, mute. Mission not accomplished, and this in a country where schoolchildren were trained to focus on heroic achievements. The text unfolded endlessly in my memory—today, I’ve forgotten it, but I still remember what the printed lines looked like, their unspoken presence in me scrutinized for hours and hours by an inner eye, a wide-open eye, confused, fixated on the gulf that



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had opened and failing to understand it—still failing to understand. The text like a white spill in front of my eyes. In the BrainPort experiment, the eyes were replaced with the tongue. This is a visual-tactile sensory substitution device created by Paul Bach in 1963. By stimulating receptors on the surface of the tongue with a prosthesis connected to a camera, he could make blind people see simple shapes that allow them to orient themselves in space. I surprised myself once to hear myself saying, to someone who was talking to me while I was looking for my glasses, “Without my glasses, I can’t hear anything!” I’m absolutely incapable of orienting myself in space or visualizing a route to take. I can only talk to myself about it and let my feet carry me where they will. I can’t read a map. Those moments when you lose your wits are the moments when language leaves you. It forgets us and ejects us, temporarily. There I am, at the corner of a street, and I don’t know where to go because she isn’t telling me. I’m in front of a jury at age ten, I’ve been told that I was “best in foreign languages” and suddenly French has abandoned me. It’s as if I’ve been struck blind in the middle of a sun-drenched intersection. Suddenly, it’s dark, and I can’t cross. We talk about “mastering a language.” Maybe that’s to oust the illusion that from time to time, language “abandons” us. It laughs at us: we’re not mastering anything at all. Language can take leave. It leaves me there in the crossroads, in between, and no one comes by to help me cross, to translate me. I remain in suspense. A person who disappears without leaving a trace, that’s a concept we can understand. But a language that does that? Let’s imagine that a text leaves its language to be translated, but it never arrives at its destination. Lost in translation—Eva Hoffman’s situation, literally. That’s exactly what it is: suspended between them, in the passage. No longer “native,” not yet “translated.” Let’s imagine: a cruel magician locks the door on either side and I’m stuck inside the passage forever. But there is no cruel magician. The doors open. Maybe these glitches happen to remind us that language can want nothing to do with us. It’s said that Remizov, who went blind at the end of his life in Paris, would demand of passersby: “Help me cross!” In Russian, the same word can mean “to help cross” and “to translate.” Was it the untranslatable that

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blinded him, as in the case of Joyce, whom he compared himself to (as a fellow blind man, not as a writer)? We say: a cross-examination. Language eclipses occur when you are put on trial at the crossroads of languages. The setting for a conviction. Exams are to interrogations what sports are to war: tests where life is not at stake. Failing in a competition is like dying on stage: you get up again and go about your business. You can also desert and stow away in the back. For a long time, I put off the agrégation exam that would give me the right to work as a public school teacher. I even fled to Italy. Nevertheless, I had to come back to the front lines. This saved me from the nightmare about the bac as well as the even worse dream in which I arrived at school without knowing what was on the schedule and invariably ended up in a history class.

The Bolshevik Revolution on the Loire Neither the Rhine nor the Rhône became my favorite river in France. That title goes to the Loire, a western river. A bilingual river: one language on the surface, another in the depths. Some paid for that with their lives. In choosing to write in French, I was leaving a language that looked to me like a snowy field covered in red stains, like in Heine’s nightmare. So much blood was spilled in that language that its writers didn’t have the choice to write outside of history. Writing in Russian would have been writing against. But against what, since I was in France? I had no story to tell in Russian, except the story of History itself. I didn’t have what I needed to make my own language in Russian; everything I tried to stitch together with it was invariably marked “second-hand.” I’m not trying to pretend that French is innocent. It’s just that the mud and blood of the past didn’t appear for me in the language of Proust (in an era more of Pleasures and Days than of Time Regained). The colors of French weren’t attached to the nightmare of History, but to names of flowers in the Jardin des plantes, a herbarium of sounds that I would spend my whole life translating. Frankly, I couldn’t claim the war of 1914 as my own. (And why, anyway? I would consider the Bolshevik Revolution to be an event from my own life.) The difference between the two bodies of a bilingual person has something to do with the violent acts one has inherited. The statues of saints who were decapitated during the French Revolution



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were my contemporaries, unlike the monuments to the dead in the French villages. The French language hadn’t undergone the forced graft of totalitarian vocabulary, according to French literature, and it hadn’t been mutilated by the hammer and sickle. One of my first impressions in Paris was that time is continuous. I noticed it not only in the façades of Parisian streets, whose unbroken succession laughed at the idea of lasting upheaval, not only in the street names that allowed one to trace the journeys of Alexander Dumas’s heroes, not only in the existence of window shutters that seemed old-fashioned to me, but also in the way people moved in the streets and spoke to you or held the door for you in the metro. It was as if they had known the time of horse-drawn fiacres and omnibuses, and, together, were helping one another tolerate a timid modernity. (In Moscow, all of the streets had been unbaptized one by one after the revolution. When my grandmother described how to get somewhere, she would say, for example: Pokrovka Street, which is Chernyshevsky Street now. There were almost two maps with different names, one superimposed on the other. After Perestroika, the streets were given their earlier names back: Pokrovka Street, which used to be Chernyshevsky Street. True modernity occurs when everything has been destroyed.) In 1919, Tsvetaeva wrote: “Moscow looks at the streetcars incredulously, as if she were watching the resurrection of Lazarus.”  But that wasn’t a resurrection, it was a burial. A whole era relegated to “before our time.” When a “native” who loves his city shows you around Moscow, he shows you not what there is, but what there used to be. Moscow wasn’t bombed very much but it might as well have been. When buildings weren’t destroyed, streets were widened and monuments were moved. A simple stroll through the city is an unending archaeological dig. A Parisian who lived through the Haussmannian transformations would probably feel the same way. The only thing that remains from the world before is rhyming poetry. In 1975, in Paris, I witnessed the resurrection of time. The red and green cars of the Parisian metro that rattled on the rails, whose doors opened with a latch and closed with a clatter, that rolled at tortoise speed between stations a five-minute walk apart, reminded me of little country fair trains. The buses that only stopped on request like on country

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R

routes gave the impression that all of the passengers knew each other: “I’ll get off here. You know my house is on this corner.” Parisian life was organized like sheet music—for example, lunch and dinner were eaten at certain times and not whenever one was hungry, coffee had to be drunk at two p.m. and tea at five—and this music, the music of a life full of meaning that you cannot participate in, sounds to foreign ears like perfect harmony. Paris, to me, was a classical work of art. The scents from the restaurants were scents from the nineteenth century. Everything was small: the shops, the cafés, the sidewalks. There were pissoirs in the streets, where Maupassant’s heroes had been relieving themselves for a century and a half. The gentlemen in suits and bow ties, sporting bowler hats, handlebar mustaches and canes, weren’t trying to imitate their great-grandfathers. They were their own ancestors. The peepee lady at the Jardin du Luxembourg wasn’t a figure from a wax museum. She was alive, really took your coins and really let you go pee. I discovered cities that had been partially or entirely destroyed by the bombing. Caen, Rennes. They had lost their faces, but the odd surviving church or district surrounded by modern buildings gave a hint at the dialogue with its bland neighbors, who whispered words of admiration and nostalgia into its ancient ears. They understood each other. They spoke the same language. Paris was erasing its wounds, covering up its cracks, repainting its façades, and I believed in it firmly. What effect could the Vichy regime and the Algerian Revolution have when there were houses whose wallpaper still smelled of dust from before the war? I put more trust in my sense of smell than in the history books. In August, Paris emptied out, and I noticed that I was branded “émigrée” just because I was still there. Summer vacation, a national institution. One had to walk a whole kilometer to find an open bakery or newsstand. When the baker came back, he was eager to know where you had gone on vacation. And if you answered: “Vienne, monsieur,” he would ask: in Isère? It’s lovely out there.

The Lumps and Bumps in Time Because I didn’t see the gulfs opening up under my newly minted Western feet, I was able to leap over them with my old Soviet seven-league boots: this is how I began writing without spotting the dangers lying in wait, without measuring myself against the great shadows, without making silence



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my watchword or suffering the anguish of the blank page. Without rhyme or reason. I began writing like a barbarian from Péladan’s worst nightmares. My stories were ahistorical. “When the mad are unarmed, they can be defeated; we must thus confront Russian folly before the knout whistles or the Cossack’s lance gleams, around the dying Latin genius.” (Meredith Sopher) Paris, which seemed to me to not have changed since the last war, abruptly began to transform before my eyes at the beginning of the eighties. Houses, clothing, food, behavior, everything changed. Sequences accelerated. That wasn’t really what was happening: my mind’s eye acquired a zoom lens and could see the rough lumps and bumps on the surface of time. In 1977, I left the Jussieu literature school, whose leprous walls were covered in graffiti that looked like mold on the long, homogeneous stretch of perpetually old time. Every cause that my French friends were going to protest for or against seemed completely ridiculous to me. But they gave me a taste of my own medicine by talking about the Soviet situation as if it was an exotic phenomenon, a kind of sickly branch of the generally healthy body of communism (what else do you expect from these savages). And so I became aware of the real consequences of 1968, an event that up until then I had believed to be an invention of Soviet propaganda and that would remain absent from my personal history of France until the socialists came to power in 1981, the first “rupture” that hit home. There’s a moment when, in the countryside surrounding you, you start to perceive a new tree appearing, a new flower blooming, a babbling brook drying up. The landscape has become a habitat. For me, that moment happened the year I published my first book in French. In a roundabout way, Mitterrand owed his electoral victory to me. Starting then, I wanted to translate into French. I wanted to translate the work of my contemporaries, who wrote clandestinely and whose manuscripts circulated in secret. I would have been one of them if I hadn’t left the USSR. I wanted to translate what I would have been. But when I finally got the opportunity to do so, thanks to Jacques Catteau offering to publish my work in his collection Slavic Classics, well, I went ahead and translated one of the classics, Oblomov.

Mouths, Rivers, and the Letter R

The Loire is a civilized river (on the surface) and a wild one (deep down). I realized it when I flew over it in a helicopter. Guérande’s salt marshes stretched out before me like an enormous set of watercolors with every shade of green and blue, each in its own little pot. The Loire is ancient and indestructible; she looks exactly as she did in Joan of Arc’s time (or at least, she’s playing the game well). Not like the Volga, for example, which is so bloated with canals that you can’t tell what her original body looked like. She isn’t a river anymore. She is a cemetery for drowned villages, gulag deaths, Stalin’s huge labor camps. The Loire, on the other hand, is a night watchman who keeps an eye on the West. It’s well known that night watchmen sleep on the job. But the insomniac Loire still assures me today of the presence of this very-old, very-dear world. It exists and it flows irresistibly toward the West.


The Sidewalk Across the Street, Part 2 I translate in the “wrong direction,” swimming against the current. That probably makes me better able to perceive the language’s resistance. The physical passage of one language to another in my body. It happens in two stages. The first stage is a bilingual reading. I let the text “cross” me, going from one riverbank to the other. It lives simply the way all of the world’s objects live in two languages within me, and I read it like I read my own life. I don’t do anything, it translates itself and it exists in French. In everyday life, this simultaneous translation occurs within me without me cordoning it off: my thoughts wander from Russian to French and back again, and I let the translation move freely among the streams of words. The text has one direction: from Russian to French. The first draft is nothing but a reading, which might be more literal or more sophisticated; it depends on the speed. I can choose to stay closer to the original text or to develop a version that’s closer to the other side of the river. Of course, this has no bearing on the final result. At this stage of the text, I don’t see it because I am inside it. I am as close as possible to the passage—I am the passage. If I was X-rayed during that moment, you would see the words moving and undergoing metamorphosis. From time to time, my mind’s eye grabs some: this one, whose front paws and muzzle are already French, is wagging a tail that’s still Russian. But most of the time, these hybrids arrange themselves so I don’t have to see their inelegant side, so they won’t show themselves as caterpillars, always-already (or still) butterflies. The more I concentrate on finishing the first draft, and the greater the stress, the more the text invades me and the more I become its auxiliary. In its most extreme form, this stress winds up excluding me completely: the text possesses me so wholly that “I” do not exist anymore—it replaces me. It has happened before that I couldn’t

The Sidewalk Across the Street, Part 2

remember a single word of what I had translated for the first draft. Some would call that a trance. Interpreters, the ones who do simultaneous interpretation, are well used to this experience. Their work is so exhausting that they have to treat it as a relay and switch every fifteen or twenty minutes. The degree of finishedness of the first draft, the button one pushes on to accomplish it, depends on several things. It depends on how I want to be inhabited by the text—at a sprint or a jog. It depends on what kind of text it is and how it speaks to me. If I can exist in osmosis with it—if it speaks to me in “my language”—I will let it shape me during the time the translation takes. There are some musicians you prefer to listen to as background noise and others for whom you turn the volume up all the way and close your eyes. Speaking of music: it’s forbidden while I’m writing or translating. It would impede the words’ metamorphosis. Their transformation follows the beat of its own drum. It would be like having two CDs playing at the same time; for example, Carmen and a Shostakovich concerto. Try it, you’ll see what effect it has on me. The way I write the first draft says nothing about its quality. Sometimes, I feel like it’s perfectly fluid. As if, in writing, I hadn’t stumbled once—and then I reread it and find an entire obstacle course. Sometimes it’s the opposite and I hit walls one after the other while writing, and yet the text comes out fluid. It also happens that within the first draft, which wants to be literal, I stray away from the original text. My inner reading pulls me toward expressions that seem more idiomatic, more easily understood, smoother. When I reread it—without the original—these points seem to sag, and I tighten up the text. The final result is usually closer to the Russian text than the draft was. Each new layer gets me closer to it. In general, when translating or writing, the second version is freer and more spontaneous than the first. People who live in one language only will tell you that this isn’t true. Once the modifications have been made and checked next to the Russian text, I put the Russian original away and don’t look at it again until the final reread. I have before me a text that must have been written in French. I create a new genesis for it, an origin within the target language. It has to come from somewhere—and its provenance develops from what is already there. You must give it a birth certificate.



Where There Is Danger

I say “you must” but it happens without you even being aware of it. The text develops its own life and invents its source. Translators are often compared to musicians. The piece is already there, and you play it in another language. I’ve tried to talk about it with musicians. For Leonid Girshovich, it’s simple: playing violin is like driving a car. The kilometers fly by and the windshield wipers chant the rhythm. But translation, oh, translation, is great art. I can’t fully appreciate this comparison because unfortunately I don’t drive (it’s the only test that I’ve failed conclusively and that I never dream about). I don’t feel like I’m making art when I translate. I don’t feel like an author. It’s an artisan’s work. I hold artisans in the highest esteem. But another comparison came to mind recently. Translating is like acting, of course. I perform the text that I translate, not with a musical instrument but on a stage. Everything is there: fusion with the character, tremendous muscular concentration. I move within the space of my work, I take on the appropriate bodily gestures, I speak it, I shout it, I disappear in the mirror that the spectator holds out to me, whereas I don’t think about the reader while I’m writing. During a translation, the translator becomes someone else. When I translate, I make the multilingualism of the being visible. You go to the theater to see Michel Piccoli or Jean-Quentin Châtelain, and similarly you go read Jaccottet. And, since a good actor plays “from the head” and not “from the heart,” according to Diderot, on the stage of the text, I contrive to be absent from myself. Some attitudes and feelings can be learned by heart, but others must be found through imitation. We translate endlessly. When we talk about our lives to our parents and when we explain the world to our children. My children speak a different language with me than the one they share with their friends. They can make it so that I don’t understand anything. Although by now, I’m somewhat accustomed to it and I understand “she’s really chill,” “I’m so done,” “my bros,” “that shirt is sick” (no, it’s not a bad thing, like I thought at first), “that’s dope” (no, not actually dope). I can decrypt messages like SMH (shaking my head). Once I was talking with some friends of mine in front of them, and we slipped into slang from the seventies: keep on truckin’, I dig it, what a dweeb. “Maman, what on earth is that gibberish?” they asked.

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Колокольчики (Kolokol’chiki) Translation is the reduction of being, the creation of a copy. Because you cut the branches of the words and what lies behind the words, the fleece of their sounds, their breath. You cut the potential rhymes that they could form— and the poems I grew up with stop shining in my mental sky. I come across the word kolokol’chik, little bell. Its French equivalent, campanule, evokes the same image because it comes from campana, little bell.  Soon, “Little Bells” by Annensky starts to play in my head: «  Колоколы-балаболы, Колоколы-балаболы, Накололи, намололи, Дале боле, дале боле… » I write: campanule, and Annensky draws back. The rhythms that form my backbone melt away. My body becomes fluid and abstract. You cut the memories that these words call home—the words become homeless. I have silenced the ancestors within me. I have silenced my mother and my grandmother within me. The “Where are you going?,”  “When are you coming back?,” the “Clean your plate,” the “Be careful crossing the street,” the “Are you feeling all right?” of my childhood. I can go where I want and come back when I want in French. I’m not required to feel well. I have silenced the ten commandments received at the dawn of my life in my mother tongue. From now on, everything is allowed. I have no morals in my adopted language. Translation is a surplus of being, because a copy is created. Campanules, April Fools, blabbering blooms, bells and whistles and brigadoons. The words sprout new branches… A new body. My ancestors by adoption have handed it down to me and I enjoy full rights to it. It doesn’t belong to anyone—that is, it doesn’t belong in any family history. A new set of morals.

Equality The twentieth century gave women the right to vote, decriminalized homosexuality, and recognized translators as authors. The death of the author has given life to the translator. His name appears on book covers, and in digital catalogs, he is “Author 2.” The equality of the copy and the original has been recognized. Foreign literature only exists through copies: regarding other languages, the original is just one step, it isn’t finished. It is endlessly transformable.



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Birth Certificate 2 A published book closes itself: the language it was written in is no longer spoken. Writing a new book means inventing a new language that doesn’t understand the old one. When I wanted to tell the story of my first meeting with my father, all languages evaded me. All had become foreign: the power of strangeness. Up until then, any man could have been my father. Identifying him meant being able to say: it’s this man here. He thought that I would arrive with a “why” (why didn’t you acknowledge me?) and he had prepared some answers. I arrived instead with a “why” (why you?). “You” as a person coming before “you” as the one I was speaking to. As soon as I saw him, I knew: it could only be this man. The emergence of “you” as a subject: the personification of the arbitrary. To express this strangeness, I expatriated myself to the fatherland of strangeness: Germany; three novels whose characters have German as their native or adopted language. Twenty years of fantasy in German. I started the first one after meeting my father and I finished the last one after his death. In between, there were: a second trip to Moscow in 1989, nine years with no news exchanged between us, a reunion in 1998, his recovery. A new birth certificate with his name. (The mocking civil servant: congratulations to the new father!) In 2004, I started translating one of my books, Night Education, published in 1994, into Russian. Always the same technique: word-for-word first, a rough draft. To be precise: it was a word-for-word draft of another book. Not the one in front of me. It rewrote itself as it went. The Russian text of this book is the translation of a nonexistent original, or rather an original “in process.” Here’s another way to say it: this book is always in transit, always on the road, shuttling back and forth between copy and original. This book is my “mission report.” It is about a Jewish violinist in Berlin during the war, his deportation and his return. It expresses the impossibility of telling the story. What is said when father and son meet. After the war, a son finds his father, who had been unaware of his existence. No, I’m not that son, and the violinist is not my father. It’s the imagined foreign language that is my father, because writing comes from language: it has paternity. While I was writing this book, Leonid Girshovich, whom I didn’t know yet and whose Apologia from Escape I would soon discover, was in Hanover

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writing the story of a Jewish violinist in Germany during the war: The Transposed Heads. Unlike me, he was familiar with the world of German orchestras: he had been first violin in the orchestra for the Hanover Opera from 1980 to 2013. When I had finished translating Apologia from Escape into French, he suggested that we “transpose our heads” and that he translate one of my novels into Russian. This translation is the result of a doubling. The first head (mine) wrote a first draft, and the second (his) rewrote it. Girshovich didn’t only correct my musical errors: he verified the slightest sensations my hero felt in connection with violin playing. But the heart of it wasn’t there. At that point I had behind me more than ten years of reflection on the camps and a theoretical book on first-person records from them (Are there words to describe the concentration camp experience?). On speech’s dead ends. After that, I was the first to be suspicious of fiction about radical violence, of any attempt at description. I could have written a whole book to destroy my own novel. That is not what I did. All of the passages involving this violence became dreams, memories or hallucinations, no longer life but theater. No, my novel in its first version wasn’t a naive reproduction of the realities of the extermination. I was already hunting down pathos, the number one enemy of my main character. He lived in a set instead of a realistic world. But the second degree tends to go stale over the years. (The second-degree quotation marks that we multiply and that allow us to poke fun at ourselves, sometimes at the most sacred thing that we have [had]—but also to show shame, pathos, the “blue flower” with the pretense of derision—sometimes disappear from a text in the space of a single generation. Of course, it’s much more noticeable in older texts. You need kilometers of comments to explain that such-and-such expression used by so-and-so author is ironic. Which of my students could pick up on Pushkin’s irony on the first reading? Today, the poet Lev Rubinstein sings Stalinist songs “in the second degree”—we know it because Rubinstein is the second degree incarnate. But when others listen to these recordings later, will they perceive this irony? Won’t they hear nostalgia—not for the Stalinist period, but for childhood? For parents’ youth? The second degree is a coat we use to cover our naiveties and our vulnerabilities, and it is what time destroys first.)



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When I got back into it, the set didn’t seem artificial enough, the irony wasn’t ironic enough. The prey too prey-like and the shadow not shadowy enough. In the meantime, I had already rewritten the chapter of the meeting between father and son, which appeared as a novella (in a themed collection called Mothers and Sons). Over ten years, irony had grown inside me—and it had also grown around me, in the literature I was most familiar with. I had also spent several years working on the oeuvre of Shalamov, the anti-novelist. Translating my text into his language also meant turning a novel into an anti-novel. One example: a particularly dramatic sequence came to me, in the Russian version, in verse. Completely in verse. (After I wrote this chapter, I understood that rhyme was one of the most obvious means to represent, inside one language, another language—and it’s because of the body of rhyming Russian poetry that still holds forth within me along with the satirical or advertising bent that rhyme takes in French that this form of derision is possible. Later, when translating Schubert in Kiev by Leonid Girshovich, a novel punctuated with parodic Ukrainian expressions, I got the idea to put them into rhyming verse.) The Russian version of the novel is a parody of the French version. However, it’s closer to the original than the original itself. The first time Leonid Girshovich showed me a page of his translation, when I saw my own lines in my mother tongue—not translated, but rediscovered, once the screen of the language I write in had been lifted—I thought that the long mountain fall I had been saved from had finally come. That I was going to fall—into the chasm of the origin(al). The screen of the other language: a deferment. Was my life going to end here? Had I seen myself in a dream? Had I broken a mirror (to see what was behind it)? Immediate, instinctive response: retranslate it into French. Will this new version be the reconstitution of an original? A new copy? A second re-origination. A question for Paul Celan: how many Jews are having that conversation in the mountains?

Forgetting Babel There are bilinguals who have lived in two languages since birth, who have been two-headed forever. In my case, the passage into French coincided with my entrance into adult life. My life speaks two languages, and translating from one to the other means making two different time periods speak inside me. I found myself in a hotel room in London, with my grandmother, when I decided to write in French. This trip was a gift for having passed the bac. Each of us was on her own bed, her with a book, me with my notebook: for some time, I had been translating myself. I had written two novellas, two short stories that I wanted to exist in French. Words failed me. I struggled to recapture the genie of writing, who had just escaped the bottle of childhood, and push him through the narrow neck of a new prison. Then I left that exercise alone and started writing in French, with words that came to me freely, the words I had been living in for two years, words of the body, of my body. Words of the present. I had chosen them, they weren’t all given to me at once, I had to hunt them down, keep watch for them, wait for them, earn them—harpoon them. In London, I realized that I was incapable of writing my whole life in the language I could never use to order a coffee. I needed a language that looked out on the street. Writing in another language is like choosing your parents. When you leave your language, you leave the words in which you learned about death, grasped for the first time that you would disappear one day; the language in which Blok wrote: “Everything on this earth will die: mother and youth.” In London, where the building numbering system could test the sturdiest intellect, I chose French. One of the short stories, about a Kafkaesque nightmare, turned out to be a replica of Chekhov’s “Let Me Sleep” (and is called “Sleepy,” the title of the collection). I hadn’t read any Chekhov at the time, not that story at least, but it was part of my “genetic heritage” somehow. I’m not trying to unravel that mystery. I’ve almost never been able to


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give a text a title that didn’t yet exist. Titles are citations in my opinion, but how can you cite a text that you don’t (yet) know? An acquaintance told me that this was because the number of stories, titles, and plots is finite. She is undoubtedly right. There aren’t very many motives or storylines, but their combination creates an infinity of literature. It’s like symptoms: there really aren’t that many, but they could indicate any of numerous illnesses. A stomachache can be a sign of a thousand things. And yet, we tend to trust our perceptions and believe that a kind of pain we’ve already felt indicates the same sickness. The same goes for how we sometimes identify books by the stories they tell. We can sometimes know texts that we’ve never read better than ones we have. The reservoir is there, like an aquarium where anyone can fish as he pleases. Come and take some, it’s free. At least it appears so. The price to pay may be higher than you think. The second short story was about a fire: one I had witnessed as a child. (We lived in a wooden house, surrounded by other wooden houses. No trace of the neighborhood survived, not even the outline of the street. Not even the poplars from my childhood whose fluff floating in the spring air made this run-down part of old Moscow look like a village the day after a pogrom. They were replaced with chestnut trees, which evoked no such ancestral memory. It turned out that some locals had set their house on fire, which at the time was the only way to get the government to move you into a modern apartment.) The day after my trip to the Loire-Atlantique region, the fire came to ravage my apartment. Since then, I’ve been very careful about what I write. Never anything about children. I also tried everything possible to attract good luck, which escaped me in reality, by creating scenes in which my down-and-out characters would be sheltered from need, when they weren’t winning enormous deals. But literature decides herself what she wants to see happen. I was in the hotel room with my grandmother when suddenly I left invisibly, without her realizing it. I left forever. The origin isn’t: this language, but the other language—the language before or the one later. Tourists running their hesitant fingers over a map of Paris say “Boulevard Arago,” rolling their r’s, and suddenly, a dual being erupts inside me and the world splits in two: the now and the immemorial. The world where I’m myself—and the one where I’m more (or less?) than myself: the origin. This is how it indicates that this is its place. The tourists have no idea

Forgetting Babel

that they have the power to split me (stick me back together?) just by looking for a street in my language. You recognize it before hearing the words. All you need is the tone of voice, intonation, movements of the mouth, expression on the face, and, simply, a certain atmosphere that settles over that crossroads, a certain density of the air. When walking by a house under construction, I felt this particular quality in the air around the scaffolds—it smelled like Russian—before hearing words coming from inside that were at first indistinct, then recognizable: the workers were talking to each other. One’s native language has a scent that precedes it. The scent of milk? Of blood? The scent of childhood? Picture me in metro in Moscow. There is a group of people at the edge of my vision and my awareness, a mute choir barely distinguished from their surroundings—then they spring to life and walk onstage. I notice it because the quality of the image changes, fills with color, solidifies. All that before hearing them, and a second later, I say to myself, wait, they’re speaking my language: an origin space has opened up. They are French tourists. No, I don’t rush toward them, I don’t start a conversation, I don’t give them directions, I pretend not to understand them, I am absolutely inhumane toward these travelers and no law of hospitality requires me to reach out a helping hand. A French friend of Russian origin whom I witnessed fly to the aid of some Russians wandering around Avignon was astonished by my invisibly ostentatious “I’m not here.” She asked me if I ever struck up conversations with Russians in Paris. No way! In the metro, I might read a book in Russian, but if I hear my language being spoken I’ll close it discreetly so that no one can identify me. “Now I understand what emigration really means,” she retorted. One day, I was taking the train at the Gare du Nord station to get to Charles de Gaulle airport, and a Russian family—grandmother, mother, daughter—asked me for help. In English, of course, because they couldn’t know I spoke their language. I took the opportunity not to reveal myself. Grandmother, mother, daughter: that’s how we had left the USSR back in the day. They were going back now—wait, no, the USSR didn’t exist anymore, and, since they were from Riga, they had become European but were just as lost as we had been at the time. I thought I could get out of it with a few words, a couple of brief explanations. But we found ourselves in the same train car, then the same airport terminal, and finally in the same boarding area. They chose me as their guide. After a while, it wasn’t possible to confess to them that I spoke Russian. I listened to them impassively while they searched for the right words, working together to form sentences. At the airport, the little girl got lost, and we looked for her together in English.



Where There Is Danger

We went shopping in the duty-free section together. They told me their life stories and there came a moment when I had to tell them mine or at least answer their questions. I listened to them speculate on who I could be. A writer, they decided. Fortunately, boarding started, which saved me from having to invent a French name and past. The whole time, I was afraid of one thing: that one of my colleagues would pop out of nowhere, as had already happened to me many times (my colleagues travel a lot), and yell Hello, Luba! in Russian.

Things I came from a country where shortages had even reached our words. In French, there was a dish towel, a rag, and a floorcloth, each with its own function. There was a scrubber sponge and a green scrubber pad, sold separately, which was not a sponge. There was a bottle brush for washing bottles, which was not the same as a brush. There was dish liquid, which was different from soap. There were three kinds of slippers (chaussons, pantoufles, charentaises)—no, four if you counted babouches. There was carpeting, which was not a rug, and there were doormats, which were not “little rugs.” There were culottes and a thousand other names for clothing. There were staples and paper clips. There were stock pots, Dutch ovens, and sauce pots—they were all “saucepan” to me—frying pans, sauté pans, and grill pans, and with these you could fry, sweat, reduce, simmer, deepfry, sauté, toast; in Russian, there are only three ways of cooking something: in water, in a pan, or in the oven. There was a vegetable peeler, which was not a knife, and a bottle opener, which was not a corkscrew. There were doilies, which were not napkins. Kitchen sinks, which were not bathroom sinks. Trash cans, which were not “garbage” and which stood proudly adorned with a proper name. Along with the names, things appeared. Learning about the diversity of domestic items signified more than mastering my indifference to the material world. I finally understood, despite the irritation this differentiated world provoked in me, that these slightest details are what keeps us from barbarism, that the reduction of life to “raw” and “cooked” is the equivalent of Stalinist monumentalism in architecture, that it is harder to crush a population that has a special name for each mundane object because you first have to deprive them of it.

Forgetting Babel

(Russian literature bears the traces of this confiscated diversity. Think of all the details in Eugene Onegin! Translating texts from the 1800s through the 1920s is difficult just because of the presence, aside from the traditional realia, of a great number of old-fashioned, short-lived, now-gone quotidian objects that testify to the technological progress, comfort, and fashions of the period. Daily life fell prey to the bans starting in the 1930s, so translators must be familiar with the political and military realities of the time as well as the prison camps—much easier to master. The rest still exists as faded, tattered rags: the plastic bag from my dream.) I felt like a struggling student who, afraid of forgetting her vocabulary list, only learns the generic names—clothing, furniture, utensil. To me, the proliferation of specific names for all these things that I thought belonged under one umbrella felt like an invasion. Why distinguish champagne flutes from coupes, when both are glasses? These hyper-precise words waged war on the imagination, they took the place of description, metaphors, suggestions: how can you imagine if everything is already fully presented in the name? I buckled under the weight of the names. I didn’t need them in my émigrée household, and it took some time to tame them; others brought them in, and it’s only because I heard them used around me that I let them enter my life bit by bit. These words had no return ticket: it was impossible to repatriate them in Russian. They remained flimsy, words without thickness. Writing in French also means writing in the language of this whole, unamputated daily life. However, I still avoid descriptions of apartments and clothing. It always makes me feel like I’m in a department store, or a place that anonymous real estate agents swooped in to furnish. I stopped speaking Russian with my children because there weren’t words for daily life. Half of the time, I had to invent them. “What did you do at school?”—“We played with stickers.” Hmm, what would that be in Russian? Little shapes in different colors. “You Cadum baby!”—the worst insult in preschool. In French, my children had a history much longer than mine: the history of childhood. They were using an expression from before World War Two!



Where There Is Danger

The shock of my daughter when she visited Moscow at three years old: “Mama, everyone speaks Russian here!” (She thought it was a language for use at home.) And she didn’t say a word in Russian for ten days. My children don’t have the same native language as me. For me, French is a family language. Speaking their native language with them is the same as being born from the language of their birth. Today, the reality for Russian has diversified. In general, old words are not taken up again to describe new things. New words are invented or imported. The Russian dvornik, formerly the doorman, then the sweeper in the Soviet era, didn’t take its old meaning again. The French concierge has been deemed preferable. Makler, a real estate agent (from the German) was replaced by the English realtor or broker. There are so many of these that I can’t keep track of them. Generally, these words are “made in the USA.” “Before our time”—that is, before the revolution—finance and technology were discussed with German or French words. So let’s stop grumbling about Russian being contaminated by foreign words. At the time of my arrival in France in 1975, the “White Russians” who lived there would ask the ex-Soviet newcomers to “translate what you said into Russian for me.” Today, I’ve become a White Russian myself—we all end up turning white at one point or another. I also feel like asking my Russian students, for example, to “translate that into Russian for me.” The white émigrés had left before industrialization, before airports, tractors, television, penicillin. They used the French words avion and tourne-disque for airplane and record player. “How do you say breakdown in Russian?” I immediately replied: “Avarie.” Everyone laughed. “You see, you don’t know either.” It was impossible to explain to them that avariia was a Russian word, like “telephone,” “microphone,” or “radio.” Impossible, because they didn’t want to know anything about how the language had developed posthumously—a whole other life without them. My mother still insists on using the French “ordinateur” for “computer,” and “euro” instead of “evro,” “SIDA” (AIDS) instead of “SPID.”

Exiting a Language? What language do you hurt in? In a 1970s cult TV series called Seventeen Moments of Spring, there is a Soviet character who is completely bilingual and has infiltrated the SS intelligence headquarters with German papers, but she destroys her cover when she gives birth: she starts screaming in Russian. Pain seems to reveal the deepest self, which only expresses itself in

Forgetting Babel

its native language. “Mama!” cries the wounded soldier in every war story. And, in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the man strangled by a giant squid betrays himself by yelling in French. We imagine that one’s native language is screwed to one’s body just like the innate language that, according to our elders, must develop within a child raised by mute parents. However, pain is bilingual: one language for each body. For “me” and for “her.” Pain is a dialogue between the bodies. I have given birth three times, in French from start to finish (and without an accent). Here’s a question for bilingual readers: which language do you hurt in? Anguish is bilingual: one language for each soul. A dialogue between the souls. I suspect that anguish may prefer to speak its non-native language. Believing that her daughter had disappeared, Siuzanna Girshovich, alone at home (no one speaking, no one listening) cried out, despite the Russian spy: “Mein Kind ist weg!”—but that may have been partially from the Yiddish “‫מיין‬ ‫קינד‬,” who knows. In families that no longer spoke Yiddish, the word “Kind” was always used affectionately. Thought doesn’t exist outside language; that’s one of the first axioms that students of literature learn. I’ve experienced the concept myself. After I passed the exam to become a university professor and finished my doctorate, I started teaching and writing articles in Russian. My mother tongue was useless for fishing any kind of idea out of my body. It didn’t come back empty-handed, but dragged behind it a string of pathetic whales, conglomerates of weary words, others’ thoughts that had washed up on the bare shore. I lacked the ingredient that is like the salt of teaching: the ability to think out loud. I had to prepare everything. There could be no blank space between the lines: I knew that nothing would come to fill it. However, I had read kilometers of literary criticism in Russian. I knew how to say this or that thing. But this “how” floated in emptiness and wasn’t attached to any “what.” Ninety percent of our ideas come from and are dictated by language. We think with others: this is material proof of it. These others, in Russian, slipped away. They bequeathed me with completed thoughts, fully ready, that I could not slide into. I couldn’t manage a conversation with them. Ninety percent of “what” comes from “how.” That’s why I don’t believe in plagiarism. An idea only exists if someone has constructed its niche within the language. No one can do it in my place and I can’t do it in the place of anyone else. Anyway, it doesn’t matter who did it. There is no property in the domain of ideas.



Where There Is Danger

When I write a text, or rather, if a text wants to be written—if it wants me to do it—the idea that emerges belongs to it.

Things 2 I remember when certain words were born in Russian, words for objects that came to us from the West. For example, the tights that appeared in the early 1960s, which my grandmother still called “pantyhose” and which became kolgoty, from the Czech calhoty, meaning “underwear” (since this marvel came to us from Czechoslovakia), itself derived from the Italian caliga, soldiers’ boots. The first kolgoty were made of thick ribbed cotton, the ribs snaking down and twisting around the calves: no matter how you put them on, they always seemed to be on backwards. On the other hand, they came to free us children from the humiliating attire that we were accustomed to, a complex system that it was impossible to put on without help: boys and girls alike wore stockings held up with elastic strips that dangled from a suspender belt that buttoned at the back and was called a lifchik, or “brassiere.” My grandmother called jeans “devil’s skin pants” because the fabric was so sturdy and didn’t get dirty easily. The polyester clothing in packages sent from France were produced by the brand Tergal, which became the name of the fabric for us (although we didn’t pick up on the Gallic allusion in the “-gal”). The unusual color “marengo” didn’t mean brown but a kind of dark gray that Napoleon supposedly wore in the eponymous battle. My family used the French word “sac” for a soft-sided suitcase or a big purse. For a long time, I was sure that it was part of the Russian language, which my classmates made fun of me for at school. I think that it came from the descriptions that accompanied the above packages, written by our Parisian cousins in Russian with several French “implants.” Ballpoint pens appeared in the 1970s, and then so did Flo-Master markers, shampoo (until then, we had washed our hair with soap, egg yolks, or vinegar), and laundry detergent. I remember getting a five in Russian (the best possible grade) for giving shampun’ (shampoo) as an example of a word whose gender was variable. It was a new word, so its gender hadn’t stabilized yet. French words that took root in Russian, under the northern sun, tended to develop weak trunks eroded by irony. L’aventure (adventure) became a shady undertaking, le courage (bravery) transformed into flair, le couloir (hallway) is where rumors circulate, but does nothing to connect rooms to each other, a service provided by the respectable “corridor”; faire la cour

Forgetting Babel

(to woo) describes the strategy of a nasty or pathetic suitor, even more so because when transposed into Russian, the expression sounds like construire des poules (to make hens), which suggests that the cock isn’t far off. Everything in the realm of “being” moves to “seeming”: by borrowing some French, Russian turns it into an endless performance. On the other hand, the Russian words that enter into French (like izba, troika, vodka) designate palpable, unfalsifiable realities that often refer to Russian immoderation (Gogol’s well-known troika) or alcoholism—and this extends to popular etymology, cf. bistrot, which clearly didn’t come from the Russian bystro, because not only did it appear well after Russian troops tramped through Paris, it would have become something more like “bstr” in the mouths of hurrying soldiers. You have to translate into your native language. That’s the rule. When I translate, I’m missing something: things from childhood. My French has no childhood; it was born full-grown. No kitchen-table chatter, no schoolchild lingo, no vacations in the country or on the coast, rich in raw vocabulary, no grandmother who would have told me stories. A whole former life invented in retrospect.

More Sounds Again A bilingual’s universe is carpeted with a double layer of sounds. The e doesn’t exist in Russian and the kh doesn’t exist in French, but both of them are in my sound palette. There are two alphabets: the one I learned to recite as a child and the one that I added later. There is a moment when you learn not only to pronounce words in another language but also to write them, and then you discover the writing missing from inscriptions and logos. When I was a child, foreign languages were truly foreign. The average person is no more concerned about their existence than about aliens. These days, I live in a city without Cyrillic characters, even though the Russian grocery store Gastronom on Boulevard du Montparnasse proudly displays its name with a hard sign at the end of it, a symbol of the abolition of the Soviet Union and the continuity of Great Russia. (The spelling reform of 1918 led to the removal of several letters that no longer corresponded to sounds. Formerly, a hard or soft sign at the end of words ending in consonants would indicate whether the final consonant was hard or soft. Since the latter were rarer, only the soft sign was



Where There Is Danger

kept. Hard signs at the end of words, dormant in books printed before the reform, remained symbolic of the period before the revolution. Due to this reform, Tsvetaeva’s name was modified—in her words, deformed. She said that if she had lived during the French Revolution, she would have gone into the public square on the day of Louis XVI’s execution to shout: “Vive le roy!” Long live the king! With an anachronistic y (called Greek i in French). When pronouncing and writing, letters and sounds don’t always coincide. We write eau and say oh, we write oi and say wah. Traces of the language’s former state, these letters have nothing more to do with each other but remain under the same roof like those couples who never manage to get a divorce. In your own language, you learn how to write the sounds that you know, while in a foreign language you learn how to pronounce the letters that you read. The path toward adult usage of the language—spoken and written—isn’t the same for both cases. Russian schoolchildren tend to write tiatr and not teatr, since the e isn’t accented, and they write kolkhos instead of kolkhoze: the consonants are muffled when not followed by a vowel or a sonorant. A v at the end of a word is pronounced f. This is why the “White Russians” write their names with double f’s at the end: Sissoeff, Menchikoff. This is also why I stopped using my full first name, Lubov’, in French. It ends with a soft sign, a mark of the feminine, which ends up unpronounceable and masculine in French. Instead, I use the diminutive, which I write with four letters (not Liouba) so that it’ll have the same look as in Russian, so that it’ll correspond to almost the same image for me.

Silent “e” 2 In French, there is a silent e. This vowel is not shortened, but silent. We couldn’t talk without vowels. They are the blood that flows through the whole sound system. Quiet them and an embolism will strike, will obstruct the arteries. Instant death. How can a vowel be silent? It can shrink, curl up, lie low while waiting for its moment; it can live crippled, sing under its breath, whisper, but be silent? Might as well be dead. Yet it isn’t dead, it’s there, hovering in the hereafter of the word. Proof: the reanimation of silent es that I witnessed in southwest France (similar to what the inhabitants of the Volga do with all of their accented os). These es had reclaimed their rights, elongating familiar words by a syllable; terribly immodest words that displayed their whole selves, exhibited both their shameful parts and their joie de vivre, wild words unconcerned by rules of propriety that urged

Forgetting Babel

them to cover their end, words that didn’t know that they were naked, words from before the Fall. The silent e implies a fig leaf at the end of each word. It implies that the words are aware of God’s gaze turned toward them, revealing their nudity. Mute final consonants don’t surprise me, since consonants are the troops, but the vowels, the generals? The silent e reanimates the preceding consonant—muet to muette—but doesn’t show itself. It gives life while remaining invisible. It stands its ground without being there in a kind of vigilant absence; its diaphanous being testifies to the possibility of immaterial existence. It creates the limit of the word but gives it an afterlife at the same time: we pronounce the last consonant because behind it, there is something else that remains unspoken. And when it’s an occlusive—t, muette, you hear the bare sketch of this hidden afterlife behind it, one step toward the unpronounceable (the step beyond?), suspended in the air, never finished. (My grandmother, who thought that French was a hypocritical language because of the divergence between the sounds and the letters, compared it to German where nothing is hidden—every sound is struck. When preaching the virtues of German, she never mentioned the final r, which could show the French silent e a thing or two. I guess she refused to let it have its silence, preferring to brandish it like a shield, pronounce it by rolling it, roughening it, this r that separates us from Germany.)

The Diminutive One optical device is missing in French: the one that makes things look smaller than they are. The French eye is (nearly) deprived of this reducing lens. In Russian, a magic potion called “suffix,” made with enk, ink, otchk, ychk, or ik, shrinks anything in the world in the blink of an eye. Anything can be small: a house, a person, a part of the body (ruchka, nozhka), the piece of meat on your plate, grass, trees, stars, even the sun can be affectionately called solnyshko. Diminutives shrink objects to bring them down to our scale. It’s important when you’re speaking to a child. It’s hard to stuff the sun into the corner of a drawing, but a solnyshko fits perfectly. Diminutives give us the tool to tame the world. With a diminutive suffix, chelovek (a man) can shrink to chelovechek (little man or manling; in Russian, when you shrink things, the names get longer). The adjective “small” that goes with it (malen’ky) can crouch down too and become maliusen’ky, tiny little man.



Where There Is Danger

A red dress: the splendor of celebration or the height of summer. And a little reddish dress? The splendor of yesteryear, bygone summers, poverty, a long-forgotten love story, aging, banishment, confiscation of possessions, a trunk containing a deceased grandmother’s clothes, memories from a childhood long ago, always a paradise lost, long-lost joys: in sum, a fountain of tears. The diminutive as a supreme value is pity. One wave of a magic wand, and anything can merit pity. Through its diminutive suffix, matter reveals its pitiful self. (In Russian, the verb zhalet’, to have pity, can also mean “to love.” Since Julie Bouvard determined, in a very good article, that zhalet’ was an anagram of zhelat’, to desire, I have come to terms with this meaning.) All you have to do is switch to French and objects become life-sized again. They stand up to their full height. You can stick a little on them as a crutch, but they’ll lean on it without being confused for it: it’s just a crutch, not a prosthetic limb. In French, things lose their downy softness, their wagging tails, their tearful eyes, their wounded paws. They’re no longer constantly in need of being bandaged up. They reclaim their dignity. Where has the misery of the world gone? I have no illusions about the procession of cruelties that pity brings with it. You can say perfectly well in Russian: I grabbed him by his teeny-weeny legs and I cracked his itsy-bitsy head against the wee wall. More than anything else in the world, I’m afraid of love for humankind. Cynicism is probably the only form of humanism that hasn’t been compromised (history provides plenty of examples for the others). I’d prefer an independent tribunal over all the pity of the world. French is an adult language, life-sized. You don’t need to stoop to enter it (like Gulliver did out of habit when he returned from Lilliput). But… “What if I stay this big forever and never return to little-girl size?”  asks Alice.

Masculine and Feminine We call linden trees le tilleul in French and lipa in Russian. One is masculine, the other is feminine. Le bouleau, birch, and bereza. Table, table, and stol. This was a surprise when learning French. Things have different names in different languages, I get it. But they can change gender too? Then I had to live with their androgyny.

Forgetting Babel

There is no neutral gender in French. Sun, field, sea, space, verb: how could you imagine them not being neutral? Not being above the categorization into genders? In Russian, the gender of most words can be deduced from their ending. In French, words hide theirs, and to learn them, they have to show you their passport: the article. Gender clothes words in a remarkably sticky way. When I translate, during a first draft, I automatically make the participle agree with the Russian word and not the French one. I think “he” when in French it’s “she.” Thinking that “table” is feminine requires effort too. Stol, which comes from stoiat’, to stand upright (a root that you find in stolp, column, but also in pillar, like a pillar of knowledge), the foundation of a house (and also of intellectual work, as in “writing desk”) is an essential masculine presence in my Russian everyday life. If Botticelli had spoken French, would he have painted Spring as a young man? Pasternak wrote “Ma soeur la vie” (My Sister—Life), but how would you translate it into German or Polish where życie or das Leben are neutral? Political correctness doesn’t solve the gender issue either, in French or in Russian. In the first case, the difference has to be marked. To do so, we’ve summoned up not old suffixes (doctoresse, professoresse, directrice) that still work in Russian, but the silent e, a fig leaf to make a show of discarding: écrivain and écrivaine, auteur and auteure, chef and cheffe (or chèfe, in Switzerland, but not cheftaine, which did exist, proof that it isn’t an issue with new words but with new realities). In Russian, saying poetess or woman writer is close to an insult. Today, Russians use the masculine for everything. But in Russian, there are two words for “man”: muzhchina, a male person, and chelovek, someone belonging to mankind. It is nothing unusual to say: she is a very respectable man. I am thus a man before I am a woman. And also: der Jude (the Jew, masculine), the one having a conversation in the mountains. The Jewish masculine was hidden in me before I learned the difference between girls and boys.

Dreams Now I get the perpetual question: what language do you dream in? For a long time, I answered that I didn’t know. It’s impossible to remember the



Where There Is Danger

language of a dream, like remembering what language you saw a certain film in. The simultaneous translation starts up right away and there we are, not knowing if it’s the original version or the French version (or the Russian one); the dream has subtitles. Until the day when I happened to gain access to the dream studios. I want to quote myself. I had to wake up in the middle of a dream whose image suddenly opened up like an egg beginning to crack: a narrow recipient, a chalice—but when you say “chalice,” you imagine a big goblet, but this one was minuscule although infinitely deep due to a memory that it held, that it created instantaneously in my presence—a recipient filled with words, words that were overflowing, flowing like a long scroll teeming with whispering letters whose middle had been stuffed into the chalice and whose two ends slid over the edges, stretching out with a very light, dry rustling: the letters inside were changing shape and meaning. It would only have been one image if I hadn’t opened my eyes at that instant—my eyes in the dream, it goes without saying, and my ears in the dream—and if I hadn’t clearly heard the beginning and the end of a sentence, the parts of the ribbon hanging outside the chalice, spoken in French, while the middle was in Russian; and yet the sentence remained whole, and the Russian words were molded into the French syntax or the other way around, I’m not sure. Dreams must be like those émigrés who mix languages carelessly— not like the ones who jealously guard the purity of the language that they brought with them in their suitcases fifty years ago and preserved in mothballs. Dreams are shameless, as we all know. They deny themselves nothing. They haven’t known Babel. I remember the one in which I was teaching my father French. My finger skims down the page that I’m decrypting with him, I see it stop—point—pierce the page in the center. Then there appears, blinking, absorbing the substance of the words eclipsed around it, the word “est.” Il est. He is. I pronounce each letter; “E-s-t.” Then, in Russian: iest’. The last consonant, the “t,” must be palatalized and a soft sign will follow it in Russian. It’s as if you were going to say tu and you stopped before putting breath into the vowel: iest’. That gives you another iest’ in Russian, too, the third person conjugation of the verb être, to be. And I hear myself say to my father: you see, it’s the same word in Russian and in French. The languages—these linings of existence—are reversible like raincoats that can be put on right side out or inside out. It can also happen that you dream not in a language (or several), but of a language, just like you would dream of a house, a city, or a dress; that is, as

Forgetting Babel

an exterior object that presents itself to you at some distance, shining. I’m sure that my mother and grandmother dreamed of French before coming to France. Most of the time, German is the language I dream of. During the period when I was appropriating French, I dreamed of certain words and their uses as well. For example: the French “plus” (more) is to “davantage” (further) what buttons are to a zipper. The German I dream of is like a curtain of rain over cities seen at night— always falling, falling from the heavens, like a song. Someday, I’ll write a book about the exchange between these languages, the only true and truthful book—I’ll give the multilingual flow of consciousness the chance to speak. Again and again in our dreams, humanity returns to a time before Babel, so it serves no purpose to ask those who speak a “contaminated” language to translate for us what we no longer understand. They are closer to the heavens. And sometimes, we are there, before Babel. In Lyon, at the International Forum on the Novel, each table speaks its own language at breakfast. What about this couple, sitting apart from the rest? They’re almost whispering, impossible to hear them, but suddenly, from their posture, their wordless intonation, a breath of wind, the background noise, their facial expressions, I understand: they’re speaking Hebrew. I’m witnessing a historic moment: Leonid Girshovich stands up and goes to greet Aharon Appelfeld. A conversation begins in Hebrew (while I exchange a few words with Mrs. Appelfeld in English). But neither one manages to stay in that language although they’re happy to share it, and they slide… into German. Then, they both recognize that they’ve moved into German and… they reset their course. There they go again in Hebrew. And… one more time… What might two Jews be talking about during their conversation at the breakfast table? Their travels, what they’ve read, Petersburg and Chernowitz (Chernivtsi, etc.). Language drift. Now, they’re definitely mixing German and Hebrew, they’re speaking the language of dreams, and… I understand all of it! Everything! Not because my clumsy Hebrew has been revitalized by some atavistic memory, but because, behind the languages that they are speaking, I can hear the ones that they are not: Russian for one, Romanian for the other (whose melody I know despite not speaking it). The languages from before allow us to enter others’ dreams.



Where There Is Danger

Identity It seems to me that in the past, when vast empires dominated the imagination while at the other end of the scale, the “little homelands” triumphed, we didn’t focus so fiercely on defining one’s origins. After the Berlin Wall fell, Europe rediscovered that its “East” was in fact its center, and that, having slept in a strange position for forty years, this part had gone numb and only signaled its presence with a vague buzzing around its borders. At the time, Identity was very young and not necessarily the offspring of Birth. It had the right to have adoptive parents, to split apart, to multiply. To have one foot here and the other there. Which only made sense since these people had been shut up for so long; let’s let them wander around, because what they want the most is to cross boundary lines. Since then, Identity has grown up and received a birth certificate. Were you born in Russia? Then you’re Russian, it’s simple. A Russian who has been living abroad for twenty, thirty, thirty-five years. A retroactive birth certificate: I wasn’t born in Russia and I’ve never lived there. On every form that I have to fill out online, in the space for “Place of birth,” I check “Russia” and tell a lie each time with the complicity of the administration. When I submit a visa request for Russia, I have to answer this question: If you have possessed Russian or Soviet citizenship in the past, when and under what circumstances did you lose it? I write, “In 1975, when I emigrated to Israel.” It’s only half of a lie. I obtained an authorization to leave the USSR for Israel, but I came to France instead. Émigrés were automatically stripped of their Soviet nationality that way. Our passports were thrown in the trash before our eyes by a civil servant whose last name I’ll never forget: it was Izrailova (the humor—intentional or involuntary?—of a totalitarian state). Renouncing Soviet citizenship cost emigrants five hundred rubles per head, which was more than three months of the average salary. For several years, the Russian consulate in Paris entertained itself by asking those who were born in what is now Russia to prove that they didn’t have Russian nationality. Back then, my passport traveled through Marseille: there, the staff weren’t afflicted with the same collective amnesia. Amnesia is tenacious. In more ways than one. Russia pretends to forget that it confiscated émigrés’ passports, and France pretends to forget that it didn’t welcome them in. I recently heard someone say that the third wave of Russian emigrants (mine) had snubbed France for the attractions of the

Forgetting Babel

United States. However, it was as difficult to come to the country of our dreams as it was to leave the USSR. We are born several times over the course of our lives. Our internal territory is constantly shifting. The statue of Diderot on Boulevard Saint-Germain could just as well be of Brodsky. Once in my life, I managed to organize all of my books. By “identities.” A difficult task: where should I put Kafka, Canetti, Beckett? Should I separate Russian Nabokov from American Nabokov? The fire in my apartment (shortly after my flight over the LoireAtlantique) incited the Slavs to take revenge on the Germans. Those who burned: Goethe, Kafka, Musil, Broch, Joseph Roth. Those who survived: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol. The Burnt Book by Marc-Alain Ouaknin caught fire too. I kept it—it was chic. Since then, my bookshelves have returned to chaos. Arbitrary discrimination. One of my friends did an experiment: he exchanged a hundred-franc note for dollars, the dollars for pounds, the pounds for crowns, and so on until he had nothing left. I’ll admit that this friend is a little strange. He is an exile (no surprise) who wanted to see what displacement does to an individual. He wanted to show the diminishing effect of a border crossing, hold identity in his hand and watch it being nibbled down until it disappeared. Well, not completely, because he was left with a few coins that no one would exchange anymore. They would have to join the collection of other truncated beings. It wouldn’t surprise you if I said that this particular friend jabbered in five languages without mastering any of them, without living in any of them, sort of speaking all of them at once. When he translated from one language to another, the words lost a little of their value at once. Words hadn’t been worth much to him for a long time: as he continued to move from place to place, he carried a suitcase full of quotations to deploy as needed.

Address Everything is language. Not only because the flow of speech never stops within us—trying to stop it would be like trying to stop blood circulating in your body through willpower alone. You can only extract it if you extract life too. If we spot a person talking to himself, we say: his box of



Where There Is Danger

words must not be sealed right because it’s overflowing! In the last twenty years, the number of people talking to themselves in the street has grown considerably. Most of them aren’t crazy. They have headphones and little microphones and their cell phones are stowed away. It’s to have their hands free to drive an invisible car. (Here’s an example of a misunderstanding. In a grocery store, a young man approached the cash register with a pack of beer. I heard him say: “All right, I’ve got the drinks. Want to come to my place and spend the night?” You had to admire his nerve. But no, he just took his change and left. He hadn’t been talking to the cashier. He had been on his phone. Unforgivably rude.) Continuing to talk when no one is in front of you might be an attempt to dam up or channel the language that possesses us; a way to keep the words floating in space from getting lost, a way to gather them up and make them useful for other people far away, like we do when we have a food drive for countries experiencing famine. Who is the intended recipient of the words that dance through our heads? It’s language itself that needs to express itself, that speaks through us. Maybe the only reason we don’t disintegrate is that our cells are all talking amongst themselves. We can’t speak a single line or make a single gesture without addressing it to someone. And a bilingual, within whom the flows of speech are marked with different colors like the wires in an electrical cable, knows better than anyone else that there is something of the other and the elsewhere in himself because he has seen it with his own eyes. The elsewhere isn’t elsewhere but here. He thinks of himself in duplicate. Rather than schizophrenia, it is a more precise sketch of co-presence. If death could have an addressee then we would be immortal. (Heroes never die, because they enter the realm of legend alive. Their death is addressed to humankind. And what about artists? In Cherry Brandy, Shalamov describes the agony of Mandelstam. Death as a work of art; the heroism of poets.)

Language is Talkative Wittgenstein: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. But just try to be silent within yourself. We take a moment to mourn when a colleague passes away. How many pages would you need to write down everything that comes to mind during that minute of silence?

Forgetting Babel

The spaces between actions and thoughts are stuffed with uncontrollable chatter the way duvets are stuffed with feathers. They protect us from sharp corners. The phrases that we say to ourselves take up less space in our mental baggage than the ones that we say to others, because they are collapsible. They start in one language and finish in another. They bend the syntax of one and the other as they please. They don’t trouble themselves with rules. These kinds of phrases have been called “telegraphic.” We’ve almost forgotten what telegraphs were, but we still send ourselves mental telegrams without articles or auxiliaries. Some things we say consciously, like, “I’ll get up now” or “okay, calm down,” and some things are just language speaking inside us, living parasitically off of our consciousness. Thinking and talking to oneself are like watching and seeing. Sometimes we say: “I walked right by it without seeing it!” This is how we don’t see the thoughts that speak within us during the moments when we aren’t thinking. Language, apart from its exteriority—shared thoughts and speech— has another side that must have been crafted by a sloppy tailor who didn’t take pains to smooth down this invisible part: bits of sentences, stumps of words that express the nothing of thought or the impenetrable folds of its birth, and especially, above all, their total power over us, their power to speak to us as long as we live. Language speaks itself: therefore I am. How many Jews are conversing in the mountains? Try to count them.

Voice-over Our mental language is a broad swath of non-accountability. We don’t really think everything that we think. That’s how we can say, when reflecting on something unwise that we said: I didn’t mean it. What we say to ourselves is careless and irrevocable. If we could record the verbal flow that moves through us, we’d find many gratuitous statements there that we don’t agree with, used “because it sounds good.” We’d also find a lot of quotations and allusions. There are, for example, the poems and songs that spring up without being expressly requested. They exist for every occasion in life and it usually takes a while before I realize that, for example, whenever I’m landing in an airplane, a song starts up in the background (in Russian): “Under the wings of the plane, the sea of the taiga sings something to me…” A song featured regularly on Soviet radio that I haven’t heard in over forty years. And, when I run into a group of young people: “Che bella gioventù!”



Where There Is Danger

Even if we subjugated each of our actions to a categorical imperative, it would be impossible to silence the mocking, amoral being that mutters endlessly within us. I give a coin to a beggar, and the voice-over says: “Today, you’ve bought yourself a clear conscience.” In French. Another follows in Russian: “Blind spot east of my conscience.”  Nabokov. Lolita. But the meaning of “conscience” isn’t the same in these two cases. In Russian, there are two words: soznanie and sovest’, moral conscience (remorse: “gnawing at the conscience”). A Russian patriot: “The French have no moral conscience” (because they have no specific word for it). There’s an old idea that they (the Westerners) have institutions, so they don’t need to have a conscience. (If the State provides charity, I don’t need to do it.) I’d prefer an independent tribunal to all the consciences of the world. Vest’ and sovest’ come from the same root, vedat’, “to know,” and from the same root we get povest’, “tale,” so the primary meaning relates to messages and narration. To narrate, in Russian, is “to make (someone) know.” Moral conscience is a co-narration: should this be confessed to others? Should this be admitted to oneself? So-vest’, literally, co-narration. Receiving news about oneself from the teeth marks. Whereabouts unknown. My grandfather. What would he have thought of Lolita? I’ve never gotten any news from my grandfather, not even in a dream. Except the day after the fire, when he sent me dreams of war: shells were raining down on all sides. My grandfather: blind spot. Language’s blind fumbling. Stupid and mean, the voices carry along ready-made expressions and dirty jokes, mock your purest feelings, detect your hidden intentions, dance around your best actions while thumbing their noses at you. Mental language is an endless hallway where the worst kinds of gossip, rumors and slander are exchanged. The adages, proverbs, things like “bless you” and “an angel is passing” (in Russian, you’d say “a cop is born”) seem to be a similar sort of collective verbal peelings, shed by language itself. We also repeat phrases that we’ve said and ones that we’ve heard. Phrases that we would’ve liked to have said—there are a lot of staircases in our mental lodgings. Words in one’s head are like tennis balls we throw

Forgetting Babel

against the wall of the world—no, like sensory organs we use to apprehend the world. A tidal wave makes me think of the Ninth Symphony (or symphonies). Why? Because, in Russian, we say: the ninth wave. More precisely, we say the ninth roller (val, unrolling). So, are the waves the rolls (of the Torah)?—Translating back into Russian, are they svitki? But val also means fortifications, and the Moscow streets situated where the fortifications were are named for them. One of them is called Butyrsky val. I remember my mother saying: “Val, what a graceless word.” And I said: “No, the graceless one is Butyrsky.” I didn’t know yet that that area had previously been occupied by the notorious Butyrki prison, one of the main sites of Stalinist repression in Moscow. But in French, a val is a valley. And so the words volley back. This flow, we must realize, is also a laboratory: sometimes a revelation that we would never have dared to put together “consciously” surges out. Because language’s stuttering is much more creative than we are. What use, then, is this irrepressible voiceover that constantly comments on our lives? It recounts our plural presence. We are… not legion, but there might be a dozen of us. No exorcist can chase away this demon, unless he chases us away with it. So let’s let it speak in tongues. Накололи, намололи, Колоколы-балаболы. Лопотуньи налетали, Болмоталы навязали, Лопотали—хлопотали, Лопотали, болмотали, Лопоталы поломали. Bellflowers singing, bellflowers ringing, sweet the sounds of merrygo-rounds, hollow words and winging birds, babbling as the river flows, jingling bells in singing prose, all in buckets, yards and pounds. The being is multilingual. One day, we’ll discover it. Through physics instead of psychoanalysis. It will demonstrate that we are plural beings. The self is an illusion: the bilingual knows this. It is a hybrid like the words inside it, caught halfway through translation. If you could record the dialogue of thoughts, it would be telegraphic, the words curled up into each other, clumped together, compressed—but there would also be fields without words, undeveloped land. Well before reading 1984, I had imagined an entity capable of tracking our thoughts: this bit of paranoia haunts those who live under totalitarian regimes. However, if books lent dictators this ability to record their subjects’ thoughts, they’d need an army of decoders, a group bigger than all of the



Where There Is Danger

systems of repression united. And, in my case, some translators, who would have a hard time with all of these threads to wind up. Or rather, to unwind, since multilingual thoughts are rolled up. Every word and every gesture is addressed to someone or something, even if we believe we are alone. In the strictest, most rigorous exercise of solitude, in the desert, in solitary confinement, in pain, a visible or invisible spectator stands before the stage of the intimate self to hear our lines. Mourning is a theater. Anguish itself, when it rises up through the body to cut us off from the world, shoves us into dialogue with the silence it imposes on us. Who said that theatricality was inauthentic? We play ourselves—not because we’re lying to ourselves, but because we speak to ourselves. A thought expressed is already a lie: Tiutchev’s romantic verdict. A thought unexpressed is a more flagrant lie: non-being. Does death have a language? As long as it speaks to us, it’s still language presenting itself—and the life force within our cells responds to it. Death, when it makes its impossible arrival, is not clothed by language and the bilingual must finally set down his arms: his knowledge, here, is worth nothing. Until that moment, translation had allowed him to trace a magic circle around himself that protected him from the nameless: translation had offered him a passage, a transparent vestibule where he could sit invisibly between languages and barricade himself against nothingness. One day, death flushes him out: retreat is impossible. The passageway between the two languages, the last hideout for the bilingual, gives way. What language do we die in? In Chekhov’s Ich sterbe—the foundation of Nathalie Sarraute’s The Use of Speech—is the name of death, a foreign name, necessarily foreign? A dialogue with death in a foreign language? Was the collection Orchards by Rilke, written in French, a dialogue with death in a foreign language? Is the bilingual privileged to be allowed into death’s orchards for a preliminary interview? Or is it there again and again, that passage that is now so narrow, before all dialogue stops and before a single, unique and impossible sound rings out for all eternity behind the words: the silent e? The anguish of death is the absence of a recipient, the suffocation of a non-address. No longer speaking, being spoken. If only death could be addressed!

The Arbitrariness of the Sign Upon arriving at university to study languages and literature, students of my generation heard, as a kind of greeting, that the sign was arbitrary. The arbitrariness of the sign bound us together in a secret brotherhood, but it also

Forgetting Babel

had the feel of a final condemnation, a sort of “lasciate ogni speranza.” The common ground that it built under our feet was as solid as Pascal’s chair: under it, the primordial chaos gaped. The arbitrariness of the sign sounded like “God is dead,” a phrase that, at the time, was perfectly formed for the leprous walls of Jussieu, a place that God had truly abandoned. Everything rebelled, everything protested against this idea. No, the students didn’t wish to return to Fabre d’Olivet. They understood perfectly that the being of this chair wasn’t expressed by the sounds in the word “chair.” But there was a kind of violence in the way we had been struck with the undeniable truth. The arbitrariness of the sign is one of the truths we’ve learned to live with by pushing it into the margins of our consciousness: the same thing we do with the knowledge that someday we will die. We make the best of it because it’s impossible to imagine it. When our eyes are fixed on the language we are speaking in, no arbitrariness is possible: the world exists for us in this language. Rubin’s ambiguous picture: as long as you see the vase, you don’t see the two faces, and vice versa. We know that the image represents one and the other at the same time, and that the choice depends only on how we look at it. We know because we have tried looking at each of them in turn. But in the present of our perception, the experiment has been called off, and only the necessary part exists: the vase. The two faces. In the present, we are immortal. When I heard it, spoken ex cathedra (a figure of speech; there wasn’t a pulpit at Jussieu, only shabby and perfectly “arbitrary” tables), this password, this “Open Sesame” of modernity, I already knew its price: bilinguals harbor the arbitrariness of the sign in their wombs. Двуязычие делает нас скептиками, мешая усмотреть в слиянности вещи с ее именем некое магическое существо – род кентавра. Ощущение того, что вещи несоприродны своим именам, что слово, не дотрагиваясь до предмета и лишь паря над ним, оставляет зазор, позволяет нам осознать необязательность всего сущего, включая непреднамеренность, необязательность нашего появления на свет, тем самым приоткрывая завесу тайны — тайны нашего рождения. This passage came to me in Russian. In translating it into French, I’ve shortened it, because it had superfluous words—pure fascination with the sentences that emerge. I only noticed it when translating—they were hidden in the folds of the language. Writing is a dancer: one extra word and she won’t fit into her leotard. But what is “extra” in French isn’t in Russian and vice



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versa. That’s why I couldn’t write any more in Russian today: it’s something to do with the “body schema” rather than the vocabulary. Bilingualism makes us skeptical and prevents us from seeing something magical, like a centaur, in the symbiosis of the thing and the name. Knowing that names aren’t stuck to things and only hover over them is a particular fact of arbitrariness, the contingency of everything that exists, including the origin. The veil lifts from the mystery of birth. In the mountains, translating was a refuge for me. Translating, in both directions, means living the contingency and performing your own birth. It means hiding in the monster’s eye—the only place where he won’t see you. Do the words know that they have multiplied? Poor little soldiers dying all around the world while hoisting their glorious flag, the flag of meaningfulness. Meaningfulness is a cruel god who requires constant sacrifices. We name the world unendingly, and the world needs to be named unendingly, again and again, to have its story told, to be named. The mass grave of words is absolutely infinite and the womb that calls them into being is inexhaustible. Hordes of words, innumerable armies have rushed toward the embrasures of the enemy cannons. Poor cannon fodder spilling perpetually into the void while believing to save the world from muteness! Meaningfulness doesn’t know that more than three hundred (how many languages are there in the world?) little lookalike soldiers name and rename almost the same things under the illusion that their name is the only one. Each one believes himself unique and dies to express, in a series of inimitable sounds, such-and-such thing, or being, or concept, while others perform more or less the same useless feat in another language. They die to have been said here and now, to have designated one specific thing and not another, in this language and not that other one. It’s the only heroic deed I’ve ever been able to identify with, the only warrior’s action that I’ve felt saved me, the only feat about which I can say: yes, they died so that I could keep living. 

“I” and “We” Telling a story about bilingualism in the first person singular is rather artificial. Should I say “we”? Not that either. Because “we” aren’t always together. No language—at least none of the ones I know—has a pronoun to express our multiplicity. When I’m writing, I am “I.” Or, more simply, when I’m writing, I am. “I” is the story of a body.

Forgetting Babel

Making the scraps of oneself stick together. We say “what’s his story?”— we give ourselves a history to flatten out the stretch of time that we inhabit, a time that is actually a path riddled with potholes. We hide them under the narrative asphalt so that the reader won’t trip and fall. As soon as we take the floor we begin inventing ourselves; we pretend to be a “continuous” subject. I play the role that I have given myself. All I have to do is start imitating for it to get the better of me. The inevitability of incarnation. If I was Delilah, I’d fall in love with Holofernes. I’ve always thought that the great enemy of “I” was the time that came to carve it up into sequences. While writing this book, while letting another voice speak, the voice of my mother tongue, the voice of my non-mother tongue, the voice of other languages, I’ve felt—experienced—this “I” in multiple each day. Trying to pin down what bilingualism does to “I,” “I” broke off. Speaking of oneself in first person in a language that isn’t the one we were born with is artificial. Just like talking about it in one’s native language. It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when the first-person pronoun was like a bodily secretion. Maybe this innocence is what we dream of when we feel nostalgic for our childhood, for our homeland. What language should we name the world in? I’m not talking about extant words, but the words that come into life within us to give life to things, the conceptual words. There are these words that we prefer to say in another language because once translated, they lose their power to name or their expressive force. For example, dasein, or sameness, or la mamma, or la trace, or haloimes (Idiocy, galimatia, nonsense, in Yiddish). But there are also words that we forge ourselves: cornerstones of our mental building or stumbling blocks on our path. How could one express in Russian the contingency of our arrival in the world? The word that came to me was neobiazatel’nost’—the fact of being non-obligatory. Contingere means “to arrive by chance” while neobiazatel’nost’ is formed from the Russian equivalent of obligare, which creates the idea, the image of a link. Obviazat’ means to link, to bind, to attach, to truss up with string. When I translate “contingency” this way, I see my birth unencumbered, freed, liberated. My birth has its hands free. The negative particle “ne”: a black room where the convergence of (im) probabilities becomes a singular being.



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But neobiazatel’nost’, which frees me from the obligation to be born, also undoes every binding, every attachment. While contingency, on the other hand, is a kiss from chance. Words must envy us the randomness of our origination. Words that live so much longer than us, that see generation follow generation, words that grow old gracefully and, once dead, come back to life in another form; words that survive with additional or fewer organs, that watch their body transform or deform and the sounds from their body fall silent, that lose bits of themselves to spelling reforms; words that are mangled, that are tortured, or that are glorified and upheld in slogans; words that are the most loyal and traitorous witnesses to human history; words are always led back to their origins by scholars who want to make them say what they were at the moment of their birth because they believe in the truth of the origin. Words must always present their birth certificates, though the mists of time may swallow them up. But the bilingual knows, because he has leaned over to see, that their cradle is empty, that the origin has been stolen by “travelers”—has gone out to beg in the streets—to gather whatever food it may find.

Stumbling Block “One day, since it was time for him to leave the house, he went out, always along the same route because there was no other one, until the place where each person encounters his stumbling block.” This is how I started a story that I was going to submit to the journal Siècle (Century) in May 1986, a few days before my daughter was born. At the spot where “he” stopped to reflect indefinitely on the obstacle that had sprung up under his feet, the belief that he was stuck keeping him from moving any farther, my own writing hit a roadblock. The story stopped there. If I had kept going, it would have consisted of this single sentence repeated over and over again, a rumination on impossible progression, from the moment of leaving the house until the obstacle. Without a doubt, I had in mind an image from Russian, which also contains this other expression: “the scythe ran into a stone.” It makes one think of a reaping scene from Tolstoy. The Reaper himself, paused midstep, leaves the man’s fate in suspension so he can contemplate the obstacle. And likewise, we only leave our homes for that reason: to mark a moment of downtime. A moment of downtime. But the follow-up to this story was hiding in another language. In 1995, in Cologne, then in Berlin, on Oranienburgstrasse (which I had walked down and stopped on many times), Gunter Demnig placed Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones” that nudged passersby to look down at the ground and recognize that a Jew who had lived there had been deported and killed. When someone tripped, we said: “Da liegt ein Jude begraben”—a Jew is buried here. Like how you say “bless you” when someone sneezes. The Jew buried within me waved. And, as one would have expected, he hailed me in a foreign language.

References Annensky, Innokenty. The Trefoil and Other Poems. Paris: La Différence, 1993. Borges, Jorge Luis. L’Aleph. Translated by Roger Caillois and René Durand. Paris: Gallimard, 1967. Bouvard, Julie. “The Utopian Image of the Peasant in Tolstoy’s Works.” Tolstoï et les paysans. 57–66. Ed. Luba Jurgenson. Paris: Institut d’Etudes slaves, 2006. Brodsky, Joseph. Less than One. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1987. Camus, Albert. The Plague. Paris: Gallimard, 1947. Celan, Paul. Conversation in the Mountains. Translated by Stéphane Mosès, followed by “When language gives voice” by Stéphane Mosès. Lagrasse: Verdier, 2001. Chekhov, Anton. “Let Me Sleep.” Œuvres II—Récits 1887–1892. Translated by Édouard Parayre, revised by Lily Denis, Paris: La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1970. Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by Henri Mongault. Paris: La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1952. –––. “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.” Translated by Boris de Schloezer. Paris: éditions Maren Sell, 1991. Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls. Translated by Anne Coldefy-Faucard. Lagrasse: Verdier, 2009. Girchovich, Leonid. The Transposed Heads. Translated by Luba Jurgenson. Lagrasse: Verdier, 2007. Heine, Heinrich. Mémoires & Aveux. Translated by Jean Bourdeau. Éditions de Paris, 1994. –––. Jewish Writings. Translated, preface, and notes by Louis Laloy. Éditions du Sandre, 2006. Hölderlin, Friedrich. “Patmos.” Œuvres. Translated by Gustave Roud: 867. Paris: Gallimard, 1967. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, The Twelve Chairs, Translated and preface  by Alain Préchac. Lyon: Parangon, 2005. Jurgenson, Luba. Night Education. Paris: Albin Michel, 1994. Kharms, Daniil. Works in Verse and Prose. Translated by Yvan Mignot, preface by Mikhail Iampolski. Lagrasse: Verdier, 2005. Lotman, Yury. Semiosphere. Translated by Anka Ledenko. Presses universitaires de Limoges, 1999. Lotman, Youri. L’Explosion de la culture. Translated by Inna Merkoulova. Presses universitaires de Limoges, 2004.


Michaux, Henri. “Moriturus.” Face à ce qui se dérobe. Paris: Gallimard, 1975. 131 –48. Nabokov, Vladimir. The Gift. Translated by Raymond Girard. Ed. Maurice Couturier. Paris: La Pléiade, 2010. –––. Lolita. Translated by Maurice Couturier. Paris: Gallimard, 2001. Nancy Huston & Leïla Sebbar, ed., A Childhood Elsewhere. 17 écrivains racontent. Paris: Belfond, 1993. Préchac, Alain, trans., The Golden Calf. Paris: Scarabée et Compagnie, 1984. Pasternak, Boris. “My Sister—Life.” Translated by Michel Aucouturier and Hélène Henry. Paris: La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1990: 33–69. Pushkin, Alexander. Eugene Onegin. Translated by Roger Legras. Lausanne: Editions l’Âge d’Homme, 1994; Translated by Jean-Louis Backès. Paris: Gallimard, 1996; Translated by André Markowicz. Arles: Actes Sud/Babel, 2005. Remizov, Alexei. With Clipped Eyes. Translated by Nathalie Reznikoff. Paris: Gallimard, 1958. –––. Savva Grudtsyn. Translated by Armand Robin. Ubacs, 1986. –––. Sisters of the Cross. Translated by Robert Vivier. Ombres, 1986. –––. Russia in Thunderstorm. Translated by Anne-Marie Tatsis-Botton. L’Âge d’Homme, 2000. Rilke, Rainer Maria. Orchards. Preface by Philippe Jaccottet. Paris: Gallimard, 1978. Robbe-Grillet, Alain. La Jalousie. Paris: éditions de Minuit, 1957. Rubinstein, Lev. This and That Thing. Translated by by Hélène Henry. Paris: Aux nouvelles écritures théâtrales, 2002. –––. Time passes followed by As long as life goes on. Translated by Pierre Alferi and Hélène Henry. Asnières-sur-Oise: Éditions Royaumont, 1993. –––. This Time. Translated by Hélène Henry. La Rochelle: Éditions Rumeur Des Âges, 2004. Sagalyn, Adine, ed., Voies de pères, voix de filles. Maren Sell, 1988. Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Night Flight. Paris: Gallimard, 1930. Sarraute, Nathalie. Childhood. Paris: Gallimard, 1883. Schultz, Bruno. The Street of Crocodiles. Translated by Thérèze Douchy, Georges Sidre, Jerzy Lisowski. Preface by Artur Sandauer. Paris: Gallimard, l’Imaginaire, 1974. Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Stories. Translated by Sophie Benech, Catherine Fournier, Luba Jurgenson. Ed. and preface by Luba Jurgenson. Lagrasse: Verdier, 2003. –––. Correspondance avec Boris Pasternak suivi de Souvenirs. Translated by Sophie Benech and Lily Denis. Paris: Gallimard, Arcades, 1991. –––. Vichera. Antiroman. Translated by Sophie Benech. Preface by Hélène Châtelain, Lagrasse, Verdier, 2000. Tiutchev, Fyodor. Poésies. Translated by Paul Garde, l’Âge d’Homme, 1987. Tsvetaeva, Marina. Works. Vol. I, Autobiographical Prose. Vol. 2, Stories and Essays. Translated by Nadine Dubourvieux, Luba Jurgenson, Véronique Lossky. Paris: Le Seuil, 2009–2011. –––. Carnets, Translated by Eveline Amourski, Nadine Dubourvieux. Ed. Luba Jurgenson. Paris: Editions des Syrtes, 2007. Vegh, Claudine. I Didn’t Say Goodbye. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.




English translations used in this text Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Warrior and the Captive.” Translated by Irving Feldman. A Personal Anthology. Edited, introduction, and epilogue by Anthony Kerrigan: 170–74. New York: Grove Press, 1967. Originally published as “Historia del guerrero y de la cautiva.”  El Aleph (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1949). Celan, Paul. “Conversation in the Mountains.” Paul Celan, Selections. Edited and introduction by Pierre Joris. Oakland: University of California Press, 2005. Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop, reprinted with permission of translator and of Carcanet Press, Manchester, UK Tsvetaeva, Marina. The Demesne of the Swans. Translated and edited by Robin Kemball. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1980.


1937 World’s Fair, 34 accent, 7, 8, 18, 19, 25, 69, 72 alcoholism, 71 Algerian Revolution, the, 53 Amsterdam, 15 anguish, 31, 46, 54, 69, 84 Annensky, Innokentiy, 59 Little Bells, 59 Appelfeld, Aharon, 77 Asia, 22, 4 Aubervilliers, 10 Avignon, 65 Babel, Isaac, 63, 76, 77 Bach, Paul, 50 Baikal, 22 Beethoven, Ludwig van, 40 Belarus, 43 Bely, Andrei, 38 Berlin, 13, 15, 49, 69, 78, 89 bilingualism, 3, 4, 5, 43, 86, 87 “horizons of bilingualism,” 4 Blok, Alexander, 63 Bohemia, 17 Bois de Boulogne, 43 Bolshevik Revolution, the, 51 borders, 8, 11, 25, 43, 78 Borges, Jorge Luis, 36 Botticelli, Sandro, 75 Bouvard, Julie, 74 BrainPort Experiment, the, 50 Brezhnev, Leonid, 26, 27, 41 Broch, Hermann, 79 Brodsky, Joseph, 16-18, 40, 79 “Berlin Wall Tune,” 40 Less than One, 17 camps (prison), 18, 48, 55, 61, 67 Camus, Albert, 44

The Plague, 43-44 Carmen (opera), 57 Catteau, Jacques, 54 Celan, Paul, 1, 62 centaur, 86 Châtelain, Jean-Quentin, 58 Chekhov, Anton, 63, 84 Ich sterbe, 84 Let Me Sleep, 63 Chicago, 15 Chinese, 17, 22 classics, 44 Coldefy-Faucard, Anne, 21 Cologne, 89 communist, 21, 42 consonant, 19, 32, 33, 71-73, 76 Cyrillic (characters), 71 Czechoslovakia, 70 decadents, 32 Demnig, Gunter, 89 dialogue, 8, 24, 38, 53, 69, 83, 84 Diderot, Denis, 58, 79 diminutive suffix, 73, 74 Don River, the, 12, 13 Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, 39 Karamazov, Ivan, 15 dream, 11, 16, 20, 26, 32, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 47, 49, 51, 58, 61, 62, 67, 75-77, 79, 82, 87 Drot, Jean-Marie, 26 Dumas, Alexander, 52 emigres, 13, 20, 22, 30, 53, 67, 68,76,78, Estonia, 28, 29 Eugene Onegin (Pushkin), 67 Europe, 13, 15, 17, 18, 21, 41, 48, 65, 78 expression, 22, 26, 37, 45, 57, 61, 62, 65, 67, 71, 82, 89



Fabre d’Olivet, 85 foreigners, 27, 28 French Revolution, the, 51, 72

Joan of Arc, 46, 55 Joyce, James, 51 Jurgenson, Luba Another Life, 48 Gare du Nord, 7, 65 Mothers and Sons, 62 gender, 70, 74, 75 Night Education, 60 German, Germany, 17, 34, 36, 48, 60, 61, 68, Jussieu, Jussieu literature school, 54, 85 73, 75, 77, 79 Girshovich, Leonid, 58, 60-62, 77 Kafka, Franz, 63, 79 Apologia from Escape, 60, 61 KGB, the, 28 Schubert in Kiev, 62 Kharms, Daniil, 40 The Transposed Heads, 61 Kipling, Rudyard, 40-42 Girshovich, Siuzanna, 69 I’ve Never Sailed the Amazon, 40-41 god, 15, 16, 36, 73, 85, 86 kolkhoz, 34, 72 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 40, 41, 79 Kolyma, 18, 27, 42 Gogol, Nikolai, 37, 71, 79 Korczak, Janusz, 43 Dead Souls, 37 Korean, Korea, 22 Goncharov, Ivan Kremlin, the, 27 Oblomov (Goncharov), 54 Kruschev, Nikita, Gorbachev, Mikhail, 26 Grand, Joseph, 44 larynx, 3 Greenwich Village, 17 Laurent, Emile, 32 gulag, 24, 32, 46, 55 Lenin, Vladimir, 28 Gulf of Finland, 28 linguistic, 30 linguistic expats, 5 Hanover Opera, 61 literary criticism, 69 Haussmann, Georges-Eugène, 14, 52 Lithuania, 29 Hebrew (language), 77 Loire, the, 51, 55 Heidegger, Martin, 4 Loire-Atlantique region, the, 64, 79 Heine, Heinrich, 51 London, 15, 63 Helsinki, 28 Lotman, Yury, 29 history, 12, 14, 15, 27, 38, 46, 48, 51, 53, 54, Louis XVI, 72 59, 67, 74, 87, 88 Lyon, 24, 25, 48, 77 Hoffman, Eva, 50 Lost in Translation, 50 Mandelstam, Osip, 37, 80 Hollywood, 34 Stalin Epigram, 37 Holocaust, the, 32 La Marmotte, 40 Hugo, Victor, 40 Marshak, Samuil, 40, 42 Hundred Years’ War, the, 44, 46 mass graves, 18 Maupassant, Guy de, 53 Ilf, Ilia, 42 metro, 52, 65 The Golden Calf, 42 Mitterrand, Francois, 54 The Twelve Chairs, 42 modernity, 15, 44, 45, 46, 52, 85 interpretation, 46, 57 monologue, 24 Iofan, Boris, 34 Moscow, 5, 7-23, 26-28, 30, 41-43, 49, 52 Irkutsk, 14 Mosfilm, 34 Iron Curtain, the, 41 Moskva River, 27, 28 Israel, 22, 47, 78 Mukhina, Vera, 34 Italian, Italy, 20, 21, 27, 51, 70 Musil, Robert, 79 Jaccottet, Phillippe, 58 Jerusalem, 24 Jewish, Jews, 22, 29, 33, 42, 46, 47, 60-62, 75, 77

Nabokov, Vladimir, 13, 37, 42, 79, 82 Lolita, 82 The Gift, 13 Visit to the Museum, 37


narration, 13, 82 nationality, 11, 78 native/native language, 5, 21, 27, 30, 31, 39, 50, 52, 60, 65, 68, 69, 71 Nazi, 39 neuropathology, 32 New World, the, 15, 29 New York, 14-17 Nobel Prize, 16 novel, 13, 19, 42, 44, 45, 46, 60, 61, 62, 77 occupation, 29 Odessa, 42 Oranienburgstrasse, 89 Ouaknin, Marc-Alain, 79 The Burnt Book, 79 Paris, Parisian, 7, 8, 9, 11-15, 17, 33-35, 42, 48, 50, 53, 54, 58, 64, 65, 70-71, 78 Parnu, 28, 29 Pascal, Blaise, 85 Pasternak, Boris, 17, 75 Peladan, Josephin, 54 Perestroika, 26, 52 Petersburg, 77 Petrov Evgeny, 42 The Golden Calf, 42 The Twelve Chairs, 42 pharynx, 3 phonetics, 3 physiology, 8, 38 Piccoli, Michel, 58 Poland, Polish, 19, 43, 75 political, politics, 30, 41, 67 political correctness, 75 Polska Księgarnia, the, 43 prefix, 5, 19 pronoun, 33, 86, 87 pronunciation, pronounce, 2, 19, 49, 71, 72, 73, 76 propaganda, 40, 54 Proust, Marcel, 51 Pleasures and Days, 51 Time Regained, 51 Pushkin, Alexander, 61, 79 Queen of Spades, The (opera), 33 Rabinovich (Jewish joke), 8 radio, 68, 81 Radio France, 25 reality, 32, 35, 37, 44, 68 Red Army, the, 13 Remizov, Aleksey, 50

Rilke, Rainer Maria, 84 Orchards, 84 Rio, 41, 42, 48 Romanian, Romania, 77 Rome, 20, 21 Rossiia, the (hotel), 27, 28 Roth, Joseph, 79 Rothenberg, Jerome, 37 Rubin, Edgar, 85 Rubinstein, Lev, 40, 61 ruble, 10, 22, 78 Russian Civil War, the, 13 Russian emigres, 13 Russian financial crisis (Aug. 1998), 10 Saint-Exupery, Anthony, 44-46 Night Flight, 44 Sarraute, Nathalie, 84 The Use of Speech, 84 Schulz, Bruno, 16, 18 The Street of Crocodiles, 16 semioticians, 29 Seventeen Moments of Spring (TV show), 68 Sevran-Beaudottes, 10-12, 18, 19 Shalamov, Varlam, 17, 18, 62, 80 Cherry Brandy, 80 Shostakovich, Dmitrii, 57 Siberia, 5, 22 Siècle (journal), 89 Sienkiewicz, Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius, 43 skyscrapers, 15 Slavic Classics (collection), 54 soldier, soldiers, 13, 29, 45, 46, 69, 70, 71, 86 song, 33, 40, 42, 43, 61, 77, 81 Sopher, Meredith, 54 Soviet, Soviet Union, the, 20-23, 26, 29, 30, 34, 35, 39, 40, 42-44, 47-49, 53, 54, 68, 71, 78, 81 speech, 11, 25, 61, 79, 80, 81, 84, 85 speech organs, 3 speech therapy 33 Spelling Reform of 1918, 71 Stalin, Joseph, Stalinist, 17, 32, 37, 55, 61, 66, 83 stress/accentuation, 18, 19 Styx, the, 13 suffix, 19, 73-75 Swift, Jonathan Gulliver’s Travels, 74 syllables, 2, 11, 18, 19, 72 Tartu University, Department of Russian Literature, 29




theater, 13, 25, 58, 61, 84 This Is the House That Jack Built, 40 Tiutchev, Fyodor, 84 Tolstoy, Lev, 79, 89 translation, 3, 29, 41,43, 44, 59, 56-62, 76, 83, 84 Tsvetaeva, Marina, 12, 13, 37, 52, 72 Ukraine, 43 United States, 5, 13, 15, 79 Vegh, Claudine, 48-49 verb tenses, 16, 25 Verne, Jules Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, 69

Vichy regime, 53 Vienna, 12, 15, 26 Villa Medici, 20, 21, 26 vocabulary, 6, 52, 67, 71, 86 voice, 15, 16, 24, 25, 32, 65, 82, 87 Volga River, the, 55, 72 Western, 8, 14, 20, 21, 24, 25, 26-29, 34, 53, 82 Western Wall, the, 24, 25 White Army, the, 12, 13 Wittgenstein, Ludwig von, 80 Yiddish, 29, 69, 87 Zariadie district of Moscow, 27