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Excerpt: Ingrid Caven A Novel: The Sheet of Paper

Translated from the French by Michael Pye

The sheet of paper was 8 ×11, crumpled, spotted with splashes of coffee, wine, maybe nicotine; they found it on the ground by the side of the dead man’s bed, lying there to be picked up by anybody, the cop, the maid, the doctor. The writing that covered it was like a speech given in a single breath, no punctuation, only one real erasure, two words now illegible at the end of a correction and a little arrow for cross reference. Eighteen paragraphs in the sequence, as though he had the whole text already written in his mind, all he had to do was write it out, the words had been etched in him forever and he had only to read and copy them; but the writing was just phrases, telegraphic, not exactly literary stuff. He had jabbed the paper, gashed it, raised welts and sores, made hard signs as though with a stiletto and not a ballpoint: it was something raw and brutal. The writing was firm, but still it shook like the needle of a seismograph, shaken up, rickety, words on the slant: like a child’s writing, like an old man’s writing, each letter formed with force and great attention, as though writing was slipping away just as life was and he tried to trace the letters, especially the capitals. The words blew about, had their own life, and none of the phrases lined up neatly; these were words thrown onto paper, as you write a note when you’re in danger, page torn from a notebook, no time to punctuate or take a breath, someone is after you… Numbered 1 to 18, the paragraphs were the stages, the chapters, images, scenes, synopsis, who knows—there was no title—of the life of Ingrid Caven. What follows is a literal translation, with the punctuation and the syntax of the original:

1 Birth + hatred of mother + start of allergy (Germany needs canon fodder)

2 First song, silent night holy night

3 Allergy much loved

4 University + worsening of allergy, decision for psychiatry you need courage to live

5 End of allergy, love with psychiatrist, high-class woman in rosewood, end of love

6 Flight skilful very disheartened for the terrible chic Revolution [sic]

7 Short life alone with many stories of men

8 Plays theatre, lives in commune, electronic love (GVH)

9 Marriage, fear of marriage, divorce

10 Africa

11 Second strategy

12 First appearance at Pigall’s

13 Jean-Jacques Schuhl + some bad films

14 Catastrophe with Musical, end with Jean-Jacques

15 Time of loneliness, appeal of suicide, drugs, schnapps and boys and cockroaches in the Chelsea H

16 Attack in waiting room, knowledge of great love

17 Sex and crime and black eyes

18 Dispute fight love hate happiness tears pills death +a smile

Just a wretched scrap of paper, found and kept by sheer chance, someone might have thrown it out despite the lines scrawled on the back. On the other side of page, the ‘right’ side, there is dialogue in neat electronic typing from the script of some movie Rainer had already made—big budget, six, seven, eight million dollars, big historical reconstruction, period sets and costumes, the Second World War—he must have used this particular piece of paper because he had nothing else available in a sudden emergency, he didn’t have the strength to get up and he lived very much alone at the end. On the reverse of this big historical movie, Rainer wrote his last words: the story of his wife, real, imagined.

The big budget project was pushed to the shadow side of the page, hidden away, the kind of production that he complained at the end was keeping him prisoner: and on the new ‘right’ side, these words he had scrawled, almost cut into the paper with such force and application, the life of the woman he loved. It was almost nothing, but only almost: a simple sheet of paper… just like fifteen years earlier and the cut of the Yves Saint Laurent dress, Ingrid Caven claimed the ‘wrong’ side, the second side, the reverse of the black satin cloth and now the paper, its secret side turned round, the dark, forgotten, secondary, shadow side of things turned to the front. That was where he wrote her ‘life’ and where she too had ‘written’ her life, not on the grand, fixed side of things but rather on the rootless side which she made grand with her songs.

Once again it was like the cloth you turn over because it’s the back side that counts, and you don’t know any more which is front and which is back, the Moebius strip, everything changes and comes back, what’s noble becomes vulgar and comes back, cloth that shows its lining, flags that beat in the wind. On what was once, and is no longer the ‘right’ side of the page, this scrap of dialogue: But, tonight, in front of the men, it will work, I am sure, and then I will realize something you desire. Something that you desire…

It was a troubling page because episodes 1 to 13 referred to facts and events, but 14 to 18 were entirely from his imagination. He saw her life as tragedy, a melodrama from an airport novel, and he had finished it. He did it as if she, too, were finished, deciding even her violent, scandalous, ignominious ending,; but Rainer was the one dying that way, sometimes he was found alone, outside, stark naked in front of his door on the landing, asleep in his shit, full of alcohol, drugs, sleeping pills, and at the height of his fame. In 14 to 18, was he taking revenge or playing tricks or just assembling the threads like a skilled writer for the screen? Or like a fate that he was trying to ward off with his words? She had got away, and on his deathbed he invoked her, he evoked her, took her back with words, with this skeleton story of her life. It was extraordinary: he wrote the life of the woman he loved, part real, part imagined, part elliptical, and on the way he made a picture of himself, and then he died.

Fascinating, worrisome, even very worrisome: you think about it, it couldn’t possibly be a film project. How could he shoot Ingrid’s disastrous end, her terrible fall and ignominious death while she was still living, and more alive than many others? He could have filmed 1 to 13, but not 14 to 18. Never. So what was this thing? A malevolent prediction, tempting fate like the voodoo priest pricks the doll with needles; but Rainer’s needle was a ballpoint pen.

Ingrid Caven is a novel by Jean-Jacques Schuhl, translated from the French by Michael Pye will be published by City Lights this June.


Jean-Jacques Schuhl


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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