Authors: Yasmina Reza
Yasmina Reza is a playwright and novelist whose plays
Art, Life x 3, The Unexpected Man
Conversations After a Burial
have all been multi-award-winning critical and popular international successes, translated into thirty-five languages. She lives in Paris.
ALSO BY YASMINA REZA
Conversations After a Burial
Theatre Paris-Villette, Theatre Montparnasse (1987);
Almeida Theater, London (2000)
The Passage of Winter
Theatre du Rond-Pont, Paris (1990)
Comédie de Champs Elysées (1994);
Wyndham's Theater, London (1996);
Royale Theater, New York (1999)
The Unexpected Man
Theatre Hébertot, Paris (1996);
Royal Shakespeare Company and Duchess Theater,
London (1998); Promenade Theater, New York (2000)
Life x 3
Burgtheater, Vienna (2000); Theatre Antoine, Paris (2000);
Royal National Theater, London (2000)
A Spanish Play
Theatre de la Madeleine, Paris (2004);
Theatre Dramatyczny, Varsov (2004);
Classic Stage Company, New York (2007)
A translation of Steven Berkoff's version of
, directed by Roman Polanski
, a novel
, a novel
Lulu Kreutz's Picnic
, a film, directed by Didier Martiny
, a novel
Dans la luge d' Arthur Schopenhauer
, a novel
One day the writer Adam Haberberg sits down in front of the ostriches on a bench at the Jardin des Plantes menagerie in Paris and thinks, this is it, I've found the poorhouse position. A spontaneous position, he thinks, you can find it only when you're not trying. One fine day you sit down and there you are, you're hunched in the poorhouse position. He feels at ease in this position; I feel at ease in it, he thinks, because I'm young and there's no onus on me to stay like this. In normal times Adam Haberberg soon
bounces back, but these are not normal times for him, a man who's paid six euros to walk a few yards parallel with the Quai Saint-Bernard, then come back again and collapse onto the very first bench, opposite the ostriches in what is undoubtedly the ugliest and least attractive part of the garden.
So, one day, there in front of the ostriches in the Jardin des Plantes, Adam Haberberg sits down. The bench is wet from invisible rain. The two flabby, gray creatures are eating a kind of straw in front of their hut in a totally bare enclosure. The cell phone in his pocket rings. “Hello?” “Did you see the weather?” says the voice. “Enough to make you blow your brains out.” “Forget it. That's how it goes.” “Where are you?” “In the Jardin des Plantes.” “What are you doing in the Jardin des Plantes?” “Where are you?” “In Lognes. Eldorauto car accessories. In the parking lot.” “What the hell are you doing in Lognes?” “Waiting for Martine. How's the book?” “Disaster.”
“Will I see you?” “I'll call you back.”
At the brick entrance to the big cats' house the word
looms monstrously. The optometrist, he tells himself, the optometrist was not all that reassuring. On the other hand he was not alarmist. But then would an optometrist be alarmist? Would an optometrist say, Monsieur Haberberg, we can't
exclude the possibility that very soon you'll have lost the use of your left eye, dear Monsieur Haberberg, what guarantee have we that when you leave here you'll still be able to cross the street like before? No. The optometrist says, the second angiogram confirms the diagnosis of partial thrombosis in the central vein of the retina. Showing more hemorraging than in the first. This is normal. It's normal for the edema to deteriorate before beginning to be absorbed. It may take between six months and two years before becoming stabilized, it could deteriorate, remain stable or improve. The optometrist also says, you're lucky, Monsieur Haberberg, you still have good close vision, you're not seeing things blurred, you're not seeing them distorted. And he adds, we must also do a visual field test since the back of the eye you present is of a type that could give rise to glaucoma; this is only a suspicion, but the iris is furrowed and we have no right, you understand, to ignore what might be the start of something. Adam Haberberg is forty-seven. A young age, he thinks, at which to see the murkiness of death winking at him. It had begun with a flickering sensation, it always begins with things like that, he thinks, a flickering, a buzzing, a smarting sensation, these barely perceptible things, little alarm bells ringing. He had covered his right eye with his hand and
said to his wife: my vision's blurred. That's all we need, was her comment. The sight in my left eye's all hazy. It's a speck of dust, it'll pass. She didn't give a damn. She'd already left the room, she didn't give a damn about anything to do with him. The word
, modestly articulated a few days later, only irritated her. The word
had swept away any residue of indulgence or understanding within Irene's heart.
Adam Haberberg thinks about Albert out there at Lognes waiting for Martine in the Eldorauto parking lot. He thinks about his wife; he thinks about his eye. He thinks about the catastrophe of his book. He thinks about that animal whose canine teeth project beneath its lower jaw, stooped there in a corner of the garden between two ovals of shrubbery. Solitary, he read on the panel, habitat: the mountain forests of Asia. Solitary, yes, he thought, watching the tailless quadruped trembling as it grazed, but not a solitude like this, the solitude of flat ground, no air, with unappetizing grass and the noise of cars, in that part of the world, shown in red on the panel, which is your habitat, you can see the sky through gaps in the darkness, I've never written about mountains, he thinks. When it comes to the footpaths and trails I love, I'm tongue-tied.
Adam Haberberg was no longer fond of his book. He even viewed it with loathing. Had pride led to this? A more or less honest attempt, he conceded, to explain the disaster? What had to be admitted was that the book, of which he had once (and until recently) been tentatively fond, fond indeed in spite of or because of this tentativeness, was suddenly no longer dear to him, rejected, even regarded, in fact, as just one more pile of shit amid the proliferation of useless piles of shit and that this feeling was sincere, with the subtle proviso that it was hard to identify the moment when it had crept up on him, at what stage of the disaster it had taken over, and whether what was occurring was the onset of lucidity or a salvage operation. Was it the event (or nonevent) as a whole, or one particular verdict? A judgment that could be regarded as relevant or as emanating from a voice held to be relevant? Irene, who had not contested the word
, had accused him of giving credence to the social disaster, so that the social disaster had mentally transformed itself into a literary disaster, this slippage in Adam's mind from social to literary disaster disgusted Irene, who saw in it nothing but betrayal, cowardice, and abject spinelessness. Theodore Onfray writes that your book is a pile of shit, Irene had complained, so now I, your wife, who told you it was good, lack true vision.
I'm worth nothing and my opinion's worth nothing. Equally extreme, it transpired, was Goncharki, who found it positively unnatural for anyone even to glance at a column written by someone like Onfray. Your bitterness is nauseating, Goncharki had said, and your doubts even more so, you worry about being rejected by the very people you abominate, you've clearly got your back to the wall. I can only regret, he had said, that you didn't see fit to assume a furious air in my presence, which would have secured a certain degree of loftiness for the two of you, you and your book.
Since neither Goncharki nor Theodore Onfray suffer from thrombosis or glaucoma—and as far as he's concerned Adam doesn't believe in this glaucoma anyway, what kind of fate would assail the same man and the same organ twice over?—neither of the two is qualified, thinks Adam, to pronounce a relevant judgment on the way of the world. Why let one's peace of mind be eroded by these petty barfly pundits, which is, of course, unfair to Goncharki, who's a genuine skeptic. As for the glaucoma, Adam simply doesn't believe in it. Let us grant the thrombosis, he thinks, I hadn't foreseen the thrombosis, but let us grant the thrombosis. But no way am I going to have both a thrombosis and glaucoma. Accustomed as I am, he
thinks with nostalgia, to minor ailments not one of which was taken seriously.
Children in parkas run along beside the railings. A wind gets up, ruffling the feathers of the sparrows and pigeons in the enclosure. This thrombosis is a leap into old age. After the first visit to the optometrist Adam had looked up the word
in the dictionary: the formation in a living being of a clot in a blood vessel or a cavity of the heart. Why should it have specified in a living being? If not to emphasise the abnormality and the danger? Irene had shrugged her shoulders. She was exasperated. Irene no longer loved him. He reproached her with no longer loving him. To which she would reply that this was an unjustified reproach, since to cease loving is not to be culpable. He would pounce on this statement, exclaiming, you see, you admit it, you don't love me anymore. To which she replied, I'm speaking generally; you can't blame someone for ceasing to love. He would persist: so you admit it, in your horribly cold manner, you've just admitted you no longer love me. She would accuse him of conversational perversity, she would say, it suits you to revile me. He would reply, I'm not reviling you, I'm stating a fact. That was how most of their exchanges went. Irene was an engineer at France-Télécom; she used to leave around
eight in the morning and come home, exhausted, around nine o'clock in the evening or later. He blamed her for working a galley slave's hours, which transformed him into a nanny (they had two boys of five and eight), he blamed her for lacking any serious angst, the same as all her friends in the public services, if only, he would say, you understood the difference between physical fatigue, he would say, and mental fatigue—and it was, he knew, a terrible injustice that Irene never sought to correct—you come home, he would say, and you can draw a veil, whereas we, meaning we artists, are obsessed day and night, there's no rest for us.
Adam calls Albert again. “That's it, then, the diagnosis of thrombosis is confirmed.” “Shit.” “Partial thrombosis in the central vein of the retina.” “Shit.” “Cardiovascular ultrasound scans, clotting tests, tests for diabetes, cholesterol, et cetera. All I have is a genetic anomaly.” “Hold on, I'm letting Martine in.” “Hyperhomocysteinemia.” “What's that?” “A thing that causes thromboses. They're going to do a visual field test too. I may have glaucoma.” “I didn't hear that.” “I may have glaucoma.” “Glaucoma? Why would you have glaucoma?” “The optometrist says
maybe I have glaucoma.” “As well?” “As well as the thrombosis.” “You're not going to have both of them?” “Why not?” “Right. When will I see you?” “Tell Martine it's crazy to work at Lognes.” “I'll tell her.” “Especially at Eldorauto.” “I agree.” “Tell her I'd like to meet the genius who invented that name.” “OK.” “Has she read my book?” “She's going to read it.” “Tell her I've got a thrombosis.” “An Animalis truck is blocking my exit from the parking lot.”
She'll never read my book, that wretched Martine, thank God, what does she know about literature, thinks Adam. But at least let her buy it, that'll make a sale. She won't buy it, of course, Albert will lend her his copy. Frustration at every turn. The only difference between success and failure, Goncharki had said, is movement. If something's on the move it creates a buzz. You get a little relief from the gloom of life.
For years Goncharki had been writing a kind of essay with a metaphysical thrust inspired by the life of the gangster Meyer Lansky. Adam, who was also fascinated by Lansky, had heard Goncharki utter the name over dinner. People who could sustain a conversation on the subject were rare and Goncharki had accorded him a friendly welcome to that night's entourage. Their discussion had taken off on the principle that it was better to be Meyer Lansky than so-and-so or so-and-so.
They had begun with their fellow writers and then moved on to politicians, to so-called philosophers, to footballers, to corporate bosses, to the pope, and each time it was better to be Meyer Lansky. The final conclusion was that it was better to be Meyer Lansky than the rest of humanity combined. From this accord a relationship was born, reinforced by a shared passion for the game of chess (until a stupid argument comes to deprive them of this pastime). Goncharki smoked two packs of Gitanes a day and could fall asleep at night only completely drunk. By a curious phenomenon of self-discipline, although no pressing reality obliged him to remain on course, he would begin drinking only at about seven in the evening and by the time he was hauling himself under the covers, he had knocked back some five pints of alcohol, including a bottle of whisky. In the past Goncharki had published a couple of crime novels in the well-known Sèrie Noire and a pamphlet called
A Survival Manual.
His wife had fled with their daughter when the child was six. She was a dentist in Tours and every month transferred a payment of nine hundred euros into his account. He wrote books for two popular fiction series, Blade and Vice Squad, and latterly, having for some unknown reason taken a violent dislike to
Richard Blade, only Vice Squad titles, lie sometimes translated political texts from German for the European Documentation Center. He scraped a living. Why didn't the thrombosis attack him? Why is it my eye the blood's clotting in, thinks Adam, I'm a man in perfect health (one's day-to-day complaints have nothing to do with one's health). Why is it me embarking on this appalling process of drugs and hospitals? Why not Goncharki, who's totally abused his body for decades, who has bloodshot eyes and nothing more to lose? I'm only forty-seven, he thinks, as he watches the absurdity of the strutting ostriches through the railings—what's the point of wings if they can't even manage a tiny flutter—I'm young, I'm too young for the world to be blotted out. The optometrist had given him Veinamitol, a vein tonic in the form of a powder taken orally, recommended for the treatment of hemorrhoids. You can always go on taking it if you like, Professor Guen had said, when consulted after the first angiogram, a remark that smacked of resignation and gloom. Prior to the Veinamitol they had prescribed aspirin—the Veinamitol had seemed more serious; despite its hemorrhoidal mission, it had sounded like something capable of soothing the red corpuscles and strengthening the blood vessels. Up until that unfortunate
remark of the professor's Adam Haberberg had knocked back the Veinamitol with conviction. Now he took his two packets halfheartedly with a certain resentment, even. The truth was he went on taking the Veinamitol lest, if things got worse, he be blamed for leaving off the Veinamitol. He continued with the Veinamitol superstitiously. Professor Guen had added to the treatment two Spécialfoldine pills a day. But the Spécialfoldine had nothing to do with the Veinamitol, or even the retinal thrombosis itself. It was meant to assist in correcting the genetic irregularity known as hyperhomocysteinemia. The Spécialfoldine, Guen declared, should compensate for the folic acid deficiency, which could lead to further thromboses elsewhere. It was a treatment for the general constitution. It could not be counted on to boost the morale. Adam is about to call Albert again. He forgot to mention that weekend in Normandy, on the Cotentin Peninsula. The Cotentin was his idea. He'd had the idea of spending a weekend on the Cotentin because you need to have ideas like that from time to time. You decide happiness is possible, a couple of days is nothing, it's within easy reach, you tell yourself it's really the minimum a family needs, to go off for two days and collect seashells at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue. At the first service station Adam had bought
the younger boy a water pistol, a purchase Irene had disapproved of. She'd confiscated the pistol and retreated into a hostile silence. Fifty miles down the road happiness had vanished. At the service station the other families looked happy, the other families in the cars they passed looked happy. Was that pistol so serious? The pistol was serious—such was the sense of Irene's silence—it demonstrated his general thoughtlessness. A couple, Goncharki had once said on an inspired day, is like a house. It gets put together over a period of time, the foundations, the walls, the ceilings, you reinforce the roof, the doors, and the windows and then it's finished, you can't shift anything anymore. You can give it a fresh lick of paint, you can make a few home improvements here and there but as for the whole bulk of it, you can't shift it anymore. Adam doesn't call Albert again. Albert's with Mar-tine. Without Martine, Adam would have said: I forgot, catastrophic weekend on the Cotentin. And hung up. Without Martine the remark held water. Without Martine, Albert would have called back: I never liked the Cotentin, you need to cut it out. And hung up. Without Martine they would have had this vital exchange. Albert has Martine, who massages his feet and cooks him veal sweetbreads, I have Irene, who hates me. Do you want a wife who massages
your feet and cooks you veal sweetbreads? he thinks, contemplating the aggressive redbrick walls of the big cats' house. Adam admits the water pistol was a mistake. The water pistol was an open invitation to madness in the car. But madness in the car was better than the silence of death, in any case madness had quickly taken over in the back, even without the water pistol, and soon in the front as well, for no one can endure shouting and absurd arguments combined with an absurd refusal to react and he in his turn had started yelling absurdly when the older boy had whined, look what he's just done, Daddy, he's made crumbs all over the car, let's play at spitting, the younger one had said, he's gross, the older one had shouted, hitting him, he's spitting at me. I'm doing a hundred in the rain, Adam had bellowed, if you don't stop that racket I'll smash us all to smithereens. Madness had reigned in the car after the water pistol had been put away in Irene's handbag, while she continued to stare silently and with an uncommonly stiff neck at vistas of warehouses, billboards, and corrugated iron. Why had she not simply said, boys, the pistol will travel in my bag, it will reappear on the beach at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, in a mild and even slightly complicit voice, a voice that would mildly have implied, he's a terrible one, your daddy. But the mild voice no longer exists.