17 Women Portraits, Chapter one

Une personne a eu l’amabilité de passer certains de mes textes à la moulinette DeepL Pro. Je viens de regarder ce que cela donnait sur le premier chapitre de mon « Dix-sept portraits de femmes ».

Or c’est une excellente surprise : seulement deux erreurs. L’une est un contresens, l’autre, la preuve que c’est toujours un robot et pas encore une personne : alors qu’il n’est question que d’une femme, DeepL prend soudain un « lui » (« le regard que je lui adresse… ») comme la référence à un homme (sur une base purement statistique j’imagine). Au cours de la lecture rapide que je viens de faire, j’ai dû faire une vingtaine de modifications pour éliminer des lourdeurs de style et autres maladresses et j’imagine que j’en ferais encore autant lors d’une seconde lecture. Mais je répète : la traduction est d’une qualité qu’on n’aurait jamais imaginée à l’époque où circulait la blague de la machine à traduire russe qui avait traduit « La chair est faible mais l’esprit est fort » en « La viande est tendre et la vodka est formidable » (« spirit » en anglais, c’est l’esprit mais aussi l’alcool).

Très intéressant de mon point de vue (rien à voir avec DeepL) : alors qu’il me semblait qu’en français l’influence des auteurs dont je m’inspirais du style (Kerouac, Roth, Nabokov…) était invisible, dans la traduction anglaise, elle m’a sauté au visage et, pour tout dire, m’a donné la chair de poule en trois ou quatre occasions.


In the morning, I get up around six o’clock. My flat is in Pacific Heights, the area in San Francisco where people like me who work in finance live. There was a film with that name about ten years ago, called Pacific Heights. It was directed by John Schlesinger, to whom we owe some very fine films, including Midnight Cowboy, and also Sunday, Bloody Sunday, one of the memorable scenes of which was Peter Finch kissing Murray Head on the mouth for a long time (remember: that was 1971), and another one, my favourite, where Glenda Jackson is about to pour milk into her coffee, when the little girl in the house advises her against it because « it’s the baby’s milk », and as this remark doesn’t seem to be able to dissuade her, the kid adds: « That’s Mommy’s milk! ».

In Pacific Heights, Michael Keaton, who a few years later would be a particularly dour Batman opposite Jack Nicholson as the Joker, is the satanic neighbour who sadistically destroys the lives of a preppy young couple, all too happy to be living in such a posh neighbourhood. The posh lady is played by Melanie Griffith, who a few years earlier had been a hard-working woman (Working Girl) who made mincemeat of social barriers, and above all, the savage creature, the seductress with no qualms about it, in Wild Thing, which had allowed her to give the full measure of the talent and humour that are hers.

Like most of San Francisco’s central neighbourhoods, Pacific Heights is on a hillside, clinging to a steep hill that slopes straight down to the bay. Three blocks up the hill is a fortress owned by Danielle Steel, a best-selling novelist whose name is familiar to Americans and, who knows, maybe even the French. The house where I live is on the corner of Broadway and Gough. My flat, on the first floor, overlooks the sloping part of Gough, and has a view of the two neighbourhoods making up the lower part of the hill: Cow Hollow and Marina. From the living room, with the benefit of my explanations, you can see a corner of San Francisco Bay: Fort Mason, a little water, and in the background, Alcatraz Island, the prison that is now disused. From the roof of the building, which is a terrace, you can see the whole northern part of the bay from about 50 metres and the view is breathtaking. On the right, barring the horizon, Russian Hill, with, beyond, the ultimate floors of some skyscrapers of the financial district, and in particular, the pyramid-shaped Trans-America tower. In the centre of the panorama, Alcatraz, and to the left, further out to sea, looming over the hills of Marin County, another island, all green and much larger, a mountain set on the water: Angel Island. On the left, the Golden Gate opening onto the Pacific Ocean: the « Golden Gate » bridge in all its scarlet splendour.

When the Navy is in town in late September, the Blue Angels air patrol performs a Saturday afternoon aerobatic display over the bay and the city. The tenants of my building then gather on the roof for a little impromptu party with drinks and snacks. The front door of the building is left ajar so that neighbours with less of a view can join the party without having to climb up to Lafayette Park which crowns the hill. In any case, we remain among people from the same world: the working-class districts are miles away.

At about 7:30, I walk down Gough towards Union Street to catch the trolley. The stop is at the corner of the two streets, on the border of Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow. A woman with platinum blonde hair takes the 41 at seven forty just like me. The fact that we find ourselves on the same public transport almost every day implies a certain concertedness on her part as it does on mine. Our eyes never meet. She has never smiled at me, and as far as I can see, she has never smiled at any of the other passengers. We have never sat next to each other, which defies the laws of probability, and again requires a concerted effort. Of course we have never spoken to each other. She is tall, over six feet, and wears her oxygenated hair in a bun. Her skin is perpetually tanned, but in a shade akin to iodine dye that evokes artifice rather than sunlight. She is reminiscent of Eva Peron, who I imagine was not a genuine blonde either. And the platinum blonde must drown out some white here and there because she is in her forties. If I said she was « striving to look twenty » I would be assigning a motive to her that is certainly not her own. It’s much simpler: she once realised she was twenty and decided peremptorily that things would stay that way. This does not make her the victim of an illusion but the embodiment of the determined woman.

The fact is that I never smiled at her either. Our attitude towards each other is, in a way, a political stance. Our antagonism expresses a mutual disapproval of a fundamentally ethical nature. She probably suspects me of being a Democrat voter, just as it is perfectly clear to me that she votes Republican. As such I resent her not matching her actions to her beliefs by moving elsewhere in America, like people who vote like her, rather than to the West Coast of the United States where the prevailing « centre-left » sentiment should logically annoy her. I have in my head a representation of the map of the country that includes a clear dividing line, roughly coinciding with the Rocky Mountains, to the west of which (Washington State, Oregon and California) reside the Democrats and to the east of which the Republicans (there must still be a handful of Democrats in the rest of the country and, from reading the New York Times, I assume, also in New York). So this woman, by living in a place not assigned to her by the natural order of things, is breaking an unspoken pact, and thus deserves my reproachful look.

Of course, over the months I have sought to overcome the resentment that results from the simple fact that you are not given the attention you feel you deserve and to discover more objective reasons for my hostility. For example, I resented the ‘shitty taste’ in her clothes, as if, once this mental restriction on my part was lifted, everything would become possible between us. She dresses with research and everything she wears must cost the earth. Her favourite outfit is an oxblood-red leather jacket that clashes with the candy-pink she puts on her lips, a beige suede mini-skirt and very high white boots with tight laces that bring to mind the name Sonja Henie, in other words, the show business of the thirties, figure skating in its two successive phases: The Olympic Games (St. Moritz in 1928, Lake Placid in 1932 and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936), and then Hollywood (the same year). In her own eyes, and with her white boots, she is without doubt the most elegant woman in the world.

The other day she showed up with a new coat she was wearing to show me. I, out of courtesy, feigned a certain admiration. Feigning admiration is easy of course but admiration is difficult to communicate when, by mutual agreement, we cannot exchange glances. This coat is made of pieces of skin of various sizes and irregular shapes in pale blue, sewn together in an intentionally clumsy manner, which takes us straight back to the thirties, since one can easily imagine a similar garment being worn in a film set in prehistory and shot at that same time.

The contrast between the ridiculous outfits this woman wears and the exquisiteness of her features, underlines in a distressing way the extent of the mess. To read into her taste an « error » or « absence » of taste, however, would betray, as I shall explain, a misunderstanding on my part.

When I was in primary school, I had a Jewish friend who I often went to after school and whose father was a tailor. The style in which the flat was decorated had a name that I later learned was « kitsch ». Then one day I heard that the Louvre was preparing an exhibition on Byzantine art. And I went there, and I was stunned. For everything I had learned to recognise as « kitsch », that is to say, in my opinion, as a lack, as the « absence » of a style, I found there, not as a void, but as a fullness: as the positive expression of a culture of its own, with its tradition and its thousand years of history at least. This concern to present not just one carefully chosen colour and thus distinguish it from the others, but all of them at once (red AND pink), this intention to add to what is already overflowing, to add something extra, this desire to superimpose ivory on silver that is already too much in relation to the gold that is there, and too much of it: this is the essence of Byzantine art. In other words, a definition of beauty that confuses the seduction of the gaze with its saturation, where admiration is imposed by brute force rather than entrusted to the care of charm: in other words, marriage by abduction, in preference to the song of the troubadour.

Which is not to say, of course, that all shitty taste is Byzantine, but that it shares with this culture a concern for saturating the eye, which is supposed to symbolise, it goes without saying, wealth. In this case, it’s not Byzantium, but its contemporary descendants, which, due to the hazards of my personal history, are not entirely foreign to me. And this means that this woman’s taste is ‘good’ in its own way, rather than absent, because it is recognised as such in a particular place in the world that is not just any place, and which is distant to me only by deliberate intent: because, knowing very precisely what it is, I avoid it with full knowledge of the facts. I mean, if someone were to say to me, « You know, this is the way women dress in Dallas, » I would say, « You’re certainly right, I saw this style as the mark of success back when I was working in Houston. »

And what doesn’t pass muster between this lady and me, what I call ‘Republican’ and now ‘Texan’ in her case and what she calls ‘Democrat’ or ‘hippie’ in mine, is the equation she posits between success and wealth, which makes her a representative of modern bourgeois culture, and me between success and a more classical trio of wisdom, heroism and holiness, which makes me a representative of tradition, medieval tradition in particular.

In her eyes, no doubt, someone who takes the bus at seven forty in the morning has not really succeeded in life: I combine, as she does, an imprecise appearance of success with real failure; I symbolise in her eyes the place where she herself has failed, I remind her, every morning at seven forty, of the part of herself that she rejects and secretly considers intolerable.

Of course, it’s not impossible that this lady and I might decide to get married one day, I wouldn’t be otherwise surprised: what happens between men and women transcends (by far) what rational representations manage to capture about the essence of things. So, last week, our eyes met for the first time. This is what happened. The trolleybus had arrived at 7:35. I was already at the stop because it was one of those mornings when I had to move the car: each bit of the pavement in San Francisco has a sign indicating the two-hour window each week (usually eight to ten in the morning) when that stretch of street will be cleaned. I leave home a little early, not knowing how long it will take me to find a new spot for the car. But that day the bus arrived a little early. I got on, went to sit down, and as it started up and entered the intersection towards Van Ness, my gaze turned to Gough, on the side where the steep street climbs towards Pacific Heights, and I saw her there, ten metres away from me, decelerating the narrow-stepped race she had started without much conviction. She saw me too and our eyes, meeting for the first time, exchanged all the desperation in the world.

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Une réponse à “17 Women Portraits, Chapter one”

  1. Avatar de Hervé

    Vos « 17 portraits de femmes « , il faut en faire un livre !
    Je vous l’avais déjà murmuré.
    Voilà un autre biais qui le prouve encore.
    Dès sa parution, je me le procurerai légalement, juré, comme tous vos livres déjà parus.

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