"Haunting, a book of ghosts and a book of this moment." Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
A comic experiment in sociology and self-absorption, the award-winning author Thomas Clerc’s autobiographical Interior is a unique invitation into a professor’s preoccupations and possessions within the rooms of a small Parisian apartment.
Composed of bite-size vignettes, remembrances, and digressions, and filled with lighthearted transitions from pure description to quirky reminiscence and back, this meticulous tour through the rooms of Clerc’s home reveals fascinating insights into the author’s obsessions, desires, and frustrations. Each space is described in painstaking detail, sometimes down to the centimeter, and the history of every object and appliance is fully excavated with self-deprecating wit. From the ideal varieties of bathroom reading material to the color of his dish rack to the chaos of his sock drawer, Clerc happily and shamelessly guides us through the most intimate crannies of his home, as well as through all the strata of his existence as a bourgeois city dweller approaching middle age.
Playful and irreverent, as well as a sly commentary on materialism, Interior finds drama in the domestic and dark humor in every doomed attempt to express individuality through the things that we own.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Thomas Clerc was born in 1965 and is the author of several books, including The Man Who Killed Roland Barthes, a collection of short stories for which he received the Grand Prix de la Nouvelle of the Académie Française. Clerc teaches at Université Paris Nanterre, where he specializes in contemporary French literature.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is an award-winning translator of numerous French authors, from Marie Darrieussecq and Ananda Devi to Antoine Volodine and Hervé Guibert.
Read an Excerpt
The doorbell rings. I go. Peephole. Nobody. I grab my keys. I open the door. The 3rd-floor hallway. Empty. A glance. The stairwell. "Anybody there?" I can't have been dreaming. I go up some steps. I go back down. I'm in front of my open door.
This door isn't standard. Squat, shoved into its frame, it evokes some brutish epoch when people might have stood in front of caves, expecting monsters to poke their heads out. Its orange tinge is jarring, like primer paint before the final coat. It's old, it'll stay orange, with its uneven crust. Just looking at it, anyone would guess that the ceiling was low, the whole building too, this modest late 18th-century structure with 6 floors but only 2 façade windows. Ancient but inglorious: I live on 1 of those Paris streets Prefect Haussmann's equalizing regime left unrazed.
He Rings His Doorbell
If he wants to listen once again to that muted, shrill tone, which caught him by surprise, he'll press the little white disc embedded within its black plastic rectangle mounted on the right side of the doorjamb. He hears it rarely and rings it even more rarely still. His visitors generally don't notice the discreet button and so they knock on the door. Knocking on the door makes them seem more neighborly, since the doorbell's timbre is as impersonal as a luxury residence or a doctor's office. There's no name on the door. He enters.
He Enters His Home
I push open the door with the momentary twinge I always feel when coming back after some long absence or voyage: here's hoping nothing's happened. The molding on the inside panels makes it impossible to reinforce this door; only its old oak offers any bulwark against attacks. The Italian-style lock that I engaged with 1 double turn (&8364;500) is really just makeshift: the vertical bar with multiple rivets wasn't properly sawn off at both ends, the screws are unevenly tightened along the doorframe, and the circle bored into the wooden floor for the bar to sink into is more hole than precisely cut ring. 1 small wooden doorstop wedged/jammed behind the bar is supposed to protect it from crowbars, but this rudimentary safeguard positively reeks of amateurishness, even though I let a specialist do it. I can't really say I regret doing so, considering that the burglary I suffered on February 8, 2006, was accomplished not by breaking through the door but rather by shattering the living room window, contrary to all those statistics indicating that 80% of burglars come through the front entrance. It was then, out of sheer precaution, that I had my lock changed. Even though the burglar entered through the living room window, I can't be sure that he didn't go back out through the door, relocking it with 1 of the keys I (idiotically) keep in the entryway, so that he could come back later. The scenario may be unlikely, but I can't rule it out entirely. If I'd known how many copies I'd made of my keys, I could have deduced whether he had stolen 1; but, like so many other people, I never pay attention to these sorts of things and so the theoretical stolen key is simultaneously present and absent: by describing my apartment as faithfully as I can, by presenting this detailed inventory to my reader, not only will I be in a position to calculate the number of keys in my possession, but I'll know how to correct the mistake of leaving my keys out for everybody to see. Isn't writing a form of material proof, an observation that collapses uncertainties? Since there was no way I could allow myself to go on living in fear of yet another break-in, even without forced entry, I hired 1 of those locksmiths that we in France call "Louis XVIs" (it's a long story) to come and change this undamaged lock that was now threatened by Schrödinger's key.
Keys make their power felt only in being lost, thereby turning doors into walls, if not outright barricades — as in the classic misadventure that befell me on October 5, 2005, just as I was heading out. Grabbing my set of keys and shutting the door as usual, with 1 firm yank, I immediately realized on the landing that I had thoughtlessly taken along the keys for my Nanterre office instead of the keys for my apartment and was now locked out. Without my wallet or phone or anything more than 1 pair of office keys, I very quickly descended into frustration, worry, despondency, and self-hatred. No question about it: my day had been ruined.
This mistake has 1 identifiable cause: that same morning, I had learned of my dear friend the writer Guillaume Dustan's death at 39 (I, too, was that age). Perturbed as I was by this news, which I'd heard just before leaving to teach, on the threshold of my apartment, unsettled by the idea that someone of my own generation could die so early and so brutally, I found myself, immediately after my lunch at home, in the situation I have described, alone on the landing, helpless, reeling dizzily, heading toward the 1st café I could find and using their phone so someone could get me out of this mess.
Having crossed the doorway and shut the door with its 2 massive hinges so reminiscent of primitivist works of art in their 13-centimeter height and diameter that they aroused whistles of admiration from my locksmith (compliments carry 0 value save when delivered by experts), I step into the entryway. At the moment I enter my place, I reflexively slam the door: the burglary I've just described doesn't have any bearing on that action, since I'm not obsessed with security the way my colleagues are. The breach of my domicile, as unpleasant as it may have been, didn't drive me to reinforce my home with heavy-duty security doors, alarms, surveillance cameras, door chains, bars over the windows, or any other such paranoiac apparatuses. No, it's more my desire to remain hermetically sealed from the outside that prompts me to twist my wrist and shut myself in. This sanctuary in the heart of the city, this warm or cool oasis standing sentinel against the street. With that essential gesture, I dam the deluge: I enter my kingdom. The key's metallic click as it turns 2 times in the lock prefigures my passage into this other world. I do so even when some visitor leaves: as soon as he's out, he can hear me turning the key right behind him, setting off laughter on both sides of the door: the loon is locking himself in.
The Key to All Keys
At which point I leave the key in the lock, in its natural place. While my eyes stay fixed on the cluster of keys hanging and swinging like a clock's pendulum, in regular undulations that soon slow and come to a stop, I look for other elements bearing this double function (both organization and utilization). These keys are 3 in number: the largest 1 governs the entrance to my apartment and opens 2 doors — the door leading to the street, for which it isn't really needed, since punching the code (54 B 68) does the trick; and the door leading to the courtyard, for which it is very much necessary — while the 2nd key, with a black plastic cover on its bow and its short, crenellated shaft, is used for the apartment door; the last, very small key opens the mailbox. In 1 sense, these keys aren't mine; I'll have to return them when I get to the end of this book and I've left this apartment. These keys, weighted not so much by their volume as by their symbolism, signify ownership without wholly embodying it. The persistence of keys through history astonishes me: unlocking a door remains a terribly human, antiquated gesture forever haunted by the risk of failure.
In the Poe House
The 1 ideal, enduring key chain design I've always sought is now finally in my possession: a miniature book made of silvery metal and about 2 cm by 2.5 cm, with ring attached, the book's cover reading EDGAR ALLAN POE, the 3 words arranged vertically. The "book" has a spine also debossed with POE, and on the back cover, in small engraved letters, is the sentence I BECAME INSANE WITH LONG INTERVALS OF HORRIBLE SANITY. I bought this superb key chain in New York on July 26, 2009, while visiting the Poe Cottage, an antiquated wooden house tucked into some corner of the Bronx, on 1 small square right between 2 massive unwelcoming avenues, and which I found only through sheer perseverance, even as my queries to passersby went unheeded; nobody in the population of poor black people and working-class white people milling around that neighborhood had any apparent knowledge of Edgar Allan Poe's house.
The book's $1.50 gleam, weighting the fetters of my small key ring, is testament to my reverence for the author of "The Philosophy of Furniture."
A door, like a sheet of paper, has 2 sides, and on the verso of mine I see unappealing wood. Deceptive ornamentation barely hides its defects, which I've tried to cover up with wood filler. A useless undertaking: gaps and bumps still hint at the oak's paradoxical fragility, which my slipshod job only accentuated. When I feel it with my hands, the door seems knobbly, but not solid; it's more screen than proper door. Like a cardboard cutout of a knight that I could simply knock over.
A Peephole Named Judas
The peephole is at neck height for me, so I have to bend down slightly to use it. A position rarely employed: few and far between are those who seek to breach the boundaries of my apartment, fewer and farther still are those who arrive unexpectedly, and fewest and farthest are those occasions when the 2 categories meet and warrant a preventive glance, which is to say the moments when strangers present themselves at my door. The peephole's rounded magnifying lens creates a visual distortion, an effect I would say approximates anamorphosis. Since the French word for peephole is judas, sometimes I decide to play the betrayer and use this tiny panopticon as a base from which to spy on all the people going up or down the stairs — and when I'm also able to hear their voices too, then all that's left would be for me to scribble down their conversations here ... But at heart I can't bear to be a backstabber. The only secrets I'll betray are my own.
Having slammed the door, I double my foyer's defenses in the winter with a portière that keeps the draft out. It's always cold in my entryway since the stairwell leads directly to the courtyard and outside air: a defect perhaps due as much to its builders' indifference as to the modesty of means at their disposal. (I wonder who actually built my building? Some artisan who left no signed work behind, as opposed to those great architect-engineers who took pride in forever engraving the letters of their last names into the flesh of bourgeois stone ...) In the 19th century, interiors started being insulated from the elements; but in my apartment I have to do this work myself, stuffing the door's crevices with foam and hanging a rod above the doorframe for holding 1 thick green velvet curtain bought at the Saint-Pierre Market and hemmed by a Kurdish tailor at Château d'Eau. The length of the cloth is incorrect — a flaw that continues to annoy me, since I was the 1 who miscalculated the door's dimensions, as well as those for hemming the portière and then the relationship between the 2: the velvet lets cold air trickle out the left and right sides, while most of the wintry chill sits in 1 big heavy mass down low, held in by all the extra velvet on the floor. Sometimes, when I'm bored in the winter, I wave my hand around to enjoy those faint currents of cold air that, despite these defense systems, permeate my apartment; I sweep them from place to place as, with a slight frisson, I savor the carelessness of the unmodern world and of France itself, with its centuries-old architecture so ill adapted to the needs of the present day.
I note the small rod's awkward position: to get out, I have to push the curtain to the left, but because it isn't set on the door but above it, the cloth's thickness prevents the door from opening all the way. Of course there's no real need to open the door all the way, but at certain moments (several people coming in at once, or the sheer width of a new piece of furniture being brought in), this causes a huge pile-up, as we might say on the road. The curtain's way of hampering the door isan affront to the natural order of things: cloth somehow being elevated above wood. If by chance someone insisted on pushing the door all the way open, the curtain's thickness would, as it resisted, drag down the all-too-light rod holding it up, and so pull its screws out of their wall mounts, bringing the curtain and everything else attached crashing down to the floor. The internal limits of a system are endlessly fascinating. Luckily, nothing and nobody ever reaches 100%.
1 wall switch mounted on the left controls the room's lighting, so that anyone entering the apartment is temporarily refused entry to the kingdom of light. This instrument, which manages to merge technology and poetry, execution and idea, is, in French, called an interrupteur: it interrupts the Darkness in which we dwell, and within which we must search for the Light. A little pressure from 1's finger and the hallway appears: 3.3 luxurious meters by 1 narrow meter — its white walls, its window on the right, its wooden floor, its 2 doors side by side on the left, and the egress at its end, obscured by another cloth.
Illumination comes from an oblong, white glass ceiling light — the only real 1 in the apartment — light falling gently down from above. Its shape, somewhat softened by the thin layer of dust coating its globe, hardly interests me, but beneath this lack of interest is outright deception: this fixture is merely a far less sophisticated substitute for the beautiful restaurant chandelier I lost in tragic circumstances. 1 afternoon, bound to my desk, I hear an enormous noise tear through the quiet of my interior. I leave my seat, I go to the entryway: the chandelier lies, shattered, in the middle of the hall, in a jumble of glass shards. Propelled by its own weight to the floor, it had subsequently flown into 1,000 pieces. The metal sconce, its poorly anchored weight having been underestimated, had abruptly come loose, bringing down the massive glass rotunda as well. What a shame that it couldn't have fallen on some burglar's head, knocking him out in the act, committing a crime of its own as it was destroyed. The thief laid low by inanimate objects, a tale too tall to be true, lit up my caricaturing imagination for an instant as I used a dustpan to collect the fixture's scattered glass slivers and its orphaned metal base. I've hardly ever suffered any similar domestic accidents, but this 1 shed light on the 2 major problems with ceiling lights: the blinding risk of just such brutal drops, which I've never let myself forget since, and the sinister gleam they cast over a room, crushing it with light forced downward rather than gently spread in all directions.
I can't stop fixating on an odd thing about my replacement light: it's cracked. But it could only have become so subsequent to contact with some object or else some violent individual, which wouldn't have been me. Upon reflection, it must be a legacy of my (actual) burglar, whether because he was looking for something hidden in the fixture (as in Family Plot, Hitchcock's final film, where a diamond is secreted in a crystal chandelier) and then broke it out of spite, or else, more likely, he simply collided with it, somehow, in his haste. As such, the 2 ceiling lights in my entryway (past and present) have each suffered damage, total or partial — as if their position overhead paradoxically doomed them both to injury.
Window on the Walls
In this light, it's possible to walk into this hallway-entryway and appreciate the natural illumination streaming from the right thanks to the window looking onto the building's courtyard. As the sight of this small, walled-in courtyard strikes me as depressing, if not sordid, considering the 10th arrondissement's relative paucity of lavish courtyards, the original inhabitants' relative modesty of social status, and the 3rd floor's relative inadequacy of panoramic views, I've draped some large white cotton curtains in front of these double casement windows. Thus filtered, their light adds to the space's serene ambiance. Held in place by 1 gray brass rod identical to the portière's, along which several small ring-clips slide, this curtain is always kept shut, even when I open the window for some air. Its natural-fiber cotton, acquired at the Roissy IKEA, protects me from the walls of facing buildings and the windows of fussing neighbors.
I'm caressing the curtain's slightly quilted texture; I'd like not only to give my readers a guided tour of the museum-of-sorts that I consider my apartment, but also to make them rub their fingers over every inch of it; literature moves me because it respects nothing.
Around the sides of the white curtain I peer out at the courtyard. I bring my eye to the lateral gap and, like a silent spy, I let my gaze take in the slow, lugubrious rhythm of this interior space, largely uneventful, but not always — as when snow falls.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Interior"
Copyright © 2013 Éditions Gallimard.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
A Note About the Author and Translator,