Excerpt from Climax

1

The story starts where all stories should end; in bed. Nicolas had been living with Pauline for two years, so this wasn’t the first time that they found themselves like this: facing each other, she giving him an ambiguous smile as she took his hand. These were gestures he knew by heart, gestures that populate the territory of reassuring and familiar things. He stepped closer and kissed her.

He’d always thought of sex as a metaphysical moment, a few seconds during which every man could take revenge on life. What revenge? Like everybody, Nicolas was going to die someday, and that day was inexorably approaching. Besides, he was thirty years old and hadn’t become what he had dreamed of being–a well-known director. His chances of success were getting slimmer and slimmer, and he was often overcome by self-loathing and shame. Sex was a consolation for all that.

On this day, however, something unprecedented happened to them. Nicolas was lying on his back and Pauline, who had just taken off her bra, had closed her eyes a little, the way she usually did when pleasure began to gently blot out the world.

Suddenly the bedspread lifted up and a third person’s head appeared.

With a dramatic gesture, Sofia sent the bedspread flying behind her. She was naked, and took Nicolas’s penis in her left hand while she tried to get rid of a hair she seemed to have on her tongue with her right. (But what was she doing under the bedspread?) In a moon-slow movement, like the outgoing tide, Pauline eased herself down level with Sofia; Nicolas closed his eyes.

He breathed calmly, seeking a thought, a subject, an object that could neutralize the sight of these two entwined women. Miraculously, his gaze fell on a book that happened to be lying on the night table: Letters of Abélard and Héloïse. Pauline had given it to him a few weeks earlier, saying she thought it was the most beautiful account in all of romantic literature. He tried to remember the last passage he had read. In fact, wasn’t it the moment when Abelard was castrated?

Right then, his objective was less to take pleasure than to hold it off as long as possible. Nicolas was considerate and polite, but every man has his weaknesses. The combined effect of Pauline and Sophia’s tongues soon broke his concentration. He raised himself on his elbows. “What’s the matter?” asked Sofia in surprise.

How could you claim that nature is well designed, he was tempted to answer her, when an excess of pleasure precipitates the very end of that pleasure? He just muttered vaguely, “Easy, girls…” Sofia, who wasn’t very obedient, continued stroking his penis while Pauline took off her panties so as to move on to serious matters.

So of course what had to happen, did.

“What, already?” exclaimed Sofia, looking at him little ironically.

2

Let’s immediately put Nicolas’s disappointing performance in perspective. The English novelist Adam Thirwell once came across notes of a conversation between several eminent members of the Surrealist group, and this is the conversation that comes to mind. It took place on 3 March 1928, and its theme was the male orgasm. Each of the participants was to talk as honestly as possible about what they did in bed. Raymond Queneau asked the first question: “How long before you ejaculate, from the moment you are alone with the woman?” André Breton closed his eyes, trying to remember, wanting to be accurate. Before answering, he distinguished between two periods: all that preceded the act (which for him lasted more than half an hour) and the act itself (twenty seconds, maximum).

Maximum?

Remember, André Breton founded the Surrealist movement and wrote L’Amour fou. So one can’t draw any definite conclusion from a disappointing performance.

Raymond Queneau’s reply supports that initial insight: “The preliminaries, twenty minutes maximum; the act itself, less than a minute.”

Nicolas found this reassuring. So it can happen to anyone, even the best of us. He was tempted to leave the book by the English writer lying on the night table; it might interest Pauline, you never know. She loved André Breton.

3

“You looked distracted,” she said a little later. Feigning surprise, he put on a smile, as if to indicate that she was wrong: No, no, of course not. After all, he couldn’t very well admit to her that he had imagined the three of them in bed together, and that in his fantasy the third person looked like Sofia, the young Polish woman she’d introduced him to a few days before.

This wasn’t the first time that he’d fantasized about other women while making love to Pauline. (He would close his eyes, as if afraid of being caught in the act of infidelity, and let the film play under his eyelids.) Besides, he probably wasn’t the only person ever to seek fresh stimulation in more or less fictional images. He vividly remembered the period when the world was excitement without release (those long years of adolescence when he looked at girls but couldn’t approach them), but now he dreaded the reverse, to be locked in a world of release without excitement (being in a couple).

After two years of living together, he sometimes wondered if he and Pauline had reached the frontier of that peacefully settled world. No wonder his fantasy life was coming to the rescue of his daily lot. On the other hand, that he would include Pauline in the script was surprising. For better or for worse, she incarnated the antithesis of debauchery for him.

He asked himself the question somberly that morning, while making coffee: would he like to go to bed with Pauline and another woman? The idea, which had excited him a moment earlier, now seemed unpleasant and crude.

Here, a parallel with the Polish plumber must be drawn.

For the previous month, an anti-European PR campaign in all the French media had been stigmatizing the Polish plumber, making him symbolically responsible for unemployment in France. How could you fight him? He worked hard and cost much less. It was scandalous! It was unfair competition! Remember, the European Union had been built around the Franco-German couple. These were two countries who felt powerful, and by and large they got along pretty well. But weren’t they taking a fatal risk, it was suggested, by blindly rushing into the endless process of enlarging the European Union?

Let’s be even more concrete: if France and Germany welcome Poland into their bed, should they be surprised if Poland, which has a talent for plumbing, upsets their mutual balance?

In this story, Sofia was a little like Poland.

Nicolas knew he would be the big loser in such an expansion. He already found it hard enough to make one woman come; the idea of having twice as much work, in the face of fierce competition, seemed more than he could handle. Unless, speaking purely technically, a transfer of competence occurred, which was something he absolutely didn’t want. Besides, how could he admit to his desire for another woman, right in front of Pauline? Let’s call this impulse erotic sovereignism, which would be the logical opposite of erotic federalism.

Erotic sovereignism might be thought infantile, and with good reason. Men, at least most of the time, are big children. Here’s proof: exhausted by all these considerations, which he suddenly found completely futile, Nicolas drank his coffee and went back to bed.

4

The architects of Europe thought that two things were essential for the people of the continent to feel European: a flag and an anthem. The matter of the flag was settled in 1955, and presented no particular difficulty. But that wasn’t the case with the anthem. People hoped a new world would emerge after the horror of the war, and a number of composers wanted to be part of that. They included a composer from Lyons named Jehane-Louis Gaudet. In 1949 he sent his Chant de la paix to the president of the Council of Europe and crossed his fingers. After all, wasn’t it a golden opportunity for an unknown artist to become famous?

After the Chant de la paix was presented to the Council, the president telephoned the composer to personally thank him for his contribution. Unfortunately, he said, it would be very difficult to adopt this magnificent composition as the European anthem.

“Why?” asked Gaudet in surprise.

“Because we are required to be unanimous.”

It turns out that on the day the council met, a little man with a mustache, a Dutchman from Rotterdam, had felt that the Chant de la paix was too…. The Council president had forgotten the word that had been used.

“Too what?” asked the composer. He felt a little annoyed, but was prepared to rewrite a few bars to satisfy the gentleman from Rotterdam if necessary.

“Too…how can I put it?”

The Council president didn’t speak Dutch, and his translator had been out with a cold on the day of their meeting. So he hadn’t quite understood the reason for his Dutch colleague’s objection. He opted for a more general explanation.

“Well, everyone likes the song, but why did you write it in French?”

“Because I’m from Lyons!” said Gaudet “What language should I have written it in?”

The Council president didn’t know what to say. And that was the heart of the problem.

A few days later he received a recording of Hymne eines geeinter Europas, from one Carl Kahlfuss. When he played it for the Council, a Belgian politician named Bernstein formally objected: German simply couldn’t be the language of Europe. What in the world were they thinking?

The President didn’t know what to do. Sooner or later, they would have to agree on an anthem that would suit everybody, he said. “Otherwise, people will never feel European!”

Someone then suggested Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Wasn’t it better to celebrate joy rather than peace? And didn’t Schiller, who had written the original ode, wonderfully incarnate European values? Everybody agreed that it was a good idea–provided that a version was recorded in each of the continent’s languages.

“That’s just not possible!” the exasperated Council president burst out. “We need a single anthem! Just one! Otherwise it doesn’t count.”

5

Distracted by this European dream, Nicolas tried to remember the first time he and Pauline had slept together. Before that, they had been a perfectly classic couple: you take France, you take Germany, and you have Nicolas and Pauline.

She’d invited him up to her little apartment on rue des Tournelles for one last drink after spending an evening with friends, and they’d talked long into the night without daring to kiss. Then a critical event had taken place: Pauline’s cat Plato had snuggled up to him. He tried to discreetly push it away–he was allergic to cat hair–but in vain: Plato kept climbing back into his lap. So, with polite resignation, Nicolas started stroking it. Just then, Pauline was talking about her father’s sudden death. Not wanting to interrupt her autobiographical account, whose seriousness he could appreciate, Nicolas hadn’t budged, and the itching began, a predictable allergic reaction.

Next day, Pauline, told her best friend about her night with Nicolas. “We spent hours talking, and you know, when I told them about my father’s death, he started to cry. I swear! Well, not really cry, but he had tears in his eyes. I couldn’t believe it! Have you ever heard of anyone so sensitive?”

On impulse, she’d kissed him.

Nicolas had been amazed by her breath, by her voice, by how she came. It was a Beethoven symphony. Whether intentional or not, there’s something always solemn in the first moments of love. Suddenly the violins are heroic. The drums seem to penetrate your body. Right away, there are twenty-seven countries in your bed. It’s pretty damned impressive.

Nicolas wanted to say something but the words, suddenly useless, escaped him, and they spent a long time in the darkness without speaking, breathless and drunk with a new idea.

Bios

Florian Zeller

A prolific novelist and playwright at 33 years of age, Florian Zeller has been translated in 11 countries and is the recipient of several literary awards, including the Prix Interallié for his best selling novel The Fascination of Evil (Pushkin Press, 2008) and the Prix Jeune Theatre de l’Académie Française for his plays, as well as the Hachette Foundation Literary Prize and the New Writer Award from the Prince Pierre of Monaco Foundation for his first novel Artificial Snow (Pushkin Press, 2008). Zeller’s novels have received critical acclaim in the U.S. and the U.K., where he has been translated by The Other Press and Pushkin Press.

William Rodarmor

William Rodarmor is a veteran French literary translator. His translation of Florian Zeller's book Julian Parme was published by Other Press in 2007.

La Jouissance. Copyright (c) Editions Gallimard, Paris, 2012. English translation copyright (c) William Rodarmor, 2013.