A few years ago, thanks to the Best Translated Book Award, I picked up A Life in Paper, a collection of short stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynard (my review here). I had no idea what to expect, and was delighted to find a host of bizarre, imaginative (yet grounded in our daily struggles), finely written tales. It’s one of my favorite discoveries I’ve ever posted on here at The Mookse and the Gripes. I was happy to see, then, that Edward Gauvin, who translated A Life in Paper, recently translated another French collection of short (very short) and strange (very strange) stories that nevertheless push against the weight of daily existence, this time from Jean Ferry: The Conductor and Other Tales (1950; tr. from the French by Edward Gauvin, 2013).
The Conductor and Other Stories is made up of 25 stories, taking up all of 141 pages. Each story, as you can see, is very short, some just a paragraph or two (the longest is twelve pages, all brisk). Accompanying each story is an illustration by Claude Ballaré (the one on the cover goes with “On the Frontiers of Plaster (A Few Notes on Sleep)”). All in all, it’s a beautiful, compact book, and slipping in and out of each tale is a delight, even if the stories explore some of the darker areas of our mind.
While not every story deals with the same themes, it seems the majority of them concern characters who are tired of being awake. The day-to-day battle of existence is getting to them, and one notes that you never rise into sleep: you fall, you collapse. In a kind of epigram to the story pictured above, Ferry writes:
A man roused from sleep can legitimately claim self-defense.
The theme of being roused from sleep carries on. In one story, “Robinson,” a seemingly shipwrecked man finds himself on a strange island, alone, unsure where he’s at and who might be with him. Nevertheless, amidst all of this, he finds longed for solace:
Then, upon discovering a cavern — deep, blind, deaf, dumb, inaccessible, and carpeted with Greek sand — I slept the kind of sleep I’d always wanted to but life had never let me: thick and layered.
A few minutes later, the rescuers were there and, delighted, tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up.
What causes the fatigue, the singular desire to lie down and forget? It’s not always clear in any particular story, but over the course of the book, it’s rather simple: life. This life is depicted as a strange island, and we are wanderers, alone (save for the people who wake us). In “Letter to a Stranger,” one of the narrators finds himself on this strange land:
We have just arrived in a rather curious land. I don’t know if this letter will ever reach you. To tell the truth, I’m not quite sure we’ve arrived, since the Earth keeps moving under our feet even though we’ve stepped off the ship. The Valdivia herself has vanished since I set foot on the dock, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again. There is no postal service in this land, nor any inhabitants, either; I don’t know if I’ll be able to send you this letter, or how it will reach you. Nor do I know whom to send it to; still, I hope you get it.
The Valdivia brings to mind the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, and the ship comes up a few times as its inhabitants find their explorations perhaps a bit unsettling, perhaps, even, a bit maddening. There are other references to conquerors and explorers. In the first story, perfectly entitled “A Nice Spot for a Stroll,” Genghis Kahn gets to the top of a hill and looks out at the horizon and wants to turn back, knowing that by moving forward he was really only repeating himself, that “beyond all possible conquests, he could make out blue unknown lands, lush and fragrant, that he would never reach, on the far shores of impassable seas.” But his horse wants to see Rome, and the barbarian hordes are right behind him demanding to move forward. There is a brief struggle atop the hill, nearly forgotten now.
It’s as if this life is a kind of penance, and the best way of dealing with it is to sleep, whatever form that may take. In “My Aquarium,” a man confesses — no, seems to enthuse — that “[f]or some time now, I’ve been nurturing thoughts of suicide. And I must say that I’ve been coping quite well.” These thoughts are embodied in little worms that he keeps in a box:
They eat whatever I give them: sorrows, pulled teeth, wounds (to pride, and other things), worries, sexual shortcomings, heartaches, regrets, unshed tears, lack of sleep — they down all these in a single gulp and ask for more. But what they like best of all is my fatigue, which works out well, since there’s no risk of that running low. I glut them with it, they never finish, and there’s always leftovers; I can never get rid of it all.
We get dragged along in this life, and thus we come to “The Conductor,” the man who has found himself propelled along by work, which is a curse and, at the same time, the very method of becoming numb:
You get tired, rolling along all the time, even if you’re conscientious. What’s all this supposed to mean, in the end? Yeah, you get older, you get tired. I’m so tired I even wonder — if the coal ran out, if I found the air brake in its usual place under my hand again, if the train were to in fact stop at last, would I even get off the machine? What strange land will we be in then? How will I get home? After so many nights, will I ever be reunited with those I left behind not while chasing adventure, but just doing my job? The stoker can do what he wants. Me, I’m not getting off.
Why be woken up?
This is not all Jean Ferry is up to in these stories, and he hits this strange life from a number of angles, all interesting and unique. This is simply the string I latched onto early on, fascinated to see it tangled up in so many of the tales, delighted to follow it away from my own day-to-day worries, wishing it would not run out. Alas.