Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Sweaty Frenchman

I first became aware of him only recently, in a kind of hazy and extra-sensory perceptive type-of-way. His name is Lucien, I believe, the last name being something like Malfossar or Malrossar or Malsomar, triple-syllabic anyway, with that evil root “Mal” at the forefront. Whether or not he is conscious of me I do not know; I think not, though ultimately I think he would care not a whit if he was. In any event, his recent revelation to me has brought nothing if not an unsettling unease which finds me quite unpleasant.

But enough of me and my silly feelings. Who is Lucien?

He is the sweaty Frenchman, and he is my rival.

In my mind’s eye I can image him now, relentlessly working, churning out the words, revising, revisiting, rereading, rethinking. Ashtrays overflowing with yellowed and stinky cigarette butts clutter the loft where he works. It’s unfurnished, of course, crates as tables and chairs and billowing curtains letting the stifling and choking Parisian heat into the fourth or fifth-story attic he calls office. There’s a bowl of milk on the floor for the cat that’s his only companion. A radio sits unpowered on an industrial-sized desk against an unpapered wall. There is no television. Television is evil because it is so bourgeoisie and must be eliminated. I agree, but for different reasons.

Lucien is a book hound. Towers of books, some as high as twenty stacked, mold a labyrinth of his workspace, yet each of the several hundreds is invaluable. These are his true companions, his inspirations, and his resources. Every keystroke contains the muscle memory of the thousands of pages read, the thousands of journeys taken without leaving the stifling den. And if that were not enough, the windowless windows funneling up glimpses of the red and white lights and hot noise of the city below supply him with any and all necessary muse power.

What my rival does all day is what I do not. He writes. But this writing is the end product of a long anti-sequential chain of events. First, in a self-perpetuating yet ouroborotic fashion (sigh: his adjective, not mine), he thinks and reads, reads and thinks. Then, he dreams. As much as the bastard works, he does sleep, much more than I do due in part to the strict constrictions he has voluntarily adopted. Then he writes, but in a preliminary, unstructured way: pen-to-paper diagrams, lists, statements-with-question-marks, what-fs and why-nots. Once he used four sheets of yellow lined to list over three-hundred phrases to describe the color yellow. Once he spent four days in fury wrenching the full name of a protagonist from the ether; that list was over six pages in length, complete with a childish sketch of said protagonist and her genealogy dating back to Louis XIV. There are dozens of pads and hundreds of scribbled notes, all strewn about in boxes and rusted file cabinets, tacked on the raw wood walls and stuffed into oily desk drawers in a frantic schizophrenic filing system only he knows.

Right now, even as I write this in the dark early hours, Lucien is smoking a cigarette, drinking from a cloudy bottle of water, click-clacking out words on an aged Hermes typewriter, adjectives nouns verbs clauses sentences paragraphs. In the time I’ve taken to write, to this point, 557 words, my nemesis has written five-and-a-half pages. He stops only to relieve himself. Only. He’ll eat when his body tells him to. He’ll sleep when he has finished “just one more scene” or “one more dialogue.” He does not answer his phone unless it is from his agent (more on that). He has no family. He has no women in his life, except on the odd night when a shower, fresh clothes, and a desire for human contact coincide. Like all sweaty Frenchmen, he quotes Sartre and Camus and smokes and drinks in situations as these, rare though it may be for Lucien.

When I write, he is writing. When I read, he is writing. When I am watching the children, he is writing. It is all he does, for he realizes that is his calling, his identity, his true purpose, and he has embraced it. When I watch teevee, when I do the dishes, when I mow the lawn, he is producing. When I browse the library, the grocery shelves, the internet, he is creating. When I take a bath or a long shower, he is improving. When I hold my head in my hands fighting off despair, he is too, though it is in manifested only in his novel’s protagonist. He is best-described as consumed. Willingly and willfully consumed.

He is fearless. He is focused. He has learned how to subordinate his emotions to his superior sense of surety. Sure, he has self-doubts: who doesn’t? But he does not give them self-expression. Like an Algerian sandstorm he pellets his agents mercilessly with his work: essays, short stories, novellas and longer pieces, plays, philosophical fiction, and some actually sell, enough, at least, to afford him his slum paradise. And concerning his work, more salt in the wound. Who would have ever guessed I have a Gallic counterpart who counted speculative fiction, philosophy, the Mother Church, and the realms of the impossible as his loves?

The only appropriate question, it seems to me, is this: Can I catch him? But even those four simple words are entangled with a mess of others: Do I have what it takes to catch him? Am I smart-clever-witty enough? Am I strong enough? Do I possess the stamina? If not, can I somehow wrest it out of myself? And most importantly, and most frighteningly, am I willing to sacrifice what he has sacrificed to catch him?

Damn that sweaty Frenchman. His very existence has thrown down a gauntlet.

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