The Mystery Guest

Suite Vénitienne
Sophie Calle, Images from Suite Vénitienne, 1980, b/w photographs, 9 × 7". Courtesy of the artist.

The following is a partial translation of L’Invité mystère, a memoir by Grégoire Bouillier and the first of his works to appear in English. Bouillier was born in 1960, in Algeria. He was raised in Paris. His previous book, Rapport sur moi (“Report on Myself”), tells the story of his childhood, his first loves, and his parents’ open marriage. (Bouillier begins by explaining that he was conceived during a threesome.) “Boccacio and Aristophanes have always struck me as coming near the truth,” he writes, “as do Sade and Georges Bataille.” Yet the writer who exerts the clearest influence over Bouillier’s work is Michel Leiris, an anthropologist associated with the surrealist movement, whose memoirs were translated by Richard Howard and Lydia Davis (and celebrated by Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation). Like Leiris, Bouillier revisits past humiliations in search of the secret, fairy-tale logic that governs his inner life. In The Mystery Guest the humiliation begins with a phone call from his ex-girlfriend, the great love of Bouillier’s youth, who had left him abruptly ten years before.

It was the day Michel Leiris died. This would have been late September 1990, or maybe the very beginning of October. The date escapes me—whatever it was I can always look it up later on—in any case it was a Sunday, because I was home in the middle of the afternoon, and it was cold out, and I’d gone to sleep in all my clothes, wrapped up in a blanket, the way I generally did when I was home alone. Cold and oblivion were all I was looking for at the time. This didn’t worry me unduly. Sooner or later, I knew, I’d rejoin the world of the living, just not yet. I had seen enough, I felt. Beings, things, landscapes . . . I had enough to last me for the next two hundred years and no inclination to go hunting for new material. I didn’t want any more trouble.

I woke to the ringing of the phone. Darkness had fallen in the room. I picked up; I knew it was her. Even before I was conscious of knowing, I knew. It was her voice, her breath, it was practically her face, and along with her face a thousand moments of happiness came rising from the past, gilded with sunlight.

I sat up in bed, heart pounding in my chest. I actually heard this going on, this unnatural pounding, as if my heart were electrified. I heard it thudding in every corner of the room—and this was no illusion, I wasn’t dreaming, there wasn’t any question it was her. The senses don’t lie, no matter how unlikely it was to be hearing her voice now, after the years I’d never heard from her, ever, not once. How appropriate flashed through my mind. And on the exact same day Michel Leiris died was my next thought, and the coincidence struck me as so outlandish it was all I could do to keep from laughing. I felt as if I’d plugged into the inner hilarity of things, or else brushed up against a truth so overwhelming only laughter could keep it at bay—but maybe it wasn’t a coincidence at all! Maybe she wouldn’t have called, it occurred to me, if Michel Leiris hadn’t died. Of course that’s what happened: she’d heard about Michel Leiris and somehow the fact of his disappearance had made her reappear. However obscurely the one fact figured in the other, I sensed a connection. The significance of a dream, we’re told, has less to do with its overt drama than with the details; a long time ago it struck me that the same was true of real life. Or of what passes among us for real life.

But this was no time for a philosophical discussion, and besides, I was in no shape to bandy wits. I could hear how soft and gummy my voice was, how drowsy-sounding, and somehow I just knew that she must under no circumstances be allowed to know she’d woken me up. That was crucial, even if it meant sounding cold and detached—and why on earth did she have to call, not just on the very same day Michel Leiris had died but when I was fast asleep and at my most vulnerable, my least up to answering the phone, when in a word I was completely incapable of appreciating this miracle for what it was? In real life, it goes without saying, the ideal situation eludes us, and no doubt that’s a good thing for humanity in general, but just then I’d have done anything to keep her from guessing that she’d caught me sound asleep in the middle of the afternoon. It was out of the question. Either it would look like a sign of weakness or else it would make me look churlish, to be caught napping the one time something exceptional actually happened; or, then again, she might draw certain conclusions—I didn’t know what conclusions, exactly, but still, I’d just as soon she not draw them. And no, I wanted to protest, it wasn’t as if my life had devolved into one long slumber. It wasn’t as if I’d been languishing, stricken and alone, since she’d left me. On the contrary. I just happened to be leading a life of leisure.

The strangest part was how I completely forgot that I’d sworn never to speak to her again, and that she’d left me years before without a word of explanation, without so much as saying good-bye, the way they abandon dogs when summer comes (as I put it to myself at the time), the way they abandon a dog chained to a tree for good measure. And I’d circled my tree in both directions and climbed up into it and spent a long time—spent millions of hours, years—in the void, cursing her name in the darkness. Yes, cursing her, because her disappearance had taught me that I was a less exemplary person than I’d previously supposed; but now the whole thing might as well never have happened and all that mattered was the fact of her calling, and that the day for action had come.

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