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Les Cités obscures : Le Guide des Cités by…

Les Cités obscures : Le Guide des Cités

by Benoît Peeters, François Schuiten

Other authors: Marie-Françoise Plissart (Illustrator)

Series: Les Cités obscures (9)

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Novels are not in great vogue on the Obscure Continent, though short stories, as circulated by publications like L'Echo des Cités, are. In lieu of a review of this useful and practical guidebook (to a place which has not yet found an entry in the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide series), I offer instead a translation of a nouvelle from one of the Continent's best-known writers, Dimitri Elbasec of Galatograd. ‘Remorse’ shows, I hope, even in translation, some of the dry qualities that have made Elbasec such a favourite with the reading public everywhere from Samaris to Mylos.


It was just after the publication of his fifth work that he heard of the concept for the first time. Up to that point, he had written without making corrections, striking the keys of his automatic machine at a rapid pace from the first page to the last. His second book had brought him success, and his career had progressed smoothly from then on.

How exactly did he discover the existence of what other writers are in the habit of calling rough drafts? I admit I never did find out. At any rate, from that moment on, he felt overcome by an inextinguishable feeling of malaise.

How vain suddenly seemed to him the novel he had just finished, after a little more than a month of work. It was not that he found faults in it, for the book seemed competently written and he felt for the moment unable to suggest the least improvement to it – but simply because the absence of previous drafts of the text (that mass of infinitely revised notes from which sometimes only a few words emerge) suddenly weighed on him unbearably.

To remedy this, he first attempted to reconstruct a few pages, without the help of his machine. He copied them out with great care, adding several crossings-out, and replacing whenever possible the correct word with another, less precise, one. The activity fascinated him. He soon applied himself to the whole volume.

His editor, however, began to worry that nothing had been submitted: the last novel had been a considerable success; the public was looking forward to the writer's next work. He turned such requests away bluntly: he had started on a work of an entirely different calibre; the novel could not be finished until this new project had been successfully completed. He asked that until such time, he be disturbed as little as possible. Never the most outgoing person, he had by this time broken with most of his friends; I myself, remaining one of his closest companions, only saw him at long intervals.

‘My work is progressing,’ he would say when I met him; and I understood that he had gone back a little further. For no sooner had the novel been copied out, incorporating innumerable faults that he had inserted, than this already imperfect state no longer seemed sufficient. ‘I'd like to go further,’ he explained, ‘further, back to the very source of the writing, where sentences are nothing more than shapeless assemblages of words, separated by great blanks and broken up by abbreviations.’

The editor, for his part, seemed annoyed. Two springs had passed already during which the writer had delivered no new work. The public was beginning to be enamoured with a young woman edited by a competitor. Assuredly, if the writer did not consent to delivering his novel as quickly as possible, his career could be considered ruined.

He did not even trouble himself to respond to these injunctions. Doubtless he no longer had the time, absorbed as he was in his interminable work. And moreover, there was a more serious problem: following his research, his old facility in writing had abandoned him. Before writing a single word, he was now imagining all those that might have taken its place. The simplest acts (which a few years ago he was carrying out without even realising it) were now a source of hesitation. Finishing a sentence had become an ordeal: at every moment an infinite number of alternatives crowded in around his pen.

At this time he was engaged in the most difficult phase of his research, where the text began to dissolve (unnecessary characters appeared, cluttering up the pages; others, though essential, had not yet been named) – where the project itself was starting to come apart piece by piece, transforming itself into a series of more or less disconnected notes. For every solution, he tried to discover the problem that it had overcome; for every one of his choices, the multitude of possibilities that he had been able to avoid.

When I worried aloud about the evolution of his work, he replied, visibly exulted: ‘I am working, I am working, nor have I ever worked so greatly.’ I acquiesced with a thin smile, which no doubt went unnoticed; and then I heard him continue: ‘How much more interesting than any work whatsoever will be the reconstruction of that movement of the spirit which allowed it to exist…. If my previous books have been so successful – something I now find difficult to explain – how much more successful will be the volumes I intend to publish!’

Somewhat confused, I asked him if he planned to have his novel published at last. ‘My novel,’ he responded, astonished, ‘What novel…? No; that would be absurd. I will publish the entirety of my work, an unprecedented mass whose power is unequalled.’

In vain I tried to persuade him, explaining that the timing was poorly chosen, that ten years, no less, had passed since the publication of his last book and that a novel in the first instance would help bring his name back to people's minds; afterwards, of course, one could foresee publishing extracts from his notebooks…. As I feared, he did not want to listen.

It was only when he gathered up all of his work together that I realised the extent of his labours over all those years. Immense was the mass of documents that he tried to deliver to the editor: papers of all sizes and all varieties, scattered notes, exercise books and notecards; and amongst all these, drowned, almost indiscernible, the definitive text of his novel. The whole thing barely managed to be loaded on to a truck.

Rejection, sarcastic and brutal, was not long in coming. Some days later, a fire, whose cause is still unknown, carried him and his manuscripts off together. A brief obituary notice, syndicated by most journalists across the Continent, reminded people that he had once been known as a promising young writer, before he turned his back on literature.
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  Widsith | Oct 5, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Benoît Peetersprimary authorall editionscalculated
Schuiten, Françoismain authorall editionsconfirmed
Plissart, Marie-FrançoiseIllustratorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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