"The Censor," "The Bird Gardener" and "The Painter of Dreams"
by Tony Duvert
Translation and introduction by S.C. Delaney and Agnés Potier
Tony Duvert’s Les petits métiers* (Little Professions)—a slim volume of prose pieces, their text as lean as poems—first came to my attention in a very bright, well-packed Parisian bookstore in 1998. Browsing through the works, I was immediately struck by their voice: the lilting, homespun tone of fable roughened with a caustic edge. And while spare, the pieces flickered with a feverish clarity, their lurid, textured details sharpening the senses as I read. Later, upon finishing the collection at home, I felt dirtied as if by a fine coat of grit.
Following in the footsteps of the mauvais garçons (the shock jocks of French literature), Duvert spent his 20-odd-year writing career penning controversial, unsettling books that assail bourgeois moral codes with an astonishing passion and vehemence. In his essays and novels (published from 1967 to 1989, one of which won the prestigious Prix Médicis), he skewers accepted norms and social institutions—from marriage to the family to the church—ascribing dark, bestial motives to those most bent on upholding them. Authority figures, as defenders of traditional mores, work to control the culture’s citizenry by breaking its freewheeling spirit. In the texts that compose Les petits métiers, Duvert elaborates these premises with a clever, roguish charm. Rather than acting as themes, however, these views set the narratives in motion, laying down their world’s harsh rules and provoking the plights of their characters.
The following works are set within the same imaginary village and describe the strange customs and professions of its inhabitants. The narrator grew up in the village (events are filtered through his memory), though since that time things have clearly changed. What might strike one as odd is the narrator’s tone of voice—now unruffled, now wistful—and its relation to the events he describes. This relation, I think, creates much of the works’ tension and vigor (as well as jarring, zany wit). But it also poses questions: How much, if any, of the pieces’ bitter essence—for their vision is profoundly bitter—belongs to the storyteller, and how much has been slyly injected, beneath that vocal skin, by Duvert? Is the narrator a sort of simpleton whose utterances, by chance, hit some cutting notes (Duvert has a fondness for wordplay), or—stranger but perhaps more convincing—does he embody the impossible: one who can look at life head-on, horrors and all, and still maintain a kind of innocence?
The answers are, I think, best left up to readers. The more I consider the texts, the more necessary it seems to allow their ambiguity, to let different meanings shine through. The interplay of lightness and weight, the dreamlike logic, the voice’s inflection that flips a phrase’s sense—it’s the slippery elements that give the work its power. These are, for me, the hardest things to capture. They’re also the most gratifying when, with a single word or comma, they quicken with riotous life.
Not everyone in our village was illiterate. On the contrary, each market day, between the goose pen and open-air bistro—its benches full of coarse women and drunks—we’d watch as the censor tied his little donkey cart and began to set up shop. With a couple whacks of a stick that set the poor beast braying, the censor announced he was officially on call. Although he was a secondhand bookseller, his main job was in cutting up books, which he neatly did by using a long straight razor, cleaner and more dazzling than a barber’s. Like many people good with their hands, he couldn’t read—a matter of little importance, since no one expected him to judge the things he censored. One simply ordered him, holding out a book one had read with indignation:
—Here, cut this and cut that, and this page here, and these two lines, and those two also.
So he’d take out the passages one disliked. But the censor was the only person who sold and bought back books—all of ours came from him and then went back to him. Thus, those books that circulated too much, pruned according to the tastes of successive readers, ultimately dwindled all the way to their binding, on which sometimes the title (for there are bad titles) and even the author’s name (for there are preposterous names) had disappeared.
To compensate, the censor carefully saved the scraps left over, placing them loosely in a box to resell—three sous per handful, if one fished them out at random; five sous if one preferred to choose.
In short, there was no lack of reading.
THE BIRD GARDENER
He’d go from orchard to orchard, tending to the trees. (Not that we cared for fruit much—in our village we preferred meat and cake.)
The bird gardener cleverly built his traps, grouped the trees by species, grafted, and hybridized as if seized by a loving fervor, and these groves, fruits, and scents drew from high above myriad sparrows, which would fly down to add their colors and songs.
Eventually, with the appearance of the first cherries, cool blond sunlight caressing our skin, nothing dispelled our winter blues like climbing up a tree and randomly plucking off, then nibbling on, some small, very lively birds.
A kid, I was so mad for them I’d barely spit out any feathers; leisurely, I crushed the downy, palpitating beasts in my mouth—completely engorged, filled to the brim with fruit, and whose tiny beaks, between my lips, still cried out their song.
THE PAINTER OF DREAMS
The custom among us was to have a portrait of oneself to show. Photography, even the old-fashioned kind, wouldn’t have worked. Rather, it was necessary that a crafter of the imaginary depict us. This man was a diminutive painter who was remarkably skillful, highly submissive, intelligent besides—always welcome.
He’d live in our bedrooms and share our meals; didn’t have a house of his own; would make his own tools, acquiring, treating, and grinding the minerals for his colors; and would make love at random, according to the moods of his hosts, their children, their pets.
He’d stay all the time that he worked on the requested portrait. Not that he needed you to pose for him, but he did need time to listen. These portraits, in effect, didn’t reproduce the physical model, but made incarnate what one longed to be.
A wife or old maid would tell him: I would’ve liked a small nose, large eyes, soft and sparkling, bright white teeth, lips that pucker just so when wanting to please, a stomach like this, thigh like that, a hand that “speaks.” The painter would set to work portraying the person envisioned. She’d look at the result, then add: No, I also would’ve liked a little curl over there, by the forehead, and ruddy cheeks, and knees that shine, and shapely feet, the left a bit behind the right, arched like this. The painter retouched it.
Handsome men were no less flirtatious than the rest—one never saw, as often as in our village, guys wanting to be fair.
Once the portrait was finished, it was displayed in the best place in the house. And from that point on, you’d be better able to live with yourself and put up with those around you. You’d go to someone’s house, and he’d mischievously hide his face and say:
—Wait! Wait! Come have a look at me!
And he’d lead you to stand before his image. That, that was him. Not the head he’d happened to be born with, his gourmand’s paunch—no, rather all the beauty he would have wanted, in his bed, to blossom forth, evoking spring’s fresh radiance, lifting it close to the faces he loved. It would, without question, be for you.
—Look at me!
You’d look. You’d regard the other based on the appearance he wished for, not for the horse-faced ugliness age or chance had given him. The portrait was the soul of the model—the representation, incredibly intimate, of the person he’d have been if he could. And the greatest painted beauties were rarely conceived at the behest of the real ones. The more one saw oneself as perfect, the more one questioned the resemblance, and the more the image would seem mediocre, vain, marred by small clichés. The ugliest ones, on the other hand, kept in their homes portraits so lovely they’d bring tears to your eyes: they knew, those ones.