We went walking a lot… We met in school, when I was about sixteen years old, and at first, to get acquainted, we ditched classes to criss-cross the surrounding neighbourhoods and talk about literature and girls; we also discussed our travels and compared life experiences—unfurling with verve the creative mendacious hopeful boasts with which young men like to pepper their accounts. We got buzzed on cheap beer and, in the snow-covered streets, stumbled back to my house from exhilirating social outings with some older kids he knew. We went to the movies downtown. Talking, walking. Walking, talking. We saw this terrific film, En compagnie d’Antonin Artaud, in which Sami Frey plays the great writer in erratic shambles after the war, living at a psychiatric clinic he sporadically sneaks out of to make the rounds with a young poet friend and disciple, trying to score laudanum in a black and white Paris full of brittle women, left-bank intellectual cliques, and gaunt, hungry, splendid young men sporting worn blazers. I suppose, in a strange way, we felt it was about us. We also saw lots of dumb films starring beautiful girls. We both agreed that fragile, semitic Elsa Zylberstein was the fairest and most enchanting. We smoked cigarettes without inhaling.
Childebert’s father, Chlothar, was a high-ranking diplomat. He lived in the capital and only came infrequently to check up on my friend, who rented a room somewhere near school. The family had moved around a lot. It included Childebert’s striking Polish mother, Radegund, an operatic blond who liked to throw dinner parties, spend money with princely abandon, and break things on occasion—in thrall to righteous uxorial wrath, or in the savage moments of lucidity when she was confronted with the emptiness of her nomadic, ancillary existence. There were also two glamorous and neurotic sisters, Chlotilda and Amatilda, who never seemed to be around. They had all lived in Italy for a while, and then in South Africa, and in some other places maybe, but I don’t remember. Chlothar was a slight, intense, bespectacled man, with an easy, urbane manner that one somehow suspected must conceal a festering ferocity. He was also a snob. He came from a poor family of coal miners in the North of France. On purpose, he had failed the exam to enter teaching college, so that he wouldn’t have to waste his existence living up to his family’s humble ambitions for him. Instead, like a lot of French baby-boomers, like my own father, he was the first of his kin to attend university. He studied art history, and was able to show off his brilliance to such effect that he won the Prix de Rome, and lived for a couple of years at the state’s expense at the Villa Medici, on the Pincian Hill. There, he wrote forgettable essays about classical architecture, chased women and became friendly with Balthus and Marcello Mastroiani. Eventually, he got married to a Polish miner’s daughter who craved social ascent; and to support their shared ambitions, Chlothar entered the Foreign Service and became a Freemason, steadily rising in rank and influence ever since.
We were introduced at a tony French Brasserie downtown, where Childebert had asked me along to their monthly filial get-together, in my capacity as his one “presentable” friend. All the more presentable, it turned out, when I mentioned that my psychiatrist grand-father Joseph had for years treated Edouard Pignon, a minor but notable mid-century painter who was a long-time friend of Picasso. To seal his approval of my pedigree, Chlothar paid for dinner and gave me a signed copy of a book he had just published about his “great friend” Jean-Paul Riopel, the famous French-Canadian dauber of lyrical abstractions. This esteem stood me in good stead after I was obliged, later that year, to fly to Paris on very short notice because the beloved, aforementioned grand-father was dying. I missed one of the year’s final exams at the trig private Lycée I attended, and as a result, a jaundiced teacher who disliked me for being a bit too clever for her plodding tuition, jumped at the chance to teach me a lesson and thus restore her flouted honour. She refused any entreaty to consider the extenuating circumstances of what she had convinced herself was a grievous offence. Indeed, she had decided that I would fail the school year to pay for it, and more generally for my insolent defiance of her authority. But in the event, my budding social connections saved me. All it took was a phone call from my mother to Chlothar for the matter to be quashed and my good academic standing magically restored.
Childebert himself was tall, broadshouldered, handsome, and powerful: his physical allure mared only by nearsightedness and the clumsy inability to express his corporeal vigour by means other than virile posturing, violent exertion, and a certain brutality. He was very charismatic, and had the presence of a great cat—a large predatory animal that had been tamed perhaps, but imprefectly, so that its dangerous, feral nature always threatened, in a flash, to reassert itself. He was also remarcably bright. In school, he was the darling of teachers, mobilizing with masterful assurance the scholarly and social codes required to jump smoothly through the hoops of the curriculum, to dazzling effect. An avid and sophisticated reader, he was highly cultivated—sensitive and awake to the expressive possibilities of art and literature, as well as to the tense elegance of mathematics. I feel he never really nurtured this fine esthetic sensibility for its own sake however. His interest and his engagement were genuine, but never divorced from the sense that his cultivation was also, or perhaps mostly, an investment in a kind of cultural capital that was ultimately destined to be transformed into real power or otherwise instrumentalised for purposes of social reward.
In school, overall, he was quite outgoing and open to new contacts; he had that instinct for engaging with others that people used to fending for themselves alone in alien settings often develop. When he chose to be, he was effortlessly charming, but he could also be quite arch and aloof. He was fearless and popular with girls, for the most part—although many were astute enough to be put off by what they instinctively perceived, even if they couldn’t quite articulate it, as his basic misogyny, and his underlying indifference to them as anything but iterated configurations of the “desirable feminine.” He was never brutal or even manipulative with women, nor was he really callous, but there was something baldly carnal and selfish in his pursuit of them. He felt a strong fascination for their bodily bounty, but had only faint consideration for them as persons. As we grew older and I met his successive girlfriends, I noticed he seemed to select them not simply on the basis of their lithe comeliness—which was a necessary, but not an altogether sufficient condition. Rather, he appeared intuitively on the lookout for a certain pliant, masochistic propensity: one that would induce these girls to put up with, and even perversely revel in, the mild but unrelenting emotional abuse he always seemed to mete out once the relationship had become established. Their trespass, the one that untethered and, in his heart of hearts, justified his underlying sadistic streak, was that they inevitably failed to live up to the feminine ideal he fetishized by contaminating it with a singular personality, a history, a self independent from his ebbing and flowing desire. My impression was that his own sexual appeal, beyond his lean, robust build, mostly rested on the feeling of danger he projected; of compressed, concentrated energy, ready, at any moment, alarmingly to uncoil.
Despite his unpleasant asperities, or perhaps in part because of them, I was fascinated. Soon, I had started to dress like him and to talk like him: I wanted somehow to absorb not so much the substance but the style that allowed him to glide, it seemed to me, so boldly and frictionlessly in circumstances where, clumsy, foolish, hesitant, I cowered and trudged; to shine so brightly, where I dimly smoldered. Out of elements of his magnetic personality, I thought I might fashion myself a persona, or an armour, such that, remaining myself, I would nevertheless be steeled against the new adult world into which I had just at that time begun to be thrust, and overcome my reticence and paralizing timidity. Incorporating his voice, and something of his sharp edge, I hoped to acquire a formidable countenance. In me, I think he recognised an intelligence commensurate with his own, propicious personal dispositions, cultural affinities, and most of all, the opportunity to partake in that gratifying communion, which characterises the intense, unguarded friendships of early adulthood. And for a few years, we were great friends indeed. He soon moved to Paris, where he was in time admitted to one of the prestigious state schools that Napoleon, desiring a meritocratic device by which to secure steady batches of administrators, engineers and scientists for the nation, had created to educate the future governing elites—a rather inequitable system, which still persists, separating the elect from the damned, who frequent the crowded and underfunded universities.
I would visit Childebert most years, and we would resume our habit of traipsing across the city, but less aimlessly now, because Childebert wanted me to meet some rather interesting characters: like a swarthy “dentist” who never seemed to work, but who did do a lot of drinking, and seemed content to spend his days in his underwear watching football matches and pornographic films, absent-mindedly burning holes into the worn Persian carpets onto which, missing an ashtray stationed inconveniently out of reach, he would, on occasion, drop the odd lit cigarette. Esconsed in his immense, high-ceilinged appartment of the XVIth arrondissement, he looked incongruous, amidst the immaculate, wainscoted white walls and rococo stucco ornaments; he reminded me of the vaguely obscene carnal blurs Francis Bacon liked to represent in flat, open, semi-abstract spaces. His name was Odoacer and he was the on-again off-again fiancé of Childebert’s eldest sister, whose taste in men turned out to be rather ecclectic: she already had a daughter by an impoverished and drug-addicted dancer, would later frequent a journalist who was also a viscount, and, as far as I know, ended up with a fat, bald photographer who kept going to places like Rwanda and Afghanistan to bring back shocking pictures and hair-raising, but also, in the end, tiresome, stories of his gallant exploits. We ate oysters with Childebert’s vexatious younger sister and she gave me a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, “that well-known faggot,” for Christmas. We hung out with lots of cute girls who were all mad and had names like Émeline or Amandine or Capucine—some of them quite nice. Once, Childebert insisted on showing off his boxing skills at the gym of the École Normale Supérieure, and was quite dismayed that—by a mysterious operation of the holy spirit rather than any innate ability—I actually managed to clock him. He took out his fury on a nerdy classmate of his, who, to my mind, fully deserved the merciless beating he received because, when previously we had sat through the movie Gladiator together, he kept interrupting to correct Russell Crowe’s Latin. We went to visit Radegund, who by now had divorced Chlothar and lived with an inconsequential lover in a converted chambre de bonne on the 8th floor of a walk-up overlooking the church of Saint-Sulpice’s elegant gray façade, subsisting on her alimony and the scant income she got from writing translations. I once accompagnied Childebert to the National Assembly where he picked up the notes he was meant to base himself on to compose impassioned oratory about, of all things, agricultural subsidies, for a representative who had hired him as a speech-writer, and we amused ourselves at a café larding with the foulest obscenities and double-entendres the orotund ciceronian periods celebrating the good earth he dutifully composed. We took the train to Orléans, where Jeanne la Pucelle of yore showed the French that God was on their side, but all we did was smoke dope and lounge around in beanbags at one of his longsuffering girlfriends’ flat, watching clumsy, baffling, bloodthirsty, and, at times, startingly beautiful Takeshi Kitano films.
I always had a good time on these short trips, which seemed so eventful and stimulating to me, and during which, for the most part, I was so warmly welcomed by everyone. There was none of the disconnection with my environment or the sullen aversion I reactively felt at home. Here, the consensus seemed to be that I was all right… It was such a relief every time, like coming up for air after a deep dive. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that as he got older, Childebert, little by little, shed a lot of what had made him so incandescent when we first met, and that he seemed to double down on his less appealing traits. In a perplexing way, something in him seemed to coarsen, in a gradual process that left him more arid and morose. As a teenager, something about him reminded me of the poet Rimbaud, magic fount of the youthful dionysiac, as it were; and, like Rimbaud—who abruptly stopped writing poetry in his twenty first year to concentrate on more seemly, businesslike activities, and who was working as a coffee and arms trader in the Yemen just before he died—, Childebert curtly seemed to have dismissed creative pursuits or anything that smacked of esthetic vulnerability. To me, he appeared to have walled himself off in a barren cynicism and grotesque macho attitudinizing. Like a reverse butterfly, in my absence, he had cased himself in a cocoon, only to reappear a grub, contemptuous of his former colorful and winged incarnation. His intelligence was still there, of course, but he appeared to have willfully suppressed any aspects of it not immediately called for in whatever “adult career” or perhaps “destiny” he grimly contemplated. Paradoxically, this tack to maturity required him, at one point, to fudge together a long literary dissertation on the work of a famous Italian writer, Erri De Luca, whom he knew personaly. So he wrote a deft, perceptive essay, but in a completely detached way: yet another empty scholarly exercise, another tedious chore that needed to be accomplished brilliantly so that he might win plaudits, obtain his diploma, and move on to whatever more important things he expected from the world. At that time, he had started playing video-games for hours on end, cultivating a dazed stupor. He especially liked the ones where you wantonly shoot people in a sort of grimy war zone, whose bleakness, I suppose, echoed his own. He also behaved appallingly, I felt, with the last of his girlfriends I was acquainted with: a striking Franco-Japanese girl he had very attentively nursed back to health after a scooter accident she suffered. But by the time I relocated to Paris myself, and ended up staying with them, briefly, while I waited to move into my own flat, he had already transformed her, with her helpless complicity, into a wretched hodgepodge of mommy-substitute, scapegoat, and drudge. This was quite uncomfortable for all of us, of course, because she was humiliated, and he became curt and dismissive of me, not caring for a judgemental witness to his intimate misdeeds—even a discreet, silent one, who kept his distaste and embarassment to himself. Soon, I moved into a cheap hotel, feeling sad, angry and betrayed: aware, in any case, that our friendship was at last at an end.
Childebert delighted in Takeshi Kitano films. They are almost always the same. They star “Beat” Takeshi—a small, twitchy, homely, middle-aged Japanese man—as some sort of gangster. In his dark, broadshouldered doublebreasted suits, he lounges around interminably, smoking cigarettes, waiting for something or for somebody; or he stands on a jetty, in front of the ocean, ignoring the crashing waves to stare out into the distance; or he looks out wistfully at the myriad lights of the monstrous, decadent, entrancing nighttime city, as his own reflection creeps into focus in the window of his immaculate hotel room… We are meant to understand that he is the strong, silent type. In the event, he is also a psychopath. Inevitably, some other yakuzas try to strongarm him, or some crooked cops have a go at blackmailing him, or his devious two-faced boss attempts to double-cross him—and he just gets fed up. That’s his cue to start, with a shockingly abrupt and sanguinary theatricality, to maim and kill all these fucking bastards who think they can bully and take advantage of him. With relish, but also oriental self-possession, he shoots and stabs and punches and kicks and stomps whatever dares resist him. Along the way, there are always wholesome good times though: a lovely girl to long for but ultimately to push away, for her own sake, because his is a lonely road; some crude slapstic at the expense of some hapless sidekick, just for laughs; and a touch of the maudlin and the sentimental, as he waits for the final showdown—indeed, why not buy a kite for that sick little boy in the hospital? But in the end, he knows that no one can escape his fate and death awaits us all, especially those of us with sharp Yamamoto suits, ruthless enemies, empty Glocks, and nowhere to run. But, of course, the Takeshi Kitano character faces this ultimate denouement manfully, with fatalistic acceptance: such was always his destiny.
I suspect the flinty main character must, in a genuine, unironic way have represented an ideal of manhood my friend sincerely admired, despite its caricatural absurdity. For my part, I found the films disconcerting and preposterous at first, but grew to recognise that they did have an idiosyncratic charm, a brooding poetry. There is someting admirable about them, despite all the gratuitous violence and their daffy kitsch. They are full of self-consciously lovely images: haunting, suggestive, infused with wabi-sabi. One feels a real esthetic sense is at work in them, only that it serves an odd, naive, misguided, perverse, narcissistic fantasy: the one that Kitano endlessly conjures up and embodies, in the form of the stoic, macho specter who lives in the strangely bare and vacant floating world of his dreams—a desert of fleeting beauty, boredom, honour, greed, fetishized morbidity and violence. They also speak of repressed feeling and affects snared in oppressive, implacable convention, which can only find an outlet in the occasional outburst of savage ferocity. I think Childebert, to some extent, really did live under a comparable kind of emotional duress, and that he craved release by similar means. In his later evolution, he was always dabbling in martial arts, always looking to measure himself to others, to assert his dominance in a transgressive manner. He sometimes struck friends or mere acquaintances for no special reason, except reflexively to give an outlet to the restive truculence that was always building up inside him. In Childebert, the brutal acting out never escalated to outright assault, but was merely an expressive simulacrum, a symptom. His simmering aggression was contained, but not to the extent of preventing the occasional bubbles from surfacing. It was a mark of his special consideration for me that he did not often try to subject me to this kind of bullying—a priviledge also, no doubt, the result of the fact that once, finding myself at the receiving end of one of his perfunctorily gestures, to my own surprise, I did not hesitate to punch him in the throat.
After we lost touch, I learned that he had actually moved to Japan. He worked for a couple of years as a lecturer in French literature at Tokyo University, and also produced a few literary translations of indifferent Canadian and American novels for French publishers. But presumably, he soon got bored with this, and, once his Japanese was up to snuff, by virtue of his conspicuous gifts and his sure talent for ingratiating himself to authority, he somehow contrived to become the personal assistant of a very large Japanese insurance company’s CEO — and within a decade, he was heading this company’s subsidiary in Singapore. He married a Japanese woman. To his relief, she doesn’t want any children, but doubtlessly does cook and clean and, knowing her place, minister to him with a subservience he can take for granted. I know all this because he found my personal blog a few years back, and wrote me a warm email, to let me know what he was up to, and to reminisce fondly about old times. Reading over this brief portrait I have just sketched of him, it does strike me that he comes off as rather a bastard—monstrous even in some ways, or, in any case, very off-putting. But he was the most exciting friend I’ve ever had. Despite his flaws and his many objectionable features, I couldn’t help but admire and be drawn to his sparkling intelligence, his charisma, his steadfast diligence in his pursuits, and his basic indomitable defiance. We shared a sense of humour and, for a time, both crude and raffined elective affinities. We were very young, and as we first encountered the harsh onslaughts of the adult world, we found some solace in each other; for a time, we resolved, in a romantic chimera of solidarity, to face this assailment together. In our folly, drunk on adolescent friendship and splendid presumption, we fleetingly convinced ourselves that, against all odds, we were winning the war.