Arsène Lupin, the “gentleman thief” and master of disguise, was the object of my first real literary enthusiasm. I started reading about his fantastical Belle Époque adventures in my early teens, like any number of French children before me. He was a sort of dashing mixture of the aristocratic and the earthily plebeian, of awesome cleverness and powerful physicality, of Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood, of evil and good. He was an outlaw, yes, but he only victimized the blackguardly and the corrupt. He was charming and considerate to the ladies, but implacable in his nefarious pursuits—endlessly plundering priceless jewels, long-lost royal treasure or mystical radioactive stones. His gallic urbanity was the equal only of his boldness and his charisma; he disdained violence as indecorous, and instead cultivated style as a kind of substitute morality. A shape-shifter, he eluded description, just like he did any other form of capture, but there is little doubt that, beneath all the masks and the camouflage, stood a handsome, athletic specimen of masculinity. His powers of seduction, however, were not irresistible like the ones attributed to the vulgar and altogether preposterous surrogate phallus of a later technocratic age—the boringly invulnerable, sociopathic, panty-dropping James Bond, that utter cock. Like Bond, Lupin did wear tuxedos, but his came with a foppish top hat, a cane and a monocle: elegant accoutrements that expressed a playful histrionic flair, and hid a deeper, more contradictory character. He was a dime novel contemporary of Charles Swann; one whose heart had been broken on occasion by fair damsels who had preferred less worthy suitors, and his dignity and humanity were all the more apparent for it. Like any romantic hero worth his salt, he displayed a keen, impulsive sensitivity, and had once even attempted suicide: admittedly, not like poor Werther, the snivelling wimp, but with virile audacity, by joining the Foreign Legion and indulging in desperate, reckless acts of bravery—in vain, of course, for he was destined to survive, reawaken to life, and harken the call to new adventures.
I never articulated it at the time, but I suppose the idea of a devilishly clever master of disguise must have appealed to me in a powerful way; there are myriad pictures of me as a child, enrobed in assorted “disguises”—not specific costumes really, but odd combinations of old clothes, sundry accessories, and motley toy props gathered from my parents’ closet or from one of the teeming chests downstairs. The basement of the house I grew up in was my special place: a sort of lawless household id, a desultory depot for old junk and boisterous children. It consisted of a spacious, low-ceilinged, bare room with cheap red carpeting coming apart at the seams, bean bags, a television, shabby plywood furniture that held old records my parents no longer listened to, a bunch of books, and a fraction of the veritable jungle of potted plants my mother so loved to cultivate. An unfinished passage, with a cracked, exposed concrete floor, adjoined my playroom; cluttered with helter-skelter construction materials and lumber, it contained the boilers and led to the garage. It was always dark in there, and it frightened me. I felt better when the access to this casual domestic Hades was shut; but even when it was, if I was alone, I could usually not shake a sense of uneasiness, intimating what was no doubt a wilderness of abominable ghosts and children-eating shadows behind the door. In fact the basement as a whole seemed an ambivalent space: at once a refuge where surfeit youthful energies might safely be spent away from censure or inhibiting witnesses, as well as the native habitat of our beloved television set, that mundane yet magical gateway to the land of cartoon tomfoolery and adventure, it nevertheless remained a slightly unsettling, ominous zone of subterranean twilight—so distant from the comforting, light-swept settings of everyday family life. Still, every morning, at dawn, I would creep past my parents’ bedroom and, like a diminutive Orfeus in footie-jammies, dauntlessly descend to watch cartoons. Sometimes, the programs had not yet started, so I stared at colour bars until they gave way to an orchestral version of “O Canada” over what was meant to be a stirring montage showcasing the natural wonders of our home and native land, a mari usque ad mare, and the first shows came on.
In any event, it transpired that this parlous but welcoming netherworld of the basement was also the place best suited for inventing and reinventing oneself in private reverie. Consequently, it was there that I tended to improvise my various costumes or disguises; these usually involved some sort of cape, and perhaps one of my father’s old pipes; maybe a hat, or some faux-medieval headgear, a plastic sword, or a mask. Some sunglasses? A police motorcycle helmet? A scarf? Perhaps… A lot of the pleasure I derived from these outfits came from showing them off afterwards, of course. But the gratification I felt most keenly, and the one I suspect motivated my games, was to be able to fantasize myself as somehow other—better, more potent, more mysterious, more adult. I was not seeking to become somebody else, or even to portray myself as a coherent character distinct from my habitual self, like an actor who projects himself bodily into the role he wishes to represent for an audience; rather, for me, the outfit was an aid to purely internal elaborations—imaginative flights that seldom took the form of articulate stories or settled roles at all. What I was manipulating was the sheerest intention of narrative biographical whimsy: shapeless and yet so pregnant with potential. I would conjure vague fantasies of empowerment and gratification, of magical fulfilment. They were static situations in which I was the dragon-slayer or the wise old wizard or the brave warrior or the hegemon of multitudes, or the machiavellical villain or whatever—but nothing ever happened, because I never triggered any sequences of fabulistic events, and instead merely fiddled endlessly with fleeting dramatic fragments, concentrations, moments that could repeat over and over, as in a dream, carrying their message: “I am this, I am this…” And, flushed with the pleasure of knowing the open possibility of all the captivating, peregrine identities whose disparate multiplicity I seemed to teem with, I conjured them up with relish one after the other, only to discard them again. I let myself be seized by their energy and, for a moment, gloried in my potency. Kids’ games don’t have set rules for the most part—I mean the games that children themselves elaborate. That’s because the purpose of these games is not to win or lose or to arrive at some predetermined result, but, much more importantly, it seems to me, it is to engage in the creative elaboration of such rules: to fashion structures of arbitrary order that are perhaps not quite coherent yet, but still already tend towards some kind consistency—like an intuitive yearning for orderliness. In a way, these spontaneous, ever-evolving, frameworks for play serve as intuitive theoretical models of reality, which provide the child with a measure of confidence in the intelligibility of the world, and his or her ability to navigate it successfully. Such games are exercises in conceptual invention that allow us to get some purchase on the onrushing immanent jumble of our early experience. I feel that behind my dess-up sessions loomed this very logic of exploration and imaginative conquest: the finality of my countless fancy dress variations was not to portray specific roles, but to build the internal assurance that I really could “be somebody” in the mysterious horizon of the world beyond childhood, where adults, film characters and cartoon paladins all somehow seemed to thrive.
Indeed, even when I insisted on wearing them in public, my costumes were not in fact part of any performance. Or at least not one directed outwardly. For instance, I was adamant that I must be allowed to sport a white shirt, a vest and a bow-tie to go to kindergarten. In my mind, I was dressing like my favorite older relative: my mother’s maternal uncle and adoptive father, Joseph—a distinguished, bald, short, corpulant, vivacious middle-European Jew in his eighties, who was at the time still active as a psychiatrist in Paris. He had settled there with delighted satisfaction right after the war, subsequent to a rather testing sojourn at Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. Since the sixties he had lived in a terrific rambling bourgeois apartment on the Boulevard des Batignoles, where he also received his patients, thrilled to the vigorous, hopeful music of Beethoven, and contemplated with a hushed awe the breathtaking depths of the disquiet psyche, through the novels of Dostoevsky—for him, the two absolute summits of human civilization and achievement. I loved and admired him; I felt a deep affinity for the kindness and the dignity he embodied. Although I would, of course, never have been able to formulated it as a child, it now seems obvious to me that I wished to somehow absorb into myself the quiet authority, the settled virility, the intellectual potency, and most of all, the uncomplicated, joyful embrace of life that made up his character. At that time, I was unconcerned by any idea of “fitting in” with the other children because that had nothing to do with my social coping strategy, which was all about inventively armouring myself from within against a social world I found alien and unsettling. I did have friends in kindergarten, like Marc-Antoine, son of a mediocre dentist (the fillings kept falling out…), whose family once invited me to their country house up North for a memorable stay. There, we spent winsome afternoons hunting for stray golf balls in the woods, persecuting his pigtailed little sister, showing off our willies to each other, and watching The Never Ending Story with mesmerized rapture. Or Alexandre, the well-meaning but tumultuous and emotionally disturbed giant, whose parents had just separated. Or Shiryl, the quiet Chinese girl who secured an illustrious eminence among us four- and five-year-olds thanks to her unique mastery of the confection of paper airplanes and paper boats. Nevertheless, I simply did not want to go. Attending kindergarten, and later, school was never quite an ordeal but it did seem a taxing and gratuitous chore that I was very keen to avoid if at all possible. In grade school, with my mother’s complicity, I would manage to spend a good deal of time away from the classroom, because I was “sick.” Every winter, I actually did labour under a plethora of assorted ear infections, colds, flus, throataches, and so on, but I tended to exaggerate even the flimsiest of afflictions in an ongoing bid to avoid class. Hanging out with school friends somehow never made up for the anxiety and boredom institutional education precipitated in me throughout that long, wasteful progress. In any case, I did regularly wear a bow-tie to kindergarten, and nobody seemed to mind. My parents were very indulgent and understanding of this kind of eccentricity, and my favorite kindergarten teacher—a gentle young woman with long brown hair, even sort of liked the idea. So for a while still, the rough confrontation of my childish domestic mythology with the world at large was deferred.
Later, I mostly dropped the fancy dress: as a child and a teenager I was too painfully shy to take the next step and try to externalize my playacting in theatre. I found it deeply embarrassing whenever my imaginative elaborations were somehow discovered—when I was caught in the act, as it were. The gaze of others, when I was aware of them as witnesses to the process, or withal as a watchful and expectant public, completely inhibited me and destroyed the spells I wove while holed up in private sanctuary, leaving me awkwardly exposed. Instead, to stimulate and buttress the imagination I came to rely on music and books. By the time I was maybe ten, I had made a habit of playing cassettes to help me fall asleep. On my dinky little single-speaker tape deck, I played the same two or three tapes in the dark over and over, night after night. I did it mostly to assuage the tight feeling that always came with the prospect of slumber: the troubled sense that, somehow, giving in to it meant embracing an encroaching, minatory darkness. I was always reticent to lapse from consciousness, because it could mean plummeting headlong into such unknown, fathomless, frightening depths… The first tape of “nighttime music” that I can clearly remember was Dmitri Shostakovitch’s fifth symphony—that bombastic, exciting, cinematic, soaring emotional escape. Its ample pulse seemed awash with the same diffuse anxiety that underpinned my own personality, and yet also somehow to carry an antidote for it—causing an ephemeral sense of exalted freedom to well up in me as I nodded off. This was the kind of music I enjoyed back then: rousing late-romantic or early-modernist symphonic stuff. Looking back, I notice a lot of it was Russian: Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky… What it all had in common was a sweeping “narrative” quality, combining robust dynamism and moments of fragile, lyrical beauty. I also loved Dvorak’s Symphony from the New World, and the stately, grandiose meanderings of Mahler’s sonorous fifth symphony. I did play music myself, a bit—but this, alas, did not contribute to my emancipation. The fault lay squarely on my own scarcely conceivable neuroticism during this period of my life, and my busy parents’ baffled, helpless inability to show me a way out of this melancholy labyrinth of inhibition. For years, I took these absurd saxophone lessons. Absurd because I had no special affinity for this instrument, which I had chosen more or less at random, and because I was incompatible with the strange and unpleasant tutor I ended up saddled with—the one saxophone player in the city who didn’t care for, or know anything about jazz. Of course, I was complicit in this short-circuit of what could have been a vibrant avenue for self-expression—because instead of telling my parents clearly that I didn’t enjoy the lessons, and wanted to do something else, I simply shirked practicing as much as possible and let the situation fester for years, until, waking from my masochistic trance, I finally got the nerve to call this woeful cretin and shakily tell his voice mail that I had decided to part with his services, and in fact to discontinue my saxophonic calvary altogether.
So, barred from active artistic fulfilment by my own self-defeating tendencies, I retreated into passive ones in my early teens. I gradually expanded the range of music I listened to, assembling an eclectic hodgepodge of records (Vivaldi, Debussy, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Renaud, Sting, Antonio Carlos Jobim…), which no longer served to usher sleep in, but to accompany endless afternoons in my room, sprawled on a bean bag, devouring thrilling stories of detection (Maurice Leblanc, Conan Doyle…) adventurous historical romance (Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott…) or intrepid globetrotting exploration and imaginary steam-age technological marvels (Jules Verne). In late 19th century France, schools used to award these big, handsome, beautifully illustrated red-bound books to students who did well in their studies. They were called “prize books” because they were given to the best-ranked students for each discipline at the end of the year. Parents would also offer them to their kids as gifts for special occasions. My aunt Brigitte, who has always been a very generous and thoughtful gift-giver, once sent me one. It was Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days—and on the first page, written in the very neat, spidery script that one mastered in the stiff but democratic schools of the Third Republic, “Maurice Laurent, donné par son Bon-Papa, 1er janvier 1888” was recorded. I was fascinated by this direct connection to a past which I understood to be contemporary to the putative time of the fiction presented in that volume. How thrilling! I adored fantastical tales of adventure, but all the more so when they were contained in lovely old books, illustrated with fabulous etchings that helped to visualise the striking characters, the curious settings, the multifarious actions. Their musty, dusty smell itself constituted a kind of magical link to the exotic otherness of the past—a continent accessible only in the imagination, with the help of these charged objects of power. At around this time, I also started collecting old metal Sergent-Major nibs, and I assiduously practiced the beautiful, over-tidy, looping calligraphic style of that period. I suppose on the one hand, I did genuinely want to remedy the horrid scrawl I had picked up at the crummy school I attended for the first couple years of my education, but, on the other hand, and most importantly, I yearned to connect more deeply with the imagined golden era of flamboyant derring-do I assumed these books to have emerged from, and which they painted in such glowing colours. No such blessed season ever existed, of course; or if it did, it revealed itself to be what the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, impermeable to naive boyish illusions, called the Ages of Capital and Empire—a time characterized, for most of those who lived through it, not so much by swashbuckling adventure as by exploitation, savage brutality and oppression. But of this, I was still blissfully unaware—and in any case, I was interested in “olden times” not so much as a historical reality, but rather as an enticing fantasy of the erstwhile: one with which I might fashion a compelling décor for my idle, innocent, pre-adolescent daydreams of escape.
I must say, growing up has not turned out to be an altogether straightforward process for me. I was allowed for a very long time to cultivate a sufficiently gratifying simulacrum of engagement with the world—or at least an association with it sufficiently mediated by the protective shell of a compensative, escapist imagination, enveloping me and mollifying my contact with what I experienced as the harsh and fraught surfaces of society at large, outside my immediate family—that it was only with the greatest reluctance that I was induced, very gradually, to crawl out of my artificial haven of waking dreams. Despite some fugitive shadows, overall, my childhood and youth were a cocoon of light, of tender lambent affection, of affluence, of sympathetic complacency… I was always well loved, and generously encouraged to pursue my fanciful velleities freely. But somehow this never assuaged the deep, fearful unrest that permeated my existence. Growing up, I bloomed like a hothouse plant: vividly coloured and slightly odd and exquisitely fine—but also fragile and vulnerable to the merest cold gust.