From Book 2: L'Étoile de Mer

Author’s note: My protagonist, yoked to a six-pointed starfish, changes the histories of real people’s lives by entering them, bringing with him the spectre of Fantômas and the possibility of love. Therefore his perception of Desnos’s film is his own.

“Let it go, Geoffrey,” Desnos repeated. “Lay low for a couple of weeks.”

            “You’re a Kraut. The cops won’t listen to you,” Artaud added urgently. “Even if they don’t remember you from Breton’s speech, Bernice’s father will bribe the police. If you go to those swine full of illusions, they’ll pin Bernice’s murder on you as well—they’d rather. A French pimp’s life is worth more to them.” He let out his breath in a token spit.

            “Stay here tonight. We’ll be your alibi, if it comes to that,” Desnos said.

            I shook my head. I wouldn’t endanger them more than I already had. The waste, the cruelty of it! I pictured Bernice’s lonely, terrifying death on those steps. “I cause trouble for people.”

            “Stop talking like that,” Desnos said.

            “I’m bad news. I’ve given you nothing but problems since you met me,” I insisted. “I should leave. Get out of Paris, now, before somebody else gets hurt.”

            “No, man—don’t cut out!” Desnos cried. “Oh shit, Geoff.” He draped an arm around my shoulders, leaning his face close when I wouldn’t look at him. I couldn’t say any more, because in spite of everything I didn’t want to go. I did not want to leave Paris, ever. One could not help but love Desnos, and even after tonight I knew I could not go away and never see him again. Desnos was my brother, my teacher, as was Artaud. They were even greater friends to me than Gerhardt, and Gerhardt had been my best friend.

            There were voices outside. Malkine breezed in, followed by Desnos’s other neighbor André de la Rivière, and Paul Amado, and Soupault, and Péret. Péret immediately leered at us from the pink perimeter his great round head. “Geoff, come on,” Desnos said in a soothing tone. “Man is about to show our film. You missed the premiere.” It made me chuckle. It wouldn’t have sounded sillier if he tried to ply me with ice cream. To Desnos Surrealism was the solution for everything. “Watch it with us. Please?” That arm around my shoulders shook me, once, twice.

            I relented.

            Walking toward the others I felt disembodied, as if my head had lifted off my body to float near the ceiling. I was conscious that my walking carried my head which seemed to be several times its natural size, but no one gave me a second glance—except Justine, who with a pained smile kicked one of the huge oversized pillows across the floor for me. I sank to it and lay curled on my side. Kiki was her usual buoyant self and Malkine with his lustful grin squeezed into the only space available near me, in front of me. It occurred to me no one else knew about Bernice and I said nothing, not even when Malkine pulled off my shoe and ran a tickling finger along my sole. Man threaded the projector, and Desnos waited until Omme Kulthum finished her sad, lovely song before changing the record. He stood ready with the needle, and Man started the film. My eyeballs were throbbing. I’ll just rest them for a minute, I thought and closed my eyes, but when the record came on I opened them again.

            The room darkened, and the illuminated square on the wall snapped into movement.

            The scene opened with a man and a woman, walking down a street—but they were blurred, as if they and the street they walked were under water. Like Louis’s painting of me, I thought but they had no complementary clear reflection. The focus sharpened and revealed two pairs of shoes, a man’s and a woman’s coyly walking in step, side by side, intimately. The female pair of shoes stopped, and then slender female fingers reached down to adjust her garter. The skirt slid up to reveal her leg. Then the camera pulled back and the scene blurred again.

            The blurred male and female entered a doorway and walked up a flight of stairs in their underwater world. The woman led the man into a bedroom. She walked across the darkened floor and into a shaft of light, where her blurred body stood illuminated. The man remained in the dark. The woman undressed, slowly, seductively, the details of her body frustratingly vague even as she revealed herself. The man watched her. Naked, the woman stretched herself out on the bed, slipped one hand behind her head, and extended the other to the man. The man came forward to grasp that hand and kiss it. Then came the intertitle: “Adieu!”

There was laughter from my friends as the man on the screen bowed cordially to the woman and left.

My eyes were tired, and I rested them for a moment. When I opened them again the scene was in sharp focus. The camera irised in on the woman’s foot. There was something caught beneath her foot, something she tapped, then pressed, then traced with her bare toe. It was a fault in the wooden planks of the floor, a knot from which six long cracks extended like rays, or like tentacles. Then a page from a book blew across the floor—I clearly saw my name on the page, and Desnos’s, and Artaud’s—to be caught and pressed beneath the woman’s toe. She pressed the paper over the spot where the knot had been.

            The camera traveled up the woman’s legs to reveal her garter. The intertitle: “It’s she.”

            The camera panned upward, from the woman’s legs to her face. But the actress revealed was not Kiki. But she was no stranger, either.

            I was in shock. She! The woman from my dream, the girl with the auburn hair! The girl who I dreamed of, who Desnos thought was Catherine. Her hazel eyes laughed merrily to see me recognize her. “I haven’t been born yet,” she said clearly. Sound? Desnos and Man Ray had made a sound film! Then why the use of intertitles? The auburn-haired woman walked to a corner of the room where she picked up something unseen from a bureau. She turned around.

            She held out to me, revealing it slowly and ritualistically as if unbuttoning a blouse, as if exposing a diaphanous lace chemise. It was a starfish, a starfish in a clear crystal globe but an unnatural starfish, one of those creatures with six pointed arms, Heumer’s defamation of me trapped in the globe. The intertitle—

            “I cannot promise to give you the freedom Breton would give his characters, if I cannot take for myself the freedom I want in life.”

            “Characters,” I said. “But Breton denounced novels.” I was sitting up now and talking right to her on the screen. “And this is a novel? This is my life and it’s real for me, but this is a book you’re writing and I’m your puppet!”

            She merely smiled.

            “Let me out,” I said to her. “I don’t want to be trapped in this book.” None of my friends interrupted me. They merely sat quietly—frozen, like statues. Even Roger didn’t object to my interruption this time. In fact he seemed to be in a trance and speaking, as Desnos had done at the Loire. Justine closed her eyes suddenly, and I saw false eyeballs were painted on her eyelids—when she closed her eyes another pair of eyes opened.

            But she on the screen wasn’t listening to me. Or she was, because she shook her head but she stared over my shoulder past me. She focused on Artaud, Antonin Artaud who had risen and was standing before all of us as if to give a speech but who stood silently too with his eyes closed. Nothing was painted on his eyelids. It seemed to me the room echoed with his shriek I had not heard him make. She, the woman, the author, our Author? spoke to Artaud: “You don’t come from this world, and you are not like other men born of a mother and a father, and you remember the infinite sequence of your lives before your so-called birth in Marseilles in 4 September 1896 at 4 rue du Jardin des Plantes, and that other place from which you come is not the sky, but like the hell of the land in perpetuity.” Artaud’s closed eyes creased in pain, and I felt pity for him, pity and rage. Then, another intertitle appeared: “Si belle! Cybele?”

            “I hate you,” I said to Her. She was undressing again, this time behind a pane of misted glass upon which the word belle appeared. I wanted to send my fist through that glass and as if in answer, the glass cracked and splintered. And with the sudden snap of the loose end of the film against the uptake reel, the square on the wall turned white and I awakened from my dream.

            The room was biting cold. I was still lying on the pillow and when I blinked the sight in one eye was blurred because I had fallen asleep face-down and pressed too hard on the eyeball. I clamped my hands over my ears to drown out the sound of applause. My head was pounding. Malkine turned around and stretched across his own pillow to reach for me. “I hate her, too!”

“Geoff, you dozed through it?” Louis asked. I leaned away from from Malkine’s outstretched arms.

“He slept and watched it!” Soupault gasped in approval, and even Péret smiled at me. “A dream within a dream.”

            “Yes, I know,” chirped Desnos. His forced cheer increased my headache. “He replaced the sight of Kiki with his lady love!” The music from the record broke off and it was quiet again.

            Small, warm fingers touched my forehead. “He’s feverish,” said Justine.

            Malkine’s voice dripped from him. “Lay your head in my lap, you poor, poor man.”

            “Don’t be putrid, Georges!” laughed Paul Amado but his voice was a woman’s and he? gave Malkine a shove when that oiler tried to press his face close to mine. Someone dropped a heavy quilt on me, and I burrowed into it.

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