Born said that he and Margot had been on the verge of leaving, but then they spotted me standing alone in the corner, and because I looked so unhappy, they decided to come over and cheer me up— just to make sure I didn’t slit my throat before the night was out. I had no idea how to interpret his remark. Was this man insulting me, I wondered, or was he actually trying to show some kindness to a lost young stranger? The words themselves had a certain playful, disarming quality, but the look in Born’s eyes when he delivered them was cold and detached, and I couldn’t help feeling that he was testing me, taunting me, for reasons I utterly failed to understand.
I shrugged, gave him a little smile, and said: Believe it or not, I’m having the time of my life.
That was when he stood up, shook my hand, and told me his name. After my question about Bertran de Born, he introduced me to Margot, who smiled at me in silence and then returned to her job of staring blankly into space.
Judging by your age, Born said, and judging by your knowledge of obscure poets, I would guess you’re a student. A student of literature, no doubt. NYU or Columbia?
Columbia, he sighed. Such a dreary place.
Do you know it?
I’ve been teaching at the School of International Affairs since September. A visiting professor with a one- year appointment. Thankfully, it’s April now, and I’ll be going back to Paris in two months.
So you’re French.
By circumstance, inclination, and passport. But Swiss by birth.
French Swiss or German Swiss? I’m hearing a little of both in your voice.
Born made a little clucking noise with his tongue and then looked me closely in the eye. You have a sensitive ear, he said. As a matter of fact, I am both— the hybrid product of a German-speaking mother and a French- speaking father. I grew up switching back and forth between the two languages.
Unsure of what to say next, I paused for a moment and then asked an innocuous question: And what are you teaching at our dismal university?
That’s a rather broad subject, wouldn’t you say?
More specifically, the disasters of French colonialism. I teach one course on the loss of Algeria and another on the loss of Indochina.
That lovely war we’ve inherited from you.
Never underestimate the importance of war. War is the purest, most vivid expression of the human soul.
You’re beginning to sound like our headless poet.
I take it you haven’t read him.
Not a word. I only know about him from that passage in Dante.
De Born was a good poet, maybe even an excellent poet— but deeply disturbing. He wrote some charming love poems and a moving lament after the death of Prince Henry, but his real subject, the one thing he seemed to care about with any genuine passion, was war. He absolutely reveled in it.
I see, Born said, giving me an ironic smile. A man after my own heart.
I’m talking about the plea sure of seeing men break each other’s skulls open, of watching castles crumble and burn, of seeing the dead with lances protruding from their sides. It’s gory stuff, believe me, and de Born doesn’t flinch. The mere thought of a battlefield fills him with happiness.
I take it you have no interest in becoming a soldier.
None. I’d rather go to jail than fight in Vietnam.
And assuming you avoid both prison and the army, what plans?
No plans. Just to push on with what I’m doing and hope it works out.
Penmanship. The fine art of scribbling.
I thought as much. When Margot saw you across the room, she said to me: Look at that boy with the sad eyes and the brooding face— I’ll bet you he’s a poet. Is that what you are, a poet?
Excerpted from Invisible by Paul Auster. Copyright © 2009 by Paul Auster. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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