We spent the entire second day listening to him say nothing. Almost nothing. He was already in the corner by the far window, smoking, when we came in. He exhaled a blue cloud and said, Lasciate ogni speranza, o voi ch’entrate! That was it for three hours. It didn’t sound like French, which some of us spoke. Only later did we learn what it meant.
We were here for Writers-in-Paris, a program for up-and-coming undergrads sponsored by our English department. We were all creative writing majors. Ten days of workshops with a renowned expatriate writer, or so explained the catalogue. Workshop in the mornings, city excursions in the afternoons. We thought, Hemingway, Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald. We thought, Arc de Triomphe and La Tour Eiffel.
We were mostly wrong.
The renowned writer was supposed to be Jon Burger, a prize-winning novelist we’d heard of but never read. All of us had sent him a short story or novel chapter in advance. We were supposed to critique each other’s work, too, though none of us had started. It didn’t matter; workshop wouldn’t officially begin until the second day; we’d get to it after the bars closed. Today was supposed to be a meet-and-greet. When we finally found the place (those buildings all looked the same!), Prof. Townsend, our teacher from the university, was there, though he wasn’t supposed to be.
Mr. Burger has had to cancel, he said.
But he can’t, we said. We already paid for this, or our parents did.
Mr. Burger has suffered a stroke.
Too bad, we said, but what about our stories? What about ten days of workshop with a renowned expatriate writer?
Don’t worry, said Prof. Townsend. We’ll find a replacement. Workshop will begin tomorrow morning at nine o’clock sharp. Don’t be late.
We were on time the second day, though workshop did not actually begin. The man we assumed was Jon Burger’s replacement chain-smoked Gauloises and ignored us. He was a specter, tall, gangly, his face rutted and pale. A head full of spiky, silver hair. He huddled against a chill none of us felt (it was July; there was no air conditioning), wrapped in a full-length raincoat so worn it might have come from a thrift shop. His umbrella leaned against the wall. We sat in anxious silence, trying to ignore the room’s musty odor.
At the three hour mark, the man walked out.
Some of us cursed him.
Most, but not all, of us returned the following morning. The man we’d soon learn to call Mr. B. already sat in the corner, smoking and gazing out at the Seine. He said nothing; neither did we. Half an hour of disappointed silence passed. It wasn’t what we’d expected when we’d read the catalogue. Then one of us asked:
Sir? Are you our teacher?
Mr. B. gazed over at us as if he hadn’t realized we were there. The Gauloise he pinched between finger and thumb was more ash than cigarette.
Les élèves sont comme les parents: ce n’est pas à nous de choisir.
This time we knew it was French.
It wasn’t the response any of us hoped for (we had no idea what it meant), but at least it broke the ice. Our curiosity was piqued.
Are you French or American? we asked.
Do you write short stories or novels? we asked.
Do you write tragedy or comedy? we asked.
He shook his head and stared at the cracked floor tiles. Then he grinned up at us, his teeth tobacco-stained or missing. It might have been a sneer. It was his only response.
We watched him light a new Gauloise with the burning ember of the one he’d just smoked. Some of us hacked more loudly than was necessary, though Mr. B. paid no attention. The room already smelled bad enough without all those carcinogenic fumes in the air. Indignation swelled like a balloon in our chests. Then, angrily, one of us said:
Why did you even take this job?
A reasonable question, at last.
You know a Scotsman by his kilt, an Irishman by his lilt.
Don’t you like teaching? we said. We’re the cream. We rise to the top.
Mr. B. staggered to his feet, gathered his umbrella, and tottered to the door. On the threshold, he turned and said: That’s because you’re rich and thick. Then he was gone.
More of us cursed him.
And we called Prof. Townsend. We wanted to tell him about the silence and cigarettes and insults. We wanted to explain that he’d made a terrible mistake. We wanted to insist he immediately find another writer to lead our workshop. This is not what we, or our parents, paid for! But no matter how many times we dialed his hotel number—if this wasn’t an emergency, what was?—no one ever picked up. Prof. Townsend had a reputation for drinking wine and chasing women. He called it research.
That afternoon, returning from an excursion to the Eiffel Tower, one of us spotted him. We pointed. Mr. B. rode a bicycle up Boulevard Garibaldi through heavy traffic; he was coming our direction. The bike was pre-War by the looks of it, solid steel with coaster breaks, every piece of it painted flat, charcoal gray. Mr. B. wasn’t having an easy time navigating between city buses, Audi sports cars, and delivery vans. As he approached, several of us waved; it’s the cloth from which we’re cut. How many other people do we know in Paris?
While he didn’t seem to notice us, it’s possible we distracted him. A split second was all it would have taken. As he heaved that heavy bicycle through the intersection at Rue Lecourbe, a taxi made a hard right in front of him. Mr. B. catapulted over the hood, then landed on the asphalt with a dull thud. It only took a second. We were already sprinting toward him.
By the time we reached him, he’d dragged himself and his bicycle to the curb. Although he wasn’t obviously wounded (no blood, no fractures), Mr. B didn’t look so good. He was paler than usual, for one thing, which we didn’t think possible, since the only color his skin had was gray. And he seemed discombobulated. The taxi driver harangued him in a dialect none of us had ever heard. Then someone said, Foutez-lui la paix! We were pretty sure it meant, Get the hell out of here! or Leave him the fuck alone! Something like that. The driver made a hand-gesture none of us understood, then climbed into his car and drove away.
We hauled Mr. B. into the nearest café. (The waiter made us leave his bicycle outside.) We sat him down and ordered him and us a Coke, then huddled around him, awaiting his thanks. He still seemed dazed; he lit a Gauloise and said nothing. When the waiter returned with the Cokes, Mr. B. sent his back for an espresso, which he doctored with three sugar cubes. He slurped it down in one go, then said, Mais ça fait du bien. We nodded and smiled, though he didn’t look any better. Thanks, Yanks, he said, grinning. In this light, his teeth looked even worse. Maintenant, he said, foutez-moi la paix.
It didn’t seem right to leave him, but that was clearly what he wanted. We fumbled with our euros, wishing they were francs. The waiter grew impatient. On our way out, we checked to see that Mr. B.’s bicycle was where we’d left it. It wasn’t, but what could we do? Then we walked back to the Résidence Étudiante.
The next morning, only a few of us went to workshop. Some simply didn’t see the point: We didn’t come to Paris to be insulted by a ghoul. It made sense. All the same, a handful of us, five or seven, showed up at nine o’clock sharp. We were driven by guilt (our parents paid for this) and grades (this would affect our GPAs). Also, no small dose of morbid curiosity.
Mr. B. stood, somewhat shakily, at a lectern at the front of the room. He wore the same dingy, tattered suit, this time without the raincoat, which was draped over a chair. His umbrella was nowhere to be found. There may have been a glimmer in his eye. We took our seats in silence; we had no idea what to expect.
To be an artist, he began, is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion.
We raised our hands and said, We don’t understand.
And it was true: we didn’t.
Mr. B. said, You understand even less than you know.
We still didn’t understand.
He teetered for a moment (too much Irish in his coffee?), then lost his balance and lurched toward the wall. To keep himself upright, he grasped at the podium. Then his left hand came off. There was no ripping or tearing; in fact, we almost didn’t notice. If Mr. B. hadn’t gone more pallid than usual, then raised his wrist-stump for investigation, likely none of us would have been the wiser. His genuine shock lasted only an instant, before a black grin swept across his face. His left hand still gripped the side of the lectern. Mr. B. pried it off and stuck it in his coat pocket.
We wanted to ask if he was okay. Do you need help? we wanted to say. But we knew it would serve no purpose. Nothing positive could come of it, since Mr. B. would lacerate us with polyglot profanity, then walk out. So, instead, we asked:
Will you answer our questions now?
He made a show of lighting a cigarette, which couldn’t have been easy with one hand, then said: Fire when ready.
Are you an artist?
At one time. I might have been.
What did you write?
Words, words, words.
A few of us thought that was funny. We knew the right questions to ask.
Do you write in the morning or at night?
Is there a difference?
Do you write longhand or type?
Both. Neither. Could it possibly matter?
Would you elaborate on your writing process?
Mr. B. wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then took a long drag on his Gauloise.
Not to want to say, he said, exhaling, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind, even in the heat of composition.
It was cryptic, to be sure. Some of us may have even muttered as much under our breaths. But we knew we needed to be patient. It would all be clear, in time.
We were sure of it.
Sometime in the evening, we made contact with Prof. Townsend. We called and called until the hotel reception finally connected us. The most disgruntled among us insisted on it.
Where have you been? we asked. We’ve been calling you for days.
Busy, he said. Prof. Townsend already sounded drunk. With my, you know, research.
So how’s workshop going? he asked.
Terrible, we said.
Pointless, we said.
Interesting, we said.
What do you mean, interesting? he asked.
Where did you dig this writer up?
Prof. Townsend laughed his drunken laugh. We knew he was rosy-cheeked and fearless. La Cimetière du Montparnasse, he said. It was a friend’s idea. Not too shabby for last minute, eh?
Yes, shabby, we said. That’s the mot juste.
What do you mean? he asked.
The workshop is a shambles, we said.
That can’t be, said Prof. Townsend.
The man is falling apart.
He’s old. What do you expect?
But he’s falling to pieces.
Well, at his age.
Which is what? Two hundred?
Gimme a minute here. Bottles and glasses clinking down the line. A woman laughing. Papers rustling; a pencil scratching. A hundred and nine, said Prof. Townsend. Or maybe ten? What month is this? Let’s call it one-ten.
Our interrogatives were full of expletives.
The man is brilliant, said Prof Townsend. He won the Nobel in ’69. Give him a break, okay? And try to learn something.
We spent the night in the library. All of us. We needed to find out who our workshop teacher actually was, though we never asked ourselves why. We mainly searched online since the stacks were all in French.
Unwashed, hungry, we made it to workshop on time, maybe even a little early. The room hadn’t been this crowded since the first morning of sneering and chain-smoking and silence. Only a couple of us still refused to come: He stinks and he’s an asshole.
It was true. It wasn’t the room. Mr. B. smelled worse every day.
This morning was no different. As we filed in, he stood at the podium, grinning and smoking. Behind that warm, earthy odor was a sharp stench, like a festering wound. We tried not to pay any attention, but the room was rank with it. Maybe that’s why Mr. B. chain-smoked Gauloises.
Que ça pue l’artifice, he said.
Although we didn’t quite understand, we thought we heard the word stink. We wondered if he could read our minds.
Then he began:
The only thing most writers disturb is a certain order on the plane of the feasible. What other plane can there be for the maker? Logically none. Yet I speak of an art turning from it in disgust, weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.
We didn’t understand. We weren’t yet MFA students; we were still learning the fundamentals. And as Prof. Townsend always told us, Learn the rules before you try to break them.
What about all the literary conventions? we asked.
Un peu conventionnel, n’est-ce pas?
That, we understood. It wasn’t amusing.
What about plot? we asked.
What about character? we asked.
Creating character is what literary writers do, we explained.
Not everyone, he said. Not always.
Our faces were question marks. We held our pens over our notebooks, expectant.
Unwrite plot, he said. Unmake character.
Before we could finish scribbling our notes, his right arm fell off. We weren’t shocked. All we could think was: From now on, we’ll have to light his cigarettes for him. We lit one for him.
Did you really win the Nobel Prize? we asked.
Damned to fame, he said.
What’s your best book?
Your best book? we asked.
Mr. B. snickered. No sooner has the ink dried than it revolts me.
It wasn’t exactly comforting, but we appreciated his honesty. Also, it was nice to know we weren’t alone.
But seriously, we said, which of your books would you recommend?
We wondered if being so difficult came naturally to him.
A dry thump interrupted our next question. Mr. B.’s right leg came off and dropped to the floor. He tried to squat and stretch for it, but he almost lost his balance and gave up. It didn’t matter. A hand might fit into a pocket, but not a leg.
By now nothing surprised us. We forged ahead.
Besides, obviously, you, who should we be reading?
Proust, Joyce. Dante’s Inferno, if nothing else.
They were writers we’d heard of but never read. We should read more, we told ourselves. We made a note of it.
Some of us were still puzzling over Mr. B.’s earlier comments. If not plot and character, we asked, what is literature about?
He didn’t hesitate: The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
Then his left leg fell off, and he toppled to the floor.
I don’t have a leg left to stand on, he said. Oddly, he sounded jubilant.
We scurried to the front of the room and gathered his wayward appendages. We propped him up in a chair and wrapped his pieces in his raincoat. We lit a Gauloise for him.
If you were us, we asked, what would you be writing?
That’s pretty morbid.
That’s a good word!
What do you expect? he said. I’m a plumber.
Then his head came off. It hit the floor and rolled into the corner. We scurried over. Mr. B.’s face was covered with dust and fuzz and cobwebs. He was still smoking.
We pushed the chair out of the way and set his head upright in the center of the table. We didn’t know what else to do.
For a long time, we sat in silence, listening to him smoke. But we sensed our time with Mr. B. was running short, so we asked:
Is there anything else we should know?
I can’t go on in any case, he said. But I must go on. So I’ll go on.
We waited. He cleared his throat. He said nothing.
Would he go on? we began to wonder. Should we encourage him to?
We waited. He smoked. Then he said:
Ubi nihil vales ibi nihil velis.
None of us spoke Latin. We don’t speak Latin, we said.
Ça m’étonne, he said. Then he translated: Where you are worth nothing, may you also wish for nothing.
We were sure it was important. We still didn’t understand.
Do you have any last words of advice?
Mr. B. puffed intently on his cigarette. When there was nothing left but ash, he said: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
It wasn’t what we expected, and we weren’t sure what to do with it. Yet as we filed out of workshop for the last time, many of us told ourselves we were willing to give it a try. Still, we knew we’d have to speak with Prof. Townsend about our grades.
And a possible refund.
Portions of Mr. B's dialogue adapted from Samuel Beckett: The Grove Centenary Edition (New York: Grove Press, 2006) and Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson (New York: Grove Press, 2004).
J. T. Townley has published in The After Coetzee Project, Collier’s, Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction, Harvard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Istanbul Review, Metamorphoses, Prairie Schooner, The Threepenny Review, and other places. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from Oxford University, and he teaches at the University of Virginia.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: This story emerged from discussions with students, flyers for international writers’ conferences, and The Letters of Samuel Beckett.
Q: What does your writing space look like?
A: Desk, chair, lamp, computer.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: “If you write a story today, and you get up tomorrow and start another story, all the expertise that you put into the first story doesn’t transfer over automatically to the second story. You’re always starting at the bottom of the mountain. So you’re always becoming a writer. You’re never really arriving.” Edward P. Jones
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?
A: I admire the work of Paul Auster, J. M. Coetzee, Robert Coover, Gabriel García Márquez, Thomas Pynchon, and George Saunders. To my mind, Donald Barthelme, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortázar are all still alive and well.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing stories for a collection of short fiction, A Love Supreme, and translating Québécois short stories from French for an anthology I’m editing, Northern Lights: Short Fiction from Québec.