In this passage we meet the elegant, elderly Parisian petite dame Odile, as well as the novel’s narrator, a melancholy, culturally displaced young man who lives in her attic and has become her friend and companion on daily walks around the Quartier Latin. But as these two unlikely friends share an aperitif, we also meet Papievis’s uniquely un-Lithuanian prose – its focus on memory, relationship to place, the subtlest details of human exchange and, perhaps most importantly, the relish of the possibilities of language that is firmly in the French tradition of Barthesian jouissance.
I notice Paula from a distance. She sees me and stops at the door. Paula is Portuguese; she is the building’s concierge. We get along well. I always leave her the spare keys when I go away. You never know what might happen. But that she would pause like that… The wheels in my ears are rattling even louder, the shards are melding together.
Six-thirty, the phone rings.
‘If you’re at home and not too busy, would you like to drop by for an aperitif?’
‘With pleasure, madame, I’ll be right over.’
I climb down six flights of winding stairs and take the lift up three.
I lean against the balcony railing and smoke a cigarette, occasionally turning my whisky on ice so that the ice cubes tinkle like bells. It’s an especially clear September evening. Summer has ended but autumn has not yet begun – a time when the sunlight no longer blinds but still carves sharp contours, the time of year when foliage is resting but not yet inviting your eyes to colour it red or yellow. Exhaling I tell myself: We personalise everything, so why not this glass of whisky, a farewell-to-summer aperitif?
‘Do you remember how we met?’ asks Odile. I take a sip.
A light wind barely, just barely, rustles the curtain.
‘Sebastien? But I’m quite sure you introduced me to him… Madame Fournier?’ I draw back the curtain.
‘Never mind me, but you should be able to remember…’
I step over the threshold. ‘You don’t have any flowers. Some of the neighbours have even planted shrubs on their balconies. Don’t you like flowers?’
‘Have you forgotten how old I am?’ I haven’t forgotten.
Odile sits with her bony shoulders pressed against the high back of the leather armchair. She’s always a little cold, so before going back out to smoke I wrap her in a shawl.
‘Age and flowers?’
‘Flowers need to be cared for.’
‘Paula could do it.’
‘If you don’t care for plants yourself it’s as if they aren’t your own, don’t you think?’ I look at the ceiling, and it seems to me that the round plaster moulding at its centre is turning, like the wheel of time that one would like to stop. Or roulette. Do you think you could win?
‘Pour me a little more,’ she says, finishing the last drop and holding out the empty glass. ‘With an ice cube. Before Selma gets here.’
How to get out of yourself – as one does by leaving home, driving out of the city, or flying to another country? How to understand yourself if you can’t see yourself from the side?
‘Why don’t you pour yourself some?’
Daylight streams in through the curtains, drawn from the evening like honey from a hive.
It slowly goes out.
I refill my glass.
By Valdas Papievis
Translated by Karla Gruodis
This extract was first published in the Vilnius Review.
Valdas Papievis is a Lithuanian writer and journalist who has been living in Paris for more than two decades, and has become inseparable from that city. Papievis’s work is notable for its self-reflection permeated with a French spirit.
Karla Gruodis is a translator, editor, and artist based in Vilnius, where she founded the English-language newspaper The Lithuanian Review. Her translations include Leonidas Donskis’s A Small Map of Experience, Antanas Škėma’s White Shroud and Sigitas Parulskis’s Darkness and Company.