A Book of 50 Square Meters: Thomas Clerc’s Interior In Review

This book will not sit comfortably on any genre shelf.

Interior by Thomas Clerc, translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018

“The doorbell rings. I go. Peephole. Nobody. I grab my keys. I open the door. The 3rd-floor hallway. Empty. A glance.” Interior is an elaborate, three-hundred-page description of the experimental writer Thomas Clerc’s Paris apartment, a modest 50 square meters on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin. The reader begins at the doorstep and is taken on a room-by-room tour of all of Clerc’s furniture and possessions, guided by a narrator—Thomas—as he leaves no nook or cranny unexplained.

Published in French in 2013 and translated into English by Jeffrey Zuckerman, Interior is not Clerc’s first meticulous endeavor. In a previous book (Paris, musée du XXIe siècle, le dixième arrondissement; or Paris, Museum of the 21st Century, the Tenth Arrondissement), the writer walked along all the streets in his neighborhood and documented everything he saw over the course of three years, the same amount of time it took to construct this literary blueprint of his apartment.

Playful and painstakingly rich in detail, Interior is Clerc’s self-portrait, the writer exemplified through his property: “Show me where you live and I will tell you who you are.” This book will not sit comfortably on any genre shelf. The subtitle claims it a novel, despite the glaring lack of plot. Can something be an autobiography with the absence of time? There is no sequence of events, only memories and ruminations, surfacing at random—in an inspection of the orientation of the apartment’s windows, or the cataloging of a drawer’s contents.

In spite of Interior’s uneventfulness, Clerc toys with the element of suspense. The book is rife with mystery, or references it: the doorbell rings periodically, introducing no one; an earlier burglary leaves Clerc’s possessions largely unharmed, except for two finger holes in a shoebox filled with memorial paraphernalia; the chandelier in the entryway gestures to Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot, in which a diamond is hidden within the crystals. Other trails lead nowhere, a fool’s game to follow through, such as the incongruous date of the apartment’s purchase, 11 September 2001—one wonders if the lack of elaboration is made scandalous only by our contemporary hypersensitivity to trauma, even when appropriated—, and hints from the board game Clue, scattered almost contemptuously throughout the text.

But of course, insofar as Interior is a literary exercise on self-characterization, the largest mystery is Thomas Clerc, and the reader’s task—or, returning to Interior’s claim as a novel, the reader’s quest—is to decipher his person among the mass of facts and all the things existing in these four walls. There is a great deal readers will know about him: his preferences and influences, even the most intimate of habits, accrued from the book’s dedication to the tedium of life, but there are pithy moments when our living condition and capitalistic woes are encapsulated. We know the reason for his bathroom’s minimalistic decor (“too much ornamental compensation for the fecal risks drawing 1 extreme toward the other. In essence, luxury flirting with the very shit it intends to mask.”), his unadulterated hatred for his slow but indispensable printer (“HP, I Hate You Profoundly”), and his book shelving philosophy (“should I put Gilles Deleuze’s Proust and Signs under the letter D, or the letter P?”).

There is, however, a sense of structure in it all. Even though Interior reveals Clerc’s private sphere, it does so in a manner that is clearly curated. The seven sections of the apartment are laid out in a clear route, each section revealed one after the other like different parts of an exhibition. At one point, Clerc considers turning his apartment into a museum:

“I won’t rule out, once this journey is complete, the possibility of opening my apartment up to public viewing, of adding it to the list of Parisian museums that welcomes visitors for a handful of hours each week. Entry: €3.50. Please call ahead for school group visits.”

Price tags proliferate the text. “Decoration! Everything is in that word,” says Stéphane Mallarmé in the epigraph, and it is true. Interior is made up of ornaments, a reflection of Clerc’s “lust for possessions”, possessions in which capital—with the exception of a few of his petty thefts, like the umbrella in the bathroom—is a requisite, the tension between materialism and a middle-class budget taut and ever-present. If our interior is as our exterior, or is at least judged by it, our inability to wholly and permanently own things complicates this self-fashioning, for nothing lasts and stays the same.

Property is transferable, mass-produced, changes value, and is largely unoriginal. Just as Clerc’s apartment once belonged to another person, the concept of Interior—an elaborate description of an interior space—sees its precedent in Voyage Around My Room (in French, Voyage autour de ma chambre) by Xavier de Maistre, all the way back in 1794. Using a metaphorical comparison between a practical and a frivolous juicer (Voyage is likened to a €2.50 family juicer; Interior is Philippe Starck’s €19 Juicy Salif, vastly inferior in terms of function), Clerc describes his own work as the “overinflated re-creation”, being twice as long. Indeed, certain sections of Interior seem unnecessarily long-winded, such as Clerc’s elaborate display of his wardrobe. Despite the motivations of the book as a self-portrait, it is apparent that there is a resistance to simply conveying all there is to know about a person. On his pile of clothes, Clerc remarks:

“I can see, however, that their role in my book has been mainly to drown me under their mass and so keep me from properly revealing myself: forever delaying my laying myself bare, and so trying, through this continual postponement, to stymie this auto-autopsy.”

There are other aspects of himself that Clerc refuses to tell the reader, such as the entire 700 volumes of his book collection — “A Personal History of My Books (to be published in 50 years)” — or his girlfriend, her existence peripheral and never physically present. In a separate vignette in which he recalls an attempt to woo a woman fascinated by the contents of his 16th-century cabinet, Clerc warns the reader of the danger in revealing all of one’s secrets:

“Opening Pandora’s box, revealing Pulcinella’s secret, namely the secret that there is no secret…I immediately regretted having obeyed her wishes, as if in doing so I had shattered the very image of desire…I never saw the woman again.”

The predisposition to placate is gravitative; for writers, it is a desire to have their works amicably received, even if truthfulness is compromised. In “The Mask”, Valery Larbaud begins his poem with “I always write with a mask upon my face”, in the hopes that readers may reciprocate his performance with affection. Clerc takes it one step further, exacerbating Larbaud’s verse to describe himself as someone who “always lives with a mask upon [his] face”. He acknowledges the nature of all self-portraits as “a self-scrubbed clean yet shrouded”, and Interior is no different. The grandest gesture of writing, Clerc argues, is to destroy this mask, and the hypocrisy of living as a whole.

Interior, then, at least expresses an awareness of this inauthenticity by disenchanting the grandeur of the self often associated with autobiographical writing. If anything, one of Interior’s conclusions is that Clerc lives an “average little life” as a bourgeois-artist, solitary and approaching middle-age, with a mind for mortality and transience. He confesses an obsession with obituaries, jotting down the names of late writers in a mortuary notebook—a literary canon of sorts—whilst fantasizing his own possible inclusion, a membership to the hallmark of literature.

While this remains undetermined, legacy in the name of property is ridiculed, Clerc’s final jab at materialism. By the end of the book, Clerc names the person to whom he dedicated this book as legal heir to his apartment: his late great-grandfather Auguste Clerc, murdered by his wife on June 29, 1912, at the age of 48—another mystery readers will never solve.

Like Clerc’s self-defeating bequest, Interior comes full circle; quite literally, for the last paragraph is an exact reiteration of the first. Finishing this book leaves one feeling quite ambivalent. There has been no great revelation. The words have stopped only because the list is complete, and even after this convoluted tour, it is difficult to put your finger on what, if anything, has changed. But the doorbell rings again—the narrator snaps out of his reverie and is invigorated. He goes to answer it from his writing desk, glances through the peephole, and opens his front door again.

Jacqueline Leung is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Hong Kong and a manager of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival. She graduated from University College London and the University of Hong Kong with degrees in English literature.


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