The Windowpanes

Jérôme Orsoni

Artwork by Jiin Choi

I began to write on the windowpanes in our apartment because I didn’t really know what to do anymore. I had just quit my unstimulating job at a prestigious publishing house, and I had to find a way to stay busy, at least to some extent. Granted, I could have dealt with the washing—but the windowpanes, in their transparency, seemed far better suited to this writer’s fate that I had just chosen for myself. I had to become clear-eyed, lucid, present, in the moment. I had to become myself, so to speak. To be totally honest, at first I had seriously considered dealing with the washing. I had even started a novel about it, which opened with the line: “I took to hanging out the washing late in life.”

Evidently it wouldn’t work. Indeed, writing on clothes would have had unfortunate consequences for my wife’s career. My career, which as we know had just ended, didn’t really count anymore. And dealing with the washing isn’t as noble a pursuit as writing on windowpanes. But above all, I had taken to hanging out the washing when I was still young. So it would have been a lie. And you don’t lie in a novel. Or you lie truthfully, but that’s another story—one that’s too complex for me, a mere glazier of literature. I had to content myself with what I knew: the windowpanes.

So on that day, coming home from the place I had just left for good, I did the windowpanes in the study as a trial. After giving them a good wipe, I used a non-permanent marker pen that I already owned. When my wife came back to the apartment, I showed her my invention. At first I think she found it strange—I remember her exact words: “Funny, I would never have thought of that . . . ”—but when I showed her that it could be easily erased she seemed to warm to the idea, or at least that’s what her expression told me. I no longer wrote on anything that moved: I now wrote on anything transparent at home in the apartment.

“I am a peroxide blonde in the land of possibles.” That is the first thing I wrote on the windowpanes. I wasn’t too sure what it could possibly mean. But I knew it was true. In the land of possibles everything is true, in a sense. So that’s what I wrote to start things off. And then I erased it. And then the same sentence again. And so on, a few times over. To tell the truth, this sentence was more an experiment in erasing than in writing, a test of the relative merits of the window cleaner and an oil-based soap I had. Once I had written a little, I left it to dry overnight to see which of the two products would do a better job of erasing my prose in the morning. We tend to forget that literature has to be left to dry. We appreciate it better once it is properly dry, especially as we are able to make it disappear. With nothing left to do, I went to bed.

On the windowpanes or elsewhere, I would have wanted to speak of life and death. No doubt I’d have said some very lovely things. But even literature no longer interests us. So what do we do? Nothing of note. Yet it seems to me that we keep up appearances all the same. To what end? I don’t know. I would have wanted to speak of life and death not for the fun of it, but to say some very pertinent things about them, like we used to read in novels. These works have disappeared. Of course traces of them linger everywhere, throughout the population; as far as we’re concerned, however, each one is as irrelevant as the next. We own them, and that is good enough for our way of life.

Truth be told, life and death is not a subject, and yet it is all there is left to speak of—that and love. I can’t speak about it, not here, just like that, so directly, as if starting a speech, an address, an edifying conference for the education of the human race. That’s all over—not the human race, but its education. Yes, we are that learned. And yet I would have liked to speak of life, death, and love, and I would have been heard in the end because it cannot be otherwise: the voice of men of goodwill is always heard in the end.

The next morning I worked on the windowpanes again, as planned. And I settled without hesitation on the window cleaner; no surprises there, but it was important to check anyway. And it was best to start with the shape of the windowpanes, to start by focusing on them. Best to open the novel by describing them, relating how they can be transparent or opaque depending on whether they are clear or dirty, whether it is day or night, sunny or overcast.

That is how I set about writing my great novel—writing it in tiny little letters like Robert Walser, to be precise. I had never read Robert Walser, but I knew that he was known especially for his microscopic handwriting. I copied him by writing the lines of my great novel in nigh on invisible letters. First the description of the windowpanes, patiently and minutely. And then, gradually, as if it were all playing out on one and the same surface: life, love, and death. Having thus covered the windowpanes in my blank writing, I would look through them at what was happening on the streets, following developments in both the world and my novel. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that I frequently preferred those of the world, especially when some unusual incident was taking place on the other side of the street. But I did not spend too long contemplating the world. I always dived back into my novel. It unfolded in letters blank and minute. I followed the twists, the turns, the metaphysical digression that I inserted to fire it up when the plot began to run out of steam.

Things had thus been progressing for a good week at least when I went out for a walk and some fresh air. To see what was happening on the other side of the windowpanes. I walked peacefully but at a healthy pace while thinking of my work, its next twists and eventual conclusion. After walking for around two hours I returned to the apartment. I poured myself a glass of water and went over to the large bay window in the living room, where I had written the better part of my forthcoming masterpiece. I was stunned. There was nothing left. Not one of those blank lines that I had patiently written out. Nothing. Simply the pure and simple transparency of an immaculate windowpane. I was speechless, incapable of the slightest movement. Dizziness swiftly overcame me and I lost consciousness. How long did I lie sprawled on the floor? I don’t know. When I came to, my wife was giving me a series of slaps to bring me round. I smiled lovingly at her before remembering that, somehow, the impossible had just happened. For her part, she looked at me with the deepest sympathy and said, “You know full well that the cleaning lady comes every Friday.” Indeed. Lost in my work, I had simply forgotten.

translated from the French by Alex Dudok de Wit