A geographer by training, a traveler by calling, a Parisian by birth, Sylvain Tesson has wandered and written about many landscapes, ranging from Calcutta to the Gobi Desert, from Afghanistan to the northern extremes of Russia. He has crossed the Himalayas on foot and the steppes of Central Asia on horseback. He once lived for five months alone in a cabin on the Siberian Taiga, simply because he’d promised himself that, before he turned forty, “[he] would live as a hermit deep in the woods.” He is a writer excited by the possibilities of place.
Like any good nomad, Tesson knows how to pack all that’s necessary and still manage to travel light. He fits enough material for a novella into the two dozen paragraphs of “Boredom”—a story that follows a young woman named Tatiana from her post-college days in Siberia, through a sojourn in Moscow, to a surreal relocation in Provence. Along the way, she’ll meet an English strip-club owner who quotes Baudelaire and E. M. Cioran, and a French television producer with a taste for Flaubert (or at least for beautiful young women with a taste for Flaubert).
Tatiana is a dreamer from a long line of literary dreamers, the daughter of Dostoevsky’s Arkady Ivanovitch and Flaubert’s own Emma Bovary. She is destined to be disappointed by reality. But it’s the keenness of her disappointment that makes her every reader’s secret sharer, and that makes this story such a pleasure to read.
Translated by: Alex Andriesse
In periods of boredom, time turns its back on existence and we stand outside ourselves. (CIORAN, Entretiens)
It was a forced entry of light. The waves of hostile winter sun spilled over the linoleum. And the uselessness of this light hurt the girls’ eyes. The perfectly blue sky was an invitation to suicide.
“Ugh…,” Tatiana groaned, turning toward the wall.
Aliona got up, grabbed the roll of tape, and refastened the blanket over the living room window. She had time to glance at the clock stamped with the initials CCCP in gold letters (a 1975 model, inherited from her grandfather): half past twelve. Then it was dark again in the blazing room. The central heating systems of the high-rises were working full blast this February.
“I’ve got a metal cock pounding through my head,” said Aliona.
“I’ve got a streetcar running through the back of my neck,” said Tatiana.
They buried what was left of their hangovers in the pillows. The alcohol carried out its massacre. They slept until five in the afternoon, got up, and made black tea. They drank a liter in silence and feebly ate a package of cookies. It was already night. They removed the blanket that covered the window: the lights from the concrete low-rises cast pale yellow checkerboard patterns on the building façades. Yesterday, they’d gone to the Tamerlane. With their alabaster faces, their sprayed blonde hair, and the turquoise irises set in their almond eyes, they had much less success in the clubs of these boreal latitudes than they would’ve on a palm-studded coast. They’d gotten hammered on a bottle of chili-infused vodka. Two soldiers had approached them gingerly, like Russian conscripts. A fat, mustached one and a thinner one, who wasn’t so bad-looking really. They had tongue-lashed Chechnya, and one of them had collapsed into an armchair and the other had yelled “Grozny is a whore!” before going outside to vomit. Then an electrician from the KTP 11 company had insulted them and shouted at Tatiana that she shouldn’t have slapped his brother last year, and Tatiana had remembered the three weeks she’d spent with a retard who couldn’t talk about anything but trolling for salmon. The guy was ejected by Igor, the Tamerlane bouncer and a native of Kazan. The dance floor emptied out and the two friends were left alone. They’d ordered another hundred fifty grams of vodka, downed a few beers, then Aliona had broken her boot heel on the number-one Ukrainian hit of 1998, and the walk home had turned nightmarish when the sleet picked up on Proletarskaïa Street. On the arched front of city hall, a lit-up sign read -37°C. The streets were glazed with ice, and breathing in the iron-filing air was painful. It was March 8, International Women’s Day, the most important holiday of the year. They would never have missed such an occasion to have some fun.
Tatiana spent the whole next day planted in front of her reflection. The window faced Komsomols Street, and her blond hair was projected like a halo on the pane. The young Russian had finished her language studies at the State University of Tomsk and, in September, moved back to her mother’s apartment. For six months, she waited for something to happen. Winter had descended on the region in mid-September, freezing any chance for the unexpected. No country is so skilled at squeezing the life out of you. Siberia aborted time, mowed down the days. The hours spilled out stillborn. Here, fatalism alone let life keep on.
The chimneys of the district heating station pulsed their plumes: the steam frothed in the sky. Tatiana felt like getting a meringue, they were selling them at Store No. 3, four hundred meters from her building. But the prospect of piling on layers of clothes, pulling on tights, scarf, and balaclava discouraged her. Here, four hundred kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, it took twenty minutes to get dressed. She lay down on the couch, lit a cigarette, and tried to give life to a smoke ring.
At six in the evening. At the window. Her mother, a cashier at an airline ticketing agency, would get home from work in an hour. They would turn on the TV, before soup. This evening they were showing Voyna!, a film about the war in Chechnya: the Russian assault troops thrashed the Islamists and conquered Grozny with guns blazing among the ruins.
The future was a subject never broached in Stirjivoïe. The town consisted in a domino line of high-rises laid directly on the taiga, blocking out the horizon. Getting an apartment in one of these monuments to the glory of concrete architecture had been every Soviet citizen’s dream. Half the inhabitants of Stirjivoïe worked in the oilfields. The other half waited for them in the heat of the high-rises. At night, the line of gas flares danced and, seen from the upper floors, looked like a festive wreath hung above the forest. Putin had put Russia back on track by orchestrating the pumping of deposits within the Federation’s borders. Since the 2000s, drilling stations had been popping up all over Siberia. Pipelines had crawled across the tundra, interfering with the seasonal migrations of the reindeer. Russia rose from its slumber, shook itself awake, and found its feet in the barrels. The hiss of gas and the gush of flames had broken the silence of open spaces. These flares in the night were indicator lights, signaling that the country was back on the global market. They kindled new hope in the minds of the middle classes. Among the proles, too: when a flare shot up in sight of a street, the drunks steered toward the glow as if sure they’d found a beacon. Tatiana asked herself if she had time to call Igor. He worked as a mechanic at the power station, and now and then they called each other to hook up. He always came chop-chop with his muzhik cap on, his dimples like gouge marks, his big red hands predestined to knead. The slats of the living room sofa were sunken in and they’d finish on the floor, on the khaki green carpet laid in 1977, the year that Tatiana’s father retired. He had died the following summer, after falling into Lake Kotchelnik hammered on Armenian cognac. But Tatiana thought: no time to fuck. 6:30 already. The day was practically dead, and no way her mother was getting home late.
The next day was worse: an insomniac deportation in the light of day. Tatiana no longer belonged to time. She was on its bank watching the hours pass but never diving into the river. At night the insomniac, too, is disembarked from the temporal train. He remains motionless, in his sweat-soaked sheets, excluded from the current that carries the others asleep. She, in a state of wakefulness, felt deprived of that basic right to drift with the course of the hours. She sipped tea, smoked a pack of cigarettes, and understood that her French degree would be useless in a frozen concrete town of Uzbek workers, Polish technicians, and Russian oilmen. She had been convinced of the influence of this language that in reality was only spoken by something like sixty million worn-down petits-bourgeois, doting on a memory of antediluvian grandeur. French was useful only for private claims, complaints, grumblings. To get by in this world you had to go knocking at the door of the Chinese, or Arabic, or Japanese department chair. What was she supposed to do with her mastery of the imperfect subjunctive and her theories of Flaubertian description?
Outside, a show was going on: a ballet of mechanical diggers pushing snowdrifts to the edge of Komsomols Street. The traffic wasn’t dying down. Stirjivoïe was a hopping place. Oil supplied jobs. The juice had to be pumped, exported to refineries where it would be transformed into gas and used to fill the tank of a Hummer ferrying girls through warm cities, girls bound for fresh mojitos and electric evenings. She stood plumb above this place where nothing ever happened—the source of things. Soon, in a few weeks, her mother would tell her that a ticket agency saleswoman couldn’t go on supporting a twenty-five-year-old girl, and that a person couldn’t just spend her life behind a window watching the snow through the double steam of cigarette smoke and tea. At the agency, the old lady was selling all-inclusive holiday packages to Thailand for 50,000 rubles. The charter flights dropped hordes of Russians on the southern beaches of the peninsula, not far from the Malaysian border. The vacationers showed off their red bellies in rows on the sand, at the foot of the concrete resorts hastily rebuilt after the 2004 tsunami. In the mornings, they videotaped the buffets with their camcorders and then came back and showed these images to people who were getting ready to depart.
Tatiana stretched out on the sofa, dialed Igor’s number, but didn’t call it. She stared at the ceiling. A brown stain had blossomed on the fabric up there, the vestige of a leak from the neighbor’s hot water heater twenty years ago. As a kid, she used to stare at the patterns of these rings until she could see the heads of seahorses looming among anemones. Today, the stain remained a stain. The smell of cabbage drifted up from the apartment below and filled the air. It was the stench of Russian boredom. The sun tore through the clouds and for a few seconds lit the bulb of the Church of Our Lady of Kazan. The reflection set the center of the ceiling stain aglow. Tatiana pictured the babushkas at work in front of the iconostasis. They would be bowing down before the icon, smashing their faces against the stigmata, and calling with all their might on the monstrous nothingness of eternity as a consolation for dragging the miserable burdens of their lives over the Siberian earth. She stood up and looked at her ass in the mirror. She’d gotten into the habit of fasting two days a week, cut potatoes from her diet, and had always refused to take the elevator at university. She had an Orthodox ass: an arrogant bulb, tightly arched and perched on high. An ass that left a wake of memories, fights, failures, and sobs in the dorms. Here was her salvation, she said to herself, holding onto her rump, her back to the mirror. It was 6 o’clock. She had to do something. She had to get out of here.
Club 100 was in an alley in downtown Moscow, not far from Lubyanka Prison. Whores and convicts: the neighborhood was made for moaning. A wooden door opened beneath an archway flanked by Russians, both a hundred ninety centimeters tall. They wouldn’t have been out of place in an illegal fight at Lefortovo. They only let in two types of people: regulars and men rolling down 4×4 black-tinted windows. Customers descended a flight of lacquered stairs, deposited their coats in the cloakroom, and entered a big hall where battering techno pulsed across the girls’ bellies, laser-striped like an Arctic night streaked by the aurora borealis. The whores danced with all their limbs or had a drink at the bar, legs provisionally crossed. The temperature was perfectly controlled so that the human beings cruising the place didn’t feel cold in their underpants or hot if they kept their jackets. Tatiana spent two years at Club 100 sitting on red cushions or businessmen, lying under Kazakh bankers or standing, at the pole in the middle of the club, in front of democratic journalists from the Schengen area waiting for the eighth shot of vodka to dissolve what remained of their remorse. She had put six months into mastering the head-down split on the rotating bar, and then had fought with Ludmila for a spot on the podium with the place’s best dancers. The 100 was patronized by businessmen from Central Asia and Europe, as well as a few deputies in the Duma who had their own private stairs and VIP rooms on reserve. Once in a while, an American writer or a Scandinavian artist came to see for himself that the breeding grounds for the Muscovite brothels had survived the hemorrhaging of Russian girls to the European Union.
The place was run by an Englishman named Rupert W. who for ten years had managed to escape mob racketeering, administrative harassment, and intimidation by the militia. He spoke a charming Russian peppered with literary phrases, invoked Dostoevsky whenever things got muddled, and surrounded himself with Georgian associates. Two years after his arrival, he’d converted to Orthodoxy at a monastery in the Golden Ring, and his Old Slavonic cantillations, interspersed with flights about the salvation of the soul and the power of faith, intimidated the oligarchs who asked for a meeting to sniff out whether there were any grounds for extortion. He had hollow cheeks, a burnt complexion, watchful eyes, and something of the Galapagos iguana in his way of moving, prudently, painfully, like one of those animals whose strides over the dried lava had inspired Darwin.
Backed up by Cioran and Baudelaire, he would explain to visitors that the girls of his purple realm were conflagrated saints, that flesh was a prayer rug, that whores’ bellies were crucibles for the tears of men damned by their compulsions. He recruited the girls according to a principle that ruled out all coercion: they paid for the right to enter and then did their business with the clients. The club took its margin on renting the alcoves and providing the liquor. The girls sold their pussies and Rupert rented his rooms.
It didn’t take Tatiana long to find her way to the stairs of the 100. One of her old roommates from the Tomsk dorms had been working the pole since the winter before and suggested she meet her boss. When Rupert and his Georgians laid eyes on this product of a one-night stand between a Ural-Altaic princess and a Muscovite boyar who spoke perfect French and radiated the coldness of a machine tool, they didn’t hesitate to offer her dance classes. The rest followed very quickly: the tests to make sure Tatiana was draining blameless blood and in possession of healthy mucous membranes, and that was how it began.
Whenever a Frenchman poked his self-satisfied head into the 100, Tatiana came recommended. Her clients were men of fifty, diplomats, businessmen whose belly-size no longer allowed them any hope of a pretty ass that wasn’t for sale. The guys asked her name, some went into ecstasies over the quality of her French while downing their drinks, and the least hurried even went on to ask where she’d learned the language. But most of them didn’t give a shit about this Flaubert worship kept up behind Siberian borders, and all of them finally forgot that Tatiana understood them perfectly when they spit in her face: “you’re going to take it, you fucking Russian slut.” They felt some shame when, pulling their underpants back on, they heard the girl with the dead blue eyes say to them: “I hope that you have drawn some pleasure from what has just occurred.”
She met Alain one night at the end of March, when Moscow is just starting to warm up. The stalactites drop from the roofs and, on occasion, spear a passerby. People wade through the mud. Cars spray pedestrians with black spurts of the stuff, and under the cast-iron snowdrifts the road-service crews discover the drunks of winter, buried one frozen night. Alain lived in Provence, and that year he was multiplying his visits to Moscow to negotiate a contract with the Ministry of the Interior and Star City. His production company had started on a saga for the BBC, the ZDF, and the Rossiya channel about the Soviet space age. Now it was a matter of obtaining the rights to thousands of hours of archival footage that the FSB had just declassified and was looking to sell to the highest bidder. Alain spent his days in linoleum-covered corridors where businessmen with prizefighter shoulders and functionaries with thin hair piloted him toward pointless negotiations and conversations punctuated by shots of vodka. Every night for a week he came to the 100 to wash out the taste of these lenitive hours. One day he was introduced to Tatiana, and he seemed happy to talk to her about Gagarin, the Sputniks, and the dog Laika. He drank one apple vodka and then another with cranberries. He danced with her, stayed to watch her seemingly impale herself on the chrome rod, left suddenly at 3 a.m., and promised her that he would return the next day. He kept his promise, and kept it the day after too. He asked for nothing except to talk while feverishly emptying glasses that he brought down too forcefully on the counter. He must have thought this was a Russian custom. He asked Tatiana to describe Tomsk to him. He told her Provence was the most beautiful place on earth and Saint-Rémy was a paradise of scents. She could not say as much for her hometown, and described for him a day in Stirjivoïe, which is to say: eternity. One Friday he announced to her that he had clinched the deal for the space archives, and he bought all the girls a drink. He made love to her in a room of the 100 in which gilded plaster caryatids hovered about a Turkish-Wagnerian canopy bed. Byzantinism had rubbed off on Rupert’s aesthetic taste. They took a bubble bath in the Jacuzzi and drank Château d’Yquem. Tatiana, Russian girl that she was, only liked sweet wines.
They saw each other again the next day at the Hotel Ukraine, where Alain had got a room because the staff paid no attention to who went up with guests. They had dinner under the stucco and got as far as the elevator, where the finely crafted woodwork and the antique wall-hangings stifled Alain’s screams, which were not insults. This time, to her own surprise, Tatiana didn’t count how many thrusts it took till the thing was done. And Alain was still interested in her after he pulled up his pants.
On the nightstand, she spotted a copy of Flaubert’s Letters and told him, casually, through the smoke of a Craven “A”, that an analysis of the descriptions of the poplars of Croisset had been the core of her thesis, at university. He stared at her. A declaration of love starts with an exercise in self-persuasion. He had just confessed to himself that he loved her. Now he just had to tell her. Dinners are useful in such matters. In the evening, he offered her a bouquet that she found ugly—the florists of Moscow were getting their tulips from Holland, and the petals looked like plastic slats. He offered to take her with him to France. She responded by saying that he was getting ahead of himself. He replied that Gagarin’s life had taught him not to leave anything on hold. He didn’t dare tell her he was offering her Space itself, that would have been boorish—because of the dog. He was rather badly put together, extraordinarily hairy, and ate too much. He told her about his mas at the foot of the Alpilles. He described his loneliness, his orderly life, the silence of his nights, and it was this confession that won Tatiana over. She saw herself again in front of the mirror in Stirjivoïe and she decided to say yes. For form’s sake, she expressed some doubts about being able to get a visa. But Alain knew the ambassador, marriage would solve everything, she would get her residence permit quicker than her wedding dress. He was frequently in Paris and London. She would be free, she would have Provence to herself, he would come home weekends, he would take her traveling. He could see himself with her, at the market in Saint-Rémy, on his arm in Paris. He would take pleasure in the looks that his friends would train on her. Those social democrat petits-bourgeois, totally devoid of any sense of the tragic, would take her for a Russian whore, she who had read, lived, and struggled so much more than any of them.
It was a forced entry of light. The Mediterranean sun comes down like a hammer, dissolving all hope. Its brightness is a force that would make a nihilist of a prophet. It had snuffed out all of Camus’s joy, it oppressed the young Algerians sitting on the jetties, and it crushed Tatiana for ten years. She had moved in with Alain, under the plane trees of Saint-Rémy, as soon as she had left Russia. Sprawled on the leather sofa in the living room, she raised an eyelid. The hands of her Mauboussin cut the dial vertically in two. Twelve thirty. She pressed the switch that controlled the roller blinds in the bay window. The metallic arbor descended and hid the charred white Alpilles. And the blue reflections of the pool no longer danced on the taut suede ceiling. The bottles of Bordeaux emptied the night before had the same effect on her head as if they’d been broken over it. The tannin of the Clerc Milon dated back to 1975, a good year, and now it carried out its ravages. At five in the afternoon, she got up, made a cup of Dammann Assam tea, and drank it by cautious sips in the dark. She ran a bath in the Carrara marble tub and softly broke through the layer of vanilla foam that crackled on the surface of the hot water. Then she waited for the crippling pain of her migraine to subside.
Last night she had repainted the room she shared with Alain a taupe gray from Farrow & Ball. She’d wanted to celebrate the new color by drinking wine in front of the blushing limestone of the mountains. Two bottles later, with the sun set behind the peaks, she’d collapsed. Since her installation in Saint-Rémy, she passed the time in front of this window. The Alpilles blocked out the world with their wide white wave. At their feet, the cultivated plain was a lavender carpet. Alain had taken her to Saint-Baume, Sainte-Victoire, and Mont Ventoux. Every time, the same geological élan, the same portcullis standing in the uniform sky. Provence was a field bristling with useless ramparts. Geology had left its remnants lying around.
Her life oscillated between the window, the bathroom, and the kitchen, where, on an obsidian work surface, she sprinkled very fresh Carpaccio with Parmesan. Alain made brief appearances in the storm-cloudy sky of this existence. He arrived behind bouquets of flowers, showered her with affection, and went off again, leaving a wake of promises that all revolved around reducing his absences. Sometimes a conversation with the gardener, the deliveryman, or a decorator who called himself an “interior designer” broke the air-conditioned silence. They were talkative people, helpful, and largely dishonest. They gestured while they spoke and disgusted her, for she detected in their solicitude merely a wish for familiarity. She knew that the French didn’t like Russians, that they thought of Slavs of her kind as venal she-wolves and male muzhiks as brutes. For proof, all she had to do was turn on the plasma screen in the living room and listen to what abuse the news channels heaped on her country. Twenty-year-old chicks born in paradise, brought up between Sciences-Po and Tuscany, stammered their clichés about the political violence of the Kremlin, the weight inherited from the Soviet system, and the flouting of democracy by half-Asian satraps. No one had any notion of the decrepitude of the post-Soviet boat the authorities had inherited. Twelve time zones bloodied by nearly a century of socialist insanity can’t be managed like a baroque European banking duchy.
At first, she’d gone from one Provençal festival to another—baroque days in Lacoste, piano concerts in La Roque-d’Anthéron, Chorégies d’Orange, and operatic evenings in Thoronet—and then, tired of this illusion of culture, this false appetite for beauty, she had lowered her sights to the shops of Marseille, Nimes, and Avignon, reducing more and more the interval between the moment she would buy herself a handbag and the moment she would replace it. Her life had consisted of buying things behind glass and trying them on in front of mirrors. The cabinets had overflowed, and the quite unusual excitement of not knowing exactly everything one possessed quickly faded. She had rediscovered the bay window and the view of the Alpilles. This accident of pure rock halted her gaze, along with the momentum of La Crau. The first, then the second year had passed, and the limestone screen tinged by the sunlight was the only thing that entertained her. From time to time, a minuscule burst of energy drove her to oversee the building of a border in the garden or the decoration of a wall. And then everything fell back into place, which is to say fell back into motionlessness, and the hands of the ridiculous little Directoire clocks Alain was so fond of were the only things making an effort to span time.
She woke up in the bath. The foam had melted, leaving shimmery halos in the warm water. Alain would not return until Friday night. The pointlessness of the week would then be broken up for two days by the insignificance of his presence. She would have to open her legs to let in his flab, endure his enthusiasm, accept her husband’s ad nauseam affections. She sighed and, her head resting on the lip of the tub, stared at the ceiling. She noticed for the first time that the veins in the marble met plumb at the level of the tub and formed a spot like a knot in a plank. The dark, ovoid area was exactly like the shape on the ceiling of the apartment in Stirjivoïe, and Tatiana experienced a terrible sensation: floating in her scented bath, she realized that she was now suffering from a boredom perfectly akin to the one that had ravaged her, two years earlier, in Stirjivoïe, in Siberia. And that she was thinking of it with nostalgia.
Image via Abduzeedo
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