Quick and glittering as a spun coin, George’s Wife turns on a mystery, an absence. It’s about a vertiginous view of what was either a tragedy or the perfect crime. The case is one of failing to aid at the scene of an accident – the legalese for the neglect of the duty to rescue those in peril. The essential human metaphor at the heart of this mock detective story. Casually sly, the story is full of sharp satire, so lightly and blamelessly done that Veronique Bizot almost seems to do it by accident, while talking of something else entirely. It’s a clever feint (against whom? the format? the reader? herself?). Prose like a card-trick, absorbing, deflecting and distracting.
And with Bizot, it’s all about that distraction, one that, paradoxically illuminates and explains.
Through the strange, watchful gaze of his wheelchair-bound neighbour, we watch a man constantly and obsessively clean the pool in which he never swims. The pool in which his wife died. A tragic mishap. All is calm and slow in the sleepy but threatening sunshine. Bizot’s prose lightly walks a tightrope of tone and mood, delicately balanced but swiftly turning, speeding and slowing, defying the possibility of a stumble. Even her punctuation brims with acrobatic archness, pointed, humorous – a flickering, teetering balance between dance and battle. In a story that is written like a sparring match. In a universe where darkness can bring light, a light that can be simultaneously merciless but comforting. It tastes like a poolside drink, a chaser of transparency to follow a slug of hard liquor (French has no word for that most necessary drink, the chaser, the drink that lubricates and justifies the previous one). Despite being French, it’s a drink that Bizot pours very well. L’chaim.
Translated by: Youna Kwak
From my patio, I can see George at the edge of his pool, thirty yards down the hillside. A thicket separates us, which covers an incline of red, cracked earth, bordered on both sides by walls of dry stone. George is in his swimsuit and sandals, and is wearing sunglasses from the 70s which, I know because we bought them together, cover the upper halves of his cheeks, like two fat drops of water just about to fall, and which don’t suit him. George’s pool has a kind of bean shape that recalls the shape of his sunglasses and even though every morning he comes out to analyze the pH balance and slowly drag a net across the surface to collect debris, he never swims there, neither he nor anyone else for that matter, except the wasps. The wasps, who make George nervous, and against whom he has set every kind of trap, clump along the edge of his pool. I see him sometimes crush one under his foot, then rub the sole of his shoe against the sparse grass in his yard. No longer does he raise his head in the direction of my patio, so I can watch him as long as I want while he is maintaining his pool – every morning the same ritual. Quite often I fall asleep beneath my sun umbrella, until Louis brings me lunch, with the mail and two newspapers. Then I make a few quick, impersonal phone calls. George, at this hour, has abandoned his pool and I suppose gone back into his house, of which I can only make out the tip of the roof. On that side, fairly tall and dense trees block the view I might have of George’s patio, a hideous slab of flambé flagstone, overhung by a striped orange awning trimmed with grayish fringe, underneath which I imagine him seated, like me, motionless. He might have put on a shirt and served himself a glass of something – I don’t know whether or not he has completely given up drinking. Our two houses are the lowest and the most modest in the development, both dating from the 50s, both fairly ugly, although George’s is particularly so – all his attempts at improvement only made things worse, and it is not rare for people who are lost to come ringing his doorbell, convinced they are ringing at the caretaker’s house.
Underneath the noonday sun, George’s pool forms a gleaming spot that doesn’t turn blue again until later in the day. Also gleaming is the enormous red sign of the Champion supermarket, whose customers now include the most influential hillside residents, the very same ones who had initially worked so determinedly to ensure its immediate demolition. From what I hear, Champion meat, especially Champion veal, is remarkable, and the Champion butcher can size up, in a single glance, who he’s dealing with. Wherever you are invited to dinner around here, you are now served Champion veal, prepared in every kind of sauce and reputed to be so tender that no one is offended anymore by the sign which, lit up day and night, can be seen from every patio, including the Klausens’ patio, highest of them all, and where, defeated by Susi Klausen’s insistence and her endless telephone calls since June, I finally had dinner last night. Last night, after having resisted their solicitations for over a month, I subjected myself to the Klausens’ house, the Klausens’ champagne, the Klausens’ conversation, and while Louis was taking me to their house, I thought about what awaited me there, Rolf Klausen in his yachtsman’s outfit, leaning against his balustrade as if against the railing of a ship, Susi Klausen appearing, like a bolt of lightning, out of nowhere, to dismiss Louis with a sweep of her hand, seize the handles of my wheelchair, and, with the dexterity of the nurse she had been before getting Rolf Klausen in her clutches, whip it suddenly in the direction of the rectangle of lawn dedicated to aperitifs. There, lit by tiny spotlights, were a mix of botanical species, sculptures, and guests, bearing testimony to the use Susi Klausen makes of Rolf Klausen’s millions, the latter who, invariably affable, displayed, as he did at every party, a studied bonhomie, awaiting the moment when he could go off to bed. And last night I found myself shaking Rolf Klausen’s hand as if I were shaking the hand of the good and amiable man he appeared to be, all the while perfectly aware that I was shaking the hand of a crook, and as I was shaking Rolf Klausen’s hand and then those of the guests, I could still hear George’s voice, the voice I miss, declaring that the entire hillside is nothing but a pile of crooked businessmen. In each of the houses on this hillside, George would say, when we were still friends, there is a con man who has lived his murderous existence in perfect legality, completely devoted to speculation. And the money he has made, he recycles into art foundations and art galleries and museums worldwide, wherever there is art, George would say, there is a crook who, along with art, buys himself an artistic conscience, even though he understands nothing about art, even though art bores the shit out of him, he has, nevertheless, perfectly understood and evaluated all the profit, with regards to respectability, he can extract from art. George, back when the Klausens first moved to the hillside, was an art critic and it was as an art critic that he was invited to dinner at the Klausens, only once, after which the Klausens did not want to hear anymore about George, either because he had subjected the paintings with which the Klausens covered the walls of their new home to his criticisms, or else because he had contented himself to walk past them without uttering a single word, or had lifted Susi Klausen’s skirt at the moment when she was offering him a plate of hors d’oeuvres, one way or another George managed to avoid ever getting invited again.
And while Susi Klausen, who had positioned my wheelchair with its back to a shallow pool whose moisture spread diffusely across the small of my back, recounted the burglary of which they had been victims that very afternoon – a small Renaissance-era bronze that was still in the living room when she had come down from the second floor at five-thirty on the dot to go to the kitchen, was no longer there when she came back out some ten minutes later – I was thinking that I myself was not so lucky, as to be done with the Klausens’ invitations. It would have been, Susi Klausen was saying, just as easy to take this or that painting down from the living room walls, because naturally the alarm system to which each painting was connected was not activated during the day. But, overlooking the paintings, they had only taken the little Renaissance bronze, as well as a table lighter next to it, so that the policemen were leaning towards the theory of an amateur burglary, the first of the season, according to them. At that moment, each of the guests, pretending to be interested in the Klausens’ burglary, must have actually been worrying about his own house and the doors and windows that he had perhaps neglected to lock, I hope that you have all taken precautions, went on Susi Klausen, come on, said Rolf Klausen calmly, after all, we’re pretty well protected here, proof positive, countered Susi Klausen with bitterness. Believe it or not, she added, it’s my table lighter that I most regret, we’d been using that lighter for years, and everyone knows a table lighter that works after the first twenty-four hours is priceless. The woman seated to my right turned towards me, looked at me with her head slightly cocked, and I had yet again to acknowledge the strange attraction that it has on certain people, this wheelchair, without which I cannot go anywhere since a year ago now, when I was ejected from George’s car. The woman had placed her hand on the wheel of the chair that she was stroking slowly with her index finger. Her husband, or at least the man I finally understood to be her husband, was extremely old. He must have been the famous Genevan philosopher whose presence Susi Klausen had mentioned to me. His wife, roughly thirty years his junior, had vaguely red, frothy hair, a dress with a loose neckline, and was speaking quickly, with the false gaiety of a melancholic, they had rented one of the houses on the hillside for the summer, probably the only house on the hillside without a pool, she announced, smiling, and I did not disabuse her of the idea, although I myself have never had a pool, except George’s, George’s pool was always enough for me, but what were we waiting for to be seated at table?
Silently, I observed the Klausens’ guests who – we were fourteen – formed an indeterminate cluster in the night, illuminated here and there by the garden spotlights and from which Rolf and Susi Klausen appeared more clearly distinct, as did the old philosopher and his now clearly too-young wife, two couples whose intimacies I imagined at the end of dinner, the mute ceremony of their going to bed in the silence of their rooms, the swallowed sleeping pills, the bitterness of Susi Klausen stuffing ear plugs into her ears, the impotent advances of the old philosopher, the lights turned out without the faintest attempt to move closer to one another, now that they had passed from indifference to disgust, disillusionment to loathing. My neighbor, though still leaning towards me, had fallen silent, she had not asked me anything about my wheelchair, informed, no doubt by Susi Klausen, on the subject of the horrible accident, and no doubt quite familiar with the manner in which, a year ago, George, completely drunk, managed to ram his car into the guardrail of the highway that overlooks the sea here, and how he walked away without a scratch, while I, thrown through the windshield, went gliding over the guardrail. It’s Susi Klausen who, whenever she mentions the accident, uses the term gliding, an acrobatic movement I personally have no memory of making, that no witness confirmed, and that, the way she describes it, has for me, every time, the rather burlesque effect of a scene of a movie perpetually rewound and replayed in fast forward. I know that no one thought much of my chances of survival when they picked me up from the other side of the guardrail, lying between two rows of vines, but things being what they are, I am still here, behaving like a reasonable invalid, in possession of excellent faculties and a sufficient amount of fatalism. Nevertheless, George is nothing less than my murderer, in the eyes of Susi Klausen, who, I must acknowledge, came daily to see me in the hospital, instantly rediscovering her nurse’s reflexes, so well that it was she who was entrusted with the task of breaking the news to me about which of my body parts I could still count on. But as precious as Susi Klausen probably was to me in the context of the hospital, Susi Klausen is equally as intolerable outside of that context, on the one hand an excellent ex-nurse, on the other a fatuous acquaintance whom I have been doing my utmost, since coming home, to keep at a distance. My ingratitude towards Susi Klausen is equaled only by the rudeness with which I send her packing each time she calls, that is to say at least twice a week, when it’s not Louis who I put in charge of dismissing her. Louis was supplied to me by Susi Klausen as soon as I left the hospital, the day I arrived home Louis was waiting for me at the door, a tall, thin man with a lugubrious look, impassive, whom nothing could disturb. In the eyes of Susi Klausen, George is not only my murderer but also his wife’s. George’s wife died at the end of last summer, in George’s pool, a few weeks after my return from the hospital, without anyone being able to determine whether she had meant to swim or to drown herself. No one here really knew her – she was Italian, their wedding had taken place six months earlier in Italy – but Susi Klausen, as she let it be widely known, has every reason to think that George, in one way or another, is responsible for the death of his wife who, it has been established, never swam in their pool, but always in the sea. An excellent swimmer, emphasizes Susi Klausen. Married, to her downfall, to this destructive being who could do nothing, she insists, but push her to the limit, destroy her, as he destroys everything. I let her go on, even though I know how much they loved each other and how inconsolable George is now, whom I watch every morning executing the same vain gestures around his pool. They took away his driver’s license (George is prohibited from driving for life, just as I am prohibited, for life, from walking), so that it is very difficult for him to visit the grave of his wife, who is buried in the Italian family crypt. I momentarily thought that George was going to leave and settle down there, near his wife’s grave, but no, he stays here, near the pool in which he found her and from which he himself pulled her out, and that, day after day, he cleans under my watch, with a terrifying fastidiousness, manifestly aware, although he never looks in my direction, that I am watching him from my patio. That man is nothing but a criminal, repeats Susi Klausen and, by the sweep of her arm which accompanies this remark, it does not escape me that she includes not only my wheelchair and George’s pool, at the bottom of which his wife was found, but also the paintings and the sculptures with which she filled her house, the Klausens’ notorious collection, that George, the only time he was invited over, probably only glanced at distractedly, if not, that is, passing them by altogether without noticing them. The worst of George’s crimes is to have neglected, as Susi Klausen expected, to admire and thus legitimize the Klausens’ reputedly audacious collection, an assortment of trifles, as he later restricted himself to commenting. Only a very small canvas, stuck in a hidden corner at the foot of the staircase, vaguely aroused his interest, precisely a painting Susi Klausen told him she had acquired in a moment of confusion and which she urged him to overlook. As for the rest of it, it is obvious, to hear it from George, that the Klausens, incapable of even the remotest artistic feeling, were scammed by every art dealer on the planet. That they lacked artistic culture is of little importance to George, but such a dearth of artistic sensibility, is. They bought what is currently most insignificant, most vulgar, and most expensive, George told me of the Klausens. I have pity for artists, he further told me, no matter how mediocre, who have to traffic with these individuals, the Klausens that we know and all other Klausens, incapable of behaving in the presence of artists in a way that is not insulting, because when presented with their work, they think nothing and feel nothing that is not dictated by vanity and insensitivity. People, and not only idiots, come every summer to admire the Klausens’ collection and the latest acquisitions of the Klausens, when in reality what fascinates them is the fortune of the Klausens, of whom it is known that their other house, where they retire as soon as autumn ends and stay, as Susi Klausen reports, all winter like hermits, contains not a single piece of art of the kind they display here. The Klausens spend the winter in a house that is several centuries old, in the middle of the trusted values of antiquity; they spend it, as George heard Susi Klausen declare, surrounded by their palliating antiques.
And how’s your friend George? asked Rolf Klausen in a loud voice, who, having crossed the lawn with a bottle in hand, had come up to me, a little too close, so that the buttons of his jacket that gleamed like eyes bulging out of their sockets were level with my eyes. It seemed to me that he was wobbling slightly. A pretty funny guy, if I remember correctly, he added. I saw Susi Klausen coming straight at me in her multicolored tunic to dismiss her husband with a brusque gesture and, bracelets jangling, retake control of my wheelchair, at which point the guests rose and we were all directed towards the patio where the dinner table had been set, the seats set slightly further apart around the one assigned to me, between the old philosopher’s wife and Susi Klausen’s sister, Laure, as she introduced herself to me, very simply, unfolding her napkin with her frail hands. I had not noticed her until that moment, and I immediately wondered how she could possibly be the sister of Susi Klausen, while noting that the old philosopher’s wife, to my left – and next to her Rolf Klausen – was wearing a offensively insidious perfume that, each time she manipulated her fork or seized her glass, wafted in my direction, depriving me of any possibility of eating. Susi Klausen’s sister did not seem very hungry either, and when I pointed this out to her she smiled and said no, no actually, perhaps because she herself had prepared this course, so that I made an effort to swallow the contents of my plate. Laure’s hair was extremely smooth and silky, and swept across her face in a disarming way without seeming to bother her, as opposed to the old philosopher’s wife who ruffled and shook out her hair constantly, and to whom I completely turned my back, turning towards Laure in a deliberate move that seemed to disconcert her slightly. Across from her, crammed into his chair, the old philosopher, with his prominent eyes and his short, frizzy beard creeping up his cheeks, stared without expression at a spot on the tablecloth, as if dozing. Other dishes were brought out, and Laure asked me politely if I lived here year-round. I answered yes with the same politeness, adding that it had been a while since I had settled here, long before all these houses were built. A dreadful place, thundered the old philosopher, suddenly roused from his torpor. And, fork in fist, he banged on the table. Someone laughed briefly and conversations resumed. I didn’t know Susi had a sister, I said to Laure. We don’t see each other often, she said, I live abroad in Bombay, well for now, in Bombay. In Bombay, I said. Yes, she said. Far away, I thought. Are you familiar with India? asked Laure. No, I said, suddenly imagining myself roaming the streets of Bombay, full of invalids, I’ve always been quite sedentary. I smiled. You have had a difficult year, said Laure. I’m getting used to it, I said, which was almost true, as the months went by I ended up thinking that the accident had not actually changed much in my life, I had never seen much of life anyway, I said to Laure, I’ve always liked solitude, a certain silence around me, and when I’d had enough of being alone, I had George, I told her, I only had to walk a few yards and I was at George’s, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Get rid of everything, bellowed the old philosopher suddenly, fixing his round eyes on Laure. George? resumed Laure. The one who was driving, I told her. Laure nodded her head slowly and I told myself that perhaps she thought George was dead, as I myself immediately had thought upon waking up in the hospital, until he entered the room, with his wife, and they stood there at the side of my bed, hand in hand. For weeks, I could have told Laure, I saw George and his wife enter my room and hold hands at my bedside and then, when I was able to approach the window, George’s arm around his wife’s shoulders while they walked together to their car in the hospital parking lot. Once, I could have told Laure, George’s wife came alone. I was not having a very good day, and I was afraid that she had come with the intention of talking to me about the accident, which would have been completely pointless, but she had only come, she said, to sit near me for a moment, because I was constantly on her mind, of course, and, she added, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she had felt the sudden need to come, it was for her own sake that she had come. I told her ok, and then, a little bit later, that I really liked her smile, and I thought that if there were, in the future, other moments like these perhaps in the end it would be all right. And there were several of them, even if never exactly the same as that one, then George’s wife drowned, one morning while I was on my patio, and Louis somewhere behind me, busy clipping a hedge and all I would have had to do was to call out when I saw her, all of a sudden, just after waving to me, wobbling on the edge of the pool that she was hosing down, probably to chase away the wasps, and, as if surprised, letting go of the hose and slowly toppling over into the water, with her sunglasses on. Motionless in my wheelchair, I watched George’s wife sink, to the sound of Louis’ clippers, and when this sound was interrupted and Louis dropped his clippers and started running, alerted by George’s shouting, I could see nothing more, having stared too long at the gleaming surface of the pool. I remember the body laid out on the edge of the pool, I could have also told Laure, the stupefied face that George, kneeling, raised in my direction, the extraordinary silence of that moment. You had fallen asleep, Louis told me later, in a tone of voice that would accept no alternative. And as desserts were being placed on the Klausens’ table, I mused that Louis would soon be here, who would take me back home and help me to bed, then I heard myself asking Laure, although I didn’t listen to her answer, how much longer she intended to stay.
* This story is taken from: Gardeners By Véronique Bizot, Translated by Youna Kwak, Diálogos Books: June 2017. dialogosbooks.com
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