Rabalaïre (excerpt)

— Alain Guiraudie (Illustrations Clément Rodzielski)

Alain Guiraudie, filmmaker and writer, published Rabalaïre last autumn by P.O.L., a novel of more than a thousand pages in which Jacques, who lives in the south of central France and has recently been laid off from a small underwear company, benefits from a period of unemployment insurance which allows him to “see what comes,” to reflect and, above all, to hit the road on his bicycle through mountains, passes and valleys in search of new sensations and perspectives. In the first chapters, following his recent resignation from a group of left-wing militants, he wonders about the difficulty he feels more and more in conveying a message of openness towards the other, in being understood: “If we were more in contact, more in discussion, maybe we would be able to see things clearly or at least, without seeing things more clearly individually, because we don’t all have to have precise ideas about everything, maybe a clarity or a line could emerge between everyone.” Then, Jacques rides his bicycle into lands that seem almost as foreign as those of a fairy tale, according to his desires: carnal desire, desire for the other, for the unknown, and also desire for a more heterogeneous “collective.” Desire is at the heart of the novel: to manage to invent it, to accept it, to experience it and to live it; in contrast to the known, verbalized desire defined by others, by inoperative life models. The excerpt was read by the author at the Maison de la Poésie on 15 October 2021, in Paris.

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“Shall we?”
And it’s as if we were coming back to our senses, as if we were picking up where we’d left off, the priest takes my arm for me to follow. He gives Rosine a perfunctory good-bye, I’m sure he’ll just put me in bed and then come get her and spend the night with her, that’s why she was telling me he wasn’t one bit gay or pedo, none of that, and that’s also why he didn’t ask why I had to sleep at the presbytery. The only thing I really wonder about is why Éric kisses his cheek. On the way to the presbytery, I ask him:
“What did you mean that morning when you said it was better Rosine’s son didn’t find me there?”
“That it was better he didn’t find you there.”
“Could he be dangerous?”
I want to ask him how he could be dangerous, if he’s already hit (or hurt or even killed) someone but there’s no time.
“He can’t have been happy about your hard-on after the funeral lunch (he adds). You’d better be careful.”
We’re still walking through village, by the church, there’s only one streetlight and once we’re past the church, we’re in almost total darkness.
“Even if he had to know that it was more that you had a hard-on for me. But I wonder if that didn’t bother him even more.”
It did catch me off-guard, hearing that thought.
“And how would he have known?” (I ask).
“You weren’t very discreet about rubbing up on me.”
“I wasn’t rubbing up against you, I was just touching your thigh a bit.”
We enter the presbytery, find ourselves in the light, in a little hallway that seems to have three rooms off it. There, the priest looks at me, he seems to be thinking, he actually pauses for a minute and as I’m intrigued both by his face which I’m seeing from a new perspective (owing to the light, the space, my state of being, or the fact that I know him a bit better) and also intrigued by what he’ll say (or not say considering how long he’s taking), so, not knowing what to say, I wait. And he finally asks me:
“Did someone give you something to drink up there, by the pass?”
I look at him, I slowly shake my head no, but I think of Gabin’s moonshine, even if that day I really hadn’t had anything. I act surprised, like I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. He keeps watching me.
“Do you mean, something to get me hard?” (I go there).
And he, in turn, seems stunned by my question, or shaken, I’m not sure. I figure he’s realizing that he’s gone a bit too far, that he’s started to open a can of worms.
“Is it really because of me that you were that way?” (he asks me).
And I have no idea what to say to that, if I wanted to say no, I’d have to do so right away, but with how long I’ve paused, thinking over whether it was his touch or if it would have been the same being touched by anything else, it’s too late, I wouldn’t be believable and in any case I do like that the priest thinks that I’m getting hard for him. I’m just wondering one thing: why the priest said that Éric might have been even more bothered that I was getting hard for him (the priest) than for his mother. And so, the cheek-kiss between the two of them, Rosine insisting that there’s nothing pedo about this priest, is all I need to start imagine things between Éric and him. Then he shows me my bedroom, an old room with just a bed and a chair, no armoire, not even a nightstand, and above the bed, a wooden crucifix and all of it amid cream wallpaper. He doesn’t even point out the bathroom, he just wishes me a good night, with a big smile, see you tomorrow. I don’t stay up, I go to bed, but despite being wrung out, I can’t fall asleep, I keep mulling over that odd day, it’s actually the first time I think through that shocking time I had with Gabin, I think it over as both a rape and a time of utter pleasure, this sheer ecstasy stays with me (it’s the first time in my life I’ve actually cum from my ass), I think that even when I was having dinner with Rosine, it was still in my guts but I also retain the memory of great violence, like an accident where one feels like one’s not really oneself, like one’s beside oneself and watching oneself. I see myself again on all fours in the grass, the big house nearby and Gabin’s huge cock plunging into my throat and I’m not sure anymore whether I like it or not, but I have to keep going, go all the way, and wonder if his moonshine is something that heightens my libido or destroys my willingness. And so I wonder if I feel like I wasn’t myself because I’m uncomfortable with this nice time, because I still have the memory of this fat, very ugly, not terribly kind man who only cares about himself or maybe it’s because it wasn’t such a nice time after all and without that booze I’d never have fucked that guy or maybe I’d have made a move because there was clearly something that had attracted me to him (I didn’t go back because of the booze), but I’d have told him to piss off the second he’d tried to shove his dick down my throat. And then I recall the red blotches on his pale skin, the zits on his neck and also the tan lines on his arms and the wind in the trees, the trees on the hilltop, the low sun, finally I see Jordan again watching me there on all fours in the grass and who isn’t totally sure what to do with that but who doesn’t seem to be too bothered by it either, and I end up feeling disgusted by the memory of a nice time.

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After that, I decide to dwell on other things, I think of the farm deep in the hills, of everyone there and then the priest who comes out of the woods with the old shepherd and then Lydia as well who’s calling me and who can’t help talking in a way that gives me the impression of lying to her husband but without giving him right beside her the impression of lying to him, and it gets complicated because in the middle of all that there’s still that image trying to creep in, that of the young Arab man who blows himself up in the Ardèche countryside. And suddenly I notice my cock’s incredibly hard and it’s because of Gabin’s moonshine, I decide that I really have to think of nothing, it takes so much effort to concentrate and I finally fall asleep. But I wake up all of a sudden, terrified, I recall Rosine telling her son that I was sleeping here and I know he’ll come, that’s why he was so calm when he left last night, he knew I was so close by, he knew I’d be alone at the presbytery (since he has to know the priest sleeps with his mother). I don’t turn on the light because I’m scared of seeing him there, hunched over my bed, waiting for the perfect moment to bash my brains in or shoot me dead with his hunting rifle, I wait, not moving, I listen to the heavy silence. I recall us, the priest and me, in front of Raymond’s coffin, and the priest telling me: “He’s handsome, isn’t he?” And I realize that he was spying on me not for Rosine but for Éric, and if Éric’s so angry at me it’s because he’s realized that I was falling in love with his father and seeing me last night in his clothes, that really had to bother him, even more than the hard-on after the lunch. I get up, still in the darkness because in the darkness Éric and I are on the same level. When I open my bedroom door, it’s like a deliverance, and because nothing happened, it’s proof that Éric’s not there, but a second later I figure that doesn’t mean anything, and that he could still show up at any moment. I grope my way down the hall, my shoulder and my hand along the wall, I vaguely remember the layout, I see the front door a few yards straight ahead. I finally reach it, it’s not locked, and there isn’t even a way to do so, no bolt, no key in the hole. I get the impression looking outside, seeing the village, will do me good. Outside the streetlights must have been turned off, I know they’ve been doing that more often in the rural communes to save energy, so outside is merely less dark, I make out the shapes of the walls and even those of the trees thanks to the light breeze shaking the leaves (or their shadow). And so, now that I’m reassured, I can turn on the light, the hallway seems far shorter than I’d thought, I make my way back down, I glance in the other rooms. There’s the old-fashioned kitchen, big enough for people to eat in there, but farther off there’s a proper dining room. Just a square table with four chairs around it and a wooden side table and nothing stands out, it must not get much use. I go upstairs, I’m not sure that the priest isn’t there, and it also occurs to me that he might be there but with someone, Éric for example. So I take great care not to put too much weight on each step. It’s useless; the stairs creak and so does the floor upstairs. I dare to peek through the first ajar door, I can tell it’s indeed the priest’s bedroom, I glimpse a chair with clothes. Between the creaking wooden floor, the timbers of the house shifting, and the door squeaking, it’s hard for me to be totally quiet, and so I trust my instinct, I figure that if someone were sleeping in this room, I would be able to tell. So I open it all the way, I make out the empty bed, I turn on the bedroom light, it’s a huge bed with a massive wood headboard, it’s unmade, the sheets and covers pushed back. The bed’s cold, the sheets look rather new and just sitting on it feels more comfortable than my own bed. And I do like this bedroom as well, it’s more lived-in, the priest’s thrown a few habits on a high table, a pair of pajamas, a cassock, a tee-shirt, and on the nightstand, there’s a brand-new edition of the Gospels, there’s also an old Télé Z and also another book under it. And what I like most of all, in this room, is the wallpaper, it seems totally new, totally blue, a beautiful sky blue with very fine marbling, it softens the room, it makes me want to sleep here. Not to mention that Éric would never come looking for me in this room. I feel comfortable in this presbytery, I’m actually happy to have it all to myself for all night. I don’t even worry about Éric anymore, he’s got to be sleeping peacefully at home, the only thing on my mind is figuring out where the priest is sleeping, I’ve got to know for sure, I’ll just go check at Rosine’s. So I make my way up to the café, and with no street lighting, Gogueluz is pretty scary. I feel overpowered by the black mass of the hills and as I can barely tell the houses apart, anyone could catch me unawares. Even the sound of my footsteps is worrying. So I stop to listen, I hear the river’s burble, it mingles with the wind’s blowing, I take that moment to look up, I see the hilltops blurring into the gray clouds, the sky’s overcast, it’s going to rain for sure. Once I’m at Rosine’s, I have no trouble finding my way upstairs, but once I’m there I’m not sure what to do. How do I make sure the priest’s there, beside her? Without making any noise or turning on any light? And besides, do I really need to make sure of that? I think on it for a minute, torn between wanting to go sleep in the priest’s bed, because that’s what I’m already definitely doing soon, and the need to know. I need to know everything about the priest. About Rosine, too. I think in the darkness, I realize that should someone suddenly turn on the light, it’d be odd to see a guy like me standing in the middle of the hallway, his head tilted slightly and not looking at anything. The one bright idea I have is to use the light of my cell phone to show the way. I open the door of Rosine’s bedroom, unsure if it’s her bedroom, as it’s the only one that’s shut, I figure it has to be that one, but just when I have it slightly open I wonder why they’d shut the door in a house where they’re alone. Well, since I’m already there, since the door’s squeaked, no point backtracking especially not when it’s easy enough for me to hear someone breathing, I stay put, my eyes lost in the darkness, my ears pricked up, after some time I can make out two different breaths, something in the rhythm, in the tone too, and then I sense some movement, a small one first then a bigger movement and then a shuffle, I can’t tell whether it’s a figment of my imagination or reality, and by the time I realize someone’s approaching me, it’s too late, I don’t even have the time to take a step backwards, a hand touches me, finds my arm, grabs me, and a big body pushes me out of the room. And by the smell I can tell it’s the priest. He leads me to another room, the one where Raymond’s coffin was placed, he turns on the light, he leans in and raises his finger to his mouth, hushes me. I don’t understand why he’d think I’d make any sound.
“Something wrong?”
He asks me that as if there were a problem at the presbytery or as if I were sick and I was looking for him simply because of that and I try to figure out how to answer because I don’t have any good reason to be there. I look at him, he’s so close, all I see is the top of his navy blue pajamas with a red trip, it’s hard for me to meet his gaze, I descend into the V-neck of his pajama, into the pale, hairless skin of his chest. I try to step back, but he keeps stepping forward and he does everything to get my eye, when I look down, his hand lifts up my chin, he says “Hey, what’s wrong?” And I imagine he’s doing that to hide his hard-on from me because all I can do is imagine that he’s as hard as a bull and I’d so like to see that. But he doesn’t drop it, he presses the matter, so I hope it’ll get him to pull back that I say:
“I’m scared all by myself down there!”
But that doesn’t get him to pull back at all, on the contrary, he stays put, he looks at me, he doesn’t understand.
“I’m scared Éric will come. If I could just at least lock the door…”
And with that it occurs to me to thrust my hand out to his crotch to try to feel what’s going on there. But he pulls back, as if he hadn’t thought of that and had just realized his mistake. So I can finally see him, at least down to his thigh, and there’s no hint of a hard-on, it’s a real disappointment and, worse, that doesn’t even mean anything, if he’d actually had a hard-on when he’d gotten out of bed, he’d have had time to go soft, he looks sad as he says:
“There’s never been a key!”

Translated from the French by Florence Couderc