[… but they didn’t get it… well, I admit it was a gamble. We were asked to reflect on ourselves as writers taking into account what other students had written about themselves. And what I found all over (and I read a few) was this mixture of fear and pride, of being, even boasting of being, great readers and insecure writers. Most of all, the tension between the twin fears of revealing and and not managing to reveal oneself, one’s self. Very well explored in Ralph Keyes’ The courage to write. And an additional layer of “I always feel insecure writing in English” for most of us non-natives. So I took all that. Then there was a nice cultural detail (the Folon reference) that I found in one of the texts. But we were asked to be engaging, and use vivid details, well-placed concreteness. OK, so I wrote away, trying to weave those themes into a piece of fiction… and got very bad assessment from my fellows. Serves me right, I suppose. And that’s the final fear: will they get it? Will they like it? Well, no and no. And I don’t blame readers: it’s always one’s fault. Nobody said it would be easy.]
We spies cannot give ourselves away, but neither can we ever avoid saying every bloody thing about us. That’s what’s scary. Lying is easy; the trick is how to really, frankly, hold-my-eyes not lie when lying. What if you met me at this reception (awful champagne, excellent caviar, as it’s always the case in these new Eastern countries whose name rings no bells back home)? What if you asked me about my job or home, or my first love, and my answer was hesitant (not out of shyness or pride, mind you, but the fraction-of-a-second, I-didn’t-cram-enough type)? No, we need to have lived a life, a whole, complete and almost real life. One you can really, sincerely regret not having had instead of yours. We need to provide details, and details that match. Oh, yes, dear, I went to school at St Julian’s, near Bedford; and if you ask me, no more evil teacher has roamed the earth than Mr Montgomery, who once misquoted Shakespeare in class on purpose so that he could flunk us when exam day came. I swear to God his lips twitched with delight, as though finally tickled by his wiry moustache, when reading out (for the first time ever) our grades.
There is a St Julian’s in Bedford; I have seen pictures of a drab building with strangely small windows for its Georgian style, and I can almost remember myself panting along the steep path from the dormitory to the lecture building in December. I have also never been to Bedford, and I am gambling that they will not check teachers’ names from thirty years ago. They might, though. That’s the edge, and it’s you that will bleed: just don’t give them a reason to check too thoroughly. They call it “suspension of disbelief” in drama, and in intelligence you rely on it for your life about ten times a minute.
You cannot think of all that on the spot, of course. So we are told to write down a full biography in advance, to imagine vividly things that never happened, and have them at the ready in our minds. “You cannot stumble upon your cousin’s first name, Rogers!” Lehman, the instructor, never relented on this. “Rogers, if you yourself can tell the difference between your lie and the truth, you’re not being good enough, and you’re putting the country in harm’s way”. Well, I didn’t believe him, and I should have.
So we are constantly in fear of saying too much, or too little. We may blame it on language, or skills, but it’s really about how you deal with your false self until it feels truer than the one you used to be. And then add a layer of linguistic apprehension: are we really bilingual? I mean, what do you mean by that? Language is not a means of expressing something else, a canal that lets water through, it is the reservoir itself. “When you’re that beautiful men surround you like Folon’s men!”, she had quipped when the reception was almost through, and it was my testing time. Passing or flunking for this self-professed journalist, whose job credentials checked out a shade too quickly, too flawlessly. She was intelligence, I was pretty sure of that, and a good one. And those credentials had me French through and through, so if that Folon thing was a reference that any French person my age was sure to get, and I didn’t, it was I that was sure to be got. Perhaps someone coming behind me when you open your car, sinking his fingers in the back of your arm just painfully enough to show he means business. “Please, Monsieur Laforêt, come with me back inside”.
Folon’s men. Christ. She was looking at me like foxes must do when they see the rabbit they pursue limp: even with a hint of disappointment for too easy a meal. Was that a high-brow thing I could humbly cop out? “Oh, is that a new author?”, with a fake anxiety hopefully covering my true anxiousness. Folon’s men. “Yes, excellent French, Rogers, but is your life French? Or rather, has it been?” Were Lehman’s lips also twitching that day at the Rio Verde facility in Texas? But he was right, my life had not been French enough, although my mother had certainly been too French for my native Iowa’s taste. You fear what you say as much as what you can’t say. Being raised in a country means a lot of telltale signs for the trained ear: certain types of bad food everybody loves for some reason, and things you’d never do in sex and things you always do, and supermarkets that used to have a kind of ring in their cashing machines that all recognize, TV series whose main characters…
TV. Summer time in Reims, with Nana. Summer nights…
“Ha, yes, that little animation at the end of day in Antenne 2. They looked like angels as painted by Magritte, right? Both Belgian and melancholy… the music, too”.
In her lips, a fake smile. But no twitching.
Live to see another day, writer. I mean, spy.