PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Translator: Liz Nash Cover illustration: Lise Weisgerber
The world is full of surprises. Life is opening up to them like a great adventure game whose rules they are just beginning to fathom. The days of their childhood are light and carefree; soap bubbles blown into a clear sky.
The boy is Louis-Felix Ancelot. He is eleven, and has spiky, copper-coloured hair, a freckled face, and hazel eyes. He is short-sighted, and wears horn-rimmed spectacles behind which he blinks incessantly. This is due to his intense curiosity about the world around him, his fervent desire to see what there is to be seen, and above all his great passion for the geography of the sky. It began when he was very small; from the beginning his eyes were captivated by the stars, the heavenly bodies, the distant planets. He also likes it to be known that he was born at the darkest point in the summer night, when there was neither moon nor mist in the perfect clear, star-studded sky. It was the hour when Vega was at its height and the Lyra was shining brightly. And that night, it seems, the Lyra gave out a very clear sound. Its vibrations went right under the new-born child’s eyelids, and its thrilling tones have bewitched the boy’s heart ever since.
Now with his heart and eyes, his every thought and desire, with his whole being in fact, he in thrall to that other world so close by that glitters every night just above him, stretching away to infinity.
Up there in the sky, limitlessly huge and wondrous. It is always there, day and night, at dawn and at dusk. It is vast: now pink, now blue, now orangey-red or mauve-purple, now the colour of slate, of metal, of jet: and fertile, with bunches of stars and moonflowers that open and shut, with all its suns shaped like thistles, or enormous crimson sorb-apples, or balls of pale feathers. It is deep, with galaxies floating on its fringes and moving away even beyond them to drift into the gaping unknown. It can be light and gentle, with milky star clusters, clouds, mists, snows and rainbows, and also violent, when there are winds, thunder-bolts, or meteor showers.
The sky is a great book of pictures full of strength and speed. Its pages are alive; they curl and twist, fly away break up and reappear, the same each time and yet different. It is a text which is continually rewriting itself, moving on, and revealing itself in a new light. It is Louis-Felix’s favourite book. There are so very many pages he has not yet read, above all so very many pictures he has not seen. The book is never-ending, and hard to read.
‘When I grow up, ‘declares Louis-Felix,’ I shall be an astronomer.’
And he believes in his vocation, unquestioningly. Already, therefore, he is preparing himself to realize this fine ambition; the little star-worshipper is well aware that he will have to work very hard if he is to become a real scientific scholar. With eager appetite he devours every article and book for the amateur astronomer he can lay his hands on. His bedside book is a sky atlas; the walls of his bedroom are papered with posters and photos of the sky which he has cut out of magazines. He has even stuck a map of the sky on to the ceiling above his bed, and his reading-lamp is a large plexiglass celestial globe which gives out a bluish light. Every night he goes to sleep surrounded by artificial firmament and has dreams filled with gleaming sunlight, glistening stars or shimmering northern lights. In his dreams he revolves around the planets, flies in the solar wind, crosses the Milky Way, runs across the vast expanse of the sky chasing meteors like a butterfly-catcher.
For his tenth birthday he has received a magnificent pair of binoculars. For him, a short-sighted child who loved the stars, the gift was a double miracle. With these magic eyes he could only see into the distance, but see it as if it were close up. The invisible became visible; he could gaze far beyond the earth, find a way into the world’s hidden recesses. On the shiny, electric blue paper in which his birthday present was wrapped, his mother had written’ For our little Price of the Stars.’
The little prince had his kingdom: the sky. Now he needed a palace. And so he has created one for himself by fixing up an observatory in the attic. It is in fact nothing more than a stool set in front of the window; since the window is low, he has sawn-off the legs of the stool, so that his throne is at floor level. He has made himself a small wooden tripod with a little shelf on top where he can his binoculars, and beside his seat has put an upturned crate on which he has arranged his study materials: a planisphere, a map of his region, a calendar, an alarm clock, some graph paper, two exercise books, a pencil-case containing pencils, pens, a ruler and a rubber, a protractor and a pair of compasses. During his observation sessions he takes notes and measurements, draw graphs, scribbles rough sketches. And sometimes he also writes down his impressions. Into the exercise book with the yellow cover he enters a random jumble of rough notes and sketches; in the one with the blue cover he writes neatly and carefully. In the yellow exercise book, he plays at being a novice astronomer, whereas in the blue one he waxes lyrical about his love of the stars.
But the little prince of stars dreams of expanding his kingdom. What he most desires now is a telescope. On the day when he finally possesses one, he will truly be a king. Yet there has been a significant addition to his equipment; for his eleventh birthday he has received a camera. He applies himself to the task of taking negatives of the stars, and particularly of the moon. Once again his eyes have experienced a miracle ; they are now coupled with a memory which endures in tangible form. It is in black and white, cut up into little rectangles of shiny paper, and it grows steadily from month to month. His eyesight may be weak in the daytime, but on the nights when he is allowed to stay up and watch in his palace-observatory, it becomes astonishingly good. At those times his gaze is far-ranging and scrupulously precise, and furthermore enables him to make written records which testify to his patient marvellings. All day long Cinderella wore rags and dragged her feet in clogs, but at night she whirled in fine vair shoes and glittering gowns. Louis-Felix feels a little like Cinderella’s brother; for him, nights at the ball take place in his heavenly attic: he dances with the moon and the stars, and for finery he has his supreme power of vision. During these few hours he forgets his daytime myopia, and his eyes become his greatest glory.
People regard Louis-Felix as an odd child. They say that he is too intelligent for his age, that he is endowed with extraordinary curiosity and powers of memory. He has already jumped two classes ahead at school. His teachers feel rather helpless, because he asks so many strange questions, and manifests such an inexhaustible desire to learn and to understand everything. He excels at mathematics, geography and natural sciences. When he was six years old his parents offered him piano lessons, but he asked instead to learn English so that he could read certain American astronomy magazines which were reputed to be the best available. But he also liked his mother to tell him stories, especially tales taken from the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome. Here he came across names that were familiar to him: Jupiter, Uranus, Mercury and Pegasus, Neptune, Saturn and Cassiopeia, Titan, Andromeda and Venus. The loves and conflicts of the gods lent an aura of legend to the stars and planets, and made the great celestial tribes seem even more mysterious and beautiful. The characters he found most appealing – and still does – were fiery Icarus who, like a bird intoxicated with space and light, flew straight up towards the sun and died from the madness of his love, and Selene, the beautiful Moon goddess with radiant white skin and luminous silver eyes.
One God alone created the whole universe: that is what Father Joachim has taught him at catechism. And the one almighty God created this limitless, perpetually expanding universe from nothing. It was after that all those unruly gods and jealous, haughty goddesses came along. Their reign on men’s earth was short-lived, and it has been over for a long time now. The bellicose gods and beautiful goddesses went off into retirement on the distant horizon of a golden past. Father Joachim said that these divinities were the fruits of men’s imagination before they received the Revelation of the true God. They were wonderful fruits, full of lights and violence; they ripened in the dreams of men, who then hung them on the highest branches of the sky. The one God dispelled this dream, and time swept away those fruits of lightning, pride and anger. But in their exile the fallen gods and goddesses scattered their illustrious names wherever they went on the sky, dropping them on to the stars and the wandering bodies of planets with ruby-red rings around them: crowns of loose stones, ice and dust adorning the heads of the nomad gods.
Louis-Felix’s reputation as an odd child is increased by the fact that, although amazingly mature intellectually, he is at the same time totally ingenuous. In fact he is so completely without malice that he is often taken for a simpleton, and his classmates, who are far older than he, do not hesitate to hold him up to ridicule. What really makes him the object of their scorn, however, is a nervous habit he has which is a great deal more comical even than this guileless. The problem is that as soon as he stands still for a moment, Louis-Felix cannot help starting to jump up and down. He makes little vertical jumps, with his legs held tightly together, his arms hanging loosely, his head stiff and eyes gazing off vacantly into space. He jumps up and down like a robot, with neither suppleness nor grace, and worse of all for no apparent reason. Nobody understands what set in motion the invisible springs under his feet the moment he stands up. And he himself would be hard pressed to give an explanation for his preposterous behaviour. He just feels an irresistible need to jump up and down, that’s all. It relaxes him; he somehow feels that he can daydream or think more comfortably in this way. Or is he perhaps, by means of these little syncopated jumps, attempting in some way to test out the delights of weightlessness.
Anyone passing his house in Birdcatcher Street in the late afternoon or on Sundays will frequently notice his slight silhouette jumping about in the garden with clockwork regularity, As a result, in addition to the rather derisive corruptions of his first name that his usual nicknames, such as Loony-Felix or Loopy-Felix or Loopy-Lou, he is often called Mad Mutt, Monkey-on-a-Spring or the Kangaroo Kid. He doesn’t care; after all, many constellations have been named after animals. There is a gigantic bestiary living in the sky. It is the Court menagerie with which the gods have surrounded themselves in their exile. They are the legendary beasts, such as the Dragon, the female hydra or the Unicorn, and also very simple animals like the Fish, the Little Dog, the Goat and the Crow. Sop why shouldn’t there be a Kangarooo? And even Loopy sounds a bit like Lupus the Wolf, who has his place up there as well, in between the Scorpion and the Centaur.
When he was promoted to higher class for the second time at the end of the last school year, certain pupils, especially some of the older ones – those who had already been held back a year so many times that they were even further behind than Louis-Felix was ahead – made their contempt for him very clear:’ There ‘e is all on ‘is own jumpin’ up and down on ‘is dad’s lawn like a randy rabbit, but if a girl came near ’im ‘e’d run a mile, wouldn’t ya, twit?’ But he doesn’t get angry, he just feels very ill at ease among all these large adolescents, some of whom already look like men; and most of the time he is bored in the lessons, which are too slow-moving and limited in scope for his taste. He is rather like those little peasants in legends who dream of becoming knights, of setting off to conquer unknown lands, of crossing the whole wide world in search of adventure. He loves tales of Chivalry; he admires Percival, Lancelot of the Lake and his son, the pure-hearted Galahad.
Louis-Felix wants to become a knight of the stars. His Holy Grail is hidden far up above, at the deepest point in the sky, at the other end of time. It has a curious name: it is called Bing Bang.
But never mind if he has not yet found valiant companions, or even true masters to accompany him on his quest. At least he has found his Lady. A Lady fit for the uniformed, awkward knight that he is. A pretty little mini-Lady, as cheerful as she is affectionate. It is that pretty little girl there, the one who is just pulling gently on his coat.
Her name is Lucie Daubigne. Unlike Lou-Fe she is not in any sense a child prodigy, and has no odd characteristics. She is a little girl about eight, who is always cheerful. If there is anything remarkable about her, it is her huge black eyes. Their gaze is very direct, and they sparkle with merriment. She has long black hair which she wears in plaits. She is interested in her appearance; she adores coloured hair-slides and painted wood or glass necklaces, and loves to wear pretty dresses and embroidered socks. ‘My daughter has already has a passion for trashy clothes and baubles,’ her mother often declares, ‘you can see that she’s going to be a woman of fashion!’ But the crimson woollen scarf that she wears around her neck on this cold February day has nothing to do with a desire to be fashionable; it is an oriflamme, a rallying banner. A manifest sign of her fondness for the boy she nicknames Lou-Fe.
It was she who had the idea that each of them should wear an identical scarf. And it was she who chose the colour.
When her mother asked her before Christmas what she would like to have as a present, she declared: ‘A scarf, in fact two scarves! Both the same, and red! The most beautiful red possible!’
Her mother said mockingly,’ Oh I see, the other one’s for your boyfriend, isn’t it?’
But Lucie hates that word; its fine for grown-ups and idiots, but not for her and Lou-Fe. He means a great deal more to her than that; he is her twin. One day in the street she walked past a woman holding two children by the hand who were so alike that they appeared to be the same person twice over. This struck her imagination so forcibly, and seemed to her such an admirable phenomenon, that she declared twinhood to be a superior condition. A great deal superior to the banal condition of being in love. And so she sealed her friendship with that beautiful word which in her opinion sums and expresses to perfection the absolute of affection. What does it matter if her supposed twin I older than she, if his hair is red and hers dark, if he has light eyes and hers are very black. After all, her own brother Ferdinand, her mother’s son by her first marriage, is seventeen years older than she, and has golden-blond hair and blue eyes. That shows that all these physical details are of little importance. What is more, she is a Gemini: that must mean something, surely. And then there is the fact that they are sporting these beautiful red scarves in honour of their friendship. For Lucie that is proof enough.
Their friendship came into being more than two years a go now, when Lucie left the little school to go to the middle school which Lou-Fe attended. As they were neighbours, they took to walking to school together. She lives in Weeping Barn Street which runs perpendicular to Birdcatcher Street. Weeping Barn Street is on the way out of the little town, leading down towards the marshes in a wide, gentle bed. Just on the curve stands the Daubigne family’s home. It is a beautiful house, sheltered from view behind leaf-green painted gates, clipped boxwood hedges, dog-rose bushes, small shrubs and slender little columns of hollyhocks and lupins.
No. of pages: 247
Publication date: 30.09.2020
1 978 9128689 30 8