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I hated the town where I was born, that was the first thing I ever felt. I still hate it and I would refuse the most entertaining or the most profitable of journeys if it required me to stop even for just a few minutes at Nantes.

What was the reason for this aversion? As a child it was enough for me to feel it grow with every centimetre, with every gram that I gained in height and weight. Then it seemed that the local air wasn't suited to my lungs nor the ground to my feet. Finally I became capable of making judgments and it appeared before me in all its horror.

The people of Nantes were dedicated to the fabrication of preserved commodities, and they felt an affinity for their own productions. Sardines will decompose if only the tiniest hole appears in the side of the tin in which they are contained; the people of Nantes had decided not to open up to anything or anybody, and the result for all of them was that mental state that everyone quite rightly calls: black stupidity [le bêtise noir].

Without recognising it as such, they were conscious of it and it was for them a source of pride. They called it 'stubbornness' [force d'obstruction] and they saw it as a sacred trust, a heritage.

'So long as they don't give him any ideas', the father would say as he saw his son go off to school. The teachers, apart, perhaps, from those in arithmetic, suffered from doing nothing more than teaching parrots how to talk, but they knew that the least explanation about a homework in history, in literature, in philosophy, by awakening a young mind would unleash a host of troubles from the family.

The task of those teachers who belonged to the religious orders was very delicate. It is always difficult to reconcile the Gospel with the needs of the state and now to the needs of the state were added the needs of the sardines. A Jesuit father who, in front of his students, criticised the use of the army in a welders' strike was twice struck down by lightning - by the captains of industry and by his superiors. How could he have forgotten that the Sardine, ruined by a lack of solder, would draw after it in its ruin both the world and the Church.

The Black Stupidity kept foreigners out without distinction, whether they came from China or from the neighbouring Vendée; it was however ready to 'naturalise' those who had rendered exceptional service to its fish, so long as that service continued. Born by the banks of the Rhine, my paternal grandfather was considered as an authentic Nantian [Nantais]. As a law official [officier ministriel], he had had the good fortune to be able to bring to a successful conclusion some very complicated proceedings between the competing fish of Dieppe and Douarnenez, and, as his clients usually entrusted him with affairs of a rather dubious character, he had need of  plenty of cunning if he was to make them presentable. But his right to the possession of a mind of his own did not extend to his family. My father, who had shown signs of some literary talent in a regional paper, was viewed with suspicion, and my mother created a scandal with her piano. If it was all right to own such an instrument as a piece of furniture, and even to brush the length of the keyboard with hesitant finger, as other ladies did, it was intolerable to play it brilliantly and sometimes on a public stage: 'A mother with two children, coming from an old family, to receive applause, to play the mountebank!'

The less evil-minded of them thought she was mad.

But I chose places at random on the world map - Honolulu, Rio de Janeira, Helsingfors - and I said to myself: 'Wherever I go later I will be a Nantian'. And I looked in a mirror to make disgusted faces at my own image, repeating: 'Nantian, Nantian until you're dead, a dirty little Nantian!'

But I did not yet know anything about the beast, I was only ten; five years later, I found out.


It was my mother's older brother, my uncle Louis. A captain in the colonial infantry, he had come to recover from an illness contracted in Tonkin and he hoped to profit from this circumstance to exercise his prestige as a military man on the daughters of the sardine industry.

My mother, who had been widowed for two years, welcomed him with affection and was seized with admiration when he opened his suitcases. Out came embroideries, jewels, little statues; but ancient and modern, the rare and the commonplace all so thoroughly jumbled up that it made me think of the takings of an apprentice house burglar. Adding to all this his own medals and a rather questionable claim to be part of the aristocracy [son tortil discuté] he hoped that he had what it took to fascinate the best endowed of the turkey hens. None of that offended my taste for what was logical and I would have put up with the presence of this exhibitionist for quite a long time if he hadn't tried to tell us about his adventures. The massive destruction of the peoples of the Orient had no more interest for my brother and I than that of rats or fleas, and we were not sufficiently afraid of the Yellow Peril to swoon with admiration before the men who claimed to be fending it off.

Our indifference irritated the windbag. He suddenly announced that he was going to take charge of our education.

Then I looked at him, and recognised him. I had already seen him in a book on medicine in which his portrait adorned an article on microcephalic degeneracy.

The self-appointed [improvisé] pedagogue quickly applied to us his method. It consisted in making us learn by heart a list of taboos and a series of formulae so that we would know them and honour them. We had to stick to the letter, any interpretation merited a blow. I had my cheek flattened because I had put chiefs and subordinates on the same level, basing myself on the fact that the ones could not do without the others.

My mother would not have approved of her brother if brother was all he had been; unfortunately, he was her older brother. As a Nantian, she was obliged to believe that the first male foetus issuing from a couple whose relationship was consecrated embodied the spirit of the ancestors. She could not admit that Louis was an imbecile without insulting a whole plethora of the dead. To refuse what was obvious as a matter of duty she had to engage in an inner struggle which was soon extremely painful [fastidieuse]. Her suffering was particularly acute when my uncle talked in her presence about music. And it was music that saved us.

Barely tolerating the piano, the idiot insisted in seeing in the violin nothing but an accessory of beggars, and since my young brother had begun studying it he told him: "If I hear a single note I will break your fiddle [crincrin] over your head."

He heard and satisfied himself with crushing the thin wood under his heel, but he swore that if my brother were to replace this gypsy instrument then the fragile skull of the guilty one would suffer the same treatment.

I ran towards the weeping child: "You fool! you should be laughing! He's threatened to kill you, he's given us the right to kill him."

His revolver in his room, a big knife in the kitchen, the little bottle with a red label - all that seemed to us to be rather impractical. We turned to something less exotic: a simple piece of rope.

Some days later, taking advantage of the Easter holidays, we were standing each of us behind a tree on either side of a narrow and steeply descending road. Our uncle was going to pass before us on his bicycle. The rope, lying across the road, leapt up from the ground.

Still amazed at the somersault half an hour later we were sitting at table. "Your uncle is very late," my mother said, "its very surprising, he's always so precise." Her remark provoked such a complete atmosphere of indifference that she did not repeat it, and served dinner.

The garden gate opened for a soldier carrying the two halves of a bicycle. He also brought news. We listened: "Fractures, lower maxillary, left clavicle, knee-cap, concussion ..."

"With all that, do you think he's going to snuff it?" my brother whispered.

"If he doesn't snuff it, he'll have understood."

I was struck by a phrase of one of my teachers, talking about a play. "The psychology of it is wrong: a true hero never boasts; and this warrior who tells everyone about his wonderful deeds expresses, contrary to the author's intention, the mentality of a coward." That led me to think that my uncle would have been less willing to display his medals if each of them was associated in his mind with some great danger. He had perhaps killed a lot of people, but without running any risks.

As soon as he saw us from his bed in the hospital when we went with our mother I could see in his Nantian eye the flickering light of fear. And the chastened educationalist did not wait for the end of his recovery before he requested a change of garrison, and offered my brother another violin.

The intruder's departure did not fill me with joy. I experienced the sadness of the murderer who cannot bring his victim back to life. He would like to kill him again, to kill him every day. It was a piece of luck to have met, gathered together in a single individual, all those whom I had hated. I had lost that good fortune. Like great love, great hatred seeks after the Only One.

I sought refuge in my schoolbooks, among the flowers of Greek poetry, or the magical figures of geometry.

This science gave me a taste for the arts. It is Number that gives value to sounds and silences, lights and shadows, forms and spaces. Michelangelo and Bach seemed to me like divine mathematicians [calculateurs]. Already I felt that only mathematics enables works that can last. Whether as a result of patient study, or of a stormy [fulgurante] intuition, number alone can reduce all our diversities of feeling to the strict unity of a mass, a fresco, or a sculpted head.

The house was filled with the piano and violin. I turned towards the art of painting.