Winter in Paris

Rob Doyle

Rob Doyle

In late January, two weeks after the terrorist attacks, I took a trip to Paris with the vague intention of researching an essay on the Romanian writer E.M. Cioran, who lived in the city from 1937 until his death in 1995. What this research would consist of was not really clear. Cioran’s life in Paris was notable for the fact that, other than write books, he had done absolutely nothing of interest there. He had simply lived out year after year in the flat on rue de l’Odéon that he shared with his long-term partner, Simone Boué, where he finally became senile, fell ill, and died, inadvertently backing out of the suicide pact that he and Boué had made together. It seemed likely that my ‘research’ would be confined to loitering around Cioran’s grave at the Montparnasse cemetery, and staring up at his inaccessible apartment from the street below. Nonetheless, I had persuaded myself that spending time in Paris was the only way the essay would ever get off the ground.

On the morning of my trip, I woke at 4 a.m. and made it to the airport in good time to catch my 6.25 flight. When I showed my boarding pass at the gate, however, I was informed that I’d been queuing for the wrong 6.25 flight to Paris. This was Air France and I was Ryanair. I ran back the way I’d come, and for reasons unclear was instructed to pass through security all over again. Hurrying towards the Ryanair gate, I told myself that somehow it would all work out. I had never missed a plane, regardless of hangovers, stoned muddles and misfiring alarm clocks: it followed that I would not miss this one. When I reached the gate, sweating extravagantly, the airport worker in his high-vis jacket told me that the plane had been delayed – that was it out there on the taxiway – but the doors were all closed up and there was no way of getting on. I would have to book another flight and check in all over again. And no, there wouldn’t be any refund from Ryanair.

I ended up flying with Aer Lingus a couple of hours later, at a cost I’d rather not think about. The one consolation in all this was that Aer Lingus actually flew me to Paris, rather than to what Ryanair calls ‘Paris’, in reality a remote zone called Beauvais, which on previous visits seemed to me even further from Paris than Dublin itself. Looking out the window of the train that brought me from Charles de Gaulle to the Gare du Nord, I ruminated on how I had always prided myself on never having missed a plane, and now I had missed one. It seemed to me that, as I grew older, the stock of personal traits I could pride myself on was steadily diminishing – I had managed to slip up in almost every category where that had once been the case. Perhaps I had no option but to start taking pride in things I had done – accomplishments – rather than in things I had refrained from doing, such as missing a plane.

At Gare du Nord I boarded the Métro. As the crowded train was pulling out of the station, I looked out the window and saw four soldiers with machine-guns descending the stairs to the platform. The sight triggered a momentary panic: had the soldiers arrived because they knew something? Were they moments too late to board the train and shoot dead the jihadists that were now about to blow us up or flood the carriage with poisonous gas? The panic receded as I reminded myself that the chances of actually being caught up in a terrorist attack, in Paris or anywhere else, were slim. On the other hand, the very fact that I was thinking like this – having to remind myself that I was probably safe – demonstrated the efficacy of terrorism: I felt terrorized, therefore terrorism had achieved its goal. I recalled the five years I had spent living in London. Not once did I manage to take the Tube in that city without imagining, as we hurtled through narrow tunnels deep underground, the horror that would ensue if a bomb went off or a gas attack was perpetrated – the airless panic as bodies pressed against one another, everyone desperate to get out but knowing there was nowhere to go. I used to wonder how much heat my nervous system could take before the agony caused me to pass out: I told myself that it wouldn’t be so bad, that the body would automatically shut itself down to avoid intolerable pain, but I never really believed it.

As the train approached my stop, I noticed the unusual typography of the book being read by the young black guy sitting next to me. It looked very much like a book of aphorisms, and when I leaned over to check the title I was delighted to see that it was Cioran’s De l’inconvénient d’être né. Zoé, the friend in whose flat I would be staying, had told me that Cioran was not really taken seriously in France: his extreme pessimism and insistence on the wretchedness of life, humanity and everything else were considered a bit of a posture. ‘If that was really how he saw things, why didn’t he just kill himself?’ she asked in paraphrasis of the widespread French attitude.

The guy with the Cioran book was reading it bareback, as I thought of it, meaning without a pen in his hand. My own copy of The Trouble with Being Born back in Dublin was very heavily underlined, perhaps the most heavily underlined of all my books. I had read it numerous times, on each occasion happening to use a different-coloured pen to highlight the passages I considered particularly remarkable. The problem was, the whole book seemed particularly remarkable: the prose (in Richard Howard’s wonderful translation) was so consistently striking, its mode of attack so viscerally elegant, that, after the third or fourth reading, almost the entirety of the book had been underlined. These rampant, multi-coloured underlinings (which gave the impression of graffitied subway walls, like those we were now hurtling past), negated the very purpose of underlining in the first place. When a given text is uniformly excellent, it is futile to mark out the strong passages because one will end up, as I had done, underlining the entire thing.

I disembarked at Corentin Cariou, just inside the north-eastern rim of the Boulevard Périphérique, which marks off central Paris from its surrounding suburbs. Directly outside the station was the building where Zoé was renting a sixth-floor flat. I let myself in and, exhausted, went straight to bed. When I woke a couple of hours later, I read the note Zoé had left explaining how to get to the theatre on the far side of the city where she was directing one of her plays (she was already there, rehearsing what would be the final performance in the run). Dazed from my nap, I wandered the quiet streets near the canal to find a bistro where I could eat steak tartare. As I walked, I asked myself what the difference was between a bistro, a brasserie and, indeed, a restaurant. This part of the nineteenth arrondissement was home to a sizeable Jewish community, and soldiers had been deployed here after the killing of four people in a Jewish supermarket two days after the Charlie Hebdo attack. The soldiers I saw, with their machine guns and cocked pistols – when jihadists come, they come fast – looked to me like kids. They say that as you age, policemen seem to get younger all the time. The same was evidently true of soldiers; I wondered if it might be so with jihadists.

After my steak tartare, still groggy from sleeping through the afternoon, I boarded the Métro. Embarrassed at having missed my flight that morning, I was determined not to arrive late for Zoé’s play. To make sure of being on time, I peered intently at her note, reading over and over the name of the final Métro stop, checking it against the listed stations on the map above my head. When we reached the stop, I disembarked and followed the directions to the venue. Having done so, I found I was standing not outside a theatre, but on a weed-strewn traffic island between two screamingly busy motorways. All I could see was edge-of-the-city wasteland, massive hotels and business parks. I called Zoé.

Having gone over the directions she had written, she said: ‘Are you sure you got out at the right station?’

Of course I was sure! Had I not checked it a dozen times? Of course I was sure. I glanced down at the piece of paper. Zoé waited silently on the other end. Finally, in a quiet and sheepish voice, I told her I would be there in twenty minutes.

When I finally made it, very late, to the theatre, I took my seat amidst tuts of disapproval, feeling like man capable only of making mistakes. I reached out and apologetically squeezed Zoé’s hand – we had the kind of friendship in which these gestures would not be misinterpreted – then settled down to watch the play. It was a decidedly avant-garde production, and my French was too weak to grasp much of the slang-heavy dialogue. I had no idea what was going on. A talking coffee table spoke into a handheld camera, its image projected onto a screen on the other side of the stage. The Hindu god Vishnu appeared, or maybe it was just a boy painted blue. Lovers had arguments while perched atop a bed that wheeled around the set like a raft on a choppy sea. Attractive actors took off their shirts, pulled down their trousers, or lay on couches, howling and vomiting.

Afterwards there was a party to celebrate the culmination of the run. Zoé’s parents, Marie-Claire and Hassan, had come down from Normandy to see the play. Stupefied with fatigue, the result of the insomnia that had been assailing me in recent weeks, I chatted with them in French that was not so much broken as completely shattered. To endure situations like this, I had formulated an emergency plan: whenever the appropriate French words eluded me, I would simply speak Italian instead. The similarities between the two languages were such that my interlocutor would generally have at least a vague idea of what I was talking about, or so I hoped. As I was now discovering, though, my Italian, once so fluent, was itself betraying signs of severe deterioration. It occurred to me that, by learning French, I was in fact burying my Italian – just as, by learning Italian, I had buried the Spanish I had spoken with equal fluency at an earlier time in my life. My French not yet being very good, I found myself in a situation whereby the new language – French – had succeeded in significantly erasing its precursor – Italian – without having properly installed itself in its place. Exiled from Italian, not yet at home in French, I was stranded in a linguistic no man’s land, like some partisan hiding out in the hills around the French-Italian border. I restricted myself to nodding and saying ‘Oui’, or, if it seemed more appropriate, ‘Non’.

Zoé told me that the theatre’s director, a grey-bearded spirit-of-’68 type, was upstairs in his office, taking ‘lots of cocaine’ with some of the actors and production staff. Keeping up the non-conversation with Marie-Claire and Hassan, I found myself gazing longingly towards the stairs, tempted to excuse myself and pay a visit to the unfolding drug binge, but knowing it wouldn’t do if Zoé’s parents discovered me to be a coke-snorter. When they finally left, I hurried upstairs, knocked on the door of the office, and was invited to take a place at the round wooden table, where everyone was talking animatedly about Michel Houellebecq. (‘One morning we’ll turn on our televisions and see him on his knees, getting beheaded in a basement somewhere.’) A tray full of neatly cut lines was being passed around. It was a wholly civilized affair, as if we were back in the days of Freud or in Victorian England, when cocaine was a fashionable and legal after-dinner pick-me-up among the chattering classes. The office was cluttered with magazines, books, and posters for plays and films. Mellow jazz issued from speakers buried under the clutter. Richard, the ageing theatre director, made sure I got a couple of lines into me, but quickly gave up on the limited conversation I was able to offer in favour of more stimulating dialogue.

Zoé and I took a taxi some time after four, watching the meter in grim fascination all the way home.

The following afternoon, after some reviving coffee and croissants, we took the Métro to the rue de l’Odéon, to see the apartment where the Romanian upstart Emil Cioran had transformed himself into the great French writer E.M. Cioran. On the way, I told Zoé about Cioran’s strange relationship with Simone Boué. Afraid to tell her rural-dwelling parents that she was living out of wedlock with a man, and a Romanian at that, Boué kept their relationship a secret for many years, claiming that she was living with a friend, and hiding Cioran whenever her family came to visit. Zoé’s own parents, I knew, had lived out almost exactly the same scenario: Marie-Claire could not bring herself to tell her father that she was living with an Algerian, one who had, indeed, spent his first years in France in an internment camp. For a time the couple considered eloping, but Hassan decided he could not ask Marie-Claire to abandon her family for him. The dilemma was solved by way of an unexpected visit from Marie-Claire’s father. After his initial anger, the father eventually accepted that his daughter was in love, and gave them his blessing.

At 21 rue de l’Odéon, we stood on the footpath and gazed up at the row of garret-level windows, wondering which one was Cioran’s, and whether we could get up there to see inside. A year earlier, I had come here and done exactly the same thing with my then girlfriend. Was I destined to return annually to the flat of a deceased Romanian nihilist and reflect on yet another failed relationship? There were a lot of them, failed relationships, like burnt-out tanks on the battlefield of my life.

In the summer, Zoé and I had visited Gdansk and Frankfurt together, to see the houses where Arthur Schopenhauer had lived in his childhood and his maturity, respectively. There too, we were frustrated in our desire to enter the houses – in Gdansk it was unclear if we were at the right house at all. Nonetheless, I found it exciting to see the same streets and buildings that the young Schopenhauer had possibly seen, and those that the older Schopenhauer certainly had.

Zoé had been a good sport in Germany, accompanying me to these (for me) heightened, ultramundane places, and doing her best to console me when the novella I tried to write, narrated by the succession of poodles that were Schopenhauer’s only companions in his embittered later years, came to nothing. She was being a good sport here too in Paris. In truth, though, none of it meant a great deal to her. She was as passionate about literature as I was, but she never felt the urge to seek out the sites where the great writers whose books she loved had lived and worked, nor felt any great frisson whenever she happened upon them.

‘For me, it’s all in the work’, she said, picking up an old conversational thread as we stood there in the street, looking up at Cioran’s former home. ‘The only way I get the same excitement is if I read about certain streets in a novel by Zola or Huysmans or whoever, and then I find myself in that same street. Then the world does feel a bit magical. But the effect emanates from the work, not from the life of the author. It’s only the literature that is magical. The authors are just the vessels. Even their lives are not that interesting to me. I mean, I never really read biographies.’

She was silent for a moment as I took a couple of photos on my phone.

‘You’re more of a Catholic than you imagine,’ she said

‘How do you mean?’

‘I mean this – you coming here to look at Cioran’s apartment, visiting Kafka’s house or whatever. It’s not so different from what you told me about your mother, how she queued up for three hours to look at the relics of Saint Anthony or whoever it was when they came to Dublin. You’ve just switched mythologies.’

I took a couple more photographs, glancing up and down the street.

‘Taylor Swift culture …’ Zoé said vaguely, though I probably misheard her.

The building where Cioran had lived also housed the offices of the publishing house Flammarion. I took a few photos of those too, feeling like a member of an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell on a reconnaissance mission. The offices had been evacuated on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack out of a fear that, as the publisher of Michel Houellebecq, Flammarion might be a target. In what was presumably an astonishing coincidence, Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, which imagines a near-future France under Islamic rule, was published on that same day, while the author’s caricature adorned the front page of the then current issue of the magazine. Houellebecq himself left the city under armed escort that afternoon.

We walked across the road and into the Luxembourg gardens, where for many years Cioran took his daily walk. The sky was pleasingly grey and it was the kind of cold I loved: an invigorating cold on just the right side of severity. All my visits to Paris had taken place in wintertime: for me, Paris existed under permanently grey skies, and always should. The idea of the city in spring or summer did not appeal to me. One of the reasons I loved Paris was that I associated it with grey skies, just as I associated San Francisco with constant blue skies, which in turn I associated with depressed spirits. A couple of years earlier, while spending a few months in San Francisco, I had come to the realization that I could never live for very long outside of Europe, because nowhere else was grey to the same degree or in the same comforting way.

It was already late afternoon and soon it would be dark. We made our way out of the gardens and to the Montparnasse cemetery, where Cioran was buried. Soon the cemetery would be closing for the evening. We took a map from the kiosk at the gates which showed the locations of the cemetery’s famous inhabitants. Montparnasse was evidently a fashionable place to be buried for a certain type of French intellectual, even if they weren’t French. Susan Sontag was buried here; Samuel Beckett too. We stepped between the rows of headstones and found Cioran’s diminutive gravestone. It was tempting to read the stone’s modesty as a classic Cioranesque provocation, scornfully dismissive of even death itself. Simone Boué was buried alongside him: she had been found drowned on the beach at Dieppe, in Normandy, two years after Cioran’s death; it was unclear whether her death had been accidental or not. Someone had placed a Romanian tricolour over Cioran’s grave. The tricolour was held in place by what initially appeared to be two pieces of shit, one on either side. On closer inspection, the shit turned out to be broken-off segments from a rusted metal wreath. Even if they had been pieces of shit, it is debatable which insult would have been graver to the memory of Cioran – the shit or the flag. After all, here lay a man who had left Romania as soon as he came of age, settled in Paris after some years of roaming, and there exerted a great deal of energy purging himself of the stigmata of his birthplace, including its language, which he rarely deigned to speak even when among Romanian expats. Cioran felt humiliated by the fact of being Romanian. In his early, notoriously fascistic book, The Transfiguration of Romania (which was written in Romanian and has not been translated into English), and in letters to his friends, the twenty-three-year-old Cioran called for three quarters of the nation’s population to be exterminated, and for all Romanians to be dragged into police cells and beaten to a pulp. Perhaps that, he fumed, that would rouse his compatriots from their congenital mediocrity and goad them towards a higher destiny.

I could understand it, this yearning of Cioran’s to cleanse himself of all traces of a despised motherland. Never, even as a child, had I felt proud of my country, or even that I really belonged to it. I had spent most of my adult life in flight from Ireland, yet I always came back, if only because it was there that, if the shit hit the fan, I was able to draw the dole, or stop in at my parents’ place for a bowl of soup, and where I still had a few friends I had not yet become estranged from. I had always imagined I would live in exile but now I knew I didn’t have the stomach for it. People of other nationalities romanticized Ireland but to me it was an uninteresting place, a backwater of banal, misshapen people. It had produced a certain number of interesting writers, but most of those writers had got out of the country.

Beckett’s grave in Montparnasse was even more modest than Cioran’s – it was aggressively, even flamboyantly modest. In fact, the grave was so faint it seemed to flicker on the verge of non-being. If the grave was a poem, it would have been one of those that are made up almost entirely of white space, a scattering of stray words on the surface, poised to vanish into its purity like melting snowflakes. I imagined Cioran and Beckett vying to outdo one another with the exaggerated modesty of their graves, competing in nothingness and scorn. They were like two suburban neighbours, this pair of graveyard nihilists – curtain-twitchers anxious not to be outshone by the glamorous misery of the other. I recalled an article I’d read concerning a peer of the Norwegian pessimist Peter Wessel Zapffe, who ‘argued, against Zapffe’s view that life is meaningless, that life is not even meaningless’.

I took a photo of the grave; my phone offered me the option of instantly tweeting it, which I declined, reflecting on the unsurpassable vulgarity of that, tweeting from someone’s grave. I began to laugh. I wondered whether Cioran would be on Twitter, if he were around now. What were his later, aphoristic books but collections of tweets, proto-tweets, capsules of provocation hurled out at a despised universe, or at least at Cioran’s followers, by which I mean his readers? The aphorism, or rather the collection of aphorisms, was obsolete in the age of Twitter. The aphorism had migrated from the notebook to the laptop and the phone. I contemplated the notion of writing a book of aphorisms myself, and how retrograde that would be, but I liked the idea anyway. And in fact I had started such a book, or at least I had started writing aphorisms, which were simply tweets that, when they came to me, I did not tweet, but wrote down in my notebook instead, just like in the old days, the days of Shestov and La Rochefoucauld. One reason why those writers found the aphorism such an amenable literary form, and why I too was drawn to it, is that it is distinctly suited to provocation. Its brevity encourages startling and outrageous insights. But why always seek to provoke? I wondered, standing over Cioran’s grave as Zoé hugged herself against the cold. Simple, I thought: because when you provoke you can experience the glee of being hated, which is a subset of the joy of being loved. But there was more to it than that. The venting of aggression was necessary to prevent one’s imploding with fury, a constant danger if one was inclined to view the world as ugly, dangerous, and swarming with horrible morons. For a time, I had used Twitter as a kind of pressure-valve by which I could release my pent-up fury on an unsuspecting public, all the bile and hatred I had accumulated over a lifetime, much as Cioran had done with his books. Back then, I had set myself a sort of Oulipian constraint whereby, on my nightly Twitter forays, I would be as aggressive, offensive and hateful as possible, baldly hostile to the fashionable ideologies of the day and the sanctimonious cunts who trumpeted them, but I would do so in a way that would not cause me to lose followers in droves. This tricky game, which I kept up for a month or two before succumbing to a profound self-loathing, involved sugaring the pill, coating my slander and vituperation with just enough charm or panache that people would stick around for more, perhaps in spite of themselves. The game – for that is what it was – afforded me a not inconsiderable pleasure. How awful could I be? How cruelly could I mock the trendy sentiments and masturbatory indignations that cascaded so risibly down my screen? Could I resist this ocean of bollocks without perishing in convulsions of hatred? This game of mine was totally pointless, from one perspective; but writing, it seemed to me, had always been that way, a dubious and malign thinking in public – a game played in deadly earnest, but a game nonetheless.

The day after our visit to Montparnasse, Zoé left early for work and I brought my various notebooks to a nearby café. My hope was to construct some kind of cohesive theoretical statement from the notes I had been taking over the past year or so on Cioran’s books. I had convinced myself that I needed to wait till I was in Paris to begin the essay, and now here I was in the city, with conditions as favourable as they would ever be; yet as I sat down at a small, darkly varnished table with a view onto the street outside, I found myself fighting the temptation to put off working until I was back in Dublin. There, I imagined, I would be able to sit at the comfort of my desk, without distractions, and work for sustained periods without having to worry about whether I was in anyone’s way, or if I should order a slice of cake I didn’t want so as not to incite the resentment of the café’s proprietors. The problem was, I had no energy for writing. I sat there with my laptop open in front of me, a couple of notebooks placed on either side, and could not for the life of me rouse myself to begin. I wanted to get started but on the other hand I didn’t want to get started at all, I didn’t want to do anything. I was more than happy to sit there drinking my coffee, looking out the window at the pair of twelve-year-old soldiers with assault rifles who were walking past. Such troughs of fatigue, a factor in my life for as long as I could remember, seemed to be growing deeper and more frequent as I got older. I was only thirty-two but already I felt the diminishment of vitality associated with middle-age – in fact, I had always felt it, even when I was twenty-one, or seventeen. Perhaps I was born middle-aged, I thought. I wondered, not for the first time, whether I suffered from an undiagnosed case of chronic fatigue syndrome – or whether, more simply, I was a lazy bastard.

But fuck this shit, I said to myself, sitting in the café – I had work to do and I was going to get it done. I drank an espresso to fire myself up, then began to put some shape on my notes. Just as I was making progress, it began to seem to me that, since I was in Paris after all, I ought to get out of the nineteenth arrondissement and do my writing in a livelier, more Parisian café in central Paris, where I would find greater inspiration than I would here. I paid for my coffee, packed away the notebooks and laptop, and walked to the Métro station.

Sitting opposite me on the Métro was an impossibly chic woman who was reading a thick book by Félix Guattari. In Paris, you could be forgiven for reaching the conclusion that the printed word and literature as we know it were not issuing their death rattle. People read, often in public, on the Métro or alone in cafés. And their choice of reading material was generally not the bloodbath bestsellers and child-wizard fuckery to be seen on the metros of other capitals, but books by authors whose very emblem of authority was their unreadability. I had already spotted a pretty teenager burying her face in Levinas’s Totality and Infinity as her boyfriend tried to plant kisses on her neck, and a tiny woman who looked to be pushing one hundred thumbing through Derrida’s The Archaeology of the Frivolous while wearing an expression of indulgent scepticism. An indelibly glamorous race, the French even managed to make reading seem cool again. In Paris, you didn’t need to feel obsolescent every time you took out a book in a public place, rather than a phone, tablet or e-reader. Books were still fashion accessories in a way they had ceased to be elsewhere.

The Parisians were also, of course, exceptionally beautiful people. Even the staff at the McDonald’s outside the Métro station at Saint-Michel were drop-dead gorgeous. Like anyone else, I had noted the gorgeousness of the Parisians on my previous visits to the city. The quantity of not just highly attractive, but outstandingly beautiful women had at first been a torment. Back then, I had made it my business, felt it was my duty, to desire every beautiful woman I saw. To do less, I imagined, would have been to dishonour the miracle of it, this implausible concentration of exquisite human specimens. Consequently, those prior visits to Paris had had the character of a long, melancholy sigh. This time around, though, a change had occurred. The women (and the men) were as gorgeous as ever, but a profound inner shift had taken place in me: I found I could no longer be bothered to do all that desiring. It was completely exhausting, and so obviously futile. It would be an exaggeration to say I stopped noticing the million beautiful girls of Paris: I just stopped actively wanting them, in both the bluntly carnal and the more yearningly romantic ways. This idea – that I was not beholden to a state of constant, acute and frustrated longing – came as a revelation to me. The process by which I had made this breakthrough – fatigued surrender after years spent cracking my head against the brick wall of desire – seemed to herald a broader fate, possibly a salvation: as I grew older, I would gradually find I no longer had the vigour to desire anything at all, and then I would be free, as serene as a mountain peak, and then I would die.

Here lies Rob. He couldn’t be fucked, not even to be fucked.

However, as I sat in a café on rue des Écoles, at a table looking onto the busy shopping street, the place became so preposterously crowded with knockout women that I quickly gave up hope of getting any work done whatsoever, and resigned myself to gazing about, lovesick as a schoolgirl and horny as a seminarian. After an hour and a half, having withstood the serious temptation to go and wank myself off in the gents, I packed up my notebooks again and took the Métro back to Zoé’s flat.

It was that same evening, while reading aloud for Zoé excerpts from Cioran’s massive Cahiers, the journals he kept from 1957 to 1972, that I realized why I had, so far, been unable to get started on the essay. It wasn’t my lack of energy, which seemed now like an illusion: I was actually feeling quite perky, as I often did in the evenings. It wasn’t even the distractingly beautiful women of Paris. No. The real reason I was finding it difficult to write about Cioran was that Cioran did not want to be written about. At least, the work of the Parisian Cioran – E.M. rather than Emil – the mature, aphoristic books which I considered the jewels of his oeuvre, resisted being written about. The whole point of his crystalline, perfectly weighted aphorisms is that they are just what they are: they neither require nor permit extrapolation or even counter-argument. Each aphorism is the singular, unimprovable expression of itself. As such, it was pointless to add to them, through criticism or commentary. Cioran never cared to defend his arguments: he simply recorded the explosions of his temperament, artfully vented his inexhaustible bile while taking glee in his outrages, paradoxes and contradictions. Just as his work repelled attempts to expound critically upon it, so too was Cioran’s life in Paris deflective to biographical writing – and not only because, anxious to conceal the fascist dalliances of his youth, he shunned publicity during his years in Paris, refusing to be interviewed by French journalists. Little wonder that the only two biographies available in English, Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston’s Searching for Cioran and Marta Petreu’s An Infamous Past, both focused on Cioran’s early life, probing the extent and significance of his involvement with fascism: after he settled in Paris, Cioran gave his biographers nothing more to write about. Just as I would never enter Cioran’s former flat on the rue de l’Odéon, I would never know more than I knew now about the decades he spent in Paris: there was nothing else to know. Cioran had the last laugh: he erased himself in his writing, left nothing behind but his insults.

One of the constraints I had set for myself when I decided to write about Cioran was that I would not quote his work, the reason being that it was too quotable. If I quoted one passage, I would want to quote another, then another, and many more, until I was not so much writing about Cioran as presenting the reader with his entire body of work (as Gallimard had done when they published his single-volume Oeuvre). To quote Cioran would only underscore the inadequacy of writing about him, just as underlining passages in his work had brought to light its own futility. Having already decided that I would write about Cioran without quoting him, it now seemed I would have to write about him without even writing about him. An essay on Cioran in which both his life and work were almost completely absent: this is what I was blundering into.

And yet, Cioran had managed to get inside me. His unremitting scepticism, his bitterness raised to the status of a cosmic principle, now felt like my own, whether I wanted them or not. Cioran was like the Cheshire cat who vanished leaving not a grin, but a sneer, a malicious sneer from beyond the grave. As I sat with Zoé in her flat, lightheaded from the day’s exertions, it began to seem to me that all I could see now was Cioran’s sneer, the sneer that had burrowed deep into my being, that tainted everything I saw, ridiculed everything, everyone. I felt that if I were to stand up and look out the window, over the brooding skies of Paris, I would see Cioran’s sneer, vast and malevolent, gaping across the heavens, and the noise of his laughter would thunder all around. I imagined sinking my teeth into the flesh of Cioran’s face and tearing it off. What had Cioran ever given to my life, other than pessimism and discouragement? He had exacerbated the very tendencies in myself I had spent my whole adult life trying to curb: withdrawal, cynicism, nihilism, despair, spleen, derision, scowling, indifference, resentment, defeatism, contrarianism, torpor, detachment, provocation, rage, arrogance, insolence, isolation, bitterness, hostility. He had urged me to cultivate my antipathies, finally to turn away from the world, like the Buddhas and naysayer sages down the millennia, Cioran’s ancestors and inspirations. I thought of the year I had spent living in solitude in Rosslare Harbour, County Wexford, where I had gone to recover from a devastating breakup: all I had down there for company, in a silent house on a half-deserted estate, was a stack of Cioran’s books. Heartbroken and drinking too much, cut off from all culture, all social and political life, I too readily embraced Cioran’s insistence that the one honourable response to the world was to turn away from it, to ignore its noise and simply fade back into non-existence. All engagement, enthusiasm and commitment had seemed to me contemptible and delusional states, to be disdained in others and snuffed out in myself. But I was so fucking depressed down there! In Rosslare Harbour I was so depressed, my depression was so total, that I thought I was fucking happy! Or not happy exactly, but I was unaware of just how miserable I was, sitting alone day after day, night after night, on a windswept beach where I was invariably the only human being, or in the silent house in a transit town where I knew no one, where I didn’t even have a car to take me into Wexford town. What did I expect, when the only company I had was this sneering bastard?

And yet, behind Cioran’s sneer, there was a point he tirelessly made that still seemed to me worth heeding. The most cursory survey of the global scene confirmed that yes, it really was the worst who were full of passionate intensity – the ones to be feared and resisted were not the preachers of decline, the diviners of our civilization’s exhaustion, but all those wild-eyed zealots who strove to create a heaven on earth, refusing to see that, in so doing, they would inevitably unleash hell. Absolutists, zealots, demagogues, jihadists, messianic utopians – all manner of fanatics thrived in the contemporary chaos, exploiting the frightening complexity of the age to hawk their simplistic narratives, their archaic binaries that brooked no ambiguity and sanctioned bottomless bloodshed. It was not only the elegance and the philosophical extremism that I found so gratifying in Cioran: it was his hostility to all fanaticisms, the lucid insistence that every mania we indulged in, whether political or metaphysical, would only mire us deeper in agony.

Suddenly weary of the back-and-forth of my thoughts, I sighed and closed the Cahiers. Through the window, the Paris skyline was slowly lighting up the late winter dusk. I said to Zoé, ‘It’s funny. The writers who mean the very most to me, often there’s a part of me that wishes I’d never read them at all.’

‘You mean like Cioran?’

I nodded.

‘But why? You’re free to take or leave any ideas you come across. That’s responsibility, that’s what it means. Nobody forces you.’

‘But there are tendencies that writers like Cioran or Schopenhauer can encourage. Despair, withdrawal. In the religions, in Christianity, despair is a sin. That’s interesting.’

She considered this, then shook her head. ‘I find it very easy to step out of that tunnel when I close the book. I’m not going to reject the universe just because Schopenhauer or anybody else said so.’

‘Of course not. But you don’t have those inclinations waiting to be triggered. What I mean is, it’s a choice. This withdrawal. I feel that it’s dangerous, the danger is real. Burning down the world. Despairing. I feel I’m already hanging on with the tips of my fingers. Seriously, it seems very easy sometimes to just stop engaging, to turn away from everything. But that’s a kind of suicide, a spiritual suicide. That’s acedia.’ I cleared my throat, hesitant. ‘And it would finish me as a writer,’ I added.

We heard the young German couple next door leave their flat, their footsteps echoing in the stairwell. The room fell silent. Zoé went to the attached kitchen and poured two glasses of wine. When she returned she handed one to me. She picked up the Cahiers and sat back down in her chair, facing the window. She leafed slowly through the pages.

‘It is very beautiful, though,’ she said.

‘I know.’

‘And addictive, if you go in for this kind of thing.’

‘That’s the problem.’

She sipped her wine, then she said, ‘Imagine this. Even if the most extreme pessimism accords with how things are, and existence is a nightmare, and consciousness is a chamber of hell, and Western civilization is awaiting its coup de grace, and we’re all adrift in the Unbreathable, or the Irreparable, or the Incurable, or all these things he writes about; what if, in spite of all this, the very articulation of this pessimism was so exquisite, so profound, that it redeemed our moments here in the nightmare? What if the writing itself, the beauty of it, not only pointed towards, but provided reason enough to stick around a while longer? Wouldn’t that be strange?’

I took this in, tried to connect with her meaning. A week later, after I returned from France, the world would watch, or feel as if it had watched, the burning to death of a young man locked in a steel cage, out in some dusty wasteland in a territory resembling hell. The world, perhaps, had always been this terrible, had offered no less validation to those who thought it better had it never existed at all. But it seemed worse, in the new proximity of things.

‘Listen to this,’ Zoé said, holding up the Cahiers.

‘Don’t quote him …’

‘Just once.’

Before I could object further, she read: ‘Nous somme tous au fond d’un enfer dont chaque instant est un miracle.’

I watched her in profile, across the space between us. Still holding the book, she was gazing out the window, over the roof of the Jewish slaughterhouse below, toward the hazed peripheral high-rises in the distance.

She said: ‘We are all deep in a hell, each moment of which is a miracle.’

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