Monday, March 05, 2007

Paper Moons, a funny, ferociously absurdist novella from 1921

Death inhabited a chamber with immense mirrored walls, reproducing to infinity the furniture in the room. Her furniture seemed to be reddish eiderdown cushions of various sizes. Among them, Her Majesty resembled a giant insect, because of her dinner jacket. She wore it out of modesty, or perhaps from fear of the cold, and despite the perfection of its cut, it fluttered on her, and gave her wings in the breeze.
A valet entered. He looked old and wizened, but it’s also possible that he was a foetus.
"The Royal Physician waits in attendance until it might please Your Highness bid him enter."
"It pleases me now."
He was immediately ushered in. He wore a black frock with a yellow ribbon rosette, a mark of his dignity. His features were rather Japanese.
"Would Her Highness deign to disrobe?"
Death removed her dinner jacket and her slacks; two cushions, hopping up, snatched them and carried them off, walking on tiptoes.
"I’ve already had the very great honor of caring for Your Highness," began the doctor, "a long time ago. My predecessor, the Royal Physician, had retired to his country estate, and Your Highness, who suffered from a slight catarrh, had deigned to believe that my services might be of use to Her."
"Of course, of course! You and I are old acquaintances…"
"Had not Your Highness, back then, vertebrae in the Royal Back?"
"Yes, yes; but I have had them replaced with these, which are aluminum, and much more practical. The maintenance is so simple--after an hour of brisk polishing I am meticulously clean."
"What? Your Highness must make the Royal Toilet...Herself?"
"Oh, you know, I’m a good-natured Queen. They always say Death! Death! Truth is, my soul is like a telegraph pole that’s gone sentimental because it’s transmitted too many love letters."
"And to tend to your own toilet, you find it as pleasant as when it was done for you in days of old?"
"As pleasant! Come off it! My dear man, you’re making fun of me! To let them polish me is one thing--but they used to scrape away half my back!"
The doctor apologized for speaking in such a manner.
"This new skeleton," she said, "has turned out to be so much more elegant than the old one...just look, when the sunset strikes it..."
Death walked to the window: sunlight bounced around her thoracic cavity, and the aluminum glowed like red copper.
"A novel effect," agreed the physician.
"Isn’t it? And the metal’s so delicate, so light. Anyway, we must keep up with Progress. Everything has become mechanical, metallic, dazzling, and yet my beauty remained Gothic. I was slipping into the passé."
"And you have been able to create a skeleton entirely of aluminum?"
"No, alas! My joints--see here in my arm for instance--are brass."
"Brass! Ah! Brass! Amazing! Brass!"
"That surprises you?"
", Highness, no--it uh...delights me...Yes, delightful! I mean the aesthetics of the thing. Your Highness would permit an auscultation?"
And she bent over. The doctor gave a little tap to the aluminum and it echoed with a noise that might have come from a mechanical rabbit....

Andre Malraux - Paper Moons excerpt

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