Listen To The Article

During the period of confinement, a classic written in 1794 and published anonymously came back into favour: Voyage autour de ma chambre by Xavier de Maistre. He was the brother of the famous counter-revolutionary thinker Joseph de Maistre, whose Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg we would do well to reread.

Following a forbidden duel, the author was placed under house arrest for 42 days in a room in Turin. Far from lamenting his fate, the author displayed a light-hearted attitude, seeing this period as an opportunity for vast inner exploration. His story celebrates meditation, and every object in his room – however cramped – becomes a source of reflection and reverie. His text, a parody of the travelogues popular before the Revolution, is a perfect example of the exploration of individuality. It reminds us of the importance of paying attention to our everyday surroundings and suggests that the pleasure of travelling in one’s own room is the best remedy against human jealousy. Isn’t exploring our bedroom the most important journey we can undertake, leading us to a better understanding of ourselves?

Ferns, a microcosm of the inner world

Fawaz Hussain seems to be the most worthy heir of Xavier de Maistre. His writing is both incisive and delicate, and his intellectual journey is based on the same initiatory principle: there is no need to travel to the four corners of the world, or to undertake extraordinary experiences, in order to remind ourselves that beauty is invisible, and that we aspire to it without understanding it. In Un été en vrac, Hussain invites us to wander around his Fougères neighbourhood, which borders the old ‘zone’ and the Paris ring road. And even though the author – born in northeastern Syria to a Kurdish family – has lived in many different countries, it is his home neighborhood that he describes in Un été en vrac. With his subtle pen, it becomes a microcosm of the world where every interaction, every observation, every encounter becomes an opportunity for reflection and discovery. This book, illustrated by Christine Poloniato, shows that we can find poetry and rich lessons in the banalest scenes of life, such as a watch entrusted to a watchmaker, a friend who returns to their native country, the bakeries along their daily route owned by Moroccans, or the imminent closure of the neighborhood’s post office. All these seemingly insignificant moments are painted with delicacy and sensitivity. We realise that greatness lies in self-sacrifice, resignation and, above all, solitude.

Hussain’s philosophy is all the more persuasive for its simplicity, as it is in harmony with the moral purpose of our consciences. This is the age when passions give way to reason, when the intellect becomes more lucid, more elevated, more resigned and inevitably much more open to all knowledge and to that of the simple heart more specifically.

A gateway to the past

Un été en vrac is imbued with a great deal of melancholy, some of it poignant. Hussain evokes the nostalgia of moments gone by and lost forever, of forgotten objects, of seasons that have faded into the inexorable wheel of time. How banal this scene could be, of a little girl crossing the street at the “pedestrian crossing,” slipping her hand into that of her father or mother. We have all experienced this seemingly futile moment! And yet there is an infinite sadness about the child we once were, this vague desire to find her again, and a great strength in the narrative, because it is not the little girl who is important but the term “passage clouté” [French for crosswalk]. Those who knew them know that they disappeared so long ago: “And then, see how certain habits have a skin as tough as nostalgia: they settle in us, as tenaciously as melancholy.”

Hussain also evokes a friend’s forgotten drill, an insignificant object which, in his narrative, becomes a portal to the past, a relic of a bygone era when exile was not yet a reality. Then he recalls, with bittersweet sadness, the seasons of his childhood in Syria, seasons that – because of climate change – have lost their distinction in the modern French landscape. Another poignant moment is found in his contemplation of the huge white tarpaulin enveloping the main Gibert jeune shop, which was once the soul of the Latin Quarter where he had studied. He sees it as a gigantic shroud, a powerful metaphor for disappearance and change. The strength of Un été en vrac lies in this passage:

Stopping on the bridge leading to the Palais de Justice and the Conciergerie, I lost myself in contemplation of the waters of the Seine. Was it really the Seine that had changed and not me? Neither she nor I were the same. I did not mind the prevarication, because whatever you do and whatever you say, you never bathe in the same river twice. You never tread the same cobblestones in the same alleyways. I have condensed the didactics, ethics and aesthetics of all the books that are said to be sacred into a single sentence by Oscar Wilde: “No man is rich enough to buy his past.”

How Francis Carco, the great poet of Paname, who died on Quai de Béthune contemplating the Seine, would have loved these words…

Cruel irony

Hussain is undoubtedly a great writer. When he handed in his first novel in an envelope to the reception desk at Éditions Gallimard, he had no idea that the very next day Antoine Gallimard himself, having spent the night devouring his work and marvelling at his talent, would invite him to visit his venerable house, introduce him to the reading committee and, above all, write him a cheque for a spacious, light-filled flat in the heart of the 5th arrondissement — a dream come true for every writer… So why is Hussain now living in the 20th arrondissement? Has he suffered a reversal of fortune? This scene, seductive as it is, is imbued with a Socratic irony that reveals all the author’s talent. He tells it to a Kurdish businessman who was engaged in minor household repairs for him and who asks him, “Is publishing a book easy, and can you expect to make a profit from it?” It is amusing to see the extent to which the quidam idealises the success and recognition of writers. Like Socrates feigning ignorance to reveal the truth, Hussain resorts to irony to highlight the harsh reality of his condition as a writer. It is a fine lesson in humility, and every aspiring writer should have Un été en vrac

This little book is a tribute to the human capacity to find beauty in the most mundane aspects of life. It serves as a Socratic invitation to get to know oneself, and thanks to his acute sensitivity to the details of everyday life, Hussain has the art of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Fawaz Hussain, Un été en vrac (A Scattered Summer), paintings by Christine Poloniato, Al Manar, 04/01/2023, 1 vol. (87 p.), €19