The Borders of Sleep
I have come to the borders of sleep
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
— Edward Thomas
Owen Wolcott hanged himself on Ash Wednesday. His attempt at suicide, however, was thwarted when a young female model he knew unexpectedly arrived and cut him down. He was just thirty seconds from death. Wolcott was surprised not by the fact of this botched operation (everything he had attempted since coming to Paris a year ago fell short of the mark), but by the fact that the model, a southpaw, was able to cut the cord. After all, the rope was thick, and in the past he had witnessed her struggle to cut hard cheese. Any taxing exertion seemed beyond her strength, let alone rescuing a man weighing one hundred and eighty-five pounds hanging in a stairwell. As he lay barely conscious in her arms, he was surprised to see, in his other worldly state, tears in her eyes.
He knew that for the rest of his life, he would remember this holy day for his failed suicide. Until then, his only memory of the day was from church: throwing excess ashes off his forehead and onto his childhood friend, Jimmy Roy—who instantly retaliated—while their grammar school nuns had their backs turned.
The year of his suicide attempt was 1925. The place was Montparnasse, Paris.
Though his building was filled with artists, painters mostly, there were a few rooms rented by models who were sometimes employed by the artists for nude portraits. Owen Wolcott, the only writer on the premises, rented a small atelier on the top floor.
He was also the only renter who hadn’t sold anything he had created. So many failed artists in his district had ended their lives since the start of the century, and they had become, after a time, a humiliating cliché. But worse than those were the ones who failed at both the execution of their art and themselves. They achieved a kind of ignominy that created a permanent spiritual banishment from the neighborhood, if not the city itself. After all, what was the point of living in Paris if you were not present for a serious purpose—and what was more serious in this city than the creation of art? If not a successful artist, then at the very least you could aspire to become an unsuccessful dead one. Now Owen Wolcott belonged to the ignominious group. And for as long as he decided to remain alive, he needed the model who saved his life, Sandrine Aubert, to keep his secret.
If things didn’t go well he would try again. He knew that. If he returned to his writing and things continued to go awry, he knew he would try again. He had the added incentive of selective memory: he only recalled how dying felt during the act, not the painful and frightening hours before his action. What he remembered was the incredible feeling of euphoria and liberation that suffused every second of the hanging. It was as if he had been drugged. Post-suicide, he told no one about that feeling. He kept that knowledge a secret, a kind of insurance policy in case he wanted to try again. He knew one thing: if he had to exit the world, that was how he wanted to feel in his final moments.
In World War I, he drove Red Cross ambulances in France. A few years after the end of the war, he left America and returned to Paris seeking artistic freedom and literary fame. He wanted to write the definitive novel on the war, a book so profound that its wisdom would prevent future wars. He believed only this towering accomplishment would make his life worthy, and he would be remembered in perpetuity as a literary master. By this singular achievement, he believed, he would cheat death. But more importantly, he would settle the score on all those, including his father, who had sold him short or abandoned him.
Since he arrived in Paris, his worth would be determined by the anticipated longevity of his creations, and he knew that could only occur if his writing were published in important places. And since his work wasn’t commercial enough to be published in prominent magazines (called the “glossies”) back in the States, he knew his best chance lay with the erudite literary journals, called “small magazines.” These were magazines that had small audiences and paid very little to their contributors, but they had considerable cachet in the literary world. But since he arrived in Paris in 1924 and submitted his work to the important places of the era—The Transatlantic Review, This Quarter, and The Little Review—he had no success. He couldn’t even get the smallest of the small magazines to publish his work.
Owen Wolcott had issues involving his worth. When he was barely seven years old, his father threw him out of their home in Kansas City, Missouri, and placed him in an orphanage. Because of this, he spent the rest of his life seeking ways to obtain acceptance and self-respect. To achieve that, he believed he needed to leave his mark on the world, and the only thing in his young life that seemed possible to obtain such a lofty goal was writing. In high school, he had shown some talent. English was the only class in which he received a grade higher than a “C.” It was absurd to think that, on so little evidence to support it, he had chosen to launch a literary career in post-war Paris, but he saw there was no other way.
He had spent some time in Paris. He was granted short leaves from the battlefields where he drove ambulances not far from the outskirts of the city. There was nowhere else to go, but he liked going there. He liked the cafés and the artists he had seen there; they represented a way of life that seemed both respectable and compatible to him. There was nothing like it in his homeland. Once the war was over and he returned to America, he spent his time in Kansas City taking tedious and degrading jobs in order to save enough money for his new life abroad. He tried writing during this time but was too exhausted at day’s end to advance his cause. He was patient, however. As soon as it was financially feasible, he traded Kansas City for Paris.
The war unsettled him. He had witnessed some of the most gruesome images of dying, death, and destruction he would ever see or imagine. Because those images lodged in his head, he often had difficulty sleeping nights, but it wasn’t all for naught. He believed inside him was matchless material for a powerful novel on The Great War. He just had to devise how to organize all the ideas he conceived and the horrific scenes he had witnessed into a coherent and compelling drama. Since composing a big war novel seemed too large to navigate from the start, he stuck to writing short stories that would later become, he believed, chapters in his “novel-in-progress.” To stay alive in Paris, he would sell the stories and live off money he received from magazines.
But the lack of interest in his stories sent him into despair. The war left him with disturbing images, and no financial gain. During the winter of 1925-26, as the rejection letters mounted on his desk, he ran out of rent money and was soon starving. He realized his plan had failed, and his father had been right all along about him. Quickly things became too painful to continue. He awoke one frigid Paris day from troubled sleep and decided to end his life.
Six months after his bungled suicide, Wolcott gave a reading along with four other American expatriate fiction writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookstore. Like his fellow readers, he was unknown to the Left Bank literary scene. All, except himself, belonged to the Dadaist Movement, but in order to arrange a reading in such an esteemed place, he decided to lie and claim he was a recent but impassioned convert. All was not fraudulent. In the days before his reading, he attempted to create a style that seemed in concert with their philosophy. Or at least what he understood of it. He attempted to borrow the use of repetitions found in the work of two non-Dadaists: Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. To not sound too beholden to their stylistic eccentricities, he took the repetitions to even more absurd heights: at the start of his reading, a paragraph would begin and end with the same sentence, but as the story progressed, so did the repetitions. Suddenly, the first and last two sentences of the next paragraph were identical, and this style overran the composition, continuing until entire paragraphs became nothing more than one long repetition of similar sounds.
This bizarre scheme might have had disastrous consequences had it not been for one thing—the way Wolcott read his story. Never one to volunteer to read aloud in school or in the public square, he skipped every opportunity to speak behind a podium. Reading audibly was painful to him. His voice sounded strange, and he felt ridiculous. In the past, he tried to get off the stage by accelerating his performance, but if he read too quickly, he stammered. That night he couldn’t abandon his reading. He was too desperate.
The reading at Shakespeare & Company changed everything. This time he tried a new approach: he read very, very slowly, trying to avoid stammering. But this new style of speaking made him overemphasize beginnings and endings of each sentence. His weakness became his strength. At first, there was a great silence in the room. The audience wasn’t bored; it was transfixed. They misinterpreted the original intention of every sentence, believing he was satirizing the characters—the men in power during the war—especially their antiquated, solipsistic thinking and behavior. Suddenly, someone broke into laughter. It slowly spread. The laughter would begin in small spurts, and then spread across the room in reverberative surges. If Dada was created to mock the status quo, then the movement had found its perfect representative in Owen Wolcott. After that night, readings featuring him were booked and sold out everywhere in the Paris. From that night onward, he became a serious literary figure in Montparnasse, and his reputation soon spread to the city’s other arrondissements.
In the six months after his suicide attempt and his breakthrough moment at Shakespeare & Company, Wolcott lived with the woman who rescued him, Sandrine Aubert. She rented a two-room flat in the same building as Wolcott, and invited him to stay with her until he was healed and had found employment.
He was instantly lucky on the second condition: a painter in the building knew a local restaurant owner who needed kitchen help—mostly dish washing—and Wolcott accepted the job immediately.
The work was good therapy. At first, he worked long hours. It was what he wanted. He needed a mindless task to occupy his recovery time. And after a few weeks of uninterrupted and arduous labor, he got reduced hours. He used the extra time to start writing again. He took his sketch notebook to the local park and wrote. He started with poetry but soon switched back to prose. He also started drinking for the first time since the war. He began with wine, then switched to hard liquor.
Although his writing wasn’t much better than what he had created before his crack-up, it felt good to be writing again. After a time, when the weather got colder, he started writing indoors at cafés. At first, in public, he wore ascots and scarves to cover his sore, bruised neck. He let his uncombed and disheveled hair grow down to his shoulders. Because of this new look he soon was known as “Medusa” by those who frequented the same café society. He took no offense at the sobriquet; rather, he saw it as part of the healing process. Slowly, he was merging into a new self, one without the self-doubts and cynicism of the past.
It was during this time that Sandrine and Wolcott became lovers. They decided to make their living circumstances permanent.
Even though Wolcott had finally broken through as a serious talent, he had no major publishing accomplishments to his credit. In the months following his famous reading at Shakespeare & Company, he had gotten some of his stories and poems published in minor Dadaist and avant-garde Left Bank magazines, but still none of the important magazines and periodicals of the day either solicited or accepted work from him. Those destinations built careers. Earlier this reality would have undone him, but because his initial entry into the literary world had been launched by a misunderstanding, he believed he didn’t deserve instant fame or fortune for his writing. It was all about luck. After the reading, he had gotten more invitations to read at other smaller venues around the city, and editors of magazines in France and the US slowly began to request work from him. Though the journals weren’t the most celebrated in the literary world, places that had earlier passed on his writing now gave him space on their pages.
He adapted to his new situation. He intentionally created stories with a satiric edge. What was once melodramatic writing was now tinged with irony and humor. What he was reporting about the war contained neither gravitas nor revelation. Instead, he was recording on paper an attitude, an acerbic style at loggerheads with the reality he knew was true. He was violating the very thing he had witnessed and thereby cheapening his experience. Though his readings drew large standing-room-only crowds, he felt not like a serious witness of his time, but as an entertainer mocking anything that resembled the status quo or the quotidian. His “style” was much mentioned in articles and reviews of his work, even if he was uncertain of what his style was. Whatever his reservations, he knew his new style was firmly ensconced in the right place and time: the 1920s. The decade of style. The generation called “lost” hadn’t a clue about the circumstances that led to a world war, nor any remedies against its return. Undaunted by that deficiency, they proceeded to create art as if it didn’t matter. Style was all.
Wolcott knew that, like the others of his generation, he wasn’t in possession of any real solutions to the violent nature of his species. Though he was alive when it happened, he had no idea of the causes—and certainly had no remedies. Therefore, though he internally denied it to himself, he knew that he had nothing to say. He was like the Dadaists who applauded him: full of mockery for the conventional, but bereft of solutions. If another world war was on the way—and Wolcott believed it was—there was nothing to do but mock the purveyors of the conventional beliefs on ethnicity, class, and race—who were dragging the world once again into massive conflict. His Grand Guignol view of civilization prevented him from seeing anything but inevitable cataclysm. So why attempt to interrupt the inevitable?
One of the most important sirens that attracted Wolcott to his chosen profession was the belief, held by some in his field, that a writing career was the best way to cheat death. Long after one’s corporeal presence had vacated the earth’s surface—the belief went—a writer would be remembered for his thoughts expressed by the printed words he carefully composed in books and periodicals. Taken as an article of faith, the belief was that—even if civilization should fall—somehow people would continue to read and to cherish his writing.
Wolcott had a vision of a catastrophic future where most—if not all—of civilization had been destroyed but not all hope lost. Once mighty buildings toppled by angry bombs would still retain, beneath their hard and broken surfaces, the magical stuff needed to restart an enlightened society. In his vision, lying beneath the rubble were some of the books he had composed, and once retrieved and read, a new age of enlightenment would be underway. The courageous reader who discovered them got not only a glimpse of the tempestuous time in which the author lived, but was also vouchsafed the boundless possibilities of the human mind. Revealed to the New Reader were the most noble attributes—despite past epochal failures—of the poor monkey race in which he once celebrated and belonged. His work would achieve a kind of timelessness, and eventually liberate millions yet unborn who were not just beneficiaries of a wrecked planet, but of a new optimism.
The problem with this flattering scenario, lay in the quality of what his pen had left behind. As the current hero of an eccentric movement, he knew his time was already slipping away. After all, what was the relevance and sustainability of an artistic movement whose worship of weirdness and anomie was at its core? As crowds packed cafés and bookstores each week to hear another audacious and provocative reading from his work, he couldn’t help think how ephemeral it all was. In a short time, he would be discovered as the fraud he knew he was all along, and nobody was going to believe his work was destined for eternal grace or applause. Though his writing was now selling briskly in Paris, he knew he was no more than a brief Left Bank fancy. He was not someone whose work would last much beyond the grave, if at all. His moment on stage would be brief and all he possessed.
And if he were to die the next day, at the height of his fame, how long and how intense would be the memory of his achievement? Would it last till the end of the decade? The end of the year? Or the end of the day? Certainly, it wouldn’t last a century or more and at least a century was needed to clearly qualify as monumental as “cheating death.” Only two writers in Paris in the current year seemed destined for that distinction: Marcel Proust and James Joyce. In a few years, maybe others would emerge, such as the new guy from America, Hemingway. But the writers who were destined to achieve immortality were few, and if their work was the standard for legendary status, then it was not a realistic goal for anyone attempting to attain timelessness in the creation of art. .
Though filled again with doubt, he continued to devote all his energy to writing, which he believed was his purpose for living in Paris. Once success finally came, he should have been happy, but he was not. Sandrine saw the change and was waiting for him at home when he returned from drinking at Café de la Rotonde.
“You know,” he began, with slightly slurred speech, “I think I finally saw Hemingway today.”
“Really,“ Sandrine said.
“Yes,” he said. “He was crossing the street and looked like he was coming toward my table, but then got distracted by some drunks across the street at the Dôme.”
“Yeah,” Wolcott said. “He got dragged over to their table. It was quite a scene. Too bad. I was going to introduce myself. Strike up a friendship. Maybe share writing.”
“I’m glad you did not,” she told him. “It would have made you unhappy.”
Wolcott felt his face flush.
“Why unhappy?” he asked. “My writing has gotten attention. I can pay the rent.”
“But you don’t believe in what you are doing,” she said, looking straight at him.
“What has made you popular has no meaning. It has made you sad.”
“OK,” he said. “What am I supposed to be doing to get this so-called meaning?”
Sandrine was prepared for more than this question. Again, for the third time, she came to his rescue. She arranged a job for him with a friend of her Parisian family. Where once he drove ambulances to the trenches on the outskirts of Paris, he would now drive abandoned camions filled with refugees, survivors from the last war, mostly children, to country houses on large estates converted into orphanages. It was believed the outdoors would be healthy for them, and Sandrine thought it was also the perfect job for Wolcott. She believed he needed to leave the Left Bank literary scene while he could still walk away.
He also needed to stop drinking, and she thought the fresh countryside air might be helpful.
When the children arrived at the train station they all looked the same, though many came from divergent European countries and wore different clothes. Wolcott instantly recognized the fear and exhaustion in their eyes. Ranging in age from seven to twelve, they looked suspiciously at the adults who suddenly had dominion over them as if some new horror would, at any moment, spring forth and terrorize them again. Their clothes and bodies were dirty, and most hadn’t eaten in a spell.
Wolcott, as a former childhood occupant of an orphanage, instantly identified with the passengers in his truck. He had felt the same fear of abandonment and lack of worth. So much so that he did more than just transport starving and homeless children to their new homes; he made subsequent inquiries about their health—mental and physical—making sure that they were properly bathed, fed, and groomed in their new environment.
Existence took place in that narrow space between life and death, a place one poet of the time called “the borders of sleep.”
And what finally mattered on the borders of sleep was not how long you were remembered but why, in this short life, you were recalled at all. For almost all who existed, it was the memories of simple kindnesses that lasted as long as consciousness lasted. That was cheating death. Those memories had a greater staying power than any book, unless that book reminded its readers of those who had been kind to them. And, by extension, cherished them. Without a memory of a cherished life, all literature was empty and sterile and meaningless, the kind of stuff that Wolcott had been creating with great success for others’ shallow amusement.
When he tried to take his own life, he now saw, it was because he believed he didn’t matter enough to be held dear by anyone, and he would rather enter that deep forest of oblivion than live with that.
After leaving the countryside, he returned to Paris and stopped at the Rotonde for a drink. When he was done, he stood at the corner of Boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse, the very center of the artistic cafés of the Latin Quarter where he spent time writing like his life depended on it, and finally admitted to himself, for the first time, that he hated writing. Ever since the war ended, he had wanted to stop, but since he had no other options, he continued down a painful—even with his brief successes as a minor celebrity—journey toward oblivion. Now he knew how, and with whom, he wanted to spend his life.
He would go home to Sandrine and tell her the news.
John Robinson is a novelist, playwright, essayist, memoirist, and short story writer, who lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His novels include January’s Dream and Legends of the Lost, and his work has appeared in Ploughshares, Sewanee Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Green Mountains Review, Cimarron Review, Tampa Review, and epiphany, and has been translated into thirty-two languages. He has contributed political commentary, created award-winning drama, appeared in various anthologies, and written and lived in three countries: Scotland, Spain, and the United States.