A Tear in His Eye

Edward Gauvin translating the French of Jean Ferry

click here for a excerpt of the French text

Who among us, at that age when we grow curious about fantastical tales, hasn’t been captivated by the story of that character who describes himself as endowed by the creator with the face of a hyena, lips of bronze, eyes of jasper, and a reproductive organ much closer to the deadly viper than a harmless phallus? Among other peculiarities of a personality that seems to have been difficult, this individual, mired throughout his brief, unhappy life in what he calls “the green membranes of space” (we credit the expression entirely to him), insists on having it known that it was impossible for him to laugh. I won’t mention here the curious experiment that followed this confession, whose principal accessory was a well-sharpened razor. What I want to write about today is an absolutely analogous case, by which I mean the total opposite.

It has to do with a very dear friend, whom I’ll call Jean for simplicity’s sake, and who could never manage to cry. I found this case even stranger than that of the aforementioned polymorphous hero, as it is clear that occasions for tears are, all things considered, more common than occasions for laughter.

And yet, up to the age of forty-two, no matter how much he wanted to, Jean had never yet managed to extract from his lacrimal glands a single drop of what some call the heart’s dew, and others, much closer to the truth, call a liquid composed of mucus, water, salt, and phosphate of lime. Like all his fellow creatures, he had met with excellent reasons to weep. He had lost his childhood; during that childhood, he’d met with many a disappointment; as a teenager, he’d suffered unjustly (but is any suffering just?); he had, as was expected, bid loved ones goodbye, and seen those he hated and despised triumph. He’d even known sweet ecstasies, those vague and generous impulses that, urged on by moonlight or a view of the sea, bring a slight mistiness to even the driest eyes. Not a drop. Doctors, consulted one after the other, could only remark upon the absolutely normal physical state of a patient who bore a pair of lacrimal glands in excellent condition.

Now this man, whom nature refused our common consolation—when death came for the woman he loved most of all, when his best friend betrayed and ruined him, when he saw the most melancholy tragedies play out before him, when in the depths of discomfort he was forced one winter morning to pull back over numb feet the holey socks he’d washed secretly in cold water the night before in the shared hotel sink, socks that were far from dry (and few are those who in such circumstances haven’t shed a few tears o’er their fate), this man whom a sudden, unexpected luck filled with colossal contempt for cowardly sycophants (for they made him lose all confidence in human goodness, a loss which anyone might have underscored with a tear), this man who honestly, sincerely tried all his life to cry at every suitable moment, without ever succeeding—this poor man, one autumn eve, burst into tears.

We know why. The investigation revealed that a grocer he’d begged for a few ounces of salt with such courtesy as might have seemed quaint, a grocer whose shop he’d confidently entered, whom he’d approached with kindly sympathy, ready at the slightest sign to grant him his brotherly love, had answered him with the ignoblest brutality: “There’s no more salt.” The man who’d never been able to cry went home, profoundly affected, and began to cry. He wept for an hour over events in their reverse order: over the grocer’s meanness, over the infamy of the human race, over Gustave’s treachery, over the death of the woman he’d loved, over the death of Uncle Tom, over the death of the Lady of the Camellias, over his wet socks, over the shitters he’d cleaned when it wasn’t his turn for chores, over being last in geography class, over his first tooth. He wept for an hour, then another, then another, and as he fell asleep he was crying still. In the morning his grief had calmed somewhat, but he noticed that he’d cried during his sleep, and his pillow had to be wrung out. He wrung it out, weeping, and only toward evening on that second day did he seriously start worrying. He’d gotten over his whole life, but he was still crying, and it was very wearisome. After a night of tears and anguish, he went to find a doctor, who prescribed rest just in case.

Jean locked himself in his room and, for many long days, let flow his monotonous and regular tears; falling on the table, they gradually warped the wood. Jean lost weight, grew pale in his solitude, and in the eyes of the Medical Faculty, bent in astonishment over this unique and monstrous phenomenon, it became clear that he would soon melt entirely away: a possibility all the more distressing since Jean had recovered, as they say, his taste for life, and now enjoyed himself at the drop of a hat, and laughed so hard that he cried when reading funny books.

But the grocer, upon accidentally hearing that he was the cause of this event swelling column inches of newsprint, was seized with remorse. Not daring to present himself before his victim, he sent by post, with apologies, a bag of particularly refined salt. A paper cone of it came with the morning mail at eight.

On entering Jean’s room at nine a.m., the cleaning lady recoiled with horror and fainted, dropping the buckets and sponges she used so many of daily. The head, limbs, and innards of my unlucky friend were strewn around the room’s four corners, amidst splatters and objects better left unspecified. From his right hand, the grocer’s unfolded letter was pried with difficulty; reading it had doubtless moved him so violently that he’d exploded in sobs.

Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright Association, the Centre National du Livre, and the Lannan Foundation. His translation of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud's selected stories A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award and won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. Other publications have appeared in Conjunctions, Subtropics, The New York Times, Tin House, PEN America, and The Southern Review. The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, he is a contributing editor at Words Without Borders, and writes on the fantastic for Weird Fiction Review.

Though Jean Ferry (1906-1974) made his living as a screenwriter—best known for his collaborations with Clouzot, Buñuel, Louis Malle, and Georges Franju—he was involved in many notable movements of 20th century French literature. He was a satrap of the College of 'Pataphysics, an Oulipo guest of honor, and the greatest specialist of his day in the works of Proust’s eccentric neighbor, Raymond Roussel. Ferry’s only book of prose, The Conductor and Other Tales, was published in 1953 and recently brought back into print. Andre Breton called Ferry's story "The Society Tiger" "the most sensationally new poetical text I have read in a long time." Translations of Ferry have appeared in The Coffin Factory and Weird Fiction Review, and are forthcoming in Subtropics and Birkensnake. Wakefield Press will publish the first English translation of The Conductor this November.