Jean-Baptiste Lucanor: A Mediocre Life (Chapter 1)

by Haider Shahbaz (and his dear friend, Nicolas MMP)


Under the heading Autobiography, in a notebook otherwise empty, the surrealist scribbled:

To wage war with words on the fascists. My manifestos are my diaries; my diaries are my manifestos. An end to bourgeois essentialization. An end to mediocrity. Of the worlds that wine opens, those who piss clear know nothing.

II Georges-Bataille-005a

It would be dishonest to claim that Jean-Baptiste Lucanor was anything other than what he was: a mediocre writer, a second-tier avant-gardist. The fact that he only appears in one of the photographs of the core Surrealist group attests to his existence as a fringe figure. But just like the study of animals does not limit itself to a few important species, neither should the study of literature. I present, therefore, Jean-Baptiste Lucanor’s life and a translation of his diaries and letters in the hope that the study of surrealism’s mediocre devotee enhances the field of literature.

By all accounts, Jean-Baptiste Lucanor had an unhappy childhood. Born in the small city of Tours on the twenty-first of December of 1900, he was the fifth and youngest child of a petit bourgeois marriage. The poet’s social position was thus privileged enough to encourage expectations, yet limited enough to all but guarantee that those expectations would be disappointed.

The story of Lucanor’s parents is rather tragic, and accordingly it forms the basis for Lucanor’s only novel, Le Jardin des Étoiles Tristes. The mother, a certain Marie Deschamps, fell sick with a mysterious illness after giving birth to the poet. Municipal records show that labor lasted almost thirty hours, and that the poor lady fell into a state of profound exhaustion after having kissed her “rather ugly child.” She would never recover, spending most of her remaining decade and a half in a tiny bed on the fourth floor, the only room in the house that had a clear view of the Cathedral.

Perhaps exercising poetic license, Lucanor reported that she only got up on Sunday mornings to attend mass. Lucanor also claimed the fifteen-minute walk to St. Gatin left her so fatigued that he had to carry her upstairs. This was less of a feat than it would seem at first sight, for Mme Lucanor was as light as she was frail: the woman barely ate, nourishing herself on goat cheese, honey, and brandy diluted with hot water.

Jean-Baptiste Lucanor remained attached to his mother all his life. He considered her his only protection in this world. When he left for Paris to make his career as a writer, he wrote many letters to his mother which he never sent her. Following is the translation of one of these letters.


Dear Mother,

Today, I decided: I will not be afraid. I saw a play. I read a poem. I took a walk. And I decided I will not be afraid. After all, it is very hard to be afraid. All the time. Of all sorts of little things. It drains you.

Since I left you, four years ago, I have been afraid. I have been frightened. Most importantly, I have been afraid to admit that I was frightened. I will not be anymore. I admit it. I have haunting nightmares. Nightmares of abandonment, betrayal and loneliness. I wake up sweating, clutching, hoping for an embrace.

Today, I went and sat under a tree. In a park; lots of sunlight. A friend came and sat with me. She said quietly that she was troubled. So many trapped voices inside of her. Fragmented sentences upon sentences. It’s a struggle to get them out, she said. We walked, hand in hand. And tried to smile. Point out beautiful things to each other. We called each other with terms of endearment. A little bit of affection goes a very long way. An innocent compliment, a caress through the hair, an unnecessarily tight hug. They go a long way. Another friend came and sang us her poetry. You would’ve liked it; I remember you used to sing while washing dishes. She sang us songs of freedom. Of struggles and revolutions. Of birds and trees. Of air, free, roaming, in an out of us, with every breath. We smiled and told her how lovely she was. How brave her words were.

I fell in love a few months ago. It was with an affectionate girl, a very caring one. But these days she is very busy. Sometimes, actually, all the time, I feel like talking to her. Telling her the heaviness of my grief. Of my fear. I feel like telling her to come sit next to me. And to put my head in her lap. Ask her to caress my hair. But she is busy. So I do not tell her. I do not ask of her. She might not come. She is so busy, after all. I am afraid, one day, we will all be busy. How can you be too busy for love? Does it not make you restless? Do you not get lost in it? It is sad: the effort to manage love. To put it in a timetable. To allot it a place. But my love keeps on spilling. In to untimely exclamations and tears. And now, I will not be afraid. I will let it spill. I will let it flood if it wants to. It should be free. It should be.

Sometimes, when I sit alone in my room, I imagine, mother, what you still look like. If your smiles are the same and your anger too. And what about your lonely and silent disappointments that you never shared? I imagine if you still sing those tunes when you wash the dishes. If you still have arguments with the neighbours while you do the laundry. I wonder if you still try to cook new things now that all your children have gone away.

I know that you dream of my fright and my sorrow. It must keep you up all night. You must want to talk to me. I know you do. Even when I am not there, I feel the umbilical pull of our destined sorrows. We are left, across spaces huge and vast, to dream each other’s loneliness. I know that I do not call you and I only come back home for a few days. You must think that I have forgotten you. But I am merely afraid of not being a grown up man who clings to his mother, who clings to home. I have to pretend, all the time, that I have grown up, that I am a man. But today, I admit that I am afraid. And today, I want to come back home. I want to come back so I can tell you just how afraid I am.

Your loving son,

Jean-Baptiste Lucanor