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Additional Information
ISBN: 978-1-931883-34-4
Pages: 184
Size: 5 x 8
Publication Date: November 11, 2013
Distributed By: Publishers Group West

The Fata Morgana Books

by Jonathan Littell
Translated from French by
Charlotte Mandell

“Four nightmarish novellas… The writing is sinuous and propulsive; disturbing images are rendered with icy, swift precision.” — New Yorker

After the astonishing success of his Prix Goncourt-winning debut novel, The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell began publishing more books with two of France’s most prestigious houses: Gallimard and the small Montpellier publisher Fata Morgana. To the latter he gave four strange novellas revolving around sex, love, and memory. We are proud to publish them in one volume as The Fata Morgana Books.

Ranging from swimming pools to art galleries, from beds to battlefields, and a few mythical places, these novellas are narrated by hermaphrodites, ghosts, wanderers, and wonders. Littell here once again mixes his love of the grotesque with time-twisting narratives and ethereal protagonists. Like an Italo Calvino or a Clarice Lispector, Littell channels the emotions of loss and desire to illuminate the shadowy depths of solitude, reflection, longing, and lust.

With fleet prose and Proustian self-reflection, these stories range from chaotic airlifts to a series of bullfights under the hot sun, fatal negotiations resolved as mathematical equations, and the nine circles of Hell. Commanding and beguiling, The Fata Morgana Books rings with depth and mystery, always pushing through to explore the in-between spaces: between thoughts, between bodies, between hungers and their satisfactions, between eyes and the things they look at.


“The stories evoke the fin-de-siècle sensibility of Baudelaire or Schnitzler.” — Publishers Weekly

“These stories lead the reader on a race through the abyss, which, as Littell imagines it, has no depth, only shifting landscapes of sex and dread. But maybe that’s the topography of the modern abyss.”           — Paul La Farge, author of Luminous Airplanes

“The four novellas that comprise this collection deal with a wealth of themes, but the ultimate one is of unachieved desire and the isolating mania it spawns.… ‘Surrealistic’ doesn’t fully capture the formal breed of this collection.” — HTMLGIANT

“A living, breathing, sublime collection of novellas that ignites the reader’s imagination and entices their most base of desires to grab control.” — Typographical Era

“A gorgeous tour through a world of human excess and futility…exhilarating.” — Numéro Cinq

“Jonathan Littell’s The Fata Morgana Books is the most startling expression of the tradition of the nouveau roman in a generation.” — The American Reader

“Littell is fearless in his descriptions of sex, masculinity, and femininity.… There is no gendered body in Littell’s work, everything is fluid.” — The Collagist

“Here genitalia prove as amorphous as the desires they incite, and slaughter leaves only casual impressions upon its casualties.… As much as we loathe these atrocity exhibits, we turn every knob. Littell has organized the mechanisms, but our desire is what fuels the machine.” — BOMB magazine

“Littell’s stories are structurally elegant… The Fata Morgana Books is a frequently thought-provoking [read].” — Foreword Reviews

Jonathan Littell received the Prix Goncourt for his 2006 novel The Kindly Ones, called by Time magazine “unmistakably the work of a profoundly gifted writer.” A former aid worker for Action Against Hunger in Bosnia, Chechnya, and other countries, he is the author of several works in French.
Charlotte Mandell’s translation of Jean-Luc Nancy’s La jouissance (titled Coming) was published by Fordham University Press in September 2016. She has translated more than forty books; her current project, Mathias Énard’s Compass, which recently won the Prix Goncourt, is forthcoming from New Directions Publishing in the U.S. and from Fitzcarraldo Editions in the U.K. Her translations of Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Fall of Sleep, Listening, and After Fukushima were all published by Fordham University Press.

Download The Fata Morgana Books Excerpt

Excerpt from The Fata Morgana Books

By Jonathan Littell

Translated by Charlotte Mandell

Available from Two Lines Press


Opening the door, I saw myself in the mirror, a large round mirror leaning against the wall, reflecting the horizontal rectangle of the striped mattress, it too lying on the floor, and the vertical rectangle of the open door, red on the outside, white on the inside. In the mirror, the face framed by the jambs of this door was looking at me, smiling calmly; I found it somewhat beautiful, but of a vague, undefined, blurred beauty. Night was falling, I pressed the switch: light leaped out, harsh and bright, from a bare lightbulb hanging over the mattress, reflected in the round mirror too. I had bought this mirror, its glass all pockmarked and partially tarnished, from a second-hand dealer, and I liked it immensely. It must have had a defect that I hadn’t noticed; as time passed, a crack stretched out mysteriously from one edge; then another fissure began to branch off from the first, forming a little V at the bottom of the mirror, just like a woman’s pubis; finally, a long horizontal line came to cross this V. The mirror kept staring at me, impassive, a mute cyclops’s glum eye. Sometimes I would lay the mirror flat on the mattress and crouch along its edge, leaning on my hands. Depending on the angle, I would then see my features surprisingly abstract and very far away, or else just the lightbulb hanging on the ceiling, or else nothing, nothing at all, as if I were gazing not at a mirror but at a gaping, luminous pit, slightly purplish, carved into my bed, into which I could have tumbled head-first, to disappear forever. Sometimes too, I would put on female underclothes—stockings, dainty black lace panties, a padded bra—at times with a thin clinging dress, at others not, and for a long time I would examine this beautiful feminine form, elegant, aristocratic, its musculature subtle and well-defined, its skin white, beneath which snaked thick veins swollen with blood, losing in this way in the image all notion of time and place, of my person or of my thoughts.That a few tawdry rags bought in a hurry at the supermarket were enough to make a woman, a real image of a woman—that is what filled me with wonder, it was a spell, pure magic. Nothing could come to disturb this happiness. One time, though, a curious thing happened: a child, in the corner of my bedroom, said softly but clearly: “You shouldn’t be doing that.” I didn’t know who he was, or what he was doing there, but I replied kindly: “And why not?”—“I would prefer that you didn’t do it.” I gazed at him, smiling tenderly. In the mirror’s disk, the gossamer lace followed the arched loins of the figure reflected there, plunged between its buttocks; lower down, another band circled its thigh. I was still looking at the blond child, motionless and stubborn in his corner, his fists clenched alongside his legs; finally, without taking my eyes off him, I slowly stretched my hand out to the switch, pressed it, and everything, child and feminine form, circles and rectangles, vanished into the dark.

I also liked to go out in the street like that, with this lace underwear beneath my clothes: it produced a strange sensation in me—light and floating, as if both sexes at once were strolling in my body through the city. Sitting with a cold drink at a café terrace on a public square, I would examine the women passing by, think about their clothes, as light and airy as my feelings, about what they were wearing underneath, lace or fine fabrics, which they often showed glimpses of: for them, these delicate layers on their bodies added nothing, took away nothing, they were women in all simplicity, naked or clothed, with or without artifice, even coarsely dressed, or dressed like men, they remained women; these pieces of fabric, so maddening to me, were as natural to them as their own skin, it was just the texture of their lives, a pleasant and caressing thing perhaps, but one they could do without: at the very most, sometimes, pleasure might seize them by the throat as they slowly removed these garments in front of a man’s avid desire. As for me, they transformed me completely, they made me a free oscillation, around which my desires floated freely, coming to bear on everything and nothing, settling only to take off and settle on their opposite, before coming back or going elsewhere, and I no longer knew if I was man or woman, unless someone told me. This made me astonishingly mobile and I loved that. But it was also possible that this was all a dream, like that other dream in which I was trying to decipher notes I had made when I awoke from yet a third dream, a long wonderful story, just like this one. I could see the words, a few doodles hastily sketched out, I was trying to reconstruct this lost dream, which fled from me imperceptibly but steadily, like sand trickling from one cone of the hourglass to the other; it escaped me just as this story is escaping me. To tell the truth, I never really knew if I was asleep or awake, this too someone had to come and tell me. But reality was never lacking in people ready to determine it, however arbitrarily, like that friend, the one on the stairs who should have been dead, but who was shaking my shoulder, laughing: “Hey there, are you sleeping?” He sat down opposite me and ordered, drank, ordered another. “I have something for you,” he said, “I know you, you’re going to like it.” He took out a disk from his pocket and put it on the round table. “What is it?”—“You’ll see, you’ll see.” Already he was getting up and walking off without paying; that made me glad, I was happy for him for his trust, his freedom, his lightness. The disk, silvery in a thin, transparent square case, remained on the table, I forgot it when I left; I’d only taken a few steps before the waitress caught me by the sleeve to give it back to me. She had a beautiful smile, brown, silky skin: she too wore her body with ease, as if it weren’t a miracle. I climbed back up into my tall square tower, suspended high above the city. Down below, behind the last buildings, grey, metallic, the sea stood like a long wall beneath the pale summer sky; when a big ship passed by, it looked almost as if it were flying slowly beyond the city. Many cranes, blue or green, crisscrossed the sky with their stalks; to the right, the round mass of a small mountain rose to hide the line of the sea. I turned my computer on and inserted the disk my friend had left me. It was a short pornographic movie, made not by professionals but evidently by the people in it, two men and a woman, along with a fourth, the one holding the camera, who was never shown. Of the two men, the first was still young, with a massive body and closely cropped hair; the other was already settling into a hairy layer of fat, and wore long, rather outdated sideburns joined to his moustache. The woman wore black stockings and a red mask, and her coarse body showed signs of age; when she lowered her head, her chin formed thick folds with her neck; but she had magnificent hair, black and heavy, tied back at the neck by a rubber band. The two men were caressing her body; then the younger one began to fuck her, while the other dragged his cock over her lips. She was groaning softly, full of her pleasure but also attentive to the scene. The relationships between the characters intrigued me: there must have been a husband involved, or at least a lover, that seemed to me unavoidable, for this was obviously no callgirl paid for the pleasure of the two men, on the contrary, it was the men who had been placed at the service of this woman’s pleasure, yet something in their attitudes, especially in hers, passive in her pleasure, suggested that she had not organized the scene herself, but that it had been organized for her by another, who was thus sharing her pleasure. But who was it? The fat one with the sideburns, more open, less hurried in his gestures than the young one? Or the one holding the camera, whose lens remained focused on the body of the woman and what was happening to her? But one couldn’t entirely rule out the possibility that the camera was held by another woman. Yet to these four actors had to be added a fifth, the main character of this little movie: the gaze. The entire spectacle had been staged with it in mind. There was of course the gaze of the man or woman holding the camera and studying the scene through his or her viewfinder, just as there was my own, contemplating it on my computer screen; but the gaze of the three naked figures on the green sheets was also put into play, redoubled not just by the expectation of the film to come, but also right then and there, by a large mirror that occupied the entire wall next to the bed, where they took turns observing themselves. At one point, a man—the fat one, or the one filming?—uttered a phrase in a language that I did not understand, Italian perhaps or some local dialect, and this phrase seemed to me to say: “Do you like what you’re seeing?” for the woman, still being fucked by the young one, was attentively watching herself being fucked and filmed in the big mirror. “Yes, yes,” she panted; and the camera was no longer filming the three intertwined bodies, but just their reflection in the mirror, where the woman, sprawled in her pleasure, her eyes like black marbles in her red mask, gazed at herself panting, her mouth open, her tongue out like that of a bull exhausted by the matador’s elusive red cloth, obscene and beautiful in her obscenity. She contemplated herself this way for a long time; then, slowly, she rolled her head over to the prick offered to her mouth. Afterwards, it went on, they moved her around, took turns penetrating her; and she, while giving in to their arms and bodies, to their greedy members, was also constantly observing herself in the mirror, as if to assure herself, Yes, that’s really me, that sublime whore there, with the beautiful hair and this body that’s so heavy and so female, being fucked by these two men, ah what happiness. The men too looked at themselves, but shiftily, snickering at times. It ended ritually, with their sperm on the woman’s mouth, her face, her mask, her breasts, a brief orgasm frightfully meager after her own, which overflowed this little twenty-minute-long movie. These images, so clumsy and ordinary, filled me with joy: transported into rapture, as if by the sweetness of a ripe peach, I felt as if I were about to lift off from the ground. Outside, now, it was dark; the city’s lights shone in front of sky and sea confused into a single vast endless black surface. I watched the video several times; each time, it stuck in my gaze, nailed all my desires, usually so fluid, to a single blind point before which I found myself transfixed, breathless.

However, as I rather quickly discovered, this was just a poor sample of a considerable series, mass-produced by a production company a little savvier than the others; yet this knowledge changed nothing, absolutely nothing: these images remained what they were, frozen in the eternal repetition of their so violently human perfection. I no longer left my room, I hardly even moved from my mattress; I could just barely get up when I felt an urgent need. Eating, drinking, they no longer concerned me; of course I was ill, but I had no way of knowing that unless someone told me; but no one came, I stayed there alone in the midst of my funhouse mirrors, which altered not the image they reflected, but the very person who was mirrored. The same friend finally gave me, by telephone, some good advice: “You should go find a doctor.” I had two doctors—thin, stiff women in their long white smocks, one still young and quite attractive, the other much older and more talkative too. “You definitely do not look well,”she said with birdlike gestures.Together,they had me undress, listened to my chest, palpated me, examined the various orifices of my body, with comments that were cryptic to me, but no doubt rich in meaning for them. In the end, I found myself lying on my belly, with the older doctor, who had pulled on latex gloves, delicately parting the cleft of my buttocks, and the two women stood leaning over my anus as if over a well, calmly discoursing on what they saw there. They sent me home with some medicine, somewhat randomly selected I think, and I took it at random too, in the following spirit: if my condition got better, then the remedy was good, and if it got worse, then it was bad.

Despite my poor health, I still occasionally watched the little film. I had finally realized something: more than the sight of it, which had so absorbed me, it was the sound of this scene that moved me so violently. I made this discovery entirely by chance; by mistake, I had cut the sound on my computer; muted, these images were nothing more than grotesque gesticulations. Whereas all I had to do was close my eyes and listen to the groans, the gasps, the broken, stammered words, the interrupted breathing, to find myself rapt again: a dazzling, almost blinding discovery, this, but limited nonetheless, in that the echo of these sounds, which at first opened the way, itself ended up forming an elusive obstacle, flexible but insuperable; caught in its snare, I found myself once again rejected, brutally returned to myself, and thus everything began all over again, in a crazy whirling that only rooted me deeper in my own impossibility.

“Come with us!” my friend had called out, peremptorily—how to resist such a command? Thus I found myself with a whole company of people in another city, where a feria was taking place. Jubilation reigned in the streets, borne by a huge crowd, happy and overexcited, maddened as much by the liberties allowed on these few days as by the sun, the alcohol, the laughter, and the disordered jostling of bodies. We walked about aimlessly; whenever we felt like it, we would drink some chilled wine, standing in the street or packed into crowded cafés. Toward evening, my friend announced: “Come, let’s go and see the bullfight.” But I needed a cigar for that, and so I went into the first tobacco shop I saw, where the shopkeeper barked out: “A cigar, sure, but which one? What kind do you want?”—“Whichever you like, as long as it lasts through six bulls.” In the arena, people were crammed into the stone tiers; the ring spread out at our feet, a pale disk surrounded with red by a bright barrier of painted boards. Nothing could trouble its calm orderliness: not the shouts and gesticulations of the crowd, not the music started up by the brass band, not the succession—by turns measured and frenzied—of figures formed and dissolved by the men in glittering costumes around the bull, a black, brutal monster overflowing with vigor, and yet so quickly killed. When the mules dragged away its body, the blood inscribed a long red comma on the sand; men quickly raced forward with rakes to erase it, so that nothing would come to disturb the placid surface that reflected the glory and triumph of the killer of bulls. Everything delighted me, the movements that won roaring ovations as well as those that elicited boos, and I paid as much attention to the long ash on my cigar as to the horn of the animal, appearing and disappearing in the undulating folds of the pink and yellow capes. Already the fifth bull was charging out of the depths of the arena. The man who had to kill it was, apparently, famous for his talent, the purity of his style and of his movements. When the bull stopped, panting, nervous, confused, he provoked it from very far away, almost the opposite side of the red circle, before moving forward with tiny steps, stiff and with his back arched, using his voice and his cape to encourage the animal to charge, which it always ended up doing; then, motionless, feet together and chest proudly flung out, the man would calmly make the animal flow around him, like a current eddying around a rock. I had, of course, had the rules of the game explained to me: nothing required the man to remain in place, to offer his belly or his loins to the horn, so close sometimes that it snagged the gilt decorations on his costume; it was a question of etiquette, which in this affair was everything; wounds or death weren’t taken into consideration. And now the man was getting ready to kill the bull; drawn up onto the tips of his toes, turned sideways, he was aiming his long curved sword at the back of the bull’s neck, straight between the horns of the exhausted animal, doomed but still raging; his left hand with its piece of red flannel crossed in front of his body, he dove straight in; a moment later, he was bouncing on the horns, a limp puppet, a rag doll, grotesque in his beautiful gilt costume, as if he were to remain caught up there forever, while his assistants rushed in shouting and vainly waving their capes. Finally he fell to the ground, the men drove the animal back, others tried to carry away the wounded man; “It’s nothing,” he seemed to say as he got up and grasped the sword held out to him, “it’s nothing.” He returned to stand facing the bull. His face, his hands, his shining outfit were coated in blood; arched back, in profile, he held his sword up with his fingertips, in a perfect triangle with his arm, as if to salute his adversary, and he stared at it with two round, black eyes, empty of all thought except the perfection of the gesture to be repeated, eyes that gazed at the animal to be killed the same way they would have gazed at a mirror. Then he made one swift gesture, and already he was turning his back on the staggering bull, dragged into the ballet of capes thrown under its muzzle, the sword planted to the hilt in its neck; he walked away without turning back, toward the red barrier, as the animal collapsed heavily behind him, its four hooves in the air, pointed at the sky.

That night, I found myself in a cellar; on a stage in the back, some men dressed in black, sitting on simple wooden chairs, their feet flat on the stage, were playing music. It was very beautiful; but to tell the truth, what I especially liked was the curtain drawn behind them, a long curtain with folds of garnet velvet, illumined with a bright light. Someone had handed me a drink, red also, in a tall, straight glass, I didn’t really know what it was, wine perhaps; I was sitting at a little round table, in the company of many people, I didn’t quite know who they were; my friend must have been there, but maybe he had gone away. After a while, a few young women came out onto the stage, wearing long black dresses spangled with red dots, like fat blood-red moons scattered across a night sky; they danced with stiff movements, yet their stiffness was strangely supple, forming and then unmaking squares and circles; when they twirled, upright and proud, their ample skirts flew around their fine muscular legs, opening up into large fluid circlets, like the wheel of a cape spun out behind his back by a haughty matador ending a series of passes by bringing his bull to its knees. The women stood out from the red curtain like shadows, they whirled round clicking their heels; they were made even more present by these rhythmic sounds and the figures they formed, static, almost clumsily linked figures, like the poorly connected passes of a novice still unsure of his animal, than by their bodies eclipsed behind the cloth of the moon-dresses; only the sweat soaking their armpits, visible when they raised their arms to snake their wrists around and snap their fingers, reminded one from time to time of their materiality. I was slowly getting drunk, and this drunkenness made me euphoric; yet at the same time, just like the bullfighter’s gestures in the center of the arena’s red circle, just like the movements of the dancers on the rectangle of the stage, it too, I realized, was a form of communion, the step beyond that imperceptibly opens up the road to the world of death, revealing to the one taking it that it already stretches far behind him, and always has.

I returned to the arena; beneath the flaming wheel of the sun, the red barrier was gleaming, its sweeping curve diagonally sliced by the line of shadow. Yet I passed from one circle to the other: for when I plunged my gaze into the circle formed by the arena, I finally found myself faced not with the bull and its horns, but with myself, my pale, distraught face, reflected in the dull halo of the mirror in my bedroom; and the flesh the bull’s horn gouged, when it caught the unfortunate matador in the muscular triangle inside the thigh, almost by chance and in exactly the same way I sometimes happened to catch the soft, vulnerable triangle of a girl chance drove into my arms, this flesh then was in a way probably none other than my own, offered naked, without any protection—neither the ridiculous covering afforded by lace underwear, nor the dazzling and sovereign protection signified by the matador’s fabulous suit of light—possibly only the protection of endless desire, flitting back and forth like a muleta shaken by the wind, a bloody, elusive, derisory rag, confusing all these forms into one impossible gesture, only to separate them forever.