Burqa of Skin

Nelly Arcan first made waves in the literary world after the publication of Putain (in English Whore, Grove Press, 2005), a no-holds-barred, riotous, lush examination of sex work, gender issues, and parent–child relationships.

Arcan’s work is lyrical, dense, layered. Her prose is built on cumulative imagery, and unabashed, dissected shame. It’s challenging work to read. It’s beautiful. Hers is a necessary voice.

In “Holt Renfrew” the main character, Nelly Arcan, in the third person, is trapped in a crippling cycle of depression after being subjected to dehumanizing taunts on a popular talk show. The story appears in Burqa of Skin, a new collection from Anvil Press, translated by Melissa Bull. Anvil has published two other Arcan titles, Hysteric (translated by David Homel and Jacob Homel) and Exit (translated by David Scott Hamilton). ≈



Holt Renfrew

by Nelly Arcan
≈ translated by Melissa Bull (Anvil Press, 2014)

The traffic was jammed on boulevard de Maisonneuve. Cars overheated beneath the September sun, which would never cave to humanity’s desire for temperance or for its need to frame the parameters of its threatened existence. The Sun didn’t owe anyone anything as it was the Sun. It gave life, it also gave death. Its vertical position permitted everything. Its height let it weigh heavier on the misery of men. One day the Sun would explode but that day was not soon. If Nelly were the Sun and knew how to shine throughout the interview, against its monolith of guests, against social consciousness and the war in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, then Nelly didn’t know anymore, the standing man would have just had to stand tall; in order to not die on the spot in flames and powder, flash, he would have had to bow low before the Sun. The standing man would have been forced to change his attitude, to get off his high horse, his high monkey. For the kingdom of the Sun would have stretched far above him.

It was the noontime shopping rush, when office employees left in droves to feed themselves, and in this hunger that spread throughout the downtown streets, Nelly should have recognized herself, but instead it was quite the opposite, the rush seemed to her strange, distant, incomprehensible. Being hungry was a feeling that came from elsewhere, from a world to which she no longer belonged. Countless paths marked with large cones stood between her and her goal, forced her to take detours where men, construction workers, pausing beside their giant machines, or taking a cigarette break, could watch her apple-green New Beetle go by, with her face and its alarmed air behind the windowpane, her wet hair pulled up in a hurry behind her head with an elastic. The construction workers might think her disorderly driving was caused by tardiness, or an emergency. Nelly felt like a prisoner in an ambulance lacking lights, sirens, the means to battle the traffic that blocked her passage like the hand of God parting the Red Sea for Moses. The construction workers, who invaded the city and who had seen, at first, a bimbo in a New Beetle, could now only see a woman enraged. The bimbo was only the placard, the surface of her cracking soul, which, at present, bared its teeth.

She felt lost not only because of the proximity of her goal, but because of the possibility that her goal would forever escape her, that she might die without ever having reached it. Even if a part of her wanted to die on the scene, she also wanted that death to wait for its hour. The hour rung before death was essential. If one did not wait, the soul would be a prisoner of its surroundings, this was proven, the soul forever searching for justice, for a ruling, the soul searching for the true end in its death without ever finding it, and so it would be forced to sidle up to worldly matter without ever rejoicing in it, without being seen. Her sad soul would stay close to Holt Renfrew, maybe even after Holt Renfrew might move, for example, to Toronto, and without Holt Renfrew at any time consenting to open the doors that would lead to her salvation, to her dress.

She didn’t resent Mélanie for having taken her dress, no, but she was convinced that it would be easier and quicker to buy another, identical, new, but the same, the same size, the same colour, same satin, new but identical two – dresses being worth more than one when you are in this type of situation – easier than negotiating the return of the original. For that she would have had to speak Mélanie, bring up arguments like this sensation of decomposing or having her skin about to take flight, to feel that she was into carbonated bubbles, unacceptable arguments for a whole person, for someone incapable of decomposing, and then they would have had to talk it over, she would have to listen as Mélanie reasoned. Mélanie’s words made her feel better but what Nelly needed was a miracle.

Once she was out of the shower she knew immediately that Mélanie had left with her dress. She understood without having seen the handwritten note Mélanie had left on the kitchen counter that Mélanie would not return her dress. In a flash, she dressed in a grey t-shirt and a jean skirt, tied up her wet hair with an elastic at the back of her head, put on a layer of foundation in a hurry, mascara, gloss, refused to check to see if the foundation, mascara and gloss succeeded in bringing her face back together. She did not phone Holt Renfrew so that someone might confirm whether or not they still had the model in stock, as she wanted to impose her physical presence, make her body impossible to hang up. In her New Beetle, Nelly was no longer wearing her dress and it was as if her body was escaping her, and the car, like a vapour. She felt a terrible absence, like the death of a mother.

On de Maisonneuve, at the corner of Crescent, there was a traffic jam coming from the south, the north, the east and the west as if at this precise axis, an underground magnetic force of some sort was calling aluminum carcasses toward it, every car within a half-kilometre radius. A suction of heavy metals towards the centre of the Earth took place at the very spot where Nelly wanted to find peace at last, to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Holt Renfrew was just two or three blocks away. For a brief moment, Nelly considered getting out of her car, leaving it where it was, and walking between the frozen cars, pulling herself from the jaw of the centre of the Earth, up to Sherbrooke, but she understood that such an escape would only attract attention.

The possibility of being recognized stopped her. She was aware that, maybe for the first time in her life, others existed only for her in this respect, that they might recognize her. They wouldn’t point her out as nuts but they’d see her as a crazy woman known to the public, and the public, dispersed in their adjacent cars, would see her first, and then they would recognize her as being Nelly; at the moment of recognition the décolleté that had gotten everyone talking about her would come back and it would cover her. The verdict of the cleavage would fall on her anew if others were to recognize her. Still, her shame was the only thing left that tied her to others. Though a decomposing she had still not shed her intelligence, she understood that her shame was precious and that she had, therefore, to protect it, to it tight against herself, for it was perhaps because of this shame that the world around her hadn’t entirely darkened.

She tried to relax a little in her New Beetle, she made an effort to contain herself, to make herself tranquil, to prune her thoughts and to go about as if her life wasn’t in danger. She turned on the radio, stopped on chom fm, the spirit of rock, and listened to David Bowie’s “Fame.” She would have preferred “Major Tom,” or better, a rock song from a group like Kiss, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard. There were moments in life when old rock tunes that talked about naked women and endless parties were necessary. There was nothing like the 1980s to cheer up a car in a bottleneck. After David Bowie’s “Fame” came “Gimme All Your Lovin’” by ZZ Top and Nelly cranked the volume until the inside of her car was a compact block of sound.

She thought of her father and of her mother. Her father and mother had been good parents. She had been loved. So why? She was well-fed. From about the age of five on she was always busy, she took piano lessons, drawing, tap, flute, accordion, ice-skating, she was at the top of her class, she was class president in elementary school, she showed talent in everything she did. Except ice-skating, where she always came last in regional competitions, because her small frame lacked the strength to propel itself into the air. She was in love with Denis, her skating coach, who made her skate in large circles, do pirouettes and flips despite her having “no future” in skating. But it didn’t matter because she distinguished herself in other ways. So why? She’d been a whiny kid. Why? She cried all the time for nothing. What seemed like nothings from the outside were everything to her. Why? She had calculated that when she was about eight years old she had cried at least four times a day. When visitors filled the house on the weekends, or when her piano teacher, an octogenarian nun whom she had to address with Hello Mother, goodbye and thank you Mother, raised her voice, or when friends slighted her with a word. Sometimes she cried at night, imagining her house burning down and people discovering her bones. She cried everywhere, all the time, it was an urge like pissing, and her weakness was never punished, that’s all. But how could she be sure?

The father and the mother. Strength and expectation. Her father, who was a believer, was also an efficient businessman, a man who started a company called Taurus from scratch, who would never have hesitated to drive from one end of Canada to the other, or even through the United States for his leather business, all the while believing in God. He sold leather to clothing manufacturers for motorcycle gangs or for race car drivers and Nelly had often examined, when she was small fragile, these different-coloured and -textured leather samples, which he called his priesthood, and the hand-drawn models of jackets or pants, like a fashion designer’s, which he called his icons. Father God. Father Biker, Speed. Her father was rich. Her father often left the house but that wasn’t the reason. Fathers often left because, despite the millennia, they had remained hunters, conquerors, rapists. That wasn’t the truth but a story anthropologists told the modern world. The anthropologists didn’t do their jobs right, they created mythology but didn’t publicly admit it. Anthropologists, like geneticists, needed financial backing from the State to invent the origin of humanity, its taste for blood and sexual vagabondage. Really, if fathers left, often, always, it wasn’t because they were warriors but because women had consented to stay. If women had chosen to leave before men, the men wouldn’t have had any choice but to go out and look for them, and this would have left little time for their wars and conquests. The evolution of Earth’s societies would have been completely different. Fundamentally nomads, people would have left to reproduce, they would have followed great currents – like marine currents.

Indeed, when her father left, her mother stayed. In Nelly’s house nothing was ever missing, she had a little bedroom with yellow walls as a child and then the same room with white walls covered in rock star posters as a teenager. In her memories there were a lot of soap operas—her mother watched most of them. When she could not watch two at a time, she taped one and watched it afterwards, she filled up her evenings and weekends with love stories, dramas, betrayals and intrigues, she lived a life traversed by extraordinary events but sheltered from everything, starting with the effort, energy, and time that anything extraordinary requires. Her mother gorged herself endlessly without ever feeling invaded. Her mother was a full but closed house. Dallas. Her Sue Ellen mother. Her Dames de coeurs mother. Her mother always available on the sofa but burdened by the television screen, she was the body on which Nelly fell asleep in the evenings, her spirit at peace. In her memories, there were also images of her mother cleaning the house, rag in hand. One day her mother hired a cleaning lady who helped her clean the house. The mother cleaned and gave orders to the cleaning lady who obeyed by cleaning the living room using the maternal method. The seasonal rug cleaning with a machine that made noise like a lawn mower, water that came out grey and soapy. Plants and flowers furnished all the rooms and you had to water them all the time. A plant could die from lack of care. The deafening sound of the central vacuum that looked like a beige snake, that smelled of disinfectants, the way to make the bed – by pulling the sheets under the mattress. Her Clean Mother. And afterwards? Nelly often dreamed, at night, that she had forgotten to water the plants,had neglected them for months, or even years, and that the plants had been hanging, yellow, suffering. It didn’t mean anything.

Too long, for too many years, Nelly had slept with her mother, in her bed. Every time her father was absent. She liked sleeping in her mother’s bed because her presence protected her from the childhood threat of malicious ghosts, and she sometimes wished for the father’s departure so that she could take his place. At night she was the mother’s husband, occupying the right side of the bed. Perhaps that’s why the family order confused her. In adolescence came the hormones, the acne, the hair, the loss of her blonde hair, and her disgraceful genetic origins began to develop inexorably, in high definition, her grandfather’s pearshaped nose, her mother’s rosacea and thin lips, her father’s fuzzy hair. In puberty Nelly became a body. Her angelic self became overrun with diabolical marks, like a losing ticket – like the alignment of Caroline’s planets, Caroline who believed in astrology and also in second sight. The imperfections of her genetic lines, maternal and paternal, rendezvoused on her adolescent self, had been lying in wait for her twelfth birthday to bloom. Nelly successively quit skating, then the piano, then she withdrew from any activity outside of school. She locked herself into her room full of rock music, heavy metal, where, with her headphones on, she imagined herself to be a man, a rock singer. She envied the teenagers they fucked and who gathered, screaming, supplicating, around them.

To think of her childhood, merging father and mother, did Nelly some good, even if she found no answers in digging up prehistoric facts. The past didn’t heal anything, it didn’t answer anything. On the contrary, the past threw fuel on the fire with its useless waste of energy, an excess of investment in condemned ground. The past was a mystification you had to escape to stay sane. You had to look ahead and project yourself into the future. You had to push back bad thoughts and remain hopeful about the future. You had to take action and all that stuff. Nelly projected herself into the future and saw herself in her dress, and in her projection of trying to place herself, the future dragged her back to the past, to the television studio where she had been humiliated. She had prepared for the show for two months, and had almost cancelled her appearance at least ten times. She and her publicist had weighed the pros and the cons of such an appearance, the risks and the gains. They had concluded that it was worthwhile for the book sales. Then Nelly exercised, both her body and her mind, had thought of and answered all the probable and improbable questions. But questions and answers could not prepare her for the facial expressions, or the tone of voice, the stature and nasal derision of a large monkey, the questions written on small pieces of cardboard, addressed to her personally, pointedly.

“In 2004, you said, on your appearance on Francs-tireurs, that your only goal, when you went to bars, was to be looked at by men. What do you do if you’re at a bar and men look at other women?”

This first stone burned, it made her feel ridiculous. Nelly hadn’t gone out to bars for years and she had only a vague memory of her appearance on Francs-tireurs, having been heavily medicated at that period of her life when she was going endlessly back and forth between her bed and Montreal’s psychiatric emergency rooms. She remembered having gone on crutches and having slipped in the snow coming out of the taxi in front of the television studio. Her crutches were poorly suited to the Canadian winter and couldn’t support her broken ankle and cast, slid to either side of her, the taxi driver helped her get back up. Nelly had fallen while hanging herself. She had fallen from the elastic she had used to hang herself, which couldn’t support the weight of her body, which bounced and shook like it was damned.

What had happened on television could have been easy to prevent. She was the only possible prey on the panel. There were two well-loved comedians on set, one who was at the top of his career and one who was nearing its end, and a Canadian journalist who had been kidnapped in the Middle East and set free, safe and sound, the day’s hero. All kept silent, an abstention, a way of leaving her on her own to figure it out, a silence that was an extension of the silence of the audience built up around them. This treatment was unfair but there wasn’t any justice on television. Besides, justice couldn’t exist; justice is about points of view and centralized power. Arbitrary justice isn’t real justice, and this situation was only real by accident.

The stupid question demanded a spirited retort, but the spirit had deserted her, and her face suffered on camera. Had she answered anything? Yes, but she couldn’t remember what.

Outside, the cars spaced out bit by bit, little by little, and began to drive normally in every direction. The traffic unblocked and the city took back its human scale. Nelly noted that she had almost arrived at her destination and that she would have to park as soon as she could. By extraordinary luck, a car had left a parking space right in front of Holt Renfrew where two doormen guarded either side of the rotating door, saluting the clients who entered and left fluidly, in single file, feminine and bourgeois. Anglophone.

As soon as she stepped inside the building she felt calmer. She was at Holt Renfrew and her dress was safe and close. Its classic cut made it look like it would always be available or on order, that it would continue to be sold for many years, maybe a decade. As if to extend her calm, Nelly lingered on the first floor to look over the array of blushes, perfumes, self-tanning and hydrating creams. All around, the omnipresent posters with their pictures of surrealist beauties, coloured like island birds, stared at her from their superior vantage points, their glances were as much an invitation to look at them, to project herself onto them, as they were a command to delight in this cosmetic, queenly place. She walked around knowing that she wouldn’t buy anything, surreptitiously eyeing the salesgirls, who watched her too from their autonomous existence behind their counters, she had nothing in common with them apart from the gender they shared and the commerce around them that was attached to that gender. These Anglophone women didn’t know her, and the fact that she was a stranger to them brought Nelly relief. She was hungry. After a long moment savouring her hunger and how it returned her to the outside world, she let herself be carried by the escalator to the third floor where she was surprised to hear herself hum “Gimme All Your Lovin’” by ZZ Top. The second floor appeared, the one with shoes and furs that exposed themselves in a studied order. The entire place proffered a disgusting level of luxury, but Nelly liked the debauchery, it made her healthy again. Once on the third floor she directed herself towards the Dolce & Gabbana sign where the collection of clothing that included her dress was found. The salesgirl who had served her wasn’t there. Nelly looked for the dress with her eyes and found it on the wall, on the spot where she had discovered it the week before, but she noticed this dress was different, much too big, at least two sizes bigger than hers. She wouldn’t panic. She was the only client on the floor. Nelly installed herself on a soft divan where she could read the signs: Chanel, Gucci, Versace, Christian Dior. Each small section held but a few items of clothing, a sparseness that indicated, once again, the stinking rotten luxury afforded rich women of good taste.

Then the salesgirl came out of the Chanel section wearing a Versace suit, to enter Dolce & Gabbana. She was in her forties, looked Italian, a well put-together brunette, pretty. She saw Nelly and recognized her as a client who had recently purchased a Dolce & Gabbana. As she walked towards her she recognized her a second time, as the defeated guest of a widely watched television programme. With horror, Nelly recalled that she had talked to the salesgirl about her imminent appearance on the show and that the salesgirl had answered that she wouldn’t miss it – she wanted to see how the dress looked on screen. She hadn’t missed it. Her double recognition was readable: the salesgirl’s eyes fled upwards, her body shuddered involuntarily, it was horrible for Nelly, she in turn lowered her gaze in order not to see the fleeing eyes of the salesgirl, it was equally terrible for the salesgirl, who felt, once more, the discomfort of having witnessed the humiliation that had been lived out in the dress that she had sold.

“Hi, I bought a dress a week ago. Dolce & Gabbana.”

“I remember perfectly.”

The salesgirl’s eyes were fixed to Nelly’s forehead and Nelly knew she could read, on the surface of her forehead, the image she’d seen on television and that she could also see the cheapness of the clothes she wore now, jeans and a t-shirt a few seasons old, a worn canvas purse. The salesgirl’s stare considered this second visit to Dolce & Gabbana, and the fact that Nelly didn’t appear to have the means to be there. On her end, Nelly’s eyes jumped from one object to another—from mannequin to jacket, to the salesgirl’s suit, to the reflection in the mirror where you could see the mannequins’ underparts—in an inexhaustible circuit of objects. This is how the exchange between the two women, separated by class, began, without ever making eye contact.

“You want to buy another? The same?”

“Yes, it’s not for me, it’s for my sister, she wants one, too. My twin sister.”

This grotesque improvisation prodded Nelly to laugh, stupidly, a laugh that she wished she might erase with a sleight of hand. Unfortunately there was no way of containing the sound, or even muting it, unless she lived under water.

“I can see that you have one on the wall but it’s too big. I’d need the same size, a four.”

“One moment, I’ll go look in the stockroom.”

The salesgirl, in her Versace suit, disappeared through the Chanel boutique, where the stockroom must have been. Nelly sat back down and waited, and waited some more. She thought of her mother and the wait, her mother sitting in eternal contemplation of her television like a door shut against the world. After waiting fifteen minutes she knew there was a problem. Not knowing the nature of the problem was worse than the problem itself, because ignorance opened her mind up to a vast array of imponderables and cast a wide net of possible catastrophes. What if her size wasn’t available? What if her size didn’t exist in this line of clothing? What if she, Nelly, was no longer a size four but an absurd size that didn’t exist? That was impossible, but the impossible could happen, it had happened before. The impossible produced itself that very instant in her life, the way it had produced itself before. The impossible came with insanity, because insanity left room for all sorts of things to arrive. In the limitless universe of insanity, you could live and die at every second, every day, you could die forever. Insanity was the experience of eternity.

She thought of Caroline, lying on her sofa, her body extended, pointed toes crowned with red varnish. A kind of arrogance, a certainty about the obedience of others, a serene queen, a well-bred cat on her pillow.

“It’s cosmic!” said Caroline one day when speaking of Nelly’s tenacious, chronic misfortune, as they were drinking a bottle of white wine on a terrace in the heart of the summer, which they livened up with some crème de cassis.

“The planets aren’t well-aligned. One day a planet will move its axis and let a ray of sunlight into your life. It’s the planets that keep the light from illuminating you. You were born under some bad sign that obligates you to live in the shadows of others, in the periphery.”

Nelly was a Pisces, the slightest movement made her flee behind life’s algae where she survived in camouflage. She had often asked herself if Caroline really believed this stuff, if she was seriously convinced of the planets’ ability to influence, of the cosmos’ determination to guide men, of destiny being traced in advance in the stars which could later be consulted. Caroline met with a psychic from time to time, with whom Nelly had also met, first out of curiosity and then out of dependence. The psychic told them a variety of stunning things because such things lived with the spirits. She had once described a relationship that Nelly had with a man, in a manner so exact that Nelly herself couldn’t have described it so well with her own words. This description went far into certain details only she alone knew. “You call him the Colonel.” Nelly did in fact call him the Colonel, in silence. The consecration of her man into Colonel was a well-kept secret, even from the Colonel. “Together, you are the elephant and the mouse.” It was true, no one could rise above the Colonel, unless they were the Sun. A planet, a star, a perpetually shining fire
brightening all corners and all peripheries. The standing man horned his way into Holt Renfrew, into Nelly’s spirit again, but this time he arrived as a follower of the Colonel. Nelly’s problem was her crushable nature, she attracted hits, and the hits always came from above. The hits had always rained down on her from above: the Colonel, Caroline (though lying prone), the standing man. Their predecessors could maybe be traced back to her past lives. Until the day that her life could be neutralized by the succession, the piles of existences that had at last pushed hers under water. Either way, using very few words, the psychic often got it right. Her second sight was economical, percussive. She said in two words what Nelly’s psychoanalyst, another aged woman, a witch of another type, had taken years to formulate. It seemed impossible that she had guessed the Colonel’s nickname, out of all the words and names available, but it had happened. Nelly stopped consulting the psychic after she told Nelly that one day her whole thought process would crumble entirely, that she would no longer be able to function by using the categories she’d cherished and exploited in her books, that all that inspired her in her writing would stop inspiring her. That an unsuspecting world might emerge, with new checks and balances, new categories, a new way of seeing. A new life. This vision displeased Nelly a great deal, for these words too closely resembled her psychoanalyst’s. They were words of medical expertise, a blow to the back of her sick body. Words spoken by a peddler of hopes.

As Nelly waited, she imagined the possibility of returning to the psychic. What was there to lose? A little money, a little time. It was nothing compared to what she might obtain in magic or miracles. The psychic looked like a witch, with her long shock of grey hair that she kept loose, like steel wool. When she spoke her face tensed from the effort of it, and it wasn’t rare that she would produce a raucous sound or else a very high-pitched one, as if she was being possessed by the dead who themselves lacked a mouth to speak. Her eyes closed from the effort of it, her face sank into its wrinkles. Sometimes her eyes stayed open and became white from the effort of going so far back, of trying to touch the Sky that enveloped God that knew everything about the future of her clients. Her eyes stayed white as if she was being possessed, and the psychic who saw the invisible became a conduit between Nelly and the obscure forces that governed her life, her secrets, her heart, her reason for being in this world. Acting as a conduit for the underground, she became gruesome, which rendered her pronunciations all the more credible. The psychic couldn’t help but provoke fear in Nelly, since seeing the future was an unpardonable transgression. God didn’t like us to steal the knowledge that made Him God.

After thirty minutes the salesgirl came back with the dress in her hands, with her polite smile, a little forced. Between the two women the game of non-looks began again.

“We don’t have any left in your size in the stockroom but I was able to find one on a mannequin that was in a window on the first floor. You’re lucky. You or your twin sister.” At the sight of the dress, in all points similar to the one Mélanie had taken, Nelly was, for the second time that day, relieved. Her body came back to itself, awoke from its sluggishness, emerged from the indefinable. It was all over and for that she was glad, though she was still disappointed, all the same, that the dress wasn’t virgin. The mannequin had worn it, but mannequins don’t have the physical means to deform the clothing they wear. Nelly understood why a mannequin’s body was so trim, in order not to imprint a particular shape to the clothing destined for sale.

“Thank you so much. Really.” Nelly saw the tag hanging off the dress and examined it. The price of this dress was identical to the other one. It was the right dress.

For the last time that day at Holt Renfrew, Nelly humiliated herself but saw herself obligated, beneath the annoyed glance of the salesgirl, to pay for part of the dress on her bank card and the other on her Visa, and then another part on her HBC card.

“Will you do other tv shows?”

Nelly didn’t answer. The arrogant question came from a salesgirl who had lost her value as a salesgirl.

Now she had to get back to eating, running, writing. ≈

Excerpt from Burqa of Skin (Anvil Press, 2014). Used with permission of the publisher.


Burqa of Skin

by Nelly Arcan

trans. Melissa Bull

Anvil Press, 2014