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Annie Proulx

Biographie

Annie Proulx (1935) est née à Norwich, dans le Connecticut. Elle a remporté de nombreux prix littéraires et est considérée comme l'un des plus grands écrivains américains contemporains. Annie Proulx s'est d'abord fait connaître en publiant deux nouvelles dans l'anthologie The Best American Short Stories, en 1983 et 1987. Un premier recueil de nouvelles, Heart Songs and Other Stories, a rapidement suivi en 1988. Son premier roman Cartes Postales (Éd. Rivages, 1999) a obtenu le PEN/Faulkner Award 1993 dans la catégorie fiction. En 1994, elle a remporté les prestigieux prix Pulitzer et National Book Award pour The Shipping News (Éd. Rivages, 1997). En 2005, le film tiré de sa nouvelle Brokeback Moutain a obtenu plusieurs Oscars et un Lion d'Or à la Mostra de Venise. Avec son dernier livre Bird Cloud (Grasset, 2012), elle s'essaie pour la première fois au récit autobiographique. La plupart de ses livres ont été traduits en français par Anne Damour (Éd. Rivages) et par Hélène Dubois-Brigand (Grasset). 

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Texte d'Auteur

Street action

I have almost always lived in rural places and so I am familiar with diverse roads from rough tracks to the empty highways of the high country. In Brussels I became acquainted with cobblestone streets, chapeau to the Romans. I stayed at the Passa Porta apartment from late November 2012 to early January, a time when workers were replacing cobblestones in the street across the way. The apartment's study had a grand view of the construction. In previous weeks they had ripped up the old street, done the surveying, put in new sewer pipes to serve the smart new building on the corner, and were now doing the earthwork, spreading sandy fill. One morning in early darkness and light rain, two men, one youngish, one older with a receding hairline, began to set the cobblestones, square cubes of granite of a 19th century size and spacing suited to horse hooves. As the day lightened the clink of their stone hammers, pitched a tone apart, made a curious music not unlike the clacking of bamboo sticks in a Noh drama. The work went quickly. In an hour one man completed a three-metre section of the new walkway.

A dump truck filled with more cobblestones dumped its load in front of the glass doors of the smart new building and the tenk-tenk-tenk-tenk began again. Each stone got 5 to 9 raps with the hammer. After setting a section of stones, one of the men threw shovelfuls of wet sand onto the new cobbled surface, worked it in with a stiff push broom. The other man filled a wheelbarrow with setts, pushed it to his work area and flung out the stones. Another barrow load, another, all hard physical labor, with much crouching, bending, lifting, heaving. The two hammers spoke contrapuntally. A woman walking a dog passed by the work site. The dog looked at the new-laid cobbles in a calculating way and the owner recognized his look, tugged the leash and they moved on.

There were no bosses or foremen standing around, only the two men. They knew how to do the work and they did it. Another break, very short this time, with a small table and a tray with two glasses brought out by the proprietor of the Greek restaurant on the corner, a place suffering considerable disruption in its customer flow. The proprietor wanted all this to end. He hoped, perhaps, a little drink would speed the work.

Another day the sky was rumpled with clouds the color of the cobblestones. Behind the clouds blue sky ponds appeared and disappeared. A gull reflected sunlight, cut a pretty figure and dropped away. A truck arrived with a yellow bobcat. The older worker with the receding hairline started it up. No more wheelbarrow haulage-the bobcat scooped up four barrow loads of cobbles at a time. Everything went quickly. The men did not hurry; each stone got the correct number of blows to seat it properly. Yet they were hurrying, no wasted motions, no stretching, no talking, only the repetitive grab at a stone, a shove to butt it against its fellows, the raps of the hammer, the grab at the next stone, again and again. At noon they disappeared as if snatched up by a sky-hook.

One day there was an altercation. I went out to buy a paper, wandered around a bit. Back at the apartment I saw the cobblestone workers hard at it. A young woman with a film crew was standing at the head of the muddy work site. The bobcat zoomed around her with an annoyed air. And the proprietor of the restaurant was furious. He charged out, shouting and screaming at the woman, grasped the neck of her light-stand and shook it as if to throttle it. She spoke to him; he shouted at her. Another young woman came up. He shouted at her. He gestured. Both women stepped back. Greek men know how to shout. He pointed meaningfully at his watch. A deadline had been set. As the proprietor went back into his restaurant shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders to the point of possible dislocation, a young man with a microphone joined the agitated women. And then suddenly they too were gone. The sky-hook had them. The restaurant proprietor celebrated his victory by opening his upstairs windows and, with the help of his consort, draping the front of the restaurant with sparkling lights.

Late one afternoon, the light dimming, roofs shining with rain, the worker with the receding hairline operated a yellow machine resembling a floor sander, but instead of a belt it had a flat plate at the bottom. He ran it up and down the new-laid cobblestones. It made a loud noise, but its function was not clear. No matter. He finished, took up a hose and washed down his work. The rain was not wet enough. The other worker used the machine on his section of work. It looked rather difficult to steer and jerked him around. Then the water hose. And there we had it, two strips of new cobblestone sidewalk. There was still the main street to do, a waste of sandy mud.

I was too ill for several days to watch the work, but when I returned to the window I saw twice as much area under new stones, all the work blocked off with barricades forcing pedestrians to walk through slop in the street center. It was a grey day but not raining, probably as close to sunshine as it could get. Late in the morning two bosses showed up; they waved their hands and talked at the worker with the receding hairline. Attention seemed to focus on the muddy corner and that is where the block-setters spent the rest of the day. Once the corners were done only the mid-section would remain. Or so it seemed.

There were no more pleasant little trays with drinks from the Greek restaurant. No customers entered this establishment all week long despite the brave Christmas decorations and the warm glow from inside. Days went by. The work stopped. No one showed up to set blocks. It was the weekend and the Christmas Market was everywhere with street food, hot wine, the beautiful carousel, blinking lights, crowds, a mustard-colored Churro truck, tiny colored spots crawling over people and sidewalks. On Saturday night the Greek restaurant came alive. Cars crowded into the street and dressed-up couples, laughing and throwing their heads back, advanced on it. The proprietor came out and directed the parking. He took ladies' elbows, ushered them in and the restaurant was packed, full of gaiety and flashing bottles. It was very late before the last car pulled away.

Five days later someone realized that a mistake had been made. The Dekempeneer bosses, with a measuring tape and five or six workers, arrived in early morning and stared glumly at the new-set corner. (Dekempeneer is a Belgian road works specialist often involved in city street projects.) After a few minutes of sharp gestures and not much talk the men began tearing up the work. Up with the blocks! Out with the blocks! The man with the receding hairline held his face blank. Then another section of cobblestones was torn out. Must it all go? Hours and days of hard work in the rain were pulled apart in a single morning. A semi-remembered line from a loser rodeo-rider's poem came to me-"all that way for this short ride." The backhoe removed soil down to underground sewage pipes, then re-covered them while I was away at the used book shop.

All day they worked at tearing out the stones set in place only last week. The man with the receding hairline appeared in the morning although there was no sign of the young stone worker of last week. I wondered, would he return and start filling in the spaces with cobblestones tomorrow? Or would we never see him again? Or had he been sent away to the quarry to earn a miserable wage as a chiseller of cobblestones?

The next dim morning the large crew returned and began sorting out hefty stone blocks that redefined the contours of the street junction with graceful curves. Red bricks made an appearance, outlining and separating two new structures from the greater design; whether the structures were drains or allowed underground access was not clear. Still, this was more than filling up a muddy space with paving blocks; it was a work of functional art in character with the mixed architecture of the street, both traditional and modern. The cobbles were traditional, the structural additions were modern.

Rain all morning on the three men setting cobblestones, tenk-tenk-tink-tonk. The older man with the receding hairline was on site, but not his earlier helper. Perhaps that one had been fired or, like the bus driver in Albuquerque, New Mexico who, after running his bus over two homeless veterans, was promoted to a desk job. The block setters squatted, feet splayed out, pants stretched low exposing pale buttocks in the classic "plumber's butt" position. In the afternoon the rain stopped and a slab of cloud-filtered sunlight touched up the scene.

At last the mud outside the Greek restaurant was to receive cobblestones. At 7:30 it was still dark but the workmen had taken away the foot traffic barriers and were smoothing out the soil. Already I heard the clink of hammers. Upstairs in the sleek new building on the corner a man dressed in white examined the plaster walls as he talked on his cell phone. Attracted by the sound of hammers on stone he went to the window and looked down on the street work, smiled. He walked around the empty white room talking, talking. Now and then he looked down at the cobblestone workers. On the back of his white shirt, between his shoulder blades, there was a dark spot. Had someone thrown a clod of mud? Or a dart? Suddenly he disappeared into the back of the apartment. It was a stylish apartment suitable for a smart young couple with good jobs. Someone remarked to me that these apartments would likely be let to well-off French moving in from Paris to dodge high taxes and enjoy a comfortable train commute between Brussels and the French capital. Is this the Depardieu effect?

Somewhere in Brussels there was a Great Cobblestone Depot. A large truck arrived from there with a load of stones that slid out with the roar of an avalanche, stones for the restaurant area. Just before noon a bright green and yellow InterBeton Heidelberg Cement Group truck came and squirted thin, liquid cement over the new stonework. The men used heavy push squeegees to work it into the interstices. Inside the Greek restaurant the proprietors' teenage son stood with his face pressed to the glass door, watching the squeegee advance and retreat. Everyone went to lunch except the InterBeton driver who cleaned his truck's spout with a water hose.

In the afternoon InterBeton belched more watery cement on the new stonework. The Greek restaurant owners came out and leaned on the barricade, smoking, smiling. The bobcat operator scraped up excess cement from the old stonework with a sound like giant fingernails on a blackboard. The cement truck packed up and left. A crowd gathered in front of the Greek restaurant to watch the clean-up operation. As everyone went inside the restaurant a man with oddly bleached jeans glanced through the door, his jeans covered with pale oval lozenges the size and shape of misshapen pancakes. Was this a fashion statement or a terrible mistake with the bleach bottle?

So strange. A day without rain. Nothing happened with the cleanup. Piles of cobblestones lay in heaps, walkers continued to be annoyed by the blue and yellow barricades-indeed, the whole city seemed choked with these fences. But the next day, in mid-morning, workmen arrived and took down the barricades. The man with the receding hairline directed the cleanup. Could this really be the end? Yes, yes! The barricades were going. The bulldozer operator loaded leftover cobblestones into a truck.

Once again traffic crept through the street in front of Number 28 and the Atlas Hotel over the traditional strong cobblestones, long-lasting, low maintenance, permeable, traffic-slowing, ankle-strengthening, dust-controlling beautiful new cobblestones.

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Passa Porta
23.11.12 > 4.01.13

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