Interview with Frédéric Beigbeder
Frédéric Beigbeder is a French journalist and critic, and is responsible for the literary section of Le Figaro Magazine. Also a bestselling author, his novel 99 Francs both got him fired from his advertising job and established him as a controversial force within French literature. For his other novels, he has been awarded various prizes including the 2003 Prix Interallié and the 2009 Prix Renaudot, and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2005 for his novel Windows on the World. His last novel translated into English by Frank Wynne is A Life Without End published by World Editions.
1. What inspired you to write A Life Without End?
I don't want to die. I know it is ridiculous. It's interesting now that everybody on the planet is ridiculous. I wanted to know if science and technology could make me immortal. The lesson of my book is simple : if humans want a life without end, then they will stop having a life.
2. Which was your favourite approach to life extension?
Young blood injections. I'd like to become a vampire. Vampires are sexier than hypochondriacs. But obviously the safest way to live eternally is to wash your hands.
3. Do you still think that life extension is a good idea?
Well... now that one Chinese virus is scaring the whole world, I feel less lonely. Life is longer now than it ever was in the previous centuries and people still enjoy it. Nobody regrets living three times longer than in the Middle age. So I don't see the problem with living 300 years, except if I have to become a robot or a computer.
4. How have your thoughts on mortality changed since writing the book?
I accept my weakness. I understand Montaigne better. Life is learning to die, he said. It took me fifty years to understand this sentence. I love mankind as it is. Fragile and afraid.
5. Why did you decide to write this as a novel rather than, say, a non-fiction book?
To me the division between fiction and non-fiction is completely obsolete. All my novels imagine stories based on true facts. I like the idea of a book that could be in both best-sellers lists ! Look at the news on TV this evening: it will be crazier than any fiction. So why bother making stuff up ?
6. How did your family respond to being used as characters in the novel?
They are used to it. I try to be careful to protect them, but they really don't care, which is fine. You should never marry a writer.
7. What is your next writing project?
I published another novel this year. It's called : "😂". It's about a guy who doesn't want to laugh.
Beigbeder greeted the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni with his presence back in 2002.
Discover below the first chapter of Life Without End
“Death is stupid.”
FRANCIS BACON to FRANCIS GIACOBETTI
IF THE SKIES are cloudless, you can see death every night. You need only look up. The light of dead stars has traversed the galaxy. Distant stars that burned out thou- sands of years ago continue to project a memory onto the firmament. Now and then I will call someone who has just been buried and hear their voice, intact, on their voicemail. Such situations provoke a paradoxical feeling. How long does it take the light to wane when the star no longer exists? How long does it take a telephone com- pany to delete a corpse’s voicemail greeting? There is a gap between death and extinction: stars are proof that it is possible to shine on after death. Once this light gap has passed, comes the moment when the radiance of a bygone star flickers like the flame of a candle about to gutter out. The glow falters, the star grows weary, the voicemail falls silent, the fire trembles. If you study death attentively, you will see that a dead star shimmers a little less than a sun that is still alive. The halo grows fainter, the glim- mering dims. The dead star begins to blink as though sending out a distress signal. It clings on.
MY RESURRECTION BEGAN in Paris, in the district of the recent terrorist attacks, on a day when there was a spike in fine particulate air pollution. I had taken my daughter to a neo-bistro called Jouvence. She was eating a plate of salchichón de bellota and I was drinking a Hen- drick’s and tonic with cucumber. Since the invention of the smartphone, we had grown out of the habit of talking to each other. She was checking her WhatsApp messages while I stalked supermodels on Instagram. I asked her what she wanted as a birthday present. She said, “A selfie with Robert Pattinson.” My first reaction was alarm. But thinking about it, in my job as a television presenter, I also demand selfies. A guy who spends his life inter- viewing actors, singers, sportspeople, and politicians in front of the cameras is simply shooting long takes next to people more interesting than he is. And, in fact, when I’m out in the street, passersby ask if they can take pic- tures with me on their mobile phones and if I gladly accept, it is because I have just done the very same thing on set surrounded by television cameras. We all live the same non-life; we want to shine in the reflected glow of others. Modern man is a collection of 75 trillion cells all striving to become pixels.
A selfie posted on social media is the defining ideology of our times: what the Italian writer Andrea Inglese calls “the only legitimate obsession, that of constant self- promotion.” There exists a noble hierarchy dictated by the selfie. The solitary selfie, where one appears next to a famous monument or a landscape, means: I’ve been here and you haven’t. This category of selfie is a curriculum visuale, a virtual visiting card, a social springboard. The selfie taken with a celebrity has a more loaded meaning. The Selfist is seeking to prove to his followers that he has met someone more famous than they have. One does not ask to take a selfie with an ordinary individual, unless that person has some physical peculiarity: achondropla- sia, hydrocephalus, elephantiasis, or third-degree burns. This form of selfie is a declaration of love, but more than that, it is proof of identity (when he predicted that “the medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan never imag- ined that the whole world would become the medium). If I post a selfie of me standing next to Marion Cotillard, what I am expressing is something very different than if I were to post a selfie with Amélie Nothomb. The selfie is a means of introduction: see how handsome I look next to this monument, with this celebrity, in this landscape, on this beach—and I hope you feel green with envy! You have a better understanding of me now—see me lying in the sun, resting my finger on the top of the Eiffel Tower, stopping the Tower of Pisa from falling—I’m a traveller, I don’t take myself too seriously, I exist because I bumped into a star. The selfie is an attempt to usurp some greater notoriety, to prick the bubble of aristocracy. The selfie is a form of communism: it is the weapon of the foot sol- dier in the glitzkrieg. The Selfist does not pose next to just anyone, he wants the personality of the other person to rub off on him. A selfie with a “goat” (Greatest of All Time, for the digilliterate among you) is a form of canni- balism: it absorbs the aura of the star. It launches him into a new orbit. The selfie is the new language of the narcissistic era: it replaces Descartes’s cogito ergo sum.
“I think therefore I am” becomes fingo ergo sum: “I pose therefore I am.” If I take a photo with Leonardo DiCaprio, it eclipses your selfie with your mother on a skiing trip. Face it, even your mother would rather be standing next to Leo DiCaprio. And DiCaprio next to the pope. And the pope next to a child with Down syndrome. Does this mean that the most important person in the world is a child who suffers from Down syndrome? No, I’m stray- ing from the point: the pope is the exception that proves the Instagram rule of celebrity overkill. The pope has shattered the self-obsessed snobbery instigated by Dürer in 1506 with “The Feast of the Rosary,” where the artist painted himself photobombing Holy Mary, Mother of God.
The logic of the selfie might be encapsulated thus: Brit- ney would like a selfie with Bono, but Bono does not want a selfie with Britney. As a result, a new class war is taking place every day, on streets all over the world, whose sole aim is media domination, the vaunting of greater popu- larity, the ascent along the greasy pole of fame. The war involves comparing the number of umas (Units of Media Approval) amassed by each individual: appearances on radio or television, photographs in the press, likes on Facebook, views on WhatsApp, retweets, etc. It is a battle against anonymity in which points are easily tallied; one in which the winners snub the losers. I propose naming this war Selfism. It is a world war fought without armed forces, one that is waged permanently, 24/7, with no hope of a ceasefire: bellum omnium contra omnes—“a perpetuall warre of every one against every one,” as expressed by Thomas Hobbes—now fought technologically and scored instantaneously. At the first press conference following his investiture as President of the United States in Janu- ary 2017, Donald Trump made no attempt to expound on his vision for America, or the geopolitics of the world: he was content simply to compare the size of the crowd at his inauguration with that of his predecessor. Nor do I exclude myself from this existential struggle: I have been only too happy to flaunt selfies with Jacques Dutronc or David Bowie on my fan page which, as I write, has amassed 135,000 likes. And yet, for more than fifty years, I have considered myself terribly alone. With the excep- tion of selfies and television studios, I spend little time with human beings. By vacillating between solitude and chaos, I avoid any awkward questions about the meaning of my life.
There are times when the only way to confirm that I am still alive is to check Facebook to see how many people have liked my most recent post. More than 100,000 likes and I sometimes get a hard-on.
What I found troubling that evening with my daughter was that she did not dream of kissing Robert Pattinson, or talking to him or getting to know him. She simply wanted to post his face next to hers on social media to prove to her friends that she had actually met him. Like her, we are all caught up in this headlong rush. Short or tall, young or old, rich or poor, celebrity or nobody, uploading a photo has become more important than our signature on a cheque or a marriage certificate. We are desperate for recognition. The majority of earthlings are screaming into the void about their need to be looked at, or at least noticed. We yearn to be contemplated. Our faces are hungry for clicks. And if I’ve received more likes than you, that proves that I’m happier, just as on televi- sion a presenter with higher viewing figures believes himself to be more loved than his colleagues. This is the tactic of the Selfist: to humiliate others by maximizing his share of public love. Something happened during the digital revolution: egocentricity mutated to become a planetary ideology. Having lost all sway over the world, we are left with only an individual worldview. Time was, dominance was reserved for courtiers and the aristoc- racy, later it was conferred onto film stars. Now that every individual is a medium, everyone wants to domi- nate their fellow man. Everywhere.
When Robert Pattinson came to Cannes to promote his movie Map of the Stars, though unable to arrange for my daughter Romy to take a selfie with him, I was at least able to get her a signed photograph. In the green room of my television show, he wrote the following message in red marker on a photo ripped out of a copy of Vogue: To Romy with love xoxoxo Bob. In lieu of thanks, she simply asked me a question: “You swear to me you didn’t sign this yourself?”
We have given birth to a mistrustful generation. But what I found most hurtful was that my daughter never, ever asked for a selfie with her father.
THAT YEAR, MY mother had a heart attack and my father had a fall in a hotel lobby. I began to become a habitué of hospitals in Paris. This was how I came to understand the working of vascular stents and discovered the exis- tence of titanium knee replacements. I began to loathe old age: the antechamber of death. I had an overpaid job, a pretty ten-year-old daughter, a triplex apartment in the centre of Paris, and a bmw hybrid. I was in no hurry to lose all these benefits. When I got back from the hospital, Romy came into the kitchen with one eyebrow raised.
“Papa, the way I understand it, everyone dies. First Grandpa and Grandma, and after that Maman, you, me, the animals, the trees, the flowers …”
Romy stared at me fixedly as though I were God, when in fact I was simply the father of a mononuclear family experiencing an accelerated acquaintanceship with car- diovascular surgery and orthopaedic wards. I had to stop dissolving Lexomil tablets in my morning can of Coke if I was to propose a solution to her anxiety. I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I never imagined that my mother and father would one day be octogenarians, and that afterwards it would be my turn, and then Romy’s. I was hopeless at maths and at old age. Beneath the flaxen hair of a living doll, two blue spheres began to fill with tears as she stood between the purring fridge and the microwave. I remember Romy’s tantrum the day her mother told her that Santa Claus didn’t exist: Romy hates lies. Then she said something kind: “I don’t want you to die, Papa.”
How delectable it is to shuck off one’s armour … Now it was my turn to tear up as I buried my nose in the sweet smell of her mandarin and lime shampoo. I still could not understand how a man as ugly as I am could produce such a beautiful little girl.
“Don’t you worry, darling,” I said, “From now on, no one is going to die.”
We were a beautiful sight, as unhappy people so often are. Sadness makes the face more beautiful. Happy fam- ilies are all alike, Tolstoy writes at the beginning of Anna Karenina, but he adds that every misfortune is unique. I don’t agree: death is a banal misfortune. I cleared my throat the way my army-issue grandfather used to when he sensed he needed to restore order in his house.
“Listen, darling, it’s true that for millennia people and animals and trees have died, but starting with us, that’s all over.”
All I had to do now was make good on my promise.
ROMY WAS VERY excited at the prospect of going to Switzerland to visit the Institute of Genetics and Geno- mics.
“Can we eat fondue?”
This is her favourite food. This whole adventure began in Geneva with our meeting with Stylianos Antonarakis. On the pretext of making a documentary about im- mortality, I had arranged an interview with the Greek geneticist so that he could explain how modifications to deoxyribonucleic acid could prolong our lives. I was looking after my daughter that week, so I took her with me. The recent publication of a number of essays on transhumanism had given me the idea of organizing a televised discussion on “The Death of Death,” with Laurent Alexandre, Stylianos Antonarakis, Luc Ferry, Dmitry Itskov, Mathieu Terence, and Sergey Brin from Google.
Romy was asleep, sprawled in the back of the taxi that was driving along the banks of Lake Geneva. The sun glistened on the snowy peaks of the Jura, clouds tum- bling down the slopes like an avalanche of translucent mist. This was the bone-white landscape that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. Is it a coincidence that Geneva is the city where Professor Antonarakis is work- ing on the genetic manipulation of human dna? In Switzerland, home to the most fastidious clockmakers, nothing comes down to chance. In 1816, while staying in the Villa Diodati, Mary Shelley sensed the gothic soul of the city. Here, tranquillity is based on a facade of ratio- nalism. I have always been unconvinced by the cliché of Switzerland as a peaceable country, especially after a few champagne-fuelled brawls at the Baroque Club.
Geneva is Rousseau’s noble savage as domesticated by Calvin: every Helvetian knows that he is at risk of falling into a ravine, of winding up frozen in a crevasse or drowned in a tarn. In my childhood memories, Switzer- land was a country of wild New Year celebrations on the grande place in Verbier, of curious cuckoos, of fairy-tale chalets glittering in the night, of deserted palaces and valleys haunted by eerie mists, where protection against the cold was a glass of Williamine. Geneva, the Protes- tant Rome, a city of banks in mourning for their banking secrets, seems to me the perfect illustration of the maxim of the Prince of Ligne: “Reason is often a thwarted pas- sion.” What I like about Switzerland is the fire that smoulders beneath the snow, the secret folly, the focused hysteria. In a world as heavily policed as this, life can change dramatically in an instant. After all, the name Geneva contains the word “gene”: welcome to the coun- try that has always longed to control humanity. All along the shores of the lake, posters advertised an exhibition on “Frankenstein, Creation of Darkness” at the Martin Bodmer Foundation in Cologny. I was convinced that the Bentleys silently gliding past Geneva’s famous fountain, the Jet d’Eau, were filled with artful monsters.
“Can we go and see the exhibition, Papa?” “We have other priorities.”
The fondue at the Café du Soleil—half Gruyère, half vacherin—was almost light. Nothing like the thick yel- low gloop wolfed down in Paris. My daughter dipped her bread in the molten cheese and whimpered with plea- sure.
“Oh là là! Ish b’n sooooo long! Nom nom!” “You shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.” “I’m not talking, I’m onomatopaying”.
Romy has excellent genes: on my side, she is descended from a long line of doctors; from her mother, she has in- herited a richly inventive vocabulary. Before she left me, Caroline would regularly transform nouns into verbs. She coined new words every day: I’m off “yoga-ing,” or I’m “cinema-ing” tonight. Someday, her neologisms will be included in dictionaries: “snacktivate,” maybe, or “insta- grammatize.” When she dumped me, Caroline didn’t say, “I’m leaving you,” she said, “It’s time to slow-fade.” Al- though Swiss fondue is not a dish recommended by the World Health Organisation (20 Avenue Appia, 1211 Geneva)
—especially for breakfast—Romy’s happiness was more important than our immortality. We dropped our suit- cases off at La Réserve, a palace on the shores of Lake Geneva, and while I was leafing through the brochure for the hotel’s Spa & Wellness Centre, which offered an “anti-aging programme” including a genetic appraisal of my “bio-individuality™,” my little girl dozed off on the velvet sofa personally chosen by on-trend design mogul Jacques Garcia.
The lobby of the Geneva University Hospital was filled with antique radiotherapy machines,strange out moded contraptions, early precursors of scanners. The nuclear medicine of the 1960s has given way to infinitesimal manipulations that are much less cumbersome.Outside the hospital,groups of medical students were sitting on the grass, while, inside, young interns wearing white coats were bustling around bubbling beakers, test tubes, and petridishes of cells.Here, people were accustomed todomesticating the human animal,trying to correct the flaws of Homo sapiens, perhaps even enhance the aging vertebrate. Switzerland was not afraid of post- humanism, since it recognized man as imperfect from birth. Here, happiness looked like a cool campus, the future was a teen movie set in a medical facility. Romy was spellbound: in the middle of the gardens was a gan- try hung with swings, a trapeze, competition rings, there was even a merry-go-round.
The Genetics Department was located on the ninth floor. In his bottle-green polo shirt, Stylianos Antona- rakis looked less like Doctor Faustus than a cross between Paulo Coelho and Anthony Hopkins, with all the benevo- lence of the former and all the magnetism of the latter. The president of the Human Genome Organisation (hugo) stroked his white beard and polished his wire-framed glasses like an absent-minded Professor Calculus while, in a joyous and relaxed manner, he explained how humanity was going to mutate. Romy was immediately struck by his new-age approach: the benignant gaze, the friendly smile, the idyllic future. His office was an inde- scribable mess. A huge plastic model of a double helix lay on its side on a wooden trestle. I glanced at the spines of the books: History of Genetics Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5 … Even recent genomic discoveries were ancient history to this international specialist in the field. A dis- embowelled computer had been transformed into a jardinière in which some post-atomic designer had planted steel stems blossoming with Nespresso capsules to create a bouquet that would never wither.
“Thank you for setting aside a little of your precious time to meet with us, Professor.”
“We have all eternity ahead of us …”
His glacier-blue eyes perfectly matched the sky outside. “Could you explain dna to my daughter?”
“We are each born with an individual genome: a vast text that runs to three billion characters multiplied by two (half from your mother and half from your father). We are all unique individuals because our genomes are unique—except in the case of monozygotic twins. Once we are born, we are subject to somatic mutations caused by the sun, by air pollution, by the food we eat, the medi- cines we take, and our general lifestyle. This is what we call epigenetics. Aging is also dependent on the indi- vidual phenotype. Some people age more quickly than others.”
The professor spoke French with a pleasant Greek accent. One would feel at ease in a posthuman world if it was populated by clones of Doctor Antonarakis.
“A cell is immortal. Human beings first appeared in Morocco 300,000 years ago. What existed before that was a different species, and before that a different species again. And the most common ancestor was a cell. That cell is present in me and in both of you. I pass on the cell to the next generation through my sperm, and you, young lady, will pass it on through your oocyte.”
Romy was perhaps a little young for a lesson on human reproduction. I quickly changed the subject.
“So there is something immortal in every one of us?” “Precisely. It is impossible to create a new cell. Cells can
be reprogrammed, new genes can be introduced into cells, others can be erased to alter the fate of a cell, but it is not possible to create a new, living cell. Nor is it possi- ble to create a new bacteria today, although it seems likely that we will be able to do so two or three years from now.”
“Talk to me about genome sequencing.”
“These days, it is an easy process. We take two milli- litres of saliva and isolate the dna. When I first started this work thirty years ago such things were done by hand, but these days we can work out the three billion letters in your genome in about a week. Using powerful software, we can compare the differences in your genome with the reference sequence completed in 2003. This was the result of an international project launched in 1990— one I was fortunate enough to work on—the Human Genome Project. The dataset is open to anyone.”
“The reference sequence is of an American called Craig Venter, isn’t it?”
“He did his own sequencing in parallel to ours. In the United States, the first sequencings were of him and a number of others, including Hamilton O. Smith, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1978. It is simply a benchmark, it does not mean that Craig’s dna is normal, it was simply the first to be decoded and, since then, we’ve studied differences in relation to that refer- ence.”
“Can I go and play outside, Papa?”
I looked at the professor and he looked at me. It was obvious that our discussion on advances in genetics was less appealing to Romy than the prospect of playing on the swings.
“Alright, but don’t go far from the playground, that way I can see you from the window. And keep your phone turned on. And don’t stand up on the swing. And don’t …”
“Papa, I’m programmed to live for a thousand years, so I think I can go down a slide. Don’t sweat it.”
Doctor Antonarakis burst out laughing. “Your genome hasn’t been sequenced yet, mademoiselle, that’s some- thing we would need to verify.”
He turned to me.
“If you like, my assistant can keep her company while we’re talking.”
He pressed a button and a young lab assistant appeared. Her brown hair stood out against her white coat, and she seemed delighted to be suddenly promoted to babysitter, which would allow her to get some fresh air. Giggling, the two beautiful children left the office.
“Now, where were we?” Antonarakis asked.
“Craig Venter. I’ve seen his work online. He’s a real Vic- tor Frankenstein: he created a synthetic mycoplasma genome. I heard he shouted ‘It’s alive!’ like the mad scien- tist in Mary Shelley’s novel, remember? Doctor Franken- stein shouts ‘It’s alive!’ when the hand-stitched creature he created here in Switzerland starts to breathe, to stir, after a few jolts of electricity, before it gets off the table and starts strangling everyone.”
“I’ve never read Frankenstein, but I can see where you’re
heading. Craig Venter replaced a natural chromosome with a synthetic one created in his laboratory. And he succeeded in reimplanting it into a microscopic living organism. He even included his initials in the genome: ‘jcvi-syn3.0.’ It’s an artificial organism that lives and thrives.”
“Personally, I see it as a playful experiment by research- ers. It must be thrilling to design synthetic bacteria on a computer, but I can’t see how it helps humanity.”
“One day, it will allow for the creation of new materials, hybrid fuels, new alloys …”
Here I did something that tv professionals often do when they’re completely lost: I looked down and read the next question on my piece of paper. I’d thought I was coming here to research a talk show, but in that precise moment I realized I was here for something else.
“Do you think that sequencing my dna could prolong my life?”
“If you were ill, it could help determine the cause of your illness. There are around 8,000 genetic diseases and, with access to your dna, we can diagnose 3,432. We can also conduct a prenatal diagnosis to determine whether to terminate a high-risk pregnancy. Sequencing also makes it possible to treat certain genetic conditions, it provides information about cancers. It allows us to cat- egorize different cancers and develop individual treat- ment regimes. Lastly, using statistical models, sequenc- ing allows us to study the predisposition towards certain diseases. These are tests I recommend only for Alzhei- mer’s and breast cancer.”
“Here at the ‘Genome Clinic,’ you make these kinds of predictions. Would it be fair to say that dna has replaced the stethoscope?”
“The Swiss government doesn’t like me calling it the Genome Clinic, they prefer us to talk about ‘genomic consultations.’ But you’re wrong: we detect illnesses, not predispositions.”
“Which predictions are scientifically reliable?”
“If a woman carries mutations of the brca1 or brca2 genes, like Angelina Jolie, there is a 70% probability that she will develop breast cancer, whereas the probability in the population at large is 9%. In such cases, the patient needs to get herself screened every six months, or have a double mastectomy.”
He talked about catastrophic operations casually. In- comprehensible chemical equations scrawled on the wall in felt tip might hold the secret to the Fountain of Youth. Good doctors have always questioned their patients about their parents and grandparents; predicting the future is part of job, whether they like it or not. Canceris like a terrorist: it needs to be neutralized before it can carry out an attack.This is what is so new:with genetics, doctors don’t have to wait for you to fallillin order to treat you. The genome is the Minority Report within your body.
“Do you carry out genetic manipulation here, yes or no?”
“Of course. I’m particularly interested in Down syn- drome. I try to identify the important genes in chromo- some 21. Here, we create transgenic mice to study human diseases. I have a laboratory in which we create induced pluripotent stem cells— ips cells. We test different medi- cations for treating intellectual disability. There’s hope. We conduct clinical experiments. I dream of one day see- ing an intelligent person with Down syndrome.”
I don’t know whether he was aware of the shocking aspect of this sentence. Whether we like it or not, the rate of Down syndrome has been declining since the develop- ment of amniocentesis. We are all eugenicists, even if we avoid using the word.
“What do you think about the Californian transhu- manists who want to correct, or improve, or ‘enhance’ humanity?”
“People dreamed of such things even before the Second World War: the experiments of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It was the same beautiful, utopian ideal of developing a humanity without disease.
“A humanity without disease: this is the goal of the foundations established by Bill Gates (ex-Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Sergey Brin (Google), three of the richest men on the planet. Zuckerberg has promised to invest three billion dollars to cure all dis- eases by the year 2100.
“Back in the 1930s, researchers at Cold Spring Harbor wanted to eradicate diseases by way of eugenics. By ster- ilizing certain people and forcing others to breed. This charming little dream was adopted by the Nazis and has since been discredited. But every family dreams their children will be healthier than others.”
“Are you implying that transhumanists are Nazis?” “I’m simply saying that if we change something in the
human genome, we have no idea of the consequences. For example, ten years ago in India I encountered a large family of forty members, all of whom had six fingers and six toes. Every individual in the family had twenty-four phalanges. I thought, ‘These people have an evolutionary advantage if they ever decide to become pianists!’”
I was watching as Romy hoisted herself onto a trapeze, thinking that Mary Shelley would have liked this affable Greek doctor. Behind the roguish charm lurked an auda- cious scientist. I was beginning to feel a dull ache in my stomach, but maybe I was simply having trouble digest- ing the fondue.
“Did their six fingers all work properly?”
“They had no trouble using them. It was simply an extra, perfectly articulated little finger. Imagine playing the harp!”
“Yes, twenty-percent better technique. Pretty useful for cleaning your ear, too …”
“At the time, I genuinely thought it would be a brilliant idea to introduce this genomic variation into humanity at large. So I took blood tests, thinking that I’d be improv- ing the human condition. And I eventually tracked down the mutation to a specific gene. Like you and me, these people had two copies of the gene: one from their mother, one from their father, either of which might contain the mutation that produced twenty-four phalanges rather than twenty. But if a member of the family had two mu- tated copies of the gene—which occurred quite often— the foetus died at eight weeks’ gestation. One copy of the mutation was advantageous, but two was deleterious.”
“Damn—so much for the harp concertos.”
“The reason I’m telling you this story is to highlight the fact that if we meddle with our evolutionary genome, we have no idea what price we might pay as a species. Every time we introduce something into the genome, we have to watch to see what damage it causes. If we want to improve our species, that has to be a decision made by society as a whole.”
“But it’s inarguable that human beings are imperfect …” “Exactly. The fruit fly has more powerful eyes than we do, bats have better hearing than we do. Our ribcage doesn’t protect our liver or our spleen, which means that, if we’re in an accident, we can die from a haemorrhage. We walk on two feet, something our ancestors didn’t do, and that causes lumbago. The internal plumbing of the human animal is too complicated, menopause could oc-
cur much later.”
“And despite all these defects, we shouldn’t touch any- thing?”
Doctor Antonarakis got up and went to the window to look out at the trees. Down in the gardens, the dark- haired research assistant was spinning Romy on a merry-go-round similar to the centrifuges used to sepa- rate liquids from solids we had seen in the lab. We could hear her laugh, at once liquid and solid, rising in the air and crashing against the picture windows like a reckless robin.
“We’ve been talking now for about half an hour. During that half hour, thousands upon thousands of our cells have been replaced. A million in my bloodstream. Half a million in my intestines. Replacing cells requires copy- ing the genome. Six billion letters of genetic code have been copied approximately two million times between us in the past thirty minutes. For cells to be renewed, the human body requires an extraordinary and remarkably precise copying system. In fact, the system is not always accurate. It makes mistakes. Every time cells are renewed there is an error rate of 1 in 108, meaning forty or fifty errors over every three billion nucleotides. It is those errors that make it possible for us all to be different from one another. We need them, because we need to carry on living if the environment changes. In the face of a virus, or of global warming, we need diversity in order to evolve. Certain mutations cause illnesses, but that’s the price we pay for our adaptability. A flagrant example of the evolution of our species is diabetes. It has become more and more common because food and especially sugars are more plentiful. A hundred years ago there was virtually no diabetes. Three hundred years ago, the same genes that these days cause Type ii diabetes offered us protection when food was more scarce.”
I scratched my head. Seeing that he had disappointed me, Doctor Antonarakis tried to console me.
“You know, the people who produce clean water do more in terms of prolonging our life expectancy than all the scientists and geneticists put together.”
“How can we go about postponing death, Professor?” “Our concern is the brain: the liver, the intestines, the
blood, even the heart can be regenerated. We can inject cells into endocrine glands. But I don’t think we could create an artificial brain. That’s something we just have to accept. I encounter a lot of patients in their eighties or nineties, and they all say the same thing: it’s okay to end life. There comes a moment when you’re weary of it. You’ll see. There is a species, the mayfly, that lives for only one day. The whole lifecycle: birth, adulthood, old age, and death in a single day. And it’s possible that that species is happy.”
I ran my fingers through my hair: it’s a tic of mine when I don’t know what to say. I had no particular admiration for the Buddhism of ephemeropteran insects. The sun was fast sinking behind the trees, and I didn’t want to abandon Romy for much longer. I thanked the kindly geneticist who did not save my life, and hurried to catch the lift. Romy was in the lobby with the pretty medical student. A twisted thought occurred to me: if Romy got along well with this young woman … maybe … we might … eventually … envisage …
“Papa, this is Léonore, she wants a selfie with you. She’s a fan of your tv programmes.”
“I owe you that at least, mademoiselle. I don’t know how to thank you.”
Léonore had already taken out her mobile phone.
She had a dainty little chin
And looked like Charlotte Le Bon’s twin.
Click. In the fraction of a second I stood posing next to her, I inhaled everything. The brunette with the rounded forehead had just brushed her teeth, her skin had been soaped with cherry-scented shower gel, her hair smelled of orange blossom, she had a wholesome smile, she was the kind of person who has no sense of irony. The way she looked me straight in the eye, her lips parted, said: I know what I want in life, and you could be part of my schedule. I held her gaze, a challenge, until she turned away to look at the Alps. There was enough space behind her ear, be- tween her hair and her neck, to reveal three square centi- metres of bare, downy skin on which planting a kiss would probably be the best decision of the year. To cut a long story short, I instantly wanted to have a child with this beautiful intern. For a man, creating a life is much easier than postponing death. I swear it’s true: I didn’t just want to make love to her, I wanted to see her belly swell with my fecund seed. I felt like an alien in heat: I wanted to bury a tentacle inside this person. I had just fallen into a trap hatched by my daughter in collusion with the Greek professor. After so much talk about dna, it was my penis that now took itself for Victor Franken- stein.
“Your daughter is a sweetheart,” Léonore said as she looked at the selfie on her mobile, “and a talented sports- woman—a real expert on the swings and the seesaw.”
“Can we invite her to dinner with us at La Réserve, Papa? Please …”
“But I’ve booked a Better-Aging Signature body mas- sage at the Nescens Spa …”
“I already asked her and she said yes! Promise I won’t ask for anything else ever …”
“That’ll be the day,” I said in the voice of John Wayne, as dubbed in French by Raymond Loyer, in The Searchers.
I felt an immediate revulsion at my old man’s drawl. No one says “That’ll be the day” anymore, but I couldn’t help it, it just came out. There are some encounters in which you find yourself on autopilot. The conspiracy of women to make me happy was fomenting a new attack.
So we went and bought meringues, double cream, and some raspberries. The three of us sat on a jetty overlook- ing Lake Geneva. We listened to the water lapping against the boats as we dipped the meringues into the tub of thick cream. Léonore explained the principle of eternal snows to Romy.
“You see the mountain peaks over there, it’s so cold that the snows never melt.”
“Like the cream in Papa’s moustache?” “Exactly.”
I wiped my face on my shirtsleeve. On the glistening water, a duck quacked. The lake shimmered in the twi-light, then grew dark: God had just turned out the light. Clouds had gathered and a summer storm burst directly over our heads. Léonore was even more ravishing with her hair wet, sensual as a photo by Jean-François Jonvelle (a dead friend).
“What’s your blood group, Léonore?” “O+, why?”
“Mine too. Have you had your dna sequenced? Your eggs frozen? Do you have plans to have your stem cells preserved in a cryogenic biobank? Do you have eth- ical problems with brain uploading? What about self- regenerating blood shots? Will you marry me?”
At this point, she assumed I was a lunatic, which says much about her perspicacity. Romy invited Léonore up to our suite so that she could dry her hair. We finished the meringues and watched Black Mirror until Romy fell asleep. Then cnn informed us that George Michael had just died at the age of fifty-three. They played the video of “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” where he sang with Elton John. When the singer—of Greek extraction, like Doctor Antonarakis (George Michael’s real name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou)—sang the line “All my pictures seem to fade to black and white …” a tear fell from my right eye and Léonore watched as it trickled into my beard. I was crying selfishly about my own mortality, but she assumed I was altruistic. Embarrassed, she said, “Right, well, it was lovely to meet you, I’ve had a lovely time, but it’s getting late, I think I’ll let you get some rest.”
… I didn’t let her let me get some rest.
Sometimes my shyness turns into firmness. With my forefinger, I tucked a lock of her hair behind her right ear. My other hand had grasped her wrist. I pressed my cheek against hers in slow motion, turned my eyes to her, tilted my head toward her lips. Holding my breath, I smiled, then gently slipped my tongue into her mouth. It is at this point that the mission might have ended. All it would have taken was a sign of reluctance on her part. If she had hesitated, I wouldn’t have insisted: she could destroy my life with a single tweet. But she whetted her tongue, and nibbled at my lower lip as though it were her own. We both gave a sigh, perhaps of relief. I think we were both relieved that our porn-star kiss had not been ridiculous. I slid a hand over her breast and, lower down, a few fingers beneath the thin cotton. I was able to con- firm that my attraction was reciprocated. Our epider- mises longed to make contact. I was inheriting a new woman. It is rare to encounter such straightforward foreplay. As I peeled off her t-shirt, I took out my hard penis. This type of manoeuvre is generally complicated, even embarrassing (cock-blocked by boxer shorts, t-shirt stuck over the head, prick scratched by the zip: such minor incidents can spoil the fairy tale). No such prob- lems here: our movements were as fluid and logical as in a wet dream. I think Léonore was surprised by my impa- tience; she didn’t know that I had spent centuries want- ing to get her pregnant. Nothing now separated us, not even a condom. I loved Léonore as one might inhale the pure air of French-speaking Switzerland in the middle of a summer storm. I rapturously sullied her pristine clothes, and her two spheres, their nipples erect like my penis between them. We fucked standing to attention, our mingled sweat sweetening each other.
She whispered in my ear, “It’s obvious you do this reg- ularly.”
I didn’t dare tell her she was the first woman I had touched in two years. She mistook my enthusiasm for wantonness and there was no question of me shattering her illusions. Her pleasure heightened mine, I spurted when she came. Every time she squealed in my ear, I put a hand over her mouth so that she didn’t wake Romy, and being gagged simply excited her more. The best sex occurs when two egotists stop being egotists.