We moved into a new apartment in a central neighborhood of Clermont-Ferrand (France), near the main place, in 2001 and very shortly developed an acute sensitivity to the sound of Monsieur Gauvin’s having been temporarily released from the psychiatric hospital. Regardless of the time of year or the weather, Monsieur Gauvin wore wool marine clothing. Since he weighed perhaps 300 pounds and was not taller than 5’4’, his pants were more like large navy tents. Even in the summer of 2003, when France suffered a terrible heat wave, Monsieur Gauvin continued to wear a jacket and vest, and a Greek fisherman’s hat. His long, greasy hair was grey and so were his chaotic beard and mustache.
Like a herd of cattle, except he was only one person, Monsieur Gauvin would walk home in the middle of the street, wailing stuff that was, at the sentence level, understandable. I am quite sure that he was capable of lucidity, because I sometimes saw him at bus stops engaging unsuspecting public transportation users in animated if not off-putting conversation. Anyway, when he walked through the streets on his way home from wherever he had been, cars would pile up behind his slowly moving bulk, drivers too terrified to honk or otherwise disturb him. Who knew what would happen? The sidewalks would become eerily empty of dog walkers and bakery goers.
When he arrived at the outside door of his apartment building next door, Monsieur Gauvin would inevitably discover that he had lost his keys. At this point, the wailing would turn to frank bellowing. “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, oh, mon Dieuuuuu.” I think that is what he howled, but then later I would wonder, ‘Wait, did he say that, or was he saying, ‘My God, oh my God?”
At some point we interviewed Monsieur Meyvial about the history of the Gauvins. Monsieur Meyvial had lived his entire life in our building, and had raised his two children in a very small apartment on the third floor. Although he was in his 80s when we knew him, his mind was as sharp as a whip and he had forgotten not a single detail of the lives of the Gauvins. “Ah, les Gauvin,” he recalled, “a sad story.” Apparently the hard working couple, who ultimately owned two entire buildings on our street, produced only one child, and that child developed profound schizophrenia. Nevertheless, this was the only heir. So when finally orphaned, Monsieur Gauvin lived in one of these buildings, and a social services crew came to clean his apartment every six months or so. The story went that they sometimes unearthed coins embedded in the layer of grease that blanketed the kitchen table.
We had heard a rumor that Monsieur Gauvin had killed his own mother, so we mentioned this one time to Monsieur Meyvial. “Oh là, yes, yes, he did. But I do not believe he intended to,” said Meyvial.
As a community installation, Monsieur Gauvin served a number of important social functions. First, although I rarely saw any of my neighbors -- with the exception of Monsieur Meyvial of course -- the minute we heard Monsieur Gauvin bellowing in the streets of a summer’s evening, we would pull back the curtains to survey, and find ourselves looking directly at others in the building en face doing the same. In these single moments, we would meet each other’s eyes and smile with recognition, and with the feelings of sharing a common moral dilemma: do we laugh together because the manifest sight is so comic, or do we not because we know that just beneath the veneer of comedy is terrible tragedy?
Regardless, I discussed Gauvin briefly with a different neighbor who told me of another of his important social functions. “Ah, the fou, yes. Here is what we do. When the children will not eat their peas? We tell them that if they do not, we will call Monsieur Gauvin. Then, well, you know…” and she mimed shoveling vegetables into her mouth.
I never asked anyone else in the neighborhood what language Monsieur Gauvin spoke because I knew logically that he spoke French. But it bothers me to this day that in my memory I cannot clearly hear one distinct language.