“The way we love now.” I mean, who is “we”? Emily Dickinson: “That love is all there is, is all we know of love.” Okay? That pretty well does it. So ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your attention and see you next year. This is going to be about my love, my life.

For many years, I led the life of the invisible man. As a child, I was kept silent by my father’s wonderful talent for storytelling. As an adolescent, I always managed to pair myself with some other guy whom I thought brighter or funnier than me, who would run the show while I could play peeping Tom. As I grew older, I realized that in the company of real men, the self-effacing aspect of my personality was never a problem, that the world was full of people who needed to talk and be heard, and that my career, like a fly on the wall or a goldfish opening its mouth without emitting any sounds, was off to a good start.

The only ones who seemed to take notice of me were girls—nice girls, plump girls, skinny girls, dirty girls (never enough of those), romantic girls. While others were busy with the lofty task of changing the world or making serious money, I seemed to care only about two things: read every book I could put my hands on that established the tragic nature of my condition, and fall in and out of love. The in part was always the best. To be looked at with those eyes made me emerge from the mist of my invisibility and feel real—well, real enough until the real thing, which became very unreal as soon as it was over and done with.

I was a second-hand Don Juan. In my A to Z catalogue there were only 103 girls instead of the legendary mille e tre, a magic, impossible number—the human equivalent in the world of seduction of infinity in the world of mathematics. And yet, I promise you, I never played hard to get. It’s not that I wanted sex that much. I sincerely felt the pangs of something I called love, for want of another word. What would I call it now? Infatuation? Boredom? The unbearable lightness of being? Whatever my efforts or my illusions or my perversity, I was lucid enough to feel like a bit part in a B-list romantic comedy, like the one where the guy says, “Hold me tight, make me feel real, ” and then leaves without notice.

You must bear in mind that I was under the influence not of Dr. Ruth but of Franz Kafka, who let us establish the impossible nature of marriage or even of serious relationships and the irrelevance of any kind of romance. So I followed my impulse, as much as girls let me, only to write telegrams that went, “Sorry, I skipped our second night. There will be no other night. Will explain later.” As you would guess, later would never happen. It did once, twenty years later to be accurate, and I got slapped in the face as soon as I opened my mouth, but that’s another story.

Some cried and called me a jerk; some just shrugged and let go. Some insisted on saving me—wonderful women, endlessly hoping that they might save us from ourselves. One day as I was trying to break up with an astrologer, she looked at me intensely and said, “I’m sorry, you can’t leave me. I’ve been working all night on my astral software. And this is it. Your black moon is just in line with my sun. I’m the one you need.” Although I didn’t doubt for a second that she was right, I said I was sorry and I left all the same, only a wee bit faster. On my low days, I try to imagine all that would have happened between my black moon and her sun and this zodiacal bliss I nearly made.

Between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, I managed to publish three novels. War, love—I had it all figured out. I was invited to the literary program of Bernard Pivot, the creator of Apostrophes and Bouillon de Culture, but I was not formidable enough to be asked my favorite question: “If god exists, what would you like to hear him say?” The smartass answer I would have given: “Come along, angel, and meet the thousand and three virgins.” Sorry—wrong god. Having made myself noticeable for a short while, I wisely decided that I’d said it all and proceeded to erase myself from the surface of the world. Invisibility is a good life. We all know that no one really cares about us. Only when you are invisible can you address your own nothingness with the needed care. Plotinus used to say we have to work relentlessly on our inner statue—chiseling, chopping off. I did just that, reaching moments of emptiness lighter than the air, heavier than water. I was a publisher, you see, and that helps. I didn’t need to walk down the staircase of humility like Benedict (not XVI, the first). Any sales meeting would do the trick. My life was going to be spent like this: girlfriends, work, marriage, children, adultery, divorce, girlfriends, back pain, insomnia, more girlfriends.

Then, eleven years ago, something strange happened: I fell in love. I know, the big L word again. I will say with my shy, invisible man’s voice that this time, it was different. I’ve been in love with the same woman for the last ten years, and I will be for the next hundred or so that are left for us. I fall in love with her every morning and I’m surprised she even recognizes me. Every time she leaves, I’m pretty sure she has abandoned me, which would be only natural, all things considered. But there she is.

As a result, I felt my invisibility receding into my soul, feeling real, day after day, loving to touch and be touched. Feeling unhappy made me write, and feeling happy made me write again with a sort of innocent joy that I thought was reserved for others. At first I’d write at night to make sure no one would see me, then I got bold and wrote in broad daylight. I still have guilt about this, always remembering that I should have some more serious occupation.

It’s no accident that the narrator, in fact the real hero of my novel, makes himself invisible. I’m sorry I had to summon such formidable figures as the great Peter Abelard and the beautiful, unforgettable Heloise, to actually write my autobiography. The legend goes that when Abelard’s tomb was opened for Heloise to be buried with him, he opened out his arms to welcome her. If, God forbid, it was to be reopened again, I fear they would both sit up in their graves, dust and loving bones, and curse me for using their tragic fate for such selfish purposes. My poor William is a man who sees and feels and thinks but is incapable of action. What’s left for him except to become a writer? A failed life, or the feeling of a failed life is, for most of us, the best material for a good book, and for a bad one as well.

Most days I feel like those Vietnamese folklore spirits, neither truly human nor ghost but somewhere in between—wanderers traveling back and forth according to the breeze, the constellations of stars, or the crosstown traffic. Only when I open my eyes in the morning and I want to hold my wife and she wants to hold me do I feel fleetingly real and I think, as I do every day of my life, I know this is soon going to end. A hundred years from now for me, a few million years for our species, a few billion for life itself—I know nothing is going to be left of it, and nothing remembered. But God forgive me, and also Allah, Vishnu, Buddha the merciful, the compassionate pagan gods and goddesses of springs and winds, and I’m sorry if I forgot anyone, there is no offense meant. Let me tell you, it was worth it.