On the jetty at Dieppe I saw a man fishing for seagulls. He let a long line float on the green water, its hook baited. His clear eyes followed the flight of the gulls. They swam in the air with slow movements of their wings; you could see their round eyes and their heads without necks; from time to time one would dive into the water, like a stone, and rise up again with a wheeling flight. It was a perfect moment. The flags flapped in the wind; the foam leapt; the boat for England drew away, leaving behind it a kind of white road. The usual people were there, men from Paris holding onto their hats, ladies from Paris holding their skirts; a large Englishman with a brick-coloured face, a small Englishman dressed in a strange green cloth unknown in France. This shifting scene, with its fresh colours and invigorating impressions, is easily recalled; no doubt you’ve sheltered by the iron tower there more than once; you’ve breathed this odour of mud and tar which gives even the most peaceful men and women a sudden desire to travel around the world.
Just at that moment, one of the seagulls, after floating gently in the air, had entered the water like an arrow and was reascending with a heavier flight. I returned to the man fishing for birds and saw him winding his line energetically, but with a steady movement, while the spectators around him became agitated; my eyes followed the line to the water and to the bird. The seagull was caught. It was still flying and wheeling among the other birds, and even flying more strongly; but I saw his open beak and the line that the fisherman was drawing to himself with that steady movement.
Now the bird exerted all its strength; its furious wing-beats would have carried him deep into the sky; but this tiny, hardly visible thing was heavier than his heavy prey and stronger than the wind. Some strips of hemp had ripened in the sun; a worker had separated, combed and woven the fibres of the plant, while the bird was trying its wings and played with the storm. After a thousand detours, the line and the bird had met in the same hollow of a wave; it had to be. Destiny was easy to read now, though not for the bird, not yet. No longer flying, it swam with stiffened body; but natural forces no longer worked, the world was no more than an absurd dream. One more wheeling flight; one more explosion of savage revolt, enraged and useless. The next moment the bird was taken by the wings and only his eyes were alive. All through this the sole thought of the man was to wind the thread properly.
Alain, August, 20th, 1907
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram