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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Jean Echenoz Piano (2004) *

* (restored)

 

‘Since the publication of his first novel, Le Méridien de Greenwich (The Greenwich Meridian, 1979), Jean Echenoz’s reputation as a writer has described an ascendant trajectory, much like that of the space shuttle he puts on stage in Nous trois (We Three, 1992). With eleven books at the Editions de Minuit, he can now lay claim to a body of work that is as distinguished and as varied as that of any living novelist in France. It should be recalled that Minuit offered a home to the New Novel in the 1950s, launching figures such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, Robert Pinget, and Claude Simon into the literary ether.

‘Though their theories and practices of the novel are more diverse than those of their precursors, it now seems clear that the new Minuit writers, most of whom inaugurated their careers in the 1980s (I’m thinking of people like Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Marie Redonnet, Eric Chevillard, Christian Oster, Marie NDiaye, and Christian Gailly, to name just a few), have done just as much as the New Novelists in terms of rethinking the fundamental terms of the novel as a cultural form and suggesting intriguing new paths for that form. Without a doubt moreover, Jean Echenoz has played a crucial, indeed determinative role in that dynamic.

Piano is a French novel, a very French novel. The author won the Prix Goncourt for an earlier book and this one carries hints of Voltaire and Sartre. The publishers suggest that Piano can be read as a metaphor of life and death, heaven and hell; Dante is invoked. Daunting stuff, you might think. A thin book, it comes wrapped in heavyweight literary packaging — in France Jean Echenoz is rated alongside Beckett and Nabokov. But what lies inside this intellectual bombe surprise is a sharp, airy sorbet that slips down with great ease: an existential thriller of the sort that might once have been turned into a movie by Jean Cocteau. It’s a deadpan, elegant and wittily observed tragicomedy: posh French fun.

‘In Piano, the musician protagonist Max spends the first section in a state of advanced alcoholism, to conquer stage fright, and the last two as dead, from which state he returns as “Paul” to the “urban zone” of life. A dead hero is entirely appropriate to classical subjects with Greek references. One could almost say that Max the pianist makes the transition from pathos to bathos when recycled as Paul. Others will no doubt invoke Virgil as Dante’s guide through the Inferno, or even Sartre’s “Hell is other people” from Huis Clos – to which, apart from the claustrophobia of the concert halls where Max performs, Piano happily bears no resemblance.

‘It is perhaps a reflection of a modern inability to deal squarely with death that an afterlife so eludes our conception. Echenoz has, therefore, opted for the tradition of a public life on earth, where much is achieved despite the waste of personal experience. Max’s Purgatory is something to be escaped at the earliest opportunity, even when founded on sensual fulfilment rather than denial; and Hell is the ultimate inescapable place, where disappointment is all.

‘Echenoz uses dollops of interior monologue, which magnify Max’s neuroses. In several instances, he becomes an intruding author, injecting playful asides, which are interesting but risky, as they are not at all germane to the plot. Even so, this device contributes garnish to an enjoyable read that stands out for its good writing and inventiveness.

‘Echenoz has produced a superb and stunning body of fiction. His sense of pace is flawless. His characters wander into situations of dazzling incongruity as if the incongruous itself were the first principle of the human condition — and upon finishing Piano, his readers, both amused and bemused, may be persuaded that such is indeed the case.’ — collaged

 

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Gallery

 

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Further

‘Reading Jean Echenoz’
Hallucinating Rhythm: The Parisian Dreamscape of Jean Echenoz
‘The Uses of Brevity:
Valuing the “No More to Be Said” in Jean Echenoz’

‘Piano’ @ The Complete Review
Jean Echenoz @ goodreads
‘At last – a French novel that’s just the ticket’
‘Anthem for Doomed Youth:” Jean Echenoz’s 1914
‘How do you read a novel in another language?’
‘The “Lightweight” Gallows Humor of Jean Echenoz
‘A Window Onto Comic Tedium’
‘Je ne vois pas bien ma place dans les académies’
Jean Echenoz @ France Culture
‘Les facéties de Jean Echenoz’
Video: ‘Jean Echenoz : écrire, un état prenant’
‘Jean Echenoz, auteur postmoderne?’
‘Jean Echenoz: “Je ne crois pas du tout à l’inspiration, plutôt à l’obstination”‘

 

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Extras


Jean Echenoz, entretien, Interlignes, Dominique Antoine


Lydia Davis and Jean Echenoz read at the 92nd Street Y


Harry Mathews Le son de Jean Echenoz


Jean Echenoz vous présente son ouvrage “14”

 

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Interview

 

Et la discrétion dont vous vous entouriez ? Vous êtes-vous senti agressé ?

Jean Echenoz: Pas agressé, mais simplement fatigué, éprouvé par la médiatisation que ce prix engendre. Je suis resté allongé deux jours entiers après pour me reposer ! Et la ” fausse ” biographie que j’ai fait paraître pour les communiqués de presse n’était pas destinée à dérouter les journalistes et encore moins à se moquer de qui que ce soit, même si cette histoire me suit encore quinze ans après ! On m’avait demandé d’écrire une notice autobiographique. Un piège narcissique dans lequel je ne souhaitais pas tomber : j’ai écrit quatre lignes, ne souhaitant pas exposer certaines choses de ma vie ni commenter mon travail, puis je me suis aperçu que cela n’avait aucun intérêt. Et comme je suis un écrivain de fiction, je me suis servi d’elle et d’une sorte de pudeur pour écrire quelque chose de totalement différent.

Le goût de l’écriture ?

JE: Il m’est venu très jeune, vers dix douze ans. Je ne savais pas du tout la forme qu’il prendrait, presse ou autre ; mais la littérature étant ce qui m’a toujours passionné, c’est naturellement vers elle que je suis allé… Je composais souvent des petits textes, des commencements de fiction, des poèmes comme tout le monde (que j’ai heureusement perdus ! Rires…) et j’avais ébauché un roman épistolaire. Cet apprentissage tendait in fine vers le roman, et mes perspectives et ambitions ont rencontré le besoin urgent de la concrétisation. J’ai alors appris que l’on devait retravailler les premiers jets, revenir sur ce qui vient sous la plume pour lui donner une profondeur et un relief véritable.

Des événements, rencontres ou influences déterminantes ?

JE: Je relis certains écrivains de manière fréquente, tels que Flaubert, Nabokov, Queneau, qui sont pour moi des fenêtres importantes. La rencontre déterminante : mon éditeur. Je souhaitais publier chez Minuit depuis le début.

Vous vous êtes donc immédiatement tourné vers Jérôme Lindon ?

JE: Justement non ! Minuit me semblait tellement sérieuse, rigoureuse… Je n’osais pas leur envoyer mon travail, que j’estimais presque ” indigne ” d’elle, je pensais que les éditeurs ne l’accepteraient jamais. Je l’ai donc envoyé à toutes les autres maisons d’édition, et ma collection de lettres de refus était telle que j’ai pensé qu’il fallait que j’aie également celle de Minuit. La seule qui n’est pas venue…

Ecrivez-vous pour vous ou pour les autres ?

JE: J’écris pour moi en tant que lecteur. J’écris ce que je souhaiterais lire, espérant que mes vœux en rejoignent d’autres similaires. Je pense que l’écrivain n’a pas de mission précise ou de message particulier à transmettre ; il doit simplement un certain respect à l’écriture elle-même, à la fiction. L’écrivain doit offrir le témoignage d’amour de la prose et de la littérature le meilleur possible, le plus vrai, le plus passionné.

Vous sentez-vous crevé, vidé après avoir terminé l’écriture d’un roman ?

JE: L’écriture est très physique : donc crevé, mais pas vidé. La dernière version d’un ouvrage est la plus fatigante mais la plus intéressante, c’est également un temps ou d’autres idées naissent, où d’autres projets se mettent en place. Une période ou l’on se place dans ” l’après “, ou, personnellement, j’essaie toujours de prendre le contre-pied de ce que j’ai dit et écrit auparavant… L’occasion de ” casser une mécanique ” qui s’est mise en place pour ne pas se répéter. Donc jamais de vide ; plutôt soulagé, libéré et déjà dans une réalisation future !

Dans une recherche de perfection ?

JE: Evidemment, comme tout écrivain qui se respecte et respecte son lecteur, quel qu’il soit. Je ne retravaille pas mes manuscrits avec l’éditeur, à une exception près, où il m’a aidé à revenir sur la fin d’un livre. J’en ai d’abord été catastrophé et suis rentré chez moi abattu. Je me suis penché à nouveau sur la partie en question, puis finalement sur l’ensemble. L’intervention de Jérôme et Irène a fait gagner à mon travail en qualité et en cohérence ; un bel exemple de la collaboration entre écrivain et éditeur qui porte ses fruits !

Vos voyages, source d’inspiration ?

JE: Je crois surtout à l’obstination dans l’écriture, et pas tellement à l’inspiration. Je suis parti en Inde dans la perspective d’utiliser certaines notes pour l’écriture de Les grandes blondes. En rentrant, il m’a semblé que tout le voyage n’avait été qu’un prétexte à prendre des vacances et à retrouver l’Inde, mais finalement ces écrits de deux mois m’ont beaucoup servi quelques temps après. Ce que j’avais failli jeter s’est révélé précieux.

Vos romans vous conduisent sans cesse à l’étranger, dans des périples et des endroits divers… Votre goût pour ces découpages spacio-temporels ?

JE: Cela tient sans doute à mon amour du mouvement, à mon attirance pour les départs, l’exploration incessante de lieux différents. Les lieux sont des moteurs de fiction aussi importants que les personnages ; et le découpage du temps, ternaire pour le voyage (visible dans les trois parties), binaire pour les protagonistes (les allers-retours de Félix à Delahaye) de Je m’en vais, viennent lui donner un rythme particulier je crois, même s’il n’était pas évident à agencer !

 

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Book

Jean Echenoz Piano
The New Press

‘Max Delmarc, age fifty, is a famous concert pianist with two problems: the first is a paralyzing stage fright for which the second, alcohol, is the only treatment. In this unparalleled comedy from the Prix Goncourt–winning French novelist Jean Echenoz, we journey with Max, from the trials of his everyday life, through his untimely death, and on into the afterlife.

‘After a brief stay in purgatory—part luxury hotel, part minimum security prison, under the supervision of deceased celebrities—Max is cast into an alarmingly familiar partition of hell, “the urban zone,” a dark and cloudy city much like his native Paris on an eternally bad day. Unable to play his beloved piano or stomach his needed drink, Max engages in a hapless struggle to piece his former life back together while searching in vain for the woman he once loved.

‘An acclaimed bestseller with 50,000 copies sold in France, Piano is a sly, sardonic evocation of Dante and Sartre for the present day, the playful, daring masterpiece of a novelist at the top of his form.’ — The New Press

 

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Excerpts

One, slightly taller than average says nothing. Under a large, light-colored raincoat buttoned to the neck, he is wearing a black suit with a black bow tie. Small cufflinks with onyx-quartz mounts punctuate his immaculate wrists. He is, in short, very well dressed, though his pallid face and gaping eyes suggest a worried frame of mind. His white hair is brushed back. He is afraid. He is going to die a violent death in twenty-two days but, as he is yet unaware of this, that is not what he is afraid of.

*

After disembodied voices had given the countdown, the concert could begin. The conductor was fairly exasperating, full of mannered grimances, unctuous and enveloping motions, coded little signs addressed to different categories of performers, fingers on his lips and inopportune thrusts of his hips. Following his lead, the instrumentalists themselves began to act like wise guys: taking advantage of a frill in the score that allowed him to shine a little, to stand out from the masses for the space of a few measures, an oboist demonstrated extreme concentration, even overplaying it to win the right to a close-up. Thanks to several highlighted phrases allocated to them, two English horns also did their little number a moment later. And Max, who had quickly lost the scrap of stage fright that had held him that day and was even starting to feel bored, himself began to make pianist faces in turn, looking preoccupied, pulling his head deep into his shoulders or excessively arching his back, depending on the tempo; smiling at the instrument, the work, the very essence of music, himself — you have to keep interested somehow.

*

White in color and emerging from who knows where, this second figure seemed gently but firmly to admonish Yellow Bathrobe, who immediately vanished. Apparently White Silhouette then noticed Max, who watched it walk toward him, become transformed in its approach into a young woman who was the spitting image of Peggy Lee — tall, nurse’s blouse, very light hair pulled back and held with a hair tie. With the same implacable softness, she enjoined Max to go back into his room.

“You have to stay in here,” she said — moreover in Peggy Lee’s voice. “Someone will be here to see you soon.

“But,” started Max, getting no further, as the young woman immediately negated this incipient objection with a light rustllng of her fingers, deployed like a flight of birds in the air between them. When you get down to it, she did look phenomenally like Peggy Lee, the same kind of big, milk-fed blonde, with a fleshy, wide mouth, and excessive lower lip forming the permanent smile of a zealous camp counselor. More reassuring than arousing, she exuded complete wholesomeness and strict morals.

*

As nothing special is happening in this scene, we might take the time to look closely at this ticket. There’s actually a lot that can be said about these tickets, about their secondary uses – toothpick, fingernail scraper, or paper cutter, guitar pick or plectrum, bookmark, crumb sweeper, conduit or straw for controlled substances, awning for a doll’s house, micro-notebook, souvenir, or support for a phone number that you scribble for a girl in case of emergency – and their various fates – folded lengthwise in halves or quarters and liable to be slid under an engagement ring, signet ring, or wristwatch; folded in six or even eight in accordion fashion, ripped into confetti, peeled in a spiral like an apple, then tossed into the wastepaper-baskets of the metro system, on the floor of the system, between the tracks of the system, or even cast out of the system, in the gutter, the street, at home to play heads or tails: heads magnetic stripe, tails printed side – but perhaps this isn’t the moment to go into all of that.

 

 

*

p.s. Hey. ** Tosh Berman, Hi, Tosh. I owe you an email. Sorry, it’s been busy. I’ll write back asap. Enjoy Detroit. I think I saw a video clip of a slice of her concert on FB. If so, it looked awesome. ** JM, Hi! Nice to see (materialise with?) you again too. And how was the show, all in all? Ha ha, um, yeah, as you can imagine, that editorial response to your story is not unfamiliar to me. ‘Portraits’ sounds interesting, or, yeah, your role does. Huh. That character sounds like an interestingly tricky build. You sound busy, good, lots up top, like it should be. Oh, ugh, JT Leroy, yeah. Oh, gosh, I don’t know if they’re worth reading. Maybe ‘Sarah’ is, maybe. Maybe not. I just get nauseous when I even think about that whole bullshit. See what you think. Let me know what you think if you do. ** KEatOn, Hi. I don’t think I’ve been far enough over that way to see Newark. It was Gay Pride here yesterday. Didn’t even leave this weird apartment, except to smoke. It was too hot and muggy. Thought of seeing ‘Jurassic World’ but … nah. Worked on a film script. Ate horrible macaroni salad. Didn’t feel unusually proud. ** Kyler, Hi, Kyler! Thank you so much, man! It was really nice to see you even for those few seconds and in my post-show daze. Yeah, I’ll try to get down there and with George in tow if poss. Have a great one! ** Steve Erickson, Hi. I only vaguely know who Jordan Peterson is, so the parody probably wouldn’t work on me. Yeah, subtlety is a virtue of Reed’s early work, and then, yeah. Still, cool you saw it and him. I did see your haul on FB, and, yeah, it kills for sure. Happy to see your faves-so-far of 2018. And it reminds me I need to make my mid-year faves post. ** Misanthrope, Hi, G. You get here today! Hit me up so we can sort an in-person, yeah? Safe trip, although I guess you’re well on your way to DC by now, so safe post-trip? ** Alex rose, Hey, Alex! ‘Them’s’ going pretty well, it’s cool. Weird how that ancient piece still works. They (ILP) do awfully pretty work in general. Michael ‘Kiddiepunk’ Salerno’s ‘Childhood’ is highly recommended. You might like it, I think. Big up, my dear friend. ** _Black_Acrylic, Thanks, Ben. Yeah, someone was explaining to me the other night that everybody’s still technically ‘in’ the Cup until tomorrow. Paying barely much attention as I always seem to do, I just always want Germany to lose. I don’t even know why. I like your screenrprint. I don’t know that I really understand it, but things I don’t understand are kind of always my favorite things. And it looks ace. ** Caitie, Hi, Caitie. Nice to meet you. Oh, yes, I did read your wonderful email. I am a terrible, terrible correspondent in general. I’m famously so. I think doing this p.s. ruins my emailing abilities. Uh, hm, interesting. The immediate perception ‘test’. Okay, I’ll give it a shot, although the nature/form of the p.s. makes columns undoable, so I’ll do them in list form and you can reformat them? Hm … Caitie: Camouflage, Salt, Circle, Balcony, Harry, TV Remote, Glitter, King, Balcony, Don’t Fear the Reaper, Creation Story, Marae. Not Caitie: Well, all the words I didn’t pick already. Did I do that right? Thanks, that was fruitfully weird and fun and confusing, and I love being confused. Mostly. Thank you! I hope and trust you’ll hang out here when you want so we can talk more. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I guess I have to go figure out exactly who this Peterson guy is. ** Okay. Up above is a book that I have a suspicion  none–  or at least very few — of you who are reading this have read. Understandable, but more’s the pity, ‘cos it’s very good. See you tomorrow.

10 Comments

  1. That’s a pretty hilarious photo of Echenoz at the top. I can certainly relate to one or two of Piano’s themes, will try to score a copy soon.

    Good to hear THEM is going well. From the CD, I remember sections where you read texts, and some improvised-sounding music. I’m curious, is much of the sound live for this one?

    Had a relatively low-key Sunday, hanging with friends, listening to a pile of new music that I brought back or arrived in the mail. You may enjoy this:
    https://boomkat.com/products/adoration

    [First, perhaps]
    Bill

  2. Hi!

    That’s very nice to hear! I read the articles you shared about it and the whole thing sounds so inspiring and exciting! (You know, I really start to believe I need to move because I feel like I’m missing out on so much.)
    Oh, I’m very excited to hear all about PGL’s next steps!!

    Yes, that’s what’s going to happen. I mean, we’ll have to find a weekend when we’re both free and make the pictures then. I don’t mind traveling for it at all.
    Thank you!! I’m really, really looking forward to going! Well, actually, my brother lives in Zaandam which is (as I’m sure you know) pretty close to Amsterdam so we’re planning to sleep there and otherwise spend our time in Amsterdam. I’ll make a list of all the places and areas we visit and share them here when I get back because I’m really curious about your own experiences and thoughts on the city and its places! For how long did you live there? Do you have any recommendations about where to go, what to see, etc.?

    How was your weekend? What’s happening around there? I hope you have a lovely time, Dennis!

  3. Piano looks like a whole lot of fun and has been earmarked for purchase. I’d not heard of Echenoz before so thank you for this tip.

    That artwork Separatist Propaganda World Cup Wallchart maybe needs a bit of a unpacking. Scotland and Catalonia both want their independence and neither have a team at the World Cup. That’s because there is no Catalan nation and also because Scotland didn’t qualify as they’re not very good. So a wallchart to track those teams’ progress is kind of an impossible object. All you have is the slogans, Aye for Scottish and Sí for Catalan, and the red and yellow stripes are the colours of Catalan separatism. That’s what I was thinking when I made those decisions but there’s no right or wrong way to read it, really.

  4. Hi Dennis, in SoCal at the moment which always makes me think of you… no sure why besides the obvious? Supposed to be on holiday but received the final copy edits on my book the day after I arrived here, so working on that instead of drinking mai tai or whatever else I pretend I would be doing otherwise? I’m supposed to be working on creating the index… Can I interest you in writing an index perhaps? The good news is it should be coming out in Dec in UK and Jan in US. How are you?

  5. “A thin book, it comes wrapped in heavyweight literary packaging — in France Jean Echenoz is rated alongside Beckett and Nabokov. But what lies inside this intellectual bombe surprise is a sharp, airy sorbet that slips down with great ease: an existential thriller of the sort that might once have been turned into a movie by Jean Cocteau.”

    I’ve never found Beckett or Nabokov particularly challenging! So this is a good sign 🙂 Pale Fire, I guess, is a struggle at times, simply because of is more uhm… structural elements…. but both of them are so consistently humorous that I struggle to imagine some names I’d like to read more, So, yes, maybe I’ll read this soon (I have a Grillet on my shelf for when the opportunity presents itself). ///yes, we did basically materialize at the same time. an apt coincidence and or incidence. Oh, I’m sure! On the publishing front, that is – in some ways receiving a rejection letter that so blatantly misunderstands the work is a far nicer feeling than one that gets it and is like, yeah, sorry, not good enough – though, I guess I also have this feeling (maybe its misguided?) that anyone who ‘gets’ the work WILL think it’s ‘good enough’? That might be very naive but that’s kind of how I feel about responses etc. to most art…

    Portraits is fun, but I have some mixed feelings about it. It is very far from a perfect piece of art; and works on a deeper level as a concept piece than an actual play (this is the play that rips words verbatim from a rapist/the parents/the rapists ex). I’m struggling to actually learn the words, at the moment, which is no surprise really, because every single script I ever pick up I struggle with at some point, but since February I’ve been playing with high-concept non-reality words pretty much non-stop and to be rooted in “uh”s and “uhm”s and “coz”s and “really, y’know”s kind of points out a few things. i am busy, good, lots up top, as it should be 😉 hope you remain busy, good, lots up top, as it should be. up top, to the side, down low, too slow,

    j

  6. Echenoz est interessant.
    Jordan Peterson is a fascist troll.

  7. Dennis,
    Thank you for highlighting this book. I am just finishing my second (likely unpublishable) novel and I have an idea for the third: I want it to be my ‘French’ novel. So I am planning to reread all my Blanchot and Robbe Grillet but this and the other minuet writers, I’m familiar with Ndiaye and Reddonet, might help me to avoid becoming a bad covers band or something.

    I also wanted to ask you a question about a possible day (I know I have a terrible track record of non materialised promises but this one is different) and it is kind of important to keep it fairly anonymous. I’m going to write to you about it now.

    hope you’re well man

    Tom K

  8. the weird apartment worries me. like when i got drunk and
    screamed in a room in Berlin for an hour, funny the door opened
    after i broke down and opened the door the right way.
    i just realized my recent digs are a “weird apartment”. it gets really
    hot here not sure that it gets muggy because of the beach.
    i wouldnt know i only get to live in the night. speaking
    of woah what happened those pics above went from Rothmans to
    Winstons lol. Piano sounds like Paris itself. i spent pride
    with a rich guy, a lawyer, and my weird NYer friends. basically,
    i just reaffirmed that i hate my life in FL and watched a little
    lone blond kitty kiss his totally undeserving boyfriend all night.
    pride seems a bad joke to me. in other news, my vintage White Rabbit
    costume collection is growing, 3rd Collegeville White Rabbit costume
    on the way.

  9. By the way, the “Phoenician Sailor,” the guy who made the Peterson video, said in a video as himself that Noam Chomsky is his biggest hero and Carl Sagan and Howard Zinn would be up there were they still alive. It’s quite clear from the video that he’s mocking Peterson, although its second half gets so far into ASMR that it would make little sense if you’re not familiar with it.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing THEM with Misa and his family tomorrow.

    Tomorrow, my 2018 film top 10 list (for Jan-June theatrical or VOD releases in the US)!

    I saw another interesting Iranian film this afternoon on a video link I got from a friend of the director last January. The film, REDHEAD, was labeled “WORK IN PROGRESS” onscreen, so I’m sure it’s not the final cut. However, it reminded me of a cross between David Lowery’s A GHOST STORY & the Coen brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN or TRUE GRIT. It’s about a man who participates in a murder and is then haunted onscreen by the ghost of the man he helped kill. It was shot in winter in a section of rural Iran which resembles upstate New York or northern New England. There’s a really stately and somber quality to it, aided by the mix of handheld camera and long shots of the landscape, but also an ambiguity about what’s actually happening and whether the whole thing isn’t just a big metaphor for the way people process death and deal with guilt.

  10. Hey Dennnnnisssss

    Thanks a million 🙂 I’m sure I’ll be keeping you up to date with things as the project progresses. I’ll be short because today has been full to the brimmmm and I need to oversleep again:
    Opinions/memories of Michael Amnasan?
    Opinions/memories of sleep?

    As always: wishing wellness x

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