Dis-moi pourquoi: Amélie’s got a gun, just like Patty – Lola Lafon conjures Hearst and illuminates a contemporary phenomenon

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak (Except translated citations, copyright Actes Sud)

“Heartless powers try to tell us what to think
If the spirit’s sleeping then the flesh is ink
History’s page will be neatly carved in stone
The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own
On our own, on our own, we are on our own.”

— “Throwing Stones,” lyrics by John Perry Barlow, songwriter for the Grateful Dead and visionary co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Click here to listen.)

“You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.”

— Patti Smith’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” cited by Lola Lafon in “Mercy Mary Patty”

“Qu’on se moque pas de mon âme.” (Don’t mock my soul)

— Lola Lafon, “Mon Ame,” from the album “Grandir a l’envers de rien” (Growing up on the other side of nothing) (Recording here.)

“Je suis perdu, je suis revenu.” (I’m lost, I’ve returned)

— Lola Lafon, ibid

In memory of John Perry Barlow, October 3, 1947 – February 7, 2018, estimable prophet and cowboy poet who saw the Internet not as a mine but as a frontier.

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When Arthur Miller decided to take on the witch-hunts in 1953, he set his play “The Crucible” not in Washington, where Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House “UnAmerican” Activities Committee were persuading Elia Kazan and others to “name the names” of alleged Communists who were then blacklisted, but in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, where young girls had intoxified the justice system by accusing pillars of the community of afflicting them with witchcraft. It’s sometimes easier to study a modern phenomenon in what Barbara Tuchman has called “a distant mirror.” Now the Franco-Russian-Polish musician and writer Lola Lafon has written a novel that deftly addresses one of the most urgent (yet rarely posed) questions facing Europe today — what makes a young person turn against her own milieu? – while also looking more broadly at the myriad influences on (and power to resist of) the teenaged mind, by traveling back to San Francisco and the 1974 kidnapping, subsequent conversion, coercion, or brainwashing to her captors’ cause, and 1975 trial of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. The result is a transnational, transgenerational tale that sheds light on both epochs.

Recounted largely in the second person (unusual in French Letters, but a brilliant choice for her subject of the young mind; form meets function), Lafon’s “Mercy Mary Patty” is delivered with the same urgency as her songs. Discovered in a box of discarded CDs in front of my Belleville apartment building on the evening of November 12, 2015, Lafon’s 2007 album “Grandir a l’envers de rien,” Growing up on the other side of nothing, whose every song is delivered as a kind of Kaddish for the living, became the soundtrack of my personal system of survival in the fear-addled hours that followed the November 13 massacre of 130 innocents in the concert halls and stadiums and on the café terraces of Eastern Paris. It was as if Lafon’s plaintive cry (her voice recalls the North African Sephardic diva Natacha Atlas) and soul-piercing lyrics were simultaneously expressing my own existential fears and furnishing a balm for calming them as well as an escape hatch back to life. (“Mercy Mary Patty” is often punctuated like a song, Lafon using the comma as a one-size-fits-all sentence breaker-upper. This could be a deliberate stylistic choice, to match the immediacy of the message and the narrative voice.)

So when the Sofia, Bucharest, and Paris-bred Lafon went poaching in my own Northern California adolescence for material for her newest global adventure (her album also included a cover, in English, of the Rolling Stones’s “Paint it Black”), I was less resistant than I might have been to other French commentators, many of whom tend to paint the U.S. in two dimensions (I’m not saying States-based American commentators don’t do the same, in reverse), often getting basic facts wrong, and to scold its deficiencies while ignoring similar patterns in French society. None of this is the case here; Lafon the novelist knows my country like Lafon the composer knew my soul. It’s precisely, then, to confirm the authenticity of her recreation of the Hearst epoch in San Francisco – which I lived first-hand, as a younger contemporary of Patty’s – and support the perspicacity of her observations that before getting to the book I’ll set the stage with some context.

lafon small

Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K.. Courtesy Actes Sud.

Not only has she nailed the epoch, by exhuming this traumatic chapter of American and specifically Northern California history to ponder the vulnerability of, influences on, and resilient power to resist and rebel of the teenaged mind, Lafon has also helped me see the ramifications of Hearst’s example on my own (and thus presumably my peers’) adolescent rebellion and ensuing trajectory. And to understand how this pseudo-political kidnapping and the events that followed were almost inevitable in the ambiance of those times in the San Francisco Bay Area, which sometimes saw the altruistic revolution of the Sixties usurped for more mercenary ends. (If you think this ground has already been tilled by American Hearst biographers, what makes Lafon’s approach unique – and “Mercy Mary Patty” crucial reading — is the identification of parallels with the European young people joining the so-called “ISIS” in recent years.)

On February 4, 1974 — the day 19-year-old Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the self-acclaimed “Symbionese Liberation Army,” lead by an escaped prisoner*, from her apartment near the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a sophomore — I was a seventh grader at one of the first alternative public schools in San Francisco, more worried about white-heads than Dan White, whose Twinkie-infused** November 1978 assassinations of fellow city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone, nine days after the Jonestown massacre-by-Kool-Aid***, would cap the Helter-Skelter degeneration of some aspects of the Northern California counter-culture movement into the criminal perversion of its causes (and, in White’s case, conservative backlash), which accelerated with the SLA’s 1973 assassination of Oakland schools superintendent Marcus Foster (misspelled twice in Lafon’s book as “Forster”). Because we didn’t have our own cafeteria, our free school lunches were trucked over from another school in tin foil-covered trays, jostled into mystery meals by the time they got to us. We were big into science fiction and horror that year — “Planet of the Apes” masks were popular for Halloween, and my pals and I had thrilled to 13-year-old Linda Blair’s head-spinning turn in “The Exorcist.” (Another occupation of a young person’s mind.) But our favorite film was “Soylent Green,” in which a totalitarian future government has secretly solved the over-population problem by carting away undesirables and turning them into the processed food product of the title. So I just about lost my lunch one day when a comrade, unwrapping the foil to reveal a particularly unsucculent repast, pointed at the contents and proclaimed, echoing the final line of the movie pronounced by Charlton Heston as he’s being dragged off: “Soylent Green is people!”

The future that was in store for us turned out to be much more insidious, with polities and corporations more interested in colonizing our minds than our bodies. (When a radio journalist recently lauded Google’s “generosity” in pledging to set up free Internet literacy centers in France, I wanted to scream, “Our minds are Google’s Soylent Green!”)

It’s in this perilous terrain — that of the forces, pernicious and benevolent, at work to influence young people, and the juvenile mind’s capacity to resist — that Lola Lafon has pitched her narrative tent and deployed her story-telling and rhetorical flair, breathlessly navigating a voyage which stretches over 40 years and two continents. And which, in lieu of following a rigid pedagogical chart to a fixed intellectual destination, invites the reader’s active participation in the dialectical journey.

To explore what I take away as her uber-theme (I add the qualification because Lafon is not a polemicist but an archeological explorer and anthropological story-teller), she couldn’t have found more pliable matter than the play-dough that was by all evidence the mind of Patricia Hearst in 1974. And whose selection by the SLA to serve its propaganda purposes was anything but accidental; hadn’t Hearst’s grandfather, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane”) cabled Frederick Remington — when the cowboy artist he’d dispatched to Cuba to cover a war reported, “No war here, chief!” — “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war”?


Cover illustration by Frederick Remington for WR Hearst’s magazine. From the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum.

To promote its ideology, the SLA chose the ideal vehicle of Hearst’s own voice — that of a scion not just of American capitalism, but of one of its loudest clarions — delivered in a series of tape-recorded ransom messages, generously sampled in “Mercy Mary Patty.” (The SLA hadn’t kidnapped just Patricia Hearst, but the front pages of the Hearst media empire’s newspapers and magazines across the country…. and the entry into American households they furnished.) At first, Patty simply relays her captors’ demands, most sensationally a series of free food giveaways in the Bay Area. (If I was initially skeptical of the author’s figures regarding the high percentage of Californians who went hungry at the time, upon reflection I remembered that for the food giveaway at the Methodist church down the street from our Mission District digs, the line stretched around the block. And it wasn’t by gourmandise that my brothers and I had signed up for meals which sometimes resembled ‘soylent green.’ While we always had more than enough to eat, our lower Middle Class parents, separated and then divorced, were struggling. On my mom’s side, we qualified for food stamps.) (As if to demonstrate the resurgent relevance of Lafon’s portrait of American society in 1974 more than four decades later, the news program Democracy Now recently reported that Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget would slash $17 billion from federal food programs and prohibit using food stamps to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. They’ll be replaced with food boxes, evoking the dubious alimentation Hearst, in a later recorded message from Patty shared by Lafon, accuses her parents of providing to meet the ransom demand.)

If the factual kernel of Lafon’s tale is the shifting tone, spirit, and class allegiance of Hearst’s recorded messages, culminating in Patty’s decision to remain with her kidnappers and convert to their cause — whether she was a brainwashed, coerced, or willing participant in subsequent SLA crimes would be the central question of her 1974-75 trial for bank robbery (convicted, she’d later see her sentence commuted by President Carter and be pardoned by President Clinton) — the narrative nucleus is the mentoring relationships between three generations of French and American women. (Like the witch trials, the novel terminates in Massachusetts, in another milieu preoccupied with the development of young people’s minds, the all-female Smith College, where Lafon seems to have accessed the Hearst tapes while on a fellowship.)

Notwithstanding her title, which evokes a comparative link between Hearst and two Early American white teenagers, Mercy Short and Mary Jamison, captured by American Indian tribes they subsequently chose to remain with (she might also have explored the saga of Cynthia Parker, whose capture and preference to stay with the Comanches inspired John Ford’s “The Searchers,” as detailed in Glenn Frankel’s book “The Searchers: The making of an American Legend”), Lafon ultimately spends relatively little time with Mary and Mercy, focusing instead on her three 20th and 21st-century generations of protagonists: Neveva Gene, a Left-leaning feminist scholar from Smith spending a year teaching at a private girls’ school in the coastal Landes county of Southwest France, and from whom Hearst’s attorneys have commissioned a brief they hope will support their argument that Patty was a brainwashed or coerced participant in the SLA robberies; Violaine, an adolescent French girl Neveva hires to help her analyze media coverage of the Hearst case and above all the Hearst tapes; and Lafon’s stand-in as the narrator, who becomes part of the grown-up, outcast Violaine’s brood and travels to Smith in 2015 to meet the now septuagenarian and still militant Gene. (A student evaluation cited by the narrator notes the professor has been signaled five times for “apology for terrorism.”) Not that I’m complaining about the smaller role of Mary and Mercy; her portrait of Gene is so realistic — Lafon has her writing a book called “Mercy Mary Patty” — that I actually tried to look her up on the Internet. My suspicion is that as her story progressed, the author became so absorbed in the relationship between Neveva and Violaine (and the light it casts on her larger subject, particularly the formation of the teenaged mind) that she relegated Mary and Mercy to the second plane and let them ‘hijack’ the story — the true sign of an organic fiction writer. This spontaneity emerges most unpredictably when Violaine — presumably hired by Neveva because, as a contemporary of Patty’s, she might be expected to sympathize with her and speak her language — surprises her employer by contradicting Neveva’s own inklings (Violaine thus not letting the grown-up play her like a violin) to the contrary (and what she’s being paid to prove) and suggesting that Hearst was a willing conscript to the SLA cause. (Lafon terminates her book by dedicating it “to the Violaines” — in other words, to those adolescents who resist adult influence, no matter what quarter it comes from.) This after Violaine’s scrupulous auditing of the Hearst tapes, whose content is the most provocative feature of Lafon’s book, and whose criticism of Patty’s parents and their capitalist milieu I don’t remember hearing much about back then. (Given the conservative leanings of the local Hearst newspaper, run by Patty’s father Randolph, and its competitor, these aspects of Patty’s messages may have been suppressed or at least downplayed at the time.)

For much of the book Lafon explores her theme on (at least) two levels simultaneously: As we share in Violaine and Neveva’s analysis of the Hearst tapes and coverage — and assist at their passionate debates, in the shadow of the Landes dunes looking out on the Atlantic, over whether Patty was brainwashed or not — we also witness the 19-year-old French girl’s responses, sometimes yielding, sometimes resisting, to the influence of this American feminist somewhat out of place and viewed suspiciously in a rural French village in the 1970s, as she develops her own autonomous franchise. (Lafon might also be describing the rural Northern California community of Timber Cove amongst whom my family lived for a year in the late Sixties, particularly in the translated passage below describing the reaction in a local bar when Neveva relays an incident of American racism. When the upper grade teacher and principal of our little red school-house, Mr. Cash, held all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next, as a lesson on racism, he was visited that midnight by the rancher fathers of some of the children and told at gunpoint to get out of town. He did.) Rather than convincing her what to think, the American professor ultimately creates a safe zone — the antithesis of that in which the SLA held Patty? — in which her French prodigy is able to learn how to think.

One section of “Mercy Mary Patty” captures all these elements. It’s market day, and Neveva, her low-slung jeans revealing the band of her underwear, has just sauntered into the local bar with her charge in tow. The ‘you’ being addressed in Lafon’s second person voice (in the formal “vous” for the French original) is Neveva.

From pages 92 – 99 of “Mercy Mary Patty,” copyright 2017 Actes Sud:

When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. Her only wish is to get back to the equilibrium of those first days, to be your little hand which cuts [the newspaper and magazine clippings], translates, and pastes. Instead of being the person who slows you down and annoys you and doesn’t hear the same thing you hear in [Hearst’s recorded] messages. You suggest going to the bar-tabac, a change of ambiance will help.

It’s noon, people are coming out of church, the church plaza is packed, Lenny [Neveva’s dog, whose sobriquet is right out of the ’70s; another sign of Lafon’s precise period authenticity] goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who you never let out of your sight, you whistle and put an end to the social whirl. You dismiss all these pious church-goers out loud in English, tell Violaine to observe their holier-than-though airs, wearing their religion on their lapels, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies — our own.

When you walk into the café, the men aligned along the counter rivet their eyes on you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a little too big reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.

This providential book, you read it all in one night, the [Stanislavsky] Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the big American actors, Robert de Niro used it for his approach to playing Travis McGee in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). [Yet another touch of period verisimilitude I can attest to; in 1971, my older cousin gave the budding 10-year-old thespian I was a copy of “The Stanislavsky Method.”] It includes an abundance of exercises to aid in character-building. And without a doubt, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll portray Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily [Harris], of the SLA. Your assistant’s petrified refusal amuses you; what, Marxism isn’t contagious?!

“First exercise: Two words that define your character.”

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

“Protected from everything. Oops, I used one word too many.”

“Too mature for her age.”

“Too many words, Violaine! Susceptible and superficial?”


“Typical teenager,” you fire back, sticking your tongue out at Violaine.

“A symbolic example.”

An example? Of what? Your assistant is talking nonsense, she has no idea, she’s simply repeating what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, without doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have understood “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to one’s character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, college sophomore, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, convict? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, regretting all the same to find herself disagreeing with you yet once more. You continue to insist that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances change us, does Violaine act the same with her parents as here in the bar, certainly not, but Violaine sticks to her guns, Patricia doesn’t really change over the course of her messages, she’d write her the same letter.

The waiter buzzes about you, when he serves you the glass of Armagnac the owner insists on offering — the American lady from the Dunes is spending the afternoon in his bar! — his fist brushes against your hair, Violaine whispers to you, “Il tient une couche celui-là” (He’s one sick puppy, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter who slinks away, the bar is full, the regulars just coming from the rugby match, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone in all the hubbub, you step up to the counter to order a beer, you drink to the death of that bastard, Franco finally croaked the day before yesterday, you proclaim rather than simply state, “Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who wail about barbary and who come from barbary, are like those who eat their share of veal then say calves shouldn’t be killed. They want to eat the veal but don’t want to see the blood.”

A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder this time, so that everyone can hear, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, she talks about you all the time, you interrupt them, she should read Brecht, their daughter, voilà, the glasses are refilled and clinked, dirty fascists, then, in the midst of this mob, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its messages, “Death to the fascist insect who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, amazed, she thinks that you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so often in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you take hold of her hand and execute a rapid, exaggeratedly ceremonious kiss of the hand, everyone whistles for you, you graciously acknowledge them as in the theater.

You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests, It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Strolling along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing, recalling the perturbed air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way one can never separate those two from their desks in class, the sadistic books that one devours, the stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of that one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems. Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which hide the property of Violaine’s parents. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the terrible hullabaloo which rages around here — you indicate with a large gesture the forest and the scattered other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their salon for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations: “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s cold, that around these parts the expression is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the salon lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t think of anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which doesn’t come. As if it weren’t night, with the humid sand under your naked feet — you clutch your shoes in your hands, they clutch you — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll go back to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find her songs in the jukebox. A propros, did Violaine notice what happened when you recounted how, during a Nina Simone concert, her parents had to give up their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. Nothing happened. Not a shadow of indignation.

The bar had never been so quiet. Violaine should remember it, this stillness, it has a foul mouth, it’s the silence of that which remains unsaid, those who didn’t flinch at the mention of concert seats being off-limits to Blacks thought they were abstaining from commenting but they said it all. In this café, everyone had chosen his side. There’s no such thing as neutrality.

Day 14

Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the following morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at the most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve only really just begun to write it up. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this recording, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “… understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.” When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without a word, no mea culpa and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are, “all the others,” does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what is she supposed to be the example, Patricia…?

You’re expected in San Francisco December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed on the potential attacks from the judge and the prosecutor on your credibility and your past. We’ll turn your revolutionary experience into an asset, the lawyer promises. Who could be better placed than you to know that, in these groups, you don’t find many 19-year-old heiresses who’ve never participated in a demonstration? That a lawyer whose universe is limited to Harvard and the circle of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so sure to be able to prove him right is more intriguing.

But here at your side sits a skinny French teenager. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re going to refuse to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you also can’t allow yourself to hear it, you whose job is to prove that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying. You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need.

From pages 108-112:

Day 15

Are you worn out by an experiment which is not turning out like you wanted, all these discussions in which Violaine continues to chip away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed? Are you drained, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you preoccupied by the prison sentence in store for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence — or worried about seeing your reputation diminished, you who up until now have lived a dream life, the trial promises to be extremely mediatized, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene couldn’t be bothered to come up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing open the door to your bedroom to reveal, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One melting into the other, the covers overlapping and supplanting each other.

The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia bearing a wide grin, under the tender blue of a fixed horizon, her hair tossed and tussled by an ocean breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” with a pensive Patricia coiled up in a vast green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, his hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”

Violaine gets down on her knees, careful not to displace the photos. Here’s the most recent one, you indicate the Time cover from April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, but fire. The background of the image is red,**** like the fire of a nightmare which announces the color, red like the flag of the SLA in front of which she poses, her legs slightly apart, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in half: GUILTY.


You tell a lacerated Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The discourse itself but also Patricia’s tone, the way she talks to her parents. You propose to listen to the recording three times, once with the eyes shut, to take notes, and then to rapidly read the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

“I’d like to start out by emphasizing that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is how I feel. No one’s ever forced me to say anything in these messages. I haven’t been brainwashed, nor drugged, nor tortured, nor hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety. Your gifts were an act. You tried to fool people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI used to try to kill me and the members of the SLA. You pretended you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is, for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything to extend its power over others, even if this means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who don’t give a hoot about their own child don’t care anything about the children of others.

“I’ve been given the choice between: 1) being released in a safe place or 2) joining the SLA and fighting for my own liberty and for the liberty of all the oppressed. I’ve decided to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves to line up for food, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and for the lives of the oppressed of this country, but you’re lying and, as a member of the ruling class, I know that your interests and those of Mom have never served the interests of the people. You’ve said that you’ll offer more jobs, but why don’t you warn people about what’s going to happen to them, huh? Soon their jobs will be taken away. Of course you’ll say that you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re just a liar, a sell-out. But go ahead, tell them, the poor and oppressed of this country, what the government’s getting ready to do. Tell the Blacks and the vulnerable that they’ll be killed down to the last man, women and children included. If you have so much empathy for the People, tell them what the energy crisis really is, tell them that it’s just a clever strategy to hide the real intentions of Big Business. Tell them that the oil crisis is nothing more than a way to make them accept the construction of nuclear power plants all over the country; tell the People that the government is getting ready to automate all the industries and that soon, oh, in five years at the most, we won’t have need of anything but push-buttons. Tell them, Dad, that the vulnerable and a big part of the Middle Class, they’ll all be on unemployment in less than three years and then the elimination of the useless will start. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of order and the laws are just an excuse to get rid of the supposedly violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I should have known that you, like other businessmen, you’re perfectly capable of doing this to millions of people to hold on to power, you’d be ready to kill me for the same reasons. How long will it take for the Whites of this country to realize that what’s being done to Black children will sooner or later happen to White children?

My name has been changed to Tania, in homage to a comrade of the struggle who fought with Che in Bolivia. I embrace this name with determination, I’ll continue her fight. There’s no such thing as partial victory. I know that Tania dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely in an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.”*****

What’s brilliant about the above passages is the suggestion that Neveva Gene, a radical feminist scholar, is essentially being paid to prove that someone who has pronounced a discourse that echoes her own politics – who might have been one of her own students – must have been brainwashed. (Whence her direction to Violaine to note the *tone*; my own recollection is that Hearst spoke with a flat effect.) The other reason I’ve included the whole Hearst citation here is that it neatly signals the mirror with the cases of some of the French teenagers who have been hoodwinked into joining so-called “ISIS” – which, like the SLA, sometimes serves up a faux humanitarian discourse to dissimulate its murderous, nihilistic, and diabolical intentions.

From pages 139-140: (The “I” in the following segment is the narrator herself, now an adult after having in her turn grown up at the knees of the adult Violaine, now regarded as the village eccentric.)

I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young girls are disappearing from their homes. They’re signaled at the borders, designated “S”******, inscribed in organizational charts, with graphics establishing the co-relations between them: Coming from the Middle Class for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and showed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-side of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they ask accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we remain immobile, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and that we now find on magazine covers, they stare at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations by adults freaked out by these impenetrable young girls and who propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one but a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania).


*Prison escapes were à la mode back then, the prisoners becoming causes celebres among the Left. In 1974 or 1975, our eighth-grade teacher would take us on a field trip to the trial of the San Quentin Six — prisoners who had tried to escape with “Soledad Brother” George Jackson, fatally wounded — and of whose defense committee she was the secretary. I still remember them entering in shackles. (Checking my memory on Wikipedia after writing these lines, I see that not only did I remember the episode correctly, but that the sole defendant convicted of murder, Johnny Larry Spain, whose cornrows I also recall, had his conviction subsequently overturned by a federal judge… because he had been shackled throughout the trial, the longest in California history.)

**In his subsequent trial for the Milk and Moscone assassinations of November 27, 1978, White’s attorneys claimed that his mental state was influenced by having gorged himself on Hostess Twinkies, a cream-filled junk-food sponge cake.

*** On November 18, 1978, false prophet Jim Jones and his lieutenants of the “People’s Temple” mowed down U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, who had just landed near the group’s “Jonestown” camp in Guyana to investigate, then forced 915 followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, thus giving birth to the expression “He drunk the Kool-Aid,” the modern version of “He swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.” Jones recruited in the poorest communities of the San Francisco Bay Area, and was popular among certain liberal politicians in the Bay Area.

**** The original French phrase, “le fond de l’image est rouge,” echoes the title of Chris Marker’s hallmark 1977 documentary history of the radical Left, “Le fond de l’air est rouge.” The American context of a Time magazine cover suffused with red and stamped with the word ‘Guilty’ is the polar opposite: Time was founded by the rabid anti-Communist Henry Luce.

***** At first I didn’t buy the numerous contemporary testimonies from adolescents cited by Lafon hailing Patty as a hero, notably the actual trial testimony from a young man who is more star-struck than terrorized after Patty and her comrades hijack his car and hold him hostage for a day; “They even let me keep the hand-cuffs!” But when I read Hearst’s recorded message above, I suddenly recalled an editorial I’d written for the Corbett Community School student paper the following year lambasting “Corbett Parent School,” Corbett being a parent-run collective which I maintained was more concerned with organizing the social lives of the grown-ups than the education of their children. (I also wonder if the SLA’s tactics, and its multi-racial composition, might have influenced the rainbow triumvirate of school bullies who decided one day to sequester me in a hall closet and requisition my allowance.)

******French authorities’ designation for individuals deemed liable to commit terrorist acts.



Degas meets Valéry at the Orsay

degas9 group of dancers smallTo commemorate the centennial of the death of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), through Sunday the musée d’Orsay has organized an exhibition that juxtaposes paintings, pastels, and drawings from the Impressionist artist and others with “Degas Danse Dessin,” published in 1936 by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Accompanied by 26 hors-textes reproductions of Degas’s graphic work, the luxury edition was written by French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945). “Degas is one of the rare painters to lend the floor its own importance,” Valéry noted. “He has admirable planks. At times, he views a dancer from high up, and her entire form gets projected on the plane of the plateau, like seeing a crab on a beach.” Edgar Degas (1834-1917), “Dancers,” also known as “Group of Dancers,” between 1884 and 1885. Pastel on paper, 78.3 x 77.2 cm.  Paris, Musee d’Orsay, RF 51757. © Musée d’Orsay Dist. RMN- Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt. Courtesy Service Presse / musée d’Orsay.

The Ciphers of Chantal: Corinne Rondeau Plunges into the “Akermanian Night,” now at the Cinematheque

chantal dis moi smallChantal Akerman, “Dis Moi.” Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Except translated citation, copyright Editions de l’éclat)

For Nancy Kanach, M., and Katharine, teachers unafraid to call me on myself.

Like what you’re reading? Please donate to the Maison de Traduction now, by designating your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or writing us at that address to learn how to donate by check.

While my main subject here is Corinne Rondeau’s new book “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” through March 2 Chantal Akerman is also the subject of a retrospective at the Cinematheque Française in Paris.

As an American who has always looked upon France as the Valhalla of Intellect and Reason, of Art and Culture, it’s been painful to hear the clarion call of Camus and Godard, of Dutronc and Brassens, of Pissarro and Cocteau, of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, of Claude Cahun and Man Ray, of Renoir and Renoir, of Voltaire and Misia Sert almost entirely drowned out by the obsession with terrorism, Islam, and immigration which has dominated the public airwaves since the criminal massacre of 130 innocents on the café terraces and in the concert halls and stadiums of Paris and Saint-Denis of November 13, 2015. It’s as if, like their New York colleagues (Susan Sontag was a brave exception) after September 11, 2001 — witness the New York Times’s supine readiness to enable the Bush-Cheney chicaneries whenever the pendulum of “national security” was dangled before its eyes — French radio journalists have been infected with a kind of survivor’s syndrome which prevents them from analyzing events, be they cultural or civic, political or societal, outside of these paradigms. (Living in the East of Paris when and where the terrorists struck on November 13, I haven’t been immune to this syndrome, since that day often interpreting events through the prism of my own fears.) On Radio France’s putatively high-brow chain, France Culture, it’s gotten to the point where one is cumulatively more likely to hear the words Islam, immigration, terrorism, jihad, and their various derivatives than the words France and Culture, particularly on the news programs. The exceptions have been the world affairs program Culture Monde and Arnaud Laporte’s panel discussion “La Dispute,” which considers a different art form every evening. (Theater and dance Monday, music Tuesday, the plastic arts Wednesday, literature including comics Thursday, and film and t.v. series Friday, should you want to check it out, at 1 p.m. EST. Link below.) If all the knights and ladies of renaissance man Laporte’s critical round-table are informed, literate, engaged, and engaging — the best curating may be Laporte’s in choosing his team, over whose language he presides with the vigilance of a high school French teacher, making for a minimum of “voila”s — the intellectually exhilarating rhetorical perambulations, pirouettes, and sautées I look forward to following the most are Corinne Rondeau’s.

Droll, colorful, imaginative, incisive, complex without being complicated, erudite without being aloof, humble before the oeuvre and authoritative in the aesthetic background she applies to analyzing it, curious, exuding panache — in effect, the art professor of your dreams, and who confirms, in the best tradition of Clement Greenberg, Edwin Denby, Michel Ragon, Jean-Luc Godard, and Phillip Larkin, that criticism can be its own art form — Rondeau not only knows her material but knows how to sell her arguments. So when I heard that Editions de l’éclat had just published a 125-page essay by my critical chou-chou (whose previous book took on Sontag) on one of my cinematic cheries, the late Chantal Akerman, I couldn’t wait to turn off my radio and sink my mandibles into something that instead of feeding my anxieties promised to stimulate my intellect and my appetite for art.

As brain food, “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” exceeds my expectations. Whether the author succeeds in fulfilling her announced intention, heralded in a cover citation from the filmmaker*, to analyze Akerman’s achievement not through the prism of biography but on its own merits, is another question.

Chantal portrait small                                           Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

Since her October 5, 2015 suicide in a lonely Paris hotel room at the age of 65, which capped a 47-year career of creating films and installations that traverse fiction and documentary and transgress many other frontiers of form, sexuality, sentiment, genre, religion, race, nationality, economics, and cartography, Chantal Akerman seems to have become a cipher, with many of those who survived her (acolytes, colleagues, critics) seeing in her work and/or life (and chosen manner of dying) the manifestation of our own predicament or station (relative to  mainstream society and its mores) or proof of our own theorems. In my own case, I decided that Akerman’s suicide was a response to an indifferent mainstream media, welding her desperate act to that particular chip on my own shoulder; and/or the pained reaction of the reflective child of a Holocaust survivor to seeing Jewish schools in her Belleville neighborhood (once predominantly Jewish) in 2015, 70 years after the Deportation of 74,000 French and foreign Jews including 11,000 children, a scant 3,000 of whom returned from the camps, guarded by armed soldiers. An emerging female filmmaker who wrote to me after my first piece appeared on the Arts Voyager (reprised here,) seemed to identify with what she perceived as Akerman’s outsider alienation. A short movie the young woman made inspired by the Belgian-born director even aped Akerman’s sensibility and included a reference to the exploding oven of Akerman’s first film. For a while, images of the filmmaker took over the top of my correspondent’s Facebook page. Another young female cineaste I met at the after-party for a performance at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt shortly after the 13 November massacres wondered whether Akerman’s suicide was prompted by a premonition of the attacks; she didn’t want to be around to witness them. More broadly, some journalists mused that it was not uncommon for either children of Holocaust survivors or a child whose parent had just died, both facts true for Akerman, to choose to end their lives.  (When they speculated on Akerman’s suicide at all; ingrained French respect for the privacy of this choice — not atypical in a country without a right-to-die law — often trumped instinctive journalistic rapacity in the limited coverage of her death.) And of course the theme had popped up in her films, from the endearingly cloying debut short “Saute ma Ville,” produced in 1968, not long after seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou” (which ends with Jean-Paul Belmondo lighting the fuse of a head-dress of dynamite, a conclusion echoed in Akerman’s film, starring her), to “Letters Home,” the staged recitation of an exchange of letters between Sylvia Plath and her mother.

chantal saute smallChantal Akerman in her 1968 directorial debut, “Saute ma Ville.” All rights reserved and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 17 at 5 p.m., on a program with “Le Déménagement” and “La Chambre.”

Without questioning her sincere, considered, and critically informed admiration for the work itself, after having attempted (the adjective is as much a comment on my own limits when it comes to digesting aesthetic theory – in French or English —  as on the complexity of her analysis) to masticate “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” I can’t help but observe that in at least one minor and one major way, Rondeau seems to have followed the same tendency as the rest of  us. Her vision of the work often seems to be guided by her own theories and pre-occupations, and not vice-versa — at least as far as I can see from the paucity (or opacity) of some of the celluloid evidence cited to support her arguments. As opposed to her radio adventures, in which she tries to find out what an artist is about and explain how well an exhibition does or doesn’t reveal the artist’s modus vivendi, here she sometimes seems to be trying to accommodate Akerman’s films to a theme of her own predilection: Night. (Or at least doesn’t always clearly explain  how it’s a central subject for Akerman.) And whereas in her aural expositories I feel like I’m standing next to Rondeau and riveted to an oeuvre I’m seeing through her eyes, here she sometimes leaves me idling at the entrance without the door code.

First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.

After announcing — with that citation* from the artist on the front cover — that it would be a mistake to  look for clues to understanding Akerman in her biography and that one should “look elsewhere,” Rondeau appears to ignore her own counsel in exploring the most obvious aspect of Akerman’s personal story: That she’s Jewish and the child of a Holocaust survivor. Thus she sprinkles a very short book with more tantalizing citations from Jewish philosophers than I’ve come across in France in two decades:  Vladimir Jankélévitch, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Maurice Blanchot…. Not that I’m kvetching about discovering or re-discovering them! In a French societal context in which Jews are usually defined in relation to negatives (victims of anti-Semitism, the Shoah/Holocaust/Deportation, presumed loyalty to Israel no matter what its actions, controlling all the banks, Christ killers) or constrained stereotypes (if I hear France Culture refer once more to the particular vision of “Jewish American” writers, I’m going to choke on my Gefilte Fish) and which is so profuse it’s even diminished my own once hardy pride in this chunk of my DNA —  in this general ambiance which confines “Jewish identity” to these limited dimensions, it’s restorative to be reminded of a legacy which, immersed in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise” on a cross-country family trip in high school, once prompted me to ask my grandpa to arrange a belated bris (the non-medical, Jewish name-bestowing  part) and Cliff’s Notes bar-mitzvah once we reached Miami: The value Jews have always placed on scholarship and books, with an intellectual firmament delineated not by blind doctrinal adherence to the Word but by the spirit of Talmudic debate, not reserved to discussions of Halacha but extended to lay subjects. (Not a value exclusive to Jews; in Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s “All of life before you,” an elderly French-Arab Belleville resident befriended by the pre-adolescent narrator clings to the Koran with one hand, Hugo with the other, as the last ramparts against encroaching senility.) So I thank Rondeau for reminding me that this is also part of my inheritance; if I can’t defend Israel, I can still take pride in Scholem’s comment, cited by Rondeau, about the importance of “transmitting the things which are without name.”  (A precept which certainly drove Akerman.) If Benjamin and Jankélévitch have been cited in other discourses here, even on France Culture (notably by the philosopher Michel Onfray), it has rarely been in a Jewish context. (And with Jewish delis, bookstores, and bakeries being supplanted by national clothing chains on the rue des Rosiers in the  heart of the Marais — Goldberg’s is gone, so forget about finding kischka in Paris — there’s no longer even a local equivalent of Williamsburg to remind me of these positive aspects of my roots.)

So I don’t begrudge Rondeau the references. It just seems that she wants to have it both ways:  to be able to claim that unlike the rest of us, she’ll be the one to finally analyze Akerman on the basis of her work and not her identify, and then to be able to freely cull from Jewish philosophers whose thinking illuminates Akerman’s.

Chantal Jeanne Dielman smallDelphine Seyrig in “Jeanne Dielman, 23, rue de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” 1975. Chantal Akerman. Copyright Janus Films and  courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 18 at 2:30 p.m., with Sami Frey’s ‘Making of” documentary screening February 25 at 5:45 p.m..

More problematic than this contradiction is that elsewhere in the book, the film excerpts that Rondeau cites to support her thesis are often fleeting, ephemeral, gossamer images devoid of any narrative framework or references. It’s as if she’s writing for a narrow coterie of colleagues who have already seen all the films in question, so that she feels she can dispense with plot description. (The book is dedicated to Akerman’s longtime collaborator Claire Atherton.) And yet even the most worldly of critics usually doesn’t assume his readers have already seen the work he’s writing about. When I discovered Denby, it didn’t matter that I hadn’t  yet seen most of the performances he was describing; I was enraptured —  he and other critics I read at the time helped me fall in love with dance and determined me to write about it. Rondeau’s radio commentaries (for example, during this episode of “La Dispute”)  have a similar effect on me. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen the exhibitions she’s discussing; her vision is so brilliant that it’s almost better seeing them through her eyes. If a written commentary can certainly be more sophisticated, even philosophical, than radio chatter, it shouldn’t be at the expense of clarity, which is often the case here. I sometimes feel like I’m lost in the middle of a rhetorical swamp with no sense of where it is on the map. (Even Godard, who doesn’t always deign to include even a summary plot description in his Cahiers du Cinema critiques, because his concerns are more profound and technical, still leaves  me  with a clear sense of where both he and the  film are going, even if I haven’t seen the work; in fact he makes me want to.**) And I’m no piker when it comes to Akermania. What Rondeau may not realize is that outside of Paris and New York, the films of Chantal Akerman are so rarely projected that more narrative context would have been in order. (Most of the friends I’ve told about her, including culturally literate intellectuals, even in France, have never heard of Chantal Akerman.  When “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was broadcast on TCM, it was from midnight to four in the morning. I found Akerman’s chef d’oeuvre in a library in East Fort Worth, Texas with a particularly curious librarian. But if I knew to look for her, it was because I’d been able to catch the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.***)

chantal almayer small“Almayer’s Folly,” 2011. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved.  Courtesy Cinematheque Française, screening the film February 12 at 9 p.m. and 22 at 9:30.

I’ve considered whether it might be my perception and not Rondeau’s logic which is too dense; whether her thinking might just be too complex for me to follow. Because translating an author usually forces me to probe her meaning in French so that I can do justice to it in English, I decided to try this for the section of “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit”  in which Rondeau zooms in on her uber-theme — “the night Akermanian” —  as she believes it to be manifest in “Almayer’s Folly,” a 2011 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel.  (I’ve respected the original’s structure in not breaking one long paragraph.)

“But confronted with ‘Almayer’s Folly,'” Rondeau begins on page 96, “it’s the spectator who must let go of everything he knows about [Akerman]. She forces him to not recognize her. It’s the climactic moment of her own treason, which is the absolute love for a body of work that we think we know by heart, of which we’ve already made the tour of the grounds, guided by its residents. But Akerman goes further. With the night of  ‘Almayer’s Folly,’ she doesn’t stop saying, without saying: take it to the limit like one lives, nothing less — let yourself be carried away. Then we enter into the night as in a film where we don’t understand anything, which mixes up time, putting the befores after the afters, not by disorder intended to destroy any and all continuity, but to thwart the slightest hope of putting any order in the grand upheaval of the night, of a life which offers moments of a crazy beauty. A beauty we don’t recognize, because beauty is recognizable by that which we don’t recognize in ourselves, the great stranger who sweeps up everything, to whom we grant for no reason, without reticence, all our care to abandon. There’s no beauty without hearing the call: abandon yourself. Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name. Abandon all causalities, chronological order, and assure the disorder — in other words, [engage in] hospitality: Make space for that which doesn’t have space, for that which we don’t recognize. Make space even when one doesn’t have space oneself; learn to displace oneself in the interior of one’s home, in the interior of one’s solitude as well, because the solitude is not solitude, it’s the power of the many. Open oneself to a film where it’s useless to try to resolve the leaps in time, the chiasms. Ever since ‘Saute ma ville,’ we know that the story happens also in the ellipses, but we never know what remains in the ellipsis.  It depends at times on the silence of an explanation, not to hide it, but because that’s how it is and that’s all. To love in order to welcome the disorder of life as it is; why put it all in order at the end, why do we all give ourselves the illusion of order at the end? Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story, at the moment when we’ve already departed. This is why we have passeurs [those who transmit us from one bank to the other, like the ferryman], rather than connoisseurs, not to restore order in the space of those who have departed, but rather to accept that which we don’t understand about their departure, to make a place for that which remains without response — the reason that it’s useful to make, to create space rather than a space. What we find is right there before our eyes, and what we sense is that it’s futile to exceed what’s given: beauty and strangeness, such  is ‘Almayer’s Folly.’ It’s no longer a visage nor a landscape with which we’re confronted. We find ourselves in front of a night equal to those rivers which flow down to the sea: the intensities of the night, tempest, storm,  wind, the reflection of the moon — what remains of the day when the Sun is behind us, when the soil displays our shadow, disrupting the course of the water, the course of time which a violent flurry can reverse.  Night creates its place out of that which we discard, if only we let ourselves be swept away by its currents. Grand nocturne of relentless sonic sensations:  the buzz of flies, the chirping of crickets, the diluvium rain which batters the water’s surface, the tremor of the rivulets in the wake of an embarkation, Dean Martin’s ‘Sway,’ Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum,’ the prelude to ‘Tristan and Iseault’ in constant replay. Relentless visual sensations as well: the blue and pink aurora of the morning and the black eyes of a disturbing, immobile, statuesque woman of a  melancholy beauty, the trace of the moon’s reflection which in the storm scrambles sight, the colored reflections from the lights of a ship which sails past without stopping, the reeds which bend in passing bodies in the jungle, stirred up by the wind which carries away all reason, screams, and the branch which shoots up from the water like the arm of a drowning man that one catches sight of twice, and that continues to float for how much time afterwards.

“Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained, ‘Almayer’s Folly’ is an immense film about the unbridled nature of night.”

And a bit later:

“Because memory can’t exist unless it follows forgetting. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ creates a space for forgetting so that memory can emerge from that which forgetting takes from disappearance. There’s the memory impossible to forget; now comes the forgetting impossible not to leave, because without forgetting, there’s no memory. And if we forget the Night Akermanian, all memory is sacrificed, as well as its call: Let go. One also needs time, a relatively long time, to let go.”

After translating this elegiac rhapsody, and then reading the translation several times, it’s not only clear to me that Rondeau loves Akerman, but that the critic has a visceral attachment to the filmmaker that few of us can aspire to. And which has helped her to find in “Almayer’s Folly” a key to understanding the role of cinema itself as preservational amber. “Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained” might apply to the art form more broadly and its relation to memory. (I even find a cautionary alert about my own nostalgic rapture for the past, often addled by a cinematic past I never had.) If it’s clear how the details cited in the passage above might lead to this conclusion, it’s less clear how Akerman uses them to illuminate the plot of “Almayer’s Folly.”  “Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story,” Rondeau writes; after reading her lengthy discourse on the film, we don’t even know the story. It’s only after an expedition into the novel itself (being unable to see the movie) that I’m able to place some of the elements described by Rondeau – notably the uprooted tree branch which weaves in and out of Almayer’s view as it recedes down the river – in the scheme of the story itself. If I’m able to accord “the grand nocturne” a pass in this regard because of the powerful epiphany that comes with it, I’m less forgiving with more banal generalizations. For the little that Rondeau produces by way of examples from the work itself that prove this, general statements like “Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name” might just as well apply to my last love affair as to Akerman’s film.

chantal autre smallDe l’autre côté,” Chantal Akerman, copyright 2001. Courtesy Cinematheque française, where the documentary screens March 1 at 7:30 p.m., on a mixed program with “Les années ‘80” and “Histoires d’Amérique.”

As if to confirm my impression that Rondeau loses something, clarity-wise, when she passes from spoken word to the printed page, the clearest section of the book is the one based on a previous discourse, perhaps initially delivered out loud in English, as it was Rondeau’s contribution to Westminster University’s November 2016 colloquium “After Chantal” (note the exclusive employment of the first name — another indication of cipherdom).  Here her theme relies on another film I’ve not seen, the 2000 “De l’autre côté,” but unlike with “Almayer’s Folly,” this time Rondeau’s theme — riffing on the film’s subject of frontiers and border crossings, here between Mexico and  the United States — doesn’t elude me. It’s as though the prospect of delivering her thesis directly to an audience (and an Anglophone audience at that) forced the author to be more lucid, as in her radio commentaries. Even in the part of her analyses focusing on a more ephemeral installation which complemented the film, “Une voix dans le dessert,” and which involved “putting a screen on the frontier between the United States and Mexico.” This time Rondeau does a better job of connecting the scenarios of the oeuvres in question with her theme of night, the night which can cloak the passage of the clandestine, the night in which a woman can get lost without leaving a trace, the night which frightens with its opacity, the night whose monochromatic canvas can also be evoked by the vast white sands of the dunes, the frontier between night and day evoked by the border and its barriers, the night which confounds nationalities, the night in which different nationals can exist simultaneously in multiple dimensions and articulated in different fashions (Rondeau refers to narrations delivered in different languages by Akerman) and through different mediums. And thus has better narrative footing for discussing Akerman, who constantly crossed and transgressed frontiers and borders in a multitude of manners.

When it comes to Akerman films I actually have seen that she discusses, Rondeau bats about .333. (In baseball terms, this is nothing to be ashamed of; Ted Williams territory, if you’ll forgive the side tribute to Jonathan Schwartz, the NYC institution who is Williams’s most consistent fan and another of my radio heroes.) She backs up her observation about the 1999 “Sud”‘s concern with traces (of the past and future) by describing Akerman shooting, from the back of a pick-up truck, the asphalt trajectory of and markings left by James Byrd, Jr. as he was dragged to death from the back of another truck. (What I remember most about catching the film at the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou is my American date’s observation, on seeing one of the young white trash subjects: “I know that guy,” meaning she recognized the type.)

chantal divan smallJuliette Binoche in “Un divan a New York,” 1995. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved.  Courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 16 at 7:30 p.m. and February 19 at 5 p.m..

At the Centre Pompidou’s 2004 Akerman retrospective, I had the opportunity to exchange with the filmmaker following a screening of the French-language version of the romantic comedy “Un divan a New York,” in which Park Avenue psychiatrist William Hurt exchanges apartments with Belleville dancer Juliette Binoche, with both hilarity and havoc ensuing, as Hurt’s patients find Binoche a much more effective shrink while Hurt’s Paris adventure is sabotaged by ongoing construction on Binoche’s digs. (I could relate.) Having also seen the English language version of the film at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives (where Akerman had her big bang upon seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou”), I just couldn’t wait to have her thank me when I stood up during the Q&A to declare how much I loved her movie. “I hated it,” she essentially responded; as I recall, mainly because it was a (rare) commercial commission.

So when Rondeau chides fellow Akerman acolytes who dismiss “Un divan a New York” for not being consistent with the rest of Akerman’s oeuvre, she’s ignoring that the filmmaker herself considered it the black sheep of her family of films.

As Akerman herself is no longer around to dialogue with, it would have been nice if for its retrospective on her running through March 2,  the Cinematheque Française would have invited someone who relates to her work on a deeper level than any other critic: Corinne Rondeau. Astoundingly, Rondeau was not among the speakers invited to introduce or debate Akerman’s oeuvre during the retrospective. When asked why Rondeau had not been invited, a Cinematheque spokesperson told me, incredibly, “her very fine book came out last October.” In other words, never mind the level of scholarship, authority, expertise, and erudition — in the limited scope of those running the Cinematheque these days, if it came out earlier than tomorrow it’s suddenly irrelevant. This from a *cinematheque*, where archival interests should prime.

Oh look! It’s Wednesday evening — when La Dispute focuses on the plastic arts, Corinne Rondeau’s fiefdom. At least I can look forward to my radio day terminating with more original stimulation than that with which it began (when a France Culture morning program theme announced as “a look at changing jurisprudence” fatally degenerated into yet another discussion of terrorism and jihadists). For this intellectual stimulation — justement for giving me matter to chew on that I don’t always understand — I thank the gods of cinema for Chantal Akerman, and even France Culture for exposing me to the exalting perspective and way of thinking of Corinne Rondeau.

*”No, no, certainly not…. I don’t believe one should look to autobiography [for clues], it puts you in a box,” a manner to say [Rondeau adds in the cover citation]: perhaps look elsewhere.

** “Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard,” Collection Cahiers du Cinema, Editions Pierre Belfond, 1968.

***If you don’t want to wait until the next time TCM broadcasts “Jeanne Dielman” at an hour you won’t be able to stay up to see it, Criterion has bundled its DVD package of the film with both Godard veteran Sami Frey’s “Making of” documentary and Akerman’s debut short “Saute ma ville.”


“La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished) by Michel Ragon: Extract from Chapter 1, ‘La petite fille dans la charrette aux poissons’ (The little girl in the fishmongers’ wagon)

Like what you’re reading on the Maison de Traduction? Please support our work by making a donation via PayPal. You can designate your PayPal donation in $ or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Or write us at that address to find out how to donate by check. For context to the excerpt below, we suggest reading our excerpt from the Prologue first. The subtitle for this chapter is “(1899 -1917)”; the segment is set in 1911.

Translation and afterward by Paul Ben-Itzak:  (Version originale follows)

As for me, I’m just a poor sap! For those of us at the bottom of the heap, it’s nothing but bad breaks in this world and the one beyond. And of course, when we get to Heaven, it’ll be up to us to make sure the thunder-claps work.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck,” cited on the frontispiece of Part One of “The Book of the Vanquished.”

 Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley flanking the Saint-Eustache church.* Stretching his limbs out like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a hungry feline, took off in search of nourishment, his nose following the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it wouldn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before they’d debated over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his portion. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between trailers loaded with heaps of victuals. Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the  odor of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which in his imagination had taken on the proportions of a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts coming from far away, like the rolling of thunder-claps. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, machinally hanging onto the reins. After all, the horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the outskirts of the Poissonnière** quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.

On this particular Friday, at the rear of one of the chariots sat a small girl. Her naked legs and bare feet dangled off the edge of the cart, and the boy, fascinated by this patch of white flesh, approached the wagon. The girl, her head drooping, her face hidden by a cascade of blonde curls which fell over her eyes, didn’t notice him at first. As for the boy, he only had eyes for those plump gams poised on the precipice of the chariot. By the time he was almost on top of them, he could hear the girl singing out a rhymed ditty. He advanced his hand, touching one of her calves.

“Eh! Lower the mitts! Why, the nerve!”

At this point the boy got his first glimpse of her face, a drawn visage with blue eyes. He knew that the sea was blue. The small girl came from the sea. Now that he thought of it, she reeked of fish, unless the odor was coming from the cart. Strictly for purposes of verification, he held his nose up against one of the white legs and sniffed.

She put up a fight.

“Would you mind not snorting like that? In the first place, where did you come from?”

He pointed down the street with a vague air.

“We’re here!” responded the girl. “It’s about time.”

She jumped off the wagon. The boy towered over her.

“I’m 12 years old,” he declared. “And you?”


“You sure are tiny.”

“You’re the one who’s tall. What a bean-stalk! You’re as skinny as a kipper.”

The line of wagons had ground to a halt. The men and women had emerged from this tide and floated down to the bistros, from which emanated the hubbub of their boisterous kibitzing. The girl verified that everyone had already abandoned her cart, returned to the boy still planted in front of the wagon gawking at her, took his hand and hauled him off in a trot.

“I’ve had it with these hicks,” she declared when they finally paused to rest, near the rue de Richelieu. “We’re going to make a life together. What’s your moniker?”


“Mine’s Flora. You crash with your ma and pa?”

“Nope. I manage to get by on the streets. My old man and mom are dead and buried.”

“You’re lucky. Mine are going to come looking for me if you’re not clever enough to hide me. They work me like an ox, and I’ve had it up to here. Watch out — they’re dangerous. If they ever find out that you’ve kidnapped me, they’ll carve you up into little pieces!”

“But I never kidnapped you!”

“You sniffed my legs.”

“I just wanted to find out if you smelled like fish.”

“That’s how it always starts. Then before you know it, you’re hitched.”

They turned off into the gardens of the Palais Royal. Flora’s eyes grew bigger at the sight of the water shooting up out of the fountains.

“What’s the sea like?” asked Fred.

“Disgusting. It never stops budging. It’s full of salt and all kinds of icky stuff. It’s freezing cold, it’s mean — it sinks the boats of miserable fishermen. Sometimes it opens up its huge mouth and bites all the way up to the shore, like it’s going to swallow up the houses along the docks. It hammers, it howls. I hope I never see its stinking hide again.”

“Here too,” Fred noted, “sometimes the sea rises up from all sides and then it spreads out. Last year Paris just about drowned — and all the Parigots with it. The sea came from far away, seeped into the basements, and then overflowed. Rats scurried down the streets like madmen, the water nipping at their butts. Entire blocks just disappeared, replaced by rivers. Bridges were put up made of planks of wood. Sometimes it sounded just like canon-fire — the ground-floor windows exploding. The water poured into the houses and pushed up the sewer grills. Paris smelled like mud, cemeteries, fog. All the lower neighborhoods were wiped out. Only then did the flood thin out, leaving behind it just the sound of the waves — as if the water was quite satisfied with itself for the mess it had made. This is how I think of the sea. I used to hear stories about entire drowned villages sunk to the bottom of the ocean where the church bells still rang out.”

“It’s not like that at all! I already told you, the sea is like one huge garbage dump.”

They were sitting in iron chairs at the rim of the grand fountain, with Flora once again swinging her naked legs from her short, worn, chestnut-colored cotton skirt.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Fred declared. “It’s not humanly possible how much you smell like fish. Are you sure cats don’t follow you down the street?”

Flora shrugged her slight shoulders and bit her nails.

Just then a uniformed guard seemed to spring up from nowhere, huffing and puffing like a bulldog. They barely had time to jump out of their chairs to avoid being struck.

“Scram, you little good-for-nothings! Vermin!”

The pair skedaddled towards the Comédie-Française, hand in hand. When they got to the rue de Rivoli, their ragged clothing jarred with the chic surroundings. Fred, coiffed with a cap, wore an old grey suit. These together with his oversized combat boots leant him the air of a wandering apprentice. Unusually tall and looking older than his age, he might have passed unnoticed in the high-class quartiers. But Flora, with her skirt just a little too high, her naked legs, and above all her bare feet, resembled one of “The Two Orphans.”*** So much so that a well-to-do lady took pity on her and handed her some money.

“What did she give you?”

Flora opened the hollow of her hand to reveal the coin.

“Formidable! Let’s treat ourselves to some breakfast rolls.”

Ever since the Great Paris Flood of 1910, Fred had been living on the streets. His father, a manual laborer in the Metro tunnels, succumbed to tuberculosis shortly before the flood and his mother followed suite not long after, swept away by the epidemic. The child was taken in by relatives who weren’t crazy about the idea. Fred took advantage of the general bedlam that followed the surging tides to decamp. With his adoptive parents assuming that he would “depart this Earth via his chest” in any case and that “what he needs most is fresh air,” he’d not had a roof over his head since running away. In the Les Halles quartier, vagabonds of his stripe abounded. Of all ages. Of all types. From the run-of-the-mill hobo to the Bohemian artist, from the lowest of whores to the Madwoman of Chaillot. Around the iron Baltard pavilions which housed the market swarmed a nocturnal fauna which nourished itself on the refuse of the great wholesale market. Each individual appropriated himself his own zone, sleeping in his own particular corner. Each vigorously defended his territory. But he who scrupulously heeded the tacit rules of hobo-dom had nothing to worry about. In this veritable cesspool, the boy acquired all the tools of survival. He learned how to sleep with one eye open, his mind alert, ready for anything. He learned how to get by on very little, to subsist on drinking water only when the opportunity presented itself. He learned how to duck and dodge blows. He learned to be suspicious and to be wily. All tools which in later life would enable him to circumvent many a roadblock and pitfall.

All day long Fred and Flora amused themselves galloping about the streets of Paris. But by the time night arrived, Fred was ready to quit. Flora obviously refused to return to Les Halles, where they might be recognized. Yet outside of his quartier, Fred felt lost. He had the impression that since dawn he’d discovered some fabulous places, but he’d never for a single instant considered the idea that at night-time he might not be able to return to his niche near Saint-Eustache. At the same time, abandoning Flora was out of the question. This dilemma lead them to continue skirting the city center until they’d winded all the way up to the working-class neighborhoods of the east of Paris, where they were startled to find themselves suddenly in the midst of a sort of countryside, with cottages surrounded by gardens, hangers, and craftsmen’s workshops. Night came upon them all at once in this setting, which felt ominous. They were famished. Fred didn’t want to admit it, but he was lost.

“Cou-cou, young lovers! Just idling about?”

Fred and Flora got ready to bolt when this voice spoke to them from out of the shadows. But once they’d made out the silhouette of their interlocutor, they were re-assured. It belonged to a very young woman, perhaps 16, dressed in a black schoolgirl’s smock. Her short hair, parted in the middle, the white sailor’s collar which highlighted her blouse, and her mischievous, charming little face immediately inspired the confidence of the two children.

“I’ve not seen you two around here before. Where are you staying?”

And, as the two children seemed to be tongue-tied, by way of excuse she added:

“You probably think I’m butting into something that’s none of my business. And you’re right. I was just trying to shoot the breeze — my way of saying hello! Anyways, good night.”

“Wait, don’t leave!” Fred implored her. “I think we’re lost. Are we in the country, or what?”

“You are in Belleville. A not very beautiful ville.**** Belleville is the boonies. And that’s exactly what we love about it. But I’m a dolt — perhaps you’re hungry?”

“Yes,” answered Flora.

“In that case, come along.”

The young woman opened up an iron gate, lead them through a garden, and they mounted, via a set of wooden stairs, to a modest lodging where a young man stood before a table carefully reading large sheets of newspaper paper. He as well seemed to be very young — 20 at most. He was dressed in a peculiar white flannel shirt with mauve silk fringes. His black eyes studied the two children.

“This is Victor,” said the young woman. “I’m Rirette.”

“I’m Fred, and this is Flora.”

“Well, Fred, well, Flora, you’ll have some bread and a little cheese. Victor and I won’t ask you any questions. If you have no place to sleep, there’s a shack at the rear of the garden. If you decide not to stay — if you decide you don’t like our mugs — the gate is never locked.”

Fate often hangs on very little. Or rather, it is sometimes linked by a chain of events which bring you to your own personal moment of truth. Thus Flora’s white legs, dangling innocently from the edge of a fishmonger’s wagon, Fred’s fascination with them, the girl’s flight which followed, and the impossibility of returning to Les Halles all impelled Fred and Flora towards Belleville and the impromptu encounter with Rirette Maîtrejean and Victor Kibaltchich. And thus began the real adventures of Alfred Barthélemy.


By way of context and as a preview of things to come in the rest of Part One of Michel Ragon’s “La Mémoire des vaincus”:

Long before Fred and Flora arrived there in 1911, Belleville, the last outpost of the 1871 Paris Commune uprising, had become a refuge for both the Utopian and violent strains of the anarchists who succeeded the Communards, including the notorious Bonnot Band, some of whose members frequented, in real life and in Michel Ragon’s novel, the home of Rirette Maîtrejean and Victor Kibaltchich, publishers of an anarchist newspaper and advocates of the non-violent approach. (The real-life Kibaltchich would later assume the nom de plume of Victor Serge. And, like Fred in the novel, would eventually turn against the Bolsheviks and barely escape Russia with his life.) In Ragon’s account, before most of the band, frequented by Rirette and Victor at the same time they take in Fred and Flora, are eliminated or taken out of circulation by the authorities, and Victor sent to prison for complicity – real events vividly recounted in Part One — one of the gang takes Fred to Paul Delesalle’s (real) anarcho-syndicaliste bookstore on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince near the Latin Quarter, effectively handing him off to his next intellectual foster parent and mentor. (Delesalle will secure Fred and Flora housing with two regular clients, Charles Péguy and Georges Sorel.) There Fred discovers Victor Hugo and Eugene Sue, and learns Russian from one of the bookstore’s clients: Vsévolod Eichenbaum, a.k.a. Voline, the anarchist theorist deported from Russia for his participation in the aborted revolution of 1905 and who returned there in 1917 to try to unify the various anarchist tendencies, only to be arrested by the Bolsheviks in 1920 as they crushed the very anarchists who had aided their rise to power.  Fred’s Russian apprenticeship — along with his exposure to Hugo and Sue – will be critical to the adventures which follow and place him at the heart of the Bolshevik revolution and succeeding 20th-century class, national, Labor, and international struggles.

* A church in whose choir another waif once sang, under the direction of Charles Gounod, who would regret that his pupil with the voice of an angel chose painting over music: Auguste Renoir.

** Lit.: “Fishmonger.”

*** “Les Deux Orphelines” (The Two Orphans) was a five-act drama by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Cormon which opened on January 20, 1874, at the théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin on the Grands Boulevards, and which the authors later adopted as a serial novel published in the newspaper La Nation in 1892 and in its entirety by Rouff in 1894. That Michel  Ragon, writing in 1990, would be able to conjure this popular reference from 1911 is yet another sign of his vast erudition.

**** In French, “belle” means “beautiful,” while “ville” means “city.”

Excerpt from “La Mémoire des vaincus,” by Michel Ragon. Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1990.

Version originale:

“Mais moi, je suis un pauvre bougre ! Pour nous autres, c’est malheur dans ce monde et dans l’autre, et sûr, quand nous arriverons au ciel, c’est nous qui devrons faire marcher le tonnerre.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck.”

Tous les matins, le froid réveillait l’enfant à l’aube. Bien avant que ne s’éteignent les réverbères, dans la pâle lumière grise, il s’ébrouait en quittant l’encoignure où il avait dormi, toujours au même endroit, dans une ruelle qui longeait l’église Saint-Eustache. Il s’étirait comme un chat, se secouait les puces, et comme un chat partait à la recherche de quelque nourriture, au pif, à l’odeur. Les Halles se réveillant en même temps que lui, il ne tardait pas à découvrir quelque chose de chaud. Les marchandes de volailles n’ouvraient pas leurs étals avant d’avoir discuté autour d’un bol de bouillon. L’enfant recevait sa part. Puis il s’éloignait en sautillant, jouant à cloche-pied entre les baladeuses chargées d’un amas de victuailles. Tous les vendredis, il remontait la rue des Petits-Carreaux, allant à la rencontre des charrettes de poissonniers qui arrivaient de Dieppe. Il aimait cette odeur d’algues et d’écailles qui déferlait vers le centre de Paris. La mer, cette mer qu’il n’avait jamais vue et qu’il imaginait comme une inondation terrible, se frayait un chemin à travers la campagne et descendait des hauteurs de Montmartre. On entendait les charrettes de très loin, dans un grondement de tonnerre. Les roues cerclées de métal faisaient sur les pavées un vacarme du diable. Auquel s’ajoutait le cliquetis des fers des chevaux. Engourdis dans les voitures par leur long voyage, les poissonniers sommeillaient, enveloppées dans leurs lourdes houppelandes, tenant machinalement les guides. Les chevaux connaissaient leur chemin. Lorsque les premiers attelages arrivaient sous les pavillions de fer, il se produisait alors un embouteillage et le crissement des freins remontait en un grincement aigu jusqu’au faubourg Poissonnière. Les charretiers se réveillaient brusquement, s’invectivaient, se dressaient sur leur siège. Il fallait attendre que les premiers déchargent leurs marchandises. Les chevaux piaffaient, tapaient du pied. La plupart des hommes descendaient de voiture et allaient boire un petit verre de goutte dans les bistrots qui ouvraient leurs volets.

Ce vendredi-là, à l’arrière d’une des charrettes se tenait assise une petite fille. Ses jambes et ses pieds nus se balançaient et le garçon ne remarquait plus que cette peau blanche. Il s’approcha. La petite fille, la tété penchée, le visage caché par ses cheveux blonds embroussaillés qui lui retombaient sur les yeux, ne le voyait pas. Lui, de toute manière, ne regardait que ces jambes dodues, qui se balançaient. Lorsqu’il fut tout près, il entendit que la petite fille chantonnait une comptine. Il avança la main, toucha l’un des mollets.

— Bas les pattes ! A-t-on idée !

Alors il aperçu son visage, une figure chiffonnée, avec des yeux bleus. Il savait que la mer était bleue. La petite fille venait de la mer. Elle sentait d’ailleurs très fort le poisson, ou bien cela venait de la charrette. Pour en avoir le cœur net il mit le nez sur l’une des jambes blanches.

Elle se débattit.

— Veux-tu pas renifler comme ça. D’abord, d’où sors-tu ?

Il montra le bas de la rue, d’un air vague.

— On est arrivés, dit la petite fille. C’est pas trop tôt.

Elle sauta de la charrette. Le garçon était beaucoup plus grand qu’elle.

— Moi j’ai douze ans, dit-il, et toi ?

— Onze.

— Tu es bien petite.

— C’est toi qui es grand. Quel échalas ! On dirait un hareng saur.

La file de véhicules s’immobilisait. Hommes et femmes de la marée, tous étaient descendus dans les bistrots où on les entendait discuter bruyamment. La petite fille s’assura que personne ne restait dans sa carriole, revint vers le garçon qui demeurait planté là, à la regarder, lui prit la main et l’entraîna, en courant très vite.

— J’ai ai marre de ces péquinots, dit-elle lorsqu’ils s’arrêtèrent près de la rue de Richelieu. On va faire la vie tous les deux. Tu t’appelles comment ?

— Fred.

— Moi, c’est Flora. Tu crèches chez tes père et mère ?

— Non. Je me débrouille dans la rue. Mes vieux sont morts et enterrés.

— T’as de la chance. Les miens vont me courir après, si t’es pas assez malin pour me cacher. Me font trimer comme une bête. J’en ai ma claque. Fais gaffe, ils sont méchants. Si jamais ils voient que tu m’as enlevée, qu’est que tu vas dérouiller !

— Mais je ne t’ai pas enlevée !

— Si, tu m’as reniflé les jambes.

— C’était pour voir si tu sentais le poisson.

— Ça commence comme ça, et après on fait la vie.

Ils bifurquèrent dans les jardins du Palais-Royal. Flora s’émerveilla devant les jets d’eau des bassins.

— La mer, c’est comment ? demanda Fred.

— Dégueulasse. Ça bouge tout le temps. C’est de l’eau pleine de sel et d’un tas de saloperies. C’est froid, c’est méchant, ça coule les bateaux des pauvres pêcheurs. De temps en temps, ça ouvre une gueule énorme et ça se met à mordre les remblais. On dirait qu’elle va avaler les maisons, sur le quai. Elle cogne, elle hurle. J’espère bien ne plus jamais voir cette mauvaiseté.

— Ici aussi, dit Fred, dans les villes la mer remonte parfois de partout et s’étale. L’an dernier, Paris a bien failli se noyer et tous les Parigots avec. La mer vient de très loin, rentrée dans les caves, déborde. Les rats courent dans les rues, comme des fous, suivis par cette montée des eaux qui leur colle aux fesses. Les rues disparaissent. Il n’y a plus que des rivières. On construit des ponts de planches. On entend de temps en temps comme des coups de canon ; les fenêtres des rez-de-chausée explosent. L’eau déferle dans les maisons, soulève les plaques de fonte des égouts. Paris sent la boue, le cimetière, la brume. Tous les bas quartiers s’effacent. Puis la flotte finis par s’étaler, avec seulement un bruit de clapotis. On dirait qu’elle est contente, l’eau, d’avoir fait un tel bordel. C’est comme ça que je vois la mer. On m’a raconté autrefois des histoires où l’on disait qu’au fond de l’Océan se trouvent des villes englouties et qu’on entend même sonner les cloches des églises.

— Mais non, c’est pas ça du tout. La mer, je te dis, c’est une belle saloperie.

Ils s’étaient assis dans des chaises de fer, près du grand bassin. De nouveau, Flora, vêtu d’une robe courte, en vieux lainage marron, balançait ses jambes nues.

— Y a pas à dire, ce que tu peux sentir le poisson, c’est pas Dieu possible. Les chats ne te courent pas après?

Flora haussa ses épaules menues. Elle se mordait les doigts.

C’est à ce moment qu’arriva sur eux, soufflant comme un bouledogue, un gardien en uniforme. Ils n’eurent que le temps de sauter des chaises pour éviter les gifles.

— Dehors, guenilleux, vermine !

Ils coururent vers la Comédie-Française, en se tenant par la main. Arrivés rue de Rivoli, leurs défroques détonnèrent dans ce quartier chic. Fred, coiffé d’une casquette, portait un vieux costume gris. Ses godillots achevaient de lui donner un air d’apprenti en vadrouille. Très grand, d’apparence plus vieux que son âge, il aurait pu passer inaperçu dans les beaux quartiers. Mais Flora, avec sa robe trop courte, ses jambes et surtout ses pieds nus, ressemblait à l’une des Deux Orphelines. A tel point qu’une dame cossue crut de son devoir de lui faire l’aumône.

— Qu’est-ce qu’elle t’a refilé ?

Flora montra la piécette, dans le creux de sa main.

— Chouette, on va se payer des petits pains.

Depuis les grandes inondations de Paris, en 1910, Fred vivait dans la rue. Son père, terrassier dans les tranchées du métro, était mort de tuberculose peu de temps auparavant et la mère suivit, emportée par la contagion. L’enfant fut recueilli par des cousins qui supportaient mal cette charge. Fred profita de l’affolement consécutif à la montée des eaux pour déguerpir. Comme ses parents adoptifs ne cessaient de redouter qu’il « parte aussi de la poitrine » et que « ce qu’il lui faudrait c’est le grand air », il n’avait plus jamais dormi sous un toit depuis sa fugue. Dans le quartier des Halles, les vagabonds de son acabit abondaient. De tous les âges. De tous les genres. Du clodo traditionnel à l’artiste bohème, de la putain de dernière classe à la Folle de Chaillot. Autour des pavillons de Baltard grouillait une faune nocturne qui se nourrissait des déchets du grand marché de gros. Chacun s’appropriait une zone, dormait dans un coin. Chacun défendait vigoureusement son territoire. Mais qui observait scrupuleusement les règles tacites de la cloche n’avait pas d’ennuis. L’enfant apprit, dans ce cloaque, toutes les techniques de la survie. Il appris à ne dormir que d’un œil, l’esprit en alerte, toujours sur le qui-vive. Ill apprit à se sustenter de peu, à ne boire que lorsque l’occasion se présentait. Il apprit à esquiver les coups. Il apprit la méfiance, la ruse. Toutes choses qui devaient plus tard, dans maintes situations difficiles, lui permettre d’éviter les chausse-trappes.

Toute la journée, Fred et Flora s’amusèrent à galoper dans les rues. Mais lorsque vint le soir, Fred se trouva désemparé. Flora refusait évidemment de s’approcher du quartier des Halles, où l’on risquait de la reconnaître. Or, sorti des Halles, Fred se sentait perdu. Il avait l’impression que, depuis l’aube, il avait parcouru des lieux fantastiques, mais il ne lui serait jamais venu à à l’idée qu’il puisse ne pas retrouver pour la nuit sa ruelle de Saint-Eustache. Il lui paraissait de même impensable d’abandonner Flora. Ce dilemme les conduisit à contourner le centre de la ville jusqu’aux faubourgs populaires de l’Est, où ils furent tout étonner d’arriver soudain dans une sorte de campagne. Des petites maisons entourées de jardins, des hangars, des ateliers d’artisans. La nuit les surprit dans cet environnement qui leur sembla hostile. Ils avaient faim. Fred n’osait se l’avouer, mais il appréhendait de s’être perdu.

— Alors, les amoureux, on musarde ?

Fred et Flora s’apprêtaient à fuir en entendant cette voix qui sortait de l’ombre. Mais lorsqu’ils discernèrent la silhouette de la personne qui les interpellait, ils se rassurèrent. Il s’agissai d’une toute jeune femme, qui pouvait avoir seize ans, vêtue d’un sarrau noir d’écolière. Ses cheveux courts, séparés par une raie en deux bandeaux, son col marin bien blanc qui éclairait la blouse, sa frimousse espiègle, inspirèrent aussitôt confiance aux deux enfants.

— Je ne vous ai jamais vus dans le quartier. Où donc restez-vous ?

Et comme les deux enfants ne savaient que répondre, elle eut un geste, pour s’excuser :

— Vous direz que je suis bien curieuse et que ça ne me regarde pas. Vous aurez bien raison. Je disait ça comme ça, pour parler. Histoire de vous dire bonjour, quoi ! Allez, bonne nuit.

— Ne partez pas, dit Fred. Je crois bien qu’on s’est égarés. C’est la campagne, ici, ou quoi ?

— C’est Belleville. Une pas très belle ville. Une pas très belle campagne. Belleville, c’est nulle part. C’est pourquoi on y est bien. Mais, je suis bête, peut-être avez-vous faim ?

— Oui, dit Flora.

— Alors, venez.

La jeune femme ouvrit un portail de fer, les fit passer dans le jardinet et ils montèrent, par un escalier de bois, dans un petit logement où un homme, debout devant une table, lisait attentivement de grandes feuilles de papier journal. Lui aussi paraissait très jeune, vint ans tout au plus. Il était vêtu d’une curieuse blouse en flanelle blanche, bordée de soie mauve. Ses yeux noirs examinèrent les deux enfants.

— C’est Victor, dit la jeune femme. Moi je m’appelle Rirette.

— Moi je suis Fred, elle c’est Flora.

— Eh bien, Fred, et bien, Flora, vous aurez un peu de pain et de fromage. Victor et moi nous ne vous interrogerons sur rien. Si vous ne savez pas où dormir, il y a une cabane au fond du jardin. Si notre tête ne vous revient pas, le portail ne ferme jamais a clef.

La destinée des êtres tient à peu de chose. Ou plutôt, il se produit parfois un enchaînement de circonstances qui vous amène à votre heure de vérité. Ainsi des jambes blanches de Flora, balancées au bord de la charrette, de la fascination qu’elles exercèrent sur Fred, de la fugue de la petite fille qui s’ensuivit, de leur impossibilité de retourner aux Halles de la rencontre impromptue qu’ils firent à Belleville de Rirette Maîtrejean et de Victor Kibaltchich. A partir de là commencent vraiment les aventures d’Alfred Barthélemy.

Excerpt from “La Mémoire des vaincus,” by Michel Ragon. Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1990.


(Updated, 11-7-2017)Atlan, vu par Michel Ragon: A new excerpt from “Trompe-l’oeil” (Introduction and version originale followed by English translation)

smfall pw artcurial atlan 185Jean-Michel Atlan (1913 – 1960), Untitled, 1946. Oil on canvas, 39.37 x 31.89 inches. Signed and dated lower left. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 10,000 – 15,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial, which presented the tableau as part of its Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction, October 30 in Paris.  

Reflecting the author’s popular roots, Michel Ragon’s 1956 “Trompe-l’oeil” is less an easy parody of the nascent contemporary art market than an introduction to the complex Abstract Art universe disguised as tragi-comic spoof, with complementary swipes at corrupt art critics à la Balzac’s “Lost Illusions.” Ragon’s colorful fictional personnages interact with some of the real-life artists of the era that he, as a critic and curator, championed (à la Zola). In the excerpt below, after conjuring one of the painter Jean-Michel Atlan’s mythic “Montparno” parties, where the host was as likely to regale his guests with an elaborate burlesque of Joan of Arc in which he portrayed Joan, the Arc-Angel Gabriel, a shephard, and his sheep, as by mixing Chinese, Arabic, African, and Jewish music on a turntable, Ragon sketches a portrait of the artist as vivid as the visit he once took readers on to the long-since evicted studio of Brancusi, another stalwart of a lost Montparnasse once paved with ateliers before “development” chased them out. My English translation follows the excerpt in the original French. (To read an earlier excerpt of “Trompe-l’oeil,” from the book’s first pages, and more about Michel Ragon, click here.)

Né dans le ghetto de Constantine, petit-fils de rabbins miraculeux, Atlan eut sa jeunesse déchirée entre des crises politiques et des crises de mysticisme. Venu terminer ses études à la Sorbonne, licencié en philosophie, il adopta Paris et ne retourna plus en Afrique du Nord où tous les racismes déchainés, tous les nationalismes exacerbés, avaient empoisonné son enfance.

Militant trotskiste, on lui confia un jour un gros revolver et il devint garde du corps de Trotsky, qui traversait alors la France. Inutile de dire qu’il n’avait jamais manié un revolver de sa vie. En cours de route, descendu au buffet d’une gare, il se demanda soudain quelle raison personnelle il pouvait bien avoir d’accompagner Trotsky, n’en trouva point et s’enfuit dans la ville inconnu à la recherche de la synagogue, abandonnant dans le train le personnage qui lui était confié.

Avant la récente guerre, la vie d’Atlan se perdait donc dans un dédale de manifestations politiques, en général basées sur l’anti-colonialisme. La seule préoccupation picturale qu’il se souvenait d’avoir eue, en ce temps-là, consista à obtenir un rendez-vous de Signac pour lui faire signer une pétition.

Pendant l’occupation allemande, ses origines juives, plus ses antécédents politiques, ne lui laissaient guère d’autre issue possible que l’arrestation. Emprisonné, ainsi que sa femme qui pourtant était Normande, il échappa aux camps d’extermination en jouant un de ses grands numéros parodiques : la folie.

Il faillait l’entendre raconter cette aventure macabre, avec son humour burlesque qui la mettait au niveau de chacun. A force de proclamer qu’une erreur judiciaire l’avait amené en prison et qu’il n’était autre que l’évêque de Constantine, un gardien s’en émeute et en avisa le Directeur. Celui-ci trouva le prisonnier enveloppé dans sa paillasse qui, en l’occurrence lui servait d’étole. Il répéta au Directeur qu’il n’était autre que l’évêque de Constantine. Par acquit de conscience, on l’envoya au psychiatre de la prison. Là, Atlan savait que le rôle serait plus difficile a jouer, ce spécialiste ayant l’habitude des simulateurs. Il changea alors de tactique et se mit à répondre au psychiatre de son ton habituel. Puis il lui avoua confidentiellement qu’il simulait la folie parce qu’il était Juif et qu’il comptait ainsi éviter la déportation.

Le psychiatre, très ennuyé, parla de la difficulté d’établir un faux certificat, que lui-même était surveillé. Ils en vinrent à une conversation très cordiale qui n’avait plus rien d’un examen médical. Atlan glissa dans la conversation que sa femme était également enfermée et qu’il ne pouvait malheureusement pas la rencontrer aussi souvent qu’il le désirerait.

— Comment, dit le psychiatre, soudain alerté, vous revoyez votre femme? N’est-elle pas à la Petite-Roquette ?

— Si. Pour être franc, je ne la vois pas, mais je lui parle tous les soirs.

— Comment cela ?

— C’est très simple. J’ai mis au point un système de transmission de pensée qui me permet, lorsque j’atteins le degré de concentration nécessaire, d’entrer en communication avec un autre être, même placé dans un lieu physiquement inaccessible. C’est ainsi que, tous les soirs, ma femme et moi nous nous parlons pendant un quart d’heure. C’est ma limite de concentration intensive. Au delà, ce n’est plus possible.

Le psychiatre regardait, étonné, ce petit homme intelligent et qui lui avait tenu des propos si lucides. Il hocha la tête :

— La prison vous a un peu fatigué.

Puis il s’enthousiasma :

— C’est inouï, je travaille justement à une thèse sur ces cas de transmission de pensée. Nous allons collaborer ensemble, n’est-ce pas. Je vais demander à l’administration de la prison de vous laisser à ma disposition.

C’est ainsi qu’Atlan vécut pendant les dernières années de l’Occupation à l’hôpital psychiatrique de Sainte-Anne. Finit-on par découvrir en lui le simulateur et voulut-on le sauver de la déportation, c’est probable puisqu’on le laissa relativement libre et sans traitement. Est-ce pendant cet isolement qu’Atlan commença à peindre ? Toujours est-il que pendant les journées de la Libération de Paris, on le retrouve sur le boulevard Montparnasse, libéré ou évadé, allant d’une barricade à l’autre et demandant aux combattants :

— Dites-moi, est-ce que vous savez où l’on peut se procurer des toiles à peindre et des couleurs?

Puis, aussitôt les Allemands partis, Atlan publie un recueil de poèmes vraisemblablement composés en prison : “Le sang profond” qui est très exactement une poétique de sa peinture. Il fait d’ailleurs presque aussitôt sa première exposition. Il n’a en fait que trente et un ans, l’âge auquel la plupart des artistes se découvrent, mais sa vocation apparaitra toujours tardive parce qu’elle ne suivit pas la filière des Ecoles des Beaux-Arts. La peinture absorba aussitôt toutes ses autres aspirations. Politique, philosophie, poésie, mysticisme, se transmuèrent dans la seule volonté de l’œuvre picturale. Atlan devint bientôt l’un des chefs de file de la nouvelle peinture et l’une des plus importantes galeries de Paris le prit sous contrat. Mais il demeura bohème et « montparno ». Touché par la crise, comme tous les peintres abstraits, il allait jusqu’à travailler comme camelot dans des marchés de banlieue, disait la bonne aventure aux épicières de Montrouge qui le prenaient, avec son profile d’Arabe, pour un tzigane. Alors que l’on continuait à le considérer comme un des peintres essentiels de la nouvelle Ecole de Paris, sa femme et lui crevaient de faim. Mais ils s’efforçaient de n’en laisser rien paraitre.

smfall pw artcurial atlan 186Jean-Michel Atlan (1913 – 1960), Untitled, 1954. Oil on panel, 15 x 18.11 inches. Signed and dated lower left.  Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 6,000 – 8,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial, which presented the tableau as part of its Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction, October 30 in Paris.  

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak:  

Born the grandson of miracle-working rabbis in the Jewish ghetto of the Algerian city of Constantine, Atlan saw his youth torn between political crises and crises of mysticism. Traveling to the French capital to finish his studies at the Sorbonne, after getting his Bachelor’s in philosophy he adopted Paris as his home and never returned to North Africa, whose unhinged racisms and exacerbated nationalisms had poisoned his childhood.

A Trotskyist militant, one day Atlan was handed a huge revolver and assigned to bodyguard Trotsky, at the time traversing France. Of course he’d never handled a gun in his life. In the middle of the journey, stepping off the train to grab a bite at the station greasy spoon, he suddenly asked himself what personal reason he could possible have for guarding Trotsky, found no answer, and fled to seek out the nearest synagogue, abandoning on the train the figure he was supposed to be protecting.

Before World War II, Atlan’s life was composed of a maze of political demonstrations, in general underpinned by anti-colonialism. The sole remotely painterly preoccupation he’d ever had was to secure a meeting with Paul Signac to ask him to sign a petition.

During the German occupation of Paris, Atlan’s Jewish origins, not to mention his political activities, hardly left him any alternative to getting arrested. Imprisoned, as was his wife (despite being a native of Normandy), he escaped being deported to the death camps by executing one of his most convincing numbers ever: insanity.

One had to have heard Atlan recount this macabre adventure with his unique brand of burlesque humor, which had a way of putting him at his listeners’ level. (After the war, as described by Ragon elsewhere in “Trompe-l’oeil,” his 1956 satire of the Montparnasse art milieu, Atlan would throw all-night parties at his Left Bank atelier where he’d regale his guests with one-man shows.) By repeatedly insisting that a judicial error had landed him in prison, and that he was actually the Bishop of Constantine, he so unnerved a guard that the guard alerted the warden. Upon investigating, this official found the prisoner wrapped in his straw mattress, using it as a priest’s smock. He repeated to the warden that he was the Bishop of Constantine. As a precautionary measure, the warden sent him to the prison psychiatrist. This time Atlan knew that his audience would be harder to convince, this particular specialist being accustomed to dealing with impersonators. He altered his approach accordingly, responding to the psychiatrist in his normal tone. Then he confessed that he was just pretending to be crazy because he was Jewish and counted on this ruse to escape deportation.

The psychiatrist, discomfited, answered that it would be risky for him to make out a bogus certificate, as he himself was being watched. From this they progressed to a cozy chat which had no resemblance to a medical examination. Atlan subtly insinuated into the conversation that his wife was also locked up, and that unfortunately he was unable to see her as often as he liked.

“How’s that again?” asked the psychiatrist, suddenly alert. “Do you mean that you are actually able to see your wife? Isn’t she imprisoned at the Petite-Roquette**?

“She is indeed. To be honest, I don’t exactly ‘see’ her, but we do speak to each other every night.”

“What do you mean, ‘speak’?”

“It’s quite simple. I’ve developed a system of transmitting thoughts which allows me, once I’ve attained the necessary level of concentration, to enter into communication with another person, even someone in a place that’s physically remote from me. In this manner my wife and I are able to talk every night for 15 minutes. That’s my limit for intense concentration. Beyond that, it’s not possible.”

The psychiatrist stared at him, surprised at this smart little man, who had put forth such a lucid discourse. He shook his head.

“I’m afraid that prison has tired you out a little.”

Then he proclaimed, “This is extraordinary! It so happens that I’m working on a thesis on exactly these kinds of cases of telepathy. How about if we collaborate? I’m going to ask the prison administration to put you at my disposition.”

Thus it was that Atlan spent the final years of the Occupation in the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital. Did the doctors eventually figure out that he was faking it, but maintain the ruse to save him from deportation? It’s entirely possible, because he was left relatively free and wasn’t medicated. Was it during this period of isolation that Atlan began to paint? In any case, during the Liberation of Paris he could be seen scurrying along the boulevard Montparnasse, freed or having escaped, moving from one barricade to the next and asking the combatants:

“Say, you wouldn’t happen to know where I could score some oil canvasses and paints, would you?”

Later on, after the Germans had departed, Atlan published a collection of poems most likely penned in prison, “Deep Blood,” and which were the poetic reflection of his paintings. And before 1944 had ended he’d held his first solo exposition. He was only 31, the age when most artists are just discovering themselves, but his vocation still seemed to have arrived late in the day because he hadn’t followed the official channel of the Beaux Arts school. Painting soon absorbed all his other aspirations. Politics, philosophy, poetry, mysticism — it was all transmuted in the single task of the pictorial oeuvre. Atlan shortly became one of the leaders of the New Painting of the Post-War period, and one of the most prestigious galleries in Paris signed him. But he remained Bohemian and “Montparno.” Hit by the economic crisis that followed the War, like all the abstract painters, he went so far as to work as a peddler in the suburban markets outside Paris, telling fortunes for the Montrouge storekeepers, who would often mistake him, with his Mediterranean profile, for a gypsy. And so while he continued to be thought of as one of the essential painters of the new School of Paris, he and his wife were dying of starvation. But they kept up a good front.

atlan smallAmong the works on sale in last Spring’s Artcurial Paris auction of Post-War & Contemporary Art: Jean-Michel Atlan (1913-1960), Untitled, 1955. Oil on canvas, 71 x 53 cm. Signed at lower-left, “Atlan.” Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 18,000 – 25,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

“Wols,” by Michel Ragon, Jardin des Arts, May 1963

wols small threeWols before Wols: Otto Wols, “Matériaux Rares,” 1939. Watercolor and ink on paper, signed at lower-right “Wols.” Featured during Artcurial’s June 2, 2015 Impressionist and Modern sale. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Translation of Michel Ragon article by Paul Ben-Itzak:  (Version originale follows translation and afterward)

In the years 1947 – 1948, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I sometimes came across an old man who walked heavily, supported by a cane, his head garnished only by a wreath of hair over a balding forehead. He lived with his wife in a small hotel room, enjoyed playing the banjo, and did his drinking straight up. He was said to be protected by Sartre and de Beauvoir. Then two events in quick succession drew the public’s attention to this extraordinary personage: an exposition at the Drouin gallery on the place Vendôme — at the time the most avant-garde gallery in Paris — and a large, unusual painting displayed at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles which resembled nothing ever seen before. This Bohemian individual, who called himself Wols, died three years later — when I learned with stupor that he was only 37 years old.


It’s become popular for certain journalists to declare, with an air of condescension, that there’s no such thing these days as cursed painters. Wols was just as cursed as Van Gogh, and the parallel between the two equally possessed artists doesn’t stop there. Just as Van Gogh realized his most personal work in the last two years of his life and also died at 37, Wols only began work on his “informal” paintings six years before his death. And just as Van Gogh’s final two years both summed up his whole life and constituted the explosion, the last six years of Wols’s life threw all modern art into question and opened up a new, unexpected path for him. In very little time Wols, just like Van Gogh, altered the rules of the game. Wols signifies a turning point as important to the history of painting as were his compatriot Einstein’s advances in the domain of science. Moreover, the disintegration of forms to which the painter devoted himself corresponds with the disintegration of the atom that followed from Einstein’s research. A parallel that came to light, obviously, after the fact. It would have been hard to imagine in 1947, when Wols couldn’t even manage to pay the rent for his seedy furnished hotel room, that this starving artist would one day elicit comparisons with the scientific events which, since Hiroshima, haunt our collective consciousness.

Who was Wols? Where did this outsider, this vagabond, this prematurely eviscerated simile of an old man come from? Bryen and Mathieu were his friends and surrounded him with an unflagging admiration. Henri-Pierre Roché, himself a singular personage, grand art collector and (posthumously) acclaimed writer from the moment Truffaut turned his novel “Jules and Jim” into the celebrated film of the same name, Henri-Pierre Roché, who met Wols in the south of France during the war and bought 60 gouaches from him in three years, describes him for us playing Bach on his banjo, with his dog at his feet, his bottle ready, and his pipe in hand, venerating Lao-Tseu, detesting Confucius, and “dousing himself like a lighter’s wick.”

The art historian Werner Haftman next shows Wols to us in Paris, in his tiny hotel room, “stretched out on his bed, often with the eyes closed — in order to see better — recording on tiny scraps of paper the continuous flow of images springing from a powerful and hidden well. All this amidst the turbulent discussions of his friends or often tumultuous passage of foreign visitors.”

An education à la le Petit Prince

Wols was born Otto Alfred Schulze Battmann on May 27, 1913, in Berlin. If he hadn’t died prematurely, we’d be celebrating his 50th birthday this month — and he’d no doubt be as famous as he already is, and also rich. Because for painters, being cursed goes hand in hand with dying young. Had they lived as long as Picasso, Van Gogh and Modigliani would have been just as rich and celebrated.

(Here Ragon recounts how, born to a Saxon family that regularly furnished high officials to the State, his parents grand readers passionate about botanics and geology, Wols was educated in the manner of a “petit prince.” He studied music and seemed destined to direct an orchestra. But he also displayed exceptional talent for photography, mechanics, and anthropology. A pupil of Frobenius at the Institute of African Studies in Frankfurt, then of Gropius at the Dessau Bauhaus — where he also frequented Moholy-Nagy — Wols fled the Nazis in 1932 for Paris. There he painted his first watercolors, under the influence of Paul Klee, and also encountered Miro, Ernst, Tzara, Léger, Arp, Giacometti and Calder, to whom he gave German lessons. The next year he met Grety, 15 years his senior, who became his wife. They travelled to Barcelona and Ibiza, where Wols earned a living photographing babies and luxury dogs. In 1934, at the behest of the German consulate, he was arrested for refusing military service and expelled from Spain three months later, making his way across the Pyrenees by foot and through snow back to France. Ragon continues:)

In 1937, he adopted the pseudonym Wols for an exposition of his photographs at a Parisian gallery. His life became easier, the International Exposition of Paris having accorded him, in his role as a photographer, exclusivity for the Pavilion de l’Élégance. But the war didn’t tarry to arrive. A German citizen, Wols was interned in the concentration camps of Montargis, Neuilly, Nimes, and Aix-en-Provence. He found consolation in alcohol, on whose powers he’d henceforth call to stimulate his dreams.

Boats of Dreams

Liberated in 1940, he moved to Cassis, a half hour from Marseille, then to Dieulefit in the Drôme. He was able to sell several gouaches and drawings, notably to Henri-Pierre Roché. The years 1941-1942 were crucial for Wols. Misery, the Spanish prison, the French concentration camps — all these had taken their toll and arduously ripened him. He’d not yet attained 30, and his life was already overloaded with trials and tribulations. It was without doubt this heavy charge which compelled him to write: “The first thing that I’ll chase from my life will be memory.” His gouaches and watercolors form a sort of diary that he kept, simultaneously with the poems he wrote. “With minute slips of paper, one is able to tell little earth-bound fairy-tales,” he noted with a painful irony. Wols was, in effect, first and foremost a poet, nurtured on Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Novalis, Shelley, Artaud, Kafka, Faulkner, and Morgenstern. A poet embarked on a one-way trip on what he called his “boats of dreams” (his dream was to build and live on a bark). These boats, which peopled his watercolors, evidently evoked images of Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat,” as well as Dante’s Bark. At times they accosted towns, towns that Wols meticulously drew, as miniatures, with their individual perspectives, and that he’d then depict being delivered to monsters. Imaginary vegetation, comical personages, phallic images: the world of Wols’s gouaches was situated somewhere between surrealism and expressionism. As strange as they were — and as perfect as they were in their acute detail — these gouaches did not do justice to Wols’s genius. If he’d died five years earlier, Wols would have been considered no more than a minor master living in Klee’s shadow. His initial watercolors from 1932-33 reveal scenes of dream cities, mirages, elfs…. Soon, though, Klee’s fantastic garden would be trampled by monsters. We know little of the watercolors Wols produced from 1934 to 1936 in Spain, lost when the artist was thrown in prison, then expelled. But they’d without doubt trace the line between Klee and Bosch. Thus, Wols passed from surrealism-light to a form of expressionism which approached that of Grosz, Kokoschka, Ensor, or even Otto Dix.

As these watercolors and gouaches make up the most abundant part of his oeuvre, it’s above all this aspect of Wols that one finds in the galleries. This is also the most palatable aspect, the most decipherable, of his work. But it doesn’t allow us to appreciate the importance of the artist’s accomplishment. It would be like perpetually trotting out Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” and concealing his landscapes of Arles and Auvers-Sur-Oise from the public.

It cannot be over-emphasized that these gouaches and watercolors are merely Wols before Wols, the minor works of a man who’d not yet discovered if he was a poet or a painter, a photographer or a philosopher. Because Wols’s evolution into a painter was unconscious. He did not call himself a painter, obstinately refused to make a career of it, and even went so far as ask the police to prevent an exhibition of his work organized by his wife and René Drouin in 1947. He’d first visit the exhibitions with his dog, to whom he’d seriously mount each painting ahead of precipitously taking off before the opening in the company of his best friend.

Wols’s genuinely personal and exceptional oeuvre only began in January 1946 when, after much hesitation, he decided to start working with oil on canvas. “Already, the movements of the forearms and the arms necessary to paint a canvas depend on ambition and gymnastics,” he’d say. “Not for me.”

It was as if he had a vague presentiment that in committing himself to painting in oil on canvas and in large formats, he’d be sacrificing poetry and diary writing for a life in the limelight.

The Birth of the Informal

The rupture was complete between Wols’s gouaches and his oil paintings. First he abandoned the anecdotal image (for even if it was a dream image, it was still an anecdote) and replaced it with chaos. This new abstract painter who emerged abruptly for the first time at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1947 resembled no one ever seen before. The work he exposed was both a slap in the face and a spit in the eye, like entrails rooted out by a python. Those who discovered it remained surprised, shocked, and disturbed. At the same time, and by a curious accident, Pollock was launching himself in the frenzy of ‘dripping,’ and it was from these two simultaneous deliriums that the Informal School would be born.

Oeuvres of art are certainly destined for a strange fate! Wols and Pollock, both cursed, both alcoholic, both particular, both objectors, both “against,” both prey to dark thoughts, both self-destructive, both dead tragically at the dawn of their real careers, created a new current of art which made those who came after them rich. And this current which, with them, became a furious torrent, bathed with incandescence, spurting blood, rapidly devolved into conformity, the formulaic, and commerce.

In 1949, Wols exposed at the Milione Gallery in Milan, then the following year at the Hugo Gallery in New York. And then it was over. On September 1, 1951, at a quarter before noon, Wols died a sudden death.

He’d only just begun to find peace in his petite house in Champigny outside Paris, to which the initial sales of his work had allowed him to retire. Eight months earlier, after undergoing 65 days of treatment, he’d left the Saint-Antoine Hospital, disintoxicated and happy to be so. He was leading a healthy life, hopping out of bed at 6 every morning so that he could go down to his garden and watch the sunrise. He could walk his dog, and had more or less quit smoking. His death remains shrouded by mystery. Some attribute it to the disintoxicaiton cure. Grety Wols, for her part, blames herself, exaltedly, of having inadvertently poisoned him.

“In the middle of the night, he suddenly got hungry. I scoured the pantry. I found some ground horse-meat left over from two days earlier and cooked it up. He instantly ate it. The next day, he was siezed with pains. We took him to the hospital. It was still vacation. The doctors were out. There was a string of bad luck. I didn’t think to tell them about the ground horse-meat. His state worsened. He died. It might have been me who killed him.”

In 1959, a major retrospective of Wols’s oeuvre took place at the Venice biennale. Posthumous glory had begun.

Wols’s informalism is, if you like, a sort of automatic writing. In this sense, he links himself to the surrealist spirit which animated his first works. But Wols far surpasses the surrealist aesthetic. His automatic-ness is moreover “psychological” rather than pictorial. He surpasses surrealism like he surpassed expressionism. He was one of the first abstract expressionists and, long before Zen Buddhism became à la mode, was deeply marked by Chinese mysticism.

It is superfluous
to name God
or to learn something by heart.

When one has seen a path
towards the heavens
the details lose their importance
but remain charming.

A prayer of less than two words
can hold the universe.

The imperceptible penetrates all.

No, these concise poems are not by Lao Tseu, but by Wols.

Concise, meticulous, precise, penetrating — the same adjectives apply to Wols’s engravings as to his poetry. As brief as his “career” may have been, he still found the time to illustrate Kafka (“The Guest of the Dead,” 1948), Antonin Artaud (“Le Théâtre de Séraphin”), Jean Paulhan (“The Scottish Shepherd,” 1948, and “Chinese Poems,” translated by Paulhan), Jean-Paul Sartre (“Visages,” 1948, and “Nourishment,” 1949), Camille Bryen (“City Whale,” 1949), René de Solier (“Naturals,” 1948).

As we can see, this major illustration portfolio was pursued in the two most fertile years for his work, 1948-1949, during which he also accomplished some of his most beautiful paintings.

Wols has already been reunited in the pantheon with Nicolas de Staël, Atlan, and Franz Kline, like him struck down just when their talent was flowering.

Afterward by Paul Ben-Itzak

As the Impressionists, Symbolists, Fauves, Cubists, Nabis, Surrealists, Abstractionists, and even some Abstract Expressionists have become preserved in amber, and contemporary critics tend to focus on their living contemporaries, a whole — and, as Ragon might argue, nuclear (or pivotal) — generation of painters and sculptors from the ’40s through ’50s risks falling into oblivion. Dubuffet’s place in the collective artistic memory is still assured, and the COBRA group for whom Ragon organized the first Paris exhibition in 1951 has not yet been forgotten, but try finding Wols or Atlan in the major museums. (In Paris, the Pompidou Center’s tendency is to overdo it on the epoch’s most famous exponents — as in the monographic 400+ oeuvre-strong Dubuffet exhibition in the early 2000s, in which the museum seemed to be making up for its earlier exclusion of the artist, or the 2015 Wilfredo Lam show which, far from elaborating our understanding of the artist, revealed his limitations — and ignore their contemporaries. (And forget about it if you’re a woman or an American, Stuart Davis for one being conspicuous by his absence.)

Ragon’s journalistic-critical chronicles — with his long view and profound mine of references, Romanesque eye for detail and drama, critical aptitude and clarity, and a style and vocabulary that are erudite without being exclusive — restore, preserve, and revivify a vibrant and animated archive of this history.

Original article by Michel Ragon:

Dans les années 1947-1948, il m’arrivait fréquemment de rencontrer à Saint-Germain-des-Prés un vieil homme qui marchait pesamment en s’appuyant sur une canne, la tête nue avec des cheveux en couronne au-dessus d’un front très dégarni. Il vivait dans une petite chambre d’hôtel avec sa femme, jouait du banjo, buvait sec. On le disait protégé par Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir. Coup sur coup, deux événements avaient attiré l’attention sur cet étrange personnage : une exposition à la galerie Drouin, place Vendôme, qui était alors la galerie la plus à l’avant-garde de Paris, et une grande peinture insolite au Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, qui ne ressemblait à rien de connu. Ce bohème, qui se nommait Wols, mourut trois ans plus tard, et j’appris alors avec stupeur qu’il n’avait que trente-sept ans.

Un Maudit

On peut lire couramment les déclarations allègres de certains journalistes qui avancent, avec une nuance d’ailleurs condescendante, qu’il n’existe plus aujourd’hui de peintres maudits. Wols fut aussi maudit que Van Gogh, et le parallèle entre ces deux artistes également hallucinés ne s’arrête pas là. Tout comme Van Gogh a réalisé son œuvre personnelle dans les deux dernières années de sa vie et est mort lui aussi à trente-sept ans, Wols n’a commencé son œuvre de peintre « informel » que six ans avant sa mort. Mais tout comme les deux dernières années de Van Gogh résument toute sa vie et en constituent l’explosion, les six dernières années de la vie de Wols remettent tout l’art moderne en question et lui ouvrent une nouvelle voie inattendue. En si peu de temps, Wols, tout comme Van Gogh, aura tout bouleversé. Wols restera une date aussi importante dans l’histoire de la peinture que son compatriote Einstein dans l’histoire de la science. La désintégration des formes à laquelle se livre le peintre correspond d’ailleurs à la désintégration de l’atome, conséquence des recherches de Einstein. Parallèle, évidement, que l’on établit après coup. On était bien loin de croire, en 1947, lorsque Wols n’arrivait pas à payer son terme à l’hôtel meublé minable où il logeait, que cet artiste famélique susciterait un jour des comparaisons avec les événements scientifiques qui, depuis Hiroshima, hantaient les esprits.

Qui était Wols? D’où venait cet étranger, ce vagabond, ce faux vieillard usé prématurément? Bryen et Mathieu étaient ses amis et l’entouraient d’une admiration qui ne s’est jamais démentie. Henri-Pierre Roché, singulier personnage lui aussi, grand collectionneur et écrivain à succès (posthume) depuis que Truffaut a tiré de son roman “Jules et Jim” le film que l’on sait, Henri-Pierre Roché, qui le rencontra dans le sud de la France pendant la guerre et lui acheta cinquante gouaches en trois ans, nous le décrit jouant du Bach sur son banjo, avec son chien, sa bouteille et sa pipe, vénérant Lao-Tseu, détestant Confucius, et « s’humectant comme un coton de briquet ».

L’historien d’art Werner Haftman nous le montre ensuite à Paris, dans sa petite chambre d’hôtel, « allongé sur son lit, souvent les yeux fermés — fermés pour voir mieux — enregistrant sur de petits bouts de papier le fleuve continu des images qui surgissent d’une source puissante et secrète. Tout cela au milieu de discussions turbulentes de ses amis ou du passage souvent tumultueux de visiteurs étrangers ».

Une Éducation de Petit Prince

Wols s’appelait de son vrai nom Otto Alfred Schulze Battmann. Né le 27 mai 1913 à Berlin, s’il n’était pas mort prématurément, nous fêterons aujourd’hui son cinquantenaire, et il serait sans aucun doute aussi célèbre qu’il l’est, et riche. Car il n’y a plus de peintres maudits dans la mesure ou ceux-ci ne meurent pas jeunes. Van Gogh ou Modigliani, vivant aussi longtemps que Picasso, seraient devenus, eux aussi, riches et considérés.

Wols était d’une famille saxonne qui, traditionnellement, fournissait de hauts fonctionnaires à l’État. De 1919 à sa mort, en 1929, son père fut même chef de chancellerie de l’État de Saxe, ce qui lui valait le surnom de « roi non courronné de Saxe ». Mélomanes, grands lecteurs, passionnés de botanique et de géologie, les parents de Wols lui donnèrent une éducation de petit prince. Il étudia la musique très jeune et semblait, à dix-sept ans, en raison de ses dons, être voué à la direction d’orchestre. Mais en même temps il montrait des qualités exceptionnelles pour la photographie, la mécanique et l’anthropologie. Élève de Frobenius, à l’Institut des Études Africaines de Francfort, puis de Gropius, au Bauhaus de Dessau (où il eut également des conversations avec Mies van der Rohe et Moholy-Nagy), il fuit le nazisme en 1932 et arrive à Paris.

Ce jeune homme de dix-neuf ans peint ses premières aquarelles sous l’influence de Klee et rencontre dans la capitale française Miro, Ernst, Tzara, Léger, Arp, Giacometti et Calder, à qui il donne des leçons d’allemand.

L’année suivante, en février, il rencontre Grety, son aînée de quinze ans, qui deviendra sa femme. Tous deux partent pour l’Espagne, pour Barcelone et Ibiza, où Wols gagne sa vie en photographiant des chiens de luxe et des bébés. Mais deux ans plus tard, le consulat d’Allemagne le fait arrêter comme réfractaire au service militaire. Après trois mois de prison, il est expulsé d’Espagne et passe les Pyrénées à pied, sous la neige.

En 1937, il prend le pseudonyme de Wols pour une exposition une exposition de ses photos dans une galerie parisienne. Sa vie devient plus facile, l’Exposition Internationale de Paris lui ayant accordé en tant que photographe l’exclusivité du Pavillon de l’Élégance. Mais la guerre ne tarde pas à arriver. Sujet allemand, Wols est interné dans les camps de concentration de Montargis, de Neuilly, de Nimes, d’Aix-en-Provence. Il y découvre le refuge de l’alcool, auquel il fera appel désormais pour stimuler ses rêves.

Les Bateaux-Rêves

Libéré en 1940, il s’installe à Cassis, puis à Dieulefit in the Drôme. Il réussit à vendre quelques gouaches et dessins, notamment à Henri-Pierre Roché. Les années 1941-1942 sont cruciales pour Wols. La misère, la prison en Espagne, les camps de concentration en France l’ont terriblement mûri. Il n’a pas encore trente ans, et sa vie est déjà encombrée d’epreuves, de tribulations. Sans doute est-ce cela qui lui fait écrire : « La première chose que je chasse de ma vie, c’est la mémoire. » Ses gouaches et aquarelles sont un journal intime qu’il tient parallèlement aux poèmes qu’il écrit. « On raconte ses petits contes terrestres à travers de petits bouts de papier », dit-il avec une ironie douloureuse. Il est en effet, avant tout, poète, nourri de la lecture de Baudelaire, de Poe, de Rimbaud, de Lautréamont, de Novalis, de Shelley, d’Artaud, de Kafka, de Faulkner et de Morgenstern. Un poète parti pour un voyage sans retour avec ce qu’il appelle ses “bateaux-rêves” (il rêvait de construire une barque et d’y vivre). Ces bateaux, qui peuplent ses aquarelles, font surgir évidemment les images du “Bateau Ivre” de Rimbaud et de la Barque du Dante. Ils accostent parfois à des villes, ces villes que Wols dessine méticuleusement, en miniaturiste, avec leurs perspectives, et qu’il livre ensuite à des monstres. Végétations imaginaires, personnages farfelus, phallisme : le monde des gouaches de Wols se situe entre le surréalisme et l’expressionnisme. Pour étranges qu’elles soient et parfaites dans leur dessin aigu, ces gouaches n’étaient pas à la hauteur du génie de Wols. Mort cinq ans plus tôt, Wols n’aurait été qu’un petit maître se plaçant à l’ombre de Klee. Ses premières aquarelles de 1932-33 nous montrent, en effet, des scènes aériennes, des villes rêvées, des mirages, des elfes. Bientôt, néanmoins, le jardin fabuleux de Klee devait être piétiné par des monstres. On ne sait rien des aquarelles que Wols fit en 1934-36 en Espagne, puisqu’elles ont été perdues lorsque l’artiste a été jeté en prison, puis expulsé. Mais elles devaient sans doute faire le lien entre Klee et Bosch. Ainsi, Wols passait-il d’un surréalisme tendre à un expressionisme qui le rapprochait de Grosz, de Kokoschka, de Ensor et même de Otto Dix.

Comme ces aquarelles et gouaches sont la partie la plus abondante de son œuvre, c’est surtout cet aspect de Wols que l’on voit dans les galeries. C’est aussi l’aspect le plus agréable, le plus facile. Il ne permit malheureusement pas de se rendre compte de l’importance de l’œuvre de l’artiste. C’est comme si l’on montrait perpétuellement “Les Mangeurs de pommes de terre” de Van Gogh en tenant les paysages d’Arles et d’Auvers-sur-Oise hors du regard du public.

On ne répétera jamais assez que ces gouaches et aquarelles ne sont que du Wols avant Wols, les œuvrettes d’un homme qui ne savait pas encore s’il était poète ou peintre, photographe ou philosophe. Car Wols n’a réalisé une œuvre de peintre qu’à son insu. Il ne se disait pas peintre, refusant obstinément de faire carrière e tallant jusqu’à tenter de faire interdire par le commissaire de Police l’exposition que sa femme et René Drouin avaient organisée en 1947 ; visitant d’abord les expositions avec son chien, auquel il montrait sérieusement chaque tableau, puis partant précipitamment en compagnie de son plus cher copain avant le vernissage.

L’œuvre vraiment personnelle, exceptionnelle de Wols, ne commence qu’en janvier 1946, lorsque, après beaucoup d’hésitations, il se décida à aborder la peinture à l’huile sur toile. « Les mouvements des avants-bras et des bras pour peindre une toile, c’est déjà de l’ambition et de la gymnastique, disait-il. Je ne veux pas. »

Confusément, il pressentait sans doute qu’en abordant la peinture à l’huile sur toile et le grand format il abandonnait le poème et le journal intime pour la vie publique.

Naissance de l’Informel

Entre ses gouaches et ses peintures à l’huile, la rupture est absolue. D’abord, il abandonne l’image anecdotique (même s’il s’agit d’une image rêvée, c’est néanmoins une anecdote) pour le chaos. Ce nouveau peintre abstrait qui apparaît brutalement pour la première fois au Salon des Réalités Nouvelles de 1947 ne ressemble à personne. Ce qu’il expose, c’est à la fois une gifle et un crachat, une explosion et les entrailles fouillées par la pythonisse. On en demeurait surpris, choqué et inquiet. Au même moment, par quel curieux hasard, Pollock se livrait au ‘dripping’ le plus déliriant à New York, et c’est de ces deux délires que devait naître l’Ecole informelle.

Étrange destin que celui des œuvres d’art ! Wols et Pollock, tous deux maudits, tous deux alcooliques, tous deux hors série, tous deux objecteurs, tous deux « contre », tous deux mal pensants, tous deux destructeurs, tous deux morts tragiquement à l’aube de leur vraie carrière, auront suscité un courant nouveau qui a fait la fortune de leurs suiveurs. Et ce courant qui, avec eux, était torrent furieux, lave incandescente, giclée de sang, est devenu rapidement conformisme, formules, et commerce.

En 1949, Wols expose à la galerie del Milione à Milan, puis l’année suivante à la Hugo Gallery de New York. Et c’est fini. Le 1er septembre 1951, à midi moins le quart, Wols meurt soudainement.

Il venait juste de commencer à trouver la paix dans sa petite maison de Champigny, où les premières ventes de ses œuvres lui avaient permis de se retirer. Huit mois auparavant, après soixante-cinq jours de traitement, il était sorti de l’hôpital Saint-Antoine, désintoxiqué et heureux de l’être. Il menait une vie saine, sautant du lit à six heures du matin pour descendre dans son jardin voir se lever le jour. Il pouvait se promener avec son chien, ne fumait presque plus. Sa mort demeure mystérieuse. Certains l’attribuent à la cure de désintoxication. Grety Wols, elle, s’accuse avec exaltation de l’avoir empoisonné par mégarde.

« Il eut une faim subite au milieu de la nuit. Je fouillai le garde-manger. Je trouvai du cheval haché de l’avant-veille, je le fis cuire. Il l’avala à l’instant. Le lendemain, il fut pris de douleurs. On l’emmena à l’hôpital. C’étaient encore les vacances. On manquait de médecin. Il y eu des malchances. Je ne songeai pas à parler du cheval haché. Son état empira. Il mourut. Je l’ai tué peut-être. »

En 1958, une grande rétrospective de l’œuvre de Wols eut lieu à la biennale de Venise. La gloire posthume commençait.

L’informel de Wols est, si l’on veut, une sorte d’écriture automatique. Dans ce sens, il se rattache à l’esprit surréaliste qui avait animé ses premières œuvres. Mais il dépasse de beaucoup l’esthétique surréaliste. Son automatisme est d’ailleurs plus « psychologique » que pictural. Il dépasse le surréalisme, comme il dépasse l’expressionisme. Il est un des premiers expressionnistes abstraits et, avant que la mode soit au Zen, profondément marqué par la mystique chinoise.

Il est superflu
de nommer Dieu
ou d’apprendre quelque chose par cœur.

Quand on a en vue un chemin
vers le ciel
les détails perdent leur importance
mais restent charmants.

Une prière de moins de deux mots
peut tenir l’univers.

L’insaisissable pénètre tout.

Non, ces poèmes si concis ne sont pas de Lao Tseu, mais de Wols.

Concis, minutieux, précis, aigu, Wols l’était aussi dans ses gravures. Aussi brève qu’ait été sa « carrière », il eut le temps néanmoins d’illustrer Kafka (“L’invitè des Morts,” 1948), Antonin Artaud (“Le Théatre de Séraphin”), Jean Paulhan (“La Bergère d’Écosse,” 1948, et des “Poèmes Chinois” traduits par Paulhan), Jean-Paul Sartre (“Visages,” 1948, et “Nourritures,” 1949), Camille Bryen (“Baleine-Ville,” 1949), René de Solier (“Naturelles,” 1948).

Comme on le voit, ce grand travail d’illustrateur se situe dans deux des années les plus fécondes pour son œuvre : 1948-49, pendant lesquelles il réalisera également quelques-unes de ses plus belles peintures.

Wols rejoint déjà dans la légende Nicolas de Staël, Atlan, et Franz Kline, foudroyés comme lui dans la pleine maturité de leur talent.

Michel Ragon, “Wols,” Jardin des Arts, May 1963. Copyright Michel Ragon.

Sonnez la matine: La Culture, c’est pas une ‘annexe’

Around the world, French culture is its calling card

“Même si les civilisations successives étaient des organismes, et semblables, la nôtre montrerait deux caractères sans exemple. D’être capable de faire sauter la terre ; et de rassembler l’art depuis la préhistoire.”

— André Malraux, Néocritique*

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Once upon a time, France’s siren call to the world was its culture, of which the most potent register was its literature. And yet today, this siren call has often been drowned out, or at least muffled — and, at Charlie Hebdo, literally assassinated — by the threat of and acts of terrorism, unfortunately resulting in a state of siege mentality on the part of many. The knee-jerk response to the real and present threat of terrorism in some quarters — in the U.S. as in France — has been to in effect cede to the terrorists by being terrorized, putting up walls, ostracizing the Other, and erecting a citadel we like to think will be impregnable but that risks to swallow us in solipsism. And the understandable and completely justifiable responses of military Defense and verbal Sanction have been under-accompanied by strategies to treat the problem at its roots. To put the question concretely: How to head off that child at risk before s/he becomes a teenager and, in that stage of life so subject to alienation, potentially fertile territory for the manipulation and brainwashing of the ideologues and terrorists?

In France, the tragedy has been that the ‘better offer’ has always been there: In its culture, in ideas, in philosophy, and in the ‘lumieres,’ as they’ve been handed down in the country’s LITERATURE.

To behold this rich heritage and potential anecdote to Obscurantism being so under-exploited has been particularly tragic for an American who from the moment he could have stories read to him has been seduced by the siren call of French and Francophone culture: Babar, “Madeline” (technically not written by a Frenchman, but qualified by its rebel spirit and its luminous setting: PARIS), Tintin and, later, through the lyrics of song, Jacques Brel, Yves Montand, Jacques Dutronc, Serge Gainsbourg…. (Indeed, the first music I remember mimicking is not “Michael row your boat ashore” but “Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, dormez vous, dormez vous?”) And if we extend the literary rubric to film — also, after all, a form of composition — “The Red Balloon” planted the siren of the Belleville neighborhood of Paris in my young head and heart and, later, Truffaut and Godard made their respective imprints with Gallic right and left brains which mined the poetry in romantic as well as societal strife.

I am not the only American who has been drawn to this heritage. (In some cases, more even than the French themselves. During an initial sojourn in Paris in 2001, accustomed to lines around the block for his films in New York and San Francisco, I was shocked to find that Godard’s “Eloge d’Amour,” fresh from Cannes, was allocated the tiniest screen in the tiniest room of a multiplex near the Luxembourg Garden, where all of 10 people watched his latest experimentations. My French actress friend clutched her head in agonized frustration, while I — at that juncture French illiterate — remained perched on the edge of my seat for the entire picture.)

So you can imagine my chagrin in reading, just before the recent presidential election, New York Times columnist Roger Simon’s “France at the End of Days,” a one-sided portrait of a supposedly crepuscular France in which the Neo-Xenophobes were battling the Neo-Liberals for control of the wheel that would determine the country’s direction for the next five years. (Nowhere in the article was it explained that if the National Front had doubled its support since the last election in 2012, it wasn’t because an additional 17 percent of Frenchmen and women suddenly woke up racists, but because a)like my retired neighbors here in the Southwest of France, they’re weary of making their grocery purchases every week based on what’s on sale, and b) the end run by leaders of both the principal parties around the popular rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 with a Treaty of Lisbon not subject to popular confirmation, capped by Francois Hollande’s running in 2012 as “the enemy of Finance” only to (in the view of some; I’ll take the Fifth) embrace Capitalism after he was elected president left many voters disillusioned with the establishment parties.)

Hollande didn’t do much better with the cultural agenda, all three of his cultural ministers qualified more by their allegiance to the Socialist party than their cultural accomplishments. The low point was a minister who, asked to name her favorite Patrick Modiano work after the latter won the Nobel Prize, couldn’t name a single title, finally explaining that she didn’t have time to read books, as her most famous predecessor André Malraux no doubt jumped out of his grave.

So when Emmanuel Macron, asked during the 2017 presidential campaign about his cultural program, said that a pillar would be expanding library hours at night and on the week-ends, I was encouraged.

In the lower-class, mixed, crime-ridden neighborhood of East Fort Worth, Texas where I lived before returning to France, the library was always packed — most of all with young people, often bilingual. (As was the library’s small collection.)

The Library is a crucial point of First Contact with Culture.

The Library is a social nexus that provides a constructive alternative to hanging out with and getting recruited by gang-bangers.

Or terrorists.

And, unlike many other cultural outlets, it’s free. And it’s accessible, in the neighborhood.

And yet, around the world, library hours have been eviscerated and libraries shuttered for the past 30 years. (In the Anglophone culture, this is what we call Penny-wise, pound-foolish.)

With Emmanuel Macron, elected president May 7 with a 66 percent majority, increasing library hours is not just a pat solution. This is a man who carefully chooses his words. During his presidential debate with National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, after two hours of not taking the bait and remaining calm, he finally called her and her party “parasites.” This was not an ill-considered empty put-down but an exact diagnoses; parasites feed on bodies whose immune systems have been weakened. (Also along the lines of better immunizing the country’s infants, Macron has pledged to cut class size in difficult neighborhoods in half, to 12 students.)

And yet for France, it doesn’t have to be this way. Words — words — build up immune systems. They build up our defenses against ignorance, against intolerance, against fear, against pain, against hate, against ‘fermeture.’ I’d even argue that they forge pretty solid inroads against mortality because, as Albert Moravia once pointed out, they augment our existence laterally with a multitude of other lives… and cultures.

But let’s pause on that word Defense.

In analyzing the cabinet named yesterday by Macron and his new prime minister, Edouard Philippe (also a book maven, having launched book-mobiles around his coastal city of Le Havre), most of the media I audit has been commenting that even if half the 22 members are women, only one, the new minister of armies, was accorded a ‘regalian’ ministry. (I can’t find this word in any of my French dictionaries, so it must be a recent — Franglaise? — innovation of the political pundits.)

One Radio France reporter even grouped the ministry of Culture and Communication with those he dubbed ‘annex’ ministries.

This in France, the cradle of literature.

Never mind that the most ‘regalian’ of French presidents in the 60 years of the Fifth Republic, the man still more likely to be referred to by the French as “the General” than “the president,” Charles De Gaulle, appointed as his first and long-time minister of culture André Malraux, himself a Nobel laureate.

The General understood that Culture was not an ‘annex,’ but a pillar of national defense and an essential component of the foundation of a society. And that the best way to protect a nation’s heritage is not to pillory other cultures but to incorporate them in the national cultural identity. (As for Macron, he did not, as some media here inaccurately reported, say that there was no such thing as French Culture, but that it was rather a question of French cultures.)

Francois Mitterand — another literary president — understood this too, appointing Jack Lang to incorporate contemporary elements into the French cultural vision and agenda. (It was Lang who implemented the now European-wide Fete de la Musique, coming up this June 21, just when we’ve got something to dance about.) As did even Nicolas Sarkozy, appointing to the post Mitterand’s nephew Frederick, whose outsized erudition would certainly qualify him as ‘regalian.’

Another normally astute Radio France commentator alleged Wednesday that Macron, seeking gender equilibrium in prime minister Edouard Philippe’s cabinet, had called a cultural figure and asked him to provide the names of three women who worked in the sector. Setting aside that this allegation may be the product of a ‘mauvaise langue,’ I’d respond: “Et alors?” Admitting the possibility — if the story is true — of a latent sexism in the idea that Culture is a ‘woman’s ministry’ and thus only fit for dames and pansies, isn’t this an improvement on the procedure followed by François Hollande, who seemed to choose his cultural ministers not for their cultural currency but on the bit-coin of party loyalty?

Macron’s eventual choice, Françoise Nyssen, definitely has cultural credibility. The long-time director of Arles-based Actes Sud, founded by her father in 1978 and since grown to one of France’s most respected publishing houses, Nyssen’s authors include Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, and Kamel Daoud. The author of “Mersaut: Counter-Investigation,” a response to Albert Camus’s “The Outsider,” and an independent thinker unafraid to criticize Occidental or Oriental mores, Daoud has also described Camus himself as the last Outsider, a man with no country. (Following the suicide of her son, Nyssen also founded a school focused on listening to children, the School of Possibilities.)

… Or, I’d argue, multiple countries — like Nyssen, an immigrant whose publishing house excels in promoting authors in translation; thus eminently French and open to the world. Not so anecdotally, Arles itself is best-known outside France for having welcomed Vincent Van Gogh, yet another foreigner who expanded French culture even as it assimilated him. (These days, also not so anecdotally, the Provencial city is home to ATLAS, the country’s leading association for literary translation.)

As have so many of us (assimilated French culture), even those who rarely set foot in France. Take Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the “Madeline” series of children’s adventures, whose courageous heroine exemplified the Gallic strategy of responding to terror with words during a visit to the Paris zoo:

“To the tiger in the zoo
Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-Pooh.’”**

*Published in “Malraux: Être et Dire,” with texts assembled by Martine de Courcel. Plon, Paris, 1976. Copyright André Malraux.

**From “Madeline,” copyright Ludwig Bemelmans, 1939, renewed Madeleine Bemelmans and Barbara Bemelmans Marciano, 1967.

Word up!: Macron names renowned publisher new French culture minister

PARIS — From a minister of culture during the precedent administration who famously admitted that she didn’t have time to read books, newly inaugurated president Emmanuel Macron and his freshly-minted prime minister Edouard Philippe, both famous readers and promoters of literature, today took a major step in recuperating the image of a portfolio for years honored by Andre Malraux by naming as the country’s minister of culture and communications Françoise Nyssen, long-time director of Arles-based Actes Sud, one of the crème de la crème of French publishers. Together with Macron’s campaign promise to increase library hours at night and on the week-ends, and Philippe’s record as mayor of Havre in sending bookmobiles around the coastal city, the appointment of Nyssen, who also founded a school focused on listening to the child after the suicide of one of her own children, augurs well.

“La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished) by Michel Ragon (Extract from the Prologue)

A sort of combination of Warren Beatty’s film “Reds” (inspired by John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World”) and Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” Michel Ragon’s 1990 novel “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished) resurrects the anarchists and libertarians (in the French sense of the word) who often furnished the foot soldiers for the class warfare and union movements of the first half of the 20th century — before they themselves were crushed by the Communists and obliterated a second time by the history books. It’s a brilliant mosaic in which authentic historical figures like Trotsky intermingle with a protagonist we’re never quite sure is entirely fictional, so much does the trajectory of the narrator to whom he is the mentor correspond with Ragon’s own. (Like the novel’s hero when the narrator first encounters him, Ragon worked as a bouquiniste, or Seine-side bookseller, before he became a celebrated art and architecture critic, curator, and historian of Proletarian literature, to cite just a few of his many trades.)

Child groom to a girl he finds on a fish cart when he himself is just a pre-adolescent waif roaming  Les Halles wholesale market in Paris in 1911, taken in along with the girl by revolutionary militant and writer Victor Serge and his companion Rirette Maitrejean, non-violent anarchists at the same time harboring the notorious violence-prone Bonnot Band of anarchists, aide-de-camp to Zinoviev until he’s forced to flee Soviet Russia after contradicting Trotsky, combatant with the International Brigade in Spain once again forced to flee the Russians attempting to subvert the Republican cause, Labor agitator in the era of the Popular Front finally trotted out as a totem by the student rebels of May 1968 before slipping back into obscurity, Ragon’s “Fred Barthélemy” and his entourage of real, composite, and imagined personages embody the ‘losers’ of the 20th century class struggles, their ideals nonetheless persistent and renascent in contemporary France via the “ZAD” (Zone à Défendre) movement, like a cup of sourdough starter passed on from generation to generation, making all the more crucial Ragon’s “memory of the vanquished.” Romantic and heroic without being romanticized, Ragon’s saga — decorated, through Fred’s intermittent reunions with Flora, with a love story as well as a fresco of the Paris art world over which Flora reigns supreme first as artist’s muse and later as dealer — restores a lost milieu to its rightful place in popular history.

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak (followed by version originale):  

“Books can also die, but they last longer than men. They get passed on from hand to hand, like the Olympic flame relayed by runners. My friend, my father, my older brother, you have not completely slid into Nothingness, because this book of your life exists.”

— Michel Ragon, prologue, “The Memory of the Vanquished.”

Life makes for a curious marathon*, mined with ambushes and discoveries, surprises and mishaps. People arrive, people depart. We come into contact with beings we later forget, or who simply disappear. Others insinuate themselves into our lives and don’t let go, attaching themselves like tics which we know we’ll only get rid of by disappearing ourselves, forever, with no prospect of coming back. Sometimes their presence is so oppressive that we want to fast-forward this moment. Why do certain people never go away while others simply seem to evaporate, misplaced somewhere along the line but who nonetheless still obsess us? Some are dead — or reported dead — and yet they’re anything but dead to us. These so-called dearly departed continue to accompany us, live with us and inhabit us, more than so many of the living that we walk next to indifferently every day. Sometimes we precipitously bury those we’ve lost from sight and whose advanced age makes us believe they’re definitively gone. And then one day, “Poof!,” there they are, stepping out of the shadows like phantoms, resuming their roles in our lives — roles they never should have abdicated in the first place.

Such is the case of the man whose story I’m about to relate.

Without this man, I would not be who I am today. When I first met him, I was just 23 years old. He was 48. Forty-eight is hardly ancient, but he was already very old. What I mean is that he had lived through such adventures, crossed paths with so many renowned, legendary figures, and had himself played such a vital role in History that he seemed as if removed from Time. As for the particular times — the new Post-War era — they had chewed him up and spat him out. Imprisoned from 1939 to 1945 and thus having participated neither in the conflicts between the Resistance and the Collaborationists nor the skirmishes for power that followed the Liberation, he seemed to be an anachronism. The only way to make a living he’d been able to come up with accentuated this very obsolescence. He operated a bookstall on the banks of the Seine, on the Tournelle quay, not far from what was still referred to at the time as the Wine Market.

To see him there, leaning up against a parapet next to his book bins, his imposing stature slightly fractured, with an eternally ironic air, did not really surprise me. At first I was just another customer, albeit a customer oblivious to the particular singularity of the bouquiniste he had in front of him, a customer who spent more time leafing through the books protected by the zinc overhangs than actually buying them. The book bins of the man who was to become for me more than just a friend, a spiritual father whose influence would mark me forever, had nothing in common with the other bookstands that flanked the river. No cellophane-wrapped erotic novels. No murder mysteries. Unencumbered by faded pseudo-engravings or envelopes stuffed with stamp collections, but overflowing with an abundance of brochures, revues, and even yellowing newspapers, the whole of which constituted an extraordinary collection for the connoisseur of the history of union, political, and social movements of the first half of the 20th century. The books in this singular library, also extremely rare, with some boasting personally dedicated autographs, were not more expensive because of this fact, as the typical autograph collector was not yet looking for the signatures of Gide, Malraux, Alain, or Giono. But they fascinated me, and it was no doubt these long interludes spent mooning over such illustrious signatures, not to mention my propensity for acquiring brochures whose politics usually made them unsellable, that drew the attention of the bouquiniste to his young habitué. Seeing me count my pennies, he offered me special discounts. One day he told me, in his mocking, Parisian, borderline hangman’s voice, which I’d later find intact in his extreme decrepitude:

“M’boy, I’m flabbergasted to see you interested in such drivel at your age. I’ve been observing you, just out of curiosity, for months, and you simply don’t relent. What could possibly interest you in these books? Seriously, you intrigue me! Where do you come from? What do you expect out of life?”

I babbled something. His questions were just a bit too personal for my taste.

He shrugged his shoulders, seemed to grow agitated, and added, in a tone not at all friendly:

“What I’m telling you is for your own good. You shouldn’t loiter over all this obsolete rubbish. It won’t get you anywhere. If I’ve dug it out of mothballs, it’s only because it might interest some old cronies who still remember me fondly.”

Then, softening:

“A man’s gotta make a living, after all. Although for that matter, why should I say ‘gotta’? No one’s forcing me. I’ve hit dry-dock, like those old barges which no longer budge from the mudflats. Liquidation sale! Everything must go! Later on down the line, who knows?”

Then his bad mood resurged:

“Go on, get out of here! This is not for you. You’re better off chasing skirts. I don’t want to see you around here any more. You’re getting on my nerves. Amscray!”

For months I stayed away from the Tournelle Quay. The bouquiniste had not so much frightened as annoyed me. I avoided him. Walking along the opposite sidewalk, on the building side of the street, I saw him more often than not surrounded by men his own age, or older, engaged in prolonged confabs. Some were bizarrely adorned, with capes, extravagant scarves, and cotton-knit bonnets. It thus seemed to me that these men who surrounded my gawky, surly friend had also stepped out of another time. This resemblance between the bouquiniste’s regulars and the outdated merchandise in his bins explained the anomaly of my intrusion in an age circle which was not my own. But I still had the right to be passionate about early 20th-century political history. This conviction gave me the courage to plunge back into his bins — which, after all, didn’t belong to an exclusive club. I emerged triumphantly with Lissagaray’s History of the 1871 Commune, the Dentu edition, published in 1897. Girding myself for more of the same cantankerousness from him, I immediately adopted a pugnacious tone:

“How much for this one? I expect a deal — after all, I’m on old customer.”

He pretended not to recognize me, weighed the book between his thin hands, leafed through it, shook his head sadly, and answered:

“Lissagaray…. This one’s priceless. But because you had the balls to come back, I’m going to give it to you. No — don’t argue; it’s a present. A present without price! You’re an anar ? ‘Fess up.”


I’d only just landed in Paris from my province, where I’d been educated for the most part in the bosom of the Catholic Church, Roman and Apostolic. But ever since the moment I’d begun to ponder things, I’d been drawn above all to the heretics, the outcasts of all varieties, the marginals, the outlaws, the iconoclasts, even the abnormal and the madmen. “Anar”? What was he talking about? I was more familiar with the history of socialism, of socialisms in their various avatars, than that of anarchism.

Seeing my embarrassment, the bouquiniste resumed:

“No, of course, you’re not an anar. It’s no longer à la mode. For that matter, it’s never been à la mode. You’ve gotta at least be a Communist, no? If not, what could you possibly hope to find in my book bins? Or maybe you’re just a masochist.”

“Why do I have to subscribe to some ‘ism’ in your book?” I brusquely shot back. “I’m interested in politics, not political parties.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“I do what I’m able to do. And I could care less. For the moment I’m an unskilled laborer in a factory. I’ve always been an unskilled laborer,” I added in a moment of defiance. “Unskilled laborer, warehouse worker, docker. I may be petit, but I’m solid. And working with my muscles leaves my brain free. To read, to study.”

“Do you read a lot?”

“I’ve read everything.”

“Don’t be modest!”

“It’s true. I’ve read the entire collection of Larousse Classics, in alphabetical order. That way I’m sure not to leave anything out.”

The bouquiniste ran his hands through his gray hair, a typical gesture for him, practically a tic. He considered me with an air in which I detected both surprise and affection. It seemed like he wanted to tell me something, but in the end he settled for taking my shoulder in his boney hand and squeezing it so hard it hurt.

“Come back whenever you like. Leaf through my stock. Search, m’boy, and maybe ye shall find.”

Thus was born my relationship with the man whose biography I now aspire to write. Before long I noticed that the same name popped up again and again on the fly-leafs of all the signed books in his bins, as well as on the covers of numerous brochures that I bought from him. This name was of course his own. He was slowly selling off his library — his only asset.

Excerpt from “La Mémoire des vaincus” by Michel Ragon. Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1990. To read a translated excerpt from Chapter One, click here. To read sample translations — and the French original — of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l-Oeil,” click here as well as here. To read a translation of Ragon’s article on the Montparnasse artist Wols, click here.

*A more accurate translation of the French original, “parcours,” would be “trajectory.” I’ve proposed “marathon” here to avoid over-using “trajectory” and because in translating in general, I try to give the French author his best expression in American English (without getting so fancy as to risk changing his meaning or betraying his native style), rather than simply mirror his language, particularly when a literal translation risks diminishing the luster of the original. (For instance, where the literal English translation might not offer the literary, cultural, lyrical, or rhythmic resonances of the French. Or may simply be more banal than the French original.) And because, as a former marathoner in San Francisco, I find the image apt for the pacing and landscapes about to unfold in “La Mémoire des vaincus.” Or perhaps it’s simply that Ragon’s own advanced age — 93 as of this writing — makes his own ‘parcours’ and durability resemble that of the marathon runner.

Version originale:

«Les livres meurent aussi, mais ils durent plus longtemps que les hommes. On se les passe de main en main. Comme la flamme des jeux Olympiques portée de relais en relais par les coureurs. Mon ami, mon père, mon grand aîné, tu n’as pas glissé entièrement dans le néant puisque ce livre de ta vie existe.»

— Michel Ragon, Prologue, «La Mémoire des vaincus.»

La vie est un curieux parcours, plein d’embûches et de découvertes, de surprises et de déconvenues. On vient, on va. On rencontre des gens, que l’on oublie, qui disparaissent. D’autres qui s’insinuent, qui ne vous lâchent plus, qui s’accrochent à vous comme des tiques et dont on sait bien que l’on ne pourra s’en débarrasser qu’en disparaissant soi-même, à tout jamais, sans espoir de retour. Ils sont si pesant parfois, que l’on a envie de devancer l’heure. Pourquoi ceux-là et pas ceux-ci, égarés en chemin et dont le souvenir vous obsède. Certains sont morts, du moins on le dit, mais ils ne sont pas morts pour vous. Des prétendus morts nous accompagnent, vivent avec nous, en nous, plus que tant de vivants que l’on côtoie chaque jour avec indifférence. Parfois, on enterre un peu vite ceux que l’on a perdus de vue et dont l’âge avancé nous fait croire à leur effacement définitif. Et il arrive qu’ils ressortent de l’ombre, comme des fantômes, et reprennent leur place, dans notre existence, une place qu’ils n’auraient jamais dû quitter.

C’est le cas de l’homme dont je vais vous raconter la vie.

Sans lui, je ne serais pas ce que je suis. Lorsque je le rencontrai pour la première fois j’avais vingt-trois ans. Il en comptait quarante-huit. Quarante-huit ans, ce n’est pas bien vieux, mais lui était déjà très vieux. Je veux dire qu’il avait vécu de telles aventures, croisé tant de gens illustres, légendaires, joué lui-même un tel rôle dans l’Histoire, qu’il semblait hors du temps. Le temps, les temps nouveaux de l’après-guerre, d’ailleurs le rejetaient. Emprisonné de 1939 à 1945 et n’ayant, de ce fait, participé ni aux conflits de la Résistance et de la Collaboration, ni à la ruée sur les pouvoirs vacants à la Libération, il apparaissait alors tout à fait anachronique. Le seul gagne-pain qu’il avait pu trouver accentuait sa désuétude. Il tenait un étal de bouquiniste en bord de Seine, quai de la Tournelle, non loin de ce qui s’appelait encore la Halle aux Vins.

Le voir ainsi, accoté au parapet, près de ses boites à livres, sa haute taille un peu cassée, l’air toujours ironique, ne me surprenait pas outre mesure. J’avais commencé par être son client, un client qui ignorait à quelle singulier bouquiniste il s’adressait, un client qui passait plus de temps à feuilleter les livres sous l’auvent des couvercles de zinc qu’à les acheter. Les boites de celui qui allait devenir pour moi plus qu’un ami, un père spirituel dont l’influence me marquerait à jamais, ne ressemblaient pas aux autres. Elles ne contenaient ni publications érotiques sous cellophane, ni romans policiers, n’étaient pas encombrées de pseudo-gravures anciennes, ni d’enveloppes de collections de timbres, mais débordaient d’une abondance de brochures, de revues et même de journaux jaunis qui constituaient une extraordinaire collection pour l’amateur d’histoire syndicale, politique et sociale de la première moitié du siécle. Les livres de ce singulier libraire, eux aussi fort rares, certains même dédicacés, n’en coûtes pas plus cher pour cela, car les amateurs d’autographes ne recherchaient pas encore les signatures de Gide, de Malraux, d’Alain, de Giono. Mais moi, elles me fascinaient et c’est sans doute ces longs moments passés à rêver sur d’aussi illustres paraphes, et plus encore ma propension à acquérir des brochures politiques invendables, qui attirèrent l’attention du bouquiniste sur son jeune habitué. Me voyant compter mes sous, il me faisait des prix. Un jour il me dit, de cette voix gouailleuse, parigote, un tantinet bourrue, que je retrouverai inchangée dans son extrême vieillesse :

— Tu m’en bouches un coin, mon gars, à ton âge, de t’intéresser à tout cette drouille. Je te regarde, comme ça, depuis des mois, et tu ne fléchis pas. Qu’est-ce qui peut bien t’attirer là-dedans ? Vraiment, tu m’intrigues ! D’ou viens-tu ? Qu’attends-tu de la vie ?

Je bafouillai je ne sais quoi. Il m’en demandait trop.

Il haussa les épaules, parut agacé et me dit d’un ton peu aimable :

— Ce que je t’en dis, c’est pour ton bien. Tu ne devrais pas t’attarder à toutes ces vieilleries. Ça ne te mènera nulle part. Si je les ai ressorties, c’est qu’elles font l’affaire de quelques copains qui veulent bien se souvenir de moi.

Puis, se radoucissant :

— Il faut que je gagne ma croûte. Enfin, pour quoi dire il faut. Personne ne m’oblige. J’ai échoué là, comme ces vieux rafiots qui ne ressortent plus de la vase du port. Je liquide mon fonds. Après, on verra.

Sa mauvaise humeur revint :

— Allez, déguerpis. Ce n’est pas pour toi. Tu ferais mieux de t’intéresser aux filles. Je ne veux plus te voir. Tu m’agaces. Allez, fous le camp.

Des mois passèrent sans que je revienne quai de la Tournelle. Le bouquiniste m’avait moins effrayé que vexé. Je l’évitais. En passant sur l’autre trottoir, du côté des immeubles, je le voyais le plus souvent entouré des hommes de son âge, ou plus vieux. Ils tenaient de longs conciliables. Certains étaient bizarrement accoutrés, avec des pèlerines, des foulards extravagants, des bonnets de laine tricotés. Il m’apparut alors que ces hommes qui entouraient mon grand escogriffe bourru, sortaient aussi d’un autre temps. Cette similitude entre les familiers du bouquiniste et la marchandise désuète de ses boîtes, me fit mieux comprendre l’anomalie de mon intrusion dans un âge qui n’était pas le mien. Mais j’avais bien le droit de me passionner pour l’histoire politique du début du siècle. Cette conviction me donna le courage de refouiller dans des boîtes qui après tout, n’appartenaient pas à un club privé. J’en ressortis triomphalement  l’Histoire de la Commune de 1871, par Lissagaray, dans l’édition Dentu, datée 1897. Et, ne voulant pas être en reste avec l’agressivité du bouquiniste, je lui demandai d’un air revêche :

— C’est combien, ce bouquin-là ? Vous me ferez bien un prix, je suis un vieux client.

Il feignit de ne pas me reconnaître, prit le livre dans ses mains maigres, le feuilleta, hocha la tête d’un air très triste :

— Lissagaray… C’est un ouvrage qui n’a pas de prix. Bon, puisque tu as le culot de revenir, je te le donne. Non, ne discute pas, c’est un cadeau. Un cadeau sans prix ! Tu es anar ? Fallait le dire.

— Anar ?

Je débarquais de ma province où mon éducation se fit plutôt dans le giron de l’Église catholique, apostolique et romaine. Mais depuis que je commençais à réfléchir, mon attirance allait surtout aux hérétiques, aux réprouvés de tout acabit, aux marginaux, aux hors-la-loi, aux irrespectueux, voire aux anormaux et aux fous. Anar ? Que voulait-il dire ? Je connaissais plus l’histoire du socialisme, des socialismes, et de tous leurs avatars, que celle de l’anarchie.

Voyant mon embarras, le bouquiniste reprit :

— Non, bien sûr, tu n’es pas anar. Ce n’est plus la mode. Ça ne l’a d’ailleurs jamais été. Tu n’es pas coco, tout de même ? Sinon, que chercherais-tu dans mes boîtes ? Ou alors, c’est que tu serais maso.

— Pourquoi voulez-vous que je sois embrigadé dans quelque chose ? dis-je avec brusquerie. Je m’intéresse à la politique, pas aux partis politiques.

— Qu’est que tu fais, dans la vie ?

— Je fais ce que je peux. Et je m’en fiche. Actuellement je suis manœuvre dans une usine. J’ai toujours été manœuvre, ajoutait-je dans une sorte de défie, manœuvre, manutentionnaire, débardeur. Je suis petit, mais je suis costaud. Et travailler avec mes muscles me laisse le cerveau vacant. Je peux lire, étudier.

— Tu lis beaucoup ?

— J’ai tout lu.

— Allons, ne te vante pas.

— Si, j’ai lu tous les petits classiques Larousse, par ordre alphabétique. Comme ça, j’était sûr de ne pas en oublier.

— Le bouquiniste passa ses mains dans sa chevelure grise, geste qui lui était familier, presque un tic. Il me regarda d’un autre air où je devinai à la fois de l’étonnement et de l’affection. Il eut envie de me dire quelque chose, mais se contenta de me prendre l’épaule, de sa main osseuse, et de la serrer à me faire mal.

— Reviens quand tu veux. Farfouille. Cherche, mon gars. Peut-être finiras-tu par trouver.

C’est ainsi que commencèrent mes relations avec celui dont j’ambitionne aujourd’hui, quarante ans après, de devenir le biographe. Je m’aperçus vite que le même nom se répétait à la fois sur les pages de garde de tous les livres dédicacés qui se trouvaient dans ses boîtes, et sur les couvertures de nombreuses brochures que j’achetais. Ce nom était bien sûr le sien. Il bradait sa bibliothèque, son seul avoir.


Cherche echange logement-travail (traduction, redaction, DJ, site web lancement, galeriste, dramaturgie, Com…. ) à Paris

dad logementJournaliste et traducteur americain experimenté, basé en Dordogne,
cherche echange travail  –  logement Parisien mi-mai – mi-juin ou juillet pour pouvoir ecrire sur la scene parisienne (y compris les Portes Ouvertes de Belleville)  et assister a une festival de traduction. C’est possible que un co-location ou un sous-location pas chere pourrait aussi marcher. Avec moi j’ai une petite chatte blanche, très propre et pas du tout bavard. Voici quelques infos sur moi (et
mes multiples talents et atouts). Et voici mes autres journaux, Arts Voyager et Dance Insider . Merci et a bientôt! — Paul Ben-Itzak.   Contacter paulbenitzak@gmail.com.  Art par Edward Winer.