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NB: In translating rhymed poetry as well as literature in general, I have sometimes applied an elastic standard, priming the replication of style and musicality over literal word-by-word translation. In this approach I am inspired by Robert Fagles, the pre-eminent 20th century translator of the Greeks and my professor at Princeton.

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“Wols,” by Michel Ragon, Jardin des Arts, May 1963; version originale followed by translation and afterward

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.

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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.

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak:  

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.

Cursed

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.

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,” by Michel Ragon: Extract from Chapter 1, ‘La petite fille dans la charrette aux poissons’ (The little girl in the fishmongers’ wagon); version originale followed by translation and afterward

Like what you’re reading on the Maison de Traduction? Next month, Paul travels to Paris to attend a translation festival, attempt to meet with Michel Ragon, and get vital dental and medical care. Please support this voyage 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 if you’ve not already. The subtitle for this chapter is “(1899 -1917)”; the segment is set in 1911.

“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.

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak:  

“But as for me, I’m just a poor sap! For us others, it’s nothing but misfortune in this world and the one beyond, and of course, when we get to Heaven, it’s we who must make the thunder-claps work.”

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck.”

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 out his limbs like a feline he flicked off the fleas and, like a cat, 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 as him, it wouldn’t take long to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before they’d debated over a bowl of scalding-hot bouillon. The boy always received his portion. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between the trailers loaded with heaps of victuals. Every Friday he’d walk up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, compelled by the pungent aroma of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which in his mind had assumed the outsized dimensions 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 metal wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, augmented by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, stuffed into their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, machinally hanging onto the reigns. The horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the skeletal iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes remounted in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated past the city center gates all the way back up to the outskirts of the Poissonnière** quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, cursed, 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 hanging, 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 hailed from the sea. Now that he thought of it, she reeked of fish, unless the smell 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 on Earth 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?”

“11.”

“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 grounded 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 hillbillies,” she declared when they finally stopped to rest, close to the rue de Richelieu. How’s about we elope and get hitched?! What’s your moniker anyway?

“Fred.”

“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 widened at the sight of the water shooting up out of the fountains.

“What’s the sea like anyway?” asked Fred.

“Disgusting. It never stops moving. It’s full of salt and all kinds of yucky 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 to the shore, like it’s going to swallow up the houses along the docks. It hammers, it howls. I’ll be quite content if I never see its stinking hide again.”

“Here, too,” Fred answered, “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, crept up into the basements, and then just plain overflowed. Rats were scurrying down the streets like madmen, with the water nipping at their butts. Entire blocks simply vanished, overrun by rivers. They put up bridges made of nothing but planks of wood. Sometimes it sounded just like canons — the ground-floor windows exploding. The water poured into the houses, even pushing 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 sea was quite content with itself for the mess it had made. This is how I think of the sea. They used to tell me stories about entire drowned villages sunk to the bottom of the ocean where the church bells still rang.”

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

They were sitting in metal chairs on the rim of the big 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 incredible how much you smell like fish. Cats don’t follow you down the street?”

Flora shrugged her slight shoulders and bit her nails.

Just then a uniformed guard seemed to sprout 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. Uncommonly tall and looking older than he actually was, he might have passed unnoticed in the high-class neighborhoods. But Flora, with her skirt just a little too short, 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 and showed him the coin.

“Formidable! I think we just might treat ourselves to some breakfast rolls.”

Ever since the Great Paris Flood of 1910, Fred had been living on the streets. His father, a laborer in the Metro tunnels, died of tuberculosis shortly before the flood and his mother followed 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” and that “what he needs most is fresh air,” he’d not had a roof over his head since running away. In the quartier of Les Halles, 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 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 child 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, on drinking 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 by 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 fantastic places, but he’d never for a single instant considered the possibility that at night-time he might not be able to return to his niche near Saint-Eustache. At the same time, it was unthinkable for him to abandon Flora. 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 menacing. They were starving. Fred didn’t want to admit it, but he was lost.

“Peek-a-boo, young lovers! Just lazing around?”

Fred and Flora prepared to flee 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 school-girl’s smock. Her short hair, parted in the middle, the white sailor’s collar which highlighted her blouse, her mischievous, charming little face, immediately inspired the confidence of the two children.

“I’ve never seen you two around here before. Where are you staying?”

And, as the two children seemed tongue-tied, by way of excusing herself she added:

“You probably think I’m being a buddinsky about things that are none of my business. And you’re right. I was just trying to shoot the breeze — my way of saying howdy! 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 — maybe 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 climbed up, via a set of wooden stairs, to a modest lodging where a young man stood before a table attentively reading large sheets of newspaper paper. He also appeared to be very young — 20 at the 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 don’t like our mugs — the gate is never locked.”

Fate often hangs on very little. Or rather, it is sometimes linked to a chain of events which deliver you to your own 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 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, the most notorious of whom were the members of the Bonnot Gang — holed up, in real life and in the novel, with 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 with his life.) In Ragon’s novel, before most of the gang, taken in by Rirette and Victor at the same time as Fred and Flora, are eliminated by the authorities — and Victor sent to prison for complicity, as was the case in real life — one of the gang takes Fred to Paul Delesalle’s anarchist bookstore on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince, effectively handing him over to his next foster parent and mentor. There Fred discovers Victor Hugo and learns Russian, both events critical for the adventures which follow and place him in the heart of the Bolshevik revolution and succeeding 20th century class struggles.

If I’ve chosen to end my sample here, it’s also because of the juxtaposition provided: Fleeing the sea and its ‘saloperies’ and menaces, Fred and Flora find higher ground in Belleville, whose Abbeys and their wells once irrigated lower Paris.

* 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. The choice of location is not anodyne for Ragon, who cut his own literary chops as an art critic.

** 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 ferret out 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.

“La Mémoire des vaincus” by Michel Ragon (Extract from the Prologue; introduction and version originale followed by translation)

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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” 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 trades.)

Foster child of the (real-life) Bonnot gang, 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 and whose adult destiny resembles that of Dina Vierney, the sculptor Aristide Maillol’s muse and inheritor, prodigy of revolutionary militant and writer Victor Serge, 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 for their own ends, 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 even as mainstream bread becomes more and more diluted by additives — making all the more crucial Ragon’s “memory of the vanquished,” a legacy singularly restored and personalized. 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 Montparno and Montmartroise art worlds 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. It is for this reason — the regenerative relevance of Ragon’s epic — that in translating the title I’ve opted for the ungainly “The Memory of the Vanquished” in lieu of “In Memory of the Vanquished” because, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

«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.

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak:  

“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 frayed 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.”

“‘Anar’?”

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 sample translations — and the French original — of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l-Oeil,” click here as well as 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 — 92 as of this writing — makes his own ‘parcours’ and durability resemble that of the marathon runner.

**Here, with the addition of ‘frayed,’ I’ve taken considerable poetic license, as no such qualifier exists in the French original. My justifications include that the adjective could also apply to the dated books and journals in ‘Fred”s stand — and to the protagonist himself; my direct knowledge of these hardly secure structures from a close friendship with one of Fred’s contemporaries, as well as of the fragility of the bouquiniste trade itself; that an Anglophone audience in 2017 might not be as familiar with the bouquiniste stand as a Francophone one in 1990; and, perhaps most irresponsibly, that because Ragon is as of this writing still alive, in theory any full translation for formal publication would be submitted for his approval.

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.
.

Portfolio: Christophe Martinez / Genesis (Artist’s Portfolio, presentation in French followed by English translation and more images from Portfolio) (For larger versions of photos, click on this headline)

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2017. 146 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

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NOTE DE PRESENTATION (English Translation Follows)

Textures et lumières: Sans affection particulière, ni volonté documentaire, les photographies produites sont issues de technologies hybrides…. Pour Christophe Martinez, la chambre photographique produit plutôt qu’elle n’enregistre. Penser, essayer, opérer, transformer, sous la seule réserve d’une recherche d’équilibre où n’interviennent que des phénomènes travaillés. C’est ainsi qu’une somme d’actions et d’expérimentations aboutissent à un d’accompagnement des techniques et des matériaux photographiques. Une forme de capillarité lumineuse par les lois fondamentales de l’optique, de la nature de la lumière, de la photochimie ainsi que des pratiques numériques. Ces différents protocoles échangent leurs répliques dans une danse à la fois élémentaire et sensible.

Christophe Martinez est né en 1978. Il vit et travaille à Paris. Pour l’artiste se sont les conditions de la photographie et les dispositions de la matière photographique s’imposent en premier. C’est dans ce cadre qu’il va développer des variantes de recherche et d’approfondissement autour des questions qu’il se pose.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2014 115  x 146 cm unframed and without margins.   Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

PRESENTATION :

Textures and light: Without any particular pre-meditated inclination, nor any  specific documentary intent, the photographs produced result from hybrid technologies…. For Christophe Martinez, the darkroom produces rather than simply records. Reflect, attempt, operate, transform, with the sole condition being the search for an equilibrium where only methodically developed phenomena intervene. Thus a sum of actions and experiments leads to a marriage of techniques and photographic matter. A form of luminous capillarity arrived at by applying fundamental laws of optics, nature, and light, and with the use of both photo-chemical and digital processes. These different protocols dialogue in a dance at the same time elemental and sensitive.

Christophe Martinez was born in 1978. He lives and works in Paris. For the artist, it is above all photographic conditions and the disposition of photographic material that prime. It is in this framework that he has developed the variants of his research and the depth surrounding the questions that he poses.

Curated by Paul Ben-Itzak.
Text by Christophe Martinez, translated by Paul Ben-Itzak.
Pour tout renseignment / For information contact :
Français: Christophe Martinez, christophemartinez.photographe@gmail.com
English or Français: Paul Ben-Itzak, artsvoyager@gmail.com

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2006. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2005. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2005. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled  #1, 2009. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2009. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #3, 2009. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2007. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #3, 2007. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2007. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2016. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2016. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2013. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2013. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2012. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2012. 115 x 146 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #3, 2017. 146 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2017. 146 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2017. 146 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2010. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #2, 2010. 90 x 115 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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Christophe Martinez, Untitled #1, 2006. 115 x 90 cm unframed and without margins. Pigment print on paper.  Oeuvre unique. Copyright Christophe Martinez.

 

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

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Among the works on sale this afternoon for Artcurial’s 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. For more on Atlan, as remembered by Michel Ragon in his 1956 work “Trompe-l’oeil,” see below. (English translation, dedicated to Edward Winer & the memory of Ruth Asawa for opening the horizon, follows original French text.)

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.

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak:  

Born in the Jewish ghetto of Constantine in Algeria, the grandson of miracle-working rabbis, 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 and never returned to North Africa, whose unhinged racisms and exacerbated nationalisms had poisoned his childhood.

A Trotskyist militant, he found himself one day 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, hopping off the train for a bite at the station greasy spoon, he suddenly asked himself what personal reason he could possible have for accompanying Trotsky, found no answer, and fled to scout out the nearest synagogue in this unfamiliar city, abandoning in the train the figure he’d been assigned to protect.

Before the recent war, Atlan’s life was made up of a maze of political demonstrations, in general underpinned by anti-colonization. The sole remotely painterly preoccupation he’d ever had was to secure a meeting with Signac to get him to sign a petition.

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

One had to have heard him recount this macabre adventure with his unique brand of burlesque humor, which had a way of putting him at his listeners’ level. By constantly proclaiming that a judicial error had brought him to prison, and that he was none other than the Bishop of Constantine, he so unnerved a guard that the guard alerted the warden. Upon investigating, this official discovered the prisoner wrapped in his straw mattress, using it as a priest’s smock. He repeated to the warden that he was none other than the Bishop of Constantine. As a pre-caution, the warden sent him to see the prison psychiatrist. This time Atlan knew that the role would be more difficult to play, this particular specialist being accustomed to dealing with impersonators. So he altered his approach, and responded to the psychiatrist in his normal tone. Then he confidentially confessed that he was pretending to be crazy because he was Jewish and he counted on thus escaping deportation.

The psychiatrist, quite discomfited, answered that it was difficult to make out a bogus certificate, that he himself was being watched. From this they progressed to a cozy chat which had no resemblance with a medical examination. Atlan subtly let slip 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. “You’re able to see your wife? Isn’t she at the Petite-Roquette*?

“Yes she is. To be honest, I don’t exactly ‘see’ her, but we speak every night.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s quite simple. I’ve developed a system of transmitting thoughts which allows me, once I’ve achieved the degree of concentration required, to enter into communication with someone else, even someone in a place that’s physically inaccessible. In this way 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 enthused, “It’s extraordinary! As it happens, I’m working on a thesis on exactly these kinds of cases of telepathy. We’ll collaborate together, no? I’m going to ask the prison administration to put you at my disposition.”

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

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

Later, once the Germans had left, Atlan published a collection of poems most likely written in prison, “Deep Blood,” and which were the poetic reflection of his painting. Moreover, he soon held his first exposition. He was only 31, the age when most artists discover themselves, but his vocation still seemd to have arrived late in the day because he hadn’t followed the approved channel of the Fine 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, and one of the most important 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 as far as to work as a peddler in the suburban markets outside Paris, telling fortunes to the Montrouge storekeepers, who would often mistake him, with his Arab’s 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 act.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon. Copyright 1956 Éditions Albin Michel, Paris.

**For many years a juvenile prison, during the Occupation the Germans used La Petite Roquette for civilians. These days a public garden bisected by a cascading series of fountains, the only hint remaining of the site’s carcéral past is a bird hotel flanking the entrance where pigeons check in for the grub and check out sterilized.

chaissac smallAnother Michal Ragon favorite is Gaston Chaissac (1910-1964), whose 1961 “Composition” is also part of Artcurial’s Post-War & Contemporary sale this afternoon in Paris. Mixed technique on paper, 49 x 64 cm. Signed and dated at lower-left, “G. chaissac, 29.12.61.” Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 8,000 – 12,000 Euros. Image copyright  and courtesy Artcurial.

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