El Paso, 8/3/2019: J’accuse ou, Bienvenue dans le Texas / Welcome to Texas

serranobloodontheflag smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Andres Serrano, “Blood on the Flag” (9/11), 2001-2004.  © Andres Serrano and courtesy Galerie Nathalie Obadia Paris/ Bruxelles.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

J’accuse Donald Trump, avec sa haine des migrants et de tout les gens de couleur, et qui a semé la haine dans les cœurs des esprits vulnérables. / I accuse Donald Trump, with his hate of migrants and all people of color, and who has sown the seeds of hate in the hearts and minds of the vulnerable.

J’accuse l’hypocrisie de le Gouverner Abbot, qui ose dire que “Le Texas est en deuil” quand c’etait bien lui qui a agressivement soutenu le politique anti-migrants de Donald Trump et qui a signé la loi ‘droit à porter’ (les armes à feu). I accuse the hypocrisy of Governor Abbot, who dares proclaim that “Texas grieves” when it’s he who has aggressively supported the anti-migrant policies of Donald Trump and who signed the “right to carry” law.

J’accuse l’état de Texas avec son amour pour les armes à feu. / I accuse the state of Texas with its love of arms. Et qui confond la culture de le Cowboy et le Far-Ouest avec la doctrine le Force fait de la raison, le culte des armes. / And which confounds the Cowboy culture and the culture of the Frontier with Might makes Right, the cult of the gun.

J’accuse le National Rifle Association et tout les politiciens qui se laissent acheté par ce lobby des armes à feu. / I accuse the National Rifle Association and all the politicians who’ve sold their souls to the arms lobby.

J’accuse ces marchands de la haine qui ont oublié que notre force a nous c’est le multi-culturisme, que nous sommes un nation des MIGRANTS. / I accuse the hate merchants who have forgotten that our strength is our multi-culturalism, that we are a nation of MIGRANTS.

I passed through El Paso one early September evening in 2012 on my way back home to Fort Worth. In the pause at the station a young Mexican, or Mexican-American woman boarded the bus to sell us delectably spicy burritos for $1.50 or $2.00 a pop. This is our spice. They are our spice. This too is Texas. This too is America

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Bread in Doses

lang white angel bread lineCurrently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, as part of its exhibition Photography + Photography: Photographs from the Robin and Sandy Stuart Collection: Dorothea Lange, “White Angel Bread Line,” 1933. Collection of Robin and Sandy Stuart. © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California.

At American universities, the brain is a lonely hunter

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(If you’ve not already, please consider supporting this translation work and our sister site the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager  by making a gift today / S’il vous plait penser à faire un don  by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail)  en région Parisienne pour le rentrée. Le contacter à artsvoyager@gmail.com )

Recently contemplating a return to school, I’ve been appalled at course programming at universities across the United States which looks more like the Democratic Party platform, aimed at pleasing — at *including in the curriculum while at the same time segregating into their own separate courses* — various interest groups, than a coursus meant to endow young people with a solid, comprehensive understanding of their field, more at teaching them what they should be thinking about (and often how to think about it) than how to think.

It’s not so much the expanded idea of what should constitute valid histories, cultures, and oeuvres for the academy in itself that’s disturbing. My first choice among all the universities whose course offerings I’ve carefully, voir maniacally, scrutinized (albeit 40 years too late, the school having originally admitted me in 1979), and not just because it’s on the banks of Lake Michigan and on the border of a city (on the make) I’ve always wanted to get to know better, Chicago, would be Northwestern, precisely because of the apparently broad scopes of its English, Art History, and Comparative Literature departments. (And notwithstanding a list of distribution requirements which includes two courses in “Ethics and Values.” If those kids haven’t already started developing a system of ethics and values before entering college, it’s not the paternalistic force-feeding of an institution which is going to make them do so.) The first offers separate courses not just on “the Chicago Way” (with a reading list including Nelson Algren’s “Chicago, City on the Make,” a book I discovered while cat-sitting in ‘my’ literary New York brownstone), but on the literature of Native Americans who lived in and around Chicago before and after the revolution. The second offers a freshman survey course on “Modernism” which promises to traverse national and chronological borders, in my mind a much more accurate approach than the “Modern” courses I’ve found just about everywhere else, whose professors variously and erroneously peg the beginning of the “Modern” period at 1850, 1880 or 1900 (Princeton’s Hal Foster notably commits this latter error, or at least suggests this by offering a scope for “Modernist” art that only starts that year), when in fact it begins at the latest in 1827, with Delacroix’s “Mort de Sardanapale.” Northwestern also proposes an art history course which takes a field trip to Carbondale, Illinois, to get involved with a community art project — while at the same time offering a late 19th century expert whose latest book looks at how modern lighting affected modern (as in Impressionist and immediately after) art in France. And the resumé of at least one other professor suggests an outside of the box, global, cross-disciplinary, and broad focus on aspects of abstract and contemporary art. (The professor in charge of this realm seems to have three appointments, in Comparative Literature, Art History, and North African or Middle Eastern Studies.) The Comparative Literature department, meanwhile, joins with other universities in integrating ecology into the curriculum, but not just in a lock-step follow-the-latest-mode fashion where the relevance of the field to the subject isn’t evident. Rather, “Ecology of the Book” strikes me as an umbrella theme which makes sense, encompassing issues of distribution, production, and promulgation.

I began with this mostly positive example to demonstrate that my quarrel is not with inclusion, expansion, or integration of what are considered valid histories of non-White or non-Western cultures or literatures, and above all not with curricular innovation per se (one of the reasons I’d not major in English were I to return to Princeton is that the department is too stodgy) but with what strikes me as more than a tendency towards segregation — a sort of ‘separate but equal’ philosophy and approach that completely ignores a fundamental pillar of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, that ‘separate but equal’ is actually not equal. Part of the basis for that determining principle was that keeping black children at (confining them to) separate schools, often with inferior resources, would make them grow up feeling inferior to white children. Here it’s almost as if, by creating numerous separate categories of courses to treat African-American, Latinx (don’t ask me what the ‘x’ is doing there), LGBQTWKWE (WKWE = Who Knows What Else) artists and writers, the intention is to make up for this inferiority complex by saying “See? We too deserve our own courses.” The problem with this argument is the same as that of expositions of art by exclusively female artists; the sous-entendu is that they’re not talented enough to be included in a general exhibition (or course) on their merits alone and need the extra-metier racial or gender cachet to get us to see or read them. As pertains to African-American artists and writers, one of the immediate results in academia seems to be that Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and occasionally Ralph Ellison are typically the only African-American authors who show up in general survey courses of American literature from the second half of the 20th century; Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are left to languish in the ghetto.

But much more damaging than the racially or gender-encadred courses is a generalized social categorization — the need to meet a social category to qualify as a course subject — of the offerings, particularly in American Literature. If you don’t fall into a social or thematic category — *A BOX* — you’re simply dropped into the dustbin of history. Thus, and incredibly, Carson McCullers (1917 – 1967) — whose only qualifications for the canon are her mastery of craft, style, character, dialogue (particularly vernacular dialogue) and ability to poetically convey a sense of place — is simply not taught anywhere (not even at Columbus State College in Columbus, Georgia, which may well offer a Carson McCullers fellowship at the Carson McCullers Center in the home where she was born, but doesn’t appear to actually teach her work). She might have made it into a course on “Southern” literature, but apparently Flannery O’Connor — here the national conformity is appalling — has been designated across the university spectrum as the token Southern white female mid-20th-century novelist, never mind that she’s by far the inferior writer and that her Catholicism makes her appeal less universal than McCullers’s. And heaven forefend that one might include *two* Southern female writers (not that I’m acquiescing to McCullers’s circumscription to this narrow category) to accompany the overwhelmingly male majority in these survey courses.

White male authors from the latter part of the 20th century — the generation I grew up with — who aren’t Jewish (which would earn them consideration for — *restriction* to? — the category of and thus their own course in “Jewish-American writers,” which is what one of McCullers’s peers, Grace Paley, is usually reduced to when she does appear) have simply disappeared, or just about. Thus Kurt Vonnegut Jr — the 20th-century dauphin of Mark Twain — only sneaks in once, at one university, “Slaughter-house Five, or the Children’s Crusade” making the syllabus in a course on the literature of war. Never mind that Vonnegut was the century’s most eloquent and mordant socio-political satirist (making even Mencken pale by comparison)– or perhaps this is what these universities are afraid of, conformism being a frequent target of Vonnegut’s rapier pen — and a master of the art of the short story (as demonstrated in “Welcome to the Monkey-House and other stories”). And speaking of masters of the short story, even F. Scott Fitzgerald only gets in grace of “The Great Gatsby,” sometimes, as at Tulane University, in an examination of craft, but more typically as an example of literature on Capitalism; “The Last Tycoon” makes it once in a course on the Hollywood myth. And yet Fitzgerald, far less monotonous in his essays with the form than his contemporary Hemingway, made his living by the short story, and this vitality is evident in the stories, always delivering a full self-contained world in its little snow-ball glass, a universal truth in a grain of sand.

And yet the coursus — and thus the faculty resources — have been so taken over by the politically correct (I’m loathe to use this term, typically employed by the intellectually lazy to condescendingly dismiss points of views which aren’t just politically correct but correct, instead of taking them on on the factual merits of the arguments, but here it’s unavoidable) that there’s no room for Fitzgerald’s stories, for Kurt Vonnegut’s novels and stories that don’t fit into a social, historic, or other topical category, for writers like Carson McCullers whose only entry card is their talent, from whom the only lessons are in craft, style, memory, and power of observation. The irony is that to make up for their own having been left out during earlier ages, these sub-groups (or rather the faculty and university advancing this approach to making up and compensating for their previous exclusion from the canon as well as life) are now excluding another group — of their peers — and whose only default is to not fit into any social category. Carson’s only hope being that perhaps someone will decide to write a thesis on “Queering Carson McCullers.”

I’ve compiled enough course listings of this politically correct genre from around the country to write my own thesis, but because it seems more valuable here to restore to McCullers a little bit of the exposure of which the politically correct English professors who should be teaching her are depriving her– not out of fairness to the author, but fairness to these teachers’ students (a couple of years back I edited a doctoral thesis in which I found myself correcting basic language, style, and syntax problems that should have been caught by my client’s junior high, high school, university, and graduate professors; when I pointed this out to her, she accused me of ‘insulting’ her; I guess should have been more sensitive) — I’ll just cite a couple of the worse instances before turning the floor over to McCullers and sharing the conclusion of “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” (Which I scored in a crumbling “Bantam GIANT” paperback compendium, “Seven by Carson McCullers,”  marked .35 cents which was waiting for me in a book exchange box high above Belleville.)

Unfortunately, both examples come from my (and Fitzgerald’s) alma mater.

First, and as an example of where topicality seems to have triumphed over staying power, there’s the English department’s offering of a whole course on “Brexit.” To understand how stupid and irrelevant this course is — for an English department, I mean, which should be teaching subjects that will be relevant after tomorrow — just imagine if in the ’70s the same English department had offered a course on, I dunno know, WIN. Most of you don’t know what that represents and there’s no reason you should because it’s no longer relevant (at least in the context of an English department): Whip Inflation Now.

The second, more egregious example — in its stark priming of a politically correct prerogative over aesthetic and creative criteria — comes from a Princeton course cross-listed in the Theater, American Studies (a program which, judging from its course offerings, should be re-baptized “Sectarian American Studies”), and two other departments whose acronyms I can’t decipher, “Movements for Diversity in American Theater,” taught by Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesus, who begins her description with this harrowing premise (in the second sentence):

“Theater artists routinely bend, twist and break all kinds of rules to create the imaginary worlds they bring to life on stage. Why, then, has the American theater so struggled to meaningfully address questions of equity, diversity and inclusion?”

Leaving aside the syntactical problems with that second sentence (oh, all right, because you asked: ‘…struggled so much,’ ‘so often struggled,’ or even ‘struggled so’ would be more correct), maybe it’s because artistic creation should be driven not by political correctness but by the muse? Or, to channel the correctly revisionisized comment of a not so politically correct American Indian personage (Tonto) and put it another way: What you mean ‘we,’ white man? The writers, and particularly the playwrights, I know (including myself) are more apt to be struggling with questions of expression and language and structure and editing and content and voice and character than with meeting your social-political-racial agenda, Professor Beliso-De Jesus. And rightly so.

Carson McCullers would no doubt not fit into any of your socially in need of legitimization groups, professor (unless you’ve seen Ethel Waters opposite Julie Harris in the film adaptation of “The Member of the Wedding,” and even then I suppose your opinion could go either way, although your objections to Waters’s relegation to the role of nounou — your own apparent politically correct blindness — would probably prevent you from seeing that she’s the only stable force in the play). And yet besides its primary values as a paragon of fine craftsmanship, style, capturing of dialogue and vernacular, and evocation of place, as well as compassion (seeming at first to be almost a detached afterward, the passage in fact explains the drastic actions of one of the novella’s villains, who’d just gotten out of prison before he returend to town to wreak havoc) the following coda to “The Ballad of the Sad Café” also delivers an observation about racial leveling that might have inspired Martin Luther King Jr..

The Twelve Mortal Men

“The Forks Falls highway is three miles from the town, and it is here the chain gang has been working. The road is full of macadam, and the county decided to patch up the rough places and widen it at a certain dangerous place. The gang is made up of twelve men, all wearing black and white striped prison suits, and chained at the ankles. There is a guard, with a gun, his eyes drawn to red slits by the glare. The gang works all the day long*, arriving huddled in the prison cart soon after daybreak, and being driven off again in the gray August twilight. All day there is the sound of the picks striking into the clay earth, hard sunlight, the smell of sweat. And every day there is music. One dark voice will start a phrase, half-sung, and like a question. And after a moment another voice will join in, soon the whole gang will be singing. The voices are dark in the golden glare, the music intricately blended, both somber and joyful. The music will swell until at last it seems that the sound does not come from the twelve men on the gang, but from the earth itself, or the wide sky. It is music that causes the heart to broaden and the listener to grow cold with ecstasy and fright. Then slowly the music will sink down until at last there remains one lonely voice, then a great horse breath, the sun, the sound of the picks in the silence.

“And what kind of gang is this that can make such music? Just twelve mortal men, seven of them black and five of them white boys from this county. Just twelve mortal men who are together.”

In 1947 – 48, a white man, Alan Lomax, recorded some of this music being sung by a prison gang on Patchman Farm.

In 1951, a white woman wrote about it — in prose that, without any social agenda behind it but because her muse dictated it so and her craft made it such, *causes the heart to broaden.*

In 1959, a black man who’d danced with companies lead by black and white men and women (notably Martha Graham, with whose troupe he toured the world on a State Department-sponsored tour in the 1950s), Donald McKayle, created a dance to the Lomax Brothers’ recordings and about the men on a prison gang, “Rainbow ’round my Shoulder,” since performed to audiences of all colors all around the world.

*Even McCullers’s cadence here — “all the day long” — has a social, historical, cultural, and folk resonance which transcends race and owes nothing to a social dictum and everything to McCullers’s cultural memory and ability to invoke it without seeming to do so intentionally. The rhythmic and thematic reference is of course to the lyric from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” the refrain followed by “all the live-long day,” thus linking McCullers’s mixed-race group of outcasts to a founding element of the Western myth, the construction of the railroad, by prison gangs, by Chinese immigrants, by poor whites…. (Gregory Peck also blithely whistles the refrain after bombing a railroad line in King Vidor’s 1946 “Duel in the Sun.”) And where was this particular song invented, or at least first recorded in print? A quick Wikipedia search reveals that “The first published version appeared as “Levee Song” in Carmina Princetoniana, a book of Princeton University songs published in 1894.” (Most likely originating in the Princeton Triangle Show, on which Fitzgerald would later work. We both spent too much time on extra-curricular activities and not enough time in class.) Thus if Professor Beliso-De Jesus wants to find creative expression that is naturally diverse in its references, she has but to step out of 185 Nassau Street and cross University Avenue to Firestone Library.

JOURNALISTE/TRADUCTEUR AMÉRICAIN CHERCHE ÉCHANGE DE BONS PROCÉDÉS (LOGEMENT CONTRE TRAVAIL) EN RÉGION PARISIENNE POUR LE RENTREE

Journaliste/traducteur (New York Times, et cetera) américain, metteur en scène, DJ, animateur des ateliers théâtrales pour les enfants expérimenté cherche échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail)  en région Parisienne pour le rentrée, durée à discuter. (J’ai une maison en Dordogne donc ca peut être même pour quelques semaines,) Échange des bons procédés logement – travail (Leçons anglais, Comm., gérance sites web,  gérance galeries d’art, Traduction fr. – ang.,  Rédaction, Consultation art/s, Dramaturgie, DJ, garde chats, pub sur mes sites: la Maison de Traduction,  et the Dance Insider & Arts VoyagerRéférences si besoin.  Voici quelques infos me concernant. Merci de me contacter  par mail a l’une des adresses suivant: paulbenitzak@gmail.com ou artsvoyager@gmail.com. 

Lola Lafon’s “Mercy, Mary, Patty” (Revised and Expanded Translation)

lafon small

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

by Lola Lafon
Translation by and copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
Original text copyright 2017 Actes Sud

(If you’ve not already, please consider supporting this translation work and our sister site the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager  by making a gift today S’il vous plait penser à faire un don  by designating your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail)  en région Parisienne pour le 6 mai – 14 mai. Le contacter à artsvoyager@gmail.com )

“In this world where everything is rigged, where the only thing that is not divided is money and where the only thing that is shared is the heart, it’s impossible to rest on the sidelines.”

— Paul Nizan, “The Conspiracy” (1928), cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”

Extract, pages 7 – 19:

You write the vanishing teen-aged girls. You write the missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to look for new horizons which they then embrace without being able to distinguish the rotten apples from the good, evasive, their minds shutting out adults. You ask why we feel this dire need to “just talk some sense into them.” You write the rage of these young people who, at night, in the bedrooms where they’re still surrounded by their stuffed animals, dream up victorious escapes, then climb aboard ramshackle busses and trains and get into strangers’ cars, shirking the neatly paved road for the rubble.

“Mercy, Mary, Patty,” your book published in 1977 in the U.S., is dedicated to them and has just been re-issued, augmented with a preface by you and a brief publisher’s note. It’s not yet been translated in France. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your biography, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through the teaching positions you’ve held: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic journals over the past few months tout the importance of your work, magazines question what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker consacrates two columns to you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenage girls, from Mercy Short in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.”

The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga’s old history, you’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, those girls swearing allegiance to a god like one gets stuck on a movie star, Marx, God, different eras, different tastes…. I’m guessing you’re a student at Smith, he goes on, if you’re looking to meet the author, she’s listed in the faculty directory.

But I’m not looking for you. Your office is on the second floor of the building I walk by every morning but it doesn’t matter because I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you. I explain my reason for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I recount, I say “Madame Neveva” as if you were standing there right next to us and insist upon it, I say “Neveva” the same way as your students in France who venerated you and who I was not one of, Neveva Gene who debarked in a little village in Southwest France in the month of January 1974, a young teacher who in the autumn of 1975 hastily tacked up notices in the village’s two bakeries, Wanted female student with high level of spoken and written English, full-time job for 15 days. Adults need not apply. URGENT.

(New chapter)

October 1975

The three girls who have replied to your ad sit across from you in your cramped office, you offer them a bag of peanuts and cashews, your knees bump up against the desk, your light blue Shetland sweater is patched at the elbows, your hitched-up Levis reveal the malleoluses of your ankles. You say Bonjour, I’m Neveva Gene, pronounced ‘Gene’ as in Gene Kelly or Gene Tierney, no nick-names please, no ‘Gena,’ no ‘Jenny.’

Squeezed into a bordeaux window nook, one by one the candidates detail their trajectories in an effort to win you over, this one is studying English Literature at the university, the next has already been to the U.S. twice, speaking English fluently is important if you’re going to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she invokes a sabbatical year since graduating from high school in June and the need to make a little money. As they already know, you’re a guest professor. You studied in Massachusetts at Smith College, a university founded in 1875 and reserved for girls barred at the time from higher education. Sylvia Plath was a student. Sylvia Plath, the name doesn’t mean anything to them? You mark an incredulous pause in the face of the embarrassment of the candidates. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which tempers you, it’s a novel that’s more than a little dubious, above all Smith had the honor of admitting the first African-American woman to graduate from college, in 1900: Otelia Cromwell.

“American Lifestyle and Culture,” the course you’re offering at the College of the Dunes, is protean; you speed through what you’d anticipated teaching before you actually got here, the particular architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, a study of the success of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” a deciphering of the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker, the adventure of Apollo 16 and, finally, the invention of the Arpanet and its consequences for communication. Formidable program. The fact is that you nurtured high hopes for this college. They should see the welcoming brochure, three pages on pedagogic innovation, but the reality is something else, this institution is merely the umpteenth private school for girls without any particular qualities who drift about aimlessly after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, cute little domestic animals brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who understand nothing in the articles you pass out. The young postulants keep quiet and wait politely to find out what this has to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed.” Or maybe they’re just petrified now at the thought of having to submit themselves to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t said a word. One by one, they recite an article from the New York Times out loud, then translate the essentials, you ask them about the books they read, their musical tastes, pretend not to understand if they answer in French, Sorry?

But where did you learn to speak English like that, you ask the third candidate who immediately blushes, she refers to American songs whose lyrics she likes to copy, they’re actually British you point out, amused, when she recites the words from the Rolling Stones’s “Time Waits for No One” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” She rattles off her favorite movies, every week the public t.v. channel shows a film with sub-titles, the ciné-club, she never misses it even if it’s on late, 11 o’clock, you call her an Americanophile, she stammers, not sure if this is good or bad. All three listen to you, dumbfounded, as you imitate the annual speech of the director to parents in an exageratedly nasal and mincing voice, “Oh nooo, it has nothing at all to do with excluding boys from my establishment and everything to do with offering girls special attention! To free them from their own fears!” You want to know what they think: Would they like to study there, with access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Cinema History, Introduction to Baroque Singing, Judo, and Modern Dance? The third girl’s answer — the tuition is too high — you greet with exaltation, as if it were a scientific breakthrough: Eggs-act-ly! Yes! The very principal of this establishment is a contradiction: Emancipate only those who can afford to be emancipated. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of bullshit.

Suddenly you leap up on the transparent Plexiglas chair. You grab a box from the top shelf and place it on the desk. Voila, you declare in designating the package of American origin, as indicated by an impressive quantity of identical green stamps plastered across the top. The job of whoever you decide to hire is entirely contained within, you show them the folders overflowing with press clips, half open a plastic bag filled with cassette tapes resembling those teenagers use to record their favorite songs off the radio. You’ll have to write a report, and you won’t have time to read all this. You must be capable of synthesizing these tons of articles, you point your finger at the box. You insist on an availability that will be indispensable but of a limited duration, 15 days maximum.

“In fact, do you know who Patricia Hearst is?” They’re already on the porch when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates blurts out: During her vacation in the U.S., she saw her on t.v., Patricia is very rich she was kidnapped and…. She’s cut off by her competition, Yes they talked about her in France, there was a fusillade, a fire, and she’s dead. No, you correct her, she’s not dead, the police caught her. It’s her kidnappers who are dead. And they’ve hired you to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask who exactly this mysterious “they” is who’s hired you, nor why “they” chose you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also the exotic foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That alone is enough. The young woman whose English level you praised hasn’t uttered a word, distraught, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That very evening her mother nudges her bedroom door open, her hand resting on the phone: It’s for you, a funny accent, surely the American professor.

“Is it frowned on here to go to teachers’ homes?,” you ask the young woman you’ve anointed as your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my home. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you to not let me rip you off. By the way, are you really 18? I’d put you more at 15.” And it doesn’t matter that she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst, you add before hanging up.

(New chapter)

During the ramshackle hiring interview — a real show — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you afraid of scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you worried that their parents will be freaked out to see them working on such a subject, you’ve been living in this village of less than 5,000 inhabitants for a year and a half and have already tested its limits, here everyone knows everything about everyone, talks to everyone about everyone, judges everyone. It takes time to explain the complexities and nuances of the drama to your interlocutors and time is the one thing you don’t have a whole lot of. What angle will you use to trace the journey of this young American, which episode will you start with?

That of the kidnapping of Patricia on February 4, 1974 by an obscure pseudo-revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the initial message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording dropped off by her abductors on the doorstep of a radical radio station which set off a riot in the entire country, her small voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m okay”? How to explain to these French women who just need a job that for the FBI, the victim morphed into a perpetrator in less than two months, converted to the Marxist cause of her captors she was even identified at their sides April 15 on the video-surveillance images from a San Francisco bank, packing an M16. It’s understandable that you’re prudent about what the candidates know and don’t say anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.

As for your task, this “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here as well you take shortcuts and leave Patricia’s lawyer, your silent partner, in the shadows. You have 15 days to discover something in the cardboard box overflowing with photocopies that will enable you to write an expert’s report exonerating this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial approaches. 15 days to decide, who is the real Patricia, a Communist terrorist, a lost college student, a genuine revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a cause at random, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with America in her sights.

(New chapter)

A large beige dog with chestnut spots greets your new assistant on the doorstep with outsized enthusiasm, you lunge forward to hold him back — blech!, he’s just planted a big wet kiss on me — a wink, Meet Lenny, you throw a sock at the dog so he’ll skedaddle.

You put out a plate of frosted cookies, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, Russian flavor, whatever she wants, you point to 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes on the kitchen counter. She picks one at random, doesn’t dare tell you that in her family, whether it’s black tea or herbal tea you only drink it when you’re ill. She listens to you standing up, cup in hand, you haven’t invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.

“Summarizing the articles will be tedious, we need to stay focused on the details,” you caress the frayed edges of the cardboard box on the dining-room table with a finger. The young French woman nods, looking for clues, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone as the reddened nostrils confirm, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are stained yellow with tobacco, you laugh your mouth full of chewed-up cookies without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled-up necklaces peek out from a half-open drawer, you tack 33 record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, two times you evoke your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the phrase suggests an overly prolonged adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the toilet you go right on talking to your assistant, shouting for her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.

She’s never met an American before you. Speaking this language that she associates with novels and actors, hearing her own voice become foreign turns your first day together into an intoxicating game of role-playing. Everything is part of the scenery, a stop-over in an exotic wonderland, the peanut butter you spread on the crackers whose pale crumbs are strewn all over the rug, your bedroom with the storm-windows shuttered in the daytime, the books piled up at the foot of your bed and the stacks of dailies and weeklies that you ask her to sort by title: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. You toss around the words casually, kidnapping, FBI, abductors, when night falls you rub your eyes like a sleep-deprived child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian-style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you’re impressed at the manila folders that the girl has prepared and the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders that she pulls out of her pencil case.

“I just love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you though, ‘Violette,’ it makes you sound like a delicate little flower….”

My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You stretch your legs out under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the smoke rings dissipating by the time they hit the ceiling.

“It’s important, a first name, it’s a birth. Violaine. Not easy to pronounce for an American but o-kay. You know, Vi-o-lai-nuh, what will remain unforgettable for me when I go back to the United States?”

The thunder-storms. The mountains. On the beach, on certain days, one can make them out carved into the fog, when they lock themselves around the ocean like an open hand it’s a sign that it will be sunny the next day, your assistant is amused to hear you recite with such conviction the sayings of the old-timers.

The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean seeped up to the edge of the dunes! The paths along the moors. They all look the same, there are no landmarks, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern is sand. The sand, you sigh…. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which turns into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that finds its way into your purse, your notebook spirals, the bottom of your bed, stuck to the soleus muscles of your calves, your socks.

Mlle Neveva won’t forget the sand, she who’s just baptized herself Violaine writes in her diary with the detachment of a documentarian, omitting the fleeting moment when she thinks she hears you describe her as unforgettable even though she barely knows you.

The sand, you repeat practically every day like a mantra, exasperated, taking off your sneakers and shaking them out onto the ground.
Extract, pages 92 – 99

(New chapter)

Day 13

When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. This is all she wants, to return to the equilibrium of those first days, to just be your little helper who cuts, translates, and pastes. Instead of being the person who slows you down and irritates you and doesn’t hear the same things you hear in Patty’s recorded messages. You suggest going to the village bar and smoke-shop, a change of scenery will help.

It’s noon, church is letting out, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who never lets you out of his sight, you whistle and put an end to all the social whirl. You deride the devout out loud in English, tell Violaine to observe their holier-than-thou airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies, our own.

When you make your entrance into the café, the men lined up along the counter pivot to stare at you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a tad too wide reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea-blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.

This providential book, you read it all in one night, the Stanislavsky Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the great American actors, Robert De Niro used it in playing Travis in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). It offers an abundance of exercises to help with building a character. And indisputably, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll be Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you, at the end of the day, Marxism isn’t contagious.

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

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

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

“Very mature for her age.”

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

“Secretive.”

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

“A symbolic example.”

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

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

A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder, so that everyone can benefit, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, they’ve heard so much about you, you interrupt them, she needs to read Brecht, their daughter, voilà!, the glasses are refilled and clinked, fascistes de merde, then, in the exhilaration of this frenzy, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its communiqués, “Death to the fascist parasite who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, startled, she thinks you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so many times in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you grab her hand and kiss it with ceremonious exaggeration, everyone whistles in approval, you bow as if for a curtain call.

You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests: It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Weaving along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing recalling the shocked air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way you can never separate those two in class, the sadistic books that one devours, stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of this other one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs inconsolably over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems. Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which surround Violaine’s parents’ property. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the racket which rages around here — you indicate with a sweeping gesture the forest and the few scattered other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their living-room for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations: “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s freezing, that the French phrase is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the living-room lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t think of anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which never comes. As if it weren’t already night and the sand humid under your naked feet – you grip your sneakers in your trembling hands — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll return to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find any of her songs in the jukebox. A propos, did Violaine notice the reaction in the bar when you told about how Nina Simone’s parents, during a concert by their daughter, had to surrender their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. No reaction. Not a shadow of indignation.

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

(New chapter)

Day 14 (Excerpt)

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

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

But now this skinny French teenager comes along. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re not willing to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you can’t permit yourself to hear it either, you whose job it is to show that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying. You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need her to….

Extract, pages 108 – 112

(New chapter)

Day 15

Are you tired of an experiment which isn’t working out like you wanted it to, these debates in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed. Are you exhausted, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied with the prison sentence waiting for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence, or worried about seeing your reputation tarnished, you who up until now have led a charmed life, the trial promises to be highly newsworthy, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene was incapable of coming up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing the door open to your bedroom in designating, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One
rough draft after another, each superseding its predecessor.

The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia grinning widely, under the delicate blue of an immobile horizon, her hair tussled by a sea breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” a pensive Patricia curled up in a vast olive-green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, a hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”

Violaine kneels, careful not to move the photos. That’s the most recent one, you point to the Time cover of April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, just fire. The background of the image is red, like the fire of a nightmare which seems to surge from nowhere, red like the SLA flag before which she stands, her legs slightly ajar, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in half: GUILTY.

(New chapter)

You tell a stunned Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The speech but also Patricia’s tone of voice, the way she talks to her parents. You propose listening to it three times, this tape, once with the eyes closed, to take notes and rapidly go through the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

“I’d like to start out by making it clear that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is what I’m feeling. No one’s ever forced me to say anything on these tapes. I haven’t been brainwashed, or drugged, or tortured, or hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety: Your gifts [the SLA’S ransom demands included food giveaways to the poor] were an act. You tried to hoodwink people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI took advantage of to try to kill me, me and those in the SLA. You claimed you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything in its lust for extending its power over others, even if it means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who couldn’t care less about their own child don’t care anything about the children of others.

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

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

–Tania Hearst

Extract, pages 126-140

Soon after her collaboration with Violaine on the Hearst brief, Neveva returns to the U.S., leaving behind her one lost dog and one “capsized” teenager. Violaine grows up to become the village outcast, adored only by the children who flock to her house after school to eat brown sugar crepes and learn how to question accepted societal norms, much to the consternation of their parents. Her most tenacious pupil is the narrator, in whom Violaine eventually confides the notes she took and the diary she kept while working with Neveva Gene on the Hearst case. (Whence the second-person premise with which the narrator addresses Gene at the beginning of the novel: “I’m supposing you.”) A sort of repository of the influences of Neveva, Violaine, and through her Hearst, the narrator continues to question…. and to search.

***

Did you really get to know her, your assistant, or did you just skim the surface and size her up in the wink of an eye while you were pontificating about the liberty of women? Of course, in 1975 you were the adult, her elder with whom she didn’t share a whole lot. I have the advantage of the notes she entrusted me with and of the distance of time.

I’m five years old and she who let herself be baptized Violaine to please you is this thin young woman approaching 30 who lives alone with her dog in the house she grew up in, on the outskirts of our little village. From her house you can take a short-cut through the forest which leads directly to the beach, a four-kilometer walk between the columns of towering pine trees. Her dog fascinates me, hieratic and klutzy at the same time. Lenny seems immense to me, Violaine whispers mysterious words to him, my parents explain to me that she speaks English with him because he’s American. Children tend to linger at her place, at snack-time she makes us brown sugar crepes, she listens to us, talks to us like adults never talk to us, we can ask her anything we want. What does she do for a living? She thinks for a moment, let’s see, she translates newspaper articles into English, she helps kids with their homework, she dog-sits when families go on vacation, at the antique shop in the neighboring village she sells bathroom shelves and picture-frames that she makes herself, she repairs shoulder-straps on discarded purses. Why do you have to be limited to one way of making a living?

And why doesn’t she have any children? Well, that depends on what you mean by “have,” can one really “have” another person, what do we think, do we belong to our parents? What if all we can actually own are these scraps of time like the time she spends teaching us to swim, to dig, to read?

I’m seven years old and have the right to hold Lenny’s leash on his walks, the job of making sure there’s always water in his bowl. Violaine teaches me a few English commands that I test out, marveling at how the dog “sits,” “gives me his paw,” and “lies down.” While she reads the newspaper, I get to know Lenny, the silkiness of his dewy, practically hairless skin, the interior crease of his front paws, his leathery nose cracked at the edges, I curl up against him without him batting an eyelid, I hold my face up near his mouth, he snoozes, his breath caressing my cheek. I race to Violaine’s after school to see him, he’s ecstatic to see me, I throw rags to him which he methodically tears to shreds, Violaine warns me about his age, not to be fooled by his healthy appearance, Lenny is a vieux monsieur.

I’m eight years old, summer vacation is over, one September morning, in the glare of the Sun, Violaine’s face seems to have suddenly been drained of all its youth. Lenny died yesterday cradled in her arms, he didn’t suffer, he looked her right in the eyes until the end, a serene trusting look, he was over 15 years old, he lived an incredible life, he traversed a whole continent, he was lost and found at the edge of a lake in America and here also, Lenny was loved multiple times, he had two mistresses, I’m inconsolable, Violaine takes me to discover a path which leads to a part of the beach where normally I’m not allowed to venture alone, there’s no lifeguard. You have to make your way slowly, pushing aside the thistles and blackberry branches to avoid getting pricked, can I tell if the cumin smell is coming from those tiny mauve flowers sprouting up out of the dunes? The sun-baked sand is lined with narrow, barely detectable trails, vipers’ paths. We cry without talking facing the sea then laugh at the idea that what’s making us wail is a dog who landed in France one fine day in 1974 and was lost one fine December morning in 1975. In the spot where he loved to spread out under the Sun, behind the house, Violaine suggests that I plant carrots, which he adored, when I get up to look for a sprinkler, she kneels pressing her forehead against the sand, caressing the soil with her palms.

I’m ten years old and I’m not aware of her tenuous status among the village’s adults. Tolerated but not included, Violaine is never invited to dinner, no one asks for her help in getting ready for the village fête in July; when she is asked for anything, it’s reluctantly, someone needs something translated. They’re all polite to her but without any warmth, like they might be with a foreigner who still doesn’t understand the local customs. For us, Violaine is a miracle in equilibrium between our adolescence to come and the morose adult age of our parents, time circled around her and spared her.

One Saturday afternoon, Violaine passes around a plastic bag in which each child is supposed to place a cracker, an apple, a bon-bon, for “the poor.” We obey, a bit skeptical, no one’s in need around here, we’re not in India. The bag is left out in the open on the City Hall plaza, the morning after it’s empty. What then becomes a ritual generates a buzz that lands us in the local daily, which heralds “a laudable initiative by children identifying the growing poverty in the village since the cork factory shut its doors.” A journalist wants to meet Violaine, she demurs, taking the credit doesn’t make any sense, she didn’t invent anything. The following weeks the priest joins our effort, accompanied by his catechism students, we add to the bags poems copied onto loose sheets as well as drawings. Violaine starts a new club, “The atelier-debate,” Wednesday afternoons from three to six. We cram into her living-room. She hands out a Xerox with the rules: No Interrupting and Show Kindness Towards Others. Such formality makes us feel important, elevates us above the aggressive brouhahas of adults that we dread, Sundays we get up from the table as soon as we’re done eating, plug our ears in our beds to block out the bickering of our parents, “You could have…. If you at least had…. You’ll never do it.”

Sitting on Violaine’s carpet, it doesn’t matter if we’ve already eaten, we compete for cookies, shortbread, marble cake, we hold out our hands, we fidget, me me Violaine, our cheeks reddened with impatience, anxious about not being able to remember everything we have to say.

Violaine presses us about our habits, did we see an ad for our backpack in a magazine, is that why we wanted to buy it, does choice even figure into it?

What if we were starving and we heard about a place where we could get free meals, but where we knew the food was stolen, what would we do? Would we not eat? If we were asked to pass this food out to the poor, what would be more important, where the food came from or feeding those who don’t have anything?

The day after the third Wednesday session, my parents, like the others, receive a letter signed “Concerned Parents” accusing Violaine of justifying stealing. And then I hear them talk about you for the first time: For 15 years they’ve made her pay for the episode of the American professor, it’s time they leave her alone, says my mother, exasperated. I’m eleven years old.

I’m 12 years old, when school lets out Saturday afternoons I race over on my bicycle, I have to scale two hills to get to Violaine’s house. I have my own cup for the tea that she’s taught me to love, a Disney plate dating from when I was eight, Violaine regularly makes like she’s going to toss it and is amused by my protests. My rites make her laugh, aren’t I bored yet of trying on her old scarves in front of the mirror?

I walk by her side. We forge through glades invaded by ferns nearly two yards high, picnic in the hollow of the dune, where we can light a fire without being spotted by the gendarmes, we dine on pepper and zucchini shish-kebobs, wade into the Ocean shivering in April, the water is freezing, that was stupid declares Violaine once we’ve enveloped ourselves in blankets on the sand. I’ve just been authorized to enter her office at the end of the hall, the most beautiful room in the house where the window looks out on the round stones of a dry creek bed. The shelves reach almost up to the ceiling, with books of all sizes which I’m permitted to read but not to take home. The air seems to be in repose, a silence of filtered light impregnated with amber and paper, I pray night never comes, that there’s no interruption of this world that I’ve discovered in the pages of Newsweek, Time, Life. They all have holes in them where articles have been cut out.

In 1991, I’m in eighth grade, Sandrine Cornet loans me a CD her father brought back from the United States, on the cover of Nevermind a plump baby swims in indigo water below a dollar bill attached to a fishing hook. Violaine translates the words of “Something in the Way,” we discuss the meaning of the refrain, America and its wars, says Violaine, seem to be painfully lodged in Kurt Cobain’s throat. I make fun of her lightly, one says the United States, not America. And speaking of the United States, which city does she know the best? I’m not surprised by her response but feel awkward about having made her uncomfortable, what does it matter, she’ll travel later, what does she want to see when she finally goes there?

Violaine gets up on a chair and fetches a folder from the highest shelf, she spreads the photos out on the carpet. Among the snapshots of Northampton and its campus is a portrait: You stare straight into the lens with a mocking smile, your white blouse tucked into the bell-bottom jeans, your feet sheathed in light blue Converses. Sitting on one of the three steps of the building, back leaning against the august portal with its gothic wrought-iron interlacing, the gilded lettering proclaiming: “Smith College, 1875.” Patricia Hearst does not come up that day, just you, Mademoiselle Neveva, for whom Violaine “translated articles and filed papers” in the winter of 1975.

I’ve just turned 16, I half-heartedly prepare for finals. Since Easter, at the request of my parents I’m taking English classes with Violaine, she has me read Emily Dickinson’s poems and excerpts from novels, Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” I have trouble translating the articles she gives me, one of which is an analysis of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” It’s signed Gene Neveva.

She starts your story like this, Violaine: How lucky she was to have been your assistant, despite the migraines every afternoon, the anguish every morning, you needed to work fast, understand complex articles in one reading, summarize them without complaining. But what a chance, what an honor to have contributed, with you, to saving an adolescent from life in prison, here, this is her, Violaine points to the framed photo on her desk. I’ve been looking at this photo since I was a kid, I always assumed it was a cousin, one of Violaine’s friends. I’ve now met Patricia Hearst. Violaine captivates me with the ambiguous charm of the story she reveals to me in bits and pieces. A story of solitude, of encounters, of choice. Of being alive and making sure people know it. Sometimes maybe it’s better to remain with the Indians like in the Westerns, she murmurs.
She pretends to be surprised when I show up on my bicycle the following Wednesday, what, I haven’t had my fill of talking about all this, don’t I have friends my own age? But my classmates and their mundane lives, their preoccupations – what will I do after high school – their Friday nights, their whiskey-Cocas and ground-up aspirin, all this pales in comparison to Patricia Hearst. Violaine holds the key to what I want to understand. The odyssey of a young woman barely older than me whose fracas inebriates me. I tirelessly scrutinize her face on the cover of Newsweek from September 1975. Not a very flattering picture, the glaring lighting accentuates the shadows of the rings under her eyes and her pallid skin. Patricia-Tania stares out at anyone who pauses before the image with a defiant air in this photo taken by the LAPD after her arrest. She looks livid and yet the police have just freed her from her kidnappers, I remark to Violaine, perplexed. Years later, after I’ve spent entire days listening to her and reading her notes, Violaine confides in me that this “livid” surprised her, most of those to whom she’s shown this photo have described Hearst’s expression as “flippant, annoyed.” I’m the only one to catch her anger.

My own is invisible. When it’s time to go back to my role of docile daughter, I ride my bicycle on the bumpy path, where the sand forces me to pedal harder until I’m out of breath, the sadly softened quietude of the family foyer with its bright lights making my eyes fill with tears, I listen without saying a word to my parents recount their day over dinner, two subdued adults with tired smiles. The utter forlornness of blood ties appalls me like it’s only just hit me, I detest what they’re in the process of turning me into, right up to the first name I was given, I’ve been brought up to advance lock-step into the future, whatever the cost, an obedient little soldier who sticks to the family narrative without questioning it, content to obtain what she’s never really wanted, a place in society, a job, a happy home. The prudence of my parents’ life makes me want to throw up, the cowardice of it. Their parsimonious kindness when they toss a coin to a homeless person, their bitter resignation disguised as “character” when they vaunt themselves: “Me, I have no illusions.” I will no longer be the person I was. I open up to Violaine, she doesn’t say anything, her eyes shining brilliantly, she just listens to me debate with myself without being able to identify the strings tying me down. I impregnate myself with Patricia Hearst’s words, hoping that they will contaminate me, I see myself ready to sacrifice everything but the words and the causes elude me, they seem either outsized – the Rwandan genocide, the war in Iraq – or too local, the closing of the pine cellulose factory. Tania’s heroism dwarfs me, forces me to confront my own passivity, she knows how to fearlessly target her enemies, I can’t even find them. What needs to be destroyed, what needs to be attacked first, how, with whom, and which side are you on if you’re not on hers? I scoff at the student demonstrations against the CIP (Contract of First Employment, designed to release employers from minimum wage requirements for workers 26 and under), the counter debates where everyone recites his own personal litany of indignations before sagely returning to the daily grind, and which are useless because no victory exists if it’s only partial. I devote myself to building up my body, push-ups, tractions, abs that I perform on my bedroom carpet, Patricia learned to run and high jump, to load a gun in the dark, to be fearless, to attack. My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, I spend my Wednesdays stretched out on the carpet in Violaine’s office, I start one book that I discard to grab another that I also don’t manage to finish, I want to read them all. I’m too young I can’t wait. For a class presentation in which the theme is “the other side of the décor,” in the presence of a baffled French teacher I talk about the exposure of the cloistered world of the heiress, how Patricia, in going over to the other side, put an end to several tenacious myths. No, parents don’t love their children unconditionally, not if they embrace another identity besides the one they’re pre-programmed for, no, the police aren’t here to protect us, the police who didn’t hesitate to spray the house in which Patricia was supposed to be with machine-gun fire. I read extracts of her messages to my peers, convinced I’ll find more converts, but there’s an outcry, a millionaire who pretends to care about the poor, who are you kidding, what did Patricia do to change the world, rob a bank? I spout back what are they doing, besides carefully avoiding anything which might slow down their progress, and towards what exactly are they racing with such fervor, I get a 5 out of 20, my work declared “off subject.”

Violaine accompanies me in my humiliations and my questions, cajoles them, anticipates them. She’s no longer the reserved older sister of my childhood who makes me crepes, but a methodical genius with high-speed reasoning, no one besides me knows her, my bilingual heroine saved Patricia in two weeks time with an incredible American. My parents worry more and more about what the two of us are fabricating together, Violaine is after all a mature woman, she’s just celebrated her 40th birthday, and when they pronounce the word “fabricating” their discomfort is palpable, their embarrassment about what they imagine we might be scheming up together.
I’m 18 years old and just barely manage to graduate, my parents want me to “broaden my horizons and create some distance, this school will open doors for me, Bordeaux is a very beautiful city.” I leave behind the fine November rain, the foggy June nights on the cornfields, the mauve thistles, the storms which erode the dunes and Violaine.

If Violaine could only see what they open up to, these doors vaunted by my parents…. Every night I complain on the telephone about my courses in “commercial strategy,” a real brainwashing. Violaine puts me at ease, my brain will resist this like all the rest, I’ve already been subjected to dozens of brainwashings since I was born, my parents, school, the media, religion, and herself all pleading culpable. She sends me numerous letters, no one can force me to stay in this school, photos of the beach and its ferns already turning brown ahead of winter, also one of Lenny, and this text she thinks will please me, its author wrote it when she was exactly my age, 19:

“It seems to me that the term ‘brainwashing’ only makes sense when it designates the process that starts with the education system and is perpetuated by the media, this process by which people are conditioned to passivity, to accepting their pre-destined roles, that of slaves of the dominant class. If I’ve been subjected to any brainwashing, it’s that which conditions all of us to accept and hang on to our place in society. I spent 12 years in private schools surrounded by young people pre-occupied with pursuing their aspirations to dominate. Retrospectively, for me these schools are a training ground for the formation of future little fascists, we’re encouraged to develop all the values of capitalism: individualism, the sense of competition, not to mention racism.”

Tania Hearst takes the words right out of my mouth, I cite her in my paper, I copy this paragraph and hand it out to my fellow students, suggesting that we have a debate about it, isn’t this exactly what’s happening in this school, what are they training us for? The school authorities rapidly summon me and suggest that I “reconsider my objectives.”

I’m 22 years old. I live in a hole-in-the-wall studio apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris below Montmartre. I’ve roamed from one university to the next and attempted three freshman years without conviction or success, a year of Anglo-American literature, a year of sociology, and a semester of history, I’ve worked as a waitress, perfume saleswoman, baby-sitter and dog-sitter, translator of various manuals, hair-dryers, bathroom scales and hydrating lotions, none of them lasted and I couldn’t care less, my life starts the moment I push open the doors of the National French Library, I’ve picked up the habit of reading American newspapers several times per week. The ceremonious silence of the room is soothing, I leaf through Time, Newsweek, Life, snuggling up with them as time blurs. These hollowed out moments are where I live, I have no place else to be, going back to my parents’ house is unthinkable, and I get lost in Paris, I shy away from the impatient masses who push and press but to get where? I don’t really think about Patricia Hearst, I forget about her like the childhood friend you hung out with too much and who you now need to break free of. I’ve not responded to Violaine’s latest letters, which have begun to space themselves out.

For the first time in years, in December 2000 I spend New Year’s week at my parents’. They’re sorry to report that Violaine appears to be losing it little by little from living alone, now she’s defending two students at the Dax high school who want to wear the veil, Violaine’s not even Muslim, as far as we know! She wrote a letter to the principal, a bizarre petition in which she sticks up for “teenagers who expose that which embarrasses us. Some are punk rockers, others might wear the veil. We who describe these girls as prisoners and say they’re being manipulated, are we so sure we’re free?” The children no longer scramble to get to her house for snack-time.

I visit her the next day, guilty to have been out of touch for so long, but she hugs me tightly for a long time. She’s just signed up for unemployment. It’s harder and harder to find translating work; it would seem that everyone now speaks perfect English, she rails. On the surface immune to the sarcasm she’s been subjected to since the business of the high school girls, she leaves me admiring her propensity for solitude. She’s so thin I take pity on her, I want to protect or force-feed her. And yet this body isn’t fragile at all but honed by years of effort, Violaine doesn’t cede to anything.

I’m 30 I’m 32, she comes to Paris regularly to visit me, worried about “being under-foot,” she sleeps on a mattress on the floor and gets up noiselessly at dawn, Violaine disappears for entire days. At first, delighted, she copies the names of streets down like a poem she’s just discovered, she loves crossing the bridges, all the bridges! Monuments everywhere you turn! Stonework everywhere, the palaces, churches, banks, and ministries. And the stores, the restaurants, is there any place where you don’t have to pay for the right to sit down, why do all the parks close at 7 p.m.? All I see in this city, she writes me in a note left one morning, is the overwhelming proof of what we’ve enabled to be erected, no one looks at each other, we’re just statistics and social roles. She hopes I won’t hold it against her but she needs to return to her beloved ocean, with its insistent currents, a space where, as Mademoiselle Neveva used to say, “everything is possible but nothing is guaranteed.” To my parents whom she runs into from time to time and who fret about my wandering – spending the whole day in the library, this is not a job! — she retorts dryly that wandering is courageous work and should be obligatory, like doubting. She warns me on the phone, she doesn’t want me showing up one morning on her doorstep announcing I’m pregnant and am moving back, don’t come home. For that matter, why not go to America for a few weeks, me who gets by so well in English. I get excited, suggest to Violaine that we go in the summer, I’ve found a cheap flight and a youth hostel in Northampton, we can visit the campus. She shakes her head without responding as if I were a child she doesn’t want to answer directly, we’ll see.

I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young women are vanishing from their homes. They’re signaled at the frontiers, designated “S” (Suspect), written up in organizational charts, with graphics illustrating the co-relations between them: Coming from middle class homes for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and displayed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-sides of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they demand accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we do nothing, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end in mind, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and who now grace the magazine covers, they stare out at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations of adults panicked by these impenetrable young girls and who
propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia
didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one at all but rather a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania).

The Lutèce Diaries, 26: Dimensions

Lembereur Haut OSP GalleryMarcel Lempereur-Haut, “Tete-mécanisée” (Mechanized head), 1916-1970. Oil on panel. Among the galleries in Saint-Germain-des-Près maintaining the standard set by their ancestors in the late 1940s and 1950s is OSP – Oeuvres sur Papier, with its self-professed “pronounced taste for the forgotten, the inclassable, women, writer-drawers, etching maniacs, and young painters.” The OSP also likes juxtapositions. Its recent exhibition at 7, rue Visconti — itself a mythic gallery street — paired the Modernist heads, hearts, and stars of Lempereur-Haut (1898 – 1986) with the drawings and water-colors (see below) of contemporary artist Maximilien Pellet (b. 1991), for whom, says the gallerist, “the hour of hyper-consumation visual, of the digestion of images is significant.” Photo by and courtesy Galerie OSP.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — Nearing the end of my virgin visit to Paris one brisk November afternoon in 2001, I stepped on my tippy-toes to touch a corner of the pedestal of a marble statue on the periphery of one of the two large fountains in the Tuileries gardens, where Augie Renoir and his pals used to pitch stones at the window of the Princess, who would toss bon-bons back at them. The idea was that a future Paul had touched the same spot and assured me “You’ll be back.” Which I did when I was, and have continued to do over the years (on both the receiving and giving end). If I chose this particular statue, it was probably because it featured a bare-breasted woman leaning (protectively I thought) over a child. (Living at the time in New York — where nary a human bronze bust was bared and a polychrome cow had caused a scandal because its teats weren’t covered — I’d found the French embrace of the beauty of the naked human body refreshing.)

It wasn’t until Friday afternoon, returning to the Tuileries for the first time on this Paris stay and wanting to record the actual name of the statue for you, that I realized the woman (sculpted by Pal Gasq in 1893 and installed in the Tuileries since 1904) was Medea and the child was screaming.

lapotoc on laissera des traces“On laissera des traces,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage, on view through April 13 at the galerie ArtAme at 37 rue Ramponeau in Paris. (See below.) “Immersed between reality and fiction, my world is a mix of painting, words, and images-matter, with my personal history as the common denominator,” says the artist. “I work with the individual and collective sub-conscious, attempting to echo that which unites and divides us. It’s a voyage between my own life experience and that of the regardeur. My collage technique is fragmentation, based on my piecemeal vision of the world.” Courtesy Lapotoc.

But this first brilliant Spring day in Paris, palpably emanating from the alabaster sculptures arrayed around the gardens washed in the late afternoon sunlight, was too sublime to let a little Greek blood-lust way-lay my plans, which were to secure a reclining green iron chair in front of my favorite fountain — the small one at the Louvre end and Seine side of the park, a favorite of the locals — and sip my thermos coffee ‘a petites gouts’ (as Simenon’s Commissar Maigret does after his wife serves him in bed) while marveling at the statuary. The chair was waiting for me, offering the unanticipated benefit of a side view on the Eiffel tower under the partly clouded sky. The mallards in the pond outnumbered the female ducks four to two, with one already ushering in the season by vigorously bobbing his head in the universally recognized sign for “Let’s get it on.” (After playing it coy, she eventually bobbed back.)

A young couple across the pond from me was mimicking the ducks, only their heads weren’t bobbing but nuzzling. Between them and me a voluptuous blonde woman in a summer dress more willowy than she was sat down next to a male friend and gathered her arms around her scrunched-up knees as the wind blew the dress up to reveal her pallid gams.

When I poured my first cup of coffee (healthily dosed with nutmeg and cinnamon), reclined back, and sipped — continuing a ritual initiated 15 years ago after a meeting at the American consulate with the Paris representative of the IRS (no doubt the cushiest job in the agency; I’d loved the juxtaposition of an inevitably stressful meeting, although Monsieur. Greg Burns was incredibly helpful, and the least stressful most bucolic pastime one can imagine, sipping coffee before a fountain in the Tuileries), j’était rempli and sated.

Given the way the day of my most recent visit had begun, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the apparition of Medea.

“Je suis venu pour mes jumeaux,” I’ve come for my twins, I’d announced to the butcheresse at the marché on the Place des Fetes, high atop the rue Belleville (and where the market scenes in Cedric Klapisch’s “Paris” may have been shot, which would explain why I was looking for Juliette Binoche at every counter). At first she had no idea what I was talking about, understandable given that the last time I’d seen her, and used this line, was in November 2015, right after the Paris massacres, over which we’d commiserated. (“I just don’t understand how someone could do something like that,” she’d told me.) “Les lapins,” I clarified (we’re back in 2019), pointing down at the two for 12 Euro rabbits splayed out in the vitrine. “The price has gone up!” (It had been 10 for two since 2009, when I first started provisioning myself at the market.)

“Clients keep telling us that, even though we changed it in September.”

“I haven’t been here since 2015!”

“Do you want me to slice them up for you?” she asked, wielding a long narrow blade.

“Yes, just don’t forget the heads, they give it taste.”

When she bobbled one of the noggins, I couldn’t resist: “Don’t lose your head!” After I’d paid I asked, “Can I leave them here while I do the rest of my marketing?”

“Yes, we’ll keep them au frais.”

By the time I’d come back she’d apparently remembered our routine of four years ago. “Rabbits, rabbits? I have no idea what he’s talking about” she told a colleague when I returned to fetch the twins.

“Comme toujours!” I retorted.

“Come back again, before 2021!”

In fact she’d given me an excuse to return much sooner. When I’d asked if she (I keep referring to her as ‘she’ because I’ve realized that neither ‘butcheresse’ nor a physical description can do justice to the way her beauty startled me) had a recipe for Lapin au moutarde, “because I’ll be making Lapin au chasseur with the first one,” she’d begun with “it’s a lot less complicated than Lapin au chasseur.” My idea was to come back Sunday to offer her a portion of my “Hunter’s rabbit,” a dish I’ve been perfecting for 15 years, since I found the recipe in an Astra ad in the “Adieu a Churchill” 1965 issue of Paris Match. (Which I did on Sunday. Lifting the plastic quince paté container into which I’d placed the sample, she suggested, “Come back next Friday for the desert!”)

En attendant this next move, there I was this past Friday afternoon watching the ducks and other humans mating at the Tuileries fountain, decided to indulge myself with a second cup of thermos coffee. This would have to be the limit because of the paucity of toilets within a five-mile radius of the park. When the Sun disappeared, the wind kicked up, and my neighbors lit up, I decided to continue to the gardens of the Palais Royale, where an alleged vernissage had provided the putative excuse for Friday’s expedition. (I know, I shouldn’t need one to go to the Tuileries; it’s the practical Taurus in me.)

OSP PelletMaximilien Pellet, Untitled, 2018. Water-color and ink on paper. Photo by and courtesy Galerie OSP. (See above for more information on the gallery, its aesthetic, and this artist.)

I never found the exhibition, and the “Cocteau – Colette – Palais Royale” banner pasted to the gardens’ grill after I hop-scotched over the Daniel Burin black and white columns turned out to just be announcing that they both once lived there, but I did get to surreptiously watch a Spanish girl who sat down in the green iron chair next to me on the lip of the multi-spigot fountain carefully select a fountain pen from a small case and start sketching pictures of a far building and the tree-tops bisecting its view. When the wind picked up more and started blowing the water on me, I headed out of the gardens, turning from the short cobblestoned uphill street at the exit onto the rue Vivienne, intending to check out the bookstalls in the glass-covered Vivienne arcade. Two tres chic French girls were excitedly gaggling in the middle of the street ahead of me while marching towards their Friday evening no doubt on the Grandes Boulevards, and I’d just concluded that the one with her blonde hair bunched up artfully was another French girl I could fall in love with when she spat ungraciously and inconsequently on the cobblestones.

After walking down the long glassed arcade of the Vivienne I turned on to a corner to re-find my source for all things Max Jacob and Kees von Dongen (I’m always getting lost in and confounding the Vivienne, Panoramic, and Victoires arcades, one of which spits you out onto the Grandes Boulevards), where the bookseller was hurriedly clearing the tables outside his shop and putting the books on the 2 Euro bargain table into cartons so that he could close. Too late for me to peruse.

Van dongen de seine 1962From Artcurial’s recent Estampes & Livres auction in Paris: Kees van Dongen, “De Seine,” 1962. Color lithograph on Japan paper, 39.1 x 59.7 cm Signed and justified “III/X.” Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

I did, however, discover a sanitaire that hadn’t been on my Paris toilet radar. (This is rare.) And one whose soggy floor — unlike at least half of the municipally operated sanitaires in Paris I’ve inspected — wasn’t covered in shit, despite that they’re supposedly automatically washed after each use. And had toilet paper. (Half the dispensaries are empty.) Toilet paper that on your fanny actually felt like toilet paper. This is probably because this particular sanitaire was located just outside the French stock market, on top of the 3 Metro station.

In the Metro car there was more cardboard and another blonde, this one natural, wearing an oversized plaid Mackinaw and who instead of clinging to a cell-phone as if it were a lifeline like nine in ten subway passengers I see was holding up a subway-car height, three-foot wide carton side on the top of which was scrawled:

“Et si on parlait de l’intelligence?” (How about if we talk about intelligence?)

As the girl — who might have been in her last year of high school or first year of college — looked up at me shyly I leaned my head sideways to read the rest. Under the title was written “Jours d’entrainment,” Training Days, and under that was a list of columns, suggesting a sort of intellectual Olympics, dividing the visual and other response times of “Homo-Sapiens” and “Homo Neanderthals.” (Note that I’m not the one who brought up Trump.) At the lower right corner of the slat under a cut-out of the title of the sports weekly “L’equipe” (the team) someone had added “Scientific!”

When the girl realized I was copying this all down — that I was a reporter — she raised her magazine to hide behind it.

I finished just in time to hop out at the station Arts & Metiers, whose shiny copper-colored metal walls with their displays behind portals make you feel like you’re in a submarine designed by Jules Verne.

lapotoc don't be afraid“Don’t be Afraid,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

More provocative phrases awaited me when I surfaced at Belleville, these mixed into collages by the eponymous Lapotoc, who through April 13 is sharing an exhibition with Farah Iaaich in the Galerie ArtAme (Art & Soul) at 37, rue Ramponeau, a street on which the state of artists if not art is fragile after a long fight to save the ateliers and one of Belleville’s last craftsmen workshops from eviction by city hall in a mixed-use building at No. 48.

If I continue to believe that it’s vital to support an artistic presence in what’s fast being transformed into BoBoville, this does not mean that all the art I’ve seen in Belleville this season is vital. In contrast to Saint-Germain des Pres, where the standard of the exhibitions I’ve caught in recent months often rivals the golden period of the late 1940s and 1950s, in Belleville the vernissages I’ve attended seem to be mostly populated by friends of the artists and if it’s unfair to categorize all of them as Sunday painters, many of the artists wear the etiquette “auto-didact” like a badge of honor, as if they’re proud of having received no formal training, even if this gap often reveals itself in a lack of rigor. Soit, but when this extends to ignoring their own history, it’s often manifest in work that presents itself as new but which in fact is derivative even if the author doesn’t know what it’s derived from.

So it was that fresh off the vernissage for an exhibition of animal art I’d attended Thursday at the gallery of the Associated Artists of Belleville (at least this time we weren’t treated to the cruelty of one artist bringing a live rabbit wearing a tutu), not to mention the alleged Palais Royale exhibition which had posed me as a lapin (= stood me up), I was already not of a particularly open disposition when I walked into Art & Soul. It didn’t help when the (no doubt well-meaning) gallery owner introduced one of the artists with “This is the Artist.” “This is the spectator. And journalist,” I couldn’t help responding. If I didn’t quite wince when I saw the catch-phrases mixed with catch-images (some of which were captured on Google Images, the artist in this case, Lapotoc, notes; I do have a problem with this generic attribution — before they got to Google, those images were made by real people), I still thought, “This isn’t new.” So it was as much to demonstrate my own smarts as to earnestly dialogue with the artist that I asked, pointing at a large work taking up most of one wall, “Is the canvas hand-made paper?,” noting the material’s warped shape. “No,” this “gondola” effect is the canvas’s response to the glue and other matter with which the collaged cut-outs are pasted on to it, Lapotoc explained. When she added that her purpose was to create matter for dialogue I offered, “For example, the juxtaposition between the phrase ‘Tout un parfum,’ the woman’s naked back and… is that an atomic symbol?” I was expecting a response but instead she just nodded.

Lapotoc tout un parfum“Tout un parfum,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

If I dutifully copied down phrases from three other collages which particularly spoke to me — “Don’t be afraid,” “On laissera des traces” (We will leave traces), and, from the canvas “Vaisseau Beauté,” “Parce que je le vaux,” (Because I deserve it) it was just to have some images to request to accompany this chronique; even if they resonated with me personally, the phrases still seemed straight out of a women’s self-help book and once I got home I couldn’t remember any of the images.

But a funny thing happened as I was writing this piece. When the images of the four works arrived in my e-mail box from Lapotoc, they had the opposite effect of that of seeing them in front of me. The gondola’d shape and texture of the canvas didn’t come across in the two-dimensional electronic format. But it wasn’t just the words in “On laissera des traces” that left me in tears, and “Don’t be afraid,” with a unit of cell phones replacing the body between a hanging head and stilletos, seemed to crystalize the horror of seeing all these people on the Metros riveted to their devices. (And me to my laptop here in Paris, which is why I don’t have an Internet connection at my regular digs.) The images had put my verbal description of this phenomenon into a visceral form. Although I can’t help wondering if, at least in this particular work, Lapotoc is using the words as a crutch; I’m not sure we need them.

lapotoc vaisseau beaute jpeg“Vaisseau Beauté,” Lapotoc. Painting and collage. Courtesy Lapotoc and on view at the galerie ArtAme in Paris through April 13.

Another thing art does, besides giving aesthetic form to our ideas and sentiments, is to invest us with the capability to view quotidian things and circumstances — our surroundings and environments — with an artistic sensibility. I already have this sensibility when I walk the streets and ride the Metros of Paris and observe certain things that resonate with my own life experience and references, or even in the greater story of Paris or of me in Paris. But what happened to me Friday night after leaving Lapotoc’s exhibition was that her artistic sensibility immediately imbued a banal object that has never interested me or resonated with me before with an exquisite beauty.

I don’t identify at all with swimmers or find myself in a swimming pool. The former (with the exception of my mentor; you know who you are) intimidate me and the latter frighten me. And yet when just moments after leaving Art & Soul, wanting to avoid the busy boulevard Belleville, I turned down a cobbled pedestrian alley one block up that I’ve been by-passing for 10 years because it’s too branché (hip), I found myself stopped and standing before the glass front of a building I’d never even noticed before: A swimming pool. The symmetry of the pool with its curved ceiling, the light reflecting off and from the bottom of the water, the contrast of that light with the night outside and the penumbra of the alley, the syncopated bodies with their slowly churning arms, their ’20s-style bathing caps which made the scene timeless — something left me so transfixed that I even read the entire two long poster-length “A History of Swimming Pools in Paris” affixed to the window. Seeing this perfect beauty — in relation to, what, the garbage around it (Paris and particularly the Right Bank is filthy)? The garbage in the air (and more polluted than ever)? The crowds? (The swimmers moved neatly and orderly in the lanes without crowding each other.) The contrast of this immaculate scene with the memory of the dirty, gym-sweat smelling, often-underground municipal swimming pools of my San Francisco youth?

I think rather it was that something in Lapotoc’s artistic way of seeing — as chaotic and crowded and sometimes even n’importe quoi some of her oeuvres seen Friday seem to me — had managed to expand even my own over-stimulated vision and way of seeing.

I’m not sure why this artist had this effect on my vision; she didn’t so much impress me as empower, or expand my ability to be impressed by even the most ordinary of surroundings. (This continued Saturday, when the crepuscule found me paused on the rue Buffon that flanks the Jardin des Plantes, leaning against the garden’s stone wall and iron fence and fascinated by a solitary tree projecting over the street from the fence, the vetuse shutters on an ancient apartment building, an oval window under the roof of another, the sunlight glinting on the chrome surface of a modern office building at the end of the street.) Maybe it’s her sincerity or determination to put the whole ugly beautiful sensory mess on a canvas without too much concern to organize or arrange it. But how often is art able to accomplish this? To not only make you see what the artist is seeing, but to expand your general vision once you leave the work of art?

The Lutèce Diaries, 25: Montmartre, copyright “Amélie” or, Why a duck shop bothers me so much

Gen Paul Montmartre rue NorvinsGen Paul (1895-1975), “Le bureau de tabac, rue Norvins et le Sacre-Coeur,” circa 1928-29. Oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.22 inches. Signed lower right, signed again and dated on the reverse. Estimated price for Artcurial’s March 20 Art of the 20th Century, 1900 – 1950 sale in Paris: 22,000 – 28,000 Euros. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

Dedicated to Martin Epstein ahead on this his birthday. For the teaching.

PARIS — The last time I saw Montmartre, heart bleeding and gums aching, I made it as high as the grave of François Truffaut (down the path from Zola and up the hill from “Camille”), where, after imbibing a Paracetemol cocktail, I shouted “J’accuse” at the author of the five-film Antoine Doinel cycle that began with “The 400 Blows” for filling me up with an ideal of Paris love that did not exist. But dreams die hard, so there I was Monday afternoon huffing and puffing my way up the 400 flights of stairs from the netherworld of the Abbesses Metro, no doubt neighboring the subterranean tunnel through which is shot the pneumatic Delphine Seyrig (as the wife of his shoe-store owner boss) sends Antoine fixing a tryst in “Stolen Kisses,” the third film.

The first indication I had that Montmartre had accelerated its downhill slide into the mother of all Tourist-lands was a sign on the rue Yvonne le Tac: “The Paris Duck Store.” As la belle-mere, who used to furnish me with a steady supply of the buoyant creatures when she had a San Francisco boutique called Common Scents, will confirm, I’ve got nothing against rubber duckies. The problem I have with “The Paris Duck Store” is that it could be anywhere. Its various canard characters — Prince, a Rasta duck that I guess was supposed to be Bob Marley, even a Trump duck (“He is surrounded by two devil ducks!,” the duck sales clerk tried to assure me) — have nothing to do with Paris. No Jean Gabin duck. No Piaf duck. No Montand duck. No De Gaulle duck and no Godard duck. No “Amélie” duck. (We’ll get back to her.) Not even a “Yellow-Vested” duck. And indeed the Duck Store, which originated in Amsterdam, is now everywhere. “We have ten duck stores all over Europe!” the sales clerk proudly informed me. (This genericizing of Paris is not confined to Montmartre. As a fellow Parisian recently complained to me, “You emerge from your apartment building, you look at the café across the street, and you could be anywhere in the world.”)

Where exactly is the Paris in the Paris Duck Store? And where is the Montmartre? (And if your answer is “It’s the free market, buddy,” mine is that in Paris, the mayor has the right to a certain degree of commerce control to preserve a neighborhood’s historic character.)

Suzanne Valadon nu sortant du bain smallSuzanne Valadon (1865-1938), “Nu sortant du bain, circa 1904.  Sanguine and crayon gras on paper. 25 x 20.30 cm.  Collection Paul Lombard.  Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial from its 2017 sale of the Collection of Paul Lombard. (Arts Voyager Archives.)

As I continued down the street towards the Square Suzanne Valadon at the base of the park below Sacre-Coeur where the funicular would take me to the “Butte” or top of Montmartre, I thought about how the Communards, who put up barricades around Montmartre and Belleville (provisions were dropped into the park from hot air balloons) in 1871 to protest Versailles’ capitulation to the Germans, might feel if they knew that the cradle of their movement had been invaded by Dutch rubber duckies. (Not to mention whether Sesame Street’s Ernie would still think that his Rubber Ducky made bathing lots of fun if the petite canard had orange hair and tried to build a wall around the bathtub to keep out Gordon, Mr. Looper, and that transspecies fruitcake Big Bird.) Pondering this revolting development as the single petite transparent Metro car took me up to Sacre-Coeur while contemplating from its window the winding stairways of the park around which a caped and masked Audrey Tatou had tantalized Mathieu Kassovitz in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain,” I decided to take the matter up with the Chevalier de la Barre.

Being burned at the stake in 1766 at the age of 19 after having his tongue and hands cut off when he refused to doff his cap before and hurled impudent ditties at a procession of religious notables earned the Chevalier de la Barre the right to his own statue, which now presides over a narrow oblong park just below Sacre-Coeur. (This is kind of a French thing; they burn you at the stake and then give you a statue.) After saluting him by removing mine (cap), I turned my back to the Chevalier so that I could sit on a bench looking out through bare winter trees over Paris and the Eiffel Tower, standing sentry in the midst of the late-afternoon dappled sky. As I sipped my hot thermos ginger-rosehip tea, the Paris moment was perfect. When the pigeons crashed the party, I left the park and, after negotiating the crowd of tourists along the rue Norvins and saluting the ghosts of Valadon, her lover Felix Utter, and her son Maurice Utrillo on the narrow rue Rustique from which their late-night arguments used to echo through the village (she served as Renoir’s model before taking lessons from Degas and becoming a painter in her own right after giving up the idea of flying the trapeze with the Medrano circus; her son is singularly responsible for the postcard image Montmartre has today), turned left onto the rue Cortot to visit with Satie, who from 1890 to 1898 created Minimalism in a small chamber at No. 6, a sign on the elevated building above the paved street informs us. (A couple of blocks below chez Satie Pissarro holed up in a studio making pastel drawings of the rue Vincent, which leads to the village’s wine orchards.)

After I repeated a future wedding ritual under the trelisse of the park at the other side of the church I’ve practiced since I used to jog up to the Butte along the rue des Martyrs from my flat on the rue de Paradis in the 2000s, I and my Montmartre retrouvaille went downhill. Descending Lamarck, I found a restaurant on a catty-corner whose high terrace looked out on a story-typical Montmartre view. The reasonably priced menu looked appealing until I noticed the non-translation (not just a bad translation; it made something up) of “Pommes Sarladoise,” which — as they should — were listed as accompanying the duck confit: “Oven-cooked with butter.” As any Perigordin worth the salt in which he preserves his duck knows, Pommes (Potatoes) Sarladoise — the recipe originated in Sarlat, 19K from the Dordogne village where I live — are cooked not in butter but duck or goose fat. When I verified with the server that his restaurant observed this rule and informed him of the bad translation (duck fat into butter), he just laughed. I don’t think he realized that if tourists come to Paris, it’s not just to get fatted up but because they appreciate that the French take their food seriously; they know the difference between duck fat and butter. (Which these days in is more expensive in France than duck or even goose fat.)

If subsequent English menus I spotted were correct — apart from that of the café off Norvins which offered “hot got cheese salad” — this was probably because there are only so many ways you can spell “French Onion Soup,” which featured on the carte du jour of most of the restaurants I passed while careening down the rue Caulaincourt (trying to avoid the omnipresent green and grey construction barriers) back towards the cemetery. In other words, at least judging by the menus Montmartre has become the worst example of Paris-land I’ve seen since I returned here in January, giving the tourists a cardboard version of Paris and France which only confirms their most tired stereotypes and has little to do with the real Paris of today.

As far as tourist traps go, the worst offender — as I discovered after turning down Lepic (where Van Gogh once talked sales strategy with his brother before heading down to the Grands Boulevards to try to sell his paintings to Goupil) from Joseph le Maistre after pausing on the bridge over the cemetery (which figures in three of the Antoine films) to watch the crepuscular Sun piercing the gathering storm clouds — is the Café des deux moulins (so dubbed because it’s midway between the Moulin Rouge and the Moulin Galette immortalized by Renoir and later Utrillo), the real restaurant where the fake heroine worked in “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain.” The film poster which immediately went up in the wake of the global success of Jeunet’s movie was understandable; something had to tell the gaggles of Japanese girls who turned up that they were in the right place. But “Amélie,” or more precisely the exploitation of tourists in the name of everything “Amélie,” has now completely taken over what once actually was — in real life as in the film — a working-class neighborhood café. So you now have the “Amélie gouter” (afternoon snack, usually reserved for schoolchildren; in the Perigord we serve them chilled, watered down, sugared red wine in which they dip stale bread) of Viennese coffee, creme brulé, and a Polaroid (presumably with the Amélie poster): 12.80 Euros. Which is just to fatten you up for the Amélie burgers, whose prices, arrayed on a menu plastered with “Amélie”‘s puckered face, range from 17 to nearly 20 Euros, enough to get you a decent prix fix three course meal in many other restaurants. (Okay, the 20 Euro one includes foie gras, but a resto up the street on le Maistre, le Gascogne, offers the same plus fries and smoked duck breast for less than 16.)

The piece de resistance — or, as we say here, the cerise sur la gateau — is that while I was copying some of the menu down for this diatribe, a short man popped out of the entrance, wagged his finger at me and warned, “No taking notes! Copyright!” The presumption being that I was a competitor stealing his recipe for what goes into a foie gras and hamburger hamburger. (Foie gras, hamburger, and, okay, stewed onions.) In other words, a tourist trap operator shamelessly exploiting a work of art (regardless of whether he has permission to use the Amélie iconography — at presstime, I’d received no response on the question from Jeunet’s official website — it’s still shameless, and a subversion of what this movie is really about) to sell food tchotchkes at inflated prices was lecturing me about copying down recipes any kindergartner could make up.

Montmartre, copyright “Amélie.” Quelle farce! C’est le monde a l’envers.

Because “Amélie,” you see, didn’t just spring from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fertile imagination. Like Marcel Carné / Jaques Prevert’s 1947 “Les Portes de la Nuit,” in which a lanky Yves Montand made his debut (and introduced Prevert’s “Autumn Leaves”) wandering through a fairy-tale, oneiric, cauchemaresque Montmartre after missing the last Metro at Barbes; like Piaf singing for her supper on a street corner off Clichy until a local impresario discovered her; like Patachou at her nightclub near the Lapin Agile giving a chance to a young singer-poet, George Brassens, who would go on to become the French equivalent of Bob Dylan (his songs sound better when she sings them); like Picasso and Braque forging Cubism from African artifacts at the Bateau Lavoir; like Picasso, Apollinaire, Marie Laurencin and the rest of the gang converging in his tiny flat to hear the Douanier Rousseau entertain them on his violin in 1910; like Max Jacob, who would later be slated for Deportation, hurrying across the street to his home on the rue Ravignon a few doors up from the Bateau Lavoir clutching his self-published poetry; like Toulouse-Lautrec limping home across the cemetery bridge towards his studio on the rue Tourlaque after transforming whores and can-can dancers into deities; like Boris Vian debating Pataphysics (I’m still not sure what that is) with his neighbor Prevert on their adjoining terraces over the Verdun alley; like Gabrielle posing for Renoir, pere, on the rue Fontaine before returning to comb the long golden locks of Renoir, fils, for whom she was the nanny; like Cezanne trading tableaux for powder with the Pere Tanguy while Tanguy’s dubious wife looked on; like Vuillard capturing the way the light filtered into the flat he shared with his mother looking out on the Square Adolph Max below the boulevard Clichy; like Brel coming to Madame Arthur’s to hear transvestite singers; like Maigret’s Inspector Malgraceux surveilling the flat across the way from him over the square Constantin Pecqueur or Steinlen leaving out bowls of food for his feline models in the same location (I tried taking my tea there too on Monday, but the bench was splattered with pigeon shit and the Steinlen fountain dry); like all these storied ancestors, “Amélie” sprung from the feu follet fermenting in the cemetery and all over Montmartre.

This is why a duck shop bothers me.

Le feuilleton (the Serial), 2 : “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English), Part Two

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

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Charles was entering his 18th year. He’d only remotely followed the metamorphosis of his parents and was astonished. His father and mother’s sudden passion for Modern Art bewildered him. By nature a bit slow, a good boy with a below average intelligence, he had trouble keeping up with the evolution of his family. When his father praised Klee to the detriment of Kandinsky, he might as well have still been comparing Mumphy underwear to Rasural underwear.

Charles was not subject to this fever which had consumed his loved ones since the adventure of the Paul Klee paintings had begun: it should be pointed out that speculation wasn’t the only engine driving Monsieur Mumfy’s new attitude. If Monsieur Mumfy had become obsessed with abstract painting, it wasn’t just because he was counting on it — following the example of the Klees — to centuple in value, but also because he liked it. In her role as a good spouse, Madame Mumfy accompanied him in this conversion. She who previously had never set foot in a museum these days wouldn’t miss a single vernissage or cocktail if it had anything to do with abstract art. She even tried her hand at a variety of smaller works about which she didn’t make a big deal, even though some galleries wanted to expose them.

When it was decided that Charles would become a painter, Monsieur and Madame Mumfy threw a cocktail party to which they invited all the critics, dealers, and collectors.

Once more everyone raved about the perspicacity of the master of the house, who’d had the acumen to build such a stellar collection of Klees.

“When one considers,” proclaimed Charles Roy, “that the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris doesn’t have a single Klee, not even a Mondrian, in its collection, it’s scandalous! It’s up to the private collectors to retain for France a few chefs-d’oeuvre of contemporary art. France owes you so much, dear Monsieur Mumfy!”

Monsieur Mumfy was used to inspiring such homages. Little by little he’d convinced himself that he actually had discovered Paul Klee before the war. In the beginning, he was pretending; now he wasn’t lying. He really believed that he’d always loved Klee — for at least the last 20 years anyway. For that matter, the dates on the paintings on his walls seemed to back up this claim. And given that the art critics, the dealers, and the other collectors who frequented his house were themselves recent converts to abstract art, no one could disabuse him of this notion.

The critic Charles Roy, a specialist in abstract art, had burst into the public spotlight with great fanfare after the Libération. Even though he was already in his 50s, his pre-war activity remained fuzzy. In fact, he’d played a laudable role in the Résistance and he was rewarded by being offered his own platform in the press. As he was absolutely incapable of writing in clear French, or at least of paying any attention to the rules of grammar, he was relegated to the art column. In this post which, on a major newspaper, is usually cloistered and innocuous, Charles Roy had succeeded in carving out a niche for himself thanks to his total ignorance of syntax. No one understood a word he wrote, and as he wrote about paintings that no one understood, people just thought it was a new style. Charles Roy was the veritable inventor of this brand of abstract art criticism which, born at the same time as the Academy of Abstract Art in Paris, made people believe in a concordance of genres when in reality it was just one big critical scam which had encrusted itself like a parasite in the haunches of an art form which merited its own Baudelaire or Apollinaire.

If all the major photographers in Paris were inevitably Hungarian, the big art critics were Belgian. Charles Roy was no exception, and his moniker was obviously a pseudonym. His enemies liked to point this out by punning, “He waffles like a real Belgian.”

Like all Johnny-come-latelies, Charles Roy veered from one extreme to another. A salesman of religious tchotchkes for tourists before the war (voila why he changed his name), Charles Roy now recognized only the strictest form of abstract art. Charles’s artistic coming out party found him once again defending this standard to the boy’s father:

“I admire Klee in a historic sense,” he was saying, “but I don’t approve of his anecdotal aspect. It’s literary painting. Art is only justified today if it doesn’t evoke the least parcel of reality.”

“Ah! Don’t touch my Klee!” Monsieur Mumfy responded in a sententious tone. “You can accuse Miro of being literary, or Picasso of being anecdotal, but when you go after Klee in my presence, it’s as if you’re insulting a member of my family.”

At just this moment a brouhaha broke out in the salon at the entrance sur scene of a dwarf who appeared leaning on a small cane with his bifocals perched on a large nose, a dwarf bearing a surprising resemblance to a Toulouse-Lautrec caricature. The guests parted to make way for the dwarf, who stood on his tip-toes to kiss Madame Mumfy’s hand.

Charles Roy and Monsieur Mumfy fell over themselves to see who could get to the dwarf’s side first.

“My dear Laivit-Canne….”

“Monsieur Laivit-Canne….”

The dwarf sank into an easy chair provided by a servant and announced in a nasal voice:

“I’ve just cut off Manhès!”

This declaration was met with a stupefied silence. The majority of those gathered in the salon turned their heads towards the wall, where five paintings by Manhès stared back at them. They seemed to be looking at them for the first time, even though they were all quite familiar with Manhès’s work. In reality, they were seeking out the little imperfections, the vice which might have earned them the disfavor of Laivit-Canne.

It was finally Charles Roy who broke the silence, ingratiatingly enough, to flatter Laivit-Canne:

“Bravo!, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. Manhès’s style might end up selling well, but in fact it’s already passé. It’s not genuine abstract painting.”

The dwarf, ensconced in his cushions, exuded the surly air of a spoiled child. He resumed in swishing his nose for emphasis:

“I don’t give a fig about abstract painting or non-abstract painting, sellable or non-sellable art …. Manhès insulted me — Manhès who owes me everything, Manhès who’d be dead if not for me –”

“Oh!”

The dwarf nimbly scooped up a petit-four from a passing platter, masticated it with determination, and explained:

“Manhès called me a self-hating Jew….”

This unexpected insult created an unease among the guests. Someone ventured:

“Manhès has always struck me as a racist.”

The dwarf sought out the origin of the voice, squinting his eyes, came up empty, and continued:

“I encourage you, my dear Mumfy, to sell off your Manhèses. Before long they won’t be worth a wooden nickel.”

“There’s no rush, there’s no rush,” joked Monsieur Mumfy with a cheerful bonhomie which broke the tension a little. Then, assuming a stentorian tone, he proclaimed:

“Tonight I’m proud to announce some good news. Charles has decided to choose art over underwear. He’s to be a painter.”

“Which academy will you send him too?” asked one woman, “chez Léger ou chez Lhote?”

“Just don’t tell us he’s going to the Beaux-Arts Academy,” asked another worried woman.

“Don’t be alarmed,” assured Monsieur Mumfy. “He’ll be trained at the right school. I’m going to sign him up for the Abstract Art Academy.”

Big hands started clapping. Those of Charles Roy. The guests formed into groups, depending on their affinities. Many paused in front of Manhés’s paintings, where the conversation was particularly animated. Everyone rushed to shake the hand of Charles, who was starting to get bored.

Version originale par et copyright Michel Ragon:

Charles entrait dans sa dix-huitième année. Il avait assisté à la métamorphose de ses parents sans enthousiasme. La soudaine passion de son père et de sa mère pour l’art moderne le déroutait. D’un naturel un peu niais, bon garçon, d’une intelligence au-dessous de la moyenne, il ne suivit l’évolution de sa famille que de très loin et le souffle coupé. Lorsqu’il entendait son père louer Klee au détriment de Kandinsky, cela lui produisait le même effet que si son géniteur avait fait l’apologie des sous-vêtements Michaud au détriment de sous-vêtements Rasurel.

Charles ne participait pas à cette fièvre qui s’était emparée des siens depuis cette aventure des tableaux de Paul Klee: Il faut dire que la spéculation n’était pas la seul moteur réagissant la nouvelle attitude de Monsieur Michaud. Monsieur Michaud achetait de la peinture abstrait, non seulement parce qu’il comptait bien que celle-ci, a l’exemple des tableaux de Klee, centuple sa valeur, mais aussi parce qu’il aimait ça. En bonne épouse, Madame Michaud l’accompagne dans sa conversion. Elle qui, autrefois, n’avait jamais mis les pieds dans un musée, ne manquait aujourd’hui aucun vernissage, aucun cocktail, concernant l’art abstrait. Elle s’essayait même, comme nous l’avons vu, à certaines petites œuvrettes dont elle avait la sagesse de ne pas faire grand cas et ceci bien que certaines galeries lui aient proposé de les exposer.

Lorsqu’il fut décidé que Charles serait peintre, Monsieur et Madame Michaud donnèrent un cocktail où tous les critiques, marchands, collectionneurs, furent invités.

On s’extasia une fois de plus sur la perspicacité du maître de maison qui avait su réunir une collection de Klee aussi merveilleuse.

— Quand on pense, s’exclama Charles Roy, que le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris n’a même pas un seul Klee, pas un Mondrian, c’est une scandale ! Il faut que ce soient des collectionneurs privés qui retiennent en France quelques chefs-d’œuvre de l’art actuel. La France vous devra beaucoup, cher Monsieur Michaud !

Monsieur Michaud était habitué a soulever de tels enthousiasmes. Peu à peu, il finit par se convaincre qu’il avait réellement découvert Paul Klee avant la guerre. Au début, il jouait la comédie; maintenant il ne mentait plus. Il était persuadé qu’il avait toujours aimé Klee, depuis vingt ans au moins. D’ailleurs les dates des tableaux sur les murs témoignaient de cette ancienneté. Comme les critiques d’art, les marchands et les autres collectionneurs qui fréquentaient sa maison n’étaient eux aussi convertis à l’art abstrait que depuis fort peu de temps, personne ne pouvait le détromper.

Le critique Charles Roy, spécialiste de l’art abstrait, s’était révélé avec fracas à l’attention du public après la Libération. Bien qu’il fût âgé d’une cinquantaine d’années, son activité avant la guerre restait dans un anonymat très vague. En fait, il eut un rôle très méritoire dans la Résistance et on l’en récompensa en lui créant un fromage dans la presse. Comme il était incapable d’écrire un française clair, ou tout au moins correct, on le relégua dans la chronique des arts. A ce poste, qui, dans un grande journal est en général terne et sans histoire, Charles Roy réussit à se faire un nom grâce à sa méconnaissance totale de la syntaxe. Personne ne comprenant rien à ce qu’il écrivait et comme il parlait de tableaux que personne ne comprenait, on crut à un nouveau style. Charles Roy est le véritable créateur de cette critique d’art abstrait qui, née parallèlement au développement d’une Ecole d’Art Abstrait à Paris, fit croire à une concordance des genres alors qu’il ne s’agissait que d’un cafouillage incrusté en parasite au flanc d’une peinture qui méritait son Baudelaire ou son Apollinaire.

Si, à Paris, les grands photographes sont en général hongrois, les critiques d’art sont belges. Charles Roy n’échappait pas à cette règle et son nom était évidemment un pseudonyme. Ses ennemis disaient même, par un calembour facile : « Il est belge comme pieds. »

Comme tous les néophytes convertis sur le tard, Charles Roy allait d’un extrême à l’autre. Représentant de statuettes du genre Saint-Sulpice avant la guerre (et c’est pour cela qu’il avait changé son nom), Charles Roy n’admettait plus maintenant que l’art abstrait le plus strict. Encore une fois, il se chamaillait à ce propos avec Monsieur Michaud :

— J’admire Klee d’une façon historique, disait-il. Mais je lui reproche son côté anecdotique. C’est de la peinture littéraire. L’art ne se justifie aujourd’hui que s’il n’évoque pas la moindre parcelle de réalité.

— Ah ! ne touchez pas à Klee; répondait Monsieur Michaud d’un ton sentencieux. Vous pouvez me dire que Miro est littéraire, que Picasso est anecdotique, mais lorsqu’on attaque Klee en ma présence, c’est comme si on insultait ma famille.

Il se fit un brouhaha dans le salon et l’on vit entrer un nain, avec une petite canne et des lorgnons sur un gros nez, ressemblant étonnamment à un caricature de Toulouse-Lautrec. Tout le monde s’inclinait au passage du nain qui se haussa sur la pointe des pieds pour baiser la main de Madame Michaud.

Charles Roy et Monsieur Michaud se bousculèrent pour arriver le premier près du nain.

— Mon cher Laivit-Canne…

— Monsieur Laivit-Canne…

Le nain s’enfonça dans un fauteuil que lui avança un domestique et dit d’une voix nasillarde :

— Je viens de couper les vivres à Manhes !

Un silence stupéfait accueillit cette déclaration. La plupart des personnes réunies dans la salon tournèrent la tête vers le mur où cinq tableaux de Manhès étaient accrochés. Elles semblaient les regarder pour la première fois, bien que toutes connussent fort bien la peinture de Manhès. En fait, elles cherchaient l’imperfection, le vice qui leur valait la défaveur de Laivit-Canne.

Ce fut Charles Roy qui rompit le silence, assez bassement, pour flatter Laivit-Canne:

— C’est tout à votre honneur, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. La peinture de Manhès pourrait devenir très commerciale, mais elle est tout à fait dépassée. Ce n’est pas un véritable peintre abstrait.

Le nain, enfoncé dans les coussins, avait l’air hargneux d’un enfant prodige. Il reprit en chuintant du nez :

— M’en fous de la peinture abstraite ou pas abstrait, de la peinture commerciale ou pas commerciale… Mais Manhès m’a injurié, lui qui me doit tout, moi qui le faisais vivre…

— Oh !

Le nain attrapa prestement un petit-four, sur un plateau qui passait, le mastique avec application et dit :

— Manhès m’a traité de Juif honteux…

Cette injure inattendue créa un malaise dans l’assistance. Quelqu’un risqua :

— Manhès m’a toujours paru raciste.

Le nain chercha d’où venait cette voix, en plissant les yeux, ne la reconnut pas, et dit :

— Je vous engage, mon cher Michaud, à vendre vos Manhès, bientôt ils ne vaudront plus rien.

— Ce n’est pas pressé, ce n’est pas pressé, plaisanta Monsieur Michaud avec ne bonhomie enjouée qui dégela un peu l’assistance. Puis, reprenant une voix solennelle :

« Ce soir, je veux vous annoncer une bonne nouvelle. Charles vient de préférer les arts aux sous-vêtements. Il sera peintre. »

— Où l’envoyes-vous, demanda une dame, chez Léger ou chez Lhote ?

— Il ne va pas faire les Beaux-Arts, au moins, s’inquiéta une autre ?

— Ne vous alarmez pas, dit Monsieur Michaud, il sera formé à bonne école. Je vais le faire inscrire à l’Académie d’Art Abstrait.

De grosses mains applaudirent. C’étaient celles de Charles Roy. Des groupes se formèrent dans l’appartement, au gré des sympathies et des antipathies. On allait beaucoup devant les tableaux de Manhés et la conversation s’animait dans ce coin-là. Chacun serait vigoureusement la main à Charles, qui s’ennuyait.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.