Camus-Casarès Letters: French publisher Gallimard outs its most important author’s private demons and fears

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Commentary copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

Previously explored by Olivier Todd in his exhaustive 1996 Gallimard biography and insinuated in Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, Albert Camus’s inherent self-doubt — in all areas of his life — is now decisively confirmed by the novelist-journalist-philosopher-playwright-director’s 16 years and 1,275 pages of correspondence with his longtime mistress (for want of a more just word) Maria Casarès, recently published for the first time by Gallimard, after being released by Camus’s daughter Catherine, who inherited the letters from the grand Spanish-French actress.

A die-hard Camusian for 40 years, ever since being assigned to read “The Plague” in high school (thank you, Ralph Saske), of course I had to request a review copy from the publisher as soon as the correspondence came out, putatively for this article, but with the ulterior ambition of being the first to translate the letters into English and trying to find an American publisher.

Because of the period covered (the pair became lovers in Paris on D-Day, June 6 1944, split up the following fall when Camus’s wife Francine returned from Algeria, and reunited in 1948 after bumping into each other on the boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Pres, remaining together until Camus’s death in a traffic accident on January 4, 1960), I’d hoped to find new insight into Camus’s thought process in preparing “The Fall,” “The Rebel,” stage adaptations of Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed” and Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun,” and the unfinished autobiographical novel “The First Man” — the hand-written manuscript of the first 261 pages were found among the wreckage and published by Gallimard in 1994 — as well as his inner torment as he struggled to find a resolution for the conflict and war in Algeria, where Camus’s efforts to square his principles with the well-being of his family in the French colony, his birthplace, tore him apart, and his public views pissed off everyone on both sides.  From Casarès — the busiest stage and radio actress of the fertile post-War Parisian scene, a major film presence (she played Death in Jean Cocteau’s  1949 “Orpheus”), and the daughter of a former Republican president of Spain — I’d relished the potential accounts and impressions of the playwrights and directors she worked with, a real’s who-who of the French theater world (as attested to by Béatrice Vaillant’s thoroughly documented footnotes), notably Jean Vilar, founder of the Theatre National Populaire and the Avignon Festival.

Unfortunately (if understandably; this is not a criticism of the correspondents, but of Gallimard’s decision to make their private dialogue public), in fulfillment of their main purpose of maintaining the link during their often long separations, necessitated by his retreats for writing, author tours, visits to his family in Algeria, tuberculosis cures, and family vacations — he never divorced Francine — and her performance tours, apart from the travelogues (except where they describe her vacations by the Brittany and Gironde seaside, more interesting on his part), their letters are often dominated, especially early on, by declarations of love and the sufferance of absence (even if your name is Albert Camus, I discovered, there are only so many interesting ways to say I love you, I want you, I need you), and the often anodyne details of their daily lives apart. (Camus tells her to leave nothing out.) Her manner of chronicling her quotidian activities is often so indiscriminate, investing theatrical rendez-vous with the same level of importance as shopping excursions for furniture to decorate her fifth-floor flat with balcony on the rue Vaugirard, that at one point he mildly rebukes her: Don’t just write that you had a luncheon appointment, say who it was with. The best she can come up with to describe the experience of making  “Orpheus” with Cocteau is that she was annoyed by the autograph-seekers who showed up at the outdoor shoots. And when it comes to the radio productions the recording of which seem to constitute her main employ (none of which, besides Camus’s “State of Siege,” have been preserved by the State-run radio archives), at least in Paris, she often refers to “having a radio today,” without even naming the play in question. (When Camus refers to “a radio,” he means an x-ray to analyze the progress or regression of the chronic tuberculosis which dogged him all his life.)  Never mind that the “radios” in question were plays by the leading European writers of the day, as well as classics. When it comes to his work, at most Camus refers to his progress on the literary task at hand or writers’ blocks impeding it, rarely going into the philosophical or political issues he’s grappling with. As for the letters from Algeria, typically occasioned by family visits, if Camus’s  native’s appreciation for and adoration of the landscape is apparent, even lyrical (particularly in recounting excursions to Tipassa), he talks mostly about dealing with his ageing mother’s state of health, and rarely about the sometimes violently contested political encounters he was having at the time. If anything, their relationship was their havre, a refuge and sanctuary from the demands of his calling and the rigors of her obligations (as she seems to have regarded her theatrical engagements).

This is not to say there are no newsworthy stories here. For Camus, the story, albeit one already explored by Todd in his biography (for which Todd apparently had access to the letters), is the author-philosopher’s continually frustrated efforts to live his private life in accordance with his public principles. Moral responsibility (and fidelity) to one’s community, and the need to be exemplary even in the most trying of circumstances and times — two of the principal themes of “The Plague” — dictate that he remain in a conjugally loveless marriage, which means he can never shack up for good with the woman he loves, to her great frustration. (Never mind that he’s an atheist — which he hedges here at times by asking Casarès to pray to her god, sometimes on his behalf — Francine is a practicing Catholic.)  The right, voir obligation, to be happy — another pillar central not only to “The Plague” but Camus’s over-riding philosophy of positive Existentialism — would insist that he fully commit himself to Casarès. Because he ultimately can’t square the two principles, everyone — Francine, Maria, and himself —  is frequently miserable.

A fourth, and perhaps the author’s most personally invested, theme of “The Plague” — absence and separation — is indeed one of the two principal unifying themes that emerge from the letters, but given that the novel was published in 1948, when their relationship began in earnest, at best the letters furnish an after-the-fact illustration and elaboration of this theme, their particular separations having played no role in its actual genesis. (The absence and separation which partly inspired “The Plague” being the one the war imposed between the author and Francine, who remained in Algeria.)

If there is a bona-fide, universally resonant story here, it is that of the ultimate unconditional love. After some initial resistance (expressed in live, and animated, arguments referred to and regurgitated in her letters), Casarès never demands that Camus leave his wife, even though it means she can’t have a true domicile conjugal, with a companion and children to come home to (at least as manifest in the letters, she remained loyal to him, even though he had at least two other mistresses during the time they were together, according to Todd). For his part, if he doesn’t hear from her for more than a week when they’re apart, he worries that she might be drifting away and sinks into a morose depression, unable even to work. If I know these things — here’s where the unconditionality comes in — it’s because they’ve made a pact, referred to in the letters, to share everything without holding back, no matter how ridiculous or petty the sentiment might seem. And they stick to this agreement faithfully.

The other element that links the author and the actress — how they fulfill and complete each other — is a shared, desperate need for nature, primarily the sea (although he’s also able to appreciate the pictorial value of the mountainous terrains he often finds himself confined to, for writing and health retreats; but we didn’t need the publication of these letters to know that Camus was an adroit paysagist). Maria’s most brilliant and moving letters describe her merging with the sea on an island in Bretagne or off a beach in the Gironde, her two vacation retreats.  (If I use the first name, it’s because on these occasions, watching her galloping into the waves to meet them head on or discovering a secret hide-away, I feel like I’m discovering the child inside the woman.) Camus’s descriptions of a return to Rome — which he values as a living monument to art and archeology — are also inspiring (they made me want to go there, or at least watch “Roman Holiday” again), and a personal review of a London production of “Caligula” that he finds lacking is scathingly funny.

The most poignant moment comes not so much at the juncture we expect — Camus’s final letter, of December 30, 1959, alerting Casarès he’ll arrive back in Paris by the following Tuesday in principal, barring hazards encountered en route, and where he looks forward to embracing her — but earlier in the same year.  Casarès has just decided to leave the TNP (over Vilar’s latest caprices, this time insisting on his right to call the actors during a well-earned vacation), after five years, which followed a shorter stay at the stodgy Comedie Française. I dream of living in a roulotte — or covered gypsy wagon — and hitting the road, she tells him. (He’s welcome to join her, but her plans don’t depend on that eventuality.) He encourages this dream, but notes, in the manner of a supportive but prudent parent (Camus was nine years older than Casarès), that she should realize that just because she’ll be living in a roulotte doesn’t mean she’ll be free and independent; it just means she’ll be living in a community surrounded by other roulottes. Even in roulottes, there are rules, he explains. This could be an analogy for their 16-year relationship, an emotional vagabondage inevitably — and fatally — tethered by the rigors, responsibilities, and rules of living in good society.

If the example of unconditional love revealed in the letters is compelling and inspiring, the problem I have with Gallimard’s publishing them is that absent proof to the contrary, the professional writer involved meant for them to be private. It’s not just a question of intrusion and indiscretion (Todd cites a note to Camus from Roger Martin de la Garde to the effect that a writer owes the public his work, not his private life, inferring from this that Camus subscribed to this belief), but that *with works he knew were destined for publication*, Camus was a scrupulous and meticulous perfectionist. Counting the war, “The Plague” took eight years to write, from gestation to publication. “The First Man” started germinating in 1952, and by the author’s death eight years later was only one third finished, according to his outline. Both Todd’s biography and the letters themselves confirm that Camus worked, re-worked, and re-wrote his books and articles, and even after they were published continued to be besieged by  doubts. (Notably over “The Rebel,” virulently attacked by Jean-Paul Sartre and his Modern Times henchman Francis Jeansen, the former not confining himself to taking on the treatise’s arguments but attacking Camus personally, like a Sorbonne senior with a superiority complex patronizingly upbraiding an underclassman.)

While an argument can be made for making them available to researchers for biographical purposes — in the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale, for example, or of the university in Aix-en-Provence, where many of Camus’s papers are located — my inclination, as a Camus loyalist, is that these letters should not have been published. If Catherine Camus’s motivations in releasing them should be trusted — she’s been an assiduous guardian of her father’s legacy, and who can interject themselves into the complex considerations, even after death, created by the relationship between a daughter and the  father she lost when she was 14? — Gallimard’s motivations should be regarded with skepticism, or at least questioned, given what seems to me the meager literary value of the result, at least as justifying a complete publication of all 1,275 pages.  (A caveat and reservation: Camus does tell Casarès at one point that everything in him which connects him to humanity, he owes to her; at another, on July 21, 1958: “As the  years have gone by, I’ve lost my roots, in lieu of creating them, except for one, you, my living source, the  only thing which today attaches me to the real world.”)

After finishing them, I was still, nonetheless, on the bubble about the letters’ inherent worth, and merits as a translation project. What red-blooded Camusian doesn’t want to be the first to translate freshly made public words by Albert Camus into English?! Less self-interestedly, I considered that perhaps the lessons of this extraordinarily unconditional love justified the value to potential English-language readers of a translation. And then there was the lingering vision of Maria running joyously, fearlessly into the surf in the Gironde, or hiding in a cave on the obscure side of a Brittany island as the tide rises and the waves begin to crash against the uneven rocks under her naked feet,  imperiling her own life and engendering Camus’s chagrin when she describes the episode to him. And above all the penultimate image of Casarès,  liberated by a relationship whose restrictions might have fettered anybody else, terminating her contract with the TNP and setting off to see the world in a roulotte, after Camus’s parting advice to be careful.  If I wasn’t sure that the letters taught us anything new about Camus, I still wasn’t ready to close the book on Maria and Albert – to restrict their story to the French-speaking world. When it informed me that the book was still in the “reading” stage at several Anglophone publishers, with no firm commitment for a translated edition, I even asked the foreign rights department at Gallimard if it would be open to a partial, selective translation of the letters. (When this article was finished, on June 1, 2018, I had not yet heard back on that, nor on my request for photos to accompany this review. There are only two of them to illustrate the book, with none to break up the dense 1,275 pages, despite regular references to drawings and photographs the two sent each other; at one point, a footnote even advises the reader of the 32 Euro tome to go to a blog if they want to see photographs Maria refers to having sent Camus of her playing with children at one of her vacation retreats.)

But then, after dawdling over the 1,275 pages of correspondence between Maria Casarès and Albert Camus for three months, I read Gallmeister’s 2014 translation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” in three days, and was reminded of what literature is. (This despite the rudimentary translation; it reads like one.) And isn’t. Albert Camus, like Kurt Vonnegut, set a high bar for what constituted literature, working it, re-working it, and re-working it again before he felt it was ready for his public. (And even then, continued to be besieged by doubts.) These letters were not meant for that public. When Vonnegut, for “Breakfast of Champions,” decided to share his penis size, he knew he was exposing himself on the public Commons. When Camus shared his innermost thoughts, doubts, and fears with the most important person in his life, he did not.

Author’s note, June 7, 2018: Subsequent to completing the above article, I got a note from Gallimard, whose Foreign Rights chief made a point of “reminding” me that I could not publish any extracts without the prior consent of the rights-holders, Gallimard for Casarès and a separate agency for Camus. I responded by pointing out that her note was not a “reminder” as this was the first I’d heard of this rule, adding that in a review, it was customary to include excerpts of the work being critiqued, and that it would have been nice if the publisher had informed me of this condition before I’d devoted three months to reading the 1,275 page book. Nevertheless, I deleted brief extracts I’d previously translated and planned to include, not of the letters but of several putative, humorous letters Camus wrote on Casarès’s behalf, seeking sea-side lodging (for next to nothing). These notes demonstrated a rare humorous side to Camus that Casarès had evidently inspired. Tant pis. (So that the tenor of the opinions expressed in my review would not be affected by the note from Gallimard, except for changing “waves” into “surf” in my description of Casarès’s description of her encounter with the sea and deleting those extracts, I did not change one word of my original story, completed June 1, i.e. prior to receiving that note. I did eventually receive a photograph from Gallimard, but for editorial reasons decided not to use it.)

Special thanks to Lisette and to M., for their usual invaluable guidance — which does not mean they should be held accountable for any of the opinions expressed above.

Advertisements

A national dance theater at the Bibliothèque Nationale Française

chaillot isadora

From the exhibition Chaillot, une mémoire de la danse, running May 3 – August 26 at the Bibliothèque Nationale Française in Paris to celebrate the official consecration of the Chaillot Palace, located on the Seine facing the Eiffel tower, as France’s National Theater de la Danse: “Orphée” after Gluck’s “Orphée and Eurydice,” Danses et Choeurs d’Isadora Duncan, program from the Trocadéro Palace, Marcy 25, 27, and 29, 191 3. © BnF – Arts du spectacle.

The trial of Isadora Duncan

By André Levinson
Copyright Librairie Bloud & Gay, Paris, 1924
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Excerpted from “La Danse au Théâtre,” which assembles Levinson’s critical articles published between April 1922 and April 1923, for the most part in the Paris daily Comoedia, here from a December 11, 1922 piece entitled “The Quarrel Between the Ancients and the Moderns,” with the sub-heading “The Trial of Isadora Duncan.”)

Certainly, Isadora Duncan is guilty as charged. She was the grand switch operator who redirected dance onto a dead-end track and made it derail. Her enthusiastic brand of Hellenism à la headmistress produced unprecedented ravages. Her musical dilettantism grew into a rage of epidemic proportions. “Rise, Lazarus, and dance!” clamored the American demagogue. And a thousand young women suddenly declared themselves dancers. An army surged around Isadora, an international brigade of the barefooted. With the great stamping of her large naked feet she makes Beethoven jump, Chopin run, Gluck trot. Proclaimed the redeemer of the body, which she emancipates from all the conventional shackles, she enters in the Pantheon. Bringing with her, it’s claimed, a re-birth.

I have a dear friend in Russia, one of the country’s most subtle critics. An intelligence that I call gourmontienne* and a pure sensibility inhabiting a sickly and deformed body. Disabled, he drags himself along laboriously with the aid of a crutch and a cane. Well, this man was transported to such a degree by the Duncanian “miracle” that he declared her art to be “the means for all of us to become beautiful.”

Without doubt, the personality of the dancer herself has a lot to do with this infatuation, or rather this idolatry. Without any particular physical beauty, with her figure recalling a kindly school-marm, her torso lacking any suppleness, her feet flattened out and widened by two decades of naked stomping on the planks, Isadora nonetheless has been able to preserve a certain plastic prestige. Her gestures are sober, at times evocative. And if her musicality seems doubtful and approximate, she has the gift of fecund emotions. Her practically non-existent technique can be assimilated in 24 hours by just about any dancer. Her audacity, on the other hand, is incommensurate, genial. Her pupils and imitators are innumerable; to imitate her one has no need of audacity!

Nevertheless, Isadora might have been useful to dance: useful like a good old-fashioned fire is useful for the beautification of a neighborhood.

When Isadora appeared on the scene, dance had been languishing for 20 years. Classical dancers continued their arduous task in a complete moral isolation; artists and poets had lost interest in this grand tradition. And all that was left of the not so distant past of the incomparable kingdom of the ballerina’s court — of which Théophile Gautier, Jules Janin, Théodore de Banville, Stéphane Mallarmé, Gavarni and Lamy had been the reigning dignitaries — were the last remnants of some decrepit members. Even if the handful of simple-minded and upright true believers, gifted with good instincts, who knew how to maintain, despite and against all the others, their unshakeable conviction and keep their metier intact were admirable. Because being a ballerina, only a few years ago, was a perilous distinction.

Well, it was Isadora who brought the masses back to dance, who created a new audience for it. She knew how to promote a vast surge of opinion. One which is not going away, however much she uses her very real power to inculcate deplorable and paltry concepts, and nurtures false sensibilities among this public. Thanks to her, those who have come to clear the terrain and reconstruct will not be operating in a void. And it’s thus that the fruits of her efforts, negative as they may have been, appear considerable and propitious.

*A reference to the journalist and critic Remy de Gourmont (1858 – 1915), known for his vast erudition. In 1889, was one of the co-founders of the new Mercure de France, to which he almost exclusively devoted his literary efforts after being diagnosed with Lupus. Gourmont also worked for the French Bibliothèque Nationale.

Fernand Léger on why Liberté is not to be taken legerement

books cendrars legerAmong the work on sale in Artcurial’s Books and Manuscripts auction today in Paris is, above: Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) & Fernand Léger (1881-1955), “La Fin du monde filmée par l’Ange N.-D. Paris” (The End of the World filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame), Éditions de la Sirène, 1919. The text in the artist’s design above translates as:  “God the Heavenly Father is sitting at his American-style desk, hastily signing innumerable papers. He’s in his shirt-sleeves, his eyes covered by a green printer’s shade. He gets up, lights up a fat cigar, looks at his watch, nervously paces back and forth in his office, chewing on his cigar. He sits down again at his desk, feverishly pushes away….” Léger, who also created an accordion-book setting for Paul Eluard’s “La Liberté,” once wrote: “If your fate is to be born free and as a creator, with all that this word implies in force, comprehension, and asperity, then you will live an epic life, the most beautiful but also the most dangerous that there is.” (Cited in “Fernand Léger,” copyright 1959, Editions Gonthier-Seghers, Paris, Collection Propos et Présence.) Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial. — Paul Ben-Itzak

URGENT: Journaliste/traducteur américaine cherche logement Paris / proche banlieu mai – juin – juillet

Paul Ben-Itzak, redacteur en chef de Dance Insider & Arts Voyager et la Maison de Traduction, a besoin d’un logement Parisian (ou proche banlieu — Pantin, Lilas, Pré Saint-Gervais…) pour mai -juin – juillet pour pouvoir être sur place et recevoir des soins dentaires TRES URGENTS (mal a manger, mal tout court, abcès, denture….; il se fait que son dentiste se trouve a Paris) + pour son travail de journaliste / critique (écrits sur des spectacles, festivals, livres, et expos) et de traduction (rencontres avec auteurs, collaborateurs, et editeurs françaises). Echange des bons procèdes logement- travail (services de rédaction, traduction, gérance des sites web, Comm., DJ, Cuisine, garde des chats…. Bannières pub sur Dance Insider/Arts Voyager aussi dispo), location, co-location, ou sous-location. Contacter: artsvoyager@gmail.com .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Lola Lafon, ibid

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

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

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

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

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

lafon small

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

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

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

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

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

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

44.36.1-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

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

“Too mature for her age.”

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

“Secretive.”

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

“A symbolic example.”

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

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

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

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

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

Day 14

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

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

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

From pages 108-112:

Day 15

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

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

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

 

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

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Degas meets Valéry at the Orsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chantal portrait small                                           Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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

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

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

First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a bit later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She put up a fight.

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

He pointed down the street with a vague air.

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

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

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

“Eleven.”

“You sure are tiny.”

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

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

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

“Fred.”

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

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

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

“But I never kidnapped you!”

“You sniffed my legs.”

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

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

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

“What’s the sea like?” asked Fred.

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

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

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

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

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

Flora shrugged her slight shoulders and bit her nails.

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

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

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

“What did she give you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” answered Flora.

“In that case, come along.”

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

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

“I’m Fred, and this is Flora.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

** Lit.: “Fishmonger.”

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

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

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

Version originale:

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

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck.”

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

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

— Bas les pattes ! A-t-on idée !

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

Elle se débattit.

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

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

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

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

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

— Onze.

— Tu es bien petite.

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

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

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

— Fred.

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

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

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

— Mais je ne t’ai pas enlevée !

— Si, tu m’as reniflé les jambes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Dehors, guenilleux, vermine !

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

— Qu’est-ce qu’elle t’a refilé ?

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

— Chouette, on va se payer des petits pains.

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

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

— Alors, les amoureux, on musarde ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Oui, dit Flora.

— Alors, venez.

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

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

— Moi je suis Fred, elle c’est Flora.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Comment cela ?

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

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

— La prison vous a un peu fatigué.

Puis il s’enthousiasma :

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

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

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

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

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

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean, ‘speak’?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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