Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words:

“In 1829, Monsieur Victor Hugo submitted to the Comédie ‘Marion de Lorme’: he was the head of this school which, paving new roads, made the claim and manifested the hope of reviving literature. The work was read [by the committee which decides which plays to perform], received; the contract was created; but the censor blocked the performances; this intervention established force majeure [a legal term still invoked today, typically to qualify a natural castastrophe that impedes a theater or other entertainment facility from fulfilling an engagement], and the play was cancelled.

“In 1830, ‘Hernani’ was accepted and mounted with care; Mademoiselle Mars performed the leading role; everything was done to incite the curiosity of the public.

“A newspaper, giving its opinion on my pleading during the Commercial Tribune trial, said that I was not a ‘man of literature.’

“I don’t have any pretensions to this title; but permit me to recall, for its singularity, that certain spectators, on the occasion of the new piece, surpassed every known limit of admiration, and that, in their enthusiasm, they tried to impose their sentiments in a manner that was hardly literary: It needs to be recalled that there was pounding on the orchestra chairs; furthermore, this served as another incitement to public curiosity.”

[Here Delangle noted that when censorship was abolished following the 1830 revolution which toppled King Charles X and restored the Republic, Hugo opposed the return of “Marion de Lorme” to the Comédie-Française repertory for the “honorable motive” that it might be seen as casting aspersion on the dethroned king; at the time Hugo explained that he didn’t think it fair to pile on on somebody who was already down for one’s own pecuniary advantage. Adding that the author subsequently arranged for the Theater de la Porte-Saint-Martin — still standing today — to give 68 performances of the play, the Comédie’s lawyer concluded that the contract, ‘thus broken two times,’ was no longer binding. If his subsequent reference to another production, of Hugo’s “Le roi s’amuse,” seems off-topic because that drama was not one of the works concerned in the disputed contracts — Delangre seems to have evoked the earlier play in order to be able to mock Hugo’s contention that he is the victim of a ‘literary intrigue,’ noting that in the case of “Le roi s’amuse” his legal opponent was the royal censors, and he lost — it’s worth remarking because of his legitimate point that the cancellation of that production cost the actors of the Comédie Française, in effect the owners of the troupe, 20,000 francs. The rest of the attorney’s pleading essentially consisted of contesting that the Comédie’s director, Védel, should be held personably liable for the 6,000 francs in damages and interests awarded to the author by the Commercial Tribunal, as decreed by that court; contending that Hugo has always been generously remunerated by the organization; and insisting that the author’s own motives in bringing the case are not the high-minded literary and public interest ones he invoked during the first trial — of fighting the Romantic school’s exclusion from the theater and the public’s thus being deprived of this work– but financial. Insinuations that Maitre Paillard de Villeneuve, Hugo’s lawyer, would shortly devastate.

Shortly after taking the floor, Paillard de Villeneuve arrived at the essential:]

“It comes down to knowing whether the contracts that the Comédie Française requested — that it implored [Hugo to agree to] as an act of mercy — should be executed to the profit of Monsieur Victor Hugo, as they have been to the profit of the theater. This is the only relevant question of the trial.

“Before we get to this, a few words on the facts.

“In 1829, Monsieur Victor Hugo wrote ‘Marion de Lorme,’ of which the performances were halted following a censor’s veto. In transmitting this order to Monsieur Victor Hugo, Monsieur the minister of the interior sent him as compensation the duplicate of a money order which augmented to 6,000 francs the pension of 2,000 francs that he owed to the spontaneous good wishes of Louis XVIII. Monsieur Hugo refused this pension; no matter how much the minister insisted, he persisted in this refusal; and, later on, in 1832, when on the occasion of [the censorship proceedings involving] “Le roi s’amuse” he saw himself constrained to plead against the minister of the interior, he renounced of his own volition this 2,000-franc pension, which seemed to be held against him….

“It seems appropriate to recall these facts in a discussion in which we appear to be accused of putting monetary questions ahead of all others. I might also recall, in the name of an author whose plays we seek to have performed in the name of justice, that in 1830 Monsieur Hugo, after the abolition of censorship, refused to allow ‘Marion de Lorme’ to be performed, because he did not feel comfortable exploiting political passions to sell tickets for a literary work, and he had no intention of banking on a hit injurious to a fallen dynasty.”

The advocate enumerated the various contracts in question, and whose violation he linked to intrigues by the [culturati] and to a monopoly system which shut the doors of the Theatre-Français to an entire literary genre.

“They started out by framing this as a financial question,” the lawyer continued. “It’s important to respond to this. If the Comédie-Française, they claimed, retreated before the execution of contracts, it was because said execution threatened the theater with a dreadful deficit: keeping its word spelled for it inevitable ruin. Let’s examine this contention:

“There exists for the theater, in evaluating box-office receipts, a kind of thermometer which indicates the most prosperous situation. This is the box-office receipts brought in when Mademoiselle Mars is performing.

“So: During the winter of 1835, a favorable season, as we know, the average of these receipts was 2,618 francs and 95 centimes: this goes from the strongest, that for ‘The Misanthrope,’ which was 4,321 francs, to the weakest, that for “The School of Old Men,” which was only 1,230 francs (which proves, by the way, that the Comédie-Française is not always so rigorous as it claims in executing the requirement that it cancels the run of any work which doesn’t break even [by bringing at least 1,500 francs per performance, as the Comédie’s lawyer had claimed in the first trial.]).

“And yet, the average nightly box-office receipts for the 85 performances of Monsieur Victor Hugo’s work — all of which took place during the summer season — was 2,914 francs.

“Even allowing for the five performances of ‘Angelo,’ which took place with this trial already in view and in circumstances which I’ll describe a little later, the average was still 2,856 francs. And if we subtract the expenses of the theater — based on the figures the theater itself has provided us with — the resulting net profits for the theater from the performances of the two works by Monsieur Hugo, ‘Angelo’ and ‘Hernani,’ came to 125,000 francs.

“These are without doubt but miserable details, I’m well aware; but after all one must respond with precise numbers to the strange lamentations of this theater.

“We would have liked for the Comédie-Française to have allowed us, by providing its financial records, to compare what’s been called the pecuniary situation of Monsieur Hugo with that of the playwrights most favored by the theater.

“This information was refused. But I was able to procure these figures anyway: So, the average box-office receipts of one of these authors is 1,917 francs; that of the other, a tragic poet, 1,803 francs.; and yet we can easily see the singular favor enjoyed by these authors who, whereas it’s impossible for us to obtain the execution of our contracts, for their part were able to obtain, by the entirely gracious goodwill of the actors, in 1836, for example, 115 performances, compared to 54 for all the other playwrights combined; and in 1837, over a period of 10 months, 119 compared to 34 for all the others.”

[Hugo’s attorney next attacked, and nimbly exposed the feebleness of, the Comédie-Française’s various other rationales for violating the terms of the contracts it signed with Victor Hugo for the performances of “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo,” as previously detailed in our earlier translation of the first trial, notably that the successive directors who signed the contracts didn’t have the authority to do so, that Hugo failed to double-cast certain of the plays and thus violated stipulations required by the theater’s rules, and that before any reprise “Marion de Lorme” should have been treated like a new play, and as such subjected to a new reading by the theater’s acceptance committee, which never happened. Given that the Commercial Tribunal’s ruling for Hugo in that trial implicitly recognized the speciousness of these defenses, we see no reason to regurgitate here the arguments from Hugo’s lawyer during the appeal adeptly demolishing them. We pick up, then, with his allegations about the numerous subterfuges with which the Comédie-Française itself attempted to sabotage five performances of its own production of “Angelo” in order to mine the run’s success and be able to support its argument that poor box office justified its recusal from the engagement:]

“These five performances were given with the trial in mind, and the theater did everything possible to annul the receipts.

“Do we need to go through the thousand intrigues, the miserable cavils, which Monsieur Hugo had to surmount…?

“Thus, for example, a performance of ‘Angelo’ was announced; on the day in question, [the actress and cast member] Mademoiselle Volnys was suddenly indisposed; the following day she miraculously recovered, just in time to perform, with a lot of vigor and talent, in ‘Camraderie’; the following day, ‘Angelo’ was again scheduled; but, the health of these ladies apparently being such a fragile and capricious thing (laughter in the courtroom), the actress had a second sudden indisposition, which forced the performance to be rescheduled; only to see another sudden recovery the next day, just in time for the audience to applaud her in ‘Don Juan of Austria.’

“I could go on forever in recounting for you what, from the caprices of a star to the maladresses of a prompter, can transpire when it comes to impeding a playwright. There’s a word for this in the argot of the backrooms of the theater, it escapes me at the moment….

“For example, a curtain might go up at 6 p.m. in lieu of 7 p.m., so that, unless they’re fasting, the public risks arriving just in time for the denouement…; the play might be performed, as was the case with ‘Angelo,’ on a day when public celebrations call the entire population of Paris to the public squares; they choose the conditions the most unfavorable in order to be able to avail themselves of the [meager] results later on, during the trial everyone’s waiting for….”

The lawyer, whose brilliant pleading held the judges and the public constantly captivated, next endeavored to justify each of the dispositions taken in the earlier judgment, as pertaining to the damages and interests and the deadlines for performing each of Monsieur Hugo’s three plays….

“Besides the motives for this judgment, which consecrate Monsieur Victor Hugo’s private rights, there are others which formulate a general thesis concerning the rights of literary property, and recall to the Theatre-Française the mission of its institution by protesting against the scandalous monopoly which it exploits. [We ask that you] add to the one and the other of these motivations of the initial judges the authority of your own high sanction; and, in thus giving the Comédie-Française a lesson in good faith, you consecrate, to the profit of dramatic literature, a guiding principle of liberty.”

Maitre Delangre [the Comédie-Française’s attorney], in a brief response, tried to re-assert the numbers for the box-office receipts that he’d provided, prompting lively interventions from Monsieur Victor Hugo and [Comédie-Française] director Védel.

M. Victor Hugo: “I formally contest the figures presented by the lawyer; they are inexact and, as the Comédie is well aware, its director has refused to provide copies of the records.”

M. Védel: “This is true. I felt obligated to do so.”

Monsieur the Presiding Judge, severely: “Why did you refuse to produce your records? You were wrong, Monsieur.”

Monsieur Védel remained silent.

M. Victor Hugo: “I request the court’s permission to make several observations.”

Monsieur the Presiding Judge: “Speak, Monsieur Victor Hugo, speak.”

Victor Hugo: (stirring of the audience) “As I noted before the initial judges, if I take the floor in this affair, it is because of the larger issues at stake.

“This is not just about me, gentleman, but concerns all of literature. This trial will resolve a question that is vital for it.

“It is for this reason that I was forced to launch this process; it is for this reason that I must add my words, devoted to the interests of all, to the eloquent words of my lawyer.

“This obligation, I executed it on a premiere occasion before the Commercial Tribune; I’ve come to execute it a second time before this court.

“And in effect, gentlemen, the dire fact that I’m here to enunciate surges forth from the trial in its entirety. What, therefore, is this trial really about? Let’s examine it more closely.

“In this trial, I have two adversaries: the one public, the other latent, secret, hidden.

“The public adversary isn’t serious, it’s the Theatre-Français; the hidden adversary is the only real one. Who is it? You’ll know this shortly.

“As I said, my public adversary, the Theater, is not a serious adversary.

“And, in effect, what am I to the Theatre-Français? A playwright. And what playwright?

“The question, gentleman, rests entirely there. Monsieurs, for the theaters there are two kinds of playwrights: the playwrights who make them rich and the playwrights who leave them broke. For the theaters, the good plays are the plays which bring in money; the bad plays are those which don’t.

“Without doubt what we have here is a scurrilous fashion to judge literature, and posterity will rank the poets on other criteria.

“But we’re not here to deal with the question of literary value; we’re not posterity, we’re contemporaries.

“And for contemporaries, for the courts in particular, between the critics who affirm that a piece is good and the critics who affirm that a piece is bad, only one thing is certain, only one thing is proven, only one thing is irrecusable: the material fact, the figure, the receipts, the money.

“Contemporary [audiences] are often lamentable judges, this is quite possible. ‘The Misanthrope’ ruined the theater; ‘Tiradate’ made it rich. And voila! By the standards [of contemporary audiences], ‘The Misanthrope’ was wrong and ‘Tiridate’ was right.

“Posterity sometimes overturns the judgments of contemporaries; but, and I repeat this, as far as we living authors are concerned, we’re not [yet before] posterity! Accept therefore as a given, if not in the literary at least in the commercial sense, this fact that, for the theaters, there are but two types of authors: the authors who break their banks and the authors who make them rich.

“And voila! What am I to the Theatre-Français? Am I an author who breaks its bank or an author who makes it rich?

“Voila the first point to which it’s important to have the solution. This solution will then illuminate the entire cause.

“The Theatre-Français has accepted but four of my plays: ‘Marion de Lorme,’ ‘Hernani,’ ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ and ‘Angelo.’ Of these four pieces, two, ‘Marion de Lorme’ and ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ were, in different epochs, halted by the censor; only two, ‘Hernani’ and ‘Angelo,’ were able to be freely performed.

“Now, how many performances did these two pieces have? 91. What was the total box-office produced by these 91 performances?

“Here, gentleman, I have to say, during the first trial, precisely because I was indignant about the maneuvering of the Comédie-Française against the final performances of ‘Angelo,’ I believed it necessary to exempt from the total of my box-office receipts these receipts obviously artificially influenced by the theater for the need of the cause and to help its case, as my attorney excellently demonstrated, and as the Commercial Tribune judged. I believed it necessary, as I was saying, to exempt these receipts, but for what? Why does this matter?

“Is it not victorious, my cause, even in including these receipts? I therefore include them.

“And voila! Gentleman, even in including the desultory box offices for these performances, the result of the intrigues of the theater, the receipts for my 91 performances at the Comédie-Française totaled 259,963 francs and 15 centimes, for an average of 2,856 francs and 67 centimes.

“The theater’s expenses per performance come to 1,470 francs. Figure it out yourselves.

“The average receipts for Mademoiselle Mars, for both the classic and new repertoire, for Mademoiselle Mars, the celebrated actress, who has a 40,000- franc salary in recognition of the enormous revenues she generates, brought in during the most favorable conditions, whereas my plays have always been performed during the summer — the average nightly receipts for Mademoiselle Mars were 2,618 francs and 96 centimes.

“Calculate the difference. In whose favor is it? My favor.

“I can therefore proclaim — and proclaim with pride — which by the way in no manner pre-judges the literary value of my works — that I am for the Comédie-Française among the ranks of the authors who earn it money; this is the irrefutable result of the facts, of the proof, of the figures….”

M. Védel, interrupting: “I have never contested this; Monsieur Victor Hugo does not have any need to insist on this point; Monsieur Victor Hugo is above this discussion.”

M. Victor Hugo: “I believe so, monsieur, I would have well disdained it, this discussion of figures, because the public notoriety alone should suffice as evidence; but your lawyer having advanced his allegations, it was necessary for me to respond with proof.”

Here Monsieur Victor Hugo turned to the court and added:

“And gentleman, this proof might have even been more complete, but this was not just up to me.

“I had wanted, by a detailed summing up of the records of the Comédie-Française, to enable the courts to compare my box-office receipts with those of the privileged playwrights performed the most often at this theater. A vivid light would have splashed forth from this comparison.

“I asked the theater to communicate these records. The theater refused.

“Thus, in this cause, we make our figures public, the theater hides its figures.

“For our part, we place all that is relevant before you; for its part, the theater takes refuge in the obscurity of the shadows.

“We fight with our visage in plain site, the Comédie fights with a mask. Which side is being loyal to the truth?

“They cry out, they disparage, they bandy about various figures in the newspapers.

“What’s to prove that these figures are correct? The only way to verify them is through the records of the theater; the theater refuses to produce these records. It is up to you to judge between our adversaries and us, gentleman.

“To continue:

“Who, therefore, am I for the Theatre-Français? A playwright. What kind of playwright? A playwright who fills seats. Voila the facts.

“In what manner do I present myself in this cause? With plays in one hand and contracts in the other. What kind of plays are these? I’ve just explained. What kind of contracts? I’ll explain.

“Are the plays profitable for the theater? Yes, gentlemen.

“Are the contracts legitimate? Yes as well.

“And gentleman!, these contracts, my lawyer explained them to you and the theater was unable to dispute this: It’s not I who drew them up, it’s the Comédie-Française. It’s not I who requested them; it’s the Comédie-Française. It’s not I who sought out the theater; it’s the theater which sought me out.

“In the name of the theater, Monsieur Taylor came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Desmousseaux came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Jouslin de Lasalle came to find me; in the name of the theater, Monsieur Védel came to find me. Why? To offer me the very same contracts that the theater now rejects.

“And I say all this in front of Monsieur Védel, who knows all the facts and does not make any effort to deny them.

“These contracts, successive directors of the theater wrote them entirely in their own hands.

“These contracts, they demanded them of me, they solicited them, they obtained them as a favor, and before long they’ll be asking me for new work.”

M. Védel: “Certainly, and I’ve always requested it.”

M. Victor Hugo: “You hear him now.” (Murmurs in the audience.) “Apparently our contracts are quite valid, and the theater is well aware of this. My plays fill the house, and the theater knows this.

“The theater, as I said at the beginning, is not seriously my adversary. The theater has need of me; and I’m not afraid to say it, it will have need of me again. Before three months are up, you’ll see, if the box-office receipts dip, the director of the Comédie-Française will have no problem finding his way to my house. He’ll find me ready to welcome him.

“He’ll find me ready to welcome him with open arms. Why? Because in this entire affair, and I repeat it, the theater, in truth, is not my real adversary.

“The Comédie has invested a lot of bad faith in this fight, but it is a bad faith which was imposed upon it, I’m well aware; one day it will be embarrassed about this, and I’ve already forgiven it.

“No, it is not in the theater where my real adversaries lurk. Who are they, therefore? I’ll explain.

“Gentlemen, my adversary in this cause, it is not the government, to so claim would be to invest petty chicaneries with too much importance. It is not the ministry; it is not even a minister.

“I’m angry. I would have loved to have had an adversary of scale for this occasion; if for no other reason than my own dignity and ego, I prefer big enemies to petit enemies; but, it must be admitted, my enemies are not big.” (Sensation in the courtroom.)

“My adversary, in this cause, is a petite coterie of slackers in the offices of the interior ministry who, because the funding must pass by the ministry before it gets to the Theatre-Français, has the pretension to rule and govern on its own authority this unhappy theater.

“I proclaim this loudly, gentleman, in order that my words might mount all the way to the minister.

“If this trial is taking place today, it is because this coterie wanted it to; if the Theatre-Français has not lived up to its engagements, it is because this all-powerful coterie desired it so; if, at this juncture, but three our four playwrights are constantly performed at the Theatre-Français to the exclusion of all the others, it is because this coterie wanted it this way. We are talking about a group of influences united, compact, impenetrable, a *comradery*, — I did not invent this word (laughter), but because it’s been invented, I’ll employ it! — a comradery, as I was saying, which blocks and obstructs the future of the theater.

“An entire branch of theater is sidelined by it. It is to just about all of literature that this coterie has attempted to close the doors of the theater. These doors, gentleman, your decision will re-open them.

“I say this because it is a fact, but it is a mighty abnormal fact, that this coterie already has the right to political censorship, it also wants that of literary censorship.

“What do you think of this pretension, gentlemen?”

“It is thus a duty that I execute now. In 1832, I condemned political censorship; in 1837, I unmask literary censorship. Literary censorship! Do you understand, gentleman, all that is odious and ridiculous in this term?

“The fantasy of a bureaucrat, the good taste of a bureaucrat, the poetics of a bureaucrat, the good or bad digestion of a bureaucrat, voila the supreme law which is to rule the theater from now on!”

“The uncontrolled and unappealable opinion of a censor whose command of the French language is not even a given, voila the sovereign rule which will open up and will close from now on to the poets the theater of Corneille and Moliere! The literary censor! On top of the political censor!

“Two censors, good God! Isn’t there already one too many?” (Lively reaction.)

“And in conclusion, gentlemen, allow me an observation. When it comes to attacking all manner of censorship, my position is simple and clear. At a time when unbridled license has invaded the theater, I, partisan of the liberty of theaters, am not reticent to censor myself.

“My lawyer and the lawyer for the Comédie-Française have recounted for you, in concert, and I would simply like to recall here a fact known to all.

“In August 1830, I refused to authorize the Theatre-Français to perform ‘Marion de Lorme’; I did so because I did not want the fourth act of ‘Marion de Lorme’ to become an occasion to insult and outrage the fallen king.

“As the theater’s lawyer himself told you, I had the opportunity to score an immense success from the political scandal, but I didn’t want it. I declared that it was beneath my dignity to make money — as they say at the Comédie — off the misfortunes of the royal family, and to hawk, right there in the theater in the midst of the hateful passions of a revolution, the flowered coat of the fallen king. I declared, in my own terms, as regarded my own play, that I much preferred its literary failure to its political success; and, a year later, in recounting these facts for the preface to ‘Marion de Lorme,’ I reproduced these words, which will always be, in similar circumstances, my rule in life: ‘It is when there is no more censorship that writers must censor themselves, honestly, conscientiously, severely. When one has complete liberty, it is essential to preserve all measure.'” (Movement of approbation.)

“The Commercial Tribune appreciated these facts, gentlemen. It listened to the public debate of the pleadings, it examined the most minute details during its deliberations. It was able to see that at the heart of the resistance of the Theatre-Français in this business lurked an intrigue fatal for literature. It sensed that it was unjust that this theater, the sole national theater, the sole State-funded theater, the sole literary theater was open for a few writers and closed to all the rest.

“The consular court, in its loyal equity, came to the rescue of the world of letters. It rendered a memorable decision that you will consecrate, I have no doubt, with a memorable confirmation. It threw open to everyone the doors of the Theatre-Français: it is not you, gentleman, who will close them again.

“You also, gentlemen, you are the living conscience of the nation. You also will come to the rescue of a dramatic literature persecuted in so many shameless ways, you will make everyone see — us and our adversaries, the literature whose liberties and interests I defend here, this crowd that is listening to us and that surrounds my cause with such a profound adherence, you will make them see, I say, that above the petit caverns of the police there are the courts, that above political intrigues there is justice, that above the bureaucrats there is the law.” (Profound and prolonged applause.)

Presiding judge: “The court is adjourned for eight days, at which time it will hear the pleading of the attorney general.”

Except for recommending that the damages and interests awarded to Victor Hugo for the Comédie-Française’s failure to perform “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” as agreed to in the contracts it signed be halved from 6,000 to 3,000 francs, arguing before the Royal Court on December 12, 1837, the attorney general sided with Victor Hugo and the first court’s ruling ordering the Comédie-Française’s director to have the three plays performed by specified deadlines or face a 150 franc per day fines. In the same session and after deliberating for 20 minutes, the appeals court upheld the Commercial Tribune’s ruling in full.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française: When the greatest writer of the 19th-century had to take the renowned theater to court to get it to honor its contract to perform his plays

hugo hernani artcurial

Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Manuscript of “Hernani” delivered to the censors, 1829. 115 pages in one volume in-folio (35.3 x 22.8 cm). Includes seven requests for correction of the censor. Pre-sale estimate: 2,000 – 3,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Introduction by Victor Hugo
Translation and preface by Paul Ben-Itzak

If you think all you can glean from a sale of musty old books and manuscripts is a whooping cough, think again. What arises most remarkably from today’s sale of 19th and 20th-century literature belonging to the Collections Aristophil organized by Artcurial, Aguttes, Drouot Estimations and Ader-Nordmann in the Drouot-Richelieu auction facilities in Paris is not dust but history, and not just literary histories but histories of humanity. Among the more than 100 lots comprised of manuscripts, original editions, photographs, and art by or associated with Victor Hugo which constitute the heart of the auction is a 115-page manuscript for “Hernani,” considered by many to be the first salvo launched by the Romantics of whom Hugo was the general on the citadel of the Classicists. If this manuscript — estimated pre-sale by the auctioneers at 2,000 – 3,000 Euros — is the example the author submitted to the censors in 1829, contrary to what one might assume, the impediments to getting Hugo’s plays produced didn’t fall with censorship in the Revolution that followed the next year. They only increased. Herewith our translation of the proceedings of the legal process the author was forced to launch against the august Comédie-Français in 1837 after seven years of trying in vain to get the theater created by Moliere to honor its contracts to perform “Hernani,” “Marian de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” as reported by French legal journals and as included and introduced by Hugo himself in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872 . (A copy of which we picked up not an auction but a ‘vide-grenier’ — like a neighborhood-wide garage sale, meaning literally ’empty the attic’ — above the park Monceau earlier this year … for one Euro.) As you’ll discover, because the plaintiff was Victor Hugo and because the defendant was the Comédie-Française, in other words the guardian of the temple, far from representing just one author’s efforts to get his client to honor its contracts, the affair was a sort of outing of the literary battle of two schools, of the past and the future, previously largely hidden or confined to the corridors of power and the backrooms of the theater. With his later lambasting — in the appeal process — of the ‘coteries’ which controlled what the public gets to see, the proceedings also can’t help but resonate with anyone who observes the programming at the establishment theaters of today, whether in Paris or New York. (In this observer’s view.)

Because Eugene Delacroix was to art what Hugo was to theater — ushering in the  Romantic movement in that world, and even designing costumes for Hugo’s first play — we’ve included below a drawing by the former also on sale in today’s auction. There’s also one from Hugo himself.

Our translation is dedicated to Lewis Campbell, for introducing us and so many others to the humanistic power and historical resonance of the theater. To read our translation of George Sand reviewing Victor Hugo for Victor Hugo, click here. And of Hugo appealing for clemency for John Brown, click hereTo support our work via PayPal, just designate your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com  , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check, or to hire Paul for your translation needs.

Introduction by Victor Hugo

As with “Le roi s’amuse,” “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo” had their trials. At heart, it always comes down to the same thing: Against “Le roi s’amuse,” it was a matter of a literary persecution hidden under a political fracas; against “Hernani,” “Marion de Lorme,” and “Angelo,” of a literary persecution hidden behind the chicaneries of the corridors of power. We’re forced to admit: We’re somewhat hesitant and not a little embarrassed to pronounce this ridiculous term: “literary persecution,” because it’s strange that in the moment in which we’re living, literary prejudgments, literary animosities, and literary intrigues are consistent and solid enough that one can, in piling them up, erect a barricade in front of the door of a theater.

The author was forced to crash through this barricade. Literary censorship, political interdiction, preventions devised in the backrooms of power, he had to solemnly seek justice against secret motives as well as public pretexts. He had to bring to light both petty cabals and ardent enmities. The triple wall of coteries, built up for so long in the shadows, he had to open in this wall a breach wide enough for everybody to pass through it.

As little a thing as it was, this mission was bestowed upon him by the circumstances; he accepted it. He is but — and he is aware of this — a simple and obscure soldier of thought; but the soldier like the captain has his function. The soldier fights, the captain triumphs.

For the 15 years that he’s been at the heart of the imbroglio, in this great battle that the ideas which characterize the century wage so proudly against the ideas of other times, the author has no other pretension than that of having fought the good fight.

When the vanqueurs are tallied, he might be numbered among the dead. No matter! One can die and still be the vanqueur.

One should not therefore be surprised if, in the middle of the trial, he suddenly stood up and spoke. If he did so it was because he sadly sensed the need to do so; because he’d suddenly perceived, at a turning point in his adversaries’ pleading, the larger interests at stake for public morals and literary liberty which solicited him to raise his voice. Because he’d come to see the global question erupt in the middle of the private question. And in such circumstances he has no choice but to act thusly.

In whatever situation in life in which obligation unexpectedly seizes him, he adheres to this obligation.

This trial will one day be part of literary history; not, certainly, because of the three nondiscriminate plays which occasioned it, but because of the trial itself, because of the strange revelations which sprung from it, because of the light it cast in certain caverns, because of the theaters in which it disclosed the wounds, because of the literature to which it consecrated the rights, because of the public in which it so profoundly awoke the attention and stirred up sympathy…. [Whence the reason, Hugo goes on to explain, for the trial record’s inclusion in this compilation of his theatrical oeuvres.]

We reproduce here the four sessions in the two trials [as covered by] the Gazette des Tribunaux, which accurately reported them…. This record will always furnish, we believe, more than one type of instruction and respond to more than one type of interest. It is fitting that the public which comes after us can one day know, if by accident the pages that we inscribe survive until then, to what adventures tragedies were exposed in the 19th century.

And now that the author has explained the full extent of his thinking, permit him to thank here, not in his name but in the name of the literary world, the judges in whom the admirable good sense understood so well that in a minor question lurked a larger question, and that the interests of the poet contained the interests of all.

Permit him also to thank the sovereign court, whose austere equity so completely confirmed the intelligent probity of the initial judges.

Permit him also to thank, finally, the young and admirable lawyer for whom this cause was a continual triumph, M. Paillard de Villeneuve, an incisive mind and noble heart, a precious talent in which all the ingenious and fine qualities are allayed with and completed by all the refined and generous qualities.

Victor Hugo
December 20, 1837

HUGO artcurial houseFrom today’s Paris sale of 19th and 20th century French literature from the Aristophil Collection, co-organized by Artcurial: Victor Hugo (1802-1885), original drawing, signed, with the legend “Maisons a mi-cote.” Pen and brown ink, brown lavis, 23 x 25.5 cm. From the ancient collection of Paul Meurice, to whom Hugo turned over his newspaper “L’evenement” when he took exile in the British iles. Pre-sale estimate: 15,000 – 20,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Tribunal de Commerce de la Seine
(Presidence de Monsieur Pierrugues)

Monsieur Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française

[Contemporary summations by the translator of certain sections will be separated into brackets like these.]

Session of November 6

A large audience, composed for the most part of men of letters and actors, assembled in the chamber of the Tribunal of Commerce. Monsieur Victor Hugo was seated at the Bar.

Maitre Paillard de Villeneuve, Monsieur Victor Hugo’s lawyer, explained as follows the claimant’s case:

“Monsieur Victor Hugo requests that the Comédie-Française be condemned vis-a-vis him to pay damages and interests for having not presented the plays of which he is the author; he demands, in addition, that going forward you order the theater, under threat of penal sanction, to present these works.

“For its part, the Comédie-Française appears to oppose the execution of obligations to which on three different occasions it consented, and which for five years it has persisted in refusing to recognize. Is this stance to be interpreted as signifying that Monsieur Victor Hugo is one of these men who, to impose himself on the [will] of a theater, needs to place himself under the protection of a legal mandate? Does this signify that the Comédie-Française, in this fight that it is waging against its own engagements, can excuse itself by the sacrifices that these engagements impose on it and hand off in a certain manner to the public itself the solidarity of a resistance and of an abandonment in which it is complicit? No, such is not, for the one or the other question, the position of the two sides….

“Monsieur Victor Hugo is among those to whom the Comédie-Française owes its most brilliant and most profitable successes, one of those to whom, in its moments of distress, it turns to pray to think of it, and around whom the crowd still presses with an avid enthusiasm.

“These engagements, against which the theater will plead today, it is the theater itself which solicited them. It knows, it still knows, that for it there’s no peril if it submits; and that this is not one of the least oddities of this cause, that shoulder to shoulder with the private interests of Monsieur Hugo one finds also the interests of the Comédie-Française.

“What is therefore the key to this trial? What circumstances have put both of us in this unusual position?

“It is here, gentlemen, that the cause takes on a character of general interest which raises it above the interests of a private squabble and powerfully recommends it to your meditation.

“At the heart of all this lies, in effect, a question of literary liberty, a question of theatrical monopoly. It has to do with knowing if a theater funded by the State, which operates on the expenses of a budget, must be open to everyone, or if it is no more than the exclusive monopoly of a chosen few; if it is awarded to one dramatic system more than another, and if engagements cease being sacred because they might offend what is sometimes referred to as literary scruples. Bizarre position, that, which seems to send us back to the times when legal decrees leant their strong arms to the lessons of Aristotle: but this position, it is not we who came up with it, and you will see it developed with each of the facts of this trial.

“In the epoch in which Monsieur Victor Hugo wrote ‘Marion de Lorme’ and ‘Hernani,’ two literary systems were in place:

“The ones, admiring only the past, did not imagine that the human spirit could go beyond or follow another road; in their powerlessness to produce new matter, they devoted themselves to being no more than inept imitators, and were condemned to perpetually idle in the presence of a great century of which they’d made themselves the pale satellites.

“The others, young, ardent, conscientious, with at their head Monsieur Victor Hugo, believed, au contraire, that, while continuing to admire the chefs-d’oeuvre of the past, there might be a new quarry to forge; they told themselves that, in the arts as in politics, in morals as in sciences, each epoch must have a mission of its own; that for new mores, for new needs, there must be new forms, new nourishment; lastly, they believed that our century is not so bereft that it must be condemned to be but an echo of the past and that it cannot have, it also, its own original cachet, its own horizons of glory and immortality.

“Who was right and who was wrong? This is not important.

“For all the quarry was opened up; public opinion was there to see and judge on its own.

“You must recall these struggles so animated, so furious, which exploded at the time. One awaited with impatience for the French stage to finally be opened up to what was called the new school.

“But this test must have, or so at least it appears, frightened those who up until then had been the exclusive proprietors of this stage, which they regarded as their own feudal kingdom, and which must be closed at all costs to these hardy innovators, the only theater in which they could encounter their adversaries.

“Thus it was that began to manifest themselves against Monsieur Victor Hugo, and against what was called his school, this series of intrigues which have since never ceased to envelope him, which for seven long years have pursued and harassed him, and which finally, his patience extenuated, prompts him to today demand from you reparation.

artcurial delacroix 236From today’s Paris sale of 19th and 20th century French literature from the Aristophil Collection, co-organized by Artcurial: Eugene Delacroix, “Study for Moulay Abd-er-Rahman, Sultan of Morocco,” probably 1832. Much as Delacroix sometimes unfairly gets the rap for ushering in the dubious artistic movement of Orientalism, this drawing is no imagined fancy. The artist met the sultan in 1832, when he accompanied French ambassador Charles de Mornay, charged by the government of Louis-Philippe with opening up relations with Morocco, on his North African voyage. If the painting for which the drawing is a study was made in 1845 for that year’s Salon, the study likely dates from this trip. On the 10-day odyssey which took the party to their meeting with the Sultan, passing besides overflowing rivers and over rough terrain, the painter could often be seen pausing on his saddle, in the shadow of a fig tree, or while walking  hastily scribbling an artistic record of the marvels passing before his eyes. (Source: “Delacroix,” Hachette, 1963.) Black crayon, 17 x 22.7 cm. Lot also includes Jules Labbite’s 1845 edition of “Le Salon de 1845” by Charles Baudelaire and an autographed letter from Baudelaire to Champfleury, an early literary champion of the Realist painter Gustave Courbet. Pre-sale estimate: 12,000 – 15,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

“It was in the month of March 1829: A petition was addressed to the King, it was signed by seven members of the Academie Française, habitual furnishers of material to the Theatre-Français, ancient debris of this imperial literature which vaunts itself as having been the parterre of kings, and which, in its proud naiveté, figures that its genius alone accounts for the ephemeral spotlight that its coronated public had cast upon it.

“This petition requested that the Theatre-Français be closed to productions of the new school; and that, notably, the performances of ‘Hernani’ be banned. You know, gentlemen, how King Charles X responded to these singular petitioners.

“‘As far as literature goes,’ he told them, ‘I have but, like each of you, gentleman, my place in the orchestra pit.’

“And ‘Hernani’ obtained 50 consecutive performances.

“For the theater, this meant the most brilliant box office receipts.

“When the Revolution of July [1830] followed, and with it the abolition of censorship, the Theatre-Français wanted to reprise ‘Marion de Lorme.’ Monsieur Victor Hugo opposed this.

“He who will shortly be portrayed before you as an insatiable author did not want to consent to the performances that were being solicited from him. ‘Marion de Lorme’ had been banned by the censor as being potentially prejudicial by allusion to his royal majesty; there was, yet, at the time [that followed the abolition of censorship] a reaction favorable to success, to enthusiasm….

“But Monsieur Victor Hugo is not one of those who thinks that scandal is a good thing when it can result in applause and in [increased revenue for authors]. He reminded himself that a fallen dynasty had the right to this respectful compassion that every man of heart owed to the banished, and that it didn’t seem right to him to bank a success on the effervescence of those then piling up on Charles X, and on allusions which he’d never contemplated. He thus limited himself to requesting from the Comédie-Française the reprise of ‘Hernani.’ [It’s worth noting here that Hugo had been raised as a Royalist.]

“But the intrigues of which you’d seen the germination in the petition of 1829 were resurrected, and it was impossible to obtain this reprise.”

Here the lawyer reviewed for the tribunal the various contracts that had been signed by Victor Hugo and the Comédie-Française.

The first, that of August 12, 1932, relative to the celebrated drama titled “Le roi s’amuse,” stipulated that “Hernani” would be reprised in January 1833. This first contract was violated.

A second intervened April 10, 1835, on the occasion of “Angelo,” and stipulated that “Hernani” and “Marion de Lorme” would be reprised over the course of the year. This double clause was also violated, [Hugo’s attorney contended], despite two ardent reclamations from Monsieur Hugo.

Lastly, a third engagement from Monsieur Védel [director of the Comédie Française], remained unexecuted. The lawyer, recalling the various censorship decrees implemented against “Le roi s’amuse” and “Antony,” linked the motives of these decrees to the petition of 1829 and the literary discussions which arose each year in the legislative chambers when it came to the budget of the Theatre-Français and the threat issued, on many occasions, to cancel the funding of a Theatre-Français sullied by its contact with the literary innovators, and attempted to demonstrate that all these acts were linked to a general system of monopoly and of exclusion of a literary doctrine which offended certain repugnancies and bore umbrage to certain celebrities.

“What would be, in effect,” continued the lawyer, “the motive of this perpetual violation of contracts? A pecuniary interest, a question of box office receipts. To this we respond, figures in hand, that Monsieur Hugo’s box office receipts are equal, superior to those that the theater considers as its most fructeuse, those [brought in by performances] of [Comédie Française star] Mademoiselle Mars. Thus the average intake over 85 performances of Monsieur Hugo was 2,914 francs and 25 centimes. Mademoiselle Mars’s average in the winter of 1835 was 2,618 francs. [Anne-Boutet Mars, 1779 – 1847, created the lead role of Dona Sol in “Hernani,” considered by many to be the play that set off the war between the Classicists and the Romantics, in 1830, when she was 51 years old. In his own notes on the initial performances of “Hernani” and “Angelo,” Hugo is effusive in his eloges to Mademoiselle Mars.]

“Do we need more proof of the system to which I’m referring? Why not give you more?: Because here, Monsieur Hugo is not speaking only in the name of his private interests, he’s speaking in the name of all those who toil with him in the same quarry, in the name of a question of art and of theatrical liberty; and you need to know to just what lengths the abuse against which we’re here to protest today can go.

“Among the men whom public favor accompanies with its esteem and its applause, but who don’t tread the same literary road as Monsieur Victor Hugo, and who unlike him are not under the censorial embargo, there are above all two individuals, to whose talent and competence we more than anyone rend homage, and whose success has been and still is great. Certainly, it is not they who have put us in this position.

“The exclusion which weighs on certain authors, which pushes them away despite sacred engagements, is the farthest thing from their thoughts; and if a monopoly results from this, they undergo it more than fabricate it.

“I’m even convinced that the two people of whom I’m speaking are not even vaguely aware of all this. I would simply like to demonstrate that the Comédie-Française is intent on nothing less than disinheriting from its advertising all those whose doctrines aren’t in line with the officially sanctioned literature imposed upon it.”

The lawyer then placed before the tribunal a sheet with a statistical breakdown of the diverse performances of the Theatre-Française, examining the relative positions of the 40 to 50 authors whose works belong to the repertoire.

What follows is an excerpt from this curious document as presented by the attorney, which provoked several manifestations of surprise in the audience.

“In 1834, out of 362 performances, and after subtracting the performances of the old standards [i.e. by dead authors], the two authors in question accounted for 180; for all the other authors combined there remained but 45 days.

“In 1835 and 1836, these two authors had 113 and 115 days, all the others [combined] but 50 and 54 days.

“Finally, from the first of January, 1837, up until this moment, these two authors have obtained 112 representations; only 54 have been accorded to the others.”

After signaling all that is alarming in such an abuse, on the part of a theater whose very institution must be open to all work, to all successes, and after allowing that nothing is more legitimate than frequently paying authors who regularly succeed, on the sole condition of not excluding other authors who succeed no less, Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve moved on to the examination of the contracts [between Monsieur Hugo and the Comédie-Française] themselves, and attempted to justify, in a luminous discussion, the conclusions reached in the name of Monsieur Victor Hugo.

“This cause,” he pronounced in terminating, “does it not offer you a strange spectacle? For eight years, despite numerous and explosive successes, despite the good faith owed to sacred engagements, Monsieur Hugo has not been able to open the doors of this theater, on which nevertheless he has cast more than a little glory; and, while the Comédie-Française thus fights to condemn him to silence and oblivion, Monsieur Victor Hugo is able to see his works translated in every language; and to learn that on diverse stages in Europe, in London, in Vienna, in Madrid, in Moscow, his works have been gloriously performed and coronated with applause…. It is only in France, in his own country, that he has been unable to hear this echo.”

Mr. Delangle, lawyer for the Comédie-Française, takes the stage.

“Gentleman,” he begins, “I did not expect to see the question placed on the terrain that my adversary has chosen. I see in this affair nothing but a simple question of private interests, nothing but an appreciation of acts, and not a question of art, of literary monopoly.”

“Don’t expect therefore of me that I follow Monsieur Hugo’s lawyer in the discussion that he’s come to breach. It’s sufficient for me to tell you that our adversary is significantly unfounded in his complaints and recriminations; because, of five plays of which the illustrated poet is the author, four have been received by the administration of the rue Richelieu [where the Comédie-Française was and still is based]; three, ‘Hernani,’ ‘Le roi s’amuse,’ and ‘Angelo,’ have been performed by the [actors of the] Comédie-Française.

“If ‘Marion de Lorme’ is not among them,’ the fault can only be attributed to the censor’s [initial] veto.

[Here the Comédie-Française’s attorney launches into a lengthy discourse in which he argues that as the theater is in his view still governed by an imperial decree from Moscow as well as a royal decree from 1816, the two Comédie-Française directors who signed the contracts with Hugo did not have the authority to do so without these bodies’ approvals, and that Hugo did not perform due diligence in inquiring as to whether these parties agreed with the contracts, going on to
say this is like signing a contract with a minor without the permission of his parents. To this he adds the rather specious argument that because Hugo himself did not assure that the roles in ‘Hernani’ were double-cast, as, he claims, the decrees governing the organization dictate, the contract promising future performances of that piece is null and void.]

“An initial casting was done in 1829; but Michelot, who played the role of Charles V, pulled out; Mademoiselle Mars renounced the role of Dona Sol. Since then, Monsieur Hugo has done no new casting.”

[At this point Victor Hugo himself rises.]

“You are mistaken. The casting was done in 1834. It’s all written down in the records of the theater, in the very hand of [director] Monsieur Jouslin de Lassalle. The role of Charles V was given to Monsieur Ligier, who’d actively campaigned for it with me.”

[After stating that he was not aware of this, Delangle goes on to insist that even if it’s true, this in itself does not meet what he claims is the requirement that the author is responsible for double-casting all roles. Next he contends that as pertains to “Angelo,” the company fulfilled its contract obligations with ten performances and only interrupted the run when audiences diminished to the point where it was making less than the 1,500 francs per performance necessary to break even. As concerns “Marion de Lorme,” he cites Hugo’s own decision to withdraw the drama from the repertory following the 1830 revolution for the reasons described above by the author, and his subsequently giving it to the Theatre Porte Saint-Martin, and then goes on to claim that the play had mitigated success anyway, at which point Hugo again interrupts:]

“It had 68 performances,” causing stirring amongst the audience.

[The Comédie’s lawyer then argues that a reprise would have been conditioned on a re-reading by the organization’s reading committee, as is required for all new plays because “it was in a certain manner a new piece,” and which reading never happened, thus excusing the organization from its obligations to reprise the play, concluding:]

“Thus, I have demonstrated that as regards ‘Marion de Lorme,’ the Comédie-Française was under no obligation to fulfill [the contract] as long as Monsieur Hugo had not held up his end.

“For ‘Angelo,’ we are in the terms of equity before the law, which cannot force us to fulfill a [financially] prejudicial engagement.”

“Finally, as for ‘Hernani,’ if the tribunal believes that the contract is valid and that it’s appropriate to order [a reprise of] its performance[s], we request a delay sufficient for effectuating the reprise.

“In any case, no damages or interests should be accorded,” because “on the one part,” [there has been no failure by the Comédie to live up to its agreements, and on the other] “Monsieur Hugo has fulfilled none of the obligations that for his part he should have executed.”

[Rising to respond to the Comédie’s various grounds for dismissing Hugo’s claims, Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve points out the theater’s apparent double-standard thus revealed:]

“Three contracts were signed by diverse directors: when it comes to Mr. Hugo’s obligations, these directors are quite capable of acting; their supposed incapacity is only invoked when it comes to meeting their own obligations…”

[Monsieur Paillard de Villeneuve goes on to argue that the supposed regulations imposed by the other institutions mandated to control the Comédie — the Moscow and Royal decrees adduced by his adversary — whether those affecting the directors’ power to enter into contracts without their assent or the obligation of its authors to double-cast, have never been executed in any other cases. That as regards “Hernani” the author did everything in his power to execute the contract in good faith; and that as pertains to “Marion de Lorme” the 1835 contract contained no obligation for a second reading of plays which had already been performed at the Comédie. Turning to “Angelo,” he contests the organization’s method for calculating box office receipts and produces an alternative document in which they’re larger than his adversary has implied, averaging 2,300 francs per performance or 800 more than the required break-even level cited by the Comédie’s lawyer. Here we pick up the newspaper’s contemporary account:]

The lawyer terminates in requesting a judgment which will at the same time serve as a reparation for Monsieur Hugo and a punishment for Comédie Française for its bad-faith efforts to honor the contracts for the three plays.

Monsieur Hugo rises. (Excited movement of curiosity amongst the audience.)

“Gentlemen, I did not expect to speak during this affair. My lawyer has completely dynamited, in his argumentation, at once eloquent and precise, the strange system adopted by the lawyer for the Theatre-Française, and if it were just a matter of me in this trial, I would not take the floor; but it’s not just a matter of me: It’s literature itself whose cause in this moment is interchangeable with my own. I must therefore speak up. To speak up for one’s private interests is a right; I would have easily renounced a right. To speak up for the interests of all is an obligation, and I never retreat before an obligation.

“And, in effect, gentlemen, the attitude that the Theatre-Francaise has taken in this affair is a grave warning for dramatic literature in its entirety. There is a system here which needs to be called out, a lesson in which all authors must claim their part. The loyalty of the Comédie-Française deserves to be called out. Let’s bring it to the grand light of day.

“From the singular defense to which the Theatre-Française has had recourse, there result two things:

‘The first is this: The director of the Theatre-Française is a double-man.

“The director of the Theatre-Français has two visages, one for us, authors, and the other for you, the tribunal.

“The director of the Theatre-Français (Here Monsieur Hugo turns towards the bar and states: “And I regret to not find him here before me at the bar to confirm my words.” Then he continues:) “The director of the Theatre-Français has need of me; he comes to find me. His box-office receipts are falling, he tells me; he counts on me to rescue his theater; he asks me for a play. He offers me all the conditions I might desire; he proposes a contract; he has the full power to do so; he’s the director of the Theatre-Français. I consent. I consent to give him the play that he’s requested.

“The director writes out the entire contract in his own hand; I sign it, then he signs it also. Voila an engagement that is formal, complete, sacred you say. No, gentleman, it’s a fraud.

“You heard it yourself, I’m not making anything up, it’s the lawyer of the theater who told you so himself, the director, whether his name is Védel or Jouslin de Lasalle, it’s not important, the director is not qualified to enter into contracts; the director has come to my house knowing this; and why has he come to my house? To make a contract with me.

“I acted in good faith, me, the author; the director lied and fooled me. Behind him was a decree from Moscow, a regulation of consuls, an ordinance from 1816 — what do I know! I ignore completely this decree, this regulation, this ordinance.

“The director was fully aware that I ignore it, he took advantage of my ignorance.

“Grace of my ignorance, he obtains from me plays for which other theaters make sincere offers to me. Although having no power to make a contract, he makes a contract with me, he fools me, I say, and, you’ve just heard it, it’s this act that the Comédie-Française is now vaunting.

“What happened? Me, the author, I religiously executed the terms of the agreement: I turned in at the deadlines agreed the promised plays. The theater, for its part, was only loyal to violating its engagements; it violated them three times consecutively.

“For all my claims — I don’t know if this is what they mean by mettre à demeurer — for all my claims, the theater gave only evasive responses, the theater eluded, the theater promised, the theater fooled me and put me off from year to year by commencements of execution. To sum it up, the theater did not execute.

“And yet, I must declare, no director has never dared let me catch even the shadow of a glimpse of this system that the theater’s advocate has just exposed — and ‘exposed’ is the operative word, gentlemen — to the face of justice.

“After seven years of waiting, of good faith procedures, of patience, of silence, of serious damage to my work and to my interests, I decided to appeal to the tribunals; I had recourse to the protection of the law, which should not cover literary property any less than other property. I call to your bar who? The director of the Theatre-Français. And the director of the Theatre-Français evaporates.

“The man who I saw, the man who wrote to me, the man who spoke to me, the man who came to my house, the man who had all the power, the man who made the contract with me and who signed it, this very man is no more than a shadow. He’s an invalid being; he’s an individual without any qualifications; he’s a minor.

“He did draw up a contract, this is true, but he didn’t have the right to draw up a contract; there’s that decree of Moscow. He signed it, this is true; but he shouldn’t have signed it: there’s that regulation of consuls. He gave his word, this is true. But how could I possibly have believed his word? It’s his own lawyer who says this. Voila the defense of the Theatre-Français.

“Was I not right to tell you in beginning, gentlemen, that the director of the Theatre-Français has two visages?

“These two visages are two masks: With one he fools the authors, with the others he fools justice.

“Once again, gentlemen, when I say the director of the Theatre-Français, I’m not trying to designate any one person, no more Monsieur so-and-so than Monsieur tickety-tack. It’s not the man who occupied, who occupies, or who will occupy the position of director who I accuse; it’s the position itself. It’s this ambiguous and unqualifiable situation that I signal to you. Besides, as you can see yourselves, the director of the Theatre-Français is a shadow who escapes authors on one part, and justice on the other.

“What also results from the pleading of the theater is this: If you are an author, if you’ve produced at the Comédie-Francaise 85 reciepts [i.e. the box-office receipts for 85 performances]; if, including the costs to the theater, which are 1,500 francs per day, these receipts have yielded 2,914 francs, that is to say 85 times 1,414 francs in profits for the theater, this means nothing, absolutely nothing. Among your 85 reciepts there are receipts which surpass 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 francs; who cares?! if among those 85 there are one or two below 1,500 francs, voila those that the theater declares, voila those that it denounces before the court, and it heaves out on its losses great moanings! In truth, does this not provoke pity?

“I won’t say anything further about these numbers, about these chicaneries, about these miseries. I don’t follow the theater’s lawyer in the inextricable labyrinthe of subtleties in which he attempts to lock away my rights. I disdain, gentleman, all this discussion which is completely unexpected to me, I declare so, and which Monsieur Védel would be the first to disavow, I hope for him, if he were present at this trial.”

Monsieur Delangre: “I’m simply pleading as my client has instructed me.”

Monsieur Victor Hugo: “I believe it, but this surprises me, because I know the loyalty of Monsieur Védel, it’s painful for me to think that he could have possibly consented to invoking against me at this trial arguments from which he seemed so removed in our personal conversations.

“There’s another point, gentleman, I say this in passing, to which I’m surprised that the lawyer for the Comédie-Française has not himself called your attention. The average nightly receipts for “Hernani” were 3,312 francs.”

Monsieur Delangre: “I don’t have this figure.”

Monsieur Victor Hugo: “3,312, the number is exact… and 12 centimes if you want to be absolutely exact.” (Smiles among the audience.)

Monsieur Victor Hugo, continuing: “I don’t have anything to add, gentlemen; I have acted in good faith in this affair, the Comédie in bad faith. Rare thing: It’s the Comédie itself which declares this, and which makes of its bad faith its defense system. I signed contracts which I took seriously and which I executed; the successive directors of the theater signed contracts which for them were derisory and which they have violated.

“This theater has often had need of me; it came to find me: I’m citing here just the facts, facts which nobody can ignore. I rendered it services which it does not deny; it responds with deceptions that it also does not deny.

“You are fair judges; you appreciate this manner of acting and this manner of defending oneself.

“You will teach this theater that it’s immoral to make contracts and to purposely make them in an invalid fashion so that afterwards they can violate them.

“You will break the monopoly which this theater has confiscated to the detriment of all literature, for which two Theatre Françaises would hardly suffice.

“You will not recognize the system of the Comédie-Française in the name of decency to itself; you will teach it, because it has need that the justice system teach it, that the signature of its directors is a valid signature, that the word of its directors is a word that should be taken seriously.

“You will not insult these directors in siding with them and thus declaring their signature null and their word a lie.

“And me, gentlemen, I will be able to felicitate myself for having given you a new occasion to show that your judgments are the exact echo of your consciences and the echo of that of the public conscience.”

After this brilliant improvisation, which was followed by a general murmur of approbation, Monsieur le president announced that the case would be deliberated with a judgment pronounced within 15 days.

 

[15 days later, on November 20, 1837, the tribunal, siding with Hugo and declaring that the Comédie had done him wrong, condemned its director Védel to pay Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interest and gave Védel, in his capacity as director of the Comedie-Francaise; two months to reprise “Hernani”; three to reprise “Marion de Lorme”; and five to complete the 15 performances of “Angelo” or face fines of 150 francs per day for each day past that deadline. He also ordered him to pay Victor Hugo’s trial expenses.]

Next: The Appeal.

The Lutèce Diaries, 26: Dimensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I haven’t been here since 2015!”

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

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

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

“Yes, we’ll keep them au frais.”

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

“Comme toujours!” I retorted.

“Come back again, before 2021!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gen Paul Montmartre rue NorvinsGen Paul (1895-1975), “Le bureau de tabac, rue Norvins et le Sacre-Coeur,” circa 1928-29. Oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.22 inches. Signed lower right, signed again and dated on the reverse. The artist was part of the controversial writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s circle during his Montmartre years — and sometimes his target, as he had only one real leg. Estimated price for Artcurial’s March 20 Art of the 20th Century, 1900 – 1950 sale in Paris: 22,000 – 28,000 Euros.  Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why a duck shop bothers me.

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

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My dear Laivit-Canne….”

“Monsieur Laivit-Canne….”

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

“I’ve just cut off Manhès!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh!”

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

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

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

“Manhès has always struck me as a racist.”

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

“I strongly advise you, my dear Mumphy, to sell your Manhèses. Before long they won’t be worth a wooden nickel..”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version originale par et copyright Michel Ragon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Mon cher Laivit-Canne…

— Monsieur Laivit-Canne…

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

— Je viens de couper les vivres à Manhes !

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

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

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

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

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

— Oh !

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

— Manhès m’a traité de Juif honteux…

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

— Manhès m’a toujours paru raciste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’ÉCLAT DE STAËL — WHEN NICOLAS FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN

L’ÉCLAT DE STAËL — WHEN NICOLAS FLEW TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN

Stael soleil 5 small

Nicolas de Staël, “Le soleil,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

“You are the only modern painter who turns the spectator into a genius.”

— Romain Gary, letter to Nicolas de Staël, cited by Wikipedia

“Tu as élevé le sommet
Que devra franchir mon attente
Quand demain disparaîtra.”

–René Char, “A***,” from “Poéms à dire,” selected by Daniel Gélin, Éditions Seghers, Paris, 1970

Introduction by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
AVID / The Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary 
with comments by Gustave de Staël in French and in English translation by PB-I

“I’m looking for that which is essentially organic, vital, and which might furnish the equilibrium at the base of all that follows.”

— Nicolas de Staël, cited in “Paris des temps nouveaux: de l’Impressionism à nos jours,” Editions d’Art Albert Skira, Geneva, 1957

On March 16, 1955, Nicolas de Staël climbed up to the rooftop terrace of his atelier in Antibes and hurled to his death, despondent over an histoire d’amour involving Jeanne Polge, a married woman and an intimate of the author Albert Camus and the poet René Char, also a cohort to both Camus and the 41-year-old painter. It was the denouement of a frenetic two years of creation which in its culminating months saw the Russian-born painter produce as many as three pieces per day, a breakneck pace that prompted his New York gallerist Paul Rosenberg to warn him that his public was starting to worry about dilution. This manic flight towards the Sun — this frenzied éclat of color and creation — accelerated in July 1953, when Staël, seeking the same bright, blistering light of the Midi which had scalded the mind of an earlier epoch’s iconoclast, Vincent Van Gogh, installed himself in the Provençal village of Lagnes, near Avignon, before loading his family into a truck and taking them to Italy, where Sicily and Tuscany would inspire canvases even more infused with light. Returning to France, Staël bought a house in le Castelet, near the Luberon village of Ménerbes, where he remained through October 1954. It’s this fertile period — which saw the painter veer towards a more concrete abstraction, where recognizable forms inspired by the sea and nature started to re-emerge — which is celebrated in the exhibition Nicolas de Staël in Provençe, which closed Sunday at the Hotel de Camont in Aix-en-Provençe. The first monographic show entirely consecrated to this period — in which the artist, inspired by the rich Mediterranean passages and light and his nascent if ultimately impossible love for Polge, produced 254 paintings — the exhibition culls 71 paintings and 26 drawings from an international roll call of public and private collections. (Including the Hirshhorn’s “Nice,” with which Barack Obama once adorned his White House office.) To curate all this, the institution Culturespaces, which runs the museum, secured the participation of no less than Gustave de Staël, the artist’s son, and Marie du Bouchet, his grand-daughter….

Rather than cop more details from Staël’s Wikipedia page (which blessedly favors the telling and authoritative critical citation on the artist’s various creative stages over the maudlin anecdote), here we’ll simply share images of some of the work, generously provided by Culturespaces, and translate from the catalog some of Gustave de Staël’s poignant memories of le Castelet and the manner in which his father chose to inhabit the manor with his work — the most intimate connection the son would ever be able to forge with a father who killed himself when the boy was less than one year old.

I would like to offer one historical comparison. While the public marveled at the integral result – produced while working in the same Provençal terrain as Staël  here — Cezanne when he painted saw distinctly isolated spheres.  The former (I think this is what Gary meant in the observation cited above), in a sort of reverse-process of that co-invented by his master Braque, let’s us see the spheres.

Stael vauclouse sky 15Nicolas de Staël, “Ciel de Vaucluse,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 cm. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

An Inaccessible Place

by Gustave de Staël
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Scroll down for original French version.)

I was free as the air in this 16th-century building where impressions of nature alternated with painting.

Situated at the edge of the fortified village of Ménerbes, it’s bird’s-eye view reaching all the way to le Castelet opened up the whole and immense expanse of Provençe. In acquiring it, did our father want to place us ideally in face of the space and the mysterious radiance of the colors of the South, on the path of a dimension that he sought out in painting…?

Stael trees and houses 18Nicolas de Staël, “Arbres et maisons,” 1953, oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

This architecture, flanked by a tiny hamlet, presented a combination of equilibriums, of accidents, of incomplete parts. The facade had been battered by the elements for centuries. This construction standing up against the wind was the very picture of the challenge my father had taken on; and when a painter is obsessed by a vision or an idea, no wind, no cold can stop him.

stael paysage de provence 100

Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Provence,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 33 x 46 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Once I’d climbed up one of the escalating horseshoe-shaped hills —  which recalled the rhythm of the stone-grey touches of his painting — once I’d walked past the chapel in following the pebbled border, I cleared the front door to find myself at the foot of an old stone staircase. Because the steps had been smoothed out by years of excessive usage, the staircase carried me practically without effort to the high-ceilinged, light-filled rooms on the second floor, which included the studio, which I entered with an elevated attention to confront the determination, the independence, and the multitude of visions offered by the paintings.

Stael passage 10Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces. If the artist was already employing squares – such as in his 1952 painting “The Rooftops of Paris” – in Provençe he put them to wider use as the building blocks for more apparent representation.

They were arrayed in no particular order, some right on the floor, along the walls, without anything — even a frame — which might have provided some perspective on what they recounted.  Some of them (just to cite a few, colors aside), hung from the walls, such as the large landscape of Sicily with the flat Moroccan green sky which he had continued to dig at with his trowel.

Stael Sicily 9Nicolas de Staël, “Sicile,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Private collection.  © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

This painting projected me into an acceleration and more rapid rhythm of life — with this painting, another world opened up before me, entirely inhabited, differently more present, differently more real, pure and color-infused. This painting made me examine the frantic scramble of my father towards the dazzling reality of life. This painting claims raw space — clear, distinct, with the shock of a presence, with a profundity that precipitates us towards the confines of life….

Stael sea 11Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 14 x 22 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Courtesy Culturespaces.

All the small paintings posed on his studio’s chimney represent so many respirations, alive with fresh notes seized quickly on the motif, in the quickness of color and of his impressions.

Among the tones of brown, the touches of ochre, the sections of earth and some pale or lively greens, erupted sparkles of ultra-marine, of lemon yellow, of black, of nuances of rose and orange, of flashes of vermillion, emerald, and violette. These paintings bear witness to the rich and luminous moments of his daily life, revealing his attention to the world, the finesse of his powers of perception. All these small paintings have an aplomb, a thoroughly assured equilibrium. They’re precision captured, the very essence of his vast and penetrating regard.

Stael sicily 12Nicolas de Staël, “Sicile, Vue d’Agrigente,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 114 x 146 cm. MG 4063, Musée de Grenoble. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Ville de Grenoble/Musée de Grenoble – J.L. Lacroix. Courtesy Culturespaces.

All that counts is color, the good fortune of being in the presence of a clear, fresh, and sparkling vision. When you never knew your father and such a body of thick matter dazzles you with its presence, it’s as if you have a real person standing in front of you.

On the steps of the inside stairway, to cast the grandeur of this space in relief, he’d nailed an immense Oceanic carpet of checkered material with geometric motifs, as majestic as an antique tapestry….

Stael colors 14Nicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 59 x 77,7 cm. Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hövikodden, Norway. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Hövikodden, Norway. Courtesy Culturespaces.

To tame these rooms and instill in them a sense of security, as a kind of reaction to the violence of the dizzying and whipping wind liable to invade the house at any moment, he’d decided that each space would have its own distinct and powerful color….

In le Castelet as nowhere else — and despite his incessant comings and goings and the growing awareness that his passage on this earth was only temporary —  my father had taken the time necessary to beautify the place, in applying his austere aesthetic….

Stael hello world 7Nicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo:  © Comité Nicolas de Staël.

Even today, this house in Ménerbes preserves something of his spirit, its own distinct dimension — that certain something — which relentlessly places you alone in face of the space, in a singular independence vis-à-vis the world where, with time, the void that is the absence of this father is confounded with the expanse of the emptiness of the surrounding countryside, this overflowing space which inspires fear.

stael sicily passage 2Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage, Sicile,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael all alone 8Nicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Provence,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

In this landscape where the mineral perpetually dominates the vegetal, I understand today why the immense mural depicting the Luberon was one wall too many at a moment where his regard never stopped looking for an open horizon, where he agonized about his own limits — the limits of this infinity that he worked without pause to push back — before being pulled, like at every decisive moment of his existence, towards the sea and its horizon,  this eternal presence from which he’d once again drawn what he needed to be able to surpass the dimensions of the world and his own.

Tangiers, 2018

Stael Marseille 1Nicolas de Staël, “Marseille,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 80,5 x 60 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp. Paris, 2018. Photo: © Comité Nicolas de Staël.

Stael martigues 3Nicolas de Staël, “Les Martigues,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 61 x 50.5 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Applicat-Prazan, Paris. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Applicat-Prazan.

Stael Grignon 13Nicolas de Staël, “Grignan,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 14 x 22 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Nathan Fine Art Zurich. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Louis Losi.

Stael arbre 16Nicolas de Staël, “Arbre,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  22 x 33 cm.  Private collection. © Adagp, Paris. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Paysage de Sicile: Agrigente, by Nicolas de StaëlNicolas de Staël, “Paysage de Sicile,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  87.5 x 129.5 cm. Private collection, deposited at  Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.  Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael red tree 19Nicolas de Staël, “Arbre rouge,” 1953. Oil on canvas,  46 x 61 cm. Private collection.  © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo:  © Christie’s. Courtesy Culturespaces.

Stael Agrigente againNicolas de Staël, “Agrigente,” 1953-1954. Oil on canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Painted at Ménerbes. Private collection. Courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London. Photo: © Courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London.

 

Un lieu Inaccessible

par Gustave de Staël
Co-commissaire de l’exposition
Extraits du catalogue de l’exposition

J’ai été libre comme l’air dans cette bâtisse du XVIe siècle où alternaient les impressions de nature et de peinture.

Au bout du village fortifié de Ménerbes, la vue plongeante depuis le Castelet livre l’espace entier et immense de la Provence. En l’acquérant, notre père voulait-il nous placer idéalement face à l’espace et au rayonnement mystérieux des couleurs du Sud, sur le chemin d’une dimension qu’il recherchait en peinture ? (…)

Cette architecture, flanquée d’un hameau, était une combinaison d’équilibres, d’accidents et de parties inachevées. La façade avait subi les intempéries pendant des siècles. Cette construction dressée contre le vent était à l’image du défi que s’était imposé mon père ; et quand un peintre est obsédé par une vue ou par une idée, aucun vent, aucun froid ne peut l’arrêter.

Une fois gravie l’une des pentes en fer à cheval escaladées – qui rappelaient le rythme des touches grises maçonnées de sa peinture –, une fois passé devant la chapelle en suivant le parterre de galets, je franchissais la porte d’entrée pour me trouver au pied du vieil escalier en pierre. Il emmenait presque sans effort, parce que les marches en étaient excessivement usées, jusqu’aux pièces hautes et claires du premier étage, qui comprenaient l’atelier où j’entrais avec une attention soutenue pour faire face à la détermination, à l’indépendance et aux visions multiples qu’offraient ses peintures.

Elles étaient posées sans ordre, à même le sol, le long des murs, sans rien, ne serait-ce qu’un cadre, qui aurait permis d’avoir un recul sur ce qu’elles racontaient. Quelques-unes, prises au hasard, toutes couleurs dehors, étaient accrochées aux murs – comme le grand paysage de Sicile au ciel en aplat vert marocain qu’il avait continué à ouvrir à coups de truelle.

Ce tableau me projetait dans une accélération et un rythme de vie plus rapide – avec cette peinture, un autre monde s’ouvrait devant moi, totalement habité, autrement plus présent, autrement plus réel, pur et coloré. Cette peinture m’interrogeait sur la course effrénée de mon père vers ce réel éclatant de vie. Ce tableau clamait l’espace brut, net, tranché, le choc de la présence, avec une profondeur qui nous précipitait vers les confins de la vie. (…)

Tous ces petits tableaux sur la cheminée de son atelier représentaient autant de respirations, de notes vives et fraîches prises rapidement sur le motif, dans la vitesse de la couleur et de ses impressions. Parmi les tons de brun, les touches d’ocre, les pans de terre et quelques verts pâles ou vifs, étincelaient des pointes d’outremer, de jaune citron, de noir, des nuances de rose, d’orangé, des éclats de vermillon, d’émeraude et de violet.

Ces tableaux témoignaient des moments lumineux et riches de son quotidien, révélaient son attention au monde, sa finesse de perception.

Toutes ces petites peintures avaient un aplomb, un équilibre totalement assuré. Elles étaient la justesse captée, la réduction de son regard vaste et perçant.

Il n’y avait que les couleurs qui comptaient, le bonheur d’être en présence d’une vision claire, fraîche, pétillante. Quand vous n’avez pas connu votre père et qu’un tel corps de matières épaisses vous éblouit de sa présence, vous avez véritablement quelqu’un devant vous.

Dans la montée de l’escalier intérieur, pour mettre en relief la grandeur de cet espace, il avait cloué un immense tapa d’Océanie aux motifs géométriques en damier noir et blanc, aussi majestueux qu’une tapisserie ancienne. (…)

Pour apprivoiser ces pièces et y apporter un sentiment de sécurité, en réaction contre la violence du vent entêtant et si sonore qui pouvait à tout moment envahir la maison, il avait décidé que chacune aurait sa couleur distincte et forte. (…)

Au Castelet et nulle part ailleurs, malgré ses incessantes allées et venues et la conscience de plus en plus vive qu’il n’était que de passage, mon père avait pris le temps nécessaire à l’embellissement du lieu, en lui apportant son sens esthétique austère. (…)

Jusqu’à aujourd’hui, cette maison de Ménerbes conserve quelque chose de son esprit, une dimension à part – ce rien – qui ne cesse de vous mettre seul face à l’espace, dans une indépendance singulière vis-à-vis du monde où, avec le temps, l’absence de ce père se confond avec l’étendue du vide environnant, ce trop-plein d’espace qui effraie.

Dans ce paysage où le minéral prend toujours le pas sur le végétal, je comprends aujourd’hui que l’immense muraille que représente le Luberon ait été un mur de trop à un moment où son regard ne cessait de chercher un horizon dégagé, où il s’agaçait de ses propres limites – des limites de cet infini qu’il travaillait sans relâche à repousser –, avant d’être attiré, comme à chaque moment décisif de son existence, vers la mer et son horizon – cette présence éternelle où il avait puisé à nouveau de quoi dépasser les dimensions du monde et les siennes.

Tanger, janvier 2018

(Updated) Albert Camus – Maria Casarès Correspondence: Gallimard outs its most important author’s private demons

camus casaresAlbert Camus and Maria Casarès. Book cover photo courtesy Gallimard.

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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 – as he struggled to live up to the principles he extolled for others is now decisively confirmed by the novelist-journalist-philosopher-playwright’s 16 years and 1,275 pages of correspondence with his longtime mistress (for want of a word which would do better justice to their fidelity) Maria Casarès, recently published for the first time by Gallimard after being released by Camus’s daughter Catherine, who inherited the letters from the actress. Portions of the correspondence were recited this summer at the Avignon Festival by Lambert Wilson, whose father George worked with Casarés (including at Avignon), and Isabel Adjani.

A die-hard Camusian 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 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,” and the unfinished autobiographical novel “The First Man” — the hand-written manuscript of the first 261 pages was found among the wreckage and later published by Gallimard — as well as his inner reasoning as he struggled to come up with 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. (The author ultimately proposed an autonomous state federated with France, and where the ‘colonists’ would be allowed to remain.) 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 during the Post-War epoch (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 ill-considered decision to make their private, often banal 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 on hers by 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 by declarations of love and the sufferance of absence (even if your name is Albert Camus, 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, understandable for an often absent lover, but which ultimately reveals her frivolity and recurrent prejudices (particularly when it comes to male homosexuals, who according to Casarès are typically vengeful). 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, not the only instance where she disdains her public. And when it comes to the radio productions which seem to constitute her main employ, 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. But the part I found myself resenting a bit – as someone who would have loved to have had a tenth of the dramatic opportunities Casarès did – is that at times she seems to treat her theater work, particularly the radio recordings, as almost onerous. (This morning on French public radio, in a live interview from the same Avignon festival, the director Irene Brook, Peter’s daughter, recognized that “we’re very privileged to be able to pass our days rehearsing theater.”)

When it comes to discussing 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 – some of the headiest of the Post-War period, French intellectuals’ inclination towards which Camus was instrumental in forming. As for the letters from Algeria, typically occasioned by visits to his mother, uncle, and brother’s family, if Camus’s native’s appreciation for and adoration of the landscape is apparent, even lyrical (particularly in recounting excursions to Tipassa), he dwells mostly on his ageing mother’s maladies, and rarely comments on 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 what she seems to have considered more obligations than labors of love. (From his letters to his wife cited by Todd – at one point he tells her he regards her more as a sister than a spouse – Camus was much more likely to discuss his thinking process with Francine than with Casarès, at least in his letters.)

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, where one must still find meaning even in the most trying of circumstances — would insist that he fully commit himself to Casarès and the complete realization of their love. Because he ultimately can’t square the two principles, everyone — Francine, Maria, and himself — is often 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 book 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 development. (The absence and separation which inspired “The Plague” being the one the war imposed between the author and his wife Francine, who remained in Algeria.)

If there is a bonafide, universally resonant story here (besides the humanizing of a super-human philosopher), it is that of the ultimate unconditional love. After some initial resistance (expressed in face to face, 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 passages 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 the surf head on, 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 and “recommencing” — 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, 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.” 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 moral problem I have with Gallimard’s publishing them is that there’s no indication that the professional writer involved intended for them to be made public. The problem is not just one 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 the same 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 Sartre and his Modern Times lackey 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 upbraiding an underclassman who has the moxey to challenge him.)

If 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, a region where many of Camus’s papers are located — my feeling, as a Camus loyalist, is that these letters should not have been published. If Catherine Camus’s motivations in releasing them should not be questioned — 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 prematurely at age 14? – I’m flummoxed by Gallimard’s decision, given the meager literary and biographical value of the result.  (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 buy, 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 worthiness as a translation project. What red-blooded Camusian doesn’t want to be the first to translate freshly released words by his idol 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 waves in the Gironde, or holed up 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.  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.

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” 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 wracked 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.

Post-Script: Because you got this far and deserve a reward; because they do reveal a rare lighter side to Camus which, their correspondence suggests, Casarès was at times able to elicit from an author whose work rarely reveals a sense of humor; because I can’t resist the urge to translate, for the first time in English, at least a smidgeon of previously unreleased Camus; and above all because these morsels were at least theoretically intended for a public larger than their couple, voila my renderings of several “search apartment with view on ocean” letters written by Camus on Casarès’s behalf in 1951 and 1952 appended to the correspondence (and which serendipitously mirror my own current search):

Dear Sir,

At times I dream — living in the midst of flames as I do, because the dramatic art is a pyre  to which the actor lights the match himself, only to be consumed every night, and you can imagine what it’s like in a Paris already burning up in the midst of July, when the soul itself is covered in ashes and half-burned logs, until the moment when the winds of poetry surge forth and whip up the high clear flame which possesses us — at times I dream, therefore, and as I was saying, and in this case the dream becomes the father of action, taking on an avid and irreal air, I dream, at the end of the day, of a place sans rules or limits and where the fire which pushes me on finally smolders out, I’ve been thinking that your coast with its nice clear name would not refuse to welcome the humble priestess of [Th…  ], and her brother in art, to envelope their solitude in the tireless spraying of the eternal sea. Two rooms and two hearts, some planks, the sea whistling at our feet, and the best possible bargain, this is what I’m looking for. Can you answer my prayers?

Maria Casarès

Dear Madame,

Two words. I’m hot and I’m dirty, but I’m not alone. The beach, therefore, and water, two rooms, wood for free or next to nothing. Looking forward to hearing back from you.

Maria Casarès

PS: I forgot: August.

Dear Sir or Madame,

Voila first of all what I want forgive me I’m forced to request this from you but everything’s happening so fast and everyone’s talking and talking and nothing comes from all the talking it’s too late so here’s what I need I am going in a bit with my comrade to take the train to Bordeaux it gets better it’s on the beach and even better it doesn’t cost anything question that is to say I don’t have any money but I’m confident. So, goodbye, monsieur, and thanks for the response which I  hope comes soon it’s starting to get hot here.

Maria Casarès

To a housing cooperative

Two rooms please open on the night
I’ll cluster my people and hide my suffering
As far as money goes it’s a bit tight
I’ll be on the coast but no ker-ching, ker-ching.

— Albert Camus, for Maria Casarès, translated (liberally) by Paul Ben-Itzak

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 .