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.

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

Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation, or hiring Paul Ben-Itzak to translate your document. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location, co-location, location, ou échange bons procèdes — logement contre travail — sur Paris du 7 mai au 30 juin.

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?

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 .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chantal portrait small                                           Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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

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

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

First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a bit later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Original text by Michel Ragon, copyright Albin-Michel, Paris                          

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak:  (Abbreviated version originale follows)

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

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

“Sometimes it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor.”

 –Vincent Van Gogh, cited in Lou Brudner’s preface to “Büchner, Complete Works,” published by Le Club Français du livre, Paris, 1955.

Translator’s note: With the exception of Fred and Flora, who may be real, may be fictional, or may be composites, all the personages cited below are based on real historical figures, notably Paul Delesalle (1870-1948), the Left Bank bookseller. Later adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947)  would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred later in “The Book of the Vanquished,” eventually broke with the Bolsheviks. Raymond-la-Science, René Valet, and Octave Garnier were real members of the Bonnot Gang, the details of their denouement recounted by Ragon as translated below accurate. For the other personalities evoked, including leading figures in France’s Anarcho-Syndicaliste milieu in its heyday, as well as certain events alluded to, I’ve included brief footnotes at the end, as these personalities and events may not be as familiar to an Anglophone audience as to Ragon’s French readers, for whom they represent markers in the national memory, notably the “Bande à Bonnot.”

Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley hugging the Saint-Eustache church.(1) Stretching out his limbs like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a famished feline, took off in search of nourishment, following the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it wouldn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before they’d debated over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his portion. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between trailers loaded with heaps of victuals.

Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the  odor of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which in his imagination had assumed the proportions of a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts approaching from far away, like the rolling of thunder-bolts. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, machinally hanging onto the reigns. After all, the horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the outskirts of the Poissonnière (2) quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.

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

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

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

She put up a fight.

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

He pointed down the street with a vague air.

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

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

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

“Eleven.”

“You sure are tiny.”

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

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

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

“Fred.”

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

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

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

“But I never kidnapped you!”

“You sniffed my legs.”

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

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

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

“What’s the sea like?” asked Fred.

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

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

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

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

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

Flora shrugged her slight shoulders and bit her nails.

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

“Scram, you little rapscallions! Vermin!”

The pair skedaddled towards the Comédie-Française, hand in hand. When they got to the rue de Rivoli, their ragged clothing jarred with the chic surroundings. Fred, coiffed with a cap, wore an old grey suit. These together with his oversized combat boots leant him the air of a wandering apprentice. Unusually tall and looking older than his age, he might have passed unnoticed in the hoity-toity neighborhoods. But Flora, with her skirt just a little too high, her naked legs, and above all her bare feet, resembled one of “The Two Orphans.”(3) So much so that a well-to-do lady took pity on her and handed her some money.

“What did she give you?”

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

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

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

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

“So, young lovers, just idling about?”

Fred and Flora got ready to bolt when this voice spoke to them from out of the shadows. But once they’d made out the silhouette of their interlocutor, they were re-assured. It belonged to a very young woman, no more than 16, dressed in a black schoolgirl’s smock. Her short hair, parted in the middle, the white sailor’s collar which highlighted her blouse, and her mischievous, charming little face immediately inspired the confidence of the two children.

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

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

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

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

“You are in Belleville. A not very beautiful ville. (4) Belleville is the boonies. And that’s exactly what we love about it. But I’m a dolt — perhaps you’re hungry?”

“Yes,” answered Flora.

“In that case, come along.”

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

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

“I’m Fred, and this is Flora.”

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

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

Obviously, Fred and Flora did not remain sagely sequestered in the cabin at the rear of the garden waiting for their destiny to happen by itself. Every day they careened down the rue de Belleville to the heart of Paris, diverting themselves with little things, pilfering only the necessities from the store shelves, inventing practical jokes to play on the bourgeoisie and tormenting the beat cops. Fred missed Les Halles, but wasn’t sorry about trading it for Flora.

Whenever they’d spent several days without seeing Rirette and Victor, they began missing the couple and returned to their little nest in Belleville with a kind of gourmet gluttony. The devotion of these young people to each other fascinated them. It had the aura of a tender sensuality, mirroring the feelings Fred and Flora had for each other, only more ripe, more warm, in full blossom. Before they met this couple, Fred and Flora had no idea that happiness could exist.

Many men visited Victor and Rirette, usually in the evening or the middle of the night. Some of these men worried the children with their conspiratorial air. And Fred noticed something odd: Rirette and Victor addressed each other with the formal “vous” when they were alone and the less formal “tu” whenever their friends were around. The tutoiement in general didn’t surprise Fred; it was this private vouvoiement which intrigued him.  (5)

All the visitors were very young, even if some  of them could have passed for members of the bourgeoisie, like Raymond-la-Science, with his rosy complexion and doll-like visage, bowler hat, pince-nez, and dapper martingale jacket. Despite his diminutive size, Raymond-la-Science frightened the children. But as he never said a word to them, they eventually got used to the unexpected appearances of the “binoclard,” as they nick-named him between themselves, bursting into giggles. On the other hand, they became quite attached to a gentle, timid, green-eyed redhead who liked to recite poetry to them which he knew by heart. For example:

Hello, it’s me… me, yer ma

I’m here, standing before you in the bone orchard…

Louis?

My baby…. Can you even hear me?

Can you hear yer poor momma of a mother?

Yer ‘old lady,’ as you used to say.

Listening to these words, Flora’s fear dissipated. Like the child she was, she fell to blubbering. Fred would then stare at her, perplexed, not recognizing his cohort in this abandon, she who was always such a smart aleck and who adored leading him around by the nose. But the green-eyed redhead continued his plaint, which recounted the story of an old woman, come to the cemetery to look for the grave of her son condemned to die by the guillotine.

T’ain’t true, ‘tis it? T’ain’t true

everything they said about you at the trial;

In the papers, what they wrote about you

was all a pack of lies

 

And now that I see you here

Like a dead dog, a pile of refuse

Like a heap of manure, a mound of rotting apples

With the crème de la crème of criminals

 

Who is it who despite everything comes to see you?

Who pardons you and forgives you

Who is it who’s punished the most?

 

It’s yer old lady, you know, yer loyal mother,

Yer poor old lady, yer ragged old lady, look at me!

Fred didn’t cry. Fred never cried. But he was rattled.

“How do you come up with things like that?” he asked. “It has the ring of truth.”

“I didn’t come up with it, Freddy, it’s a poet. Jehan Rictus (6), remember that name. I know all his poems by heart. You could stand to learn a little poetry yourself. You can’t keep on living like a little savage. Look at our friend Raymond, he knows everything. That’s why we call him Raymond-la-Science. When you know everything, you can do anything. For Raymond, nothing’s impossible. Do you at least know how to read?”

“Yes.”

“Has Victor made you read our newspaper?”

“What newspaper?”

“How’s that? He hasn’t told you that we put out a newspaper? You haven’t seen him proofing large sheets of paper?”

“Ah, you know, the newspapers, I don’t trust them as far as I can spit.”

“Neither do we. Newspapers lie. Not ours. It’s called Anarchy. Rirette and Victor write the articles. I type them up, and in the basement, Octave works the printing press by hand.”

Octave Garnier? Him Fred knew. The brawniest of the nocturnal visitors – and the most sinister-looking. It was no surprise that he’d been stowed away in the cellar.

“And Raymond-la-Science, where does he fit in?” asked Fred.

“Raymond? He’s our treasurer. He figures out where to find the greenbacks. Because money’s essential to the cause. And there’s no shortage of money. Knowing where to recuperate it – and how to hold on to it – that’s where the science comes in!”

“I don’t like la Science,” Fred grumbled. “He’s a bourgeoisie, and he thinks he’s too good for us.”

The green-eyed redhead chuckled.

“Raymond, a bourgeoisie! If he could only hear you say that. It’s true that he looks like a bourgeoisie. But that’s what it takes to win the confidence of those who hold the purse-strings.”

The next day, the redhead, whose name was Valet (as far as Fred knew, he didn’t have a first name), lead Fred and Flora to the center of Paris and the Odeon neighborhood on the Left Bank, below the Luxembourg Gardens. Valet wanted to just bring Fred, but the boy refused to be separated from Flora.  Valet grew irritated:

“Look, you’ll see her again tonight, your girl-friend. I don’t know how you can stand it, being around her so much, she doesn’t smell good. She’s going to stink up the shop I want to take you to.”

“It’s not true!” Fred shot back, indignant. “She does not stink, it’s the fish.”

“Fish?”

“She came to Paris on a fish-cart. It sticks to the skin, that odor. But it’s also the odor of the sea, no?”

“All right, as you like. It’s just that if you start out at such a young age attaching yourself to women’s petticoats, you’ll never stop drooling over them, my poor Freddy. But after all, it’s none of my onions.”

On the rue Monsieur-le-Prince, Valet ushered the two children into a small shop stuffed floor to ceiling with books. They were everywhere. On the shelves overflowing with paperbacks and hardbacks which blanketed the walls. Heaped up in piles on the floor.  Try foraging a path through them, and one risked making the towers of print come tumbling down. Fred and Flora had never seen so many books. Rirette and Victor also collected books, but they kept them neatly arranged in wall racks. This flood of paper reminded Fred of the Paris inundations of the year before.

From this disaster zone miraculously emerged a weathered man with jet black hair, a mustache, and a goatee. He looked more like a factory worker, and his presence in this literary enclave seemed incongruous.

“Paul, meet Fred and Flora,” Valet announced. “They’ve been adopted by Rirette and Kibaltchich.”

“What are all these books for?” Flora asked with a disgusted air.

“Look around you, kids,” said Valet. “At the right, you’ll find novels and poetry. At the left, books about social issues and politics. On one side, dreams, on the other, action. When you have both at your disposal, you can take on the world.”

“Slow down, Valet,” cautioned the bookseller. “Don’t get carried away. It’s not so simple. Novels are also a form of social action and politics is also about dreaming. As far as taking on the world goes, the real question is: What will you make of it? What’s important is conquering oneself.”

“You didn’t always talk like that, Paul. You’ve holstered your six-guns because you’re getting old. In your time you were as much of a law-breaker as us. Remember Ravachol, and Vaillant’s bombing of Congress…?” (7)

“Vaillant was manipulated by the cops. They chopped his head off, but the real guilty party was the prefect of police. Don’t talk to me about Vaillant. You too Valet, you’ll wind up by falling for police provocations. What matters today is no longer bombs, no longer counterfeit money, nor direct action, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The future lies with the unions and it’s with the unions that we’ll bring on the revolution, when we’ve learned how to impregnate unionism with anarchism and anarchism with unionism. The regeneration of both depends on this eventuality and this eventuality only.”

The debate between Valet and the bookseller went on for hours. They’d lowered their voices to the point that all Fred could make out was indistinct murmuring. In any case, he was too absorbed in what he’d just discovered to pay attention to their argument. He’d opened up a book called “Les Misérables,” and this book penetrated him immediately. He forgot about the bookshop, Valet, Belleville, and even Flora. He read with great difficulty, but with such intense concentration that the characters of the novel seemed to come to life inside him. It was as if he’d been lifted up from the Earth, in a sort of state of levitation, held captive by a benign spell. He’d never had this sensation before.  When he was ready to leave, Valet had to physically shake Fred like he was trying to wake him from a dream. Fred held the book tightly between his hands, open, clutched against his chest.

Valet looked at the cover, then addressed the bookseller with a satisfied air.

“Hey Paul, look at this. The lad sure knows sure how to pick ‘em. He’s reading Father Hugo.”

“If he likes the book, he should take it with him.”

“No,” answered Valet. “I had my own agenda in bringing him here. Because he took the bait, I think you should be the one to reel him in, this handsome trout. Set aside ‘Les Misérables’ for him, mark the page and he’ll come back to find out what happens next. Maybe he’ll end up reading the entire bookstore and grow up to be as smart as Raymond.”

“Raymond’s head is not so solid. Science has warped it. He’s a well of science, that Raymond, but at the bottom of wells contaminated water sometimes lurks. Don’t drink the water, it will poison you.”

Valet shrugged his shoulders.

“Hey, look at the girl. She doesn’t give a fig about your science and your unionism.”

Flora, spread-eagled on the back of the bookshop’s gargantuan dog, who of course was named Gutenberg, was galloping around the place in a crescendo of giggles, overturning in her wake heaps of dusty books. Fred glared at her with such an air of reprobation that she exclaimed defiantly:

“You know what? Gutenberg and me, we can’t read, but that doesn’t prevent us from leading a dog’s life.”

Rirette and Victor lived at 24, rue Fessart. Fred and Flora devoted much of their time to exploring the neighborhood. Their immediate surroundings at first, the Place des Fêtes, with its music kiosk. By following the rue Fessart in the opposite direction, they came to a wondrous spot, the Buttes-Chaumont park. They always raced in as if they were afraid it was off-limits and they’d be barred at the last minute, not stopping until, out of breath, they found themselves standing on one of the wooden bridges straddling the chasms over the man-made gardens far below. They marveled at the waterfalls, the lake which wound around the park, the small temple of columns perched at the top of a 180-degree cliff, the caves and tunnels. It was at the Buttes-Chaumont that Fred discovered nature, weeping willows, pine trees, and streams, and his image of the country thus remained distorted for the rest of his life. When he finally found himself confronted with the real thing years later, it would be the genuine article which seemed aberrant and hostile.

The vast, steep, grassy slopes were made to order for frolicking. But as soon as they perceived, on the other side of the park, the high slate roof of the 19th arrondissement’s imposing municipal hall, they docilely fell into line and calmly executed a solemn exit. Until they bolted towards the rue de Crimée and arrived at their other major pole of attraction, the la Villette basin, bordered by warehouses. Sometimes they ventured as far afield as the banks of the Ourcq canal, lingering to watch the fishermen snoozing in their folding chairs. The barges, bistros for bargemen and dockers, the rotunda, the mounds of coal, all of this fascinated them. On the quays of the canal, Fred retrieved an ambiance which reminded him of Les Halles.

More and more frequently, Valet slept at the rue Fessart, bunking with Fred and Flora in the cabin at the rear of the garden. This exquisitely gentle, timid young man felt at home with the two children. When the winter brought with it rain and cold, Rirette procured shoes for Flora. Even though he didn’t particularly care for this little girl who just could not sit still, reserving his affection for Fred, Valet found her warm clothes. Fred preferred Valet over Victor, the latter putting him off him with his precious airs easy to mistake as contemptuous. For that matter, in the late-night debates Kibaltchich always seemed to hold back, as if the company of the three men who helped him put out the newspaper weighed heavily on him. Sometimes it even seemed like he didn’t trust them. In any case, during their animated discussions, in which the ideas eluded Fred, Victor rarely agreed with his companions. The tone would escalate, often up to and including threats. With her easy manner and smile, Rirette somehow always knew how to calm things down.

What surprised Fred and Flora was how different every member of the band was from all the adults they’d known before. All the men and women they’d previously lived amongst, starved for meat, chugged red wine by the gallon. But Rirette and Victor’s companions, like them, did not drink wine, didn’t eat meat, and didn’t smoke. They sustained themselves almost exclusively on vegetables, never adding salt, pepper, or vinegar to anything, and quenched their thirst with clear water. Only Victor sometimes betrayed aristocratic tastes, subjecting himself to the ribbing of his friends because of his penchant for drinking tea.

An ancient complicity linked Victor and Raymond-la-Science. They’d met as teenagers in Brussels, where the student Kibaltchich, born to a scholarly family of Russian exiles, had been fascinated by this petit proletarian, the son of a socialist shoe-cobbler. While his real name was Raymond Callemin, his thirst for knowledge rapidly won him the soubriquet in the revolutionary milieux of Raymond-la-Science. His intellectual passion was spiked with a predilection for violence that alarmed the Belgian socialists so much they finally banned him from the House of the People in Brussels. Vagabonding along the routes of Switzerland and France, Callemin-la-Science, by turns mason and logger, reunited with Kibaltchich in Paris and managed the purse-strings for Anarchy. A treasurer of an irreproachable probity. Not only had he never taken a penny from the coffers, but he somehow always found a way to make up for budget shortfalls. And it was exactly over the source of these funds that the discussions with Victor regularly turned sour.

Fred, who had often returned to the bookshop on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince, had hungrily devoured “Les Misérables” and eagerly moved on to Eugene Sue’s “Les Mystéres de Paris” (8) and Emile Zola’s “Germinal.” Bit by bit, he began to understand some of what these exalted men were saying who seemed to toss theories at each other like other men might trade punches in a bar brawl.

In a somewhat imperious tone, Victor claimed that Kropotkine (9) himself had pronounced his own mea culpa, recognizing the sterility of “propaganda by the facts” and of direct action.

“It’s time to abandon bomb-tossing and turn the unions into practical schools of anarchism. Monatte (10) and Delesalle call for nothing less than this.”

“Illegalism, terrorism, total rebellion. There’s no middle ground. We are men of the Browning and of dynamite,” Raymond Callemin wrote. “We exploit all scientific progress (Ah, science! The word was always on the edge of his tongue!): the automobile, the telephone, anything which is quick and doesn’t leave a trace.”

“At least take some time to reflect…,” Victor insisted, exasperated.

“When you spend too much time reflecting, you never act,” Raymond retorted. “Long live impulsiveness!”

To which Octave Garnier, emerging from his basement and cradling his printing press in his thick arms, added, “Long live the outcasts, the wretched, the illiterate! In ‘The Rebel,’ Kropotkine extols the revolution of the riff-raff and the shoeless. Well, here we are! Watch your step, Victor, you’re just a bourgeoisie intellectual, a sentimental revolutionary. Those who aren’t with us are against us. Watch your step!

In December, Callemin, Garnier, and Valet suddenly vanished from the rue Fessart. Victor and Rirette seemed relieved. For Fred on the other hand, without Valet the cabin at the back of the garden became depressing. On top of this, Flora was sulking. Turning somber, her blue eyes took on a bizarre glaucous hue. Huddled in a corner of the cabin, swallowed up by her woolens to insulate herself from the cold, she resembled a frightened cat, ready to pounce, scratch, and bite. Fred read, by candle-light. He heard Flora grumbling.

“Are you sick? You have a weird look.”

“You’re the one who’s sick, Freddy. You don’t love me any more.”

Fred dropped the book and rushed to the girl’s side.

“Are you kidding or what?”

“No I’m not,” Flora whined, “you prefer the redhead. You follow him around like a faithful puppy. And now that he’s gone, you spend all your time reading. It’s as if I don’t exist.”

“You need to learn the alphabet, Flora. You’ll see how amazing it is. One discovers so many things, so many people, so many worlds. Ever since Valet took us to that fellow on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince,  I feel like I’ve grown ten years. It’s as if a curtain has come up on everything I didn’t know. I’m going to teach you to read, Flora. You’ll see. It’s as easy as saying ‘bonjour.’ We’ll read together.”

“Not interested! If I had any idea it would end up like this, I’d never have gotten off that fish-cart.”

“Don’t say things like that.”

He crept towards Flora, like a lion slowly stalking its prey.

“The big cat smells something delectable…. Whatever could it be? Ah yes, the scent of fish. But wherever could it be coming from, this fish odor? What’s this? Could it be a kitty-cat? No! It’s an over-stuffed teddy-bear.” Fred pawed at the thick wool stockings. Flora’s white legs re-surfaced and the boy sniffed them just like the first day, licked them, nibbled on them.

“Stop!  You’re tickling me.”

“You still smell like fish. Or the sea.”

Flora seized Fred’s head in her small hands.

“Swear that you’ll always love me, Freddy!”

“I swear it. On Valet’s head, if it makes you feel any better.”

“Do you think we’ll love each other as much as Rirette and Victor, when we’re grown-up?”

“Just as much,  yes. More isn’t possible.”

One evening in February 1912, as they were returning from one of their gambols along the la Villette canal, where they’d been admiring the ice-skaters, they found Rirette alone and completely shaken up.

“Ah, my petites, they’ve taken Victor away. I wasn’t all that surprised.”

“Who’s taken him away?” asked Fred. “Raymond-la-Science?”

“No, the police. Raymond and Octave did something stupid, and because the police know they’ve lived here, we’re in for it. As if things weren’t bad enough already, they found two pistols in the kitchen cupboard. Except for that, they don’t have a thing on Victor.”

“And Valet?”

“Valet, I don’t know. I hope they didn’t drag him into it. Somebody who’s normally so gentle, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. The problem for you two is that you can’t stay here any longer. The neighborhood is crawling with cops.  I’m being watched wherever I go. I’m being tailed. If they spot you, they’ll find it odd. They’re capable of locking you up in juvenile hall, an orphanage, the poor house. Since you’re friends with Paul, ask him to help you out on my behalf. He won’t let you down.”

“Which Paul?”

“Paul Delesalle, the bookseller on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince.”

“Oh no! Fred will spend all his time reading the whole bookstore!”

Rirette quickly hugged Flora and Fred, pushing them towards the door.

“Go on now, les enfants, walk and don’t run. Calmly. Take your time. As if you were coming home from school. Good luck.”

Curious bookshop, Paul Delesalle’s. A first-class lathe operator, Delesalle had built the premiere movie camera for the Lumiere brothers when they invented the cinema in Lyon. On the other hand, the police listed him among “the hundred or so militants making up the French Anarchist Party.” Engaging in “propaganda by the facts” — in other words, terrorism — under the influence of Bakounine (11), for his whole life he’d be suspected of having taken part in the 1894 Foyot restaurant bombing, in which the sole victim was unfortunately the anarchist poet Laurent Tailhade, who lost an eye. But after the London congress of the Second Internationale, which terminated with the rupture between the Marxists and the anarchists, Delesalle, a disciple of Kropotkine, renounced terrorism in favor of anarcho-syndicalisme (12). After he’d worked steadily in factories for 10  years, in 1908 Delesalle’s passion for books inspired him to open, at 16 rue Monsieur-le-Prince, a singular bookshop consecrated primarily to revolutionary and labor publications. And it was here that Alfred Barthélemy would earn his Master’s in Humanities.

With his swarthy, somewhat sickly appearance and dry, gruff character, there was nothing about Paul Delesalle destined to please the two runaways. Already in his forties, in Fred and Flora’s eyes he seemed like an old man. But his companion, Léona, knew just how to tame them.  It was nonetheless out of the question to put the pair up at the rue Monsieur-le-Prince. The space was made up of just two rooms, linked by a dark hallway. The bookshop occupied the first room, which gave on the street, while the second, which served as a bedroom and stock-room,  had no ventilation except for the hallway, where one had to maneuver between walls stacked with publications constituting a veritable archives of the lives of workers and unionists, and which Delesalle bought for the price of old parchment at the auction houses. A rudimentary kitchen had been installed in a corner nook. Like all libertaires (13), the Delesalles lived a Spartan lifestyle, eating very little and drinking only water, more interested in filling their heads than their bellies.

Impossible, then, to accommodate Fred and Flora in this Capernaum. Gutenberg, the dog, already occupied the place of the child that the Delesalles had never had. Who could take care of them? Among the bookshop’s regulars, the poet Charles Péguy (14), a solid family man, might have some good advice to offer. Delesalle and Péguy, meeting up in the midst of the Dreyfus Affair, when they joined forces during the scuffles against the anti-Semites, had never stopped frequenting each other since and addressed each other in the familiar ‘tu’ form. Several times a week Péguy stopped in at the rue Monsieur-le-Prince, enveloped in his black cape, his close-cropped hair lending him the air of a defrocked monk, his long beard and his pince-nez masking his tiny blue-gray eyes.

Charles Péguy enthusiastically rallied to the idea of extracting the pair he immediately baptized Gavroche and Eponine from the creek.

“Gavroche is okay for me,” Fred grumbled. “But Flora isn’t any Eponine. She’s Flora, period.”

“What’s this?” exclaimed Péguy. “This little sparrow has read ‘Les Misérables’?”

“He read it in the shop,” Delesalle explained. “He’s even got it into his head to stay here until he’s devoured every book in the place.”

“You couldn’t do that in a lifetime, my son. And it’s not enough to read, you have to act. How old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

“You need to work with your hands, at the same time cultivating your mind. An educated mind and a worker’s hands, nothing’s more beautiful than that! What trade would you like to learn?”

“Typography.”

“Typography…. Ah! Yes, it’s good work. Perpetuating the work of the thinker by transforming it into lead characters, which then multiply and spread the word like manna from Heaven….”

“Yes, typography,” Fred repeated confidently. “Typography, like Valet.”

“Valet? Who’s Valet?” Péguy asked.

Delesalle murmured: “A member of Bonnot’s gang.”

Péguy threw his hands up. Tossing his cape behind him, he assumed the air of a lawyer admonishing the court.

“So much wasted energy! So many ideals perverted!” His hands fell on Fred’s shoulders.

“Okay, I’ll take care of the boy. As for the girl, you can entrust  her to Sorel (15).”

“To Monsieur Sorel?” Delesalle sputtered. “But he won’t know….”

“You can’t break up me and Flora,” Fred protested.

“I was just kidding,” Péguy assured them.

Enveloping the two children in his cape, he pushed them along in front of him and left the bookshop with the air of an evangelical shepherd.

The Péguy episode didn’t last long. Flora fled the second day and Fred took off after her. He finally found her near the la Villette rotunda. As she’d been brawling with hooligans who  wanted to haul her off to the ancient fortifications, the new clothes Valet had given her were cut to shreds. She had only one shoe left, having used the other to fend off her attackers.  A tuft of her blonde locks had been torn out and her lower lip was split and bleeding copiously.

Fred took her gently by the hand, lead her over to the Wallace fountain, and scrubbed her face. Unable to walk with only one shoe, she tossed it and found herself once again bare-footed.

Without saying a word, they meandered together along the streets, inevitably ending up on the rue Fessart. Rirette welcomed them without surprise and without reproach. Still charming, but sad and anxious.

“Don’t say a word. Yes, you’ll retrieve your cabin at the back of the garden, but not for long. They’ve left me free because they’re tailing me. They think I’ll lead them to the ringleaders. Once they’ve found them, they’ll lock me up with Victor. All of this is not healthy for you. Your only resort is Delesalle. He at least is not compromised. No one else is safe.”

“When’s Valet coming back?”

“Valet? Never. Not him, nor Garnier, nor Callemin. You mean you don’t know? That’s right, you don’t read the newspapers. Take a look at this.”

On the table, where Fred had so often seen Victor Kibaltchich looking over the printer’s proofs for Anarchy, Rirette had spread out the editions of the Excelsior from the last several days. Banner headlines jumped out at him: “THE BANDITS AT THE WHEEL,” “BANK COURRIER ATTACKED AT 8 THIS MORNING ON THE RUE ORDENER….” A front page cartoon depicted a man wearing a baseball cap with ear flaps, brandishing a pistol, a cashier in a bicorn hat and  jacket collapsed in front of him.

“The guy with the pistol looks a lot like Garnier,” Fred remarked.

Next, Rirette showed him a paragraph on the inside pages of the newspaper. There, the reporter described “a man who seemed quite young,  not very tall, wearing a martingale jacket and coiffed with a bowler hat, sporting a pince-nez and with the rosy complexion of a baby.”

Fred was stunned.  “The spitting image of Raymond-la-Science.”

“Now look at this front page from the Petit Journal.”

It was dominated by a full-page spread on the bank attack: Overturned chairs, employees shot at close range by attackers who had scaled the counter. Once again, Octave Garnier was clearly identified by his famous baseball cap with ear flaps, as was Raymond Callemin with his bowler hat and pince-nez. And there, filling up a sack with bright coins.…

Fred put his finger on the photo. “Valet?”

“Maybe,” answered Rirette. “But if you were able to recognize them so easily, you can imagine that the cops must already have their number.  All they have to do now is lay their hands on them. Which won’t be easy! They know that the guillotine lies at the end of their adventure. They’ll defend their hides until their last breaths.”

“Delesalle didn’t want me to hear him. But I remember him talking about the ‘Bonnot gang.’ Is that them?”

“One day, Raymond introduced us to a short, stocky man with a red mustache, Jules Bonnot. Mechanic, car thief, hot-rodder, he claims to be an anarchist, but in fact he’s just a thug who uses anarchy as a pretext. Victor and I constantly warned Garnier and Callemin about this blow-hard. But they were hoodwinked by him. And voila the results.”

“But if Victor didn’t agree with them, why have the cops locked him up?”

“To make him squeal. But Victor and I aren’t rats. We won’t say a word. Even if we don’t agree with their tactics. We don’t agree with Bonnot but we also don’t agree with Lépine (16). But – and always remember this, my petit — the hooligans and the cops are both gun-slingers. Avoid the one and the other like the plague. Always.”

The rue Fessart smelled too much like cops for Fred and Flora to be able to remain tranquilly in their refuge for long. They therefore migrated once more to the Left Bank. Fred proposed that Delesalle hire him as his messenger boy, in exchange for daily rations of Léona’s soup.

“But what about your girlfriend? And where will you sleep?”

“That’s my business,” Fred replied. “Don’t worry about it.”

In a square on the boulevard Saint-Germain he’d noticed an abandoned construction office. It would replace the cabin on the rue Fessart. The fences around the square, not that high, could easily be scaled at night. Fred and Flora adopted it as their new home.  Flora found work as a pearl-diver in a restaurant, in exchange for meals. Fixed as they were for grub and with a roof over their heads, the spring of 1912 began auspiciously for the infants.

Every morning Fred accompanied Delesalle on his rare book expeditions. He canvassed the length of the quays on both sides of the Seine, digging in the boxes of the bouquinistes (17) and extracting original editions not yet considered rare: Jules Renard’s “Histoires naturelles,” illustrated by Toulouse-Lautrec; a first edition of Paul Verlaine’s “Sagesse.”

“You have to read Verlaine,” Delesalle urged Fred. “He’s our most important poet. I used to roam the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter with him, when I was younger. Because I didn’t drink, he relied on me to get him home when he was falling down drunk.”

“Valet taught me Rictus’s poems…. ‘La Jasante de la vielle…’ He’s just as good, Verlaine?”

“Rictus, Couté (18), yes, they’re good. But Verlaine’s better.”

Whenever Delesalle found a book he particularly loved, he insisted Fred read it. A strong bind was soon forged between the mature man and the child. Intelligent, quick-witted, and possessing a phenomenal memory, Fred was able to unearth obscure brochures which enriched the bookshop’s collection. All the names of revolutionaries, of labor activists, were rapidly etched into his brain. None of these authors escaped his eye, neither in the bouquinistes’ stocks nor in the auctions at the Hôtel Drouot (19). Delesalle was amused by his enthusiasm. As he was by Fred’s bulimic reading.

In reality, Fred spent more time reading, curled up on the floor in a corner of the bookshop, than helping the man who was never really his boss, but rather his initiator and, as it might be put in more refined circles, his mentor.

He loved just hanging out in the neighborhood. The rue Monsieur-le-Prince mounted, in a more or less straight line, from the Odeon to the boulevard Saint-Michel. Delesalle’s shop was located mid-way between them, right where the horses’ hitching-posts began and the snorting of the beasts started up. The coachmen cursed and cracked their whips. Fred sometimes helped push the carts along. On the other side of the street rose an immense building, with high wide frosted windows, which intrigued him.  He circumvented it by descending the stairway which let out on the other side on the rue de l’École-de-Médicine.  On the facade, intrigued, he read, “École Pratique.” Practice of what? He wanted to learn every practice!

On May 15, 1912, the French army, which had not yet recovered from the humiliating defeat of the 1870 war with Prussia, finally scored its first victory, a kind of prelude to the wholesale butcher shop which would soon be open for business. At dawn, two entire companies of Zouaves (20), illuminated only by acetylene headlights, launched an offensive on a pavilion house in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne.  Before starting the assault, they breached the millstone walls with three sticks of dynamite. As this modest hovel still seemed foreboding to them, they then set off melinite explosive charges and riddled the windows with a riot of machine-gun fire. When the soldiers finally decided, with infinite precautions, to penetrate the interior of the hut, they found themselves face to face with a man bloodied all over, his torso naked, and who still had time to get off four shots before he was mowed down.  Valet. Garnier was discovered squeezed between two mattresses, having killed himself with a bullet in the mouth.

That same morning, when Fred arrived as usual at around eight at the bookshop on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince, all the newspaper headlines were screaming about the night’s tumult and the formidable bravery of the forces of order. But Fred never read the newspapers. Delesalle did not know how to break the news about Valet to him. So much so that this delicate man, normally so sensitive to others’ feelings, after struggling to come up with the least painful way to explain what had happened, finally blurted out in the most brutal manner possible:

“Fred, I need to tell you something, it was bound to end up like this, they’ve liquidated the Bonnot gang. Bonnot, Garnier, Valet, they’ve escaped the guillotine, but not their punishment. As we’re speaking, they’re all dead.”

Fred hurled like a wounded animal, letting out a yowl so piercing that Léona came running and Gutenberg began to howl in solidarity.

“They’ve killed Valet!”

“Valet killed innocent bystanders, my petit,” Léona responded gingerly. “We all know he was  a gentle soul, an idealist, but he let himself be manipulated by criminals.”

“How did they kill him?” Fred demanded, clenching his fists.

“He defended himself to the end,” said Delesalle. “He fought off a company of Zouaves. In a ‘just war,’ as our friend Péguy might put it, he’d be hailed as a ‘hero.’  But there’s no such thing as a ‘just war.’”

Fred tore out of the bookshop before Delesalle could stop him. Leaping onto the rails of a cart trotting up the boulevard Saint-Germain, he coasted along until the Sully bridge over the Seine, then hopped off to scurry by foot towards the Bastille and after that, Belleville. On the rue Fessart, he found the gate to Victor and Rirette’s house padlocked. He nevertheless pushed at it, felt himself gripped by the arms and turned around to see two giant beat cops who began shaking him, as if they wanted to make who-knows-what key fall from the boy.

“Why do you want to enter this house?” the first one asked.

“I know a lady who lives here. I just wanted to pay my respects.”

“’A lady,’ one of the cops sneered, “how you go on! And what’s her name, your ‘lady’?”

“Rirette.”

“’Rirette’? That’s no name for a lady, that. Sounds more like a whore’s name to me.”

The cop received such a sharp kick in the tibia that he let out a yowl and released the boy. The second policeman, bitten in the hand, started to yelp.  While this sob-fest was going on, Fred cut out towards the Place des Fêtes.

Re-descending the rue de Belleville towards the center of Paris, he headed for the dive where Flora washed dishes, penetrated the establishment, and made straight for the kitchen, whistling to his companion who, just as quickly, removed her smock and rushed to him.

“Come on Flora, we’re getting out of here.”

“Finally,” said Flora, “we’re going to make a life together.”

Then they left the restaurant together, hand in hand, without hurrying or looking back, to the general stupefaction of the customers.

Fred and Flora were once again roaming wild. It seemed to Fred that in cutting his ties with his honest job at the bookshop, in severing all links with society, he was in a way taking revenge for Valet’s death. He would have liked to have gone farther. Biting a beat cop made him feel a bit better, but he wanted to kill all of them. However he was smart enough to realize that this was beyond his means. Stealing, on the other hand, would enable him to flirt with prison, which would bring him closer to Rirette and Victor. So he became a thief. A small-time thief. A shop-lifter. Just enough to score bread, salami, shoes for Flora (unfortunately too big), a knife, canned sardines. Just enough to stoke the fear of getting caught. Just enough to shudder when a shop-keeper realized he’d been robbed and screamed bloody murder in the neighborhood.

Fred and Flora acquired a taste for petty larceny, a dangerous game that one refines with

dexterity. The fact is that for the very first time in their lives, they were having fun. They lived freely like alley cats, never sleeping in the same spot, getting to know every square in Paris by heart, sometimes letting themselves be locked in churches for the night, or the Luxembourg Gardens, or even the Montmartre cemetery.

Early one morning, as they were getting their act together after a night in a barrack on the fringes of the Montparnasse train station, they heard the galloping of hob-nailed shoes and looked up to see two policemen running after a bearded citizen with reams of hair streaming out behind him like a comet. Without consulting each other, they instinctively made for the cops.  Fred sent the first flatfoot tumbling by thrusting his leg out and tripping him, while Flora barreled head-first towards the voluminous belly of the second who, in trying to avoid her, stumbled and flattened out on the pavement.

The two children raced after the comet-man, who sped down the rue de Vaugirard in the direction of the Luxembourg Gardens before turning into an dead-end street and vanishing, as if swallowed up by the Earth. Fred and Flora couldn’t care less about the man, but they were baffled by this irreal disappearance. Suddenly they heard a light whistle, which seemed to come from a basement vent. They walked towards the sound. The man was there, just behind the bars, and handed them a brand new one-franc coin which glittered in the early morning light.

Fred and Flora had never possessed so much money in their lives. So they didn’t even know what one might buy with a whole franc. For that matter, why buy at all, when it was so easy and exciting to steal? But because for once they’d actually earned this franc, they thought they might as well spend it. They entered a boulangerie, posed the coin on the counter and ordered an extra-large baguette. The boulangeriste considered the coin, weighed it carefully in her hands, placed it between her teeth, bit into it as if she were going to eat it, then removed the coin from her mouth, completely warped. At the same time she cried “Thieves!” loud enough to rouse the entire neighborhood.

Dumbfounded, Fred and Flora amscrayed, confused about why they’d been treated like thieves the first time in their burgeoning lives they’d decided to do something honest.

From hanging out in the streets, Fred inevitably ran into Delesalle, bowed under the weight of an enormous bundle. “What are you carrying there?”

“Books, of course, my boy; what, you expected silverware?”

Delesalle was on his way back to the rue Monsieur-le-Prince, his used book buying done for the day.

“And you, Fred, what’s become of you?”

“I almost got pinched because of a character who slipped me 20 cents.”

“How’s that?”

“The coin was counterfeit. So it’s true that anarchos fabricate their own money? I read that in one of your books.”

“This was the case during the epoch of illegalism. But it doesn’t make any sense today. No more sense than the Bonnot gang. I once knew a counterfeiter who was a solid harness-maker in his time. He earned 60 francs a week. These days, he works like a dog to mold coins that he can’t even get rid of, they reek so much of counterfeit. He earns at most 30 francs, half as much as he made when he was an honest man, and will probably finish his days in the Cayenne penal colony. Listen, Freddy, come with me; come back to the shop. I’ll make a good worker out of you and a useful revolutionary. You’ll learn that rebellion doesn’t lead to anything. Only the rebel who’s transformed himself into a revolutionary is useful. You started out so well.  You don’t miss the books?”

“I do.”

“Rirette and Victor come up for trial on February 3. Between now and then, we need to make a man out of you.”

Fred plunged once again into the sea of books. Every morning he went trolling for rarities with Delesalle. They looked just like ragmen with their arms lugging patchwork canvas sacks which gradually filled up with their bounty as the day progressed until, packed to the brim, they hauled them back to the shop. The boy like the man thrived in this treasure hunt for yellowed paper. And this on top of the surprises from the auctions of bundled lots where, in the mystery trunks acquired, they sometimes unearthed brochures without any commercial value, but which Delesalle considered the pride of his catalogue. Because five times per year the miniscule, somber shop on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince published a catalogue entitled “Publications on Social Movements,” and subtitled, “Bibliographic compendium of all documents relative to social movements in France and abroad.”

In the afternoons, Fred classified, indexed, and above all read for his own edification. Delesalle let him. Watched him. He had his own agenda. But he didn’t want to rush things. Léona and he simply arranged things so that the two children were rescued from their vagabond life and all the dangers of corruption that this engendered.  After all, Péguy had given them a good idea. Flora could help out in the household of  “the venerable Sorel” who, widowed, lived with his nephew.  She’d thus get on-the-job training in cooking, house-keeping, grocery-shopping. And in exchange, the venerable Sorel would put Fred and Flora up in his pavilion house in the suburb of Boulogne.

Flora didn’t entirely appreciate this arrangement, running away several times, but in the end, the venerable Sorel’s good will won out over her innate savagery.

It wasn’t his impressive 66 years that earned him the honor of being referred to as “the venerable Sorel,” but that everything about  him — his stature, his allure — leant him a patriarchal air. Ever since his rupture with Péguy, which meant he no longer had access to the offices of the latter’s Cahiers de la Quinzaine (21) , every Thursday Sorel held forth in Delesalle’s bookstore. Thus while Delesalle’s rapport with Péguy was familiar (although Péguy certainly wasn’t imagining things, contrary to what his enemies at the Sorbonne said, when he vaunted himself as a man of the people), his relationship with Georges Sorel was marked by an unusual veneration, leading the militant revolutionary to insist on addressing the philosopher as “Monsieur Sorel,” or, even more unusual coming from the mouth of a libertaire, “Maître.” (22) (Although after all, it wasn’t the anarchist Proudhon (23) but the socialist Blanqui (24) who came up with the famous slogan, “No God, no Master.”)

With his broad forehead, crowned with white hair, his staccato manner of speaking, and his adoring public who packed Delesalle’s bookshop every Thursday, Sorel fascinated Fred, even as he unnerved him. His speeches, religiously followed by a small audience which combined manual laborers and intellectuals, his indefatigable peroration, and the assurance with which he assumed the posture of maître, annoyed the child, who ended up considering him an incredible bore.  Above all he resented the older man for accepting that Delesalle address him as “maître”; he resented Sorel for this failing on the part of Delesalle, for this default in the bookseller’s otherwise impeccable rigor. The only thing that amused him was the way the man whose  admirers compared him to Socrates ruffled his beard when he reflected.

In fact, it took all of Delesalle’s kindness, authority, and powers of seduction to make Fred, despite his passion for books, remain confined in this small shop in which the only furniture consisted of Paul’s writing table and Léona’s cash register. The rue Monsieur-le-Prince, into which sunlight rarely penetrated, was in and of itself sufficiently morose. No resemblance to the boisterous animation of Les Halles, nor the working-class familiarity of Belleville.

In this dusty, calm atmosphere (too calm for a 13-year-old accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the streets), Fred felt that he was getting stiff. Without doubt he would not have lasted much longer cooped up on the rue Monsieur-le-Prince, had not the dramaturgy of the courtroom opportunely arrived to shake things up.

With Bonnot, Garnier, and Valet eliminated by the forces of order, the sole original member of the gang still alive was Callemin, or Raymond-la-Science, the only one who was able to be captured by surprise. The government, hoping to set an example, had succeeded in inculpating some 20 individuals under the pretext of the charge “association des malfaiteurs,”or criminal association. (25) By virtue of this accusation, Rirette and Victor occupied the place of honor, the judges regarding them as the kingpins of the Bonnot gang because the offices of Anarchy had served as the lair of the ‘tragic bandits.’ Appearances were against them.

Despite that very few members of the public were allowed into the courtroom, plainclothes policemen taking up most of the seats as a precautionary measure, Delesalle had succeeded in getting admitted to the Hall of Justice, accompanied by Fred. The banks of the accused had to be expanded to accommodate the 20 defendants, with each flanked by a pair of gendarmes. They were all young, the median age being around 25. Fred immediately looked for Rirette and Victor. He was astounded to discover a Rirette still fresh-faced, smiling, with her black blouse, Peter Pan collar, and floating ascot tie making her seem all the more juvenile and mischievous. Close to her, Victor Kibaltchich held up his thin silhouette: clad in the traditional Russian peasant smock which constituted his habitual costume, he stood out as the most elegant member of the gang. The most serious as well. Farther along down the line Fred recognized Callemin who, divested of his martingale jacket, bowler hat,  and pince-nez, looked like a junior high school student.

Smiling at the judges and jury, Rirette, with her vivacious voice, quickly demonstrated that neither she nor Victor had sullied their hands in any of the reprehensible deeds of the Bonnot gang. She drew the obvious sympathy of the court, even though it was still angling for its wagon-load of culpables. But Victor somewhat spoiled things with his eloquence. As when the chief judge, annoyed, launched:

“What  are you complaining about? You are a foreigner, banned from your own country, free to express your own ideas in ours, and yet you somehow find a way to welcome assassins into your home.  You’ve been arrested, as is normal, but you’ve not been mistreated.  Have we tried, by unacceptable methods, to extirpate a confession from you?”

“I’m not complaining about the gentleness of your police, Monsieur le judge,” Victor answered in his serious, measured voice. “On the contrary, it’s your amiability which worries me. Monsieur Jouin, deputy chief of security, did not address me familiarly, nor rudely.  He simply wanted me to become his accessory.”

“I’ll thank you not to take the name of a dead person in vain,” the judge exclaimed. “Monsieur Jouin died in the line of duty, assassinated by your friend Bonnot.”

“Bonnot was not my friend.”

“But Callemin, on the other hand, was.”

“He worked with our printer, before this business. I’m in solidarity with anarchists, not murderers.”

The chief judge, with his round bonnet, his mustache and thick beard, his crosses, and his bib, looked like a judge that might have been painted by Georges Rouault, half-judge, half-clown.

roualt clown

George Roualt (1871 – 1958), “Clown de Profil,” 1938-39. Oil on paper laid down on canvas, 80 x 58 cm. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

“What distinction do you draw between an anarchist and an assassin?” the judge pressed. “Wasn’t Bonnot an anarchist?”

“I repeat that the ideas that I’ve stood for all my life do not sanctify thieves and murderers,” Victor responded softly. “We’re accused of being the pivot of a criminal organization. I remind you that we have always been poor, that we had to ask for donations just to be able to publish our newspaper. We have no judicial antecedents. We’ve not killed, nor stolen, nor participated in any of the deeds of which the tragic gang is accused.”

The supreme judge-clown soon lost interest in Victor, whose reasoning, too intellectual, irritated him. He turned towards Raymond-la-Science who, from the beginning of the trial, had brandished a mocking smile.

“Your name is Callemin?”

“Yes, I haven’t changed it since yesterday.”

“What did you mean the day when you told an inspector: ‘My head’s worth 100,000 francs, while yours is only worth seven cents’?”

“Well, 100,000 francs, you’re the one who put that price on my head, and I presume that, in good faith, you paid the louse who denounced me.  As for the seven cents, that’s the price of a Browning bullet.”

The room erupted with laughter.

His hair glossed down, his complexion more ‘baby rose’ than ever, Callemin flouted the court, the jury, the audience. As the chief judge enumerated his crimes, he interrupted:

“I’d also like to confess that it was I who strangled Louis XVI.”

A little later, cutting off the state prosecutor Fabre, stiff as justice in his ermine-trimmed velvet robe, he yelled:

“You’re just delivering a monologue! It’s all about you.”

The criminologist Emile Michon, who, during the nine months of the preliminary investigation, made frequent visits to the accused, testified next. Peculiar testimony, so different than what one might expect from such a man.

“Before I met the accused,” he said, “I thought of them as ferocious animals or, at least, genuine brutes. I was thoroughly surprised to discover men capable of analyzing their sensations and feelings with finesse. Because they like studying, they’re able to endure their detention much more easily than other prisoners. But what surprised me the most was their insensibility to the rigors of winter. When I asked to see them during visiting hours, they’d show up with their shirts unbuttoned, bare-chested. Always exhibiting an exemplary cleanliness, their hands freshly washed, their nails filed, this is how they stood out from the other prisoners, who are usually self-neglected, freezing whiners. Vegetarians who stick to water, every day they practice Swedish gymnastics.”

After this odd homage to the prisoners’ exemplary hygiene, the criminologist Michon added that Callemin had confided in him his yearning to steal an airplane, to pilot the vehicle and descend back to Earth. And he concluded, in a sweeping oratorical gesture:

“With such a mentality, it’s no surprise that this man should end up involved in some kind of crazy adventure!”

During the four weeks the trial lasted, Delesalle made sure that he and Fred witnessed most of the sessions. He wanted the sinister and theatrical images from these proceedings to be burned into the memory of the child. He wanted him to hear the horrible indictment being delivered  by the state prosecutor. He wanted him to witness Callemin being sentenced to death, Rirette being acquitted, and Victor copping five years of prison simply for refusing to be a rat. He wanted this tragi-comedy to serve as a prelude for what he was going to tell the child.

Meanwhile, Flora, well-nourished, spoiled, coddled in the venerable Sorel’s house, expanded. She got a little bit taller, but most of all more curvy. So much so that Léona grew worried and took her to the doctor, who exclaimed joyously, as if it was a good joke:

“But…. this child is going to have a child!”

“My goodness,” said Leona, “better soon than never. Ah! What a funny pair, these two petits!”

Léona and Flora shortly rushed to the rue Monsieur-le-Prince to announce the news.

“What will you name him?” Delesalle asked Fred.

“If it’s a boy, I’ll call him Germinal.”

***

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

2. French for “fish-monger.”

3. “Les Deux Orphelines” (The Two Orphans) was a five-act drama by Adolphe d’Ennery and Eugène Cormon which opened on January 20, 1874, at the théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin on the Grands Boulevards, and which the authors later adopted as a serial novel published in the newspaper La Nation in 1892 and in its entirety by Rouff in 1894.

4. “Belleville” translates as  “Beautiful city.”

5. A thorough explanation of when the French use the familiar ‘tu’ and when they use the formal ‘vous’ could furnish enough material for a doctoral thesis.  For the case in question here, suffice it to say that in their preference for the ‘vous’ even in intimate settings, the anarchists Rirette Maïtrejean and Victor Kibaltchich are joined by former French right-wing president Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette, among others.

6.  Born Gabriel Randon, Jehan Rictus (1867-1933) was known for works written in the street language of his Paris epic, compiled in two books, “The Soliloquies of the Poor” and “The People’s Heart.” The poem translated on page 11,  “La Jasante de la vielle,” begins: Bonjour, c’est moi…moi, ta m’man / J’ suis là, d’vant toi au cimetière…/Louis? / Mon petit… m’entends-tu seulement? / T’entends-t’y ta pauv’ moman d’ mère? / Ta Vieill’ comme’ tu disais dans l’temps. (See link in  chapter above for more information as well as complete versions of the poems, in French.)

7. François Claudius Koënigstein (b. 1859), a.k.a. Ravachol, was a worker and anarchist militant. Judged guilty for several infractions, assassinations, and attacks, he was guillotined on July 11, 1892. Born in 1861, the anarchist Auguste Vaillant’s December 9, 1893 bombing of the French house of representatives, which wounded several people, bought him a date with the guillotine on February 5 of the following year and spurred the adoption by French deputies of a series of laws targeting the anarchists.

8. Initially published in 1842-43 as France’s first serialized novel, “Les Mystéres de Paris,” the story of a rich prince’s efforts, often incognito, to save denizens of the lower depths of Paris, anticipated Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” Eugene Sue (1804-1857) also served as a French deputy, and the novel is footnoted with references to legislative studies providing a social context and factual firmament for Sue’s character studies.

9. Piotr Alexeievitch Kropotkine (1842-1921) was a Russian revolutionary and anarchist. Founder of the Geneva-based anarchist newspaper La Revolte in 1879, he authored books analyzing the scientific bases of anarchy as well as looking at related economic and ethical considerations.

10. A printing corrector by trade (many French anarchists worked in printing — the real Rirette Maitrejean would later go into this trade), Pierre Monatte (1881-1960) was an anarchist and, later, revolutionary union activist and leader. in 1909, he co-founded the newspaper The Worker’s Life and, in 1925, The Proletarian Revolution.

11. Mikhail Alexandrovitch Bakounine (1814-1876), a major Russian revolutionary anarchist activist and theorist, was the author of “Statism and Anarchy “ (1873), and a fervent support of the 1871 Paris Commune.

12. Syndicalisme is the French equivalent of Unionism or Labor activism and organizing.

13. If the literal translation may be “libertarian,” this word does not have the same sense and implications in American English as it does in France, where it’s a more polite umbrella term for non-violent anarchism, encompassing even mainstream thinkers like Albert Camus.

14. A complex figure in the French literary-political landscape, if he began his career as a pupil of Socialist leader Jean Jaures, rallying to the cause of Captain Dreyfus, by 1900 the poet Charles Péguy (1873-1914)  had drifted away from many of his Socialist colleagues, disagreeing with their anti-clericism and anti-militarism. His increasing nationalism lead him to declare, during the build-up to World War I (as cited by Max Gallo in “Le Grand Jaures”), “From the moment war is declared, we’ll haul Jaures before a firing squad,” Jaures having become the leading opponent of war. On July 31, 1914, Jaures was assassinated. Péguy himself would perish at the front later that same year.

15. As described in the “Petit Robert” French encyclopedia (1989), Georges Sorel (1847-1922) advocated an ethical socialism. To liberalism and Democratic “reforms,” Sorel “opposed anarcho-syndicaliste perspectives, seeing in violence, in particular the general strike, the crystallization of the class struggle and in social doctrines the ‘myths’ expressing the aspirations of the proletariat. If Sorel’s theories influenced revolutionary unionism, they were also exploited by the most reactionary movements, particularly in fascist Italy.”

16. Louis Jean-Baptiste Lépine (1846-1933) was the originator of the French criminal brigade.

17. Booksellers along the Seine, whose ranks have included Michel Ragon.

18. Like Rictus — see footnote 6 – Gaston Couté was  a poet who sometimes incorporated the local patois. He also contributed to the libertaire newspapers “The Barricade” and “The Social War.”

19.  Paris’s central auction house.

20. Part of the Foreign Legion, typically composed of soldiers from colonized countries in Africa and the Maghreb, such as Senegal and Morocco.

21. Founded by Péguy in 1900 at 8 rue de la Sorbonne to address political issues, the Cahiers de la Quinzaine published principally Péguy’s own oeuvres but also work by Romain Rolland and others.

22. Lit. ‘master’; in scholarly or artistic circles, a way to recognize the person’s authority in the given domain.

23. Described in the Petit Robert encyclopedia (1989) as the “father of anarchism, unionism and federalism,” Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) appeared to be “at the same time a revolutionary and, according to Marx, a conservative ‘petit bourgeoisie’ constantly racing between Labor and Capital, between political economy and Communism.’”

24. A socialist theorist and revolutionary, Auguste Blanqui (1805-1871) was arrested numerous times between 1831 and 1871 opposing various governments.  In 1877, he launched the newspaper Ni Dieu ni Maiïtre. (Lit.: Neither god, nor master, but the sense intended here was more likely “No god, no master.”)

25. In 2018, the criminal  charge association des malfaiters (literally “association of evil-doers,” the phrase can be translated as “association in a criminal enterprise”) was still being invoked in France, and winning convictions, often in terrorism cases where there were no other charges – where no other criminal acts had actually been committed. In April 2018, the fiasco of the State’s pursuit of the so-called “Tarnac Group,” in which after 10 years authorities had been forced to reduce charges of belonging to a terrorist enterprise to “association des malfaiters,” were finally dismissed when the judge proclaimed, in essence, that the ‘malfaiters’ organization in question – the “Tarnac group” –  did not exist and was therefore a “fiction.”

 

Version originale (partial excerpt of the part translated above) par Michel Ragon

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

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck.”

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

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

— Bas les pattes ! A-t-on idée !

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

Elle se débattit.

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

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

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

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

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

— Onze.

— Tu es bien petite.

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

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

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

— Fred.

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

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

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

— Mais je ne t’ai pas enlevée !

— Si, tu m’as reniflé les jambes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Dehors, guenilleux, vermine !

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

— Qu’est-ce qu’elle t’a refilé ?

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

— Chouette, on va se payer des petits pains.

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

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

— Alors, les amoureux, on musarde ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Oui, dit Flora.

— Alors, venez.

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

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

— Moi je suis Fred, elle c’est Flora.

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

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

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