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

hugo hernani artcurial

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction by Victor Hugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victor Hugo
December 20, 1837

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

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

Monsieur Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française

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

Session of November 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And ‘Hernani’ obtained 50 consecutive performances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[At this point Victor Hugo himself rises.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Next: The Appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why a duck shop bothers me.

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

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My dear Laivit-Canne….”

“Monsieur Laivit-Canne….”

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

“I’ve just cut off Manhès!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh!”

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

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

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

“Manhès has always struck me as a racist.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version originale par et copyright Michel Ragon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Mon cher Laivit-Canne…

— Monsieur Laivit-Canne…

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

— Je viens de couper les vivres à Manhes !

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

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

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

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

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

— Oh !

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

— Manhès m’a traité de Juif honteux…

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

— Manhès m’a toujours paru raciste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amélie’s got a gun, just like Patty – Lola Lafon conjures Hearst and illuminates a contemporary phenomenon (updated with new translations)

By Lola Lafon, as translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright Actes Sud; translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Lola Lafon, ibid

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lafon small

Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K., and courtesy Actes-Sud.

Translator’s note: If the ‘you’ addressed by Lola Lafon’s narrator is Neveva Gene, the fictional American professor teaching at a private women’s college in rural France who’s been hired by Patricia Hearst’s attorneys to analyze the Hearst coverage and the tape-recorded messages from Patty released by her kidnappers the “Symbionese Liberation Army”  as they try to prove she was brainwashed or coerced into participating in the SLA crimes, this is not a case of the author pretending to be the interior voice of her protagonist. There’s a practical explanation: As becomes clear over the course of the book, the narrator grew up as one of the adopted charges of the adult Violaine, subsequent to the latter’s apprenticeship with Neveva in 1974. During that apprenticeship — while working on the Hearst brief – the French teenager kept a diary. So when the narrator, finding her way to Smith College in 2015 (see first excerpt below) explains (still addressing Gene), “I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you (emphasis added),” she means that she’s supposing Neveva – and the details of her collaboration with the French teenager Violaine on the Hearst case and their ensuing relationship which form the bulk of the novel – based on what Violaine has told her and on her own reading and interpretation of Violaine’s notes. (In addressing Gene in the second person, Lafon employs the formal “vous,” thus dispensing with any notion that she’s presuming to be the character’s interior voice.)

In this world where everything is manipulated, where the only thing that can’t be split up is money, and where the heart is rent in half, you can’t rest neutrally on the sidelines.

–Paul Nizan, “La Conspiration,” cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy Mary Patty”

 You write of the disappearing teen-aged girls.  You write of these missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to search out new vistas without the ability to sort the good from the rotten, elusive, their minds shutting out adults. You question our brutal need to ‘just talk some sense into them.’ You write of the rage of these young people who, at night, in their bedrooms surrounded by stuffed animals, dream up victorious evasions, boarding dilapidated buses, trains, and strangers’ cars, abandoning the neatly paved road for the rubble.

“Mercy Mary Patty,” your study published in 1977 in the U.S., which has just been re-issued, augmented with a new preface by you and a brief publisher’s note, is dedicated to them.  It’s not yet been translated into French. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your résumé, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through your teaching positions: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic revues over the past few months underline the importance of your research, magazines analyze what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker devotes two columns to  you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenaged girls, from Mercy Short** in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.” The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga is old history, You’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, those girls swearing allegiance to a god like one idolizes a movie star, Marx, God, different eras, different tastes…. I’m guessing you’re a student at Smith, he goes on, if you’re looking to meet the author, she’s probably listed in the faculty directory.

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

Chapter One

October 1975

The three girls who have responded to your notice are there, sitting across from you in your cramped office, you offer them a bag of peanuts and cashews, your knees bump up against the desk, your light blue Shetland sweater sports elbow patches, your hitched-up Levis reveal the malleoluses of your ankles. You say Bonjour, I’m Neveva Gene, pronounced ‘Gene’ as in Gene Kelly or Gene Tierney, no nick-names please, no ‘Gena,’ no ‘Jenny.’

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

American Lifestyle and Culture, the course you’re teaching at the College of the Dunes, is multi-faceted; you rapidly enumerate what you’d anticipated teaching before you arrived, the distinct architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, an examination of the success of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” an explanation of the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker, the adventure of Apollo 16 and, finally, the invention of the Arpanet and its consequences for communication. Daunting program. The fact is that you  harbored big hopes for this college. They should see the welcome brochure, three pages on pedagogic innovation, but the reality is something else, this institution is merely the umpteenth private school for girls without any particular qualities who drift aimlessly about after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, adorable domestic pets brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who understand absolutely nothing in the articles you hand out. The young candidates say nothing and wait politely to find out what this has got to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed.” Or maybe they’re just terrified now at the idea of being subjected to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t said a word. One by one, they recite an article from the New York Times out loud, then translate the essentials, you ask them about the books they read, their musical tastes, pretend not to understand if they answer in French, Sorry?

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

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

“In fact, do you know who Patricia Hearst is?” They’re on the landing when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates hastens to answer: During her vacation in the U.S., she saw her on t.v., Patricia is very rich she was kidnapped and…. She’s cut off by her competition, yes they talked about her in France, there was a fusillade, a fire, and she was killed. No, you correct her, she’s alive, the police caught her. It’s the kidnappers who are dead. And you’ve been hired to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask about this mysterious “they” who have engaged your services or why “they” picked you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also a foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That’s enough in itself. The young woman whose English level you praised hasn’t uttered a word, distressed, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That same night, her mother nudges her bedroom door open, her hand on the telephone: It’s for you, a funny accent, certainly the American professor.

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

Chapter Two

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

That of the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst on February 4, 1974 by an obscure revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the first message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording deposited by her abductors at the entrance to a radical radio station which mesmerized the entire country, her feeble voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m all right”? How to explain to these French girls just looking for work that in the eyes of the FBI, the victim metamorphosed into a perpetrator in less than two months; converted to the Marxist cause of her captors, she was even identified at their sides April 15 on the video-surveillance images from a San Francisco bank, armed with an M1. It’s understandable that you’re cautious about what the candidates know and don’t say anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.

As for your task, the “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here as well you take shortcuts and consign Patricia’s lawyer, your client, to the shadows. You have just 15 days to find something in the cardboard box overflowing with Xeroxes that will help you write an expert report proving the innocence of this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial date approaches. 15 days to determine, who is the real Patricia Hearst?: a Marxist terrorist, a lost co-ed, an authentic revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a cause at random, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with her sights set on America?

Chapter Three

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

You put some sugar-coated cookies out on a plate, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, saveur Russe, it’s up to her, you indicate 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes on the kitchen counter. She picks one at random, doesn’t dare tell you that in her family, whether it’s black tea or herbal tea, it’s only imbibed when one’s sick. Remaining standing, she listens to you, her cup in hand, you’ve not invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.

“Summarizing the articles would be too fastidious, we need to concentrate on the details,” with a finger you pick at the frayed edges of the cardboard box posed on the dining room table. The French girl acquiesces, looking for signs, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone, the reddened nostrils testify to this, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are yellowed with tobacco, you laugh with your mouth full of chewed-up cookies without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled necklaces peak out from a half-opened drawer; you tack 33 record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, twice you allude to your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the expression suggests an extended adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the WC you continue talking to your assistant, yelling at her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.

You’re the first American she’s ever met. Speaking this language that she associates with novels and movie stars, hearing her own voice become foreign makes your first day together an intoxicating role-playing game. Everything is part of the scenery, a stop-over in an exotic wonderland, the peanut butter you spread on the crackers whose pale crumbs are strewn all over the rug, your bedroom with the storm-windows shuttered in the daytime, the books piled up at the foot of your bed and the stacks of dailies and weeklies that you ask her to sort by name: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle.  You toss around the words casually, kidnapping, FBI, abductors, when night falls, you rub your eyes like a tired child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you marvel at the manila folders that the girl has prepared, as well as the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders that she pulls out of her bag.

“I love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you, ‘Violette,’ maybe because it makes you sound too much like a fragile flower….”

My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You skooch your legs under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the  smoke rings evaporating before they hit the ceiling.

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

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

The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean rose up to the level of the dunes! The paths along the moors. Absolutely identical, no point of reference, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern tree is sand. The sand, you sigh…. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which melts into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that ends up embedded in your purse, encrusted in the spirals of your notebooks, stuck to the base of the bed, clinging to the soleus of your calves, rooted in your socks.

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

The sand, you repeat practically every day, exasperated, removing your tennis shoes and shaking them out over the ground.

Day 13

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

It’s noon, people are emerging from the chapel, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who you never let out of your sight, you whistle and put an end to the social whirl. You dismiss all these pious church-goers out loud in English, tell Violaine to note their holier-than-though airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies — our own.

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

This providential book, you read it all in one night, the Stanislavski Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the big American actors, Robert de Niro used it for his approach to playing Travis McGee in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). It includes an abundance of exercises to aid in character-building. And without a doubt, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll portray Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you; what, Marxism isn’t contagious?!

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

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

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

“Too mature for her age.”

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

“Secretive.”

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

“A symbolic example.”

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

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

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

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

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

Day 14 (Excerpt)

Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the following morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve really only just begun writing it. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this recording, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “… understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.”

When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without a word, no mea culpa and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are, “all the others,” does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what is she supposed to be the example, Patricia…?

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

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

Day 15

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

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

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

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

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

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

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

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

From pages 139-140:  

(The “I” in this segment is the narrator herself, now an adult after having in her turn grown up at the knees of the adult Violaine.)

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

A national dance theater at the Bibliothèque Nationale Française

chaillot isadora

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

The trial of Isadora Duncan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fernand Léger on why Liberté is not to be taken legerement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Lola Lafon, ibid

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

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

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

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

lafon small

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

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

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

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

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

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

44.36.1-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

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

“Too mature for her age.”

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

“Secretive.”

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

“A symbolic example.”

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

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

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

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

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

Day 14

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

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

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

From pages 108-112:

Day 15

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

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

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

 

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

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.