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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.

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

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

Stael soleil 5 small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Inaccessible Place

by Gustave de Staël
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Scroll down for original French version.)

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

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

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

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

stael paysage de provence 100

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tangiers, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Un lieu Inaccessible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanger, janvier 2018

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.

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.

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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”?

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Chantal portrait small                                           Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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

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

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

First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a bit later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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