Lutèce Diary / A post-modern American in Paris, 40: The Gift (Le Cadeau) or, Pour en finir avec le Céline-o-mania

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

A Sidney, pour les soins….et a Lewis, Jamie, Martin, et tout mes péres, qui rien n’avais obligé d’y etre mais qui se sont comporté comme tel. /To Sidney, for the care…. and to Lewis, Jamie, Martin, and all my fathers who nothing obligated to be but who comported themselves as such.

Prélude: Poète surréaliste chrétienne morte a Drancy, car née Juif

“Love thy neighbor”

Who noticed the toad cross the street? He was just a little man — a doll would not have been more miniscule. He dragged himself along on his knees — as if he were ashamed….? No! He has rheumatism, one leg remains behind, he drags it forward! Where is he going like that? He comes out of the sewer, the poor clown. No one has noticed this toad in the street. Before no one noticed me in the street, now children make fun of my yellow star. Happy toad! You don’t have a yellow star.” (Voir dessous pour le V.O. / See below for the original French version.)

— Max Jacob, Surrealist poet, comrade of Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Picasso, arrested by the Gestapo on February 24, 1944, in the Brittany village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. In a note hastily scribbled on the train to the Orleans prison, Jacob, who since converting to Christianity before the first World War liked to write personalized proselytizing homilies for his colleagues and whose poetry was suffused with devotional tributes to Christ, wrote: “Dear Monsieur le Cure, Excuse this letter from a drowning man written with the complaisance of the gendarmes. I wanted to tell you that I’ll soon be in Drancy. I have conversions in process. I have confidence in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom which now begins.” On March 5, Jacob succumbed to pneumonia at the Drancy way station outside Paris before he could be deported — or confessed. At Drancy, there were no priests. (Poem collected in “Max Jacob,” edited by Andre Billy, published by and copyright Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946. Letter cited by Billy in “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.)

1932: The Semence

Paris, the Grands Boulevards, a winter evening in 1916. The young conscript, on furlough from the hospital where doctors are trying to determine if he’s crazy or just doesn’t want to return to the trenches of a crazy war, enters the Olympia nightclub and observes, as recounted by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his 1932 “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” still considered by the French and American literary establishments to be the author’s safe, non-Anti-Semitic book (shortly after publication, it was translated into Russian by the French Communist super-star couple Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet; New Directions still proudly hawks the English translation):

“Already in wartime our morose peace was sowing its seeds…. We could imagine what it would become, this hysteria, just from seeing it already agitating in the Olympia tavern. Below in the narrow, shady dancing cave with its 100 mirrors, it pawed the dust in the great desperation of the Négro-Judéo-Saxonne music. Brits and Blacks all mingling together. Levantines and Russians. They were everywhere, smoking, brawling, sad sacks and soldiers, crammed onto crimson sofas. These uniforms, which we barely remember anymore, would sow the seeds of today, this Thing which continues to germinate and would become a dung-hill a little later, with time.”

1940-45: The Harvest

Some 13 years after Louis-Ferdinand Céline thus fulminated (the parallels between his own trajectory and that of his first-person hero, “Ferdinand,” make the defense that an author doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the opinions of his personage dubious), the ‘semence’ he (and his publishers, including Gallimard) helped sow (in ‘Voyage’ and three pamphlets taxed as being anti-Semitic, although the Judeophobic grotesque Céline paints of himself and of the anti-Semitic rationale in general in the 1937 “Bagatelles for a massacre,” in which he also wrote: “In the leg of a dancer the world, its waves, all its rhythms, its follies, its views are inscribed…. The most nuanced poem in the world!,” the ‘bagatelles’ being ballets without music, makes that epithet problematic here) by furnishing civilized literary cover for his countrymen who would collaborate with the German occupiers in the Deportation of 76,000 of their Jewish neighbors, including 11,000 children, only 3,000 of whom would return from the death camps — Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago this month — manifests its real-world toll on the sixth-floor balcony of a building on a corner of the rue Hauteville above the “Bonne Nouvelles” (Good News) Metro station, several blocks up the Grands-Boulevards from the Olympia, where a woman straddles the railing, distraught that the daughter arrested by a good French policeman after she was turned in by a good French neighbor has still not returned after the war, the room the woman has reserved for her child remaining vacant.

The precarious mental state of the woman had recently prompted her brother and his wife to return from the United States to France, where the wife will later give birth to three sons, the semence of a new generation of French Jews who have not lost hope in France. Two of the sons will grow up to become, respectively, a general practitioner and a dentist — my doctor and my dentist starting when I lived on the rue de Paradis up the street in the early 2000s — converting the apartment on whose balcony rail their aunt once teetered into a medical bureau, their offices separated by a waiting room decorated by posters of Satchmo blowing, Gabriel, blowing, his cheeks puffed up; Marilyn Monroe’s white skirt billowing from the gusts of wind rising out of a subway grating on location for “The Seven-Year Itch” to reveal her underwear; and Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘draguing’ the American Jean Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the New York Herald Tribune with its logo emblazoned across her chest in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” this last poster a nod to what I’d always understood as the doctors’ mixed Franco-American heritage, their mother being an American citizen.

Warsaw 1938 / Paris 2019: Blood Memory or, How a lazy American doctor in Poland in 1938 helped restore my teeth in Paris in 2019

“What are you going to do with the poster?” I’d asked Dr. B at the first of what would turn out to be more than four months of excavating involving what seemed, between removing the debris of crumbling 50-year-old choppers and uninvited bone spurs, like 20 extractions, followed by several weeks of chiseling, adjusting, and refining the replacement troops, and a whole lot of blood-letting. After our rendez-vouses, I’d often test the adjustments by munching packaged chocolate-covered Belgian waffles, ‘arrosed’ by hot thermos Russian Earl Gray or Green Tea (when there hadn’t been any blood-letting), imbibed from my perch on the steps below the elevated sidewalk across from the doctors’ offices looking down the Boulevard, squinting my eyes and trying to see this quintessential Parisian vantage point like Pissarro, another imported French Jew, must have seen it when he painted “The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning” from a window of the Hotel Russe just down the street, 120 years earlier. The painting had been my favorite since I was a teenager growing up in San Francisco, as if this lieu was already implanted in my blood memory.

Dr. B being the only dentist who’s ever actually made my teeth better than they were before I submitted myself to his scalpel (sans parle de mon ame; no matter how brutal the dental work had been, I always felt sublime emerging on Hauteville and the Grands Boulevards afterwards as I sipped my tea, probably because of the care and assurance with which Dr. B treated me, patiently explaining the necessity for each step no matter how over-wrought my questions), I’d rushed to Paris after he’d announced that he would be retiring in July so that he could do for my lower mouth what he’d done for the upper in 2016, like Oscar re-building Six-Million Dollar Man Steve Austin to “make him better than he was.” (Dr. B charged me a lot less than that.) At my question about the poster (I’d hoped he’d offer it to me as a souvenir), he only shrugged his shoulders and smiled enigmatically. (Ironically, the first time I’d seen the film was in the Cinematheque Française’s dilapidated theater just below on the Boulevards. When Belmondo exhaled his final fumes after being mortally wounded, I was the only one in the theater who thought this was funny.)

Dr. B has been treating my teeth since 2003. Even my best Paris friend Marcel, an electrician who owns a lamp boutique up the street on the rue de la Fidelité, le Soleil de l’Est — his shop is down the hill from the Gare de l’Est, from which many of the French and foreign Jews were deported, probably including Marcel’s own grandparents — is incredulous when I declare that Dr. B is the only dentist I’ve ever actually looked forward to seeing, he’s so chic. No matter how many times I assure him — often stopping in at the boutique to talk politics on my way to Dr. B’s, knowing that after the appointment I won’t be able to open my mouth — Marcel inevitably shivers and explains, “Ever since I saw ‘Marathon Man’ I cringe at the very idea of going to the dentist’s.” I’ve known Marcel even longer than I’ve known Dr. B, since I began living on the rue de Paradis which Fidelité becomes (across the street from where Pissarro took his first Paris painting lessons in the atelier of Camille Corot, where Berthe Morisot was also a student), and asked him to re-attach a retro ’50s-style wall fixture my landlord had discarded. While I’d been aware for a while that Marcel was the child of a Holocaust survivor and the grandchild of Holocaust victims (the subject first came up when we discussed the anti-Semitic virages of the Right-wing National Front, whose founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was once fined for dismissing the gas chambers as “a detail of history”), I only recently learned the details: Like the late singer Serge Gainsbourg, Marcel’s father was hidden out during the war in the environs of Paris (unlike my dentist’s cousin, no one had ratted Marcel’s father out). This heritage probably explains why one of the rare subjects on which Marcel and I disagree is Israel. I had applauded the “End Zionist Racism” stickers that began popping up on Paris lamp-poles and bus shelters last Spring, excoriating Israel’s treatment (to use a euphemism) of Palestinians, and did not consider them anti-Semitic. (As in general I don’t consider anti-Zionism anti-Semitism, a ludicrous equivalence when Zionist soldiers are gunning down unarmed Semites in Gaza. Neither being Jewish in and of itself nor the Holocaust should get Israel a get out of International Criminal Court free card.) Until I realized that a big part of what alarmed Marcel was that the stickers were yellow. (Not withstanding what I just said in the previous parenthesis, coding should not be ignored.) As I don’t have a television, it took Marcel to alert me to the anti-Semitic remarks being issued by some of the more Right-wing members of the so-called “Yellow Vests,” the disparate protest movement which emerged last year, over-blown by the media. Marcel only learned of his father’s Holocaust history from his uncle, which is typical; Holocaust survivors often don’t like to talk about their experience.

Not only have I never seen “Marathon Man,” I have no personal Holocaust history, my own ancestors having been ‘fortunate’ to have been chased out of Eastern Europe (save a British grandmother whose parents may have been Iranian; she was brought up as an orphan in Canada) by the Cossacks before Hitler occupied it. When I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 1978 as part of a State Department delegation of American high school students, I had to conjure a conservatory experience playing Peter, the hero’s boyfriend, in “The Diary of Anne Frank” to move myself to tears. (We always cried offstage — during the last scene, when Otto Frank returns to the Secret Annex and learns of Anne’s diary — when we were supposed to be dead. Until a parent in the audience told us, “We can hear you!” Whenever we’d get too goofy in rehearsal, our director, Lewis Campbell, would remind us of our solemn task by shouting “BRAUSEBOT!,” the German word for shower. We loved to imitate this gruff-voiced declaration. Never mind that some of us were Jewish; we were just high school kids, and none of us had lived this experience.) One of the first Holocaust survivors I knew personally — my high school civics teacher, John Franklin, also the happiest man I ever knew, with a smile that radiated his entire face — once told us, with his slight European accent, that he thought there should be a statute of limitations for war crimes, including Nazi war crimes. (The first Holocaust survivor I knew was Hans Ingres, who with his wife Ingrid — her family hid him out in Holland during the War — hosted an annual ‘Herring Festival’ in the Northern California fishing community of Tamales Bay for their large tribe of adopted children and neighbors including my family. Pickled herring, creamed herring, fried herring, herring bread…..) When I finally got around to asking John to talk about his experience in the camps — during a 2012 visit to his home in Mill Valley, while sitting around a 1000-year-old redwood trunk projecting through a hole on his deck which constantly has to be widened to accommodate its swelling — it was too late; he was in the first stages of Alzheimer. The last time I reached him, by phone in 2014 from Paris, and asked John if he remembered who I was, he answered, “Vaguely.” When memory goes for a stroll it does not return.

In France, Jews (at least secular Jews) don’t even seem to like to reveal that they’re Jewish, as if they’re afraid of being rounded up again if they can be identified and localized. (In France, Vichy officials went farther than those in other occupied countries by registering Jews.) In this way Paris is not like San Francisco or New York, where finding out a new acquaintance is also Jewish is like discovering any other shared facet. (In conservatory, me and other Jewish kids never stopped good-naturedly ribbing my best friend — he played Otto Frank, and also Jesus in Godspell; for the latter, I’d famously insisted that the costume designer sew a Star of David on the butt of my pants; this was shortly after I returned from participating in the delegation to Israel — with jokes which played on his being ‘half-Jewish.’) Another reason for our ease with the Jewish part of our identities was that in the U.S. one can be Jewish without being religious — it’s considered a culture, even a race. (Ironically, if I have less Jewish pride in France than I had when I was younger in the U.S., it’s not because I have any fear of being rounded up but because the self-proclaimed Counsel of Representative Jewish Organizations’ reflexive defense of Israel no matter how many Palestinians it kills makes it harder to disassociate being Jewish with being a supporter of Israel. This for me is what makes statistics about supposedly rising anti-Semitism in France problematic; if a young Arab-French man calls me a “dirty Jew” — I’ve heard this phrase exactly once in 20 years, and it may not have been directed at me — is he really criticizing my ethnic appurtenance, or what he presumes, thanks to the Counsel, to be my lock-step support of a country which kills unarmed young Arabs?) The French in general reject this concept of cultural or racial Judaism because of what it has generated in the past (permitting, for example, even a well-known French Surrealist, Max Jacob, to be arrested for Deportation because Jewish more than 30 years after he’d converted to Catholicism, a conversion evident in many of his post-conversion poems). In my first months in Paris, I’d even (stupidly) cut off a French friend after she’d insisted that Judaism was not a race (thus, to my mind, telling me I could not be Jewish because I was not religious), abruptly walking away from her car after she stopped to pick up her clown costume.

My own theory on contemporary French Jews’ reluctance to identify themselves as such — even to friends and acquaintances who might be MOT (members of the Tribe, as John once explained the acronym to me) — is that this discretion protects them from being rounded up again when the day returns. How this has manifest itself practically for me is that except for a girl I dated whose name was Sophie Goldstein and another who proudly proclaimed herself a Jew for Jesus (Max would have been proud), in 20 years in France I haven’t had a single friend who I knew to be Jewish, except Marcel. And this only came out — that he was the child of a Holocaust survivor — in our concerned discussions of the National Front, which polled 34 percent in the last presidential elections and is in a good position to do better in the 2022 vote, given the (in my view largely unfair) railing against French president Emmanuel Macron, whose popularity had dipped to 30 percent in one recent poll. (My hope in the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, was chastened recently when he chickened out from participating in a Paris demonstration against Islamophobia, a term which, unlike Anti-Semitism, which is bandied about too freely here, is typically only uttered by the French media in quotes, as if it doesn’t even exist. I am hammering on this point because if you are really concerned about a resurgence of anti-Semitism, the best way to agitate against it is to rail against intolerance in whatever guise and against whichever community it surfaces.)

…. Thus it was that until a late, overcast afternoon in February 2019 when I reclined in the dentist’s chair above the Grands Boulevards, my head lolling to the side, waiting for the Novocain to kick in so we could clear away more ivory rubble, except for a general idea that my neighborhood used to be a Jewish neighborhood, I had no idea that Dr. B and his brother were also MOT.

“I bet you’re going to miss that,” I’d observed, nodding at the zinc rooftops glistening under the light drizzle across Hauteville (outside the same window, I’d shortly learn, from which Dr. B’s aunt had been poised to jump more than 70 years ago) from my supine position in the chair. There was no need to elaborate; Dr. B and I have always shared an emerveillement for the quotidian joys Paris has to offer those with eyes to see. (As well as a frustration with certain elements of a changing French society, such as a national train company which seems determined to push everyone to the Internet. On another afternoon, after I’d huffed up the six flights of stairs — the elevator being out of order for a month — and explained how I was late because the train company had ‘sent me promenading’ to four different stations from the Left to the Right bank just to try to change one ticket, Dr. B. sympathized, recounting his experience trying to change a ticket at the company’s boutique on the Grands Boulevards, only to discover that it had been shuttered. We also both prefer the public radio chain “FIP” to “France Musique” as operating music. “Too much talk!” on the latter.)

On this particular afternoon, we were alone. “Amélie” (not her real name) — Dr. B’s assistant, who’s also been ‘with me’ since the debut — “had to go home early so she could pick up her kids. The snow is one-foot deep in the suburbs! I had to cancel all my morning appointments.”

I’d come to Dr. B to restore my teeth. On this wintry afternoon, prompted no doubt by the absence of his assistant which meant we were alone, he’d decided to give me something just as precious: memory.

A Winter Afternoon off the Boulevard Montmartre

Dr. B began his account anodynely enough, this story of his family, this history of a shared heritage I hadn’t been aware of and whose commonality he was about to enrich, this story which would reveal how a lazy American doctor in Warsaw in 1939 saved my teeth in Paris in 2019. He began it, this transmission, in a manner that made it seem at first like he was just killing time until the anesthetic kicked in and he could operate, like any dentist. But this was not just any kind of small talk, this was not just any dentist, and this would become a lot more than any drizzle-infused late winter afternoon in Paris. It would become a gift, and it would change the way I perceived those Grands Boulevards, the way I experienced them, the lives I lived and the ghosts, the phantoms who accompanied me walking down these boulevards I’d roamed for 20 years, often to the soundtrack of Montand rhapsodizing about the “so many things” they offered, and had known, via the prism of Pissarro, like Dr. B and me a Parisian Jew, for 40. It would even restore the rapport with the Holocaust I used to have, first instilled in me by John Franklin and Lewis Campbell (as well by a junior high school art teacher who showed us a film that must have been Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog”) also 40 years ago, before it was evacuated by what has become Israel’s usurpation of the memory of this mass murder for base political ends. (As Emmanuel Macron indicated at Yad Vashem this week in warning against invoking the Holocaust to justify contemporary political ends, as Israel’s prime minister shamelessly did at the same ceremony in using the occasion to rail against Iran.) It would take this memory away from the politicians and give it back to me. It would make it personal. And make it mine.

“L’usage veut”

After I did my alto number — despite my explaining to Dr. B that crying out “Eeh eeh eeh!” when he sticks the needle into my gums is my way to evacuate the pain, he inevitably tries to calm me with “Uh uh uh!” — we had some time before my mouth went numb and he could begin to work, so Dr. B told me, “My son’s coming home! He’s been in New York for eight years and he’s had enough of it.” He’d once told me about a trip he and his wife had made to the States to make sure that his American citizenship would carry over to his son. The kid works for an Internet company that delivers recipes and the ingredients to realize them to eight million clients across the United States. Toujours donc dans la domaine des metiers de la bouche comme son pere; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “Americans don’t like to cook,” Dr. B explained. Because the son’s wife doesn’t have a lot of family — “her mother is from Finland and speaks a Hungarian patois” — she’s ready to return to France with him.

We compared Brooklyn notes – Dr. B went to visit his boy there once, and was particularly impressed by “a little park. Fort….” “Green! Not so little.” When I lived in Greenwich Village in the late ’90s, I’d commemorate July 4 by walking and eating my way across ethnic America, a promenade which took me across the Brooklyn Bridge and through Fort Green (mostly Black; White Castle burgers) and various sections of Williamsburg (Jewish; kischka and chocolate and cinnamon hamentoschen), Williamsburg further on (Puerto Rican; squares for making Mexican hot chocolate, on sale at the bodegas), and Bohemian (root curry at a vegetarian café that might have been called Oz) when they were real Bohemians, the pioneers that settled Brook-Land in 1995 when the rents were still cheaper than Manhattan and before Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and the rest of most of the borough became BoBo or Hipster. “My last time in New York,” I shared, “I lived in Greenpoint, the Polish section. Whenever I walked into a Polish deli the saleswomen would start talking to me in Polish. They just assumed I was one of them.” A MOT quoi.

What had impressed Dr. B the most on his first and only visit to New York was how the Haitian immigrants spoke better French than he did. “One time we walked into a restaurant, and I hadn’t gotten two (English) words out of my mouth before the waiter guessed I was French. Then he used this Old School French phrase that’s barely evoked anymore, it’s so formal: ‘Le usage veut’ (custom would have it) that one leaves a tip here.'” Because in France a 15% service charge is included in the check, French visitors to the U.S. apparently don’t always think to add a tip. “I can tell you the reverse isn’t true,” I quipped. “French waiters here never tell American customers that the custom veut that they don’t need to leave a tip.” Dr. B thought this was funny, as he did earlier when I told him how the previous week, right after he’d taken out three teeth, I’d gone straight to a vernissage near the Pere Lachaise cemetery (where Pissarro is buried… in the Jewish section) where I’d proceeded to drague — pick up — two Parisiennes at the same time. “Too bad you’re retiring,” I’d added. “I could write you a testimonial: ‘After Dr. B pulled three of my teeth, I picked up two women.’ And that was with half my teeth still missing. Just think, after you make the second denture, there won’t be any women left in Paris for the other guys.” He liked this too.

When the work was done and we were sitting at his desk, Dr. B paused after dawdling over his appointment book to fix our next rendez-vous, his pen still in the air as he looked down at the book and then, out of nowhere, with absolutely no pretense, began his story, which might have been mine had my ancestors not been chased out of Europe before the Holocaust. But only after he’d nonchalantly asked me where my parents came from, as if needing to confirm first, without directly posing ‘the Jewish question,’ that his story would have a special, essential resonance for me, an American Jew — a fellow American Jew — who by the accidents of history did not have any direct line to the Holocaust, had not lost anyone. After I answered that my parents had origins in Ukraine/Russia (depending on who had Kiev at the time), Georgia, Romania, and England by way of Canada — my ancestors all having had the luck to have been chased out of Europe in the pogroms before the Holocaust — he began the story of his.

“You know, not only were both my parents Polish, they came from the same small town.” (Parenthetically, he added that this is why he prefers a certain brand of Polish vodka whose name I can’t pronounce, but which has a blade of some kind of plant in the bottle; it’s from the same region as Dr. B’s parents.) The reason this was funny is that this village isn’t where they actually got together. They both left Poland before the war, but not for the same place. She went to America (we’ll get to that), and he (I’m not sure I followed all of this part), to avoid getting drafted by the Polish army, went to France and joined the Foreign Legion, then to America, where he was told he’d have to serve in that army. “’But I don’t speak English.’ ‘Doesn’t matter.’

“He drove a Sherman tank” for the Americans, Dr. B. went on. “During the Normandy invasion, he fought in Dieppe. He was such a good shot that instead of using the built-in gun in the turret he would use a machine gun and fire through the little hole in front. He could fix a target at long range, but the vulnerability of the Sherman tanks was that once someone got within 10 feet of you, you couldn’t see them. So the Germans would sneak up at the side and toss grenades in, or slip them under the tank.

“One day he told me that he would often wake up in the middle of the night because ‘I shot someone and sometimes I see him still running towards me with his hands in the air.’ He was in the tank, and saw a man driving a pony cart. Suddenly the man jumped off and came running towards the tank with his hands in the air. My father had five seconds to decide if the guy was trying to give himself up, or if it was a trick. And it didn’t involve just him — he was responsible for five lives.” So he shot and killed the man. “It turned out that a cabbage had fallen off his cart and the man was just trying to retrieve it….

“My mom and dad had actually met before the war, at a dance in their Polish village. He was friends with her older brother. When he told her, ‘We’ll meet again,’ she was doubtful, as she already knew she was probably going to America because of the growing discrimination towards the Jews. Well, when he got to America he looked up her brother” — they were living in Iowa — “found her, and within three weeks they were married and back in France.”

It was what happened to his father’s sister and my dentist’s cousin in Occupied Paris that made it urgent for his father and mother to return to France.

“Her child, her daughter, was able to obtain false papers, but within three months a neighbor turned her in and she was arrested — by the French police. My aunt kept a room in the apartment vacant for years, hoping her daughter would reappear after the war.” At this point Dr. B made a sweeping gesture around the office and I realized that its examination rooms and waiting room had been that apartment.

“He had to come back,” Dr. B explained about his father’s decision to bring Dr. B’s mother back to France, “because my aunt was ready to kill herself. He even found her once” — at this he gestured towards the wall-length windows looking out over the zinc rooftops across the street (during one appointment I’d nodded my head sideways at these roofs just before Dr. B took out the three teeth and said, “C’est ca, Paris” and he’d nodded) and mimicked someone scaling the barrier and jumping.

I’ve saved the most serendipitous element for last.

“You know how my mother was saved? Her parents had waited until the last moment before deciding to try to send her to America, as the sentiment towards the Jews deteriorated. You know, before the war it wasn’t like that. The Jewish kids and the Catholic kids went to school together. When it came time for church class, the Jewish kids would leave the room. When it came time for Jewish religious class, the Catholic kids would leave.” Her parents knew it was time to send their daughter – my dentist’s mother – to the U.S. when an older Jewish girl was stoned.

“By that time, it wasn’t Ellis Island any more” — the point of entry to the U.S. — “where immigrants had to pass a physical before being admitted to the U.S., but Warsaw.” (American authorities — this is my insertion — sometimes abetted by the American Jewish establishment weren’t letting refugees get so close to New York without screening them first in their home countries. One boat of 1500 refugees was even turned back to Europe at New York Harbor, half the passengers later perishing in the camps.) “She had to have a medical exam because if you were sick, you wouldn’t be accepted into the United States. She was 12 or 13 — actually, we don’t know her age,” because — like the girls being separated into you work, you go to the gas chamber lines on arrival at the death camps, she probably lied about it to increase her chances of getting into the U.S. . “The problem was that she had a bad left eye.” He pointed to his. “So when it was time for the eye test, after the first row she couldn’t see anything. But she didn’t hesitate. She called out every letter as if she knew it.” Fortunately — here’s where the lazy doctor in Warsaw in 1938 saving my teeth in Paris in 2019 part comes in — the doctor wasn’t looking at the chart, but at Dr. B’s mom. By the confidence with which she named the letters as if she actually could read them, he assumed her vision was perfect.

“Chance is a funny thing,” Dr. B observed, shaking his head.

After I left Dr. B’s office, strolling at this nocturnal hour towards the Place de la Republique up the Grands Boulevards, which I’d first encountered in that tableau by Pissarro, a French Jewish painter who’d died of old age 37 years before the Nazis aided by Vichy might have gotten to him, and feeling good to be surrounded by and at one with all these Parisians hurrying home from work in Paris on a brisk drizzly winter evening in 2019, I felt like I was in another place — or maybe haunted by the spirits of the same place in a more sinister time where I too might have been picked up any moment — whose memory had just been offered to me. By opening up his family history book — recounted in an easy manner, not with any airs of tragedy or bitterness — my dentist had made this experience concrete. He’d made it mine.

Afterward: Pour en finir avec le Celine-o-mania

In his 1990 historical novel “La Mémoire des vaincus,” which recounts the saga of European anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th century, Michel Ragon has his hero write a piece for an anarchist rag in the 1950s, when Céline was ostracized as a collaborator, in which he asks, “Does anyone reproach [Paul] Claudel for having called Proust a ‘Sodomite Jew’?” (I reproach Paul Claudel for having his sister Camille, Rodin’s model, lover, and artistic superior, interned for 26 years because she didn’t bathe herself or change her clothes enough for her neighbors on the Ile St.-Louis.) “All France, or just about, was anti-Jewish during the epoch in which Céline wrote his pamphlets. Céline was neither worse nor better than the other professional anti-Semites; he merely served as the fall guy. France vomited on him all the anti-Semitism on which it had fed. It turned Céline into an abject being to mask its own ignominy.” And expunging Céline didn’t cure France of this scourge; in his 1956 novel “Trompe-l-oeil,” Ragon treats post-War anti-Semitism in France.

On my way to meet with Ragon in the home he shares with his wife off the Grands Boulevards last Spring — somewhere between Dr. B’s offices and the Olympia — I noticed a poster advertising a new one-man show at the Pocket Theater in Montparnasse about Céline’s last years, 1960-61. On a twilight promenade along the Right Bank of the Seine earlier that winter, when most of the green zinc bookstands were shuttered, I came upon a bouquiniste carefully wrapping cellophane around his Léo Malet pulp novels, from whose covers beckoned busty babes, the man insulated from the winds whipping up from the river only by the rusted green-iron lids of his stand and a cape and cloak that made him look like Aristide Bruant, the one-time proprietor of the Chat Noir. Noticing that I was lingering in front of a shrine he’d set up for the author, he perked up and asked, “Interested in Céline?” Trying to show off, I cited the episode from Ragon’s book — pointing out that the author “was a comrade,” Ragon having also been a bouquiniste. At this the man pointed to an article laminated to the underside of the rusty lid above the Céline shrine. After I’d craned my neck impossibly to try to read the piece, he explained the gist: “Céline’s problem wasn’t with Jews per se, but a certain type of behavior associated with a certain segment of Jews, whatever quarter it came from.” When I asked him if he had “Voyage to the end of night,” he showed me three difference editions at three different escalating prices according to the vintage, all beyond my budget. I finally found a price I could afford — 2 Euros bundled with Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” the story of a painter who combines elements of Cezanne, Manet, and Monet, and Jean Genet’s “The Maids.” Given the stereotypical descriptions of lazy Africans in which “Voyage to the end of night” traffics, the endroit where I bought the book was ironic: A rummage sale to benefit and in the courtyard of a non-profit, Grands Voisins (Big Neighbors), up the street from the Luxembourg which serves recent immigrants — most of them from African countries.

When I asked Ragon during our talk about this resurgent Céline-o-Mania (a term the author himself employs in the ‘Bagatelles’) — besides the play and the bouquiniste’s shrine, Radio France’s pseudo-intellectual chain France Culture had recently devoted a week-long special summer series to him, even interviewing a supposedly Jewish book-seller who was a big defender and managing to elicit a grudging appreciation from the famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld — and reminded him of his hero’s defense of Céline, he said “Yes, but authors have a special responsibility” to pay attention to the impact of their words.

At another rummage sale, this one on the outskirts of the Marco Polo or Explorers’ Garden which abuts the Luxembourg (the Paris Meridian — the predecessor to Greenwich Mean Time — on which Notre Dame, the Luxembourg, the Marco Polo with Carpeaux’s sculpture-fountain of four naked goddesses and their horses representing “the Four Corners of the World” being doused with water spouted up at them by a ring of turtles, and the toilet where I once rescued 2000 years of Western, Eastern, and Oriental philosophy are all anchored is my personal Mulberry Street, I see everything on it, often through Dr. Seuss’s eyes), I scored a copy of the April 1969 issue of the cultural magazine Planete which reproduces Céline’s last and only filmed interview. Realized by the magazine’s editor, Louis Pauwels, in 1959 in collaboration with André Brissaud, the interview was banned for eight years by the O.R.T.F., the French public radio and television chain. Banished to a millstone villa overgrown with weeds in Meudon (where Rodin also lived for years) where the only indications of the residents’ identities are plaques for “Lucette Almanzor, Dance Lessons” — the author’s wife, Lucette, died last year at the age of 107, 58 years after the husband whose oeuvre she’d fiercely defended for more than half a century — and another, partly covered by pine needles, for “Doctor Destouches,” the author himself being a physician who provided medical advice to the poor (like the hero of ‘Voyage’), Céline’s defiant attitude towards his interlopers and their often idiotic questions is admittedly seductive for anyone who’s had their fill of the general superficiality of the French mainstream media and its tendency towards ‘divertissement’ or info-tainment (I’m not saying it’s not the same in the United States, but this is what I know). Particularly when Pauwels asks him, “If you had to die right now, which would not please God, what would be your last thought?” and the author abruptly terminates the interview: “Ah! So it’s come to that has it?! Au revoir et merci! Ah! I think that just about does it. I don’t have anything against you, but, my God, you should mind your own business….” and conducts him to the door. But not before he lets go with one last bit of all-encompassing invective, stopping at the fence and pointing an angular finger at the Seine:

“The other day I walked down there to have a drink. I sat down on a café terrace…. I watched the crowd pass by. The bandy-legged, the crooked [the term Céline employs here, ‘crochus,’ which can also mean ‘hook-nosed,’ is also a derogatory term for Jews which Maupassant among others has employed], the poorly-wiped; and the females…. The worse, in fact, were the females. Bundles of fat waddling their asses. So content with themselves. The well-fed, quoi, good for little more than receiving kicks in the ass without complaining. There was one, one only, in the group, he was good-looking and solid, but with an idiotic air, no one home inside. Alors, quoi, there’s nothing left for the Chinese to do but to come on over, all the way to the Dordogne if they want, by foot, no rush, from Peking. Not the Russians. No, the Russians, they’re no more than the atomic scientists for China. And the Chinese, we’ll tell them: Meow, Meow, Head over there [presumably the Dordogne, where this 21st-century American Jew descended from European Jews now lives], to the land of the Sun and of those who couldn’t give a fig. And they’ll arrive, Monsieur, they’ll arrive, their toothpicks ahead of them, until they croak from the wine and the foie gras, to take their turn at easy living, at foie…; they’ll die from it but you’ll already have been dead for a long time, all of you, and so will I.”

Earlier in the interview, Pauwels asks Céline to name the authors to whom he feels the closest, as well as those who seem the most removed from him.

“Writers? I’m only interested in those who have as a style; if they don’t have a style, they don’t interest me. And it’s a rare thing, a style, Monsieur, it’s rare. But stories, the streets are full of them; I see them everywhere, stories, the police stations are full of them, the prisons are full of them, our lives are full of them. Everyone has a story, a million stories.”

“But isn’t there a writer…?”

“A writer? Ah!, indeed, Monsieur. There’s one, two, three for each generation. There are thousands of writers, but they’re just meager muddled unreliables…. They purr in their phrases, they repeat what someone else has said. They pick a story, a good story, and then they recount it. This doesn’t interest me. I’ve stopped being a writer to become a chronicler, n’est-ce pas? Thus I’ve put my skin on the table, because, you must not forget one thing: The grand inspirer is death. If you don’t lay your own skin on the line, if you don’t put your own skin on the table, you don’t have anything. You have to pay the price! If it doesn’t cost anything, you’ve missed the mark, and even more than missed the mark. And so we only have writers for whom their work hasn’t cost them anything, which is free, which is gratuitous. And that which is gratuitous, which doesn’t cost anything, stinks of being gratuitous.”

If I agree, even applaud Céline on the general principle — writing that doesn’t cost anything, in which the writer doesn’t in some manner risk his own skin, isn’t worthwhile — the problem in this case is that with “Voyage au bout de la nuit” and even, in the context of 1937 and the Occupation which saw it re-issued with gusto by collaborationist publishers, “Bagatelles pour un massacre” and the other pamphlets is that beyond his post-war ostracism, beyond being an outcast relegated to a not-so-uncomfortable suburb on the outskirts of Paris far from his dear Montmartre, it wasn’t Céline who paid the price for his venomous prose. It wasn’t his own skin he was putting on the table.

Epilogue: “Amour du Prochaine” (Originale version of Max Jacob poem above)

Qui a vu le crapaud traverser une rue ? c’est un tout petit homme : une poupée n’est pas plus miniscule. Il se traîne sur les genoux : Il a honte, on dirait…? Non ! il est rhumatisant, une jambe reste en arrière, il la ramène ! où va-t-il ainsi ? il sort de l’égout, pauvre clown. Personne n’a remarqué ce crapaud dans la rue. Jadis personne ne me remarquait dans la rue, maintenant les enfants se moquent de mon étoile jaune. Heureux crapaud ! tu n’as pas d’étoile jaune.

— Max Jacob, cited in Billy, André, “Max Jacob,” Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946.

Bibliography

Billy, André, “Max Jacob,” Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946.

Billy, André, “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.

Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Gallimard, Paris, 1932.

Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, “Bagatelles pour un massacre,” Paris, 1937.

Frank, Anne, “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Pauwels, Louis, “Et Céline s’expliqua,” published in “La nouveau Planete,” Paris, April 1969.

Ragon, Michel, “La Mémoire des vaincus,” Albin Michel, Paris, 1990.

Ragon, Michel, “Trompe-l-oeil,” Albin Michel, Paris, 1956

Lutèce Diary, 39: August 31, 1944 –Critique of the New Press / Critique de la nouvelle presse (French original follows English translation)

by Albert Camus
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

First published in the August 31, 1944 edition of Combat, the heretofore underground newspaper edited by Albert Camus. To read our translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s report on the Liberation of Paris from the same issue, click here. To read our review with extracts of the recently published correspondence of Albert Camus’s correspondence with Maria Casarès, click here. After returning to Paris with false identity papers furnished by the Resistance, Albert Camus was the underground newspaper Combat’s final editor under the Occupation, on one occasion (as documented by Olivier Todd in his 1996 biography for Gallimard) being saved from being busted with proofs of the newspaper in his pocket at a Gestapo checkpoint when he was able to deftly pass the proofs to Casarès, correctly guessing that she would not be searched.

PARIS — Because between the insurrection and the war, a respite has today been granted us, I’d like to talk about a subject that I know well and which is dear to my heart: the Press. And because it’s a question of this new Press which has emerged from the battle of Paris, I’d like to speak with, at the same time, the fraternity and the clairvoyance one owes to comrades in combat.

When we were producing our newspapers in clandestinity, it was naturally without a lot of to-do or grandiloquent declarations of principles. But I know that for all our comrades at all our newspapers, it was also with a great secret hope: The hope that these men, who risked their lives in the name of a set of ideals which were sacred to them, would be able to give their country the Press that it deserved but no longer had. We know from experience that the pre-war Press had lost its morals and its principles. An avariciousness for money and an indifference to the big picture had combined to give France a Press which, with rare exceptions, had no mission beyond promoting the power of a select few and no effects beyond devouring the morality of the whole. It was therefore not difficult for this Press to become the Press it became between 1940 and 1944, that is to say the shame of the nation.

Our wish, all the more profound from remaining largely unspoken, was to free newspapers from pecuniary concerns and endow them with a tone and a truth which would elevate the public to the highest form of its higher self. We believed that a country is only as good as its Press. And if it’s true that newspapers are the voice of a nation, we were decided, for our part and as our humble contribution, to elevate this country by elevating its language. Wrongly or rightly, it was for this reason that many among us died in inconceivable conditions and that others suffered the isolation and the threats of prison.

In fact, we merely occupied offices, where we fabricated newspapers that we put out in the heat of the battle. It’s a great victory and, from this point of view, the journalists of the Resistance displayed a courage and a will that merits the respect of all. However — and forgive me for bringing this up in the midst of the reigning enthusiasm — this is very little considering all that remains to be done. We’ve conquered the means for conducting this profound revolution that we desire. But we still need to really carry it out. To put it bluntly: The Free Press, at least as far as one can judge after 10 days of putting out issues, leaves a lot to be desired.

What I propose to say in this article and in the following piece, I don’t want it to be misconstrued. I speak in the general name of fraternity forged in combat and am not targeting anyone in particular. The criticisms that it’s possible to make are addressed to the entire Press without any exceptions, and we understand each other. Are they premature? Should we allow our newspapers time to organize themselves before undertaking this examination of conscience? The reply is NO.

We’re well-situated to be able to appreciate the extenuating circumstances under which our newspapers have been produced. But this isn’t the question. The question is over a certain tone that might have been adopted from the get-go and that was not. On the contrary, it is precisely at the moment in which this Press is in the process of being created, of defining itself, that it is imperative that it examine itself. Only by doing so will it know what it wants to be and be able to become this.

What do we want? A Press clear and virile, a respectable language. For men who, for years, have written their articles in full awareness that they might have to pay for these articles in prison or death, it’s clear that words have their value and that they must be weighed. It is this responsibility of the journalist to the public which they want to restore.

Sins of laziness

And yet, in the rush, the anger, and the frenzy of our offensive, our newspapers have sinned by laziness. In these times the body has been working so hard that the brain has lost its vigilance. Here I’ll say in general what I propose to explain in detail later: Many of our newspapers have fallen back into the same tired formulas that we believed outmoded, with no fear of the rhetorical excesses or the pandering to the lowest common denominator in which the majority of our newspapers indulged before the war.

In the first case, we need to get it into our heads that we’re only marching in the same tracks, in a kind of reverse symmetry, of the Collaborationist presse. In the second case, we’re simply resuming, because it’s the easy thing to do, formulas and ideas which endanger the very morality of the Press and the country. If we really think that either of these is an option, we might as well quit now and resign ourselves to giving up on what we really have to do.

Because the means for expressing ourselves are now conquered, our responsibility vis-a-vis ourselves and the country is total. What’s essential — and it’s the goal of this article — is that we’re averted. The task of each of us is to really reflect upon what he wants to say, to shape step by step the spirit of his newspaper, to pay attention to what he writes and to never lose sight of this immense necessity we have to restore to a country its most profound voice. If we ensure that this voice remains that of energy rather than that of hate, that of objective pride rather than that of hollow rhetoric, that of humanity rather than that of mediocrity, then a lot will have been saved and we won’t have failed.

— Albert Camus

Version originale

PARIS — Puisque entre l’insurrection et la guerre, une pause nous est aujourd’hui donnée, je voudrais parler d’une chose que je connais bien et qui me tient à cœur, je veux dire la presse. Et puisqu’il s’agit de cette presse qui est sortie de la bataille de Paris, je voudrais en parler avec, en même temps, la fraternité et la clairvoyance que l’on doit à des camarades de combat.

Lorsque nous rédigions nos journaux dans la clandestinité, c’était naturellement sans histoires et sans déclarations de principe. Mais je sais que pour tous nos camarades de tous nos journaux, c’était avec un grand espoir secret. Nous avions l’espérance que ces hommes, qui avaient couru des dangers mortels au nom de quelques idées qui leur étaient chères, sauraient donner a leur pays la presse qu’il méritait et qu’il n’avait plus. Nous savions par l’expérience que la presse d’avant-guerre était perdue dans son principe et dans sa morale. L’appétit de l’argent et l’indifférence aux choses de la grandeur avaient opéré en même temps pour donner à la France une presse qui, à de rares exceptions près, n’avait d’autre but que de grandir la puissance de quelques-uns et d’autre effet que d’avaler la moralité de tous. Il n’a donc pas été difficile à cette presse de devenir ce qu’elle a été de 1940 à 1944, c’est-à-dire la honte de ce pays.

Notre désir, d’autant plus profond qu’il était souvent muet, était de libérer les journaux de l’argent et de leur donner un ton et une vérité qui mettent le public à la hauteur de ce qu’il y a de meilleur en lui. Nous pensions alors qu’un pays vaut souvent ce que vaut sa presse. Et s’il est vrai que les journaux sont la voix d’une nation, nous étions décidés, à notre place et pour notre faible part, à élever ce pays en élevant son langage. A tort ou à raison, c’ést pour cela que beaucoup d’entre nous sont morts dans d’inimaginables conditions et que d’autres souffrent la solitude et les menaces de la prison.

En fait, nous avons seulement occupé des locaux, où nous avons confectionné des journaux que nous avons sortis en pleine bataille. C’est une grande victoire et, de ce point de vue, les journalistes de la Résistance ont montré un courage et une volonté qui méritent le respect de tous. Mais, et je m’excuse de le dire au milieu de l’enthusiasme générale, cela est peu de chose puisque tout reste à faire. Nous avons conquis les moyens de faire cette révolution profonde que nous désirions. Encore faut-il que nous la fassions vraiment. Et pour tout dire d’un mot, la presse libérée, telle qu’elle se présente à Paris après une dizaine de numeros, n’est pas satisfaisante.

Ce que je me propose de dire dans cet article et dans ceux qui suivront, je voudrais qu’on le prenne bien. Je parle au nom d’une fraternité de combat et personne n’est ici visé en particulier. Les critiques qu’il est possible de faire s’adressent à toute la presse sans exception, et nous nous y comprenons. Dira-t-on que cela est prémature, qu’il faut laisser à nos journaux le temps de s’organiser avant de faire cet examen de conscience ? La réponse est « non » .

Nous sommes bien placés pour savoir dans quelles incroyables conditions nos journaux ont été fabriqués. Mais la question n’est pas là. Elle est dans un certain ton qu’il était possible d’adopter dés le début et qui ne l’a pas été. C’est au contraire au moment où cette presse est en train de se faire, où elle va prendre son visage définitif qu’il importe qu’elle s’examine. Elle saura mieux ce qu’elle veut être et elle le deviendra.

Que voulions-nous ? Une presse claire et virile, au langage respectable. Pour des hommes qui, pendant des années, écrivant un article, savaient que cet article pouvait se payer de la prison ou de la mort, il était évident que les mots avaient leur valeur et qu’ils devaient être réfléchis. C’est cette responsabilité du journaliste devant le public qu’ils voulaient restaurer.

Péché de paresse

Or, dans la hâte, la colère ou le délire de notre offensive, nos journaux ont péché par paresse. Le corps, dans ces journées, a tant travaillé que l’esprit a perdu de sa vigilance. Je dirai ici en général ce que je me propose ensuite de détailler : beaucoup de nos journaux ont repris des formules qu’on croyait périmées et n’ont pas craint les excès de la rhétorique ou les appels à cette sensibilité de midinette qui faisaient, avant la guerre ou après, le plus clair de nos journaux.

Dans le premier cas, il faut que nous nous persuadions bien que nous réalisons seulement le décalque, avec une symétrie inverse, de la presse d’occupation. Dans le deuxième cas, nous reprenons, par esprit de facilité, des formules et des idées qui menacent la moralité même de la presse et du pays. Rien de tout cela n’est possible, ou alors il faut démissionner et désespérer de ce que nous avons à faire.

Puisque les moyens de nous exprimer sont dés maintenant conquis, notre responsabilité vis-à-vis de nous-mêmes et du pays est entière. L’essentiel, et c’est l’objet de cet article, est que nous en soyons bien avertis. La tâche de chacun de nous est de bien penser ce qu’il se propose de dire, de modeler peu à peu l’esprit du journal qui est le sien, d’écrire attentivement et de ne jamais perdre de vue cette immense nécessité où nous sommes de redonner à un pays sa voix profonde. Si nous faisons que cette voix demeure celle de l’énergie plutôt que de la haine, de la fière objectivité et non de la rhétorique, de l’humanité plutôt que de la médiocrité, alors beaucoup de choses seront sauvées et nous n’aurons pas démérité.

— Albert Camus

The Lutèce Diaries, 26: Dimensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I haven’t been here since 2015!”

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

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

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

“Yes, we’ll keep them au frais.”

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

“Comme toujours!” I retorted.

“Come back again, before 2021!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is why a duck shop bothers me.

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

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My dear Laivit-Canne….”

“Monsieur Laivit-Canne….”

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

“I’ve just cut off Manhès!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh!”

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

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

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

“Manhès has always struck me as a racist.”

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

“I 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.

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

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

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

Previously explored by Olivier Todd in his exhaustive 1996 Gallimard biography and insinuated in Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, Albert Camus’s inherent self-doubt — in all areas of his life – as he struggled to live up to the principles he extolled for others is now decisively confirmed by the novelist-journalist-philosopher-playwright’s 16 years and 1,275 pages of correspondence with his longtime mistress (for want of a word which would do better justice to their fidelity) Maria Casarès, recently published for the first time by Gallimard after being released by Camus’s daughter Catherine, who inherited the letters from the actress. Portions of the correspondence were recited this summer at the Avignon Festival by Lambert Wilson, whose father George worked with Casarés (including at Avignon), and Isabel Adjani.

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

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

Unfortunately (if understandably; this is not a criticism of the correspondents, but of Gallimard’s ill-considered decision to make their private, often banal dialogue public), in fulfillment of their main purpose of maintaining the link during their often long separations, necessitated by his retreats for writing, author tours, visits to his family in Algeria, tuberculosis cures, and family vacations — he never divorced Francine — and on hers by performance tours, apart from the travelogues (except where they describe her vacations by the Brittany and Gironde seaside, more interesting on his part), their letters are often dominated by declarations of love and the sufferance of absence (even if your name is Albert Camus, there are only so many interesting ways to say I love you, I want you, I need you), and the often anodyne details of their daily lives apart. Camus tells her to leave nothing out, understandable for an often absent lover, but which ultimately reveals her frivolity and recurrent prejudices (particularly when it comes to male homosexuals, who according to Casarès are typically vengeful). Her manner of chronicling her quotidian activities is often so indiscriminate, investing theatrical rendez-vous with the same level of importance as shopping excursions for furniture to decorate her fifth-floor flat with balcony on the rue Vaugirard, that at one point he mildly rebukes her, “Don’t just write that you had a luncheon appointment, say who it was with.” The best she can come up with to describe the experience of making “Orpheus” with Cocteau is that she was annoyed by the autograph-seekers who showed up at the outdoor shoots, not the only instance where she disdains her public. And when it comes to the radio productions which seem to constitute her main employ, at least in Paris, she often refers to “having a radio today,” without even naming the play in question. (When Camus refers to “a radio,” he means an x-ray to analyze the progress or regression of the chronic tuberculosis which dogged him all his life.) Never mind that the radios in question were plays by the leading European writers of the day, as well as classics. But the part I found myself resenting a bit – as someone who would have loved to have had a tenth of the dramatic opportunities Casarès did – is that at times she seems to treat her theater work, particularly the radio recordings, as almost onerous. (This morning on French public radio, in a live interview from the same Avignon festival, the director Irene Brook, Peter’s daughter, recognized that “we’re very privileged to be able to pass our days rehearsing theater.”)

When it comes to discussing his work, at most Camus refers to his progress on the literary task at hand or writers’ blocks impeding it, rarely going into the philosophical or political issues he’s grappling with – some of the headiest of the Post-War period, French intellectuals’ inclination towards which Camus was instrumental in forming. As for the letters from Algeria, typically occasioned by visits to his mother, uncle, and brother’s family, if Camus’s native’s appreciation for and adoration of the landscape is apparent, even lyrical (particularly in recounting excursions to Tipassa), he dwells mostly on his ageing mother’s maladies, and rarely comments on the sometimes violently contested political encounters he was having at the time. If anything, their relationship was their havre, a refuge and sanctuary from the demands of his calling and the rigors of what she seems to have considered more obligations than labors of love. (From his letters to his wife cited by Todd – at one point he tells her he regards her more as a sister than a spouse – Camus was much more likely to discuss his thinking process with Francine than with Casarès, at least in his letters.)

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

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

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

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

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

If the example of unconditional love revealed in the letters is compelling and inspiring, the moral problem I have with Gallimard’s publishing them is that there’s no indication that the professional writer involved intended for them to be made public. The problem is not just one of intrusion and indiscretion (Todd cites a note to Camus from Roger Martin de la Garde to the effect that a writer owes the public his work, not his private life, inferring from this that Camus subscribed to the same belief), but that *with works he knew were destined for publication*, Camus was a scrupulous and meticulous perfectionist. Counting the war, “The Plague” took eight years to write, from gestation to publication. “The First Man” started germinating in 1952, and by the author’s death eight years later was only one third finished, according to his outline. Both Todd’s biography and the letters themselves confirm that Camus worked, re-worked, and re-wrote his books and articles, and even after they were published continued to be besieged by  doubts. (Notably over “The Rebel,” virulently attacked by Sartre and his Modern Times lackey Francis Jeansen, the former not confining himself to taking on the treatise’s arguments but attacking Camus personally, like a Sorbonne senior with a superiority complex upbraiding an underclassman who has the moxey to challenge him.)

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

After finishing them, I was still, nonetheless, on the bubble about the letters’ inherent worth, and worthiness as a translation project. What red-blooded Camusian doesn’t want to be the first to translate freshly released words by his idol into English?! Less self-interestedly, I considered that perhaps the lessons of this extraordinarily unconditional love justified the value to potential English-language readers of a translation. And then there was the lingering vision of Maria running joyously, fearlessly into the waves in the Gironde, or holed up in a cave on the obscure side of a Brittany island as the tide rises and the waves begin to crash against the uneven rocks under her naked feet, imperiling her own life and engendering Camus’s chagrin when she describes the episode to him. And above all the penultimate image of Casarès, liberated by a relationship whose restrictions might have fettered anybody else, terminating her contract with the TNP and setting off to see the world in a roulotte, after Camus’s parting advice to be careful.  When it informed me that the book was still in the “reading” stage at several Anglophone publishers, with no firm commitment for a translated edition, I even asked the foreign rights department at Gallimard if it would be open to a partial, selective translation of the letters.

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

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

Dear Sir,

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

Maria Casarès

Dear Madame,

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

Maria Casarès

PS: I forgot: August.

Dear Sir or Madame,

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

Maria Casarès

To a housing cooperative

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

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