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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chantal portrait small                                           Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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

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

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

First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a bit later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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