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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She put up a fight.

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

He pointed down the street with a vague air.

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

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

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

“Eleven.”

“You sure are tiny.”

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

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

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

“Fred.”

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

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

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

“But I never kidnapped you!”

“You sniffed my legs.”

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

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

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

“What’s the sea like?” asked Fred.

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

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

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

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

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

Flora shrugged her slight shoulders and bit her nails.

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

“Scram, you little rapscallions! Vermin!”

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

“What did she give you?”

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

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

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

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

“So, young lovers, just idling about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” answered Flora.

“In that case, come along.”

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

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

“I’m Fred, and this is Flora.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, it’s me… me, yer ma

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

Louis?

My baby…. Can you even hear me?

Can you hear yer poor momma of a mother?

Yer ‘old lady,’ as you used to say.

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

T’ain’t true, ‘tis it? T’ain’t true

everything they said about you at the trial;

In the papers, what they wrote about you

was all a pack of lies

 

And now that I see you here

Like a dead dog, a pile of refuse

Like a heap of manure, a mound of rotting apples

With the crème de la crème of criminals

 

Who is it who despite everything comes to see you?

Who pardons you and forgives you

Who is it who’s punished the most?

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Has Victor made you read our newspaper?”

“What newspaper?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The green-eyed redhead chuckled.

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

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

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

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

“Fish?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valet shrugged his shoulders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you kidding or what?”

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

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

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

“Don’t say things like that.”

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

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

“Stop!  You’re tickling me.”

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

Flora seized Fred’s head in her small hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And Valet?”

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

“Which Paul?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirteen.”

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

“Typography.”

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

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

“Valet? Who’s Valet?” Péguy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was just kidding,” Péguy assured them.

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

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

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

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

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

“When’s Valet coming back?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’ve killed Valet!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rirette.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

“I do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bonnot was not my friend.”

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

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

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

roualt clown

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

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

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

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

“Your name is Callemin?”

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

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

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

The room erupted with laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

2. French for “fish-monger.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19.  Paris’s central auction house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck.”

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

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

— Bas les pattes ! A-t-on idée !

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

Elle se débattit.

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

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

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

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

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

— Onze.

— Tu es bien petite.

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

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

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

— Fred.

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

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

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

— Mais je ne t’ai pas enlevée !

— Si, tu m’as reniflé les jambes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Dehors, guenilleux, vermine !

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

— Qu’est-ce qu’elle t’a refilé ?

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

— Chouette, on va se payer des petits pains.

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

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

— Alors, les amoureux, on musarde ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Oui, dit Flora.

— Alors, venez.

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

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

— Moi je suis Fred, elle c’est Flora.

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

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

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

 

Atlan, seen by Michel Ragon: A new excerpt from “Trompe-l’oeil” (Introduction and English translation followed by origional French text)

smfall pw artcurial atlan 185Jean-Michel Atlan (1913 – 1960), Untitled, 1946. Oil on canvas, 39.37 x 31.89 inches. Signed and dated lower left. Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 10,000 – 15,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial, which presented the tableau as part of its Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction, October 30 in Paris.

Reflecting the author’s popular roots, Michel Ragon’s 1956 “Trompe-l’oeil” is less an easy parody of the nascent contemporary art market than an introduction to the complex Abstract Art universe disguised as tragi-comic spoof, with complementary swipes at corrupt art critics à la Balzac’s “Lost Illusions.” Ragon’s colorful fictional personnages interact with some of the real-life artists of the era that he, as a critic and curator, championed (à la Zola). In the excerpt below, after conjuring one of the painter Jean-Michel Atlan’s mythic “Montparno” parties, where the host was as likely to regale his guests with an elaborate burlesque of Joan of Arc in which he portrayed Joan, the Arc-Angel Gabriel, a shephard, and his sheep, as by mixing Chinese, Arabic, African, and Jewish music on a turntable, Ragon sketches a portrait of the artist as vivid as the visit he once took readers on to the long-since evicted studio of Brancusi, another stalwart of a lost Montparnasse once paved with ateliers before “development” chased them out. My English translation follows the excerpt in the original French. (To read an earlier excerpt of “Trompe-l’oeil,” from the book’s first pages, and more about Michel Ragon, click here.)

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Born the grandson of miracle-working rabbis in the Jewish ghetto of the Algerian city of Constantine, Atlan saw his youth torn between political crises and crises of mysticism. Traveling to the French capital to finish his studies at the Sorbonne, after getting his Bachelor’s in philosophy he adopted Paris as his home and never returned to North Africa, whose unhinged racisms and exacerbated nationalisms had poisoned his childhood.

A Trotskyist militant, one day Atlan was handed a huge revolver and assigned to bodyguard Trotsky, at the time traversing France. Of course he’d never handled a gun in his life. In the middle of the journey, stepping off the train to grab a bite at the station greasy spoon, he suddenly asked himself what personal reason he could possible have for guarding Trotsky, found no answer, and fled to seek out the nearest synagogue, abandoning on the train the figure he was supposed to be protecting.

Before World War II, Atlan’s life was composed of a maze of political demonstrations, in general underpinned by anti-colonialism. The sole remotely painterly preoccupation he’d ever had was to secure a meeting with Paul Signac to ask him to sign a petition.

During the German occupation of Paris, Atlan’s Jewish origins, not to mention his political activities, hardly left him any alternative to getting arrested. Imprisoned, as was his wife (despite being a native of Normandy), he escaped being deported to the death camps by executing one of his most convincing numbers ever: insanity.

One had to have heard Atlan recount this macabre adventure with his unique brand of burlesque humor, which had a way of putting him at his listeners’ level. (After the war, as described by Ragon elsewhere in “Trompe-l’oeil,” his 1956 satire of the Montparnasse art milieu, Atlan would throw all-night parties at his Left Bank atelier where he’d regale his guests with one-man shows.) By repeatedly insisting that a judicial error had landed him in prison, and that he was actually the Bishop of Constantine, he so unnerved a guard that the guard alerted the warden. Upon investigating, this official found the prisoner wrapped in his straw mattress, using it as a priest’s smock. He repeated to the warden that he was the Bishop of Constantine. As a precautionary measure, the warden sent him to the prison psychiatrist. This time Atlan knew that his audience would be harder to convince, this particular specialist being accustomed to dealing with impersonators. He altered his approach accordingly, responding to the psychiatrist in his normal tone. Then he confessed that he was just pretending to be crazy because he was Jewish and counted on this ruse to escape deportation.

The psychiatrist, discomfited, answered that it would be risky for him to make out a bogus certificate, as he himself was being watched. From this they progressed to a cozy chat which had no resemblance to a medical examination. Atlan subtly insinuated into the conversation that his wife was also locked up, and that unfortunately he was unable to see her as often as he liked.

“How’s that again?” asked the psychiatrist, suddenly alert. “Do you mean that you are actually able to see your wife? Isn’t she imprisoned at the Petite-Roquette**?

“She is indeed. To be honest, I don’t exactly ‘see’ her, but we do speak to each other every night.”

“What do you mean, ‘speak’?”

“It’s quite simple. I’ve developed a system of transmitting thoughts which allows me, once I’ve attained the necessary level of concentration, to enter into communication with another person, even someone in a place that’s physically remote from me. In this manner my wife and I are able to talk every night for 15 minutes. That’s my limit for intense concentration. Beyond that, it’s not possible.”

The psychiatrist stared at him, surprised at this smart little man, who had put forth such a lucid discourse. He shook his head.

“I’m afraid that prison has tired you out a little.”

Then he proclaimed, “This is extraordinary! It so happens that I’m working on a thesis on exactly these kinds of cases of telepathy. How about if we collaborate? I’m going to ask the prison administration to put you at my disposition.”

Thus it was that Atlan spent the final years of the Occupation in the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital. Did the doctors eventually figure out that he was faking it, but maintain the ruse to save him from deportation? It’s entirely possible, because he was left relatively free and wasn’t medicated. Was it during this period of isolation that Atlan began to paint? In any case, during the Liberation of Paris he could be seen scurrying along the boulevard Montparnasse, freed or having escaped, moving from one barricade to the next and asking the combatants:

“Say, you wouldn’t happen to know where I could score some oil canvasses and paints, would you?”

Later on, after the Germans had departed, Atlan published a collection of poems most likely penned in prison, “Deep Blood,” and which were the poetic reflection of his paintings. And before 1944 had ended he’d held his first solo exposition. He was only 31, the age when most artists are just discovering themselves, but his vocation still seemed to have arrived late in the day because he hadn’t followed the official channel of the Beaux Arts school. Painting soon absorbed all his other aspirations. Politics, philosophy, poetry, mysticism — it was all transmuted in the single task of the pictorial oeuvre. Atlan shortly became one of the leaders of the New Painting of the Post-War period, and one of the most prestigious galleries in Paris signed him. But he remained Bohemian and “Montparno.” Hit by the economic crisis that followed the War, like all the abstract painters, he went so far as to work as a peddler in the suburban markets outside Paris, telling fortunes for the Montrouge storekeepers, who would often mistake him, with his Mediterranean profile, for a gypsy. And so while he continued to be thought of as one of the essential painters of the new School of Paris, he and his wife were dying of starvation. But they kept up a good front.

 

smfall pw artcurial atlan 186Jean-Michel Atlan (1913 – 1960), Untitled, 1954. Oil on panel, 15 x 18.11 inches. Signed and dated lower left.  Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 6,000 – 8,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial, which presented the tableau as part of its Post-War & Contemporary Art Auction, October 30 in Paris.  

Original text by and copyright Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Albin-Michel, Paris:

Né dans le ghetto de Constantine, petit-fils de rabbins miraculeux, Atlan eut sa jeunesse déchirée entre des crises politiques et des crises de mysticisme. Venu terminer ses études à la Sorbonne, licencié en philosophie, il adopta Paris et ne retourna plus en Afrique du Nord où tous les racismes déchainés, tous les nationalismes exacerbés, avaient empoisonné son enfance.

Militant trotskiste, on lui confia un jour un gros revolver et il devint garde du corps de Trotsky, qui traversait alors la France. Inutile de dire qu’il n’avait jamais manié un revolver de sa vie. En cours de route, descendu au buffet d’une gare, il se demanda soudain quelle raison personnelle il pouvait bien avoir d’accompagner Trotsky, n’en trouva point et s’enfuit dans la ville inconnu à la recherche de la synagogue, abandonnant dans le train le personnage qui lui était confié.

Avant la récente guerre, la vie d’Atlan se perdait donc dans un dédale de manifestations politiques, en général basées sur l’anti-colonialisme. La seule préoccupation picturale qu’il se souvenait d’avoir eue, en ce temps-là, consista à obtenir un rendez-vous de Signac pour lui faire signer une pétition.

Pendant l’occupation allemande, ses origines juives, plus ses antécédents politiques, ne lui laissaient guère d’autre issue possible que l’arrestation. Emprisonné, ainsi que sa femme qui pourtant était Normande, il échappa aux camps d’extermination en jouant un de ses grands numéros parodiques : la folie.

Il faillait l’entendre raconter cette aventure macabre, avec son humour burlesque qui la mettait au niveau de chacun. A force de proclamer qu’une erreur judiciaire l’avait amené en prison et qu’il n’était autre que l’évêque de Constantine, un gardien s’en émeute et en avisa le Directeur. Celui-ci trouva le prisonnier enveloppé dans sa paillasse qui, en l’occurrence lui servait d’étole. Il répéta au Directeur qu’il n’était autre que l’évêque de Constantine. Par acquit de conscience, on l’envoya au psychiatre de la prison. Là, Atlan savait que le rôle serait plus difficile a jouer, ce spécialiste ayant l’habitude des simulateurs. Il changea alors de tactique et se mit à répondre au psychiatre de son ton habituel. Puis il lui avoua confidentiellement qu’il simulait la folie parce qu’il était Juif et qu’il comptait ainsi éviter la déportation.

Le psychiatre, très ennuyé, parla de la difficulté d’établir un faux certificat, que lui-même était surveillé. Ils en vinrent à une conversation très cordiale qui n’avait plus rien d’un examen médical. Atlan glissa dans la conversation que sa femme était également enfermée et qu’il ne pouvait malheureusement pas la rencontrer aussi souvent qu’il le désirerait.

— Comment, dit le psychiatre, soudain alerté, vous revoyez votre femme? N’est-elle pas à la Petite-Roquette ?

— Si. Pour être franc, je ne la vois pas, mais je lui parle tous les soirs.

— Comment cela ?

— C’est très simple. J’ai mis au point un système de transmission de pensée qui me permet, lorsque j’atteins le degré de concentration nécessaire, d’entrer en communication avec un autre être, même placé dans un lieu physiquement inaccessible. C’est ainsi que, tous les soirs, ma femme et moi nous nous parlons pendant un quart d’heure. C’est ma limite de concentration intensive. Au delà, ce n’est plus possible.

Le psychiatre regardait, étonné, ce petit homme intelligent et qui lui avait tenu des propos si lucides. Il hocha la tête :

— La prison vous a un peu fatigué.

Puis il s’enthousiasma :

— C’est inouï, je travaille justement à une thèse sur ces cas de transmission de pensée. Nous allons collaborer ensemble, n’est-ce pas. Je vais demander à l’administration de la prison de vous laisser à ma disposition.

C’est ainsi qu’Atlan vécut pendant les dernières années de l’Occupation à l’hôpital psychiatrique de Sainte-Anne. Finit-on par découvrir en lui le simulateur et voulut-on le sauver de la déportation, c’est probable puisqu’on le laissa relativement libre et sans traitement. Est-ce pendant cet isolement qu’Atlan commença à peindre ? Toujours est-il que pendant les journées de la Libération de Paris, on le retrouve sur le boulevard Montparnasse, libéré ou évadé, allant d’une barricade à l’autre et demandant aux combattants :

— Dites-moi, est-ce que vous savez où l’on peut se procurer des toiles à peindre et des couleurs?

Puis, aussitôt les Allemands partis, Atlan publie un recueil de poèmes vraisemblablement composés en prison : “Le sang profond” qui est très exactement une poétique de sa peinture. Il fait d’ailleurs presque aussitôt sa première exposition. Il n’a en fait que trente et un ans, l’âge auquel la plupart des artistes se découvrent, mais sa vocation apparaitra toujours tardive parce qu’elle ne suivit pas la filière des Ecoles des Beaux-Arts. La peinture absorba aussitôt toutes ses autres aspirations. Politique, philosophie, poésie, mysticisme, se transmuèrent dans la seule volonté de l’œuvre picturale. Atlan devint bientôt l’un des chefs de file de la nouvelle peinture et l’une des plus importantes galeries de Paris le prit sous contrat. Mais il demeura bohème et « montparno ». Touché par la crise, comme tous les peintres abstraits, il allait jusqu’à travailler comme camelot dans des marchés de banlieue, disait la bonne aventure aux épicières de Montrouge qui le prenaient, avec son profile d’Arabe, pour un tzigane. Alors que l’on continuait à le considérer comme un des peintres essentiels de la nouvelle Ecole de Paris, sa femme et lui crevaient de faim. Mais ils s’efforçaient de n’en laisser rien paraitre.

atlan smallAmong the works on sale in last Spring’s Artcurial Paris auction of Post-War & Contemporary Art: Jean-Michel Atlan (1913-1960), Untitled, 1955. Oil on canvas, 71 x 53 cm. Signed at lower-left, “Atlan.” Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 18,000 – 25,000 Euros. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

“Wols,” by Michel Ragon, Jardin des Arts, May 1963

wols small threeWols before Wols: Otto Wols, “Matériaux Rares,” 1939. Watercolor and ink on paper, signed at lower-right “Wols.” Featured during Artcurial’s June 2, 2015 Impressionist and Modern sale. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.

Translation of Michel Ragon article by Paul Ben-Itzak:  (Version originale follows translation and afterward)

In the years 1947 – 1948, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, I sometimes came across an old man who walked heavily, supported by a cane, his head garnished only by a wreath of hair over a balding forehead. He lived with his wife in a small hotel room, enjoyed playing the banjo, and did his drinking straight up. He was said to be protected by Sartre and de Beauvoir. Then two events in quick succession drew the public’s attention to this extraordinary personage: an exposition at the Drouin gallery on the place Vendôme — at the time the most avant-garde gallery in Paris — and a large, unusual painting displayed at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles which resembled nothing ever seen before. This Bohemian individual, who called himself Wols, died three years later — when I learned with stupor that he was only 37 years old.

Cursed

It’s become popular for certain journalists to declare, with an air of condescension, that there’s no such thing these days as cursed painters. Wols was just as cursed as Van Gogh, and the parallel between the two equally possessed artists doesn’t stop there. Just as Van Gogh realized his most personal work in the last two years of his life and also died at 37, Wols only began work on his “informal” paintings six years before his death. And just as Van Gogh’s final two years both summed up his whole life and constituted the explosion, the last six years of Wols’s life threw all modern art into question and opened up a new, unexpected path for him. In very little time Wols, just like Van Gogh, altered the rules of the game. Wols signifies a turning point as important to the history of painting as were his compatriot Einstein’s advances in the domain of science. Moreover, the disintegration of forms to which the painter devoted himself corresponds with the disintegration of the atom that followed from Einstein’s research. A parallel that came to light, obviously, after the fact. It would have been hard to imagine in 1947, when Wols couldn’t even manage to pay the rent for his seedy furnished hotel room, that this starving artist would one day elicit comparisons with the scientific events which, since Hiroshima, haunt our collective consciousness.

Who was Wols? Where did this outsider, this vagabond, this prematurely eviscerated simile of an old man come from? Bryen and Mathieu were his friends and surrounded him with an unflagging admiration. Henri-Pierre Roché, himself a singular personage, grand art collector and (posthumously) acclaimed writer from the moment Truffaut turned his novel “Jules and Jim” into the celebrated film of the same name, Henri-Pierre Roché, who met Wols in the south of France during the war and bought 60 gouaches from him in three years, describes him for us playing Bach on his banjo, with his dog at his feet, his bottle ready, and his pipe in hand, venerating Lao-Tseu, detesting Confucius, and “dousing himself like a lighter’s wick.”

The art historian Werner Haftman next shows Wols to us in Paris, in his tiny hotel room, “stretched out on his bed, often with the eyes closed — in order to see better — recording on tiny scraps of paper the continuous flow of images springing from a powerful and hidden well. All this amidst the turbulent discussions of his friends or often tumultuous passage of foreign visitors.”

An education à la le Petit Prince

Wols was born Otto Alfred Schulze Battmann on May 27, 1913, in Berlin. If he hadn’t died prematurely, we’d be celebrating his 50th birthday this month — and he’d no doubt be as famous as he already is, and also rich. Because for painters, being cursed goes hand in hand with dying young. Had they lived as long as Picasso, Van Gogh and Modigliani would have been just as rich and celebrated.

(Here Ragon recounts how, born to a Saxon family that regularly furnished high officials to the State, his parents grand readers passionate about botanics and geology, Wols was educated in the manner of a “petit prince.” He studied music and seemed destined to direct an orchestra. But he also displayed exceptional talent for photography, mechanics, and anthropology. A pupil of Frobenius at the Institute of African Studies in Frankfurt, then of Gropius at the Dessau Bauhaus — where he also frequented Moholy-Nagy — Wols fled the Nazis in 1932 for Paris. There he painted his first watercolors, under the influence of Paul Klee, and also encountered Miro, Ernst, Tzara, Léger, Arp, Giacometti and Calder, to whom he gave German lessons. The next year he met Grety, 15 years his senior, who became his wife. They travelled to Barcelona and Ibiza, where Wols earned a living photographing babies and luxury dogs. In 1934, at the behest of the German consulate, he was arrested for refusing military service and expelled from Spain three months later, making his way across the Pyrenees by foot and through snow back to France. Ragon continues:)

In 1937, he adopted the pseudonym Wols for an exposition of his photographs at a Parisian gallery. His life became easier, the International Exposition of Paris having accorded him, in his role as a photographer, exclusivity for the Pavilion de l’Élégance. But the war didn’t tarry to arrive. A German citizen, Wols was interned in the concentration camps of Montargis, Neuilly, Nimes, and Aix-en-Provence. He found consolation in alcohol, on whose powers he’d henceforth call to stimulate his dreams.

Boats of Dreams

Liberated in 1940, he moved to Cassis, a half hour from Marseille, then to Dieulefit in the Drôme. He was able to sell several gouaches and drawings, notably to Henri-Pierre Roché. The years 1941-1942 were crucial for Wols. Misery, the Spanish prison, the French concentration camps — all these had taken their toll and arduously ripened him. He’d not yet attained 30, and his life was already overloaded with trials and tribulations. It was without doubt this heavy charge which compelled him to write: “The first thing that I’ll chase from my life will be memory.” His gouaches and watercolors form a sort of diary that he kept, simultaneously with the poems he wrote. “With minute slips of paper, one is able to tell little earth-bound fairy-tales,” he noted with a painful irony. Wols was, in effect, first and foremost a poet, nurtured on Baudelaire, Poe, Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Novalis, Shelley, Artaud, Kafka, Faulkner, and Morgenstern. A poet embarked on a one-way trip on what he called his “boats of dreams” (his dream was to build and live on a bark). These boats, which peopled his watercolors, evidently evoked images of Rimbaud’s “Drunken Boat,” as well as Dante’s Bark. At times they accosted towns, towns that Wols meticulously drew, as miniatures, with their individual perspectives, and that he’d then depict being delivered to monsters. Imaginary vegetation, comical personages, phallic images: the world of Wols’s gouaches was situated somewhere between surrealism and expressionism. As strange as they were — and as perfect as they were in their acute detail — these gouaches did not do justice to Wols’s genius. If he’d died five years earlier, Wols would have been considered no more than a minor master living in Klee’s shadow. His initial watercolors from 1932-33 reveal scenes of dream cities, mirages, elfs…. Soon, though, Klee’s fantastic garden would be trampled by monsters. We know little of the watercolors Wols produced from 1934 to 1936 in Spain, lost when the artist was thrown in prison, then expelled. But they’d without doubt trace the line between Klee and Bosch. Thus, Wols passed from surrealism-light to a form of expressionism which approached that of Grosz, Kokoschka, Ensor, or even Otto Dix.

As these watercolors and gouaches make up the most abundant part of his oeuvre, it’s above all this aspect of Wols that one finds in the galleries. This is also the most palatable aspect, the most decipherable, of his work. But it doesn’t allow us to appreciate the importance of the artist’s accomplishment. It would be like perpetually trotting out Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” and concealing his landscapes of Arles and Auvers-Sur-Oise from the public.

It cannot be over-emphasized that these gouaches and watercolors are merely Wols before Wols, the minor works of a man who’d not yet discovered if he was a poet or a painter, a photographer or a philosopher. Because Wols’s evolution into a painter was unconscious. He did not call himself a painter, obstinately refused to make a career of it, and even went so far as ask the police to prevent an exhibition of his work organized by his wife and René Drouin in 1947. He’d first visit the exhibitions with his dog, to whom he’d seriously mount each painting ahead of precipitously taking off before the opening in the company of his best friend.

Wols’s genuinely personal and exceptional oeuvre only began in January 1946 when, after much hesitation, he decided to start working with oil on canvas. “Already, the movements of the forearms and the arms necessary to paint a canvas depend on ambition and gymnastics,” he’d say. “Not for me.”

It was as if he had a vague presentiment that in committing himself to painting in oil on canvas and in large formats, he’d be sacrificing poetry and diary writing for a life in the limelight.

The Birth of the Informal

The rupture was complete between Wols’s gouaches and his oil paintings. First he abandoned the anecdotal image (for even if it was a dream image, it was still an anecdote) and replaced it with chaos. This new abstract painter who emerged abruptly for the first time at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1947 resembled no one ever seen before. The work he exposed was both a slap in the face and a spit in the eye, like entrails rooted out by a python. Those who discovered it remained surprised, shocked, and disturbed. At the same time, and by a curious accident, Pollock was launching himself in the frenzy of ‘dripping,’ and it was from these two simultaneous deliriums that the Informal School would be born.

Oeuvres of art are certainly destined for a strange fate! Wols and Pollock, both cursed, both alcoholic, both particular, both objectors, both “against,” both prey to dark thoughts, both self-destructive, both dead tragically at the dawn of their real careers, created a new current of art which made those who came after them rich. And this current which, with them, became a furious torrent, bathed with incandescence, spurting blood, rapidly devolved into conformity, the formulaic, and commerce.

In 1949, Wols exposed at the Milione Gallery in Milan, then the following year at the Hugo Gallery in New York. And then it was over. On September 1, 1951, at a quarter before noon, Wols died a sudden death.

He’d only just begun to find peace in his petite house in Champigny outside Paris, to which the initial sales of his work had allowed him to retire. Eight months earlier, after undergoing 65 days of treatment, he’d left the Saint-Antoine Hospital, disintoxicated and happy to be so. He was leading a healthy life, hopping out of bed at 6 every morning so that he could go down to his garden and watch the sunrise. He could walk his dog, and had more or less quit smoking. His death remains shrouded by mystery. Some attribute it to the disintoxicaiton cure. Grety Wols, for her part, blames herself, exaltedly, of having inadvertently poisoned him.

“In the middle of the night, he suddenly got hungry. I scoured the pantry. I found some ground horse-meat left over from two days earlier and cooked it up. He instantly ate it. The next day, he was siezed with pains. We took him to the hospital. It was still vacation. The doctors were out. There was a string of bad luck. I didn’t think to tell them about the ground horse-meat. His state worsened. He died. It might have been me who killed him.”

In 1959, a major retrospective of Wols’s oeuvre took place at the Venice biennale. Posthumous glory had begun.

Wols’s informalism is, if you like, a sort of automatic writing. In this sense, he links himself to the surrealist spirit which animated his first works. But Wols far surpasses the surrealist aesthetic. His automatic-ness is moreover “psychological” rather than pictorial. He surpasses surrealism like he surpassed expressionism. He was one of the first abstract expressionists and, long before Zen Buddhism became à la mode, was deeply marked by Chinese mysticism.

It is superfluous
to name God
or to learn something by heart.

When one has seen a path
towards the heavens
the details lose their importance
but remain charming.

A prayer of less than two words
can hold the universe.

The imperceptible penetrates all.

No, these concise poems are not by Lao Tseu, but by Wols.

Concise, meticulous, precise, penetrating — the same adjectives apply to Wols’s engravings as to his poetry. As brief as his “career” may have been, he still found the time to illustrate Kafka (“The Guest of the Dead,” 1948), Antonin Artaud (“Le Théâtre de Séraphin”), Jean Paulhan (“The Scottish Shepherd,” 1948, and “Chinese Poems,” translated by Paulhan), Jean-Paul Sartre (“Visages,” 1948, and “Nourishment,” 1949), Camille Bryen (“City Whale,” 1949), René de Solier (“Naturals,” 1948).

As we can see, this major illustration portfolio was pursued in the two most fertile years for his work, 1948-1949, during which he also accomplished some of his most beautiful paintings.

Wols has already been reunited in the pantheon with Nicolas de Staël, Atlan, and Franz Kline, like him struck down just when their talent was flowering.

Afterward by Paul Ben-Itzak

As the Impressionists, Symbolists, Fauves, Cubists, Nabis, Surrealists, Abstractionists, and even some Abstract Expressionists have become preserved in amber, and contemporary critics tend to focus on their living contemporaries, a whole — and, as Ragon might argue, nuclear (or pivotal) — generation of painters and sculptors from the ’40s through ’50s risks falling into oblivion. Dubuffet’s place in the collective artistic memory is still assured, and the COBRA group for whom Ragon organized the first Paris exhibition in 1951 has not yet been forgotten, but try finding Wols or Atlan in the major museums. (In Paris, the Pompidou Center’s tendency is to overdo it on the epoch’s most famous exponents — as in the monographic 400+ oeuvre-strong Dubuffet exhibition in the early 2000s, in which the museum seemed to be making up for its earlier exclusion of the artist, or the 2015 Wilfredo Lam show which, far from elaborating our understanding of the artist, revealed his limitations — and ignore their contemporaries. (And forget about it if you’re a woman or an American, Stuart Davis for one being conspicuous by his absence.)

Ragon’s journalistic-critical chronicles — with his long view and profound mine of references, Romanesque eye for detail and drama, critical aptitude and clarity, and a style and vocabulary that are erudite without being exclusive — restore, preserve, and revivify a vibrant and animated archive of this history.

Original article by Michel Ragon:

Dans les années 1947-1948, il m’arrivait fréquemment de rencontrer à Saint-Germain-des-Prés un vieil homme qui marchait pesamment en s’appuyant sur une canne, la tête nue avec des cheveux en couronne au-dessus d’un front très dégarni. Il vivait dans une petite chambre d’hôtel avec sa femme, jouait du banjo, buvait sec. On le disait protégé par Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir. Coup sur coup, deux événements avaient attiré l’attention sur cet étrange personnage : une exposition à la galerie Drouin, place Vendôme, qui était alors la galerie la plus à l’avant-garde de Paris, et une grande peinture insolite au Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, qui ne ressemblait à rien de connu. Ce bohème, qui se nommait Wols, mourut trois ans plus tard, et j’appris alors avec stupeur qu’il n’avait que trente-sept ans.

Un Maudit

On peut lire couramment les déclarations allègres de certains journalistes qui avancent, avec une nuance d’ailleurs condescendante, qu’il n’existe plus aujourd’hui de peintres maudits. Wols fut aussi maudit que Van Gogh, et le parallèle entre ces deux artistes également hallucinés ne s’arrête pas là. Tout comme Van Gogh a réalisé son œuvre personnelle dans les deux dernières années de sa vie et est mort lui aussi à trente-sept ans, Wols n’a commencé son œuvre de peintre « informel » que six ans avant sa mort. Mais tout comme les deux dernières années de Van Gogh résument toute sa vie et en constituent l’explosion, les six dernières années de la vie de Wols remettent tout l’art moderne en question et lui ouvrent une nouvelle voie inattendue. En si peu de temps, Wols, tout comme Van Gogh, aura tout bouleversé. Wols restera une date aussi importante dans l’histoire de la peinture que son compatriote Einstein dans l’histoire de la science. La désintégration des formes à laquelle se livre le peintre correspond d’ailleurs à la désintégration de l’atome, conséquence des recherches de Einstein. Parallèle, évidement, que l’on établit après coup. On était bien loin de croire, en 1947, lorsque Wols n’arrivait pas à payer son terme à l’hôtel meublé minable où il logeait, que cet artiste famélique susciterait un jour des comparaisons avec les événements scientifiques qui, depuis Hiroshima, hantaient les esprits.

Qui était Wols? D’où venait cet étranger, ce vagabond, ce faux vieillard usé prématurément? Bryen et Mathieu étaient ses amis et l’entouraient d’une admiration qui ne s’est jamais démentie. Henri-Pierre Roché, singulier personnage lui aussi, grand collectionneur et écrivain à succès (posthume) depuis que Truffaut a tiré de son roman “Jules et Jim” le film que l’on sait, Henri-Pierre Roché, qui le rencontra dans le sud de la France pendant la guerre et lui acheta cinquante gouaches en trois ans, nous le décrit jouant du Bach sur son banjo, avec son chien, sa bouteille et sa pipe, vénérant Lao-Tseu, détestant Confucius, et « s’humectant comme un coton de briquet ».

L’historien d’art Werner Haftman nous le montre ensuite à Paris, dans sa petite chambre d’hôtel, « allongé sur son lit, souvent les yeux fermés — fermés pour voir mieux — enregistrant sur de petits bouts de papier le fleuve continu des images qui surgissent d’une source puissante et secrète. Tout cela au milieu de discussions turbulentes de ses amis ou du passage souvent tumultueux de visiteurs étrangers ».

Une Éducation de Petit Prince

Wols s’appelait de son vrai nom Otto Alfred Schulze Battmann. Né le 27 mai 1913 à Berlin, s’il n’était pas mort prématurément, nous fêterons aujourd’hui son cinquantenaire, et il serait sans aucun doute aussi célèbre qu’il l’est, et riche. Car il n’y a plus de peintres maudits dans la mesure ou ceux-ci ne meurent pas jeunes. Van Gogh ou Modigliani, vivant aussi longtemps que Picasso, seraient devenus, eux aussi, riches et considérés.

Wols était d’une famille saxonne qui, traditionnellement, fournissait de hauts fonctionnaires à l’État. De 1919 à sa mort, en 1929, son père fut même chef de chancellerie de l’État de Saxe, ce qui lui valait le surnom de « roi non courronné de Saxe ». Mélomanes, grands lecteurs, passionnés de botanique et de géologie, les parents de Wols lui donnèrent une éducation de petit prince. Il étudia la musique très jeune et semblait, à dix-sept ans, en raison de ses dons, être voué à la direction d’orchestre. Mais en même temps il montrait des qualités exceptionnelles pour la photographie, la mécanique et l’anthropologie. Élève de Frobenius, à l’Institut des Études Africaines de Francfort, puis de Gropius, au Bauhaus de Dessau (où il eut également des conversations avec Mies van der Rohe et Moholy-Nagy), il fuit le nazisme en 1932 et arrive à Paris.

Ce jeune homme de dix-neuf ans peint ses premières aquarelles sous l’influence de Klee et rencontre dans la capitale française Miro, Ernst, Tzara, Léger, Arp, Giacometti et Calder, à qui il donne des leçons d’allemand.

L’année suivante, en février, il rencontre Grety, son aînée de quinze ans, qui deviendra sa femme. Tous deux partent pour l’Espagne, pour Barcelone et Ibiza, où Wols gagne sa vie en photographiant des chiens de luxe et des bébés. Mais deux ans plus tard, le consulat d’Allemagne le fait arrêter comme réfractaire au service militaire. Après trois mois de prison, il est expulsé d’Espagne et passe les Pyrénées à pied, sous la neige.

En 1937, il prend le pseudonyme de Wols pour une exposition une exposition de ses photos dans une galerie parisienne. Sa vie devient plus facile, l’Exposition Internationale de Paris lui ayant accordé en tant que photographe l’exclusivité du Pavillon de l’Élégance. Mais la guerre ne tarde pas à arriver. Sujet allemand, Wols est interné dans les camps de concentration de Montargis, de Neuilly, de Nimes, d’Aix-en-Provence. Il y découvre le refuge de l’alcool, auquel il fera appel désormais pour stimuler ses rêves.

Les Bateaux-Rêves

Libéré en 1940, il s’installe à Cassis, puis à Dieulefit in the Drôme. Il réussit à vendre quelques gouaches et dessins, notamment à Henri-Pierre Roché. Les années 1941-1942 sont cruciales pour Wols. La misère, la prison en Espagne, les camps de concentration en France l’ont terriblement mûri. Il n’a pas encore trente ans, et sa vie est déjà encombrée d’epreuves, de tribulations. Sans doute est-ce cela qui lui fait écrire : « La première chose que je chasse de ma vie, c’est la mémoire. » Ses gouaches et aquarelles sont un journal intime qu’il tient parallèlement aux poèmes qu’il écrit. « On raconte ses petits contes terrestres à travers de petits bouts de papier », dit-il avec une ironie douloureuse. Il est en effet, avant tout, poète, nourri de la lecture de Baudelaire, de Poe, de Rimbaud, de Lautréamont, de Novalis, de Shelley, d’Artaud, de Kafka, de Faulkner et de Morgenstern. Un poète parti pour un voyage sans retour avec ce qu’il appelle ses “bateaux-rêves” (il rêvait de construire une barque et d’y vivre). Ces bateaux, qui peuplent ses aquarelles, font surgir évidemment les images du “Bateau Ivre” de Rimbaud et de la Barque du Dante. Ils accostent parfois à des villes, ces villes que Wols dessine méticuleusement, en miniaturiste, avec leurs perspectives, et qu’il livre ensuite à des monstres. Végétations imaginaires, personnages farfelus, phallisme : le monde des gouaches de Wols se situe entre le surréalisme et l’expressionnisme. Pour étranges qu’elles soient et parfaites dans leur dessin aigu, ces gouaches n’étaient pas à la hauteur du génie de Wols. Mort cinq ans plus tôt, Wols n’aurait été qu’un petit maître se plaçant à l’ombre de Klee. Ses premières aquarelles de 1932-33 nous montrent, en effet, des scènes aériennes, des villes rêvées, des mirages, des elfes. Bientôt, néanmoins, le jardin fabuleux de Klee devait être piétiné par des monstres. On ne sait rien des aquarelles que Wols fit en 1934-36 en Espagne, puisqu’elles ont été perdues lorsque l’artiste a été jeté en prison, puis expulsé. Mais elles devaient sans doute faire le lien entre Klee et Bosch. Ainsi, Wols passait-il d’un surréalisme tendre à un expressionisme qui le rapprochait de Grosz, de Kokoschka, de Ensor et même de Otto Dix.

Comme ces aquarelles et gouaches sont la partie la plus abondante de son œuvre, c’est surtout cet aspect de Wols que l’on voit dans les galeries. C’est aussi l’aspect le plus agréable, le plus facile. Il ne permit malheureusement pas de se rendre compte de l’importance de l’œuvre de l’artiste. C’est comme si l’on montrait perpétuellement “Les Mangeurs de pommes de terre” de Van Gogh en tenant les paysages d’Arles et d’Auvers-sur-Oise hors du regard du public.

On ne répétera jamais assez que ces gouaches et aquarelles ne sont que du Wols avant Wols, les œuvrettes d’un homme qui ne savait pas encore s’il était poète ou peintre, photographe ou philosophe. Car Wols n’a réalisé une œuvre de peintre qu’à son insu. Il ne se disait pas peintre, refusant obstinément de faire carrière e tallant jusqu’à tenter de faire interdire par le commissaire de Police l’exposition que sa femme et René Drouin avaient organisée en 1947 ; visitant d’abord les expositions avec son chien, auquel il montrait sérieusement chaque tableau, puis partant précipitamment en compagnie de son plus cher copain avant le vernissage.

L’œuvre vraiment personnelle, exceptionnelle de Wols, ne commence qu’en janvier 1946, lorsque, après beaucoup d’hésitations, il se décida à aborder la peinture à l’huile sur toile. « Les mouvements des avants-bras et des bras pour peindre une toile, c’est déjà de l’ambition et de la gymnastique, disait-il. Je ne veux pas. »

Confusément, il pressentait sans doute qu’en abordant la peinture à l’huile sur toile et le grand format il abandonnait le poème et le journal intime pour la vie publique.

Naissance de l’Informel

Entre ses gouaches et ses peintures à l’huile, la rupture est absolue. D’abord, il abandonne l’image anecdotique (même s’il s’agit d’une image rêvée, c’est néanmoins une anecdote) pour le chaos. Ce nouveau peintre abstrait qui apparaît brutalement pour la première fois au Salon des Réalités Nouvelles de 1947 ne ressemble à personne. Ce qu’il expose, c’est à la fois une gifle et un crachat, une explosion et les entrailles fouillées par la pythonisse. On en demeurait surpris, choqué et inquiet. Au même moment, par quel curieux hasard, Pollock se livrait au ‘dripping’ le plus déliriant à New York, et c’est de ces deux délires que devait naître l’Ecole informelle.

Étrange destin que celui des œuvres d’art ! Wols et Pollock, tous deux maudits, tous deux alcooliques, tous deux hors série, tous deux objecteurs, tous deux « contre », tous deux mal pensants, tous deux destructeurs, tous deux morts tragiquement à l’aube de leur vraie carrière, auront suscité un courant nouveau qui a fait la fortune de leurs suiveurs. Et ce courant qui, avec eux, était torrent furieux, lave incandescente, giclée de sang, est devenu rapidement conformisme, formules, et commerce.

En 1949, Wols expose à la galerie del Milione à Milan, puis l’année suivante à la Hugo Gallery de New York. Et c’est fini. Le 1er septembre 1951, à midi moins le quart, Wols meurt soudainement.

Il venait juste de commencer à trouver la paix dans sa petite maison de Champigny, où les premières ventes de ses œuvres lui avaient permis de se retirer. Huit mois auparavant, après soixante-cinq jours de traitement, il était sorti de l’hôpital Saint-Antoine, désintoxiqué et heureux de l’être. Il menait une vie saine, sautant du lit à six heures du matin pour descendre dans son jardin voir se lever le jour. Il pouvait se promener avec son chien, ne fumait presque plus. Sa mort demeure mystérieuse. Certains l’attribuent à la cure de désintoxication. Grety Wols, elle, s’accuse avec exaltation de l’avoir empoisonné par mégarde.

« Il eut une faim subite au milieu de la nuit. Je fouillai le garde-manger. Je trouvai du cheval haché de l’avant-veille, je le fis cuire. Il l’avala à l’instant. Le lendemain, il fut pris de douleurs. On l’emmena à l’hôpital. C’étaient encore les vacances. On manquait de médecin. Il y eu des malchances. Je ne songeai pas à parler du cheval haché. Son état empira. Il mourut. Je l’ai tué peut-être. »

En 1958, une grande rétrospective de l’œuvre de Wols eut lieu à la biennale de Venise. La gloire posthume commençait.

L’informel de Wols est, si l’on veut, une sorte d’écriture automatique. Dans ce sens, il se rattache à l’esprit surréaliste qui avait animé ses premières œuvres. Mais il dépasse de beaucoup l’esthétique surréaliste. Son automatisme est d’ailleurs plus « psychologique » que pictural. Il dépasse le surréalisme, comme il dépasse l’expressionisme. Il est un des premiers expressionnistes abstraits et, avant que la mode soit au Zen, profondément marqué par la mystique chinoise.

Il est superflu
de nommer Dieu
ou d’apprendre quelque chose par cœur.

Quand on a en vue un chemin
vers le ciel
les détails perdent leur importance
mais restent charmants.

Une prière de moins de deux mots
peut tenir l’univers.

L’insaisissable pénètre tout.

Non, ces poèmes si concis ne sont pas de Lao Tseu, mais de Wols.

Concis, minutieux, précis, aigu, Wols l’était aussi dans ses gravures. Aussi brève qu’ait été sa « carrière », il eut le temps néanmoins d’illustrer Kafka (“L’invitè des Morts,” 1948), Antonin Artaud (“Le Théatre de Séraphin”), Jean Paulhan (“La Bergère d’Écosse,” 1948, et des “Poèmes Chinois” traduits par Paulhan), Jean-Paul Sartre (“Visages,” 1948, et “Nourritures,” 1949), Camille Bryen (“Baleine-Ville,” 1949), René de Solier (“Naturelles,” 1948).

Comme on le voit, ce grand travail d’illustrateur se situe dans deux des années les plus fécondes pour son œuvre : 1948-49, pendant lesquelles il réalisera également quelques-unes de ses plus belles peintures.

Wols rejoint déjà dans la légende Nicolas de Staël, Atlan, et Franz Kline, foudroyés comme lui dans la pleine maturité de leur talent.

Michel Ragon, “Wols,” Jardin des Arts, May 1963. Copyright Michel Ragon.

“La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished) by Michel Ragon (Extract from the Prologue)

A sort of combination of Warren Beatty’s film “Reds” (inspired by John Reed’s “Ten Days that Shook the World”) and Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States,” Michel Ragon’s 1990 novel “La Mémoire des vaincus” (The Book of the Vanquished) resurrects the anarchists and libertarians (in the French sense of the word) who often furnished the foot soldiers for the class warfare and union movements of the first half of the 20th century — before they themselves were crushed by the Communists and obliterated a second time by the history books. It’s a brilliant mosaic in which authentic historical figures like Trotsky intermingle with a protagonist we’re never quite sure is entirely fictional, so much does the trajectory of the narrator to whom he is the mentor correspond with Ragon’s own. (Like the novel’s hero when the narrator first encounters him, Ragon worked as a bouquiniste, or Seine-side bookseller, before he became a celebrated art and architecture critic, curator, and historian of Proletarian literature, to cite just a few of his many trades.)

Child groom to a girl he finds on a fish cart when he himself is just a pre-adolescent waif roaming  Les Halles wholesale market in Paris in 1911, taken in along with the girl by revolutionary militant and writer Victor Serge and his companion Rirette Maitrejean, non-violent anarchists at the same time harboring the notorious violence-prone Bonnot Band of anarchists, aide-de-camp to Zinoviev until he’s forced to flee Soviet Russia after contradicting Trotsky, combatant with the International Brigade in Spain once again forced to flee the Russians attempting to subvert the Republican cause, Labor agitator in the era of the Popular Front finally trotted out as a totem by the student rebels of May 1968 before slipping back into obscurity, Ragon’s “Fred Barthélemy” and his entourage of real, composite, and imagined personages embody the ‘losers’ of the 20th century class struggles, their ideals nonetheless persistent and renascent in contemporary France via the “ZAD” (Zone à Défendre) movement, like a cup of sourdough starter passed on from generation to generation, making all the more crucial Ragon’s “memory of the vanquished.” Romantic and heroic without being romanticized, Ragon’s saga — decorated, through Fred’s intermittent reunions with Flora, with a love story as well as a fresco of the Paris art world over which Flora reigns supreme first as artist’s muse and later as dealer — restores a lost milieu to its rightful place in popular history.

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak (followed by version originale):  

“Books can also die, but they last longer than men. They get passed on from hand to hand, like the Olympic flame relayed by runners. My friend, my father, my older brother, you have not completely slid into Nothingness, because this book of your life exists.”

— Michel Ragon, prologue, “The Memory of the Vanquished.”

Life makes for a curious marathon*, mined with ambushes and discoveries, surprises and mishaps. People arrive, people depart. We come into contact with beings we later forget, or who simply disappear. Others insinuate themselves into our lives and don’t let go, attaching themselves like tics which we know we’ll only get rid of by disappearing ourselves, forever, with no prospect of coming back. Sometimes their presence is so oppressive that we want to fast-forward this moment. Why do certain people never go away while others simply seem to evaporate, misplaced somewhere along the line but who nonetheless still obsess us? Some are dead — or reported dead — and yet they’re anything but dead to us. These so-called dearly departed continue to accompany us, live with us and inhabit us, more than so many of the living that we walk next to indifferently every day. Sometimes we precipitously bury those we’ve lost from sight and whose advanced age makes us believe they’re definitively gone. And then one day, “Poof!,” there they are, stepping out of the shadows like phantoms, resuming their roles in our lives — roles they never should have abdicated in the first place.

Such is the case of the man whose story I’m about to relate.

Without this man, I would not be who I am today. When I first met him, I was just 23 years old. He was 48. Forty-eight is hardly ancient, but he was already very old. What I mean is that he had lived through such adventures, crossed paths with so many renowned, legendary figures, and had himself played such a vital role in History that he seemed as if removed from Time. As for the particular times — the new Post-War era — they had chewed him up and spat him out. Imprisoned from 1939 to 1945 and thus having participated neither in the conflicts between the Resistance and the Collaborationists nor the skirmishes for power that followed the Liberation, he seemed to be an anachronism. The only way to make a living he’d been able to come up with accentuated this very obsolescence. He operated a bookstall on the banks of the Seine, on the Tournelle quay, not far from what was still referred to at the time as the Wine Market.

To see him there, leaning up against a parapet next to his book bins, his imposing stature slightly fractured, with an eternally ironic air, did not really surprise me. At first I was just another customer, albeit a customer oblivious to the particular singularity of the bouquiniste he had in front of him, a customer who spent more time leafing through the books protected by the zinc overhangs than actually buying them. The book bins of the man who was to become for me more than just a friend, a spiritual father whose influence would mark me forever, had nothing in common with the other bookstands that flanked the river. No cellophane-wrapped erotic novels. No murder mysteries. Unencumbered by faded pseudo-engravings or envelopes stuffed with stamp collections, but overflowing with an abundance of brochures, revues, and even yellowing newspapers, the whole of which constituted an extraordinary collection for the connoisseur of the history of union, political, and social movements of the first half of the 20th century. The books in this singular library, also extremely rare, with some boasting personally dedicated autographs, were not more expensive because of this fact, as the typical autograph collector was not yet looking for the signatures of Gide, Malraux, Alain, or Giono. But they fascinated me, and it was no doubt these long interludes spent mooning over such illustrious signatures, not to mention my propensity for acquiring brochures whose politics usually made them unsellable, that drew the attention of the bouquiniste to his young habitué. Seeing me count my pennies, he offered me special discounts. One day he told me, in his mocking, Parisian, borderline hangman’s voice, which I’d later find intact in his extreme decrepitude:

“M’boy, I’m flabbergasted to see you interested in such drivel at your age. I’ve been observing you, just out of curiosity, for months, and you simply don’t relent. What could possibly interest you in these books? Seriously, you intrigue me! Where do you come from? What do you expect out of life?”

I babbled something. His questions were just a bit too personal for my taste.

He shrugged his shoulders, seemed to grow agitated, and added, in a tone not at all friendly:

“What I’m telling you is for your own good. You shouldn’t loiter over all this obsolete rubbish. It won’t get you anywhere. If I’ve dug it out of mothballs, it’s only because it might interest some old cronies who still remember me fondly.”

Then, softening:

“A man’s gotta make a living, after all. Although for that matter, why should I say ‘gotta’? No one’s forcing me. I’ve hit dry-dock, like those old barges which no longer budge from the mudflats. Liquidation sale! Everything must go! Later on down the line, who knows?”

Then his bad mood resurged:

“Go on, get out of here! This is not for you. You’re better off chasing skirts. I don’t want to see you around here any more. You’re getting on my nerves. Amscray!”

For months I stayed away from the Tournelle Quay. The bouquiniste had not so much frightened as annoyed me. I avoided him. Walking along the opposite sidewalk, on the building side of the street, I saw him more often than not surrounded by men his own age, or older, engaged in prolonged confabs. Some were bizarrely adorned, with capes, extravagant scarves, and cotton-knit bonnets. It thus seemed to me that these men who surrounded my gawky, surly friend had also stepped out of another time. This resemblance between the bouquiniste’s regulars and the outdated merchandise in his bins explained the anomaly of my intrusion in an age circle which was not my own. But I still had the right to be passionate about early 20th-century political history. This conviction gave me the courage to plunge back into his bins — which, after all, didn’t belong to an exclusive club. I emerged triumphantly with Lissagaray’s History of the 1871 Commune, the Dentu edition, published in 1897. Girding myself for more of the same cantankerousness from him, I immediately adopted a pugnacious tone:

“How much for this one? I expect a deal — after all, I’m on old customer.”

He pretended not to recognize me, weighed the book between his thin hands, leafed through it, shook his head sadly, and answered:

“Lissagaray…. This one’s priceless. But because you had the balls to come back, I’m going to give it to you. No — don’t argue; it’s a present. A present without price! You’re an anar ? ‘Fess up.”

“‘Anar’?”

I’d only just landed in Paris from my province, where I’d been educated for the most part in the bosom of the Catholic Church, Roman and Apostolic. But ever since the moment I’d begun to ponder things, I’d been drawn above all to the heretics, the outcasts of all varieties, the marginals, the outlaws, the iconoclasts, even the abnormal and the madmen. “Anar”? What was he talking about? I was more familiar with the history of socialism, of socialisms in their various avatars, than that of anarchism.

Seeing my embarrassment, the bouquiniste resumed:

“No, of course, you’re not an anar. It’s no longer à la mode. For that matter, it’s never been à la mode. You’ve gotta at least be a Communist, no? If not, what could you possibly hope to find in my book bins? Or maybe you’re just a masochist.”

“Why do I have to subscribe to some ‘ism’ in your book?” I brusquely shot back. “I’m interested in politics, not political parties.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“I do what I’m able to do. And I could care less. For the moment I’m an unskilled laborer in a factory. I’ve always been an unskilled laborer,” I added in a moment of defiance. “Unskilled laborer, warehouse worker, docker. I may be petit, but I’m solid. And working with my muscles leaves my brain free. To read, to study.”

“Do you read a lot?”

“I’ve read everything.”

“Don’t be modest!”

“It’s true. I’ve read the entire collection of Larousse Classics, in alphabetical order. That way I’m sure not to leave anything out.”

The bouquiniste ran his hands through his gray hair, a typical gesture for him, practically a tic. He considered me with an air in which I detected both surprise and affection. It seemed like he wanted to tell me something, but in the end he settled for taking my shoulder in his boney hand and squeezing it so hard it hurt.

“Come back whenever you like. Leaf through my stock. Search, m’boy, and maybe ye shall find.”

Thus was born my relationship with the man whose biography I now aspire to write. Before long I noticed that the same name popped up again and again on the fly-leafs of all the signed books in his bins, as well as on the covers of numerous brochures that I bought from him. This name was of course his own. He was slowly selling off his library — his only asset.

Excerpt from “La Mémoire des vaincus” by Michel Ragon. Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1990. To read a translated excerpt from Chapter One, click here. To read sample translations — and the French original — of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l-Oeil,” click here as well as here. To read a translation of Ragon’s article on the Montparnasse artist Wols, click here.

*A more accurate translation of the French original, “parcours,” would be “trajectory.” I’ve proposed “marathon” here to avoid over-using “trajectory” and because in translating in general, I try to give the French author his best expression in American English (without getting so fancy as to risk changing his meaning or betraying his native style), rather than simply mirror his language, particularly when a literal translation risks diminishing the luster of the original. (For instance, where the literal English translation might not offer the literary, cultural, lyrical, or rhythmic resonances of the French. Or may simply be more banal than the French original.) And because, as a former marathoner in San Francisco, I find the image apt for the pacing and landscapes about to unfold in “La Mémoire des vaincus.” Or perhaps it’s simply that Ragon’s own advanced age — 93 as of this writing — makes his own ‘parcours’ and durability resemble that of the marathon runner.

Version originale:

«Les livres meurent aussi, mais ils durent plus longtemps que les hommes. On se les passe de main en main. Comme la flamme des jeux Olympiques portée de relais en relais par les coureurs. Mon ami, mon père, mon grand aîné, tu n’as pas glissé entièrement dans le néant puisque ce livre de ta vie existe.»

— Michel Ragon, Prologue, «La Mémoire des vaincus.»

La vie est un curieux parcours, plein d’embûches et de découvertes, de surprises et de déconvenues. On vient, on va. On rencontre des gens, que l’on oublie, qui disparaissent. D’autres qui s’insinuent, qui ne vous lâchent plus, qui s’accrochent à vous comme des tiques et dont on sait bien que l’on ne pourra s’en débarrasser qu’en disparaissant soi-même, à tout jamais, sans espoir de retour. Ils sont si pesant parfois, que l’on a envie de devancer l’heure. Pourquoi ceux-là et pas ceux-ci, égarés en chemin et dont le souvenir vous obsède. Certains sont morts, du moins on le dit, mais ils ne sont pas morts pour vous. Des prétendus morts nous accompagnent, vivent avec nous, en nous, plus que tant de vivants que l’on côtoie chaque jour avec indifférence. Parfois, on enterre un peu vite ceux que l’on a perdus de vue et dont l’âge avancé nous fait croire à leur effacement définitif. Et il arrive qu’ils ressortent de l’ombre, comme des fantômes, et reprennent leur place, dans notre existence, une place qu’ils n’auraient jamais dû quitter.

C’est le cas de l’homme dont je vais vous raconter la vie.

Sans lui, je ne serais pas ce que je suis. Lorsque je le rencontrai pour la première fois j’avais vingt-trois ans. Il en comptait quarante-huit. Quarante-huit ans, ce n’est pas bien vieux, mais lui était déjà très vieux. Je veux dire qu’il avait vécu de telles aventures, croisé tant de gens illustres, légendaires, joué lui-même un tel rôle dans l’Histoire, qu’il semblait hors du temps. Le temps, les temps nouveaux de l’après-guerre, d’ailleurs le rejetaient. Emprisonné de 1939 à 1945 et n’ayant, de ce fait, participé ni aux conflits de la Résistance et de la Collaboration, ni à la ruée sur les pouvoirs vacants à la Libération, il apparaissait alors tout à fait anachronique. Le seul gagne-pain qu’il avait pu trouver accentuait sa désuétude. Il tenait un étal de bouquiniste en bord de Seine, quai de la Tournelle, non loin de ce qui s’appelait encore la Halle aux Vins.

Le voir ainsi, accoté au parapet, près de ses boites à livres, sa haute taille un peu cassée, l’air toujours ironique, ne me surprenait pas outre mesure. J’avais commencé par être son client, un client qui ignorait à quelle singulier bouquiniste il s’adressait, un client qui passait plus de temps à feuilleter les livres sous l’auvent des couvercles de zinc qu’à les acheter. Les boites de celui qui allait devenir pour moi plus qu’un ami, un père spirituel dont l’influence me marquerait à jamais, ne ressemblaient pas aux autres. Elles ne contenaient ni publications érotiques sous cellophane, ni romans policiers, n’étaient pas encombrées de pseudo-gravures anciennes, ni d’enveloppes de collections de timbres, mais débordaient d’une abondance de brochures, de revues et même de journaux jaunis qui constituaient une extraordinaire collection pour l’amateur d’histoire syndicale, politique et sociale de la première moitié du siécle. Les livres de ce singulier libraire, eux aussi fort rares, certains même dédicacés, n’en coûtes pas plus cher pour cela, car les amateurs d’autographes ne recherchaient pas encore les signatures de Gide, de Malraux, d’Alain, de Giono. Mais moi, elles me fascinaient et c’est sans doute ces longs moments passés à rêver sur d’aussi illustres paraphes, et plus encore ma propension à acquérir des brochures politiques invendables, qui attirèrent l’attention du bouquiniste sur son jeune habitué. Me voyant compter mes sous, il me faisait des prix. Un jour il me dit, de cette voix gouailleuse, parigote, un tantinet bourrue, que je retrouverai inchangée dans son extrême vieillesse :

— Tu m’en bouches un coin, mon gars, à ton âge, de t’intéresser à tout cette drouille. Je te regarde, comme ça, depuis des mois, et tu ne fléchis pas. Qu’est-ce qui peut bien t’attirer là-dedans ? Vraiment, tu m’intrigues ! D’ou viens-tu ? Qu’attends-tu de la vie ?

Je bafouillai je ne sais quoi. Il m’en demandait trop.

Il haussa les épaules, parut agacé et me dit d’un ton peu aimable :

— Ce que je t’en dis, c’est pour ton bien. Tu ne devrais pas t’attarder à toutes ces vieilleries. Ça ne te mènera nulle part. Si je les ai ressorties, c’est qu’elles font l’affaire de quelques copains qui veulent bien se souvenir de moi.

Puis, se radoucissant :

— Il faut que je gagne ma croûte. Enfin, pour quoi dire il faut. Personne ne m’oblige. J’ai échoué là, comme ces vieux rafiots qui ne ressortent plus de la vase du port. Je liquide mon fonds. Après, on verra.

Sa mauvaise humeur revint :

— Allez, déguerpis. Ce n’est pas pour toi. Tu ferais mieux de t’intéresser aux filles. Je ne veux plus te voir. Tu m’agaces. Allez, fous le camp.

Des mois passèrent sans que je revienne quai de la Tournelle. Le bouquiniste m’avait moins effrayé que vexé. Je l’évitais. En passant sur l’autre trottoir, du côté des immeubles, je le voyais le plus souvent entouré des hommes de son âge, ou plus vieux. Ils tenaient de longs conciliables. Certains étaient bizarrement accoutrés, avec des pèlerines, des foulards extravagants, des bonnets de laine tricotés. Il m’apparut alors que ces hommes qui entouraient mon grand escogriffe bourru, sortaient aussi d’un autre temps. Cette similitude entre les familiers du bouquiniste et la marchandise désuète de ses boîtes, me fit mieux comprendre l’anomalie de mon intrusion dans un âge qui n’était pas le mien. Mais j’avais bien le droit de me passionner pour l’histoire politique du début du siècle. Cette conviction me donna le courage de refouiller dans des boîtes qui après tout, n’appartenaient pas à un club privé. J’en ressortis triomphalement  l’Histoire de la Commune de 1871, par Lissagaray, dans l’édition Dentu, datée 1897. Et, ne voulant pas être en reste avec l’agressivité du bouquiniste, je lui demandai d’un air revêche :

— C’est combien, ce bouquin-là ? Vous me ferez bien un prix, je suis un vieux client.

Il feignit de ne pas me reconnaître, prit le livre dans ses mains maigres, le feuilleta, hocha la tête d’un air très triste :

— Lissagaray… C’est un ouvrage qui n’a pas de prix. Bon, puisque tu as le culot de revenir, je te le donne. Non, ne discute pas, c’est un cadeau. Un cadeau sans prix ! Tu es anar ? Fallait le dire.

— Anar ?

Je débarquais de ma province où mon éducation se fit plutôt dans le giron de l’Église catholique, apostolique et romaine. Mais depuis que je commençais à réfléchir, mon attirance allait surtout aux hérétiques, aux réprouvés de tout acabit, aux marginaux, aux hors-la-loi, aux irrespectueux, voire aux anormaux et aux fous. Anar ? Que voulait-il dire ? Je connaissais plus l’histoire du socialisme, des socialismes, et de tous leurs avatars, que celle de l’anarchie.

Voyant mon embarras, le bouquiniste reprit :

— Non, bien sûr, tu n’es pas anar. Ce n’est plus la mode. Ça ne l’a d’ailleurs jamais été. Tu n’es pas coco, tout de même ? Sinon, que chercherais-tu dans mes boîtes ? Ou alors, c’est que tu serais maso.

— Pourquoi voulez-vous que je sois embrigadé dans quelque chose ? dis-je avec brusquerie. Je m’intéresse à la politique, pas aux partis politiques.

— Qu’est que tu fais, dans la vie ?

— Je fais ce que je peux. Et je m’en fiche. Actuellement je suis manœuvre dans une usine. J’ai toujours été manœuvre, ajoutait-je dans une sorte de défie, manœuvre, manutentionnaire, débardeur. Je suis petit, mais je suis costaud. Et travailler avec mes muscles me laisse le cerveau vacant. Je peux lire, étudier.

— Tu lis beaucoup ?

— J’ai tout lu.

— Allons, ne te vante pas.

— Si, j’ai lu tous les petits classiques Larousse, par ordre alphabétique. Comme ça, j’était sûr de ne pas en oublier.

— Le bouquiniste passa ses mains dans sa chevelure grise, geste qui lui était familier, presque un tic. Il me regarda d’un autre air où je devinai à la fois de l’étonnement et de l’affection. Il eut envie de me dire quelque chose, mais se contenta de me prendre l’épaule, de sa main osseuse, et de la serrer à me faire mal.

— Reviens quand tu veux. Farfouille. Cherche, mon gars. Peut-être finiras-tu par trouver.

C’est ainsi que commencèrent mes relations avec celui dont j’ambitionne aujourd’hui, quarante ans après, de devenir le biographe. Je m’aperçus vite que le même nom se répétait à la fois sur les pages de garde de tous les livres dédicacés qui se trouvaient dans ses boîtes, et sur les couvertures de nombreuses brochures que j’achetais. Ce nom était bien sûr le sien. Il bradait sa bibliothèque, son seul avoir.

 

“Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon (Extract; translation followed by original version)

“If Ragon’s erudition is immense, it has always been irrigated by the blood and misery of real life.”

— François Nourissier

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Reflecting the author’s popular roots, Michel Ragon’s 1956 “Trompe-l’oeil” is less an easy parody of the nascent contemporary art market than an introduction to the complex Abstract Art universe disguised as tragi-comic spoof, with complementary swipes at corrupt art critics à la Balzac’s “Lost Illusions.” Ragon’s colorful fictional personnages interact with some of the real-life artists of the era that he, as a critic and curator, championed (à la Zola). To read another excerpt, this one a portrait of one of Ragon’s favorite artists, Atlan, .click here

In the très chic Parisian salon of Monsieur Mumfy — the very same Mumfy of the famous underwear ads — “with Mumfy, you’re always comfy” — a Family Conference was underway. The plethora of Plexiglas and the multitude of apertures in the porous Oscar furniture eliminated any idea of intimacy in the vast square room, whose walls were ornamented with a sizable collection of Klees. The quality of these paintings had earned their proprietor the high regard and hosannas, frequently expressed, of the leading art critics of Paris as well as art aficionados.

Ensconced in a tubular arm-chair held together with cream-colored cords which leant it the vague allure of a warped harp, Monsieur Mumfy was in the process of interrogating his son, standing before him. Slightly separated from them, but still participating in the conversation, Madame Mumfy was busy at a black ceramic table creating a more or less Cubist collage. It was not that Madame Mumfy was an artist, or even trying to pass as one, but that she liked to distract herself with cutting up colored paper and re-assembling it, sometimes à la Picasso, sometimes à la Matisse, just as 50 years earlier she might have devoted herself to needlework.

“My dear Charles,” Monsieur Mumfy declared, “it’s time to decide. You’ve now graduated from high school; it’s time to pick a career. We’re here to help….”

Charles, clad from head to toe in black, his stiff hair combed over his forehead à la Bourvil (or à la Marlon Brando), pulverizing his handkerchief between his nervous fingers, tentatively stepped forward before retreating, with a certain dandy-ness that might have lead one to suspect an inclination towards sexual inversion, but it was nothing like that. Charles’s effeminate affectations, like his bird-like hopping back and forth, his juvenile gestures, and the weaving of his hips when he walked, were à la mode.

“Respond, Cheri!” chimed in Madame Mumfy. “Don’t let your father just languish there. Otherwise we’re in for another 24 hours of stress!”

“Okay Pops, Moms,” Charles finally decided, accentuating his dandy-ness. “My dream is to become… a notary public.”

Madame Mumfy precipitously dropped her scissors and glue to rush to the side of her husband, who had begun to hyperventilate. Striking him on the back and tapping him on the cheeks, she tried to reassure him:

“It’s nothing, darling, nothing! Charles is obviously kidding….”

When Monsieur Mumfy had recovered his wits, his son, worried by the turn of events, repeated, all the same:

“I don’t want to make you mad Pops, Moms, but I’m not joking: I really want to be a notary public.”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy glanced at each other with a complicit air tempered by indulgence. Then Monsieur Mumfy responded with a firm voice:

“My dear Charles, don’t be ridiculous. No one becomes a notary public these days. How could such an idea ever have sprouted up in the head of a MUMFY?! Choosing to be a notary public. The very idea! Does one choose to be a cuckold? Haven’t you read Balzac? Flaubert? For more than a hundred years notary publics have been looked at as grotesque characters, the butt of jokes — and your “dream” would be to sport a black skull-cap and bifocals with a pocket-watch hanging on a chain over a protuberant stomach that — thank God — you’re not even close to acquiring. Becoming a notary public might be fitting for the son of a country school-teacher, but you, Charles — do you want to be the shame of your family?

“Come, come now — it’s just the silly fancy of an adolescent. I’m going to help you…. I’ve got it! What if you became an artist…? A painter, for example?”

“But Pops, I don’t know how to paint.”

Monsieur Mumfy clutched his head between his hands in a sign of total exasperation in the face of such naïveté.

“Look at this blockhead! You’ll learn, Charles, you’ll learn! Does someone refuse to become a doctor because he’s never applied a bandage? One learns to paint, my boy, as with anything. And consider the future in painting. Picasso is a millionaire, as is Matisse…. Have you ever heard of a notary public who, starting out from scratch, has carved out such a shining success? Picasso lost so much time, in his youth, because he was poor, and couldn’t afford paints or canvasses, and didn’t know any dealers or critics. But you, Charles, won’t lack for anything. I’ll give you a monthly allowance so you won’t have anything to worry about. You can take advantage of my connections as a collector. With a little effort from you, my boy, we’ll make a famous artist out of you, who will be the pride and joy of the family. Look at Ancelin. He also wouldn’t have heard of becoming a painter. He wanted to be an officer, on the pretext that his father is a general. But General Ancelin talked him out of pursuing a career in a field compromised by the pacifism that’s more and more in vogue these days. He also, our old friend Ancelin, was able to see the opportunities available these days in the art world. And Ancelin now has a contract with Laivit-Canne’s gallery and will soon be exposed in New York.

Rising heavily, Monsieur Mumfy bumped his head against one of the blades of a Calder mobile rotating from the ceiling. He scooted it away distractedly with the back of his hand, as if it were a fly. The mobile started to undulate, with all its branches revolving in silence. It was as if a giant insect had suddenly come to life above the father and son, oblivious to its awakening. A soubrette entered, after knocking, apparently in the throes of panic.

“Madame, the pottery set that Monsieur gave Madame….”

“Yes…?

“I don’t know how it happened, but it’s… bleeding.”

“Now now, explain yourself clearly and don’t get upset,” sighed Madame Mumfy, delicately snipping a strip of embossed paper.

“Yes, Madame. I went to serve the consommé
in the pottery bowls and the consommé turned completely blue.”

“WHAT?!” erupted Monsieur Mumfy. “Who told you to touch that pottery?! You couldn’t tell that those plates were not made to be eaten from?!”

“Then what are they made for, Monsieur?” asked the maid, flustered.

“They’re not ‘made’ for anything!” roared Monsieur Mumfy even louder, so loud that the Calder began to hiccup. “Those plates are works of art. One does not eat from works of art. One beholds them!”

The maid tried to defend herself by babbling, “I wouldn’t have thought of pouring consommé on Monsieur’s paintings. I just thought that bowls are bowls….”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy broke into simultaneous laughter, bursting out, “She believed that bowls were bowls…!” “Incredible!” “We must tell Paulhan about this!”

The maid departed, clearly vexed. By the immense bay window looking out over the Luxembourg Gardens, Charles, indifferent to the fit of laughter which had seized his parents, gazed nostalgically at the Law School.

***

Monsieur Mumfy was not a born art collector. Before the war, consumed as he was with his underwear factory, he didn’t even know that painters existed. It took an accident. One of his debtors brought him a batch of watercolors, gouaches, and paintings by an unknown German artist, pleading with him to accept the paintings as collateral. Monsieur Mumfy initially refused this singular arrangement. Since when did one trade underwear for paintings?! But the debtor had been driven to ruin. Ahead of taking him to court, Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings stored in one of his warehouses, without taking the trouble to even look at them. Some months later, the debtor committed suicide. Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings brought up so he could study them to see if by chance they might actually be worth something. Stupefied, he discovered that they were replete with child-like doodles — all sorts of rivers, of birds, of funny figures. He’d been had. He began to choke with rage. The bastard had conned him before offing himself! Just in case, though, he asked an art dealer to take a look; the dealer refused to buy anything, smiling snidely.

“So I can throw them in the garbage,” Monsieur Mumfy fumed.

“Oh,” the dealer answered, with an evasive gesture, “hang on to them all the same. You never know. If you have the space….”

Immediately after the war, the very same dealer came back to see Monsieur Mumfy, who’d completely forgotten the painting fiasco. He offered him $5,000 for the whole lot of Klee works that he recalled seeing earlier.

Faced with the enormity of the amount (the debtor owed him, before the war, a little over $500), Monsieur Mumfy became suspicious, asked other dealers to come look at the paintings, and got offers of $7,500, $10,000, and $12,500 for the Klees…. He decided to read a few books about contemporary art, discovered that the market for paintings was the most speculative around, and that Klee was considered in America to be a major painter. He bought ornate frames for his paintings and had them hung in his salon. Before long, there were requests to photograph ‘his’ oeuvres, and to reproduce them in color in luxury magazines and art books. The name Mumfy was evoked wherever there was talk of Klee’s oeuvre. Thus he was catapulted, almost unconsciously, into the midst of the world of arts and letters and readily let himself be converted to all things avant-garde. He allowed himself to indulge in the luxury of philanthropy, underwriting several art revues and sponsoring young artists whose paintings resembled Klee’s. He was even recognized as one of the premiere Klee specialists in France. Far from making him lose money, the arts earned him notoriety he’d never even dreamed of as a simple garmento. He was decorated for services rendered to the arts. Famous artists cultivated his friendship. Even his fellow industrialists now showed him a deference that they’d never have dreamed of according him before he earned a reputation as an “influential collector.” Monsieur et Madame Michaud wanted to be up-to-date. They bought an apartment that they hired Le Corbusier to transform. Nothing, absolutely nothing in their home pre-dated the 20th century (with the possible exception of its proprietors).

Brought up amongst this architecture of pure lines, blasé about being surrounded by furniture which constantly reminded him of a dentist’s office, exhausted by this daily frequenting of chefs-d’oeuvre, Charles began to fantasize about living in a dusty bureau, with large old straight-legged  wooden arm-chairs, an oak desk and an ink-well with a feather plume. This was his own form of poetry. To every teenager his folly.

*In English in the original.

Original French language text of excerpt, by Michel Ragon:

Dans le salon très moderne de Monsieur Michaud, le fameux Michaud des sous-vêtements du même nom (« avec Michaud, toujours chaud »), se tenait une réunion de famille. L’abondance du plexiglas et les multiples ouvertures des meubles Oscar enlevaient toute intimité à cette vaste salle cubique dont les murs s’ornaient d’une collection de peintures de Klee. Leur qualité valait à son propriétaire l’estime et la considération, très souvent exprimée, des meilleurs écrivains et amateurs d’art.

Assis dans un fauteuil tubulaire tendu de cordes blanches qui lui donnaient une vague allure de harpe faussée, Monsieur Michaud interrogeait son fils, debout devant lui. Un peu à l’écart, mais participant toutefois à la conversation, Madame Michaud s’occupait à un collage relativement cubiste sur une table de céramique noire. Non pas que Madame Michaud fût artiste, ni même qu’elle tentât de passer pour telle, mais elle se distrayait en découpant des morceaux de papiers de couleurs et en les assemblant, tantôt à la manière de Picasso, tantôt à la manière de Matisse, comme elle se fût donnée, cinquante ans plus tôt, aux points de canevas.

— Voyons, Charles, disait Monsieur Michaud à son fils, décide-toi. Tu viens d’être reçu a ton bac, il te faut t’orienter vers une carrière. Nous sommes là pour t’aider…

Charles, tout de noir vêtu, les cheveux raides ramenés sur le front à la Bourvil (ou à la Marlon Brando), triturait son mouchoir, avançait une jambe, la reculait, avec un dandinement pouvant faire supposer qu’il tendait à l’inversion sexuelle, mais il n’en était rien. L’allure efféminée de Charles, comme ses sautillements, ses gestes gamins, sa démarche déhanchée, appartenait au style de l’époque.

— Réponds, Amour, s’exclama Madame Michaud, ne laisse pas languir ton père ; sinon il va encore nous faire vingt-quatre de tension!

— Voila, pap’, mam’, se décida enfin Charles, en accentuant son dandinement, moi j’aimerais bien devenir notaire.

Madame Michaud abandonna précipitamment ses ciseaux et sa colle pour courir à son mari qui suffoquait. Elle le frappais dans le dos avec énergie, lui tapotait les joues :

— Ce n’est rien, darling*, ce n’est rien ! Charles plaisante, tu le vois bien…

Lorsque Monsieur Michaud reprit « ses esprits », Charles très ennuyé par la tournure des événements, redit quand même :

— Je ne voudrais pas vous fâcher, pap’, mam’, mais c’est vrai : j’aimerais bien être notaire.

Monsieur et Madame Michaud se regardèrent d’un air entendu et indulgent. Puis Monsieur Michaud dit d’une voix ferme :

— Mon petit Charles, tu es ridicule. On n’est plus notaire, de nos jours. Comment une pareille idée a-t-elle pu se nicher dans la tête du fils Michaud ! Choisir d’être notaire… Est-ce que l’on choisit d’être cocu ? Enfin, quoi, n’as-tu pas lu Balzac ? Flaubert ? Depuis cent ans les notaires sont des personnages de farce et ton idéal serait de coiffer la calotte noire, de porter des bésicles et une chaîne de montre en or sur un ventre que, Dieu merci, tu n’es pas encore près d’acquérir. Le métier de notaire peut, à la rigueur, convenir à un fils d’instituteur de campagne ; mais toi, Charles, veux-tu faire honte à ta famille ?

« Allons, allons, c’est une bêtise de jeune homme. Je vais t’aider, moi. Tiens… si tu faisais une carrière d’artiste… Peintre, par exemple ?

— Mais, pap’, je ne sais pas peindre…

Monsieur Michaud se prit le crâne à pleines mains, en signe de découragement total devant une telle innocence.

— Regardez-moi ce grand sot ! Mais tu apprendras, Charles ! Est-ce qu’on refuse d’envisager la médecine parce qu’on n’a jamais fait un pansement ! La peinture s’apprend, mon petit, comme toute chose. Et regarde l’avenir qui est offert à un peintre. Picasso est milliardaire, Matisse aussi… Connais-tu un notaire qui, parti de rien, soit arrivé à une aussi brillante situation ? Picasso a perdu beaucoup de temps, dans sa jeunesse, parce qu’il était pauvre, qu’il ne pouvait pas s’acheter de couleurs ni de toiles, qu’il n’avait aucune relation parmi les marchands et les critiques. Mais toi, tu ne manqueras de rien. Je te donnerai une mensualité qui te laissera la tête libre. Tu profiteras de mes relations de collectionneur. Allez, fiston, avec un pu de bonne volonté de ta part, nous ferons de toi un artiste célèbre, qui sera la joie de la famille. Regarde Ancelin, il ne voulais rien savoir pour être peintre, lui non plus. Il voulait devenir officier, sous prétexte que son père est général. Mais le général Ancelin a bien su le dissuader de suivre une carrière aussi compromise par ce pacifisme de plus en plus en vogue. Lui aussi, ce vieil ami Ancelin, avait su voir quels débouchés offrait maintenant le monde des arts. Ancelin a son contrat chez Laivit-Canne et il va bientôt exposer a New York.

En se relevant lourdement, Monsieur Michaud heurta du front une pale d’un mobile de Calder qui se balançait dans la pièce. Il la chassa distraitement du revers de la main, comme une mouche. Le mobile se mit à onduler, toutes les branches évoluèrent en silence. On eût dit qu’un gigantesque insecte se fût tout à coup éveillé au-dessus du père et du fils qui n’y prenaient garde. Une soubrette entre, après avoir frappé. Elle paraissait affolée :

— Madame, le service de céramique que Monsieur avait offert à Madame…

— Et bien ?

— Je ne sais pas comment cela a pu se produire, mais il déteint.

— Expliquez-vous clairement et ne vous énervez pas, soupira Madame Michaud en coupant délicatement une languette de papier gaufré.

— Oui, Madame, j’ai voulu servir le consommé dans le service en céramique et le consommé est devenu tout bleu.

— C’est insensé, hurla Monsieur Michaud. Qui vous a dit de toucher à ce service ! Vous n’avez donc pas vu que ces assiettes n’étaient pas faites pour manger dedans !

— Alors elle sont faites pour quoi, Monsieur, demanda la bonne, ahurie.

— Mais pour rien, hurla encore plus fort Monsieur Michaud, si fort que le Calder en eut des hoquets. Ces assiettes sont des œuvres d’art. On ne mange pas dans des œuvres d’art. On les regarde !

La bonne essaya de se justifier en bougonnant :

— Je n’aurais jamais pensé verser du consommé dans les tableaux de Monsieur. Mais je croyais que des assiettes étaient des assiettes…

Monsieur et Madame Michaud éclatèrent de rire en même temps. Ils pouffaient : « Elle croyait que les assiettes étaient des assiettes… C’est à ne pas croire ! Il faudra raconter ça a Paulhan. »

La bonne repartit, vexée. Par l’immense baie vitrée qui donnait sur le Jardin du Luxembourg, Charles, indifférent a la crise de fou rire de ses parents, regardait avec nostalgie vers la Faculté de Droit.

***

Monsieur Michaud n’était pas né collectionneur. Avant la guerre, tout occupé à son industrie de sous-vêtements, il ignorait même qu’il existait encore des peintres. Il avait fallu un hasard. Un de ses débiteurs lui apporta un lot d’aquarelles, de gouaches et de peintures d’un artiste allemand inconnu, en le suppliant de les conserver comme gage. Monsieur Michaud refusa d’abord ce singulier marché. Depuis quand échange-t-on des sous-vêtements contre de la peinture ! Mais le débiteur était acculé à la ruine. En attendant d’entamer des poursuites, Monsieur Michaud fit porter dans une de ses remises toutes ces peintures qu’il ne prit même pas la peine de regarder. Quelques mois plus tard, son débiteur se suicida. Monsieur Michaud se fit apporter les peintures afin d’examiner s’il pourrait en tirer quelque argent. Stupéfait, il vit qu’il s’agissait de choses enfantines, des sortes de fleuves, d’oiseaux, de bonshommes. Il s’était fait bien avoir. La fureur l’étranglait. Ce salaud de machin s’était payé sa tête avant de se suicider. A tout hasard, il fit quand même venir un marchand qui refusa d’acheter en souriant d’un air supérieur.

— Alors, je peux les foutre à la poubelle, suffoqua-t-il.

— Oh, dit le marchand, avec un geste évasif, gardez-les toujours. On ne sait jamais. Si vous avez de la place…

Peu après la guerre, ce même marchand revint voir Monsieur Michaud qui avait complètement oublié cette histoire de peintures. Il lui offrit deux millions pour ce lot d’œuvres de Klee qu’il se souvenait avoir vu autrefois.

Devant l’énormité de la somme (le débiteur ne lui devait, avant la guerre, que quelques centaines de mille francs), il se méfia, fit venir d’autres marchands de tableaux qui lui offrirent trois, quatre, cinq millions… Il se mit alors à lire quelques livres sur l’art contemporain, découvrit que la peinture était la marchandise la plus spéculative qui soit et que l’on considérait Klee, en Amérique, comme un grand peintre. Il fit encadrer luxueusement ses peintures et les accrocha dans son salon. Bientôt, on lui demanda l’autorisation de photographier « ses » œuvres, de les reproduire en couleurs dans des revues luxueuses et des livres d’art. Son nom fut mentionné à chaque fois que l’on parlait de l’œuvre de Klee. Il pénétra ainsi, à son insu, dans le monde des arts et des lettres et se laissa aisément convertir à toutes les avant-gardes. Il se paya le luxe d’être parfois philanthrope, de subventionner quelques revues, d’encourager quelques jeunes artistes dont la peinture ressemblait à celle de Klee. Il arriva même à passer pour l’un des premiers spécialistes de Klee en France. Loin de lui faire perdre de l’argent, les arts lui apportaient une considération qu’il n’avait jamais obtenue en tant qu’industriel. On le décora pour services rendus aux arts. Des artistes célèbres recherchèrent son amitié. Même les autres industriels lui témoignaient maintenant une déférence qu’ils n’auraient jamais eu l’idée de lui accorder avant qu’il devînt un « grand collectionneur ». Monsieur et Madame Michaud voulurent être à la page. Ils achetèrent un appartement qu’ils firent transformer par Le Corbusier. Rien, absolument rien chez eux, ne fut antérieur à ce siècle, si ce n’étaient eux-mêmes.

Elevé dans cette architecture aux lignes pures, blasé du mobilier qui lui rappelait fâcheusement le cabinet du dentiste, abruti par la fréquentation journalière des chefs-d’œuvre, Charles se prit à souhaiter vivre dans une étude poussiéreuse, avec de grandes vielles chaises aux pieds droits, en bois, avec un bureau en bois et un porte-plume avec une plume. C’était sa poésie, à lui. A chaque adolescent sa folie.

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

From “Journal d’un critique d’art désabusé” (2009 – 2011) by Michel Ragon, published by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, 2013 (version originale followed by translation)

ragonView of the room dedicated to the tastes of Michel Ragon as part of the “Passeurs” raccrochage  of the Centre Pompidou’s permanent collection in 2015. In the front plan: “Nuit ouvrante, 1945-55,” sculpture, Etienne-Martin. Tilleul wood, oak, and pine. Purchased by the State, 1961. Photo: Philippe Migeat, Centre Pompidou. Courtesy Service Presse / Centre Pompidou. From article first published on the Arts Voyager.

6 novembre, 2010

J’ai mis du temps pour aller visiter la rétrospective Arman à Beaubourg. Mais je sors peu et les musées me fatiguent vite. Pas les musées, en réalité, mais la gesticulation des visiteurs, leur va-et-vient qui risquent de me faire tomber, malgré ma canne que peu de gens semblent remarquer.

Cette petite rétrospective Arman est impeccable. L’anecdote des «accumulations» s’estompe derrière la rigueur de la démarche et l’esthétique parfait. Oui, bien sur, certaines accumulations sont plus  humoristiques que plastiques (les masques à gaz), mais même en accumulant des pièces d’automobile Renault, Arman réussit à produire une sorte de sculpture minimaliste parfaite.

On n’a pas assez insisté sur la dimension picturale des œuvres d’Arman, que l’artiste souligne dans ses dernières créations qui donnent une alternative au dripping de Pollack. Les petits tubes de peinture, écrasés, avec de subtiles couleurs, ont une dimension picturale évidente.

Une longue interview d’Arman diffusée dans les salles. Intelligence et précision dans les propos qui me font penser au discours de Soulages. Même l’accent du Sud amplifie la ressemblance. Sûreté de soi, certitude de l’originalité de son œuvre, précisions historiques incontestables. (Les anecdotes sur la fondation du Nouveau Réalisme et quelques coups de patte tendres à Pierre Restany.)

Translation by  Paul Ben-Itzak:

November 6, 2010

It took me some time to get around to visiting the Arman retrospective at Beaubourg. But I venture out so rarely, and museums quickly tire me out. Not the museums in and of themselves, in reality, but the gesticulating of the visitors, the hurly-burly of their comings and goings which risks to send me tumbling down, despite my cane, which few people seem to notice.

This little Arman retrospective is impeccable. The anecdotal quality of the “accumulations” fades in the face of the rigor of his process and his pure aesthetic. Yes of course, some of the accumulations are more humorous than plastic (the gas masks), but even in accumulating pieces of Renault automobiles, Arman has succeeded in producing a sort of perfect minimalist sculpture.

What’s often been under-rated in Arman’s work is its pictorial dimension, which the artist underlines in his latest work, which presents an alternative to dripping à la Pollack. The small crushed paint tubes, with their subtle colors, have an obvious pictorial dimension.

A recording of a long interview with Arman plays in the exhibition halls. There’s an intelligence and precision in his observations which reminds me of the discourses of Soulages. Even his Southern accent amplifies this resemblance. Self-confidence, a conviction in the originality of his oeuvre, the incontestability of his precise historic references.  (The anecdotes on the founding of the New Realism and some tender kicks towards Pierre Restany.)