AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary: Thresholds, with art from Balthus, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn and PBI’s Memoir ‘Two-and-a-half with a Bullet’

balthus 7 la chat du mirroir 7 small 2From the exhibition Balthus, running through January 1 at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland: “Le Chat au miroir III,” 1989–1994. Oil on canvas, 220 x 195 cm. Private collection. Copyright Balthus.

Text by & copyright Paul Ivan Winer Ben-Itzak
Art by Balthus from the exhibition Balthus at the Fondation Beyeler, Ruth Asawa, and Ben Shahn (see captions for copyrights)

Today AVID offers a dialogue between PBI’s time-traveling memoirs of growing up in the U.S. and assimilating in France and the work of Balthus, on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland through January 1 and, from our archives, Ruth Asawa and Ben Shahn. Like what you’re reading? Please subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for $36/year or make a donation by designating your PayPal payment to paubenitzak@gmail.com , or write us there to learn how to pay by check. This one goes out to Linda, in memory of Bill Clark. The excerpt below, from PBI’s “Cross-Country/A Memoir of France & the U.S.,” is titled “Prelude: Two-and-a-half with a bullet,” and is 90% revised from an earlier version. 

“He’s here again: the man with the child in his eyes.” — Kate Bush

“We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.”     — Wallace Berry, “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three” (George Braziller, New York, 1963. Illustrated by Ben Shahn)

“Songs to aging children come / Aging children, I am one.” — Joni Mitchell, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” from the film “Alice’s Restaurant”)

Mom is crying over the wooden loom that divides the dining room from the kitchen in our San Francisco Edwardian, as the fog over Noe Valley evaporates outside the window. I look up at her from the black-speckled yellow linoleum floor.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

“President Kennedy has been ass-ass-i-na-ted.”

This is my first conscious memory. (Although as my old creative writing teacher Joyce Carol Oates recently pointed out on French radio, what we think are direct memories are often memories of memories, retained by constant replay. The best teachers’ lessons are meted out over a lifetime. Which is not to say that Oates wasn’t already meting them out in 1980. After I submitted a short story in which I confessed to committing “slow suicides,” she handed me an essay she’d written, “The Art of Suicide,” not a how-to-manual but a critique of famous self-immolators: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath….Her main point was that as one can’t desire a void, for the Suicide – she used it as a noun – the wish “I want to die” is really a stand-in for something else: “I want you to love me,” “I want to you to listen to me….” Three years later another Princeton professor, Robert Fagles, would walk into Tragedy class one afternoon with a Washington Post article about a college student who had killed himself after reading the Oresteia… in his translation. Holding the clipping in one hand and tapping the book gently with the other and looking each of us in the eyes, he declared, carefully enunciating each word in his tender, resonant cadence: “I want to be sure you understand what this tale is about.” When I interviewed Fagles about his new Oedipus translation the next year for the Times, he would explain: “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.” My own thinking on the ultimate existential question – Albert Camus called it the only question —  has evolved, following the 2015 Paris suicide of filmmaker Chantal Akerman,  who once built a play around the letters between Plath and her mother, to consider the possibility that when an artist chooses to end her life, it may just be a creative way to formulate a period. Or to breach a threshold. And that we should allow these liberators of our own souls their franchise.)

As childhood memories go, I have only two of my parents together before they split up when I was 12. An electrical storm is rattling our isolated house off Bohan-Dillon Road in rural Northern California, and Dad is late returning from a visit to the Pomo reservation, reached only by a treacherous mountain road. When he finally bursts in, drenched, Mom clutches him desperately, like a fisherman’s bride embracing an errant sailor presumed lost to the sea’s caprices. (From the reservation I also remember a succulent pig roasting on a dripping spit and the Great Chicken Pox Epidemic of 1969, which started with the Indian children and terminated with my baby brother’s pink-speckled body dangling from my mom’s arms. Now that I’ve shared Jordan’s most intimate moment of affliction — to cop a term from another Princeton prof. — here’s mine:  Being bitten on the penis by a tic while climbing the cliffs above the totem pole guarding the Timber Cove Inn, which explains my aversion for going cepes hunting with my neighbor in the South of France five decades later.)

My other memory of Mom and Dad together is of them hiking on a mountain above the Tamales Bay ranch where Hans and Dina Angress (her family hid him out in Holland during the war) hosted their annual herring festival with the dozens of children they’d adopted: Smoked herring, pickled herring, barbecued herring, fried herring, herring-shaped bread, salt-water herring taffy. (When the herring festival wasn’t on, we’d beg mom to stop at the Stewart General Store across from Fort Ross, an old Russian bastion overlooking the ocean, for beef jerky.) Dad in his broad tan cowboy hat is carefully explaining something to Mom, not looking at her, as she purses her lips and stares down at the dry brown weeds. (They would separate soon afterwards.) I resume flirting with a mulatto girl from a local school I retrieved every year on the volleyball court, not the first mulatto girl I’d fall in love with.

balthus five Les Enfants Blanchard smallBalthus, “The Blanchard Children,” 1937. Oil on canvas, 125 x 130 cm. Musée national Picasso-Paris.  Donation of Picasso’s inheritors, 1973/1978. © Balthus.  Photo: RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau Blanchard.

My courting of Christine LaMar that same school year, 1972-73 (also when my first cat, Kristen, was mauled to death by the O’Neils’ German Sheppard), was confined to stare-out contests across the aisle of the 24 Divisadero, until she blindsided me one morning by boarding the bus at Market wearing dark glasses. Deciding it was time to up the ante, I dedicated my first, handwritten novel, “The Problem Cops,” about a police duo who took on racial problems, to her. I also dedicated my ping-pong victories to Christine, announcing to my brother Aaron and best friend Eric before every match over our basement table: “I dedicate this game to Christine LaMar. If I win, I will be __ and __ . If I lose, I will be….” By the time Christine broke my heart by announcing that she was transferring to another school, I was able to declare, through tears not abated by a buttermilk donut, “If I win, I will be 187 and 9,” my final tally. It took so many dry-runs to summon the courage to call Christine and ask her out that I still recall her phone number as faithfully as Jenny’s (from the song: 867-5309): 587 – _ _ _ _. When in 1994 we organized a reunion for Rooftop – our alternative public school, one of the city’s first, was relegated to the roof of another school — I was devastated to learn that Christine had told the classmate charged with calling up other alumni that she wouldn’t be coming, as she couldn’t remember anyone. I did: Besides Christine, Monica Woo, Maura Iaconi, and Kathy D., skipping up to Jackson Park for our lunch break in a red sweater and white skirt, a beret holding back her straight brown hair, and with whom I used to exchange the kind of teasing that among 11-year-olds is another form of flirting. (Also from the lunch breaks, I recall the most popular teacher, Ernie Baumgarten — who often came to school wearing the mask of our mascot, King Kong — laying on the grass with his ear glued to a transistor to follow the Watergate hearings. At the reunion, in a Fort Mason barrack overlooking the bay, after catching up with some of us, now in our ‘30s, Ernie would commiserate, “I know that many of you are still struggling.”) I’d fall for Kathy again eight years later, in 1981 – I remember the year because we saw “Atlantic City” together, Burt Lancaster ogling Susan Sarandon bathing her naked arms with lemon juice – when she was bobbing her hair and, as often seemed to be the case that year in Noe Valley, weighing her sexual orientation. (Though this observation may be my way of processing her lack of romantic interest in me.) When I next had news of Kathy, she was trundling Agnes DeMille around Greenwich Village and living at the aging choreographer’s pad at 11th and 5th, in the same building where Duchamp schemed up R. Mutt and turned a toilet into art. When I last saw her, in 1991, it was at the memorial service for her brother, who had killed himself. Her eyes were as luminous as ever. The only Rooftop girl I ever kissed was Kerry Baum, who with Gio Coppola, Francis’s son, had formed the school’s Bopsy Twins. I’d later interview Gio’s brother Roman – who’d produced one of the first films to exploit ‘70s nostalgia, “The Spirit of ’76,” in which Olivia d’Abo time-travels back to the era and falls in love with David Cassidy – and open my interview with his mom, Eleanor, on her “Making of Apocalypse Now” documentary, by conveying my condolences on the loss of Gio, killed after being bopped on the head by a mast while sailing with Ryan O’Neal’s boy. Another Rooftopper, Chris Perry,  would grow up to be the first person I knew to die of AIDS, which I learned of while doing a story on the Quilt in 1991 and discovering his name on a panel.

Once we’d debarked from the 24 and scaled the six flights of stairs to Rooftop, school would start with Morning Circle, a chorus of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” followed by share-time. (I’d soon be studying auto-harp at his son Jodie Guthrie’s house,

balthus the card party smallBalthus, “The Card Party,” 1948-50. Oil on canvas, 140 x 194 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Balthus.

forcing my instructor to teach me “Your Daddy’s Home,” and, later in Paris, would chow down with Woody’s daughter Nora.)  At one Morning Circle, a long-haired, freckle-faced kid named Aaron Burg divulged, “I had dried cat food for breakfast this morning. It’s actually quite good!” Another Aaron, my brother, signed his school picture to me that year, “Love, Aaron W..” And yet another would help launch my show-business career. A reporter for an about kids, by kids local t.v. show, “Whatchamacallit,” Aaron Wolf anchored a segment on Rooftop in which he said all we did was sit around reading comic books. (Actually, we made them. And Super-8 movies about vampire-heroes set to the theme from “Mission Impossible.” And tape-recorded Watergate spoofs in which I played Nixon: “Mitchell’s thinking of spilling the beans.” In 1985, regaining consciousness in the emergency room after passing out in the Herod-scale sunken mosaic bathtub of my dad and step-mom’s home while immersed in Swiss bubbles from her shop, Common Scents – I’d been nervous about a first date with an older woman, or maybe it was Kennedy’s bullet, the dread that anything can end when it’s only just begun — when the good-looking doctor asked me who the president was, I answered, “It’s not Nixon, is it?”) When “Whatchamacallit” refused to let us rebut, we decided to start our own show, What’s New With Kids?, which ran on radio station KPOO. (If you don’t like the news, make some of your own.) This lead to my being invited to audition for a new t.v. show, Kidswatch, and this oracular rejection note: “You seemed more like the brains behind the talent than an actual on the air personality.” But the Wolfs weren’t through with me yet. In 9th-grade drama, Aaron’s dreamy sister Naomi would play Roxanne to my Cyrano before she went on to play Rasputin to Al Gore, turning him into a girly-man with the image make-over that inadvertently launched a war and landed me on the front-page of France’s Communist paper, leading an American contingent demonstrating in Paris against the Iraq invasion in 2003.

shahn civil rights small

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ben Shahn, “Civil Rights March.” Copyright Ben Shahn.

Despite retaining all this minutia (I left out Inca Robbins’s nose-ring, marching with my mom against the war in 1966, and betraying the 25th Street Gang for the Jersey Street Gang, lured by Roxanne Sanchez), I have no other memories of my parents together from this period. Which is not to say I don’t have other charged souvenirs from the year we spent in Timber Cove in 1969: Knocking Aaron unconscious for four seconds; Aaron and I erecting our own fort in a cluster of trees overlooking the Pacific, and the set of Children’s Encyclopedias we stowed there getting water-logged; our discovering a typewriter in the secret attic that ringed the house; the towering redwoods outside our  room’s window whose foliage I made into faces; Aaron whining “Lemme go to sleep!” when I would not stop talking; looking under the bed for simians from “Planet of the Apes”; and obstinately refusing to return to school after glimpsing the slip of Mrs. Klein, who taught the lower grades in our little red schoolhouse of 40 kids. (I also associate a leather belt with this memory.)

PWI91668

Balthus, “The Cherry Tree,” 1940. Oil on wood,  92 x 72.9 cm. Roman Family, London. Copyright Balthus.

The upper grade teacher and principal, Mr. Cash, was run out of town at rifle-point after holding all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next to teach them about racism. (Which is not to say that racism was confined to rural California. Back at Alvarado School in Noe Valley the next year, 1970, I remember our work on the schoolyard mosaic mural – supervised by Ruth Asawa, the Japanese-American artist whose World War II imprisonment had taught her the importance of education – being interrupted one afternoon by the cry “A fight, a fight, a nigger and a white!”)

balthus la rue smallBalthus, “La Rue,” 1933. Oil on canvas, 195 x 240 cm. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. ©Balthus. Photo: 2018. Digital image, Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence. Note the thick-licked, drugged-looking Black – or Arab — man assaulting the white girl, as everyone else goes blithely about their business.

From Timber Cove, I also remember plastering wine bottles with papier-maché to turn them into candle-stick holders as Christmas presents for my parents, and walking into the woods to chop down the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever had, so tall we had to carry it lengthwise to get it through the doorway. And Linda Murphy, our first teacher at Fort Ross, with her shoulder-length curly blonde tresses, handing out plastic blue raincoats the same Christmas and leading us in singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” And clinging to the mountainside along a narrow path teetering over a creek at the end of the year picnic, thinking that’s the first life I owe when I didn’t slip and plunge into the water.

I remember how privileged I felt when Miss Stettner, my kindergarten and second-grade teacher back in Noe Valley, came to visit us in Timber Cove. I have a distinct memory of her fording the rocks along the coast with her boyfriend in her knee-high black boots. (Retrieving Miss Stettner in 1991 teaching at a school where I was working in the after-school program, I would betray her request not to tell our common charges that she’d been my teacher, which she then denied. Joan Baez would have a similar Thanks for making me feel old reaction when, during a 1987 interview, I told her how my mom had introduced me to her at my first concert, by Bob Dylan, when I was four.) I remember refusing to traverse the field that lead to George Bohan’s house, even in my brand-new bicycle, because it was infested with wasps. And playing with our astronaut doll, Matt Mason, in an arroyo where we also discovered Pomo arrow-heads.  (Our pacifist parents wouldn’t let us have GI Joes or even cap guns. Back in Noe Valley, my best friend and his little brother had solved this dilemma by torching GI Joe and launching him from the roof of their garage.)

ruthnude2 smal

From the Arts Voyager archives: Ruth Asawa, “Nude.” Lithograph, 1965. Courtesy     Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

I remember returning to the woods to find the makings for a kipa for Cousin Jane and Martin’s wedding at the Timber Cove house, transformed into Fontainebleau West with all of Jane’s parents, step and birth, flown in from Boca Raton. (10 years later my mom’s young cousin, divorced from Martin, would in her turn guide me to another threshold. Seeing Camus looking out from the orange cover of Germaine Brée’s biography on the bookshelf of her Greenwich Village high-rise, and strolling on the Prospect Heights boardwalk with Jane — coquette in an orange blouse tucked into a short late-summer white dress — and her older friend Earl, a Hemingway biographer, the week before I started Princeton made me feel like I’d intellectually arrived. Even if finding a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the desk of my new roommate, Gordon Humbert Jones III, next to his neatly folded ROTC uniform made me wonder exactly where. No torching Gordon Humbert Jones III and tossing him off the roof of Princeton Inn College.) And making another kipa in the woods with Tracy Wedemeyer, who had been my girlfriend ever since we had neighboring cribs at Marin General, and the confidences we exchanged under our makeshift wedding bough. “You pick your nose too!?” (When Aaron married a Catholic girl in 1992, the red-nosed priest would let them install a kipa in the altar and crush the sacramental wine glasses with their feet. Which accommodation didn’t prevent four Jewish boys, me, Jordan, Eric, and my mom’s first ex-boyfriend Ralph – Jordan had once burst into the bedroom and cried “You’re not my daddy! What are you doing in my mommy’s bed?”  – from squirming uncomfortably when the priest began talking about the blood of Christ.) At nine, after Tracy’s family moved to Berkeley, I’d buy her a plastic engagement ring at Mr. Mopp’s. At 13, I’d have my first date as a teenager with Tracy, trying the old stretching arm around the chair and back maneuver, prompting her to lean forward in her seat in the theater where we were watching Tina Turner or Anne-Margaret bathe herself in baked beans in “Tommy,” on a double-bill with “Alice’s Restaurant.” (Where, yet another Guthrie promised, “You can get anything you want…’ceptin’ Alice.”) From the playmate who used to bite and scratch me up (“Come with me to Nursery School,” published in 1970, features a photo of Tracy using her feet to defend her swing from a pair of boys under the caption: “It’s important to take turns. Can you tell whose turn it is now?” and another of me determinedly climbing up a tree),Tracy had metamorphosed into a svelte, bronze-skinned California Girl with long straight blonde hair. When I last had news of her, she was married to a CBS Records vice-president and living in Venice Beach. When I last saw her, it was my 14th birthday, and we were both perched on the cusp of adulthood.

balthus 1 therese smallBalthus, “Thérèse,” 1938. Oil on carton on wood,  100.3 x 81.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of  Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, with William S. Lieberman, 1987. ©Balthus. Photo ©2018. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence.

For my third birthday, Tracy’s father Bill had given me what is now the oldest object I still possess, Ben Shahn’s illustrated book of Wallace Berry’s poem “November Twenty Six Nineteen Hundred Sixty Three”: “We know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now.” To which Bill had added an equally poignant inscription: “Years from now, you will learn of this event….  It often brings sadness, and perhaps despair, to the minds of some men, to witness the deeds of others. There are times when the goals of men seem to be so opposed to that dream of men that some of our minds hold, that indeed man seems lost. That this little book exists is a ray of proof that from this despair, beauty can still be born.” The dedication is signed “Bill, Patty (Tracy’s mom), Tracy, Bill again (her kid brother), and Breathless,” Breathless being the Wedemeyers’ Saint-Bernard. (And a sobriquet I now realize, in Francophile retrospect, may have been inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 film, at a 2003 Paris screening of which I was the only one in the audience to laugh when Jean-Paul Belmondo exhaled cigarette smoke after he’d already expired.)

Oh Breathless, where are you now?

dad timber cove smallChild is the father of the man: Ed Winer and his three sons Aaron, Jordan, and Paul behind the house on Bohan-Dillon Road, Halloween 1969. (The red strips of felt are for devils.) Photo: Eva Wise (then Winer).

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Introducing AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary: L’éclat de Staël — When Nicolas flew too close to the Sun

Stael soleil 5 smallNicolas de Staël, “Le soleil,” 1953. Oil on canvas, 16 x 24 cm. Private collection. © Adagp, Paris, 2018. Photo: © Jean Louis Losi. Courtesy Culturespaces.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read the full story, with more illustrations, subscribers can e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not yet a subscriber? Subscriptions to AVID, the Arts Voyager Illustrated Diary, are just $24/year when you sign up by October 15. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Sir,

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

Maria Casarès

Dear Madame,

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

Maria Casarès

PS: I forgot: August.

Dear Sir or Madame,

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

Maria Casarès

To a housing cooperative

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

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

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The Buzz, October 2: Sunday, bloody Sunday — Journal of the Plague Year

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Author’s Note: This column was written before I learned of last night’s massacre of 50 country music fans in Las Vegas. The last two paragraphs — Camus’s lesson for the survivors — could apply to coping with this event as well.)

There may be no more euphoric place in the world to inhale the timeless aroma of the Sea and feel the memory of ancient Mediterranean civilizations course through your bones than the heights of the steep stairway in front of the Saint-Charles train station atop Marseille, overlooking this 2000-year old city immortalized by the stories of Marcel Pagnol, the songs of Vincent Scotto, the milky liquor of pastis, the soaps and miniature ‘santon’ sculptures of Provençe and (more recently) the soap operas of ‘Plus Belle la Vie.’ And yet yesterday two young women, cousins each 20 years old, taking in the Sun on the splendid esplanade at the top of the stairs as they waited for the train to take the visiting cousin back to Lyon, had their destinies aborted and their natural timelines cut short by a cult of thugs which blasphemies the ancient civilization and its G-d which it shamelessly evokes as cover for its cowardly cult of death, as another of its fanatic followers stabbed one cousin to death and then returned to attack the other. (At presstime, the identify of the two women had not been released. Full story, in French, here.)

Until hearing this news this morning, I’d felt exasperated by a mainstream media which, with its relentless focus on terrorism, promotes a jaundiced view of the world in which we live — which still abounds in beauty — and, not so much by reporting their crimes (as it should), but by placing them at the top of every newscast in some way enables a major goal of the terrorists’ agenda, which is to *occupy* our minds with their bleak vision of the world.

But then, seeing the senseless murder of these two young women (in a place that symbolizes light) relegated by yesterday’s contentious Catalonian vote for Independence to the second tier of this morning’s newscasts here in France, I realized that I was wrong: We can never treat these bloody crimes as anodyne. Two young women with long futures in front of them, waiting in the Sun in one of the most bucolic spots in the world before continuing their journeys, had the promise of their lives taken away from them by a coward who sneaked up behind them and killed them on behalf of a gang of mass murderers which does not believe in anything but death. Which dares to invoke G-d to rob these young women — the most frail of targets — of something that G-d has given and that only G-d can take away.

But if we need to continue calling attention to these crimes and thus calling out these criminals for what they are — lache murderers, whose acts don’t glorify G-d but defile him — we also need to resist ceding to their terror and falling into the abyss of fear, which is what they want.

In “La Peste” (The Plague), Albert Camus’s allegorical novel written during the Nazi occupation of France, Dr. Rieux, the narrator, tells Rambert, an out-of-town journalist set on escaping the quarantine of plague-stricken Oran (like Marseille, a city on a hill facing the Mediterranean) to retrieve his sweetheart, that he does not blame him for trying to rejoin her because everyone has the right to pursue their happiness.

I will mourn these young women (as I mourn the 50 country music fans shot down last night in Las Vegas), I will curse Desh for murdering them, I will pray for a France that does not respond to their deaths with fear but by preserving as precious the country these young women would have merited, but I will also be invigorated by their youth to pursue the happiness that was their just merit, and to continue believing in a France which embraces the tradition of Camus: Just, combating with its intellect and ideas the nihilists, engaging the best it has to offer — its minds — to vanquish this latest plague.

* “La vie à en mourir, lettres de fusillés 1941-1944,” Taillandier, 2003. Cited on Wikipedia.