As part of the exhibition Photography’s Last Century: The Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection, in principle running through June 28, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, it’s still a helluva town is presenting: Man Ray (American, 1890–1976), “Nude,” ca. 1930. Gelatin silver print. We like the photo because it suggests the inspiration of this painting by Man Ray’s fellow Montparnassian Moshe Kisling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, promised gift of Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, in celebration of the Museum’s 150th Anniversary. © Man Ray 2015 Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris. Image © the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Eugenia Burnett Tinsley and Juan Trujillo.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
A VILLAGE IN SOUTHWEST FRANCE — I always thought I’d be brave, like Tarrou in Camus‘s “La Peste,” “The Plague.” Diving right into the heart of the malady, seeing it as an opportunity to make his own meaning even during the darkest calamity; the gist of existentialism a la Camus. Or like the author himself, walking around Occupied Paris with the proofs of his clandestine newspaper Combat stuffed into his pocket, at the risk of his life. (On one occasion, spotting a Gestapo patrol a block ahead, he had just time enough to pass them to his mistress Maria Casarès, knowing that she’d be less likely to be searched.) (The birthday date accompanying the fake name on Camus’s fake passport is my own.) But now it’s clear that I would be more like Bourvil’s character in Claude Autant-Lara’s 1956 film “La Traversée de Paris,” neither a collaborator nor a Resistant, but just trying to survive and get along, in his case by trundling a black market side of beef across Occupied Paris after curfew with the help of painter Jean Gabin. (When I saw this film at the beginning of my Paris years with my friend Sabine at a Latin Quarter cinema, I didn’t understand why Gabin’s character got so riled up when the pair took refuge in a cafe where a Jewish girl was bussing tables. I thought it an admirable thing that they were hiding her out. “He is mad because they are taking advantage of the situation to have a worker for free,” Sabine explained.)
While this quarantine can’t be compared to that particular ‘Peste’ — if we are at war, as President Macron justly explained in announcing the confinement, it is a war where even friends and family might be bearing the threat, whence the reason for the strict measures — I can say that if this were 1940 (and I were still Jewish), I already have a pretty good idea of who here in my petite village would be hiding me out.
Several years ago, when I suggested to an association in the 13eme arrondissement of Paris, near where some of the action of the film had been situated, that I organize a screening of “La Traversée de Paris” (a resto on the lip of the jardin des Plantes has actually adopted the name, with a cartoon Bourvil smiling out from its marquee) — they’d supposedly been interested in soliciting ideas from the general public, and had liked mine to show films shot in the arrondissement — the association’s presidents resisted. “Why don’t you show a film about Resistance? That would be more interesting.” It’s almost like their own resistance was to acknowledge that there had been people like the characters portrayed by Bourvil, people who just tried to get along. (De Beauvoir protégée Violette Leduc was another, bicycling Black Market goods to the suburbs to sell.) But the fact is that in times of crisis, there is a middle-ground between the Maquisard and the Collabo, and it’s the petite homme (or woman) who just wants to survive. Not everyone has the guts to be a hero. I’m pretty sure I don’t.
(In these days of the Corona virus, you don’t need me to tell you that the grand heroes — the real Tarrous — are the doctors, the nurses, and the other health-care workers, beginning with that Chinese doctor who first sounded the alarm and who was initially rewarded for his bravery with prison.)
In the meantime, I will be thankful for the ‘petite’ heroism of my neighbor-friend — you know who you are and you know how you’re helping. (I will say that it was only after leafing through my copy of Vintage / Knopf’s — very bad — English translation “La Peste,” which still bears the Strand Book store .48 cent stamp and re-reading Dr. Rieux’s advice to Cottard that he should “get out for some physical exercise” that I finally emerged from my own particular hermitage to take advantage of one of my friend’s kind offers.)
French language corner
On one of the quartier solidarity lists for the East of Paris on which I’m subscribed, the hostess forwarded this note / request for advice from “Arman”:
Ma demande peut paraître déplacée par ses temps d’épidémie et de confinement mais je suis à la recherche d’une ou deux balles de ping-pong.
Merci et prends bien soin de toi.
(He’s basically saying “I know this might seem inappropriate in these days of epidemic and confinement, but I’m looking for one or two ping-pong balls.” This is how I responded, English translation following pigeon-French original.)
D’abord votre demande n’est pas déplacée du tout! En ces moments sombres, il faut tienne aux souvenirs des meilleures temps — du passé et d’un future souhaitable — qui sont indissociable avec LIBERTE et JOIE. Pour moi, déjà vous m’avais donne une: De pouvoir jouer autour des tables de ping-pong dans le jardin de L’observatoire un jour de printemps, tout en faisant des nouvelles connaissances. Sacre de printemps que j’espère pouvoir reprise avant trop longtemps. (Pour la question pratique, quand il sera encore ouvert, “Go Sports”; il y un a je crois a la place d’Italie et un autre place de la République et ils ne sont pas chère.)
Perigordin / Parisian.
In the first place, your request is not AT ALL inappropriate. In these somber moments, we need to cling to images of better times — of the past and of a desired future — which speak to FREEDOM and JOY. For me, already you’ve given me one: To be able to play again on the ping-pong tables of the jardin de l’observatoire on a Spring day, at the same time making new friends. Rite of Spring that I hope to be able to reprise before too long. (For the practical question, when it will be open again, try Go Sports; there’s one on the place d’Italie and another on the place de la Republique, and they’re not expensive.)
In writing this piece, I looked up a “Doer’s Profile” the Noe Valley Voice did on me in 1978, when I was still in high school, to confirm that not only had I listed “The Plague” as, with Huck Finn, my favorite book, but that I’d said what I referred to above regarding Tarrou and the book’s message, and my intention to follow that credo. But when the reporter Corey M. Anders asked what was the most important thing to me, I’d actually answered “Making friends.”
Par préférence, autour d’une table de ping-pong au milieu du jardin de l’observatoire. Preferably, over a ping-pong table in the jardin de l’observatoire.
From the DI/AV archives: Gustave Courbet, “Portrait of Baudelaire,” 1847 (?). Oil, 53 x 0.61 cm, unsigned. Musée Fabre, Montpellier. In his championing of artists, Michel Ragon upheld the grand tradition of Baudelaire and Zola, who championed Courbet, Delacroix, and the Impressionists.
Michel Ragon — critic, curator, ambassador of art, not only champion but exponent of abstract painting, archivist of anarchists, workers, and the proletariat, defender of a new style of architecture, novelist, teacher, Seine-side bookseller, manual laborer, and husband — died February 14 in Paris, at the age of 95. What Baudelaire and Champfleury did for Courbet (whose twin investment in advancing art, as the leader of the Realism school, and social struggles, as an official of the Paris Commune, made him the perfect subject for a Ragon biography), Michel Ragon did for a whole genre, the Abstract Art school that flourished in post-war Paris. Jean-Michel Atlan was his chou-chou and friend; the COBRA group owed him their first Paris exhibition; Ragon’s tribute to Wols assured his place in the pantheon of 20th-century painters. And his incognito infiltration of the Barnes Collection made sure that neither American authors nor the French artists they hoarded were left out. The largely forgotten vectors of European anarcho-syndicalism — Victor Serge, Paul Delesalle, Nestor Makhno, Alexandra Kollontai, Louis Lecoin, Rirette Maitrejean — their rescue from the dustbin of history into which its victors, a forgetful media, and a reductive academy had swept them. If Michel Ragon is dead after nearly a century, thanks to Michel Ragon the names, combats, struggles, and moral victories of these prime movers in two worlds, society and art — Ragon always had one foot firmly implanted in each — will live on for many more. We’ll try to make our modest contribution.
… Starting with the latest installment in our serialized translation of Ragon’s seminal semi-fictional treatment of the Abstract Art movement and market in Paris in the 1950s, as well as post-war anti-Semitism in France, “Trompe-l’oeil.” A melange — or update — of both Zola’s “L’oeuvre” and Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” in its defense of the artistic genus and the artist’s soul and lacerating portrayal of the media, “Trompe-l’oeil” is most of all the love story of a journalist and art. (Merci a L.D. pour son aide precious avec l’argot….)
Michel Ragon is survived by his wife Françoise — and a legion of art aficionados. Michel Ragon est mort. Vive Michel Ragon. — Paul Ben-Itzak
Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 7: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris, Part 7
Part seven in the Paris Tribune’s exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first six parts, click here. For more on Michel Ragon, in French, click here.
Fontenoy asked his editor at L’Artiste if he could write a “studio visit” feature on Corato.
“Which one is that?” the editor groaned.
“An abstract painter who….”
“Obviously! But, my dear young man, who’s interested in your precious Abstracts — I mean besides you? Sometimes I think you just make them up. Listen to me, Fontenoy, you’d do much better to take on some serious subjects. Ever since you’ve taken up with abstract art, your pieces feel just like that. Abstract.”
“You’re not actually going to tell me that I write like Charles Roy?”
“If that were the case, I would have tossed you out on your keister a long time ago! No, you still write in a decipherable manner — and that’s exactly what worries me.”
Fontenoy had trouble fathoming what his boss was trying to tell him.
“Here, take a look at the mock-up for the next issue.”
He spread out the pages on the large lay-out table in the middle of the office. Stupefied, Fontenoy read on the cover, in large bold letters: “LAST LAP FOR THE FARCE OF ‘ABSTRACT ART.’ Then further down the page, under a photo of Matisse: “HENRI MATISSE COMES OUT AGAINST ABSTRACT ART.” And on page four, a major piece with the headline: “YOUNG PAINTERS RETURN TO LANDSCAPES AND PORTRAITS.”
“Perfect,” Fontenoy responded. “Abstract art has finally waltzed into the newspaper by the front door.”
“All the easier to stifle you, my boy,” the editor in chief ribbed him, breaking out in laughter. Then he added, flippantly, “I’ll need a group article on several typical good painters: You know, the likes of Yves Brayer, Chapelain-Midy, Lorjou…. I’m counting on you….”
“You’ve got to be kidding. You’ve purposely chosen the most philistine of the figuratives to foist them off on me.”
“My good fellow, a journalist has to be a jack of all trades. If you don’t like those painters, that’s your right. Just keep it to yourself when the newspaper needs you to sing their praises. We’re not here to satisfy our personal tastes, but those of our silent partners and our readers. We should be satisfied that the two of them concord!”
“I’m sorry,” Fontenoy responded after a moment of hesitation, “but it won’t be possible for me to write that article.”
“Are you telling me that you’re abandoning us?”
Fontenoy smiled ironically. He flared the trap. They wanted to push him to quit in a great histrionic fashion, which would have the consequence of depriving him of unemployment compensation. Very well. It seemed obvious that he’d become a liability for the newspaper, but he’d let them fire him before he’d quit.
“I’m not abandoning anything. But those painters ‘belong’ to Morisset, and I don’t want to pilfer them from him.
“Tell you what,” he added after reflecting for a few seconds, “because you want to preach a new realism, I’ll do a study for you on Courbet.”
In the past, when Fontenoy emerged from such altercations he’d dread returning to his small room. If he didn’t happen to run into Manhès, he’d feel completely lost. Now, Blanche was always ready to welcome him with open arms.
They’d each hung on to their individual apartments, which simplified their work. But Fontenoy spent all his nights at the Cité Falguière.
They were laying down on the divan. Blanche had undone her tresses and her blond hair cascaded down her shoulders. Fontenoy let himself be lulled by the warmth of his companion’s body. He closed his eyes, trying to forget his anxieties. But he was all too aware of what lay ahead.
“It’s going to be brutal, Blanche, very brutal…. They’ll be attacking on all fronts, you’ll see.”
“Bah! Look at Manhès, he’s never sold so well!”
“Yes. And yet, even Manhès makes me worry. It’s just all going too well. All these people who have their comfortable positions to protect, all these dealers whose basements are packed with figurative paintings, all these collectors who’ve pumped fortunes into the very school of painting we’re fighting, are not going to let us get away with it. It’s no accident that L’Artiste has launched this offensive now….”
Blanche hugged him close: “You’re such a pessimist.”
Fontenoy let out a huge sigh: “All I can say is it’s a good thing that you’re here!”
He gave in to dreaming again, hooking his arm around his companion’s waist. He flashed back to the first time he visited this atelier. Blanche showed herself simultaneously mutinous and worried. She understood what he meant. Even though their intimacy did not happen overnight, he found it strange to find himself so suddenly linked to this young woman whom he’d been running into here and there for a year at exhibitions without ever surpassing the level of a distant politeness. She was less a painter, now, than a beloved being.
And yet Blanche was intensely, definitely a painter. An instinctive painter. Thank God she was not one of these intellectuals who supplied ready fodder to the academies which then inculcated them with paint-by-numbers formulas. Fontenoy had a genuine physical repulsion for this genre of woman. He tended to agree with Baudelaire that making love with an intellectual was a form of paederasty. Blanche constituted a living rebuke to those who believed that Abstract art was an art for intellectuals. She was a solid, stout, uncomplicated woman, sensual and carefree. Her water-colors were the exact reflection of her temperament, with their slightly heavy spots and a graphic design pigmented with a subtle sense of humor.
“Fontenoy (Blanche still addressed him by his last name, as she had before they began sleeping together), Fontenoy we’ll always find a way to muddle through. You worry too much….”
She could feel, close to her, her lover’s anguish. She wanted to lighten his load, to take some of the burden upon herself, but she could feel him tense up — that, as immobile as he was, he was struggling against a throng of enemies.
Fontenoy predicted he’d be fired by the newspaper. That was to be expected. They paid him so little, but this pittance was vital to rounding out his budget. And then it wasn’t just a matter of money! Tribunes consecrated to the arts were few and far between. If he lost this one, he also lost a forum for expressing himself. He saw himself mutilated, naked next to a sneering Morisset and Arlov, before a triumphant Charles Roy. Because Fontenoy was doubly heretical: Not only did he attack traditional figurative art, but also the brand of academic abstract art championed by Charles Roy. Even supposing they allowed the academic form of Abstract art to flourish for a little while longer, it would only be so they could eventually demolish it as a sclerotic art form. “What they really want to crush,” Fontenoy thought to himself, “are the genuine creators, like always. The old historic battles will resurface.” The cohort of Impressionists attacked by the incomprehension of the public and the mockery of the critics and cartoonists, the Cubists in the time of the Bateau Lavoir, then the damned of Montparnasse: Soutine, Modigliani, Pascin, he saw them marching before him in one long lamentation. “It’s all happening again,” Fontenoy told himself. “I sense it. We were wrong to believe we’d won the hand.”
He clutched Blanche tightly to him. She laughed heartily.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
A Sidney, pour les soins….et a Lewis, Jamie, Martin, et tout mes péres, qui rien n’avais obligé d’y etre mais qui se sont comporté comme tel. /To Sidney, for the care…. and to Lewis, Jamie, Martin, and all my fathers who nothing obligated to be but who comported themselves as such.
Prelude: Poete surrealiste chretienne morte a Drancy, car née Juif
“Love thy neighbor”
Who noticed the toad cross the street? He was just a little man — a doll would not have been more miniscule. He dragged himself along on his knees — as if he were ashamed….? No! He has rheumatism, one leg remains behind, he drags it forward! Where is he going like that? He comes out of the sewer, the poor clown. No one has noticed this toad in the street. Before no one noticed me in the street, now children make fun of my yellow star. Happy toad! You don’t have a yellow star.” (Voir dessous pour le V.O. / See below for the original French version.)
— Max Jacob, Surrealist poet, comrade of Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Picasso, arrested by the Gestapo on February 24, 1944, in the Brittany village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. In a note hastily scribbled on the train to the Orleans prison, Jacob, who since converting to Christianity before the first World War liked to write personalized proselytizing homilies for his colleagues and whose poetry was suffused with devotional tributes to Christ, wrote: “Dear Monsieur le Cure, Excuse this letter from a drowning man written with the complaisance of the gendarmes. I wanted to tell you that I’ll soon be in Drancy. I have conversions in process. I have confidence in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom which now begins.” On March 5, Jacob succumbed to pneumonia at the Drancy way station outside Paris before he could be deported — or confessed. At Drancy, there were no priests. (Poem collected in “Max Jacob,” edited by Andre Billy, published by and copyright Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946. Letter cited by Billy in “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.)
1932: The Semence
Paris, the Grands Boulevards, a winter evening in 1916. The young conscript, on furlough from the hospital where doctors are trying to determine if he’s crazy or just doesn’t want to return to the trenches of a crazy war, enters the Olympia nightclub and observes, as recounted by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his 1932 “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” still considered by the French and American literary establishments to be the author’s safe, non-Anti-Semitic book (shortly after publication, it was translated into Russian by the French Communist super-star couple Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet; New Directions still proudly hawks the English translation):
“Already in wartime our morose peace was sowing its seeds…. We could imagine what it would become, this hysteria, just from seeing it already agitating in the Olympia tavern. Below in the narrow, shady dancing cave with its 100 mirrors, It pawed the dust in the great desperation of the Négro-Judéo-Saxonne music. Brits and Blacks all mingling together. Levantines and Russians. They were everywhere, smoking, brawling, sad sacks and soldiers, crammed onto crimson sofas. These uniforms, which we barely remember anymore, would sow the seeds of today, this Thing which continues to germinate and would become a dung-hill a little later, with time.” (Translated by PB-I.)
1940-45: The Harvest
Some 13 years after Louis-Ferdinand Céline thus fulminated (the parallels between his own trajectory and that of his first-person hero, “Ferdinand,” make the defense that an author doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the opinions of his personage dubious), the ‘semence’ he (and his publishers, including Gallimard) helped sow (in ‘Voyage’ and three pamphlets taxed as being anti-Semitic, although the Judeophobic grotesque Céline paints of himself and of the anti-Semitic rationale in general in the 1937 “Bagatelles for a massacre,” in which he also wrote: “In the leg of a dancer the world, its waves, all its rhythms, its follies, its views are inscribed…. The most nuanced poem in the world!,” the ‘bagatelles’ being ballets without music, makes that epithet problematic here) by furnishing civilized literary cover for his countrymen who would collaborate with the German occupiers in the Deportation of 76,000 of their Jewish neighbors, including 11,000 children, only 3,000 of whom would return from the death camps — Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago this month — manifests its real-world toll on the sixth-floor balcony of a building on a corner of the rue Hauteville above the “Bonne Nouvelles” (Good News) Metro station, several blocks up the Grands-Boulevards from the Olympia, where a woman straddles the railing, distraught that the daughter arrested by a good French policeman after she was turned in by a good French neighbor has still not returned after the war, the room the woman has reserved for her child remaining vacant.
The precarious mental state of the woman had recently prompted her brother and his wife to return from the United States to France, where the wife will later give birth to three sons, the semence of a new generation of French Jews who have not lost hope in France. Two of the sons will grow up to become, respectively, a general practitioner and a dentist — my doctor and my dentist starting when I lived on the rue de Paradis up the street in the early 2000s — converting the apartment on whose balcony rail their aunt once teetered into a medical bureau, their offices separated by a waiting room decorated by posters of Satchmo blowing, Gabriel, blowing, his cheeks puffed up; Marilyn Monroe’s white skirt billowing from the gusts of wind rising out of a subway grating on location for “The Seven-Year Itch” to reveal her underwear; and Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘draguing’ the American Jean Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the New York Herald Tribune with its logo emblazoned across her chest in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” this last poster a nod to what I’d always understood as the doctors’ mixed Franco-American heritage, their mother being an American citizen…. For the complete article, click here.
by Albert Camus
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
First published in the August 31, 1944 edition of Combat, the heretofore underground newspaper edited by Albert Camus. To read our English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s dispatch from the same issue of Combat, click here. To read our review with extracts of the recently published correspondence of Albert Camus’s correspondence with Maria Casarès, click here. After returning to Paris with false identity papers furnished by the Resistance, Albert Camus was the underground newspaper Combat’s final editor under the Occupation, on one occasion (as documented by Olivier Todd in his 1996 biography for Gallimard) being saved from being busted with proofs of the newspaper in his pocket at a Gestapo checkpoint when he was able to deftly pass the proofs to Casarès, correctly guessing that she would not be searched.
PARIS — Because between the insurrection and the war, a respite has today been granted us, I’d like to talk about a subject that I know well and which is dear to my heart: the Press. And because it’s a question of this new Press which has emerged from the battle of Paris, I’d like to speak with, at the same time, the fraternity and the clairvoyance one owes to comrades in combat. To read the entire article, in the original French and in its English translation, on our sister site the Maison de Traduction, click here.
Marie Laurencin, “Les Biches,” image copyright Artcurial, from its recent Prints and Illustrated Books auction in Paris.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac
Singing don’t look back you can never look back.”
— Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”
PARIS — I know I said I’d sworn off cemeteries, determined to spend more time with the living and less with my dead icons: Sarah Bernhardt (Pere Lachaise), François Truffaut (Cemetery Montmartre), Serge Gainsbourg and Alfred Dreyfus (Montparnasse; French state radio this morning shared a rare recording of Captain Dreyfus from March 27, 1912, proclaiming in a crystal-clear tenor, “It’s a question of justice and humanity.” The most sadly ironic aspect of the Dreyfus family tomb is that under “Alfred, died 1932” is the name of “Julie, deported 1942.” Justice and humanity are ephemeral. Among Dreyfus’s cemetery mates is the collaborationist Vichy prime minister Pierre Laval, who no doubt signed his niece’s deportation order — Laval’s tomb, like Lee Harvey Oswald’s in the sprawling bone orchard of Handley, Texas where I used to live, also known for its antique stores, wedding cake shops, and doll boutiques, is unmarked.) But could I help it if in late February I found myself standing on the sunken deck of a lavish condominium shoulder to shoulder with a two-ton bronze Buddha (“The movers finally agreed to try to lift it over the fence from the street with the understanding that they couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t drop it,” the condo’s sultry 62-year-old French owner told us.) looking out over the back, penumbrous, most sinister-looking gruesome end / wall of Pere Lachaise (if my cemetery memory serves me, and I think you know it does, on the other side of the monument to the Resistants and up the hill from Apollinaire’s babe Marie Laurencin; to read the Surrealist poet’s art reviews of the time — I recently scored a compendium of them at a vide-grenier on the fringes of the Montparnasse cemetery — you’d think she was the most talented female artist in Paris of the epoch), floundering in a doomed relationship (Apollinaire did better) and smarting over the reception my date’s supposedly Leftist Israeli friend “Schmuel” had given my Poulet a la Palestinian? (“What is it with this ‘Palestinian’ Chicken? I’ve never heard of anything so absurd. There’s no such thing!”) As I was well out of it, in retrospect it was probably a good thing that I’d put the nail in the coffin by fixing our RDV at the Pere Lachaise metro, ignoring that the last time I’d made a date at a bone orchard — with an American girl who’d hung a large picture of Albert Camus in her otherwise spartan pad on the fringes of Les Halles because “He’s so cute!” — just ahead of a rdv to see Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” in the Montmartre cinema where he designed the aluminum chandeliers (it’s where Amelie in the film goes to the movies) had also marked a a relationship’s swan song.
The female part of the doomed relationship — let’s call her Vanessa, since that’s what we called her in an earlier Lutèce Diary when she picked me up at a vernissage after I’d just had three teeth extracted and tried to read all the names of the children of Paris who gave their lives for the country in World War I on the new plaque in their memory posted on the front side of the cemetery, which no one but me seems to know about (cemeteries are my beat) — had been picking on me all night. Someone put ketchup out on the table to drown the Palestinian chicken with; it must have been me, the tooth-ugly American. (It was her allegedly Leftist Israeli pal; no Palestinian spiceyness for him, Bubalah.) When we entered, the first thing she told our hosts by way of introduction was “This is Paul, his teeth state is only temporary.” (Read: “Don’t think I’d ever go out with anyone who really had teeth this bad.”) When I challenged Vanessa on this a few minutes later, she insisted, “Well, c’est marquant!” (If I wasn’t so desperate to be in a relationship coute que coute I might have defended myself: “Personally, I think my trust and sensitivity and brains and writing are more marquant. Why didn’t you introduce me as a journalist or translator?” I say ‘desperate’ but in fact my brain with all its complexes — “This is the best I can do, I don’t deserve any better” — was lagging behind my heart; when Vanessa had invited me to follow her down to the master bedroom, supposedly to inspect our hosts’ record collection, I wasn’t even tempted to jump her bones, although this may have had something to do with the increased proximity of the bone orchard, given that the bedroom was in the basement. Or that she chose this moment to tell me about les ‘feux feuillets,’ the firefly-like lights that according to her rose above the graves, supposedly generated by the gas of the decomposing bodies, which reminded me of our rapidly decomposing relationship.) But the apex came after the cheese, which Vanessa said she’d scored at a new discovery, the Pere Lachaise Fromagerie, just across the street from the lip of the cemetery, and whose très elderly owner apparently had one foot in it. “The first thing she asked me when I walked into her boutique was, ‘Have you eaten yet?’, before bringing out a very limited tray of fromages.” Of course with this build-up, I had to try all three, and of course with all three in me, even if I didn’t quite have the lacto-intolerant attack Meg Ryan has on a southbound train in “French Kiss” (letting out a rail to rival her faux-orgasmic groaning in “When Harry Met Sally”), conveniently near where Frenchman Kevin Kline’s estranged family has its vineyards, I did nonetheless want to make sure the cheese had every opportunity to come out before the long walk back to the pré St.-Gervais, whence the two visits I made to the bathroom before we were all kicked out by the absentee American host (he’d drifted in and out of the party, according to his mood, most piquantly after chanelling McLuhan — one of the few celebrities who was *not* buried across the street — and declaring “The medium is the message”), “Alouicious” — I’d brought the chicken as my contribution to the moving day of these people I didn’t know, figuring it would at least give Vanessa an opportunity to see that I wasn’t intolerant of all her friends, just the Islamophobic ones I’d had to kick out of my place earlier in the month — which toilet pilgrimages prompted Vanessa to observe/ask/complain, “You sure do go to the bathroom a lot,” apparently forgetting one of the confessions I’d made before the first and last time we slept together, “The more someone observes that I go to the bathroom a lot, the more I think I need to go to the bathroom a lot.”
What’s brought the resurgence of this memory to a higher part of my body (in English this is known as ‘bass ackward thinking’) is the news that the octogenerian fromageriste of Pere Lachaise has just hung out her gone fishin’ permanently sign. I found this out by accident; trying to impress a Bellevilloise newbie with my Bellevilloise conaissance, after realizing I’d trumped myself about which side of the rue Menilmontant she lives on, the best I could do to recuperate was spout out three recommendations from that side: Where to find the best merguez sausage (home-made and relatively low grease, at the first butcher on the left as you head up Menilmon’; also my chicken source for the Poulet à la Palestinian, the Palestinian part coming from a traditional Palestinian spice mixture that I found in the pré St.-Gervais rental and that Vanessa’s allegedly Leftist Israeli friend has apparently never heard of, probably because it’s been many years since he passed his military service in Occupied Palestine), where to procure scrumptious Diplomates (like bread pudding, but better, packed with chocolate chips and pineapples) for 1 Euro and more generous than Jared Kushner is being with the Palestinians, although that’s not too hard (a corner bakery between the Metro Menilmontant and the cemetery, and whose happily scarf-wearing matron might have made Vanessa’s scarf-fearing friends — Vanessa herself once told me it was the first step to fascism — think twice and understand that it’s all right), and the famous fromageriste, who will hopefully have many years of fishin’ ahead of her before she returns to the neighborhood to install herself permanently across the street from her boutique.
When my correspondent reported back about the “gone fishin’ permanently” sign (I’m para-translating; it actually announced “Parti a le retraite”), my first instinct of course was regret (that I’d never seen the cheese shop nor met the fromagerista myself), until I remembered the negative associations from that night and indeed that relationship; this was the last time I saw Vanessa, which I guess I should have anticipated after I suggested we rdv at the Metro Pere Lachaise (“Never a good idea to set a romantic rdv at a cemetery,” a Chinese-American choreographer friend teaching Kung-Fu in Antwerp had once advised me when I’d set another with an American girl at the Cemetery Montmartre, before taking her to see Cocteau’s “Orpheus” at the cinema with the Cocteau-designed aluminum chandeliers where “Amelie” goes to the movies in “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulenc”; don’t look back). Given the way Vanessa had glared at me from the kitchen counter while I’d been explaining the lyrics of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” to her friend Annie (the one I’d been trying to pick up at the vernissage while Vanessa was trying to pick up me, ignoring at the time that Annie was already spoken for by “Schmuel”; Annie who earlier in the evening had found the nicest way I’ve ever encountered to ask me not to talk so loud: “I have very sensitive ears, they actually hurt easily”), I’d assumed that her doubts about her ‘adherence’ to our relationship couldn’t be that serious, or were just talk, if she could get so jealous at something there was nothing to be jealous about, but as we continued turning in circles (while holding hands) around the Place Gambetta trying to find the avenue Gambetta which would take her back to the Metro underneath the cemetery after we left the dinner party, without any prompting from me she kept up a one-way dialogue about why she was holding back (or having trouble ‘adhering’). “Is it the fact that you couldn’t” (wouldn’t) “get it up the first night we slept together?” (She’d initially told me sex wasn’t important to her, and that she agreed with me that it can’t be separated from love.) “The fact that you threw my” (Islamophobic) “friends out of your home?” (This was before she asked to spend the night.) N’empeche that when, after a serious French kissing bout that would have been right at home in “French Kiss” — we could have played the lovers making out in the background while Meg was having her lacto-intolerant attack and Kevin was assuring her, “Do not worry, we will get off here, it iz my family’s wine estate” — provoked me to ask, “Why don’t you come home with me?” she responded, “In principle I’m not against it.” It’s a far cry from “Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime” (not to mention “Tu vas et tu viens / entre mes reins”), but remember (as Vanessa kept reminding me and her friends) my teeth were still a work in progress and thus my expectations were low.
I could go on here with the climax but fortunately for you, Vanessa, and most of all for me, I’ve just read this Schiller citation in an 1857 edition of the complete poems of Alfred de Musset that a reader/friend gave me: “Madame, I’d rather throw the pearl that is my heart back into the Ocean than make a bad deal for it.” Or as Bob de Dylan wrote about 100 years later: “It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, Babe, iffin’ you don’t know by now…. /When your rooster crows at the break of dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone, / You’re the reason I’m a travelin’ on. But don’t think twice it’s all right…. / I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind, /You could have done better but I don’t mind. You just kinda wasted my precious time…. ” I gave her my heart, but she wanted my soul.
Nicolas de Stael, “Plage,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“The wondrous envelopes us and deluges us like the atmosphere, but we don’t see it.”
— Charles Baudelaire, cited by Eli Faure in “Histoire de l’art: L’art moderne, I,” Editions Denoel, 1987
PARIS — The concrete plaque on the fence midway up the rue Menilmontant above the weed-submerged tracks of the “Petite Ceinture” which winds around Paris commemorates the three men, aged 20 to 53, who gave their lives in August 1944 to liberate their city from the German occupiers, in the conviction that waiting for the Allied troops — which landed on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago today — to do so would be to surrender their future to the Yankees. So why has the mayor of Paris — who made sure passersby knew the fresh flowers tacked to the plaque were from her — so readily ceded to the increasingly rampant Americanization of Lutèce without a fight?
Up the street from this newly opened to the public parcel of the Petite Ceinture, where you can pique-nique on freshly-fallen Queen Anne cherries while reclining on homey chaises composed of unvarnished planks of wood, a bakery-café too tony for the neighborhood is selling Mrs. Field-style cookies for 4 Euros a pop. I prefer the sunflower-encrusted variety the French Arab boulangerie on the Boulevard Menilmontant below offers for .50 cents apiece. And unlike what one older woman I dated during my recent visit to Lutèce (who claimed to be a Leftist atheist) contended, to me the biggest threat to traditional French values isn’t the scarf with which the bakery babushka chooses to cover her head but boutiques selling “cookie pauses,” restaurants calling themselves “Thank God for Broccoli,” and cafés promising “the best brunch on the Canal,” all in English. This isn’t just a question of going exotic that can be likened to a New York restaurant calling itself, say, Lutèce; it’s an appeal by Yankee commercants to Yankee customers who resume going local to ordering a croissant and café creme.
Roger Bissière, “Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret),” 1955. Oil on paper pasted on canvas. Photo copyright Veignant. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
If I still harbored any doubts that City Hall is just rolling over in the face of this lingual imperialism, they were dispelled by the American high school chorus chanting Frankie Valli’s ‘I love you, baby” from the chandelier’d top floor of the Hotel de la Ville on a recent Thursday evening as I returned from a twilight pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis where I’d been flirting with a red-headed, purple-stockinged German children’s book designer named Betty, in English (as we contemplated an evolving Notre-Dame whose dome now sports a white yarmulke which just might remain there long enough for some wag to observe, “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish”; only 13 million of the 800 million Euros pledged for the church’s reconstruction has been delivered; the leading industrialist who committed 200 million just found out his gift won’t be as tax-deductable as he originally thought; and the main French patrimony foundation organizing the fundraising has rightly decided to steer future donations to some of the country’s other 2,500 sagging monuments), she sharing nightmares of walking into bottomless escalators, me of returning to school and constantly missing classes I really wanted to take. When the chorus segued into Cindy Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” (Cindy had accompanied my Princeton years) I had to second the emotion of the chic Parisienne striding confidently towards me who twisted the finger ballet she’d been performing into a gun and pointed it in the direction of the singing.
All this is a far cry from the mutually respectful meeting and melding of cultures promoted by Boris Vian, who, picking up after the war where Josephine Baker, the Revue Negre, and, later, Charles Trenet and the Zazous (the French version of the Zoot Suits) had left off, introduced Duke Ellington to France and ravenously devoured American jazz magazines so he could translate their choicest morsels for French jazz fans. Vian, who with Miles Davis and Juliette Greco set the tone in Saint-Germain-des-Près (“I didn’t know he was Black,” Greco quoted by Malcolm McLaren in his album “Paris” said of Davis. “And when I found out he was Black, I just cried.”), would blow his heart out on the cornet and trumpet by the age of 39, dying of a heart attack at a 1959 preview of the film version he’d opposed of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves,” the first-person account of a Black American who decides to kill as many white people as he can. Jean-François Jaeger, on the other hand — who, after taking over as director of the Jeanne Bucher gallery in 1947 upon Bucher’s death, helped the Paris abstract art movement carve out a distinct identity which left the American school in the dust — is still kicking at ninety-something. And his legacy — as personified by artists like Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Roger Bissiere, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva — is still vibrant, as demonstrated by a new exhibition running at the Galerie Jaeger-Bucher’s Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
What I love about the French abstract art of this era — the way it feeds and sustains me — is that it’s so dense. While Picasso was busy scrawling silly clowns that would make Red Skelton blanche on napkins and noble doves for the peace posters of the French Communist Party as it buried its head in the sand to the gulags, these artists were delivering genuine revolutions in every painting. (And not just at the Bucher nor only under the aegis of gallerists like Jaeger; Jean-Michel Atlan, Pierre Soulages, Wols, the COBRA group, and the critics who championed them like Michel Ragon, another “passeur,” or transmitter, also get some of the credit.) Or as Jaeger put it in 1997, “For us there are only beginnings, successive births at the will of solicitations to throw our points of view into question, each one completely owned, each one eventually contradicted by an adventure of another type, without losing the essential attachment to the quality of the mode of expression. Possessing no power of creation ourselves, we’re placed at the advance posts, the first to be subjected to the shock of a revelation born in the studio, the first to assimilate it with the goal of accomplishing our role of passeur.” Contrast this humble and self-effacing attitude with what — at least as reflected in much of the work I see in the galleries of Paris these days — seems to be the optic of Jaeger’s successors, which is to program work which confirms and assures them in their tastes.
Jean Dubuffet, “Le Bar,” 1965. Vinyl on paper mounted on canvas. 81x 100 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
Literalists like me can certainly find stories — or at least figuration — in some of the work on view at the Jaeger-Bucher if we want to, but we can also just allow it to deluge (or as Baudelaire might say, ‘abreuve’) us with sensations. (After all, if they could have said it in words, they would have become writers.) What I appreciate about this period is that art, even abstract, impenetrable art, was everywhere. Dali landscapes and Miro ‘bonhommes’ were decorating the albums of Jacky Gleason and Dave Brubeck alike. (Re-viewing several seasons of Mad Men recently after covering last year’s Aix-en-Provence exhibition of Stael’s later, Mediterranean color and light-infused paintings, I was delighted to spot one of them hanging behind the desk of the ad executive Roger Sterling, who might have been one of those American soldiers marching towards Paris.) These days, instead of European art enhancing American pop culture, a new, unimaginative generation of American pop culture artists (often with no technical training, and bragging about it) is turning up in Parisian art galleries, notably in the Marais. (The Americanization of the Marais isn’t confined to its artistic venues. Emerging earlier this year from a palatial space given over to monotonously repetitive big-eyed, long-nosed women designed by a young American artist which owed more to the Sunday comic strip “The Fusco Brothers” than Robert Rauschenberg, I ran smack dab into a window display hawking a Krispy-Kreme-scale donut with a thimble-sized cup of coffee for six Euros.) English is often the go-to language at the vernissages and in the guided tours at these venues, the press releases are in English, the exhibition titles are in English, and much of the (American) art is so crappy it would never dare to show its face in Brooklyn. Some of it (and not just the American) is so buried in conceptual (often textual) mazes that I can’t find the graphic matter.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Two. Silkscreen painting in color, signed and justified. 11.81 x 11.81 inches / 18.89 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
The Germainopretan galleries, on the other hand, remain resolutely international in their selection and (for the most part) rigorous in their aesthetic standards. (Even the snob factor has diminished enough that I’m tempted to reverse Vian’s formula: “Encore moins snob que tout a l’heure.”) After leaving the Jaeger-Bucher earlier on the same Thursday evening that terminated on the other side of the Seine with being serenaded by American girls just wanting to have fun at City Hall, I crossed the rue de Seine to a gallery half its size where, instead of the usual jeunotte annoyed at being interrupted in whatever she was doing in front of her computer screen that was more important than me I found two young women in glasses busily arranging dozens of Victor Vasarely optical illusions neatly arrayed on the floor.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Three. Silkscreen painting in color, signed in crayon and justified. 75.5cm x 75.5cm / 83 cm x 83 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
“If you have any questions, let us know!” one enthusiastically invited me (in French). And I’m glad I did; they both knew more about the art than I did, specifically explaining to me that before Vasarely there was Agram, both of whom lead a movement sometimes called ‘cinetic’ art (Vasarely’s approach has also been described as photo-graphisme), which looks like it provided the model for the various unknown sectors the starship Enterprise would stray into a decade later. The last time I’d come upon this particular artistic genre, at a Latin American-themed gallery in the Marais whose exhibition was more mobile-oriented, the — older — galleriste had huffed when she discovered I didn’t already know what cinetic art was, “It’s very well-known!” Here, by contrast, the two young gallerists not only explained to me that ‘serigraphs’ meant ‘silk-screens,’ but when I asked what exactly this entailed, one of them, “Louise,” left the room to fetch two blank sheets of paper so she could demonstrate the process.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled Two. Silkscreen, signed and justified. 75.5 cm 75 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
When I finally identified myself as a journalist and asked if she had jpegs of the art available, Louise encouraged me to visit the gallery’s website and pull what I needed. (Contrast this to the attitude of the Reunion of the National Museums, which handles the publicity for the Luxembourg, Grand Palais, and other institutions, whose press offices set up so many roadblocks — often at the dictate of ADAGP, the artist rights’ syndicate which apparently thinks art magazines still make money — to featuring their art in articles about their exhibitions ((in other words, free advertising)) that I’ve given up covering them. In fact in theory I’ve given up writing about art, period, because it doesn’t keep me in croissants let alone the dentures to be able to nibble them, but the problem is that every time I go outside in Paris it seems to find me.) When, before leaving to not look for more art, I told the gallerists at the Grillon — as the space is called (Jimminy Cricket!) — about the (non) reception that usually greets me at art galleries, another, older woman who had just entered and sat down behind a desk replied, “C’est pas comme ca que ca marche ici,” that’s not how it works here.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled One. Silkscreen in colors, signed in crayon and justified. 57 cm x 45 cm / 75 cm x 60 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
After testing my new choppers (the family paid for them) on the cornichons and pretzel sticks at a third space on the rue de Seine, the Petite Gallery (unfortunately the only galleries that still offer food and drink at vernissages these days seem to be the ones with the least interesting art, which is why I’m not talking about it here), I was still doing pretty good Germainopretan snob quotient-wise until I entered a fourth gallery whose name I’ve purposely forgotten but was something like “The eyes have it” or “The eyes are everywhere” and which was offering a group exhibition under the rubric “Surrealism, the Second Generation,” purporting to cover the period 1945 – 1965. Intrigued that most of the art displayed seem to come from the collection of the Duchamp specialist Arturo Schwartz, I asked the gallerist why. Taking me aside and shaking his head (not at me but at the institution in question), he explained, “He left 700 works to the Jerusalem Museum. They promptly sold off most of them so they could buy more contemporary work.” Reverse-intrigued, I asked him why he didn’t have any Leonor Fini among the mostly male assemblage. “She wasn’t really a surrealist,” the gallerist sniffed dismissively — and typically. (Read: She was a female artist who refused to be subsumed by and subsetted into a male universe. Around Leonor’s pad in the hills above Trieste, the men wore gowns.) If you’re wondering why I’m not citing a single name of an artist who was included in the exhibition, it’s not to venge Fini but because when I took one of several copies of a list pairing works with artists as a memori menti for this article, a thin van-dycked gallery assistant with slicked-back hair chased me out of the gallery and down the rue des Beaux Arts to recuperate the material. “Hey, come back here! You can’t take that!”
Leonor Fini, “Dithyrambe, 1972. Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 30 x 21.25 inches. Courtesy CFM Gallery.
After an unhealthily more than cursory look (okay, digging-through) of a box someone had left outside another gallery with a sign “Free for the taking!” but which consisted mostly of battery-less gold-painted hand-clocks not even Dali would want to recuperate, I continued towards the Seine and the Ile St. Louis. The deal I’d made with myself was that I’d already prepared a cauliflower-potato-chicken-curry salad for the pique-nique and packed a plastic bottle of Algerian lemon soda scored at the Belleville market for 15 cents, and if I didn’t like it on the Ile, I could just get up and leave. The reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it were a) the first time that I’d retrieved “my” bench on the Ile during this Paris visit, I’d run down to the Seine from Beaubourg (the Pompidou) so fast — you might have thought Niki de Saint Phalle’s big-breasted mermaid had jumped out of the Stravinsky fountain (yet another that’s been left out to dry) and was chasing after me — that I’d no sooner sat down on “my” bench than I felt like I was about to have the runs and had to run back up to the Right Bank, where my go-to toilet outside the Metro Pont-Marie was flashing the dreaded red ‘out-of-order’ sign, and the open toilet I finally found near the Theater Sarah Bernhardt just as time was running out was out of toilet paper, leaving me to show up at a Valentine’s Day vernissage in the Marais with proof that my shit really did stink too. (Looking up at a dried-out David Hockney tree I felt very wet.), b) the second time I’d tried, after an initial post-fire visit to Notre-Dame to size up the damage for you, I’d been scared off by four bulky British rugby-players bunched onto “my” bench and blasting their music de merde on their portables (there used to be an unspoken rule among We the People of the Ile that you didn’t impose your music on others), and c) the years I used to spend every Friday night on the Ile after trolling for used records off the rue Mouffetard where I’d had my cheap cafe latté standing at a tall table contemplating the curvy form and curve-throwing bon mots of MissTic were my drinking years, only unlike Baudelaire I had no Gauthier to record the resultant reveries of this artificial Paradise, so all I remember besides the way the rippling of the Seine seemed to glitter more brightly as the Sun set over Notre-Dame after a glass of pastis is how heavy I felt walking towards Pont-Marie afterwards (the pique-nique also contributed; I wasn’t just drinking), and how when I tried to replace the half a bottle of red or two cans of Pelforth Brune with a whole bottle of tomato juice it just wasn’t the same. If I didn’t have a scribe like Gauthier or Baudelaire (whose building at 33 rue Lamartine had been my first after moving to Paris) to lend these evenings a literary flavor, I did have a librarian: A bouquiniste, Marcel, whose noble trade — having a best friend who sold books along the Seine made me feel like a real Paris insider — blinded me to his fickle soul. I hadn’t had any contact with Marcel since 2014, when he wrote to say that according to his new and young White Russian bride (the same who, after a French Arab man who was more French than she was left the elevator we’d shared at the Metro Place de Lilas had scowled, “They should all go back where they came from”), “You look like a Hobo” (the teeth no doubt).
Thus it was that telling myself if I didn’t like it — if I encountered more music de merde to perturb my tranquility — I didn’t have to stay I made my way to the Ile along the newly pedestrianized Right Bank of the Seine, discovering the spanking new mahogany benches around tables where people were eating, drinking, and partying, and of course, the one decent toilet within five kilometers, an equally spanking new white facility. (You’re just too good to be true, can’t keep my eyes off of you.)
Taking the stairs back up to the street after passing the Hotel de la Ville so I could access the bridge to the Ile — the urge to see if Marcel (not his real name) was still there manning his ‘box’ above a ramp leading down to the river was also a factor — I didn’t find my literary friend but further on was reassured to see that Pierre, a bouquiniste to whom Marcel had shown the ropes, was faithfully at his station, and recognized me enough to nod.
The last time I’d seen Pierre — I’d just fled from a late-career, ear-splitting Pina Bausch spectacle at the Bernhardt and decided to linger in the neighborhood so that I could go back for the after-party and at least have some food and drink to compensate for the ear damage, plus my friend Sabine had stayed for the second act — he’d insisted that I was working for the CIA. “That’s why your teeth are so bad — It’s a disguise!” When he’d announced after hanging up the cell phone he’d told me a Chinese guy had sold him that he had to take off for a rendez-vous with a Vietnamese woman, I’d responded, “I know. We’re the ones who told the Chinese guy to sell you the cell phone after we put a bug in it.” By his laughing reaction I wondered if Pierre had just been ribbing me.
On this recent retrieval, Pierre’s curly hair was scanter and his face more arid from the exposure to the Sun and wind ricocheting off the Seine, and he was sporting an aborted handle-bar mustache and sharing a bottle of red with his potes around a small fold-up table he’d set up in front of his stand, where the books were piled up in pell-mell chaos. The new teeth had apparently improved my stature. “You’re a bouquiniste also, right?” “No, I’m a friend of Marcel’s.” Indicating the Red Guards cap on his head, I observed, “Last time I saw you were wearing a Chinese peasant lamp-shade hat to protect you from the Sun.” “Vietnamese!” Pierre corrected me, pulling the lampshade out from behind a pile. Then nodding up at a row of lantern-cages with stuffed parrots in them hanging like birds on a wire from the green-iron hood of the stand above the piles of books, he suggested, “Tapper and see what happens.” As I prepared to deliver a round-house wallop on the first cage he chided me impatiently, “No no, clap your hands *together.*” I did, and the lanterns lit up as the birds began to sing.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled One. Silkscreen, signed and justified, 77 cm x 70.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for an échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail, garde de chat, etc. — plus ici sur ses talents) sur Paris a partir du 25 mai, Le contacter à email@example.com.)
PARIS — When I was 18 and getting ready to go to Princeton, I was having wet dreams of young women. Now that I’m 58 I find myself drooling over the course descriptions of Old Nassau’s department of Comparative Literature, and the young women in my dreams are selling old books for one Euro.
Last night I dreamed of Maria Casarès. If you’ve read my review with translations of her 16 years of love letters exchanged with Albert Camus, shamelessly published by Gallimard last year, you know that Casarès was probably France’s leading stage and radio actress of the post-war period. And that while many of her letters to Camus, or the concerns she discussed therein, were banal — or, worse, experiences that wouldn’t be banal for anyone else, e.g. recording plays for radio, that she referred to as if they were onerous appointments with the insurance man, it’s the actress not the writer who furnishes some of the most lyrical moments in the 1,200 pages of correspondence. Whereas Camus rarely gets into the intricacies of his work and the philosophical and political problems he was working out in his novels, plays, and treatises and only gets impassioned about two subjects, Rome and Maria (and the author of “Caligula” was no Shakespeare when it came to declarations of love), some of her letters describe Casarès fearlessly melding with the sea when she finds refuge on a rocky outgrowth off the Brittany coast as the tide rises dangerously, or while running along a muddy shore in the Gironde. If I concluded that translating the Camus held no interest, I was reluctant to leave Maria behind. So I guess it’s no surprise that she should now show up as a bookseller in my dreams, still trying to get me to tell her story in English.
The book Casarès was trying to sell me in my dream, at a crowded old book market where the stands were scrunched up against one another, came curled up in a filmy plastic tube; I pulled it out and unfurled the pages before forking over the 1 Euro Maria was asking to make sure none of the ends were cut off. (The form the book came in may also have been an oneiric allusion — because I am thinking of Princeton these days, and what went wrong and what went right — to the time, and this was before I knew Apollinaire from Apollo, that I submitted a story for Reginald Gibbons’s Creative Writing 101 class in which I’d cut the pages down to one-inch wide strips with each line containing one word. Gibbons — a poet who knew it, although he did teach me the valuable lesson that when you cut the first paragraph the second paragraph is usually a better first paragraph — was so annoyed ((I guess he hadn’t heard of Apollinaire either)) that he didn’t want to pass me on to the next level, so I appealed to the professor I wanted for that course, Joyce Carol Oates, by submitting a story in which I’d blindly typed out “ELYSIUM” like she’d once channeled a dead Portuguese poet, and she over-rid him.) The book Maria Casarès sold me was illustrated with black and white linotypes of flappers on the beach. (With nary a philosopher in site.) It actually cost me less than a Euro, because just as I was getting ready to buy the tube/book, I looked down and spotted a beefy coin the size of a Kennedy half-dollar (which would situate the scene after Camus’s death in 1960) like the one given me by my high school civics teacher John Franklin, a Holocaust survivor who was always smiling and bright-eyed and told us he believed in the statute of limitations for Nazi war crimes. (John also gave me a book, Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game,” which he inscribed, “To Paul, May you fly as high as Joseph Knecht.” I hadn’t flown past page 50 when I lent “The Glass Bead Game,” in what turned out to be a permanent gift, to a page designer at the Anchorage Daily News I had a crush on as she was recovering from an appendix operation, and I can’t help wondering if my life would not have been different and reached greater heights if I had finished the book. When I last spoke to John in 2015 — we’d kept up with each other over the years — the Alzheimer’s had moved in for good and when I asked him if he remembered who I was, he answered “Vaguely.”)
In the dream, the book Maria Casarès sold me was also by Maria Casarès.
The problem is that these days I seem to have a much better knack for hooking up with books than finding my Maria Casarès (which may have played into my disdain for my idol’s love letters to his “black one,” to cite just one of the soubriquets with which Camus saluted his mistress; I was simply jealous that he had two women in his life and I had none). Thus it was that on Sunday, my last in Paris and from which I thus decided to profit by checking out five vide-greniers on the two banks of the Seine in my ongoing quest for the unexpected book treasure at one Euro, about all I had left in my pocket, I once again had better luck in scoring literature than scoring with a lady, even though I had to look a lot less harder for the lady than the book. The literary work turned out to be one I’d forgotten was at the very top of my list, Boris Vian’s “Cinemassacre,” a compendium of sketches spoofing ’50s B movies, mostly American. I’d had a short-lived project with a group of French ex-pats in New York in 2010-11 when we tried to produce the play, but the direction turned out to be too anarchistic for me. So next time, I figured, I’ll direct, if only to give myself another chance to play Jean Gabin. (Girl: “You shot him! He’s dead!” Gabin at his most gravelly: “Oui, il est mort.”) On Sunday at the vide-grenier on the rue La Villette which conducts to the rue Belleville, once the kind seller let me lift the sheet of plastic protecting his book box from the light rain, I discovered a book collecting Vian’s “Petites Spectacles,” produced for the petite cabaret revues Vian was also writing for at that time, the late ’40s and ’50s, when he wasn’t playing trumpet or cornet, composing songs, writing novels, writing poetry, writing evening-length plays, reviewing American jazz reviews, producing the first concert by Duke Ellington in France, spinning discs on the radio, and arguing pataphysics with his neighbor Jacques Prevert — it was as if Vian knew he would die at 39, while watching a seance of the film version of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves.” Besides “Cinemassacre,” the sketches include one on Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden and another in which an American lecturer explains that, forget the Galls, it was actually the Cowboy pioneers who discovered and settled France. I’ll now have to seriously consider convincing my partner to substitute “Cinemassacre” for “Horse-butchering for everyone,” the other Vian spectacle I’d like to produce, which concerns a horse-butcher in Arromanches on the day of the Normandy invasion who doesn’t give a fig about “their” Debarquement, his primary concern is to marry off his daughter to the “Fritz,” or German soldier, she’s been sleeping with for four years. In any case, so far my production costs are minimal; the book cost .50 cents.
I really hoped to find more book bargains at the next vide-grenier, over on the Left Bank in St.-Germain-des-Près; after all, a vide-grenier in the neighborhood where Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, et al used to hang out had to be full of literary treasures handed down from whoever those lustres had handed them down to, n’est pas? But no: Que de dalle rue Grenelle and Blvd Raspail; junk jewelry, junk art, and a lot of bibelots (whatever those are) and fabric…. There was a 1947 edition of essays by Jean Cocteau, but as it exceeded my 1 Euro vide-grenier maximum by 1 Euro, all I can bring you is this juicy highlight: In an essay on France, Cocteau (remember this isn’t me saying this but a member of the Academy Francaise) — *writing in 1947* — compared France to a rooster who thinks it’s sitting on top of a pile of compost (thus, from which something might grow) but is really sitting on top of a garbage dump. And another where he essentially said “Now that I’ve passed 50 it’s just a procession towards the tomb.”
Finally, on the corner of Raspail and Grenelle I found a young man who was selling everything for .50 cents, including a copy of Roland Barthes’s “Fragments of an Amoureuse Discourse” which I passed on because it was too heavy for both my simple heart and my luggage and… to play during intermission at the Vian spectacle, a recording of him blowing his trumpet and coronet (if it had not already been said I might suggest that Vian blew his heart out) in St-Germain-des-Près, including on “Que rest-t-il de nos amours?,” Charles Trenet’s theme song for “Stolen Kisses,” the fourth in the five-film cycle of, you guessed it, Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel. (Try as I might, I can’t seem to get rid of him.)
I don’t know what Antoine Doinel or Francois Truffaut might have done (Trenet didn’t play in the same pool hall as any of us) if he found himself standing on a corner across the street from the Hospital St.-Louis holding a transparent Paris-themed umbrella (in which Notre-Dame still has its doomed spire) while the rain poured down next to an umbrella-less lissome Parisienne protected only by a short hooded North Face jacket, after having checked out a vide-grenier on the rue Marie and Louis near the Canal St.-Martin (passed on a small book on the glass paintings of Camille Corot; didn’t appreciate how the seller lowered the price to 1 Euro only after I walked away, nor that it was bilingual) and had his hot thermos tea on the canal under the darkened rain-imminent sky before finally walking away in disgust after realizing that four of the restaurant signs across the water were in English (including, “Best brunch on the canal!”; why can’t the Americans confine themselves to the Huppie quarters like St.-Germain-des-Près?), but not even George Brassens would have done what I did, and simply fallen in several steps behind the young woman, who from her occasionally glancing behind her must have wondered what this man was doing following her all the way to the canal to Belleville without offering to share his umbrella, but they surely would have said something like the words which only entered my mind when I realized I’d missed the moment and I’d already crossed the threshold from possible gallant to potential creep: “Madame, est-ce que je peut vous arbite?” The immediate answer to why I’d not offered to share my umbrella was that I thought the woman would think I was thinking what I actually was thinking, that I just wanted to cozy up to her.
Instead, after the woman disappeared when we hit the Boulevard Belleville and I found myself trudging up the rue Belleville under the pounding rain from which the umbrella didn’t seem to be protecting anything, getting soaked from the insides of my genuine Texas working cowboy to my acrid heart, I found myself asking:
“Why do I know how to negotiate the price of a book better than I know how to negotiate life?” And: “Why do I think so little of myself that I would assume a damsel in distress would see me as a creep with an agenda and not a knight with shining umbrella?” To which my dead girlfriend answered: “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re more a follow-up guy than an opening line guy. You may not know how to flirt, but once a woman grabs you, she’s taken care of for life. There are lots of guys who can make with the lines; how many are good for the duration?”
And then of course there’s the troubling question of whether I can help just for helping’s sake, and not because the helped is a cute girl. It’s not that I don’t have empathy for others. The day before, when, as I was standing outside a toilet at the bottom of the boulevard Reuilly and the outdoor wine market waiting for my turn I heard a voice as fragile as the wind asking, “Monsieur, do you have a handkerchief?” and turned around to see a girl who might have been Renoir/Andersen’s “Little Match-Girl,” complete with the crutch, albeit otherwise dressed modernly with a suede jacket and baggy pants, touching her amber hair where a barely detectable spot of moisture indicated a pigeon had hit its mark, I was as moved as Don Quixote given a chance to ride to the rescue, pulling out a roll of pink toilet paper in lieu of a lance and asking, “Will this do?” Nor even that my motives are as dastardly as all that; when she asked “Is it all gone?” I didn’t dare to touch her hair with my fingers even though this was the only way to be sure (trust and verify), fearing she would misinterpret the gesture. And if I watched the girl as she limped away, it was only to capture all the details for this piece, including the canvas bag hanging from her shoulder which read, in pink: “No more animal testing!” Walking up Raspail Sunday, when I came upon the towering black granite statue of Captain Dreyfus in a square outside the Metro Notre-Dame des Champs plunging a sword vertically through his chest over the inscription, “All I ask is that you give me my name back,” I felt that wound. And earlier Sunday, sitting on a bench outside the headquarters of the immigrant aid association Grands Voisins on the Meridian and absorbed in my lunch of canned couscous and tuna, I sincerely, and mostly altruistically, regretted that I’d only realized too late that the woman I’d noticed in the periphery of my vision leaning on a friend’s arm a few minutes earlier, now across the street, was really struggling in her palsy-like movements, as was the older friend (mother?) she was trying with mixed success to lean on, who had to support her while at the same time restraining her poodle on a leash as they walked down the rue Cassini, a.k.a. chez Balzac.
Like Antoine in “The 400 Blows” I’ve had my own literary shrines, if not to Balzac, and now I wonder if they’ve actually taught me anything, besides the ability to write about it when it’s too late?
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for an échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail, garde de chat, etc. — plus ici sur ses talents) sur Paris a partir du 25 mai, Le contacter à email@example.com.)
This one goes out to Christine, for the apricots of Bensonhurst.
PARIS — There are moments that are so perfectly poignant there’s no time-lapse between the experience and the instant it moves you to tears. I lived several of them this afternoon, immersed in the quiet, raincloud-tempered, rainbow-tinted crowd weaving through the outdoor Belleville market thinking this is why I need Paris, this is what I thrive on in Paris and why I thrive in Paris, this is what I live for in Paris, this is how I live in Paris, this is how I breathe in Paris, this is how we live and breathe in Paris, in and from its old book and cheap food markets and the mental, physical, and social sustenance they nourish us with, the solidarity with my multi-colored, multi-aged, multi-background comrades looking for the same thing, craving the same thing — not just the books and the food but also the society — then climbing up the rue Menilmontant before descending into the grounds of an ancient train track, “The Petite Ceinture” (little belt) that used to wind around Paris and is now guarded by a plaque on a grating above the tracks, these last overgrown with weeds and flanked by brush and trees, the plaque above them commemorating three resistants aged from 23 to 50 who gave their lives to liberate Paris 75 years ago, now opened to the public (but Shhhh!; the BoBos don’t seem to know about this halcyon and verdant endroit yet; let’s leave them to their 4-Euro cookie shop further up Menilmontant), where I lunched under the alternately grey, drizzly, and clearing Paris sky (a bucolic ambiance only partly perturbed by the occasional drilling nearby) on my Chinese greens and meat pancake (1.20 at Chez Alex on the rue Belleville), wedge of blue cheese and hot fresh mint thermos tea on a made to look makeshift wooden chaise comprised of wooden planks with my provisions for the week-filled backpack posed on another, between acacias being pollinated by a vibrant bee colony (unlike the countryside, no pesticides or imported hornets to kill them here) while looking across the tracks at a panoply of multi-leveled architecture, from the single grey dilapidated shack (on whose flower-pot adorned window ledge one large black tailed by one large white cat appeared after we’d all finished our lunches licking their chops) to a mid-sized building whose staccato, different-colored square windows made it look like a Mondrian painting, to the high-rise on whose wall a multi-line dark-brown zig-zag streaked down all the way to the pavement of the rue Menilmontant.
I wish that everyone here who sees the common scarf when worn by a Muslim or Arab French woman as the greatest threat to French civilization could see what I see when I squeeze through (and often cut ahead of) the Arab-French-Muslim babushkas and distinguished older gentlemen, in turn politely making their way amongst the Chinese, African, and even the occasional BoBo mamas and papas and single people looking for the best deal on cauliflowers (1 Euro today), potatoes (a 1.30/kilo price instantly reduced to 1 Euro for more than a kilo because “look, if you buy this bag someone forgot I’ll cut you a special price,” peppery crepes (1.50, but I passed as I’d already downed a vegetarian brioche from Alex’s and still had the pancake to go), bananas (.99/kilo today, half the price of any ordinary market), beef heart tomatoes (ibid), blood oranges (same), packaged Belgian chocolate-covered waffles (1 Euro for seven today), .30 cents a generous bushel of fresh mint, a Euro for six wedges of the blue cheese, and most of all the conviviality. If it’s true that, as mayor Anne Hidalgo said at the time, by killing 130 of us, Parisians and visitors alike, on November 13, 2015, “ISIS” was out to destroy our sense of “vivre ensemble,” the Belleville outdoor market and its polyglot food shoppers gently moving forward with one common goal — feeding themselves and their families well as affordably as possible — while insisting on being more polite than one would ever imagine possible in a crowd often packed as tightly as sardines and moving in opposing directions is proof that they failed miserably. Particularly our insistence on being polite to each other. “After you, Monsieur-Dame,” said I to a middle-aged French Arab man escorting his gown and scarf wearing wife. “No, after you Monsieur.”
And these two instances of unspoken trust that occurred within half an hour of each other: The young man who’s been my cheap cheese guy for four years simply smiling to communicate that I hadn’t yet handed him the two-Euro coin in my hand to pay for the cheese (I’d have one Euro change coming), and the (again, gown and scarf wearing) woman at the bakery where I usually buy my Diplomate bread pudding but today settled for a .70 cent round of semolina bread (to test the denture) after calculating that it would leave me with exactly 4.30, the price of a raw chicken at the butcher’s on Menilmontant, realizing before I even had time to verify that instead of two two Euro coins and three dimes she’d given me a two and a one coin and fixing it. (Maybe this is normal where you live too; what’s not normal is the sinister implications with which many here invest the way these woman choose to dress. This is why I persist in describing the normality of the day to day interactions I have with them. This is why I sometimes wonder if those who panic at the sight of a scarf on a Muslim / Arab woman buy their ((French)) bread in the same bakeries I do.)
My other little instances of this expectation of consideration — and the profound belief in the power of “vivre ensemble” — came from the elderly babushka on a crutch, she also clothed from head to toe (but not the face) who gently tapped my shoulder to inform me, “Your backpack is hurting me.” “Desolée, Madame.” And then there was the moment of complicity with the tall brown-skinned young man who, as I was about to turn away from the apricot seller who insisted that if the price was 1 Euro for a kilo, this meant you had to buy a kilo after I’d tried to buy half of that, touched my elbow and suggested, “Hey, I only want a half kilo too. How about if I buy a kilo and then you pay me .50 cents and we split it?” This he did, first diplomatically walking us away from the seller so he couldn’t see how two men of two ages from two different cultures had outfoxed him. “Here, why don’t I take the plastic sack and you pour some from the paper bag?” After he’d emptied a generous amount into it and paused, I patiently maintained the plastic bag to let him pour a handful more and then stopped him. “That’s fine,” adding, “The thing is I don’t like to buy more because they’re not always good.” “It’s the same for me!,” he said, smiling as we went our separate ways, the proof that we were both right in our skeptical apricot moderation coming minutes later when I took my portion out on my chaise at the Petite Centure to discover that they were already smushed. (Putting the cauliflower on top of them probably didn’t help.)
But my apricots, my part of the spoils, were still succulent, perfect for compote — like the succulent compote that is Belleville, all of us crushed together and sweeter for the crushing, Belleville mon amour, Belleville forever.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Like this article? Cet article vous plait? Please make a donation today so we can continue covering the Paris arts world / Penser à faire un don aujourd’hui alors qu’on peut continuer d’ecrire sur le monde de l’art a Paris in Dollars or Euros by designating your payment through PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Paul is also looking for a sous-location ou échange de bons procédés (logement contre travail, garde de chat, etc. — plus ici sur ses talents) en région Parisienne a partir du 25 mai, Le contacter à email@example.com.)
PARIS — The inspiring thing about living in France during a European Parliamentary election campaign is the plethora of political parties (34 at last count — each accorded equal space) that sprout up on the cadenzas of steel placards installed in front of schools and other public buildings. What’s left this observer most incredulous ahead of Sunday’s vote (France holds its elections on Sundays, so more people can actually vote) is not the “Partie Animaliste” nor the “Partie Esperanto” nor even that the parties on the Far Right seem to have an easier time finding brown faces for their posters than those on the Left but that the slogans for the major parties or figures are so banal. Thus with Benoit Hamon — the Socialist candidate for the last presidential election who polled all of 6 percent and took his party down with him — we can count on “Hope Returning” if his new party “Generation” wins. (Which generation? French political parties aren’t particularly strong on nomenclature. A party calling itself “New Center” has had that name for 12 years.) And it’s certainly not the hashtag which makes Europe Ecology (the Greens; it was Danny “Le Rouge” Cohn-Bendit, the leader of the May 1968 student rebellion now retired from politics, who came up with that rebaptization) the party I’d vote for if I could vote: “Vote for the climate!” Okay…. exactly which climate would that be? I mean, who’s going to vote *against* the climate? Actually, I should have said “would have voted for until Saturday,” which is when I discovered the “Mouvement Francaise des Plieurs (Folders) de Papier” while heading out from the Marché des Producteurs de Vin on the Boulevard Reuilly and no, this was not a wine-tasting inspired hallucination because I didn’t have a drop, apart from the turnip and colza seed tapenade and okay, a nip or two of prune juice and more foie gras than a kid from California should probably boast of nibbling. And if it had been a hallucination, it would have owed more to the number of times I’d been folded, wadded, spit out and bled (that last literally) in the days before I stumbled onto the boutique of the MFPP and confronted its origami-filled window (with no cranes in site) after falling down a set of stairs onto the rue Coriolis in the 12th arrondissement. (Not far from the Bercy Tunnel, which a sign informs passersby was “re-imagined” by several students, all named and all female. After which I ate my canned couscous and tuna salad — recuperated in the book exchange box off the rue Jourdain in Belleville earlier — on a bench under a canopy of trees above the Yitzhak Rabin Peace Garden facing a ruin wall and above yet another dry water basin, this one dear to me because years ago my step-mother and I had lunched there with a water rat. If I could found a single-issue party in France I know what it would be and so do you. Votez water!) The boutique was closed, apparently for the “Events of Me,” the poster for one of which I hope it won’t mind me cribbing from an associated website page:
First (being folded up and spat out-wise), there was the Belleville artist-activist on the rue Tourtille — 200 yards from where the Paris Commune made its last stand at the bottom of what’s now the parc Belleville– who’d promised to rent me, at 25 Euros a pop, a “petite chamber without door” which turned out to be a petite couch outside the bedroom without sleep, her non-artistic snoring keeping me up all night. When I brought her a bag of fresh croissants, pain aux raisons, and chocolatines (pains au chocolate to you, bub) on the first morning, all she could say was “You got crumbs on the floor” after I grabbed a couple for me as she was giving me the bum’s rush out the door. But the kicker was when several hours after I’d spent my whole morning writing and publishing a piece on an anti-BoBo demonstration the artist-activist and her five BaBa Cool (not to be confused with “BoBo,” “BaBa Cool” means “ageing hippy”) friends were holding Sunday, she waited until the last minute to tell me I had essentially no minutes — the timeline she gave me was physically impossible to meet — to get my back-breaking valise out of her atelier, and which meant that instead of being able to bring the suitcase to the cat-sitting up the street off the rue Belleville (the gig was starting that evening) after I’d retrieved my cat Mimi across town in the 13th arrondissement, I had to lug my Samsonite all the way across town and stow it at the friend’s where I was fetching Mimi, from which I’d then need to haul it back to Belleville when I had enough time to do so. When I tried to explain this to her, she held up her hands in twin peace signs. (Yes, this is the kind of person who starts an argument and then when you simply try to respond, holds up the peace signs to end the discussion, inverting where the violence is actually coming from.) Then there was the friend of 20 years, a specialist in American literature and film, who I discovered had more empathy for the American culture in the abstract than the suffering American in front of her, whom she put in a position where he faced a Hobson’s choice between breaking his hernia and sciatic-afflicted back again or something so dire I can’t even talk about it. (Or as I put it to her in a later e-mail: “I hope no one ever treats you like you treated me this afternoon.”)
The blood comes in, or spilled out, when I reached into the pouch of my back-pack (found in 2015 outside the anarchist bookstore up the street from where I was subletting on the rue Voltaire) inside the Metro on the Place d’Italie, after I’d deposed the suitcase and picked up Mimi, to look for my reading glasses so that I could actually understand the Metro map and figure out the shortest route across town to the cat-sit near the Place des Fetes, only to look down and see blood dripping onto the Metro floor, Mimi’s cage, my grey Marseille jeans, the (fortunately red) back-pack right under where two days earlier a pigeon I’d scooted away from my bench on the Ile St. Louis — where I was feeding a batch of ducklings and their mama after their heads had appeared one by one marching towards me from the ramp leading up from the Seine like a fleet of submarines slowly emerging on the distant horizon — had shat on it. The blood seemed to be spurting out from my hand; in my haste to fetch the glasses I’d forgotten that in my haste to evacuate the artist’s atelier I’d also stuffed two razors into the pouch. Tearing off a patch of toilet paper from the same pouch and hoisting Mimi over one shoulder and the large white bag barely containing her litter box, litter, and cat food over the other, I hurried towards the escalator to the line 7, on the way dropping a surplus bag which another passenger treated as if it contained a bomb. “YOU DROPPED YOUR BAG YOU DROPPED YOUR BAG!!” “IT’S EMPTY DON’T WORRY DON’T WORRY!” (This was actually the second bomb scare and the second evacuation and the umpteenth incident of being treated like an inconvenience and not a human being I’d experienced in two days. On Monday at the Gare de Lyon, the third train station to which I’d been shuffled just to change my ticket, as the French train company — or “Oui.SNCF” as its website has now been renamed; if the client is massively rejecting you, just change your name to “Yes” — continues to close up sales points with live people to chase its clients to the Internet so it can subject us with more advertising and hire less of them, after I’d waited for an hour with the incomprehensible take a number system the SNCF now has, the ticket-buying room was evacuated when no one claimed a small gray valise. I should add that later that evening, after my dentist appointment, at train station number four, the Gare de l’Est, I finally found a human being who agreed, after initially telling me “I can’t do anything, it’s the machine which decides,” like those Boeing computers which recently killed hundreds of passengers, that the ordeal his employer had put me through merited waiving the 12 Euro ticket change fee. Although the bandage in the middle of my front lower teeth — I’d just had a last tooth extraction — may also have had something to do with it.)
Speaking of blood — and getting back to the finger-cutting incident at the Place d’Italie — it was probably seeing the wad of toilet paper caked with blood that I was maladroitly holding around my forefinger that inspired the short-gray-haired lady across the aisle from me on the Place des Fetes-bound line 7, after glancing at me sympathetically a couple of times (making me wonder if I’d somehow managed to get some of the blood on my cheeks), to reach into her purse and fetch me a folded fresh paper handkerchief. “Merci Madame. Merci beaucoup.”
At this point I had to decide: Do I ask the cat-sitting client for a band-aid the moment I arrive, and thus make it more likely that she’ll figure out that the red swatches on my jeans and red drops on my back-pack are blood that I’m bringing into her house for 10 days — remember that at this point, with the denture back in the shop, I had one lower tooth — or say nothing and risk a finger infection? Fortunately the client provided a convenient segué when she showed me the plastic jug of lemon-wedge infused white wine vinegar with which she washes the dishes. “Speaking of vinegar, could I use some of that? I cut my finger.” “Certainly, but do you also want some argyle? The vinegar is fine as an anti-septic, but the argyle will close the wound.”
Which it and she did, physically and psychically.