From the exhibition Félix Fénéon, Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through January 27 before moving to the Museum of Modern Art in the Spring: Carlo Carrà (1881-1966), “Les Funérailles de l’anarchiste Galli (the anarchist Galli’s funeral),” 1910-1911. Oil on canvas, 198.7 x 259.1 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Lillie P. Bliss (exchange), 1948. Photo ©Paige Knight. In the entry for Angelo Galli (1883-1906), in his “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie” (Albin Michel, 2008), Michel Ragon writes: “Brother of Alessandro Galli, stabbed to death by a guard at the factory where he’d gone to check on strike-breakers on May 10, 1906. During his funeral procession, joined by an exalted crowd, violent scuffles broke out with the mounted troops. The painter Carlo Carrà, who at the time frequented the anarchist milieus, found himself among the crowd and, moved by the mass demonstration, the violence of the brawls with the police, the black oriflammes being brandished and the shrouds covered with red eyelets, painted in remembrance one of the most astonishing Futurist tableaux…,” of a mammoth scale, exposed to great success in Paris, London, and Berlin in 1912. A contributor to the newspaper Il Tempo upon its founding in 1918, on March 8, 1910 (as Guillaume Apollinaire would note in Le Petit Bleue on February 9, 1912), Carrà joined Umberto Boccioni, the poet Filippo Marinetti, and a handful of others on the stage of the Chiarella theater in Turin to deliver the Futurist Manifesto, in their words “a long cry of revolt against academic art, against museums, against the rule of professors, of archeologists, of …. antique dealers…..” Fist-fights and cane battles immediately broke out, Apollinaire noted, the “great audience tumult” only ending when the police intervened. (Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art,” Gallimard, Paris, 1960.) For more on anarchists and unionists from Michel Ragon, click here. For more Ragon on art — exclusively on the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager — click here.
From the exhibition Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 26: “The White and the Black,” 1913 Oil on canvas, 44–7/8 × 57–7/8 in. (114 × 147 cm). Kunstmuseum, Bern. Hahnloser/Jaeggli Foundation, Villa Flora, Winterthur. Photo ©Reto Pedrini, Zürich, and courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Here is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price.”
— Theophile Gautier, critiquing Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” in the Moniteur Universel, June 24, 1865, cited by Jacques Letheve in ARTnews Annual, 1959
“…what an idiotic project…. A night in the slammer probably caused him at least as much fear as he caused straphangers.”
— Michael Kimmelman, critiquing Clinton Boisvert’s site-specific project for the School of Visual Arts in the New York Times, December 18, 2002
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
(First published on the DI on December 19, 2002. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of our archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 artist-critics of performances, films, exhibitions, and books from five continents published on the DI /AV since 1998, as well as PB-I’s Buzz column, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .)
As alumnus Eugene O’Neill once wrote, Princeton University is a tradition-bound place. It was still that when I arrived about 70 years after O’Neill, and I frequently felt the need to overtly demonstrate that I was a non-conformist. One afternoon in 1984, this took the form of deciding to wear a white cowboy mask for the day. My rounds included a visit to the bank and, well, you can guess what happened. The police were very nice about it, simply advising me that it’s not a good idea to wear a mask into a bank. My classmates put it more bluntly: How could I be so stupid?
In my case, it was I who was not thinking, and it was the bank employees who were reacting as they should to a customer wearing a mask. However, the case of Clinton Boisvert, a freshman at the School of Visual Arts, is another matter altogether. Responding to an assignment for his Foundations of Sculpture class that he create a site-specific work, Mr. Boisvert (whose last name would translate in French as “Green wood”) last week reportedly painted 37 Fed Ex boxes black, scrawled the word “Fear” on them, and attached them to girders and walls in the Union Square subway station. Not having seen the work, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it taps into the post 9/11 NYC zeitgeist. But from reading numerous reports in the local media, I see nothing that warrants a) the charge of reckless endangerment with which, if one can believe the New York Times — a big if — the district attorney intends to prosecute young Boisvert, or b) the condescending crucifixion with which Times critic Michael Kimmelman attempted to lacerate the courageous artist in yesterday’s paper. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that an artist was working beyond the ability of a critic to comprehend.
“As the saying goes, art this bad ought to be a crime,” Mr. Kimmelman writes. Is this the best ‘criticism’ the chief art critic of the New York Times can come up with? Well… no! He then goes on to cite, approvingly, an even higher critical authority: the NYPD. (This would be the same NYPD who busted an artist of an earlier era, tapping into an earlier cultural zeitgeist, when Anna Halprin’s troupe was arrested for dancing nude at Hunter College in the 1960s.) “‘The kid is clueless, basically,’ a police official said on Monday,” Mr. Kimmelman continues, referring to the policeman’s quip, “demonstrating remarkable acumen as an art critic.” Well, actually — no. At best, what the police demonstrated, in responding to Mr. Boisvert’s installation by closing off the subway station for several hours and calling in the bomb squad, was a circumspection understandable from law enforcement in a post-9/11 New York. Never mind that, as even Kimmelman acknowledges, many New Yorkers had already guessed that the 37 boxes were an art project and not a security threat; a reasonable argument could be made that it is law enforcement’s job to err on the side of caution. One might also argue that it is their training to recognize even the slightest possible threat to public safety, and that they are not trained to recognize art projects.
An art critic, however, should be able to make this distinction. However, it seems to elude Mr. Kimmelman, who writes of Mr. Boisvert:
“Trying to imagine what he intended, I can only guess that he might say the boxes bearing ‘fear’ were meant to make tangible, as sculpture, what New Yorkers have felt since 9/11 — to give physical form to prevalent emotion. But that’s art mumbo jumbo. By provoking fear, the work trafficked in emotional violence.”
What a stunningly ignorant (“Mike, you ignorant slut!”) statement for a supposed art critic to make! Not all, but much art is MEANT to provoke emotional response. And not just of safe emotions. It is meant to hit us where we live. Cutting the NYPD the slack for actually removing the boxes — unlike Mr. Kimmelman, it’s not the cops’ job to recognize art — where, exactly, is the basis for charging Boisvert with ‘reckless endangerment’? Was there something inside the boxes they’re not telling us about?
And speaking of boxes: Also at Princeton, I had a professor of Russian literature named Ellen Chances. With her raven hair, pallid complexion and taste for old-fashioned dresses, Professor Chances looked like a heroine straight out of Tolstoy. Every session, she would write on the chalkboard elaborate charts explaining the literary and social context of that week’s assignment. One afternoon, Professor Chances did not show up for the beginning of class. When she strolled in 20 minutes late, she was wearing, for the first time ever, pants — blue jeans. She commenced to talk about boxes: The boxes we put things in, literal and figurative — she even pointed to the iron frames of the bright classroom’s windows as evidence. And when she was done, with 15 minutes left to go before the class normally concluded, she abruptly left.
In the United States right now, there is a big, huge box labelled FEAR. Can you see it? The Bush Administration grabs Iraq’s declaration on weapons before anyone else can see it not, of course, to edit out references to the numerous U.S. corporations and government agencies alleged (according to a German newspaper which claims to have obtained copies of some of the deleted pages) to have aided Iraq’s weapons programs over the years, but because the excised portions might help others construct weapons of mass destruction. Yup, put that one over in the FEAR box, my fellow Americans. Trust us. We know what you should fear.
Much of the coverage of Mr. Boisvert’s project has emphasized that he just arrived in New York three months ago, the inference being that he’s just a rube from the Midwest. I would draw a different lesson here: Plopped down in an alien mileau, Mr. Boisvert is, perhaps, able to see things — big picture things — that New Yorkers (or many, anyway) cannot see about themselves, captive as they are to the post-9/11 neurosis — how else explain Mr. Kimmelman’s exagerated response to a college art project? I could WRITE a thesis about this, but in painting that one word and those 37 boxes and placing them in a subway station, Mr. Boisvert has made much a more eloquent and communicative statement. I encourage his professors at SVA to affirm that he has a special gift. He didn’t “cause” the fear, as Mr. Kimmelman would have us believe; he identified it, as only an artist can. Mr. Kimmelman didn’t have to like the results, but he could have at least have had the eye to recognize the intention, and to reveal it to his readers, instead of abdicating his critical responsibility to law enforcement. But it’s not the first time in history a visionary artist has been pilloried by a tunnel-visioned critic. Mr. Boisvert, you have arrived
I’ll just leave my dentures at the door of the studio, thanks: While we have no proof that the painting represented above, Félix Vallotton’s 1904 “Nude Holding Her Gown,” a 50 3/4 x 37-38 inch oil on canvas, is the one the French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire — Cubism’s first literary champion — was referring to in the following review of Vallotton’s contributions to the Salon d’Automne in the October 12, 1907 issue of “Je dis tout” (I tell all), the indications, judging from the model’s height, stance, modest dipping of the head and above all pronounced overbite (take it from an expert) are pretty convincing: “Monsieur Vallotton, and we regret it, has not exposed the portrait of a Swiss woman, a tall protestant lady who absolutely insisted on removing her denture before posing: ‘It would not be honest to represent my teeth. In reality, I don’t have any. Those which garnish my mouth are false and I believe that a painter should only represent that which is true.'” (Speak for yourself, lady.) As for you, bub, you can check the original itself out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Madame will be holding court, teeth or no teeth, through January 26 as part of the exhibition Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet. Private collection. Photo © Fondation Félix Vallotton, Lausanne. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. To read more about what happens when dental issues confront art head on (so to speak), click here. (Source of Apollinaire citation: Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), NRF / Gallimard, Paris. Copyright Librairie Gallimard.) — PB-I
From the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, on view at the Orsay museum in Paris through January 27 before moving to the Museum of Modern Art in New York next spring: Paul Signac (1863-1935), “In harmonious times: The Golden Age is not in the past, it’s in the future (retort),” 1896. Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 81 cm. Kasser Mochary Foundation, Montclair, NJ. Kasser Art Foundation. © Nikolai Dobrowolskij. Signac was the anarchist art collector, critic, and editor Fénéon ‘s principal artistic fellow traveler following the death of Georges Seurat, his co-inventor of the Neo-Impressionist (also known as Pointilist or Divisionist) movement.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.
To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to email@example.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise Ragon, Edward Winer, and Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.
Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.
Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.
“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”
“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”
The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020. “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”
Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:
“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”
He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”
Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.
Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.
Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.
After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.
“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”
“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”
“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”
Arlov quietly tip-toed out.
“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”
“Okay, I’ll go….”
Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.
Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.
Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….
Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.
The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.
Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.
She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.
“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”
Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.
“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”
“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”
“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”
“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.
Then, amiably ironic:
“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”
Henri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.
“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.
Blanche laughed archly.
“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”
Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.
As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”
“Ask all the same.”
“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”
Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.
“So, there’s hope?”
“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.
Blanche let go of his jacket.
“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”
by Lola Lafon & copyright 2017 Actes Sud
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
Today’s translation is dedicated to Linda Ramey, Gertrude Mayes, and my own Gene Nevevas, from their Violaine. “Mercy, Mary, Patty” is looking for an Anglophone publisher. Got ideas? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Today’s work is sponsored by Freespace Dance. Happy Birthday, Lulu!
From pages 218-240 (conclusion of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”)
We’re back where the novel began, in 2016, with the nameless narrator – Violaine’s prodigy as the latter was Gene Neveva’s four decades earlier — on a pilgrimage to Smith College in Northampton to find Professor Neveva and perhaps her own way as she nears 40. After a preliminary meeting in which Violaine’s name does not come up, Neveva suggests that the narrator enroll in her course – even though she normally does not accept adults as they have a predisposition for short-cuts and simple answers.
Your class is not the Sunday Mass I feared it might be, even if the fervor of the participants lends itself to confusion, the way they stampede into the room, piling into every nook and cranny, spilling over from the seats onto the stairs and hunkering down as if preparing for a siege, provisioned with sandwiches, bottled water, trail mix. The very first day you warn us: We’ll emerge from your course neither swept away nor converted, you insist, above all not converted.
The weeks glide by and slip away and I don’t have time for anything, neither strolling in Northampton nor pique-niquing by the lake, nor even to write a long letter to Violaine. You submerge us in tales of captivity from the 18th and 19th centuries, every one constructed around the same model: “savages” capture a frail young woman, are subsequently slain by the defenders of civilization who save her, freeing the young woman all the better to enslave her “chez elle.” I’ve chosen, for the oral report which caps the first month of the course, to focus on the cases of Mary Rowlandson and Mary Jemison. The former, a pastor’s wife captured in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1682, penned a first-hand account of her 11 weeks of captivity, the first best-seller in America, reprinted regularly up until 1913. As for Mary Jamison, in 1823 she confided to a young doctor the story of her kidnapping and adoption at the age of 15, in 1753, by the Senecas. The sophomores recount to me with delectation how you grilled one of them for two hours after her presentation, forced another to improvise, grabbing her papers from her hands, the time you cut off a student before she could even finish her introduction, which you judged “cliché-ridden.” Only to execute perfect figure eights a moment later by contradicting themselves in emphatically evoking how you’d already ‘saved their lives,’ a telephone call on a Sunday when they were feeling particularly gloomy, a last-minute excursion when they felt overwhelmed with schoolwork, the little bags of dried fruit.
The morning of my presentation, my classmates urge me on with taps on the shoulder as I approach the lectern. I await your questions without too much trepidation, I know the texts practically by heart. You have but one sole thing to ask me, you say reassuringly:
“Why did these two stories resonate – and why do they still resonate today – so strongly?”
The stunned silence of my fellow students overwhelms me. Nothing about the actual texts, nothing about their authors, the exhaustion from having slept so little for months leaves me drained, it doesn’t help matters that my words come to me in French, the various theses imbibed superimpose themselves one over the other, your own book, “Mercy Mary Patty,” which you detest us citing is the only one which comes to mind, your clear grey eyes stare at me, is this how you reduced Violaine to being little more than a spectator of your affirmations, you lean towards me, am I all right, would I like some cashews? You suggest we break for lunch and leave the room, my classmates comfort me, delighted to count me among the victims, Welcome to the Club, this is typical Neveva.
Many days elapse before I dare respond to your question by e-mail: Perhaps the resonance of these stories owes itself to what their authors suggest: Having learned to be well-behaved and obedient was of no succor to them, this is not how they survived among the Indians.
“Nor at Smith College, for that matter,” is your irrelevant response, with this PS: “Don’t forget that despite their sincerity, these stories were politically exploited by the powers that be for their own ends. They served as the pretexts for undertaking all kinds of punitive actions against the Indians in the name of our besieged civilization. They need to be read with more distance than you seem to have read them.”
One morning during the final week, you find yourself confronted with the first grumblings of a revolt. Mercy, Mary, all right but… when are we going to finally get to Patty? We’ve been talking about her since the very first day, you whisper emphatically, exasperated.
I remained at Smith a little over a quarter. I often had the impression of being immersed in the décor of an idealized novel about an ideal boarding school where no one asks you about your nationality, your sexual orientation, your religion, a happy hermetically-sealed world in which benevolent professors are there to teach without professing. The morning of my arrival, a roll of Lifesavers was left on my doorstep and a postcard bid me welcome to the campus, the following day, on the route leading to the library, a chalk-drawn message on the asphalt pavement celebrated my decision to go back to school; the “Big Sis – Little Sis” rite had begun, each of the newbies would be showered with attention by an upperclasswoman for an entire week. Last month, I was amused by a day dubbed “There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question Day,” we were encouraged to ask any sociology professors or students we ran into about any aspect of society, they all wore badges to this effect: “Ask me!” I was present at rituals without taking part in them, like the night, on the eve of finals, on which everyone leaned out of their windows and simultaneously screamed for a whole minute to release their tension and anxiety, after which they all resumed prepping.
At Smith I was a nearly 40-year-old “provisional” student surrounded by young women bearing no resemblance to me when I was their age. They intimidated me, as if it was I who was their little sister, I envied the splendid nonchalance with which they employed the first person singular and the verb “to choose,” I chose to stay and fight. (9)
On “Ivy Day,” standing beside their parents, I applauded these women who were neither my daughters, my sisters, nor my friends, a procession of hundreds of tulle gowns, of satin, and of ribbons exposing plump arms, of rumpled shorts with matching derbies, of tank tops revealing bra straps, they advanced slowly towards us, being careful not to let the chain of laurels which bound them slip off their shoulders.
At Smith, I listened to all the tape recordings of Patricia Hearst from start to finish, poured through forgotten theses from the 1980s, the anarchist club permitted me to consult the student fanzines of the epoch which supported the SLA and were enamored with Tania. In the archives, I unearthed articles from the dailies relating your arrest in April 1969. The announcement that Smith had fired you. The tracts calling for your re-instatement. The photos of a demonstration in solidarity with your cause. A petition from 1995 calling for you to finally be granted the academic honors you had a right to. More recent articles deploring the re-release of “Mercy Mary Patty,” Ms. Neveva should stick to indoctrinating the lesbians of her Communist university. But nothing, nothing at all on your report for the Hearst defense team. I believe I can confirm today that you attended the trial as a spectator.
One day I mentioned your personal involvement in the Hearst trial to another student; she nearly fell out of her chair, why didn’t you talk about the report in your course, it must be fascinating, the young woman suggested that we work together, we could read it faster, dividing the report in two, and eventually include it in our final paper. I hemmed and hawed, maybe it was just a rumor, we should ask you first. Which is exactly what she did at the next class. You didn’t bat an eye, for several instants it seemed to me that you noticed my crimson visage and then, with a shrug of the shoulders, you dismissed the matter as a negligible anecdote – in effect, like dozens of others at the time, you were solicited by the Defense team but it didn’t go any further than that, and if one were to list all your moments of glory, you were also handcuffed on campus centuries ago, does dwelling on the past get us anywhere, no, we need to return to the present.
The night before my departure for France, you called me up. Good evening, it’s Gene Neveva. You offered to drive me to Boston in your car, I must have a lot of luggage, it’ll be better than taking the bus in this heat and besides you have some friends to visit there.
You apologized for the sorry state of your car, empty cookie packages strewn over the upholstery and crumbs on the seats, blanket and parka rolled up into a ball on the back seat, ink-stained class pages stuck under the seats and tracts in the front window. We passed Main Street and the bookstore announcing your appearance the following weekend, such hoopla 40 years after the book’s initial publication, “You’re a celebrity!” You winced, not really, unless being accused by Fox News of “glorifying teen-aged terrorists” is something to brag about. Smith will always be your only fiefdom, you concluded, to which one might add California, for the rest, America has never appreciated questionable territories and you’ve been pointing this out for 40 years.
You indicated the glove compartment overflowing with CDs and were surprised by my choice. Patti Smith, this wasn’t my generation. I responded that “Hey Joe” was one of the soundtracks of my childhood – Violaine’s 33 record that you’d given her – we stopped talking while Patti Smith harangued Tania Hearst.
You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.
You told me about Patricia Hearst’s entrance into the courtroom, hailed by whistling and vociferations, the rows of teenagers standing up brandishing her photo like a weapon, We love you, Tania, we love you. You described Patricia pouring water into her lawyers’ plastic cups as delicately as if she were serving tea. She who might have spent her whole life being served by others.
Her mother clad entirely in black, from her pumps through her purse, in mourning for her ideal daughter. The prosecutor’s opening argument accusing the SLA of being a foreign army at war against the United States. Patricia stammering in front of the jury, moved to tears, that she’d been raped by a member of the SLA. A very short-lived compassion which ended abruptly the moment the prosecutor asked Patricia if the perpetrator might possibly be the same person of whom she’d sketched a loving portrait in a funeral oration, on the last tape. From that point on, the jury had considered her a liar, a manipulator. When in fact both were probably true, as contradictory as this might seem. You confessed your regret that you hadn’t included a chapter expanding on this idea in “Mercy Mary Patty.” The story of a young woman accused of not having said No loudly enough, thus suspected of having given her consent….
You described Patricia’s pallor as the jury entered the courtroom, even before they’d proclaimed the verdict, she’d whispered, “Guilty.” It was so lousy.
The crucial question of whether Patricia had acted of her own free will had been quickly sidelined in favor of an interminable debate of a quasi-religious nature, the taped messages treated like heretical documents. Patricia had not been judged solely for the acts that she’d committed but for having subscribed to the “diabolical” ideology of the SLA, for having denounced a certain America.
As I listened to you I pictured you young and furious, powerless to contradict the simplistic experts from your bench in the audience, yes or no, true or false, good or bad, innocent or guilty. You who’d devoted more than 300 pages to the nuances of irresolute minds, fluctuating identities. In this country, you bitterly concluded while handing me your cigarette so I could light it, we glorify politicians who never change their opinions, it’s even seen as a sign of strength of character, and Patricia had paid the price, she who’d continually responded Maybe, I don’t know, I don’t know any more.
I was expecting you to add that you’d also paid the price, but you slapped yourself on the wrist, We’re not in class Gene, stop!
We decided to make a pit-stop in Springfield, which we took advantage of to buy drinks and ice cream. In the coffee-shop, young African-Americans were huddled in front of a t.v. broadcasting in constant replay the declaration of a state of emergency in Baltimore. The eye-witness testimonies succeeded each other on the screen, a vehement policeman, a woman in tears, a story with the inevitable end: an adolescent body covered in a shroud, asphyxiated, beaten, killed. His feet surpassed the stretcher, the shoelaces of his sneakers half untied, the policeman will plead legitimate defense, he’ll get off. We were less than 10 miles from Smith College, with its glossy brochure vaunting how the school welcomed serious young women of all colors, white, Asian, Black, pictured leaning over books or in lab jackets. A commercial for a fiction in which I loved believing, we expostulated on the equality in the fortress behind the high Victorian gates.
I was talking too fast because time was running out, searching in vain for an angle without finding it, you were focusing on the road, I continued, I loved your course but was disappointed that we hadn’t studied Cinque’s (10) riposte to the FBI official who, several days after the kidnapping, convinced that the SLA was made up entirely of Blacks, had insinuated on t.v. that “the Blacks, these people, we know who they are.” For the first time you seemed disconcerted. Many moons ago, you’d been fired from a pseudo-libertaire (11) French establishment for having read this very discourse to your students, I already knew this but I didn’t say anything. We attempted to recite it from memory, each of us taking over when the other forgot the words.
You know me, you’ve always known me, I’m the hunted and feared Negro, you’ve killed hundreds of my people to find me; but I am no longer he one steals from and assassinates […] oh yes, you know us all and we know you […].
We stopped talking. The closed cockpit of the car warped time, I prayed we’d never get to Boston. The rain had been falling for a while but now it blotted out the atmosphere with horizontal lines, a violent tempest, the first summer storm, forcing us to pull up into a parking lot deserted except for a man and his dog. The animal toddled along in the opposite direction of the stick his owner’d just thrown, he hunted without success and finally resigned himself to coming back limping, embarrassed at having failed at his task, the man stroked his back, the emaciated hind paws of the dog trembled, the young man lifted the animal up into his arms, the dog unable to get into the car by himself, he curled up on the back seat, exhausted. I remembered the disoriented look of an ageing Lenny when he’d hurt himself for the first time after jumping from a wall, out of breath and panic-stricken when Violaine and I had rushed over to him, he’d struggled to his feet like one gets up hurriedly to ward off a threat. Will you come back one day to the Southwest of France, I asked, without looking at you directly.
I didn’t have any handkerchiefs in my purse and neither did you, we didn’t even know where to start as the beginning of the story had already taken place and we hadn’t met, or not exactly, we kept interrupting each other, sorry, we needed to resituate the times, your hands perched on the steering wheel were shaking, how did she pronounce it, VIO-LAI-NE, you never knew, you closed your eyes momentarily, voila. Upon arriving at the airport, I sputtered out that I didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again and that you’d been right the very first day we met, I’d loved Patricia as an image one can never live up to, I hadn’t chosen anything for years, how to fight against what’s ravaging us, what flag of what SLA to raise, do you even have to rally behind a flag and whose side are you on if you’re not completely on Tania’s?
“And at the end of the day, what was in your report?”
You burst out laughing, as if I’d just said something particularly hilarious, we arrived at the international departures building, you locked me briefly in your arms, more of an accolade than a hug, you didn’t have time to wait around, a horde of freshmen to whom you’d given too many books to read – as if such a thing was possible – were no doubt already whining at your door. Then at the ticket counter as we were about to go our separate ways, you asked me if by any chance I had “Mercy Mary Patty” in my purse but it was already stashed away in my suitcase, we hurriedly unpacked it, hunching over in front of the armed security guards, extracting tee-shirts, underwear, skirts and notebooks. You thumbed through the book and ear-marked pages 50 through 65, voila the report, you seized my hand and grasped it between yours, beware of pat stories and I don’t know if Gene Neveva was referring to Patricia Hearst, Violaine, or me.
There’s a certain grace in being among those who seek to connect the dots, who tirelessly keep their ears peeled to discern the voices of centuries of equivocal missing persons, disseminated over elongated spans of time, which have trouble reaching us. You hadn’t saved Patricia Hearst but you’d completed, without fail, your report, which bore little resemblance to a legal brief.
You wrote it for Mercy Short, she is 17 years old in 1690 and has been sequestered in her bedroom for a week. Around her bedside huddle pastors from neighboring villages and boys her own age, 50 bystanders who don’t take their eyes off her, observing what she eats, the way she talks, her dreams that she has to recount down to the most minute details for the small assemblage, monitoring every one of her words, they sing and chant until daybreak, strengthened by being united against the Devil. Mercy must be saved, she’s unrecognizable since she was rescued, without a doubt her kidnapping has left its mark, she has to get her two-cents’ worth in even when nobody asks her opinion, she has no sense of decency, if we let things go on like this before long she’ll be talking to her boss like he’s her cousin. She calls her father a hypocrite after listening to him pray to God. And the way she dresses, the top button of her frock permanently unbuttoned, it’s not proper! We must save Mercy Short’s soul, bring back the Mercy we all know and love, the adorable Mercy, she in whom, concludes the pastor Cotton Mather in the account he consecrates to her, the “faculties are now in complete disarray and who is exhibiting a freedom in her tone of voice that is absolutely extraordinary and in this respect, disturbing.”
You write for Eunice Williams, she who was baptized Marguerite by her adoptive parents, Mohawks, when they converted to Catholicism. Eunice-Marguerite kidnapped in Deerfield on February 28, 1704 by a troop made up of French soldiers and their Indian allies, the Abenaquis and the Mohawks.
Eunice-Marguerite who one day receives a visit from an old man, he stutters, no doubt from the cold, tears flow from his eyes which he dries off with a hand roughened by frostbite, he’s been searching for her for months, he’s scoured all of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She offers him a cup of tea and invites him to sit down on the warmest bearskin rug, covered with woven blankets. He talks a little bit too loud, detaching each of his words as if she can’t understand him. She doesn’t need to call him Sir, he’s her father. The teenager shakes her head, her father is out there, with her mother. She points her finger at a Mohawk couple who wave back, they’re gathering firewood. The reverend raises his voice, clearly not, he’s her father, he never gave up, sure that he would find her, bloodlines are so strong, from the moment he’d been liberated he’d been searching for her without let-up. And now they’re reunited. The nightmare is over, in a few days, the time it takes to get to Deerfield, Eunice will be safe, nothing can ever happen to her again, John Williams swears it, he’ll make sure of it. Then the girl who no longer goes by the name of Eunice shakes her head firmly, flabbergasted. He’s welcome here. He can stay as long as he likes. She’ll present him to her husband. Show him what he built last month, an ingenious construction of tree branches over which they’d stretched a buffalo skin to protect it from storms. He can rest. Eat. But leave with him, to go where? This is her home, here.
A few months later, the reverend returns. On each of his visits, she listens to him patiently like one might listen to someone afflicted by fever, his discourse won’t brook any interruptions, he captures the young woman’s time, assails her with this first name with which he re-baptizes her, Eunice my Eunice, I recognize you all the same. The sole account of Eunice’s choice is the one published by her father in 1707: “The Redeemed Captive,” it inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”
You, you write for Eunice’s descendants who still live in Kahnawake, they tell anyone who asks the story of their grandmother, great-grandmother, great-grand-aunt who refused to be liberated, she was not a prisoner. You write stories without epilogues or revelations, a tightrope walker in the gray zones who looms up when one least expects it, you write a postcard, “Attention: Violaine,” which I receive yesterday, if she consents to budge to Northampton, Violaine will feel right at home in your class, it’s off-limits to adults.
9. In English and French in the original.
10. “Nom de Guerre” of Donald DeFreeze, leader of the SLA.
11. A contemporary French term for non-violent anarchism. I’ve chosen to leave it in the French original here because the most obvious English translations, “anarchist” or “Libertarian,” have respectively more radical and conservative connotations in American English than that intended by the French term.