Exclusive: ‘Trompe-l’oeil’: Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, markets, & critics in Paris in the ’50s, episode 4, translated in English for the first time

Feneon Matisse 22 smallHenri 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.

by & copyright Michel Ragon, 1956, 2019
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

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 paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise RagonEdward 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.”

bucher vieira balletMaria 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.”

VIEIRA10Maria 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 self portrait in straw hatLouise 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?”

Feneon Matisse 23 smallHenri 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.”

“We’ll see….

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.”

Le Feuilleton (the serial), 3: “Trompe-l’œil,” Michel Ragon’s groundbreaking 1956 satire of the contemporary art market (in French and English), Episode 3

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation, or hiring Paul Ben-Itzak to translate your document. Please designate your PayPal donation in dollars or Euros to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.  Click here to read the previous excerpt, and here to read the first.)

Manhès lived in an atelier behind the Montparnasse train station, on a narrow street as muddy in the winter as the Lithuanian ghetto back alley where he was raised. Between the train tracks and the bustling neighborhood around the avenue Maine subsisted a practically rural little island, where automobile and even foot traffic was rare. Little by little this island was being devoured by the expanding dependences of the train station. All that remained were a few hovels, several rows of dilapidated ateliers in which a handful of artists lived in constant fear of expropriation.

Manhès’s atelier, like those of his neighbors, consisted of an entry level with a dirt floor. A dressing-room served as a bedroom. With a very high ceiling that made it impossible to heat during the winter, this room looked more like a storage space than a lodging. The only modern comfort was electric lighting. No water, no gas. A pump in the street provided for all the residents’ needs.

Forty-two years old, Manhès had lived in Paris for 20 years. The war had interrupted his career just at the moment where he was beginning to find his own personal style. From 1940 to 1944 he fought with the Maquis in the forests around Limoges, finishing his service in Germany with General Lattre after receiving three minor wounds. When he returned to Paris, the galleries were already full up and all the comfortable artists’ ateliers had been swept up by the nouvelle riche bourgeoisie.

Before the war, Manhès knew Klee in Germany as well as Kandinsky, whom he frequented when the great abstract art theorist took refuge in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where he died. He came under their influence at first and then, slowly, developed his own style. From the moment he resumed working in 1945, in this sordid atelier where he continued to live, he produced Manhès, that is to say a type of painting which didn’t resemble any other and which, from this very fact, shocked everyone.

The figurative painters and the fans of traditional painting accused him of being abstract, while the abstract painters, as well as their supporters à la Charles Roy, accused him of clinging to an outmoded style of figurative painting. Because a strange form of poetry emanated from Manhès’s art, he was also subject to the dismissive epithet of being “literary.” Numerous younger artists formed a real cult around him, falling under his sway. Bolstered by this following, he could have easily founded his own school, as did Matisse and Léger, but he liked to say that art could not be taught, that the only thing one could pass on to others was cooking recipes; he preferred consecrating his time entirely to his work, which had finally arrived at a level of authority acknowledged by the majority of art aficionados.

Manhès was no longer poor. His contract with Laivit-Canne assured him a very honorable monthly stipend and on top of this, he was allowed to sell on his own whatever paintings his gallery didn’t take. He fantasized about soon being able to buy a decent studio. Acquired by the most important collectors, recognized as one of the leaders of the prevailing art current, he seemed to have finally arrived when his altercation with Laivit-Canne arrived to throw everything up in the air.

Manhès wasn’t particularly worried about the rupture in the contract, but the vexing words of his dealer weighed heavily on his heart. Ancelin, loyal Ancelin, whom he favored among all his disciples and who had become his intimate friend even though ten years separated them, followed him to his studio. It was Manhès who persuaded Laivit-Canne to offer Ancelin a contract. It was in the art dealer’s best interests to support his stars by simultaneously promoting younger painters who’d fallen under their influence.

Invited to Monsieur Mumfy’s soirée, Manhès and Ancelin preferred going to the Sélect on the boulevard Montparnasse, a café which drew the majority of the quartier’s artists, rather than dealing with the uproar in the artistic milieu that Laivit-Canne would surely provoke this evening.

The two friends presented a surprising contrast. Manhès was small and stocky, brunette, with frizzy black hair. A typical bohemian, he wore clothes which always seemed to be second-hand, even if he didn’t lack for money. Ancelin, by contrast, was the typical young man issued from a good French family. Tall, svelte, always wearing an immaculately tailored suit, he also displayed an outgoing, polished, and distinguished visage, whereas Manhès always seemed tense and gruff.

Sitting on the terrace of the Sélect, they were recognized at most of the tables and made a round of handshakes. A young man hailed them from inside the café: Their inseparable companion, the poet and art critic Fontenoy.

Manhès and Ancelin precipitated themselves on him to break the news:

“Guess what? I got into an argument with Lévy. (Manhès always de-Frenchified the name of the dealer in pronouncing it.) He threw me out on the street, but he’ll be sorry. Now I can sell all my own works. I’ll make more than when I was under contract.”

“But what happened?”

“He accused me of not evolving, of making ‘Jewish paintings’ at a time when, according to him, traditional French painting is once again à la mode. What a bunch of bullshit! It’s like those who accuse me of literary painting! I don’t try to make Jewish paintings, or literary paintings, or abstract, or figurative. I paint what I feel, what I am… Anyway I lost it. I shouted back at him that I didn’t want to be a fake, camouflaging my painting like he camouflages his name, and that I don’t like self-hating Jews.

“You know that horrible voice he has,
like an impotent screeching. He started stamping and yelping. His employees came running. In that nasal voice he has he demanded: “Bring me this imbecile’s contract so I can tear it up! I’ll make him croak from hunger!” Poor Lévy, in letting me go he also lets go of a good opportunity to not die of hunger himself! I can live without a dealer, but the dealers can’t live without us.”

“The problem,” said Ancelin, “is that I also have a contract with the dwarf. This puts me in a delicate position.”

“Not at all,” Manhès protested. “Just make out like you’re not au courant. Agree with him if you have to. This doesn’t keep us from being pals. You’re still young. You need him.”

“I must write about this tomorrow in my rag,” Fontenoy piped in.

Fontenoy was an editor at L’artiste, the only newspaper devoted to the fine arts with a considerable readership. He was 30 years old, like Ancelin, but was first and foremost Manhès’s friend. This poet from the Loire Valley had been smitten with Manhès’s painting like one might fall for a girl. He readily proclaimed: “I’ve experienced two great shocks in my life: The first when I discovered at the age of 18 the poetry of Blaise Cendrars, the second at 24 standing in front of the tableaux of Manhès.” He’d tried to capture in his poetry the violent and chaotic art of his great painter, but sifted through his sensibility, Manhès’s images took on another light. They became tame, ordered. It was a miracle that he was able to understand at all the Judeo-Slavic genius of Manhès, so different from his own talent. And yet Fontenoy had written the best studies on Manhès. For that matter he was often accused of being a one-trick pony, only able to talk about Manhès and his followers. Those who gave no credit to the art of Manhès, like Charles Roy, even claimed that Fontenoy was incapable of writing about abstract art. Fontenoy liked to retort with illustrated examples: “Baudelaire really only understood Delacroix, Zola Manet…. Critics who know how to talk about anything and everything are not creators. They write catalogs — useful, no doubt, but never risking their name in championing one over the other. The only time they declare someone a genius is after he’s dead.”

Fontenoy was a petit blonde man, skinny, with blue eyes. He lived in extreme austerity in a furnished hotel room in Montparnasse, his revenue being limited to his articles in L’artiste and several other newspapers and revues, as well as translating and rewriting work when he could get it. All of this was low-paid, for the simple reason that newspaper owners were accustomed to the fact that art critics were corrupted.

When Fontenoy became an editor at L’artiste, the owner told him:

“I can only pay you 1000 francs* for each major article, but by being associated with our newspaper you should be able to quintuple your freelance work. For that matter, I shouldn’t even be paying you at all!”

All too happy to be hired by the major art newspaper, Fontenoy did not protest and did not even ask the owner to elaborate on how exactly he might be able to quintuple his freelance assignments. He simply assumed that the notoriety his collaboration with L’artiste would give him would get him work writing texts for art books and other revenue sources whose existence he did not even suspect. But this work never came and Manhès had to demonstrate to him how naive he was. Just as history loses many of its enigmas when one studies, in parallel, political economy, the rivalries and affinities in the arts world stopped being complex for Fontenoy the day Manhès revealed to him the economic mechanism of the art market.

“How do you think your colleagues manage to eke out a living?” Manhès asked rhetorically. “It’s quite simple: At the end of the week they go by the galleries they champion to pick up a little envelope … which is not always turned over to them that discretely. Some dealers like to ostensibly mount that they pay off their critics, treating them with airs like a boss treats his servant. And the critics dutifully kow-tow to them. When the dealers refuse to give them money, they wheedle out a drawing, a lithograph, which they then go on to sell. I can even cite for you certain critics who are veritable flacks, only writing about the painters they sell. This quasi-generalized corruption perverts all the relationships between painters, art critics, and dealers.”

Following this little talk, Fontenoy became so touchy about the principle of the disinterestedness of the critic that Manhès didn’t dare aid his friend: When he offered him a painting one day, Fontenoy turned beet-red and became extremely uncomfortable:

“Yes, I’d love it… for my room… But then people would say that you’d bought me off. I just can’t.”

Then he tried to make light of it, with a voice that trembled a little all the same:

“Bah! I’d never consider putting a Paolo Ucello in my room! When I want to see his ‘Battle’ again, I just go to the Louvre. When I want to see some Manhès I’ll just go over to his place!”

* * *

Manhès, Ancelin and Fontenoy were talking in hushed tones, in the depths of the Sélect, their elbows flattened out on the table so that their faces drew nearer to each other.

“Isabelle’s going to be worried again,” Manhès said. “She was so happy with this contract. It was almost as if I’d become a civil servant.”

“When does she come back from the country?”

“Tomorrow night. It seems that Moussia has big rosy cheeks.”

During the war, in Limoges, Manhès had married a country girl. This Isabelle was 10 years his junior. With her allure that of a robust country woman, she’d brought a much needed equilibrium into the life of Manhès, who was constantly worrying and fretting. Two years ago they’d had a daughter: Moussia.

Manhès seemed obsessed by his painting. And yet to this passion he’d added, he’d even enveloped into, Isabelle and Moussia. His wife and daughter had become indispensable to his art. Ever since they’d been taking the air of Spring in the country, Manhès hadn’t touched a single paintbrush. In general sober, he drank when his wife was away, felt lost, abandoned. In fact he’d been a little drunk when he’d had his altercation with Laivit-Canne.

“I want them to be there,” Manhès said. “I should have gone with them. But the countryside bores me to death.”

“And yet it would do you some good, the country,” Ancelin suggested. “The only time you leave your studio is to bunker down in a café, a movie theater, a galerie. You end up completely intoxicating yourself.”

Manhès began fidgeting.

“I don’t need to paint from nature. Nature has nothing to teach me. I transport my world with me wherever I am. If I’d remained holed up in a cave my whole life, I’d still paint what I paint.”

“We’re not talking about your painting,” Fontenoy joined in, “but your health. You’re getting anemic from staying locked up in one locale or another, always under electric lighting. Look at yourself in a mirror… you’re so white!”

Manhès lifted his head towards the café’s wall mirror. He got worried seeing his visage:

“It’s true that I am looking rather pale at that!”

Then he laughed.

“In the beginning of the Occupation, the Germans organized an anti-Semitic exhibition. I went to check it out incognito. Among the multiple pieces of evidence was a photograph of the ugliest Jew in the world. I recognized myself.”

Ancelin and Fontenoy weren’t crazy to hear Manhès joking about this subject. Ever since the German Occupation, like all anti-racists, they got embarrassed whenever the subject of Jews came up. The word itself was difficult to say. All it took was a slight alteration in intonation to make “Jew” sound like an insult. Some people didn’t even dare employ the term, substituting the word “Israélite.” But Jews never referred to themselves as “Israelites,” except for self-hating Jews like Laivit-Canne. A gentile who used the term “Israélite” seemed to have a guilty conscience.

The more it made his friends uncomfortable, the more Manhès fell back with a certain sadism on this brand of Jewish humor which delighted in making fun of itself.

Ancelin changed the subject back to painting:

“It appears that old man Mumfy bought three Wols and two Reichels?”

“Not that surprising,” Fontenoy explained, “they resemble Klee. Klee, forever Klee, he can’t see anything outside of Klee!”

Manhès appeared disgruntled.

“He’s all the same given me my own wall. And he’s also bought an Ancelin.”

“Yes yes,” resumed Fontenoy. “Because he doesn’t want to miss out on what might be the next best thing. But he’d betray you in an instant for some Vieira da Silvas.”

Manhès called out to a diminutive Mediterranean character who’d just peeked into the café:

“Hey, Atlan!”

Atlan joined them at their table. He was a night owl, like all of them, but he broke all the records. He emerged to make his rounds at the very hour the cafés started closing, latched on to some stragglers, and didn’t return to his studio until three or four in the morning. A member of the tribe with Manhès, only Algerian rather than Slavic, he was the only painter of his generation that Manhès held in high esteem. Not because of their shared origins, but because their pictorial explorations were oriented in the same direction. Atlan was just as inclassable as Manhès, with an equally independent spirit. A non-figurative painter, he was influenced by Africa in the same way Manhès was influenced by Slavic folklore. Fontenoy had an equal passion for the art of Atlan. But Ancelin didn’t share his two friends’ opinion. His problem with Atlan was his “recipe,” that is to say that he mixed oil with pastel and crayon.

“That’s ridiculous,” Fontenoy told him. “Do you blame the primitives for having used plaster to set the aureoles of their saints in relief, or for encasing precious stones in their kings’ crowns? Do you blame Degas for having — he as well — mixed pastel with his oils, or Braque for having sprinkled sand in some of his paintings?”

Ancelin became obstinate:

“Yes in fact, I’m against all of that.”

When it came to Atlan, Ancelin was biased, to such a degree that he resembled Charles Roy. During the whole time that Atlan remained at their table, the young painter didn’t utter a word. Manhès told Atlan about his adventure with Laivit-Canne.

“Consider yourself lucky,” Atlan assured him. “Ever since I ended my contract with Maeght, my position has only solidified. You’ll see, the art aficionados will start rolling into your atelier.”

Atlan precipitously took off so he could catch up with the playwright Arthur Adamov, who was passing by on the boulevard. Shortly afterwards, the Sélect manager came to tell them that he needed to close.

They continued talking late into the night, pacing back and forth on the boulevard Montparnasse. The milkmen’s vans and the trucks from Les Halles wholesale market drove past in a thundering of iron. They finally separated regretfully, their heads heavy and their eyes brilliant.

*The equivalent of 10 “new francs” or, in 1956, about $2.

Version originale
par et copyright Michel Ragon

Manhès habitait un atelier derrière la gare Montparnasse, dans une ruelle aussi boueuse l’hiver que la venelle du ghetto lithuanien où il était né. Entre les lignes de chemin de fer et le quartier mouvementé en lisière de l’avenue Maine, se trouvait un petit ilot presque champêtre, en dehors du circuit habituel des voitures, où personne ne passait. Cet ilot était dévoré peu à peu par les agrandissements des dépendances de la gare. Il ne restait plus que quelques masures, quelques rangées d’ateliers en ruines, dans lesquels quelques artistes vivaient dans la crainte de l’expropriation.

L’atelier de Manhès, comme celui de ses voisins, consistait en un rez-de-chaussée au sol de terre battue. Une loggia servait de chambre à coucher. Très haute de plafond, donc presque impossible à chauffer l’hiver, cette pièce ressemblait plus à un débaras qu’à un logement. Le seul confort tenait dans l’éclairage électrique. Ni eau, ni gaz. Dans la ruelle, une pompe servait pour la collectivité.

Manhès, âgé de quarante ans, était Parisien depuis vingt ans. La guerre interrompit sa carrière de peintre au moment où il commençait à trouver son style. De 1940 à 1944, il servit dans les maquis du Limousin et termina son équipée en Allemagne, dans l’armée de Lattre, avec trois blessures sans gravité. Lorsqu’il revint à Paris, les galeries avaient fait leur plein de peintres et les ateliers d’artistes confortables étaient tous habités par des bourgeois nouveaux riches.

Avant la guerre, Manhès connut Klee in Allemagne, ainsi que Kandinsky qu’il fréquenta lorsque le grand théoricien de l’art abstrait vint se refugier et mourir à Neuilly. Il subit leur influence puis, lentement, dégagea son style propre. Dès qu’il se remit au travail, en 45, dans cet atelier sordide qu’il habitait toujours, il fit du Manhès, c’est-a-dire une peinture qui ne ressemblait à nulle autre et qui, de ce fait, choqua tout le monde.

Les peintres figuratifs et les amateurs de peinture traditionnelle lui reprochaient d’être abstrait et les peintres abstraits, ainsi que leurs supporters du genre Charles Roy, l’accusaient de se raccrocher à une figuration désuète. Comme une étrange poésie irradiait de l’art de Manhès, on lui accolait aussi l’épithète dédaigneuse de « littéraire ».

Quoi qu’il en soit, l’art de Manhès était trop personnel, trop nouveau aussi, pour passer inaperçu. De nombreux jeunes artistes lui vouaient un véritable culte et subissaient son influence. Il eût pu, en leur compagnie, fonder une Ecole, comme le firent Matisse ou Léger, mais il avait l’habitude de dire que l’art ne s’enseigne pas, au l’on ne peut donner aux autres que des recettes de cuisine; Il préférait se consacrer entièrement à son oeuvre, arrivée actuellement à une maturité que la plupart des amateurs lui reconnaissaient.

Manhès n’était plus pauvre. Son contrat avec Laivit-Canne lui assurait une mensualité très honorable et il avait, de plus, la faculté de vendre par lui-même les peintures que sa galerie ne lui prenait pas en premier choix. Il songeait à acheter bientôt un atelier confortable. Entré dans les meilleures collections, reconnu comme l’un des chefs de file de l’art actuel, il semblait avoir gagné la partie quand son altercation avec Laivit-Canne remit tout en question.

Manhès ne s’inquiétait pas de cette rupture de contrat, mais les paroles vexantes de son marchand lui restaient sur le coeur. Ancelin, son fidèle Ancelin, celui qu’il préférait parmi ses disciples et qui était devenu son ami intime bien que dix ans les séparaient, l’avait suivit à son atelier. C’était Manhès qui avait fait prendre Ancelin sous contrat par Laivit-Canne. Celui-ci avait d’ailleurs intérêt à soutenir ses vedettes en montrant des jeunes peintres qui subissaient leur influence.

Invités à la soirée de Monsieur Michaud, Manhès et Ancelin préférèrent aller au Sélect, boulevard Montparnasse, un café où se retrouvaient la plupart des artistes du quartier, plutôt que d’affronter la meute du milieu artistique que Laivit-Canne allait exciter dès ce soir.

Les deux amis formaient un contraste étonnant. Manhès était petit, trapu, brun, avec des cheveux noirs frisés. Très bohème, il portait des vêtements qui paraissaient toujours misérables bien qu’il ne manquait pas d’argent. Par contre, Ancelin était le type même du jeune homme de bonne famille française. Grand, svelte, toujours vêtu de complete de bonne coupe, il montrait aussi un visage avenant, poli et distingué, alors que Manhès paraissait toujours crispé et bourru.

A la terrasse du Sélect, ils furent reconnus à la plupart des tables et firent une tournée de poignées de mains. Un jeune homme les appela de l’intérieur du café : C’était leur inséparable compagnon, un poète et critique d’art : Fontenoy.

Manhès et Ancelin se précipitèrent pour lui raconter la nouvelle :

— Tu sais, je me suis engueulé avec Lévy. (Manhès défrancisait le nom du marchand en le prononçant.) Il m’a fichu à la porte, mais il le regrettera. Je vais disposer de toute ma production. Je gagnerai plus qu’avec son contrat.

— Mais qu’est-ce qui s’est passé ?

— Il me reprochait de ne pas évoluer, de faire une peinture juive alors que, paraît-il, la mode revient à une peinture de tradition française. Des conneries ! C’est comme ceux qui me reprochent de faire une peinture littéraire ! Est-ce que je cherche à peindre juif, ou littéraire, ou abstrait, ou figuratif ? Je peins ce que je sens, ce que je suis…. Alors je me suis emporté. Je lui ai lancé en pleine figure que je ne voulais pas être un faussaire, camoufler ma peinture comme il camouflait son nom et que je n’aimais pas les juifs honteux….

« Tu connais son horrible voix grêle d’impuissant ! Il s’est mis à trépigner, à glapir. Ses employés sont accourus. Il nasillait : apportez-moi le contrat de cet imbécile que je le déchire ! Je le ferai crever de faim ! Pauvre Lévy, en lâchant ma peinture, il lâche une bonne occasion de ne pas crever de faim ! Moi je peux vivre sans marchand, mais les marchands ne peuvent pas vivre sans nous. »

— Ce qui m’embête, dit Ancelin, c’est que j’ai un contrat chez le nabot. Ça me met dans une situation délicate.

— Mais non, protesta Manhès, fait celui qui n’est au courant de rien, approuve Lévy s’il le faut. Ça ne nous empéche pas d’être copains. Toi tu es encore jeune. Tu as besoin de lui.

— Il faudra que je parle de ça demain dans le canard, dit Fontenoy.

Fontenoy était rédacteur à L’Artiste, le seul journal consacré aux beaux-arts qui atteignait un assez vaste public. Il avait trente ans, comme Ancelin, mais il était surtout l’ami de Manhès. Ce poète du Val-de-Loire s’était épris de la peinture de Manhès de la même manière qu’il eût pu s’amouracher d’une fille. Il disait volontiers : « J’ai ressenti deux grands chocs, dans ma vie : le premier en découvrant à dix-huit ans la poésie de Cendrars, le second à vingt-quatre ans devant les tableaux de Manhès. » Il avait essayé de traduire en poésie l’art violent et chaotique de son grand peintre, mais passées à travers lui, les images de Manhès prenaient un autre éclairage. Elles s’adoucissaient, s’ordonnaient. C’était miracle qu’il pût comprendre le génie judéo-slave de Manhès, si éloigné de son talent. Pourtant, Fontenoy avait écrit les meilleures études sur Manhès. On lui reprochait souvent, d’ailleurs, d’être un critique d’art trop limité et de ne savoir parler que de Manhès et de ses suiveurs. Ceux qui n’accordaient aucun crédit à l’art de Manhès, comme Charles Roy, disaient même que Fontenoy était incapable d’écrire sur l’art abstrait. Fontenoy s’en défendait par des exemples illustres : « Baudelaire n’a vraiment bien compris que Delacroix, Zola n’a vraiment bien compris que Manet… Les critiques qui savent parler de tout et de rien ne sont pas des créateurs. Ils établissent des catalogues, utiles sans doute, mais ne risquent jamais leur nom en optant pour quelques-uns. Ils ne donnent du génie qu’aux morts. »

Fontenoy était un petit blond, mince, aux yeux bleus. Il vivait très pauvrement dans une chambre d’hôtel meublé de Montparnasse, n’ayant pour tout revenu que ses articles à L’Artiste et dans quelques autres journaux et revues, ainsi que des travaux de traduction et de rewriting. Tout cela mal payé, pour la raison fort simple que les directeurs de journaux étaient habitués à ce que les critiques d’art fussent corrompus.

Lorsque Fontenoy devint rédacteur à L’Artiste, le directeur lui dit :

— Je ne peux vous payer chaque article important que mille francs, mais vous devez, en étant attaché au journal, quintupler vos piges. Je devrais même ne pas vous payer du tout !

Trop heureux d’être accueilli dans le grand journal des arts, Fontenoy ne protesta pas et ne demanda même aucun éclaircissement sur la manière de quintupler ses appointements. Il pensa simplement que la notoriété qui lui serait donnée par sa collaboration à L’Artiste lui apporterait des commandes de textes pour des livres d’art et d’autres sources de revenus dont il ne soupçonnait pas l’existence. Mais ces commandes ne vinrent jamais et Manhès lui démontra à quel point il était naïf. Tout comme l’Histoire perd beaucoup de ses énigmes lorsque l’on étudie parallèlement à elle l’économie politique, les rivalités et les affinités dans le monde des arts cessèrent d’être complexes pour Fontenoy le jour où Manhès lui révéla le mécanisme économique du marché de la peinture.

Comment vivent tes collègues, lui dit Manhès ? Mais ils passent tout bonnement à la fin de chaque semaine, dans les galeries qu’ils soutiennent, chercher une enveloppe qui ne leur est pas toujours remise très discrètement. Certains marchands montrent ostensiblement qu’ils payent leurs critiques, traitant ceux-ci de haut, de patron à domestique. Et les critiques baissent l’échine. Lorsqu’on leur refuse de l’argent, ils mendigotent un dessin, un litho, qu’ils revendent ensuite. Je pourrais même te citer des critiques qui sont de véritables agents de publicité, n’écrivant que sur les peintres qu’ils vendent. Cette corruption quasi généralisée fausse tous les rapports entre peintres, critique d’art et marchands.

A la suite de cette conversation, Fontenoy devint si chatouilleux sur le principe du désintéressement du critique que Manhès n’osait aider son ami: Lui ayant offert un jour une peinture, Fontenoy avait rougi, s’était troublé :

— Oui, j’aimerais beaucoup… pour ma chambre… Mais alors on dira que tu m’achètes… Je ne peux pas.

Puis il s’était mis à plaisanter, avec une voix qui tremblait un peu :

— Bah ! Il ne me viendrait pas à l’idée de désirer mettre dans ma chambre un Paolo Uccello ! Lorsque j’ai envie de revoir sa Bataille, je vais au Louvre. Lorsque j’ai envie de voir des Manhès je vais chez lui !

* * *

Manhès, Ancelin et Fontenoy discutaient à mi-voix, au fond du Sélect, les coudes à plat sur la table pour mieux rapprocher leurs visages.

— Isabelle va encore s’inquiéter, dit Manhès. Elle qui était si heureuse de ce contrat. C’st un peu comme si j’était devenu fonctionnaire.

— Quand revient-elle de la campagne ?

— Demain soir. Il paraît que Moussia a de grosses joues roses.

Manhès avait épousé pendant la guerre, en Limousin, une fille du pays. Cette Isabelle comptait dix ans de moins que son mari. Avec son allure de robuste paysanne, elle aidait beaucoup à l’équilibre de Manhès, toujours inquiet, angoissé. Depuis deux ans ils avaient une fille : Moussia.

Manhès semblait dévoré par sa peinture. Pourtant, à cette passion il ajoutait, il englobait même, Isabelle et Moussia. Sa femme et sa fille étaient devenues indispensables pour sa peinture. Depuis qu’elles prenaient l’air du printemps à la campagne, Manhès n’avait pas touché un pinceau. En général sobre, il buvait lorsque sa femme s’absentait, se sentant perdu, abandonné. Il était d’ailleurs sans doute un peu ivre lorsqu’il eut son altercation avec Laivit-Canne.

— Je voudrais qu’elles soient là, dit Manhès. J’aurais dû les accompagner. Mais la campagne m’ennuie.

— Ça te ferait pourtant du bien, la campagne, dit Ancelin. Tu ne sors de ton atelier que pour t’enfermer dans un café, dans un cinéma, dans une galerie. Tu arrives à t’intoxiquer complétement.

Manhès eut un geste d’agacement :

— Je n’ai pas besoin d’aller sur le motif. La nature ne m’apprend rien. Je transporte partout mon monde avec moi. SI j’étais resté toute ma vie enfermé dans une cave, je peindrais ce que je peins.

— Ce n’est pas pour ta peinture, que nous parlons, essaya de le raisonner Fontenoy, mais pour ta santé. Tu t’anémies à rester enfermé d’un local dans un autre, toujours à la lumière électrique. Regarde-toi dans la glace… tu es d’une pâleur !

Manhès haussa la tête vers la glace murale du café. Il devint soucieux en voyant son visage :

— C’est vrai que j’ai une sale gueule !

Puis il se mit à rire :

— Au début de l’Occupation, les Allemands organisèrent une exposition antisémite. J’y suis allé incognito. Parmi de multiples pièces à conviction, il y avait une photo du Juif le plus laid du monde. Je me suis reconnu.

Ancelin et Fontenoy n’aimaient guère que Manhès plaisantât sur ce sujet. Depuis l’Occupation allemande, comme tous les antiracistes, ils éprouvaient une gêne lorsqu’il était question des Juifs. Ce mot lui-même était difficile à prononcer. Il suffisait d’une toute petite intonation pour qu’il parût injurieux. Certains n’osaient même pas le dire et employaient à la place le mot Israélite. Mais les Juifs ne s’appellent jamais Israélites entre eux, à l’exception des Juifs honteux comme Laivit-Canne. Un Aryen qui dit Israélite n’a pas l’air d’avoir bonne conscience.

Autant ses amis semblaient gênés, autant Manhès appuyait avec un certain sadisme sur cet humour juif qui se rit de lui-même.

Ancelin détourna la conversation en revenant à la peinture :

— Il paraît que le père Michaud a acheté trois Wols et deux Reichel ?

— Pas étonnant, dit Fontenoy, ça ressemble à Klee. Klee, toujours Klee, il ne voit rien en dehors de ça !

Manhès parut mécontent :

— Il m’a quand même donné un mur. Et il a aussi acheté un Ancelin.

— Oui, oui, reprit Fontenoy…. Parce qu’il a peur de manquer une affaire. Mais il vous trahirait sans hésiter pour des Vieira da Silva.

Manhès appela un petit homme de type méditerranéen qui jetait un coup d’oeil dans le café :

— Hé ! Atlan !

Atlan vint s’asseoir à leur table. C’était un noctambule, comme eux tous, mais lui battait les records. Il sortait faire un tour à l’heure où les cafés fermaient, s’accrochait à quelques retardataires et ne retournait dans son atelier que vers trois ou quatre heures du matin. Coreligionnaire de Manhès, mais Algérien et non pas Slave, il était le seul peintre de sa génération que Manhès tint en haute estime. Non pas à cause de leurs origines communes, mais parce qu’ils orientaient leurs recherches picturales dans un même sens. Atlan était aussi inclassable que Manhès et d’un esprit aussi indépendant. Peintre non-figuratif, l’Afrique influençait son art comme le folklore slave celui de Manhès. Fontenoy aimait également l’art d’Atlan. Mais Ancelin ne partageait pas l’opinion de ses deux amis: Il reprochait à Atlan sa « cuisine », c’est-à-dire de mélanger à l’huile du pastel et de la craie.

— C’est ridicule, lui disait Fontenoy. Est-ce que tu blâmes les primitifs d’avoir utilisé le plâtre pour donner du relief aux auréoles de leurs saints, ou d’avoir enchâssé des pierres précieuses dans les couronnes de leurs rois ? Est-ce que tu blâme Degas d’avoir, lui aussi, mélangé du pastel à ses huiles ou Braque d’avoir saupoudré de sable certaines de ses peintures.

Ancelin s’obstinait :

— Oui, oui, je suis contre tout ça.

Lorsqu’il était question d’Atlan, Ancelin devenait de parti pris, à un tel point qu’il rappelait alors Charles Roy. Pendant tout le temps qu’Atlan resta à leur table, le jeune peintre ne dit pas un mot. Manhès raconta à Atlan son aventure avec Laivit-Canne.

— Estime-toi heureux, lui dit Atlan. Depuis que, moi aussi, j’ai rompu mon contrat avec Maeght, ma position n’a fait que s’affirmir. Tu vas voir, les amateurs vont rappliquer chez toi.

Atlan les quitta précipitamment pour rattraper le dramaturge Arthur Adamov qui passait sur le boulevard. Peu après, le gérant du Sélect vint les avertir qu’il se voyait dans l’obligation de fermer.

Ils continuèrent encore à discuter, en faisant les cent pas sur le boulevard Montparnasse. Les voitures des laitiers et les camions des halles passaient dans un vacarme de ferraille. Ils se séparèrent à regret, la tête lourde et les yeux brilliant.
Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.

Lutèce Diary, 33: Literary dreams or, why am I better at negotiating prices for old books than negotiating life?

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 paulbenitzak@gmail.com , 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 artsvoyager@gmail.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?

The Lutèce Diaries (a Post-modern American in Paris), 23: C’est ça, la France, or, is the Muslim the new Jew?

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PANTIN (Seine-Saint-Denis), France — A month ago I found myself in a confrontation with Islamophobia as only Islamophobics on the Left are capable of producing it. To explain why they had a problem with Muslim women covering their bodies, their heads, or even their hair, two otherwise presumably cultured and intelligent people (she’s an independent publisher) I’d invited into my home offered the contradictory justifications that a) France is a lay country and b) France is a country with a Judeo-Christian tradition. The woman would later tell me that she found the simple head covering “monstrous.” This is a sort of colonialistic-paternalistic brand of feminism (whose primary theorist is Elisabeth Badinter) that assumes that if a woman mounts her faith with her wardrobe, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so. In other words, she’s too stupid to think for herself, and it’s up to liberal white feminists to think for her and save her from her backward customs. (No one seems to have the same problem or make the same assumption when it comes to Hasidic women wearing tacky wigs.) Some of them see such garb as a threat to the French Republic, presumably because in their view it’s the first step to sharia law and thus dictatorship. After I politely asked the couple to leave, the man revealed what it was really about, coming out with the equivalent of “They don’t dress like us, they’re in our country, they need to conform” or basically hide their religion — which is not what the lay principal in France is about.

I think it was this confrontation that finally clarified for me why Islamophobia — which is often just a disguise for Arabophobia — bothers me so much. Part of it is the hypocrisy; for people like this, France is only a lay country when it comes to Muslims. But I’ve realized that it’s also because in the way they’re singled out by some, and because it’s no longer acceptable (and rightly so), to criticize and ostracize what used to be referred to here as “Israelites,” for many in France Muslims are today’s Jew. They don’t dress like us. They don’t worship like us. (My guest had even defended himself by saying, “Some of my best friends are Muslims.”) This racism or if you prefer prejudice has tangible effects on the Muslim and Arab populations. Testing by SOS Racisme and others has consistently shown that a job applicant with an Arab-sounding name is less likely to be hired than someone with a more “French”-sounding name of equal or lesser qualifications.

Outside my window right now, at the other end of the side street it looks out on, lined principally with two to three story stone and red brick buildings, I see a group of men clustered on the corner, some in gowns and wearing skull caps. The only indications that the low building in front of which they’re congregating is a mosque is the “Vigi-pirate” sign on the window and the mirror above it which lets those inside see who’s coming in. It’s like they have to be ashamed of their religion. In France. As I crossed the corner coming home this noontime, several men were taking off their shoes and entering.

Unlike the Jewish school in Belleville which I walked past on a gallery ramble last night, there are no high barriers around the mosque. Unlike the early 19th century Portuguese synagogue in my old neighborhood in Paris’s 10th arrondissement, there’s no police guard.

Before picking up groceries for lunch today, feeling sorry for myself (because most of you don’t want to pay for this) I’d walked down to the Ourcq canal, which leads to the Canal St.-Martin, which feeds into the Seine. From the other side of the water I heard what sounded like bagpipes and drums. Crossing the bridge, I saw it was a wedding party emerging from the city hall of Pantin (which borders Northeastern Paris). From the dress of the musicians, I realized it was an Algerian-style wedding party. (To get an idea of what the music sounded like, check Gérard Krémer’s field recording here.  The bride and some of the guests had their heads covered. Some wore full-length gowns. Others did not. (The bride wore a white wedding gown.) A group of men was clapping hands and dancing around the musicians. A few younger girls were also dancing. Several of us watched the celebration from the other side of the grill, including a woman about my age with curly red hair next to me who kept proclaiming “C’est beau.” At one point half a dozen young men and women took trays filled with petites-fours and bottled water into which a slice of orange had been inserted from the back of the car blocking the entrance and began circulating the refreshments amongst the guests. One young man reached through the grill to offer a petite-four to a babushka guarding a stroller.

Regarding the couple, their families, the musicians, the dancing, and the petites-fours, I looked up at the arch under which the wedding party was standing and saw the “RF,” Republique Française. And thought: “C’est ca, la France.” Et c’est pas de tout monstrueux. Ca qui est monstrueux c’est que certains gens ne comprendre pas le devis de leur propre pays. And it’s not monstrous at all. What’s monstrous is that some people who consider themselves good French people don’t understand the guiding principals of their own country.

The Lutèce Diaries, 18: How I rescued 2000 years of Eastern & Western Philosophy from a toilet at the Luxembourg Gardens, learned that my shit doesn’t stink as bad as all that, and didn’t resolve the latest Jewish and Muslim questions dogging France

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. To read this article entirely in French or any other language, just click the translation button at the right.)

PARIS — Ever think someone is trying to send you signs? From Plato, Confucius, and Krishna ambushing me in a Luxembourg Garden ‘sanitaire’ to accordionists hounding me across the Left Bank to Albert Camus and Maria Casarès winking at me from a balcony on the rue Vaugirard, from busty marble goddesses having coffee with me at the Delacroix Fountain in the Luxembourg to collaged porn queen sirens in St.-Germain-des-Pres beckoning me to call them on a communication system which no longer exists (the Minitel, France’s Internet avant l’heure), from being snobbed by Germanopretan art gallery interns to welcomed by Ile de France artists on the rue Francis Picabia in Belleville, from trying not to knock knees with a supercalifragelosis architect’s assistant on the Metro to learning that, echoing a similar tendency in the United States — so I’m not picking on France here —  if a new law passes France will officially no longer distinguish between anti-Zionism an anti-Semitism (which makes me, what, a Jewish anti-Semite?), from trying to decipher “Botoxed” feminine incarnations of Henry Darger’s Vivienne Girls to learning that my shit doesn’t stink too as badly as all that, yesterday  like the days that preceded it was as replete with signs as any I’ve had here  this past month and a half. To read the rest of the story on The Paris Tribune, click here.

War of the Worldviews: We have met the Martians, and they are us

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

In memory of Bill Clark and of Eileen Darby, whose counsel couldn’t be more relevant today: “Vote Party.”

WEST WINDSOR, New Jersey — Unlike the pre-Halloween, pre-Election fear and division extremist Right-wing hate groups have been attempting to sow in the United States in recent weeks and months, goaded on by President Trump, when the Martians ‘landed’ in this then-rural suburb of Princeton 80 years ago this week, it was an accident.

“Orson put on a blindfold and threw a dart at a map of the United States,” Howard Koch, who co-wrote the adaptation of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” with Orson Welles for the Mercury Theater of the Air, told me when I interviewed him for the New York Times in 1983 for the 45th anniversary of the October 30, 1938 Hindenburg-style, You Are There format CBS Radio performance of the imagined invasion of pods from the Red Planet and their subsequent anihilation of most of the world’s population, which set off a nationwide panic. In the broadcast, the first pod is spotted on a farm in this Princeton suburb.

Sheldon Judson, then a junior at Princeton and a stringer for the Associated Press (and later to head the university’s Geology department), told me he got a call from his editors “asking me to drive out to West Windsor to investigate.” If the difference between this long-ago (and unintended) fake news and the fake fears being deliberately stoked by Donald Trump and his minions is that Welles was not intentionally trying to sow panic — curtain-raiser and intermission announcements informed listeners they were hearing a dramatic broadcast — the similarity is that both exploited public paranoia. In Welles’s case, it was probably this grand showman’s native instinct to tap into real fears generated by Hitler’s advances in Europe and Japanese grumbling in the Pacific for maximum dramatic impact. Even if he’d chosen the location for the Martian landing at random, the timing was no accident.

The difference between the Martians Welles had debark in New Jersey and the fanatics Right-wing hate-speech and fear-mongering around the Other may have inspired to send suspected bombs to Democratic leaders and other liberal figures, kill 11 Jewish-Americans, and wound several police officers is that unlike the two alleged perpetrators, Welles didn’t mean to hurt anybody.

These perpetrators not only meant to sow panic and, in the case of Robert Bowers if he’s convicted of the Pittsburgh slaughter, kill, but were apparently also motivated, at least in Bowers’s case, by fear of a people who have become today’s fake Martians, or Bogeymen: Refugees and migrants.

For lost in some of the coverage, at least internationally, of the Squirrel Hill massacre is that it wasn’t just targeting Jews, but supporters of refugees. In his last Internet post before he allegedly launched his murderous attack, Bowers, writing on right-wing social media, expressed his ire with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society over what he called its efforts to help “bring invaders in that kill our people.”

So — to paraphrase Welles’s reassuring closing of 80 years ago in the opposite sense — if you hear someone tweeting on your portal, those were no Immigrants; it’s election time.