by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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PARIS — When I was 18 and getting ready to go to Princeton, I was having wet dreams of girls. Now that I’m 58 I find myself drooling over the course descriptions of Old Nassau’s department of Comparative Literature, and the girls I dream of 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?