Billie Holiday, Pieuvre: When Mr. Vian grasped Madame Day with all 8 arms

by and copyright Boris Vian
Translation and introduction copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Given that Boris Vian, born 100 years ago this month, loved words like he loved music, often investing them with the same unbridled ribaldry with which he infused his coronet as every breath he pumped into the instrument in the caves of Saint-Germain des Près brought him closer to his pre-ordained final hour — Vian’s heart ultimately exploded when he was 39 — and applied the same playfulness and musicality to vernacular(s) as he applied to musical phrasing and songwriting, presuming to translate Vian in all his rhythms would be like trying to translate the seductive tones of Yves Montand or the joy in the voice of Charles Trenet; it can’t be done. (And as in many cases — the B-movie take-off sketches that comprise “Cinémassacre” or the American-style crime novels often written under the pen name of Vernon Sullivan — Vian himself is spoofing American vernacular, argot, and styles, translating him back into American inevitably ends up sounding flat because the humour gets lost in what is actually a kind of reverse-translation. Yes, Vian also earned his living as a translator.) Our English version of this Vian homage to Billie Holiday (citations at the end), on the announcement of her long-awaited French debut in 1954,  thus makes no pretense of being able to convey what Vian sounded like, reproduce the flavor of his expression, or mirror his masterful wordplay. What we do hope to reflect is the ardent devotion to jazz of this — of *the* — quintessential French lover (and promoter — he was the first to bring the Duke here) of this quintessentially American art form.  And to its First Lady — Lady Day. — PB-I

Take it away — and bring it home — Boris:

Billie Holiday is finally coming to France. We’ve been waiting for her for so long that it doesn’t seem real — we don’t believe it…. Happily, the years haven’t changed an iota of her talent; in this way she’s like a good wine which only gets better, if that were possible. It seems that the only thing which has changed is her silhouette, and that she now presents agreeable curves perfectly invisible in the photographs of the young Billie of ’37 or ’38. My goodness, there’s nothing displeasing about this to us, the sexual fanatics of France — and Billie is still far from achieving the volume of the Peter Sisters which themselves didn’t shock anyone chez nous (they even found themselves husbands).

You either like or don’t like Billie Holiday’s voice, but when you like it, you like it like you like a poison. She’s not the singer who flattens you right away with the big irreparable shock from which you never recover. Billie’s voice, a kind of insinuating philtre, *surprises* the first time you hear it. The voice of a provocative cat, with audacious inflections, it strikes you with its flexibility, its animal suppleness — a cat with its claws retained, the eyes half-closed — or to evoke an extremely more brilliant analogy, an octopus. Billie sings like an octopus. At first this is not always reassuring, but when she grabs you, she grabs you with all eight arms. And she doesn’t let go. (For that matter, there’s no animal more playful and caressing than the octopus, as witnessed by the films of Cousteau, the under-water explorer.)

It would be vain enough to study Billie’s vocal style — this kind of study is generally based on a comparison with standards the reader is supposedly familiar with, but this doesn’t work with Madame Day: in truth, she can’t be compared to any other chanteuse, even if it’s just a matter of her characteristically slightly “horsey” voice. Billie may have her imitators — she doesn’t imitate anyone. Wait a minute; did I just say she has imitators? I was wrong. It really seems that no one’s ever dared. There’s something ironic in her way of singing — an irony which transforms itself into toughness in the most emotional moments — which eliminates any sentimental or vulgar elements from her recordings. Who else could sing that great banality that is “No Greater Love” with such intonations? Flat in itself, the song becomes something provocative in Billie’s mouth — and if the American critics at this particular moment are slobbering over the “sexuality” in the charming Eartha Kitt’s interpretations, they’ve forgotten that Billie preceded her on the path of the double-entendre — these suggested by purely vocal and not verbal methods.

Billie Holiday has been reproached for her “sophisticated” side. One has to ask: Where’s the problem? One might just as well reproach Lester [Young] for having a different personality than [Erskine] Hawkins; it’s a known fact that in 1934, the epoch when the reign of the great Bessie had only just come to an end, Billie’s unexpected style was as surprising as Lester’s — and the choice of this comparison is no accident. She carved out a niche as distinct from the rest of the crowd of singers as, later on, Sarah Vaughan would in her turn. And the achievement was all the more meritorious in that Billie never had the vocal gifts of a Sarah, an Ella, an Ivie Anderson. But she knew how to mitigate this deficit with an acute intelligence about its possibilities, an exceptional sense of jazz, and an originality which sufficed, in this time of plagiarization where one can no longer tell one musician from his cousin or his brother, to earn her our homages. Which homages we offer in assuring her that it is with an unmitigated joy that we await hearing her, in flesh, in bones, and in voice.

— Excerpted from Boris Vian’s February 1954 jazz press review in Jazz Hot, collected in Boris Vian, “Chroniques de Jazz,” copyright 1967, Editions La Jeune Parque, compiled by Lucien Malson at the direction of Ursula Kübler Vian, Vian’s widow.

“Je voudrais pas crever” / “I don’t wanna die” par / by Boris Vian (en v.o. & English translation)

ruth nasturtiumsFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Ruth Asawa, “Nasturtiums.” 1965, lithograph. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

by and copyright Boris Vian
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(V.O. Français âpres l’avant-propos. English translation follows the introduction and the French original. From “Je voudrais pas crever” by Boris Vian, version copyright Jean-Jacques Prevert, 1962.)

Born 100 years ago this month, Boris Vian died of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of 39, while watching a preview of the film version of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves.” Warned for years of the risk to his feeble heart, Vian continued blowing it out in his trumpet in the caves of Saint-Germain des Près, as well as writing novels, plays, poetry, and songs and critiquing and promoting jazz. Translation dedicated to the memory of Randy Shilts, who decided not to get tested for the AIDS virus until he’d completed his book on the pandemic, “And the band played on,” his journalistic objectivity being more important to him than his life. Shilts, who angered many in the gay community by campaigning early on for the closure of the gay bath-houses of San Francisco and New York (as the Reagan and Bush, pere administrations played on by under-funding the response and other delayed reactions), might well be turning over in his grave to see how much faster the world has mobilized to contain the spreading of a disease which affects all of us, and not just faggots and junkies. And to my Italian friend Sonia and my Greenpoint roommate Chris. Never stop looking for beauty, never.

Je voudrais pas crever
Avant d’avoir connu
Les chiens noir du Mexique
Qui dorment sans rêver
Les singes à cul nu
Dévoreurs de tropiques
Les araignées d’argent
Au nid truffé de bulles
Je voudrais pas crever
Sans savoir si la lune
Sous son faux air de thune
A un côté pointu
Si le soleil est froid
Si les quatre saisons
Ne sont vraiment que quatre
Sans avoir essayé
De porter une robe
Sur les grands boulevards
Sans avoir regardé
Dans des coinstots bizarres
Je voudrais pas finir
Sans connaïtre la lèpre
Ou les sept maladies
Qu’on attrape là-bas
Le bon ni le mauvais
Ne me feraient de peine
Si si si je savais
Que j’en aurai l’étrenne
Et il y a z aussi
Tout ce que je connais
Tout ce que j’apprecie
Que je sais qui me plaït
Le fond vert de la mer
Où valsent les brins d’algue
Sur le sable ondulé
L’herbe grillée de juin
La terre qui craquelle
L’odeur des conifères
Et les baisers de celle
Que ceci que cela
La belle que voilà
Mon oursin, l’Ursula*
Je voudrais pas crever
Avant d’avoir usé
Sa bouche avec ma bouche
Son corps avec mes mains
Le reste avec mes yeux
J’en dis pas plus faut bien
Rester révérencieux
Je voudrais pas mourir
Sans qu’on ait inventé
Les roses éternelles
La journée de deux heures
La mer à la montagne
La montagne à la mer
La fin de la douleur
Les journaux en couleur
Tous les enfants contents
Et tant de trucs encore
Qui dorment dans les crânes
Des géniaux ingénieurs
Des jardiniers joviaux
Des soucieux socialistes
Des urbains urbanistes
Et des pensifs penseurs
Tant de choses à venir
A chercher dans le noir

Et moi je vois la fin
Qui grouille et qui s’amène
Avec sa gueule moche
Et qui m’ouvre ses bras
De grenouille bancroche

Je voudrais pas crever
Non monsieur non madame
Avant d’avoir tâté
Le goût qu’est le plus fort
Je voudrais pas crever
Avant d’avoir goûté
La saveur de la mort…

Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak

Where the original verses contained a rhyme, I’ve only kept it where I could do so without drastically altering Vian’s original meaning. To keep the rhyme, I changed “soucieux socialists” to “careful Communisits,” which should not imply that they’re the same thing (no matter what Fox News says). And because it means more to me and thus perhaps to an American audience — and to justify the Ruth Asawa illustration (if any justification were needed) — I’ve substituted “nasturtiums” for conifers. — PB-I

I don’t wanna die
Before I’ve seen
The black dogs of Mexico
Who sleep without dreaming
The bald-assed apes
The tropical devourers
The silver spiders
With their bubble-truffled nests
I don’t wanna die
Before knowing if the moon,
With its false air of a Buffalo Nickel
Has a pointed side
If the Sun is cold
If the four seasons
Are really only four
Before I’ve tried
To wear a dress
While strolling down the Blvd Montmartre
Before I’ve peeked into
The most bizarre microscopic corners
I don’t want to expire
Before I’ve known leprosy
Or the seven maladies
One catches over there
The good or the bad
Will never hurt me
If if if I’ll have a New Year’s gift
And then there’s
Everything I know
Everything that I appreciate
That I know makes me happy
The green depths of the ocean
Where the blades of algae waltz
On the undulating sand
The toasted weeds of June
The earth which crackles
The odor of nasturtiums
And the kisses of she
Of these of that
The beautiful one who… la voila
My sea-urchin, Ursula*
I don’t wanna die
Before I’ve ravished
Her mouth with my mouth
Her body with my hands
The rest with my eyes
I’ll stop there because after all one must
Remain reverential
I don’t wanna die
Before they’ve invented
Everlasting roses
The two-hour work day
The sea in the mountains
The mountains in the sea
The end of pain
Color newspapers
All the children happy
And so many other things
Which lie dormant in the heads
Of genial engineers
Of jovial gardeners
Of careful Communists
Of urbane urbanists
And of reflective reflectors
So many things to come
To look for in the blackness

And me I see the end
Which swarms around me and approaches
With its sorry mug
And which opens up to me its arms
Of a bandy-legged frog

I don’t want to die
No monsieur no madame
Before I’ve suckled
The taste that is the strongest of them all
I don’t want to die
Before I’ve tasted
The flavor of death….

*La deuxième — et dernière — femme de Boris Vian. / Boris Vian’s second — and last — wife.

Vian versus virus(es): Born 100 years ago today, he spat on their graves before he went to his at the age of 39

Texts by and copyright Boris Vian
Translated and introduced by Paul Ben-Itzak

Tempting as it’s been in these heady days of impending pandemic to translate and share an excerpt from Albert Camus‘s “The Plague,” I just can’t bring myself to do it. (The latest development here in France: The culture minister is among the 1400 infected.) Not because historical parallels can be perilously inexact — notwithstanding that French radio announcers’ initial pronunciation of the name of the Chinese town where that country’s Corona virus affliction started sounded a lot like the cosmopolitan Algerian coastal city in which Camus situates his 1948 drama, Oran. But because I realized that what makes the author’s high moral stance problematic is that the indigenous population in Albert Camus’s Oran are the invisible men (and women). Born 100 years ago today and dead at the age of 39 when his heart burst as he watched a preview of the film version of his novel “I’ll Spit on Your Graves,” in which the pseudonymous “Vernon Sullivan” recounts a vengeful murder spree against white people, Boris Vian, songwriter and novelist, poet and playwright, Pataphysician and DJ, jazz critic and promoter (he introduced Ellington in France), godfather of the post-War Germanopretan scene and cornet player who blew his heart out, puts Camus to shame when it comes to moral consistence.

To condemn war, Vian doesn’t pick a morally uncomplicated example but chooses the justest of just wars, setting his novella “Les Fourmis” (the Ants) on a beach in Normandy where an Allied soldier wanders along a beach littered with German corpses, and his 1946 anarchist burlesque “Horse-quartering for beginners” in the home and abattoir of a horse-quarterer in Arromanches on D-Day, when his hero’s main preoccupation isn’t “their war” but to get the “Fritz” who’s (probably) been sleeping with his daughter for four years to make her an honest woman. Similarly, if the moral high ground of many French critics’ of anti-Black racism in the United States is often undermined by their ignoring similar tendencies in their own backyard (sure, Josephine Baker had it better in Paris than in the U.S., but if the “melomanes” flocked to see her at the Folies Bergère in the 1920s, the banana belt probably had something to do with it), when Vian uses a jazz press review (largely of the American jazz press) as a prism — the excerpt below, from Vian’s Jazz Hot jazz press review of June 1956, is just one example — to examine the treatment of Blacks in the United States, he starts out by allowing that he’s throwing his stones from a glass house:

“In the April 1956 issue of Jazz Journal, a fine piece by Berta Wood on racial prejudice. It’s a good thing that the Americans themselves have decided to enter the fracas by protesting against the bullying to which Blacks there are subjected; because given the fashion with which we comport ourselves in certain quarters we should probably shut our traps on the subject.

“In a word, Berta Wood writes about  ‘The Record of Emmet Till.’

“You know the story: the young Black man Emmet Till accused of raising his eyes and casting his lewd gaze on a good white woman; on the basis of which the good woman’s husband and brother-in-law kill him in cold blood and are acquitted by the all-white jury faster than you can say ‘Jim Crow’.

“About which the Blacks have made a record. ‘The Record of Emmet Till.’

“At night, on the radio, when everyone’s at home, there’s a sudden silence. And then the record is played.

“And the record is sung by a Black man with the flat voice of a Black man, without any apparent trace of emotion. It recounts how Emmet Till, at the age of 14, whistled one day in admiration when the white woman walked past him, and how the whites came to look for him at his uncle’s, took him to a barn, and beat him to death. And how the white men laughed when the verdict was pronounced.

“The record is played without any introduction. Just this moment of silence before and another after it’s finished playing. And the program continues as if nothing’s happened.

“This will surely not keep the murderers from sleeping. Because in all the countries of the world, the murderers sleep deeply.”

In a(nother) historical moment in which right-wing politicians in Italy, Poland, and Hungary often resort to a thinly veiled racial purity argument to keep the refugees penned up in frontier junctions like, lately, a Greek island called Lesbos, an item from Vian’s column of July-August 1956 is also worth sharing and translating:

“A little joker named Asa Carter, the secretary of the Council of White Citizens of Northern Alabama, has condemned ‘rock and roll’ in declaring ‘that it is being encouraged as a method of lowering the white man to the level of the Black man’ and that it is ‘part of a conspiracy to sap the morality of our nation’s youth. It is sexual, amoral, and constitutes the best way to bring together the members of the two races.’

“… which seems to me like an excellent idea. For that matter, the future lies in the mixing of the races, whether Carter, Asa likes it or not, from the moment one finds (and one does happily find) people who couldn’t care less about the color of their neighbor as long as he’s sympathetic.”

Extracted from Boris Vian, “Chroniques de Jazz,” text established and introduced by Lucien Malson, copyright 1967 Editions La Jeune Parque.

Lutèce Diary, 34: An Americanization in Paris; Abstractions St.-Germainopretan

Nicolas de Stael, Plage, 1954, huile sur toile, 24 x 33 cm, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger smallNicolas de Stael, “Plage,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20. 

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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“The wondrous envelopes us and deluges us like the atmosphere, but we don’t see it.”

— Charles Baudelaire, cited by Eli Faure in “Histoire de l’art: L’art moderne, I,” Editions Denoel, 1987

PARIS — The concrete plaque on the fence midway up the rue Menilmontant above the weed-submerged tracks of the “Petite Ceinture” which winds around Paris commemorates the three men, aged 20 to 53, who gave their lives in August 1944 to liberate their city from the German occupiers, in the conviction that waiting for the Allied troops — which landed on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago today — to do so would be to surrender their future to the Yankees. So why has the mayor of Paris — who made sure passersby knew the fresh flowers tacked to the plaque were from her — so readily ceded to the increasingly rampant Americanization of Lutèce without a fight?

Up the street from this newly opened to the public parcel of the Petite Ceinture, where you can pique-nique on freshly-fallen Queen Anne cherries while reclining on homey chaises composed of unvarnished planks of wood, a bakery-café too tony for the neighborhood is selling Mrs. Field-style cookies for 4 Euros a pop. I prefer the sunflower-encrusted variety the French Arab boulangerie on the Boulevard Menilmontant below offers for .50 cents apiece. And unlike what one older woman I dated during my recent visit to Lutèce (who claimed to be a Leftist atheist) contended, to me the biggest threat to traditional French values isn’t the scarf with which the bakery babushka chooses to cover her head but boutiques selling “cookie pauses,” restaurants calling themselves “Thank God for Broccoli,” and cafés promising “the best brunch on the Canal,” all in English. This isn’t just a question of going exotic that can be likened to a New York restaurant calling itself, say, Lutèce; it’s an appeal by Yankee commercants to Yankee customers who resume going local to ordering a croissant and café creme.

Bissière, Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret), 1955, huile sur papier marouflé sur toile, Photo © Veignant, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger smallRoger Bissière, “Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret),” 1955. Oil on paper pasted on canvas. Photo copyright Veignant. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

If I still harbored any doubts that City Hall is just rolling over in the face of this lingual imperialism, they were dispelled by the American high school chorus chanting Frankie Valli’s ‘I love you, baby” from the chandelier’d top floor of the Hotel de la Ville on a recent Thursday evening as I returned from a twilight pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis where I’d been flirting with a red-headed, purple-stockinged German children’s book designer named Betty, in English (as we contemplated an evolving Notre-Dame whose dome now sports a white yarmulke which just might remain there long enough for some wag to observe, “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish”; only 13 million of the 800 million Euros pledged for the church’s reconstruction has been delivered; the leading industrialist who committed 200 million just found out his gift won’t be as tax-deductable as he originally thought; and the main French patrimony foundation organizing the fundraising has rightly decided to steer future donations to some of the country’s other 2,500 sagging monuments), she sharing nightmares of walking into bottomless escalators, me of returning to school and constantly missing classes I really wanted to take. When the chorus segued into Cindy Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” (Cindy had accompanied my Princeton years) I had to second the emotion of the chic Parisienne striding confidently towards me who twisted the finger ballet she’d been performing into a gun and pointed it in the direction of the singing.

All this is a far cry from the mutually respectful meeting and melding of cultures promoted by Boris Vian, who, picking up after the war where Josephine Baker, the Revue Negre, and, later, Charles Trenet and the Zazous (the French version of the Zoot Suits) had left off, introduced Duke Ellington to France and ravenously devoured American jazz magazines so he could translate their choicest morsels for French jazz fans. Vian, who with Miles Davis and Juliette Greco set the tone in Saint-Germain-des-Près (“I didn’t know he was Black,” Greco quoted by Malcolm McLaren in his album “Paris” said of Davis. “And when I found out he was Black, I just cried.”), would blow his heart out on the cornet and trumpet by the age of 39, dying of a heart attack at a 1959 preview of the film version he’d opposed of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves,” the first-person account of a Black American who decides to kill as many white people as he can. Jean-François Jaeger, on the other hand — who, after taking over as director of the Jeanne Bucher gallery in 1947 upon Bucher’s death, helped the Paris abstract art movement carve out a distinct identity which left the American school in the dust — is still kicking at ninety-something. And his legacy — as personified by artists like Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Roger Bissiere, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva — is still vibrant, as demonstrated by a new exhibition running at the Galerie Jaeger-Bucher’s Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, La Garde des anges, 1950, huile sur toile, 60 x 92 cm, Photo © Jean-Louis Losi, Courtesy Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris smallMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

What I love about the French abstract art of this era — the way it feeds and sustains me — is that it’s so dense. While Picasso was busy scrawling silly clowns that would make Red Skelton blanche on napkins and noble doves for the peace posters of the French Communist Party as it buried its head in the sand to the gulags, these artists were delivering genuine revolutions in every painting. (And not just at the Bucher nor only under the aegis of gallerists like Jaeger; Jean-Michel Atlan, Pierre Soulages, Wols, the COBRA group, and the critics who championed them like Michel Ragon, another “passeur,” or transmitter, also get some of the credit.) Or as Jaeger put it in 1997, “For us there are only beginnings, successive births at the will of solicitations to throw our points of view into question, each one completely owned, each one eventually contradicted by an adventure of another type, without losing the essential attachment to the quality of the mode of expression. Possessing no power of creation ourselves, we’re placed at the advance posts, the first to be subjected to the shock of a revelation born in the studio, the first to assimilate it with the goal of accomplishing our role of passeur.” Contrast this humble and self-effacing attitude with what — at least as reflected in much of the work I see in the galleries of Paris these days — seems to be the optic of Jaeger’s successors, which is to program work which confirms and assures them in their tastes.

dubuffet the bar jaeger bucherJean Dubuffet, “Le Bar,” 1965. Vinyl on paper mounted on canvas. 81x 100 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.

Literalists like me can certainly find stories — or at least figuration — in some of the work on view at the Jaeger-Bucher if we want to, but we can also just allow it to deluge (or as Baudelaire might say, ‘abreuve’) us with sensations. (After all, if they could have said it in words, they would have become writers.) What I appreciate about this period is that art, even abstract, impenetrable art, was everywhere. Dali landscapes and Miro ‘bonhommes’ were decorating the albums of Jacky Gleason and Dave Brubeck alike. (Re-viewing several seasons of Mad Men recently after covering last year’s Aix-en-Provence exhibition of Stael’s later, Mediterranean color and light-infused paintings, I was delighted to spot one of them hanging behind the desk of the ad executive Roger Sterling, who might have been one of those American soldiers marching towards Paris.) These days, instead of European art enhancing American pop culture, a new, unimaginative generation of American pop culture artists (often with no technical training, and bragging about it) is turning up in Parisian art galleries, notably in the Marais. (The Americanization of the Marais isn’t confined to its artistic venues. Emerging earlier this year from a palatial space given over to monotonously repetitive big-eyed, long-nosed women designed by a young American artist which owed more to the Sunday comic strip “The Fusco Brothers” than Robert Rauschenberg, I ran smack dab into a window display hawking a Krispy-Kreme-scale donut with a thimble-sized cup of coffee for six Euros.) English is often the go-to language at the vernissages and in the guided tours at these venues, the press releases are in English, the exhibition titles are in English, and much of the (American) art is so crappy it would never dare to show its face in Brooklyn. Some of it (and not just the American) is so buried in conceptual (often textual) mazes that I can’t find the graphic matter.

grillon vasarely sans titre two boxVictor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Two. Silkscreen painting in color, signed and justified. 11.81 x 11.81 inches / 18.89 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

The Germainopretan galleries, on the other hand, remain resolutely international in their selection and (for the most part) rigorous in their aesthetic standards. (Even the snob factor has diminished enough that I’m tempted to reverse Vian’s formula: “Encore moins snob que tout a l’heure.”) After leaving the Jaeger-Bucher earlier on the same Thursday evening that terminated on the other side of the Seine with being serenaded by American girls just wanting to have fun at City Hall, I crossed the rue de Seine to a gallery half its size where, instead of the usual jeunotte annoyed at being interrupted in whatever she was doing in front of her computer screen that was more important than me I found two young women in glasses busily arranging dozens of Victor Vasarely optical illusions neatly arrayed on the floor.

grillon vasarely sans titre threeVictor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Three. Silkscreen painting in color, signed in crayon and justified. 75.5cm x 75.5cm / 83 cm x 83 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

“If you have any questions, let us know!” one enthusiastically invited me (in French). And I’m glad I did; they both knew more about the art than I did, specifically explaining to me that before Vasarely there was Agram, both of whom lead a movement sometimes called ‘cinetic’ art (Vasarely’s approach has also been described as photo-graphisme), which looks like it provided the model for the various unknown sectors the starship Enterprise would stray into a decade later. The last time I’d come upon this particular artistic genre, at a Latin American-themed gallery in the Marais whose exhibition was more mobile-oriented, the — older — galleriste had huffed when she discovered I didn’t already know what cinetic art was, “It’s very well-known!” Here, by contrast, the two young gallerists not only explained to me that ‘serigraphs’ meant ‘silk-screens,’ but when I asked what exactly this entailed, one of them, “Louise,” left the room to fetch two blank sheets of paper so she could demonstrate the process.

grillon agam sans titre twoYaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled Two. Silkscreen, signed and justified. 75.5 cm 75 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

When I finally identified myself as a journalist and asked if she had jpegs of the art available, Louise encouraged me to visit the gallery’s website and pull what I needed. (Contrast this to the attitude of the Reunion of the National Museums, which handles the publicity for the Luxembourg, Grand Palais, and other institutions, whose press offices set up so many roadblocks — often at the dictate of ADAGP, the artist rights’ syndicate which apparently thinks art magazines still make money — to featuring their art in articles about their exhibitions ((in other words, free advertising)) that I’ve given up covering them. In fact in theory I’ve given up writing about art, period, because it doesn’t keep me in croissants let alone the dentures to be able to nibble them, but the problem is that every time I go outside in Paris it seems to find me.) When, before leaving to not look for more art, I told the gallerists at the Grillon — as the space is called (Jimminy Cricket!) — about the (non) reception that usually greets me at art galleries, another, older woman who had just entered and sat down behind a desk replied, “C’est pas comme ca que ca marche ici,” that’s not how it works here.

grillon vasarely sans titre one

Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled One. Silkscreen in colors, signed in crayon and justified. 57 cm x 45 cm / 75 cm x 60 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.

After testing my new choppers (the family paid for them) on the cornichons and pretzel sticks at a third space on the rue de Seine, the Petite Gallery (unfortunately the only galleries that still offer food and drink at vernissages these days seem to be the ones with the least interesting art, which is why I’m not talking about it here), I was still doing pretty good Germainopretan snob quotient-wise until I entered a fourth gallery whose name I’ve purposely forgotten but was something like “The eyes have it” or “The eyes are everywhere” and which was offering a group exhibition under the rubric “Surrealism, the Second Generation,” purporting to cover the period 1945 – 1965. Intrigued that most of the art displayed seem to come from the collection of the Duchamp specialist Arturo Schwartz, I asked the gallerist why. Taking me aside and shaking his head (not at me but at the institution in question), he explained, “He left 700 works to the Jerusalem Museum. They promptly sold off most of them so they could buy more contemporary work.” Reverse-intrigued, I asked him why he didn’t have any Leonor Fini among the mostly male assemblage. “She wasn’t really a surrealist,” the gallerist sniffed dismissively — and typically. (Read: She was a female artist who refused to be subsumed by and subsetted into a male universe. Around Leonor’s pad in the hills above Trieste, the men wore gowns.) If you’re wondering why I’m not citing a single name of an artist who was included in the exhibition, it’s not to venge Fini but because when I took one of several copies of a list pairing works with artists as a memori menti for this article, a thin van-dycked gallery assistant with slicked-back hair chased me out of the gallery and down the rue des Beaux Arts to recuperate the material. “Hey, come back here! You can’t take that!”

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Leonor Fini, “Dithyrambe, 1972.  Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 30 x 21.25 inches. Courtesy CFM Gallery.

After an unhealthily more than cursory look (okay, digging-through) of a box someone had left outside another gallery with a sign “Free for the taking!” but which consisted mostly of battery-less gold-painted hand-clocks not even Dali would want to recuperate, I continued towards the Seine and the Ile St. Louis. The deal I’d made with myself was that I’d already prepared a cauliflower-potato-chicken-curry salad for the pique-nique and packed a plastic bottle of Algerian lemon soda scored at the Belleville market for 15 cents, and if I didn’t like it on the Ile, I could just get up and leave. The reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it were a) the first time that I’d retrieved “my” bench on the Ile during this Paris visit, I’d run down to the Seine from Beaubourg (the Pompidou) so fast — you might have thought Niki de Saint Phalle’s big-breasted mermaid had jumped out of the Stravinsky fountain (yet another that’s been left out to dry) and was chasing after me — that I’d no sooner sat down on “my” bench than I felt like I was about to have the runs and had to run back up to the Right Bank, where my go-to toilet outside the Metro Pont-Marie was flashing the dreaded red ‘out-of-order’ sign, and the open toilet I finally found near the Theater Sarah Bernhardt just as time was running out was out of toilet paper, leaving me to show up at a Valentine’s Day vernissage in the Marais with proof that my shit really did stink too. (Looking up at a dried-out David Hockney tree I felt very wet.), b) the second time I’d tried, after an initial post-fire visit to Notre-Dame to size up the damage for you, I’d been scared off by four bulky British rugby-players bunched onto “my” bench and blasting their music de merde on their portables (there used to be an unspoken rule among We the People of the Ile that you didn’t impose your music on others), and c) the years I used to spend every Friday night on the Ile after trolling for used records off the rue Mouffetard where I’d had my cheap cafe latté standing at a tall table contemplating the curvy form and curve-throwing bon mots of MissTic were my drinking years, only unlike Baudelaire I had no Gauthier to record the resultant reveries of this artificial Paradise, so all I remember besides the way the rippling of the Seine seemed to glitter more brightly as the Sun set over Notre-Dame after a glass of pastis is how heavy I felt walking towards Pont-Marie afterwards (the pique-nique also contributed; I wasn’t just drinking), and how when I tried to replace the half a bottle of red or two cans of Pelforth Brune with a whole bottle of tomato juice it just wasn’t the same. If I didn’t have a scribe like Gauthier or Baudelaire (whose building at 33 rue Lamartine had been my first after moving to Paris) to lend these evenings a literary flavor, I did have a librarian: A bouquiniste, Marcel, whose noble trade — having a best friend who sold books along the Seine made me feel like a real Paris insider — blinded me to his fickle soul. I hadn’t had any contact with Marcel since 2014, when he wrote to say that according to his new and young White Russian bride (the same who, after a French Arab man who was more French than she was left the elevator we’d shared at the Metro Place de Lilas had scowled, “They should all go back where they came from”), “You look like a Hobo” (the teeth no doubt).

Thus it was that telling myself if I didn’t like it — if I encountered more music de merde to perturb my tranquility — I didn’t have to stay I made my way to the Ile along the newly pedestrianized Right Bank of the Seine, discovering the spanking new mahogany benches around tables where people were eating, drinking, and partying, and of course, the one decent toilet within five kilometers, an equally spanking new white facility. (You’re just too good to be true, can’t keep my eyes off of you.)

Taking the stairs back up to the street after passing the Hotel de la Ville so I could access the bridge to the Ile — the urge to see if Marcel (not his real name) was still there manning his ‘box’ above a ramp leading down to the river was also a factor — I didn’t find my literary friend but further on was reassured to see that Pierre, a bouquiniste to whom Marcel had shown the ropes, was faithfully at his station, and recognized me enough to nod.

The last time I’d seen Pierre — I’d just fled from a late-career, ear-splitting Pina Bausch spectacle at the Bernhardt and decided to linger in the neighborhood so that I could go back for the after-party and at least have some food and drink to compensate for the ear damage, plus my friend Sabine had stayed for the second act — he’d insisted that I was working for the CIA. “That’s why your teeth are so bad — It’s a disguise!” When he’d announced after hanging up the cell phone he’d told me a Chinese guy had sold him that he had to take off for a rendez-vous with a Vietnamese woman, I’d responded, “I know. We’re the ones who told the Chinese guy to sell you the cell phone after we put a bug in it.” By his laughing reaction I wondered if Pierre had just been ribbing me.

On this recent retrieval, Pierre’s curly hair was scanter and his face more arid from the exposure to the Sun and wind ricocheting off the Seine, and he was sporting an aborted handle-bar mustache and sharing a bottle of red with his potes around a small fold-up table he’d set up in front of his stand, where the books were piled up in pell-mell chaos. The new teeth had apparently improved my stature. “You’re a bouquiniste also, right?” “No, I’m a friend of Marcel’s.” Indicating the Red Guards cap on his head, I observed, “Last time I saw you were wearing a Chinese peasant lamp-shade hat to protect you from the Sun.” “Vietnamese!” Pierre corrected me, pulling the lampshade out from behind a pile. Then nodding up at a row of lantern-cages with stuffed parrots in them hanging like birds on a wire from the green-iron hood of the stand above the piles of books, he suggested, “Tapper and see what happens.” As I prepared to deliver a round-house wallop on the first cage he chided me impatiently, “No no, clap your hands *together.*” I did, and the lanterns lit up as the birds began to sing.

grillon agam sans titre one

Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled One. Silkscreen, signed and justified, 77 cm x 70.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.