Editor’s note: On this May Day 2020, with Donald Trump abusing the Military Production Act to potentially send workers to their deaths by asserting he has the right to pre-empt state decisions to close the meat-packing plants which are loci for virus contamination (where’s Upton Sinclair when you need him?), and with the governors of Iowa and Nebraska insisting that those who refuse to return to hazardous working conditions will see their unemployment benefits cut off, we thought the moment propitious to revise and share our translated excerpts of Michel Ragon’s “La mémoire des vainçus” (literally, “the memory of the vanquished”), as proof that if the struggle is still not over, the battles of the vanquished are never really in vain. And can still serve as inspiration for the labor and human rights struggles to come. (To read the Paris Tribune / Arts Voyager serialized publication of Michel Ragon’s “Trompe-l’Oeil,” click here. )
“The ideal is when one is able to die for one’s ideas. Politics is when one can live for them.”
— Charles Péguy, cited on frontispiece, “The Book of the Vanquished.”
“Books can also die, but they last longer than men. They get passed on from hand to hand, like the Olympic flame. My friend, my father, my older brother, you have not entirely slid into oblivion, because this book of your life exists.”
— Michel Ragon, Prologue, “The Book of the Vanquished.”
Part One: “The little girl in the fishmongers’ wagon” (1899-1917)
“As for me, I’m just a poor sap! For those of us at the bottom of the heap, there’s nothing but bad breaks in this world and the one beyond. And of course, when we get to Heaven, it’ll be up to us to make sure the thunder-claps work.”
— Georg Büchner, “Woyzeck,” cited on the frontispiece of Part One of “The Book of the Vanquished.”
“Sometimes it’s better to be the vanquished than the victor.”
— Vincent Van Gogh, cited in Lou Brudner’s preface to “Büchner, Complete Works,” published by Le Club Français du livre, Paris, 1955.
Translator’s note: With the exception of Fred and Flora, who may be real, may be fictional, or may be composites, all the personages cited below and in Michel Ragon’s novel are based on real historical figures, notably Paul Delesalle (1870-1948), the Left Bank bookseller. Later adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947) would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred in “The Book of the Vanquished,” eventually broke with the Bolsheviks. Rirette Maîtrejean was his actual companion. Raymond-la-Science, René Valet, and Octave Garnier were real members of the Bonnot Gang, the details of their denouement recounted by Ragon as translated below accurate. For the other personalities evoked, including leading figures in the European Anarcho-Syndicaliste milieu in its heyday, as well as certain events alluded to, I’ve included brief footnotes, as these personalities and events may not be as familiar to an Anglophone audience as to Ragon’s French readers, for whom they represent markers in the national memory, notably the infamous “Bande à Bonnot,” whose exploits still resonate in a contemporary France wracked by youthful alienation and haunted by the terrorism in which this is sometimes manifest.
Every morning the cold awoke the boy at dawn. Long before the street-lanterns dimmed, in the pale gray light he shook off the dust and grime of his hovel at the end of a narrow alley flanking the Saint-Eustache church. Stretching out his limbs like a cat he flicked off the fleas and, like a famished feline, took off in search of nourishment, flairing the aromas wafting down the street. With Les Halles wholesale market coming to life at the same time, it didn’t take long for him to score something hot. The poultry merchants never opened their stalls before debating over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his share. Then he’d skip off, hop-scotching between the trailers loaded with heaps of victuals. Every Friday he’d march up the rue des Petits-Carreaux to meet the fishmongers’ wagons arriving from Dieppe, drawn by the aroma of seaweed and fish-scales surging towards the center of Paris. The sea — this sea which he’d never seen and which he pictured as a catastrophic inundation — cut a swathe through the countryside before it descended from the heights of Montmartre. He could hear the carts approaching from far away, like the rumbling of thunder. The churning of the metallic wagon wheels stirred up a racket fit to raise the dead, amplified by the clippety-clop of the horseshoes. Numbed by the long voyage, enveloped in their thick overcoats, the fishmongers dozed in their wagons, mechanically hanging onto the reigns. The horses knew the way by heart. When the first carriages hit the iron pavilions of the market, the resultant traffic jam and grating of the brakes rose up in a grinding, piercing crescendo that reverberated all the way back up to the Poissonnière quartier. The drivers abruptly started awake, spat out a string of invectives, and righted themselves in their seats. Those farther back had to wait until the first arrivals unloaded their merchandise. The horses pawed the ground and stamped their feet. The majority of the men jumped off their carts to go have a little nip in the bistros just raising their shutters.
On this particular Friday, at the rear of one of the wagons sat a small girl. Her naked legs and bare feet dangled off the edge of the cart, and the boy noticed nothing more than this white skin. He drew near. The girl, her head leaning forward, her face hidden by the tussled blonde hair which fell over her eyes, didn’t see him at first. As for the boy, he only had eyes for those plump swinging gams. By the time he was almost on top of them, he could hear the girl singing out a rhymed ditty. He approached his hand, touching one of her calves.
“Eh, lower the mitts! Why, the nerve!”
For the rest of the lengthy excerpt, subscribers e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Not yet a Dance Insider / Arts Voyager subscriber? Subscriptions are $59 or Euros / year, or $36/students, teachers, artists, dancers, and the unemployed. Just designate your payment via PayPal to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Exceptionally for this excerpt, even non-subscribers can can write us before May 7 and receive a free copy.
Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy. Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. Introduction by Victor Hugo, extracted from la Gazette des Beaux Arts. Ouvrage dedicated by Queyroy to “Madame le Masson souvenir affectueux.” Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.
Translation dedicated to Lucie and Lionel, Travailleurs intellectuelles Parisiens, maintenant exiles … pas loin de… Blois….
Just before the virus hit, I found the ideal place in Paris — an apartment-atelier on the rue Daguerre, no less, where it’s no doubt perched atop a portion of the Catacombs — from which to launch Les Editions Hèléne, a publishing house specializing in English translations of French literature and on French art. In addition to being on the Meridian of Paris, where miracles always seem to happen to me, the rental comes with other happy accidents related to future work and translation projects. In pondering whether I should (and could) wait until there’s a vaccine to return to Paris — thus prolonging my own exile from Lutèce for at least another year — I considered the case of Victor Hugo, who did not let a little thing like 18 years of exile from Paris and France stop him from producing some of the best literature ever. Besides “Les Miserables,” there were poems, essays, political tracts, appeals (famously, for clemency for John Brown), and correspondence. Not just exchanges with peers including George Sand, but appreciations like the following 1864 letter to Armand Queyroy on the occasion of the publication of “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” a collection of eaux-fortes or etchings printed by Delâtre, in Paris. And of course, coming from the pen of Victor Hugo, these souvenirs do not just reflect one of the Great Man’s Proustien — madeleine — moments; Hugo manages to squeeze in a political discourse which reveals his sometimes nuanced disposition towards French monarchic heritage. But above all, where this discourse touches me is in its illustration of the nexus between literature and the fine arts. Like what you’re reading? If you are not already a subscriber, advertiser, or family member, please help pay for our hard work in increasingly expensive and risky times by making a donation today. Just designate your payment in dollars or Euros via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at there to learn how to pay by check.– PB-I
(Extracted from “Pendant l’Exil,” 1852 – 1870, Victor Hugo. Paris, Nelson, Editeurs. Images from the Archives of the Loire-et-Cher department of France. The letter also served as a preface to Queyroy’s publication.)
Hauteville House, [Guernsey,] April 17, 1864
Monsieur, I want to thank you. You’ve just enabled me to re-live the past. On the 17th of April, 1825 — 39 years ago to this very day (allow me to note this minor coincidence, which is interesting to me at least) — I arrived in Blois. It was early morning. I’d come from Paris. I’d passed the night in the mail-wagon, and what is there to do in the mail-wagon? I’d done “The Ballad of the two Archers”; then, the final verses finished, as the day had not yet dawned, all the while watching through the dim light of the track lights on either side of the train the troops of Orleans cows descending towards Paris, I’d dozed off. The conductor’s voice awoke me. “Voila Blois!” he’d cried.
I opened my eyes and saw a thousand windows at the same time, an irregular and pell-mell pile of houses, of steeples, a chateau, and on the hill a crown of tall trees and a row of gabled, pointed stone facades on the edge of the water, an entire city resembling an amphitheater, capriciously spread out on the ledges of an inclining plain and, except that the Ocean is wider than the Loire and doesn’t have any bridges leading to the other side, practically identical to this city of Guernsey where I live today.
The Sun was rising over Blois.
Fifteen minutes later and I was on the rue du Foix, number 73. I knocked on a small door giving onto a garden; a man who was working in the garden came to open it for me. He was my father.
That night, my father lead me to the mound which overlooked the house, and which harbored “Gaston’s tree”; I now saw again from the heights of the city what I’d seen that morning from its depths; the aspect, for that matter, was, if somewhat severe, even more charming. The city, in the morning, had seemed to me to have the gracious disorder and practically the surprise of waking up; the night had softened its angles. Even though it was still light, the Sun had only just set, there was a debut of melancholy; the blurring of twilight had taken the edge off the points of the rooftops; the rare scintillating of candles had replaced the dazzling diffusion of the aurora on the window-panes; the profiles of things were subsisting the mysterious transformation of night; the rigidness was losing the battle, the curves winning; there were more elbows, less angles. I looked on, almost mellowed by this effect. The skies had a vague breath of summer. The city appeared to me, no longer like it had that morning, gay and ravishing, haphazard, but harmonious; it had been cut into compartments of a beautiful whole amounting to an equilibrium; the planes had receded, the stories superimposed themselves with impeccable timing and tranquility. The cathedral, the bishopry, the black church of Saint-Nicolas, the chateau, as much a citadel as a palace, the ravines mixed up with the city, the slopes and descents where the houses at times climbed, at times tumbled, the bridge with its obelisk, the beautiful serpentine curves of the Loire, the rectangular bands of willows, at the extreme horizon Chambord, indistinct with its forest of turrets, the forest into which was sunk the antique route known as ‘Roman bridges’ marking the ancient bed of the Loire, all this seemed vast and gentle. And after all, my father loved this city.
Which today you have rendered back to me.
“Blois, la rue Chemonton et ses escaliers.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Arrmand Queyroy, 1890. 247 X 135 mm; (object) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.
Thanks to you, I’m in Blois again. Your 20 etchings reveal the intimate city, not the city of palaces and churches, but the city of houses. With you, one is there in the streets; with you, one enters into the ramshackle hut; and so many of these decrepit edifices, like the dwelling in sculpted wood on the rue Saint-Lubin, like the hotel Denis-Dupont with its stairway lantern and oblique bay windows following the movement of the spiral staircase of Saint Gilles, like the house on the rue Haute, like the very low arcade of the rue Pierre-de-Blois, exposing all the Gothic fantasy or all the Renaissance graces, augmented by the poetry of dilapidation. Being a hut and being a jewel are not mutually exclusive. An elderly lady who has heart and spirit, nothing is more charming. Many of the exquisite houses drawn by you are that elderly woman. One is happy to make their acquaintance. One retrieves them again with joy when one is, like me, their old friend. What things they have to tell you, and what a delicious return to the past! For example, take a look at this fine and delicate house on the rue des Orfevres, it seems to be engaged in a tete-a-tete. One is fortunate to be amidst all this elegance. You make us recognize everything, so much are your sketches portraits. It’s photographic fidelity with the liberty of great art. Your rue Chemonton is a chef-d’oeuvre. I’ve scaled, at the same time as these good paysans of Sologne painted by you, the steep steps of the chateau. The house of statuettes on the rue Pierre de Blois is comparable to the house of Musicians in Weymouth. I’ve retrieved everything.
“Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Alluye.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. 188 X 267 mm; (object) 308 X 482 mm. Papier vergé.Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.
Here’s the tower of Argent, here’s the high somber gable at the corner of the rue des Violettes and the rue Saint-Lubin, here’s the hotel de Guise, here’s the hotel de Cheverny, here’s the hotel Sardini with its arches in three-centered curves, here’s the hotel d’Alluye with its gallant arcades from the time of Charles VIII, here are the Saint-Louis steps which lead to the cathedral, here’s the rue du Sermon, and at the end the practically Roman silhouette of Saint-Nicolas; here’s the pretty cantwise turret referred to as Queen Anne’s Oratory. The garden where Louis XII, gouty, liked to promenade his mule in a garden behind this turret.
“Blois, view of the rue des Violettes and the rue St-Lubin.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Imp. Delâtre, 1864. 255 X 157 mm; (object) 299 X 423 mm . Papier vergé. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.
That Louis XII, like Henry IV, had his amiable sides. He made many blunders, but was a good-natured king. He tossed the procedures launched against the Vaudois into the Rhone. He was worthy for having the valiant Huguenot astrologist Renée de Bretagne, so intrepid before Saint-Barthélemy and so proud in Montargis, as a daughter. As a youngster, he’d spent three years in the Tower of Bourges, and he’d tasted the iron cage. This experience, which might have rendered another man mean, made him debonair. He’d entered Genoa, victorious, with a golden bee-hive on his coat of arms and this motto: Non utitor aculeo. He was good, and he was brave. In Signaled, to a courtesan who warned him, “You’re exposing yourself to danger, sire,” he responded, “Get behind me.” It’s also he who said: “A good king is an authentic king. I prefer being ridiculous with courtesans to being overbearing with the people.” He said: “The ugliest beast to see walk past you is a procurer carrying his dossiers.” He hated judges eager to condemn who tried to exaggerate the fault to envelope the accused. “They are,” he said, “like cobblers who stretch out the leather by pulling on it with their teeth.” He died from loving his wife too much, just like François II later on, gently killed the one like the other by a Marie. The honeymoon was short. On January 1, 1515, after 83 days or rather 83 nights of marriage, Louis XII expired, and as it was New Year’s Day, he told his wife: “My darling, for a New Year’s gift I give you my death.” She accepted, sharing the present with the Duke of Brandon.
“Blois, front, old houses at the foot of the St.-Louis cathedral.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 250 X 160 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.
The other phantom who dominates Blois is as loathsome as Louis XII was sympathetic. It’s this Gaston, half Bourbon, half Medici, a Florentine from the 16th century, cowardly, perfidious, spiritual, who said of the arrests of Longueville, Conti, and Condé: “Lots of net! Capture at the same time a fox, an ape, and a lion!” Curious, artist, collector, fascinated with medals, filigrees, and sweetmeats, he might spend his mornings admiring the cover of an ivory box while his men lopped off the head of one of the friends he’d betrayed.
“Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Amboise et d’une rouennerie en gros (marchand d’étoffes et de tissus).” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving, extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Printed by Delâtre, 1864. 202 X 157 mm; (object), 266 X 205 mm; papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.
All these figures, as well as Henry III, the Duke of Guise, and others, including this Pierre de Blois whose main claim to fame was being the first person to pronounce the word ‘transubstantiation,’ I’ve found them again in leafing through your precious collection. I contemplated your fountain of Louis XII for a long time. You’ve recreated it as I saw it, so old, so young, charming. It’s one of your best plates. I’m almost certain that the ‘Rouennerie en gros,’ recorded by you vis-a-vis the hotel d’Amboise, was already there in my time. You have a real and fine talent, the coupe d’oeil which grasps the style, the sure, agile, and strong touch, plenty of spirit in the engraving and a good dose of naiveté, and that rare gift of being able to evoke light in shadows. What strikes and charms me in your etchings is the broad day, the gaiety, the prepossessing aspect, this joy in the commencement which contains all the grace of morning. The plates which seem to be bathed in an aurora. Indeed it’s there, Blois, the Blois that is precious to me, my luminous city. Because that first impression on arriving has stuck with me. Blois for me is radiant. I only see Blois in the rising Sun. These are the effects of youth and of the homeland.
I’ve let myself go on at length talking with you, monsieur, because you’ve given me great pleasure. You’ve found my weakness, you’ve touched the sacred corner of memory. I’ve sometimes felt a bitter sadness; you’ve given me a gentle sadness. To be gently sad, this is a pleasure. I’m in your debt. I’m happy that it is so well preserved, so little changed, and so parallel to what I saw 40 years ago, this city to which this invisible tangle of ties of the soul, impossible to break, still attaches me, this Blois which saw me as a teenager, this Blois whose streets know me, where a house has loved me, and where I’ve just strolled in your company, looking for the white hair of my father and finding my own.
Monsieur, I shake your hand.
“Blois: the steps of the chateau and the vestiges of the ancient Jacobins gate.” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 240 X 128 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: Eau-forte. Lieu(x) :Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.