Lutèce Diaries, 28: Welcome to the Monkey House, or, Headless Body found in Waterless Arena

notre dame fouquet jpegJean Fouquet, “The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful against the Demons,” circa 1452–1460. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more information on the tableau, click here.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”

— Danté (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27)

“Well, you know that I love to live with you
But you make me forget so very much
I forget to pray for the angels
And then the angels forget to pray for us.”

— Leonard Cohen, “So long Marianne,” being sung by a busker behind Notre-Dame on Easter Sunday, 2019

PARIS — Here are some of my memories associated with Notre-Dame: Being shocked to learn, from a sign posted on the church’s gates in 2005, that among those who would be choosing the successor to Pope John-Paul was the disgraced Boston cardinal Bernard Law.… Stiffing a French girl I was dating in 2002 to go to an improvisation match between the N-D organ and a tuba, which cued our final rupture…. Crossing the short bridge (its brown iron railings recently replaced with love-lock proof glass) over the Seine in the shadow of the church on which Charles Boyer held a clandestine RDV with Ingrid Thulin in occupied Paris in Vincente Minelli’s 1962 “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (and above where Gene Kelly waltzed Leslie Caron in Minelli’s 1951 “An American in Paris”) in 2006 with a girl named Charlotte Lejeune who made my heart feel jeune again after seeing Katherine Dunham and Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather” at a cinema on the rue Christine near where Miles had wooed Greco at the Club Taboo and dining on buckwheat crepes and hard cider on the rue Mouffetard, and hearing her declare upon beholding Notre-Dame, “Elle est BELLE!” My initial reaction to the news was that it’s just a thing — no one died in the fire which tore the roof off the 900-year-old sucker last month — and whose significance, like most of the things in Paris, derives not just from the architecture (in N-D’s case, a pell-mell melange of epochs; the same architect whose spire everyone’s now lamenting has been maligned for centuries for turning the towers of Carcassonne into epoch-inconsistent coneheads), historical context, and personal memories but from the allure with which artists have invested them over time. (Following the catastrophe, Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris” soared back to the top of the best-seller lists.) After all, who would give a second thought to Winesburg, Ohio, if Sherwood Anderson hadn’t made it the setting for the first American psychological novel? What made a floating laundry basin — the Bateau Lavoir — the fulcrum of Cubism and the birthplace of Surrealism, if not the alchemy of Picasso, Braque, and Max Jacob that it spawned? Why did this fulcrum migrate from Montmartre to Montparnasse in the 1920s, if not for the ateliers the city set up around the train station and the artists and writers who installed themselves there? What made the Haute Provence so special if not Jean Giono’s lyrical rhapsodies? And the filthiest street in the world a hallowed terrain for urban adventurers if not the imagination and knack for capturing the local lingo of Damon Runyon?

To try to augment my empathy for the Parisians, French, and foreigners who have taken the fire and gutting of much of Notre-Dame’s roof more deeply to heart than I have — “With that woodwork, it was like you could touch history; now that’s gone forever,” one particularly anti-clerical friend confided in me — I’ve imagined what I might feel like if one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge suddenly fell off. I’ve also reminded myself that I’m not just the Joe Biden of columnists, so mesmerized by the sound of his own voice that he doesn’t seem to care about the readers who get lost in the parentheses within parentheses never to be heard from again, but a reporter, and that this is my beat. (Or as I reflected on a recent late afternoon while sipping the last of my hot thermos mint tea on a bridge over the Canal St.-Martin where the volunteers of “Une Chorba Pour Tous” — a pirate operation judging by the way they quickly packed up their van and took off afterwards — had just dispensed hot soup and baguettes to the black and brown masses who continue to huddle under the tracks at La Chapelle no matter how many times the authorities clear them out: “Paris. It was his city.”) So on Easter Sunday, after the usual round of skirt-chasing (actually they’re not wearing skirts this season, but high-wasted pants with the ever-present pre-fabricated holes — if Malcolm McLaren were to return to Paris today, he’d find the girls all dressing like his prodigy Sid Vicious and stroking tiny screens instead of live mice — and short shirts or sweaters) and book-hunting and quixotic Dulcinella ping-pong partner courting and having my thermos tea with Delacroix at his fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens (he’s another one: Most of the tourists who pause to take their pictures in front of the fountain have no idea who he was; if I didn’t, would I be quite as inspired every time I sit there looking up at the master of color’s Byronic bust and his Muse’s naked torso supplicating him below it?), I descended to the Seine to assess the damage.

met delacroix portraitFrom the recent exhibition at the Metropoloitan Museum of Art and the Louvre: Eugène Delacroix, “Self-Portrait in Green Vest.” Oil on canvas, circa 1937. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Copyright RMN – Grand Palais / Art Resource, New York. Photo: Michel Urtado.

But first, by way of prelude: If I’ve scrapped the political commentary in earlier versions of this piece as it ultimately didn’t seem appropriate to use this catastrophe as a soap-box (even for expounding on pertinent and larger related issues, e.g. as an indication of a generalized lack of official concern for the country’s patrimony which pre-dates this administration, with Nicolas Sarkozy as the exception, his Socialist successor scrapping Sarkozy’s plans for a museum of the history of France), I still think it’s legitimate to cite two issues which have arisen in the debate — and it is a debate — over the appropriate measures to take for the church’s reconstruction.

“It’s a building — We’re human beings. What about us?” This is how one Gilet Jaune or “Yellow Vest” interviewed on French public radio reacted to the news that two of France’s richest families had donated a combined 330 million Euros to repair the church within 24 hours of the fire. Because another fixture that has been eroding in France in recent years, according to many, is the social ‘welfare’ state erected by the National Council of Resistance after the War, the question is entirely pertinent. Or, as the Gilets Jaunes of the Paris suburb of Pantin, right next to mine, expressed their demands in a flyer distributed at a recent Saturday market outside the Church of Pantin, they seek:

** “A minimum wage of 12 Euros an hour.” (Less than the $15/hour minimum many American states have recently adopted.)

** “The means for our schools, smaller class size.” (To which was added the complaint that their children are being oriented less and less towards college and more and more towards brief professional formations.)

** “Health care for all; free care (notably dental care).” (Contrary to what you may have heard, health care isn’t free for everyone here, and most French have to subsidize their public plan with private insurance.)

** “Construction and maintenance of affordable housing.”

The second pertinent issue was raised by numerous preseveration specialists, including state functionaries, alarmed by a measure adopted by Parliament May 2 which includes a provision that would allow the government to over-ride existing ecological and preservation regulations during the reconstruction, in the interests of fast-tracking the repairs so that they can be finished in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

My own view is that the country’s real monument is its artistic and literary canon. (Although an argument could be made that as architecture and art repository Notre-Dame falls into this category.)

notre dame jongkindJohan Barthold Jongkind (Dutch, 1819–1891), “The Pont Neuf,” 1849–50. Oil on canvas, 21 1/2 x 32 1/8 in. (54.6 x 81.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Mendelsohn, 1980. Both this tableau and that of Fouquet, above, have recently been showcased at the Met as a gesture of solidarity with those affected by the Notre-Dame fire.

It was my ongoing quest for both of these — as well as the perennial cherche pour l’ame-soeur (soul-mate) — that found me on Easter Sunday morning exiting the Denfert Rochereau Metro station across the street from the Catacombs (some of whose residents have been there as long as Notre-Dame), and heading down the avenue Denfert Rochereau (toujours fixé a le Meridian moi) for the sprawling headquarters of the benevolent association “Big Neighbors,” a sort of Jewish Community Center for recent immigrants, except that unlike the JCC most of its activities are free. The occasion was a crafts — crafts fabricated by the migrants — and vide-grenier sale. The last time I was here — the event is held every month if you want to check it out — I’d scored, for a combined 2 Euros, paperback editions of two books I’d actually been looking for — Céline’s “Voyage to the end of night” and Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” a thinly veiled biography of Cézanne or Monet or both — as well as Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” and tried to score with a woman who was selling hand-lithographed “Les Ping-Pongeurs” tee-shirts, which she explained celebrated the association’s ping-pong table, which had become a kind of community fireside for the migrants, a lieu for exchanging their own stories. Partly to prolong the contact but also for a future Lutèce Diary, I’d given the woman my card and asked her to e-mail me images of the tee-shirt’s design as soon as she had them. She’d given me hers too but as there was no e-mail address, I’d resorted to trying to “friend” her on Facebook, after also noting that we had similar musical tastes and being impressed with the number and type of other associations she volunteered for or “liked,” notably the Palestinian Film Festival.

This time around in the book department I scored once again and for the same bargain rate, the price dropping from 2 Euros to 1 between the time I asked the woman guarding two large bins of them how much they were (“2 Euros”) and the moment I started looking elsewhere (“actually, they’re all 1 Euro”). I found a limited edition copy of a lavishly illustrated history of Modern Art from the ’50s (the best era for color reproduction) I’d used to own but lost, a hefty hardcover “Dictionary of Synonymes” (useful for translating), and, the real coupe, a copy of Victor Serge’s “Les années sans pardon.” Serge being one of the real-life heroes of one of my translating projects, Michel Ragon’s novel “La mémoire des vaincus.” In what I assume to be a thinly fictionalized telling of his own story — Serge was a non-violent anarchist publisher who became a disillusioned ally of the Bolsheviks, unsuccessfully trying to get the French Communist Party to acknowledge Soviet crimes — the book, published in 1947, recounts the Communists’ tracking of one of its Paris leaders after he quits the party, even though he promises to beat a gentle retreat to Mexico (where Serge would die that same year).

(I forgot to mention, important because it comes up later, that at a real gauntlet of a vide-grenier near the la Villette basin on the other side of the Seine earlier that morning, whose sublime and free highlight was observing Paris come to life while having my thermos tea perched on the Crimée pedestrian bridge over the Ourcq Canal and watching the drawbridge go up and then back down for no apparent reason as there was no boat traffic, and that was really more of a brocante — junk — sale, I’d spent all of 1 Euro on a “Dictionary of Symbols,” a gift for a witch I know. (You know which witch you are.) And scored some bargain stomach sustenance: A canned roast chicken salad for a Euro, a pound of dry rice for 50 cents, and a can of duck mousse for the same, the idea being it will give me something local to eat my first night back in the Dordogne, a.k.a. duck country.) (Lest you think I just eat them as this is the second Lutèce Diary in a row in which I’ve mentioned my predilection for this Dordogne staple, I recently had the opportunity to give back, lunching with one famished female canard with a bald-spot on her head on the lip of the pond of the parc George Brassens, calmly gray and sparsely populated on a drizzly Sunday. We dined on left-over Texas-style cornbread and peas, my new friend making duck eyes at me every time she came up from fishing the crumbs out of the muddy shallows.)

Next (we’re back at the vide-grenier in one of the courtyards of les Big Neighbors) I landed a telling item for this column, when a particularly ugly American demanded, in English, of the woman selling next to the bookstand, “I don’t speak French, can you tell her” — her being an older woman with stringy gray hair within hearing distance who’d just set down a tattered box against a nearby column — “that she doesn’t have the right to that space, my friend paid for it and she didn’t pay,” which request he repeated insistently again and again until the seller reluctantly ceded. I guess the young man, unshaven and clad in dirty jeans — who, once the FRENCH woman who UNLIKE HIM HAD THE RIGHT TO BE SELLING AT A FRENCH VIDE-GRENIER sadly walked away, threw down what looked like over-sized tinker-toy wheels on the pavement — wasn’t aware that the reason his friend had had to pay for him was that he has no standing here. Talk about ugly Americans: This loser couldn’t even communicate “I don’t speak French” correctly.

Having surpassed my quota of ugly Americans for the day and my book budget as well, I continued searching for the Ping-Pongeuse who was the real object of my visit through the alleys and across the several courtyards of the Big Neighbors complex, weaving among handmade crafts and clothing and over-priced ash-trays and carafes — the association even offers a restaurant and a bench-lined roof terrace over the entrance where you can take your coffee looking out on the tree-lined avenue, surveilling this stretch of the Meridian. Finally spotting her behind dark sun-glasses (“Quick, that Facebook weirdo is coming over here, hand me those shades!”) wearing a large white sweatshirt which showed off her sliver-brunette bangs and deftly rolling an orange ping-pong ball between my nimble if shaking fingers — the paddles were stashed away in my “Re-Nais – Sance” bag — I stepped up to the Ping-Pongeurs table and, while she stared blankly back at me behind the sun-glasses not changing her expression, sputtered, “I’m the guy who asked you for art of your Ping-Pongeurs tee-shirt for my magazine last month.”

“I remember.” (I’m on to you, Buster, with your vintage 1973 paddles and orange ball, if orange balls tickled my fancy I’d stay at home watching re-runs of “The Prisoner.”)

“I’m still interested.”

“I know, I still have your card.” (Buried in my ‘non-recyclable’ pile.) “But we haven’t been able to take any pictures, what with the Sun coming out and all.” (She didn’t phrase it exactly that way, but I’m channeling Carson McCullers. She comes up later.)

My witch not being available to inform my Ping-Pongeuse that despite the missing teeth I really was a frog waiting to be turned into a prince I decided to take my witch gift “Dictionary of Symbols” further down the Meridian to the Fountain of the Four Parts of the World in the Explorers Garden which abuts the Luxembourg, where at least the four maidens carrying the whole world in their hands wouldn’t glare back at me for ogling their bare bronze chests. I’d read on Wikipedia that one of these ladies, designed by Carpeaux, was supposed to be an American Indian and, besides that she was the least demeure of the bronze babes, bending forward into the wind at the haunches instead of remaining loftily above it like her European sister, she was also recognizable by the (stereotypical) braid…. mirrored in the braided manes of the two horse-mermaids rearing their heads below her. Opening the dictionary while trying to protect it from the errant spray of the water fight going on between the bronze turtles on the first level and the fish below the horse-mermaids, I looked up ‘turtle’ first and was tempted to bang my head on the nearest ping-pong table because as I already should have known, having jogged in a colorful “Turtle Island Marathon” tee-shirt for years back in San Francisco, this is the most obvious, four-parts-of-the-world symbolism of the turtle — the American Indian maiden should have clued me in: They hold the whole world on their shells. And if we keep pissing off the noble turtle, or tortoise, he’s going to retreat into his shell and leave us to our own wiles. (According to the dictionary, whose sources are a bit obscure, the turtle is also apparently both phallic and vaginal, making a strong case for augmenting the already onerous acronym LGBQT to LGBQTET, for eunuch turtles.)

Before heading over to and down the Boul’Mich to Notre-Dame to do my nominal reporter’s job, I decided to look up “arrow,” hoping to find a literary significance for Viollet le Duc’s “fleche de Notre-Dame” going up in flames. Besides being about getting closer to Heaven and giving Cupid a helping hand, the book informed me, the arrow also represents destiny, or as Al Dante quipped about the time Notre-Dame was going up (Paradise, song 17, pages 25-27):

“My desire will be happy to learn
what fate awaits me:
Expected arrow don’t hit me so hard.”

I was hit harder by the disaster zone that greeted me from the Ile de Cité than I’d expected to be when I was finally able to forge my way through the somber Easter Sunday crowd congesting the widened sidewalk — the pedestrians spilling over to the bicycle lane — along the Quay Tournelle facing the church across the water, more hushed than usual; even the ten gendarme vans that sped by with blue lights flashing while I was slowly threading my way through the throng, all of our heads askance to look up and over the river at the church, had respectfully silenced their sirens.

Eugene Atget, au tambour quai de tournelles 1908Eugène Atget, “Au Tambourg 63 quai de Tournelle,” 1908.

I’d heard that the twin towers themselves had been spared, but their innards are toast, charred to carbon. Literally, this is all you see through the windows, carbon black. Between the twin towers the roof has effectively been torn off, its curved rim warped on the edge facing the Ile St. Louis, as is the scaffolding which once surrounded the arrow, the fire melting even part of the metal. Two alabaster bishops remain perched high atop the outer ledge of the roof, saluting the Paris skyline from their posts after having been powerless to protect their earthly fiefdom, but the windows below them are also blackened. (This could be from drawn curtains.) When you look at the structure from the Ile St. Louis, which I eventually reached after about half an hour, one of the bishops appears to be turned away from you, his crowned head inclined in mourning.

The real miracle — besides that anything at all is still standing (I’ve seen fires reduce medieval stone houses in my Dordogne village to a pile of rubble in 10 minutes) — is that the ring of gargoyles high up towards where the roof once was (and thus closer than you and me to Heaven) is intact. I know from gargoyles, my first story for the New York Times having been on the gargoyles of Princeton, about which a colleague, Laurel Cantor, had written a precise and elegant book. My favorite was a monkey with a camera peering down from an arch across the street from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who appeared to be taking pictures of those looking up at him as they passed under the arch. (As I write this I’m realizing that gothic buildings have another resonance with me, evoking the surroundings that welcomed me in September 1979 to grounds that otherwise looked like a hurricane had swept through them, because one had, me arriving in Princeton the morning after Hurricane Frederick. It’s really something to live in the garret of one of those buildings, as I did, wondering if you’re big enough to walk in their shoes, but Fitzgerald’s fit mine perfectly, as far as our Princeton expiration date went anyway. We both lasted longer than Eugene O’Neill, Class of ’10, although he and I ran into the same obstacle at PU: “It’s tradition-bound.” Those gargoyles were the beginning of my end at Princeton, the Times wanting more stories from me after that one, written in the Summer of 1983 while I was covering for the regular stringer as a member of the University Press Club, whose other members ordered me to stop writing for the Times when he came back in September. Both me and my editor convinced there was enough to go around, I refused, was kicked out of the club, the bottom fell out of my social life, I stopped going to class, when I sought help, explaining the various stressors, from the dean of the college she scolded me, “Other students are able to have personal problems without letting them get in the way of their studies,” miserable and telling myself I was already doing what I wanted to do anyway, writing for the Times, I left Princeton but it never left me.)

Princeton gargoyle monkey with a camera smallWho’s zooming who? Gargoyle from the campus of Princeton University. Photo courtesy Princeton University.

Beholding those gargoyles of Notre-Dame unscathed by the flames made me think of that monkey, and, later, seeing the way they seemed to be gawking back across the Seine at the tourist gawkers, of the apes on Monkey Island at the San Francisco Zoo, who used to throw their caca at visitors. (I know this from warning the kids I’d take on field trips there not to stand too close to the monkeys, which of course had the opposite effect.) As the Notre-Dame gargoyles stared back down at us staring up at them, I found myself hoping they’d come to life and start heaving fossilized merde at the tourists. (Why such hostility? I guess this is the other reason I’d put off coming down to Notre-Dame to check out the fire damage. I didn’t want to watch the tragedy turn into yet another photo opportunity for tourists, like the Place de la Republique became after the November 13, 2015 massacres: We are not your “I was here” photo moment, tourist-fuckers. We hurt. Now that I start tearing up at writing that it occurs to me that maybe this inability to feel anything about the fire has just been denial. All the things I love about Paris and France are disappearing. Valuable old books are sold for less than fish-wrap (Le Monde costs 1.25), and the social model that used to make France different and unique and the anti (dote) American is also eroding. In my village the post-man, or woman, used to stop and chat with the elders living alone, sometimes bringing them their paper or baguette or having a petite gout of eau de vie with the retired farmer. Now if you want the mailman/woman to spend more than 30 seconds with your 90-year-old grandmother you have to pay the post office for the service…. (Which post-office also eliminated, under  Emmanuel Macron’s Socialist predecessor, the special book rate for sending the country’s literature abroad; so much for exporting French culture.) And Notre-Dame is not just a marketing opportunity to be superficially prettied up in time for the Olympics. It needs to be made whole again.

Ah yes, the books. I was also upset because at least for the first few blocks, the crowd moving along the quay to get a better look at the damaged church across the river was completely ignoring the bookstalls past which this brought them. And yet these bouquinistes, whose lives are not easy — a former friend of mine in the trade worked winters as a museum security guard to support his book-selling habit — are the real guardians of the most valuable monument France has given the world, its literature. This is why on his first morning in Paris, where he’d been sent to fetch the scion of a wealthy Boston family from the clutches of a scheming older Frenchwoman (the Henries seem to have something against this breed, the only thing not quiet in Miller’s “Quiet Days in Clichy” being a Frenchie his hero hooks up with), before he even saw about the boy Henry James’s Lambert Strether (in “The Ambassadors”) headed straight to the quays to search for and procure a complete set of the works of Victor Hugo. At a recent vide-grenier high up on the Meridian — near the Cité Universitaire — I scored a complete volume of the Great Man’s plays that might have been sitting right next to the set Strether bought, given that it was published in the 1880s, for 1 Euro. I’m happy for my library but dismayed about what this says about the value contemporary society attaches to the product of my endangered trade and species. (Further down the quays I joined two older French gentlemen scouring through bins where everything was for sale at 2 Euros, high for vide-greniers but low for bouquinistes. I passed on a volume of the essays, reviews, and other rarely collecting writings of Carson McCullers because it was in French and I was still scarred by an experience with a translation of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which had the Black characters speaking a kind of plantation dialect that made Ebonics seem like Latin by comparison.)

Speaking of dead poets, while the church plaza was cordoned off, its back-side outside the fence and leading to the bridge to the Ile St. Louis — right across the street from the stairs descending to the Holocaust Memorial in what resembles a prison, except instead of Kilroy the graffiti is signed “Albert Camus” — was open. (From my favorite bench on the Ile St-Louis en face you can see the bars of the memorial’s triangular corner room.) The crowd here was more subdued, lulled in part by a long-grey-haired man reprising Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne,” whose theme — gracefully accepting change — was just right for the occasion:

“So long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
To laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.”

When the singer shifted to a more obvious choice (I’m not being more specific because it would leave you singing the song all day, which would still be more dulcet than the middle-aged Danish woman who walked by at that moment doing so.) (Oops, now I realize I left out the sample of Danish pastry a comely boulangerista handed me as I was heading away from the Catacombs towards my rendez-vous with the Ping-Pongeuse, which reminded me of another comely boulangerista at the same bakery at the entrance to the rue Daguerre who I tried to court 18 years ago by handing her a sunflower — during the epoch this is what I was packing, the idea being that I would spontaneously give my tournesol to whatever woman sparked my fancy — only to overhear her afterwards flirting on a bench outside the Catacombs with one very living beau. If this digression annoys you, just be thankful I’m sparing you the two-page entry for “Tournesol” in “The Dictionary of Symbols,” although my witch, who’s also a gardener and almost as much of a sunflower fanatic as me, will appreciate it.)

Still hoping to make myself cry (unfortunately I’d forgotten how Spencer Tracy achieves this to win an argument with Katherine Hepburn — I can’t even remember the name of the film) or at least feel something besides the urge to will the gargoyles to life so that they could start hurling their caca at the tourists, I crossed to the Ile St.-Louis and descended to my favorite bench, once again miraculously free, and from which perspective in 16 years of pique-niquing I’ve been looking across the water at Notre-Dame. At least this is how I remembered it, but when I got to the bench, I realized that what I’ve actually been looking at is that barred prison cell in the caverns of the Holocaust Memorial, with Camus lurking somewhere on its walls waiting to tell us that prison is just a state of mind.

As for the Ile itself, as with Montmartre for me on this trip, during which I’ve been trying not to just resurrect my previous nostalgia for epics I never lived but pay attention to whether they evoke anything for me now, thanks to the assholes who think they can play their annoying music and subject everyone else to it — there used to be a common understanding among We the People of the Ile that this was a music-free-zone — that magic was stifled, at least on this visit.

jardin des plantes lorietteRecently fixed up thanks to a public subscription campaign, the loriette atop the Jardin des Plantes is the oldest iron structure in Paris.

Fearing a similar letdown at the loriette above the nearby Jardin des Plantes — the oldest iron structure in Paris, recently restored thanks to a public inscription campaign — I crossed to the Left Bank and tiredly made my way through the outdoor sculpture garden, stopping only long enough to pee into a metal trough of stagnant amber liquid above which was the inevitable sign from the Mayor: “Paris is clean!” No wonder that when I got there another man was emerging from behind the urinal, where it was no doubt more clean. (Further along in the sculpture garden I found a sort of one-unit “Paris is pissing to fertilize” pissoir with plants in the basin whose complete exposure to the foot traffic makes me wonder what libertine of a deputy mayor dreamed this particular Eco-idea up, although the Serge book informs me that even the Grands Boulevards used to be littered with pissoirs “from which one can see only the cuffs and the shoes” of the piseurs, pissing away the excesses of Capitalism.)

After climbing up to the loriette, where the only free thin metal bench was directly facing the bright 6 p.m. Sun over the green tiles of the Mosque of Paris (the main journalistic justification for this effort was that I wanted to compare religious monuments. Speaking of mosques, maybe the Notre-Dame renovation fund could give, I dunno, 200,000 of that 330 million to the fellows down the street form me here in the prè-St. Gervais, who do their worshiping in a storefront the only religious indication of which is the “Vigi-Pirate” sign on the frosted glass door and the sandals on the ledge outside the mosque on Fridays), I decided I had to say coucou to the Kangaroos (I call them that, but I think they’re actually wallabies), another effort to tap into an early Paris sentimental sensation, when I first discovered them in 2000 and liked to sip my cider leaning up against a bullet-ridden concrete wall facing the pen the kangaroos shared with a pair of black swans. That makeshift terrace has now been walled in as part of a restaurant; paying customers only, please.) I was rewarded with a close-up view, through a fence, of a baby kangaroo milking at his mama’s breast before pitching itself into her pouch, and mama hopping away. A three-year-old boy to whom a papa had been pointing out all these marvels shrieked, “Look Papa, pigeons!” “I point out something really special and you talk to me about pigeons.”

After Mama bounded off, baby in pouch, Dad (I’m talking about the kangaroo) stepped forward to grab a very large slice of raw eggplant from where it had been strewn about with tomatoes and leeks — ratatouille! — neatly nibbling everything away but the black skin before tossing it. That did it. Feeling weak having imbibed nothing but mint tea for six hours I decided to open the can of chicken-vegetable salad — tant pis if it might had fallen off a truck of botchulated foodstuffs on their way back to the factory.

I was about to crawl down into the mouth of the Jusseau metro — I knew there was a toilet on the Place Jusseau; all that mint tea — when I looked across the street and realized it was the “Street of the Arenes.” Yes, I was a traffic light away from THE 2000 year-old arenas of Lutèce, the ancient name for Paris and the more recent name of this column. Another landmark — or rather Paul nostalgia point — that I could cross off my bucket list with just a quick detour.

Ignoring a man strumming his guitar on the first level of the park below the arenas (Oops, the musical reference reminds me that I left out the tango party on the Tino Rossi Square below the Sculpture Garden set against the Seine and beyond that Notre-Dame to which none of the tango dancers who packed the square listening to recorded Carlos Gardel numbers were paying any attention, and where seeing three guys pushing 70 dancing with three girls who won’t be pushing 30 for at least five years told me I should have kept up with those Fort Worth tango lessons and brought my new tango boots instead of my 47-year-old ping-pong paddles to Paris), I continued up the stairs to the concrete lodges flanking one side of the arena from which the Emperor once sat looking down on the gladiators and across at the people in the bleachers, Emperor and subjects drooling over the slaves being tossed out of the cages to the lions, and sat sipping my tea on the bench carved into the lodge before noticing that below that, on the roof of one of the cages, a niche had been carved into the stone big enough for a small emperor to squeeze into, which I did, only instead of a slave being chased by a lion a young woman in a short jeans skirt and white blouse came running towards me chasing a metal ball, which is all they’re chasing these days in the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce.

Heading back where I came from after drinking more tea and emptying it in the appropriate place, then sitting down to enjoy the guitar player before leaving Lutèce, not far from the exit I noticed, in an alcove behind a fenced-in lawn on the other side of which was the arena, a naked alabaster maiden with no head reclining on a body-length stone shelf above an empty basin and cuddling an urn-like object in the crook of her arm. In front of the locked fence protecting the lawn between the fence and the maiden was a stationary sign announcing “Pesticide-free rye and poppies coming soon, thanks to the Friends of the Poppies.” Then I noticed the Don’t drink the water symbol (a faucet with a cross through it) above the alabaster lady and, sure enough, looking closer recognized the three rectangular water outlets below her.

In other words, I’d discovered yet another dry, poorly maintained fountain in Paris, whose administration hasn’t yet figured out that, respiration-wise, a flowing fountain would be a lot more reassuring then poppies and rye. (And I say this as someone of Jewish heritage, whose natural inclinations lean more towards poppies and rye than Gallo-Roman idols.) (I know what you’re thinking: If they’d just put up “Pissoir Ici” signs on all the dry fountains around Paris this would solve two problems. Don’t tempt me.)

This is when I had the revolutionary — for a guy who’s always come to Paris, like Malcolm McLaren, to live yesterday today — revelation: This is what is supposed to happen to decrepit monuments. Their heads fall off. This is what happened to Notre Dame: It’s head fell off. Now, if something happened to that Delacroix fountain, I might be singing a different story….

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Le feuilleton (the Serial), 2 : “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English), Part Two

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Original French version follows English translation.)

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Charles was entering his 18th year. He’d only remotely followed the metamorphosis of his parents and was astonished. His father and mother’s sudden passion for Modern Art bewildered him. By nature a bit slow, a good boy with a below average intelligence, he had trouble keeping up with the evolution of his family. When his father praised Klee to the detriment of Kandinsky, he might as well have still been comparing Mumphy underwear to Rasural underwear.

Charles was not subject to this fever which had consumed his loved ones since the adventure of the Paul Klee paintings had begun: it should be pointed out that speculation wasn’t the only engine driving Monsieur Mumfy’s new attitude. If Monsieur Mumfy had become obsessed with abstract painting, it wasn’t just because he was counting on it — following the example of the Klees — to centuple in value, but also because he liked it. In her role as a good spouse, Madame Mumfy accompanied him in this conversion. She who previously had never set foot in a museum these days wouldn’t miss a single vernissage or cocktail if it had anything to do with abstract art. She even tried her hand at a variety of smaller works about which she didn’t make a big deal, even though some galleries wanted to expose them.

When it was decided that Charles would become a painter, Monsieur and Madame Mumfy threw a cocktail party to which they invited all the critics, dealers, and collectors.

Once more everyone raved about the perspicacity of the master of the house, who’d had the acumen to build such a stellar collection of Klees.

“When one considers,” proclaimed Charles Roy, “that the Modern Art Museum of the City of Paris doesn’t have a single Klee, not even a Mondrian, in its collection, it’s scandalous! It’s up to the private collectors to retain for France a few chefs-d’oeuvre of contemporary art. France owes you so much, dear Monsieur Mumfy!”

Monsieur Mumfy was used to inspiring such homages. Little by little he’d convinced himself that he actually had discovered Paul Klee before the war. In the beginning, he was pretending; now he wasn’t lying. He really believed that he’d always loved Klee — for at least the last 20 years anyway. For that matter, the dates on the paintings on his walls seemed to back up this claim. And given that the art critics, the dealers, and the other collectors who frequented his house were themselves recent converts to abstract art, no one could disabuse him of this notion.

The critic Charles Roy, a specialist in abstract art, had burst into the public spotlight with great fanfare after the Libération. Even though he was already in his 50s, his pre-war activity remained fuzzy. In fact, he’d played a laudable role in the Résistance and he was rewarded by being offered his own platform in the press. As he was absolutely incapable of writing in clear French, or at least of paying any attention to the rules of grammar, he was relegated to the art column. In this post which, on a major newspaper, is usually cloistered and innocuous, Charles Roy had succeeded in carving out a niche for himself thanks to his total ignorance of syntax. No one understood a word he wrote, and as he wrote about paintings that no one understood, people just thought it was a new style. Charles Roy was the veritable inventor of this brand of abstract art criticism which, born at the same time as the Academy of Abstract Art in Paris, made people believe in a concordance of genres when in reality it was just one big critical scam which had encrusted itself like a parasite in the haunches of an art form which merited its own Baudelaire or Apollinaire.

If all the major photographers in Paris were inevitably Hungarian, the big art critics were Belgian. Charles Roy was no exception, and his moniker was obviously a pseudonym. His enemies liked to point this out by punning, “He waffles like a real Belgian.”

Like all Johnny-come-latelies, Charles Roy veered from one extreme to another. A salesman of religious tchotchkes for tourists before the war (voila why he changed his name), Charles Roy now recognized only the strictest form of abstract art. Charles’s artistic coming out party found him once again defending this standard to the boy’s father:

“I admire Klee in a historic sense,” he was saying, “but I don’t approve of his anecdotal aspect. It’s literary painting. Art is only justified today if it doesn’t evoke the least parcel of reality.”

“Ah! Don’t touch my Klee!” Monsieur Mumfy responded in a sententious tone. “You can accuse Miro of being literary, or Picasso of being anecdotal, but when you go after Klee in my presence, it’s as if you’re insulting a member of my family.”

At just this moment a brouhaha broke out in the salon at the entrance sur scene of a dwarf who appeared leaning on a small cane with his bifocals perched on a large nose, a dwarf bearing a surprising resemblance to a Toulouse-Lautrec caricature. The guests parted to make way for the dwarf, who stood on his tip-toes to kiss Madame Mumfy’s hand.

Charles Roy and Monsieur Mumfy fell over themselves to see who could get to the dwarf’s side first.

“My dear Laivit-Canne….”

“Monsieur Laivit-Canne….”

The dwarf sank into an easy chair provided by a servant and announced in a nasal voice:

“I’ve just cut off Manhès!”

This declaration was met with a stupefied silence. The majority of those gathered in the salon turned their heads towards the wall, where five paintings by Manhès stared back at them. They seemed to be looking at them for the first time, even though they were all quite familiar with Manhès’s work. In reality, they were seeking out the little imperfections, the vice which might have earned them the disfavor of Laivit-Canne.

It was finally Charles Roy who broke the silence, ingratiatingly enough, to flatter Laivit-Canne:

“Bravo!, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. Manhès’s style might end up selling well, but in fact it’s already passé. It’s not genuine abstract painting.”

The dwarf, ensconced in his cushions, exuded the surly air of a spoiled child. He resumed in swishing his nose for emphasis:

“I don’t give a fig about abstract painting or non-abstract painting, sellable or non-sellable art …. Manhès insulted me — Manhès who owes me everything, Manhès who’d be dead if not for me –”

“Oh!”

The dwarf nimbly scooped up a petit-four from a passing platter, masticated it with determination, and explained:

“Manhès called me a self-hating Jew….”

This unexpected insult created an unease among the guests. Someone ventured:

“Manhès has always struck me as a racist.”

The dwarf sought out the origin of the voice, squinting his eyes, came up empty, and continued:

“I encourage you, my dear Mumfy, to sell off your Manhèses. Before long they won’t be worth a wooden nickel.”

“There’s no rush, there’s no rush,” joked Monsieur Mumfy with a cheerful bonhomie which broke the tension a little. Then, assuming a stentorian tone, he proclaimed:

“Tonight I’m proud to announce some good news. Charles has decided to choose art over underwear. He’s to be a painter.”

“Which academy will you send him too?” asked one woman, “chez Léger ou chez Lhote?”

“Just don’t tell us he’s going to the Beaux-Arts Academy,” asked another worried woman.

“Don’t be alarmed,” assured Monsieur Mumfy. “He’ll be trained at the right school. I’m going to sign him up for the Abstract Art Academy.”

Big hands started clapping. Those of Charles Roy. The guests formed into groups, depending on their affinities. Many paused in front of Manhés’s paintings, where the conversation was particularly animated. Everyone rushed to shake the hand of Charles, who was starting to get bored.

Version originale par et copyright Michel Ragon:

Charles entrait dans sa dix-huitième année. Il avait assisté à la métamorphose de ses parents sans enthousiasme. La soudaine passion de son père et de sa mère pour l’art moderne le déroutait. D’un naturel un peu niais, bon garçon, d’une intelligence au-dessous de la moyenne, il ne suivit l’évolution de sa famille que de très loin et le souffle coupé. Lorsqu’il entendait son père louer Klee au détriment de Kandinsky, cela lui produisait le même effet que si son géniteur avait fait l’apologie des sous-vêtements Michaud au détriment de sous-vêtements Rasurel.

Charles ne participait pas à cette fièvre qui s’était emparée des siens depuis cette aventure des tableaux de Paul Klee: Il faut dire que la spéculation n’était pas la seul moteur réagissant la nouvelle attitude de Monsieur Michaud. Monsieur Michaud achetait de la peinture abstrait, non seulement parce qu’il comptait bien que celle-ci, a l’exemple des tableaux de Klee, centuple sa valeur, mais aussi parce qu’il aimait ça. En bonne épouse, Madame Michaud l’accompagne dans sa conversion. Elle qui, autrefois, n’avait jamais mis les pieds dans un musée, ne manquait aujourd’hui aucun vernissage, aucun cocktail, concernant l’art abstrait. Elle s’essayait même, comme nous l’avons vu, à certaines petites œuvrettes dont elle avait la sagesse de ne pas faire grand cas et ceci bien que certaines galeries lui aient proposé de les exposer.

Lorsqu’il fut décidé que Charles serait peintre, Monsieur et Madame Michaud donnèrent un cocktail où tous les critiques, marchands, collectionneurs, furent invités.

On s’extasia une fois de plus sur la perspicacité du maître de maison qui avait su réunir une collection de Klee aussi merveilleuse.

— Quand on pense, s’exclama Charles Roy, que le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris n’a même pas un seul Klee, pas un Mondrian, c’est une scandale ! Il faut que ce soient des collectionneurs privés qui retiennent en France quelques chefs-d’œuvre de l’art actuel. La France vous devra beaucoup, cher Monsieur Michaud !

Monsieur Michaud était habitué a soulever de tels enthousiasmes. Peu à peu, il finit par se convaincre qu’il avait réellement découvert Paul Klee avant la guerre. Au début, il jouait la comédie; maintenant il ne mentait plus. Il était persuadé qu’il avait toujours aimé Klee, depuis vingt ans au moins. D’ailleurs les dates des tableaux sur les murs témoignaient de cette ancienneté. Comme les critiques d’art, les marchands et les autres collectionneurs qui fréquentaient sa maison n’étaient eux aussi convertis à l’art abstrait que depuis fort peu de temps, personne ne pouvait le détromper.

Le critique Charles Roy, spécialiste de l’art abstrait, s’était révélé avec fracas à l’attention du public après la Libération. Bien qu’il fût âgé d’une cinquantaine d’années, son activité avant la guerre restait dans un anonymat très vague. En fait, il eut un rôle très méritoire dans la Résistance et on l’en récompensa en lui créant un fromage dans la presse. Comme il était incapable d’écrire un française clair, ou tout au moins correct, on le relégua dans la chronique des arts. A ce poste, qui, dans un grande journal est en général terne et sans histoire, Charles Roy réussit à se faire un nom grâce à sa méconnaissance totale de la syntaxe. Personne ne comprenant rien à ce qu’il écrivait et comme il parlait de tableaux que personne ne comprenait, on crut à un nouveau style. Charles Roy est le véritable créateur de cette critique d’art abstrait qui, née parallèlement au développement d’une Ecole d’Art Abstrait à Paris, fit croire à une concordance des genres alors qu’il ne s’agissait que d’un cafouillage incrusté en parasite au flanc d’une peinture qui méritait son Baudelaire ou son Apollinaire.

Si, à Paris, les grands photographes sont en général hongrois, les critiques d’art sont belges. Charles Roy n’échappait pas à cette règle et son nom était évidemment un pseudonyme. Ses ennemis disaient même, par un calembour facile : « Il est belge comme pieds. »

Comme tous les néophytes convertis sur le tard, Charles Roy allait d’un extrême à l’autre. Représentant de statuettes du genre Saint-Sulpice avant la guerre (et c’est pour cela qu’il avait changé son nom), Charles Roy n’admettait plus maintenant que l’art abstrait le plus strict. Encore une fois, il se chamaillait à ce propos avec Monsieur Michaud :

— J’admire Klee d’une façon historique, disait-il. Mais je lui reproche son côté anecdotique. C’est de la peinture littéraire. L’art ne se justifie aujourd’hui que s’il n’évoque pas la moindre parcelle de réalité.

— Ah ! ne touchez pas à Klee; répondait Monsieur Michaud d’un ton sentencieux. Vous pouvez me dire que Miro est littéraire, que Picasso est anecdotique, mais lorsqu’on attaque Klee en ma présence, c’est comme si on insultait ma famille.

Il se fit un brouhaha dans le salon et l’on vit entrer un nain, avec une petite canne et des lorgnons sur un gros nez, ressemblant étonnamment à un caricature de Toulouse-Lautrec. Tout le monde s’inclinait au passage du nain qui se haussa sur la pointe des pieds pour baiser la main de Madame Michaud.

Charles Roy et Monsieur Michaud se bousculèrent pour arriver le premier près du nain.

— Mon cher Laivit-Canne…

— Monsieur Laivit-Canne…

Le nain s’enfonça dans un fauteuil que lui avança un domestique et dit d’une voix nasillarde :

— Je viens de couper les vivres à Manhes !

Un silence stupéfait accueillit cette déclaration. La plupart des personnes réunies dans la salon tournèrent la tête vers le mur où cinq tableaux de Manhès étaient accrochés. Elles semblaient les regarder pour la première fois, bien que toutes connussent fort bien la peinture de Manhès. En fait, elles cherchaient l’imperfection, le vice qui leur valait la défaveur de Laivit-Canne.

Ce fut Charles Roy qui rompit le silence, assez bassement, pour flatter Laivit-Canne:

— C’est tout à votre honneur, Monsieur Laivit-Canne. La peinture de Manhès pourrait devenir très commerciale, mais elle est tout à fait dépassée. Ce n’est pas un véritable peintre abstrait.

Le nain, enfoncé dans les coussins, avait l’air hargneux d’un enfant prodige. Il reprit en chuintant du nez :

— M’en fous de la peinture abstraite ou pas abstrait, de la peinture commerciale ou pas commerciale… Mais Manhès m’a injurié, lui qui me doit tout, moi qui le faisais vivre…

— Oh !

Le nain attrapa prestement un petit-four, sur un plateau qui passait, le mastique avec application et dit :

— Manhès m’a traité de Juif honteux…

Cette injure inattendue créa un malaise dans l’assistance. Quelqu’un risqua :

— Manhès m’a toujours paru raciste.

Le nain chercha d’où venait cette voix, en plissant les yeux, ne la reconnut pas, et dit :

— Je vous engage, mon cher Michaud, à vendre vos Manhès, bientôt ils ne vaudront plus rien.

— Ce n’est pas pressé, ce n’est pas pressé, plaisanta Monsieur Michaud avec ne bonhomie enjouée qui dégela un peu l’assistance. Puis, reprenant une voix solennelle :

« Ce soir, je veux vous annoncer une bonne nouvelle. Charles vient de préférer les arts aux sous-vêtements. Il sera peintre. »

— Où l’envoyes-vous, demanda une dame, chez Léger ou chez Lhote ?

— Il ne va pas faire les Beaux-Arts, au moins, s’inquiéta une autre ?

— Ne vous alarmez pas, dit Monsieur Michaud, il sera formé à bonne école. Je vais le faire inscrire à l’Académie d’Art Abstrait.

De grosses mains applaudirent. C’étaient celles de Charles Roy. Des groupes se formèrent dans l’appartement, au gré des sympathies et des antipathies. On allait beaucoup devant les tableaux de Manhés et la conversation s’animait dans ce coin-là. Chacun serait vigoureusement la main à Charles, qui s’ennuyait.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.

Le feuilleton (the Serial), 1: “Trompe-l’œil” — Michel Ragon’s ground-breaking 1956 satire of the Contemporary Art Market (in French and English)

By and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(English version follows French original.)

Dans le salon très moderne de Monsieur Michaud, le fameux Michaud des sous-vêtements du même nom (« avec Michaud, toujours chaud »), se tenait une réunion de famille. L’abondance du plexiglas et les multiples ouvertures des meubles Oscar enlevaient toute intimité à cette vaste salle cubique dont les murs s’ornaient d’une collection de peintures de Klee. Leur qualité valait à son propriétaire l’estime et la considération, très souvent exprimée, des meilleurs écrivains et amateurs d’art.

Assis dans un fauteuil tubulaire tendu de cordes blanches qui lui donnaient une vague allure de harpe faussée, Monsieur Michaud interrogeait son fils, debout devant lui. Un peu à l’écart, mais participant toutefois à la conversation, Madame Michaud s’occupait à un collage relativement cubiste sur une table de céramique noire. Non pas que Madame Michaud fût artiste, ni même qu’elle tentât de passer pour telle, mais elle se distrayait en découpant des morceaux de papiers de couleurs et en les assemblant, tantôt à la manière de Picasso, tantôt à la manière de Matisse, comme elle se fût donnée, cinquante ans plus tôt, aux points de canevas.

— Voyons, Charles, disait Monsieur Michaud à son fils, décide-toi. Tu viens d’être reçu a ton bac, il te faut t’orienter vers une carrière. Nous sommes là pour t’aider…

Charles, tout de noir vêtu, les cheveux raides ramenés sur le front à la Bourvil (ou à la Marlon Brando), triturait son mouchoir, avançait une jambe, la reculait, avec un dandinement pouvant faire supposer qu’il tendait à l’inversion sexuelle, mais il n’en était rien. L’allure efféminée de Charles, comme ses sautillements, ses gestes gamins, sa démarche déhanchée, appartenait au style de l’époque.

— Réponds, Amour, s’exclama Madame Michaud, ne laisse pas languir ton père ; sinon il va encore nous faire vingt-quatre de tension!

— Voila, pap’, mam’, se décida enfin Charles, en accentuant son dandinement, moi j’aimerais bien devenir notaire.

Madame Michaud abandonna précipitamment ses ciseaux et sa colle pour courir à son mari qui suffoquait. Elle le frappais dans le dos avec énergie, lui tapotait les joues :

— Ce n’est rien, darling*, ce n’est rien ! Charles plaisante, tu le vois bien…

Lorsque Monsieur Michaud reprit « ses esprits », Charles très ennuyé par la tournure des événements, redit quand même :

— Je ne voudrais pas vous fâcher, pap’, mam’, mais c’est vrai : j’aimerais bien être notaire.

Monsieur et Madame Michaud se regardèrent d’un air entendu et indulgent. Puis Monsieur Michaud dit d’une voix ferme :

— Mon petit Charles, tu es ridicule. On n’est plus notaire, de nos jours. Comment une pareille idée a-t-elle pu se nicher dans la tête du fils Michaud ! Choisir d’être notaire… Est-ce que l’on choisit d’être cocu ? Enfin, quoi, n’as-tu pas lu Balzac ? Flaubert ? Depuis cent ans les notaires sont des personnages de farce et ton idéal serait de coiffer la calotte noire, de porter des bésicles et une chaîne de montre en or sur un ventre que, Dieu merci, tu n’es pas encore près d’acquérir. Le métier de notaire peut, à la rigueur, convenir à un fils d’instituteur de campagne ; mais toi, Charles, veux-tu faire honte à ta famille ?

« Allons, allons, c’est une bêtise de jeune homme. Je vais t’aider, moi. Tiens… si tu faisais une carrière d’artiste… Peintre, par exemple ?

— Mais, pap’, je ne sais pas peindre…

Monsieur Michaud se prit le crâne à pleines mains, en signe de découragement total devant une telle innocence.

— Regardez-moi ce grand sot ! Mais tu apprendras, Charles ! Est-ce qu’on refuse d’envisager la médecine parce qu’on n’a jamais fait un pansement ! La peinture s’apprend, mon petit, comme toute chose. Et regarde l’avenir qui est offert à un peintre. Picasso est milliardaire, Matisse aussi… Connais-tu un notaire qui, parti de rien, soit arrivé à une aussi brillante situation ? Picasso a perdu beaucoup de temps, dans sa jeunesse, parce qu’il était pauvre, qu’il ne pouvait pas s’acheter de couleurs ni de toiles, qu’il n’avait aucune relation parmi les marchands et les critiques. Mais toi, tu ne manqueras de rien. Je te donnerai une mensualité qui te laissera la tête libre. Tu profiteras de mes relations de collectionneur. Allez, fiston, avec un pu de bonne volonté de ta part, nous ferons de toi un artiste célèbre, qui sera la joie de la famille. Regarde Ancelin, il ne voulais rien savoir pour être peintre, lui non plus. Il voulait devenir officier, sous prétexte que son père est général. Mais le général Ancelin a bien su le dissuader de suivre une carrière aussi compromise par ce pacifisme de plus en plus en vogue. Lui aussi, ce vieil ami Ancelin, avait su voir quels débouchés offrait maintenant le monde des arts. Ancelin a son contrat chez Laivit-Canne et il va bientôt exposer a New York.

En se relevant lourdement, Monsieur Michaud heurta du front une pale d’un mobile de Calder qui se balançait dans la pièce. Il la chassa distraitement du revers de la main, comme une mouche. Le mobile se mit à onduler, toutes les branches évoluèrent en silence. On eût dit qu’un gigantesque insecte se fût tout à coup éveillé au-dessus du père et du fils qui n’y prenaient garde. Une soubrette entre, après avoir frappé. Elle paraissait affolée :

— Madame, le service de céramique que Monsieur avait offert à Madame…

— Et bien ?

— Je ne sais pas comment cela a pu se produire, mais il déteint.

— Expliquez-vous clairement et ne vous énervez pas, soupira Madame Michaud en coupant délicatement une languette de papier gaufré.

— Oui, Madame, j’ai voulu servir le consommé dans le service en céramique et le consommé est devenu tout bleu.

— C’est insensé, hurla Monsieur Michaud. Qui vous a dit de toucher à ce service ! Vous n’avez donc pas vu que ces assiettes n’étaient pas faites pour manger dedans !

— Alors elle sont faites pour quoi, Monsieur, demanda la bonne, ahurie.

— Mais pour rien, hurla encore plus fort Monsieur Michaud, si fort que le Calder en eut des hoquets. Ces assiettes sont des œuvres d’art. On ne mange pas dans des œuvres d’art. On les regarde !

La bonne essaya de se justifier en bougonnant :

— Je n’aurais jamais pensé verser du consommé dans les tableaux de Monsieur. Mais je croyais que des assiettes étaient des assiettes…

Monsieur et Madame Michaud éclatèrent de rire en même temps. Ils pouffaient : « Elle croyait que les assiettes étaient des assiettes… C’est à ne pas croire ! Il faudra raconter ça a Paulhan. »

La bonne repartit, vexée. Par l’immense baie vitrée qui donnait sur le Jardin du Luxembourg, Charles, indifférent a la crise de fou rire de ses parents, regardait avec nostalgie vers la Faculté de Droit.

***

Monsieur Michaud n’était pas né collectionneur. Avant la guerre, tout occupé à son industrie de sous-vêtements, il ignorait même qu’il existait encore des peintres. Il avait fallu un hasard. Un de ses débiteurs lui apporta un lot d’aquarelles, de gouaches et de peintures d’un artiste allemand inconnu, en le suppliant de les conserver comme gage. Monsieur Michaud refusa d’abord ce singulier marché. Depuis quand échange-t-on des sous-vêtements contre de la peinture ! Mais le débiteur était acculé à la ruine. En attendant d’entamer des poursuites, Monsieur Michaud fit porter dans une de ses remises toutes ces peintures qu’il ne prit même pas la peine de regarder. Quelques mois plus tard, son débiteur se suicida. Monsieur Michaud se fit apporter les peintures afin d’examiner s’il pourrait en tirer quelque argent. Stupéfait, il vit qu’il s’agissait de choses enfantines, des sortes de fleuves, d’oiseaux, de bonshommes. Il s’était fait bien avoir. La fureur l’étranglait. Ce salaud de machin s’était payé sa tête avant de se suicider. A tout hasard, il fit quand même venir un marchand qui refusa d’acheter en souriant d’un air supérieur.

— Alors, je peux les foutre à la poubelle, suffoqua-t-il.

— Oh, dit le marchand, avec un geste évasif, gardez-les toujours. On ne sait jamais. Si vous avez de la place…

Peu après la guerre, ce même marchand revint voir Monsieur Michaud qui avait complètement oublié cette histoire de peintures. Il lui offrit deux millions pour ce lot d’œuvres de Klee qu’il se souvenait avoir vu autrefois.

Devant l’énormité de la somme (le débiteur ne lui devait, avant la guerre, que quelques centaines de mille francs), il se méfia, fit venir d’autres marchands de tableaux qui lui offrirent trois, quatre, cinq millions… Il se mit alors à lire quelques livres sur l’art contemporain, découvrit que la peinture était la marchandise la plus spéculative qui soit et que l’on considérait Klee, en Amérique, comme un grand peintre. Il fit encadrer luxueusement ses peintures et les accrocha dans son salon. Bientôt, on lui demanda l’autorisation de photographier « ses » œuvres, de les reproduire en couleurs dans des revues luxueuses et des livres d’art. Son nom fut mentionné à chaque fois que l’on parlait de l’œuvre de Klee. Il pénétra ainsi, à son insu, dans le monde des arts et des lettres et se laissa aisément convertir à toutes les avant-gardes. Il se paya le luxe d’être parfois philanthrope, de subventionner quelques revues, d’encourager quelques jeunes artistes dont la peinture ressemblait à celle de Klee. Il arriva même à passer pour l’un des premiers spécialistes de Klee en France. Loin de lui faire perdre de l’argent, les arts lui apportaient une considération qu’il n’avait jamais obtenue en tant qu’industriel. On le décora pour services rendus aux arts. Des artistes célèbres recherchèrent son amitié. Même les autres industriels lui témoignaient maintenant une déférence qu’ils n’auraient jamais eu l’idée de lui accorder avant qu’il devînt un « grand collectionneur ». Monsieur et Madame Michaud voulurent être à la page. Ils achetèrent un appartement qu’ils firent transformer par Le Corbusier. Rien, absolument rien chez eux, ne fut antérieur à ce siècle, si ce n’étaient eux-mêmes.

Elevé dans cette architecture aux lignes pures, blasé du mobilier qui lui rappelait fâcheusement le cabinet du dentiste, abruti par la fréquentation journalière des chefs-d’œuvre, Charles se prit à souhaiter vivre dans une étude poussiéreuse, avec de grandes vielles chaises aux pieds droits, en bois, avec un bureau en bois et un porte-plume avec une plume. C’était sa poésie, à lui. A chaque adolescent sa folie.

English translation by Paul Ben-Itzak

In the très chic Parisian salon of Monsieur Mumfy — the very same Mumfy of the celebrated underwear ads — “with Mumfy, you’re always comfy” — a Family Conference was underway. The plethora of Plexiglas and the multitude of apertures in the porous Oscar furniture eliminated any idea of intimacy in the vast square room, whose walls were ornamented with a collection of Klees. The quality of these paintings had earned their proprietor the high regard and hosannas, frequently expressed, of the leading art critics of Paris as well as art aficionados.

Ensconced in a tubular arm-chair held together with cream-colored cords which leant it the vague allure of a warped harp, Monsieur Mumfy was in the process of interrogating his son, standing before him. Slightly separated from them, but still participating in the conversation, Madame Mumfy was busy at a black ceramic table creating a more or less Cubist collage. It was not that Madame Mumfy was an artist, or even trying to pass as one, but that she liked to distract herself with cutting up colored paper and re-assembling it, sometimes à la Picasso, sometimes à la Matisse, just as 50 years earlier she might have devoted herself to needlework.

“My dear Charles,” Monsieur Mumfy declared, “it’s time to decide. You’ve now graduated from high school; it’s time to pick a career. We’re here to help….”

Charles, clad from head to toe in black, his stiff hair combed over his forehead à la Bourvil (or à la Marlon Brando), pulverizing his handkerchief between his nervous fingers, tentatively stepped forward before retreating, with a certain dandy-ness that might have lead one to suspect an inclination towards sexual inversion, but it was nothing like that. Charles’s effeminate affectations, like his bird-like hopping back and forth, his juvenile gestures, and the weaving of his hips when he walked, were très à la mode.

“Respond, Cheri!” chimed in Madame Mumfy. “Don’t let your father just languish there. Otherwise we’re in for another 24 hours of stress!”

“Okay Pops, Moms,” Charles finally decided, accentuating his dandy-ness. “I have a dream: To become… a notary public.”

Madame Mumfy precipitously dropped her scissors and glue to rush to the side of her husband, who was hyperventilating. Striking him on the back and tapping him on the cheeks, she tried to reassure him:

“It’s nothing, darling, nothing! Charles is obviously kidding….”

When Monsieur Mumfy had recovered his wits, his son, albeit concerned by the turn of events, nonetheless insisted:

“I don’t want to make you mad Pops, Moms, but I’m not joking: I really want to be a notary public.”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy glanced at each other with a complicit air tempered by indulgence. Then Monsieur Mumfy responded with a firm voice:

“My dear Charles, don’t be ridiculous. No one becomes a notary public in these times. How could such an idea ever have sprouted up in the head of a MUMFY?! Choosing to be a notary public. The very idea of it! Does one choose to be a cuckold? Haven’t you read Balzac? Flaubert? For more than a hundred years notary publics have been looked on as grotesque characters, the butt of jokes — and your “dream” would be to sport a black skull-cap and bifocals with a pocket-watch dangling on a chain over a protuberant belly that — thank God — you’re not even close to acquiring. Being a notary public might be fitting for the son of a hic school-teacher, but you, Charles — do you want to be the black sheep of your family?

“Come, come now — it’s just the silly fancy of an adolescent. I’m going to help you…. I’ve got it! What if you became … an artist…? A painter, for instance?”

“But Pops, I don’t know how to paint.”

Monsieur Mumfy clutched his head between his hands in a sign of total exasperation in the face of such naïveté.

“Look at this blockhead! You’ll learn, Charles, you’ll learn! Does someone refuse to become a doctor because he’s never applied a bandage? One learns to paint, my boy, as with anything. And consider the future in painting. Picasso is a millionaire, as is Matisse…. Have you ever heard of a notary public who, starting out from scratch, has carved out such a shining success? Picasso lost so much time in his youth, because he was poor and couldn’t afford paints or canvasses, and because he didn’t know any dealers or critics. But you, Charle! You won’t lack for anything. I’ll give you a monthly allowance so you won’t have anything to worry about. You can use my connections as a collector. With a little effort from you, my boy, we’ll make a famous artist out of you who will be the pride and joy of the family. Look at Ancelin. He wouldn’t have heard of becoming a painter. He wanted to be an officer, just because his father is a general. But General Ancelin talked him out of pursuing a career in a field compromised by the pacifism that’s more and more in vogue these days. And our old friend Ancelin was able to see the opportunities available these days in the art world. And he now has a contract with Laivit-Canne’s gallery and will soon be exposed in New York.

Rising heavily, Monsieur Mumfy bumped his head against the blade of a Calder mobile rotating from the ceiling. He scooted it away distractedly with the back of his hand, as if it were a fly. The mobile started to undulate, with all its branches revolving in silence. It was as if a giant insect had suddenly come to life above the father and son, oblivious to its awakening. A soubrette rushed in after urgently knocking, in the throes of panic.

“Madame, it’s horrible! The pottery set that Monsieur gave Madame….”

“Yes…?

“I don’t know how it happened, but… it’s bleeding.”

“Now now, explain yourself clearly and don’t get upset,” sighed Madame Mumfy, delicately snipping off a strip of embossed paper.

“Yes, Madame. I went to serve the consommé in the pottery bowls and the consommé turned completely blue.”

“WHAT?!” erupted Monsieur Mumfy. “Who told you to touch that pottery?! You couldn’t tell that those plates were not made to be eaten from?!”

“Then what are they made for, Monsieur?” asked the maid, flustered.

“They’re not ‘made’ for anything!” roared Monsieur Mumfy even louder, so loud that the Calder began to hiccup. “Those plates are works of art. One does not eat from works of art. One beholds them!”

The maid tried to defend herself by babbling, “I wouldn’t have thought of pouring consommé on Monsieur’s paintings. I just thought that bowls are bowls….”

Monsieur and Madame Mumfy broke into simultaneous laughter, bursting out, “She believed that bowls were bowls…!” “Incredible!” “We must tell Paulhan about this!”

The maid departed, clearly vexed. By the immense bay window looking out over the Luxembourg Gardens, Charles, indifferent to the fit of laughter which had seized his parents, gazed nostalgically out at the Law School.

***

Monsieur Mumfy was not a born art collector. Before the war, consumed as he was with his underwear factory, he didn’t even know that painters existed. It took an accident. One of his debtors brought him a batch of watercolors, gouaches, and paintings by an unknown German artist, pleading with him to accept the paintings as collateral. Monsieur Mumfy initially refused this singular arrangement. Since when did one trade underwear for paintings?! But the debtor had been driven to ruin. Ahead of taking him to court, Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings stored in one of his warehouses, without taking the trouble to even look at them. Some months later, the debtor committed suicide. Monsieur Mumfy had the paintings brought up so he could study them to see if by chance they might actually be worth something. Stupefied, he discovered that they were replete with child-like doodles — all sorts of rivers, of birds, of funny figures. He’d been had. He began to choke with rage. The bastard had conned him before offing himself! Just in case, though, he asked an art dealer to take a look; the dealer refused to buy anything, smiling snidely.

“So I can throw them in the garbage,” Monsieur Mumfy fumed.

“Oh,” the dealer answered, with an evasive gesture, “hang on to them all the same. You never know. If you have the space….”

Immediately after the war, the very same dealer came back to see Monsieur Mumfy, who’d completely forgotten the painting fiasco. He offered him $5,000 for the whole lot of Klee works that he recalled seeing earlier.

Faced with the enormity of the amount (the debtor owed him, before the war, a little over $500), Monsieur Mumfy became suspicious, asked other dealers to come look at the paintings, and got offers of $7,500, $10,000, and $12,500 for the Klees…. He decided to read a few books about contemporary art, discovered that the market for paintings was the most speculative around, and that Klee was considered in America to be a major painter. He bought ornate frames for his paintings and had them hung in his salon. Before long, there were requests to photograph ‘his’ oeuvres, and to reproduce them in color in luxury magazines and art books. The name Mumfy was evoked wherever there was talk of Klee’s oeuvre. Thus he was catapulted, almost unconsciously, into the midst of the world of arts and letters and readily let himself be converted to all things avant-garde. He allowed himself to indulge in the luxury of philanthropy, underwriting several art revues and sponsoring young artists whose paintings resembled Klee’s. He was even recognized as one of the premiere Klee specialists in France. Far from making him lose money, the arts earned him notoriety he’d never even dreamed of as a simple garmento. He was decorated for services rendered to the arts. Famous artists cultivated his friendship. Even his fellow industrialists now showed him a deference that they’d never have dreamed of according him before he earned a reputation as an “influential collector.” Monsieur et Madame Michaud wanted to be up-to-date. They bought an apartment that they hired Le Corbusier to transform. Nothing, absolutely nothing in their home pre-dated the 20th century (with the possible exception of its proprietors).

Brought up amongst this architecture of pure lines, blasé about being surrounded by furniture which constantly reminded him of a dentist’s office, exhausted by this daily frequenting of chefs-d’oeuvre, Charles began to fantasize about living in a dusty bureau, with large old straight-legged  wooden arm-chairs, an oak desk and an ink-well with a feather plume. This was his own form of poetry. To every teenager his folly.

*In English in the original.

Excerpted from “Trompe-l’œil,” by Michel Ragon, published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel, Paris, and copyright Michel Ragon.