Journal d’un confiné (Diary of a confined man): Camus versus Bourvil; a nos jours de ping-pong en pleine air

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

A VILLAGE IN SOUTHWEST FRANCE — I always thought I’d be brave, like Tarrou in Camus‘s “La Peste,” “The Plague.” Diving right into the heart of the malady, seeing it as an opportunity to make his own meaning even during the darkest calamity; the gist of existentialism a la Camus. Or like the author himself, walking around Occupied Paris with the proofs of his clandestine newspaper Combat stuffed into his pocket, at the risk of his life. (On one occasion, spotting a Gestapo patrol a block ahead, he had just time enough to pass them to his mistress Maria Casarès, knowing that she’d be less likely to be searched.) (The birthday date accompanying the fake name on Camus’s fake passport is my own.) But now it’s clear that I would be more like Bourvil’s character in Claude Autant-Lara’s 1956 film “La Traversée de Paris,” neither a collaborator nor a Resistant, but just trying to survive and get along, in his case by trundling a black market side of beef across Occupied Paris after curfew with the help of painter Jean Gabin. (When I saw this film at the beginning of my Paris years with my friend Sabine at a Latin Quarter cinema, I didn’t understand why Gabin’s character got so riled up when the pair took refuge in a cafe where a Jewish girl was bussing tables. I thought it an admirable thing that they were hiding her out. “He is mad because they are taking advantage of the situation to have a worker for free,” Sabine explained.)

While this quarantine can’t be compared to that particular ‘Peste’ — if we are at war, as President Macron justly explained in announcing the confinement, it is a war where even friends and family might be bearing the threat, whence the reason for the strict measures — I can say that if this were 1940 (and I were still Jewish), I already have a pretty good idea of who here in my petite village would be hiding me out.

Several years ago, when I suggested to an association in the 13eme arrondissement of Paris, near where some of the action of the film had been situated, that I organize a screening of “La Traversée de Paris” (a resto on the lip of the jardin des Plantes has actually adopted the name, with a  cartoon Bourvil smiling out from its marquee) — they’d supposedly been interested in soliciting ideas from the general public, and had liked mine to show films shot in the arrondissement — the association’s presidents resisted. “Why don’t you show a film about Resistance? That would be more interesting.” It’s almost like their own resistance was to acknowledge that there had been people like the characters portrayed by Bourvil, people who just tried to get along. (De Beauvoir protégée Violette Leduc was another, bicycling Black Market goods to the suburbs to sell.) But the fact is that in times of crisis, there is a middle-ground between the Maquisard and the Collabo, and it’s the petite homme (or woman) who just wants to survive. Not everyone has the guts to be a hero. I’m pretty sure I don’t.

(In these days of the Corona virus, you don’t need me to tell you that the grand heroes — the real Tarrous — are the doctors, the nurses, and the other health-care workers, beginning with that Chinese doctor who first sounded the alarm and who was initially rewarded for his bravery with prison.)

In the meantime, I will be thankful for the ‘petite’ heroism of my neighbor-friend — you know who you are and you know how you’re helping. (I will say that it was only after leafing through my copy of Vintage / Knopf’s — very bad — English translation “La Peste,” which still bears the Strand Book store .48 cent stamp and re-reading Dr. Rieux’s advice to Cottard that he should “get out for some physical exercise” that I finally emerged from my own particular hermitage to take advantage of one of my friend’s kind offers.)

French language corner

On one of the quartier solidarity lists for the East of Paris on which I’m subscribed, the hostess forwarded this note / request for advice from “Arman”:

Ma demande peut paraître déplacée par ses temps d’épidémie et de confinement mais je suis à la recherche d’une ou deux balles de ping-pong.

Merci et prends bien soin de toi.

(He’s basically saying “I know this might seem inappropriate in these days of epidemic and confinement, but I’m looking for one or two ping-pong balls.” This is how I responded, English translation following pigeon-French original.)

Bonjour,

D’abord votre demande n’est pas déplacée du tout! En ces moments sombres, il faut tienne aux souvenirs des meilleures temps — du passé et d’un future souhaitable — qui sont indissociable avec LIBERTE et JOIE. Pour moi, déjà vous m’avais donne une: De pouvoir jouer autour des tables de ping-pong dans le jardin de L’observatoire un  jour de printemps, tout en faisant des nouvelles connaissances. Sacre de printemps que j’espère pouvoir reprise avant trop longtemps. (Pour la question pratique, quand il sera encore ouvert, “Go Sports”; il y un a je crois a la place d’Italie et un autre place de la République et ils ne sont pas chère.)

Bon courage,
Paul B-I,
Perigordin / Parisian.

In English:

In the first place, your request is not AT ALL inappropriate. In these somber moments, we need to cling to images of better times — of the past and of a desired future — which speak to FREEDOM and JOY. For me, already you’ve given me one: To be able to play again on the ping-pong tables of the jardin de l’observatoire on a Spring day, at the same time making new friends. Rite of Spring that I hope to be able to reprise before too long. (For the practical question, when it will be open again, try Go Sports; there’s one on the place d’Italie and another on the place de la Republique, and they’re not expensive.)

In writing this piece, I looked up a “Doer’s Profile” the Noe Valley Voice did on me in 1978, when I was still in high school, to confirm that not only had I listed “The Plague” as, with Huck Finn, my favorite book, but that I’d said what I referred to above regarding Tarrou and the book’s message, and my intention to follow that credo. But when the reporter Corey M. Anders asked what was the most important thing to me, I’d actually answered “Making friends.”

Par préférence, autour d’une table de ping-pong au milieu du jardin de l’observatoire. Preferably, over a ping-pong table in the jardin de l’observatoire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lutèce Diary / A post-modern American in Paris, 40: The Gift (Le Cadeau) or, Pour en finir avec le Céline-o-mania

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

A Sidney, pour les soins….et a Lewis, Jamie, Martin, et tout mes péres, qui rien n’avais obligé d’y etre mais qui se sont comporté comme tel. /To Sidney, for the care…. and to Lewis, Jamie, Martin, and all my fathers who nothing obligated to be but who comported themselves as such.

Prelude: Poete surrealiste chretienne morte a Drancy, car née Juif

“Love thy neighbor”

Who noticed the toad cross the street? He was just a little man — a doll would not have been more miniscule. He dragged himself along on his knees — as if he were ashamed….? No! He has rheumatism, one leg remains behind, he drags it forward! Where is he going like that? He comes out of the sewer, the poor clown. No one has noticed this toad in the street. Before no one noticed me in the street, now children make fun of my yellow star. Happy toad! You don’t have a yellow star.” (Voir dessous pour le V.O. / See below for the original French version.)

— Max Jacob, Surrealist poet, comrade of Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Picasso, arrested by the Gestapo on February 24, 1944, in the Brittany village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. In a note hastily scribbled on the train to the Orleans prison, Jacob, who since converting to Christianity before the first World War liked to write personalized proselytizing homilies for his colleagues and whose poetry was suffused with devotional tributes to Christ, wrote: “Dear Monsieur le Cure, Excuse this letter from a drowning man written with the complaisance of the gendarmes. I wanted to tell you that I’ll soon be in Drancy. I have conversions in process. I have confidence in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom which now begins.” On March 5, Jacob succumbed to pneumonia at the Drancy way station outside Paris before he could be deported — or confessed. At Drancy, there were no priests. (Poem collected in “Max Jacob,” edited by Andre Billy, published by and copyright Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946. Letter cited by Billy in “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.)

1932: The Semence

Paris, the Grands Boulevards, a winter evening in 1916. The young conscript, on furlough from the hospital where doctors are trying to determine if he’s crazy or just doesn’t want to return to the trenches of a crazy war, enters the Olympia nightclub and observes, as recounted by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his 1932 “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” still considered by the French and American literary establishments to be the author’s safe, non-Anti-Semitic book (shortly after publication, it was translated into Russian by the French Communist super-star couple Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet; New Directions still proudly hawks the English translation):

“Already in wartime our morose peace was sowing its seeds…. We could imagine what it would become, this hysteria, just from seeing it already agitating in the Olympia tavern. Below in the narrow, shady dancing cave with its 100 mirrors, It pawed the dust in the great desperation of the Négro-Judéo-Saxonne music. Brits and Blacks all mingling together. Levantines and Russians. They were everywhere, smoking, brawling, sad sacks and soldiers, crammed onto crimson sofas. These uniforms, which we barely remember anymore, would sow the seeds of today, this Thing which continues to germinate and would become a dung-hill a little later, with time.” (Translated by PB-I.)

1940-45: The Harvest

Some 13 years after Louis-Ferdinand Céline thus fulminated (the parallels between his own trajectory and that of his first-person hero, “Ferdinand,” make the defense that an author doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the opinions of his personage dubious), the ‘semence’ he (and his publishers, including Gallimard) helped sow (in ‘Voyage’ and three pamphlets taxed as being anti-Semitic, although the Judeophobic grotesque Céline paints of himself and of the anti-Semitic rationale in general in the 1937 “Bagatelles for a massacre,” in which he also wrote: “In the leg of a dancer the world, its waves, all its rhythms, its follies, its views are inscribed…. The most nuanced poem in the world!,” the ‘bagatelles’ being ballets without music, makes that epithet problematic here) by furnishing civilized literary cover for his countrymen who would collaborate with the German occupiers in the Deportation of 76,000 of their Jewish neighbors, including 11,000 children, only 3,000 of whom would return from the death camps — Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago this month — manifests its real-world toll on the sixth-floor balcony of a building on a corner of the rue Hauteville above the “Bonne Nouvelles” (Good News) Metro station, several blocks up the Grands-Boulevards from the Olympia, where a woman straddles the railing, distraught that the daughter arrested by a good French policeman after she was turned in by a good French neighbor has still not returned after the war, the room the woman has reserved for her child remaining vacant.

The precarious mental state of the woman had recently prompted her brother and his wife to return from the United States to France, where the wife will later give birth to three sons, the semence of a new generation of French Jews who have not lost hope in France. Two of the sons will grow up to become, respectively, a general practitioner and a dentist — my doctor and my dentist starting when I lived on the rue de Paradis up the street in the early 2000s — converting the apartment on whose balcony rail their aunt once teetered into a medical bureau, their offices separated by a waiting room decorated by posters of Satchmo blowing, Gabriel, blowing, his cheeks puffed up; Marilyn Monroe’s white skirt billowing from the gusts of wind rising out of a subway grating on location for “The Seven-Year Itch” to reveal her underwear; and Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘draguing’ the American Jean Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the New York Herald Tribune with its logo emblazoned across her chest in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” this last poster a nod to what I’d always understood as the doctors’ mixed Franco-American heritage, their mother being an American citizen…. For the complete article,  click here.

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

Feneon Matisse 22 smallHenri Matisse (1869-1954), “Interior with girl” (Reading), 1905-1906. Oil on canvas, 72.7 × 59.7 cm. New York, the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller, 1991. Photo © Paige Knight. © Succession H. Matisse. Succession Matisse. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

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

To be able to simultaneously share, for the first time in English, Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel about the contemporary art market and world in Paris in the 1950s — and which also treats post-War anti-Semitism in France — we’ve decided to illustrate today’s installment with art directly referred to in “Trompe-l’oeil” that readers can see now or soon in Paris, New York, and London, notably at the Orsay Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeanne Bucher Jaeger gallery in the Marais, the Waddington Custot in London, and Di Donna Galleries, New York. (See captions for details.) Like what you’re reading and want to see more? Please support independent arts journalism today by designating your donation in dollars or Euros through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check through the mail. Special thanks to Michel and Françoise RagonEdward Winer, and  Jamie. To read the previous installment of “Trompe-l’oeil” (which links to earlier episodes), please click here. First published in the French original by Albin-Michel.

Fontenoy had gotten his start at L’Artiste with a reportage on Matisse. Not that he was particularly interested in this major painter, but his editor tended to ask him to write about the subjects he was the least interested in. He wasn’t trying to irritate or bully Fontenoy. The editor in chief’s dishing out of the weekly assignments to his writers was completely haphazard. What really interested Fontenoy, the new non-figurative painting, had very little chance of being mentioned in L’Artiste. Just the bare minimum coverage needed for the weekly to appear au courant without turning off the majority of its subscribers, only now discovering, with rapture, Impressionism. The editor in chief put up with the whims of his writers as long as they weren’t too glaring. Fontenoy was permitted, like his colleagues, to talk about his fads from time to time. His boss would have been surprised to learn that Fontenoy’s support for Manhès and Ancelin had not been bought and paid for by Laivit-Canne, their dealer.

Fontenoy had submitted, among his pieces for the week, an item on the rift between Laivit-Canne and Manhès. He voiced his surprise to the editor in chief when it didn’t show up in the paper.

“My friend, if we start reporting on the fracases between painters and their dealers, it’ll never end.”

“And yet readers love reading about the quarrels between Vollard and the Impressionists. Why wouldn’t they be interested in reading about the intricate dealings of their own times?!”

The editor in chief shrugged his shoulders. “Vollard isn’t around any more to make trouble for us. Laivit-Canne, on the other hand, is an advertiser. I don’t want to upset a gentleman who supports our newspaper to help out another gentleman who’s not even a subscriber.”

bucher vieira balletMaria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Ballet figure,” 1948. Oil on canvas and black lead pencil, 27 x 46 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.  “I watch the street and the people walking, each with a different look, each advancing at his own rhythm,” Vieira da Silva once explained. “I think of the invisible threads manipulating them. I try to perceive the mechanics which coordinate them…. This is what I try to paint.”

Fontenoy reddened with shame and anger. He was seized with a violent compulsion to throw up his hands and walk out, but he contained himself. Who would be left to talk about the painters he loved if he quit L’Artiste? Not Morisset, that’s for sure. This last had just walked into the editor in chief’s office sporting a broad smile. Everything was broad with him, for that matter: His shoulders, his handshake, his critical standards. The only time he became particular was when it came to abstract art. Morisset was always nice to Fontenoy, even if their opinions were completely opposed. He was one of those people eager to please everybody. If he ran into one of his enemies, before the latter even had time to dig his feet in he sprung on him, frenetically shook his hand, slapped him on the back, and called him “pal” with such conviction that the concerned party ended up being hoodwinked. As Morisset didn’t take anything seriously, he mingled with the artistic milieu with a casualness that seemed genuine when in reality everything he did was calculated. Except for a handful of abstract art galleries, scattered and without a lot of means, Morisset lined his pockets with tips from all corners. If a painter asked his advice on how to get exhibited, he complimented him on his talent, slapped him on the back and pushed him into a paying gallery where he had a deal for a percentage for every sucker he reeled in. As the painter was not hip to this arrangement, he’d offer him a canvas for his services. If the idea didn’t occur to him, Morisset would be sure to bring it up. He also wrote numerous exhibition pamphlets which he could always be sure to get printed by a shop with whom he had an ongoing arrangement. He resold paintings that he’d been given or extorted. Morisset earned a paltry $24 per month at the paper and yet somehow managed to have his own car. He spent his weekends with his family at his country place. He was a man perfectly content with his lot and at peace with his conscience. One day Fontenoy told him:

“When abstract art has conquered the market, you’ll be its most fervent supporter.”

He assumed Morisset would get pissed off, or protest, but no. He responded in the most natural manner possible: “Of course… How could you imagine otherwise?”

Morisset was bought and paid for from his shoelaces to his beret to such a degree that he wound up laughing about it. For that matter he liked to say, “Painters get rich thanks to us, it’s normal that we should get our portion of the profits. If you don’t ask for anything, my dear Fontenoy, you won’t get anything. You’ll see, your abstract painters, if they make it rich one day, they’ll slam the door in your face because you’ll always be broke. But they’ll still need a good publicity agent and I’ll be there. Do you really believe that painters think of us as anything more than flacks? This being the case we need to take our gloves off and play the game.”

VIEIRA10Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “Playing Cards,” 1937. Oil on canvas with pencil tracing, 73 x 92 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Paris. On view at the Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, Marais, in Paris through November 16; the Waddington Custot gallery in London, November 29 – February 29; and Di Donna Galleries, New York, March 26 – May 29, 2020.

Another critic arrived in turn in the editor in chief’s office. His name was Arlov and he was as uptight as Morisset was hang-loose. While he wasn’t lacking in intelligence or critical sensibility, his cirrhosis leant him a preference for melancholy paintings. For him Bernard Buffet represented the summit of contemporary art. He was also moody. His opinions tended to follow the course of his digestion. Whether an exhibition was praised or thrashed depended on whether Arlov visited the gallery after a good meal or bursting at the seams a la Kaopectate. In contrast to Morisset, one had to be careful not to load him with free drinks or food. A painter’s career sometimes depended on this perfect understanding of the digestive system of critics.

Arlov was poor. He wasn’t in art for the dough but the dames, his goal being to sleep with as many women as possible. This explained why he presided over the Salon of Women Painters (he’d even created it). His monumental book on the NUDE was the authoritative work on the subject. The funny thing was that his particular gender specialization even encompassed dead painters, with whom short of being a narcoleptic he had no chance of sleeping. He’d even managed to write, who knows how, a spicy “Life of Madame Vigée-Lebrun.” His big dream in life was to rehabilitate Bouguereau; albeit a man, the 19th-century Academic’s nudes weren’t entirely lacking in sensuality. Needless to say, Arlov was not too interested in abstract art.

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun self portrait in straw hatLouise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842), “Self-portrait in Straw Hat,” after 1782. Purchased by the National Gallery, London. Public Domain, via Wikipedia. Vigée Le Brun was the official portraitist of Marie-Antoinette.

After having gone over, with their editor in chief, the issue which had just come out and whose pages were spread out over a big table, the three journalists jotted down the vernissage invitations, cocktails, etcetera for the upcoming week…. The editor then took the floor.

“Sunday, Protopopoff is baptizing his son. Mustafa is the godfather. Protopopoff has invited me to the reception, at Mustafa’s digs, but I’m already booked. You, Fontenoy, you can write up a big spread for the front page….”

“Why me? I think Morisset is a lot more qualified.”

“Impossible Old Man,” this last cut him off. “I spend Sundays with the family.”

Arlov quietly tip-toed out.

“What’s the hang-up, Fontenoy,” the editor continued, “you’re not going to tell me now that you don’t like Mustafa’s paintings?!”

“Okay, I’ll go….”

Fontenoy was thinking: Always the frou-frou stuff that has nothing to do with the painting itself. Mustafa godfather of the son of his dealer Protopopoff — what a waste of space when artists who are creating the art of our times don’t have a forum, practically don’t even have champions! What a metier! Embalm cadavers, voila what we’ve been reduced to. When Mustafa had been abandoned in the gutters of Montparnasse by the seedy bar-owners who sponged money off him in exchange for a few jugs of red wine, the newspapers had no space to talk about Mustafa. Today, Mustafa no longer has any need for publicity, and they take advantage of the slightest pretext to put his name on the front page.

Leaving the newspaper office, Fontenoy remembered that he had a date with a young female painter. This Blanche Favard was doggedly pursuing him. The problem was that when it came to female painters, he never knew if these signs of attention were meant for the man or the art critic. When in doubt, he sagely opted for the second possibility.

Blanch Favard lived in the Cité Falguière, an affordable housing complex initially conceived and constructed as worker housing and now peopled almost exclusively by Bohemians. From the basements to the attics, as in the honeycombs of a hive, artists of the most diverse schools, ages, and nationalities applied themselves with the patience of worker bees and the passion of alchemists to create their Great Work. All this in the shadows of some major ghosts who continued to haunt the cité, notably that of Soutine, who’d lived in one of the studios when he arrived in Paris in 1913. The painters of the Cité Falguière still talked about Soutine. It was their re-assurance. Because a genie had once lived between these walls, it was always possible that one of them….

Fontenoy was hailed by Blanche Favard, a plump little thing with a laughing visage whose blonde mane was twisted into tresses. She emerged from one of the windows just like a conventional figure in a Viennese operetta. Fontenoy hiked up to the floor that she’d indicated.

The studio was petite, but Blanche Favard painted mostly water-colors. She’d spread them out on the divan which occupied half of the room. The work was delicate. The forms very subtle. But here again one could recognize Klee’s influence. That said, Blanche had her own particular characteristics and personality. She’d started out in one of the same modes as Klee, this was clear, but she’d extended and deepened it. In setting out her work for him, she didn’t smile. Her visage remained tense, worried. She awaited Fontenoy’s verdict with a certain anxiety. And yet he’d never abused painters. He tried to understand them, convinced that a critic always has something to learn from an artist, even the most mediocre artist. Next he eliminated from his choice painters that he didn’t understand or that he didn’t like. He rarely thrashed an artist. He preferred consecrating his articles to vaunting the artists he liked while keeping quiet about those he didn’t.

Fontenoy talked to Blanche Favard about her water-colors, in measured terms, carefully weighing his words, underlining a quality here, a certain heaviness there, or a gap in the composition elsewhere. Little by little, the visage of the young woman loosened up. As Fontenoy concluded his critique, she was smiling again.

She put some water on to boil on the small Bunsen burner posed on the floor, so that she could offer some tea to her visitor.

“I’d love to have an exhibition,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to pay a gallery. And yet it would really help me in my work to see the public’s reaction. One can’t just paint for oneself all the time.”

Fontenoy considered for a moment, at the same time taking some water-colors over to the window so he could study them in the full sunlight.

“Well, there is a bookstore which might be open to hanging your water-colors on its walls…. It’s not the same as a gallery, but it’s better than nothing. I’ll speak with the bookseller. He’s not really into abstract art, but he trusts me.”

“Yes, but the frames? I can’t just present my water-colors like that!”

“Mumphy! We need to show them to Mumphy. I think he’ll like them. I can’t get mixed up in the financial negotiations, but I can certainly ask Manhès or Ancelin to introduce you to Mumphy.”

“Oh! You’re so sweet,” Blanche Favard exclaimed in clasping her hands together just like a Reubens angel.

Then, amiably ironic:

“I know that you don’t accept paintings, nor money. But you’re doing me a big favor! Isn’t there something I can give you?”

Feneon Matisse 23 smallHenri Matisse (1869-01954), “Nude sitting down,” also known as “Pink Nude,” 1909. Oil on canvas, 33.5 x 41 cm. City of Grenoble, Grenoble Museum – J.L. Lacroix. © Succession H. Matisse. Digital photo, color. On view at the Orsay Museum in Paris from October 16 through January 27 and the Museum of Modern Art next Spring as part of the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse.

“Nothing, nothing,” grumbled Fontenoy, who’d suddenly started furiously mashing his tea.

Blanche laughed archly.

“Well, you can at least accept a sugar cube because you’re crushing the bottom of my cup to death!”

Sipping his tea, Fontenoy surreptitiously examined the young woman arranging her water-colors out of the corner of his eye. How old was she? 25, 30, 35? Fresh-faced if just a tad stout, she was ageless. Fontenoy had known her for a year. He’d noticed her first consignments at the Salon of New Realities and had written a cautiously positive review. Later she’d been introduced to him at an opening, like so many other painters, he couldn’t remember when. They’d continued running into each other from time to time in the galleries or, at night, at the Select. This was the first time he’d seen her in her atelier.

As he was getting ready to go, Blanche ventured: “I have one more thing to ask of you, but I don’t dare.”

“Ask all the same.”

“So, if you succeed in getting this bookstore to exhibit me, I’d be very happy, very flattered, if you’d agree to write the pamphlet.”

“We’ll see….

Blanche Favard stepped towards the young man and took the lapels of Fontenoy’s velour jacket in her hands, tenderly manipulating them. Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath.

“So, there’s hope?”

“Yes, of course,” replied Fontenoy, trying to disengage himself.

Blanche let go of his jacket.

“I’d love to give you a kiss, but you’d think it was just for services rendered.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” sputtered Fontenoy, uneasy. “So, bon courage. I’ll keep you updated on my efforts.”

20 years of stories not told elsewhere: When Blackface (& body) reared its ugly head onstage at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2006, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

From the Dance Insider Archives: First published on October 24, 2006. Today’s re-publication (to which the only addition is the term ‘lilly-white’)  sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of  2000+ reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, & books  from around the world by 150 artist-critics,  e-mail  paulbenitzak@gmail.com . 

PARIS — When racism rears its ugly head in a supposedly civilized setting, a sort of stunned, incredulous shock can set in. So it took me a minute Saturday night, sitting in my lush red orchestra chair in the ornate Paris Opera House, presided over by a colorful Marc Chagall panorama of the arts painted around the chandelier, to realize what I was seeing up there onstage, a few minutes into Serge Lifar’s 1947 “Les Mirages”: Two characters straight out of an “African” “tribal” “sacrifice rite” from 1930s Hollywood, clad entirely in black body suits, hands and faces included. Eyes and lips in a pronounced white, of course. Making bugaboo facial expressions and doing some sort of stereotyped to the nth degree savage dance — they stopped just short of scratching their crotches. (Just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, I checked the program after my premature but necessary exit: Ah yes, these would be “Les Negrillons.”)

What is this petrifying example of racist stereotyping doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the (lilly-white) Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn’t. Voila le problème.) (Incidentally — or not so — Serge Lifar was condemned for collaborating with the Occupiers after World War II.)

On my wall is the second edition ever of Paris Match, and the first to feature just one person on the cover: Katherine (or “Kathrin” as the magazine spelled it — they Frenchify everything here) Dunham. It’s dated April 1, 1949. I don’t know if Katherine Dunham was here in 1947, but if she was, and happened to find herself at the premiere of “Les Mirages,” she likely would have had a much more demonstrative response to offer than my polite exit from the theater.

A novel for our times: ‘The Book of the Vanquished’ (Excerpt of Michel Ragon’s ‘La mémoire des vaincus,’ in English translation and in the original French)

by Michel Ragon & copyright Éditions Albin Michel 
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Today’s publication of this excerpt is dedicated to the memory of Eileen Darby, who would have been 83 today. To read about Eileen’s extraordinary life as a Grande Dame of New York, click here. Eileen, you really hit the nail on the wall!

“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)
(Excerpt, 1911-1912.)

“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 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. Adopting the pen name Victor Serge, Victor Kibaltchich (1890-1947) would become a noted Socialist theorist who, like Fred later 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 as recounted by Ragon accurate.

 

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, following 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 they’d debated over a bowl of bouillon, and the boy always received his portion. 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 odor 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 gathering 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!”

Click here to read the rest of the excerpt, followed by a partial excerpt of the original French, on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction.

Lutèce Diary, 39: August 31, 1944 — Critique of the New Press / Critique de la nouvelle presse (French original follows English translation)

by Albert Camus
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

First published in the August 31, 1944 edition of Combat, the heretofore underground newspaper edited by Albert Camus. To read our English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s dispatch from the same issue of Combat, click here. To read our review with extracts of the recently published correspondence of Albert Camus’s correspondence with Maria Casarès, click here. After returning to Paris with false identity papers furnished by the Resistance, Albert Camus was the underground newspaper Combat’s final editor under the Occupation, on one occasion (as documented by Olivier Todd in his 1996 biography for Gallimard) being saved from being busted with proofs of the newspaper in his pocket at a Gestapo checkpoint when he was able to deftly pass the proofs to Casarès, correctly guessing that she would not be searched.

PARIS — Because between the insurrection and the war, a respite has today been granted us, I’d like to talk about a subject that I know well and which is dear to my heart: the Press. And because it’s a question of this new Press which has emerged from the battle of Paris, I’d like to speak with, at the same time, the fraternity and the clairvoyance one owes to comrades in combat. To read the entire article, in the original French and in its English translation, on our sister site the Maison de Traduction, click here.