Chantal Akerman, Pere Lachaise: Was filmmaker-artist’s suicide an indictment of indifference and a Pop Culture universe that had no room for her?

akerman 2

Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery & copyright Chantal Akerman.

“Most of the time when people like a film, they say, ‘I didn’t even feel the time pass.’ I want the film-goer to feel the time pass.”

— Chantal Akerman, who killed herself in Paris October 5, 2015

“Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation.”

— J. Hoberman

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Text copyright 2015 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI/AV on November 6, 2015. Interested in reading more about famous artists who killed themselves? Click here to read our recently updated (and lavishly illustrated)  article “L’éclat de Stael — When Nicolas flew too close to the Sun”on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction. For more images of Akerman’s work and a review with translated excerpts of Corinne Rondeau’s “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” click here.

PARIS — Exiting an artist’s atelier off the rue de Couronnes while touring the Open Studios of Belleville last Spring, I almost came face to face with three teenaged marines wielding AK47s, guarding a low building on the edge of the hilly Parc Belleville. When I quipped later to a French pal that it was nice to see the government finally doing something to protect artists and told her the location, my friend observed, “That’s around where Chantal Akerman lives.” While it’s not inconceivable that a renowned Jewish film-maker might be considered as needing of protection as Jewish schools (usually unmarked here, as if the spectre of the Deportation still makes French Jews discrete), in the end it might be tempting to conclude that for the Brussels-born film director and installation artist, who killed herself here in Belleville (from where I write you) October 5 at the age of 65, the biggest enemy was herself. But this would be letting off too easy a pop-centered public and media which supports less and less artists who march to their own drummer and who are more interested in giving us awareness than diversion.

Years ago, alarmed that I had used the term ‘slow suicides’ in a story for her Princeton creative writing class, my professor, Joyce Carol Oates, handed me an essay she’d written critiquing suicides, notably Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The suicide, she wrote (employing the term as a noun), can’t actually desire to kill herself, because death is a negative, and one can’t wish for a negative. The death wish is thus a surrogate for another desire, e.g. “I want you to love me,” “I want to hurt you,” “I want you to stop hurting me,” “I want to be recognized.” As if it weren’t enough that the suicide had taken her life, Oates would also deny her the franchise of her choice, simultaneously insulating society from being indicted by her death.

While it’s true that no one can look so deeply into the soul of another as to divine why they decided to hasten their reunion with the Divine, given that Akerman took her life on the same day the French legislature had resumed debating the right to choose to end one’s life, given her proclivity to provoke, and given that by the accounts of her colleagues she seems to have suffered when her films didn’t get enough attention, it seems fair to consider her suicide not just as an act of personal desperation by a perennial ‘manic-depressive’ but as a rebuke. The French media’s very reluctance to address why or how she chose to end her own life (initial reports here referred simply to her sudden death or ‘disparition,’ and even once the suicide was acknowledged, no details were reported and there was no probing of the ‘why,’ normally a fundamental question for any journalist) suggests the troubling questions of culpability her action raises. If anything, the media’s scant coverage of her death — Akerman didn’t even get her 15 minutes — confirms that she didn’t get the attention she deserved, and raises the question of whether things would have been different if she had a penis. During the week of her death that I monitored coverage on the cultural radio programs, the commentators and critics seemed anxious to move on to discussing Woody Allen’s latest remake of the same film he’s been making for the past 30 years and the ‘new’ Warhol exhibition at the city’s Museum of Modern Art, while the Cinematheque Francaise could hardly be expected to intrude on its umpteenth homage to a popular American film-maker — in this case Martin Scorcese — with a mini-homage to Akerman. After all, they’d feted her in… 2000, and so a one-off screening of her latest film, “No Home Movie,” November 16 would surely be sufficient. (The Cinematheque Toulouse will do better by her, programming a week-long homage March 2 – 9.)

akerman 2aChantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie- Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.

No one has even posed the question of why Akerman might take this drastic action on the eve of an anticipated grand success, in this case the first large-scale English-language exhibition of her installation work, being presented October 30 – December 6 at the Ambika P3 gallery by Ambika P3, a Nos Amours (which organized the complete Akerman retrospective in the UK from 2013 through this year), and the Marian Goodman Gallery, and the opening of “No Home Movie.” She was even scheduled to give a master’s class last week-end.

It seems only fair, then — to Chantal Akerman — to at least try to interpret her suicide, even if we can’t ultimately ‘understand’ it.

The easy answers include that suicide is not uncommon for children of Holocaust survivors (Akerman’s mom, who died in 2014, survived Auschwitz, while her grandparents did not); and that she was headed there anyway, given that her first film, “Saute ma ville,” shot in 1968 when she was 18, ends with the director/star opening the gas valves, putting her head in the oven, and blowing up her whole apartment. French commentators haven’t been shy about pointing to this as an early telegraphing, but having recently seen the film, what I remember most is Akerman’s absolute ebullience. Practically still teen-aged Chantal ecstatically hum-singing (the sole soundtrack), gleefully tossing things out of the cupboard onto the floor and then sweeping them into a corner, boiling spaghetti then rapaciously but matter-of-factly wolfing it down without savoring it, scotch-taping over the crevices of the doors and windows. Her early and greatest triumph (spoiler alert), the 1975 “Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” ends with the heroine, a middle-aged woman (the normally glamorous Delphine Seyrig, uglied-down) who prostitutes herself to pay for her indifferent late teen-aged son’s schooling, stabbing to death a client, but that doesn’t mean Akerman was destined to inflict that fate on, say, an indifferent journalist.

akerman 3Chantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.

Broadcast interviews with some of those colleagues closest to her suggest Akerman’s determination to follow her own path — both in the stories of her films and her balancing between categories, whether fiction and documentary, or installation artist and cineaste — didn’t square with her desire to be loved, or at least to have a larger and more appreciative audience.

“I think she had a hard time making films today,” suggested the French film-maker Claire Denis, interviewed on France Culture radio. “Not because she was in bad shape or depressed, but because the cinema no longer offers the means to people like her, and I find that 37 films, it’s not enough. To see a film by Chantal Akerman…. Chantal was a warrior. One day we went to London together, to the British Film Institute, and Chantal said that we needed to reflect together, we had to find a way of financing tunnels to rescue Jews stuck in Russia who can’t go to Israel.”

The director Roman Goupil, who like Akerman gives voice to the voiceless and who assisted her on “Rendez-vous avec Anna,” recalled her clear eyes, her sense of humour, and her virulance: While they were scouting locations in Germany, “She systematically started fights in all the bars and night clubs” they frequented. For Akerman, “All Germans were suspect.” But the key quality — in understanding her suicide — may be what Goupil called her “Exaltedness.” Considering whether “Saute ma ville” was a predictor of her final act, Goupil noted Akerman’s telling him, “It’s not what you think it is. I would have adored Charlot,” putting her heroine more in the line of Chaplin’s tragi-comic tramp, although, Goupil added, “There’s an immense wound behind, and that comes back in permanence in our discussions, of the Holocaust, of the Marxist dogma that she doesn’t understand.” While Denis lamented that her death means “We will get no more films from Chantal,” Goupil consoled her that, “We miss her, but her films are there. ‘Jeanne Dielmann’ is something absolutely magnificent, and which is a benchmark in the cinema.”

akerman 1Chantal Akerman, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” 1975, featuring Delphine Seyrig. 35 mm film, 200 min., color, sound. Production: Paradise Films, Bruxelles, Unite trois, Paris. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman.

While this piece is not meant to be a recapitulative of her oeuvre, it’s worth pausing on “Jeanne Dielmann…” As too often happens with artists who address the plight of women of all classes, the film is sometimes praised for championing the feminist cause by focusing on a heroine essentially at the mercy of men, supporting her egotistic son by prostituting herself to men who don’t see her as more than a sex object. While this may be true, and laudable, it ignores her larger, filmic achievement. In “Jeanne Dielmann,” Akerman tinkered with the mechanism of the medium itself; if film is largely about time, Akerman messed with the timing and managed to give the illusion in 3.5 hours of about 48 hours conveyed in real time. I found a copy not in a European cinematheque but my local library in a Latino neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. When I recommended it to the librarian, a woman of about my and the heroine’s age, I was afraid that if it bored her to death — because of the length and because on the surface, nothing much ‘happens’ until the end — she’d no longer take my suggestions seriously. But she came back to me and stated simply, “It’s about routine, and what happens when you get trapped in it. And the importance of ritual, and what happens when that gets disturbed.” There’s a segment in which Jeanne patiently makes her morning latte — precious because it’s a moment just for her — tastes it, and, scowling, throws the whole thing out and starts over again; the milk has perhaps turned rancid. In the extraordinary ‘making of’ documentary by Sami Frey — he of Akerman idol Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande a part” (his “Pierrot le fou” inspired her to make films) — Akerman’s seen making Seyrig repeat the scene again and again until she slows down enough.

During the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the film-maker took questions after a screening of her 1996 “A divan in New York,” shown that night in a rare French dubbed version, but which I’d also seen at New York’s Anthology Film Archives (a prime source for Akerman when she was learning her trade). The story concerns a dour Manhattan psychologist (William Hurt) who exchanges apartments with a carefree Belleville Bohemian (Juliette Binoche, of course). When his clients mistake her for his replacement, she goes with the program, with improved results; he no sooner hits Belleville than the hammering by construction workers starts on his roof. (I can relate.) He heads back early, discovers her masquerade, they quarrel, she returns to Paris, he loosens up and follows her back. I loved the film — I hadn’t yet seen “Jeanne Dielmann” and realized that this was really what she was about — and thought Akerman would be pleased when I told her so. She, it turns out, hated it — no doubt because it was commercial — even complaining about spoiled stars insisting on their limousines. (She didn’t specify which.) In the same festival, when I took a fellow American to see Akerman’s film about racism in the south, my gal pal pointed to one of the white trash male characters and said, “I know that guy,” meaning that this director born in Belgium had succeeded in authentically capturing (without judging) an American archetype.

Reviewing the Ambika P3 exhibition in the November 4 edition of the Guardian, Adrian Sarle writes: “Akerman said she felt that the kind of films that sweep you up and make you forget yourself were robbing you of your time and of life itself. She wants you to feel every passing second. Watch or don’t watch, stay or leave. She makes me feel the world pulse through me, with all its urgency and all its stalled moments.”

I wonder — speculate, really — whether Akerman felt those seconds at an accelerated rate. I wonder if, sitting in her Belleville apartment with the trees just outside the window, she got trapped in her hyper-awareness. I wonder if she ventured out enough to the top of the parc Belleville, from the belvedere of which you can see the sun seting over the Eiffel tower at twilight and the changing colors of the foliage. I wonder if seeing three to five or, at times, even a platoon of marines guarding an unmarked Jewish school (in a neighborhood which used to be dominated by Jews, and is now the most multi-cultural in Paris) made her feel (rightly or wrongly) that after all these years, she was not safe from the anti-Semitism which took most of her family, even in Paris, with its hyper-protection of its Jewish residents. (When I see those guards, while I’m grateful for their service, the perceived threat that their presence represents makes me feel more anxious than assured. And I wonder how it makes those school-children feel about the world that surrounds them. They may not have to wear yellow stars, but do they feel, even if not accurately, just as marked?) I wonder how she felt about the fact that the operators of so many Jewish schools and synagogues still feel, 70 years after the Deportation and Shoah, the need to hide who they are. These are not my sentiments, so I am not projecting here but rather considering Akerman’s strong ties with her Holocaust survivor mother and her strong feelings for Israel. But mostly, I wonder about the responsibility of myself and my cultural gatekeeper colleagues in directing a cultural diet that doesn’t have room for a Chantal Akerman. (And not just in France; in the U.S., following her death, Turner Classic Movies broadcast “Jeanne Dielmann”… at 3h30 in the morning. Who can stay up until 3:30 in the morning to watch a three-and-a-half hour film, unless it’s with the goal of being put to sleep?) And I can’t help concluding that while she was providing us, uniquely, with a reminder of the preciousness of time, we failed to hold her precious.

 Chantal Akerman is interred at the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Special thanks to M.E..

akerman 4Chantal Akerman, “Tombe de nuit sur Shanghai” (Nightfall in Shanghai), 2007-2009. Installation video, color, sound, 14 minutes, in loop, with two Chinese light boxes. Production: LX Filmes / Fundacao Gulbenkian. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman. Photo copyright Marc Domage.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française (Part 2): The Appeal

hugo one portraitsLeft and Right (from the Arts Voyager Archives): From Lot 1 of the Collection Hugo auction at Christie’s Paris, April 4, 2012: Atelier Hugo-Vacquerie (Charles Hugo or Auguste Vacquerie), “Portraits of Victor Hugo, 1853-55.” Four salt prints representing Victor Hugo in Jersey, the first of the Channel Islands where he took refuge with his family in 1852; in 1855 they’d move to Guernesey. Est. pre-sale: 4,000-6,000 Euros. ©Christie’s Images Ltd. 2012.

Introduced and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

(Second of two parts. To read our translated excerpts of the first trial, before the Commercial Tribune of Paris, in which Victor Hugo sought to force the Comédie-Française to fully honor its contracts to perform three of his plays — including Hugo’s testimony about the larger stakes involved, for both the theater and the Romantic movement of which he was the champion — click here. If you have not already done so, please support our ongoing  arts, culture, and literary coverage and translation of French authors and history by designating your donation via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to ask about donating by check.)

In Romain Gary’s 1975 “Your whole life is ahead of you” (published, by Mercure de France, not insignificantly under the false name of Emil Ajar– a photo of the fictive author illustrates the back cover), an elderly French Arab monsieur who is slowly going blind and probably losing his wits passes his days on a bench outside the cosmopolitan Belleville apartment building in which the pre-teenaged (also Arab French) narrator lives with an elderly French-Jewish woman who boards the children of whores. In the left pocket of his suit-jacket he retains a copy of the Koran; in the right, a copy of (as he refers to him) “Monsieur Hugo.”

If we’ve chosen to translate and reproduce, in their near entirety, contemporaneous legal journals’ accounts of the proceedings accompanying Victor Hugo’s 1837 lawsuit against the Comédie-Française to impel France’s largest theater to honor its contracted engagements to perform three of his plays and pay modest damages for not having yet done so, it’s not just because Hugo’s lengthy and eloquent elocutions in the two trials are themselves compelling dramatic material. Nor because of the validity of Hugo’s incisive explanation that what’s at stake — what drove him to take his occasional employer to court — is not merely his personal rights as an author but the fate of a new school of literature to which the Comédie-Française (the only publicly-funded theater and the only theater with a literary bent), the literary establishment as represented by a conservative faction of the Academie Française, and a ‘coterie’ of ‘bureaucrats’ at the Interior Ministry have systematically sought to bar the route. Nor even for the resonance this battle has in a contemporary France where the Parisian culturati and mainstream media still tend to favor a narrow coterie of their ‘chou-chous’ and cronies. (It’s not uncommon for hosts at the State-owned middle-brow radio chain France Culture, who went on strike this week — which means they only return to the air-waves to let listeners know how well their strike is going — to use their programs to hawk the books of their fellow hosts and commentators, nor films of which the chain is an official sponsor.) It’s also because at a time when this same media often chooses to defend lay values through the vector of a negative, that is to say by incessant railing over the supposed imminent menace posed to these values, and lay society, by a headscarf, with the resultant potential stigmatization of any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her head, the vivid testimony of Victor Hugo, the most sterling representation of those values in one individual, provides a positive example, or clarion call, of what they actually mean and represent and of the positive cultural manifestations they protect, promote, and produce. An opportunity to, rather than stigmatize  these women because they don’t conform to our conception of lay values — thus, by imposing a negative — positively impress them with the luster of the lay offer (presuming, as the opponents of the headscarf often do, that they’re not already hip to it) when it comes to moral values and of the cultural offer adhering to, and profiting from, these values puts at their finger-tips. (In Hugo’s case, opening the doors of the nation’s leading and only public theater to a whole school of literature.)

The enthralling testimony of Victor Hugo — which constitutes the heart of the appeal proceedings reproduced below in our translation, and in which he simply seeks to assert rights already sanctioned by existing law, explains the larger stakes, and even identifies his real opponent and thus the real enemy in these stakes, “the bureaucrat” (the French word, ‘commis,’ can also be translated as ‘clerk’ or ‘sales assistant’) — provides a vital reminder that the most effective and inspiring way to diffuse lay values is not to stigmatize the personal religious choices of some members of a minority group but to continue to educate citizens about the inherent value of lay society as already promoted and championed in the stirring words and exemplary lives of Victor Hugo, of Voltaire, of Camus, of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

What if — for example — instead of wasting half of the air time allotted for interviewing two of the authors of a new 3,000-word, three-tome “Koran of the Historians” on a recent edition of his France Culture drive-time show in grilling the scholars about whether the Koran mandates the wearing of the headscarf (the Orthodox kipa or typically ‘moche’ Hassidic wig somehow never seems to come up), Guillaume Erner, who is so obsessed with this subject he must have nightmares about it, had asked them about possible correspondences and correlations between the Koran and the thinking of Victor Hugo? And what if such a discussion had won new adherents among some of these same headscarf-wearing women? And inspired them to rush out and get their own copies of “Monsieur Hugo,” to accompany them concomittently with the Koran? (And more kipa-donning French Jews and habit-wearing French nuns to do the same.)

It is partly with this end in mind that we now turn the floor over to Monsieur Victor Hugo, his attorney, and the attorney for the Comédie-Française, preceded by our summation of this second trial.

Victor Hugo versus the Comédie-Française
Court Royale de Paris
(Presiding judge Monsieur Séguier)
Session of December 5, 1837

 

As reported by French legal journals, reproduced in “Victor Hugo – Theatre Complete,” in the edition published by J. Hetzel, Bookseller – Publisher, Paris, 1872, and translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

 

(Following the Commercial Tribune’s November 20, 1837 ruling ordering the Comédie-Française, in the person of its director, to pay Victor Hugo 6,000 francs in damages and interests for having failed to honor its contracts to perform Hugo’s “Marion de Lorme,” “Hernani,” and “Angelo” — the second of which singularly ushered in the era of Romanticism, the school of which the author was the crowned chief — and the court’s ordering the theater’s director to schedule performances of the three tragedies by specific deadlines as agreed to in the contracts or face fines of 150 francs per day, the organization filed an appeal before the Royal Court.

Much of the appeal proceedings focused on the lawyers for the two sides’ reiterations and bolstering of their cases already addressed in the first trial — and thus in our previous translation of those sessions — and doesn’t need repeating here. But salient details furnished by the attorneys for both sides during this second trial are worth translating for the way they illuminate the popular and boisterous appreciation for Hugo at the time; the refusal by the Comédie-Française, part of whose excuse for not honoring its contracts with Hugo was the alleged mitigated box office receipts for the three plays, to produce records supporting this argument; Hugo’s lawyers producing receipts which suggested the contrary, that the classical playwrights who dominated the theater’s repertory often did much worse at the box office than Hugo, whose plays’ average box-office intake also exceeded that of the Comédie-Française’s leading star; and how Hugo was ready to surrender his meager State stipend when even the barest suggestion of conflict of interest arose.

But most of all this second and last trial — the Royal appeals court would uphold the commercial tribunal’s ruling in the author’s favor — is noteworthy for another improvised speech by Victor Hugo who, once again, signaled the larger questions at stake, specifically: Who controls what the public gets to see? And who lurks behind the effective barring of the country’s only State-funded, literary theater to an entire school of new work?

Voila the pertinent highlights. As with our earlier account, text presented within brackets is the translator’s; the rest is translated from the contemporaneous accounts of the Gazette des Tribunaux:)

As soon as the doors opened, a sizable crowd poured into the courtroom, among them a large number of writers and dramatic artists.

Monsieur Victor Hugo had some difficulty finding a place to sit on the benches reserved for him, already invaded by lawyers.

Maitre Delangle [attorney for the Comédie Française] took the floor with these words…: To read the complete translation on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction, please click here.

Vallotton @ the Met (via Apollinaire): a truth believer takes a bite out of art

valllotton Nude Holding Her Gown, 1904 smallI’ll just leave my dentures at the door of the studio, thanks: While we have no proof that the painting represented above, Félix Vallotton’s 1904 “Nude Holding Her Gown,” a 50 3/4 x 37-38 inch oil on canvas, is the one the French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire — Cubism’s first literary champion — was referring to in the following review of Vallotton’s contributions to the Salon d’Automne in the October 12, 1907 issue of “Je dis tout” (I tell all), the indications, judging from the model’s height, stance, modest dipping of the head and above all pronounced overbite (take it from an expert) are pretty convincing: “Monsieur Vallotton, and we regret it, has not exposed the portrait of a Swiss woman, a tall protestant lady who absolutely insisted on removing her denture before posing: ‘It would not be honest to represent my teeth. In reality, I don’t have any. Those which garnish my mouth are false and I believe that a painter should only represent that which is true.'” (Speak for yourself, lady.) As for you, bub, you can check the original itself out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Madame will be holding court, teeth or no teeth, through January 26 as part of the exhibition Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet. Private collection. Photo © Fondation Félix Vallotton, Lausanne. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art. To read more about what happens when dental issues confront art head on (so to speak), click here. (Source of Apollinaire citation: Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art” (1902-1918), NRF / Gallimard, Paris. Copyright Librairie Gallimard.) — PB-I

For the heretics: New translated extracts, Lola Lafon’s “Mercy, Mary, Patty”

by Lola Lafon & copyright 2017 Actes Sud
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

Today’s translation is dedicated to Linda Ramey, Gertrude Mayes, and my own Gene Nevevas, from their Violaine. “Mercy, Mary, Patty” is looking for an Anglophone publisher. Got ideas? E-mail artsvoyager@gmail.com . Today’s work is sponsored by Freespace Dance. Happy Birthday, Lulu!

From pages 218-240 (conclusion of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”)

We’re back where the novel began, in 2016, with the nameless narrator – Violaine’s prodigy as the latter was Gene Neveva’s four decades earlier — on a pilgrimage to Smith College in Northampton to find Professor Neveva and perhaps her own way as she nears 40. After a preliminary meeting in which Violaine’s name does not come up, Neveva suggests that the narrator enroll in her course – even though she normally does not accept adults as they have a predisposition for short-cuts and simple answers.

Your class is not the Sunday Mass I feared it might be, even if the fervor of the participants lends itself to confusion, the way they stampede into the room, piling into every nook and cranny, spilling over from the seats onto the stairs and hunkering down as if preparing for a siege, provisioned with sandwiches, bottled water, trail mix. The very first day you warn us: We’ll emerge from your course neither swept away nor converted, you insist, above all not converted.

The weeks glide by and slip away and I don’t have time for anything, neither strolling in Northampton nor pique-niquing by the lake, nor even to write a long letter to Violaine. You submerge us in tales of captivity from the 18th and 19th centuries, every one constructed around the same model: “savages” capture a frail young woman, are subsequently slain by the defenders of civilization who save her, freeing the young woman all the better to enslave her “chez elle.” I’ve chosen, for the oral report which caps the first month of the course, to focus on the cases of Mary Rowlandson and Mary Jemison. The former, a pastor’s wife captured in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1682, penned a first-hand account of her 11 weeks of captivity, the first best-seller in America, reprinted regularly up until 1913. As for Mary Jamison, in 1823 she confided to a young doctor the story of her kidnapping and adoption at the age of 15, in 1753, by the Senecas. The sophomores recount to me with delectation how you grilled one of them for two hours after her presentation, forced another to improvise, grabbing her papers from her hands, the time you cut off a student before she could even finish her introduction, which you judged “cliché-ridden.” Only to execute perfect figure eights a moment later by contradicting themselves in emphatically evoking how you’d already ‘saved their lives,’ a telephone call on a Sunday when they were feeling particularly gloomy, a last-minute excursion when they felt overwhelmed with schoolwork, the little bags of dried fruit.

The morning of my presentation, my classmates urge me on with taps on the shoulder as I approach the lectern. I await your questions without too much trepidation, I know the texts practically by heart. You have but one sole thing to ask me, you say reassuringly:

“Why did these two stories resonate – and why do they still resonate today – so strongly?”

The stunned silence of my fellow students overwhelms me. Nothing about the actual texts, nothing about their authors, the exhaustion from having slept so little for months leaves me drained, it doesn’t help matters that my words come to me in French, the various theses imbibed superimpose themselves one over the other, your own book, “Mercy Mary Patty,” which you detest us citing is the only one which comes to mind, your clear grey eyes stare at me, is this how you reduced Violaine to being little more than a spectator of your affirmations, you lean towards me, am I all right, would I like some cashews? You suggest we break for lunch and leave the room, my classmates comfort me, delighted to count me among the victims, Welcome to the Club, this is typical Neveva.

Many days elapse before I dare respond to your question by e-mail: Perhaps the resonance of these stories owes itself to what their authors suggest: Having learned to be well-behaved and obedient was of no succor to them, this is not how they survived among the Indians.

“Nor at Smith College, for that matter,” is your irrelevant response, with this PS: “Don’t forget that despite their sincerity, these stories were politically exploited by the powers that be for their own ends. They served as the pretexts for undertaking all kinds of punitive actions against the Indians in the name of our besieged civilization. They need to be read with more distance than you seem to have read them.”

One morning during the final week, you find yourself confronted with the first grumblings of a revolt. Mercy, Mary, all right but… when are we going to finally get to Patty? We’ve been talking about her since the very first day, you whisper emphatically, exasperated.

(New chapter)

I remained at Smith a little over a quarter. I often had the impression of being immersed in the décor of an idealized novel about an ideal boarding school where no one asks you about your nationality, your sexual orientation, your religion, a happy hermetically-sealed world in which benevolent professors are there to teach without professing. The morning of my arrival, a roll of Lifesavers was left on my doorstep and a postcard bid me welcome to the campus, the following day, on the route leading to the library, a chalk-drawn message on the asphalt pavement celebrated my decision to go back to school; the “Big Sis – Little Sis” rite had begun, each of the newbies would be showered with attention by an upperclasswoman for an entire week. Last month, I was amused by a day dubbed “There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question Day,” we were encouraged to ask any sociology professors or students we ran into about any aspect of society, they all wore badges to this effect: “Ask me!” I was present at rituals without taking part in them, like the night, on the eve of finals, on which everyone leaned out of their windows and simultaneously screamed for a whole minute to release their tension and anxiety, after which they all resumed prepping.

At Smith I was a nearly 40-year-old “provisional” student surrounded by young women bearing no resemblance to me when I was their age. They intimidated me, as if it was I who was their little sister, I envied the splendid nonchalance with which they employed the first person singular and the verb “to choose,” I chose to stay and fight. (9)

On “Ivy Day,” standing beside their parents, I applauded these women who were neither my daughters, my sisters, nor my friends, a procession of hundreds of tulle gowns, of satin, and of ribbons exposing plump arms, of rumpled shorts with matching derbies, of tank tops revealing bra straps, they advanced slowly towards us, being careful not to let the chain of laurels which bound them slip off their shoulders.

(New chapter)

At Smith, I listened to all the tape recordings of Patricia Hearst from start to finish, poured through forgotten theses from the 1980s, the anarchist club permitted me to consult the student fanzines of the epoch which supported the SLA and were enamored with Tania. In the archives, I unearthed articles from the dailies relating your arrest in April 1969. The announcement that Smith had fired you. The tracts calling for your re-instatement. The photos of a demonstration in solidarity with your cause. A petition from 1995 calling for you to finally be granted the academic honors you had a right to. More recent articles deploring the re-release of “Mercy Mary Patty,” Ms. Neveva should stick to indoctrinating the lesbians of her Communist university. But nothing, nothing at all on your report for the Hearst defense team. I believe I can confirm today that you attended the trial as a spectator.

One day I mentioned your personal involvement in the Hearst trial to another student; she nearly fell out of her chair, why didn’t you talk about the report in your course, it must be fascinating, the young woman suggested that we work together, we could read it faster, dividing the report in two, and eventually include it in our final paper. I hemmed and hawed, maybe it was just a rumor, we should ask you first. Which is exactly what she did at the next class. You didn’t bat an eye, for several instants it seemed to me that you noticed my crimson visage and then, with a shrug of the shoulders, you dismissed the matter as a negligible anecdote – in effect, like dozens of others at the time, you were solicited by the Defense team but it didn’t go any further than that, and if one were to list all your moments of glory, you were also handcuffed on campus centuries ago, does dwelling on the past get us anywhere, no, we need to return to the present.

The night before my departure for France, you called me up. Good evening, it’s Gene Neveva. You offered to drive me to Boston in your car, I must have a lot of luggage, it’ll be better than taking the bus in this heat and besides you have some friends to visit there.

(New chapter)

You apologized for the sorry state of your car, empty cookie packages strewn over the upholstery and crumbs on the seats, blanket and parka rolled up into a ball on the back seat, ink-stained class pages stuck under the seats and tracts in the front window. We passed Main Street and the bookstore announcing your appearance the following weekend, such hoopla 40 years after the book’s initial publication, “You’re a celebrity!” You winced, not really, unless being accused by Fox News of “glorifying teen-aged terrorists” is something to brag about. Smith will always be your only fiefdom, you concluded, to which one might add California, for the rest, America has never appreciated questionable territories and you’ve been pointing this out for 40 years.

You indicated the glove compartment overflowing with CDs and were surprised by my choice. Patti Smith, this wasn’t my generation. I responded that “Hey Joe” was one of the soundtracks of my childhood – Violaine’s 33 record that you’d given her – we stopped talking while Patti Smith harangued Tania Hearst.

You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.

You told me about Patricia Hearst’s entrance into the courtroom, hailed by whistling and vociferations, the rows of teenagers standing up brandishing her photo like a weapon, We love you, Tania, we love you. You described Patricia pouring water into her lawyers’ plastic cups as delicately as if she were serving tea. She who might have spent her whole life being served by others.

Her mother clad entirely in black, from her pumps through her purse, in mourning for her ideal daughter. The prosecutor’s opening argument accusing the SLA of being a foreign army at war against the United States. Patricia stammering in front of the jury, moved to tears, that she’d been raped by a member of the SLA. A very short-lived compassion which ended abruptly the moment the prosecutor asked Patricia if the perpetrator might possibly be the same person of whom she’d sketched a loving portrait in a funeral oration, on the last tape. From that point on, the jury had considered her a liar, a manipulator. When in fact both were probably true, as contradictory as this might seem. You confessed your regret that you hadn’t included a chapter expanding on this idea in “Mercy Mary Patty.” The story of a young woman accused of not having said No loudly enough, thus suspected of having given her consent….

You described Patricia’s pallor as the jury entered the courtroom, even before they’d proclaimed the verdict, she’d whispered, “Guilty.” It was so lousy.

The crucial question of whether Patricia had acted of her own free will had been quickly sidelined in favor of an interminable debate of a quasi-religious nature, the taped messages treated like heretical documents. Patricia had not been judged solely for the acts that she’d committed but for having subscribed to the “diabolical” ideology of the SLA, for having denounced a certain America.

As I listened to you I pictured you young and furious, powerless to contradict the simplistic experts from your bench in the audience, yes or no, true or false, good or bad, innocent or guilty. You who’d devoted more than 300 pages to the nuances of irresolute minds, fluctuating identities. In this country, you bitterly concluded while handing me your cigarette so I could light it, we glorify politicians who never change their opinions, it’s even seen as a sign of strength of character, and Patricia had paid the price, she who’d continually responded Maybe, I don’t know, I don’t know any more.

I was expecting you to add that you’d also paid the price, but you slapped yourself on the wrist, We’re not in class Gene, stop!

We decided to make a pit-stop in Springfield, which we took advantage of to buy drinks and ice cream. In the coffee-shop, young African-Americans were huddled in front of a t.v. broadcasting in constant replay the declaration of a state of emergency in Baltimore. The eye-witness testimonies succeeded each other on the screen, a vehement policeman, a woman in tears, a story with the inevitable end: an adolescent body covered in a shroud, asphyxiated, beaten, killed. His feet surpassed the stretcher, the shoelaces of his sneakers half untied, the policeman will plead legitimate defense, he’ll get off. We were less than 10 miles from Smith College, with its glossy brochure vaunting how the school welcomed serious young women of all colors, white, Asian, Black, pictured leaning over books or in lab jackets. A commercial for a fiction in which I loved believing, we expostulated on the equality in the fortress behind the high Victorian gates.

I was talking too fast because time was running out, searching in vain for an angle without finding it, you were focusing on the road, I continued, I loved your course but was disappointed that we hadn’t studied Cinque’s (10) riposte to the FBI official who, several days after the kidnapping, convinced that the SLA was made up entirely of Blacks, had insinuated on t.v. that “the Blacks, these people, we know who they are.” For the first time you seemed disconcerted. Many moons ago, you’d been fired from a pseudo-libertaire (11) French establishment for having read this very discourse to your students, I already knew this but I didn’t say anything. We attempted to recite it from memory, each of us taking over when the other forgot the words.

You know me, you’ve always known me, I’m the hunted and feared Negro, you’ve killed hundreds of my people to find me; but I am no longer he one steals from and assassinates […] oh yes, you know us all and we know you […].

We stopped talking. The closed cockpit of the car warped time, I prayed we’d never get to Boston. The rain had been falling for a while but now it blotted out the atmosphere with horizontal lines, a violent tempest, the first summer storm, forcing us to pull up into a parking lot deserted except for a man and his dog. The animal toddled along in the opposite direction of the stick his owner’d just thrown, he hunted without success and finally resigned himself to coming back limping, embarrassed at having failed at his task, the man stroked his back, the emaciated hind paws of the dog trembled, the young man lifted the animal up into his arms, the dog unable to get into the car by himself, he curled up on the back seat, exhausted. I remembered the disoriented look of an ageing Lenny when he’d hurt himself for the first time after jumping from a wall, out of breath and panic-stricken when Violaine and I had rushed over to him, he’d struggled to his feet like one gets up hurriedly to ward off a threat. Will you come back one day to the Southwest of France, I asked, without looking at you directly.

(New chapter)

I didn’t have any handkerchiefs in my purse and neither did you, we didn’t even know where to start as the beginning of the story had already taken place and we hadn’t met, or not exactly, we kept interrupting each other, sorry, we needed to resituate the times, your hands perched on the steering wheel were shaking, how did she pronounce it, VIO-LAI-NE, you never knew, you closed your eyes momentarily, voila. Upon arriving at the airport, I sputtered out that I didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again and that you’d been right the very first day we met, I’d loved Patricia as an image one can never live up to, I hadn’t chosen anything for years, how to fight against what’s ravaging us, what flag of what SLA to raise, do you even have to rally behind a flag and whose side are you on if you’re not completely on Tania’s?

“And at the end of the day, what was in your report?”

You burst out laughing, as if I’d just said something particularly hilarious, we arrived at the international departures building, you locked me briefly in your arms, more of an accolade than a hug, you didn’t have time to wait around, a horde of freshmen to whom you’d given too many books to read – as if such a thing was possible – were no doubt already whining at your door. Then at the ticket counter as we were about to go our separate ways, you asked me if by any chance I had “Mercy Mary Patty” in my purse but it was already stashed away in my suitcase, we hurriedly unpacked it, hunching over in front of the armed security guards, extracting tee-shirts, underwear, skirts and notebooks. You thumbed through the book and ear-marked pages 50 through 65, voila the report, you seized my hand and grasped it between yours, beware of pat stories and I don’t know if Gene Neveva was referring to Patricia Hearst, Violaine, or me.

(New chapter)

There’s a certain grace in being among those who seek to connect the dots, who tirelessly keep their ears peeled to discern the voices of centuries of equivocal missing persons, disseminated over elongated spans of time, which have trouble reaching us. You hadn’t saved Patricia Hearst but you’d completed, without fail, your report, which bore little resemblance to a legal brief.

You wrote it for Mercy Short, she is 17 years old in 1690 and has been sequestered in her bedroom for a week. Around her bedside huddle pastors from neighboring villages and boys her own age, 50 bystanders who don’t take their eyes off her, observing what she eats, the way she talks, her dreams that she has to recount down to the most minute details for the small assemblage, monitoring every one of her words, they sing and chant until daybreak, strengthened by being united against the Devil. Mercy must be saved, she’s unrecognizable since she was rescued, without a doubt her kidnapping has left its mark, she has to get her two-cents’ worth in even when nobody asks her opinion, she has no sense of decency, if we let things go on like this before long she’ll be talking to her boss like he’s her cousin. She calls her father a hypocrite after listening to him pray to God. And the way she dresses, the top button of her frock permanently unbuttoned, it’s not proper! We must save Mercy Short’s soul, bring back the Mercy we all know and love, the adorable Mercy, she in whom, concludes the pastor Cotton Mather in the account he consecrates to her, the “faculties are now in complete disarray and who is exhibiting a freedom in her tone of voice that is absolutely extraordinary and in this respect, disturbing.”

You write for Eunice Williams, she who was baptized Marguerite by her adoptive parents, Mohawks, when they converted to Catholicism. Eunice-Marguerite kidnapped in Deerfield on February 28, 1704 by a troop made up of French soldiers and their Indian allies, the Abenaquis and the Mohawks.

Eunice-Marguerite who one day receives a visit from an old man, he stutters, no doubt from the cold, tears flow from his eyes which he dries off with a hand roughened by frostbite, he’s been searching for her for months, he’s scoured all of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She offers him a cup of tea and invites him to sit down on the warmest bearskin rug, covered with woven blankets. He talks a little bit too loud, detaching each of his words as if she can’t understand him. She doesn’t need to call him Sir, he’s her father. The teenager shakes her head, her father is out there, with her mother. She points her finger at a Mohawk couple who wave back, they’re gathering firewood. The reverend raises his voice, clearly not, he’s her father, he never gave up, sure that he would find her, bloodlines are so strong, from the moment he’d been liberated he’d been searching for her without let-up. And now they’re reunited. The nightmare is over, in a few days, the time it takes to get to Deerfield, Eunice will be safe, nothing can ever happen to her again, John Williams swears it, he’ll make sure of it. Then the girl who no longer goes by the name of Eunice shakes her head firmly, flabbergasted. He’s welcome here. He can stay as long as he likes. She’ll present him to her husband. Show him what he built last month, an ingenious construction of tree branches over which they’d stretched a buffalo skin to protect it from storms. He can rest. Eat. But leave with him, to go where? This is her home, here.

A few months later, the reverend returns. On each of his visits, she listens to him patiently like one might listen to someone afflicted by fever, his discourse won’t brook any interruptions, he captures the young woman’s time, assails her with this first name with which he re-baptizes her, Eunice my Eunice, I recognize you all the same. The sole account of Eunice’s choice is the one published by her father in 1707: “The Redeemed Captive,” it inspired James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.”

You, you write for Eunice’s descendants who still live in Kahnawake, they tell anyone who asks the story of their grandmother, great-grandmother, great-grand-aunt who refused to be liberated, she was not a prisoner. You write stories without epilogues or revelations, a tightrope walker in the gray zones who looms up when one least expects it, you write a postcard, “Attention: Violaine,” which I receive yesterday, if she consents to budge to Northampton, Violaine will feel right at home in your class, it’s off-limits to adults.

***********************************

9. In English and French in the original.

10. “Nom de Guerre” of Donald DeFreeze, leader of the SLA.

11. A contemporary French term for non-violent anarchism. I’ve chosen to leave it in the French original here because the most obvious English translations, “anarchist” or “Libertarian,” have respectively more radical and conservative connotations in American English than that intended by the French term.

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Image to word, Paris to New York: “From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism,” by Guillaume Apollinaire

Feneon Orsay Theo van Rysselberghe_La Lecture par Emile VerhaerenFrom the exhibition Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, opening October 16 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris: Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926), “Reading by Emile Verhaeren,” 1903. Oil on canvas, 181 x 241 cm. Gand, Musée des Beaux-arts de Gand. © www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders, photo Hugo Maertens. “After a serious physical and moral crisis,” notes “Le petit Robert” encyclopedia, Emile Verhaeren “discovered the poetic beauty of the modern world and the grandeur of human effort,” confident, under the influence of Hugo, Nietzsche, and Whitman, in mankind’s promising future, as his poetry fed on the new industrial landscapes and the emergence of the machine age. “Rallying to the cause of a fraternal socialism,” the encyclopedia continues, Verhaeren next published a series “powerfully lyrical” collections, including: “Hallucinated countrysides (1893),” “Tentacular Cities (1895),” and “The Tumultuous Forces (1902).” Its veneer seemingly almost monochromatic when viewed at reduced resolution as here, this painting is in reality a tour de force of Neo-Impressionism at its zenith. At first we resisted using it; compared to Seurat’s 1884 “Sunday afternoon on the Grande-Jatte Isle,” it seems closer to Delacroix than Seurat, the Neo-Impressionist device behind its construction not immediately evident. But studied at high-resolution, the make-up of the tableau is positively molecular. Only here, the dots’ intermittent interruption by strategically placed swaths of light or dark blue makes the divisionism almost invisible. In the Seurat you see the science behind the miracle; in the Rysselberghe the minutious effort is less apparent. Painted nearly 20 years later, the Rysselberghe is the natural evolution of the Seurat in its sophisticated employment of the tools of divisionism. Seurat broke the atom down into its particles; Rysselberghe put it back together again to be transformed into seamless light. And speaking of light, even the narrative — no Sunday finest here for Verhaeren’s audience, just sober business suits — is not so staid after sustained study: While his audience is costumed in somber blue, the reader/writer sports a smoldering vermillion — as if set on fire by the text. (This was just a year after Zola’s suspicious death by gas asphyxiation.) And every single one of the auditors maintains a skeptical disposition towards the writer. Add to this the drooping Greek statuettes — representing the Hellenic ideal the attainment of which, as Zola had pointed out 40 years earlier in heralding the Imressionist era, was the painter’s primary preoccupation before Delacroix and his successors arrived and relegated it to the academy (or, more recently, the first floor of the Met and the basement of the Louvre) — and the tableau on the wall of factory chimneys darkening the landscape which confronts Verhaeren’s embrace of industrialization with Maximilien Luce (another free-thinking painter to whom Verhaeren was close) or Camille Pissarro’s more sober view, and another synthesis, the confrontation of words with image — is complete. — PB-I

by Guillaume Apollinaire
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Text from the August 7, 1911 issue of L’intransigent, as reproduced in “Chroniques d’art, 1902-1918,” Published by and copyright Gallimard, 1960, with texts assembled and annotated by L.C. Breunig. Art from — and courtesy — Artcurial’s September 24 auction of Ancient and 19th century art in Paris (for the Delacroix), the exhibition Félix Fénéon (1861-1944), Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, opening October 16 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it runs through January 27 before migrating to the Museum of Modern Art (for the Rysselberghe, Seurat, Cross, and Signac) and the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager’s archived coverage of the 2012 exhibition “Maximilien Luce, de l’esquisse (draft) au chef-d’oeuvre,” at the Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu in Mantes la Jolie (for the Luce).

“The academic painter Delacroix.”

— Art History course description, Bard College, 2019

An updated edition of Paul Signac’s rare booklet, previously issued in a very limited edition by La Revue Blanche, has just been published.

“From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism” is the title of this brief work which Paul Signac has dedicated to the memory of his companion, the great painter Georges Seurat.

Seurat has still not received the recognition he deserves. Beyond the merits of the innovations which they brought to art thanks to the application, which he was the first to practice, of Neo-Impressionist theories, his works have, in their drawing, their composition, the very discretion of their luminosities a style which sets them apart and maybe even above the work of the majority of painters, his contemporaries.

Un dimanche après-midi sur l'île de la Grande JatteGeorges Seurat (1859-1891), “A Sunday afternoon on the Grande-Jatte Isle,” 1884. Study. New York, NY, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image of the MMA.

No painter makes me think of Moliere as does Seurat, the Moliere of “The Bourgeoisie Gentleman,” a ballet full of grace, of lyricism and of good sense.

The Neo-Impressionist painters, of whom Paul Signac is the most gifted and the most famous, are those who, to cite our author, “founded, and, since 1886, have developed the technique referred to as ‘divisionism,’ which utilizes as a means of expression the optical mix of tones and tints.” This technique can be traced to the art of the Byzantine mosaicists, and I even recall a day on which Signac, in a letter to Charles Morice, evoked the Libreria de Siene.

But we don’t need to look back that far.

In his book, Signac abundantly demonstrates how this luminous technique, which brought a sense of order to the Impressionist innovations, was foretold, even applied, by Delacroix, to whom it had been revealed by an examination of the paintings of Constable.

Artcurial fall 2019 Eugène DELACROIX - Deux études de figures drapées - © Artcurial smallFrom September 24’s  Artcurial auction of ancient and 19th century masters in Paris: Eugène Delacroix, “Two studies of draped figures.” Image courtesy and © Artcurial.

Signac scrutinizes even more closely the impact of the Impressionists and of their precursor Jongkind.

Then he gets to Seurat who, in 1886, exposed the first divisionist painting, “A Sunday afternoon on the Grande-Jatte Isle.”

Pointilism was thus born and went on to produce magnificent works which nobody dared ridicule. Today painting seems to be following a path directly opposed to that which the Neo-Impressionists took. Delacroix’s two celebrated slogans, “Grey is the enemy of every painting!” and “Banish all Earthen colors” would mystify the young painters who want to return to the basics of forms and drawing, just as before them there was a return to the essentials of composition, light, and color intensity.

Au contraire, the new painters paint in hard to reproduce grey tones and search out the elegance of Earthen colors.

Feneon Orsay, Henri-Edmond Cross, The Golden Iles, smallHenri-Edmond Cross, “The Golden Isles,” between 1891 and 1892. Oil on canvas, 59.5 x 54 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. © Patrice Schmidt/musée d’Orsay, distribution RMN.

The art of Neo-Impressionism drew but a small number of adepts. It requires, in effect, a lot of application and science, not to mention talent.

The meticulousness that it demands discourages artists who are inconstant or in a rush.

maximilien luce, the dredging machine in RotterdamMaximilien Luce, “The dredging machine in Rotterdam.” Oil on canvas. Courtesy Ville de Mantes la Jolie, Musée de l’Hotel-Dieu.

It has furnished modern art with a number of very beautiful and very luminous works, those of Seurat, of Henri-Edmond Cross, of Luce, of Van Rysselberghe, etc., which are rightly admired today and which the future will remember.

Paul Signac’s little booklet marks an important date in the history of contemporary art.

Paul Signac, Le Temps d'HarmoniePaul Signac (1863-1935) , “The Time of Harmony: The Golden Age is not in the past, it’s in the future (Retort),” 1896. Oil on canvas, 65.5 × 81 cm.  Kasser Mochary Foundation, Montclair, NJ.  Kasser Art Foundation, image © Nikolai Dobrowolskij.

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.