Slaves of New York*: It’s still a helluva town

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on January 7, 2011, with a slightly different title, and reprised, revised, and greatly expanded today because New York City — which at last count had lost 21,000 or a fifth of the national toll to the Corona virus, in no small part because the state’s governor waited too long to impose confinement (San Francisco, which went into confinement a week earlier, has lost less than 100 as of this date) and thanks to his policy of cutting back on hospital beds (thank you, Democracy Now, for these tragic factoids) — is still a helluva town. This one goes out to Sue, Melinda, Jamie, Richard, Margaret, Veronica, Robin, Caitlin, Elizabeth, Julio, Therese, Bonnie, Chris, the memories of Ed Winer, Becky Jung, Joe Mazo, Ranjabati Sircar, and Eileen Darby, and to Maura, Christine C., Matt, Nancy, Tristan, Fabrice, Pilar, Nathalia, Amaury, Laurent, Ruth-Lynn and too many other dancers to name, Michelle, Kevin, Donna, Lisa, Laurie, Phil, Herb, Ingrid, Neil, Eddie, Marty, Amy, Juan, Nimet, Jane, Martin, Anyta, Rebecca, Mark, Jill, Julie, Adam, Jocelyn, Dean, Darrah, Lucie, Harris, Ron, Don, Ben, Jonathan Schwartz, the editorial team at Wunderman Cato Johnson, and to all those who have given me so many New York moments and who are still there trying to make sure that it’s still a helluva town, despite Governor Cuomo’s irresponsibility and the mayor’s callousness towards the homeless. Take a dip in the Bethesda Fountain, New Yorkers, while knoshing on a knish or a dog with da works, de ma part…. (For art related to this column, click here .)

NEW YORK — Dance seems to be calcified in New York, the same fossils that were here 10 years ago — when I left for Paris — even more entrenched. Indeed, the wilderness is so sallow that the New York Times felt the need to send its chief dance critic abroad to review 27 “Nutcracker”s, as if even 27 “Nutcracker”s would have to be more interesting than one more New York dance concert, so desperately desolate has the local mainstream landscape apparently become. (Having once been sent abroad myself, to review a ‘Nut’ in a far-gone bourg of BFLI — Bum Fuck Long Island if you have to know, weisenheimer — where the publicist made sure to seat me next to the company’s director and my Newsday editor excised my mild criticism of a lackluster Clara, I sympathize.)

So this art aficionado has been feeding his art jones with art of the visual variety, as well as the self-made art still on view — nevah change, baby! — in New York every day. In the visual art landscape, between the Impressionist-era paintings one can stumble upon at a corner uptown gallery and what I’m told is the blossoming of the windblown Chelsea Territory — though the new High-line above the Western limits of the neighborhood looking out over the Hudson seems antiseptic compared to the colorful Paris counterpart that apparently inspired it, the coulee verte that starts at the Bastille — things at least seem to be moving. Scouring a Chelsea gallery guide Thursday afternoon to scout out vernissages (opening receptions to you, bub), I couldn’t help but notice some art on the various gallery websites that actually looked interesting, as opposed to the buy-me variety which seemed to be preponderant here 10 years ago, memorialized in Schnabel’s “Basquiat” film when Tatum O’Neal, considering a purchase, asks the artist, “Can you make it more brown?”

While I didn’t see enough art in an abbreviated gallery crawl Thursday night to be able to offer an assessment, let alone pass judgment, what was, on the other hand, dispiriting was that, as was the case 10 years ago, everyone seemed to be standing around talking up each other and I only saw one lost woman looking at the art — yet one more sign that not just dance, but intellectual life in New York may have ebbed. (The biggest indication of this is the effective demise of the Village Voice, a molted praying mantis’s skin of its former self, its last breath expiring with this week’s firing of 33-year-old veteran investigative journalist Wayne Barrett supposedly for financial reasons, the final death knoll for a storied heritage.)

But the good news is that like Paris, New York itself remains a work of art, even performing (as opposed to performance) art. After a cat-sitting gig in a literary brownstone healthily crammed with a century of books from first to top floor in the Upper East Side environs of Central Park, I’ve spent the past week in the Lower East Side environs of Chinatown where I literally saw it all on Mulberry Street: The Italian stretch of the street may have devolved into a Disney-fied Italian-Land — with young barkers standing outside the restaurants cajoling potential clients, reminiscent of the older men who stand outside Pakistani restaurants in Paris’s Passage Brady or the hawkers of “Pig Alley” — but Chinatown remains authentic, and perhaps the only place in Manhattan where one can still lunch like a monkey king for less than $3. That’s right — less than $3. I’ve had crumbled pork cake (at the Orange Tea House on Elizabeth Street), which is just what it sounds like — pork crumbs on the outside, sweet cake on the inside, for 90 cents. Goopy large noodles woven with shrimp and dribbled with soy and hot sauces for $1.25, (from a stand on Elizabeth Street). My comforting favorite for this weather is what I call a chicken porridge soup — in Chinese I think its moniker is ‘congee’ — of which you can get a nice helping for $1.50, from a woman working out of a cart on Grand Street. But the mecca — for starving journalists as well as starving dancers — is clearly Vanessa’s dumpling house on Eldridge. The signature dish is the owner’s sesame pancake sandwiches, all under and some well under $3 (the vegetable variety is just $1.50), but I’ve stuck to the fried pork dumplings, three plump ones available for just $1.(On this visit, I forgot to ‘vestigate – as the late dancer Becky Jung might put it – into whether Yonah’s Knishes was still dealing this daily staple of my forgotten Lower East Side ancestors. Or head uptown to see if the yamuka-crowned speedheads that used to dish up pickle-packed tahimi-oozing falafel sandwiches to long lines of Mad Men and Women from a van on 46th long before ‘food-truck’ became part of the lingo were still in business. ) If your parents are coming to town and you want them to take you to someplace nice, you might scout out the Vietnamese restaurant dance friends turned me on to earlier this week, which they’d learned of from choreographer and Chinatown institution HT Chen. (The menu even offers “HT Chen Crispy Noodles.”) Here my conch jones was finally satisfied. Since reading during my last NY sojourn, in the Joseph Mitchell classic “Up in the Old Hotel,” that fewer and fewer restaurants were serving conch, the meat that lives in that large sea-shell that whispers ocean gusts when you hold it up to your ear — fisherman only hunted for them by special request — I’ve been on a singular quest to find this item on NY restaurant menus. Last time around, I found three Italian places — in the whole city — that still served scungili, or conch in a spicy tomato sauce. One of those, the fabled Luna cafe on Mulberry Street (where an apprentice Guido once paused before pouring  the chianti for me and my female friend because “I didn’t wanna interrupt the eye contact”), has closed, and the other two have removed conch/scungili from their menus. At first, the waiter at the Vietnamese place disappointed me by shaking his head when I ordered the sauteed conch, listed as a specialty. “All out!” Then he returned excitedly to tell me that the fisherman had just brought some in that morning.

The hazard conch-fanciers face when ordering is the same one calamari-cravers have to deal with, that the dish will probably be over-cooked and thus rubbery and hard to break up. This conch, though, was perfect, as soft, flat, and sea-pungent as abalone. (I hadn’t touched another of my favorite NY-only ethnic dishes, Mofungo – a large plaintain and pork dumpling – since a serving had broken my last good molar left standing in Spanish Harlem. I’d have done better heading further downtown and sinking my delicate choppers into chicken and waffles at Wells’s or Sylvia’s.)

But affordable downtown culinary riches are not restricted to one cuisine. On Sunday — my favorite, maybe the only day for a gambol in the Village if you don’t like crowds — I hied over to El Rinconcita, on E. 10th and Avenue C, which still sells its catfish empanadas for just $1 apiece. (The mofungo is also nothing to kick a can at.)They were out of them when I got there, but I blithely ignored the tired waitress’s suggestion of chicken and asked if they could make some. “I’ll wait!” (The lively cumbia on the juke didn’t make it hard.) The woman who cooked them up for me — perhaps the owner — must have remembered me because she packed the empanadas not just with catfish but juicy jalapenos as well, which I ate on a wet bench in still snow-covered Tompkins Square, sipping the last of my warm cafe con leché. (At a Columbian stand outside a church on 14th street where I used to get it with my dollar enchiladas on Sundays, they used to sell Mexican-style hot chocolate infused with rice.)

If there’s one thing I’ve craved, though, since I returned from France this past summer, it’s duck, the soul-food of the country’s southwest, where I spent most of the past three years. I’d been warned that a Chinatown duck was not the same as a Frenchytown duck, so I had resisted. I was not even tempted by the opportunity to try the one duck part I’d never tried when I saw it here. I’d thought I’d sampled everything — duck carcasses, duck confit, duck hearts, duck blood patties (kind of like boudin but too rubbery for me), duck necks, preserved duck gizzards, smoked duck breast, duck breast with goat cheese sauce, beaujolais nouveau duck. But it wasn’t until I walked into a Chinese butcher’s on Grand street that I discovered duck tongues, 50 of them wrapped tightly in cellophane. Didn’t go for those, but finally gave in and bought a Peking Duck Wednesday. The price was right — $12 — but man was that Long Island (Peking by way of Valley Stream, and no doubt not blessed by my old rabbi Donna Berman) canard skinny compared to its French relatives. Not even a morsel of liver to be found, and forget about heart. (In France, they sell their chickens without the liver, which any Jew, whether he was brought up in Rabbi Berman’s Long Island congregation or the Aquarian Minion in San Francisco, will tell you is the best part.) And in a whole duck probably about four servings, max. Pumping its value to the maximum, I’ll be cooking the carcass up in a duck soup this weekend.

Of course the global beauty of my Chinatown digs this past week — the snow is gently falling outside the window to the courtyard as I write, set off by the neighbor building’s tenement brown brick — is the seat they’ve provided in the LES and Soho (a stone’s throw away) neighborhoods, which, despite the boutiques which have replaced the galleries in the latter and the leather jacket stores which have supplanted the Hester Street pushcarts in the former, still retain some of the eternal New York character, inherent in the architecture and the denizens (or as Damon Runyon would say, ‘citizens’) who pass under and between the buildings and who are perhaps inspired by the shadows of their not-so-forgotten ancestors. Is it also fueled by life on the edge, the element of danger lubricating one’s joie de vivre? Perhaps. The other day on Lafayette (I am here!) below Houston (hint to newbies: HOW-ston), in one block I was hit by both the beauty and the terror. In the middle of the block a blonde woman in sweats and tennies was fervently telling a tall worried man with curly brown hair, “This is for all the women murdered in New York.” A few yards further, before I could even take a look at her face, a woman walked past me who could have stepped straight out of a ’30s glamour magazine, everything from her smart felt hat to her long brown coat denoting style. Me, I’ll have one more stylin’ lunch in Chinatown and the LES before heading up to the theoretically more staid digs I’ve now scored on the Upper West Side off Broadway, plopping down on a bench in the middle of a bank of snow, propping my French boots (no Doc Martens this time) up on the concrete barrier between the benches and the basketball court across from her café and chowing down on my first cold sesame noodles of the season, a $3 feast courtesy of Vanessa’s. Bon appetit!

*For the non-New Yorkers among my readers, this title refers to the Tama Janowitz novel, itself encapsulating a particular NY phenomenon. I interviewed Janowitz in Princeton in 1987.

(Updated 6 p.m. French time)What’s wrong with this picture? In the Heart of Darkness with Marcel Gromaire and the ‘Humanists,’ or, Pour quoi nous ne sommes pas tous Princesse Tam-Tam

gromaire abolitionThe press packet for the exhibition Marcel Gromaire, l’Elegance de la Force, theoretically on view through Sunday at the Piscine in the Northern French city of Roubaix after earlier runs in Sete and Honfleur, describes the massive fresque “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” (above), commissioned by the State in 1949 to commemorate the 1848 abolition of slavery in France and celebrate its primary government instigator, undersecretary of state Victor Schoelcher (at right) and Marianne, the icon of French democracy (at left), as a ‘humanist’ composition. And yet an even cursory study of the picture, whose original measures 40 square meters, suggests a more nuanced interpretation: the Black (naked) savages liberated by the benevolent white bwanas. I’m of course not calling into question either Marianne or Schoelcher themselves, both laudable, voir heroic and justifiably lionized figures, but specifically questioning the hierarchy in Gromaire’s composition, his depiction of the Black personages (more the men than the women, whose curves and bare breasts are typical to Gromaire women of any color, and about which you won’t find this misogynist complaining, in fact it’s part of the allure for me of the painter who up until now has been my favorite) and their supplicating postures, and thus the painting’s qualifications as ‘humanist.’ This over-simplification — and apportioning of the roles of victim and liberator — is not unique to French artists. Abraham Lincoln was also mythologized (including by Black artists) as the savior of Black people, as if the Civil War were fought only for their freedom. More troubling is that in reality, by 1949, 100 years after their liberation on paper, Blacks were far from free from racialist denigration by French writers and artists (as was also the case in the United States, where the consequences were more lethal) . (I prefer the term ‘racialist’ to ‘racist,’ which implies a malevolent intention which isn’t necessarily always there; I myself was — and am — racialist when it comes to my idea of Black men. I don’t know if I’ll ever rectify this in my heart; all I can do is try to correct it in my deeds and writings.) Already, in 1935, a French film director, Edmond T. Greville, could make a movie (also released in the U.S.) starring Josephine Baker, “Princess Tam-Tam,” which, notwithstanding its American star’s enjoying more civil rights in France than she would have in her native country (let alone not risking being shot in her own home, as was a young Black woman in my former home city Fort Worth, Texas, not too long ago), terminates with Baker, portraying a ‘native’ that the ‘cultivated’ white novelist has ultimately been unable to civilize (for much of the movie he appears to have done so, until he wakes up to realize this was just a dream, and not of the Martin Luther King Jr. variety), smiling approvingly as the monkey she’s let into the Tunisian villa the white man’s left her knocks over a shelf of books and a jackass gobbles up a tome called “Civilization.” (Returning home from a pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis in 2019, in the corridor of the City Hall Metro station I spotted a billboard for a line of lingerie — in which only one of the half-dozen scantily clad models was moderately dark-skinned — announcing “Nous sommes tous Princesse Tam-Tam,” “We are all Princess Tam-Tam.” When I later asked an employee of the brand’s boutique — ironically flanking the entrance to the Montmartre space of the Theatre de la Ville, lately known for presenting a number of dance companies from Africa — the origin of the name, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t know.”) In 1957 — eight years after Gromaire’s monumental work was unveiled in the l’Assemblée de l’Union française in the château of Versailles — Léo Malet, the father of the Modern French detective novel, could have his hero PI / narrator Nestor Burma observe, in “Micmac Moche au Boul’Mich’,” part of Malet’s “New Mysteries of Paris” series (later made into a popular television show): “They say that Negros diffuse a particular smell….” In 2006, the Paris Opera Ballet could present, in the august Garnier Palace, a ballet by its former director, Serge Lifar, in which white male dancers covered with black make-up portrayed ‘savages’ leaping about like gorillas. These racial stereotypes — and if anything they were and still are as if not more widespread in the United States, and with much more vehemence in certain states, than in France — are not benign. Far from being ‘humanistic,’ they vehicle a dehumanization of the Black man and woman which ultimately leads to events (because they are depicted as less than fully human) like the recent stalking and murder of a Black man in Georgia and Monday’s murder in Minneapolis of a Black man named George Floyd, whose stifled cries of “I can’t breathe” did not convince a white police officer to take his knee off Floyd’s throat, as three other officers allegedly stood by. (I’m NOT saying the 1949 painting lead to the 2020 slaying, but rather that its one-dimensional depiction of Black people is part of a long, ongoing history by Occidental, white artists and writers of reducing people because of their race which makes it easier to not see them as fully human.) Among the tributes at an impromptu memorial to Floyd deposited on a Minneapolis sidewalk was this handwritten sign: “I’m not black but I see you.” The problem with Marcel Gromaire’s “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” — and which makes it more dehumanizing than ‘humanist’ — is that while he sees the white re-enfranchisers, he doesn’t really see the liberated Black men and women as anything but helpless victims completely reliant on their previous enslavors for their liberation, his one-dimensional depictions ultimately denying them their franchise as fully realized human beings. (To those who would defend Malet by saying that his, or at least his hero-narrator’s, views on Blacks are just a reflection of the times — I say ‘are’ because the novel with that description of Blacks was proudly re-published by Robert Laffont in 1985, with no exculpatory note by editor Francis Lacassin — I would answer with Eugene Sue. In Sue’s “Mysteries of Paris,” written a hundred years earlier and whose title inspired Malet, by far the noblest character is an African-American physician from Louisiana, Dr. Paul, who has a crisis of conscience when the hero, his employer, barbarically orders him to pierce the eyes of the saga’s villain as an alternative to sending him to prison. There are none so blind as those who will not see.) The press pack for the Rubaix exhibition also quotes Gromaire, while he was working in his ‘hangar’ on his ‘great machine,’ as confessing, “I’ll be happy… […] [to] find out if I succeed in revitalizing painting by official commission; let Delacroix protect me!” The invocation is unfortunate; despite the reputation he has for inspiring the original sin of Orientalism, the sketches Delacroix made when he accompanied an official French diplomatic delegation to North Africa in the 1830s were much more respectful than Gromaire’s results here, unafflicted by any Romanticism — negative or positive. What ultimately bothers me in the hierarchy of Gromaire’s composition — and prompts me to dispute the painting’s claim to a great ‘humanism’ — is his perspective: “L’Abolition de l’esclavage” doesn’t so much fete that milestone as canonize the cagers for simply deciding to open up the cage and free those who should never have been enchained in the first place, in the process freeing themselves. Painting credits: Marcel Gromaire, “L’Abolition de l’esclavage (detail),” 1950. Oil on canvas pasted on wood. Commissioned by the State; deposited at the Centre national des arts plastiques in 1991. Photo: A. Loubry – © ADAGP, Paris 2020. George Floyd tribute seen on the website of The Progressive. — Paul Ben-Itzak

PS: Speaking of Delacroix: To make sure it’s absolutely clear that the target of my criticism in the Gromaire painting is not Marianne, but rather the relative importance of the roles the painter assigns to her and to the Black personages in their liberation, I’ve decided to also share a reproduction of Eugene Delacroix’s 1831 painting “Liberty Guiding the People.” Note that here the Marianne-like figure isn’t *liberating* the people, but rather *leading* them; they are active players in their own liberation from oppression.

Le 28 juillet 1830 : la Liberté guidant le peupleEugene Delacroix, “Liberty Guiding the People,” 1831. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Louvre, Paris.

It’s my birthday, and I’ll rant if I want to

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

“Il est vilain, il n’ira pas au paradis,
celui qui décède sans avoir réglé tous
ses comptes.” (He’s wretched, he won’t go to heaven, he who dies without having settled his scores.)

— Almanach des Bons-Enfants, cited by Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

“There are many forms of confinement. The worse is fear.”

— PB-I

Let’s start in our strictly verbal, non-violent settling of scores (this being the Internet, precision is important to avoid misunderstanding) with the professors who profess to teach a discipline anchored in the Humanities — in other words, to imbue humanistic values in their charges — in the Comparative Literature Studies program of Northwestern University, specifically the “graduate committee.” Among other requirements, the PhD program to which I’d been invited to apply last fall (by invited, I mean that the committee agreed to consider my other accomplishments in lieu of a completed undergraduate degree) expects admitted PhD candidates to read about 50 heavy-duty books, largely though not exclusively in ‘critical theory,’ in the course of about three months (happening to coincide with their summer vacations). (Thus calling for what is apparently known in academic circles these days as “close reading.” Not.) Now, my first question when learning of this intellectual and critical Rubicon — appetizing as the lists looked (one gets to choose between several rubrics, and one can add up to seven titles of one’s own choosing to each of the two lists selected) — was, How the Sam Hill do they expect their students to actually retain any of these wonderful lessons and questions and treatises, from philosophers including Benjamin, Arendt, and Adorno, at a clip of three to four tomes per week?  (On which intensive oral exams follow.) Well campers (or gang, as the noted philosopher Jean Shepherd, who wasn’t but should have been on at least one of the lists, given the expertise and interests of a professor who would have been one of my advisors), I discovered the answer when those crumbs refused to grant me a lousy eight-day extension to complete the application and related essays (they already had the letters from two of my three “recommenders,” and I’d already given the graduate director and at least one other professor a good idea of my potential doctoral research projects, notably a cross-cultural study of artists and writers who have committed suicide and a study of Jean Sénac, the pied-noir poet and Camus disciple who ultimately chose the side of the ‘indigenes’ during the Algerian War, elected to stay there after independance, and  bravely ‘came out’ in explicit ‘corps-poems’ while still living among that conservative culture before being assassinated a la Pasolini in 1973) and complex project descriptions to which I’d devoted most of the previous three months so that I could mourn my father, who died December 7, a death I only learned of December 10 because I’d spent the previous week-end holed up working on my application essays and off e-mail. (I’m too poor, finance-wise, to afford a telephone.) Evidently, when the members of this graduate committee were doing their own PhD program speed-intellectual/critically theoretical dating tour through those 50 books, they must have skipped over the part where Adorno explains — in a German radio exchange — that education is the ideal tool for debarbarization (if it’s not barbaric — i.e., non-humanistic — to deny someone an eight-day extension so that he can mourn his father, I don’t know what is), and the part where Arendt talks about the banality of evil. No, I’m NOT calling the members of the Northwestern University Comparative Literature Studies program graduate committee mini-Eichmanns but rather pointing out that Arendt’s uber-subject (I was studying “Eichmann in Jerusalem” before many of those professors’ expectant mothers were even playing recordings of College de France lectures next to their pregnant tummies to make them what they should have been) was the comportment of those whose defense of repugnant acts is that they were just following orders. In Northwestern’s case, I was essentially told by the graduate director that the system made an extension problematic, specifically that the round-robin candidate elimination process or whatever they call it  would have already progressed too far after eight days, to paraphrase the excuse he gave me. In other words, I may well have thought I was in Evanston, but I was actually in the meat-packing / abattoir district of nearby Chicago, assembly-line processing method-wise, up merde’s creek with neither Upton Sinclair nor even his alter-ego Arthur Stirling anywhere in sight to come to my rescue, the various projects about which I’d spoken to various NU CLS professors just so much cerebrum carcass blood on the library floor. (As the noted turntable philosopher Fat-Boy Slim might have put it.)

Oh and I almost left out the crummiest part of the non-humanistic behavior of these crumbs who profess to give lessons in a humanistic discipline: I made the extension request immediately I learned that my father had died — specifically, December 10. (The deadline was the 12th. As I noted earlier, my father died December 7 but I only learned of his death December 10 as I was holed up working on my PhD program application until then.) But these crumbs waited until that deadline had passed to refuse my request for an extension through December 18 — in other words, until it was too late for me to do anything about it.

As I told the graduate representative or director, whatever his title is (I should have flaired the guiding optic of the graduate committee and perhaps whole CLS program when he kept using the word ‘strategic’ to advise me on how to handle various aspects of my application, albeit with good intentions) in response, if my father had to die, I’m thankful he timed it in such a way as to spare me from spending five years surrounded by people like you. Shame on you, you hypocrites.

Protected: Le Feuilleton (the Serial): (English translation followed by V.O. française) Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 13: The Empire Strikes back against Abstract art (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Pendant l’exil: When Victor Hugo revisited the rues & houses of the Old Blois of his youth, thanks to an artist

hugo blois by armand queyroy 5 with coverEau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy. Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. Introduction by Victor Hugo, extracted from la Gazette des Beaux Arts. Ouvrage dedicated by Queyroy to “Madame le Masson souvenir affectueux.” Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

by Victor Hugo
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Translation dedicated to Lucie and Lionel, Travailleurs intellectuelles Parisiens, maintenant exiles … pas loin de… Blois….

Just before the virus hit, I found the ideal place in Paris — an apartment-atelier on the rue Daguerre, no less, where it’s no doubt perched atop a portion of the Catacombs — from which to launch Les Editions Hèléne, a publishing house specializing in English translations  of French literature and on French art. In addition to being on the Meridian of Paris, where miracles always seem to happen to me, the rental comes with other happy accidents related to future work and translation projects. In pondering whether I should (and could) wait until there’s a vaccine to return to Paris — thus prolonging my own exile from Lutèce for at least another year — I considered the case of Victor Hugo, who did not let a little thing like 18 years of exile from Paris and France stop him from producing some of the best literature ever. Besides “Les Miserables,” there were poems, essays, political tracts, appeals (famously, for clemency for John Brown), and correspondence. Not just exchanges with peers including George Sand, but appreciations like the following 1864 letter to Armand Queyroy on the occasion of the publication of “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” a collection of eaux-fortes or etchings printed by Delâtre, in Paris. And of course, coming from the pen of Victor Hugo, these souvenirs do not just reflect one of the Great Man’s Proustien — madeleine — moments; Hugo manages to squeeze in a political discourse which reveals his sometimes nuanced disposition towards French monarchic heritage. But above all, where this discourse touches me is in its illustration of the nexus between literature and the fine arts.  Like what you’re reading? If you are not already a subscriber, advertiser, or family member, please help pay  for our hard work in increasingly expensive and risky times by making a donation today. Just designate your payment in dollars or Euros via PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at there to learn how to pay by check.– PB-I

(Extracted from “Pendant l’Exil,” 1852 – 1870, Victor Hugo. Paris, Nelson, Editeurs. Images from the Archives  of the Loire-et-Cher department of France. The letter also served as a preface to Queyroy’s publication.)

Hauteville House, [Guernsey,] April 17, 1864

Monsieur, I want to thank you. You’ve just enabled me to re-live the past. On the 17th of April, 1825 — 39 years ago to this very day (allow me to note this minor coincidence, which is interesting to me at least) — I arrived in Blois. It was early morning. I’d come from Paris. I’d passed the night in the mail-wagon, and what is there to do in the mail-wagon? I’d done “The Ballad of the two Archers”; then, the final verses finished, as the day had not yet dawned, all the while watching through the dim light of the track lights on either side of the train the troops of Orleans cows descending towards Paris, I’d dozed off. The conductor’s voice awoke me. “Voila Blois!” he’d cried.

I opened my eyes and saw a thousand windows at the same time, an irregular and pell-mell pile of houses, of steeples, a chateau, and on the hill a crown of tall trees and a row of gabled, pointed stone facades on the edge of the water, an entire city resembling an amphitheater, capriciously spread out on the ledges of an inclining plain and, except that the Ocean is wider than the Loire and doesn’t have any bridges leading to the other side, practically identical to this city of Guernsey where I live today.

The Sun was rising over Blois.

Fifteen minutes later and I was on the rue du Foix, number 73. I knocked on a small door giving onto a garden; a man who was working in the garden came to open it for me. He was my father.

That night, my father lead me to the mound which overlooked the house, and which harbored “Gaston’s tree”; I now saw again from the heights of the city what I’d seen that morning from its depths; the aspect, for that matter, was, if somewhat severe, even more charming. The city, in the morning, had seemed to me to have the gracious disorder and practically the surprise of waking up; the night had softened its angles. Even though it was still light, the Sun had only just set, there was a debut of melancholy; the blurring of twilight had taken the edge off the points of the rooftops; the rare scintillating of candles had replaced the dazzling diffusion of the aurora on the window-panes; the profiles of things were subsisting the mysterious transformation of night; the rigidness was losing the battle, the curves winning; there were more elbows, less angles. I looked on, almost mellowed by this effect. The skies had a vague breath of summer. The city appeared to me, no longer like it had that morning, gay and ravishing, haphazard, but harmonious; it had been cut into compartments of a beautiful whole amounting to an equilibrium; the planes had receded, the stories superimposed themselves with impeccable timing and tranquility. The cathedral, the bishopry, the black church of Saint-Nicolas, the chateau, as much a citadel as a palace, the ravines mixed up with the city, the slopes and descents where the houses at times climbed, at times tumbled, the bridge with its obelisk, the beautiful serpentine curves of the Loire, the rectangular bands of willows, at the extreme horizon Chambord, indistinct with its forest of turrets, the forest into which was sunk the antique route known as ‘Roman bridges’ marking the ancient bed of the Loire, all this seemed vast and gentle. And after all, my father loved this city.

Which today you have rendered back to me.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 2

“Blois, la rue Chemonton et ses escaliers.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Arrmand Queyroy, 1890. 247 X 135 mm; (object) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Thanks to you, I’m in Blois again. Your 20 etchings reveal the intimate city, not the city of palaces and churches, but the city of houses. With you, one is there in the streets; with you, one enters into the ramshackle hut; and so many of these decrepit edifices, like the dwelling in sculpted wood on the rue Saint-Lubin, like the hotel Denis-Dupont with its stairway lantern and oblique bay windows following the movement of the spiral staircase of Saint Gilles, like the house on the rue Haute, like the very low arcade of the rue Pierre-de-Blois, exposing all the Gothic fantasy or all the Renaissance graces, augmented by the poetry of dilapidation. Being a hut and being a jewel are not mutually exclusive. An elderly lady who has heart and spirit, nothing is more charming. Many of the exquisite houses drawn by you are that elderly woman. One is happy to make their acquaintance. One retrieves them again with joy when one is, like me, their old friend. What things they have to tell you, and what a delicious return to the past! For example, take a look at this fine and delicate house on the rue des Orfevres, it seems to be engaged in a tete-a-tete. One is fortunate to be amidst all this elegance. You make us recognize everything, so much are your sketches portraits. It’s photographic fidelity with the liberty of great art. Your rue Chemonton is a chef-d’oeuvre. I’ve scaled, at the same time as these good paysans of Sologne painted by you, the steep steps of the chateau. The house of statuettes on the rue Pierre de Blois is comparable to the house of Musicians in Weymouth. I’ve retrieved everything.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 6

Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Alluye.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Printed by Delâtre, Paris, 1864. 188 X 267 mm; (object) 308 X 482 mm. Papier vergé.Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Here’s the tower of Argent, here’s the high somber gable at the corner of the rue des Violettes and the rue Saint-Lubin, here’s the hotel de Guise, here’s the hotel de Cheverny, here’s the hotel Sardini with its arches in three-centered curves, here’s the hotel d’Alluye with its gallant arcades from the time of Charles VIII, here are the Saint-Louis steps which lead to the cathedral, here’s the rue du Sermon, and at the end the practically Roman silhouette of Saint-Nicolas; here’s the pretty cantwise turret referred to as Queen Anne’s Oratory. The garden where Louis XII, gouty, liked to promenade his mule in a garden behind this turret.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 1

“Blois, view of the rue des Violettes and the rue St-Lubin.” Eau-forte extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Imp. Delâtre, 1864. 255 X 157 mm; (object) 299 X 423 mm . Papier vergé. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy.  From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

That Louis XII, like Henry IV, had his amiable sides. He made many blunders, but was a good-natured king. He tossed the procedures launched against the Vaudois into the Rhone. He was worthy for having the valiant Huguenot astrologist Renée de Bretagne, so intrepid before Saint-Barthélemy and so proud in Montargis, as a daughter. As a youngster, he’d spent three years in the Tower of Bourges, and he’d tasted the iron cage. This experience, which might have rendered another man mean, made him debonair. He’d entered Genoa, victorious, with a golden bee-hive on his coat of arms and this motto: Non utitor aculeo. He was good, and he was brave. In Signaled, to a courtesan who warned him, “You’re exposing yourself to danger, sire,” he responded, “Get behind me.” It’s also he who said: “A good king is an authentic king. I prefer being ridiculous with courtesans to being overbearing with the people.” He said: “The ugliest beast to see walk past you is a procurer carrying his dossiers.” He hated judges eager to condemn who tried to exaggerate the fault to envelope the accused. “They are,” he said, “like cobblers who stretch out the leather by pulling on it with their teeth.” He died from loving his wife too much, just like François II later on, gently killed the one like the other by a Marie. The honeymoon was short. On January 1, 1515, after 83 days or rather 83 nights of marriage, Louis XII expired, and as it was New Year’s Day, he told his wife: “My darling, for a New Year’s gift I give you my death.” She accepted, sharing the present with the Duke of Brandon.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 7

“Blois,  front, old houses at the foot of the St.-Louis cathedral.” Reproduction of an engraving à l’eau-forte by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 250 X 160 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

The other phantom who dominates Blois is as loathsome as Louis XII was sympathetic. It’s this Gaston, half Bourbon, half Medici, a Florentine from the 16th century, cowardly, perfidious, spiritual, who said of the arrests of Longueville, Conti, and Condé: “Lots of net! Capture at the same time a fox, an ape, and a lion!” Curious, artist, collector, fascinated with medals, filigrees, and sweetmeats, he might spend his mornings admiring the cover of an ivory box while his men lopped off the head of one of the friends he’d betrayed.

hugo blois by armand queyroy 4

“Blois, vue de l’Hôtel d’Amboise et d’une rouennerie en gros (marchand d’étoffes et de tissus).” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving, extracted from “Rues et maisons du Vieux Blois,” by Armand Queyroy, Paris, Printed by Delâtre, 1864. 202 X 157 mm; (object), 266 X 205 mm; papier Gestetner. Technique: eau forte. Place: Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

All these figures, as well as Henry III, the Duke of Guise, and others, including this Pierre de Blois whose main claim to fame was being the first person to pronounce the word ‘transubstantiation,’ I’ve found them again in leafing through your precious collection. I contemplated your fountain of Louis XII for a long time. You’ve recreated it as I saw it, so old, so young, charming. It’s one of your best plates. I’m almost certain that the ‘Rouennerie en gros,’ recorded by you vis-a-vis the hotel d’Amboise, was already there in my time. You have a real and fine talent, the coupe d’oeil which grasps the style, the sure, agile, and strong touch, plenty of spirit in the engraving and a good dose of naiveté, and that rare gift of being able to evoke light in shadows. What strikes and charms me in your etchings is the broad day, the gaiety, the prepossessing aspect, this joy in the commencement which contains all the grace of morning. The plates which seem to be bathed in an aurora. Indeed it’s there, Blois, the Blois that is precious to me, my luminous city. Because that first impression on arriving has stuck with me. Blois for me is radiant. I only see Blois in the rising Sun. These are the effects of youth and of the homeland.

I’ve let myself go on at length talking with you, monsieur, because you’ve given me great pleasure. You’ve found my weakness, you’ve touched the sacred corner of memory. I’ve sometimes felt a bitter sadness; you’ve given me a gentle sadness. To be gently sad, this is a pleasure. I’m in your debt. I’m happy that it is so well preserved, so little changed, and so parallel to what I saw 40 years ago, this city to which this invisible tangle of ties of the soul, impossible to break, still attaches me, this Blois which saw me as a teenager, this Blois whose streets know me, where a house has loved me, and where I’ve just strolled in your company, looking for the white hair of my father and finding my own.

Monsieur, I shake your hand.

Victor Hugo

hugo blois by armand queyroy 3

“Blois: the steps of the chateau and the vestiges of the ancient Jacobins gate.” Reproduction of an eau-forte engraving by Armand Queyroy, 1865. 240 X 128 mm; (objet) 266 X 205 mm. Papier Gestetner. Technique: Eau-forte. Lieu(x) :Blois (Arrondissement de), Blois (Canton de), Blois (Commune de). Author: Armand Queyroy. From the Departmental Archives of the Loire-et-Cher.

Protected: Le Feuilleton (the Serial): (English translation followed by V.O. française) Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of artists, dealers, critics, & anti-Semitism in Post-War Paris, Part 12: Bartering painting for meals on the place de la République (Subscriber-only content; to learn how to subscribe, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

American Cities: How a book of ‘Experiments in Prose’ that washed up on a bench in flooded Paris helped me realize that Chicago is my kind of town

chicago hairy who againFrom the Arts Voyager Archives and the Art Institute exhibition Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good!: Jim Nutt. “Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good,” 1968. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt. © Jim Nutt.

Introduction by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text from “Experiments in Prose,”
Edited by Eugene Wildman
Copyright 1969 The Swallow Press, Chicago
Illustrated with images from the Art Institute of Chicago exhibitions Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good!, Past Forward: Architecture and Design at the Art Institute, and Never a Lovely So Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950–1980

(Editor’s note: In dockside picnics looking out on Lake Michigan while on cross-country train trip pauses, in dreams of ame-soeurs encountered on buses crossing the lake’s glittering sea-like azure expanse, on a Sunday morning jog after an interview for a  news agency position I was offered but didn’t take after my future boss had handed me a press release  announcing a new version of Prozac for dieters and explained “Your role would be to analyze how the news will affect the stock” and I’d thought “No, I’d be more concerned with how the product might affect the dieter” where I ran smack dab into the final leg of the Chicago Marathon and was cheered on by bystanders as if I’d run the whole race, standing before Chagall’s “White Jesus,” a refugee from Hitler’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition, with its burning synagogues, in the cool halls of the Art Institute near the banks of the Chicago River, peering at a river-boat from the parapet of a bridge named after Hull House’s Jane Addams, contemplating, in a Paris museum, Henry Darger’s epic saga of the Viviane Girls, drawn to accompany a 15,000-page manuscript discovered in Darger’s humble janitor’s quarters in Lincoln Park before it became chic, sipping beers on the mahogany counter of a former speakeasy in the same ‘hood converted to a friend’s living room, whisked back to the train by a brisk autumnal wind while a lone saxophonist breathes life into the canned Debussy piped into a downtown district, seeing African-American workers being shooed away from a private lunch table set up in the publicly-owned Union Station, being held up at a corner outside the station for a police car chase which I soon learn was rigged for a film shoot, and contemplating a  former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who seemed mostly interested in privatizing city services, roads, and schools,  and where the Black population in one of the most segregated cities in the country has dropped by 250,000, aspiring to continue in the spirit of Studs Terkel, and above all inspired by Nelson Algren’s “Chicago, City on the Make” — a screed which has the sentimental effect of an homage — Chicago has always haunted and hounded me. So I was not at all surprised when, in July 2016, about to cross the flooded Seine, my other favorite body of water, I discovered, on a bench, “Experiments in Prose,” a celebration of the free-spirited Chicago-style design, literature, and activism which flourished in the 1960s produced by former Chicago Review editor Eugene Wildman for the Chi-based Swallow Press, and which opens with: (To read the full story and see more images, click here.)