Greco Forever: Ne nous quittez pas, Juliette

Juliette Greco, par Jim Lubrano. Photograph copyright Jim Lubrano and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Eloise Alibi
Copyright 2016, 2020 Eloise Alibi
(English version, translated by Paul Ben-Itzak with the author, follows French original)

Juliette Greco, the Queen of Saint-Germaine-des-Prés, died Tuesday in the Vars department of France. She was 93 years old, and forever young. Juliette Greco is survived by Saint-Germaine-des-Prés and by the multiple generations of composers to whose songs she gave her unique voice. This Flash Review of la Greco’s farewell Paris performance was first published by the Arts Voyager on March 2, 2016. The English version has been expanded.

PARIS — Le jour de ses 89 ans, Juliette Greco nous a donné une leçon d’élégance et d’audace. Sobre, humble et pleine de force. Avec émotion et sans aucune pause, elle a interprété ses plus grands titres en guise de gratitude envers son public venu de toute la France combler la salle du Théâtre de la ville – Sarah Bernhardt, dimanche le 7 fevrier.

Sur un fond noir, en robe noire, cheveux noirs, ses mains blanches, si expressives, ont précédé son entrée sur scène : une démarche fragile la mène au micro qu’elle ne quittera pas pendant une heure trente d’émotion, de musique et de poésie.

Seule, accompagnée de ses « deux camarades » dans sa robe de tragédienne, elle occupe tout le plateau dans des lumières généreuses et sobres. Le piano et l’accordéon — joué par, respectivement, Gerard Jouannest (egalement sa partenaire dans la vie et ex-accompagnateur de Jacques Brel) et le virtuose Jean-Louis Matinier, au service de l’interprète, se font oublier tant ils s’accordent avec osmose à l’ interprétation de la légendaire « Jolie môme. »

Le choix des chansons est d’autant surprenant qu’elle n’a chanté que des hommes ; et pas des moindres : les monuments de notre patrimoine musical : Brel (« Ces gens là ») , Ferré (« Avec le temps »), Gainsbourg (« La javanaise »), Guy Béart (« Il n’y a plus d’après ») , Rivière (« Un petit poisson, un petit oiseau »)…. On retient ici L’ « Amsterdam » de Brel — c’etait Jouannest et son ensemble qui ont accompagné Brel pour le mythic enregistrement a l’Olympia en ’64 — pari culotté qu’elle relève haut la main. C’est cette audace qui la tient vivante et que l’on vient chercher, c’est cette audace qui nous la rend éternelle.

La tête haute, droite, puissante, Juliette, figure d’insoumise, à l’image des poètes qu’elle incarne (Sartre lui avait ecrit une chanson) — depuis le moment où, ado et orpheline, elle s’est trouvée tout seule, relachée par les occupants sur le Boulevard Hoche, et, plus tard, apres la guerre, entourée de Vian, Vadim, Sartre et de Beauvoir, l’equipe du Tabou a Saint-Germain-des-Prés, et encore plus tard avec Miles Davis. Juliette, venue ici remercier son public et ses auteurs, ne nous dit pas Adieu, mais nous réveille et jongle avec le temps sur les airs de « Je n’ai pas vingt ans », « Les vieux » (co -ecrit par Brel et Jouannest), « J’arrive », «Il n’y a plus d’aprés, » etcetera.

Tout est juste avec Juliette. Pas de fioritures de mise en scène, pas d’explication, pas de percussion pour rythmer le spectacle qui se suffit à pulser de lui même en crescendo et soutenu.

Merci à vous Juliette Greco de continuer à nous élever et à nous transmettre la beauté des mots et de la vie. Ce souffle que vous nous transmettez n’a pas d’âge, il est intemporel et nécessaire. Ne nous quittez pas Juliette, nous aussi nous vous aimons.

Eloïse Alibi est une comédienne, musicienne et chanteuse. Pratiquant le saxophone et le piano depuis l’enfance, elle rencontre trés tôt l’improvisation et le monde de la scène. Elle commence ses créations par un spectacle de poésie dédié à Jean Sénac, qui est le début d’un long parcours poétique et grâce à qui elle jouera des textes des Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwich, Allen Ginsberg ou Walt Whitman. Avec la cie Le p’tit Atelier, elle créé un cabaret de chansons poétiques (Le cabaret du pire), avec qui elle répond à des commandes de la Maison de la poésie de Montpellier, donne des ateliers de sensibilisation à la poésie à des classes de collèges et pour des maisons de retraite. En Mai 2015, elle a créé un spectacle hommage aux chansons de Nino Ferrer.

Juliette Greco, by Richard Dumas. Photograph copyright Richard Dumas and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

PARIS — For her 89th birthday, Juliette Greco gave a lesson in audacity and elegance. Direct, humble, and full of energy. With emotion and without a break, she performed her greatest hits, by way of thanking her fans who flocked here from throughout France to pack the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt on Sunday, February 7.

Against a black background, with black hair, and clad — comme d’habitude for she who made the color the post-War costume de rigueur of Saint-Germain-des-Prés — in a black gown, her ivory hands, quintessentially expressive, preceded her entrance on the stage: a fragile gait lead her to the microphone where she remained for 90 minutes of emotion, of music, and of poetry.

Alone, in her tragedian’s gown, accompanied only by her “two comrades,” she filled the entire stage under lighting both ample and sober. The piano and accordion — played by, respectively, Gerard Jouannest (also her partner in life and the ex- accompaniest and arranger of Jacques Brel) and the virtuoso Jean-Louis Matinier, both of whom almost made themselves invisible, so in osmoses were they with the interpretations of the legendary jolie mome.

The choice of songs was all the more surprising in that the composers were all male — and not the least of males, but the monuments of our musical heritage: Brel (“Ces gens la”), Leo Ferre (“Avec le temps”), Gainsbourg (“La javanaise”) the late Guy Beart (“Il n’y a plus d’apres”), Riviere (Un petite poisson, un petite oiseau”)….

One retains Brel’s “Amsterdam” — Jouannest was also there for the mythic 1964 live recording at the Olympia — an audacious gamble that Greco turned into a hands-up success. It’s this very audacity that makes her a vibrant, living icon, that continues to draw us to her, and that makes her eternal.

Head held high, posture erect, Juliette, the very symbol of insubmission — since the moment when, at 15, she found herself all alone on the Boulevard Hoche where the Germans released her (her mother, arrested by the Germans in Bergerac for helping Frenchmen escape to London to join DeGaulle, and her sister, would be deported) and, later, forging the Club Tabou scene with Vian, Vadim, Sartre and De Beauvoir and, eventually, Miles Davis — and ever in the image of the poets that she incarnates (Sartre wrote her a song and Cocteau featured her in a film, “Orpheus.”), come to thank her audience and these authors, not to bid us “Adieu” but to wake us up and juggle time with the lyrics of “Je n’ai pas vingt ans,” “Les vieux” (written by Brel and Jouannest), “J’arrive,” “Il n’y a plus d’apres,” “Bruxelles,” and more.

Everything is unadorned with Greco. No unnecessary flourishes or extraneous scene elements, no explanations, no percussion to add rhythm to a performance which already has its own pulse, its own crescendos and rhythm.

Thank you, Juliette Greco, for continuing to lift us up and to transmit to us the beauty of words and of life. This exhiliration that you transmit has no age, is timeless, and is necessary. Ne nous quittez pas Juliette, nous aussi nous vous aimons.

Eloïse Alibi is an actress, musician, and singer. Studying the saxophone and the piano since she was a child, she encountered the worlds of the stage and of improvisation early on, eventually studying English, Chinese, theater and song, at institutions ranging from high school in Dublin to conservatory and university in Montpellier (also Juliette Greco’s hometown). She launched her performance career with an original poetry-based work dedicated to Franco-Algerian author Jean Senac, going on to perform the texts of Nazim Hikment, Mahmoud Darwish, Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman. With the basis of her work remaining poetry, including commissions for events such as the Springtime of Poets, Alibi – has created small ensemble pieces including, most recently, an homage to the oeuvre of Nino Ferrer.

France’s national culture radio chain puts the KO on critical oasis “La Dispute”

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

Several years ago I met a young playwright from Montpellier, come to Paris to premiere a piece about Michael Jackson in a small theater on a mythic alley in the shadows of the Montmartre cemetery where Boris Vian once debated the finer points of pataphysics with his neighbor Jacques Prevert, whose “The Dead Leaves” (you know it as “Autumn Leaves”; the French always were more morbid than the Americans) had been introduced by a young singer named Yves Montand in Marcel Carné’s Montmartre-Barbes post-war film fantasia “Les portes de la nuit.” (When the portes — doors — of the Barbes Metro close for the night, the portes of a magical night begin.) We’d gotten off to a bad start because I was annoyed that my roommate had announced he’d be staying with us without asking if this was okay by me, and after I insisted that he smoke his E-cigarette on the balcony. But where we found common ground was in our shared passion for “La Dispute,” a nightly one-hour program on Radio France’s putatively middle-brow station France Culture in which an eclectic and heterogeneous gathering of mostly erudite and culturally literate critics from various newspapers and magazines — including many younger new voices — discussed and debated on average four usually new (if often mainstream) works or exhibitions from a different genre every night: Theater (with the occasional dance concert), film (to which television series were eventually added), the plastic arts, music (including both new releases and operatic productions), and literature (with the occasional graphic novel tossed in). Even if the selection, steered by subject-versatile host Arnaud Laporte, was often too mainstream for my liking — the overblown productions of the Comedie Francaise getting too much attention, the much more diverse, international, and contemporary offerings of the Theatre de la Ville Sarah Bernhardt too little, the films often movies with which the station had promotional partnerships — the discussion itself was aesthetic-intellectual candy for an inveterate critic and editor of critics like me. (Radio’s answer to Dance Insider quoi.) For young artists marooned in the provinces and thirsty to know what their colleagues in Paris were up to like my new friend — and unlike the puff pieces that constitute most of the rest of France Culture’s arts coverage, particularly a noontime program “The Big Table,” which mostly consists of the unctuous, ingratiating host’s uncritical cheerleading of ostensibly new work from the same limited circle of chou-chous to whom she tosses soft-ball, if not downright silly, and rarely challenging questions — if La Dispute was important for the window it provided to current cultural offerings in the capital, it was also vital for the exposure it offered to the cultural and critical debates which marked the current Zeitgeist. (Translation: What critics were saying about the work. And because there were always at least four critics on the 7-years + old program counting Laporte, whose tendency to correct the verbal flatulences of some of his younger colleagues I could also relate to, you could trust that the global output would be balanced, and not just reflect the tastes, jaundiced outlook, and prejudices of one sour critic.) And — unlike the promotional, ingratiating, and uncritical programs which make up most the rest of France Culture’s arts coverage — for the artists who listened, as well as critics and the arts-interested and art-literate public, besides furnishing a vicarious experience of the work of art, with regular listening one acquired a pretty good idea of the various critics’ optics and thus could imagine how one might have reacted to the work oneself had one been able to experience it first-hand. (I can hear Laporte chiding me for all those ‘one’s.)

For the art exhibitions in particular — where Laporte always began by asking one of the critics to describe the lay-out of the show — one really felt like one was there, perambulating around the museum or the gallery with the critics, even moreso when the one taking you on the tour was the perceptive and droll Corinne Rondeau.

Of course, the justification for eliminating a critical program centered on current cultural offerings at this historical moment is probably that the offerings will be thinner — and potentially more dangerous to attend where it invovles sitting in a closed space for two+ hours — in Covid-times. For the second argument, I guess each critic has to make his/her own choice. But the first just doesn’t fly for music recordings, film (where preview DVDs are usually available), and particularly literature (France Culture had already eviscerated what remained of its book programs in favor of more pop cultural-oriented coverage of the same old artists everyone already knows about), where the effervescence of new titles for the current ‘literary re-entry,’ numbering over 500 from mainstream publishers alone, begs for a little critical guiding in navigating them, and not just the effusive and ingratiating soft-ball questions one hears on, say, the “The Big Table.” (Rarely big enough to feature artists or writers not already famous and among the host’s chou-chous.) (Laporte: “That’s three times you’ve used ‘ingratiating,” Paul. “It’s less awkward than ‘Journalistic lap-dog,’ Arnaud.)

But where France Culture’s decision — which seems to have been abetted by Laporte, who offered absolutely no explanation on the initial broadcast of the show which replaced La Dispute Monday in the same time-slot, yet another interview and feature program with no critical perspective (besides perhaps Laporte’s) — is really a cop-out, and fails its public, is the hit this represents for the theater and dance and plastic arts sectors in their attempts to re-launch in a challenging moment which has them fighting for their lives, figuratively anyway. (With sales up, the book business — a solitary spectating adventure which one can practice at home, after all — seems to have experienced a re-bound.) Museums and galleries have bravely re-opened (after a summer in which national institutions like the Louvre particularly took a hit because of the drop-off in international tourists, even though the locals did take advantage of the opportunity to view their national treasures in less crowded conditions), despite the evident hesitation of visitors to return to any closed space, even with masks (not a cheap undertaking given the high insurance costs, particularly for imported art) and attendance limits meant to encourage social distancing. And theaters are forging ahead despite the evident anticipated loss of at least a third of their box-office revenues, if they do the safe and correct thing and leave an empty seat between each spectator, as the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt in Paris has committed itself to doing. Despite the automatic blow to its coffers this announces, Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, director of the TDLV’s Seine-side and Montmartre spaces, and his team have taken the financially courageous decision of announcing a uniform ticket price of 20 Euros (places can normally go for as much as 40). This after Demarcy-Mota — belying the naval-gazing tendency of many arts organizations and artists, and I don’t mean just here in France (want me to name names? How about “Dance NY,” with its ludicrous campaign insisting that dancers are ‘necessary workers’?) — had taken the lead in initiating a coalition with health and educational organizations to develop a detailed plan of action for continuing to create art in healthy, artistically dynamic and adventurous, and educational contexts, settings, and circumstances in a time of cholera.

Then there’s the role critics can play as monitors of publicly funded art; the government announced Wednesday that 2 billion Euros from the national ‘re-launch’ plan will be directed to the culture sector — which indicates a) that the government at least has not abandoned that domain (President Macron recently named a high-profile former official from Nicolas Sarkozy’s government as minister, signaling the importance he attaches to the sector), and b) with 2 billion Euros culture and creation are not going to stop in France, so there will still be something to criticize. And critics can play a vital rule in helping ensure that this limited resource is spent judiciously, responsibly, and creatively.

And what did France Culture — which vaunts itself in house ads as advancing the ‘esprit d’ouverture,’ with Laporte opening his new program by claiming it is ‘engaged’ at the side of culture and creation — do? It abandoned ship, shamelessely reducing itself into a promotional agency for a limited number of its hosts’ favorite artists and theaters (frequently the same names the station has been promoting for 10 years, a modern version of the type of coronated, State-sanctioned artists a young playwright named Victor Hugo once decried), now officially devoid of any critical discourse, of the objective intermediary the critic who is concerned not with selling culture but its critical and credible transmission can be for an audience. (“Engaging” on the side of culture doesn’t mean just putting out uncritical puff pieces and interviews, it means *engaging* aesthetically and intellectually with the work, as a critic.) To copy a phrase from the Surrealist Léo Malet — another Montpellierard who, after flirting with the anarchists, hanging with Andre Breton, being one of the first to experiment with collage street poster art, and hawking newspapers from a corner near the French Stock Market, went on to become the father of the modern French Private Dick, his Nestor Burma a kind of Philip Marlowe as re-mixed by Boris Vian — by cancelling “La Dispute,” France’s marquee source for national radio cultural coverage with a self-proclaimed ‘esprit d’ouverture’ has put the K.O. on cultural criticism for the mass audience radio has the potential to reach, as it continues its spiral from dumb to dumber.

Algeria Papers, 3, Part IV: The Day of the Poem

“These days, I soil myself as much as possible. Why? I want to be a poet, and I
strive to make myself clairvoyant: you won’t understand at all, and I hardly know how to explain it to you. It has to do with finding the unknown by deranging all your senses. The suffering is enormous, but you need to be strong if you’re born a poet, and I recognize myself as a poet. It’s not at all my fault. It’s false to say: I think. One must say: I am thought of. Forgive me for the wordplay.”

— Arthur Rimbaud, Letter to Georges Izambard, Charleville, Belgium, May [13], 1871*

“The poems which accompany me here today are those of Jean Sénac. They sing in an elongated voice, full and pure, the landscape of the immense atelier of the Sun, an atelier which has the night as its roof and Man as exploit both disappointing and wondrous. Friend wind turns in my fingers the pages of the notebook where the writing of a young man erects itself in poetry.”

–Fortifications for Living
René Char**

“Because if the poem infuses us with fragile Onanistic ecstasies, it does not become voiced until it is transmitted. To write is always to respond to someone even when that someone might be the black twin inside us who hides himself and persecutes us, demanding of our vigilance perpetual mutations.”

Jean Sénac, “Avant Corps”

Plaques for May 24, 1973***

by Jean Sénac
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
(See below for copyright notices)

“I did what I could, but it was all in vain., today I am tired — forgive me — so very tired.
Don’t ask me any more questions: Sing, facing the patio.”

— Gabriel Celaya

If I must smoke another cigarette
Before shutting myself up in the cold shroud of departure
Bore you to death once more with my drunken metaphors
and stand my ground one last time
so that the glade isn’t sullied
— Preserve the possibility of shadow, the possibility of light, of the nest, of the song,
When the garbage invades us –,
If I must
Question once more your regard and your hesitations,
The verb worried about its root, suspicious of its sap,
And the shadow which bites you at the hour when the paysan passes
His broken hand
One (more) time
over his weary brow,
If I must respond before departing
to so much love, to so much hate, illuminating loyalties,
cowardices, treasons,
If I must respond from the Sun
and with my tongue
to all the accumulated wrongs and rights,
From my spout barely fit for fertilizing the avaricious seasons,
Oh, young poets, I won’t break out in the laughter of abandon,
I won’t even have the audacity to smile — everything
Was so in vain.
But if I must, come what may, offer up
One word — everything is always taken, everything violated, oh, language! –,
I will tell you once more: “Sleep,”
The body full of the striking reality.
I’ve never written but for that a bit of
Sleep might be possible.
For all of us.

Alger-Reclus
Thursday, May 24, 1973, 6h45 morning

 

Warper

So that
the wind
the looters
the hypocrites
the howlers
the brats of no-man’s land
And the gawkers from all over,
their necks perpetually craning,
no longer penetrate the brain
With stones
With pebbles
Evert day, with no matter what,
I’ll make a poem.

Alger-Reclus
Thursday, May 24, 1973, 8h20

 

The Sage the Fool Pride
Or, Kindness or Venom

Every morning I tape
a poem on my door.
Who takes it?
The neighborhood kids?
The super?
My neighbor (the Tunisian or the woman from Hennaya)?
A cop?
(Esposito’s informer if she’s still here?)
In this way
I’ve given away piles of miscellany
Without ever keeping a copy.

Alger-Reclus
Thursday, May 24 1973, 8h45 morning

The Last Song

Laugh
So heartily
That there’s no
Room left in this body
For a word
For a death.

So heartily
That the creasing of the eye-lids
Hides forevermore
The Fungus.

That the jaw
And the temples, trapped,
Escape
Pluto’s machinations.

With a laugh
More foamy than a bar of soap
Sign
And take off.
Bye-bye dust?****

Alger-Reclus
Thursday May 24, 1973, 8h50

 

Born in 1926 in Algeria, first published in France in 1954 by Albert Camus‘s Espoir imprint for Gallimard, ethnic European and Indigene partisan, member of the new nation’s first cultural ministry, host of a national radio show where he celebrated local poets and co-director of an art gallery, explicitly “out” in his poems, Jean Sénac was stabbed to death on the night of August 29-30, 1973, in the Algiers basement where he lived, penniless but not without resources.

* Cited in Arthur Rimbaud, “Poems,” Editions Brocélande, Strasbourg, 1960.

** From the Preface to Jean Sénac, “Oeuvres Poétiques,” edition copyright Actes Sud, 1999, 2019, from which the French originals of the poems translated here are also taken. Written in September 1951, Char’s introduction was initially intended for a deluxe version of poems (“Tree”) with color lithographs by Louis Naillard to be published by Jean Daniel’s Editions Vineta, a project which was never realized.

*** Poems translated here first collected as “Plaques,” copyright 1973 Jean Sénac, and first published in 1996 by the Nouvelle Revue Française.

**** The original closing punctuation is actually an Arabic symbol which resembles more a backwards question mark, and for which the translator is unable to propose an adequate English-language equivalent.

Will the real “father of Impressionism” please stand up?

Claude Monet. Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare, 1877, smallThe good news is that, taking a gander over to the press page of the Art Institute of Chicago web site, we found, above, Claude Monet’s 1877 oil painting “Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint-Lazare,” on view as part of the exhibition Monet and Chicago which opens September 5. The bad news is that the AIC press service (mis)contends that the maitre de Giverny (1840–1926) is “often referred to as the ‘Father of Impressionism.’” I hate to indulge in another flack attack — You know me, Al — but there are at least two things wrong with this statement: 1) It suggests that the press service takes its audience for idiots who can’t tell Monet from Manet unless they employ a qualifying adjective even if it’s erroneous, and 2) Monet was not the father of Impressionism, but rather one of its most successful initial proponents, his painting “Impression of the Sunset” giving its *name* to the style. If the school had any fathers, they were Eugene Delacroix and Camille Corot, the latter of whom set the example in his ‘pleine air’ capturing of the rustling of leaves in the wind and refracted and reflected light on water, and gave both Camille Pissarro (the movement’s father figure, to borrow a term from the late George Michael) and Berthe Morisot (who could make a good case for being its mother) their first Paris lessons in color values. (At his studio on what is now called the rue de Paradis, across the street from where we lived 140 years later.) With Emile Zola — with whose “The Human Animal” Monet’s tableau above should be looked at in tandem — as a sort of godfather, and his grandest artistic cause Edouard Manet (Morisot’s brother-in-law) as an uncle. Painting from the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection. — PB-I

Jane Avril by F. Caradec: More than just a pair of legs on a Toulouse-Lautrec poster

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

(An earlier version of this article was published on ExploreDance.)

PARIS — If it’s relatively easy to find reasonably priced biographies of French artists in the bookstalls that line the Seine, it’s harder to find chronicles as interested in the artistic legacies of their subjects as they are in artfully recreating the more superficial aspects of their personal lives. A biography I found of Suzanne Valadon, the one-time Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir model who became a painter in her own right, developing a uniquely personal and natural, thick-lined and sensuous style, turned out to be less a serious study of her life and work and their originality than a fanciful re-imagining of the colorful conversations she must have had with her son, the painter Maurice Utrillo, and her companion/his friend Felix Utter. Another on Marie Laurencin — a member of the pre-WWI circle of Picasso, Apollinaire, and Rousseau, and a sometimes designer for dance, notably Nijinska’s “Les Biches” — spent more time on Laurencin’s relations with the author’s mother than analyzing the creative force behind her willowy, dreamy portraits and the impact they produced. Jane Avril, by contrast — you know her as the svelte long-legged redheaded dancer immortalized by Toulouse Lautrec — lucked out in landing François Caradec, a giant of the French literary scene and the author of “Jane Avril,” to pen her story. (Published by Fayard in 2001 with the price of 18.75 Euros; Caradec passed away in 2008.)

Caradec, a leading member of the Pataphysics Club co-founded by Boris Vian and Jacques Prevert, was a tireless bibliophile, and this passion served him well in reconstructing the life of this seminal thinking-dancer’s dancer, so that the portrait that emerges comes not from an imaginative 20th-century novelist but from scribes of Avril’s epoch who had the good fortune to see her, and who returned the favor with detailed, inspired accounts of her dancing, that of an autodidact as adept at the can-can as at improvising to her own inner music.

Here’s Francis Jourdain, quoted by Caradec from his memoir “Born in ’76,” comparing the relative merits of Avril (nick-named ‘la Melinite,’ after the explosive) and other members of the famous Moulin Rouge can-can troupe, notably the more earthy and raw “la Gouloue”:

“One must admit that la Gouloue was not particularly distinguished. She was not the same as Jane Avril — la Melinite — of the strange and aristocratic pale visage, the intelligent eye, at times nuanced with sadness, the spiritual legs that enchanted Lautrec….

“Confusing la Mome Fromage (roughly translated, “the darling cheese”; sounds better in French) and her colleagues with Jane Avril would be like — without meaning to offend anyone — mixing napkins with dish-towels. I wouldn’t dream of reproaching old gentlemen for the pleasure that they take in perceiving, between the drawers and stockings of la Gouloue, a bit of naked flesh, but the agreeableness that the art of Jane Avril procures us is of a rarer quality…. The queens of the quadrille leap about; Jane Avril dances. In her lives this instinctive grace in which the dance loses its abstract character and becomes a language, ceases to be a purely decorative art and takes on a human accent; the arabesque traced in space by an inspired leg is no longer a vain sign, it’s writing. La Melinite expresses herself with her legs; Lautrec is not wrong.”

And this, from Gabriel Astruc:

“Strange sylphide, always solitaire, a sort of wader who remains in equilibrium on one leg and balances the other like an isolated part of her body…”

And a commentary from Raoul Ponchon, on the first time he caught Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge, which might be describing a modern dancer today. Not enchanted at all by the can-can, sitting before a glass of something he can’t identify, Ponchon was about to flee it “like the plague” when…. (My rough translation sacrifices the rhyming of the original.)

“I was solicited by a petit, frail being,
Gracious and childlike,
Who responds when one calls her
To the name Jane Avril.

She dances all alone
Without having to worry about a partner
Not that she’s prudish,
Certain people who know her tell me.

She dances alone because
It pleases her to do so
And because she finds it more entertaining.
She’s right, I as well.

She slides, dainty,
Supple between narrow rows
Without ever inconveniencing anyone
And without ever saying: Enough.

Certainly, her dance
Is not that which we see
At presidential balls….

Nor is it this infamy
Of dance that one
Learns at the Academy
She knows much much more.

She dances like one dances
At the Moulin Rouge, mon Dieu…
But with what elegance!
She’s anything but cheap!

She is total charm, harmony
She’s the sole, in my opinion,
Saltatrice (Latin for dancer) of genius
That I’ve seen.

She is at the same time mischievous
And melancholy. She has
As rules only her own caprices.
And voila, art.

To any old music
She improvises steps;
Rhythms the least classic
Don’t disconcert her.

She dances, I think,
Also, a thousand times in 10,000,
To the strains of ‘Queen Hortense,’
or of ‘De Profundis.’
… She dances like… one drinks.

…She makes you think
That her only purpose on Earth
is to dance.”

These literary portraits — this is just a sampling — are fleshed out with a generous selection of (black and white) images, including not just the expected Toulouse-Lautrec reproductions, such as the famous poster of Avril at the Divan Japonais with a leering older gentleman (Edouard Dujardin) at her elbow, but journal and book illustrations by Steinlen (famous for his cat drawings) and others, the photograph of the troupe of Mlle Eglantine on which Toulouse-Lautrec based his familiar poster, the program for a 1939 gala benefit in her honor, and a photograph of Avril kicking her leg up in 1935.

Caradec certainly touches the essential and piquant aspects of Avril’s biography — her crazy mother, teen years in the famous Salpêtrière, then a renowned psychiatric center (for young and sometimes frail Jane, it was just a medical refuge), shacking up with a poet near the Luxembourg Gardens until she decided her independence was more important, and her death at the age of 76 on January 17, 1943, in Occupied Paris.

“She could hardly breathe,” Caradec writes of the dancer’s final hours, “but she thought of her will and murmured, ‘The papers, the papers, I must sign them.’ She asked for something to write on, a morsel of paper on which she wrote in crayon: ‘I suffer the martyr’ and ‘I hate Hitler.'”

“At the end of her ‘Memoirs’ (published in the newspaper Paris-Midi in 1933), Avril wrote:

‘If, in the other world, there exist “dancings,” it’s not impossible that I will be convoked to perform the Dance macabre!'”

Like that of Marie Taglioni, Jane Avril’s name is not on the map of famous people buried at the famous Paris cemetery Pere Lachaise, but for those who wish to pay homage to her at her tomb, Caradec notes that she’s buried at the beginning of the 19th division, second line, fourth plot of the 26th section. (Where, at night, some swear one can discern les feux follets en train de danser une can-can.)

Summer of our Discontents: Newly revised and expanded translated extracts from Lola Lafon’s “Mercy, Mary, Patty”

By Lola Lafon
Copyright 2017 Actes Sud
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

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You cannot remain neutrally on the sidelines of this world without anger where everything is rigged, where the only thing that must remain undivided is money, where the heart is divided.

–Paul Nizan, “The Conspiracy” (1928), cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy, Mary, Patty”

You write the vanishing teenaged girls. You write these missing persons who take off for new horizons and embrace them indiscriminately, elusive, their minds closed to adults. You question our brutal need to make them see things the way we do. You write the rage of these young women who, at night, in their childhood bedrooms, dream of victorious escapes, they climb aboard ramshackle busses and trains and into strangers’ cars, they shun the neatly-paved road for the rubble. .

“Mercy Mary Patty,” your book published in 1977 in the U.S., is dedicated to them and has just been re-issued, augmented with a preface by you and a brief publisher’s note. It’s not yet been translated into French. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your biography, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through the teaching positions you’ve held: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, an assistant professorship at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, the tenured position at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic journals over the past few months underline the importance of your work, magazines debate what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker consecrates two columns to you: “A controversial theory: Gene Neveva and the capsized teenage girls, from Mercy Short (1) in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.”

The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a brown paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga’s old history, you’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, these girls swearing allegiance to a god like one develops a crush on a movie star, Marx, God, different eras, different tastes…. I’m guessing you’re a student at Smith, he goes on, if you’re looking to meet the author, she’s listed in the faculty directory.

But I’m not looking for you. Your office is on the second floor of the building I walk
by every morning but it doesn’t matter because I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you. I explain my reasons for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I share the story, I say “Madame Neveva” as if you were standing there right next to us and insist upon it, I say “Neveva” the same way as your students in France who venerated you and whom I was not one of, Neveva, Gene who landed in a little village in Southwest France in the month of January 1974, a young teacher who in the autumn of 1975 hastily tacked up notices in the village’s two bakeries, Wanted female student with high level of spoken and written English, full-time job for 15 days. Adults need not apply. URGENT.

(New chapter)

October 1975

The three girls who have responded to your ad sit across from you in your cramped office, you offer them a bag of peanuts and cashews, your knees bump up against the desk, your light blue Shetland sweater is patched at the elbows, your hitched-up Levis reveal the malleoluses of your ankles. You say Bonjour, I’m Neveva Gene, pronounced ‘Gene’ as in Gene Kelly or Gene Tierney, no nick-names please, no ‘Gena,’ no ‘Jenny.’

Squeezed into a Bordeaux-colored window nook, one-by-one the candidates recite their trajectories in an effort to seduce you, this one is studying English Literature at the University, the next has already been to the U.S. twice, speaking English fluently is important if you’re planning to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she says she’s been “on sabbatical” since graduating from high school in June and needs to make a little bread. As they already know, you’re a guest professor. You studied in Massachusetts at Smith College, a university founded in 1875 and reserved for girls barred at the time from higher education. Sylvia Plath was a student. Sylvia Plath, the name doesn’t mean anything to them? You mark an incredulous pause in the face of the candidates’ embarrassed silence. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which alarms you, it’s a novel which is more than a little dubious, above all Smith had the honor of admitting the first African-American woman to graduate from college, in 1900: Otelia Cromwell. “American Lifestyle and Culture,” the course you’re giving at the College of the Dunes, is protean; you race through what you’d anticipated teaching before you actually arrived here, the particular architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, a study of the popularity of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” an unpacking of the urban legend of the phantom hitch-hiker, the adventure of Apollo 16 and, finally, the invention of the Arpanet and its consequences for communication. Formidable program. The fact of the matter is that you’d harbored high hopes for this college. They should see the welcome brochure, three pages on pedagogic innovation, but the reality is something else, this institution is merely the umpteenth private school for girls without any particular qualities who drift aimlessly about after high school, a factory for future homemakers more hippy than their mothers, darling little domestic animals brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who don’t understand one iota of the articles you pass out. The young postulants remain mum and wait politely to find out what all this has to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed by….” Or maybe they’re just petrified now at the thought of having to submit themselves to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t uttered a word. One by one, they recite an article from the New York Times out loud, then translate the essentials, you ask them about the books they read, their musical tastes, pretend not to understand if they answer in French, Sorry?

But where did you learn to speak English like that, you ask the third candidate, who immediately blushes, she cites American songs whose lyrics she likes to copy, they’re actually British you point out, amused, when she recites the words from the Rolling Stones’s “Time Waits for No One” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” She rattles off her favorite movies, every week the public t.v. channel shows a film with sub-titles, the ciné-club, she never misses it even if it’s on late, 11 o’clock, you call her an Americanophile, she stammers, not sure if this is good or bad. All three listen to you, dumbfounded, as you imitate the annual speech of the school’s director to parents in an exageratedly nasal and mincing voice, “Oh nooo, it has nothing at all to do with excluding boys from my establishment and everything to do with offering girls special attention! To free them from their own fears!” You want to know their opinion: Would they like to study there, with access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, History of Cinema, Beginning Baroque Singing, Judo, and Modern Dance? The third girl’s answer — the tuition is too high — you greet with exaltation, as if it were a scientific breakthrough: Eggs-act-ly! Yes! The very principal of this establishment is a contradiction: Emancipate only those who can afford to be emancipated. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of bullshit. (2)

Suddenly you leap up onto the transparent Plexiglas chair. You grab a box from the top shelf and place it on the desk. Voila, you declare in designating the package, of American origin, as indicated by the impressive quantity of identical green stamps plastered across the top. The job of whoever you decide to hire is entirely contained within, you show them the folders overflowing with press clips, half open a plastic bag filled with cassette tapes resembling those teenagers use to record their favorite songs off the radio. You’ll have to write a report, and you won’t have time to read all this. You must be capable of synthesizing these tons of articles, you point your finger at the box. You insist on an availability that will be indispensable but of a limited duration, 15 days maximum.

“In fact, do you know who Patricia Hearst is?” They’re already out on the porch when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates blurts out: During her vacation in the U.S., she saw her on t.v., Patricia is very rich she was kidnapped and…. She’s cut off by her competition, Yes they talked about her in France, there was a fusillade, a fire, and she’s dead. No, you correct her, she’s not dead, the police caught her. It’s her kidnappers who are dead. And they’ve hired you to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask who exactly this mysterious “they” is who’s hired you, nor why “they” chose you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also the exotic foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That alone is enough. The young woman whose English level you lauded hasn’t uttered a word, distraught, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That very evening her mother nudges her bedroom door open, one hand resting on the phone: It’s for you, a funny accent, surely the American professor.

“Is it frowned upon here to go to teachers’ homes?” you ask the young woman you’ve anointed your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my house. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you not to let me rip you off. By the way, are you really 18? I’d put you more at 15.” And it doesn’t matter that she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst, you add before hanging up.

(New Chapter)

During the rambling job interview — a real show (3) — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you worried about scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you afraid their parents will be freaked out to see them working on such a subject, you’ve been living in this village of less than 5,000 inhabitants for a year and a half and have already tested its limits, here everyone knows everything about everyone, talks to everyone about everyone, judges everyone. It takes time to explain the complexities and nuances of the drama to your interlocutors and time is the one thing you don’t have a lot of. What angle will you use to trace the journey of this young American, which episode will you start with?

That of the kidnapping of Patricia on February 4, 1974 by an obscure pseudo-revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the initial message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording dropped off by her abductors on the doorstep of a radio station which set off a riot in the entire country, her tiny voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m okay”? How to explain to these young French women just looking for a job that in the eyes of the FBI, the victim morphed into a perpetrator in less than two months, converted to the Marxist cause of her captors she was even identified at their sides April 15 on the video-surveillance images from a San Francisco bank, packing an M16. It’s understandable that you’re prudent about what the candidates know and don’t know and refrain from saying anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.

As for your task, this “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here too you take shortcuts and leave Patricia’s lawyer, your silent partner, in the shadows. You have 15 days to discover something in the cardboard box overflowing with photocopies that will enable you to write an expert’s report exonerating this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial approaches. 15 days to decide, who is the real Patricia, a Communist terrorist, a lost college student, a genuine revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a random cause, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with America in her sights.

(New chapter)

A large beige dog with chestnut spots greets your new assistant on the doorstep with outsized enthusiasm, you lunge forward to hold him back — blech!, he’s just planted a big wet kiss on me — a wink, Meet Lenny, you throw a sock at the dog and he skedaddles.

You put out a plate of frosted oatmeal cookies, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, Russian flavor, whatever she wants, you point to 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes arrayed on the kitchen counter. She picks one at random, doesn’t dare tell you that in her family, whether it’s black tea or herbal tea one only drinks it when one’s ill. She listens to you standing up, cup in hand, you haven’t invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.

“Summarizing the articles will be tedious, we need to stay focused on the details,” you caress the frayed edges of the box on the dining-room table with a finger. The young French woman nods, looking for clues, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone as the reddened nostrils confirm, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are stained yellow with tobacco, you laugh, your mouth full of chewed-up cookies, without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled-up necklaces peek out from a half-open drawer, you tack 33-record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, twice you evoke your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the phrase suggests an extended adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the bathroom you keep right on talking to your assistant, shouting for her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.

She’s never met an American before you. Speaking this language she associates with novels and actors, hearing her own voice become foreign turns your first day together into an intoxicating game of role-playing. Everything is part of the scenery, a stopover in an exotic wonderland, the peanut butter you spread on the crackers whose pale crumbs are strewn all over the rug, your bedroom with the storm-windows shuttered in the daytime, the books piled up at the foot of your bed and the stacks of dailies and weeklies that you ask her to sort by title: Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. You toss around the words casually, kidnapping, FBI, abductors, when night falls you rub your eyes like a sleep-deprived child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian-style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you’re impressed by the manila folders the girl has prepared and the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders she pulls out of her pencil case.

“I just love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you though, ‘Violette,’ it makes you sound like a delicate little flower….”

My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You stretch your legs out under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the smoke rings dissipating by the time they hit the ceiling.

“It’s important, a first name, it’s a birth. ‘Violaine.’ Not easy to pronounce for an American but o-kay. You know, Vi-o-lai-nuh, what will remain unforgettable for me here when I go back to the United States?”

The thunder-storms. The mountains. On the beach, on certain days, one can make them out carved into the fog, when they lock themselves around the ocean like an open hand it’s a sign that it will be sunny the next day, your assistant is amused to hear you repeat with such conviction the sayings of the old-timers.

The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean seeped up to the edge of the dunes! The paths along the moors. They all look the same, there are no landmarks, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern is sand. The sand, you sigh. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which turns into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that finds its way into your purse, your notebook spirals, the bottom of your bed, stuck to the soleus muscles of your calves, your socks.

Mlle Neveva won’t forget the sand, she who’s just baptized herself Violaine writes in her diary with the detachment of a documentarian, omitting the fleeting moment when she thinks she hears you describe her as unforgettable even though she barely knows you.

The sand, you repeat practically every day like a mantra, exasperated, taking off your sneakers and shaking them out onto the ground.

Extract, pages 92 – 99

(New chapter)

Day 13

When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. This is all she wants, to return to the equilibrium of those first days, to just be your little helper who cuts, translates, and pastes. Instead of being the person who slows you down and irritates you and doesn’t hear the same things you hear in Patty’s recorded messages. You suggest going to the village bar and smoke-shop, a change of scenery will help.

It’s noon, church is letting out, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes bananas every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who never lets you out of his sight, you whistle and put an end to all the social whirl. You mock the devout out loud in English, tell Violaine to observe their holier-than-thou airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in God’s good graces. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies, our own.

When you make your entrance into the bar, the men lined up along the counter
pivot on their stools to stare at you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a tad too wide reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea-blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.

This providential book, you read it all in one night, the Stanislavsky Method of the
Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the great American actors, Robert De Niro used it for playing Travis in “Taxi Driver.” (Violaine hasn’t seen the film, it’s banned in France for those under 21.) It offers an abundance of exercises to help with building a character. And indisputably, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll be Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you, at the end of the day, Marxism isn’t contagious.

“First exercise: Two words that define your character.”

“All alone,” Violaine suggests.

“Protected from everything. Oops, I used one word too many.”

“Very mature for her age.”

“Too many words, Violaine…! Susceptible and superficial?”

“Secretive.”

“Typical teenager,” you fire back at Violaine, sticking your tongue out at her.

“A symbolic example.”

A symbolic example? Of what? Your assistant sputters, she has no idea of what, she’s just repeating what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, no doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have heard “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to your character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, the college sophomore of before the kidnapping, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, prisoner? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, all the same distraught to be disagreeing with you once again. You maintain that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances alter us, is Violaine the same with her parents as here, certainly not, but Violaine sticks to her guns, Patricia doesn’t really change over the course of her messages, she’d write her the same letter.

The waiter buzzes about you, when he serves the glass of Armagnac the owner insists on offering — the American lady from the Dunes is spending the afternoon in his bar! — his wrist brushes against your hair, Violaine whispers to you, “Il tient une couche celui-là” (He’s a bit slow, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter, who slinks away, the bar is packed to the rafters, the regulars coming from the rugby match, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone, you step up to the counter to order a beer, you drink to the death of that bastard, Franco finally croaked the day before yesterday, you proclaim rather than simply state, “Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who wail about barbary and who come from barbary, are like those who eat their share of veal but oppose killing calves. They want to eat the veal but don’t want to see the blood.”

A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder, so that everyone can benefit, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, they’ve heard so much about you, you interrupt them, she needs to read Brecht, their daughter, voilà!, the glasses are refilled and clinked, fascistes de merde, then, caught up in the exhilaration of this frenzy, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its communiqués, “Death to the fascist parasite who feeds on the lives of the people.” You stare at her, startled, she thinks you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so many times in the past few days that they’ve become emblazoned in her brain, but you grab her hand and kiss it with ceremonious exaggeration, everyone whistles in approval, you bow as if for a curtain call.

You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests: It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Weaving along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing recalling the shocked air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way you can never separate those two in class, the sadistic books that one devours, stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of this other one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs inconsolably over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems. Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which surround Violaine’s parents’ property. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are thus insulated from all the racket which rages around here — you indicate with a sweeping gesture the forest and the few scattered other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their living-room for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations: “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s freezing, that the French phrase is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the living-room lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t imagine anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which never comes. As if it weren’t already night with the sand humid under your naked feet – your sneakers dangle from your hands, locking themselves around you — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll go back to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find any of her songs in the jukebox. A propos, did Violaine notice the reaction in the bar when you told them about how Nina Simone’s parents, during a concert by their daughter, had to give up their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to go on singing? Nothing. No reaction. Not a shadow of indignation.

The bar had never been so silent. Violaine should remember it, this silence, it has an acrid taste, it’s the silence of that which remains unspoken, those who didn’t flinch at the idea of concert seats being off-limits to Blacks thought they were abstaining from commenting but their silence said it all. In this café, everyone had chosen his camp. There’s no such thing as neutrality.

(New chapter)

Day 14 (Excerpt)

Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the next morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve only just started writing it, this report that Violaine assumed you were on the verge of finishing. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this tape, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “You need to understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.” When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without saying a word, no mea culpa, and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are supposed to be, all the others, does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what exactly is she an example, Patricia…?

You’re expected in San Francisco on December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed in depth on the potential attacks from the judge and the prosecutor on your credibility and your past. We’ll turn your revolutionary experience into an asset, the lawyer promises. Who could be in a better position than you to know that, in these groups, you don’t find many 19-year-old heiresses who’ve never participated in a demonstration? That a lawyer whose universe is limited to Harvard and the milieu of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so willing to be able to prove him right is more problematic.

But now this skinny French teenager comes along. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re not willing to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you can’t permit yourself to hear it either, you whose job it is to show that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying. You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need her to….

Extract, pages 108 – 112

(New chapter)

Day 15

Are you tired of an experiment which isn’t working out the way you wanted it to, these debates in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed. (4) Are you exhausted, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied with the prison sentence awaiting Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence, or worried about seeing your reputation tarnished, you who up until now have led a charmed life, the trial promises to be highly newsworthy, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene was incapable of coming up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing open the door to your bedroom while designating, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. Each a rough draft for the next, each effacing the one that preceded it.

The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia grinning widely, under the delicate blue of an immobile horizon, her hair tussled by a sea breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” a pensive Patricia curled up in a vast olive-green armchair, her father with his back against the bookcase standing behind her, a hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”

Violaine kneels, careful not to disturb the photos. That’s the most recent one, you point to the Time cover of April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, just fire. The background of the image is red (5), like the fire of a nightmare which seems to surge from nowhere, red like the SLA flag in front of which she stands, her legs slightly ajar, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she sports a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in half: GUILTY.

(New chapter)

You tell a stunned Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The words but also Patricia’s tone of voice, the way she addresses her parents. You propose listening to it three times, this tape, once with the eyes closed, taking notes, and then rapidly going through the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

(Translator’s note: All citations from Patricia Hearst in “Mercy, Mary, Patty” are from the public record, including the tapes released by Hearst’s captors and trial evidence.)

“I’d like to start out by making it clear that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is what I’m feeling. No one’s ever forced me to say anything on these tapes. I haven’t been brainwashed, or drugged, or tortured, or hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety: Your gifts were an act. [The SLA’s ransom demands included food giveaways to the poor – one of which, at a church near his family’s house, the translator remembers well.] You tried to hoodwink people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI took advantage of to try to kill me, me and those in the SLA. You claimed you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything in its lust for extending its power over others, even if it means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who couldn’t care less about their own child don’t give a hoot about the children of others.

“I’ve been given the choice between: 1) being released in a safe place or 2) joining the SLA and fighting for my own liberty and for the liberty of all the oppressed. I’ve chosen to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves by standing in line in order to be able to eat, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and about the lives of the oppressed of this country, but you’re lying and, as a member of the ruling class, I know that your interests and those of Mom have never served the interests of the People. You’ve said that you’ll offer more jobs, but why don’t you warn people about what’s going to happen to them, huh? Soon their jobs will be eliminated. Of course you’ll say that you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re just a liar, a sell-out. But go ahead, tell them, tell the poor and oppressed of this country what the government is getting ready to do. Tell the Blacks and the vulnerable that they’ll be killed down to the last man, women and children included. If you have so much empathy for the People, tell them what the energy crisis really is, tell them that it’s just a clever strategy to hide the real intentions of industrialists. Tell them that the oil crisis is nothing more than a way to make them accept the construction of nuclear power plants all over the country; tell the People that the government is getting ready to automate all the industries and that soon, oh, in five years at the most, we won’t need anything but push-buttons. Tell them, Dad, that the vulnerable and a big part of the Middle Class, they’ll all be on unemployment in less than three years and that the elimination of the useless has already begun. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of law and order is just a pretense for getting rid of the so-called violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I should have known that you, like other businessmen, if you’re perfectly capable of doing this to millions of people to hold on to power, you’d be ready to kill me for the same reason. How long will it take for the Whites of this country to realize that what’s being done to Black children will sooner or later happen to White children?

“My name has been changed to Tanya, in homage to a comrade in the struggle who fought with Che in Bolivia. I embrace this name with determination, I’ll continue her fight. There’s no such thing as partial victory. I know that Tanya dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely to an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.”

–Tanya Hearst

Extract, pages 126-140

Translator’s note: Soon after her collaboration with Violaine on the Hearst brief, Gene Neveva returns to the U.S., leaving behind her one lost dog and one irreparably altered teenager. Violaine grows up to become the village outcast, loyal to the principles inculcated in her in part by Neveva but alienated from her community, adored only by the children who flock to her house after school to nibble brown-sugar crepes and learn how to question accepted societal norms, much to the consternation of their parents. Her most devoted acolyte among these children is the narrator, with whom Violaine eventually shares the notes she took and the diary she kept while working with Gene Neveva on the Hearst case. (Whence the second-person premise with which the narrator addresses Neveva at the beginning of the novel: “I’m supposing you.”) A sort of repository of the influences of Neveva, Violaine, and through her Hearst, the narrator continues to question…. and to search.

***

Did you really get to know her, your assistant, or did you just skim the surface and size her up in the blink of an eye at the same time you were pontificating on women’s rights? Of course, in 1975 you were the adult, her elder in whom she didn’t confide a whole lot. I have the advantage of the notes she entrusted me with and of the distance of time.

I’m five years old and the teenager who re-named herself Violaine for you is this thin young woman of nearly 30 who lives alone with her dog in the house where she grew up, on the outskirts of our little village. From her house there’s a short-cut through the forest which leads to the beach, a four-kilometer walk between the columns of pine trees. Her dog fascinates me, hieratic and clumsy at the same time. Lenny seems immense to me, Violaine whispers mysterious words to him, my parents explain to me that she speaks English with him because he’s American. Children tend to linger at her place, at snack-time she makes us brown-sugar crepes, she listens to us, talks to us like adults never talk to us, we can ask her anything we want. What does she do for a living? She considers the question for a moment. Let’s see, she translates newspaper articles into English, she helps kids with their homework, she dog-sits when families go on vacation, at the antique shop in the neighboring village she sells bathroom shelves and picture-frames that she makes herself, she repairs shoulder-straps on discarded purses. Why limit yourself to one way of making a living?

And why doesn’t she have any children? Well, that depends on what you mean by “have,” can one really “have” another person, what do we think? Do we belong to our parents? What if all we can actually own are these little snippets of time like the time she spends teaching us to swim, to dig, to read?

I’m seven years old and have earned the right to hold Lenny’s leash on his walks, the job of making sure there’s always water in his bowl. Violaine teaches me a few English commands that I try out, marveling at how the dog sits, gives me his paw, and lies down. While she reads the paper, I get to know Lenny, from the silkiness of his pink, practically hairless skin to the inner folds of his front paws, his leathery nose cracked at the edges; I curl up against him and he doesn’t bat an eye, I approach his mouth with my face, he snoozes, his breath caressing my cheek. I race to Violaine’s house after school to see him, he’s ecstatic to see me, I throw rags to him which he meticulously rips to shreds, Violaine warns me about his age, not to be fooled by his healthy appearance, Lenny is a vieux monsieur.

I’m eight years old, summer vacation is over, one September morning, in the glare of the Sun, Violaine’s face seems to have been suddenly drained of all its youth. Lenny died yesterday cradled in her arms, he didn’t suffer, he looked her right in the eyes until the end, a serene trusting look, he was over 15 years old, he’d had an incredible life, he’d traversed a whole continent, he’d been lost and then found on the edge of a lake in America and here also, Lenny was loved many times over, he had two mistresses. I’m inconsolable, Violaine takes me to discover a path which leads to a part of the beach where normally I’m not allowed to go alone, there’s no lifeguard. You have to make your way down slowly, pushing aside the thistles and blackberry branches to avoid getting pricked, can I tell if the cumin smell is coming from those tiny mauve flowers sprouting up out of the dunes? The sand turned boiling-hot by the Sun is lined with narrow, barely detectable rivulets, vipers’ paths. We cry without talking facing the sea then start laughing from crying so hard over a dog who landed in France one day in 1974 and was lost one December morning in 1975. In the spot where he loved to stretch out under the Sun, behind the house, Violaine suggests that I plant carrots, which he adored, when I get up to look for a sprinkler, she kneels pressing her forehead against the sand, caressing the soil with her palms.

I’m ten years old and I’m not aware of her fragile status among the village’s adults. Tolerated but not included, Violaine is never invited to dinner, no one asks for her help in getting ready for the village fête in July; when she is asked for anything, it’s with reluctance, someone needs something translated. They’re all polite to her but without any warmth, like they might be with a foreigner who still doesn’t get the local customs. For us, Violaine is a miracle in equilibrium between our adolescence to come and the morose adult age of our parents, time circled around and spared her.

One Saturday afternoon, Violaine passes around a plastic bag into which each of us is supposed to put a cracker, an apple, a piece of candy, for “the poor.” We obey, a bit skeptical, no one’s desperate around here, we’re not in India. The bag is left out in the open in the City Hall plaza, the following morning it’s empty. What then becomes a ritual generates a buzz that lands us in the local daily, which heralds “a laudable initiative by children identifying the growing poverty in the village since the local cork factory closed down.” A journalist wants to meet Violaine, she demurs, taking the credit doesn’t make much sense, she didn’t invent anything. In the following weeks the priest joins our campaign, accompanied by his Sunday school students, we add to the bags poems copied onto loose sheets as well as drawings. Violaine starts a new club, “The atelier-debate,” Wednesday afternoons from three to six. We cram into her living-room. She hands out a Xerox with the rules: “No Interrupting” and “Be Kind to Others.” Such formality makes us feel important, elevating us above the contentious brouhahas of adults which we dread, Sundays we get up from the table as soon as we’re finished eating, plug our ears in our beds to block out the bickering of our parents, “You could have…. If you’d only have…. You’ll never do it.”

Sitting on Violaine’s rug, it doesn’t matter if we’ve already eaten, we compete for cookies, shortbread, marble cake, we hold out our hands, we fidget, me me Violaine, our cheeks flush with impatience, worried about not being able to remember everything we want to say.

Violaine presses us about our daily habits, did we see an ad for our backpack in a magazine, is that why we wanted to buy it, does choice even figure into it?

What if we were starving and we heard about a place where we could get free meals, but where we knew the food was stolen, what would we do? Would we just not eat? If we were asked to pass this food out to the poor, what would be more important, where the food came from or feeding those who don’t have anything?

The day after the third Wednesday session, my parents, like the others, receive a letter signed “Concerned Parents” accusing Violaine of justifying stealing. And then I hear them talk about you for the first time: For 15 years they’ve made her pay for the episode of the American professor, it’s time they leave her alone, says my mother, exasperated. I’m eleven years old.

I’m 12 years old, when school lets out Saturday afternoons I hurry over on my bicycle, I have to scale two hills to get to Violaine’s house. I have my own cup for the tea that she’s taught me to love, a Disney plate dating from when I was eight, Violaine regularly makes like she’s going to toss it and is amused by my protests. My rites make her laugh, aren’t I bored yet of trying on her old scarves in front of the mirror?

I walk beside her. We forge through glades invaded by ferns nearly two yards tall, picnic in the hollow of the dune where we can light a fire without being spotted by the gendarmes, we dine on pepper and zucchini shish-kebobs, wade shivering in the water ice-cold in April, that was dumb declares Violaine once we’ve enveloped ourselves in blankets back on the sand. I’ve just been authorized to enter her office at the end of the hall, the most beautiful room in the house where the window looks out on the round smooth stones of a dry creek bed. The shelves rise up almost to the ceiling, with books of all sizes which I’m permitted to read but not to take home. The air seems to be in repose, a silence of filtered light impregnated with amber and paper, I pray that night never comes, that there’s no interruption of this world that I’ve discovered in the pages of Newsweek, Time, Life. They all have gaps in them where articles have been cut out.

It’s 1991, I’m in eighth grade, Sandrine Cornet loans me a CD her father brought back from the United States, on the cover of Nevermind a plump baby swims in indigo water below a dollar bill attached to a fish hook. Violaine translates the words of “Something in the Way,” we discuss the meaning of the refrain, America and its wars, says Violaine, seem to be painfully lodged in Kurt Cobain’s throat. I make fun of her lightly, one says the United States, not America. And speaking of the United States, which city does she know the best? I’m not surprised by her response but feel awkward about having made her uncomfortable, what does it matter, she’ll travel later, what does she want to see when she finally goes there?

Violaine gets up on a chair and fetches a folder from the highest shelf, she spreads the photos out on the carpet. Among the snapshots of Northampton and the campus is a portrait: You stare straight into the camera with a mocking smile, your white blouse tucked into your bell-bottom jeans, your feet sheathed in light blue Converses. You’re sitting on one of the three steps of the building, your back leaning against the august portal with its gothique wrought-iron interlacing, the gilded lettering proclaiming: “Smith College, 1875.” Patricia Hearst does not come up that day, just you, Mademoiselle Neveva, for whom Violaine “translated articles and filed papers” in the winter of 1975.

I’ve just turned 16, I half-heartedly study for finals. Since Easter, at the request of my parents I’m taking English classes from Violaine, she has me read Emily Dickinson’s poems and excerpts from novels, Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” and James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” I have trouble translating the articles she gives me, one of which is an analysis of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” (6) It’s signed Gene Neveva.

She begins your story like this, Violaine: How lucky she was to have been your assistant, despite the migraines every afternoon, the anguish every morning, you needed to work fast, be able to understand complex articles in one reading, summarize them without complaining. But what a chance, what an honor to have contributed, with you, to saving an adolescent from life in prison, here, this is her, Violaine points to the framed photo on her desk. I’ve been looking at this photo since I was a kid, I always assumed it was a cousin, one of Violaine’s friends. I’ve now met Patricia Hearst. Violaine captivates me with the ambiguous charm of the story she reveals to me in bits and pieces. A story of solitude, of encounters, of choice. Of being alive and making sure people know it. Sometimes maybe it’s better to remain with the Indians like in the Westerns, she murmurs. (6)

She pretends to be surprised when I show up on my bicycle the following Wednesday, what, haven’t I had my fill of talking about all this, don’t I have friends my own age? But my classmates and their boring lives, their preoccupations – what will I do after high school? – their Friday nights, their whisky-Cocas and ground-up aspirin, all this pales in comparison to Patricia Hearst. Violaine holds the key to what I want to understand, what I need to know.

The odyssey of a young woman barely older than me the fracas around whom is inebriating. I tirelessly scrutinize her face on the cover of Newsweek from September 1975. Not a very flattering picture, the stark lighting accentuates the shadows of the rings under her eyes and her pallid skin. Patricia-Tanya glares at anyone who pauses before the image with a defiant air in this photo taken by the LAPD after her arrest. She looks livid and yet the police have just freed her from her kidnappers, I remark to Violaine, perplexed. Years later, after I’ve spent entire days listening to her and reading her notes, Violaine confides in me that this “livid” surprised her, most of those to whom she’s shown this photo have described Hearst’s expression as “flippant, annoyed.” I’m the only one to have caught her anger.

My own is not visible. When it’s time to resume my role of docile daughter, I take my bike on the bumpy paths, where the sand forces me to pedal hard until I’m out of breath, the mournful enervating calmness of the family foyer with all its lights turned on brings tears to my eyes, I listen without saying a word to my parents recounting their days over dinner, two extinguished adults with worn smiles. The solitude of blood ties appalls me, as if it’s only just dawned on me, I detest the person they’re trying to mold me into, right down to the first name they’ve given me, I’ve been trained to march lock-step into the future, an obedient little soldier who sticks to the family roadmap without questioning it, content to have what she’s never really wanted, a position in society, a job, a happy home. The prudence of my parents’ lives makes me want to throw up, the cowardice of it all. Their parsimonious generosity when they toss a coin to a homeless person, their bitter resignation disguised as “strength of character” when they vaunt themselves: “Me, I have no illusions.” I will no longer be the person I was. I open up to Violaine, she doesn’t say a word, her eyes shining brilliantly, she just listens to me debating with myself, unable to see the strings tying me down. I impregnate myself with Patricia Hearst’s words, wanting them to infect me, I dream of being ready to sacrifice everything, but lack the words and the causes, they seem to be either beyond my reach – the Rwandan genocide, the war in Iraq – or too local, the shutting down of the pine cellulose factory. Tanya’s heroism dwarfs me, forces me to confront my own passivity, she knows how to fearlessly target her enemies while I can’t even identify them. What needs to be destroyed, what needs to be attacked first, how, with whom, and whose side are you on if you’re not completely on hers? I pooh-pooh the student demonstrations against the CIP (7), the café debates in which everyone recites his own personal litany of indignations before sagely returning to the daily grind, and which are useless because no victory exists if it’s only partial. I devote myself to building up my body, push-ups, tractions, abs that I perform on my bedroom carpet, Patricia learned to run and high jump, to load a gun in the dark, to be fearless, to attack. My thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, I spend my Wednesdays stretched out on the rug in Violaine’s office, I no sooner start one book than I discard it for another that I also don’t manage to finish, I want to read them all. I’m too young I can’t wait. For a class presentation in which the theme is “the other side of the décor,” while a baffled French teacher stands listening I recount the exposure of the cloistered world of the heiress, how Patricia, in going over to the other side, put an end to several tenacious myths. No, parents don’t love their children unconditionally, not if they embrace another identity besides the one they’ve been pre-programmed for, no, the police aren’t here to protect us, the police who didn’t hesitate to spray the house in which Patricia was supposed to be holing up with machine-gun fire. I read extracts of her messages to my peers, convinced I’ll find more converts, but there’s an outcry, a millionaire who pretends to care about the poor, who are you kidding, what did Patricia do to change the world, rob a bank? I retort what are they doing, besides carefully avoiding anything which might slow down their progress, and towards what exactly are they racing with such fervor, I get a 5 out of 20, my work declared “off-subject.”

Violaine accompanies me in my humiliations and my questions, cajoles them, anticipates them. She’s no longer the reserved older sister of my childhood who makes me crepes, but a methodical genius with high-speed reasoning, no one knows her like I do, my bilingual heroine who saved Patricia in two weeks time with an incredible American. My parents worry more and more about what the two of us might be concocting , Violaine is after all a mature woman, she’s just celebrated her 40th birthday, and when they pronounce the word “concocting” their discomfort is palpable, their embarrassment about what they imagine we might be scheming up together.

I’m 18 years old and just barely manage to graduate, my parents want me to “broaden my horizons and create some distance, this school will open doors for me, Bordeaux is a very beautiful city.” I leave behind the fine November rain, the foggy June nights on the cornfields, the mauve thistles, the storms which erode the dunes, and Violaine.

If Violaine could only see what exactly they open up to, these doors vaunted by my parents…. Every night I rail on the telephone about my courses in “commercial strategy,” a real brainwashing. Violaine puts me at ease, my brain will resist this like all the rest, I’ve already been subjected to dozens of brainwashings since I was born, my parents, school, the media, religion, and herself all being culpable. She writes me numerous letters, no one can force me to remain in this school, sends me photos of the beach and its ferns already turning brown ahead of winter, also one of Lenny, and this text she thinks will please me, its author wrote it when she was exactly my age, 19:

“It seems to me that the term ‘brainwashing’ only makes sense when it designates the process that starts with the education system and is perpetuated by the media, the process by which people are conditioned to passivity, to accepting their pre-destined roles, that of slaves of the dominant class. If I’ve been subjected to any brainwashing, it’s that which conditions all of us to accept and hold on to our place in society. I spent 12 years in private schools surrounded by young people pre-occupied with pursuing their aspirations to dominate. Retrospectively, for me these schools are a training ground for the formation of future little fascists, we’re encouraged to develop all the values of capitalism: individualism, the sense of competition, not to mention racism.”

Tanya Hearst takes the words right out of my mouth, I cite her in my paper, I copy this paragraph and hand it out to my fellow students, suggesting that we have a debate about it, isn’t this exactly what’s happening in this school, what are they training us for? The school authorities rapidly summon me and suggest that I “reconsider my objectives.”

I’m 22 years old. I’m living in a hole-in-the-wall studio apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, below Montmartre. I’ve roamed between two universities and attempted three freshman years without conviction or success, a year of Anglo-American literature, a year of sociology, and a semester of history, I’ve worked as a waitress, perfume saleswoman, baby-sitter and dog-sitter, translator of various manuals, for hair-dryers, bathroom scales and hydrating lotions, none of these jobs lasted and I couldn’t care less, my life begins the moment I push open the doors of the French National Library, I’ve picked up the habit of reading American newspapers several times per week. The ceremonious silence of the periodicals room is soothing, I leaf through Time, Newsweek, Life, snuggling up with them as time blurs. These precious moments are where I live, I have no place else to be, going back to my parents’ house is unthinkable, and I get lost in Paris, I shy away from the impatient masses who push and press, but to get where? I don’t really think about Patricia Hearst, I forget about her like the childhood friend you hung around with a bit too much and who you now need to break free from. I’ve not responded to Violaine’s latest letters, which have begun to space themselves out.

For the first time in years, in December 2000 I spend New Year’s week at my parents.’ They’re sorry to report that Violaine appears to be losing it little by little from living alone, now she’s defending two students at the Dax high school who want to wear the veil, Violaine’s not even Muslim, as far as we know! She wrote a letter to the principal, a bizarre petition in which she sticks up for “teenagers who expose that which embarrasses us. Some are punk rockers, others might wear the veil. We who describe these girls as prisoners and say they’re being manipulated, are we so sure we’re free?” The children no longer scramble to get to her house at snack-time.

I visit her the next day, guilty to have been out of touch for so long, but she just hugs me tightly for a long time. She’s just signed up for unemployment. It’s harder and harder to find translating work; it would seem that everyone now speaks perfect English, she bemoans. On the surface immune to the sarcasm she’s been subjected to since the business of the high school girls, she leaves me admiring her propensity for solitude. She’s so thin I take pity on her, I want to protect or force-feed her. And yet this body isn’t fragile at all but honed by years of effort, Violaine doesn’t cede to anything.

I’m 30 I’m 32, she comes to Paris regularly to visit me, worried about “being under-foot,” she sleeps on a mattress on the floor and gets up noiselessly at dawn, Violaine disappears for entire days. At first delighted, she copies down the names of streets like a poem she’s just discovered, she loves traversing the bridges, all the bridges! Monuments everywhere you turn! Stonework everywhere, the palaces, the churches, the banks, and the ministries. And the stores, the restaurants, is there any place where you don’t have to pay for the right to sit down, why do all the parks close at 7 p.m.? All I see in this city, she writes me in a note left one morning, is the overwhelming proof of the society we’ve let be erected, no one looks at each other, we’re just statistics and social roles. She hopes I won’t hold it against her but she needs to get back to her beloved ocean, with its insistent currents, a space where, as Mademoiselle Neveva used to say, “everything is possible but nothing is guaranteed.” To my parents whom she runs into from time to time and who fret about my wandering – spending the whole day in the library, this is not a job! — she retorts dryly that wandering is courageous work and should be obligatory, like doubting. She warns me on the phone, she doesn’t want me showing up one morning on her doorstep announcing that I’m pregnant and am moving back, don’t come home. For that matter, why not go to America for a few weeks, me who gets by so well in English. I get excited, suggest to Violaine that we go in the summer, I’ve found a cheap flight and a youth hostel in Northampton, we can visit the campus. She shakes her head without responding, as if I were a child whose question she doesn’t want to answer directly, we’ll see.

I’m 37 years old, it’s 2015, young women are disappearing from their homes. They’re signaled at the frontiers, designated “S” (8), written up in organizational charts, with graphics illustrating the co-relations between them: Coming from middle class homes for the most part, they’re between 15 and 25, and did nothing to stand out in the preceding months. Their parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-sides of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they demand accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we do nothing, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours on end I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end in mind, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and who now grace the magazine covers, they stare out at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations of adults panicked by these impenetrable young girls and who propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few
weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one at all but rather a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tanya).

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

Translator’s Note: 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, in her view, 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 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 picnicking 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 question 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 is due to what their authors suggest: Having learned to be well-behaved and obedient was of no succor to them, this is not how these young women 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 that with which 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 a model 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 tickled 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 met up with about any aspect of society, they all wore badges to this effect: “Ask me!” I was present for rituals without taking part in them, like the night, on the eve of finals, when 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 were me 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 Tanya. In the archives, I unearthed articles from the dailies describing 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 lodged 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 uncertain terrains and you’ve been reminding it of this 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 Tanya 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, Tanya, 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 dutiful 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 man 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 outside 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 tossed, he hunted without success and finally resigned himself to limping back, embarrassed over 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 abruptly, 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 leaning on the steering wheel were shaking, how did she pronounce it, VIO-LAI-NUH, you never knew, you closed your eyes momentarily, voila. When we got to 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’d 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 which SLA to raise, do you even have to rally behind a flag and whose side are you on if you’re not completely on Tanya’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 assigned too many books to read – as if such a thing were possible – were no doubt already whining at your door. Then at the check-in 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 one of those who seek to connect the dots, who tirelessly keep their ears peeled for the voices, disseminated over time, of centuries of equivocal missing persons 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’d written it for Mercy Short, in 1690 she is 17 years old 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 repeat down to the most minute details for the small assemblage monitoring every single word, 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 addressing 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 indecent! We must save Mercy Short’s soul, bring back the Mercy we all know and love, the adorable Mercy, she in whom, concludes 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 who adoptive parents, Mohawks, baptized Marguerite when they converted to Catholicism. Eunice-Marguerite kidnapped in Deerfield on February 28, 1704 by troops 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 hand-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 freed 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 the 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, an equilibrist in the gray zones who springs up when one least expects it, you send a postcard, “Attention: Violaine,” which I receive yesterday, if she consents to budge all the way to Northampton, Violaine will feel right at home in your class, it’s off-limits to adults.

Notes

1. Like Mary Jamison – the ‘Mary’ of the title – Mercy Short was an Early American teenager kidnapped by an Indian tribe.

2. In English in the original.

3. In English in the original.

4. Although this and the next sentence seem to be interrogative, Lafon ends them both with periods, unusual even in French style.

5. The original French phrase, “le fond de l’image est rouge,” echoes the title of Chris Marker’s landmark 1977 documentary history of the radical Left, “Le fond de l’air est rouge.”

6. While the ending of John Ford’s 1956 film is more ambiguous, in the real story which inspired “The Searchers,” Cynthia Parker was “rescued” against her will from the Comanche tribe which kidnapped her as a child and never adapted to the white society to which she was returned. See Glenn Frankel’s “’The Searchers’: The Making of an American Legend,” Bloomsbury USA 2013.

7. Student protests broke out all over France in 1994 when the Right-leaning government proposed solving the youth unemployment problem with a Contrat d’Insertion Professionnelle (CIP) or First Employment Contract, which would have enabled employers to hire candidates under 26 at wages as much as 70 percent below the minimum wage.

8. French authorities’ designation for individuals it deems likely to commit terrorist acts.

9. In English, followed by French translation, in the original.

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

11. French term for a non-violent stream of anarchism and anarchists. The translator has left 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.

The Dance Insider Interview

tahoe coverLloyd Knight of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the “Moon Duet” from Martha Graham’s 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians.” Photo courtesy Lake Tahoe Dance Festival.

Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

(This Dance Insider Interview is sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance. Like what you’re reading? Please show your appreciation today. You can donate to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. The interviewer dedicates this piece to Jamie, without whom it would not have been possible.)

Here in rural France — where the natural wonders certainly don’t leave us wanting for diversions — when it comes to onstage summer spectacles, the best we can hope for is tired family circuses starring lions that should have been retired long ago, subsisting largely thanks to regional funding. Back in my home state of California, meanwhile, straddling the frontier with Nevada, for eight years the denizens of Lake Tahoe have come to expect much more: a local festival with an international reach and historic scope, with Lake Tahoe Dance Collective Lake Tahoe Dance Festival founders Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, director of the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition, doing the archival work that many dance enterprises with much more resources have all but abandoned, and resurrecting forgotten treasures by the pioneers who made the American dance scene, coupled with new work. As proof of the loyalty they’ve engendered — and that rural residents and vacationers aren’t country bumpkins when it comes to art and will support profound work — they’ve done this with only 30 to 40 percent of the means coming from foundation and modest public grants, the remainder donated by individuals and local businesses. “That was of course different this year,” says artistic director Hanna, who performed with Oakland Ballet, Ballet New York, and Cincinnati Ballet and was a founding member of New Chamber Ballet, on whose behalf she returned to her native Tahoe City in 2006 to initiate a performance and summer workshop. “But we’ve seen our donors step up to make sure we stick around and can offer a wonderful program next year.”

For this year, given that the festival normally performs outside to a modest 400-person capacity audience, it might have been easy for Baecher and Hanna to justify continuing the live event, simply requiring masks and limiting admission to allow social distancing, perhaps making up for the budget shortfall by augmenting the modest $30 ticket charge. Instead, they took the only responsible route a festival operating in one of the areas hardest hit be the Corona virus can: While a Young Dancers Workshop will still be offered live — in a portable outdoor studio and ensuring strict social distancing (see below) — the festival is migrating online, broadcasting three nights of mixed programs from past years and newly recorded for this year by artists meant to feature in the 2020 edition, each interlaced with thematic artist interviews and introductions of the work. Broadcast live at www.laketahoedancecollective.org on July 22, 23, and 24 at 6 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the programs will remain accessible for 24 hours, with a requested donation of $25. ($75 donors receive a tee-shirt and a wine glass.)

Online or in-person, this event is a vital tonic for these times and for my home state and its neighbor. Perusing the photographs of past performances and of the jubilant hosts on the outdoor stage whose backdrop is the most magnificent, blue-est lake in the world, one can’t help but think of an episode of the t.v. Western “Bonanza” in which Hoss succeeds in calming a raging giant of a man by showing him his favorite spot… a rocky shore on this Lake.

Keeping with the electronic spirit of the event, I interviewed Christin Hanna via e-mail. Her answers, as you’ll see, reflect not only a dance pedigree that also includes training with Margaret Banks’s Nevada Festival Ballet, Joffrey Ballet School, and American Ballet Theatre’s summer school, but a combination of local investment and dance-historical awareness that, while not unheard of at the ‘regional’ level (such as Marcello Angelini’s Tulsa Ballet) or in ‘little’ New York companies (Diana Byer’s New York Theatre Ballet) is rare to find at this — or any — level of the dance eco-sphere.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Ballet companies (American and European) typically have a historical blind-spot when it comes to preserving and presenting indigenous choreographers of the first part of the 20th century, outside Balanchine and Graham. And for the few contemporary dance-makers they retain, it tends to be the same ol’ same ‘ol. (For example, for Agnes De Mille, “Rodeo.”) The Lake Tahoe Dance Festival, by contrast, features choreographers from this epoch rarely produced outside their own companies, where those companies still exist (Hawkins) or ethnically-linked troupes (Ailey for Horton). You seem to have chosen to focus on this slice of our history, rather than, say (given the preponderance of ballet dancers on your guest roster) an assortment of duets and divertissements from classical and romantic ballets, or even Balanchine or Robbins work (where you could profit from the several experienced dancers of their pieces among your performers, including Wendy Whelan, Stephen Hanna, Abi Stafford and Ashley Bouder). Why? (Feel free to disagree with my premise.)

Christin Hanna: Well, we were actually able to add Balanchine, but you’re right. When we founded the festival in 2013, we wanted to create a program that would educate an audience about dance, and you can’t get a real sense of what dance is without knowing where it came from, and also attract dance aficionados for the unique programming. Additionally, I returned to my home of Lake Tahoe to create culture here in the performing arts, inspired by my time performing at Jacob’s Pillow. Growing up here, I had only a 4-hour drive to San Francisco to see world-class dance, and locally we are a community of Olympic athletes — ski racers, mountain climbers, and ultra-marathon runners.

A great example you recognize is the work of Erick Hawkins, which is relatively unknown compared to Graham and Taylor. Hawkins was actually a member of Balanchine’s Ballet Caravan, before marrying Martha Graham and becoming one of her first male dancers, then breaking off on his own. To see this lineage in his work is absolutely incredible, and to be able to present the three to show the audience this context is vital.

We also have a Lester Horton work, and many don’t know that Lester Horton was a prolific choreographer in addition to developing a modern dance technique, known the world over. He actually ran the first multi-ethnic dance company in the United States, in Los Angeles, and when he passed it was the dance critic and writer Frank Eng who sent Horton’s dancers, Alvin Ailey and Carmen De Lavallade among them, east to Jacob’s Pillow in a car to perform!

Paul Ben-Itzak: As a supplementary question to the above, the conventional wisdom would be that in a resort community like Tahoe (if not year-round, at least during the summer period) not necessarily ‘educated’ to ballet and just expecting extravaganza or “pretty,” one would present more known, popular, or ‘spectacular’ works. Your programming seems to owe more to the type of ballet-archeologic ‘curio’ curating one might find at, say, New York Theatre Ballet, which (while fascinating to notators and ballet eggheads like me) might be more interesting to the Ballet and Modern ‘insider’ than the general public. Why this choice? And how do your audiences respond?

Christin Hanna: One of the things we didn’t necessarily plan, but that I’m extremely pleased with, is that the feeling of the festival is one that is quite intimate, an up close and personal experience where the audience can hear the dancers breathe. As most locals and visitors usually find themselves in Tahoe because of the outdoor recreation, everyone is an athlete, and can identify with that visceral, physical sensation, even if they are new to viewing dance. Part of the reason we show a range of styles is for those new audiences to start to understand what their own personal taste is as they come to watch more dance. For most of our audience, that may just only be the performances we put on year after year.

Paul Ben-Itzak: And an ancillary question to the last: Who is your audience? Is it as typically ‘gray-headed’ (as a former Kennedy Center president, Lawrence T. Wilker, once put it to me) as that of many ballet companies? (Feel free to question my premise here too; it’s been a while since I’ve attended a live ballet performance.)

Tahoe directors Christin Hanna and Constantine BaecherLake Tahoe Dance Festival founders Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, at home in their kingdom.

Christin Hanna: The very first performance we held was a spring showcase at the high school auditorium (we have no other indoor performance space) with seven young dancers and four guest professionals. The next week a man wearing full work gear stopped me in the aisle of the grocery store. He said, “You’re that ballet lady!” and I wasn’t sure what was coming next, but he continued, “My son has a crush on one of your dancers, so he dragged us all to the performance last week. I’ve never seen anything like that and I was really blown away!” This is the perfect example of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and that moment was such a wonderful affirmation following our first show. This person was not someone who was going to spend his vacation going to New York and attending a performance at Lincoln Center. Our organization gave him the opportunity to be welcomed into a new experience that he might not have had otherwise.

Our audience is quite diverse, and of all ages. Naturally, in the summer in Tahoe we have a variety of visitors, so this group is really looking for a special evening on vacation. Our locals have been tremendously supportive of the festival and our organization in general; they see the quality of what we’re bringing in and are thankful beyond imagination. In general, the fact that we bring such big names is what may attract those who have not come before, because it’s someone from NEW YORK CITY!

I must also say that we have steadfastly kept ticket prices to performances below $30. It’s my personal feeling that performing arts organizations, commercial or non-profit, have to really keep an eye on who it is who can actually [afford to] come to the theater; I’m talking pre-Covid of course. And there are certainly a number of outreach programs, etcetera, but I’d rather sell 400 tickets at $30 than 75 tickets at $150. The point of this art form is to share it and to touch people’s lives. Someone who makes minimum wage should be able to come to the ballet.

Paul Ben-Itzak: How have the directors you’ve worked with influenced you in this ‘preservation’ optic?

Christin Hanna: Those who have influenced the preservation side of things are actually my collaborators, starting with Constantine Baecher, my best friend and co-founder of the festival. We both see the landscape of dance as deeply inclusive of the past, in addition to simply [being aware] that DANCE can mean a lot of different things to different people, which brings us around the world stylistically and more.

Our teacher from when we met as students at American Ballet Theatre, Daniel Baudendistel, is a treasure of historical information, and he joins us for a portion of the online presentation as well. Also, we’re just old enough to have come up as students before YouTube, and I still have all my VHS tapes from when I recorded PBS broadcasts of performances. We were so hungry as young people to see and know more. Kristina Berger, who brings the Horton and the Hawkins, also comes every year and her connection to those entities is a profound part of her artistry and teaching. I guess you can really just say that we’ve all gravitated to one another with the shared interest of keeping the past alive.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Tell me about Agnes De Mille’s “The Other,” one of the works which will be featured.

Christin Hanna: As you mentioned earlier, I feel like De Mille is one of those from whom we don’t get to see the treasure trove past “Rodeo,” or her work on Broadway. My friend Stephen Hanna actually had the idea, and at first we were looking at “A Rose for Miss Emily,” however that one is quite dark and we didn’t think it would work excerpted out of doors. Anderson Farrell of the De Mille working group sent us “The Other,” and we fell in love with it.

Tahoe Stephen Hanna & Abi Stafford in De Mille's 'The Other'The composition of this photograph — and thus the achievement of photog Jen Schmidt in capturing this moment of Abi Stafford and Stephen Hanna performing the duet from Agnes De Mille’s “The Other” at the Lake Tahoe Dance Festival in 2019 — is not so banal as it might at first appear. Au contraire, it makes a profound statement about the most fundamental gift of the true Danseur Noble. First, Hanna had to transcend the potential distractions in this outdoor performance: The most luminous lake and most legendary trees in the world in the backdrop; the dude in the baseball cap in the front row. Next there’s the standard challenge to the male partner: to make it look easy and effortless. Then there’s the challenge visible, or palpable, only to the ballerina: in two hands he needs to communicate not just “I won’t drop you” but “You’re free to fly”; the only physical concern of that woman should be the precision in her limbs and fingers. Most (good) ballerinos only get to this point. What Hanna achieves here — besides freeing his partner to achieve grace — is his own form of grace. Don’t yet see it? Hint: Feets, don’t fail me now!

Paul Ben-Itzak: What if any Antony Tudors will you be presenting?

Christin Hanna: We’re thrilled to be presenting the opening section of “Jardin aux Lilas,” which pairs beautifully with the De Mille as it was she who suggested Tudor to founder Lucia Chase in the early days of Ballet Theatre, in addition to the fact that both works explore that timeless theme of unrequited love!

Paul Ben-Itzak: For the De Mille and the Tudor, who will be staging, and to what degree will they or you be referring to Labanotated scores of the works?

Christin Hanna: Diana Gonzalez-Duclert staged the “The Other” on Stephen and Abi [Stafford] last spring before the 2019 Dance Festival; we’ll be showing archival footage of that. Diana was De Mille’s rehearsal assistant and originated the role Abi danced. As for the Tudor, we have graciously been lent footage by Diana Byer at New York Theatre Ballet from a performance in 2013. NYTB has presented many of Tudor’s works, as well as De Mille’s.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Any other works or choreographers on the programs to be presented you’d like to highlight?

Christin Hanna: We’re always particularly excited to show works being made today by budding choreographers, so we’ve selected our favorites from past festivals to showcase. One of these is “Red-Spotted Purple,” which is danced by Ashley Bouder, who commissioned the work for her Ashley Bouder Project performance at the Joyce in 2018 and then brought it here that summer. Ashley’s company is dedicated to furthering the inclusion of women and marginalized people in leadership roles in the performing arts world, and this work was an all-female collaboration with composer Stephanie Ann Boyd and Lauren Lovette, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and a budding young choreographer. In our third night, we highlight contemporary works that have previously been shown here in Tahoe. One of note is by Bryan Arias, whom I knew when he was a student, and who has become a phenomenal dancer (Nederlands Dance Theater, Kidd Pivot) and choreographer too. In 2014, he brought his dance partner Rachel Fallon to perform a section of his work “Notice,” which had won the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition that spring, which my co-director Constantine Baecher founded. His career has blossomed; he’s currently making a work at the Bolshoi!

Paul Ben-Itzak: Any chance the festival will eventually produce any of the ten ballets by Martha Graham which belong to the public domain (thus, no royalty costs, no Graham trust to go through): “Appalachian Spring,” “Night Journey,” “Chronicle/Steps in the Street,” “Lamentation,” “American Document,” “Heretic,” “Flute of Krishna,” “Frontier,” “Panorama,” or “Celebration”? “Appalachian Spring,” with its grand score and evocation of mountains, would seem particularly appropriate.

Christin Hanna: We would be thrilled to present any of those…. We are happy to be working with Lloyd Knight of the Graham company, performing opposite Wendy Whelan in the “Moon” duet from Ms. Graham’s 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” still as relevant today as when it was created. This duet can be held up against anything choreographed today by anybody! The piece has an emotionality that is hard to state in mere words. The Graham trust generously gave us the rights for this performance free of a charge. As a young and small company, we have a limited budget in the number of professional dancers we’re able to bring in, and in the summer the additional challenge is housing, as it’s the height of tourist season…. So the pieces in the festival tend to be [for] smaller groups. “Appalachian Spring” would certainly be wonderful!

Paul Ben-Itzak: And any chance of presenting the work of Katherine Dunham?

Christin Hanna: Certainly. We’re also interested in some of the Ted Shawn solos he did later in his life. Our bucket list is long!

Paul Ben-Itzak: I note that in addition to the guest artists, you have a larger number of local dancers. How and where do you find — and nurture — them in the Tahoe/Truckee area? (Are you also a native of the region?)

Christin Hanna: Yes, I train dancers and work with them throughout the year, and bring in guest teachers and choreographers to work with them. I was born and raised here in Tahoe, and there was no professional training available, so my parents drove me to Reno for classes and rehearsals seven days a week (an hour each way!), and where I trained with Margaret Banks at Nevada Festival Ballet. The idea of creating a mecca for dance in Tahoe was inspired by my time at Jacob’s Pillow, and my desire to be able to offer our community the highest level of dance possible. It’s always bothered me that more rural areas don’t have as much culture as big cities, and that’s why the Pillow in particular was so inspiring. The dancers who come to work with me do so at a time when they are making the decisions in their lives about what they’d like to focus on, and they’ve chosen to take dance more seriously and can therefore dedicate themselves to being in the studio every day after school.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Who are the artists who will actually be in place — present there
this year — and thus (if I understand correctly) teaching, live, the Young Dancers Workshop?

Christin Hanna: Kristina Berger, Damien Johnson, and Erik Wagner, in addition to myself, are here teaching at our Young Dancer’s Workshop. We own our portable stage, so we set that up as a studio in late May and have been able to have completely safe classes with a limited number of students in masks and maintaining social distancing.

Paul Ben-Itzak: In the press release, you opine, “When faced with the inability to have a festival, we knew we had a unique opportunity.” Recognizing that we all wish the tragic crisis which has prompted these opportunities (others in the arts and other sectors have also made this observation) happened, how can art, specifically, and dance, specifically, if you like, make an opportunity (or find an opportunity) out of crisis and tragedy? How is art and how are artists particularly equipped to spot and ‘exploit’ these opportunities?

Christin Hanna: We’re mostly excited that anyone around the world [will be able to see the performances], which is why we wanted to keep it free, with a suggested donation. It also offered us the opportunity to use this format of the three nights — to weave together the connections between Balanchine and Graham and Hawkins and share these insights with our audience. Every piece is introduced by either the dancers or choreographer giving unique insight, which we feel keeps that feeling that the audience usually has at the [live] festival. Last year, an audience member wrote to me and thanked us for creating the kind of event where one could walk up to a dancer after the final bows and thank him or her personally. That is the connection to this art form that I believe we need to nurture — the personal connection.

Paul Ben-Itzak: Dance — or live dance performance — can seem flat (and two-dimensional) captured on film or video. Realizing that you’re not the only performance company facing this dilemma in these times, and of course the health necessity to go this route (instead of performing in front of a live audience in a closed or constrained space), how, specifically, will the video-taping or filming be handled / produced to mitigate against this potential flatness?

Christin Hanna: Most of the video being shown is [archival footage of] our past performances or performances elsewhere. In my opinion, there’s really no way to have as vital an experience on a screen as you would at a live performance. However, two of the works filmed specifically for this are the final male solo from Balanchine’s “Apollo,” which Adrian Danchig-Waring and his husband Joseph Gordon filmed outdoors in Shelter Island, New York, and Hawkins’s “Greek Dreams,” filmed right here on our outdoor stage/studio this past week. We are incredibly lucky to be going through this time with the technological advances we have today that make advanced camera work and file sharing possible.

Paul Ben-Itzak: If I understand correctly — but please correct me if I’m wrong — all the pieces presented here are from previous years’ festivals. Thus perhaps this issue has not yet come up for you. But how do dancers confront the real health threat of continuing to rehearse and perform at such close contact (often breathing hard from exertion) in such times (assuming working with a mask would be physically trying as it constrains breathing when one is exerting oneself)?

Christin Hanna: We are at 6,200 feet of elevation and wearing masks daily in our outdoor classes. It’s not ideal, but like anything else, you get used to it, and it’s so much better than being in your kitchen on Zoom! The staff I have here has all been tested and quarantining together, so we are able to work safely. I imagine that until there’s a vaccine, we’ll be seeing more companies following this kind of model, which is really like an artistic residency, but now it’s just a matter of also quarantining.

(Observation added by PBI, upon re-reading this response while transcribing our e-mail interview: What Hanna expresses here is a quintessential part of the working ethos of the dancer; is any artist more adaptable? Here we’re talking about the artistic metier which, in Covid conditions, is most exposed to risk — the one metier in which the practitioner puts her instrument and her body on the line every time she steps out on stage or into a class or rehearsal — Covid or no Covid — and which, for most forms of the art, already has a ‘perishable by’ date stamped on it; and yet the dancer, as always, just adjusts.)

Paul Ben-Itzak: How does your magnificent setting — I assume that when there are live performances, they are outdoors, with the lake as a background? — contribute to the experience, for performers, presentation, and audience?

Christin Hanna: People who attend our festival for the first time are completely mesmerized, because yes, Lake Tahoe is our backdrop, and we perform with the sunset as our lighting. Programmatically, not everything works when having to compete with this environment, but other than that it’s a dream. When dancers have performed here they always tell everyone how magical the setting is!

Paul Ben-Itzak: Does the Lake Tahoe Dance Collective organize year-round activities, and if so, for example….?

Christin Hanna: Our Spring Performance is usually a mixed evening, but with more focus on our local dancers and with just a few guests.

Paul Ben-Itzak: You might not necessarily have a comment here, as this is more about my observations on the subject based on one of the photos we’re going to use (from De Mille’s “The Other”) with this story — pertaining to certain evident skills of male partnering indicated by the photo — but do you have any thoughts or observations on the subject of the male partner, and/or Stephen Hanna (husband? brother? I ask because your familiarity enhances your qualifications as an observer)’s partnering skills and values particularly?

Christin Hanna: As far as we know, we are not related, but I do think we may have a distant connection somewhere — I guess we’d have to do one of those genealogy kits! Stephen is an exceptionally kind human being and a wonderful partner — we were actually going to dance together this summer for the first time in a new work. But yes, “The Other” is heavy on partnering. What reads to me when I watch Stephen’s partnering skills, from the front of the room in the director’s side of things, is that it’s so solid that you almost forget or don’t realize what an amazing feat he’s pulling off. Because of that skill, the ballerinas he works with always look effortless.

This is their history too: Re-opening with Jacob Lawrence show, NY’s Met Museum shows which post-Covid camp it’s in

Met LawrenceJacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000), “Struggle Series — No. 10, Washington Crossing the Delaware,” 1954.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text by and copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

The post-Corona world — using the qualification ‘post’ guardedly, that horizon seeming distant, particularly in the United States — seems to be shaping up into two camps: Those who want to return to business as usual, and those who recognize that circumstances have changed forever, and that our comportment has got to change with it. If there’s nothing unusual about the protective measures the Metropolitan Museum has promised to take when it re-opens its doors August 29 after a five-month closure — it’s not the only institution to require masks, limit admissions, disinfect regularly and provide sanitizing stations — what is exceptional is that the 150-year-old New York City institution has not rested at ‘assurance’ but upped the ante to justification, recognizing that the stakes have changed.

That recognition comes in the form of the new exhibition Jacob Lawrence: the American Struggle, highlighting the American modern painter’s multi-paneled series Struggle … From the History of the American People (1954–56).

For in the United States, as if it was not already enough that their community, along with those of Latinos, Native Americans and Alaskans (where the tiny Bush village of Northway last week experienced its first cases), prisoners (1000 cases in San Quentin alone), and detained migrants (3,000 cases at last count), has been particularly hard-hit, the virus-cide of Corona has been joined by a stepped-up, government-institution (police; not all, obviously) generated genocide of African-Americans. If not in scale, the term genocide is justified in nature, as the underpinning dehumanization is the same here as that that enabled the European genocide of Jews and the Rwanda genocide.

Given that they often lionize white conquerors and conquistadors, enslavers and murderers, the toppling of statues (in highly symbolic places) by these oppressed groups and their sympathizers has been understandable.

The problem with this approach, however, is that one can’t just erase history by demolishing its monuments.

I prefer the approach suggested by no less than Angela Davis, the Black Power pioneer and philosopher who, in a recent interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, suggested these monuments should not necessarily be destroyed, but moved (from public places, e.g. State-houses, where they suggest their racist values still prime) to museums… where they can be viewed in a “pedagogic” context.

What I love about the Met’s Lawrence exhibition is that it refutes a spurious suggestion made recently by a European president who indirectly implied that those who would “unbolt” statues (he confounded “unbolt” with “destroy,” making the same mistake as those who destroyed Courbet, who, as the artistic commissar during the Paris Commune of 1871, simply wanted to move, not destroy, the statue at the Place Vendome, as demonstrated by Michel Ragon in “Courbet, Painter of Freedom”), or demand that their country live up to its principles, are “separatists.”

Whether in Europe or on the other side of the Atlantic, these demonstrators don’t want to ‘destroy’ and they are not separatists but, as former French justice minister Christine Taubira pointed out, inclusionists. They want to claim the rights that their countries’ constitutions accord them, and to belong to those countries’ histories..

carter 2 lawrence migration

From the Arts Voyager archive and the 2012 exhibtion “To see as artists see: American Art from the Phillips Collection,” at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas: Jacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000), “The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north,” 1940 – 41. Casein tempera on hardboard. ©2011 the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Acquired 1942, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. .

Lawrence has certainly distinguished himself as a chronicler of African-Americans’ particular history, notably in the “Migration” series. (Ironically, in the current context, depicting Blacks fleeing the South to seek work in the north, notably Chicago, where contemporary Blacks seem to have targets on their backs that make the Plantation persecution seem like a picnic.)

Here, by taking ownership of no less a nation-making chapter than (slave-holder) Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, Lawrence moves beyond celebrating his own ‘tribe”s history to staking a claim in the larger, national story.

The Met also moves beyond the revisionist, overly race-conscious cultural history that’s been in vogue at U.S. museal and academic institutions for several years now (typified by Huey Copeland and the Art History department at Northwestern University, and its affiliated museum) to a curatorial statement that recognizes that an ‘equal regard’ doesn’t just mean trotting out racialist exhibitions, but really doing the work — race-blind — to scout out artistically equal visions from across the spectrum.

The Algeria Papers, 3, Part III: Apres the flood, “Young Deluge” by Jean Sénac (V.O. Française follows English translation)

by Jean Sénac
Copyright Actes Sud 1999, 2019
Introduction and translation by & copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

(From Jean Sénac, “Oeuvres Poétiques,” compilation published by and copyright Actes Sud, 2019. For more on and by Jean Sénac, click here.)

Young Deluge

(To K.T. of Oran.)

1

And now I cross-examine myself over a simple hesitation in your ankles.
a rebel lock of hair a broken word
I
traverse your landscapes — repudiated spouse
not even a nubile one and already raked over the coals
I
cross-examine myself while talon on my shoulder
you take the launching of the fire.

2

Nothing
Of you I only know
the weight of a little ink at a bookstall
and the grumbling on the incline
of trucks loaded with barrels
(Crooked wood and the dregs
of childhood where you drag me
Oh
to know
nothing.
— I would call to you when in urgent strokes
your heavy blue thighs on the poem
you rise up from my body.)
I would call to you.

3

Approach of negation.
Tear from the thought its tigress’s milk
Pull the words from their manure drippings.
Not close the eyes when your twin thrusts
His tongue into you right up to the letter A.
A deluge can unfurl
Where you expect but a nursery rhyme
And amidst the watercress
A fifth season takes on the heavens.

— Pointe-Pescade, April 24-26, 1967

Jeune Déluge

(K.T. d’Oran.)

1

Et voici que je m’interroge sur une simple hésitation de tes chevilles
une mèche rebelle un mot cassé
je
traverse tes paysages — épouse répudiée
pas même nubile et déjà roue de flammes
je
m’interroge alors que le talon sur mon épaule
tu prendre le départ du
feu.

2

Rien
De toi je ne sais que
le poids d’un peu d’encre à l’étal d’un libraire
et le grondement sur la rampe
des camions chargés de fûts
(Bois courbe et la lie
de l’enfance
où tu m’entraînes
O
pour ne rien
savoir.
–Je t’appellerai quand à brasses pressés
tes cuisses bleues pesant sur le poème
tu remonteras de mon corps.)
Je t’appellerai.

3

Approche de la négation.
Arrache à la pensée sa crème de tigresse.
Tire de leur purin des mots.
Ne ferme pas les yeux quand ton jumeau t’enfonce
La langue jusqu’à la lettre A.
Un déluge peut déferler
Où tu n’attendais qu’une comptine,
Et parmi le cresson
Une cinquième saison prendre d’assaut le ciel.

— Pointe-Pescade, 24-26 avril, 1967

In Fort Worth, Portals with Paul Strand

Paul Strand, Gateway. Hidalgo, 1933, photogravure from The Mexican Portfolio, 1967, smallIf you thought the largest photography collection in the world was in New York or Paris, you haven’t been reading the Arts Voyager and you need to think again. But size isn’t everything — even in Texas — and for the cliché (French sense of the word) caché of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, what matters most is context: The aesthetics of the curating and exhibition framing; that rather than relying solely on docents (my favorite talks and looks like John Cullum) to explain everything, the Carter also leaves erudite critical compendiums on tables near the oeuvres so that visitors can instruct themselves. (If I know who Clement Greenberg is, it’s not because of smart-ass revisionist American art history professors who tend to sneer at him, but because of the Carter.) And then there’s the context of the current health crisis, in which both the Carter and the nearby Kimbell in the Fort Worth Cultural District — where you can also sidle over to the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and, if you want to start your own collection (of cowboy and other paraphernalia, not cowgirls), the Cattle Barn Flea Market — seem to have been more sage than the governor, not waiting for the recent spike in Corona cases to impose strict social distancing, masking, and admittance limitation rules following their re-openings June 19. Small steps, perhaps, but necessary measures if we’re to make it through that portal. Above, and on display through July 5 as part of the exhibition Looking In: Photography from the Outside: Paul Strand, “Gateway. Hidalgo,” 1933. Photogravure from “The Mexican Portfolio,” 1967. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.