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

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

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

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

“Love thy neighbor”

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

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

1932: The Semence

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

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

1940-45: The Harvest

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

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

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Women aren’t just Victims, II: The Tragi-Fabulous Destiny of Camille Claudel

claudel small abandonCamille Claudel, “L’Abandon,” large model, circa 1886. Bronze, brown patina, 24 3/8 x 22 7/8 x 9 5/8 inches. Signed “C. Claudel.” Last of a series of 18 cast from this model between 1905 and 1922. Estimated pre-sale by Artcurial at 600,000 – 800,000 Euros or $660 000 – 880 000; sold to a private international collector for 1,187,000 Euros or $1,412,530 including charges. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

“No, Joan, it’s not the priests who judged you. When those ferocious beasts gathered around you, their hearts full of rage and foaming at the mouth, those priests, those politicians, the Angel of Judgment who controls the scales, with a whistle he made the miter, the cowl, the frock tumble from their heads and arms.”

— Paul Claudel, “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” 1939 (Editions Gallimard)

“There’s always something absent which torments me.”

— Camille Claudel, Letter to Rodin, cited on a plaque affixed to the facade of 19, quai de Bourbon on the Ile St. Louis in Paris, where the sculptor lived and worked in a ground floor studio from 1899 until 1913, when she was committed to an asylum.

Dedicated to the memory and living legacy of Ruth Asawa, imprisoned by her government during World War II because of her Japanese heritage; Black Mountain graduate; sculptor; lithographer; teacher.

What do Hokusi, Hansi, Antoine Coysevox, Adolphe Cassandre, and Paul Claudel have in common — besides being men? You’ll find them all in the 1981 edition of the French encyclopedia “Le Petit Robert 2,” a bible of everything you need to know about French and world culture and history. You won’t find an entrée for Camille Claudel (1864-1943), assistant to, collaborator with, and lover of Auguste Rodin whose sculptures often exceed the master’s in their sophistication, intimacy, vulnerability, and heart-rending pathos. This was before the 1984 publication of a biography and Catalogue Raisonné by a descendant, Reine-Marie Paris, determined to resuscitate the reputation of the ancestor who spent 30 years in an asylum, possibly against her will, before dying of potentially hunger-related causes in 1943; several books published beginning in the 1980s, notably Anne Delbée’s 1982 best-seller “Une Femme, Camille Claudel”; two movies featuring Isabel Adjani and, more recently, Juliette Binoche as the sculptrice; a rage of exhibitions around the world; and the opening last spring of a museum dedicated to Claudel’s remaining oeuvre (estimated at between 80 and 99 works) in the remote Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Seine, previously best known as the home of accordion legend Yvette Horner.

Camille Claudel’s ascendance — corresponding with the increased rarity of brother Paul’s plays on French stages — was capped by last week’s largest-ever sale at Artcurial Paris of works coming directly from Claudel’s descendants (via her sister Louise) for a combined total of nearly 3.6 million Euros or $4,283,048, more than three times the global pre-sale estimate, with a phenomenal 12 of the 17 lots by the artist on sale pre-empted by the State to go to French museums.

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