The Lutèce Diaries, 16: Love on the run, heart lies bleeding (unedited and uncensored version)

First sent out by e-mail, and posted today for the first time. After getting more than half-way through with a re-edit seven months later, I’ve decided to leave this piece in its initial, raw, somewhat over-detailed initial state for the sake of authenticity… and for the record. — PB-I, October 23, 2019

PARIS — So there  I was at dusk, heart broken and gums bleeding, teeth throbbing, staggering up the rue des Martyrs towards the Montmartre cemetery and the grave of the man I blamed it all on: Francois Truffaut.

In the late French director’s five-film, 20-year saga that began with the 1959 “The 400 Blows” and climaxed with “Love on the Run,” Antoine Doinel, played throughout the cycle by Truffaut’s alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud, is always on the run, often from the women in his life: His mother, his wife (the effervescent Claude Jade, whom Antoine, in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” rightly calls “Peggy Proper” for her prim manners), his girlfriend (Dorothee, who made her debut in “Love on the Run” and would go on to become the French equivalent of Romper Room’s Miss Nancy), his older married mistress (Delphine Seyrig at her glamorous apex), and various intermittent mistresses. The only one he seems to chase, apart from Dorthee’s “Sabine,” whom he loves but whose love seems to scare him (he found her after patching up and tracing a photo of the girl a supposed lover had torn up in a restaurant basement phone booth during an angry break-up call he overheard), is Marie-France Pisier’s “Colette,” who we first meet in Truffaut’s 30-minute contribution to the 1963 multi-director film “Love at 20.”  (They encounter each other at a classical music concert; Antoine is working at the time in a Phillips record factory, with Truffaut letting us see the hot wax being spun into discs. In “Love on the Run,” Antoine finally tracks Dorothee’s Sabine to her work-place. A record shop where couples make-out in listening rooms.) You may remember Pisier as the vengeful sexpot in the movie adaptation of Sidney Sheldon’s “The Other Side of Midnight,” in which she introduces an inventive way of hardening an older man’s penis which might have come in handy in my own recent saga if I’d only have remembered it before now.

The first hint that I was starring in a sort of Bizarro universe re-make of, specifically, “Love on the Run” came when the woman in question — you know her as “Vanessa,” whom I described picking up on (although I’ve since learned that she may have been picking up on me) at a vernissage a few blocks from the Pere Lachaise cemetery (cemeteries also figure in the Antoine Doinel cycle; the Montmartre one where Truffaut was eventually buried turns up in three of the five films, notably as the burial place of Antoine’s mother, revealed to him by her former lover as being next to the real tomb of the model for “Camille.”) and right after having three teeth extracted, e-mailed me from the Lyon train station before boarding a train to that city to visit her grandkids (like Antoine, I seem to have unresolved mother issues) to tell me that the night, our first together which had concluded the previous morning, and which we’d both exuded at the time was extraordinary and unique (she’d e-mailed me afterwards that she didn’t understand why we weren’t still together) felt “incomplete” (later she’d call it “inaccomplished”) because I couldn’t or wouldn’t get it up.  (My wording; she didn’t put it so vulgarly.) In the Truffaut film, after Colette calls him from a window on a Lyon-bound train at the Gare de Lyon, where Antoine has just dropped of his son for camp, Antoine jumps on the moving train without a ticket, surprises Colette in her sleeper car right after a fat middle-aged businessman, assuming she’s a prostitute, has rubbed up against her in the aisle (a lawyer, she’d spotted Antoine earlier in the day at the court-house, where with Jade he’d just completed France’s first no-fault divorce, an echo of my parents’ some years earlier). After they catch up, she upbraids him on the revisionist way he recounted their courtship as 20-year-olds in a fictionalized memoir he’s just published — “My family didn’t move in across the street from you, you followed us!” (At the time, Antoine is working as a proofreader at a – literally – underground publisher on a book detailing the 18 minutes when De Gaulle disappeared during the 1968 student-worker uprising. Letters requesting love assignations sent by underground pneumatics also figure in the 1968 “Stolen Kisses,” in this case from Antoine’s older, married lover – his employer’s wife — played by the glamorous Seyrig.) He tries to kiss her, she light-heartedly repels the attempt scolding him, “Antoine, you haven’t changed.” The conductor comes around for tickets, Antoine pulls the emergency chord and jumps off the still moving train. We see the now 34-year-old Antoine running across a field, an echo of the last, poignant, liberating moment in “The 400 Blows,” when a 14-year-old Antoine, having escaped from a youth home/prison, is frozen on screen and in our memories, a broad smile on his face as he runs on a beach, discovering the ocean (the antipathe of Chris Marker’s ocean in “La jete”)  for the first time.

In my own Bizarro universe re-make of the Antoine-Colette train scene, it was Colette who, after having joined me in a mutually agreed upon and extraordinary kiss was jumping from our train.

I was devastated, as I thought we’d also both agreed that what made our first night together magical is that the things other couples often view as preliminary — hand-holding, snuggling, French kissing, hand-kissing — had for us been electric. (I’m purposely avoiding citing the many words and motions we exchanged which confirm this because this piece is not intended as an indictment – “If you don’t love me, what was this?”) After writing her an e-mail to ask why she chose to bring this up in an e-mail as opposed to face to face, and explaining that if you want your partner to get it up, the worse thing you can possibly do is tell him it bothers you that he couldn’t get it up, and that a 57-year-old man can’t just get hard on command, I said she should ask herself, “If he was impotent, would I continue with him?” and if the answer was no, get out. She misinterpreted this in a more dire manner, we made up Friday, but only for her to send me another e-mail Saturday — 20 minutes before she knew I was receiving guests, my artist friends K. & R. for the famous Palestinian and Jamaican chicken twins, breaking up. And adding if I wouldn’t mind returning the scarlet scarf her Islamophobic friend  had left at my home after I asked her and her husband to leave a dinner part I’d hosted for them all when they started going at French Muslims. So it was with misty eyes that I opened the door to K. & R., and found myself confiding my troubles of the heart with friends with whom I’d not yet reached that level of intimacy. Thanks to their and particularly K.’s good humor — leading the conversation to other subjects but ready to go back to consoling me, even suggesting, “We need to find you a woman!” — I did pretty well, considering a germinating girlfriend had just broken up with me by e-mail. But I guess I must have sounded worse than I felt, because when I asked what I should do if she contacted me again, K. said “Drop it! Do you want to end up jumping out a window?!”

After more e-mail exchanges last week, the tenor of which from Vanessa remained mostly consistent — she was still running from the love express our train had become — I finally ceded, agreeing it was better to cut it off as I couldn’t return to the just-friends thing, she sent me an e-mail where she said that she too (as I’d expressed I was) was in tears, that her life had changed since “1/24” — the evening we met at the vernissage — that she’d never be the same again, that she knew she had a problem with loving, that she hoped I’d find someone but that it was probably too late for us.

This of course — the tears — brought me running, and I wrote her to say that I’d been blind, that she maybe thought she had a problem with love but that everything she’d done in my regard — particularly being ready to lose me — was done out of love.

On Friday we had another magical evening, organizing an impromptu, wintry pique-nique on the banks of the Ourcq canal. I assured her I wouldn’t go all out but just bring what was already in the house; as it happened this also included a vintage wooden unfoldable pique-nique table in a valise that came with the apartment. I’d promised her to go no further than a chaste kiss goodnight at the Metro station. “Vanessa and Paul, round two!” she’d blithely announced over the hummus, and the rest of the evening kept to this light tenor, with lots of laughter. At one point I stopped the converation to note: “This is important.  You see? When we’re face to face, we understand each other. E-mail communication is really sinister.” The night concluded with a chaste kiss at the Metro.

Ghosts in the machine

Wanting to diversify my world — I’d be making my famous Palestinian chicken for friends of Vanessa and bringing it to the house they were moving to that day, looking out over (I’m not making this up) the Pere Lachaise cemetery — on Saturday morning I decided to check out the vernissage for a group exhibition in my suburban Paris village of the pre Saint-Gervais. Life is more than women! Life is more than the women in my life over the past few years who seem to be Bizarro Universe interpreting the scripts for Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films!

After sensing that in lieu of the usual joy of discovery I still feel around art I was feeling incredibly wary after entering the art space, in the same room below the covered market where I’d scored my old aborted professor Jerome Charyn’s “The Catfish Man” — I was increasingly regretting that I lacked the coping skills Charyn’s hero (himself) had been inculpated with by being forced to tangle with the urban catfish in the mudflats of the Bronx of his come-uppance — when someone I didn’t recognize at first, a woman in her ’50s with a boyish hair-cut, rose up like one of Charyn’s catfish and announced in wonder, “Paul.” It was another V, the last girlfriend and who, in contrast to the current V., who never stopped blaming herself for being unable to love, had taken the opposite tactic with me when we last tango’d/tangle’d nearly three years ago, blaming it all on me, even though in this case the opposite was true; this was one sick puppy. I know this sounds like the usual break-up sour grapes, but I’m short-handing because she doesn’t merit more time than this. I simply mention the encounter because it may have been an omen….

… And to introduce what I conveyed to “Vanessa” as we marched from the ill-advisedly chosen Pere Lachaise rdv to the dinner at the home overlooking the cemetery. I know it’s not advised to mention an ex to a current, but for me this was a means of delivering a series of compliments:

“Where she doesn’t assume any responsibility, you unfairly blame everything on yourself…. And even though she’s 14 years younger than you, on looks there’s no contest.” Vanessa smiled widely at this. “She’s skinny-ass where you have the body of a woman, uninteresting to look at where you are.”

I was annoyed when …. No, I find I can’t go into what annoyed me, nor any other details of the party related to my interactions with “Vanessa” because it sounds like evidence gathering, and this piece is not intended to be an indictment nor a reckoning, but a first step on the path out — out of heartbreak and out of “Vanessa” — for myself. I also believe that, like an American black-belt I once knew in Antwerp once explained to me in saying why the very fact that his hands are deadly weapons means he has a reponsibility *not* to fight, a writer doesn’t have the right to use his considerable gifts in romantic reckoning.

So suffice to say that the evening seemed to end sublimely, with Vanessa and I getting lost in perpetual circling of a Paris roundabout, this one the Place Gambetta. We held hands from the moment we left the hosue; there was some warm French kissing. When I said I wanted her to come home with me, she responded that she “wasn’t against” this, but reminded me that she had to get up early to go meet her grand-daughter at the train station.

We seemed to part in joy hands taking an extra clutch before separating…

…but..not before, unprompted, she asked out loud again why she was unable to jump into my arms, then answered her own question with “Is it because you couldn’t get it up?,” though not putting it that way, again sorting the demon.

Once home, in a letter I sent on getting home at 1:30 a.m., I felt compelled to repeat my earlier answers, both the defensive and proactive ones: If you want a man to get it up, the worse thing you can do is tell him it bothers you when he can’t; and then detailing, explicitly, all the other ways I’d like to please her, and ending with, “Let’s have fun with it!”

In the last e-mail I sent her Sunday before she let the hatchet fall again (and once again by e-mail), I wrote, rather poetically (she completed the beauty and humor before lowering the ax), regarding our lost midnight turnabout, “I’d rather be lost with you than found with anyone else.”

Oh and I left out one important detail: After one embrace, I finally said the words in person for the first time: “Je t’aime,” with a big smile on my face. “What am I supposed to say?” “You’re not supposed to say anything, just accept it.”

I mention this because since she broke with me after the late Saturday night letters, I’ve been torturing myself with: Did the letters, particularly the lasciciousness, scare her away? What if I’d backed off – after the happy Metro separating – and allowed her the space to come to me. So to counter this self-torturing (I even mentioned this possiblity in my last letter to her – if I’d backed off, I  might not have lost you) I’m trying to tell myself that it was more this first face-to-face declaration of love that did it.

Ultimately I think this is the problem, the reason that Sunday and Monday morning she pulled out, saying she was arresting the histoire d’amour with me because she wasn’t “at the hauteur” of my emotions and compliments to her, to a degree that it was making her sick: I don’t think she has a problem with loving (at one point she told me she’s never been able to love, that she ended her two marriages because of this); I saw this manifest from her towards me in copious ways over the past two plus weeks. I think she has a problem with accepting being loved.

Before starting this piece this overcast Tuesday morning, I’d determined not to read any new mails from V. because I knew if I read them I’d have to respond. (And that I shouldn’t have given her the power to confirm or deny that my letters, sentimental and lascivious, of late Satruday had scared her off.) The one I did receive from her this morning, sent last night, confirmed this urge but so far I’m resisting. Not so much because I’ve convinced myself that it’s unhealthy to continue on her  roller coaster (I’ve left out the numerous things she’s said or acts she’s done which indicate a profound love because this is not intended to be a requisatory, but a first step towards my own healing .. and advancement / continuation in the search for the vrais amour) but because I’ve told the part of myself unable yet to fall out of love with her, unable to let go even though my brain and a large part of my heart realizes that this is unhealthy, to let myself be swallowed up by a heart that is really broken, that this is my last hope, I’ve decided to follow two precious pieces of advice dispensed to me by my New Zealand-bred horse chief on a pony farm along the Texas – Oklahoma border more than six years ago:

 

  1. You can’t blame yourself for the things you can’t predict. All signs — all the signals she sent me — indicated that this woman was crazy about me from the moment she encountered me. I but responded to that with the joy in my heart this provoked.

 

  1. If you want a horse/filly to do what you want, the worse thing you can do is keep barking at him. You need to give him/her time to digest what you just said, so that he ultimately makes the decision him/herself.

 

I don’t know if she’ll write me again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep from opening any mails she might send, or from responding if I do. But this is what I’m going to attempt, at least for a week. What I do know in my heart of hearts is that she’s hurt me so much with the ups and downs that it will take more than an e-mail to convince me of any change of heart that she might have, or rather return to the previous obsession she announced with me.  I need her to do what she’d refer to as a “Woddy Allen,” running to me breathlessly along Fifth Avenue Woody at the end of “Manhattan,” arriving panting and breathless at my door before I move on.

But to get back to the French director towards whose whose grave I found myself staggering up the rue des Martyrs as the sun set over the Sacre Coeur church which slowly emerged above it, gums bleeding from the just-extracted tooth, heart still raw. Once at the grave, after filling my green plastic up from a nearby fountain with water and popping a dissolvable 1000 gram Paracetemol into the water, posing it on Truffaut’s grave (decorated with an unravelling 35 MM film spool and a worn photo of Truffaut, Leaud, and a woman who might have been Claude Jade on the set)and watching it fizz away like this love affair, I lifted the glass and, echoing the Charles Trenet song which provides the theme for the 1968  “Stolen Kisses” – in which Leaud’s Antoine and Jade’s Christine fall in love – toasted Francoise Truffaut with “A nos amours,” to our loves. I might have added “This is all your fault,” for setting a model of Antoines and his women I was continuingly trying to counter-act. I wanted to be the anti-Antoine, proposing a definite “OUI!” to all these French women I was encountering. Why did they keep behaving like Truffaut’s Antoine, falling in love only to deny it and jump off the train, fleeing into the great French wilderness, fleeing love – mine and theirs – on the run?

The Lutèce Diaries, 14: Juliette of the Spirits

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

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PARIS — My last two months in Paris had not gone as expected. The first surprise was that I did not experience the exhilaration I’d expected when I’d stepped out of the Gare Montparnasse. Montparnasse! How could anyone, above all an American who had always felt the thread going back to Fitzgerald and Hemingway, not be moved? (My second place in Paris, just two months into my stay, was next to the Pasteur Institute in the 15th arrondisement — where the AIDS or SIDA virus had been identified — and thus not too far away from Montparnasse; I’d tried to find the bar on the rue Delambre where Fitzgerald and Hemingway had met, but it had changed hands so many times it was hard to distinguish. I’d settled with “Smoke,” on the other side of the street — not where Scott and Ernest met but, with its pony-tailed Chinese bartender who looked like Wayne Wang, a fitting faux dive in which to smoke my first Cuban, a fact  I’d announced to the bartender before correctly guessing that the blues on the juke was “Albert King!”)

What was askew for me on this May 2010 return, though, was that this was the first time I was neither returning to cats or with cats. Sonia, my 20-something Alaska native Siamese — I always said that she and her soul brother Mesha were part-Wolf, born on the tundra (in Alaska, people invariably introduced the tired old mutt stretched out on the hearth as ‘part wolf’) — had finally run out of life, after living 14 of them. (Her last escape being when our last small heater suddenly shot out sparks at her — Sonia’s hind legs had gone out when we entered 2010 and she her fourth decade, so I had placed her blanket next to the heater.) The last of the family I’d arrived with nine years earlier — Mesha had gone in 2007, after a two-week period where he lost function after function, Hopey three months later screaming in my arms — was gone. Sonia had been my train-mate for the last three years, as we moved or travelled from Les Eyzies, the capital of prehistory in the Dordgone department of SW France where we’d spent the past three years, to Montpellier and Paris, back and forth from Perigueux (the nondescript capital of the Dordogne), and a second extended trip to Paris the previous spring. Taking the train without her for this last return wracked and wrenched me. I lost it when I saw a woman with a dog in a sweater on the platform in le Bugue waiting for the train to Bordeaux. I had no one. (And as if this wasn’t enough, Boo-bah, the neighbor’s Australian shepherd/collie dog I’d adapted and who had been a particular solace to me after Sonia left, had been killed by hot-rodding youngsters the night before my departure.)

For a while — two weeks to be exact — I’d received a reprieve from this loneliness in the form of Sophie, the neighbor with whom the keys to his place had been left by Marcel, the bouquiniste – Seine-side bookseller — who I’d imagined to be my best friend. (Romanticizing Marcel because I liked it was cool to have a buddy who was a bouquiniste – one more indice that I was vraiment living the vie Parisien — I’d ignored his faults, and all the times he’d let me down before, and this was about to blow up in my face.) Sophie and I had bonded right away — she’d even given me the keys to her place the first night so I could use her state-of-the-art Mac — but it had really been too easy. It was the bond of someone looking for a life-vest and within two weeks she was trying to drag me down with her. (First hint should have been when in our initial conversation she informed me she was emerging from a depression — most French people won’t talk about such personal things after five years of acquaintanceship, let alone ten minutes. Second should have been the note she left for me on her desk two days later saying she’d checked herself into the mental hospital but, “Not to worry.”) Things got worse when Marcel came back briefly from Russia before heading off to Siberia. I won’t supply the details because the wounds — the profound disappointment, oh how I’d missed him those last three years — are still too raw and I don’t know that they’re that interesting to anyone else. Suffice to say that an angel turned out to be, if not a devil, a bully.

This was not the light and charming Paris that had been my life — at least as I remembered it — the six years I’d lived at 49 rue de Paradis. Camille, the co-ed neighbor from a tiny village in the Lot, in Paris studying at the Ecole du Louvre, with whom I’d nearly set the apartment on fire when the cooking alcohol spilled all over the fondue set when I made her fondue bourgignone, Camille, to whom I’d confessed my love, her eyes opening in marvel as I took her hand after we watched Renoir’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” was gone, moved to Marseille for school and not returning my e-mails. Omar, the light-hearted, hilarious buddy I’d met when he was a bartender at Le Valmy, was not returning my calls. Sandrine, my first friend, whose apartment at 33 rue Lamartine I’d subletted as our first, the cats running under the beds to hide as soon as we got there (at the airport, as if on cue a little French girl in red crinoline had looked into their cages and exlaimed, “Maman, maman! Des chats!”) — I’d later learn Baudelaire also roomed there — was busy with a new boyfriend and the end of the year crunch at the school where she taught drama. (When Sandrine reproached me for attracting and being attracted to unstable people like Sophie and Marcel, practically blaming me for the mess I’d unwittingly walked into, I’d wanted to say, “Well, where were you the first two weeks I was back?”) Katia, the Paris Opera Ballet dancer whom I’d befriended when we worked together on a project to properly remember Marie Taglioni, the first ballet dancer to dance on pointe, on her 200th anniversary — after collecting pointe shoes from dancers around the world to lay on Taglioni’s crumbling grave at the Montmartre cemetery behind Nijinksy’s and down the block from Truffaut’s, we’d unearthed the fact that contrary to city of Paris claims, it was not Taglioni, but her mother that was buried in Montmartre; Taglioni was over at Pere Lachaise, where her grandson had moved her revered bones from Marseille in 1932 to entomb her with the husband who, according to an account by Edgar Allen Poe, had barred her from her home because she would not stop dancing) — Katia also was not responding to my invitations to get together.

Bref, I was fast coming to the conclusion that my connection with living French people was not as strong as it was to dead French people — particularly figures like Bernhardt, Montand, De Gaulle — and their country’s artifacts. The ones I’d collected, including dozens and dozens of Pastis 51 and other Pastis glasses, carafes, and ashtrays, the historic speeches of General De Gaulle, and Bernhardt’s personal mirror (scored at a vide grenier on the rue Germaine Pilon in Montmartre; Sarah had given it to her personal make-up artist who gave it to the father of the man selling it, who had been a photographer of artists, when she was living in a retirement home for artists), and more were in the house in Les Eyzies, which had been repossessed by its owner, gone crazy after his wife died of alcoholism and, after I’d already left for Paris, e-mailed me that I would not be able to come back. My music collection, garnered over 35 years and essential to my work as a DJ (monikers MC World Beat and DJ Yo Mama), was there too, and I was worried about how I’d get it back if I had to leave France, a distinct possibility as my work as an arts journalist — two strikes in the current climate — was not sufficient to maintain me here.

In sum, I had begun to wonder whether I might not be person number 248 to die on the streets of Paris. Such was the hopeless state I found myself in the morning Juliette and her music parachuted into my life just two blocks from the Pere Lachaise cemetery where both Bernhardt and Taglioni were enterred.

Persisting in trying to conjure up my old life, I’d walked the long distance to my old cafe d’hab, Le Valmy, up top the Canal Saint-Martin, where I’d met Omar. But this only reminded me, painfully, that this was not my old life, my family, Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, were no longer here, I would not go home to them on the rue de Paradis once I finished my noisette.

To return to my current place, Marcel’s bad karma-infested joint off the place Edith Piaf, surrounded by his books (he’d put his statue “L’Esperance” in the cave before he left for Siberia; yes, hope had been relegated to the basement; another tomb) I normally followed the canal to the rue de Temple, stopping along the way to watch a boat glide under a bridge from a lock, then up the rue Belleville, right over to the parc Belleville and the most spectacular view of the Eiffel, then up to the rue des Pyrenees and over to the place Piaf, surveilled by her statue. I decided to change the routine and continue along the green strip in the middle of the boulevard Richard Lenoir — where Simenon’s Maigret had ‘lived’ for years (even Maigret had Mrs. Maigret) — did I mention I sometimes felt closer to historical French figures than living French people? — which covers the water as it continues its course to the Bastille before ultimately pouring into the Seine. Then left at the rue Chemin Vert, continuing on past the smutty but sophisticated erotic bookstore (diversions are essential on a long long walk), intending to  either walk past or through Pere Lachaise to the Place Gambetta before heading ‘home’ to Piaf.

I was just two blocks from the cemetery when I noticed a small, slightly worn black valise sitting on top of a cabinet in front of an apartment building, evidently discarded. At first I thought to grab it as a nice jewelry box for Sophie (I was not completely free of her spell; she was crazy and depressed and destructive, but on a good day she was the spittin’ image of Juliette Binoche). Then I thought…what if…there’s something inside…I unlatched the valise and looked inside. It was filled with music — cassettes. And that wasn’t all. Before I investigated further I decided to take the valise up to Pere Lachaise, where I found a sort of concrete ledge-bench just inside the first entrance, put the box on my lap and opened it.

The cassettes weren’t just any music. They were my music. Music that had been important to me in one way or another over the past 40 years:

Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits.

Bob Marley’s “Legend,” with his greatest, including “Could You Be Loved.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience.

Canada – Intuit Games and Songs (which went with my Native-oriented sojourn in Alaska.

Rainforest music.

The Doors, “In Concert” and “L.A. Women.” (This just two blocks from where Jim Morrison was interred, at Pere Lachaise.)

Led Zeppelin/Led Zeppelin — the classic album with “Stairway to Heaven,” my teenage anthem, “Going to California,” and more.

Two full tapes of the Grateful Dead recorded live. (As Deadheads know, the Grateful Dead didn’t just tolerate, but encouraged ‘bootleg’ recordings at its concerts, even setting aside an area upfront for the ‘tape-heads.’ As the band was more a live than a studio band, these recordings are emblematic; they spread the Dead gospel, making it the most successful touring band in U.S. history.) One set was from the Oakland Coliseum in 1990 – corresponding more or less with my own belated Deadhead period, when I was dating the widow of one of the group’s lawyers. Another was from the 1991 memorial service for Bill Graham, who I’d interviewed. Among the many tiny notes handwritten on the cassette liner — in English — were “More than 500,000 people!” referring to this event. And “rarities from the vaults,” including, evidently from the ’60s, a duet with Jon Hendricks (who I’d see later in San Francisco performing “Evolution of the Blues” when I was in junior high school; Hendricks had participated in the Normandy landing on Omaha Beach) on “These are your sons and daughters” and “Fire in the City,” and Kesey, Neal Cassady, and Ken Nordine.

But the real kicker — and where the question of angelic intervention stopped being a question but a certainty — was that the box also included the soundtrack to… “Wings of Desire,” the Wim Wenders film all about angels come to earth to aid, even if just by invisible whispering, comfort the desperate and desolate living.

But this was not all.

The valise also contained a black and white passport photograph of an intense looking French woman, hair cut short in the ‘Amelie’ mode popular just after the turn of the millennium, a couple of business cards — evidently hers — a photograph of a building surrounded by snow with the same name from the cards — Juliette — scribbled on back of it. (Judging by the business cards Juliette is some kind of archeologist, so I imagine the photo was taken on an arctic expedition.)

There was also a tape with Juliet Greco on one side and on the other side, “Un homme et une femme,” which I initially thought was from the film but which, on further listening later, appeared to be the voice of Juliet — she of the photo and the business cards – recording a message for her parents and grandparents before committing suicide. (My hope, encouraged by the scrawled “Delires 6eme,” “High school foolishnesses,” on the tape is that she reconsidered, but saved the tape. My practical theory for what all this was doing on the sidewalk is that Juliette had left these things at a boyfriend’s, they’d eventually broken up, and the boyfriend was now evacuating all that was left to him of Juliette. My other theory is that my finding this box with this music was a “Wings of Desire”-genre intervention.)

There was also a thimble, a ruler, a woman’s thin black leather choker, folic acid pills, a tiny metal object that looked like it could have been a triggering device, and a Euro centime (further confirmation that the contents had been left post-2000).

I sent an e-mail to the address on Juliet’s business card and after explaining that I had found this valise at a particularly trying time in my life — with details — said, “So either this is yours or it fell from the sky for me.” (I guess I imagined myself as Antoine in “Love on the Run,” the fifth and last in Truffaut’s Antoine cycle begun with “The 400 Blows,” in which Antoine meets his Ame-soeur by reconstructing a photo a man in a phone booth tears up after violently breaking up with the person on the other end of the line and, using the detective skills gleaned in “Stolen Kisses,” tracks her down.)

Deciding that Juliette was my newest guardian angel, I carried her photo with me in my wallet when I attempted to leave France to return to the US for the second time in a week one month later. Every time my confidence lagged that I would ever make it out, or that I began to doubt my decision, I took my wallet out and looked at the picture of Juliette, who told me I had to make it back because someone in the States needed me, and because Juliette wanted to see the Bethesda Fountain in New York, which the angels had been hearing about since it played a central role in “Angels in America,” for its healing power. There was a moment in the Madrid airport where a U.S. security agent almost didn’t let me on the plane because all I had as ID was my withered passport; an echo in JFK border control when I got passed around by three officers — more amused than concerned — because the lady in Madrid had apparently sent a note which popped up when they entered my passport number — before I was finally able to exit, whereupon I kissed the filthy beautiful New York ground. When I got to the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park the next day, after 24 hours in which I’d already been washed in the healing love and welcome of four friends and colleagues — including my oldest friend J., who I’d known since junior high and when we acted in plays (she was Anne Frank to my Peter, she a civil war wife to my Union captain), and who thus reminded me of who I was, and that I had not been weak but persistently, and consistent with my character, strong and determined — I took out my wallet, where I kept the photo of Juliet as well as that of Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey, and, in the midst of a business meeting, sitting on the scorching rim of the fountain on the hottest July 7 in NYC history, discretely faced Juliette’s photo towards the fountain. The kitties bells on their collars I kept dangling on my wrist wrang out. We were home.

Amélie’s got a gun, just like Patty – Lola Lafon conjures Hearst and illuminates a modern phenomenon

By Lola Lafon, as translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright Actes Sud; translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

“Heartless powers try to tell us what to think
If the spirit’s sleeping then the flesh is ink
History’s page will be neatly carved in stone
The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own
On our own, on our own, we are on our own.”

— “Throwing Stones,” lyrics by John Perry Barlow, songwriter for the Grateful Dead and visionary co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Click here to listen.)

“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.”

— Patti Smith’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” cited by Lola Lafon in “Mercy Mary Patty”

“Qu’on se moque pas de mon âme.” (Don’t mock my soul)

— Lola Lafon, “Mon Ame,” from the album “Grandir a l’envers de rien” (Growing up on the other side of nothing) (Recording here.)

“Je suis perdu, je suis revenu.” (I’m lost, I’ve returned)

— Lola Lafon, ibid

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Patricia Hearst was kidnapped from her apartment in Berkeley, California 45 years ago today.)

lafon small

Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K., and courtesy Actes-Sud.

Translator’s note: If the ‘you’ addressed by Lola Lafon’s narrator is Neveva Gene, the fictional American professor teaching at a private women’s college in rural France who’s been hired by Patricia Hearst’s attorneys to analyze the Hearst coverage and the tape-recorded messages from Patty released by her kidnappers the “Symbionese Liberation Army”  as they try to prove she was brainwashed or coerced into participating in the SLA crimes, this is not a case of the author pretending to be the interior voice of her protagonist. There’s a practical explanation: As becomes clear over the course of the book, the narrator grew up as one of the adopted charges of the adult Violaine, subsequent to the latter’s apprenticeship with Neveva in 1974. During that apprenticeship — while working on the Hearst brief – the French teenager kept a diary. So when the narrator, finding her way to Smith College in 2015 (see first excerpt below) explains (still addressing Gene), “I’m not looking for you, I’m supposing you (emphasis added),” she means that she’s supposing Neveva – and the details of her collaboration with the French teenager Violaine on the Hearst case and their ensuing relationship which form the bulk of the novel – based on what Violaine has told her and on her own reading and interpretation of Violaine’s notes. (In addressing Gene in the second person, Lafon employs the formal “vous,” thus dispensing with any notion that she’s presuming to be the character’s interior voice.) I discovered Lola Lafon when her album Growing up on the other side of nothing was among a box of CDs left on the doorstep of my Belleville apartment building on November 12, 2015, the night before the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in the music halls and stadiums and on the café terraces of Paris. Her music (see link below) accompanied me during the soul-wrenching days, weeks, and months that followed. So when I heard that Lafon had taken on an episode of my own youth in San Francisco of 1974-75 — in part as a way, in my interpretation, to understand what was happening to too many youth in my Paris of 2015 — I had to find out what she had to say. In “Mary Mercy Patty” Lafon reveals things about my own self — and the impact the Hearst episode had on the fragile pre-adolescent I was — that I hadn’t previously seen. )

In this world where everything is manipulated, where the only thing that can’t be split up is money, and where the heart is rent in half, you can’t rest neutrally on the sidelines.

–Paul Nizan, “La Conspiration,” cited on the frontispiece of “Mercy Mary Patty”

 You write of the disappearing teen-aged girls.  You write of these missing persons who cut the umbilical cord to search out new vistas without the ability to sort the good from the rotten, elusive, their minds shutting out adults. You question our brutal need to ‘just talk some sense into them.’ You write of the rage of these young people who, at night, in their bedrooms surrounded by stuffed animals, dream up victorious evasions, boarding dilapidated buses, trains, and strangers’ cars, abandoning the neatly paved road for the rubble.

“Mercy Mary Patty,” your study published in 1977 in the U.S., which has just been re-issued, augmented with a new preface by you and a brief publisher’s note, is dedicated to them.  It’s not yet been translated into French. It concludes with acknowledgments as well as your résumé, from your degrees in American Literature, History, and Sociology through your teaching positions: the University of Chicago in 1973, the College of the Dunes, France, in 1974-75, assistant professor at the University of Bologna in 1982 and, finally, professor at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Articles appearing in the academic revues over the past few months underline the importance of your research, magazines analyze what they dub your ‘rehabilitation.’ The New Yorker devotes two columns to  you: “A controversial theory: Neveva Gene and the capsized teenaged girls, from Mercy Short** in 1690 to Patricia Hearst in 1974.” The Northampton bookstore clerk slips your book into a paper bag, he seems curious about my choice, the Hearst saga is old history, You’re European, aren’t you? You seem to have your own share of toxic teenagers at the moment, those girls swearing allegiance to a god like one idolizes 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 probably 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 youI explain my reason for being here to the bookstore clerk, I pronounce your name, I recount, I refer to “Madame Neveva” as if you were standing right there next to us and insist upon it, I pronounce “Neveva” in the same way as your students in France who venerated you and who I was not one of, Neveva Gene who arrived in a village in Southwest France in the month of January 1974, a young teacher who in the autumn of 1974 hastily tacked up notices at 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.

Chapter One

October 1975

The three girls who have responded to your notice are there, sitting 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 sports elbow patches, 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 window nook, one by one the candidates rattle off their credentials in an effort to win you over, 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 going to go into business. When it’s the third girl’s turn, she refers to taking a “pause” since graduating from high school in June and the need to make a little bread. As they already know, you’re a guest professor. You studied at Smith College in Massachusetts, a university founded in 1875 and reserved for girls barred at the time from higher education. Sylvia Plath was a student there. Sylvia Plath, the name doesn’t ring a bell to them? You mark an incredulous pause in the face of the embarrassed looks of the postulants. Margaret Mitchell? The author of “Gone with the Wind”? The young women acquiesce to that one with an enthusiasm which you find alarming, it’s a novel that’s 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 teaching at the College of the Dunes, is multi-faceted; you rapidly enumerate what you’d anticipated teaching before you arrived, the distinct architecture of Massachusetts houses, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter Scottie, the history of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, an examination of the success of the film “The Planet of the Apes,” an explanation 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. Daunting program. The fact is that you  harbored big 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, adorable domestic pets brought up to be consumed before their expiration dates. And who understand absolutely nothing in the articles you hand out. The young candidates say nothing and wait politely to find out what this has got to do with them, perhaps they didn’t get the sexual connotation of “brought up to be consumed.” Or maybe they’re just terrified now at the idea of being subjected to your judgment for this work about which you still haven’t said 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 refers to 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 lists her favorite movies, every week on the second public television channel a film is projected 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, petrified, as you imitate the annual speech of the director to parents in an exageratedly nasal and mincing voice, “Oh nooo, it has nothing to do with not accepting boys in my establishment but offering girls special attention! To liberate them from their own fears!” You want to know their opinion: Would they like to study there, where one has access to so many courses, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Cinema History, Introduction to 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 have the means to be emancipated. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of bullshit. (In English in the original.)

Suddenly, you climb up onto the Plexiglas chair. You grab a box stored on the top shelf and place it on the desk. Voila, you announce in designating the package of American origin, as attested to by an impressive quantity of identical green stamps glued across the top of the box. 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 have to write a report, and you won’t have the time to read all this. You must be capable of synthesizing these tons of articles, you explain to them, pointing 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 on the landing when you pose the question, as if it’s an after-thought, one of the candidates hastens to answer: 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 was killed. No, you correct her, she’s alive, the police caught her. It’s the kidnappers who are dead. And you’ve been hired to evaluate the mental state of Patricia Hearst after all these tribulations. A respectful silence follows. None of the three ask about this mysterious “they” who have engaged your services or why “they” picked you, you whose specialties are history and literature. You’re the adult, the teacher, and also a foreigner inviting them into a world of adventure, kidnapping, heiresses, happy endings. That’s enough in itself. The young woman whose English level you praised hasn’t uttered a word, distressed, perhaps, to have lost out in the final leg of the race; she’s never heard of Patricia Hearst. That same night, her mother nudges her bedroom door open, her hand on the telephone: It’s for you, a funny accent, certainly the American professor.

“Is it accepted here to go to teachers’ homes?,” you ask the young woman you’ve annointed as your assistant. “Because in my office we’d be too scrunched up, we’ll be a lot more comfortable in my home. We’ll talk salary tomorrow, I’m counting on you to not let yourself be gypped. 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.

Chapter Two

During the rambling job interview — a real Show — you conveniently leave out a major chunk of the Hearst saga. Are you afraid of scaring off these three demeure French girls by telling them any more, do they seem too young to you, are you worried that their parents will be alarmed to see them working on such a subject? You’ve been living in this village of less than 5,000 habitants for a year and a half and have already tested its limits, here everyone knows everything, talks about everything, judges everything. 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 of approach will you use to study the trajectory of this young American? Which episode will you start with?

That of the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst on February 4, 1974 by an obscure revolutionary cell, the Symbionese Liberation Army? That of the first message from the heiress of February 12, a tape recording deposited by her abductors at the entrance to a radical radio station which mesmerized the entire country, her feeble voice murmuring “Mom, Dad, I’m all right”? How to explain to these French girls just looking for work that in the eyes of the FBI, the victim metamorphosed 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, armed with an M1. It’s understandable that you’re cautious about what the candidates know and don’t say anything about the metamorphosis of Patricia Hearst.

As for your task, the “psychological” evaluation, you don’t exactly lie but here as well you take shortcuts and consign Patricia’s lawyer, your client, to the shadows. You have just 15 days to find something in the cardboard box overflowing with Xeroxes that will help you write an expert report proving the innocence of this child over whom the American media is whipping up a frenzy as her trial date approaches. 15 days to determine, who is the real Patricia Hearst?: a Marxist terrorist, a lost co-ed, an authentic revolutionary, a poor little rich girl, an heiress on the lam, an empty-headed and banal personality who embraced a cause at random, a manipulated zombie, an angry young woman with her sights set on America?

Chapter Three

A large beige dog with chestnut spots greets your new assistant on the doorstep  with boundless enthusiasm, you lean forward to hold him back — blech!, he’s just planted a sloppy wet kiss on me  — a wink, Meet Lenny, you throw a sock at the dog so he’ll amscray.

You put some sugar-coated cookies out on a plate, offer a cup of tea, jasmine, mint, saveur Russe, it’s up to her, you indicate 10 scattered, slightly rusty tin boxes 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, it’s only imbibed when one’s sick. Remaining standing, she listens to you, her cup in hand, you’ve not invited her to sit down and the only chair in the room is covered with sweaters, an amorphous pile.

“Summarizing the articles would be too fastidious, we need to concentrate on the details,” with a finger you pick at the frayed edges of the cardboard box posed on the dining room table. The French girl acquiesces, looking for signs, are you married, you’re not wearing any perfume, your face is a make-up free zone, the reddened nostrils testify to this, your hair is gathered up into a haphazard pony-tail, your nails clipped like a boy’s are yellowed with tobacco, you laugh with your mouth full of chewed-up cookies without excusing yourself, the beads of tangled necklaces peak out from a half-opened drawer; you tack 33 record covers on the wall, a Nina Simone and a Patti Smith, twice you allude to your “best friend” who lives in San Francisco, the expression suggests an extended adolescence, how old are you? The dog follows you everywhere, into the kitchen, the bathroom, when you go to the WC you continue talking to your assistant, yelling at her to answer the phone. Mlle Gene Neveva is not available, the flabbergasted girl improvises.

You’re the first American she’s ever met. Speaking this language that she associates with novels and movie stars, hearing her own voice become foreign makes your first day together an intoxicating role-playing game. Everything is part of the scenery, a stop-over 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 name: 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 tired child and twist around and contort your chest with the eyes half-closed, inhaling slowly, sitting Indian style on the floor. Re-invigorated, you marvel at the manila folders that the girl has prepared, as well as the neat rectangular white labels with sky-blue borders that she pulls out of her bag.

“I love how serious you are, Violette. That name doesn’t really fit you, ‘Violette,’ maybe because it makes you sound too much like a fragile flower….”

My middle name is Violaine, the teenager improvises. You skooch your legs under the table, your mouth forms a careful O, the  smoke rings evaporating before 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 when I go back to the United States?”

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

The tidal equinoxes, also. Last week the ocean rose up to the level of the dunes! The paths along the moors. Absolutely identical, no point of reference, a pine tree is a pine tree is a pine tree is a fern tree is sand. The sand, you sigh…. That, mixed with the soil in the forest, which melts into mud the instant it rains, the silky beige sand that ends up embedded in your purse, encrusted in the spirals of your notebooks, stuck to the base of the bed, clinging to the soleus of your calves, rooted in your socks.

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

The sand, you repeat practically every day, exasperated, removing your tennis shoes and shaking them out over the ground.

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. Her only wish is to get back to the equilibrium of those first days, to be your helping hand which cuts  out the newspaper and magazine clippings, translates, and pastes. Rather than being the person who slows you down and annoys you and doesn’t hear the same thing you hear in Patty’s recorded messages. You suggest going to the village’s bar / smoke-shop, a change of ambiance will help.

It’s noon, people are emerging from the chapel, the church plaza is packed, Lenny goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who you never let out of your sight, you whistle and put an end to the social whirl. You dismiss all these pious church-goers out loud in English, tell Violaine to note their holier-than-though airs, wearing their religion on their sleeves, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies — our own.

When you walk into the café, the men aligned along the counter rivet their eyes on you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a little too big 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 Stanislavski Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the big American actors, Robert de Niro used it for his approach to playing Travis McGee in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). It includes an abundance of exercises to aid in character-building. And without a doubt, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll portray Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily Harris, of the SLA. Your assistant’s aghast refusal amuses you; what, Marxism isn’t contagious?!

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

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

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

“Too mature for her age.”

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

“Secretive.”

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

“A symbolic example.”

A symbolic example? Of what? Your assistant is talking nonsense, she has no idea, she’s simply parroting what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, without doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have understood “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to one’s character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, college sophomore, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, convict? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, regretting all the same to find herself disagreeing with you yet again. You continue to insist that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances change us, does Violaine act the same with her parents as here in the bar, 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 one sick puppy, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter, who slinks away, the bar is full, the regulars just coming from the rugby match, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone in all the hubbub, 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 then say calves shouldn’t be killed. 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 this time, so that everyone can hear, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, she talks about you all the time, you interrupt them, she should read Brecht, their daughter, voilà, the glasses are refilled and clinked, dirty fascists, then, in the midst of this mob, 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 messages, “Death to the fascist insect who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, amazed, she thinks you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so often in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you take hold of her hand and execute a rapid, exaggeratedly ceremonious kiss of the hand, everyone whistles for you, you graciously acknowledge them as in the theater.

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 perturbed 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 one can never separate those two in classthe sadistic books that one devours, the stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of that one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs 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 hide the property of Violaine’s parents. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the terrible racket which rages around here — you indicate with a large gesture the forest and the disparate other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their salon 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 cold, that around these parts the expression 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 think of 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 doesn’t come. As if it weren’t night, with the humid sand under your naked feet — you clutch your shoes in your hands, they clutch 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 her songs in the jukebox. A propos, did Violaine notice what happened when you recounted how, during a Nina Simone concert, her parents had to give up their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. Nothing happened. Not a shadow of indignation.

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

Day 14 (Excerpt)

Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the following 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 really only just begun writing it. 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 recording, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “… 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 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, “all the others,” does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what is she supposed to be the example, Patricia…?

You’re expected in San Francisco December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed 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 better placed 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 circle of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so sure to be able to prove him right is more intriguing.

But here at your side sits a skinny French teenager. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re going to refuse to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you also can’t allow yourself to hear it, you whose job is to prove 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.

Day 15

Are you eviscerated by an experiment which is not turning out the way you wanted it to, all these discussions in which Violaine continues to whittle away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed? Are you drained, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you pre-occupied by the prison sentence in store for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence — or worried about seeing your reputation tarnished, you who up until now have lived a dream life, the trial promises to be extremely mediatized, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene couldn’t be bothered to come up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing open the door to your bedroom to reveal, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One melting into the other, the covers overlapping and supplanting each other.

The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia bearing a wide grin, under the tender blue of a fixed horizon, her hair tossed and tussled by an ocean breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” with a pensive Patricia coiled up in a vast green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, his hand resting  on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”

Violaine sinks to her knees, careful not to move the photos. Here’s the most recent one, you indicate the Time cover from April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, but fire. The background of the image is red,**** like the fire of a nightmare which announces the color, red like the flag of the SLA in front of which she poses, her legs slightly apart, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears 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 halfGUILTY.

You tell a stunned Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The discourse itself but also Patricia’s tone, the way she talks to her parents. You propose to listen to the recording three times, once with the eyes closed, to take notes, and then to rapidly read the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

“I’d like to start out by emphasizing that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is how I feel. No one’s ever forced me to say anything in these messages. 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. You tried to fool people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI used to try to kill me and the members of the SLA.  You pretended 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 to extend its power over others, even if this means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who don’t give a hoot about their own child don’t care anything 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 decided to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves to line up for food, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and for 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 taken away. 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, the poor and oppressed of this country, what the government’s 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 Big Business. 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 have need of 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 then the elimination of the useless will begin. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of order and the laws are just an excuse to get rid of the supposedly violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I  should have known that you, like other businessmen, 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 reasons. 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 Tania, in homage to a comrade of 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 Tania dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely in an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.“

From pages 139-140:  

(The “I” in this segment is the narrator herself, now an adult after having in her turn grown up at the knees of the adult Violaine.)

I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young women are vanishing from their homes. They’re signaled at the borders, designated “S” (likely to commit terrorist acts), inscribed in organizational charts, with graphics establishing the co-relations between them: Coming from the Middle Class for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and displayed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-sides of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they ask accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we remain immobile, 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 and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and who now grace the magazine covers, they stare 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 but a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania)

Lutèce Diaries, 9: Shadow boxing with Zola or Je brave, j’ose — As tear gas falls on the yellow vests at the Place de la Republique, I cry over the girl in the red dress

dusong labrynthe“Et O,” 2017. Activated sound oeuvre in situ, words, voice, and composition Emma Dusong. Maison Bernard Collection. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak, The Paris Tribune

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. To translate this article into French or another language, please use the translation engine button at the right of this page.)

PARIS — While the intrepid reporters of France Culture radio were over at the Place de la Republique Saturday not getting the story of what 200 “Yellow Vests” convened for a Study-In might have done to provoke the riot police into resorting to tear gas, I was down the street at the tony Filles du Calvaire gallery checking out a more studied manifestation of French culture. Notwithstanding a technical glitch — Mercury was definitely in retrograde Saturday, playing havoc with both electronic and personal paths of communication — which prevented the artist from delivering the potentially most pertinent epiphany promised in her debut solo exhibition / installation, involving the possibility that her delicate fingers might get snapped off at the joints by one of the 12 open school desks arrayed like relics from Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” on the gallery’s second floor, Emma Dusong provided a schooling on just how vital artistic, contemplated expression can be in our reactive times.

The first indication I had that my day might go haywire came when I arrived at the top of Eastern Paris on the Place des Fetes and immediately realized that what had been advertised as a “vide grenier” (like a community-wide garage sale; ‘vide’ = empty, grenier = attic) was actually an empty-all-the-crap we weren’t able to sell during 2018 junk sale, organized by a motley collection of what used to be called ‘chiffonniers,’ who famously scoured the trash-cans of Paris looking for treasures. (If you’ve seen Elia Kazan’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” you know that in the Lower East Side they used to call them ragmen.)

It was partly by reminding myself of this fact that I was able to beat Zola at his own game when I came upon one of the three things I was theoretically looking for, a record player (for 78s as well as 45s and 33s) in a suitcase.

“How much?” I asked, faithful to Henry James’s imperative that these be the first words out of any self-respectingly acquisitive American’s mouth when dealing with the natives.

“10 Euros,” the burly, balding, and swarthy middle-aged man busily unwrapping something on the curb 20 feet away from me barked out, not looking up.

“Ca marche? Ca function?” (I’d learned a decade ago that, when it comes to electronics of questionable provenance, there’s an important distinction between these two words, one meaning it actually does what it’s supposed to do, the other promising no more than that it will start up.)

“The cord doesn’t work.”

“The cord? You mean the branchement?”

“The cord doesn’t work.”

“Alors ça ne marche pas.”

“Si, ça marche.”

I’d asked him so many times whether it worked that he’d finally surrendered and given me the answer I wanted to hear.

After figuring out how to lift the arm from its holder, I verified that it still had a needle. (One of my rules is not to purchase anything that’s not 100% good-to-go, because I know I’ll never get around to fixing it.) Everything else looked impeccable: The removable top with the speakers, the sleek metal dials, the cords connecting the power source and the speakers. There were just two hitches: The guy wouldn’t look at me. And the open record player was wet, the seller having done nothing to protect the item from the morning’s intermittent drizzle.

For a moment I tried to convince myself that “c’est pas grave,” it’s no big deal; if upon getting home I discovered that the record-player didn’t work, I could just take it to “Mood,” the handy-dandy vinyl and record player repair shop around the corner. (I could even get some records to test the device; the guy at the next stand was selling his collection of “Songs of the Cuban Revolution” for 2 Euros a pop; if I could find a branchement at the demonstration the “Yellow Vests” were throwing later that afternoon at the Place de la Republique, a few blocks from where I was heading, I could even be the DJ. “American journalist arrested for fomenting Red Revolution among the Yellow Vests at the Place de la Republique.” In 2003 the back of my head made the cover of l’Humanité, the Commie rag, now about to go out of business, the head being turned to lead Americans against the War in anti-Bush chants.)

Then I imagined the subsequent conversation with the repairman.

“There’s water all over the parts. Did you leave it out in the rain or something?”

“No, it was already wet when I bought it.”

“You bought an electronic device that was already wet?”

“Well, the guy told me it worked.”

“Which guy?”

“The guy at the vide-grenier that was really a vide-everything-we-haven’t been able to sell in 2018 sale. I only paid 10 Euros.”

“You have 10 Euros to waste?”

In fact I don’t, which is ultimately why I decided not to buy a wing and a prayer with a classy chassis, and why I can say I beat at his own game Zola, one of whose characters in “The Happiness of Ladies” (Le Bonheur des Dames) enters the spanking new mega-department store of the title (basically a mall before its time; Zola always was ahead of his in detecting the built-in time-bombs in progress) promising “It’s just to look, looking is free, isn’t it?” and ends up with five store employees behind her towing the five cart-loads worth of this-and-that’s (“that fringe would go great with my curtains,” etcetera) she’s bought which will prove the ruin of her functionary husband. Less here than in “Germinal” and “L’Assommoir,” my problem with Zola is that his characters don’t seem to have any free will; they exist to serve the arguments of their creator. I had not just beat the master at his own game, but asserted my own free will against the gods of pre-determination and Haman.

My conviction that I’d made the right move was confirmed when, seeing a man toting fake tulips in a stained-glass lantern as I walked away from the Place des Fetes I thought, “Now there’s something that’s absolutely useless, and yet he’s holding onto it like he can’t do without it,” and realized that if I’d bought the record-player and been lugging an old rectangular rusted valise as if it were true gold, he’d probably be thinking the same thing about me. And it was bolstered when, wandering down the rue Doctor Something towards what I hoped was the rue de Belleville, I crossed one of those “Died for France” plaques, this time marking the life and passing of a Resistant who had been arrested and deported to Auschwitz. “He didn’t die for France,” I reflected, “so that 76 years later an American with the delusion that he can buy his way into French culture could procure a decrepit turntable of dubious functionality.”

Speaking of decrepit, I wasn’t sure if I was heading back to Lilas (another frontiere Paris suburb) or Belleville until I saw the inevitable sign pointing me towards a cemetery, this one for the old Belleville bone-orchard, if I can cop a phrase from Tennessee Williams’s “This Property is Condemned.”

A sign posted on a balcony and indicating the opposite state of propriety greeted me at home base — the rue des Cascades high above Paris, which links Belleville and Menilmontant — with an “another apartment sold” announcement from a real estate agency calling itself “App. Art,” the two words separated by a pineapple. As if by putting “art” in their name the speculators helping the BoBos buy up Belleville could mask the fact that, as in San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Williamsburg before this cosmopolitan neighborhood, the very artists and ethnic communities who have given Belleville its caché will soon be priced out.

Convincing my gammy leg, which wanted to turn on its heels and head back home, that “it’s all downhill from here,” I turned onto Menilmontant, crossed the boulevard of the same name and, after detouring a block to pick up the customary Diplomate bread pudding to fortify me, continued down Oberkampf to the Metro of the same name, a few steps from the rue Filles du Calvaire and its gallery, my Rubicon being the rue de la Folie-Mericourt just above the boulevard and not far from where the gunmen had mowed down dozens of people on the terraces of three cafes on November 13, 2015, on which terraces all the memorials have disappeared. (Depending on your source, the Folie-Mericourt is either named after a Revolutionary heroine who went mad ((Wikipedia)) or the country house of sire whose name started out as Marcaut before it was mutilated by history. ((“Lutèce, à présent nomée Paris, Cité capitalle de France,” Jacques Hillairet, Le Club Français du Livre, 1959.)) En tout cas, I’ve learned to avoid all Paris streets which start with “Folie,” as they usually turn out to be dead ends.)

dusong chairs with her“Classe,” 2012. Motorized sound installation with activated light, words, voice, and composition by Emma Dusong. Co-produced by the City of Paris, Nuit Blanche.  Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

“The exhibition isn’t quite ready yet,” announced one of the at least five chic-ly attired (mostly in black) women and one thin man at the desk, pointing to the stairs at the rear of a first room as a group of us entered the gallery foyer after traversing the courtyard and buzzing open a grill guarded by meticulously trimmed midget trees. “But you’re welcome to look at this one,” she said, inclining her hands towards a floor splattered with shiny ceramic still lives which reminded me of the wreath of porcelain flowers decorating Marie Taglioni’s mother’s grave at the Montmartre Cemetery. (That makes two so far, if you’re counting.)

When we were finally allowed to mount the stairs, 20 minutes after the scheduled opening and following a cameo descent to the lobby by Dusong, who’d replaced the black smock of the press kit photos with a form-fitting red dress and dawned librarian glasses, I was initially under-whelmed. We were met by the 12 connected desks, each open to reveal a light and a metal-spool like object, apparently where the technical problem lay, if one is to believe the press release (which had promised the artist sitting at one of them and inserting her hands la dedans, with no idea if the desk would do a “Little Shop of Horrors” number on her delicate digits) and judging by the technician-like looking man seated at one of them and scratching his head quizzically.

The announced technical glitch might also have concerned a short film projected beyond a curtain under an “Emergency Exit” sign, which up until the screen abruptly went black mid-promenade and mid-song inspired the exhibition’s most moving moments, starring the raven-haired Dusong moving slowly around a serene pond guarded by a sort of combination Yabba the Hut – Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome labyrinth. After repeatedly chanting in her soprano voice a mantra whose only recognizable (but powerful) words to me were “Je brave, J’ose,” I brave, I dare, while slowly walking in bare feet around the periphery of the pond — set against a tropical bay — Dusang, this time wearing a gently swaying gossamer gown, enters the labyrinth, but after a couple of twists and turns and before she can get out, either the film ends where it’s supposed to or the power went out and the tiny space went black. Given that the press kit includes a picture of her exiting the mouth of the object, I tend to vote for the latter.

Moving as Dusong’s words and the child-like yet sad voice in which she delivered them were, the experience was constricted by the fact that only those able to grab one of a handful of headphones were able to hear her mesmerizing voice straddling the delicate tightrope between melancholy and hope. Perhaps the artist didn’t want the voice of her film self to have to compete with the voice of her taped self, running on a loop in the main exhibition room. There she spoke a bit too fast for me to follow, but I’m assuming she was repeating the same tiny text featured in two Lilliputian notebooks encased in glass boxes affixed to the walls. Over the vast hole in the middle of the space a scrim reflected a projected blue sky with white clouds. I’d no sooner groaned at the banality of it than I noticed the shadow of a guy leaning over the rail guard surrounding the hole’s periphery projected on the scrim. I had to try out a couple of spots before my shadow followed suite and instantly thought back to the shadow room at the Exploratorium, a science-is-fun museum in San Francisco where I worked in high-school as an Orange-Jacketed Explainer, and where intermittent flashes made the green wall retain the form you’d pressed against it during the flash. (In case you’re wondering what my specialty was, I was the go-to Explainer for the cow’s eye dissection; 40 years later and I’m still dissecting others’ visions.)

The gist of all three texts — spoken, walled, and abortedly projected — involved a young woman or girl summoning the courage to speak for and up for herself. The exhibition is called “La voix libre,” with the PR claiming the artist is “libertaire,” the polite word in France for “anarchist,” but given as this was the third event in two days that I came across with aspirations to anarchism, it’s a stretch; all were in organized spaces, either bourgeoisie (the ambiance at the Filles du Calvaire seemed particularly chi-chi), municipally, or nationally funded, the last being a two-day event at the Centre National de la Danse somewhat brazenly called “Occupation.” (If the owners invite the occupiers in, it’s not an occupation.)

It’s a sort of rebellion that falls within socially accepted norms, like the so-called “Yellow Vests” so-called “Movement.” I’m not calling for real physical rebellion — if anything, I’m a hardliner who believes the State was right to arrest one of the movement’s self-proclaimed leaders for holding a protest without a permit. But to cite a precept that a lot of pundits and politicians on the Left and Right have been liberally tossing around lately, as Albert Camus — another French philosopher the libertaires have claimed as their own — said, “Mal nommer les choses, c’est ajouter au malheur du monde.” (When you misname things, you only add to the world’s unhappiness.)

How I interpret Camus’s argument in the current context is that when you give people the idea that simply proclaiming “I brave, I dare” makes you a libertaire, you’re not setting the bar particularly high. Far from really acting up, the Frenchman’s pattern is to act out. (Unfortunately, what elevated the “Yellow Vest”s’ campaign from a harmless temper tantrum to senseless violence was when their round point blockades lead to the deaths of at least eight people.)

Hiking up the Canal St.-Martin after the… artistic … manifestation, I saw a group of men take a table in a brasserie and break out laughing. The only thing that made them stand out was their yellow vests, which they were sporting like a five-star general’s medals, only the generals would be more modest. “We’re special, we’re the stars, because we have our vests.” (Later on on the rue la Villette approaching the parc Buttes Chaumont, I resisted the temptation to ask a group of men standing in front of an official-looking building if they were “Yellow Vests” or municipal workers wearing yellow vests.) A few minutes later, I counted seven dark blue Mobile Gendarmes vans speeding up the boulevard Richard-Lenoir — where’s the Commissaire Maigret when you need him? — towards the Bastille, sirens blaring. This Monday morning, when France Culture radio finally got around to telling us what had actually happened Saturday night, it reported that another of the self-proclaimed leaders of the “Yellow Vests” claimed the gendarmes or police had purposely fired in his eye with a flash ball or a circling grenade or something like that; that he’d been targeted because he was HIM.

They all want to be Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows,” playing hooky during the day and praying at Balzac’s shrine at night, but in the end they always wind up walking back across the bridge (over the Montmartre cemetery looking down on Sacha Guitry’s grave) to return the stolen typewriter to dad’s office… and getting busted and sent to the reformatory camp anyway before breaking out and running along the beach in liberated joy, like the hero in Chris Marker’s “La Jeté” fatally repeating the cycle and never finding out who that woman was.

After being mistaken for one of them — an artist I mean, not a “Yellow Vest” — while taking notes in front of a tree-stump with a “real tree coming soon here!” sign from the mayor next to which somewhat had stapled the upper half of a real yellow Formica chair that looked suspiciously like the one I left behind in my flat on the rue de Paradis 11 years ago, and grimacing at a stuffed grizzly bear with a top hat on the inside of a taxidermist’s not too far from the gallery, I finally sat down to rest my tired but not quite dead yet dogs on a thin metal bench (too thin to sleep on; see yesterday’s item) by the Canal St.-Martin to sip my green thermos tea and devour what remained of my Diplomate, causing two drifting mallards and one female duck to change course, paddle towards me, and vociferously accuse me of being a quack until I surrendered and tossed some squishy Diplomate their way. The first dispersement went well, but after I relented and offered a second helping, the sea-gulls and the pigeons descended and started fighting for the remains of the rapidly dissipating diplomat.

dusong pool“Et O,” 2017. Activated sound oeuvre in situ, words, voice, and composition Emma Dusong. Maison Bernard Collection. Courtesy Galerie Les filles du calvaire.

The Lutèce Diaries, Eight: In the shadows of our forgotten ancestors, the heart is a lonely hunter

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak, The Paris Tribune

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. To translate this article into French or another language, please use the translation engine button at the right of this page.)

PARIS — The beauty of a mission statement is that it keeps you on track. So, much as it may be justified by later references, my temptation to call this dispatch “C’est quoi dégueulasse? or, I’d rather have my teeth pulled out” was quickly tabled when I remembered that our mission with the Paris Tribune c’est pas de partager mon point de vu sur mes petites disputes avec des services presses but to share my unique insider knowledge of and perspective on all things Parisian. So I’ll just allocate one sentence to the petty stuff, if for no other reason than after having three more teeth extracted Thursday afternoon, I can in all sincerity state that given the choice, I’d rather have my teeth pulled than spend another single evening at the Theatre de la Ville, and that’s not just a testament to the tender manner of my dentist, the best in the world; 20 years of thankless devotion — in critical and editorial work  covering this important venue, which work’s practically volunteer nature has made the difference between having implants and having eight teeth pulled out for an additional denture — only to be spat upon by the Theatre de la Ville, ca suffit. (Okay, I kind of cheated with the semi-colon and the em-dashes.)

So: After having the decaying mandibles extracted, (and on top of the shabby treatment by the theater) rather than subject myself to the exasperation that, based on my last experience at the TDLV’s Abbesses space in Montmartre (in which the members of a Portuguese company railed against their own metier before an audience who had paid to see this self-indulgent temper tantrum) another visit to the same theater might entail, and after securing a slab of sufficiently malleable freshly-baked Lebanese bread at a Turkish grocery store on the rue Faubourg-St.-Denis (food-wise, the most exotic street in Paris), I headed in the other direction, taking the increasingly shallow cavern that is my mouth, my plodding carcasse, mes lourds valises (heavy baggage) and my tired dogs from Pissarro and Montand’s Grand Boulevards to the Place de la Republique, up the rue de Temple to the boulevard Bellevillle, mon amour, where, after stocking up on cheap Ramen (lobster: 40 cents!) clear noodles (44 cents for a two-meal furnishing packet), and Hoisin sauce (1.43 per can) at “The Paris Store” a.k.a. the mecca for all things Chinese, and spicy olives at what now seems to be an Iranian epicerie (when the owner asked another customer, “So, you’re Iranian?” I resisted interjecting that on Grandma Shirley’s side, I apparently am, which explains why Dad was once mistaken for the Ayatollah Khomeini, beard-wise), provisioning myself with the customary Diplomate pastry so I’d have something to glub-glub down after the Novocain wore off, and killing time with about 100,000 dead ancient combatants I finally settled, a bout de souffle and out of breath, at a rendezvous at the gallery of the Genius of the Bastille which terminated with two breathlessly vivacious Parisiennes telling me where all the bodies are really buried.

As I think I’ve just aptly summarized everything up to this point (except for maybe specifying that this adventure did in fact begin with the dentist extracting three teeth), let’s start the rest at the Place de la Republique. I guess it was too much to expect (Don’t look back; you might not turn into a salt lake — that comes up later, with the dead bodies — but you might find yourself staring into the headlights of a ’69 Cadillac Seville ((my first car, my first attempt to park it in New York having halted circulation on the Avenue of the Americas for half an hour)) with a Deadhead sticker left over from your last date with a Deadhead widow) that the stickers left, not by Deadheads but by the living psychological survivors of the 13 November 2015 mass murder on the fringes below the skirt of the Lady of the Republique would still be there, and I would have accepted this cleansing if it had restored the entire classical facade of the statue with its slogans and friezes referencing 1789, but what marred the picture was yet another Packman-style mosaic from the artist whose name I’ve forgotten but who seems to have recently  branched out from clever side-street cameos to marking monuments like a dog pissing on a Cadillac. Universal messages have been replaced by graffiti with artistic pretensions.

Speaking of our sacred dead who died for nothing, or little: So there I was (again), canvas shoulder sack full of provisions, standing in the milieu of the boulevard facing Pere Lachaise, Diplomate in hand until I could feel my lip again so I wouldn’t bite it instead of the pastry, and wondering how I would kill the 50 minutes remaining before the vernissage at the Genie de la Bastille gallery began at 7 (as the teeth extracted were all in the lower front of my mouth, this time around I wouldn’t just be a blood-sucking critic but a critic unable to speak without revealing his wounds, so I’d decided to see how much I could communicate with just the eyes, particularly if the communiqué was a woman), when I spotted it across the street stretching across the entire long block occupied by the front wall of the cemetery: A four-foot high plaque listing, under a citation from Apollinaire — the Surrealist / Cubist poet who, weakened from a head injury sustained in the war, succumbed to the Spanish flu in 1919 — all the names of “les enfants de Paris” who gave their lives during the Grande Guerre, a.k.a. the Grande Gaspillage (waste). Given that every village, even the tiniest burg of 100 people, in France boasts a war memorial listing the names of its sons and daughters dead in the 20th-century’s semi-organized carnages, the real question here was why it took the city of Paris 100 years to give its much more numerous dead a plaque, perhaps yet another indication of what the Yellow Vests and their supporters call the Grande Divide between Paris and the provinces. Foreigners like Malcolm McLaren and me may come to Paris so we can live yesterday tomorrow, but Parisians tend to throw out yesterday, and the ancestors with it; the provinces remember.

Calculating that this would well fill — or fill well — the 50 minutes remaining before the art opening, I determined that starting in 1914 (the names were listed alphabetically and by year) I would read every name. Some of what struck me: A lot of Gauthiers and Gautiers gave their lives for the motherland (patrie) in 1915 or 16; the archivists who culled or tracked down all this information did their homework, even to noting the nicknames — one of the fallen went by ‘La Cressoniere,’ suggesting that it didn’t take until 2019 for Parisians to start growing vegetables; seeing “Actor” after one person’s first name, I thought for a moment that all the metiers would be listed until I realized this was his last name; and, most tragically, after the year-by-year list, which ended in 1925, came a long list of more than 100 whose names were given under “year not known,” presumably meaning they had simply disappeared, lost track of after their deaths.

I’d been curious whether any passing presumably Frenchman or woman would join me in my rather ostentatious gesture (until I abandoned the row by row idea midway through the alphabet in 1916, by my slow progression my intention was clear); only one man did, and after a rudimentary pause beside me in 1914, he cut the line clear to 1917.

At the galerie La Genie de la Bastille the only indications of imminent war were the breadsticks, potato chips, nuts, Japanese-style rice crackers, and hazelnut-studded bread preparing to storm what was left of my lower-teeth if I even thought of nibbling them and incurring the wrath of my dentist (“You said to avoid baguettes. You didn’t say anything about breadsticks.”) and the artist whom the day before I’d addressed as “Narcissus” after he politely asked me to take him out of my address book. Hoping to find someone else I recognized (with whom I’d be less self-conscious about revealing my missing teeth, and maybe even get some commiseration and admiration for coming to the vernissage anyway; “Quelle devotion a l’art!”), the closest I came was a petite blonde woman who resembled a painter I’d previously worked with, that we’d not seen each other for three years explaining the uncertainty. By the way she exchanged semi-embarrassed smiles with me at intervals, I even thought she might be wondering the same thing about me, and opened my coat to reveal the “Obama 2008” button pinned to my “San Francisco Jazz Festival” sweatshirt to give her a hint.

After hovering around her all evening, I realized it was less sinister to simply ask.

“You wouldn’t by any chance be Sylvie?”

“Who’s Sylvie?”

“She’s an artist friend whose work has been featured here.”

“Nope… You’re from San Francisco!”

“How’d you know that?!”

“Your sweatshirt!”

She was soon joined by her friend, whom we’ll call Vanessa, and who exclaimed: “I had a boyfriend in San Francisco!”

“Where in San Francisco?”

“‘Great View’ street!”

“‘Grand View.’ I lived there with a roommate.” (Who was the physical and neurotic embodiment of Robert Downey Jr, the archetypal manic young actor of the late ’80s. I retain a sympathetic image of Robert — I’ve forgotten his real name — looking up expectantly from the couch where he was laying down with a book every time I emerged from the bedroom where I was chatting with my nursery school girlfriend (I mean whom I’d known since nursery school) Laurie Dabkowski, with the universally understood “Have you scored yet?” expression.)

Hoping to score with the two Parisiennes, I brandished my cards.

“Oh, you’re Israeli,” observed Vanessa.

After I’d calmed the bristling hairs on my head, I explained the origins of my last name: How after learning from my grandfather that my birth name was a mistake from when my great-grandmother entered the United States —

“Oh yes, at Long Island!” Vanessa interjected, even getting the Jewish immigrant pronunciation right: “Lon Gyland.”

I clarified that it was Ellis Island where an immigration clerk had changed the ‘V’ in great-grandma’s original name ‘Vinek’ to a ‘W’ and the ‘k’ to an ‘r’ to turn ‘Vinek’ into ‘Winer,’ at which point the other woman, whom I’ll inevitably call “Amelie,” interrupted, “Like Winner! That’s good!”

“No, ‘Winner’ has two ‘n’s. Winer means someone who cries all the time.”

After Amelie nodded and contributed that, “Yes, many Jews emigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century,” Vanessa prodded me, “Your grandparents were from Ukraine, Russia? Odessa!”

Given that my other grandma Shirley, this one on my mother’s side, had left her Odessa Jazz Festival sweatshirt behind in the shtetl, I was flabbergasted. “Mais c’est incroyable (incredible)! How’d you know?”

“I must be psychic, I know these things.”

I then recounted that I’d chosen to change my name to “Ben-Itzak” rather than return to “Vinek” because Jewish names can be traced back to the origin (Ben-Itzak = Son of Isaac).

“You need to go to Salt Lake City, Utah,” Vanessa responded. “The Mormons have built a library with the family origins of all the names around the world.”

At this point Amelie debarked on a Jewish tangent which, far from making me cry was fascinating as a tapestry of French religious/racial, artistic/cultural, and Jewery/jewelry history.

It seems that Amelie’s great-grandmother was a soloist with the Paris Opera Ballet.

“Like Constance Quenieux, the real origin of Courbet’s ‘Origin of the World’ painting,” I piped in, hoping to score a point that was simultaneously salacious and sagacious.

The way she tells it, Amelie’s great-grams slept with either someone named Verer or was introduced by Verer to a famous jeweler from the 1920s whose name sounded something like Lilac (and who I’ve actually heard of)  and as Amelie’s grandmother was likely the product of this illicit relationship, “Therefore, I’m probably part Jewish.”

I resisted the temptation to respond with “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish” or the pedantic, “Actually, the descent is based on the mother,” thus missing an opportunity to demonstrate my male-feminist sympatheticness in a discussion on sexism, instead gambling that a sufficiently intimate footing had been established for me to buck up and explain why I had none (buck teeth), announcing, “If you can’t always understand what I said,” which seemed to be the case with Amelie, “it’s because I just came from the dentist.”

Amelie turned away from me and towards Vanessa, to whom she proclaimed, “You have incredible teeth!,” which I wasn’t sure was meant to denigrate mine or to vaunt Vanessa’s to me, a way of saying “If you don’t have enough teeth,  you can borrow some of my friend’s!” (Which the translation engine at the right of this page will probably render as “Maybe you could burrow some of my friend’s!”)

Trying to elevate the conversation from my missing lower teeth to the omni-present French haute culture, I started to explain how my dentist, who shares his office with his doctor brother, has an American mother, which accounts for the waiting-room poster of Belmondo courting Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the Herald Tribune in Jean-Luc Godard’s “A bout de Souffle.”

“I love that film!!” exclaimed Vanessa.

“I’ve only seen scattered morsels,” Amelie half-apologetically confessed.

“You must see it.”

“It’s part of the New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague, isn’t it?”

“Same thing,” Vanessa explained.

Perhaps detecting a window to a potential decidedly New Wave ménage a trois, I announced, “I scored two copies of the film at a sale of books au prix libre (name your price) at the Little Rocket last weekend.” (Taking advantage of name your price so we can empty our stock day at the local anarchist club, for 2 Euros total I’d not only scored two copies of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” but two boxed sets comprising the entire 7th and final season of Mad Men, a CD of early Diz and Bird sessions, a “Lady of Soul” best of Aretha Franklin disc to demonstrate my DJ necrology chops in case I finally get that gig at Pere Lachaise, and — because it was a book sale I had to get at least one — a collection of 50 best short stories. That I couldn’t find an English-language paperback of Carson McCullers’s “Ballad of the Sad Café” I’d initially discarded had been compensated for later that same Saturday evening when my ex-roomie Sabine showed up with newborn baby in tow and a box of things I’d left behind on my last Paris visit, including the Obama button and a copy of a French translation of McCullers’s “Heart is a Lonely Hunter” which I’d planned on giving to one of Sabine’s girlfriends who now accidentally lives three doors down from me but won’t return my e-mails, my having been ready to give the book up because I didn’t like the translator’s version of a retrograde “Blackspeak” which couldn’t have been that bad in the original, given that Ethel Waters didn’t talk like that in the same author’s “Member of the Wedding.” Also because the friend in question had explained her last-minute cancellation of our first and last date by conjuring Greta Garbo ((I vant to be alone)) in referring to personal problems which I assumed to be affairs of the heart.)

At this point — we’re back to discussing Godard’s “Breathless,” breathlessly, with the two Parisiennes — with my lacking teeth and flagging end-of-the-day French, I was barely intelligible, but when Vanessa finally understood that it was the sale at the anarchist club on the Street of the Green Path to which I was referring, she pursued, “Why two copies?”

“Well, when I saw the first I of course thought this would be the perfect retirement gift for my dentist.” (At our last rendez-vous, when I’d pointed to the poster of Belmondo flirting with Seberg on the Champs and asked him if he’d planned to take it with him or if I could recuperate it, my dentist had shrugged his shoulders non-committedly.) And I’d no sooner thought, ‘Too bad there’s not a second copy for me’ then one materialized.”

“Incroyable!”

I know, I missed an opening that was big enough for any other American in Paris worthy of Gene Kelly to drive a truck through, in which I could have said: “Well, as I have two copies why don’t we go back to my place; we could watch them in separate rooms and laisse-faire the rest?” (Robert Downie Jr. would have been disappointed in me.) But I’d already overcome a monumental compunction just by opening my Swiss-cheesy mouth to parlez-vous with these two chic Parisiennes — a considerable feat for this shy American even if my choppers had been rocks of Gibraltar. So I had to settle for Vanessa’s proposition of a much safer excavation (than into the cavern of my teeth), that we all go check out a hidden museum whose name I couldn’t distinguish no matter how many times she repeated it, but which seems to have something to do with 19th-century Algerian furniture.

Considering the prospect later, I reflected: If you want to find a home for your lonely hunter, why not build the house with the furniture of your forgotten ancestors?

PS: In case the Parisiennes in question — for whom I’ve adopted fake names here — are reading this piece, they should know that any licentiousness in my thought bubbles is (mostly) de la license poetique… Ditto, as always, en ca qui concerne mes dents and the best dentist in the world. And the art in question at the gallery was by Pascale Chau-Huu and France-Noelle Pellecer, from the latter of whom I’ve requested a sample which we hope to share with you in a future edition. The expo runs through Sunday.