Critique of the New Press / Critique de la nouvelle presse (French original follows English translation)

by Albert Camus
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

First published in the August 31, 1944 edition of Combat, the heretofore underground newspaper edited by Albert Camus — and unfortunately all the more relevant today, given the irresponsible manner in which the public radio “journalists” in France have covered the Covid crisis and now vaccination roll-out. . To read our translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s report on the Liberation of Paris from the same issue, click here. To read our review with extracts of the recently published correspondence of Albert Camus’s correspondence with Maria Casarès, click here. After returning to Paris with false identity papers furnished by the Resistance, Albert Camus was the underground newspaper Combat’s final editor under the Occupation, on one occasion (as documented by Olivier Todd in his 1996 biography for Gallimard) being saved from being busted with proofs of the newspaper in his pocket at a Gestapo checkpoint when he was able to deftly pass the proofs to Casarès, correctly guessing that she would not be searched. — PB-I

PARIS — Because between the insurrection and the war, a respite has today been granted us, I’d like to talk about a subject that I know well and which is dear to my heart: the Press. And because it’s a question of this new Press which has emerged from the battle of Paris, I’d like to speak with, at the same time, the fraternity and the clairvoyance one owes to comrades in combat.

When we were producing our newspapers in clandestinity, it was naturally without a lot of to-do or grandiloquent declarations of principles. But I know that for all our comrades at all our newspapers, it was also with a great secret hope: The hope that these men, who risked their lives in the name of a set of ideals which were sacred to them, would be able to give their country the Press that it deserved but no longer had. We know from experience that the pre-war Press had lost its morals and its principles. An avariciousness for money and an indifference to the big picture had combined to give France a Press which, with rare exceptions, had no mission beyond promoting the power of a select few and no effects beyond devouring the morality of the whole. It was therefore not difficult for this Press to become the Press it became between 1940 and 1944, that is to say the shame of the nation.

Our wish, all the more profound from remaining largely unspoken, was to free newspapers from pecuniary concerns and endow them with a tone and a truth which would elevate the public to the highest form of its higher self. We believed that a country is only as good as its Press. And if it’s true that newspapers are the voice of a nation, we were decided, for our part and as our humble contribution, to elevate this country by elevating its language. Wrongly or rightly, it was for this reason that many among us died in inconceivable conditions and that others suffered the isolation and the threats of prison.

In fact, we merely occupied offices, where we fabricated newspapers that we put out in the heat of the battle. It’s a great victory and, from this point of view, the journalists of the Resistance displayed a courage and a will that merits the respect of all. However — and forgive me for bringing this up in the midst of the reigning enthusiasm — this is very little considering all that remains to be done. We’ve conquered the means for conducting this profound revolution that we desire. But we still need to really carry it out. To put it bluntly: The Free Press, at least as far as one can judge after 10 days of putting out issues, leaves a lot to be desired.

What I propose to say in this article and in the following piece, I don’t want it to be misconstrued. I speak in the general name of fraternity forged in combat and am not targeting anyone in particular. The criticisms that it’s possible to make are addressed to the entire Press without any exceptions, and we understand each other. Are they premature? Should we allow our newspapers time to organize themselves before undertaking this examination of conscience? The reply is NO.

We’re well-situated to be able to appreciate the extenuating circumstances under which our newspapers have been produced. But this isn’t the question. The question is over a certain tone that might have been adopted from the get-go and that was not. On the contrary, it is precisely at the moment in which this Press is in the process of being created, of defining itself, that it is imperative that it examine itself. Only by doing so will it know what it wants to be and be able to become this.

What do we want? A Press clear and virile, a respectable language. For men who, for years, have written their articles in full awareness that they might have to pay for these articles in prison or death, it’s clear that words have their value and that they must be weighed. It is this responsibility of the journalist to the public which they want to restore.

Sins of laziness

And yet, in the rush, the anger, and the frenzy of our offensive, our newspapers have sinned by laziness. In these times the body has been working so hard that the brain has lost its vigilance. Here I’ll say in general what I propose to explain in detail later: Many of our newspapers have fallen back into the same tired formulas that we believed outmoded, with no fear of the rhetorical excesses or the pandering to the lowest common denominator in which the majority of our newspapers indulged before the war.

In the first case, we need to get it into our heads that we’re only marching in the same tracks, in a kind of reverse symmetry, of the Collaborationist presse. In the second case, we’re simply resuming, because it’s the easy thing to do, formulas and ideas which endanger the very morality of the Press and the country. If we really think that either of these is an option, we might as well quit now and resign ourselves to giving up on what we really have to do.

Because the means for expressing ourselves are now conquered, our responsibility vis-a-vis ourselves and the country is total. What’s essential — and it’s the goal of this article — is that we’re averted. The task of each of us is to really reflect upon what he wants to say, to shape step by step the spirit of his newspaper, to pay attention to what he writes and to never lose sight of this immense necessity we have to restore to a country its most profound voice. If we ensure that this voice remains that of energy rather than that of hate, that of objective pride rather than that of hollow rhetoric, that of humanity rather than that of mediocrity, then a lot will have been saved and we won’t have failed.

— Albert Camus

Version originale

PARIS — Puisque entre l’insurrection et la guerre, une pause nous est aujourd’hui donnée, je voudrais parler d’une chose que je connais bien et qui me tient à cœur, je veux dire la presse. Et puisqu’il s’agit de cette presse qui est sortie de la bataille de Paris, je voudrais en parler avec, en même temps, la fraternité et la clairvoyance que l’on doit à des camarades de combat.

Lorsque nous rédigions nos journaux dans la clandestinité, c’était naturellement sans histoires et sans déclarations de principe. Mais je sais que pour tous nos camarades de tous nos journaux, c’était avec un grand espoir secret. Nous avions l’espérance que ces hommes, qui avaient couru des dangers mortels au nom de quelques idées qui leur étaient chères, sauraient donner a leur pays la presse qu’il méritait et qu’il n’avait plus. Nous savions par l’expérience que la presse d’avant-guerre était perdue dans son principe et dans sa morale. L’appétit de l’argent et l’indifférence aux choses de la grandeur avaient opéré en même temps pour donner à la France une presse qui, à de rares exceptions près, n’avait d’autre but que de grandir la puissance de quelques-uns et d’autre effet que d’avaler la moralité de tous. Il n’a donc pas été difficile à cette presse de devenir ce qu’elle a été de 1940 à 1944, c’est-à-dire la honte de ce pays.

Notre désir, d’autant plus profond qu’il était souvent muet, était de libérer les journaux de l’argent et de leur donner un ton et une vérité qui mettent le public à la hauteur de ce qu’il y a de meilleur en lui. Nous pensions alors qu’un pays vaut souvent ce que vaut sa presse. Et s’il est vrai que les journaux sont la voix d’une nation, nous étions décidés, à notre place et pour notre faible part, à élever ce pays en élevant son langage. A tort ou à raison, c’ést pour cela que beaucoup d’entre nous sont morts dans d’inimaginables conditions et que d’autres souffrent la solitude et les menaces de la prison.

En fait, nous avons seulement occupé des locaux, où nous avons confectionné des journaux que nous avons sortis en pleine bataille. C’est une grande victoire et, de ce point de vue, les journalistes de la Résistance ont montré un courage et une volonté qui méritent le respect de tous. Mais, et je m’excuse de le dire au milieu de l’enthusiasme générale, cela est peu de chose puisque tout reste à faire. Nous avons conquis les moyens de faire cette révolution profonde que nous désirions. Encore faut-il que nous la fassions vraiment. Et pour tout dire d’un mot, la presse libérée, telle qu’elle se présente à Paris après une dizaine de numeros, n’est pas satisfaisante.

Ce que je me propose de dire dans cet article et dans ceux qui suivront, je voudrais qu’on le prenne bien. Je parle au nom d’une fraternité de combat et personne n’est ici visé en particulier. Les critiques qu’il est possible de faire s’adressent à toute la presse sans exception, et nous nous y comprenons. Dira-t-on que cela est prémature, qu’il faut laisser à nos journaux le temps de s’organiser avant de faire cet examen de conscience ? La réponse est « non » .

Nous sommes bien placés pour savoir dans quelles incroyables conditions nos journaux ont été fabriqués. Mais la question n’est pas là. Elle est dans un certain ton qu’il était possible d’adopter dés le début et qui ne l’a pas été. C’est au contraire au moment où cette presse est en train de se faire, où elle va prendre son visage définitif qu’il importe qu’elle s’examine. Elle saura mieux ce qu’elle veut être et elle le deviendra.

Que voulions-nous ? Une presse claire et virile, au langage respectable. Pour des hommes qui, pendant des années, écrivant un article, savaient que cet article pouvait se payer de la prison ou de la mort, il était évident que les mots avaient leur valeur et qu’ils devaient être réfléchis. C’est cette responsabilité du journaliste devant le public qu’ils voulaient restaurer.

Péché de paresse

Or, dans la hâte, la colère ou le délire de notre offensive, nos journaux ont péché par paresse. Le corps, dans ces journées, a tant travaillé que l’esprit a perdu de sa vigilance. Je dirai ici en général ce que je me propose ensuite de détailler : beaucoup de nos journaux ont repris des formules qu’on croyait périmées et n’ont pas craint les excès de la rhétorique ou les appels à cette sensibilité de midinette qui faisaient, avant la guerre ou après, le plus clair de nos journaux.

Dans le premier cas, il faut que nous nous persuadions bien que nous réalisons seulement le décalque, avec une symétrie inverse, de la presse d’occupation. Dans le deuxième cas, nous reprenons, par esprit de facilité, des formules et des idées qui menacent la moralité même de la presse et du pays. Rien de tout cela n’est possible, ou alors il faut démissionner et désespérer de ce que nous avons à faire.

Puisque les moyens de nous exprimer sont dés maintenant conquis, notre responsabilité vis-à-vis de nous-mêmes et du pays est entière. L’essentiel, et c’est l’objet de cet article, est que nous en soyons bien avertis. La tâche de chacun de nous est de bien penser ce qu’il se propose de dire, de modeler peu à peu l’esprit du journal qui est le sien, d’écrire attentivement et de ne jamais perdre de vue cette immense nécessité où nous sommes de redonner à un pays sa voix profonde. Si nous faisons que cette voix demeure celle de l’énergie plutôt que de la haine, de la fière objectivité et non de la rhétorique, de l’humanité plutôt que de la médiocrité, alors beaucoup de choses seront sauvées et nous n’aurons pas démérité.

— Albert Camus

Et non, M. Mélenchon, ce ne sont pas les Communistes qui ont fait la Commune de Paris; No, it wasn’t the Communists who made the Paris Commune (In French V.O. & English translation)

Extract from “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie”
par Michel Ragon
Copyright 2008 Éditions Albin Michel
(Translation by Paul Ben-Itzak follows French text)

Commune de Paris (1871)

Bien que, parmi les dirigeants de la Commune, la majorité ait été jacobine et blanquiste, l’influence des jurassiens, des proudhoniens (Vallès, Courbet), de Bakounine (Varlin, Malon) a contribué à diffuser dans les actes de la Commune des théories spécifiquement anarchistes (la destruction de l’État, les communes fédérées, l’élection des officiers et des fonctionnaires, l’union libre). À la Commune de Paris se joignirent les Communes de Saint-Étienne, de Limoges, de Narbonne, de Marseille, de Toulouse. Vite écrasées par la répression, ces Communes libres n’esquissèrent qu’en un bref moment la théorie du dépérissement de l’État. Vite rétabli dans toute sa sévérité et animé d’un esprit de vengeance, l’État fit à Paris vingt mille victimes. Sept mille cinq cents Communards furent déportés en Nouvelle-Calédonie, quatre cent dix au bagne de Cayenne, trois cent vingt-deux en Algérie.

Longtemps occulté par la IIIe République, le souvenir de la Commune de Paris a été récupéré par les partis socialiste et communiste, qui ont prétendument affirmé être ses héritiers.

Or, en 1871, le Parti socialiste ne formait qu’un quart des membres dirigeants de la Commune, qui ne comprenait qu’un seul marxiste, Frankel.

Karl Marx avait délégué Élisabeth Dimitrieff comme représentante de l’Internationale auprès de la Commune.

Au lendemain de la Commune, le mouvement ouvrier français fut pratiquement annihilé. F. Pelloutier, dans son “Histoire des bourses du travail” (1921) écrivait: « La section française de l’Internationale dissoute, les révolutionnaires fusillés, envoyés au bagne ou condamnés à l’exil; les clubs dispersés, les réunions interdites; la terreur confinant au plus profond des logis les rares hommes échappés au massacre: telle était la situation du prolétariat au lendemain de la Commune. »

The Paris Commune (1871)
by Michel Ragon
Extract from “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie”
Copyright 2008 Editions Albin Michel
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak

Translator’s Note: Appearing on the public radio chain France Culture last week-end, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, self-proclaimed leader of the left-leaning ‘The Unsubmissive’ party, put forth an exaggerated, historically inaccurate picture of the Communists’ role in the Paris Commune. Here’s the real story. — PB-I

Among the leaders of the Commune, the majority might well have been Jacobins or Blanquistes, the influence of the Jurassiens and Proudhoniens (Vallès, Courbet), of Bakounine (Varlin, Malon) helped pollinate in the acts of the Commune specifically anarchist theories (the destruction of the State, federated communes, direct election of officers and civil service workers, free union between men and women). The Paris Commune was soon joined by the Communes of Saint-Étienne, of Limoges, of Narbonne, of Marseille, of Toulouse. Soon crushed by the repression, these free Communes were able to illustrate, if only for a brief moment, the theory of the withering away of the State. Quickly re-established in all its severity and propelled by a spirit of revenge, the State exacted 20,000 lives in Paris. 7,500 Communards were deported to New Caledonia, 410 to the penal colony in Cayenne, 322 to that in Algeria.

Minimized for years by the Third Republique, the memory of the Paris Commune was eventually recuperated by the Socialist and Communist parties, who laid claim to being its legitimate inheritors.

And yet, in 1871 the Socialist party contributed but a quarter of the Commune’s leaders, which included but a sole Marxist, Frankel.

Karl Marx had designated Elisabeth Dimitrieff as the official delegate of the Internationale to the Commune.

In the wake of the Commune, the French labor movement was virtually annihilated. F. Pelloutier, in his 1921 “History of the Labor Market,” wrote: “The French section of the Internationale dissolved, the revolutionaries executed by firing squad, sent to the penal colonies or sentenced to exile; the clubs dispersed, the meetings banned; the terror confining to deepest basements the rare men to escape the massacre; such was the situation for the proletariat in the wake of the Commune.”

Le fond de l’air est rouge / Seeing red with Chris Marker, seeing film with Jonas Mekas

A poster from the May 1968 student and worker protests in Paris which takes as model student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, expelled from France as an ‘undesirable’ and later elected to the European parliament as a leader of the Green movement.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager on January 20, 2012 and newly edited for today’s publication.

After 15 years of following and reviewing the offerings of New York’s 40+ year-old Anthology Film Archives, easily the best and bravest cinematheque in the United States and one of the top in the world, I think I’m finally beginning to understand what Anthology artistic director Jonas Mekas (a determinedly idiosyncratic independent avant-garde filmmaker in his own right, and founding piston of the SoHo scene of the 1960s) and his colleagues are up to, or rather, how they’ve chosen to manifest it. Historically partial to fiction and less engaged by documentaries, at first I wasn’t particularly keen on the preponderance of the latter at Anthology. But after watching Chris Marker’s “Le fond de l’air est rouge” (cryptically translated as “Grin Without a Cat,” an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat) and Sergei Loznitsa’s “Revue” and “Blockade,” all screening in “The Compilation Film” series beginning today at Anthology, I understand that what Mekas and crew are primarily interested in is film that knows it’s film and that fully exploits the medium — and even expands it. Or to paraphrase Jean-Luc Godard’s imperative: One shouldn’t come away from a film feeling like the director simply set his camera before a stage, but that he used it like writer uses a pen.

Witness Marker’s film. Issued in 1978 and ‘re-actualized’ in 1993, “Le fond de l’air est rouge” (more literally translated as “The base of the air is red”) takes as its direct subject various liberation struggles and anti-War crusades of the ’60s and ’70s, many with post-World War II roots. And Marker’s conclusion might seem discouraging, even potentially paralyzing, particularly in the dawn of a new movement essentially founded on the same claim, a more just distribution of wealth: By Marker’s account, all these movements, or if you prefer, The Movement, eventually failed, often because of the faulty execution of the theology which was its fount, Communism. Che Guevara, we’re told in the film, seems to have finally understood that the real enemy was power, whether it called itself Capitalism or Socialism. The Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968 seems to have woken up Cuban leader Fidel Castro to the fact that Communism was not a de facto guarantor of Democracy, and could sometimes even menace it, as we see during poignant footage in which Castro wrestles in real time — while delivering a speech denouncing the Soviet Union’s sending tanks into Czechoslovakia — with the realization that he must condemn the Soviet invasion, even as he acknowledges that such criticism will play into the hands of “Imperialist” countries.

Perhaps most incredible, in the light of 2011, is a French Communist leader who finally allows, speaking in 1970, that the French Communist Party might just have to collaborate with other parties on the Left to defeat the bourgeoisie. The Communists barely broke 1 percent in the 2007 French presidential election, and in 2012’s they’re not even fielding their own candidate, preferring to back an ex-Socialist Party member. One person who seems to get it right in the film not too long after the events is Larry Bensky, the Pacifica Radio paragon and former Paris editor of the Paris Review, whose powers of analysis often have less lag time than most historians. Interviewed sometime in the 1970s, resplendent in John Lennon circa Abby Road long hair and beard, Bensky says that even though it may seem like there is less activism in the 1970s, today’s activists have already learned a lesson their ’60s predecessors didn’t, the necessity of working together with other groups. (Or what’s known today in 2021– and mocked in neo-Liberal French circles — as “intersectionality.” Une fois de plus, Larry, you nailed it avant l’heure) Even observing the weight Marker gives to French union leaders, both in direct interviews and in footage from demonstrations, is a jarring contrast with the present reality, when few private sector workers belong to unions and many union leaders seem more interested in securing their terrain than effectively advancing a worker-friendly agenda.

Add to the chronology of events covered by Marker the killing of Che, Watergate, the assassination of Chilean president Salvador Allende, and — if I understand his thesis correctly — the lack of any real legacy from France’s May 1968 student movement (although it is moving to see a young Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a.k.a. “Danny the Red,” hold forth in 1968 from the perspective of 2012, when he’s still an influential counter-balance to Capitalism-centric Euro-globalization, as co-president of the Green group in the EU Parliament), and Marker’s evident conclusion that it all whithered away with the disintegration of Communism, and the film might seem depressing… on the editorial level anyway.

Why, then, does “Le fond de l’air est rouge” leave one feeling optimistic?

What’s inspiring about this film — and makes it fit into the Anthology Film Archives mission, as I understand that mission — is how gorgeous, original, and genre-expanding it is as a film. (Marker was, after all, the director of the haunting futuristic photo-film “La jetée.”) To be honest, I was not up for yet another golden-aura’d ’60s re-cap. I even felt that having lived the era as a child growing up in San Francisco, I didn’t particularly need a refresher course and Marker wouldn’t teach me anything new. But with techniques including variously tinted sepia tones — brown, orange, red — as well as his skittish minimalist electronic score, the interweaving of end of WWII footage, film of demonstrations all over the world, direct interviews, speeches of the epoch seen on a television in a darkened room, and even a slow-motion scene from a Chinese propaganda ballet with a woman in red slowly pirouetting and being turned and lifted by a man, Marker has created a real work of art.

Marker has also brought perspective to this story, so that it’s not just a nostalgic replay of protest marches. The immediate perspective is Vietnam, and here Marker begins with harrowing footage that pre-dates WikiLeaks’s release of audio revealing American helicopters mowing down civilians and even a journalist: We see and hear American bombers dropping bombs and Napalm on Vietnam, with the narration provided by one of the pilots, who could not be more excited than to be dropping napalm on “Vietcong” and seeing them flee their trenches into the open. He might be exulting over fireworks at a 4th of July picnic.

The bigger context is of course how most of these movements fit in with the larger dream of Communism, and its gradual erosion. Here “Le fond de l’air est rouge,” discouraging as it may be as an obituary for the movements of the ’60s, offers a ray of hope from the ashes, if I can mix my metaphors: Cynics like to say that the Movement des Indignes, or “Occupy” movement as it’s called in the U.S., doesn’t know what it wants. But in fact it’s the movement’s very freedom from a specific dogma that may be its salvation. Dogmas can be anchors, but they can also be anvils.

The Chevalier de la Barre: The bull who broke free (updated 9h37 EST Thursday)

Break on through to the other side: A certain drawbridge in Arles.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

In case you don’t have the pleasure of waking up to or dining with the French public radio news, here’s what it’s typically sounded like for the past year:

“Covid covid covid vaccine vaccine vaccine Macron covid covid vaccine vaccine Islamism covid covid covid confinement confinement confinement vaccine vaccine climate covid covid incest vaccine vaccine.”

So invested are they in this constrained universe, that when the government announced last week (in very frank terms with absolutely no attempt at dissimulation) what sounded a lot like a quarantine of 16 of the country’s 100 departments or counties where you-know-what cases have been rising alarmingly the past two months (we had more than 65,000 new cases in the 24 hours ending yesterday at 8 a.m. EST, with 10 percent of the public having received at least one shot), the public radio journalists still insisted on calling it a confinement (or lockdown). Never mind the number of times they’ve cited Albert Camus’s “La Peste” (The Plague) over the past year or the number of times they’ve referenced the novelist-journalist-philosopher’s warning about the danger of ‘mal-nomming’ things, these journalists still can’t recognize a quarantine when they see one. (If it walks like a quarantine, talks like a quarantine, and unlike a duck can’t fly beyond a 10K radius, it’s probably a quarantine.)

What a breath of fresh air it was last night, then, when a freedom-loving bull broke through the covid covid vaccine vaccine confinement confinement school of journalism that has constituted much of French public radio reporting for the past year with an adventure worthy of inspiring anyone in need of a break from the reigning and anxiety-fueling media ambiance. And not just any bull. A black bull from the magical, eccentric, quaintly quirky, and very southern city of Arles.

If you’re not familiar with Arles, this is the city where the brutal meridional Sun burnt a hole through Vincent Van Gogh’s scalp as he was hauling around and stationing his easel in the unshielded surrounding fields, frying his brain to the point where he succumbed to an urge to cut his ear off and was promptly hounded out of town by the locals, their progeny hurling stones at his heels all the way to the asylum.

It’s also the city to which that famous bull-fighting fanatic Pablo Picasso repaired whenever he felt the need to indulge his passion for and sketch scenes of “Tauromaquia,” many of them originating in or on the narrow alleys surrounding the same 2,000-year-old arena from whose periphery the bull in question and two cohorts escaped Tuesday from an ill-advised photo-op. It’s also a city that’s part of a region, the Camargue, where the animals, no doubt taking after the artists, the gitans, and even the rural guards (as described by Alphonse Daudet in “Letters from my Windmill”) tend to have their own ornery characters. (They — the animals — even have their own gallery.)

Town, Gallo-Roman remnants, and irrascible Arlesien.n.e characters were enough to inspire Henry James to make the city part of his itinerary for the 1883 travelogue “French voyages,” in which he described the arena as follows (I’m back-translating from Robert Laffont’s French edition of “Voyage en France”):

“For all its grandiose scale, the Arles Arena is less complete than its sister in Nimes; it’s suffered more from the assaults of time and its children, and has been less thoroughly restored. Practically all the seats are gone, but the outside walls, with the exception of the top floor of the arcades, form a rough and complete mass; as for the arched hallways, they seem as solid as the day they were built. As a whole its proportions are superbly ample and of a monumental character as far as a place of diversion (what we call today ‘entertainment’) goes, as only the Roman spirit was able to bestow on this type of establishment. The podium is much more elevated than that of Nimes and a good number of the large slabs facing it have been found and put back in place. The proconsular lodge has more or less been reconstructed, and the grandiose access points which lead to it are still clearly visible and produce a majestic effect; so much so that sitting there, in the magical immobility of the moon, my elbows leaning against the dilapidated parapet of the arena, I could practically hear the murmurs and shudders and the hardy voices of the circus of which the last echoes stretch back 1,500 years.”

That circus was apparently nothing compared to the diversion provided by the black bull which succeeded in breaking away from the outskirts of this very same arena on Tuesday, an escapade which no doubt produced its own shudders (and at least one casualty) among the onlookers privileged to witness the jailbreak.

To fully appreciate the taureau’s accomplishment — specifically, his bold escape from an ill-advised group photo and subsequent navigation of the narrow and labyrinthine cobblestone streets of the old city down to the Rhone river — here’s how James described his own painful attempts to negotiate the same terrain vers 1883:

“I recall with tenderness the torturous alleys… which evoked those of a village, paved with treacherous acierated little stones that transformed all exercise into a penitence. This reminded me of an excruciating promenade that I’d made the night I arrived, with the intention of retrieving a particular view of the Rhone. I’d already been to Arles years before, and I remembered discovering on the quays a sort of tableau. It seemed to me that, on the evening I’m thinking of, a drenched moon gave the impression of trying to illuminate the past as much as the present. But I found no painting and I almost didn’t find the Rhone at all. I got lost, without a creature in sight from whom to ask directions. Nothing could be more provincial than Arles at 10 at night. I ended up by arriving at a type of quay, where I saw the great muddy mass of water gliding in the dark silence. It started to rain, the moon had vanished to who knows where, and the spot was hardly gay. It wasn’t what I’d come looking for; I’d been searching for a past that was impossible to retrieve.”

Animals being more inclined towards living in the present than humans, the search of the black bull who escaped a selfie-op outside the Arles arena (along with the two co-conspirators who were quickly apprehended) Tuesday was a lot more basic, his goal perhaps to ‘retrieve’ his brethren in the marshes of the nearby Camargue, where they can often be seen gamboling among flamingos and white horses.

After making his way a lot more successfully than James down those same cobblestone streets (and without losing nary an ear) to the quays of the Rhone and finding himself surrounded by the gendarmes, the bull took the only course any freedom-loving bovine (or other of God’s creatures) could take and dived horns-long into the river, swimming across the glittering blue water to the other side, where he promptly accosted (or so the radio news alleges) an unfortunate 70-year-old woman out for her own promenade (since hospitalized, with no mortal wounds) before he was finally subdued.

Ferdinand, meanwhile, is no doubt still grazing somewhere in the neighboring wheat-fields so lyrically depicted by another free spirit.

Born free: Bulls in the Camargue department or county that includes Arles.

Le chevalier de la Barre: Ce 18 mars 1871: Un si bel espoir (March 18, 1871: Such a great hope) (English translation follows original French version)

Extrait du “Un si bel espoir” (Extract from “Un si bel espoir)
par Michel Ragon
Copyright Éditions Albin Michel S.A., 1998
Presenté et traduit par Paul Ben-Itzak

Remercierements à Françoise Ragon.

(English translation follows.)

Ce roman historique de Michel Ragon raconte l’histoire de Hector, architecte visionnaire et utopiste, disciple de Proudhon qui a aussi côtoyé un certain Gustave Courbet, et dont la jeunesse a été enivré en 1848 par les espoirs de Paris soulevé ; histoire qui se termine peu après la Commune de Paris, ce soulèvement, révolte, et insurrection utopiste du 18 mars 1871. Face au Black-out presque total dans les medias radiophoniques classiques sur cette 150ème anniversaire, nous avons voulu partager avec vous quelques extraits du roman. Car c’est ça Michel Ragon : la Mémoire des vaincus — ces ‘beautiful losers’ (beaux perdants) — dont les luttes ne sont jamais complètement perdues tant qu’on ne les oublie pas. (Pour en savoir plus sur la Saison de la Commune, cliquez ici.)

L’année 1871 commença par la capitulation du nouveau gouvernement de la République. Les drapeaux allemands flottaient sur les forts de Paris. L’Alsace et la Lorraine étaient livrées aux Prussiens. Aussitôt le peuple de Paris drapa de voiles noirs la statue de la ville de Strasbourg, place de la Concorde. Dans la nuit du 5 au 6 mars les murs de la capitale se couvrirent d’affiches rouges qui proclamaient: « Place au peuple. Place à la Commune. » Des gardes nationaux, qui n’avaient pas encore revêtu leurs uniformes, s’en allaient en bataillons plus ou moins désordonnés, escortés par leurs femmes et leurs enfants, vers les remparts qu’ils entendaient bien tenir. La Commune, ce fut d’abord cela : des ouvriers, des artisans, des bourgeois, refusant l’armistice signé par le chef de l’État, s’opposant à l’entrée des troupes allemandes dans la capitale, s’improvisant soldats, face au gouvernment soi-disant légal qui, abandonnant Paris, s’installait peureusement à Versailles.

Tout cette foule qui avait reflué de la banlieu*, chassée de ses masures, ces ouvriers sans travail, ces paysans sans terre, s’acharnera à défendre une capitale qui n’était pas la leur, la capitale des riches et que les riches avaient désertée. De ce Paris réinvesti, ils voulaient faire leur Commune.

Hector rencontrait souvent [Eugène] Varlin qui, nommé au conseil chargé d’administrer Paris, se livrait à une activité intense. Il raconta à Hector comment, le 18 mars, Adolphe Thiers, devenu le chef du gouvernement versaillais, avait envoyé des troupes pour récupérer les deux cent cinquante canons abandonnés dans Paris et comment la foule, arrêtant les chevaux, coupa les harnais ; comment, sur la butte Montmartre, les femmes se couchèrent sur les canons ; comment le général Lecompte ordonna à ses soldats de tirer ; comment un sous-officier, sorti du rang, cria « Crosse en l’air » ; comment les lignards fraternisèrent avec le peuple et fussillèrent leur propre général.

— Maintenant c’est la guerre entre Versailles et Paris, dit Varlin. Nous avons dressé une centaine de barricades. Le tout est de tenir pendant une mois, le temps que la province s’insurge à son tour. À la Commune de Paris vont répondre les Communes de Lyon, de Bordeaux, de Marseille, de Nantes. La France va devenir une fédération de communes. Ah ! si Proudhon nous voyait !

*Prolos chassé des pauvres quartiers de Paris effacés par les aménagements de Baron Haussmann — aménagements qui ont aussi préordonné le défait militaire de la Commune.

English translation by Paul Ben-Itzak of excerpt from Michel Ragon’s novel:

Michel Ragon’s historic novel “Un si bel espoir” (Such great hope) recounts the story of Hector, visionary architect and Utopian, a disciple of the anarchist writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) and friend of Gustave Courbet, and whose youth was inebriated in 1848 by the hopes of Paris in revolt; a story which ends shortly after the Paris Commune, the uprising, revolt, and insurgency of March 1871. In the face of the almost complete mainstream media news black-out on this the 150th anniversary of the Commune, we wanted to share some excerpts from the novel. Because this is the essence of Michel Ragon: the memory of the vanquished, the beautiful losers whose fights are never entirely lost as long as we don’t forget them. (To check out the many commemorative activities throughout Paris through June, click here.)

The year 1871 started out with the new government of the Republic’s surrender. German flags flew over the forts of Paris. No sooner had the region of Alsace and Lorraine been delivered to the Prussians than the people of Paris had draped black flags over the statue of the city of Strasbourg on the place de la Concorde. On the night of March 5/6, the walls of the capital were covered with red posters proclaiming: “Power to the people. Power to the Commune.” The national guard, which barely had time to don its uniforms, marched in more or less disorganized battalions, accompanied by their wives and their children, towards the ramparts which they meant to maintain. The Commune was first and foremost this: workers, craftsmen, bourgeoisie, all refusing the armistice signed by the head of state, opposed to the entry of German troops in the capital, playing at soldier, in the face of the so-called legal government which, abandoning Paris, fearfully set up shop in Versailles.

All this crowd who had flocked to Paris from the poor suburbs*, driven from their hovels by the war, these workers without work, these paysans without land, were determined to defend a capital that was not theirs, this capital of the rich and that the rich had deserted. From this re-invested Paris they would make their Commune.

Hector often ran into [Eugene] Varlin who, nominated to the counsel charged with administering Paris, gave himself over to an intense flurry of activity. He recounted to Hector how, on March 18, Adolphe Thiers, named head of the Versailles government, had sent the troops in to recuperate the 250 canons abandoned in Paris and how the crowd, stopping the horses, had cut the harnesses; how, on the top of Montmartre, women had slept on the canons to protect them; how General Lecompte had ordered his troops to fire on the crowd and how a junior officer, emerging from the ranks, had cried, “Muskets in the air!”; how the soldiers on the line had fraternized with the people and turned their guns on their own general.

“From here on in it’s war between Versailles and Paris,” exalted Varlin. “We’ve erected a hundred barricades. The most important thing is to hold out for one month, to allow time for the provinces to rebel in their turn. The Commune of Paris will be followed by Communes of Lyon, of Bordeaux, of Marseille, of Nantes. France will become a federation of communes. Ah! If only Proudhon could see us now!

**Workers driven from the poorer neighborhoods of Paris erased by the renovations of Baron Haussman — renovations which, by eliminating the sidestreets in favor of grand boulevards had also paved the way for the military defeat of the Commune.

The unbearable fadaise d’Anne Hidalgo

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak

After instituting week-end confinements in two French departments experiencing exponentially exploding Covid outbreaks last week, the Alpes-Maritime county around Nice and the county around Dunkerque, the national French government announced consultations with leaders in 18 other counties also experiencing elevated levels of cases. The mayor of Paris’s initial response (albeit floated by a deputy mayor) was to suggest a three-week confinement, with the goal of being able to re-open bars, restaurants, and cultural establishments. In other words, so that the mayor could repeat the same conneries of last summer and early fall, when she declined to cancel three typically crowd-intensive events: an outdoor summer film festival, the month-long “Paris Plage” festival which pretends that the Seine is a beach, and the “Nuit Blanche” all-night art event night in early October, when France was already riding the crest of a second wave. Giving the mayor the benefit of the doubt, I ignore what crowd limitations may have been imposed on any of these events. What I do know is that masks were not required for Paris Plage. (I was shocked at the time to see a photo of young people with “Paris health department” tee-shirts passing out information, presumably on safety measures, while standing shoulder to shoulder and not wearing masks.)

After the idea of a three-week new confinement fell flat, the mayor back-peddled and

** Called the idea of a week-end confinement “inhuman,” in and of itself not inaccurate to objectively qualify such an imposition, but given the mayor’s presidential ambitions and previous denigrations of, for example, the pace of the government’s vaccine roll-out, implicitly impugning this quality to president Emmanuel Macron’s government, lead by prime minister Jean Castex.

**Proposed opening classroom windows and holding class outside — as if no one else had already thought of this.

** And, most solipsistically in my view, said the vaccine allotment for the Ile de France region which includes Paris should be quadrupled — when she well knows that vaccine supply in France as in Europe is still limited. (As of last weekend, according to the European Centers for Disease Control, 40 million doses had been distributed to the 27 member states, and 32 million administered.) The implication here being that Parisians are more important than the rest of us.

The frank-talking Castex promptly and properly characterized Madame Hidalgo’s pronouncements as “des fadaises.” (Oxford: “Fiddle-faddle, trifle, nonsense, insipid, silly speech.”)

Meanwhile, while the mayor of Paris was fiddle-faddling, her counterpart in the Southwestern city of Toulouse was taking concrete, practical measures. After residents flooded the banks of the Garonne last week-end, many ignoring social distancing measures and leaving local police to hand out fines, he announced that henceforth the quays would be closed on week-ends. He evidently realizes that it would be … inhuman… to expect the police to act as hall monitors.

Why am I making more of a federal case out of Mayor Hidalgo’s actions and statements than the federal government is?

I think we need to examine the Paris mayor’s recent words in the context of both her reported presidential ambitions and an overall administration of the city frequently characterized by more concern with opportunistic ‘show’ than actual effects, particularly as concerns pollution, the ecology (in a large sense that includes ombrage — tree protection — and water flowing), and privatization.

Let’s look first at that characterization of a possible week-end confinement — and by association the strategy, or at least part of the strategy, of Mr. Macron and Mr. Castex’s government — as “inhuman,” with the concomitant assumption that Madame Hidalgo has a monopoly on that quality. Where exactly does a mayor whose approach to resolving the city’s ongoing homeless population dilemma has included replacing benches in public parks and on the boulevards with single-unit monstrosities (so the homeless can’t sleep on them; out of sight, out of mind) get off applying the epithet ‘inhuman’ to a proposed measure by a government whose president, Mr. Macron, began his tenure by earnestly announcing that he wanted to see 0 people sleeping on the street? On my very first visit to Paris in the fall of 2000, I remember reclining on a bench in a tiny square off the Butte aux Cailles across from the place Paul Verlaine, which still boasts an accessible water source and where the first manned balloons first landed (or took off) in the late 18th century, my arms stretched out along the bench-back as I basked in the gentle fall afternoon sunlight and thinking, “This is the life, and this is where I want to live.” When I returned to that square in 2019, the long benches had been replaced by a row of one-person units, the pigeon-shit that covered all of them leaving me with no desire to rest my fanny at that particular moment. (Benches aren’t just places for homeless people who can’t find correct shelter to sleep; they are also incredible aubaines for the type of ‘vivre-ensemble’ Anne Hidalgo claims to champion. And settings for intrigues; if Georges Simenon were alive today, he would not be able to write “Maigret and the man on the bench” in Anne Hidalgo’s Paris.)

Next let’s consider the sanitary environment — or at least one aspect of it on which I have some expertise — in Paris that preceded the Covid outbreak. (Madame Hidalgo has been in power since 2014.) On my last extended stay in the capitol, from early January through late May of 2019, I observed that the sinks in about three quarters of the public sanitaires (at least the ones I visited, and when it comes to the sanitaires of Paris, I’m the guy Leonard Cohen was talking about when he said “I’m your man”) or outdoor toilet huts weren’t working. That’s an awful lot of people running around the streets of Paris with unwashed hands. Public toilets in general haven’t fared well on Madame Hidalgo’s watch. (Which is relevant because, in a city where people have a propensity to piss on the street, it’s a question of propriety. “Everybody pees on Paris; watch me now.” — Malcolm McLaren) The free public toilets in the Metro stations were sold off by the mayor to a private concession which charged as much to relieve oneself — 1.50 — as a Metro ticket. And soon shuttered most of them. The pissoir off an alley midway up the parc Butte Chaumont was blocked off by debris for years. And the most luxurious toilet in the world, an Art Deco model below the Place Madeleine between the storied church which took 100 years to build as the country alternated between church-friendly and church-hostile regimes, the Maille Mustard Boutique, and the Ladurée Macaron bakery, where each client had his own mahogany stall with private sink and could get his shoes shined as the attendants played Piaf on the radio, was closed by the mayor with the excuse that it was too expensive to maintain. The last time I saw my favorite toilets in Paris — I used to take visitors there before we went across the street to sample the latest mustard concoction — garbage was piled up before the locked door at the bottom of the entry stairs. Never mind that the city spends, under Madame Hidalgo’s instruction, the same amount, 100,000 Euros, on a 30-minute New Year’s Eve light show, as if Paris needs the extra publicity.

Speaking of running water, one of the most elegant — and egalitarian — features of this most elegant and proletarian city used to be the fountains that dotted neighborhood gardens. The last time I saw Paris, most of those fountains had stopped flowing… except for those in the busiest tourist zones. This is one of the egalitarian qualities that first impressed me about Paris: You didn’t need to live in the city center, or a tourist zone, to have access to well-kept garden — and green space — with a fountain, pond, or even creek. (The Japanese-style one that borders a summit at the parc Georges Brassens in the 15th arrondisement, famous for its weekend old book market, has been dry for at least a decade, so that can’t be put on Madame Hidalgo.) Fountains now gone dry include, as I’ve previously noted in the Lutèce Diaries, a limestone naked lady reclining in a recessed basin just behind the 2000-year-old Arenes de Lutèce whose spout no longer spouts, and a metal sculpture-fountain nestled in a little park on the boulevard Arago in the 13eme arrondissement designed by Cesar Domela, who used to live in the Villa Fleuri next door. Even the cascading fountain that intersects the parc Belleville high above Paris sometimes runs dry. (And I’m not counting fountains like the ring of spouting tortoises under the four breasty beauties from around the world holding up the globe in the Carpeaux fountain at the entrance to the Explorers or Marco Polo garden which abuts the Luxembourg, which seem to be turned on in April and off in October, as there may be a good reason for that seasonality.)

And then there’s the trees.

As part of what I consider the mayor’s ecology de facade campaign — because apart from promises to eventually ban diesel engines from the city, as with her predecessor Hidalgo’s ecology program, cautioned by her Green party collaborators, is more about show than substance — City Hall has been lining certain streets, like the rue des Envierges which leads to the esplanade above the parc Belleville (offering the best view of the Eiffel Tower on the Right Bank) with cumbersome square wooden planter boxes hosting unidentifiable shrubs, presumably meant to indicate that the city is getting more green. (Meanwhile, the Arab-French bakery at the end of the street across from the esplanade has been replaced by another BoBo soup shop.)

I never thought the day would come when I’d favorably compare anything in Texas with anything in France, but contrast this superficial greening with the ‘shading’ policy of the city of Fort Worth, where I lived for nearly four years, and whose official policy dictates that a certain percentage of the municipality’s streets must offer tree coverage, or protection from the Sun.

In Paris, on the other hand, in 2015 I watched with horror from the window of my apartment on the rue Tourtille in lower Belleville as city-funded construction workers chopped down two hundred-year-old cherry trees (no doubt relics of the time when Belleville was a semi-rural suburb of Paris) in the back courtyard as they replaced an existing apartment building with a new one which would extend farther into the courtyard. (Residents had fought City Hall for years to try to stop that project, as the Bellevilloises have had to fight Madame Hidalgo on other projects aimed at privatizing different aspects of this oasis of a neighborhood, be it an apartment conversion project — allocated to a private builder by the city — on the rue Ramponeau, named after the sector’s most famous cabaret owner, which would have torn down one of the neighborhood’s last artisan ateliers, or her attempts to convert the space that once housed the “Museum of Air” above the park’s lower esplanade and amphitheater to a restaurant or private meeting hall.)

And what about the pollution? When I moved out of Paris in 2007, in large part because I couldn’t breathe, pollution was killing on average 40,000 people per year in France. In the most recent year studied, it was killing 48,000, with about 2000 of those in Paris, also the fifth most polluted city in Europe. The point isn’t that this is Madame Hidalgo’s fault; it’s not. But at the least the steady progression of the numbers confirms that for all the bally-hoo around measures like banning cars from the periphery of the Right Bank of the Seine (which only displace the cars, and the pollution they promote, to other sectors), her much-publicized actions have (apparently) had very little real effect on the pollution she’s supposed to be targeting. (I also remember, during my Spring 2019 stay, gasping for breath in front of a sign off the Butte aux Cailles assuring me, “Paris respire,” “Paris is breathing,” as if closing small sectors of the city on Sundays for six months of the year was sufficient.

I guess what I’m saying — and the link to Hidalgo’s ‘inhuman’ comment with its implicit criticism of Mr. Macron’s government — is that if the mayor of Paris is concerned with humanity, perhaps she should be taking more steps to humanize — and civilize — the city of which she has the honor to be the steward and whose propriety has only diminished under her reign. (Turning those fountains back on and gettiing that water running in the bathrooms would be a good start.) And to bring back some of the elegance which since the epochs of Benjamin Franklin and Henry James has drawn Americans to Lutèce, making us feel that we too have some investment in its future.

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Le Feuilleton (the Serial), 6: Exclusive! “Trompe-l’Oeil,” Michel Ragon’s saga of art, artists, dealers, anti-Semitism, and critics in Post-war Paris, Part 6

by and copyright Michel Ragon
Translation copyright Paul Ben-Itzak
From “Trompe-l’oeil,” published in 1956 by Éditions Albin Michel

Part six in the Paris Tribune’s exclusive English-language translation of Michel Ragon’s seminal 1956 novel taking on the world of abstract art, artists, art collectors, art dealers, and art critics in Paris, as well as post-War anti-Semitism in France. For the first five parts, click here. Translator Paul Ben-Itzak is looking to rent digs in Paris this Spring and for the Fall. Paul Ben-Itzak cherche un sous-loc à Paris pour le printemps. Got a tip? Tuyau? E-mail him at .

Summer had scattered the artists. The poorest remained in a Paris deserted and torrid. The better off found themselves on the Cote d’Azur, where they automatically took up the rhythm of their Parisian lives: gallery visits, squabbles between critics, internecine rivalries between dealers, interminable palaver in the cafés which supplanted le Select or le Dôme, the dazzling vista of the Mediterranean replacing the buzzing of the boulevard Montparnasse.

At the end of September, they all returned to the nest, excited by the prospect of an exhibition to prepare, an article to write, a sale practically assured. Optimism was the order of the day. Would this be the great decisive year? Everyone had the right to hope so.

Returning first, Fontenoy frequently passed by Manhès’s atelier before finally finding him at home. He was impatient to reunite with his friend; he’d saved up so many things he wanted to share with him!

He knew the majority of the habitants of the cité, a kind of housing project allocated to artists.* From the moment he entered the narrow street, a tremor of robust howling indicated that Corato was reciting the aria from “Pagliati.” Corato was one of the poorest of the abstract painters. His somewhat obscure style, extremely nuanced, attracted few fans. No dealer was interested in him. An Italian, he took advantage of the pristine tenor’s voice with which nature had bestowed him by earning his living singing operatic airs in a café-concert. But this double-life took its toll. For that matter, his tenor’s day job made it hard for his fellow painters and the critics to take him seriously. One of them had even quipped, “Corato is a professional tenor. Painting is to him like the violin is to Ingres.” Certain barbs launched for the pleasure of coming up with a witty turn of phrase can also poison the victim’s existence. This particular one really wounded Corato. When Fontenoy knocked on the door of his atelier, the tenor-painter was discomfited to see him. “You know of course that I only sing because…”

“What new paintings do you have to show me?” Fontenoy cut him off.

If he wasn’t very enthusiastic about Corato’s art, he recognized the quality of his painting, the sincerity underlying it. At times the colors revealed a contained vibration which enabled Fontenoy to get a hint of what Corato’s painting might be if it was allowed to ripen. But Corato was 50 years old. Would fatigue finish him off before he’d be able to complete his experiments and find his style?

Fontenoy carefully studied Corato’s paintings in this atelier whose walls were plastered with travel posters. He told himself that these paintings were by far superior to so many others which made a mint. How was it possible that nobody had remarked their importance? He promised himself to write about Corato for L’Artiste.

Leaving Corato’s atelier, Fontenoy hailed the aged sculptor Morini, perched on his porch in a white blouse.

After a life of misery, Morini had suddenly achieved celebrity at the age of 80. Unexpectedly very rich, he continued living in his Spartan studio, alone as he’d been all his life, altering absolute nothing in his daily routine.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Morini,” Fontenoy greeted him. “You didn’t go away on vacation?”

“Bou… bou…,” grumbled the old man. “Vacation…? I’m quite happy chez moi.”

As he seemed notably sad, Fontenoy tried to flatter him.

“It’s formidable, Monsieur Morini! Life magazine devoted three pages, in color, to you.”

“Harrumph! That would have made my poor mother happy. If she hadn’t been dead for many years now. Like all of those who would have been happy to see such an article.”

“Well,” replied Fontenoy, embarrassed, “it might have taken a while, but now that you’ve been recognized, the recognition has been hundredfold.”

The old sculptor began furiously gesticulating. He yelled: “What the hell do I care, for all their greenbacks? I can’t even eat cake. All my teeth are gone.”

This eruption brought Manhès out of his atelier.

“You’re here!”

Isabel emerged in her turn, little Moussia clinging to her dress.

Fontenoy dashed into his friend’s atelier.

“And Blanche?”

“She’s getting ready for her exhibition. We spent our vacation together on the banks of the Loire.”

“So… it’s working out then?” Manhès asked, smiling broadly.

“Yes. We get along well. She’s a quite a chic girl. There’s no reason that it shouldn’t last.”

“For me, it’s never been so good. I sold well on the Cote d’Azur and since coming back I already have enough orders to last me until the Spring. Oh, that old fart Lévy-Kahn is sure going to be sorry for his little temper-tantrum.”

“Is Ancelin back in Paris?”

“No. He’s once again let himself be shanghaied by an old widow who swept him away to New York. You know him, he never loses an opportunity to cultivate his image. Meanwhile, Mumfy’s son has enrolled in the Academy of Abstract Art. Voila a new colleague on the horizon. His old man must have calculated that it would be cheaper to have abstract tableaux fabricated by his own offspring than to keep on buying them from actual artists. I saw the family the other day, to talk to them about Blanche’s water-colors. I think she might be able to sell them a few. But Mama Mumfy told me, in plugging her son: ‘I’m not going to show you what he’s done yet. It’s not quite at a fully developed level. But he’s so sincere!’

“I responded to her with Degas’s famous quip: ‘So young, and already sincere. Madame, I’m afraid your son is already a lost cause.’ She didn’t seem very happy with this summary verdict.”

Someone knocked on the door. Isabelle went to open it. A 40ish man, elegant with slicked-back hair, entered the room and began inspecting it.

“What do you want, Monsieur Androclès?” asked Manhès, without any finesse.

“I’ve come to offer you a deal.”

“I don’t cultivate vegetables here,” Manhès exclaimed, suddenly seized with a rage that Fontenoy could not understand.

“Oh, Manhès!” shot back the man, aggrieved, “you’ll rue the day you made that bad joke.”

He departed, taking his time.

A profound silence descended on the atelier. Isabelle finally broke it.

“Perhaps you shouldn’t have snubbed him like that. You’ve just made another enemy.”

“The only ones who don’t have any enemies are the mediocrities!”

Androclès was one of the most important art dealers in Paris. He’d made his fortune during the Occupation, by selling fresh fruit and vegetables. A shrewd broker had convinced him that the most fructuous way to invest his money was to buy paintings. He’d resisted such a patently idiotic idea for a long time. But the broker found an argument with weight: “If you buy a boat,” he explained, “you’ll need to hire a crew to take care of it, and there will always be repairs that need to be made. The more you take to sea, the more it will deteriorate. Same thing for a building. You’ll need a super, a concierge. One day the roof will cave in. Then the basement will flood. A car wears down every time you drive it. Everything deteriorates, everything has personnel and maintenance costs — except painting. You can still buy a Cezanne for the price of a building. You won’t have to do anything to maintain it, and its price can only go up.”

Like Mumfy, Androclès investigated and before long he too had contracted the virus. He had the flair to acquire second-tier Impressionists at low prices and third-tier Cubists that no one wanted. Today, these Impressionists and these Cubists had finally attained their petite glory in the retrospectives and they constituted the Androclès gallery’s capital. Then this genius stumbled upon an aged Cubist painter of the variety one just doesn’t see anymore. The painter in question, simultaneously naive and sage, had been living in retirement in the country, getting by on a small income furnished by a group of loyal American collectors. During the war, he lost this clientele and plunged into such misery, such oblivion, that his wife did not survive. How on Earth Androclès, this vegetable hawker who was completely ignorant of painting, had managed to learn of his existence was a complete mystery. It’s said that even drunks have a guardian angel. It’s quite possible. But what is certain is that there must be one for philistines. This guardian angel conducted Androclès to the home of the old abandoned Cubist. He arrived with his arms loaded with vittles and departed with them loaded with canvasses. Then he bided his time. When the vegetable hawker calculated that the old man must be out of provisions, he arrived like the man from Providence with a baked ham, swept up every scrap of art which still lingered in the atelier, at 50 francs the yard, and saw himself once more hailed as a benefactor. On these raids, the old painter would scout around for a gift to offer to the dealer. He’d then give him the original edition of a book by Apollinaire which he’d illustrated in his youth, or an old drawing.

After the Liberation, the old Cubist painter died just as he was being rehabilitated. The first successful exhibition at the Androclès gallery was constituted by some of these canvasses bartered for vittles. They were bought up at fantastic prices. Today, any museum which didn’t own at least one of these masterpieces was one embarrassed museum.

Androclès no longer hawked fruits and vegetables, but his wife, a fat babushka with a vulgar voice, regaled painting collectors with her ignorance.

Fontenoy recounted to Manhès: “One day, I found myself in the gallery. A visitor asked the price of a Picasso ‘collage.’ Mama Androclès was manning the boutique. ‘Ah, that one, Mister, it’s worth the big bucks. But it’s old. Look at the paper, it’s already yellowing.'”

“You know the one,” Manhès countered, “about the guy who came to ask Androclès for Van Gogh’s address, don’t you? He didn’t bat an eye. He simply declared, in a dignified tone, ‘That gentleman is not one of my painters.'”

Moussia ran over and grasped her father’s knees. Manhès swept the child up and dangled her from his hands. The little girl giggled.

“This makes up for all of it, Fontenoy. When you have the time, you should fabricate one of these little marvels of your own with Blanche!”

Fontenoy protested: “Lay off! You used to marry me off to every single girl we met. Now that I’m with Blanche, you want us to have a kid. But what can we do? I’d tell you that an artist isn’t made to have kids, but it would only piss you off.”

“What, you don’t like our little Moussia?”

“Sure I do, she’s a darling. But just because I like something I see chez les autres doesn’t mean I want to have it chez moi.

“Ah! And now,” announced Manhès in affectionately nudging the tot away, “now go play. Papa needs to work….(and he added, emphatically) I tell you, Fontenoy, between the wife and the kid…!”


*Originally applied to housing complexes constructed for workers, today the term ‘cité’ most often refers to housing projects in the poorer neighborhoods or border suburbs of French cities. Before the expansion of the Montparnasse train station in the 1950s which leveled them, the 13th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements of Paris housed many of the cités reserved for artists. (When the translator lived in the Cité Falguière in the 15th in 2000, the former atelier of Chaim Soutine was still visible at the entrance.) Michel Ragon notably wrote about a visit to the sculptor Brancusi’s atelier before it in turn was re-located, intact, to another part of the city… to make way for progress. (Translator’s note.)