Horse Sense: Ambiance animal art in Arles, Normandy, NY, the Sierras, & Texas

smarles 1“Le bel indifferent No. 1,” France, 2009. Digital print, 45 x 45 cm. Copyright Laurence Leblanc and courtesy Flair Gallery. The title echoes that of a radio play written by Jean Cocteau for Edith Piaf.

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

“L’art est ni le refus total, ni le consentement à ce qui est.” (Art is neither the total refusal, nor the consent to things as they are.)

Albert Camus, cited in the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt 2018-19 program

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Based in Arles  — the provençal city best known outside France as the place where Vincent Van Gogh scalded his scalp, fried his brain, and cut off his ear before being hounded out of town by irate citizens to most of whom he was not the bridge between Impressionism and Modernism but “that crazy redhead” — the Flair Gallery was founded in 2015 by Isabelle Wisniak, another redhead, whose gestalt makes her crazy like a fox. All the art programmed by Wisniak is related to animals and advancing human understanding of their kingdom.  But attention: Wisniak, whose pedigree includes working for the fabled FNAC photography galleries and for temporary exhibitions at the Conciergerie (where Marie Antoinette and Danton lost their heads — both the FNAC and Conciergerie spaces are rooted in Paris archeology), is not interested in cute cat pics. The art she promotes is not just fueled by noble sentiments but solid ideas. The result is creators whose work is as aesthetically intriguing as it is politically stimulating, addressing both technical and moral questions.

For her exhibition this spring in the Church of the Friar-Preachers, organized by Wisniak, Caroline Desnoëttes erected chapels dedicated to apes (among other “graphic safaris”), a juxtaposition which might have tickled Clarence Darrow, defense attorney at the Scopes monkey trial (and, like Van Gogh, a subject of historical novelist Irving Stone) which pitted creationists against Darwinists. She also coordinated Desnoëttes’s street-perambulating expos Eléphantomatiques and Portraits d’Arlésiens hybrydes and is hosting, through today at her gallery on the picaresque rue de la Calade in the heart of the old city, Grandeur Nature, offering paintings and drawings by the Paris-based author and designer.

“I still retain the luminous memory of the large animals of Kenya, where as a teenager I was submerged by their beauty,” says Desnoëttes, who in 2014 opened a studio at the Red Cross Margency Children’s Hospital in Paris in partnership with the Louvre, the Orsay, the Rodin, and other museums. “These founding images continue to feed my work,” expressed in simple ink drawings as well as landscapes, and also encompassing a form of street art Desnoëttes dubs “éléphantômatiques.” As a child, she recalls, “I loved to follow, observe, admire, and spy on animals, and get them to come out from behind their cover, always prepared to be amazed. When they detect and perceive us, they freeze, peer out at us, consider us, size us up, and stare at us. I’d tell myself it was entirely possible that, without being aware of it, I was a member of their tribe!”

Since that keen childhood hyper-awareness of and attachment to the animal kingdom, Desnoëttes says, “I caress them with the edge of my paintbrush… pigs and goats, rats and cats. They pose like trophies whose skin is composed of ink and paper, their regards brotherly — that’s exactly what it is, what I feel since childhood: We’re brothers and we live in the same house, planet Earth.”

smarles 2“Palette singe 8,” 2017. Drawing by Caroline Desnoëttes. Ink on Japanese paper, 135 x 150 cm. Copyright Thomas Julien, and courtesy Flair Gallery, Arles.

It’s this tribal bond that strikes me in Desnoëttes’s 2017 ink drawing “Palette singe 8,” in which the ape echoes the simian-human connection traced by Eugene O’Neill in “The Hairy Ape,” only in reverse, the pensive monkey’s expression seeming human; you want to ask him what he’s pondering.  “Full moon panther 4,” also created last year, reminds me both of the panther that used to pace poignantly back and forth, like its polar bear brother neighbor, in the confines of a 20-foot long cell in the San Francisco Zoo (where the apes were more inclined to interact with the public, throwing their caca at anyone who got too close to their perch on “Monkey Island”), quietly going mad, and its relative in Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 “Cat People,” where feline empathy was also stirred up by the purring Simone Simon (Eartha Kitt had nothing on her), into whom the panther metamorphosed when the Sun came up.

smarles 3“Panthère pleine lune 4,” 2017. Drawing by Caroline Desnoëttes. Ink on Indian paper, 90 cm. Copyright Thomas Julien and courtesy Flair Gallery.

The presence of an art gallery sensible to animals in this particular geography is not anodyne. When I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking of moving to Arles (because of the literary and art scenes, as well as the proximity to the Camargue and potential horse work), he praised its Bohemian ambiance and artistic nature, but said he was distressed by the area’s “Tauromaché.” Having spent several years living in semi-rural villages in the south of France, my own view on humans who kill animals has evolved. From their daily proximity with nature, my hunter friends have a grand respect for and understanding of animals. But even if they are distinguished from bull-fighters in eating everything they kill — thus an argument of utility can be made — hunters like matadors are engaged in sporting matches in which their opponents are involuntary participants. (Though it might be argued that at least bull-fighters risk own their lives.)  It’s the humans who have determined the rules of engagement and manipulated the balance of power.  Its defenders argue that bull-fighting, or Tauromaché, is also an art.  With a view towards supporting this thesis, I broke out a collection of Editions David postcard reproductions I have of Picasso’s aqua-tint illustrations of the famous Pepe Illo bull-fighting scenes. Published in 1957 in Barcelona by Gustavo Gili for its “La Cometa” editions, Picasso executed them after attending the bull-fights in the Roman arena of… Arles.

Several of the tableaux indicate how ridiculous the contest is with its inflated pomp: The matador parading into the arena with his coterie of marching and mounted attendants, primping like a bride, or being applauded after having vanquished the bull in a match that was ultimately rigged because the humans set the rules. Others, however, depict the respect in which the beast is held: The matador kneeling before the bovine, spreading his cape out on the ground between them as if in tribute, or saluting an animal opponent proudly clenching a morsel of torn cape between his teeth. Another shows the opponents facing off on visually equal terms, at least as far as the arena goes: The bull standing in attendance, the matador seated and gently waving his cape towards the animal as, in the foreground, another matador and an elegant woman in a lavish hat watch from the rungs. I’m less sure about the elegance of another which shows the audience and matadors in the shadows, the bull standing under blazing floodlights; is he the honored star or the spectacle, like the Kroebers’ Ishi in Berkeley? But my favorite is a village-scape which depicts the townspeople mounting, by foot, burro, truck and cart the gentle hills in the foreground to the Arles arena in the background. It’s an occasion. It’s a culture. You can say it’s not a civilized culture because it’s not your culture and you weren’t raised in it, but is it really so barbaric as all that? Another tableau — and perhaps the one the Taurus in me, who takes Ferdinand as his model, identifies with the most — pictures the bulls reposing in the countryside, monitored by a single guardian (albeit one armed with a spear).

In Texas, we don’t kill our bulls, we just taunt them until they’re mad enough to charge. When I caught the Rodeo & Stockyard show in Fort Worth — the largest and oldest indoor rodeo in the world – in 2012, a bull twice the size of the cobalt ones who gambol among the marshes of the Camargue, to which Arles is the gateway, nearly succeeded in hurtling the barrier which separated his pen from the stands and mounting in the press seats. (If you want to tame the media jackals, put them next to the bull pen.) He was finally lured into the arena by the clown, the most courageous human player in the rodeo, with only a thin barrel protecting him from the horns.

Before a gig working as ranch chef and stable boy on a Texas pony farm later that same year,  my closest exposure to horses — my equine fix — came from strolling through the large hangar at the stockyard show, where I found the aroma of horse-dung as intoxicating as some in the South of France find prune eau de vie.

The stockyards in the Will Rogers Center neighboring several museums in the city’s “Cultural District,” during a break between cowboy (and girl) poetry jam sessions and after checking out a quilting exhibition at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, I moseyed over to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, curious to see if there was any overlap — if the real cowboys from the stockyard show and rodeo were checking out Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell, an exhibition devoted to the late 19th, early 20th century artist who, along with his contemporary Frederick Remington, was largely responsible for the image Hollywood and thus America and the world would subsequently cultivate of the cowboy and his equine auxiliary.  On the suggestion of his cowboy-philosopher friend Rogers (“No one ever went broke under-estimating the intelligence of the American public”)  that it was a good investment, Carter, publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, bought a pair of Russell paintings which grew into the collection that became the basis of the museum he later financed. The Carter is free 24/7 at the behest of its founder, who wanted future generations of children to have access to the art he didn’t growing up. (The Metropolitan Museum in New York, which recently abandoned its pay-as-you-can admission, except for locals, could stand to learn a lesson.)

After paying my respects to Ben Shahn’s “Comics,” a towering painting on the mezzanine level portraying a boy reading the funny pages before a vast wall, I ambled into the Russell exhibition and sidled over to where an older cowboy, a slightly younger cowboy, and an eternally young cowgirl whose long grey-black hair fell in two braided tresses over her plaid shirt and blue jeans had paused in front of “The Challenge No. 2,” a tableau from 1898 in which two wild horses are pitched in battle. With my dark-brown garage-sale cowboy work-boots, snap-button silver shirt, red bandana (came with the boots), black Dickies jeans, broad-brimmed straw cowboy hat with the longhorn emblazoned on its flaming orange band and, facsimilating the jingle of spurs, the collars of my three dead cats dangling from my wrist, I hoped to be able to pass.

arles russell againCharles Marion Russell, “The Challenge No. 2,” 1898. Watercolor. Bob and Betsy Magness Collection, Denver Art Museum, 52.2005. From the exhibition Romance Maker: The Watercolors of Charles M. Russell, which showed at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art and at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana in 2012, as earlier published on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager.

“Isn’t that something?” the younger cowboy was exclaiming, indicating the sparring horses. The older man, who like his friend wore glasses under his broad grey Stetson, was jolted into a memory. “When I lost the ranch during the draught in the 1990s, I started hiring out breakin’ broncs. Now Bob, who was my neighbor, asked me to come over there and break a half a dozen of them in. After I was all done and he asked me ‘How much?,’ I told ‘im I wasn’t gonna charge ‘im…. But there was one horse there that was unlike any I’d ever seen before, and I told ‘im I wouldn’t mind having that one. He was real muscled up top. You know these young cowboys, they flatten ’em out on the back by cross-breeding them, just because everybody does it.” I lost some of the conversation, and picked it back up at, “He called me yesterday and invited me up next week. I’d invite you but it’s not the kind of thing to bring guests to.” Apparently, ‘Bob’ was preparing to shoot several horses who were old or terminally ill, and was giving his friend a chance to pick up the horse he’d hankered after earlier. “Better than turning it over to the soap factory!” “Sounds like he’s real old school!” said the other cowboy. “I didn’t know they shot ’em any more. I guess he just wants to save money on the Vet!”

The two cowboys and the cowgirl wife moved on to “The Chaperone / Waiting,” an 1897 watercolor of a brave on a horse and a maiden fetching water or cleaning clothes in a pond, with an elderly squaw standing between them. “Now, this is just incredible,” said the second cowboy, sweeping his palm over the receding landscape. (Because of his rustic subject, Russell’s is sometimes relegated to a second, lesser tier of artistic achievement, but make no mistake: Like Remington’s, his technique — the means he used to accomplish his romantic effects — was elaborate and calculated.) Then the man’s wife laughed, pointing to the chaperone. “Reminds me of our first date, at the drive-in. My grandmother came and insisted on sitting between us.”

This is what art at its best does; it distills life, using technique to reflect it back to the observer in a way that doesn’t just evoke physical recognition but resonates and stimulates not only intellectually, but emotionally, sensually, and spiritually.

(When I was running a gallery in a small village on the banks of the Nile in the Languedoc region of France, the window display that finally made local passersby stop and look was not the modern paintings, nor my curio shop knick-knacks, nor even my clever hand-drawn comics, but a gargantuan bird’s nest an American neighbor had discovered in the woods.)

When the rodeo wasn’t in town, I’d get my horse fix at the quarter-horse competitions, which show-cased the equines’ ability to herd.  So when, picking up Boris Vian’s play “L’equarrissage pour tous” recently, I looked up ‘equarrissage’ and found it translated as “the quartering of horses,” I was confused until French friends explained to me that here the quartering in question is not activated by the horses on straying heifers but imposed on them, post-mortem. (The equarrisseur not to be confused with the chevillard, who hacks horses up for meat.) Vian’s play takes place June 6, 1944, in the Normandy village of Arromanches (where the allies landed 1 million men and set up temporary concrete unloading docks, the remnants of which still peer out of the surf today), chez an equarrisseur more concerned with marrying off his daughter to the German soldier she’s been sleeping with for four years than the bombs rattling the house every few minutes and the steady traffic through his home of American soldiers, German soldiers, an errant daughter who parachutes into the living room with the Russian army and a prodigal son who lands in American military garb. (There’s also an American ordinance officer who, just in time for the wedding, delivers three boxes containing a ready-to-assemble priest, religion joining chocolate and tobacco among the essential provisions furnished by the Allies.) Inconvenient visitors inevitably get bopped on the head and dropped into the pit otherwise reserved for the decomposing horse parts, whose putrid odor is no doubt the reason two French officers finally arrive to announce that the house doesn’t fit in with reconstruction plans, terminating the play by blowing it up with its owner before he can realize the profits the invasion and the accompanying horse carnage no doubt promise, horses (probably Normandy Percherons, known for not being easily rattled by mud or canons) being a vital accessory to and thus recurrent casualty of war. (Vian described his drama as an “anarchist burlesque.” Essentially, he’s saying: Even a good war stinks. My idea is to produce the play on June 6, 2019, in Arromanches, for the 75th anniversary of the Debarquement. Perhaps with marionettes, who might be more resistant than humans to the abuse Vian imposes on his personages to make his point.)

The horse’s historic martial role, as the only thing holding up Achilles, is captured in Devotion to Drawing: The Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art July 17, in this drawing:

smarles 5Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), “The Education of Achilles, ca. 1844. Graphite, 9 5/16 x 11 11/16 inches (23.6 x 29.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift from the Karen B. Cohen Collection of Eugène Delacroix, in honor of Emily Rafferty, 2014 (2014.732.3).

Like Vian’s play and the Normandy invasion, Laurence Leblanc, whose photography Isabelle Wisniak (remember her?) exhibits June 30 through September 12, also began on June 6, being born on that day in 1967. The photographs on view in Leblanc’s Flair show — at least those which intrigue me the most among what I’ve seen —  were taken 40 years earlier in Kentucky (the horses presumably associated with the derby). After discovering them in a dusty album in a rear room at the municipal library of Deauville (Normandy again), Leblanc decided to adjust the original images in a way that re-calibrated the power rapport between horse and man to one of more equilibrium. Take a look at this shot, tweaked by Leblanc:

Arles Famous Mare 1, France, 2016 © Laurence Leblanc larger“Famous Mare  1,” France, 2016. Copyright Laurence Leblanc and courtesy Flair Gallery.

… And then at this one by 19th-century photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, known for his staged photos:

arles muybridge re-mixedFrom the exhibition “The Medium and Its Metaphors,” first covered by the AV in 2012:  Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904),”Dan with Rider (.064 Second), One Stride in 8 Phases (Left Lead),” ca. 1887. Collotype. Amon Carter Museum of American Art P1970.56.13.

At first glance, the Leblanc made me think of the Muybridge. On closer examination, I realized that in the Muybridge, the rider is beating the horse; in Leblanc’s tweaking of the 1927 photo, the horse is staring down the stable boy (on whom Leblanc seems to have performed a digital equarissage operation), challenging the master-subjugated relationship.

I can’t over-state the global resonances this image by Leblanc, nor another, “Famous Mares No. 3,” suggested to me, nor the personal catharsis they delivered.

What started me on the trail to Wisniak’s gallery was discovering yet another major arts institution whose otherwise noble mission has been compromised, in my view, by the profile of one of its main supporters. In the U.S., this has been most infamously manifest by institutions like New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Museum accepting large donations from the Koch Brothers (funders of phony science debunking global warming and anti-Labor politicians, among other nefest causes) and, in the case of the Met, the Sackler family (owners of Perdue Pharma, linked to the opiate crisis plaguing the United States, and who have  lent their name to the Met wing housing the Temple of Dendur). Instead of getting up on my high horse again and ranting the institution in question, this time I thought I’d try to scout out arts institutions who, in lieu of accepting and parlaying with the world as it is, agitate for the world as it ought to be. By focusing on art related to animals — *and* in a place like Arles with its embedded Tauromaché culture — Wisniak is militating for the cause of animals in the largest sense, getting us on their side by enabling what artists do best: Teach empathy.

On a personal level, contemplating Leblanc’s photos re-imagining the rapport between the horse and the stable boy stirred a memory like those of the Texas cowboys before the Russell watercolor – and, like the protagonist of Herman Hesse’s “Journey to the East,” started me on the road to seeing an episode of my past in a new, more positive light.

Chris, the New Zealand rodeo champion on the Texas pony farm where I fed the humans and helped feed the horses, came from a domain, rodeo, where the goal is not just to master the horse but to show off that mastery. When I met him he was a firm believer in and practitioner of the natural method, which relies more on coaxing, cajoling, and habituating the horses than making them submit with whips and spurs. Neither Chris nor PJ, his deputy, also from New Zealand, wore spurs. (Nor cowboy boots. Nor — demonstrating their confidence that the horses wouldn’t toss them — chaps. Chris preferred holey jeans.) “If you have to wear spurs, you haven’t done your job right,” Chris explained. PJ wasn’t above cursing at the horses if they strayed or dawdled during morning turn-out (the ranch also boarded mares), but he also scolded me (correctly) when I was impatient with the animals, either being too quick to raise my voice when a filly tried to escape her stall in the “mare hotel” I was responsible for watering and cleaning by myself at noontime (a palomino named Cookie was particularly rambunctious) when I entered to scoop the poop, or not pausing long enough between stages when using the graduated scale of coaxing he recommended when I was trying to get the horse to back up while I opened the door of her stall: Start in a whisper, and only increase your tone if the horse doesn’t heed you. “You have to give the horse time to reflect and process what you’re telling her,” he said, in a variation of “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink it,” the horse in question obviously not being from sage-brush-dry Texas. “If you just keep insisting without pausing to let her absorb what you’ve just said, she gets confused.” It’s a lesson I’ve tried to remember to apply to human relationships, not always with success. (Nor with horses, as the Percheron I tried to lead around the vines – these days, this breed is more likely to be used for farm labor than cat food — during the harvest at a natural winery near Cahors in 2014 will confirm.)

When I insisted PJ watch an episode of Bonanza with me in the bunkhouse we shared, what struck him most was the ponds. “We don’t have those in New Zealand.” PJ loved horses so much that for the six months he was obliged to remain in New Zealand, he worked as a horse truck driver just so he could be near them.  One morning I asked PJ how he was doing. “Any day when I wake up to discover I didn’t die in my sleep is a good one.” My own proudest moments came when I was put in charge of feeding a trio including “the blind mare” in a pasture closer to our bunkhouse than the main house, which meant I got to ride the golf-cart out there, usually in the company of several canine passengers who jumped in as soon as I got rolling.

Besides planning and preparing hot meals for lunch and dinner, I also helped PJ with the afternoon feed and stall-cleaning, and eventually took charge of the noon watering and poop-scooping to give PJ more time with Chris, who I was able to watch work with the horses as my other duties allowed.  When I made my first dish, a simple quiche, Chris took one bite and proclaimed, “If he can cook like this, I don’t care what he does with the horses.” (I soon earned a reputation in the area as “the French chef,” and if you think this digression is also my way of seeking more work feeding horses and humans, you’re right. The horse-feeding was more complex than you might think.  Chris’s wife and collaborator, whom I’ll call Cheryl to protect her privacy and who also taught me a lot, had worked out complex and individualized mixtures of nutrients for each resident of the mare hotel.)

Peckinpah Ride the High Country horse storyAs they enter a Sierra mining camp in Sam Peckinpah’s 1962 “Ride the High Country,” the horses are all that’s keeping Mariette Hartley, Ron Starr, Joel McCrea, and Randolph Scott from looking like what they are: Two greenhorns and two over-the-hill cowpokes. Image courtesy Cinematheque de Toulouse.

One late afternoon after I’d finished helping PJ with the feed and stable cleaning and  prepared the galette batter for the evening human feed, crossing the pastures that separated the main house from the one I shared with PJ, I decided to take a detour and enjoy my ‘knock-off’  beer (in French, “aperitif”) on a dilapidated couch PJ had installed in the midst of an overgrown field where a baker’s dozen of horses were left to roam. Sinking into the sofa in a position that proscribed a quick exit, I looked up to see 14 very immense horses standing 25 feet away slowly turn their gaze towards me; or as Desnoëttes might put it, “debusquing” me.  I can’t say the episode totally evacuated the fear of horses that accompanies my attirance to them. (Much as I’d like to, the human horse hero I identify with the most is not Joel McCrea, but 12-year-old Scarlett Johannsen in “The Horse Whisperer,” alternately drawn to and terrified of the animals after a pal gets fatally tossed by a panicked mount.) But it was the most bare moment I’ve ever had with horses, and one of the most bare moments I’ve ever experienced in my life, just a moment of being: with the animal, with my intimidation in his presence, with advancing to the limit of my fears, as modest as that front may seem in comparison with the dreads that torment others, including my own cowboy heroes; this was my ravine, not navigating its precipitating edges on my pony, but simply approaching them and accepting what that felt like. To share, even if only for a moment, the universe of these belles indifferentes.

I thank Laurence Leblanc — and her gallerist — for helping me revive that moment… and for a catharsis  — for isn’t that another vital role of art? — that frees me to dream of feeding horses and humans again, perhaps in a milieu like this one:

arles camargues horses water smallPBI’s next destination?: Horses and water in the Camargue, outside Arles.

arles Famous Mares 3 , France, 2016 © Laurence Leblanc, larger

“Famous Mares 3 ,” France, 2016. Copyright Laurence Leblanc and courtesy Flair Gallery.

 

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Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 17: … in which the Old Boy Network Finally Pays Off — with a Paris Gal Pal

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

Sometimes you have to take the long way around to get back home

In Memory of Edward Albee, who died this night, and of Robert Fagles; and for living teachers like Martin and Nancy, as well as Lewis Campbell.

Whenever I’m reeling from calamity and struggling to regain equilibrium, I think about the qualities I get, or would like to get, from my three old cats, particularly in their manners of facing their final days and months: From Mesha, my black and white European male, grace. From Hopey, my tortoise-shell calico, determination; we had just moved, in 2007, to the burg of Les Eyzies, known as the capital of pre-history after the discovery in 1860 (not far from  our home) of the first vestiges of Cro-Magnum man (more boneyards). She must have thought the river we lived on the largest bowl of water she’d ever seen – inveterate faucet licker that she was – and returned from a coma to march three times to the banks of the Vezere, panting and pausing along the way (and breaking into a wheezy trot when the black horse next-door ran towards us, she thought chasing her, the electrified fence invisible to her eye). From Sonia, resilience; if a cat has nine lives, I counted 14 for her, the number of times my Siamese defied death, particularly in her last year before her battery finally ran out at 20-something. For me, determination has often come after failing at something when I no longer had a clear reason to want to succeed at it, then trying again when one became apparent. Inevitably the failure — when a situation no longer worked — came when the bottom fell out of my social life. So it was that I left Princeton — once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to study with people like Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Fagles, Stephen F. Cohen, and Ellen Chances (Russell Banks on the other hand was obnoxious, insisting on smoking in class even though it was against the rules) not being enough to keep a lonely 19-year-old in school (today I would go back just to have time to read; education is wasted on the young) — then came back not so much to study but because I wanted to be a journalist. Already as a freshman I’d risen to founding managing editor of the campus weekly and exposed a case of “collusion” between the student government president and vice president and certain editors of the daily newspaper involving a future governor of New York destined to be hounded out of office by a sex scandal and an eventual Supreme Court justice. (“Collusion” in quotes because there was nothing criminal or illegal about it; the principal personalities involved were all members of the same eating club, and “colluded” to support the candidacy of a fellow club member as the new president. My story earned the epithet of “Yellow Journalism” from a future New Yorker editor.) In my second go-round at Princeton, I’d tried out for a student group called the University Press Club whose members served as correspondents for local and national papers and wires, and had no sooner been accepted than, covering for everyone over Winter vacation – “Nothing ever happens” – I ended up writing a front-page story for the daily Trentonian when Princeton’s nuclear fusion reactor started up for the first time. Covering again over the summer – “Just fireman’s duty, really” – I ended up writing about the Princeton gargoyles and several other stories for the New York Times, and was then kicked out of the club because I refused to stop writing for the paper when the regular stringer returned in the fall, my Times editor agreeing with me that my required abdication was ludicrous. My social circle collapsing again – and, already writing for the Times and thus earning money as a journalist, having no clear reason to remain in school in an environment where I felt isolated and ostracized — I’d left Princeton for a second time, but not before an all-night squabble in the Princeton cemetary (located in the Black part of town) with my best student friend, a Republican from Texas whose father had fought with the Irgun. All I remember from this argument is his insisting that like China and Russia I needed to have a five-year plan, this as we maneuvred around the tombs of the theologian Jonathan Edwards and Grover Cleveland, finally calling it a night when we stumbled upon Aaron Burr, the former vice president who killed Alexander Hamilton in an infamous duel. (Though, as Samuel Burr, president of the Descendents of Aaron Burr Society, once told me, Burr had gotten a bum rap, the myth that he provoked the duel being “a bunch of hooey” propagated by the Sons of Hamilton.) When I got back to my dorm room, I found a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and a paper plate on which my friend had written “Who is John Galt?” and signed, “Your friend, Andrew.”

When I pleaded personal problems in trying to get some understanding from university officials for my falling attendance, the student affairs vice president (who we called “the Kraut” for her German accent and severe manner) was unsympathetic, chiding me, “Other students are able to have personal problems and not let it affect their school work.”

I’d come to peace with my ambivalent feelings about Princeton when I lived in New York in the late 1990s before moving to Paris  — about my failure to finish my studies, as I viewed it. In fact, a sponge for learning even if I didn’t graduate, I’d absorbed some valuable lessons, notably a loopy but brilliant lecture by Chances, a Russian literature professor who with her raven hair and flaxen skin resembled Anna Karenina, about how we all live in and try to encadre everything in boxes, and Professor Oates’s theory that the Suicide (she used it as a noun) is not really expressing a wish to die, because you can’t wish for a negative, but another wish, e.g. “I want you to listen to me,” “I want to teach you a lesson,” etcetera; all this in a pamphlet she’d given me after I’d written a first-person story in which I spoke of committing “slow suicides”; only Joyce Carol Oates could critique a Suicide. (Another student in the class, J.D. Salinger’s son, had written a short story about his elusive father vanishing in the rain after exiting from the back-door of a car.) My first creative writing teacher at Princeton, Reginald Gibbons, a poet who knew it, had not wanted to pass me on to the next level. He’d been annoyed by a story I’d written in which I’d sliced up each typed page to one-inch wide ribbons each of which had only one word, my way of dealing with a ruptured friendship with an Italian girl, Sonia, who had been my best friend in high school, neither the professor nor me being aware that I was only following in the tradition of Apollinaire in allowing form to follow function. So I’d appealed to Joyce, submitting another tale I’d written hatched by closing my eyes and typing five letters which more or less approximated “ELYSIUM”; I was aping a novella by Oates in which she claimed to be channeling a dead Portuguese poet (she even sub-titled it, “Tales from the Portuguese.”) When she over-rid the poet Gibbons and accepted me into her advanced creative writing course, I made the story my first submission for the class. Everyone hated it but Joyce, who liked my expression “the mysterious phlegm.” (It was only when she savored the expression out loud that I realized it wasn’t pronounced PHLEGEM.) Distressed by my classmates’ rejection, I sought Joyce’s advice. “I never read my reviews,” she solemnly told me, a declaration I recalled years later when a critic for the Saturday Review, writing about a novel in which Joyce had been inspired by Fagles’s translation of the Oresteia to open her story with a flock of winged black birds a.k.a. Furies, compared her to Snoopy hacking out “It was a dark and stormy night” a la Bulwer-Lytton, provoking an irate letter to the magazine from Oates. (Speaking of Fagles, and of suicides, that he was the most eminent translator of the Greeks of his epoch did not mean he was too aloof to be aware of and sensitive to the tumultuous reality of his barely post-adolescent charges. One afternoon he walked into our seminar, clearly distraught, with a clipping from the Washington Post about a student who had killed himself after reading “Oedpius” – his translation. Slowly making the circuit of the table and looking each student in the eyes while gripping the clipping, he carefully implored us, in a voice simultaneously stentorian and soft, “I want to make sure that none of you has misunderstood what this is about,” the moral of the Greek tragedy being, in his interpretation, that “Oedipus had to be burned to a crisp in order to emerge whole again.”)

My other best friend at Princeton, my precept teacher for Chances’s Russian Literature course, by then a dean at the university, and in whose eyes I’d thought myself a failure, did not even remember when I visited Princeton in the late ‘90s that I hadn’t graduated. Sometimes our failures loom larger in our own eyes than in the eyes of those whom we think we’ve disappointed.

So — getting back to early Spring 2004 and Paris, where I finally had the opportunity to resolve my outstanding issues with my alma mater and claim it as my alma mater (as Jerry in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” says, “sometimes you have to take the long way around to come back home”) — when I found myself once again struggling socially in the midst of a foreign culture (because the stratified prep school culture of Princeton was just as, if not more, foreign to me, a graduate of San Francisco’s Mission High School, the most cosmopolitan high school in the country, as the often calcified French one), willing to try anything to improve my prospects I looked up the Princeton Alumni of France (they’d nixed calling it simply the Princeton Club of France because the acronym was the same as the Parti Communist Francais, and G-d forbid that an alumni association of the school that produced John Foster Dulles and harbored George Kennan after Mr. X should share an acronym with the Communists). As it turned out, the first gathering was a reception at a tony private club on the rue faubourg St.-Honoré (as in the cream pastry, but richer) for Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s first female president. (Coincidentally, visiting Princeton on my 40th birthday in 2001 shortly before I left for France to be treated to lunch by my old best friend the dean at the faculty dining club, and stopping by the Communications Office, where I’d cut my chops as a reporter for the in-house campus weekly, I’d been handed a press release announcing Tilghman’s appointment.) At the Q & A in Paris, I raised my hand.

“Princeton has not always been great about helping students with problems; when I had difficulties I was told, ‘You’re a Princeton student, you should be able to cope.’ And not having gone to a prep school, arriving as a freshman I thought I was dumb, just because I did not understand the terminology like other kids who had gone to prep school did. Have you done anything to change this?” Shirley — as she’s often referred to — explained that the university now realized that one can get into Princeton and still have learning problems, and has a program set up to help such students.

Afterwards, Pamela W., the president of the club, with whom I’d exchanged e-mails (it turned out she lived in my first Paris neighborhood, Sabine’s, in a compact sixth-floor apartment in a banal sienna brick elevator building above the Franprix super-market off the rue des Martyrs, which she shared with an older Siamese cat, Boris, who could have been Sonia’s twin, and an elderly poodle, Natasha), invited me to join a group of club officers being taken out for dinner at a chi-chi restaurant in the 1st arrondissement by the Princeton Alumni Association. Pam was seven years older than me but, despite my general later life predilection for younger women (having dated older women in my twenties – we’ll spare you those stories…for now), and that I generally wasn’t turned on by women who wore their hair short (or, as Fitzgerald might put it, ‘bobbed,’ like Bernice’s; Pam’s was a neat auburn) I was drawn by her lithe arms, bare and tawny that night in a sleeveless dark brown top. She’d been among the first group of women to enter Princeton (another story I’d written about for the Times), and had lived in Paris for 17 years. Pam had a gleam in her eye and a slight up-turn to her thin lips that said you and she were the only ones in the room in on a joke, or rather who saw the situation as amusing. (What was amusing here was that to get me invited to the dinner, she’d told the visiting alumni association official that I was the club’s vice president, a title which stuck.) So that even though Pam was the classiest woman I met in my first 10 years in France, it was not a class that excluded hapless Harrigans like me. During the evening I must have made at least one faux pas, besides the jacket-less way I was dressed. I remember only that the waiter sniffed when I automatically asked for a noisette, the poor man’s café creme, forgetting that I was not paying. “Oh, splurge a little and have a café creme!” said Pam. “Remember, it’s on Old Nassau.” 20 years after leaving in disgrace, I’d finally been admitted to the club.

Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 11: The Other Side of Paradis

Paradis sonia hopeyThe apartment at 49, rue de Paradis, several years after we moved in on November 28, 2001. At the time of this chapter, it was empty. Except for the cats: That’s Sonia the Alaskan on the bed, Hopey the San Franciscan on the chair at right, and Mesha the other Alaskan is no  doubt looking out  at the balcony from the cat window. (See below.) Note mylar ceiling. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

Paris eternelle, petites mortes fugitifs                                                  

For Noemie Gonzalez, a California girl who came to France to look for eternal Paris, only to find a bullet waiting for her on a café terrace near the Canal St.-Martin.

Princeton, 1982: The Flatbush-born Romantic Literature professor with the ersatz French accent was explaining to an auditorium full of students many of whom were drawn to Princeton by Scott Fitzgerald ‘17’s “This Side of Paradise” that the protagonist of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “La Nausée” “sees himself as if he’s in a film. And of course, no normal person would think this way.”

Besides following the path of Antoine Doinel and searching for the femme de ma vie as had Truffaut’s hero, another goal I had when I moved to Paris in July 2001 was to insert myself into paintings I’d heretofore only observed on museum walls. (Neither scenario envisioning Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”) In this light, the view from my new balcony at 49, rue de Paradis, where I and the cats installed ourselves on November 28, was as promising as the girl who awaited me in the non-functional salle de bain as I took my shower in a kitchen sink squeezed under vermillion cubbards one evening just before Christmas: Across the street, at 58, was the former studio of Camille Corot, where the father of pleine air painting had given Pissarro (and, later, Berthe Morisot) his first Paris lessons in color values.

“It has a small balcony,” the proprietor, Helene Valoire, had told me when I’d called to see the place in late October. But the only thing that was small about this balcony, which stretched the length of the three French windows in the salon / bedroom / dining room, was its narrow depth, I discovered when I arrived and looked up at the 5th floor. The two mahogony doors of the building’s entrance, high enough to accommodate horses (as they once did), were flanked by brass serpents turning green. At the top of the spiral staircase but one (a sixth floor housed former servant quarters converted into studio apartments, usually occupied by twenty-something students and workers; you had to be young not to expire from the climb; at 40 the day I moved in, I was the oldest person living on the 5th floor or above), a rickety door opened to the apartment’s narrow entrance whose floor, on the day I first tread on it, was dirt, as was that of the salle de bain behind the second door on the right (the first opened to the toilet), directly facing the small kitchen, also with its own (albeit hollow) doorway. (The Napoleonic Civil Code requires there be two doors between the bathroom and the kitchen. I’ve seen apartments where the two doors are right on top of each other with nothing in between, just to accommodate the code.) An opening of about 3 x 4 feet looked out onto the main room from the kitchen; its ledge would become the cats’ dining room.

Paradis balconyThe balcony (cat window in foreground), with the view towards the rues Poissonniere, Bleue, and Papillon. Turning right at the corner lead eventually to Montmartre. Turning left to the Grands Boulevards. (For more itineraries, see below.) The first complete building across the street is where Corot taught color values to Pissarro and Morisot. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

If I was getting to see the place before it went on the market, it was because Mme Valoire had been planning to sell the apartment, but after learning the building itself had major foundation problems, had decided to put that off.

“Why does the floor slant?” I asked her; the rake made the living/bedroom look like the villains’ lairs from the ‘60s “Batman” television series. “Don’t worry,” she said, laughing. “It’s normal. All the buildings in the quartiere are like this.” Then, pointing up at the white mylar sheet covering the entire ceiling and at my own reflection, I asked, “What’s that for?” “It’s because you don’t want to see what’s above it.”

The French prize proprieté (my three-year lease included a requirement that tenants lead a ‘bourgeoisie lifestyle,’ which the landlord explained just meant no drying laundry on the balcony), so Mme Valoire would have preferred that I wait another month until the apartment was really ready. When I pleaded that I didn’t have any place else to go, she let me move in early but said she would not charge me for the first month. For that period, I’d have to take my showers in the kitchen sink as the tub wasn’t yet installed in the bathroom, which she was having re-done with ivory-colored Italian tiles. (My downstairs neighbors at 49 would later marvel that my bathroom was as big as their kitchen and my kitchen as small as their bathroom.) At that point — December 2001, when the imminent Euro was worth 11 cents less than the dollar — the apartment was half the cost (in U.S. $) and twice the size (42 meters squared not counting the balcony) of the Greenwich Village apartment next to Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady that I and the cats had just left after six years — about $570/month. The French windows were also being replaced by a ‘double-vitrage’ variety and the balcony re-soldered. (I’d later put chicken wire over one of the windows so that I could air the apartment without the cats getting out. It also proved convenient for drying my laundry en caché.) Consequently, when I moved in with the cats, my new home was already occupied, by a half-dozen workers, presided over by a jovial giant of a plumber. They’d arrive every day and change into their work coveralls in my living room. I loved the bonhomie of having the workers there. Sometimes I’d even wave to them on my balcony as I returned home, and they’d wave back. Every morning I’d offer them coffee when they arrived, which they thought was peculiar but which they accepted with pleasure.

Paradis balcony and lafayetteLeft: the rue Lafayette, which leads to the Opera House. Right: The view from the balcony down the rue de Paradis, which leads eventually to Fidelite, the rue St.-Denis, the Gares de l’Est et Nord, and the Canal St.-Martin. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

The first day that I had to leave the apartment with the workers still there, I taped a note on the middle window (this was before I’d put the chicken wire up) asking them to please keep the windows shut so the cats couldn’t escape, signing it, “Le locuteur,” when I should have written “le locataire,” or “the tenant.” Marc, my new friend who’d sublet me the place on the Square Albin Cachot with the catastrophic plumbing, cracked up when he saw this. “You wrote, ‘He who speaks.'”

The ongoing apartment construction was a good excuse for He Who Speaks to get out of the house and explore his new neighborhood, ideally situated for He Who Searches to Insert Himself Into La Paris d’’Autrefois.

Crossing the street from the 10th arrondissement into the 9th at the catty corner of Paradis, Papillion, Poissonniere, and the rue Bleue and heading down to the rue Bergere took me to the Folies Bergere, where in the 1920s Josephine Baker had introduced jazz to Paris. The street was also, reverse-serendipitously as far as this California Jew who felt more at home amongst Rainbow Tribes was concerned – my mother had once dallied with something called the Acquarian Minyon — home to an over-priced kosher restaurant, super-market, bookstore, Jewish supplies boutique, and discrete Orthodox temple. Heading up Papillion from Paradis and turning left at Lafayette (“I am here!”) — after passing the Square Monthion, where a metal “France has lost a battle, but not the war!” note from General De Gaulle dated June 18, 1940 guarded an alabaster statue of three buxom Belle Epoch women honoring workers – conducted me to the Opera House, where Emma Livry, protegée of Marie Taglioni (the first to dance on point), went up in flames not long after making a debut in Taglioni’s ballet “La Papillion.” (Covering Livry’s funeral procession in 1863 for Le Moniteur, Theophile Gauthier, Il St. Louis hashish den-mate of Baudelaire, lamented: “She resembled so much the butterfly; like him, her wings were burned in the flame, and, as if they wanted to escort the convoy of a sister, two white butterflies flew without rest above the white coffin during the trajectory from the church to the cemetery. This detail that the Greeks would see as a poetic symbol was remarked upon by thousands of people, because an immense crowd accompanied her funeral cart. On the simple tomb of the young dancer, what epitaph to write, if not that found by a poet of the Anthology for an Emma Livry of the Antiquite: ‘Oh earth, be light on me; I weighed so little on you!'”)

paradis book tableBackground: The ‘cat perch’ leading to the kitchen. Foreground: A door converted into a book table, where the stars include several of the important women in the author’s life, such as Leonor Fini, Kate Bush, Josephine Baker, Brigitte Bardot, Madeline, and others. Photograph copyright and courtesy Christine Chen.

If in lieu of continuing straight down Lafayette towards the Opera House I took a sharp right at the square and then a diagonal left, after passing a 19th century Portuguese synagogue (next to the Algerians, the Portuguese make up the single largest immigrant community in France), I’d eventually end up back at 33, rue Lamartine, one-time demeure of Baudelaire, PBI, and, still in that Fall-Winter of 2001, Sabine. Turning right at the end of Sabine’s block and hiking up Martyrs brought me to Montmartre. Various detours to the left off Martyrs as Sacre Coeur emerged from “La Butte” (as the top of Montmartre is called) and then veering up to Clichy took me past the homes and/or ateliers of Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Degas; the former locations of the shop where Cezanne traded canvases for pigment powder to mix brand new colors and of the Chat Noir, where Alphonse Alias once held forth with his insolent poetry and Erik Satie contributed the occasoional ditty; and, on a gated alley just before Pigalle (or, as the U.S. soldiers looking to buy ‘petites mortes’ from elderly prostitutes after the Liberation referred to it, “Pig Alley”), the long-time home of Jean Renoir. As for stepping into the paintings, I was disappointed to find that not only was the Square Adolphe Max / Vintemille, right below the Moulin Rouge, more petite than the one depicted by Vuillard from the atelier/apartment overlooking the square he shared with his mother, but the grass presided over by a bust of Berlioz was made of astro-turf.

If instead of mounting Martyrs at Lamartine I crossed it and continued along the rue St. Lazaire – after a nod at Notre Dame de Lorette, where Van Gogh once paused before heading down to the Grands Boulevards to pitch  his paintings to Goupil — I eventually came to the train station immortalized by Zola in “La Bete Humaine” and Monet in gauzy depictions of the locomotive ‘beasts’ clouding up the station with steam. (Along St.-Lazaire, I could also take a side-track to the former home and studio, now museum, of Gustave Moreau, its walls plastered with Ledas and her Swans, Salomés and Jean le Baptistes, and lolling naked sylphs caressing unicorns.) In memory of Zola’s doomed adulterous lovers (from the same book) nibbling on a Sunday chicken in their roost near the station while they plotted the demise of the woman’s husband, I’d sometimes buy a delectable chicken roasted with garlic at a rotisserie on St. Lazare, gobbling it up on a bench outside the one-time mauseleum of Louis & Marie Antoinette in an intimate park named after the royal couple interred there by the Revolutionaries before the Restorationists moved them to Versailles, arrosing the chicken with red wine under the suspicious eyes of a guardian.

If I headed right on Paradis, I soon arrived at the rue de Faubourg St. Denis and Little India-Pakistan. If instead of turning right at St. Denis as Paradis turned into Fidelité (heading the other direction, one might conclude the inverse) I continued straight to Magenta and on past the Gare de l’Est, I’d end up at the Canal St.-Martin. It was catching a projection of Marcel Carné’s “Hotel du Nord” at a park on the canal across from the current Hotel du Nord in the summer of 2001 that decided me to settle in the 10th, and my little corner of Paradis seemed to be the perfect cockpit for discovering the Paris a lifetime of being weaned on Pissarro, Tintin, Babar, “The Red Balloon,” Madeline, Frere Jacques, Brel, Montand, and Piaf had primed me for. And if my brood didn’t quite tally the dozen kittens who accompanied Michel Simon, his co-pilot, and the co-pilot’s bride when they docked at the canal at the end of a honeymoon traverse of the waters of France in Jean Vigo’s 1934 “L’Atalante,” I at least had three feline co-pilots and felt I was ready to search for the bride.

So there she was, that evening just before Christmas 2001, waiting behind the closed door of the unfinished, dirt-floored bathroom. ‘She’ was Benedicte, a 33-year-old banker (our burgeoning couple thus neatly inverting the Jamesian pair that opens “The American” with the French lass copying a painting at the Louvre and the Yank man asking “How much?”). “I’m not quite ready. I still have to take my shower, and I need to do it here in the kitchen as the salle de bain isn’t finished yet,” I’d announced. I was taking Benedicte to dinner at the La Verre Volé (“The Stolen Glass”), a cozy if snobby ‘cave au vins’ cum bistro on the rue Lancry, which wound from Magenta to the canal – and, with its ‘bio’ wines, an early outpost for the BoBos, or Bourgeoisie Bohemians, who would colonize the canal district over the next 15 years, but which in 2001 still shared the street with barber shops guarded by cigarette-toking Serge Gainsbourg dolls. Ever the banker, Benedicte had arrived punctually, covered in a non-descript jacket and with her dirty blonde hair in a neat bun above her thick librarian’s glasses and big round eyes. “It’s okay, I can wait here in the salle de bain until you’re proper,” she answered. Then, after disappearing into the large bathroom: “It’s kind of the bordel here, non?,” ‘bordel’ translating as ‘brothel’ and meaning ‘chaos.’

When we returned to Paradis from dinner, emboldened by a bottle of bio Beaujolais and romantically juiced by a walk along the fog-shrouded canal, I decided to reverse-engineer Arletty’s imprecation (in “Hotel du Nord”) and create as much “atmosphere” as possible when you’re sitting on a bare thin futon on a weathered grey-blue carpet and still coughing from the dirt in the entry-way by starting up Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Imagination” on my laptop, posed on the only piece of furniture in the room, a sky-blue formica table I’d found along with matching square stools outside my apartment building in the Cité Falguieres next to the Pasteur Institute, one-time worker housing since converted to bourgeoisie digs.  (The rectangular glass-roofed artist atelier at the entrance of the Cité – located in the 15th arrondissement on the peripherie of Montparnasse — had once been inhabited by Chaim Soutine, who spent his sun-infused days dabbing colors on canvasses and his unlit nights dodging fleas parachuting from the ceiling before a Philadelphia art collector named Dr. Barnes rescued him from obscurity.)

So I imagined myself with you.                                                                                                                See what imagination can do.

It didn’t take much imagination to decipher the bedroom eyes Benedicte threw at me from behind her goggle-eyed glasses, but she added a hint for the hopelessly dense by briskly undoing her dirty-blonde hair from its Peggy Proper (as Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Antoine described Claude Jade in Truffaut’s “Stolen Kisses”) pony-tail and pulling me down on the futon for my first trip to Paradise on the rue de (Paradis). We grappled hungrily, two mismatched souls whose only real point in common was their desperation for love, escalated quickly to third base and stopped just short of home plate, but I was sated and she seemed content, snuggling her back against me as we fell asleep. In the morning I brought cappuccino poured into my two large brown and white Italian ceramic cappuccino mugs from San Francisco’s Cafe Trieste to the bed, my hands shaking, and promptly spilled it. “Oh la la! You are so nervous! Why do you shake like that?” Benedicte said, rising in just her tee-shirt and panties. “Do you have some white vinegar? That will erase the stain.” But the coffee stains would remain on the drab blue-gray carpet on Paradis for the next six years, long after our aborted relationship had turned to vinegar. As far as “Love on the Run” (to refer to the title of the final Antoine film) goes, I was a marked man.