Tag Archives: Paris

Conversations with Chester Himes

395789Chester Himes is an author whose work I really love, and this has been sitting on my shelf forever. It starts out a bit disappointing — a bit gossipy about Dick and Jimmy and others. Complaining of this I was reminded that this was pre-internet in French, and what was the likelihood of it getting any circulation?

There was much less need to be cagey in those days.

Still, it is nice to think of Richard Wright and being so generous — once giving Himes $1000 when only asked for $500, giving money to James Baldwin to allow him to finish revising one of his novels and helping him get the Saxton Fellowship. The interviews get better, more thoughtful, perhaps more sober as Himes gets older.

his words stand for themselves really.

I did particularly love some of the details, like this description of his studio in Paris

Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas.
(Francois Bott, 1964)

This was the flat that Melvin Van Peebles moved into. Sweet Sweetback himself.

I love Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, love the Harlem novels, loved to read this:

I was very happy writing those detective stories, especially the first one, when I began it. I wrote those stories with more pleasure than I wrote any of the other stories. And then when I got the end and started my detective shooting at some white people, I was the happiest. (49)

This also reminded me, in a way that still jars slightly with that understanding of America that I learned in school and somehow no amount of education and experience can quite eradicate completely, of the way that the US is founded on violence and how that runs through absolutely everything:

Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do. (47)

Anyway, you know, there is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed on the American scene through violence. That’s the only thing that’s ever made any change, because they have an inheritance of violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, from the first colonialists who landed on the American shores, the first slaves, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, and gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamn thing or another; they grew up on violence. And not only that, it’s gotten to be so much a part of the country that they are at the place where they are refining the history of their violence. (62)

It reminds me also how many writers moved abroad to achieve a basic dignity in life.

The only reason for going to Paris is just to have a certain amount of freedom of movement for a limited period of time. (64)

Writers of colour, that is.

WIlliams: What about your experience with white expatriate writers?
Himes: I don’t have any experiences with white expatriate writers. (69)

Later Michel Fabre would ask him if living in Europe had changed him?

Of course. Here a Negro becomes a human being. There’s nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There’s nothing unnatural. (127)

and in describing for him why he stayed in Paris and NY (and responding to a question from Miotte about why not NY), Himes says:

France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don’t think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)

Himes describes the regular get togethers at the Café Tournon, with Himes, Dick Wright to a limited extent, the centre of them Ollie Harrington. John A. Williams, unsurprisingly, carried out my favourite interviews, a long and nicely in depth one. This is my favourite story from it:

Dick was a compulsive conversationalist in the early hours of the morning. When he woke up he had to telephone somebody and have a long conversation. When Ollie wasn’t there he had to find someone else–Daniel Guérin or even Jean-Paul Sartre. But they got tired of these conversations, so he chose Ollie. As long as Ollie was in town Dick would telephone him as soon as he woke up in the morning, whether Ollie was awake or not (it didn’t make any difference) and have long conversations about the CIA and the race problem and all. You know, that kind of conversation doesn’tgo down too well at seven-thirty in the morning. (77)
— John A. Williams 1970

Michel Fabre, following on the heels of this in the same year of 1970, focused on writing:

I think that writing should be a force in the world. I just don’t believe it is. It seems incapable of changing things. (89)

and Himes’ relationship to Harlem:

…most American black people have kept to ghettos for many reasons, but mainly to hide from the prejudice and the arrogance of white people, and because they wanted to be together, for protection, and togetherness. I didn’t do this, and this is part of the reason why I have to explain myself.  (89)

To David Jenkins in 1971 he gives his thoughts on struggle, which he novelised of course, though didn’t in the end finish it:

I have never fully endorsed the black movements, although I have supported both the Black Muslims–I was a friend of Malcolm X–and the Panthers. I don’t think they will succeed because they are too used to publicity, and a successful revolution must be planned with secrecy, security.

Yet there is no reason why 100,000 blacks armed with automatic rifles couldn’t literally go underground, into the subways and basements of Manhattan–and take over. The basements of those skyscrapers are the strongest part of the building…This was the novel I was wring, and I don’t know if I have the energy or determination to finish it. (102)

The last interview with Michel Fabre in 1983 focused a lot on writing, and I always love to know other people’s routines:

I like to get up early, have a big breakfast, and work at one stretch until it’s time for lunch. If the mail is good, I generally go one with my writing. If it’s bad, my mind is disturbed for the rest of the day. I have nearly always typed my manuscripts, without consulting any reference books or dictionaries. In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarettes, a bottle of scotch, and occasionally a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the burner behind me. Writing’s always whetted my appetite. (130)

Fabre says he’s sometimes been called a ‘surrealist’ writer, which I suppose makes some sense, I quite love Himes’ answer:

I didn’t become acquainted with that term until the fifties, and French friends had to explain it. I have no literary relationship with what is called the surrealist school. It just so happens that in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic. (140)

(Fabre, Michel and Robert E Skinner (eds). (1995) Conversations With Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. )


Philippe Soupault’s Last Night of Paris

Philippe Soupault - Last Nights of ParisTranslated by William Carlos Williams.

Say what? you ask.

From one modernist master to another, this is quite a wonderful book. My favourite thing about it perhaps, is less the book itself and more the story behind the author’s breakup with his movement — as Soupault was ‘ejected’ from the surrealist movement in 1926 (along with Artaud) for ‘their isolated pursuit of the stupid literary adventure.’ (v)

Ah, the stupid literary adventure. I imagine it like Baudelaire‘s wild addiction to bad literature…

Back to the book, it presents to you… Paris:

The rue de Medicis along which we were strolling at a fair pace is sad around ten-thirty at night. It is the street of everlasting rain.

It is said that along one side of it is the meeting place of masochistic bachelors. A modest and silent club. Here umbrellas take on the appearance of a flock.

“You know,” she said, “that around here are places where you can get coffee with cream.”

At its very start the rue de Vaugirard stinks of books. The odor comes from every side. Its friend and neighbor, the rue de Tournon, is more inviting. So much so that I was prepared for a proposal and the address of a comfortable hotel. (3-4)

The Paris that belongs to the wanderers (and obviously, the lovers).

“Where are we going?”

I expected that petulant and vicious question. It is the night’s query and Georgette did no more than express aloud that eternal interrogation.

One more question without answer, a question one also asks of the stars, the weather, the shadows, the entire city.

Georgette, the sailor, the dog and I myself had no answer ready and this we sought wandering at random, driven here rather than there by an invincible fatigue.

Thinking it is over as we were walking with soft steps under the trees of the Champs-Elysees, I seemed to catch a purpose, that of all the night prowlers of Paris: we were in search of a corpse. (20)

That this books contains a corpse and a mystery endears it immensely to me. Don’t get me wrong, this is not noir nor thriller nor detective story. It is a book about the Paris that only comes alive in the night, and it cannot be roughly handled nor can all of its secrets ever be known.

Daybreak. Paris, heavy-headed, began to fall asleep. (21)

In this, Paris is like the woman of this story, Georgette. Another creature of night.

She loved only the dark which she seemed each night to wed and her charm itself did not become real until she withdrew from the light to enter obscurity. Looking closely at her one could not picture her as living during the day. She was the night itself and her beauty was nocturnal. (49-50)

A prostitute, yes. A romanticised and problematic figure, yes. But a complex one, and the narrative voice is aware of its own need to romanticise her, to preserve her mystery. In spite of himself the narrator follows her into the day, drags her into the well-lit and the known.

She went to the baker’s, to the milkman…All the evidence of respectability …. But when I thought of what she had been, which some would have loved to call queen of mystery, I would rather have seen her dead at my feet.

She was everything that one would expect in a twenty-two-year-old girl.

She stopped before a house in the narrowest part of the rue de Seine, not far from the quays. At the rear of the court she climbed a narrow stairway to the fifth floor.

Day splashed the casing of the stairs; and all the blemishes wrought by time appeared. Georgette opened a door. (58-59)

All this, and yet he fails. He buys her attentions, attempts to shift her into a defined role in subservience to him for a night to take power over her that way. And fails.

Georgette is no Nadja.

Always he roams the streets. Following Georgette, following her brother Octave, equally mysterious. He seeks out the sailor, the one with him the first night, the murderer most likely, and what wondrous words are these:

I relied on Paris, on the night and on the wind. I expected much of the Gare d’Orsay where one may occasionally hope and wait without aim or reason. The two twin clocks pointed to the hour of one; on the Seine, the reflections of fires and lights were still dancing by, like a galloping flock. (91)

He meets up with Volpe, yet another shadowy underworld figure who seeks only profits in whatever quick scheme is possible, who was advising the police that first night standing over the corpse. He is never brought into clarity either, all is dreamlike.

The cold morning had given Volpe the only drunkenness of which he was capable.

“Tell me, when Georgette disappears, have you noticed that day is not far distant? If she should disappear forever, I have a feeling, and believe me I don’t let things muddle me, I have a feeling there would be no more night.” (121)

She disappears.

Her mystery allows her to be independent, part of the ‘gang’ without being anyone’s lover (in particular). It allows her to be ‘treated like a man. The women did not consider her to be one of their number.’ (130) This despite her profession. I don’t quite know what I think about these things, whether this gives her power or strips her of it, whether it makes of her object or subject. I like this unknowing.

This is a book of puzzles, but they are not meant to be solved.

It is above all a book of streets, of walking, of Paris and its secrets. It is a dark delight.

The days when we follow the secret voice of diversion are those chosen by chance to show us its ways.

Empty-handed, I set out upon the discovery of the flight of time and of space. Words, like joyous companions, started before my eyes and spun about my ears in a carnival of forgetfulness.

I was tired of those involuntary inquisitions, of those incessant curiosities. Boredom with the eternal pageant turned my thoughts to what you will. I fled voluptuously. (135)


Paris, Baudelaire and Spleen (mostly my own)

Baudelaire - Paris SpleenWho has not, in bouts of ambition, dreamt this miracle, a poetic prose, musical without rhythm or rhyme, supple and choppy enough to accommodate the lyrical movement of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the bump and lurch of consciousness?

It is above all in the habit of huge cities, the endless meeting of their ways, that this obsessive ideal originates. you have yourself wished to put into song the glazier’s grating cry, and render in lyrical prose its heartbreaking resonances, carried up to attic rooms higher than the mist in the street. (3)
— 26 August, 1862

I first read that quote reading Walter Benjamin, and I loved it. There is something about the city that I long to capture, to express, to give voice.

Today in Westminster Abbey with sunshine and thunder outside and about to hear some wonderful baroque choir music and feeling maybe after all I love more in London than I was feeling I did
Today in Westminster Abbey with sunshine and thunder outside and about to hear some wonderful baroque choir music and feeling maybe after all I love more in London than I was feeling I did

Last night I sat in Westminster Abbey listening to Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers of 1610’  and almost cried knowing my words could never do what that music does, nor even capture what that soaring stone vaulting speaks (and god forbid my writing stay trapped in the side aisles growing full of ponderous stone monuments to vanity festooned with putti too fat to fly). Baudelaire, I wondered, what else do we share since we share this ambition? I had read Les Fleurs de Mal a long time ago, I think I struggled through it in French which is why I remember nothing.

Though there was indeed an absence of love in that absence of memory.

There are even so a few things in here I love. Baudelaire wasn’t talking about pulp perhaps, but I adore this quote:

And I quit my room raging with thirst, because wild addiction to bad literature had instilled in me a proportionate want of clear air and refreshment. (96)

And this? Though Baudelaire and I in fact share little to nothing, I do know this well:

10. One a.m.

Alone at last!…At last, the tyranny of the human face has gone, and my only source of suffering will be myself.

Horrible life! Horrible city!  (18)

Still, it goes deeper, this tyranny of the human face. Something in this early book prepared me for Nadja, for so many of the great men who write cities, write women, write themselves over and over again onto the page.

12. Crowds

It is not given to all to crowd-bathe: the enjoyment of crowds is an art; and only he can go, at the expense of mankind, on a reinvigorating spree whom in his cot a fairy wand has left the taste for masks and travesty, a loathing of home and a passion for travel.

Multitude, solitude: equivalent terms for the active and prolific poet. (22)

Why should this be ‘at the expense of mankind’? Yet it is, it is set up this way — artist v mankind. Artist alone and above and born to it, looking out but always looking down. The essence of this:

27. The Old Acrobat

There was no point in asking the poor fellow what marvels or curiosities he would conjure in the stinking gloom behind his ragged curtain. In truth I did not dare; and even though you might find the reason for my caution risible, I confess it came from a reluctance to humiliate him. (28)

The reluctance to humiliate being risible. To whom is he talking that compassion for an old man should be something of which he is ashamed? This is the nutshell I think, the point at which ‘art’ goes where I no longer wish to follow, yet it seems to be a masculine ideal belonging to many a writer and observer who care nothing for others.

Even when it has to do with cake. As in:

15. Cake

Oh glorious title! But so sad:

Before me stood a little human creature, ragged and blackened, with wild, deep-set, supplicant eyes that were devouring my bread. And I heard him moan in a hoarse, low voice the single word: cake! I could not hold back my laughter at the title he wanted to give my off-white bread… (29)

He doesn’t worry about humiliating a foreign child (it could even be little Dicky Perrot, and my heart breaks), only throws him a piece of bread and wonders at a country where two children will fight to the death for it and call it cake.

There are poems of equal callousness musing on mistresses, misogyny regarding wives, tropical fantasies of opium  and women that still contain glorious lines like:

beyond the veranda the noise of birds drunk on light… (48)

ph_0111201517-BaudelaireThe piece I have seen most quoted, describing Baudelaire and his mistress sitting in a new cafe on one of Haussman’s new boulevards and watching a family of people too poor to partake stare at them, drinking in the lights and the warmth and the food.

26. The Eyes of the Poor

As I turned my gaze to yours, my love, to read my own thoughts; as I immersed myself in your eyes…you said to me: “I cannot bear those people with their eyes out on stalks! Tell the waiter to get rid of them.”  (53)

Baudelaire has such eyes, does he not? An intensity to them. Yet I am angered that he seeks only to read his own thoughts in the eyes of a woman. Conflicted when I hate her response as much as he does.

Still, serves him right perhaps, what better woman would care to be with someone so self-centered? Reflect this, mother fucker, is one phrase that might come to mind, here and in another musing that mingles the profound with the sad with the profoundly self-obsessed:

35. Windows

An open window never reveals as much as one closed. There is nothing more profound, mysterious, fertile, shadowy, than a window lit by a candle. What is seen in sunlight is always less interesting than whatever occurs on the far side of a glass sheet. Within that cave, dark or illuminated, life lives, life dreams, life hurts.

Across undulating roofs, I perceive a mature woman, already wrinkled, poor, permanently stooping over something; a life spent indoors. With her face, her clothes, her movements, with almost nothing, I have recreated that woman’s story, her myth rather, and sometimes I weep as I tell it to myself.

Had it been a poor old man, I would have reconstructed his story as easily.

And I retreat to my bed, pleased I have lived and suffered not in myself but in someone else.

Perhaps you will ask me: “Are you sure you have the right myth?” But why should I care what the reality is outside myself, so long as it helped me to live, to feel that I am, to feel what I am? (76)

‘…pleased I have lived and suffered not in myself but in someone else.’ Profanity seems by far the best response since he cannot be slapped. But I will end with one of my favourite ones, as I favour asking things of wind, waves, stars and birds (but not clocks)…

33. Be Drunk

be drunk always. Nothing else matters; there are no other subjects. Not to feel the grim weight of Time breaking your backs and bending you double, you must get drunk and stay drunk.

But drunk on what? Wine, poetry, virtue — the choice is yours. Just be drunk.

And if sometimes, on a palace staircase, on the green grass of a ditch, in the gloomy isolation of your chamber, you wake sober or just a little tipsy, ask the wind, waves, stars, birds, clocks, ask anything that flies, moans, moves, sings, speaks, ask it the time. And the wind, wave, star, bird, clock will reply: “Time to get drunk! To avoid the enslaved martyrdom of Time, get drunk and stay drunk! On wine, poetry, virtue, the choice is yours!” (73)


Nadja: Surrealism’s Absent Heart

172244This book has often been described in things that I have read, but these descriptions seemed to bear remarkably little in common with what this book actually contained.

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” (11)

I read that sentence knowingly, thinking glibly that by haunt he really meant “stalk”, of course. But this was not in fact a tale of Breton’s stalking a woman through Paris streets (though their passage through streets is charted by street names and monuments and pictures of Paris to the delight of psychogeographers). It could be titled André, as it has far more to do with his own obsession with self and the encounter with Nadja sits sandwiched as a section between other thoughts and odd coincidences and naming of friends and enemies along with their pictures and other meanderings of surrealist nature, and a long passage on a woman and her gloves — another female object of a long-term affair. While Nadja seems to perceive him as another man who will protect her from destitution and seeks him out as such, André remains the principal subject to himself.

Do not expect me to provide an exact account of what I have been permitted to experience in this domain. I shall limit myself here to recalling without effort certain things which, apart from any exertions on my part, have occasionally happened to me, things which, reaching me in unsuspected ways, give me the measure of the particular race and disgrace of which I am the object…(23)

He takes pleasure in the reactions of other men to Nadja’s attractiveness, exoticises uncomfortably her appearance as well as calling on racist tropes. The waiter keeps hovering over her on the Quais Malaquais, in the restaurant Delaborde and Breton writes:

Nadja is not at all surprised. She knows her power over certain men, for example, over Negroes who, wherever she may be, are compelled to come and talk to her (99).

Ugh. Then there is Breton’s soliloquy on women and the street, quite as uncomfortable. It is part of the tradition that assumes the female wanderer of the streets as prostitute (if such a tradition yet existed as spoken aloud rather than simply held axiomatic), but here it holds a twist. Here some women they can only live and experience that life fully in the street. Through the gaze and actions of men.

I mean, is the real Nadja this always inspired and inspiring creature who enjoyed being nowhere but in the streets, the only region of valid experience for her, in the street, accessible to interrogation from any human being launched upon some great chimera, or (why not admit it) the one who sometimes fell, since, after all, others had felt authorized to speak to her, had been able to see in her only the most wretched of women, and the least protected? Sometimes I reacted with terrible violence against the over-detailed account she gave me of certain scenes of her past life, concerning which I decided, probably quite superficially, that her dignity could not have survived entirely intact. A story of a blow in the face that had drawn blood, one day,in the Brasserie Zimmer, a blow from a man whom she gave herself the sly pleasure of refusing simply because he was low–and she had cried for help several times, though not without taking the time, before disappearing, to bleed all over the man’s clothes–this story, when she was aimlessly telling it to me, early in the afternoon of October  13, almost managed to alienate her from me forever.  (113)

Is Breton’s violence in thus defining her any less than that of the man who hit her? Being always inspired and inspiring must be quite demanding.

He seeks to deny her any outside reality from this existence in the streets, but only in relation to men like him ‘launched upon some great chimera,’ her role simply to facilitate that search. He is uncomfortable with the other side of this existence in the streets. She seems to define herself here through her ability to reject some men’s advances because she is above them. A right of rejection that should belong to all women, with nothing sly about it. To Breton she seems to take almost a pleasure in their violence, her vengeance through bleeding on them. Such a sad paltry kind of vengeance. I tired of his self-obsessive interpretations of her, wished for just a moment to see her as she was. She tries to tell us but Breton does not wish to hear it, wants nothing to do with what she does or who she is or what she faces in life when not with him, nothing of the hard edges of survival and the things that it requires. It is too close to his own mingled desires perhaps. He fears her life’s ugly realities, refuses to think about them, prizes only the strangeness which cushions him, preserves him from poverty and violence. And day to day bodily functions.

…I was also increasingly alarmed to feel that, when even I left her, she was sucked back into the whirlwind of ordinary life continuing around her and eager to force her, among other concessions, to eat, to sleep (115).

He is also alarmed by her mental illness. He distances himself from her as this becomes worse, as she becomes more needy and thus more and more human to him, more flesh and blood, less enigmatic and charmingly strange. He notes her disappointment when they first meet and he tells her he must return to his wife — she will only ever be a curious sideline to him, while it seems (and how can we really know) he is all she has both emotionally and for his monetary support for physical survival — he is uncharmingly open about the money her gives her. At the end she calls his wife and tells her they are the only friends she has.

This poor unnamed wife that Breton always uses as an excuse when Nadja demands too much. When she begins to bore him with her actual thoughts and her actual needs. Her only friends?

Bad luck to her, because they abandon her after she is committed — though you can hardly blame the wife. She has enough on her plate with Breton.

My general contempt for psychiatry, its rituals and its works, is reason enough for my not yet having dared investigate what has become of Nadja. I have indicated my pessimism as to her fate…

Is it really reason enough? Others Nadja met through Breton did not do the same, but no one was able to really help her.

To label this a romance seems to me cynical beyond anything, an acknowledgment of the emptiness of surrealism and this vision of art and its life when real humanity was required. This haunting he refers to in his first paragraph is is the absence of soul, of heart. It is the vacuuming up of the lives and experience of others to discard them, leaving only their husks as its playthings. Just as in the play he describes at such length in the first chapter, Les Detraques [The Deranged], where two women feed off of and kill their students, though you are never quite sure how.