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A Return Visit to Paris

ISSUE:  Winter 1975

Paris, February 1966

My nineteenth trip to France, and the reasons for coming here are the same as they were on the first trip, in 1928, when I was nineteen: to use French as my daily language, and to become acquainted with what is new and significant in the Paris literary scene. In 1928, when I lived in Montparnasse, I faithfully read the sixteenth-century poets for my course with Professor Chamard at the Sorbonne, and I was totally unaware of the surrealist activities going on exactly at that time at Le Dome and La Coupole, La Rotonde and Le Select, which I passed every day. And since that time, whenever I teach the poems of Du Bellay, Ronsard, and Maurice Scève, I think of that impressive figure of Professor Chamard with his white beard, carefully enunciating his course in the Amphitheatre Richelieu. And also, when I try to teach the theories of André Breton and the poems of Robert Desnos, I recall my ignorance and innocence of 1928, when I was living in close proximity to those young men, not very much older than myself, who were actively formulating and demonstrating a literary movement that has held my attention ever since 1947, when Dean McKeon at the University of Chicago asked me to prepare a public course of lectures and gave me exactly two minutes in which to choose the subject. I blurted out “surrealism” because I was most ignorant of that aspect of the twentieth century!

In teaching and writing, it is wise to accept all commissions that come one’s way. In trying to carry out those assignments for which I felt least well prepared, I worked hardest and learned the most. Each time I had to prepare a new course, especially if it were a subject not too congenial to my own taste—Rabelais, for example—I made, for myself at least, discoveries about literature and about the problems of teaching literature I would not have made otherwise.

During my visits to Paris in the thirties, Jacques Maritain was the name that seemed uppermost in the literary scene to which I was especially drawn. For documentation of my thesis on Ernest Psichari, I met Maritain and his wife Raïssa, and attended several of the Sunday evening gatherings in Meudon. It was an extraordinary center where there were discussions of thomism, of painting (especially the work of Chagall, Rouault, and Severini), and of literature. A few of the literary figures I studied then had some connection or other with Maritain and the Meudon group: Cocteau (before he had left the group after only a brief moment of allegiance), Julien Green (who did not attend the gatherings but whose writings appeared significant to the philosopher).

On my return to Paris after the war, in the fall of 1948, there was considerable discussion about Claudel’s play, “Partage de Midi,” and its première scheduled for December. Barrault had finally secured Claudel’s permission and the text was to appear in print. Articles, interviews, the production itself, and the publication: all of this seemed to attract more attention than anything else that fall and early winter. Two of the original four actors are playing “Partage de Midi” this week in Paris, in a revival: Barrault and Edwige Feuillère. Eighteen years! during which time the play had become as well known as “L’Annonce faite à Marie.”

In the early fifties—1953, I believe—it was Beckett’s “En attendant Godot” that became the center of curiosity. That year I wrote to Barney Rosset of Grove Press about three new French playwrights I urged him to consider publishing in English: Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet. In his answer, he said he thought I was somewhat insane to recommend such writers, but just to humor me, he would try publishing Beckett. He soon added the other two, and today they are three of his best authors.

Today, in February, 1966, the spotlight, momentarily, at least, is on Boris Vian whose works are being republished and re-evaluated. Theses on him will soon appear. In fact, I met yesterday one of my former students from Colorado to whom I would have recommended Vian, if he had not already begun work on a thesis on Sartre’s political views!

In the fifties, I remember buying a curious book by Vian, but signed by Vernon Sullivan: “J’irai cracher sur vos tombes,” a somewhat pornographie volume which brought fame to Vian. Today he is called le prince de Saint-Germaindes-Prés. Before his death, in 1959, at the age of thirty-nine, he played many rôles in this colony of artists: engineer, trumpet player, writer, pataphysician. The magazine Bizarre is preparing an issue on him, to be called “les vies parallèles de Boris Vian.” He helped to found and promote Le Tabou on the rue Dauphine, a bistro originally, and ultimately an existentialist club with Sartre, Juliette Greco, and others.

Boris Vian was an authority on jazz. His admiration for Jarry and Queneau explains his joining Le Collège de Pataphysique in 1951. Jacques Prévert speaks of him in a poem:

Il jouait à la vie et avait
Toujours des bontés pour elle.

Young people today reading his two books, “L’Automne à Pékin” and “L’Ecume des jours,” recognize in them their own reactions to the spirit of the day, to the particular brand of humor and sadness which is theirs. These readers are perhaps already leaving the period of le roman nouveau and of Robbe-Grillet, and discovering that Boris Vian appeals more directly to them.

In Paris I have always been eager to learn what the current literary fashion is, to read the reviews of the newest books, to see the displays in the bookstore windows. This time I still feel some of that eagerness, but it is mingled with the sadness that comes in the rapid change in such phenomena. Now I feel somewhat distrustful of the blatantly announced successes, and I am more interested in seeing the new evolution in established writers, new re-evaluations of books and authors that already have a history.

Julien Green’s third volume of his autobiography is just out and is being reviewed. It is called “Terre lointaine” and relates the year 1920, when at the age of twenty he went to America for the first time and attended the University of Virginia. The book is largely about his irresistible attraction to the male students, to their physical beauty and casualness. A courageous book that gives a principal clue to “Moïra” and “Sud.” I encountered Julien Green only twice: once in Princeton (on my only visit to Princeton) on the invitation of Maurice Coindreau. That most amiable man drove Green and myself around the countryside, showed us the campus of the university, gave us lunch in an inn, and introduced us to his friends the Casadesus. I remember nothing of our conversation save the relative silence of Julien Green. Coindreau and I did most of the talking.

Green’s career, from the early novel of “Mont-Cinère” to this recent “Terre lointaine,” an important document on his twentieth year, is one of the six or seven literary careers of twentieth-century writers I have followed the most assiduously, with the most continuous interest and sympathy, and with the conviction that here is an authentic writer. In my thinking about him, he has always been associated in my mind with two others of those six or seven writers: with Gide on the one hand, always so eager to attack the religious beliefs of Green and encourage him to follow the bent of his nature; and with Jacques Maritain, on the other hand, a steadfast friend through all the personal dramas of Green, who helped to sustain him in his beliefs. Green’s life has maintained a midway course between the tempter-friend, who has been dead now for fifteen years, and the wise counselor friend who is still living at the age of eighty-three.

Last night, Jacques’ niece, Eveline Garnier, told me her uncle is coming up from Toulouse, where he now lives with the Petits frères de Jésus, and is spending the first week of March in Paris. Almost all the elements of my first visits to Paris in the thirties are still present, and I constantly have the impression that nothing has changed and that I am continuing to study the careers and the books of thirty years ago!

Jacques has probably forgotten by now that he is my godfather! During the war years, when I was teaching at Yale, I often went to New York to visit him and Raïssa and Véra in their apartment at 80 Fifth Avenue. One evening he asked me about the circumstances of my conversion. In the course of the discussion, I told him of my baptism in the French church at Bennington, Vermont, L’Eglise du Sacré-Coeur. The priest had prepared me with a short series of instructions on the catechism. He finally set a date, a Saturday afternoon, after confessions. When I appeared in the sacristry, he suddenly realized we had made no plans for godparents! He called in a young woman he had just confessed and told her she was to be my godmother. I did not even know her name. This woman, whom the priest scolded after the baptism, because she did not know the creed by heart, was my only sponsor. I had no godfather. Maritain was moved by the story and offered to be my godfather. I was proud indeed to send his name to the priest in Bennington. He is the godfather of so many friends like myself, and of children of his friends who have come to him for a word of advice and encouragement, that he certainly cannot remember us all! “Je serai votre parrain!” I remember his sentence and I remember Véra and Raïssa both clapping their hands in approval. The little scene came back into my mind last night when Eveline told me her uncle would be in Paris on March 6th.

But the place of honor in this Maritain-Psichari thesis cycle is occupied by my oldest and most faithful friend, Henriette Psichari, who last year celebrated her eightieth birthday. Especially now, in her advanced years, her face resembles portraits of her grandfather Ernest Renan. She still works at the Education Nationale, 29, rue d’Ulm, and still lives at 22, rue Beautreillis, a house in considerable disrepair today, where once Cézanne lived, and where once Baudelaire and Jeanne Duval lived! On countless nights, after spending the evening with Henriette, I have walked back to my hotel on the rue Cassette, a thirty-minute walk, across the Pont Sully, on the edge of the He Saint Louis, and then along the Boulevard Saint Germain to the rue du Four. Even tired, I have always cherished that walk, because my mind would be so filled with thoughts and emotions that I needed the physical exertion and the peacefulness of midnight (all would be peaceful until I reached the Cinéma Danton just before Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and from then on I would be in the swirl of Paris night life crowding the streets and sidewalks) to put them into some order, or simply to rehearse and savor them.

When I first met Henriette, she was planning to write a book on her brother Ernest. On our second meeting, she had written the book. From then on, she has been the friend who every two years has been engaged in writing a new book, and who would read to me the chapters that had just been finished. On our first evening together this month, after our simple supper (jambon et salade, endives braisées, yagourt, banane), she produced the inevitable manuscript. What is the subject, I asked. L’ère des conversions, was the answer, and again the circle seemed to be completed, because the opening pages were on the conversion of Ernest Psichari, with references to all the other conversions of that time: Maritain, Cocteau, Jacob, Sachs. This time the reading was painful for me. Henriette had grown increasingly hostile to the Church.

On the evenings when no reading is done, Henriette’s son, Olivier Revault d’Allonnes, is present, either on the rue Beautreillis, or in his own apartment, rue Saint-Paul, close by, where he lives with his wife, Claude, and three of his four sons. Olivier is one of the really liberated spirits I have had the privilege of knowing: open-minded, generous, and perspicacious at the same time. He teaches esthetics at the Sorbonne, and is editor of La Revue d’Esthétique. When he asked me, on our first reunion a few days ago, to do an article for the magazine, I said I would if he would correct my French. He replied that I used to correct his French when he was a lycéen and when I had to read his dissertations on “Le Cid.”

Olivier is perhaps the only Frenchman I know with whom I feel free to discuss any problem connected with France. He would, I think, be shocked by nothing I might say, and he would answer honestly what he thought. I have always been oppressed in France by the separation of the classes, and the classes within the classes. On this visit I have felt these separations more acutely than ever. The French intellectuals are in a world by themselves. And those who are called le peuple are in another world. No communication between them, no social intercourse, no exchange. These worlds differ in speech, thoughts, dress, habits, reactions. They are two countries living side by side. La petite bourgeoisie and la grande bourgeoisie are as far apart as les paysans and les nobles in the seventeenth century.

The rue Cassette where I live is so close to Saint-Germaindes Prés that I pass through it at least once or twice a day. It is always crowded, especially at night. The new Drugstore Saint Germain is doing a flourishing business. Lipp’s sign, complet, is always on the door. The parked autos fill every possible space. All the tables are taken in the Café de Flore and Aux Deux Magots. And yet, and yet, it is not the same. The golden age is over: the age of Sartre and Beauvoir, of the singer Juliette Greco and the songs of Boris Vian and Jacques Prévert. An atmosphere, not solely defined by its celebrities, has disappeared. That atmosphere of the âge d’or was really created by the young people, soon after the war, who crowded into Saint Germain, and who were eager to find some way of living the moral and philosophical problems of the day. They came from Paris and the provinces to a kind of rendezvous under the most beautiful tower in the world: that of the twelfth-century Eglise de Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Everything favored discussion and that relaxation that comes only from freedom of speech. Gallimard’s publishing house was close by and Plon’s not far away. Those young people were aware of the immediate ancestors of the celebrities they could see nightly: of Apollinaire and André Salmon and Léon-Paul Fargue, who had frequented the Flore (Léon-Paul Fargue’s father had fired the ceramics that line the walls of Lipp), of Gide, who had preferred Aux Deux Magots.

The reasons in 1966 for spending the evenings at Saint-Germain no longer have the validity they had at the end of the forties and through the fifties. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir originally chose the Flore because it was heated and they could work there. If those young people surrounding Sartre and Beauvoir in the cafés during the day and in the caves during the long evening hours were not writers themselves, they read serious books: “La Nausée” of Sartre, “L’Etranger” of Camus, and the American novelists. Their thoughts and their attitudes and their poverty are in the songs of Léo Ferré (“tous ces poètes de deux sous et leur teint blême”) and in the poems of Prévert (“O, Barbara, quelle connerie la guerre!”). But today, the moment of the existentialists of Saint-Germain-des-Prés belongs to history. Such sentences as “L’existence precede 1’essence” and “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” are now to be found in textbooks. Today les beatniks and les minets and les yé-yé appear less aggressive, less pessimistic, less interesting. Histrionics have replaced philosophy. American and English varieties have infiltrated, and prices have gone up so high that the real seekers, the rebel youthful philosophers have fled. The French youths who turn up now at night in the 6th arrondissement of Saint-Germain probably came from the wealthy 16th arrondissement. They mingle with the American youth, who are more affluent than in former years.

There is a history of the existentialist Saint Germain, written by Boris Vian, the best qualified to be its historian, which was believed lost. It has come to light and will be published this summer. The myths, the personalities, and the poses will undoubtedly be revealed by the man who perhaps best incarnated all the aspects of Saint-Germain: the cafés, the church, Le Tabou, the natives, the tourists, those assimilated with the natives, the caves (believed by some to have been invented by Jean Cocteau, who, at any rate, became with his film “Orphée,” the cinematographer of Saint-Germain), Juliette Greco, who claims to have been an existentialist from birth.

Today in France and America, the most complicated language, the language richest in meaning, is the language of literary criticism. In his efforts to comprehend the language of the so-called creative artist, the critic has created a speech that engenders and propels his thought, that makes of his thought a demonstration. Whereas the poet tends to mask whatever ideas he may have, the critic tends to unmask his ideas. The critic too has his dreams that may appear to him replete with symbols, and that may serve him in his interpretations and in his search for meanings. Far more than the poet or the novelist, the critic lives in the world of ideas, of abstractions, of essences. The earth, with its vineyards and flowers and trees, with its jungles and quicksands, nourishes the arts, both literary and graphic, but it does not nourish the critic. The vineyard is real or symbolic for the writer, but for the critic, it is a word used in a text as something real or symbolic, and his function is to analyze how and why it was used.

In the meagre circle of French friends I am seeing quite constantly these March days, there are so many differences of opinion that I grow daily more and more skeptical about reaching any sure knowledge concerning political and sociological problems, or even accurate definitions of new words I hear or see used. Les yé-yé, for example, I have been trying to track down, and flippers, and minets. The example of the Beatles would seem to be the origin of the word yé-yé, and the type of music they like, and their unconcern for practical matters, such as work. My principal problem is always the same, since it is I who ask the questions, and since no Frenchman will say to me: “I don’t know.” I find myself checking answers, one against the other, to reach something like a consensus. The skill of the French in building up an argument is so great that they often forget to check the validity, the accuracy of the basic elements.

In the states a teacher of French literature, and here in Paris a reader who questions in order to understand better, in order to teach better, I am conscious once again of leading the strange life of one participating in two cities, two countries, two attitudes, two civilizations. It is hard not to “take over” French attitudes and views, and assimilate them. To be, in a word, more French than American. This would be wrong and obnoxious. At one time I had to struggle against it deliberately. Now there is no need to struggle, because I am happy to be what I am: an American whose intellectual interests center on the study of French literature. The artifice of using a foreign language in America has to be made into an art, a performing art without it ever altering one’s basic personality formed by all the indigenous influences at work on each individual.

Living in France is the cure to the danger. Even if the act of living here brings necessarily considerable sadness, it is a sadness that comes from our painful approximation to speaking, thinking, feeling like the French. How much better it is to acknowledge the differences, to accept them as inevitable, and even to use them for self-illumination and for the illumination of the French! My best students—some of them are here in France right now—are tempted to adopt the traits and the attitudes that appeal to them. I see them being tempted, and then I see the sadness that comes to them from knowing that there is something wrong or impossible in such a transaction. All Americans have to adjust to America, but that adjustment is carried on from birth, day by day, without it ever appearing to be an adjustment. The adjustment to the study of French, and even to living in France, is of another kind. It is a conscious appropriation of values and knowledge and experiences that will help to situate an American with respect to his own country and heritage.

Tuesday, 22 March. My first encounter with Edouard Dermit. He had already sent me photographs for the book I wrote on Cocteau, and we had exchanged letters. Today his invitation to take lunch with him, brought me back, after six years, to the tiny apartment, 36, rue de Montpensier, in the Palais-Royal. Every detail of my visit with Cocteau, in 1960, was present in me. The housekeeper (not Madeleine, but a younger woman whom Dermit called Simone) showed me into the small salon, decorated in the same dark red velvet. When he entered, he appeared, of course, older than in his film rôles: Paul in “Les Enfants Terribles,” and Cégeste in “Orphée” and “Le Testament d’Orphée,” but I would easily have recognized him. Direct, simple, attentive, and seemingly eager to talk about Jean, he made the meeting memorable for me. First, he showed me, with the pride of a young boy showing his prize toys, photographs of the fresco-paintings he did in the new chapel at Fréjus. He copied exactly all the drawings left by Cocteau for this work, and while he was thus engaged, he remained alone for almost a year.

Then he showed me the bedroom of the apartment, which I had not seen on the other visit. Innumerable pictures on the walls, several of which show Dermit, and posters and mementos. A large rosary hangs beside the bed. There is a recent photograph of Dermit and the son of Raymond Rouleau, in a scene from the unsuccessful film “Thomas l’Imposteur.” As he talked about this detail and that, I began marveling at how this man participated in Cocteau’s life, at how he learned so much of what is in reality literary history. He is already besieged by people writing books and theses, by exhibits and memorials. Dermit is a painter by vocation, but has done nothing since finishing the frescoes of Fréjus.

He took me to a nearby restaurant. He greeted the proprietors and those in charge, with simplicity but with the precision of a man who knows who he is, and who knows that others know who he is. Our table conversation, lasting more than two hours, was illuminating. In great detail, he spoke of Jean’s last hours and of his death. Dermit believes Cocteau knew he was dying. He had lost all sensation in his arms and legs. Dermit kept massaging them but to no avail. Finally, when the end came, he said goodbye, and then seemed, without sadness, to turn within himself and focus all his attention on what was coming, on death itself. He quite deliberately shut out the living and concentrated his curiosity on the next event. Dermit feels his presence today at Milly, feels he is being guided by Cocteau, protected by him. He is fully conscious of all he owes to Cocteau, and of all he can do now to preserve Cocteau’s memory.

Only once did I leave Paris this month, in order to visit, with Alice Coléno and some members of her family, the château of Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Melun. How lucidly it revived for me the classical art of the seventeenth century and readings in La Fontaine and Mme de Sévigné! The iron grille is punctuated with pillars topped with sculptured human heads. These were called termes in French and indicate the boundaries of the estate. The low sidebuildings for the servants are called les communs. One of the persistent motifs in the decorations is a squirrel, and I was delighted to learn that Fouquet’s name means “squirrel” in Breton. The memory of Nicolas Fouquet is everywhere, and I kept trying to imagine the great reception he gave to Louis XIV. Three thousand people came. On the king’s arrival in the afternoon, a collation was served. Then, later, Molière’s troupe gave the first performance of “Les Fâcheux.” The elaborate souper came about ten in the evening. But so much beauty and lavishness made the king jealous, and it was soon after his visit to Vaux-le-Vicomte that he had Fouquet taken prisoner in Nantes—for absconding funds from the king’s treasury. La Fontaine, who had been Fouquet’s guest at the castle, remained faithful as a friend. I remember the letter in which he speaks of standing all night outside the door of Fouquet’s cell. As I walked through the gardens, my thoughts were very much on Fouquet’s story: one of reckless spending, of pomp, of dishonesty, of cruelty and envy.

The days have been cold during this month of March, and yet almost every day, every two or three days, I can see the leaves grow on the small chestnut tree in the tiny garden under my window of the Paris-Dinard. Their development has been like a valiant fight against the elements. The sap must be moving through the trunk and the branches, to open these fresh green leaves. The season will change and I will soon be away from here, at the other end of France, in the midi. Strangely enough, with the knowledge that I am going to Saint-Paul, I have been mentally preferring the small Provençal town to Paris, elaborating subconsciously on the advantages of being in a house of my own, over the prison of my hotel room. How easily one finds reasons to do what one wants to do! I keep examining the reasons as they form in me, and trying to sort out the specious from the valid ones. This time, Paris has been very much the past, the past in terms of strong ardent friendships: Henriette Psichari, Eveline Gamier, Jim Kennedy, Alice Coléno, Olivier Revault d’Allonnes. In each of these cases, the past is so rigid that I have not been able to dissociate it from the present. This time, more than in the past, each of these friends has involved me in his or her family or immediate group of friends, and I have missed some of the closeness of feeling, some of the intimacy of confidence that once made our relationship more meaningful, more exciting. The fault may well be mine. The fault may well be in the length of absence, in the heaviness of age. Friendship needs constant improvisation and spontaneity. Let us leave to family relationships the heaviness of routine and habit!

It is not sadness I am trying to describe, it is not a sense of disappointment I am accusing, but rather a sense of settledness, of permanence in sentiment. There is no need to win over, to justify myself, to explore some unexplored thought. I think, again quite subconsciously, I have been depressed by the impossible exertion it would take to know the younger members of these groups I have been seeing, and who might, under different circumstances, offer me the excitement of discovery and conquest which friendship, in my terms, demands.

Tempestuous, exciting, demoralizing-—by what other words could I describe my friendship with Jim Kennedy, which goes back to my years at Yale? The brilliance of his mind, his inexhaustible curiosity, the warmth of his heart, have always dazzled me and still do. With Bill Munn, whose temperament and tastes are close to my own, Jim has built up a business of consultation and financial advice, in the penthouse of the New York Times Building, rue de Caumartin. And now there is a third member: a German lad of twenty-four, Günter, who has spent four years in the Foreign Legion. Günter is an expert photographer and is fast becoming a financial expert. His use of English is miraculous, and his use of French also. When the four of us are together, linguistic questions pop up at every moment, in the midst of our ponderous deliberations concerning the mores of the day, the characteristics of the French, and the destiny of France. Jim rules over us all, with his candor, his knowledge, and the extraordinary gentleness of his strength.

April. I was saying goodbye last night to a student from Colorado (we had just looked at Picasso’s memorial figure to Apollinaire in the garden of Saint-Germain-des-Pres and had admired the moon over the tower of the church) when he said to me: “I feel you are closing a chapter of your life—the Paris chapter of March 1966—and tomorrow when you fly to Nice, a new carefully planned, carefully organized chapter, will begin. It will be a new page, a new notebook.” A bit startled by the accuracy of his comment, I blurted out some rejoinder about his need to discipline his life and stop drinking and wasting his time at the “bar Seine” or “Old Navy.” He offered to do this, provided I would begin wasting some time in some of those dives he frequented. We both joked, a bit uneasily, about the proposed plan for self-renewal, and then separated, he to go back to the bar Seine, and I to go back to my room at the Paris-Dinard and plot out some of this new month’s work. His remarks caught me a bit unprepared. Is this the picture I give to friends and students: of a highly organized, disciplined life?

I have always tried to conceal from family, friends, and students the excessive regimentation of my life, the list-making, the hourly surveillance, the meticulous allocation of time for this project and that project: the new course to prepare, the old course to revive and revitalize, the letters to write, the book review to plot out, the lecture to rehearse, the public event to attend, the social obligation, the shopping lists: clothes, food, laundry, bank errands. And behind all those lesser matters, the two primordial reasons for existence: the book I am writing daily and the personal relationships which should and could demand all my time.

It is a sense of shame, I suppose, that forces me to hide as much as possible the pattern of my ridiculously departmentalized and timed existence. Everything in me admires the opposite kind of life: spontaneous, free, ill-organized, or organized around the impulse of the moment, the life that is perpetual improvisation for the charm and the seductiveness of the passing moment. I admire the man who can fall asleep when he is tired, who can eat when he is hungry, and play when he wants exercise and relaxation, and read a book for the sheer enjoyment of reading. I admire the man who is guided by his instincts and bodily needs, who enjoys easy relationships that are not demanding. Perhaps I admire this man because I do not know him, outside of fiction and films. I think of him as the type of man whose desires and whose life are brief.


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