Dada’s Dada
A Memory of Tristan Tzara

It was shortly after the liberation of Paris, and most of the people who came to the party in the studio of the painter Francis Gruber in the Villa d’Alésia hadn’t seen one another for weeks, or months or years, and they all squealed with delight to see old faces. They were the rising young painters and poets and critics and philosophers , and they all had stories to tell of heir life under the heel of the Nazis.
Not necessarily exciting stories, for the Occupation was, for them as for most of the French population, largely a time of boredom, anxiety, frustration, impotence, only rarely of violence, of horror.

Some of them had been bombed. Some of them had performed minor acts of civil disobedience, some of them had been contributors to underground publications, some of them had narrowly escaped arrest, a couple of hem had actually been arrested but released through the discreet intervention of influential friends. They had all had their moments of panic, of discouragement that touched on despair, but they had all managed to keep alive. It wasn’t that bad if you managed to hold on to a little money, if you had the right connections, if you went to the right places, if you knew your way around the black market. There was always something doing in the galleries, in the theaters. There were love affairs, professional jealousies, drunken brawls, traffic accidents. If you were a Jew of course you lived with the perpetual specter of being denounced by some jealous enemy or false friend and being dragged off to deportation, torture and miserable death, but if you were a French Jew, a French citizen not a helpless immigrant, and had good friends and a good supply of money, you could change your identity, refuse to wear a yellow star, live quietly and obscurely. For that matter, Mme Gruber, the hostess of the party, was a daughter of Henri Bernstein the playwright, who had fled to America, but she had gone on living a normal artist’s-wife life without ever being disturbed. Just like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, living on their country estate.

When you looked back on those miserable years, you could even find light moments, of a sort. And there were pleasant enough stories being told around the studio that day.
“I walked out of the gallery and there was this fellow flat on his belly on the sidewalk with a gun pointing down the rue St Honoré. What are you doing here, I said to him. I am liberating Paris, he said. Excuse me, I said, and I stepped over him and went around the corner for a drink. There wasn’t another soul in the street...”
“Of course he didn’t mind German officers coming to see his play, it ran for months and it paid for his new house. But when he found them coming to his wife’s bedroom, he threw a patriotic fit...”

“Of course she always knew which palms to grease and she always had advance information when the Milice [the Milice, the paramilitary force which did the dirty work for the Vichy government] were coming to raid her club for one of those inspections. So she winked at any of her customers or performers who might have reason to feel uncomfortable about it, and they slipped out on the roof to smoke a couple of cigarettes. Then when the bully boys came bursting in and started all that pull-down- your-pants routine, she kept the music going and bought drinks all round and made a party out of it. Jean Cocteau tried never to miss one of those events, he thought they were put on specially for him, he was tipped off a day in advance by a boyfriend he had in the Milice....”
Circumcision having an eternal fascination for the French – like the ancient Greeks and Romans they regard it as a mutilation of the male body’s beauty, and they never tire of making jokes about it – the Cocteau story was followed by a batch of others. I could even tell one of my own.

I had come into France on an early wave of the gloriously successful unopposed landing on the beaches of the Riviera. On my way north to Paris, I had stopped long enough in Aix-en-Provence to look up my friends the painters, Francis Tailleux and Pierre Tal-Coat who were living with their families in a house once occupied by Cézanne, and I heard from them how, one quiet evening, a squad of Miliciens came bursting in armed to the teeth and demanding that all males in the house produce their identity papers and visual proof that they were still possessed of all the skin they had been born with. When they discovered that Pierre Tal-Coat’s real, legal, name was Pierre Jacob, they whooped triumphantly, and prepared to give him the full treatment. But he calmly let down his trousers, and explained that his ancestors for at least fourteen centuries had been fishermen in Brittany, and that he had taken the name Tal Coat with which he signed his paintings to emphasize his Breton roots. In addition, he said, you will see if you look down that you will not find what you are looking for. And in addition, he said as he readjusted his garments, there is a general in the German army named Jacob, and he would not be happy to hear that you were making fun of his name.
It was now Tailleux’s turn, and he explained that he and his younger brother had been circumcised by their uncle, a doctor, when they were little boys, for hygienic reasons. I’ve heard that story before, said the chief inspector, and let me tell you something, you have the face of a degenerate, you certainly look like a Jew. Then after a moment’s inspection, he announced reluctantly: You’re OK “How can you tell?” asked Tailleux. ”Don’t worry,” said the milcien, “I’m an expert. can tell the difference right away, I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of these things. And I can tell the difference from a mile away.”

And after a while all the Miliciens trooped out, somewhat disappointed, but assuring their hosts that there would better hunting down the road..

New arrivals kept coming to the party, there was always a stir of anticipation.

The stir became a commotion when some one at the door cried out, Guess who’s coming up the stairs,
In a moment, everyone knew, and everyone was excited. It was Tristan Tzara, the torchbearer of subversion and desanctification, the torpedoer of tradition, the devaluer of values, the man who in a café in Zurich in 1916 had plucked from a dictionary the two syllables that were to sound the death rattle of western so-called civilization: Dada.

He hadn’t changed a bit since I had last seen him, a little over four years before, at the Café de Flore, describing a night of passion with a young sculptor who was experimenting with a new medium, crumpled paper. The same gray mustache, gray suit, the same friendly inquisitive bank-clerk look. He shook hands, he plunged into the conversation as if it he was finishing what he had started to say just the day before. The same bits of malicious gossip, the same pronouncements on meaning and non-meaning, on art and life.
Then a name came up, of a painter who was in trouble with the new authorities, he had rather openly consorted with art-loving German officers and occupation officials and collaborationist journalists, and there was talk of subjecting him to Indignitê nationale which would mean forbidding him to expose his work publicly for a number of years. Every one agreed he deserved some sort of rebuke, but as someone said, “It’s a pity, because he has done some great paintings.”

And at that, Tzara exploded. His cheeks puffed and reddened, he stamped his foot, his voice rose shrill over all the chatter. “Great paintings!” he shouted. “Do you call that painting?” He was no longer in a comfortable studio in Paris, he was walking in some provincial town where friends had provided him with a false identity and a hideaway, walking down the street with every expression of proper middle-class normality on his face, in his stride, to get a little air, to get a little escape from the four walls of his room, while somewhere behind the face was a turmoil of doubts and fears and nagging worries, did he look normal enough, was the street really empty, or was there a gendarme posted in an alley watching for suspicious passersby, had some anonymous busybody written to the police that there was an unknown gentleman living at suchandsuch a house who only went out rarely, and then in a sneaky way, was there a carful of jolly miliciens on their way to stop him and cheerfully yell, Hey you, Samuel Rosenstock, born in Moinesti Rumania, let’s see your papers and let’s see what’s inside your pants. Did they come peel your little apple in Moinesti, Sammie boy?
“Paintings!” he shouted. “If that’s painting, I shit on painting. If that’s art, I shit on art.”
And without a word of warning or farewell, he stormed his way to the staircase that led down to the street, he stamped down it, and in the silence of the studio we all heard the banging of the front door. When the conversation resumed, it was in a lower, key, a kind of collective whisper went round: “Did you hear what he said. Shit on art, he said, he shits on art. Can you believe it? Tristan Tzara!”

Then more people arrived, and the round of stories began again, and the evening ended in the conventional tipsy confusion.

I was to see Tzara only one more time before his death, it was a year or so after the Gruber party, it was in one of those tumultuous existentialist night clubs which set the cultural tone in Saint Germain des Prés in those days. He was very drunk. He was just getting up, a little unsteadily, from his chair at a table he was sharing with a stocky shifty-eyed man who looked as if he could get a part any time in a French film noir.
“Glad to see you,” said Tzara to me, though it was obvious he couldn’t quite place me, “I’d love to talk to you about old times. But look, I promised a gifted young poet in the back down there to exchange a few words with him, I am going to help him get published.. In the meanwhile, let me introduce you to this fellow I have been having a drink with. He’s really worth talking to, he is fabulous. He’s a gangster. He’s the real goods..” And he bounced off unsteadily into the back room.

The man looked at me suspiciously at first, but after I had introduced myself and ordered drinks for both us, he warmed up and became quite cordial. He had an ambiguous smile which exposed some very white teeth. His cautious eyes kept roaming to the other tables and the door of the establishment; once, when I let my own eyes roam a bit, I turned them back in time to catch a moment of fierce scrutiny, through half-closed lids; he was sizing me up. Over the next drink, he said to me, “You’re an American aren’t you?” And when I confirmed his supposition, he added, most unexpectedly: “I like Americans.”
“ They keep their word.”
I assumed he was referring to some kind of mutually profitable business deal involving cigarettes or jerricans or other items with which the US Army was generously supplied and were desperately lacking to the war-drained French economy. But no, the service had been performed in Germany and – though his discourse was by now getting somewhat incoherent -- I gathered that it involved an officer whom he referred to only by his nickname, Fitz.

“Fitz kept his word to me,” he said. “My friend Octave said I was stupid to trust him But I trusted him. And he kept his word. And that is why I am here today. Let’s drink to Fritz,” he cried, hoisting his latest glass. But no,” he said suddenly, “we can do that later. I must drink to Octave, my old friend Octave. He died yesterday.”
“Sorry to hear it,” I said. “What happened to him?”
“They shot him.”

Then, after a pause, “They’re shooting people right and left these days. You wonder why they’re not shooting me?”

I stammered something, but he went right on. “You don’t need to worry about me. I got nothing to worry about. I have a paper here.” He tapped his shirt pocket. “Fitz got it for me. I knew I could trust Fitz and I was right. Fitz kept his word. Americans keep their word. That’s why I like Americans.” A couple of more drinks had arrived on the table, and he signaled for two more. “People don’t realize that. You take Octave. He said I was stupid. He said we could make a fortune. He said we could buy a yacht and sail away and live in Tahiti. He believed that Obersomethingfuhrer, he said if we got him out of the country he would make us rich. They have cellars full of gold in South America, he said, we could load up a quatre-chevaux with gold. I said I didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t trust them any more. sure, they got us out of France in time, but they said we were good boys, but then they wanted us to fight the Russians for them. They were losing their fucking war and they wanted us to kill ourselves fighting the Russians. I told Octave, I said -“
”Let’s get this straight,” I said. “You and Octave were in the- ‘
“Better not say it out loud,” he said, looking around at the nearest tables. “Not that I have anything to be afraid of.” And he tapped his shirt pocket. “But you know how people are. There are a lot of people who have it in for us. Sure we did some mean things to them. It was a mean fight, don’t kid yourself. The fifis and the cocos [de Gaulle’s Forces francaises de l’Inérieur and the French Communist Party] weren’t playing games, I can tell you, and neither were we. I could tell you stories that would curl your hair. But,” he added after another healthy swallow “We had some good times too.”
His cheeks, which had been tightening up relaxed. He leaned back in his chair, he was half smiling.

“Real good times. Yes, we had to fight in some real crumby little places in the hills. But when we were doing what I called our investigative work, we went places I’d never dreamed to going to, fancy homes in the 16th arrondissement, fancy country houses, real chateaus with iron gates and race horses, the best hotels, the best resorts, the top night clubs, casinos, theaters, monasteries, you name it.”
“Investigative work?” I prompted.
“You know what I mean. The classic routine. Down with your pants, my good sirs, we are here to see if any one of you is trying a little trickery when it come to obeying the laws of France. And if any of you have, there is a car waiting for you at the door.
“”Of course they were not always pleased to hear it. And they would be waving those papers at you. Those doctors certificates, for hygienic reasons, all of that shit But you can’t fool me, I can recognize a doctor’s hand in a flash. If you give me a pencil, I can make a drawing for you, the little things you have to look for. When you have looked at as many of them as I have, one look is enough. I could make you a drawing.

“But it’s their faces I would have liked to draw. The faces of all those respectable gentlemen, with their wives or girlfriends along, and there they were, and I had them where I wanted them, I loved to see that look in their eyes when they realized that all that shit about doctors certificates was not going to work,
“Oh they were scared all right but they weren’t that stupid. They knew they’d be nabbed some time, and they knew what to do about it.
They would give me a wink, and I’d tell them to button up, they were all right, they could stay for the rest of the show. And when the show was almost over, I’d step out in back, and out into the street, and somebody would brush past me and I could feel a thick envelop slipping into my breast pocket.
“Those were the days my friend.”

I would have liked to turn the conversation back to Fitz. But his talk was quite incoherent by now. Or perhaps he was capable of delicate feelings after all, perhaps he was reluctant to give all the details of the game of mutual betrayal he and his friend Octave had played with each other. In those last desperate days when everything in Germany was falling apart, had Octave sold my friend to the SS in return for a ticket to Tahiti which turned out to be no longer valid? Had he sold Octave and a whole package of SS officials on the run to Fitz in return for a piece of paper that would make sue that he would never have to face the music? Perhaps –
Or perhaps he had been making the whole story up for my benefit.
Or perhaps he was trying out some of his lines from his next film.
It was just idle curiosity, I would never find out. He finished off his last glass with one great gulp. And jumped immediately out of his chair and disappeared. When he didn’t come back after ten minutes, I made a half-hearted effort to find him in the unruly crowd, but only ran into Tzara, who seemed anxious to say something but had trouble putting it into consecutive words before he disappeared in his turn into the general existentialist confusion..
Perhaps he was rehearsing what he would be telling the newspaper reporters to explain his adhesion to the French Communist Party. In times like these, he was going to tell them, you needed order, discipline, responsibility.

©2007 Robert Wernick