THE CAMBRONNE PICNIC
i. Alberto Giacometti and the End of the World
Paris, June 13 1940, 10 AM
Rolande has washed the breakfast dishes and carefully put them away in the proper cupboard. Our bicycles with their neatly packed baskets front and rear are leaning against the wall by the entrance door. We open the door and bring the bicycles out
The lady in the apartment on the other side of the corridor, the one who owns a hole-in-a-corner beauty salon in the next block, opens her door a bit but keeps it chained, she has always been afraid of burglars. She is haggard, disheveled, after many sleepless nights she is unsteady on her feet, but her voice is quite flat and matter-of-fact. "The Germans are fifty kilometers from Paris," she says. "It is the end of the world,". She slams her door shut, locks it, bolts it, and goes back to her regular post at the telephone.
We turn for a last look at our own little apartment, to make sure we have overlooked nothing. Rolande never overlooks anything, her little birdseyes are never still, but she also believes in last-minute checkups, and she has the example of our downstairs neighbors, who have a name that sounds like Champignon, the ones who own a drygoods store, to warn her against careless haste. They had noisily packed a pile of suitcases, with violent disputes as to what could or could noot be left behind,, at the very start of the panic, a month ago, when the German offensive was only a few days old, and last Satuday they they had run down the stairs with all their and suitcases and some boxes and their children and the mattress to put on top of their car, and they kept remembering things they had forgotten, and they were continuously running around and looking up apprehensively at the sky for dive bombers and bumping into Madame Cécile, of the fourth floor, the mistress it was said of a prominent official (he was the one who had called up to say the war was lost while the papers were still talking of a triumphant Allied advance through Belgium), who had even more baggage than they did, which she threw helter-skelter into her sports car and shot off into the rue Cambronne leaning on her horn. Traffic was quite normal on that day, all the roads leading out of Paris were open. She must have been a mile away, going south or southwest or west before the Champignons discovered that she had gone off with one of their suitcases, the one full of clothes and toys for the children, leaving behind for them one of her own, full of beauty products and indecent underwear. And they spent three quarters of an hour, with their motor running, shouting imprecations at each other for not keeping their eyes open and at their children for getting in the way and at the departed whore Cécile who represented all that was wrong with poor France.
And so we take that last lingering look at the apartment where we have spent six delirious weeks, and which we can not be sure of ever seeing again. Everything in it is charged with sentiment, everything is as usual, neat and tidy and scrubbed clean. The water and the gas have been turned off The furniture looks suitably domestic, rather grand furniture for a working-girl, but she had once had a boyfriend she called Coco Déménageur [the Mover], who worked for Grospiron the big moving company and had worked his way up to the post of making inventories of the furniture being moved out of upper-class homes, often after funerals when the bereaved were too emotional to be able to notice slight discrepancies in the number of Louis XV chairs or Second-Empire mirrors being recorded on the lists they were countersigning.
We check our watches, we have a good half an hour to make it to our rendezvous at the Café de Flore with the Giacometti brothers.
Rendezvous for the end of the world.
We check over once again everything we are taking with us to make sure that what we are taking is just the compact necessities we will need for survival and a minimum of comfort pedaling for an unknown number of days over unknown roads and sleeping in unknown fields: sleeping bags, blankets, changes of underwear, toilet articles, toilet paper, canned food and a can opener, tampax, a first-aid kit, some bananas and oranges, some bottles of water, some bottles of wine, Michelin road maps, matches, a wrench, a corkscrew, identity papers, a sentimental memento or two, a knife, a flashlight, tire-repair equipment, money.
We lock and double-lock the door, we go downstairs with the bicycles and their baggage, and we mount and take off in the bright spring sunshine. The air is dry and clear -- Hitler weather, they call it, because it makes things so much easier for the panzer divisions which the military experts had been sure would sooner or later get stuck in the mud if they didn't run out of gas first. The sky is a warm tent, a uniform cobalt blue broken only by some puffs of smoke from burning fuel dumps down the river, replacing the puffs of the previous days which had come from the bonfires of secret documents in the courtyards of the Interior Ministry and the Defence Ministry and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We are out in the middle of the rue Cambronne, and there is not a car to be seen either up or down it, not a window which is not shuttered, not a soul on the sidewalks if you don't count some stray pussycats and puppydogs, left behind because they would be a nuisance in overloaded automobiles.
No, as we pedal down, we see that the rue Cambronne is not quite empty after all. Where it begins, across from the elevated railway, there is a corner bistro where the owner is pulling down his blinds and pulling in his chairs. He cannot pull them all in because there is a policeman having his ritual coffee and calvados at one of them, and since he is on active duty looking for German parachutists disguised as nuns, and for ordinary civilians who might be fifth-column saboteurs, it would not be wise to break his routine and provoke him into keeping the place open another hour by asking passing cyclists for their identity papers and an explanation of where they are going with all that baggage. Diego Giacommetti, we couldn't help remembering, was briefly incarcerated a few days ago because a cop, perhaps this very cop, found the cigarette burns in his rumpled old raincoat suspicious, they might have been caused by bullets.
For when the world ends, government employees are among the last to get the message. At some point the French government had issued a decree proclaiming that since mass movements of refugees had clogged the national highway system and were interfering with movement of troops, policemen, letter carriers, meter-readers and other civil servants, it was henceforth forbidden for civilians to pass from one département to another without presenting a valid identify paper stamped by the proper authorities, such stamping only available to people who could present documentary proof that their presence in another département had been made necessary by some official demand or personal emergency. With hundreds of thousands, soon to become millions, of people already on the roads, it seemed unlikely that this decree would have any more effect than the other decrees being put out daily by government officials when they could spare time from packing their own bags for getting out in time. But out of sheer curiosity one afternoon we had cycled over to the address on the Boulevard Exelmans which was the stamping office for the million or so inhabitants of the Seine département. There were a few dozen people milling around on the sidewalk quarreling about who had gotten there first, but we managed to maneuver through them to a point where we could peek inside. There was a small row of desks lined up, and behind each of them sat a sober pinched-faced civil-servant with a pinched civil-servant mustache and a great volume opened to a page neately divided into columns before him. As each aspirant refugee turned up, he or she would produce his or her identity paper and a document attesting that his or her presence was necessary at a funeral in Bordeaux or a board of directors meeting in Toulouse. The man behind the desk would look over these papers, write down the name and address of the applicant in Column One and then he would either write Approuvé in Column Two and stamp the card and hand back the papers, or he would write Refusé and hand back the virgin papers without a word and stretch ouf his hand for the papers of the next applicant.
As we made our way back, a rumor began spreading through the crowd. Everything is OK: the Russians and the Rumanians have joined the war on our side. Every one began getting momentarily cheerful and excited, but one little man refused to give way to irrational emotion. Que voulez-vous, he said, c'est le balance. Balance is the law of life, everything works out all right in the end, and there is no need to get excited about anything.
But soon the cheering people had figured out that if the Russians and Rumanians had really stabbed Hitler in the back it would be shouted on the radio and not whispered on the streets, so they all quieted down and resumed their muttering places in the lines waiting for the stamp.
As we pedal past the stolid cop who does not raise his eyes from his coffee and calva, the owner waves and shouts to us, "The Germans are forty kilometers from Paris." No need to ask where he got his information. The telephone system is still working, like the traffic lights. And any stray passerby can bring a bulletin.
People have long ceased paying any attention to the military communiqués on the radio, or in the newspapers, though some editors had figured out a way of outwitting the censors. When they were forced to blank out the names of the localities where fierce fighting was reported because it would be bad for morale to know where those localities were, they simply printed a map without any arrows or captions which would tell any one who had seen the map in yesterday's paper that the fighting front, such as it was, had moved more in the last twenty-four hours than it had in four years in the first World War. But the papers had ceased coming out for the last couple of days, and the last map we had seen in print was of a region at least a hundred kilometers from Paris.
W are now cycling at moderate speed through street after empty street, the solid stolid bourgeois structures of Paris, all with their windows shuttered, stray bits of paper and garbage in the gutters, a few frittered posters on blank walls with a map of the world showing in some bright color, I forget which, the immense range of the French and British Empires spread over every continent and sea, surrounding a small patch of black, like some crouching spider which was the Third German Empire, and at the bottom in bold letters NOUS VAINCRONS PARCE QUE NOUS SOMMES LES PLUS FORTS. We will beat them because we are bigger.
What would Cambronne, the general who had given his name to the street that had been so briefly our home, have made of it all? He was, as all French-speakers know, a general at Waterloo who, when the English shouted to him to give up like the more sensible of his comrades, replied with the single word MERDE meaning SHIT, ever since known as le mot de Cambronne among polite people who teach their children that what the general really said was, The Old Guard may die but it never surrenders.
Cambronne meant his mot as one of defiance, but it could equally well serve as one of disgust at the utter futility of all things. It might well have meant, So this is what the end of the world is like! An uncoordinated mass of little stupidities! So that is all there is to it! His own world had really come to an end that day in Waterloo, with the army and the Empire to which he had devoted his life gone like a wisp of smoke, with the Emperor to whom he had sworn total allegiance slinking off in plebeian disguise to catch a boat for America. Of course it was not the end of everybody else's world, nor even of his own life: he was badly wounded, but he survived, he was taken prisoner and taken to England, lived on for another seventeen years, and he died in his bed.
And so it has been with all the other ends of the world that have taken place regularly since our first ancestors began to be aware that there was such a thing as a world around them.
Alberto Giacometti, whom we were due to meet in what was by now sixteen minutes' time, had put it in one of his usual tart nutshells in one of those long nocturnal conversations at the Flore in which we were accustomed to shine a bright light on the state of the arts, and the sexual activities of the artists, and the state of the world. There can be no such thing as an end of the world, he said on this occasion, because if there was, there would be by definition no one left to know that any such thing had taken place, much less know whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. There was some kind of crackpot painter with us that night, and he insisted on proving out of a combination of Rosicrucian and cabalistic texts that the day of our doom was fixed, and was fixed in our own year, the year 1940. "It's down in black and white," he said, "the end of everything, and we are almost half way through the year." "If that is so," said Alberto quietly but firmly,, "kindly take this pen and write me a check for twenty thousand francs and date it January 1 1941. Go on, don't hesitate, if you are right you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to lose." The man hesitated, he might be a mystical dreamer, he remained a Frenchman too. "But what do I have to gain?" he finally asked. "My respect for you," said Alberto, "as a man with the courage of his convictions."
Of course, we all had to agree that Alberto was right. Though his favorite generalizaion was, "All generalizations are wrong." When all of us talk about the end of the world, we do not mean the world, we mean our world, the mass of things we live with and by and for. The Bible tells us that . there will be an apocalypse any day, in which everything will be destroyed, everything except the New Jerusalem where those of us who are members of the right church will go on living happily forever in a setting of pearls and gold and jasper , saphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, sardius, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprasus, jacinth and amethyst, a consumer society in excelsis. The scientists tell us that around the year 4,000,000,000 AD our whole solar system will implode into a black hole. But uncounted numbers of subatomic particles will escape, they say, to go carousing through space and perhaps link up with others to form a new earth even more unsatisfactory than this one.
But there were more important things to talk about that evening. Once he had disposed of the tarot-card man, Alberto launched into one of his rapid-fire epigrammatic discourses to the little group of painters, writers, admirers, who circled around him, warning them to wax their ears against the siren songs of the abstractionists who were then drowning out all other tunes in the playground of the arts. Art, he reminded us, is a triangular affair. Messages, pulsions, emotional and intellectual throbs are being flashed back and forth between the artist's eyes and the material the artists is working on - canvas, marble block, whatever - and the world out there, what the artist sees with his eyes. Take out one of the three elements, and the work of art collapses. Take any abstract object, he said, a beautiful one, a Brancusi, a racing-car motor, and break it in pieces with a sledge-hammer, and you have a pile of junk. But dig up out of the desert a Sumerian sculpture of which only four fragments remain, and you have four masterpieces.
Why Sumerian? I wondered.
Perhaps in his mischievous Swiss way, he was suggesting that there was an end of the world in the air after all.
The world had ended one day for those Sumerian sculptors, they had disappeared leaving nothing behind but a few fragments of stone and clay. Modern scholars can make only educated guesses about what those sculptures meant to the sculptors who made them or the kings and priests and functionaries who ordered them. They have no social context for us, they live alone in their eternally private space in little niches in our museums.
Alberto might have been one of those sculptors himself when I used to drop in at his studio in the rue Hipplyte-Maindron, a dark dusty little place off a courtyard lined with reproductions of Parthenon friezes and watch him at work, a grizzled gnome stamping and fretting and mumbling curses around his sculptors stand, yellow glints coming out of his eyes as he reached out with nicotine-stained hands to stab or scratch at the little plaster head there which may have started out life-sized, and was now hand-sized, on its way to being fingernail-sized or to total extinction, stopping only to dip a cloth in wet plaster or to throw a cigarette stub in his asthtray on the floor which was the hollow belly of his famous surrealist bronze of a woman with her throat cut.
It was all a matter of getting the exact relations right, of ear to chin, of eye to nose. The day he did that he would be able to make his statues any size he wanted. For now, it was the little things that counted.
One day he asked -he would ask anyone - what I thought of the tiny object he was working on. I said it looked like a very large object seen at a very great distance. He nodded approvingly and went on to tell me of a great day in his youth when he was in a famous museum in Italy looking at the sculptures in the vast halls. Up to that time he had been working in a traditional vein, "Donatello et tout ça." but at that moment he saw an Egyptian statue at the end of a long corridor. He would learn later that it was the work of what is now considered an inferior dynasty, but at that moment it was a revelation for him: a statue all to itself, in its own space, with no connection to the life or the ideas floating around it. And that was just what he was trying to do now.
His sculptures were indeed blood kin to the characters in the books of his friend and fellow Flore habitué Samuel Beckett. They were created in what Beckett called our "next-to-the-last times," to be left in the desert after the end of the world. Not survivors. Leftovers.
Alberto was considered by most people in the art world of 1940 something of a leftover himself. His career which had started so brilliantly a decade and a half ago had come to what everyone agreed - except for our little handful of disciples and admirers - was a dead end.
Once he had been the darling of the surrealists, they had loved his hallucinogenic hypersexual constructions like his Unpleasant Object, a knobbed limp humanoid penis, a genuinely unpleasant object compared to which the boisterous visions of Dali and Max Ernst were good clean fun. They loved the quick barbed wit with which he played le Jeu de la vérité, the truth game, in which, every one asked his neighbor the most unsettling question he could think and he shot back with the most disturbing answer. (On one celebrated occasion one of the players committed suicide later in the evening.)
But then when André Breton, the Pope or Ayatollah of the surrealists, heard that Alberto was doing heads, recognizable illusionistic heads, he pronounced ex cathedra, "Every one knows what a head is," and excommunicated the backslider. And the collectors dutifully ceased from collecting, and Alberto to survive had to start, in collaboration with his brother Diego, making sturdily spindly pieces of furniture and decorative objects for the dealer Jean-Michel Frank [who, as we were to learn later, had a little schoolgirl niece named Anne in Amsterdam who one day would be more famous than all the art dealers of Paris combined].
Peggy Guggenheim when she was sweeping through France in the spring of 1940 to snap up works of art at bargain prices, took one look at what Alberto had in his studio and decided it had no place in the gallery she was going to call Art of This Century; she reached for the most scornful adjective in her vocabulary to spit out, "Greek!" and snapped shut her pocketbook.
Alberto had his own adjective for her that night at the Flore.: "The stupidest woman I have ever met." [But he always retained a kind of schoolboy loyalty to Breton. When once I dared to suggest that the Pope of Surrealistm might be a fumiste meaning phony, he called me a salaud meaning son of a bitch.]
But it is now
and the deadly Sumerian silence of the streets is giving way to a distant noise, a kind of subterranean ill-tempered rumble. We know what we are about to get into, the greatest traffic jam in human history up to that point, half the population of France trying to squeeze itself through the leafy boulevards of Paris.
And we have made our careful plans to be part of it.
It must have been that very Peggy Guggenheim evening that we held a kind of meeting and came up with the conclusion that whatever it was the world was up to, we could no longer just sit in the Flore and watch it, we had to do something.
It was in many respects a typical evening at the Flore, the familiar faces, the regular waiters, the steady buzz of chatter about the latest books, the latest news bulletins telephoned in from friends working in topsecret government agencies, the sexual pecadillos of famous artsts, the formulation of aesthetic principles. The beautiful Sonia was telling again the story of how she went, clad only in a fur coat, to dinner at a fashionable restaurant with a prominent literary critic, and how at critical moments she would pull the coat open, long enough to create consternation in her partner's eyes and shut it tight before waiters or other diners could react. Isabelle Delmer, Alberto's titular girlfriend (he could only, as he liked to confide to his friends, achieve anything like adequate sexual performance in the luxury whorehouse The Sphinx) was loudly twitting a young artist we called Basil because he apparently modeled himself on an Evelyn Waugh character, who spent all his days drinking at the Flore when he wasn't experimenting with a new sculptural medium, crumpled paper; she was twitting him on being all alone now because the other two members of the holy trinity they had formed when they left the university, swearing never to give up their traditional homosexual pattern of life when they went out into the great world, had both broken their oath and both recently gotten married, one of them was now a war correspondent and the other a prim stiff-collared sub-secretary at the British Embassy [ who, it would not be known till many years later, was copying secret documents at the Embassy and delivering them to the Soviet secret service].
But there had been a change in the habitual pattern. When you entered the café and looked around, it was no longer to see if there was any new face in the familiar throng, it was to see which familiar face was missing, since last night or since breakfast. One by one they had been slipping away, in overcrowded automobiles or trains automobiles, headed for the south, for Lisbon, for America.
And the newspapers you got when you ordered de quoi lire were not much bigger than pocket notebooks because there was no more woodpulp for paper coming from Scandinavia since Hitler had scooped up Norway and Denmark. Nor could the café any longer provide reams of paper, de quoi écrire, if you wanted to spend the day sipping brandy while writing love letters or love poems or philosophical novels.
Sam Beckett had gone off to the country to try to cheer up James Joyce who liked to say that he had been trying all his life to wake up from the nightmare of History. And now History was dropping from the daylight sky to pound on his door.
On all our doors. And what exactly are we going to do about it? The Germans are a few days or hours away, and we have to get out. But how, and where do we get out to? A Sam Beckett character might know how to sum up our dilemma: nowhere to go, no way of getting there, must go.
We are not totally impractical. We have all acquired bicycles, that was the thing to do. With a bicycle you had a certain liberty unknown those who entrusted themselves to trains or autos, you could twist and dodge and maneuver through or around the solid mass of vehicles which then occupied the highways of France.
Can Alberto ride a bicycle? Of course he can. He might always walk with a slight limp and with a cane in his hand, ever since he had been knocked down by a drunken female American driver in the front of the statue of Joan of Arc a couple of years previously, but the cane is as much for show as for anything else.
In between snatches of art talk, we make up lists of necessary supplies, we schedule a rendezvous, on the terrace of the Flore, we sketch out the route of our odyssey.
I have a stack of Michelin Tire maps which Frank Parker and I had used the previous summer on our excursion out of and back into Paris when every one was expecting a German invasion which instead ran off into Poland. Now it is France's turn, and a glance at the history books will tell us that while the Germans may well take Paris this time, they will have to run out of steam at some point, the way they did in 1914. There will then be a stalemate, say on the river Loire, as on the Aisne in 1915, and sooner or later, Russia and America will get into the war, and there will be a victory as there was in 1918. [In the light of what happened shortly afterwards, this might seem hopelessly naive and uninformed; but it is almost exactly what Winston Churchill is telling the demoralized French statesmen and generals at almost exactly the same time.] But in the meanwhile it was best to get as far behind the fighting front as possible, and I suggest that St Jean-de-Luz, on the Bay of Biscay just short of the Spanish border is the logical place to be, in summer time, and if the worst comes to the worst and the French government has to flee to North Africa the way the Dutch and Norwegian governments have fled to London, we will be able to slip out via Lisbon and see what will happen next.
As many as a dozen people may be taking part, more or less seriously, in these planning sessions any one time. But, as the nights and the days go on, and every day brings a new defeat and the Germans got closer and closer to Paris, some grow impatient and walk out, and find, and find some other method of transportation, or at least they are seen no more at the Flore.
Basil the Crumpler complains of his own lack of foresight in not acquiring a bicycle before evey bicycle shop in Paris was stripped bare of its wares. Rolande, ever practical, suggests he try the Trois Quartiers. Whatever for? he demands; what would a posh department store be doing with something as lowclass as bicycles? That's just it, she says, no one would think of going there for a bicycle, but their advertisements say that whatever it is you need, they have at least two of it. And sure enough, when Basil went there the next day, they did have a shiny hew bicycle down in a sub-basement when he went there the next day, and he showed it to us, and promised to do a version of it in crumpled paper one of these days.
In the end, there are only seven us who finally agree to leave together at eleven o'clock on the morning of June 13. Rolande and I would will meet Alberto and Diego and Diego's friend Nelly, on the sidewalk in front of the Flore at 11, and then we will pedal down the rue de Rennes and the avenue du Maine and pick up Francis Tailleux, a young painter who was one of Alberto' s acolytes, and his American friend Eileen Forbes; they are going to get married at about that time in the church of St. Pierre de Montrouge, strategically located at the crossroads out of which branch the the two avenues still open out of Paris, the one leading to the Porte d'Orléans, the other to the Porte de Chatillon.
And now here we are, we have come through the constanttly swelling noise of motors, horns, crashings, scrapings, shouts, curses, a rumble of frustration and impatience and sheer disgust, one long-drawn-out multi-decibeled mot de Cambronne echoing down the boulevard, and we are part of it, we are under a canopy of green leaves on the boulevard Saint Germain, part of the great stream of vehicles -- cars packed with children and steamer trunks, cars with mattresses on their roofs, buses, trucks loaded with factory machines and factory workers, horse-drawn farm-wagons, motorcycles, wheelbarrows, baby carriages, bicycles, dogged foot-plodders, filling the street from curb to curb, all headed in one direction, out of the city.
The day before yesterday everyone in the endless parade fitted more or less easily into the patterns and routines that make up modern urban life. They all in their separate ways cleaned their kitchens, opened their mail, took the subway to work, listened to the radio, cheated on taxes, went to school, dreamed of adulteries, lit candles in church, ate too much at lunch, had three of four drinks too many at night
But now they are all alike, all in unison, interchangeable: every pair of eyes, every thought, concentrated on one practical question, the question that comes stage front whenever you find yourself in an end-of-the-world situation: how do I get out of this mess, how can I take advantage of the car up there which has broken down or run out of gas, to wriggle out of line and gain a few yards, get a little closer to the city limits, pick up a little information on what to do, where to go, where to find food, shelter, the latest bad news?.
Weaving in and out on our bicycles, either riding on them or, more often, walking with them, our rate of advance is slow, but there is no trouble in getting the latest information. We are back to the birth of information, to word of mouth, gossip. We learn quickly that the Germans are twenty kilometers from Paris. The Germans are eighteen kilometers from Paris. They will be marching in tomorrow. The government has declared Paris an open city, meaning it is not worth fighting for. The government is in Tours. ("A hundred kilometers away." mutters one disgruntled man trying to inflate a flat tire. "An easy afternoon excursion for a slow tank.") The government is in Bordeaux. No one cares where the government is, All eyes in all those vehicles are staring straight ahead, calculating how long it will take to get to the right turn southward at the rue de Rennes and then starlight on to the Gare Montparnasse and then around it, and then down the avenue du Maine. and then - no one is quite sure. There are still those two gateways open out of Paris, the Porte d'Orléans and the Porte de Chatillon. The Germans are fifteen kilometers from Paris.
We squirm and skirt our way through the lava flow of traffic. We pass a right-wing book-store with a display in its window featuring copies of a book called Du Mariage by Léon Blum, written many years before he became Prime Minister of France, in which he advocated what was known in Anglo-Saxon countries as companionate marriage. On a strip of cardboard below the books is written in bold capitals LISEZ LA POURRITURE DU SALE JUIF, read the slime of the dirty Jew.
The right-wing intellectuals whom I occasionally ran into in those days at the Flore must be going through some uncomfortable moments. They have been brought up to believe that international Jewry and the republican form of government were evils which had to be eradicated, but they have also been brought up to believe that the root of all evil, the everlasting enemy of France, was Germany, the pagan barbarian jack-booted Boches. Now the Boches are fourteen kilometers from Paris, and the right-wing intellectuals must be uneasily aware that they will have to spend at least the next few years licking those jack-boots, with or without mental reservations. They will go all the more stridently denouncing the Jews and the rotten Third Republic, they have nicknamed la Gueuse, the Harlot.
Things were no easier for the left-wing intellectuals, some of whom are no doubt examining the situation over their breakfast coffee at this very moment at the Flore, from which we are now only a few minutes away. For years they have been demonstrating against war and then against war and fascism, and now there is a war on and fascists at the door, and all they can do is scratch their heads and wonder how it could happen, as I could imagine the archeologists of the fourth millennium, digging all this up and scratching their heads to find an explanation of what made all the inhabitants of what must have been the most luxurious city of all time decamp overnight leaving their spacious homes and their elegant furniture intact and a billion wine bottles aging in their cellars.
There is only one road open out of Paris, through the Porte de Chatillon.
Just as called for in our plan, we worm our way through a tangle of stalled cars, and arrive with a minute to spare in front of the Cafè de Flore, where we find a tree we can lean our bicycles against.
And just that moment, as if planned as well, the whole chaotic scene turns quiet, there has been a big traffic accident somewhere way ahead, near the Montparnasse railway station no doubt, no one knows how long it will take to do anything about it, and meanwhile the drivers have nothing to do but turn off their motors and and save the gasoline which they hope against hope will take them somewhere before nightfall. The sky is cloudless, not a leaf flutters in the trees, for that one moment no one is screaming in frustration, or bawling out another motorist or a spouse, or offering a carton of cigarettes for a can of gasoline, or singing a drunken song, or praying. At the foot of the massively tranquil twelfth-century tower of the church of St Germain des Près, all is peaceful, all is frozen.
Only at the curb in front of the café there is suddenly a single flutter of motion, a string of curses. It is Alberto, he is trying to pump some air into the flat rear wheel of his bicycle.
Diego and Nelly are leaning against another tree, along with their tandem bike, silent, like the two or three customers sitting on the terrace, like Pascal the waiter standing at the front door, like the tower of St German des Prés.
"I don't know what is the matter with this fucking machine," growls Alberto, "I do not understand." And he jams down the handle of the pump again, and again. And he stamps his feet and his face swells and reddens, and he curses in Italian and German. But the tire will not budge.
Rolande steps up in her practical way, leans down without a word and unscrews the valve in the inner rim of the tire. Alberto keeps on pumping, and this time he is rewarded, the tire puffs up, Rolande detaches the pump and screws the valve shut, Alberto without a word, restores the pump to its proper place, casts a last look to check if all is place in his baskets, including the cigar box in which he has said he would pack all that is worth saving of his production in the past year, he mounts his bike, Diego and Nelly mount theirs, Rolande and I mount ours, and we are off into the river of traffic, which is starting to budge slightly again, round into the rue de Rennes headed for the Porte de Chatillon.
We work our way through one more traffic jam in front of the church of St. Pierre de Montrouge.
The same rumble and crackle of frustration over all.
Diego looks up at the sky, the soft cloudless springtime sky, and remarks in his matter-of-fact way, "A great day for a picnic."
Alberto replies by spitting out the mot de Cambronne. He is an impatient man when he has something to do, and he sees no reason to waste precious time while the world is falling apart for something so insignficant as a wedding "Tell them to get it over quick," he shouts at us as we push our bicycles through the doors of the church.
My mind runs back to a moment in a Marx Brothers movie, where some one says, Let's have a picnic, and Groucho says, We can't have a picnic, we don't have any red ants, and Chico says, I know an Indian he's got-a two red aunts.
Here we are, scurrying like two red aunts out of the sunlight into a darkened church, with that unceasing noise behind us..
Shall we call it a Cambronne picnic?
ii. Picnic Notes
Under its grave gray neoclassical arches, the nave of the church is almost empty, almost silent, A few candles flicker, a few elderly ladies are kneeling before a statue of St. Rita de Cascia surrounded by plaques expressing gratitude for saving lives, curing deadly illnesses and solving family problems. Another plaque records the rededication of the church to the Virgin Mary in gratitude for saving the church from German bombs in sthe dark days of 1918.
There is a sound of benediction coming from a chapel down by the altar, and there we find Francis and Eileen at the moment of being bound in holy matrimony, The priest is racing through the ceremony, he barely has time for his last blessing before he is running, his skirts flapping, for his own bicycle which is propped against a pillar in the nave.
We take a minute out for embracing bride and groom, then we all head for our own bicycles and out of the church into the universal growl of the jolting and jerking parade of traffic turning on a right diagonal off the avenue du Maine and into the avenue de Chatillon.
No sign of the Giacomettis, Alberto's patience had been stretched too thin.
Perhaps we will catch up with then in Saint Jean de Luz. .Perhaps they have looked at a map and decided that Switzerland is closer to Paris and if they must face the end of the world they might as well do it in their native land.
There are four of us now, threading our way through the endless stream of vehicles down to and past the Porte de Chatillon, down through the tree-lined boulevards and shuttered windows of the Paris suburbs, down through the tree-lined highway heading south.
There are stretches where everything is moving steadily, slowly. Periodically there are accidents, pile-ups. panicky screams, then the slow steady rumble resumes, the slow steady crescendo of the mot de Cambronne through the haystack-studded fields, the church towers and chateau gates and village streets of the lovely French countryside under a lovely June sun..
After a couple of hours, suddenly there is a colossal pile-up ahead, no one seems to know what caused it, a flat tire on an oil truck, or an enemy bomb or an ordinary driver who had fallen asleep or gone mad. The road is a tangle of wrecked cars, with their doors hanging open, people are scurrying around through the scatterings of broken glass and undergarments spilled out of suitcases to search for survivors or to salvage or steal lost property or to clear away the wreckage that is holding them up. There is nothing we can do but offer water to a woman who has fainted, help her round up her children, maneuver somehow through the smoke and the screams, the ditches and the brambles, and by the time we come out on open road again there is no sign of the Tailleux, Perhaps we will catch up with them somewhere on the road, or in St Jean de Luz. Perhaps they have thought it over and decided that, since Eileen's family owns some property in Aix-en-Provemce that once belonged to Cezanne, they will feel more at home there.
At all events, we are alone now, two more anonymous ants in the chaotic picnic-ground, scurrying southward amid what are now the familiar noises of motors three or four abreast on the roadway, a gentle wind in the trees, a gentle sound of chirping birds, not a cloud or a plane in the sky.
Except that there is a new noise now. the plaintive wails of cows, abandoned by their owners who have fled, and are now stumbling painfully through the stubble of the hayfields with their huge swollen udders, swollen with the milk of which no mouth or fingers will relieve them.
Except for one good soul, a woman we come across who has gone out into the fields, rounded up some cows and relieved them of their burden, spurting most of it into the ground but some of it into a pail she has picked up somewhere, and she sits by the roadside, flagging down motorists with children so that she can offer them some fresh milk.
It is the most beautiful month of June in living memory. Saint Joan of Arc has spurned the anticlerical government leaders who turned up last week at her statue on the rue de Rivoli (the very spot where Alberto was maimed) to pray for the rain that might get the German tanks stuck in the mud. Warm cloudless days have been followed relentlessly by clear windless nights, and the tanks of the Wehrmacht have never run out of fuel because, it is said, when their gas tanks are low they have only to fill them up at abandoned gas stations.
The beginning of the last German offensive, the one that brought them Paris. coincided with the beginning of mowing time, and the fields we pass are dotted with towering golden haystacks.
As night falls, what is now being spoken of as the Exodus comes to a stop, no one in his right mind is going to go racing on unlit roads among unlit cars. We all head for the haystacks, our legs aching, we all carry our baggage of worry and uncertainty, what, we ask ourselves, waits for us tomorrow?
But the night is warm, ancient gods are re-aroused, the hay is soft and crackles uncomplainingly
Our Michelin maps live up to their reputation, they show us side roads, roads we can meander through, run up extra miles but save precious hours. A few hundred yards off the frantic highway there are villages where there is no sign that there is a war on, you can stop in a café for a coffee and calvados, listen to the latest catalogue of calamity on the radio -- the Germans are in Paris, the government is in crisis, Mussolini has stabbed us in the back, the government has fallen, the Germans have made a breach in the Maginot Line - pick up tips on which roads are open, which bridges have not been blown, where you can find gas stations which are closed but if you are a driver whose tank is low and you have plenty of hundred-franc bills in your pocket, the owner or his brother can tell you were to turn off and cross a little bridge and you will find a fellow who has thriftily stocked down a little road under the third tree on the left a quantity of cans of gasoline in the expectation of days like these.
"In days like these," says a man we run across, at a turn-off beside a cemetery, "you have to be a débrouillard." That is to say, a fixer, an arranger, someone who knows his way around anywhere, who knows how to get what he wants done, inside or outside the law makes no difference.
This man is a lieutenant in the French army, he has been through some harrowing days, fighting on the Aisne till the final breakthrough, running ever since. "But not running like rabbits," he insists, though he admits that It has been quite a while since he has had any contact with his regimental headquarters. He still has a few men left in his unit, they are camping in the wood s over there, he has no orders to take them anywhere, but he knows that if he keeps going south he will come to the Loire, and there maybe they can hold that line. They are blowing up the bridges over the Loire, but he has heard they are keeping one open, at Gien
"Why am I telling you this?" he says. "Why am I worrying about Gien? Every road to Gien will be jammed tight. Refugees. Refugees. Screwing up everything. What do you think you're doing on all these roads, all you fucking refugees? You haven't been bombed, have you?"
"What did you expect? The Boches are intelligent, you have to give them credit for that. They can see what is happening, and they say to themselves, why should we waste a valuable bomb on all this scum, all these refugees? Why should they worry about you when you're doing their work for them? How can we move our own troops around when you're blocking all the roads?
"Look at me. Wandering around with ten men and no equipment, hoping to get to Gien, get to the Loire where can stop them. A week ago we were stopping them, they were throwing everything they had at us, dive-bombers, tanks, everything. But my men were ready for them, we were holding our ground, one day, two days, we have them stopped cold. Then a message comes. There is a crisis a few kilometers to our left. Our men are being pounded badly there. They need some fresh troops and fresh equipment, and my unit can provide them. We load up a few trucks and take off. There is a straight little road leading right to where we are wanted, a narrow little country road, it runs through some woods where we can't be seen by their planes. We can be where they need us in half an hour. The only trouble is, our road crosses a highway at one point, and when we get to that point what do you think is there? A crazy driver or two crazy drivers, or two hundred crazy drivers, have plowed into each other, there at the crossroads, so what we run into is one solid heap of twisted car bodies and human bodies, and exploding engines, and smoke and screaming women, burning women, and who do you think they are? They are the inmates of two big whorehouses, refugees, running away to the south in two or three trucks that have all come apart, and of course nobody with an idea of what to do, just screaming, and it takes us two hours, two hours, before we get our vehicles through all that mess, and by the time we get to where we were going, there is no more where to it, the line is broken, the Germans are pouring through, there is nothing between them and Paris.
"I tell you, I am a history teacher in real life, and I always liked to tell my students that it's the little things that count in history, like the flock of geese that honked one night and woke up the Romans just in time to to save Rome. Now, if there is still a school standing for me to teach in, I will be telling my students how a flock of whores from Amiens lost Paris."
It is the first bomb ever directed specifically at me. We have been grimly pushing on, and suddenly the word spreads down the line that this time it is for real, that those planes we have heard off in the distance to our left are headed our way, headed for us, getting louder and louder. And we all abandon our vehicles to tumble into the shallow grass-lined ditches on the roadsides, to lie or crouch and wait.
We have a second or so to wonder if this is just another false alarm. And then the whistle starts.
We have been told in the newspapers that the Nazi stukas have whistles attached to their bombs to make them more terrifying as they fall.
And before I know it, there is this bomb, with this whistle, getting louder and louder as it heads straight for a spot halfway between my shoulder blades.
A frozen second of eternity, and then a big bang, just like in the newsreels, but rather reassuring. For the whistle has come to an end, just like in the newsreels, and here we still are, face down in the grass and the dirt,
Then there is another whistle. a little louder but aimed at the same spot halfway between my shoulder blades.
Then total silence. And after another long second, the normal world returns, we are all scrambling up and brushing ourselves off and babbling to reassure ourselves that we are still alive and leaping to our proper seats, and the wheels turn and the picnic can go on.
In roadside gossip sessions along the way we learn that none of the bombs came near the road, but exploded more or less harmlessly, in fields or woods. It is the general opinion that these bombs must have been dropped by incompetent pilots, they could not have been Germans, they must have been Italian planes.
France may face her doom with the expressionless face of shock, but she can call up one look of scorn for what she chooses to call her sorella latrina.
It is a little town south of the Loire where everyone grouped around open windows to listen to the radio. There is the tired cracked voice of Marshal Petain announcing that France has fallen. The war is over. Or will soon be over.
Everyone listens with wooden faces.
Then everyone goes back to looking for a place to spend the night.
There is a man who says he must get right back to Paris. He sells antique furniture in the Flea Market at the Porte de Clignancourt, and he knows some very reliable German collectors.
"Hello there. Is this the way to Bayonne?"
We are on a sidewalk chatting with an old friend of Rolande's who left Paris a while a good while ago to stay with a distant relative in this little town. But the bicycle bearing down on us carries a refugee of more recent date.
It is Basil, our old friend from the Flore, on his Trois Quartiers bike, which looked somewhat the worse for wear. He has tales to tell.
"I got up that morning with a terrible hangover, and I staggered down to get on my bicycle and waver my way to the terrace of the Flore. I ordered my usual, and Pascal served it to me just the right way There weren't more than three customers in the place, and everything was quiet, the streets were empty. This is eerie, I said to myself, what has become of all the millions of people who were right here yesterday on the boulevard. And then all of a sudden there is a blast of bugles, and drums, and clack clack clack, boots marching smartly in my direction. Those aren't French boots, I said to myself, the French don't know how to march. Can they be English? Have the English turned the war around and come to save Paris? Can all this tragedy have a happy ending?
"And then I look up the boulevard, and there were soldiers marching, and by God they were goose-stepping. They were Germans, bloody Germans. And I say to myself, my boy you are now an enemy alien, and you'd better get yourself out of here. And I jump on my bike, I can't thank you enough for having steered me to it, and I was half way down the rue de Rennes by the time they turned into it, and the streets were empty, and here I am."
He had been hit by anti-aircraft fire: there some German planes cruising harmlessly in the sky, and a gun had opened up on them without any effect, but some fragments rained down on and had dented his handle bar and one of the fragments had torn his trousers and he was convinced it was lodged in his left buttock, and he knew a surgeon in London who would cut it out one day, being careful to preserve a few fragments of flesh attached to it, and it could be exhibited at the Tate and it would be the start of a new movement in art.
"And there was this town they actually bombed, and when I came down the main street there were still some buildings burning, and bodies hanging over window-sills, and then there was a shop with it whole front wall gone, and it was a Wine and Liquor shop and I was naturally drawn to it, there was broken glass everywhere and such a smell you couldn't walk through it without having visions, and I picked up a dozen untouched bottles of quality cognac."
Which he would be glad to share with us over a leisurely dinner, but he is in a hurry, he has to keep pedaling traveling day and night if he expects to get to Bayonne in time: he has picked up the latest news and he knows that the French have starting kicking the Royal Navy our of what ports they have left, but the Royal Navy is still using Bayonne to pick up any struggling troops or others who need to get to London.
And he speeds off into the night, singing..
[And as I learned when I saw him in London years later, he actually made it to Bayonne, and there was a destroyer taking on passengers, mostly Polish soldiers, and he stepped up to board it with his remaining bottles, but they said there was no room for any kind of baggage, so he sat on the dock drinking till the last call was made and he jumped on board.
He would be decorated for valor in serving on a fireboat in the Thames during the bombardments of London later in the year.]
"So now we will be working for the Germans. Well, there are worse things that could happen. The Germans are socialists - national socialists. The working man gets paid vacations. Of course, if they decide to ram their Gestapo down our throats, it won't be so pleasant."
"They'll have trains to take us back to Paris." "What are you going to do with your car?" "I'm gong no hide it in the woods back of my cousin Marcel's pace, till the English give up. Then there will be gas again."
It is summer now in the vineyards of Bordeaux, they say that if there is not rain soon it will be a bad ear for the wine.
The summer sun shines on empty roads. We are alone in the scenic southwest.
The act of surrender has been signed in the very railroad car where the Germans surrendered in 1918.
The Exodus is over, we are in a new biblical book, the book of Numbers. The Germans have taken two million French and British prisoners. The Germans will the occupying seventy percent of France. Twenty thousand people have returned to Paris, where life is slowly returning to normal.
We are pedaling at a normal speed, we come across a roadside café. It is a little early, but we will stop for lunch.
A lady has finished laying out the tables, she is writing the day's menu on a slate. She wonders what the world has come to. "The English have sunk our ships at Oran, can you imagine it, our allies. And the Germans are coming, they will be here soon. We must be polite to them. But not too polite. There were some girls in the village, you know what girls are like these days, they were expecting the Germans to come early this morning and they were out to greet them, with flowers. Happily, they did not come when they were expected, and some of us grown-ups had time to get together and give those girls a talking-to, and they won't try it again. I can tell you that,."
Hardly have we sat down and ordered our aperitifs then there is a noise up the road, and the Germans are indeed coming, a dozen motorcycles, they stop in front of us with a squeal of brakes.
They are cheerful, talkative young men, settling comfortably into chairs, they are SS men of the Totenkopf, the Death's-head Division, they might be noisy young picnickers anywhere, welcoming a few days of well-earned unbuttoned leisure after long hard days of work. They speak no word of French, though one of them has studied the language in school and learned a song by heart there (Il était un petit navire Qui n'avait dja dja djamais navigué) which he chants several times over by popular ddmand. Our hostess speaks not a word of German. They try not too successfully to communicate by sign language, though they get across the idea of beer, they are stumped by the food they are dying to order, one of those famous French meals. They are clearly under orders to be correct, to treat the conquered enemy politely They pull rolls of paper out of their pockets, which are occupation currency, to show that they have not come to loot but to pay their correct and friendly way.
Since I have a few words of schoolbook German, I offer to translate, and help them order the dish of the day which, when it arrives, they recognize instantly as frankfurters.
They are under the command of a noncommissioned officer, an Rottenführer, who seems to be something of a political commissar as well, who sees to it that they will obey orders, make the right impression, to put the proper emphasis and significance of every word and gesture. He explains at some length that the German people has no quarrel with the French people, nor indeed with any other people of Europe except, for the time being, the English. The Russians, for example, are a good people, good friends. Without the Germans they are nothing, but with loyal German support they can play a productive role in the New Europe. It is sad that hired propagandists have poisoned so many minds, have done their best to spread lies and slanders about the German Volk. The German Volk is not at all what the hired propagandists of the Jewish press say it is. Wir sind keine Barbaren, he says emphatically. We are not barbarians, as you have been falsely told. Die Neger sind BarBarbaren - referring to the Senegalese troops in the French army with whom they had a bloody skirmish early in the campaign. The German Volk, he insists, is a good Volk, not a böse (bad, mean) one. "We are not böse with any people in Europe, we want to be friends, building together a New Europe. Only with the Jews are we böse, for they desire the destruction of Germany."
"Including the children?" I interject, a little rashly.
"They will grow up to be Jews like the others." he explains patiently. "To them we must be böse, to them we will be böse."
As they are leaving, after wolfing down their frankfurters the Rottenführer offers me a copy of the little lllustrated magazine which is passed out to soldiers of the Wehrmacht. There are pictures of dive bombers and of columns of tanks and trucks and motorcycles passing through the empty streets of French villages. There are soldiers gaping at the Eiffel Tower. There is a snapshot ofa scene which had often struck me as we were roaming about Paris, a sign in front of a building on the Rond-Pont des Champs-Elysées reading A vendre bourgeoisement, meaning only, I suppose, that it is to be sold as private residence and not turned into offices, but to foreign eyes it certainly looks a little strange, and the editors of the magazine have a good time with it, this is what we are getting rid of, they say, no more nasty bourgeois looking down their noses at us, we are the Volk and we are going to win this war and change the world..
Off go the Deathshead men, grinning and shouting at each other as their motorcycles sputter into motion. They are straining to get their first look at the Atlantic Ocean.
In the towns they are putting up posters with a picture of a young soldier of the Wehrmacht helping a bewildered old lady to cross a crowded street, with a caption reading ABANDONED POPULATIONS, PUT YOU TRUST IN THE GERMAN SOLDIER.
In Bayonne, we pass a German soldier guiding an old lady through a tangle of cars and bicycles and pushcart and wheelbarrows on the main street.
In Biarritz, the local paper reports splendid beach weather, but warns against high seas. Seven visitors were reported drowned over the weekend.
These "visitors" are German soldiers who have shown they were able to brush off anything the French and British and Dutch and Belgians could throw against them, but nothing in their training had prepared them for ocean waves.
Now we are in Saint-Jean-de-Luz at the height of the summer season.
We have found a room with a kitchen to rent from an old lady who had seen bad times before, and knew how you had to deal with them. She knew how a Basque farm woman who would come down regularly from the hills with eggs of chickens and she was still coming down, no matter which way the war went, and she was selling them, because she spoke no French, at the same regular peacetime prices, so that we can feast ourselves daily for a few pennies.
The movie houses are open, the bars are open, it is perfect beach weather though the waves are high.
None of our promised fellow-exiles has turned up, but there is a familiar face every so often in the streets, someone we might ave said hello to in Paris, and is now full of stories of adventures on the way down and speculation on how they are every going to get back. There are even a couple of Americans, last holdovers of the Lost Generation, who are headed for the border at Hendaye where it is said the Germans, anxious to preserve American neutrality, will let anyone with an American passport on into Spain and eventually Greenwich Village.
We are on the terrace of the Bar Basque, the local equivalent of the Flore, from which Hemingway and the others had covered the opening days of the Spanish civil war, and a familiar face appears on the sidewalk. "Gerassi!' cries Rolande, and it is indeed our friend Fernando Gerassi the painter, and a momentary panic marks his face, which he quickly suppresses, and he comes over to join us for a cordial dink. He has something to be panicky about, for though he has a passport, it is not such as would stand up to rigorous examination. It is one of those handed out by the young playboy and seducer of millionairesses who has a job in the Embassy of the Dominican Republic in Paris and has with rare generosity handed them out to people in desperate need of a document.
Fernando's need is desperate enough, he was an officer in the International Brigades which had fought on the losing side of the Civil War, if the Germans took him in for questioning might not go well for him< or if he made it through the frontier at Hendaye, there would be a whole day in a train creeping across Spain during which if anyone noticed something familiar or merely suspicious about his face, it meant torture and death.
We spend his last evening in France with hid wife Stepha and their little boy, talking a little about art, playing a little poker. He tells us of the game of Japanese poker which the officers of the International Brigades used to play the night before the opening of a major attack. They would sit around a large table with a large table cloth crumpled up in their laps and hanging down to the floor between their legs. The game was regular draw poker, but at some point in the game a naked girl would slip under the table, then after a while she would grope around in the dark till she found a pair of legs between which she could raise her head and do what a naked girl might be expected to do in such a place at such a time. Above ghd table cloth the game would proceed normally, deals, draws, raises, folds, calls, manly jests, piercing visual observation. If at any point you remark a telltale distortion on the face of another player you point a finger at him and challenge him to stand up, and if his clothes are in suitable disarray, you may scoop up all the money has put into the pot. But if everything is unruffled and normal, he scoops up your money.
Fernando leaves before dawn the next morning. There is nothing much to do the next day but go to the beach and eat chicken sandwiches and watch the waves and listen to the screams of the visitors as they are hammered and sometimes fall down. The waves are not as high as at Biarritz, and there are no casualties.
The next day, the same.
Then early one morning, an anonymous note is slipped under Stepha's door. Lisbon OK.
Her own papers are in perfect order, and they will be able to meet soon in Portugal or in New York.
There will be no more chicken sandwiches, for the farm woman's son has been demobilized and comes home to bluntly inform the customers lining up for their bargains that chicken is now a luxury good in France.
As we pass through La Rochelle, we are whistled to a stop by a policeman. Where do you think you are going? he asks. We are going back to Paris. This isn't Paris, he says, this is La Rochelle. And In La Rochelle women do not have the right to appear in the public wearing shorts. This is La Rochelle, it is not a picnic grounds.
Rolande, who has learned to be wary of the police, rummages through the barrage on her front basket, whips out a skirt and fastens it around her waist.
You can get out now, says the cop. And don't come back. You can have your picnic somewhere else.
iii. Samuel Beckett and the End of the World
Paris bleibt Paris
Mit der zwanzig nackten Schönheiten
it says in an advertisement for a Pigalle nightclub appearing in Paris-Soir.
I have not checked on the naked beauties, but the Flore is still very much the Flore.
If it were not for the disappearance of the automobiles on the boulevard, and the disorderly heaps of rutabagas and Jerusalem artichokes which are all that are available at the vegetable store across the street which was ordinarily stacked with all the treasures of the French soil, we might be back a few weeks in what we used to call the Phony War and the French called le drole de guerre and only brash Time magazine in New York with its taste for verbal extravagance called World War II.
Whatever it was, it had left us all even more in the lurch than when we were waiting with a feverish foreboding for the end of the world.
We had come to the Flore in the first place because it was the center of Paris, and as long as James Joyce and Picasso were living in Paris, France, was the center of the world. Now it is Paris, Germany, and we are back in our accustomed seats, still puzzled, still foreboding.
The waiters are the same, if the prices have gone up, and the customers are much the same too, except for a few noisy American war correspondents and a couple of reserved British diplomats. Samuel Beckett is back at his accustomed table, the one where I first had the privilege of joining him for a drink some months back, sipping his accustomed fine maison, the house brandy which he claims is distilled cow piss.
End or no end, life's little routines form themselves in slippery new ways. /Everyone finds ways to get around the new restrictions and rations, everyone goes to bed early on account of the curfew, everyone has a favorite little black market restaurant, everyone pays the rent and travels by the metro and listens to the BBC and passes along the latest gossip: did you hear about the prominent painter who had said that since he had found freedom from figuration he no longer needed a wife in his bed?
. Picasso, dressed to the nines, has gone calling on the younger painters he approves of, urging them to go on painting
Like Alberto, Beckett is virtually, in this fall of 1940, unknown to the great outer world, but we in the know know that these two are marked out to produce the master works that will summarize what Beckett likes to call these next-to-the-last times. They get on well together, for all their differences in temperament,
Alberto the grizzled mischievous Swiss gnome popping out of his native forests, Beckett the reserved polite Anglo-Irish gentleman.
Sam has a quietly wicked sense of humor - he loves to direct new arrivals in Paris to what he claims to rate as highest among the drinking-places of Paris, without telling them that if they pull the chain in the loo they will receive a bucketful of cold water on their heads. But it is a deadpan Busterkeatonish humor, he disdains any too overt expression of any human emotion.
Once, when he comes to visit us in Rolande's little apartment, he has the thinnest of approving smiles for the photo pinned to the door which shows her naked on skis uttering a yell of outrage as the snowball which the photographer has thrown at her just before making his click sprays out across her belly. But when he sees the photo beside it, of Francis Gruber with his face cut open in the most savagely impish grin ever seen, a look of pained displeasure settles on Sam's face, much as it does when he has to express an opinion of some artistic abomination like the prose style of Balzac.
I was appalled at that first meeting to see him, after we had exchanged some commonplace remarks on the parlous state of the French novel, glance down at a copy of Paris-Soir which had been left on the table next to ours and seeing a picture of Edouard Daladier there mutter contemptuously, Quel abruti.
Why should it be of the slightest concern to Samuel Beckett, the author of More Kicks than Pricks and of the best part of Our Exagmination of the Incamination of the Factification of his Work in Progress that the French Minister of France is a drunken bum?
Does he not enjoy comparing himself to the classic do-nothing dropouts of fiction, like the Russian Oblomov or, especially, the American Bartleby the Scrivener who "prefers not to" make the slightest gesture to help this ramshackle world go round, for whom the life of the world is summed up in the yellowing paper perpetually piling up in the dead-letter office in which he once had a job?
Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company has taken me aside to offer me a lovely bride, no conditions attached, she is afraid of what Hitler may do to the Jews, and only a marriage certificate can get her, must get her, to America I have to tell her that I already have a prospective bride on my hands, and she rushes off to scan the other tables for other candidates.
Others are less panic-stricken. Francis Gruber still holds to the orthodox party line that this so-called war we are living through is only play-acting by the hidden masters of the bourgeoisie, one day we will be able to come out and participate in the true war, the war of the streets.
I do not know if Jean-Paul Sartre still holds to the elegant formula he propounded to the Beaver last winter when she came to visit him while he was performing a simulacrum of military service in Alsace: "There will be no fighting, it will be a modern war has dispensed with massacre as modern painting is without subject, modern music without melody, as modern physics without matter
Beckett has had to spend much of his time running out to the country retreat to console the inconsolable James Joyce who has been forced to contemplate the year 1939, the year when civilization was to be set on a new course by the publication of Finnegans Wake, and the stubbornly stupid world has chosen to fasten its attention on this absurd conflict, hardly worth the lapidary epigram he brought forth to describe the troubles of the Russians who have come a cropper in their invasion of little Finland: The Finn Again Wakes.
[A genuine Joycean gem. But, as so often in his later works, he didn't know when to stop. He went on: ".and from every corner Buckleys are swarming to kill that Russian general." This refers to what is generally regarded as one of the more obscure passages in the dream of Humphrey Earwicker, in which an Irish soldier named Buckley, fighting for the English in the Crimean War, puts a bullet into a general of the Tsar as he is shitting behind a bush, one of the key twists in the great jumbled knot of world history which Finnegans Wake was destined to unwind.
For a closeup of one of these Buckleys, you may consult the appropriate chapter in Evelyn Waugh's novel Put Out More Flags, where Lord Peter Pastmaster, a typical titled nincompoop of those Waughbegone years prances about his club wearing on his uniform the insignia of a regiment not his own, slyly boasting that no one can have any idea of the goal of the top-secret mission on which he is about to take off, till he goes into the bar and the barman says, "Good morning, my lord, I see you're off to Finland too." But of course the Finnish armies collapsed before all those Buckleys could leave an England they would soon be forming a thin red line to defend from obliteration.]
Now Joyce has left for Switzerland, to die..
A young painter named Basler informs me that there is a grotesque rumor going round that the Germans are going to make all Jews sew yellow stars on their clothing, just like in the middle ages. The day that happens, he says, I will put a scarf with a yellow star on my dog. He thinks that would be a good joke.
When all Jews (meaning, under the Nuremberg laws adopted by the new French state of Marshal Pétain, all persons with more than one Jewish grand-parent) are ordered to line up outside the local police stations to have a huge black J stamped on their identity papers, it is treated lightly in the press, with pictures of monks and nuns standing cheerfully in the lines.
Beckett is less giddy than Basler, or Sartre or Joyce. He is horrified one day to see a Jewish intimate of the Joyce circle walking nonchalantly down a Paris street, and he tells him, "Are you crazy? You must get out of here at once." But no, he is worrying about getting his son into a good school, and he has to be on the spot for as long as it takes to make the arrangements. Long enough for him to be picked up by the Germans and packed off to disappear in a concentration camp.
Samuel Beckett has nothing to fear personally from the occupying power. He is a citizen of neutral Ireland, a country the Germans are anxious not to offend in any way because Irish neutrality puts a great crimp on the operations of the British naval forces. Small remittances from home and small fees for odd jobs can keep him living frugally in his ascetic little apartment in the 15th arrondissement, its only decoration some paintings of his close friend Bram van Velde, the most lugubrious follower of the lugubrious abstract movement which is becoming dominant in the art world.
There is nothing to keep him from unhurriedly commuting day after day by the Metro between his apartment and his favorite cafés - especially the Flore, where the proprietor Monsieur Boubal is equally at home in the black market and the corridors of the city government, and and can always provide coal for the furnace and fresh unrationed food and more or less legal alcohol for his faithful customers on the gloomiest winter days and evenings -- and restaurants and bookstores of the 6th and 14th arrondissements, brooding on the painful absurdities of the world and the useless but necessary frustrations of the artist and noting it down with a precise mixture of frisky colloquialism and learned scholasticism, pondering for whole days on a single phrase.
So might many other of M. Boubal's customers.
But it is Beckett alone and not a single one of the others who makes a decision [we all of course know nothing about this till years later] -to lay his life on the line in order to make a useless but necessary gesture to keep the fires of freedom flickering on the other side of the Channel, in the rubble left by the German bombers which, according to one bulletin broadcast over Paris Radio "set on fire docks and warehouses and scored a direct hit on a club."
He has done something which neither Oblomov or Bartleby could have dreamed of, or would have approved if they had. he has opted to join an underground cell composed of scholars who worked in a Paris museum who have found means of laying their hands on documents which they are sure can be of use to the Royal Air Force looking for the right places to bomb in occupied Europe. They have found a way to purloin the documents, deliver them to Beckett's apartment where he can film them, then hand them back to be returned to their proper place, while the films are smuggled from hand. to hand to be eventually sent across the Channel by boat or by planes landing on dark fields in the French countryside on moonless nights.
What would have made him do something like this, knowing as he must that his friends are amateurs in the arts of underground warfare, and unlikely to keep the skilled and savage bloodhounds of the combined police forces of France and Germany from sniffing them out rather sooner than later? He knows well that a single careless gesture, a misplaced word at the Flore or the Dome where the man sitting behind you might be willing to turn you in for a substantial reward, can lead you instantly to abominable torture and miserable death?
It would make him sick to his stomach to hear the comparison made, but isn't this decision remarkably like that being made about the same time in England by a fictional character, Basil Seal, the hero of Put out more Flags, who after a lifetime of finding the world a perfectly silly place where the only sensible thing you can do is to play mishievous tricks on people who take life seriously. announces that "There's only one serious occupation for a chap now, that's killing Germans." Basil came of a somewhat higher class than Sam, but they both received a classical boys-school English education, taught to revere words like "pluck" and "honor," which they might later deride but would remain wandering disconsolately in their unconscious minds.
[It is most unlikely that the material provided to the British armed forces by Beckett and his friends in 1940 and 1941 killed any Germans, though their efforts would evoke a commendatory sentence in the official history of the Special Operations Executive, which handled British underground operations during the war. After the war was safely over, Beckett would very properly rebuff the request of a publisher that he write a narrative, which would surely be a best-seller, of his underground experiences. They were very humdrum experiences for a best-seller. He would get out of Paris just in time to escape the net which closed on all his collaborators and hauled them away to concentration camps, and he would hide for three years on a farm in the south.]
It is winter, it is time to leave.
Rolande and I are safely married,, Alberto being my witness, and with Diego and Francis Gruber we have a ceremonial dinner consisting largely of tomatoes.
America is still officially neutral, but America also now has a draft, and there is little doubt what the draft is for. The government has rounded up a mass of American citizens and their families stranded for one reason or another on foreign shores and will ship us back free of charge, by train to Lisbon, by steamship to New York.
The train is scheduled to leave from the Austerlitz station, and we invite all our friends to come down and have a few drinks there and see us off. Many are eager to accept, but then they stop to calculate that the train is due to leave at night, and the winter nights are dark, and curfew rings at a fairly early hour, and people picked up on the street after curfew have been known to have unpleasant experiences. And so we are not entirely surprised, when we come into the great blacked-out hall of the station, that there is nobody familiar to greet us.
Nobody except Sam Beckett. He steps out of the darkness in his quiet polite way, he shakes hands with us, and presses into my hand a copy of Henry Fielding's Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (which, as I flick through it all the long hours through the dark cork forests of Spain, seems to consist largely of the author's agonizing problems passing stones through his urinary tract). And then in his quiet gentlemanly way he slips back into the blacked-out street
iv. Post-Picnic Notes
Confused nondescript days in a fashionable suburb of Lisbon, where everyone is drifting, waiting for papers, waiting for a ship, waiting for news, waiting for a future which may or may not be the end of the world.
There is an old revolutionary of undefined origin, he claims to be on the most wanted lists of the police of all the dictatorships in the world, they would shoot him on sight he says, or send him off to Franco or to Hitler, but he is safe because he has to deal only with Portuguese police: "can you imagine it," he says, (expecting to get a couple of free drinks for the juiciness of his information), "here it is the middle of the twentieth century and they have no files, In Lisbon they have my name, they write it in a book at headquarters with a broken pen, they spell it wrong, and here we are half an hour away from Lisbon, and the police here have never heard of me, for the first time in twenty years I can walk the streets free as a bird, I can go to that cop over there and ask him for a light in exchange for a cigarette, I could wear a hammer and a sickle on my cap and he would not know what it was, he would think I am some kind of crazy American."
We are a motley group of refugees. The most entertaining are a group of boys who have popped up from all corners of France, thoroughly French not speaking a word of English, but they were all fathered back in 1918 by American doughboys who abandoned them just before or just after their birth, leaving nothing behind except the right to have an American passport, and now they are they are about to step into the world they know so well from the movies, into Texas.
There is a young Filipino couple, Mr. and Mrs. Firpo, they had jobs in the American embassy, they have a little two year old boy, they are excited and terrified at the thought of traveling on the open ocean. The day we all board the ship that will take us to New York, the little boy slips and falls down on the deck, and I pick him up. Mrs. Firpo is convinced that I saved him from being swept overboard and she pledges me a lifelong devotion.
There is not much time to get adjusted to our new crowded weatherbeaten surroundings.
Rolande has never been to sea except for a half hour motor-boat ride to a nudist colony off the Mediterranean coast, and she takes a dislike to the ocean from the first swell we bounce on outside Lisbon harbor. Sheer curiosity keeps her going for a day, two days, then seasickness sets in, irremediable, irrevocable, unrelenting. She relives shipwrecks from her favorite movies, she was raised an atheist but she prays to God to send us a magnetic mine.
The captain of the ship is a stern disciplinarian, the crew is running around at his orders moving objects from one place to another. One of his junior officers has been to college, and tells me that this captain is a great-grandson of Captain Ahab, all he thinks about is his great white whale, which means getting to New York in time and getting a promotion, and he doesn't give a fuck for any of us..
He is nuts, says this officer. We have the weather repots, and there is a big storm out in the northern Atlantic. Now you or I would be sensible about it, we would make a wide detour around it to the south, but he says we have to go through the middle of it, to get to New York on time and not waste fuel. That's his duty, he says, and that's all he cares about, his fucking duty.
And sure enough, on schedule, we hit the middle of the storm. Mountainous waves, blizzards of foam, our ship has become a roller-coaster without rails. We jolt, bounce, slide, slither, shudder, lurch. At one swoop, my officer friend tells me, we go from a thirty-degree slant to starboard to a forty-five-degree slant to port, with nothing to keep us from going all the way over except that the sea does not want us.
Everything that is not securely nailed or tied down, plates, deckchairs, suitcases, manicure cases, bottles of seasickness pills, everything has come loose and goes banging around or occasionally flying around on decks or in corridors, staircases, cabins, .
In the occasional lulls when we are only rolling rhythmically from side to side. I venture out to feel my way around and communicate with other hardy souls on expeditions to find something to eat we may or may not keep down, and get the latest meteorological news, the velocity of the winds, the height of the waves, the fragility of our cargo. There is a particularly hardy specimen who keeps crashing down chords on the piano in the lounge next to the dining room even when the bench beneath him has taken off, but now the piano itself has broken loose and keeps banging against the walls until it is forcibly restrained.
In a pestilential passageway one morning (or afternoon), I suddenly feel a firm tip on my shoulder. It is Mrs. Firpo who is dragging along her retching husband and her sobbing little boy. She is firm, and her voice has authority. She has been looking for me, and she has found me, the man who saved her infant from the waves. Now she has understood the situation we are in, she has discovered God's plan. This hideous storm is a judgment on her for the sin she has been committing for more than two years, her failure to have her only child baptized.
Now she knows what to do about it. She has to have a baptism performed right away, and I am to be the godfather. She has gone about it with cool efficiency. She has examined the passenger list and found that there is a Roman Catholic priest making this voyage in Cabin 17, a Father Kavanaugh. She has banged on his door and burst into the chaos of his cabin where the contents of his suitcases are flying in and out of seas of vomit, she has cleaned everything up and tied everything down and pulled Father Kavanaugh protesting out of the bunk where he has been moaning and praying, and told him to get himself ready to do his holy duty. He asked her if she could be sure that her child was well enough to be moved and if she did not want to postpone the ceremony, which if held in the present uncomfortable circumstances might cause broken bones or worse, and she told him that God could brook no delay. He asked if she was sure she had an appropriate person to fill the role of godfather, and she replied that God had provided one. She told him to get everything ready right away, and she would be right back, and here she is right back and here is the godfather.
I try to protest that I cannot possibly be a godfather, I am a hopeless unbeliever, I would be out of place, I would perhaps be performing a blasphemous act in taking part in a Catholic rite, I would be -- She brushes it all aside. The meek serving-woman, the dutiful wife, has become a manager. She has taken care of everything, and everything will be done as she, at God's command, has arranged.
Everything is ready in cabin 17 when Mrs. Firpo pushes us in: Father Kavanaugh in his stained and rumpled vestment, his book, his salt, his holy oil, his holy water. He drapes his stained stole about his neck, and begins, at breakneck speed but not missing a syllable of his holy text.
Both he and I have difficulty standing upright during the ceremony, we must repeatedly grab at one of the posts of his bunk as the floor bounces and slants beneath our feet. The little boy, on whom I keep a tight grasp, alternately moans and screams, but may unexpectedly smile The oil of balsam has little effect on the smell of stale vomit which permeates the cabin.
Father Kavanaugh's face is haggard and unshaven and yellowish.
I am glad there is no mirror that might show me my own face. I see myself from some great distance, ridiculous, inadequate, a red checker on a black square, but somehow keeping my feet on the unsteady floor, somehow never pitching the little boy head over heels, somehow answering paired monosyllables to the file of questions being put by Father Kavanaugh through me to the little boy:
"Do you renounce the devil, and all his works and pomps?"
Do you believe in God the Father Almighty, and in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, and remission of sins?"
Will you be baptized in the Catholic faith?"
"Will you keep God's word, and His commandments, all the days of your life?"
Father Kavanaugh's body is quivering but his hands are steady as he puts a pinch of salt on the child's tongue, signifying the bitterness of the world; rubs oil on his chest to give him strength for his life ahead, pours water on his head as he gives his immortal soul an eternal name..
The ceremony is over in a very small number of very long minutes. Mrs. Firpo is radiant as she takes my godson out of my arms. Father Kavanaugh impresses on me the weight of the obligations I have taken on myself: If his parents neglect his religious education or do not steer him away from the devil's pomps, it is my duty to see to it, in all the years before he can understand what he is doing, that he is put back on the right path.
Then he waves us out of his door and throws himself retching on to his bunk.
The ship bucks and bounces and rolls. A crashing noise overhead suggests that the piano has again broken loose from its mooring.
About midnight the winds die down.
In the morning the waves which had been mountains are gentle ripples. We blink at the unfamiliar sun.
Uniformed officials bustle on board. We are in Bermuda.
Two days later, we are in America, and every one wants to know what it is really like over there.
They all keep asking, What should we do now? Should we intervene?
We are in a bar where intellectuals foregather. There are famous names there, if we were in Paris they would be in the Flore.
"God bless America," says one of them, "has become the warcry of the imperialists, the warmongers. We should be singing a song of the people: Plow under, yes plow under, every third American boy."
"Yes," says another. "But what do we do about Hitler?"
"Hitler," says the first, "is only a tool of the big boys. He is three thousand miles away in Europe. Let the Europeans handle him. It is none of our business. Roosevelt wants to make it our business because he has made such a mess of things at home. Remember what Shakespeare said about giddy minds and foreign quarrels. Forget Hitler "
"But he can be in Brazil tomorrow."
"Give me a break. Brazil is further away than Europe. What do you think this is, the end of the world?"
Rolande, letting her sharp little eyes rove up and down the streets of New York, has spotted a bicycle shop a couple of blocks from where we are staying.
General Cambronne may die, but he will never surrender.
© 2006 Robert Wernick