Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Tragedy of Camille Claudel
From Wuthering Heights to the Madhouse

The great Rodin lay, old and infirm, in a sickbed in his great house in Meudon just outside Paris. He muttered that he wanted to see his wife. She is right here, they said, and they brought to his side Rose Beuret, his faithful model, mistress and housekeeper for 50 years, whom he was to marry shortly afterward, two weeks before her death, and ten months before his own. “No, no,” he said fretfully. “Not her. The other one.”

The “other one” was at that moment 400 miles away in a madhouse in Avignon, eating only raw eggs and potatoes she boiled in their skins for fear of being poisoned by Rodin and his henchmen.

She was Camille Claudel ,who for fifteen tumultuous years before the turn of the century had shared Rodin’s artistic and emotional life as pupil, model, collaborator, lover. A major sculptor in her own right, her career and her sanity had both passed under a stifling black cloud. She was to live in darkness for a quarter century after Rodin’s death, remembered if at all as a mere footnote to the life of the giant who inaugurated modern sculpture. It would take another forty years before a revival of interest, created largely by the arduous researches of her great-niece Reine-Marie Paris, brought the world face to face with the strength and many-faceted splendor of her work, and the full tragedy of her destiny.

“Tragedy” is only rarely a word that properly fits the life of artists, in the sense she used the word when in their childhood she told her brother Paul that he must not be content with aspiring to be a famous playwright, he must write tragedies like the ones which Aeschylus and Shakespeare wrote. Our books are full of tormented and unhappy poets, painters, sculptors, composers who loved unwisely, who died of drink or syphilis, who blew their brains out, degraded themselves, betrayed their talents, sold out to Hollywood, suffered from poverty and incomprehension and ingratitude, wore themselves out wrestling with intractable materials in the studio, searching for patrons and publicity to keep their names alive and their rent paid. .This is the wearisome condition of humanity. But tragedy, for Aeschylus and Shakespeare as for Camille Claudel, demands more, it demands a dramatic concentration: the protagonist must march step by inevitable step, knowingly or unknowingly, upward toward the heights and downward to doom.

Paul Claudel never did write a Shakespearean tragedy, for he never seems to have acquired much knowledge of human beings. His plays are about states of the soul, surrealistic (he despised the surrealists) plays through which images float or explode with the erratic intensity of dreams. The image of his sister Camille floats through all of them – through his early heroine La Jeune Fille Violaine, polluted by a leper’s kiss, as through his later heroine Dona Prohèze in The Satin Slipper who goes into a chapel to toss one of her shoes into the lap of statue of the Virgin Mary so that if she takes the road to Hell she will go with a limp. (Camille had been born with one leg slightly shorter than the other, the only defect in her glorious body.)

But he never succeeded in bringing her as a living character on the stage.

The true tragedy of Camille Claudel had to be acted out in her own life. Like the commander of Kafka’s penal colony, it was decreed that her sentence should be written out on her own body.

She was born in 1864 in the little town of Fère-en-Tardenois in a grim windswept corner of the Champagne country. Her brother Paul called their home Wuthering Heights, less because of the winds howling over the surrounding moors than of the storms of contention that raged through the family.

The father, Louis-Prosper, was an upper-level civil servant, an opinionated free-thinker with, said Paul, “an antisocial and fierce disposition...He made the family into a closed circle inside which we fought from morning to night.” The mother was a conventionally narrow-minded product of the local gentry who claimed descent from the mad 14th-century king of France Charles VI. She hated her daughter Camille for not being the boy she wanted to replace, her firstborn, who had died in infancy. She hated her too, and encouraged her sister Louise to hate her, for being bright and wilful and irreverent and proud. Warring sisters would be a recurring theme in Paul’s plays. (A=a stage direction in La Jeune Fille Violaine: “she throws the hot ashes into her sister’s eyes.”)

Her father adored her for the very independence her mother abhorred, and when she showed a gift for working in clay, he gave her the best room in the house to use as a studio.

She soon had an impressive series of portrait busts to show – she characteristically began with Bismarck and Napoleon - of a surprising technical competence. The earliest surviving authenticated work is a portrait of her beloved little brother Paul, aged 13, an amazingly cool, sensitive, straightforward work for a self-taught girl in a country village.

She was still a school-girl when her work was noticed and actively encouraged by Alfred Boucher, a well-known sculptor who lived in the town of Nogent-sur-Seine, where some bureaucratic whim had temporarily transferred Louis-Prosper. And at the age if 17 she bullied her not-unwilling father into moving to Paris so that she could study and work in an artistic center befitting her talents. She was by all accounts incredibly beautiful as well as incredibly talented. Paul in his old age could not help recalling her as she was in 1881, “in the full glow of her youth and her genius, her splendid forehead overhanging magnificent deep-blue eyes, her mouth more proud than sensual, that mighty tuft of auburn hair falling to her hips. An impressive air of courage, of frankness, of superiority, of gaiety – the air of someone who has received much.”

It might well have seemed to her in the flush of 17-year-old pride that she had received the world, the world which recognizes genius and deifies it. She was producing powerful works in art school, robust dynamic works with the stamp of an original personality. Her instructor stared one day in amazement at the clay figure she was working on. “You must have been studying,” he said, “with Monsieur Rodin”. It was the first time she had heard the name.

And then there was Monsieur Rodin in the flesh striding into the classroom to fill in for the instructor, who had won a prize which enabled him to take a trip to Rome. His near-sighted eyes peered at Mademoiselle Claudel and her work, and life would never be the same again for either of them.

Rodin was more than twice her age, a rough-hewn, hard-drinking, snorting sensualist. “A myopic wild boar,” Paul called him. “Monsieur Rodin,” said the 14-year-old girl who delivered art supplies to him, “pokes his beard everywhere.”

He was also, for all the young artists of Paris, the greatest sculptor in the world.

Soon Camille was working in his studio, soon they were working together in rare harmony. Soon they were lovers.

Their affair naturally enough soon became the subject of brisk and witty discussion in the salons of Paris among people who, if we can believe Proust's lengthy descriptions of them, did not have a single decent bone in them. Yet oddly enough, hardly a single detail of all that discussion has been preserved in print. Something kept the scandal-mongers from going public with their juicy material. There was nothing in the gossipy press, nothing in the spicy memoirs of celebrities of what the French like to call the Belle Époque. Early biographers of Rodin speak tantalizingly of a “great love” in his life without deigning to provide a name.

There was a large enveloped marked “Camille” in Rodin’s desk, but when they opened it after his death it was empty.

Only a few scraps of anecdote have survived. It is known that they worked together every day. They went out at night to parties and dinners where Camille was always a center of attention with her grave quiet beauty, her sudden bursts of laughter, her lively throaty country-girl way of talking. They never lived together in Paris, though they often went together for long trips in the country. She always called him in public, Monsieur Rodin. He called her Mademoiselle Claudel. She wrote him continual love letters of which a few gay girlish lines have been discovered: “I sleep naked to give me the impression that you are with me. But when I wake up, it is not the same thing.”

Theirs was not the traditional all-consuming grand passion of stage and opera, they were no Tristan and Isolde; their great love was not only daily ecstasies but also daily work, daily cooperative endeavor. I do not think that there is another example in the history of the arts of two first-rate talents, richly endowed with all the temperamental excesses that are often associated with first-rate talent, combining a harmonious sexual relationship with a harmonious creative career over such an extended period of time. Fifteen years. Verlaine and Rimbaud provide the nearest approach that comes to mind. But they never so far as I know collaborated on a single poem, and their affair lasted only a few months till it was ended in a police court with Verlaine charged for shooting Rimbaud.

We know little more of the details of their artistic collaboration than we do of their private life. Everyone agrees that this was the most fruitful, the most triumphant period in Rodin’s career, during which he produced immense works like the Gates of Hell and the Burghers of Calais which established his reputation for all time. Camille was a more skilled craftsman than Rodin – she could carve marble which he never did. It is said that he relied on her to do the most technically difficult parts of his figures, like the hands and feet. Exactly how much she may have contributed in the way of conception and execution to any particular piece of sculpture has to be a matter of conjecture. It stands to reason that two powerful characters like these working together must have had an enormous influence on each other. Sometimes their signed work is so similar, as in the case of Rodin’s Galatée and Claudel’s Jeune Fille à la Gerbe, that it is impossible to say which came first. The comparative tranquility of the composition might argue that it was Camille who had the original conception.

It seems fair to say that being with Claudel helped to humanize the “wild boar ” His capacity for feeling deepened and broadened. The strength and ferocity of his early work, his savage delight in human muscle and sinew, which made him into what may be called the greatest animal artist of all time gave way to a new softness and grace. There were now some spiritual horizons beyond the pervasive presence of the flesh. You have only to compare his most famous single figure, the Brobdignagian Le Penseur with his muscles like lava flows, a thinker whose thoughts do not appear to go much beyond his next football match, with La Pensée, with its tender delicacy, its veiled sadness, which he did a few years later and which is a portrait of Camille.

Camille eventually came to think that Rodin had stolen everything from her, but by that time she was hardly responsible for what she was thinking or saying. Like all the Old Masters work in our museums, Rodin’s sculptures were a collective production, an industrial enterprise in which a dozen or more pairs of hands may have taken part. Much traditional art scholarship is taken up with questions of distinguishing the brush-stroke or chisel-stroke of the master from those of his students and apprentices. Rodin as Master naturally took full credit for and signed the works on which Camille and others helped him, but he was always happy to recognize her talent, and his judgment of her was nobly generous: “I told her where to find the gold. But the gold she mined was her own.”

In the glorious days of the 1880's and 90.s, there was no time and no need to portion out credit. The two were in love, and they were producing great art. Nothing else counted.

But the world is the world, and other things did count. There were cankers in this rose.

There were fundamental differences between the lovers which in the end were fatal to their love. Rodin had become very famous and was on the way to becoming very rich, but he remained very much a man of the people, coarse-grained, awkward in refined society, still haunted by memories of the poverty and hardship he was bred in. Camille who had had her wilful way all her young life came from immeasurably higher in the social scale. She could read Latin and Greek while he had never learned to spell French correctly. There was often a certain amount of mockery in her attitude toward him, she could produce ferocious caricatures of him as well as the nobly vigorous bust which was Rodin’s favorite portrait of himself. Sometimes her wayward sense of fun could take an unpleasant turn. It must have seemed like a great lark to take Rodin and his faithful old mistress-housekeeper-slave Rose Beuret to the stuffy bourgeois Claudel home and present them as Monsieur Rodin, you know mother, the world-famous sculptor and his wife. It was a heartless gesture as far as Rose Beuret was concerned, and it turned out to be blindly self-destructive as well. For when her mother found out the facts, as she was bound to do sooner or later, her rage was boundless, and so, it turned out, was her capacity to hurt her daughter.

Rose Beuret was the rock on which the Rodin-Claudel relationship foundered. She had been the companion of Rodin’s youth, she had shared the same background of empty purses and empty stomachs, she had shared the desperate days when there was no money to pay for heating the studio and she had to stay awake through desperate nights moistening his clay to keep it from freezing so that he could continue working on it when he got up in the morning. She had given him a son, a good-for-nothing drunkard but still his son. She kept house for him after a fashion, but the notion that she was the practical woman of the sort which unworldly geniuses need to get them through the petty necessities of daily life does not correspond very well to the facts of their life. When they went to London with a dozen trunks just as the guns were starting to boom at the start of World War I and they were preparing for what was obviously going to be a long stay, it was Rodin who opened the trunks on their arrival and discovered they were all empty because Rose had simply forgotten to put anything in them.

He must have found her impossible most of the time. She was uncouth and uneducated, he could never dream of taking her out to the literary-artistic salons and the formal dinner-parties where he was in increasing demand. Still, she had her uses. Her liked her docile acceptance of his often outrageous behavior, she asked no questions when he announced that he and Mademoiselle Claudel had to go off for a few weeks or so to the Loire country to soak up the local color for his monument to Balzac. Despite all his wild boar ways, he had a yearning for the kind of unbuttoned domesticity Rose provided. Besides, he liked her cooking. He would no doubt have preferred to go on indefinitely with both women at his side, catering to the different sides of his nature, while he tended the fires of his genius, and he was honestly distressed when Camille wouldn’t see it that way.

He must have been terrified at times by Camille’s single-minded self-absorption. For her, life was just what it had appeared when she and Paul had wandered through the moors and forests around Wuthering Heights and stopped to dream superhuman dreams in front of the giant grotesque rock formations they discovered there. For her, it was all or nothing. She was a great sculptor,. and she wanted fame and glory, and she wanted Rodin. She would lose them all.

The details of the breakup with Rodin are obscure, like almost everything else in their life together. No one knows for sure whether she had an affair with Debussy, whose music Rodin detested and who kept a cast of Camille’s La Valse on his desk till he died. All that is certain is that Monsieur Rodin one day felt bound to make it clear that he had no intention of marrying Mademoiselle Claudel, and that after 1898 she would not let him inside her door. (Though according to one source, she used to sneak out to his house in Meudon and hide in the bushes outside to get a glimpse of him when he returned home in the evening.)

Across the sea in Norway, an interested observer was hearing all the gossip about Rodin and Camille from a painter friend in Paris. Henrik Ibsen never met either of them, but their story provided the major theme of his last play, When We Dead Awaken. The hero of this drama is a Professor Rubek, a world-famous sculptor who since the creation of one great master work some years before has been dragging on through an increasingly sterile life, turning out busts of society people. At a summer resort in the mountains he runs into Irene, a deranged woman whom he recognizes as the model for his great statue, the woman who had shared his years of creative ecstasy. In long impassioned dialogues they reveal to each other that since they parted, their lives have meant nothing, they are dead souls.

Ibsen, who believed in dramatic logic, kills off Rubek and Irene with an avalanche at the moment of their tragic awareness. Real life would not be so kind to either Rodin or Camille..

Rodin took the break-up very hard. He wept over all his friends, and though his last twenty years were a pageant of honors and glory – he was showered with decorations and awards, high-society ladies threw themselves into his arms, poets like Rilke chanted his genius, he was photographed in tails and top hat as he was received by kings and popes and millionaires – he could never forget the happiness he had abandoned. Years later he could not look at one of Camille’s bronzes without running his hands over it and breaking into hoarse sobs.

Camille took it much harder. She disintegrated..

She lived alone, in increasing poverty and distress, for almost 15 years. She did not stop working, indeed her finest works date from this period. She experimented with new forms, new materials, and achieved highly powerful and highly original effects. In the onyx-and-bronze La Vague (The Wave), the enormous ominous wave, derived from a Japanese print, stands just at the breaking point over the heads of four naked figures dancing in the shallows below.

She could shift easily from small works, small enough to hold in your hand, like Les Causeuses, (the Gossips), those four naked women wrapped in the frivolities and mysteries of their daily chatter as they crouch in a corner formed by broken marble walls, to lifesize intensely dramatic works like L’Age Mûr (“Maturity”) in which a limp passive aging man, no doubt Rodin, slumps into the arms of an ancient comforter or destroyer while a young woman, naked and desperate, on her knees, reaches out her lovely arms to implore him to return to his youth, his talent, to Camille.

L’Age Mûr is almost painfully autobiographical. And almost all her work can be related somehow to episodes in her life or the changing states of her mind. Even the lovely head of La Petite Châtelaine has been interpreted as a portrait of the child of Rodin’s she lost forever when she had an abortion during a trip to the Loire. But though it is easy to make links to her life, it is not necessary to do it. With some ingenuity, the biography can be read into the works, but the works themselves are quite independent of the biography, they have their own power fo excite or move or puzzle us without reference to any specific events that may have called them forth. Clotho the goddess of Fate, entangled in the threads of human destiny she is required to weave, could stand for any miserable life. Perseus and the Gorgon, one of her most ambitious if not most successful works, would be profoundly disquieting even if we did not know that the severed head of the Gorgon from which the slayer averts his eyes bears the face of Camille herself, Camille at the age of forty, prematurely middle-aged, her features thickened by disappointment and by alcohol, her eyes that once flashed so brightly now dead.

For Camille’s life and her career had sunk into all the miseries of loneliness and failure. Doctrinaire feminists have blamed the failure on the male-chauvinist tissue of the art world of her time. But if you had to be a woman making a career in the arts, late nineteenth-century Paris was as good a place as had ever existed in human history. A painter like Berthe Morisot, a novelist liked Colette, could be brilliantly successful. But Camille had an added handicap: her craft demanded a considerable capital to pay for the fine marble and bronze casting necessary for serious sculpture in those days, and though she found favor with a limited circle of buyers and dealers, it was never enough, and without continual contributions from her father she would have starved. She might, in the light of certain sparkling paintings by her which have recently been dug out of old collections, have made a good living as a portrait painter, for she understood color as well as she understood form. But she was Camille Claudel who had chosen her path back in Wuthering Heights. She was not meant to be a good painter like Manet or Degas, she was shaped by destiny to be a great sculptor like Phidias or Michelangelo..

Now she was living and sculpting alone, in two cramped and increasingly tawdry rooms on the Ile St Louis. Her neighbors complained about that filthy ground-floor apartment overrun with squawling cats, and warned their children not to have anything to do with the shabby old lady who slipped out in the evening to pick up some scraps of food. She was losing contact with the world she had known. She stopped seeing her friends because, she said, “I can’t afford new clothes and my shoes are all worn out,” but sometimes, when she received a commission and got her hands on some money, she would round up people off the street and have them in all night for a drinking bout.

She spent whole days making quick sketches of people in the streets and then making little figurines, “and they are clothed,” she boasted, to mark how she was getting away from Rodin’s compulsive fascination with nudity. Her drawers and cupboards were full of these little figures, which must have offered a unique re-creation of Parisian life in all its variety at the turn of the century. But we will never know what she looked like, for she destroyed them all.

She destroyed almost all the works of her last years of liberty, hacking up in summer what she had labored all winter to create.

In her brooding solitude, Rodin became a malevolent presence, enveloping her, trying to choke her. He was persecuting her, she said, he was sending out agents to assault her and rob her. He was putting his own name on works she had created and he was selling them for hundreds of thousands of francs while she was being dunned for the cost of plaster. Once, she said, a maid put a sleeping powder in her coffee and stole her latest work, for Rodin to sell for a small fortune as his own.

Her lithe youthful body thickened, her face at 35 was that of an elderly woman.

Her brother Paul was abroad during most of these critical years, in the diplomatic service. On one of his leaves, in 1905, he took her on a trip to the Pyrenees, and she made a remarkable plaster bust of him, the distinguished man of letters and diplomat into which the proud bright-eyed boy of her 1881 bronze had grown. When he came back in 1909 he was appalled. “In Paris,” he wrote in his journal, “Camille insane, enormous, with a soiled face, speaking incessantly in a monotonous metallic voice.”

On the second of March 1913 her father Louis-Prosper died. Three days later, Paul Claudel asked for a medical certificate permitting Camille’s internment. Five days after that two burly hospital orderlies broke into the apartment on the Quai de Bourbon where she sat cringing among her cats and the accumulated filth of years, and carried her out to an ambulance which took her to the asylum of Ville-Evrard near Paris. When war broke out the next year, and the German armies were approaching Paris, the patients at Ville-Evrard were evacuated to the asylum of Montdevergues near Avignon. When after a year of war it became evident that the Germans were not going to take Paris and an order was sent to bring the inmates back to Ville-Evrard, her mother used her family connections (after all, she had the blood of an insane King of France in her veings) to keep Camille where she was, as far as possible from a family whose tranquillity might be disturbed by having a slovenly madwoman a few miles away.

She would remain at Montdevergues for 29 years.

“Madhouses,” she wrote once to her brother, “are houses made on purpose to cause suffering...I cannot stand any longer the screams of these creatures.”

There were many at the time, and still more afterwards, who asked if it was really necessary to take her away at all. And if they did, why did it have to be a miserable place like Montdevergues, a second-rate institution even by the backward standards of the time, the kind of place where it was routine for the staff to steal from the packages sent by relatives to the inmates so that they would not go hungry themselves? Some of her friends claimed she had never been crazy at all. Yes, she was paranoid, the doctors at the asylum never wavered in their diagnosis that she had a persecution mania, but the woods are full of people with persecution manias who go about their daily business in streets and shops and studios more or less satisfactorily.. As a childhood friend said, “Still and all, it isn’t a crime to live alone and to love cats. If it was, half the village would be locked up.”

Paranoia by itself involves no impairment of the mental processes. Camille always understood what was going on around her, and was capable of writing long lucid letters, page after rational page until Rodin popped up in her train of thought and then she would rave on for page after page till she was exhausted. But she never turned violent and clearly represented no danger to any one. The doctors tried to get her interested in working again, they offered her modeling clay, but she thrust it away angrily. On at least two occasions they recommended that she should be released. But where could she be released to? Without the remittances that her father used to send her, she could not possibly support herself. She wrote pleading letters to her mother offering to abandon her share of the inheritance, asking only for a tiny room in the family house that she could creep into. The mother was adamant: she was an old woman, she said, past 75, and could not bear at any price to take back someone who had caused her so much grief and would only cause her more. “She has every vice,” she wrote to the director of the asylum, “I do not want to see her again.” She was willing to send her cookies and coffee and pay for her dentist’s bills, but she also enjoyed getting back at her for slights and injuries of the past, for “that ignoble comedy that you acted out on me. Imagine me being naive enough to invite the ‘great man’ to Villeneuve, with Madame Rodin, the concubine! And you, all sugar, you were living with him, his kept woman. I don’t dare even write the words that come to my mind.”

Her dear little brother Paul was now negotiating treaties with Brazil or representing the French Republic as ambassador in Tokyo and Washington, and he could hardly take a dotty old lady around with him on his travels. Nor did he have money to spare, he only became rich from his plays after Camille was dead. For whatever reason, he did nothing to help her except write to her and send his children on occasional visits to her. (The only other visitor she had in all those years was her old English schoolmate Jessie Lipscomb and she came only once.) A friend would later say that Paul Claudel never talked of his sister without the word “remorse” coming to his lips. A short while before he died, he noted in his diary, “Always the same taste of ashes in my mouth when I think of her.”: .

Abandoned by all, she clung to memories, even fabricated memories, of her family, it was all she had left. In 1939 when it was her turn to be 75 years old he wrote to Paul: “At this holiday season I think ever of our dear mamma. I have never seen her since the day you took the fatal decision of sending me off to an insane asylum. I think of the beautiful portrait I did of her in the shade of our lovely garden. The large eyes in which you could read a secret pain, the spirit of resignation which reigned over her whole face, her hands folded on her knees in compete abnegation, everything spoke of modesty, a sense of duty pushed to an excess, that was our poor mother. I have never seen the portrait again (any more than I have seen her).” And then the festering old wounds open again, the old paranoia comes bubbling up, and the tone turns shrill: “I do not think that the odious person of whom I speak to you so often has had the audacity to attribute it to himself, as he has done my other works, it would be just too much, the portrait of my mother!”

To an old friend who had popped out of the past to write her in 1935, when she had been locked up 22 years, she wrote: “I live in a world that is so curious, so strange. Of the dream which was my life, this is the nightmare.” The nightmare would not end till she was an old, quite mad, woman, quite cut off from communication with the world outside. Paul’s children, her nephews and nieces, remember visits to the asylum to see a little old lady sitting motionless in her hospital gown and staring silently at the floor.

As for Rodin, he had died in the grim wartime November of 1917 when everything was in short supply All his money could not buy enough coal to heat the large rooms of the huge house he lived in, and he got a chill which turned into pneumonia.

Camille died in the dark winter days of another war, in another huge unheated house where there was never enough to eat.. Hospital records give the cause of death as an apoplectic stroke.

When Paul visited her a month before, all she said to him was, “Mon petit Paul.” He asked that her body be taken to the family vault in Villeneuve-sur-Fère, but because of wartime restrictions on transport, his request was never acted on. In 1955, after Paul’s death and in accordance with his will, his family attempted to have her remains transferred to the vault. But her body had long since been moved to a communal grave and no one knew where to find her bones.

©1985 Robert Wernick

An earlier version of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, September 1985 .

Labels: , ,

Sunday, June 01, 2008


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 not
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

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 Giacometti, 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

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

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

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

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 10.25 a.m. 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 every 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 two avenues still open out of
Paris, the one leading to the Porte d'Orléans, the other to the Porte
de Chatillon.

10.30 a.m.

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.

10.59 a.m.

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

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.

11.30 a.m

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 a 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 the 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 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

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.
And another.

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

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.]


Roadside chatter:
"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

"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


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 demand. 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, a
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 illustrated 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 of a 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

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


In Biarritz, the local paper reports splendid beach weather, but warns
against high seas. Seven visitors were reported drowned over the
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 have
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

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.

To continue reading
THE CAMBRONNE PICNIC visit http://www.robertwernick.com/