Tears in the Café Select

Christopher Prendergast

  • Paris Interzone: Richard Wright, Lolita, Boris Vian and Others on the Left Bank 1946-1960 by James Campbell
    Secker, 305 pp, £20.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 436 20106 2
  • Foreign Correspondent: Paris in the Sixties by Peter Lennon
    Picador, 220 pp, £16.99, April 1994, ISBN 0 330 31911 6
  • The Good Ship Venus: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press by John de St Jorre
    Hutchinson, 332 pp, £20.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 09 177874 3

Paris figures in the titles of both James Campbell’s and Peter Lennon’s books, but this is a restricted, specialised Paris. Campbell takes us into something called the ‘Interzone’ (the term is odd, and troublesome), inhabited by assorted exiles, misfits and drop-outs during the Fifties and late Forties. Lennon’s jaunty impressionistic book takes us into the Sixties, with an account of his experiences as a young journalist writing, sporadically, for the Guardian, while, in the intervals, getting caught up in all kinds of adventures (best of all an improbable encounter, in the company of Samuel Beckett, with Peter O’Toole).

This post-war Paris is largely made up of writers, intellectuals, editors, journalists, actors, jazz musicians, film-makers, students, hangers-on, ‘terrorists’ and the occasional gangster. Several of Campbell’s principals – Richard Wright, Samuel Beckett, Jérôme Lindon, Maurice Girodias – also turn up in Lennon’s story, like Balzac’s recurring characters or, less charitably, like figures in some bizarre soap opera. Naturally, the principal locale is the café or the bar, notably the Deux Magots, the Closerie des Lilas, the Flore, the Select, the Falstaff and the Tournon (Lennon tells of a wonderful evening at the Falstaff when the clientèle included Beckett, Sartre, Ionesco and Godard, all drinking at separate tables).

Sartre in particular made Left Bank cafés famous, not only hanging out and writing in them but also writing of them as exemplary sites of Existentialist ontology – ‘The café is a fullness of being,’ he wrote in Being and Nothingness. More mundanely, it was the place where intellectual business (as well as other kinds) typically got done, a sort of informal public sphere, but one which was also rapidly touristified. Sartre, fed up with the gawkers, retired to private life. Beckett came up with an ingenious solution to the problem of privacy in public space, by frequenting the famous and expensive Closerie des Lilas in the late afternoon, on the grounds that absolutely no one goes to a famous and expensive café before 7.30 in the evening.

Another reason the café is central to both books is that many of the characters (especially Campbell’s) were expatriates: for the most part, American, Irish and Scottish. Oscar Wilde memorably said that when Americans die, the good ones go to Paris. It is interesting to speculate what he would have made of the bunch that in the Forties and Fifties preempted their posthumous just deserts. Who they were and what they did is very much Campbell’s concern, in particular the émigré black writers Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes. Racism is what drove them across the Atlantic. In explaining his decision to leave New York, Baldwin wrote of ‘a violent, anarchic, hostility-breeding’ culture, in comparison with which Paris appeared a refuge of tolerance and sophistication. But the Left Bank was not the whole of Paris and even there the view was likely to be very different if you happened to be an Arab. Black, on the other hand, was in, because of the vogue for American jazz: the irrepressibly inventive Boris Vian, himself an accomplished trumpeter, faked a black identity as one ‘Vernon Sullivan’, author of the spoof crime novel J’irai cracher sur vos tombes.

The American writers themselves fared variously in Paris. Himes prospered, while simultaneously raising and ditching the question of ‘race’ with the unforgettable question: ‘What motherfucking colour are writers supposed to be?’ Baldwin had a hard time, but found his feet, until finally he went back to the States at the time of the civil rights movement. Curiously, Wright – the figure with whom Campbell most concerns himself – ended up having the most difficult time of all. Initially fêted as the former Communist persecuted by the McCarthyite paranoiacs, buddy of Sartre and widely seen in France as the American ‘black writer’, he went inexorably downhill. Politically, he moved from former to anti-Communist, had some murky dealings with the US Embassy, drifted into the fringes of the négritude movement, got Nkrumah to invite him to Ghana, wrote a book about Africa called Black Power while advancing the argument that Western imperialist ‘plundering’ had actually been quite a good modernising thing and that the objective should be to raise backward African societies to the ‘rational’ form of the Western nation-state. Africa, in short, was not Wright’s place at all; nor for that matter was Paris. The latter provided a refuge from everything that was intolerable back home. But home, as Campbell puts it, was where ‘he had left his story’. Without nourishment from the source, the creative well, such as it was, dried up: as an artist, Wright produced nothing of note during all his years in Paris. He died alone in hospital and, according to one version, in highly suspicious circumstances.

Some of Campbell’s dramas of exile were more complex than others. Along with the black Americans, there were also the white ones; for example, the egregious Ginsberg (‘I sat weeping in the Café Select ... I write best when I weep’), the inimitable Burroughs and the indescribably awful Norman Mailer, who used his evenings in Paris with black jazz players to sketch a model of the New York anti-hero, the Hipster, who was ‘to be considered a white Negro’. Baldwin later wrote (in masterly understatement): ‘I could not, with the best will in the world, make any sense out of “The White Negro”.’ If he could not make any sense of it, it was because, as Baldwin said of a similar thought in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, it is ‘absolute nonsense’.

There was quite a lot of nonsense about in expatriate Paris, but the prize charlatan has to be the Scotsman Alexander Trocchi. Trocchi mesmerised most of those around him. He was clever but pretentious: the pin-ball machine ‘became for me a ritual act, symbolising a cosmic event’. He was the driving force behind the English-language review Merlin, which published a great deal of avant-garde writing and later teamed up with Girodias’s Olympia Press. Girodias is one of the major characters in Campbell’s story, and the major character of John de St Jorre’s preposterously indulgent narrative of what he calls ‘the erotic voyage of the Olympia Press’. Girodias was a publisher not only of the forbidden avant garde, but also of pornography. The Merlin boys got into the act, forming a kind of porn factory to supply the Girodias machine. Trocchi was a particularly keen contributor, dressing up the whole business with fancy notions about ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘subversion’; when one thinks of the courage of someone like Jérôme Lindon, founding editor at Editions de Minuit, Girodias comes across as a self-serving hustler and Trocchi as his willing pimp. It is unclear what makes Trocchi’s story worth telling in the first place. He was a bit-player with a very large ego, and basically irrelevant to anything that might pass for understanding ‘post-war Paris’. Campbell shows some awareness of this, but since he has chosen to make Trocchi’s story one of the main threads of his book, he is forced into deeply implausible claims. ‘Temperamentally, Trocchi was a revolutionary’ is one of them. If you believe that, you will believe anything. Consider, for example, Trocchi’s revolutionary credentials in respect of that weird fantasy embedded in a fiction, his letters to his estranged partner, Jane Lougee, based on the notorious Story of O (the publication – and authorship – of which are the subject of another of Campbell’s chapters). Incredibly, Trocchi tried to get Jane back by suggesting she read The Story of O: ‘For I can be your Sir Stephen ... Am I to guide us through a cauterising passion as first René and then Sir Stephen did ... ?’ Jane wisely took no notice and a few months later married someone else.

Merlin deserves our gratitude, however, for at least one thing: as first publisher of Beckett’s novel Watt. It also published translations of some of Beckett’s French texts. Campbell quotes Richard Seaver’s priceless account of working with Beckett on a translation of ‘La Fin’ at the Dôme in Montparnasse. Seaver proposed, for the opening three sentences, the following: ‘They dressed me and gave me money. I knew what the money was to be used for, it was for my travelling expenses. When it was gone, they said, I would have to get some more, if I wanted to go on travelling.’ After the session with Beckett (‘under Beckett’s tireless wand’, as Seaver puts it), the revised version looked like this: ‘They clothed me and gave me money. I knew what the money was for, it was to get me started. When it was gone I would have to earn more, if I wanted to go on.’ Campbell’s book could have done with more of this; it is infinitely preferable to the megalomania of Trocchi.

Beckett is far and away the most interesting denizen of expatriate post-war Paris, and, happily, Lennon, a friend of Beckett’s, has a great deal to tell us about the writer’s daily life (without betraying the friendship for journalistic ends). The pages on Beckett, indeed, are the best things in a very good book. With a combination of wit, tact and sympathy, Lennon brings Beckett alive in a manner that puts academic writing on him in the shade. ‘Ignorance prevented me from being overawed by Beckett’ is his opening shot, and from then on he scarcely puts a foot wrong. We see Beckett playing billiards at the Trois Mousquetaires; learn that to Lennon’s ‘finicky ear’ there was ‘a trace of commonness in his vocabulary’; that ‘his delivery of Dublin idiom ... was said casually, like a light salute to the homeland’. There is a deft touch also in following the comment, ‘my strongest impression was that I had been with a nice man,’ with the remark that ‘he was working on Happy Days at the time.’ But the best comes last: ‘Late one night in the Falstaff, he stopped paying attention to us; as was our way, we left him to his silence. Then quite deliberately he raised his mug of beer and poured it slowly over his head ... No one made any comment and, shortly after, we walked him part of the way home.’ On the penultimate page of the book, Beckett turns to Victor Herbert, who had just proclaimed his indestructible capacity for happiness: ‘I have never had a single untroubled moment in my life.’ Lennon relates all this with a genuine lightness of touch, avoids all sentimentality and checks out with the end of the friendship. Lennon left Paris and ‘time, absence and separate preoccupations eroded a friendship finally sustained only by New Year cards. Even that became irregular, and stopped.’

There is much else besides Beckett in Lennon’s book, notably whole stretches that take us out of the café into the street and the world of violent confrontation, first (and most seriously) in connection with the Algerian crisis, secondly (in more carnivalesque mood) in connection with ’68, whose beginnings he describes: not in May but in February, with the demonstration over Malraux’s sacking of Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque. (‘The battles with riot police were spiced with the saucy presence of Marlene Dietrich.’)

However congenial and informative these two books are, there remains a question as to what, beyond anecdote and reportage, their intellectual interest might be. Lennon is having a good time reminiscing; Campbell is more ambitious, in that part of his title (‘Interzone’) implies a gesture at some form of cultural history. But if these are his ambitions, they remain largely unfulfilled. The book is more an album of snapshots than a narrative history.

The problem in fact stems from the use of the term ‘Interzone’. It derives from Apollinaire’s great city poem, ‘Zone’, and from one of the projected titles for Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch. The provenance is thus literary and avant-garde. But then Campbell reminds us that ‘Zone is the old-fashioned word for la banlieue, the suburbs: according to the Petit Robert, la Zone comprised “les faubourgs misérables”. The people described here lived, mostly, in the heart of Paris, but, being on the margins of French society, they were also confined, in a way, to la Zone.’ In what way? Exile and marginality mean different things according to circumstances and pressure. There is all the difference in the world between voluntary and enforced exile, as well as significant variations in the material and psychological conditions under which exile is lived. Baldwin, for instance, knew acute poverty, while struggling with the tensions of being both black and gay. Wright, on the other hand, was met by a chauffeur-driven car when he first arrived in Paris and was taken to the sumptuously furnished apartment of Gertrude Stein in the rue de Fleurus. Trocchi lived extremely well off his earnings from pornography, while screwing his way around Montparnasse. This was alienation tout confort. Implied comparisons with les faubourgs misérables are a lapse of intellectual taste.

But in the body of his text, Campbell remains sensitive to essential distinctions (he is refreshingly tart with the well-heeled cultural dandies who founded the Paris Review). Furthermore, both books, in their attention to the grain of the lived, provide a useful corrective to two influential tendencies in the contemporary academy: first, the ritual witterings about exile and diaspora of the more comfortably upholstered examples of the so-called post-colonial intellectuals; secondly, the fantastical ruminations of those intellectual pygmies of the neo-conservative persuasion, rewriting the Paris of the Fifties and the Sixties in the form of a finger-wagging lesson in elementary ethics, assuming occupancy of the moral high ground while lecturing far more substantial figures than themselves for allegedly having deserted it. Both kinds would do well to read Campbell and Lennon.