the spirit of the times
Commentary © James A. Harrod, COPYRIGHT PROTECTED; ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
POINTS and other literary journals that emerged in Paris in the late 1940s did not come about as an isolated occurrence, rather they were an integral part of the changing cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, and political climate of Paris. The following essay is taken from the JAZZ IN PARIS – SAINT-GERMAIN-DES-PRES – 1946-1956 booklet published by Universal Music S.A.S, France ® 2004, All rights reserved.
It provides a snapshot of the changing times in Saint-Germain-des-Pres when POINTS emerged on the Paris literary scene.
IS A CHECK SHIRT
Every man and woman who ever tripped - sometimes literally - down
the stairs into the Tabou was called an "existentialist" by journalists.
It didn't matter that very few of them had ever given so much as a
glance at the cover of Being and Nothingness, the opus that
comprehensively laid down the ins and outs of what was called
"Existentialism", a philosophical theory that created a lot of noise,
both rightly and wrongly. Its author, Jean-Paul Sartre, who was one
of the most visible figures in Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and also lived
there, was to assume paternity for something that didn't concern him
in the least. He attributed the source of this confusion to Juliette
Greco and Anne-Marie Cazalis, who at one time were being plied with
questions on their way of life by a Samedi Soir journalist: they grew
tired of resisting and supposedly replied that they were
"existentialists". The famous text by Sartre published in Jazz 47,
which began with the rather unfortunate remark "Jazz music's like
a banana, it's to be consumed on the spot", should have been enough
to clear him of any possible connection with the music and the
crowds who were fanatical about it. All of which leads us quite
naturally to wonder why and how jazz could have found refuge in a
Quarter so foreign to the capital's nocturnal pleasures...
Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Vian, Michéle Lèglise Vian, Simone de Beauvoir au café Le Procope
"In 1938, if you abandoned a noctambulist in Saint-Germain-des-
Pres after the 'brasserie Lipp' had closed for the night, he wouldn't
have found a single place open to accommodate his thirsty
distress." ① Things would change greatly after the inevitable
interlude imposed by the Occupation; and the Occupiers,
incidentally, were conspicuously absent from a neighbourhood that
lacked as many official buildings as it did pleasure-places. And the
spectacle of the Cafe de Flore's transformation into a poor boarding-
school prep room (thanks to a bunch of numbed intellectuals
absorbed by their writings and divided by their affinities) was
hardly enough to rate a mention in the attractions of Gay Paree. But
it's true that initiates might have seen some aspects of it as
entertainment. Mouloudji, who belonged to the class room and was
a friend to all of them, related: "I think I made efforts to get the two
groups to meet, but nothing happened after my initiative because,
just as the Sartre people were open, but outwardly closed, the
Prevert people were outwardly open but..." ②
After the Liberation, escapees from the October Group, with one side
united under Jacques Prevert, and Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul
Sartre and the editorial committee of the Temps Modernes on the
other, didn't change their habits in the slightest. Or at least not for a
while. Claude Luter: "Even so, it's true we saw an incredible number
of people turn up: painters, writers, actors, musicians... As for why
it happened there, I just don't know."③
Standing as surety for a long intellectual tradition, Saint-Germain-
des-Pres had always provided shelter for a number of writers. From
Alfred Jarry to Robert Desnos, Guillaume Apollinaire, Leo Larguier
or Paul Leautaud. Poet Antonin Artaud, when he was on leave from
the institution in Ivry, could wander the streets again. His
blistering pamphlet Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu had been
brought out by Editions K, one of the many confidential
publishing-houses established in the shadows of Saint-Germain's
belfry, as were several bookshops for refined literary tastes, among
them the Divan founded in 1921.
Intellectual pursuits which had until then remained secretly private
suddenly found themselves in the spotlight when Saint-Germain-
des-Pres was invaded by young people impatient to change
literature, theatre, painting, the cinema... the whole world in fact.
The Quarter lacked everything - money, in their eyes, counted for
less than an exchange of ideas - and so it seemed to have been made
for them. It was full of cheap little hotels (in those days that was
how everybody lived - apartments were out of one's reach),
restaurants that were inexpensive (Les Assassins, Le Petit St.
Benoit, Cheramy), and the cafes were picturesque and cheap. There
were cellars, too, and when they were unoccupied they cried out to
be put to use without fuss. "This sudden fad for the subterranean is
quite a curious tale. Did it come from habits picked up in the war
when there were air-raid warning's? Was it a desire to remain apart
from life, to be marginal? Was it the smell of forgotten wine, and old
furniture with woodworm? Was it a need to create a sort of distance
between adults and the young, the comforting feeling that goes with
knowing who to meet at what time and where? Probably all of those
at once, and for many other reasons, like fear and solitude." ④ Juliette
Greco provided her own answers to her questions.
A respectable number of eccentrics already populated the Quarter;
Armand Fevre, the last Bonapartist, strode along the riverbank in
half-pay uniform looking for a portrait of the Emperor; Raymond
Duncan wore a Greek tunic and Roman sandals, and lived in
Antiquity in his Akademia on the Rue de Seine; and with the wind in
his Karl Marx beard, 'Pere Ratier' tried to persuade passers-by to buy
a copy of Le Libertaire from him.
The most recent arrivals brought something called "wild-man music"
with them, jazz, and they "were provocative dressers. According to
Marc Doelnitz; "In the Jewish rag-trade at the flea-market in Saint-
Ouen we found donations sent by the New York Israeli community for
fellow-believers who'd been stripped of everything; it all immediately
went on the market... Mountains of check shirts, drainpipe trousers
that were often too short, socks in loud colours with horizontal
stripes, basketball boots... their modest prices seduced us
permanently."⑤ The sartorial mores (they were quite eccentric then) of
the new denizens of Saint-Germain-des-Pres found an echo in Boris
Vian's play Le Gouter des Generaux, Monseigneur Roland Tapecul's
lateness was justified by this line: "It so happens that it's impossible
to find violet socks in Saint-Sulpice at the moment, the young people
in Saint-Germain-des-Pres are buying them all."
Many others had something else in common with the young
generation: fitting a maximum number of intellectual pursuits,
generally those that weren't lucrative, into an extremely tight
perimeter. Jean Cocteau was all the more assiduous in his visits since
his friend and collaborator, interior decorator Christian Berard, had
set up home on the left Bank; when Cocteau made Orpheus, he
naturally called up Juliette Greco, Anne-Marie Cazalis and Roger
Blin, not to mention other cellar-rats who remained more
anonymous. When Andre Breton returned from America
accompanied by Benjamin Peret and Matta, he held his famous
assizes at the Deux Magots; Audiberti lived at the Hotel Taranne
opposite the Flore; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, (according to Vian, "the
only philosopher who invites women to dance"), Albert Camus, Jean
Genet, Claude Roy, Tristan Tzara and the playwright Arthur Adamov
could also be counted among the familiar faces in the Quarter.
Between the Deux-Magots and the Cafe de Flore there was a
bookshop called La Hune. Its manager Bernard Gheerbrant
organised a symposium at the Lipp brasserie on a subject so topical
it was red-hot: Was La Chasse spirituelle really a recently-discovered,
previously-unpublished work by Arthur Rimbaud, or was it a
pastiche? The answer was the second alternative. It had been
concocted by actors Nicolas Bataille and Akakia-Viala as revenge on
those who'd seen their show based on Une Saison en enfer and
ordained that it didn't teach them anything about Rimbaud. On the
Rue des Beaux-Arts, Roger Cornaille founded another bookshop, Le
Minotaure, which kept film-buffs, Pataphysiciens and all kinds of
curious people happy for decades.
Artists didn't want to take a back seat; so many art-galleries opened
their doors too. Either working nearby or just strolling around in the
shadow cast by the belfry of Saint-Germain-des-Pres church, were
Atlan, Camille Bryen, Wols, Serge Poliakoff, Afro-American artist
Romare Bearden (who studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in 1950),
sculptor Giacometti, Yves Corbassiere (whose old chequered Renault
decorated the narrow streets of Saint-Germain) and cartoonist Jean
Boullet who, together with Boris Vian, designed a card sent to
announce the burial of check shirts.
Between 1950 and 1954, the film world was also well-represented by
Jacques Becker, Alain Resnais and Alexandre Astruc, who was to
illustrate his "camera-pen" theory in a film called Ulysse ou les
mauvaises rencontres, shot in 16mm at the Theatre du Vieux-
Colombier. Anne-Marie Cazalis remembered: "Everyone's willingness
was mobilised. Cocteau, who got up at 6 in the morning and locked
himself away in the prompter's hole, played Homer; Daniel Gelin was
Telemachus, and Simone Signoret was Penelope; Marc Doelnitz was
Odysseus, Juliette Greco, Calypso, France Roche and Francois
Chalais were Helen and Menelaus, and Yvonne de Bray was the
Pythia. Christian Berard - we'd spent all night looking for him
through a thick fog in that November 1948 so we could drag him
behind the round window of a flooded dressing-room - was a bearded
Neptune with a crown of seaweed. When we were filming the Cyclops
scene with Jean Genet, Anet Badel discovered that he, too, had a
basement."⑥ Not a single foot of film survived. On the other hand, the
Vieux-Colombier club became one of the temples of jazz in Paris.
© Alain Tercinet - English translation by Martin Davies
① Guillaume Hanoteau, L’Âge d’or de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Denoël, Paris, 1965.
② Mouloudji, La Fleur de l’âge, Grasset, Paris, 1991.
③ Claude Luter in Catalogue de l’exposition Saint-Germain-des-Pres 1945-1950, Pavillon des Arts, Paris, 1989.
④ Juliette Greco, Jujube, Stock, Paris, 1982.
⑤ Marc Doelnitz, La Féte à Saint-Germain-des-Pres, Laffont, Paris, 1979.
⑥ Anne-Marie Cazalis, Les Mémoires d’uneAnne, Stock, Paris, 1976.