French . . . So to Speak
There is a Whip in My Valise; Scream, My Darling, Scream; Bondage Trash; Some Have Too Much— these are just some of the many incendiary titles published by the notorious Olympia Press in Paris during its hey-day. Its owner, Maurice Girodias ("king of porn," the Boston Globe called him), took me on as his full-time senior editor in 1962 and set me to work on Rape of the Statue by Marjorie Cartwright—nom de plume of a barrel-chested U.S. Air Force lieutenant who once, to complain about nonpayment, visited the office in uniform.
I'd previously worked freelance for Maurice—the translation of the Bedroom Odyssey by Anonymous (Georges Bataille?)—so I knew the ropes: payday was more illusive than actual. But I was in my early 20s then. I was glad to work there.
It's frequently overlooked that Maurice, who made millions from porn, often used his profits to publish risky literary ventures such as Nabokov's Lolita, Burroughs' Naked Lunch trilogy, and Beckett's first novels. Sometimes, too, they even paid off. With money made from Lolita, he opened four dinner clubs (La Grande Severine, Chez Vodka, Batucada, and the Blues Bar) next door to the editorial offices, one on top of the other. Shortly after I'd been hired, I overheard a brown and bumptious Cuban songbird, who'd gigged at the Batucada, whisper while leaving the office, "But why did you hire a black editor?" Momentarily nonplussed, Maurice shrugged: "Why not?"
To write and read French well is one thing; to converse fluently is another. Ninety percent of conversing well in any foreign language depends on acute listening. I'd hoped to brush up on speaking French when I joined Olympia, but English turned out to be the official language there. Sometimes Maurice (whose father was English) even spoke in English to Guittou, his French secretary. Still, I felt that I should not give up on trying to improve my command of conversational French. Many American expatriates in the 1960s expected all Frenchmen to speak English—and some became resentful when they found out that this wasn't the case. Once, I'd even seen a young Brit at La Guérite, a restaurant on Boulevard Raspail, start a scene because none of the waiters spoke English. Exasperated, he began pounding his fist on the table, yelling, "Meat! I want meat! Can't you understand?" (Amazing: the longevity and extent of Empire conceits.)
I certainly had no trouble in conversing in French in my day-to-day routines—food shopping, asking directions, etc., but I felt that I should get even more out of the language and culture while staying there. There was much to learn, to appreciate.
I wrote an ad offering conversational English in exchange for conversational French and pinned it to a message bulletin board at the Alliance Française. The first [End Page 115] response mailed to me came from Xavier Delestapis, a jovial student, considerably shorter than I, with thick glasses and a warm, concerned manner. We usually met in cafes along the Boulevard Saint-Germain, for expresso or a snack, talking French for an hour, then English for another. It was an excellent arrangement from which we both seemed to profit. His father had an estate and vineyard in the Bourdeaux region, and Xavier seemed not to have any real financial concerns. Once we met on Bastille Day and, instead of following the usual arrangement, we enjoyed ourselves, drinking, dancing with delectable young women near little bands stationed here and there along the streets (les petits bals), and applauding with the crowd near Pont-Neuf with each thundering blast of fireworks. At one point, at a small park near the Sorbonne we tacked on to a long, serpentine line of young men and women. Joining hands with them, we went weaving among the trees and monuments, screaming nonsense at the top of our lungs, until at one point, the line seemed to have reached the point of exhaustion, and we all collapsed on the grass and gave in to hysterical, spontaneous laughter. It was a magical night—the kind of Bastille Day that lonely foreigners might fantasize about but would never dare imagine could be true.
As time went on, and we got to tell about ourselves more openly, Xavier and I would meet in places other than cafes. Sometimes Xavier would pick me up at my room, and we'd just go strolling while we talked in English or in French; other times, I would pick him up at either his room or his girlfriend's place. She was a recent conquest, and he was deeply in love. He was so ecstatic about this relationship that he completely ignored (or forgot) about our arrangement, and rattled on in nonstop French. I was glad for him; it was good to see him slap-happy—beside himself. The girl's mother was always present whenever Xavier visited, but she pointedly kept out of the way, allowing them to enjoy their mutual bliss undisturbed. Once, when I picked him up, he seemed especially dazzled—a silly grin on his face, his step somewhat unsteady. As we walked down the street, he lifted the fingers of his right hand to his nose and uttered, "Aahhh!" Then he stopped, reached up, and placed the same fingers under my nose.
"Isn't that wonderful, that aroma . . . ?" He only wanted to share his boundless appreciation of her charms, even if in a most intimate way. That summer he had to return to Bordeaux, to his father's estate. I never heard from him again and don't know if he ever returned to Paris to finish his studies or if, instead, he followed his heart—along with his fingers and nose.
I'd learned quite a bit of student slang from Xavier, and I was determined to show off my knowledge at the office. But whenever I did, Gitane-puffing Guittou would only raise an unimpressed eyebrow. I must have sounded awkward and somewhat overbearing.
Another opportunity to improve my language skills presented itself when a businessman, Jean Colaneri, answered yet another ad of mine on the Alliance Française bulletin board. The arrangement was that I would converse with Jean and his wife for an hour in English (there would, of course, be some exchanges in French) and be recompensed with an evening meal at their home on rue des Dardanelles. Jean and his wife were in their 40s; their 12-year-old daughter said little, seemed sullen, and was [End Page 116] often absent when we ate. The rooms of the Colaneri apartment were small but fashionably furnished. The meals were delicious. During dinner, we would discuss a number of subjects—many of them to do with international affairs. Jean was the right arm of a CEO whose concerns led to commercial dealings with many countries, in Europe and beyond. His duties included securing arrangements for meetings and dinners when the firm's foreign guests convened in Paris. Jean gave a good impression, and one could discern that he had the gift of making social events (of any size) run smoothly. Slightly plump, pink, and with a congenial smile, he resembled no one so much as a young Schubert. His wife, Françoise, was svelte, dark-haired, and seductive; owing to her rather dramatic demeanor, one might have easily assumed that she kept more than one agenda. She kept a brass bell near her dinner plate, which she rang impatiently whenever a course was finished. Out would scurry a young, blond, rosy cheeked Brigitte to clear the table, in preparation to bringing on the next course. After dinner, we would repair to a small drawing room for expresso and thin chocolate mints. During our more relaxed conversation on the sofa, Françoise would ostentatiously light up a cigar—apparently an old habit of hers which Jean, a nonsmoker, found endearingly nonconformist—much in the same way he seemed tickled by the idea that I worked at an infamous publishing house.
We got along well, and it wasn't long before they seemed interested in expanding our arrangement beyond twice monthly appointments. There were Sunday afternoons when they would pick me up for drives to the countryside. Jean's English, though heavily accented (his constant plea was for me to correct him), was rather good, and he delighted in pointing out historical sites en route during our outings. Well-versed in this area, he often decreased speed as the car approached a particular chateau, then made scholarly and often arcane references concerning its architecture.
One Sunday, after having picked me up, Jean announced that for this day we would be joined by another couple and their two children. Polak ran an art gallery; in fact, I think it was adjoined to their apartment. Jean boasted of having an openly flirtatious relationship with the gallery owner's wife who always responded to his advances with mock disgust. "Cochon!" she often called him when his hands became too free. Jean enjoyed being considered a sexual threat; Françoise seemed to tolerate his misbehavior with more than a tad of humor. Before we drove away, Jean whispered in my ear that he had a reputation for wanting to "rentrer les femmes"—an expression that was new to me and one that I was glad to pick up and add to others. During our drive to the Polaks, Jean felt it necessary to tell me more about his friend: "ll est juif. . . mais . . . très cultivé." This "revelation" told me more about Jean than it did about Polak. I was truly disturbed by the telltale mais! In essence Jean was implying that Jews are crude, but this one is different . . . well-bred, in fact. It wasn't the first time I had heard mais in such a context (ll est noir mais tres intelligent).
We could hear Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again" before the door to the Polak's apartment even opened. He welcomed the four of us heartily, then invited us into the living room where his son and daughter, in their early teens, were enthusiastically twisting away. After greeting us, too, his wife and he joined their offspring with what seemed equal energy until the record ended. They encouraged us to join in, but instead, we looked on with great amusement. The plan was that we would all soon [End Page 117] leave for an afternoon of miniature golf at a park not too far away. Soft drinks, wine and beer were offered by our host, then we all sat down at a long table and benches. Polak, a frenetic, slight man with dark, wavy hair, dominated the conversation and at a rapid pace, jumping from one subject to the next. No matter what topic he broached, he would declare that Jews were clearly superior at it: film, sports, theater, politics, art, opera, medicine. . . . Some of the names he ticked off, his son and daughter were apparently acquainted with and they proudly let their father know so. On the one hand, it seemed like a kind of indoctrination; on the other, Polak was instilling in his children a pride of being Jewish.
The Colaneris and I were totally ignored during this intense exchange. From time to time, I could see Jean peripherally, his unchanging pleasant smile beaming amiably. Then when Polak's energy seemed to flag, Jean picked up the gap and attempted to change the conversation's direction by injecting in it some rye and teasing humor. Polak, sharp and unrelenting, unleashed a volley of playful insults at Jean in return, one of them being that with a name like Colaneri, he could possibly have some African blood in him (cola being neck—it's actually collo in Italian, and neri being black), that the name was derived from the fact that one of his ancestors must have had "une negresse" hanging around his neck. I felt a cautionary squeeze on my arm from Jean who sat next to me. His unchanging smile remained planted on his face, during the long silence that passed. Then Polak nervously jumped up from the bench, emitted a raucous laugh, and announced: "Allons-y. Au golfe miniature!"
I don't remember the game or much of the rest of the afternoon. I felt angry and alienated, dwelling as I had to on the ironies of the day: Jean's inept description of Polak—he was far from refined—and Polak's racial insensitivity. I could understand his super-Semitic stance (very possibly he and his family had suffered greatly during WWII), but that he could be so racially insensitive—so inconsiderate of me and, indirectly, of Jean—left me baffled. I felt, too, that Jean should have spoken up, that I should have ignored his restraining squeeze on my arm and said something, too. I should have said. . . . In a calmer moment, with Polak's maniacal laughter ringing in my memory's ear, I wound up rationalizing that he was erratic, neurotic—and quite possibly incapable of socially approved self-control; that his distorted personality was probably a result of all that he had gone through during the war. (Even in the 1960s, life in Paris wasn't easy for Jews, as I years later came to learn when Maurice Girodias told Dutch reporter Bibeb in an Vrij Nederland interview that anti-Semitism was rampant in DeGaulle's government, and it was owing to that that he'd been driven out of publishing, threatened with a jail sentence, and harshly fined.)
I don't recall further dinners with the Colaneris. If others did take place, I don't believe the subject of Polak came up. When my mother visited Paris that summer, the Colaneris invited her to tea. We arrived very late, owing to scheduled visits to other friends and my mismanagement of time. The Colaneris' guests (save one) had already left by the time we arrived. Tea was served, anyway, along with festive petit-fours. Jean made most of his chance to display his fluency in English to a new ear, letting my mother know that it was quite improved thanks to our conversation sessions. Jean and Françoise were gracious and charming. My mother was impressed. As we were preparing to leave, Jean drew me aside to tell me how attractive he found my mother. [End Page 118] Recalling his playful boast about wanting to rentrer les femmes and not wanting him to increase his number of conquests by adding my 60-year-old mother, I kept his compliment to myself until she was about to fly home from Orly. She seemed flattered—but not overly so. She was probably still dwelling on Melvin Van Peebles' remark at the American Express: "You must be Jerry's sister!"
I only knew him as Yves. He burglarized cars, whenever he wasn't apartment painting or wallpapering. Roughly 6'4," broad-backed and my height, he wore a crewcut—unusual for a Frenchman, at least in the 1960s.
After dinner at Le Relais on Boulevard Montparnasse, I used to walk all over Paris, sometimes for hours, digesting my heavy meal, while taking in all sorts of sights. I was still deeply in love with the idea of Paris; for me it was then still mystifying. An especially ecstatic walk was to saunter up the Champs-Elysées, beginning at Place de la Concorde, with its gushing fountain and brilliant spheres of light. Traffic at this intersection was always ferocious; to make your way from Les Jardin de Tuileries to the opposite side of the circle took patience and daring. I was safe on the other side when I met Yves that night, sitting on a bench in the Cadre des Champs-Elysées, a small park recessed from the sidewalk. Maybe he asked me the time as I walked by or for a match. I don't remember. He must have asked me where I was from (I was sometimes mistaken for a Moroccan or an Antillian). He waxed ecstatic when I said the USA. He asked me if I was from Harlem. He seemed somewhat disappointed when I told him no. He'd only seen America in the cinema and wanted to know as much as I could tell. He stumbled in English. I put him at ease with my fluenter French. But even so, he stuck to English, and after a half hour he asked me to continue in English. Occasionally, he would stop me and ask me to repeat a word, then he would parrot me and then ask how I found his pronunciation. He seldom gave direct eye contact; usually he sat hunched over staring at the ground.
"I like America," he said, when I'd run out of things to tell him about Boston, New York, or Prospect, Maine—the only places I knew well. "I want to go there . . . to live. . . ."
This was his dream, his fantasy. He talked about his favorite American films—mostly shoot-'em-ups. He seemed visibly disappointed that I had no experiences to line up with any of what he imagined life was like in America.
He grabbed my hand and shook it heartily as I got up from the bench to leave, to continue my walk up the long, arrow-straight, and majestic gradient of the Champs-Elysees, to the Arc de Triomphe. I was glad to be alone again.
As it turned out, I ran into him several times after, not always on the same bench or same tree-lined part of the park, but always in the same general area.
He was quick in trusting me, and as he lunged into his vitriolic monologues about his hatred for France, he'd revert to French, leaving me in the dust with his rat-a-tat delivery; but I always managed to get the gist. He despised De Gaulle intensely and prayed for his assassination. He felt that tradesmen, like himself, had never gotten a fair shake from the regime. He cited countless cases of labyrinthine corruption in the government. And even though sincere in his anger, he would often punctuate his rants with a short, musical laugh, as if to say, "What's the use. Nothing can be done. We French are doomed." Caught up himself in what he said, he ventured to look me [End Page 119] in the eye occasionally; his glances were brief. Whenever I'd interrupt him, he'd look off or back at the ground.
All encounters seemed accidental. I usually walked that way about once a month. I don't remember exactly when he revealed that he burgled parked cars (of which there were many in the post Place de la Concorde stretch). Maybe it was on the fourth or fifth meeting. Once while describing a successful burglary, he pulled out from his jacket pockets, as if to prove that he wasn't lying, implements that he used for breaking into locked cars—a coat hanger, screw drivers, a pocket knife, a wrench, pliers, pen-size flashlight. . . .
He told me of his close calls, too—times when the owners would show up unexpectedly or when passersby would almost catch him in the act. There were those singular times, too, when car owners had forgotten to lock up their vehicles. He told me that I would be surprised to know how often that had happened. Yves blamed his dereliction on the French government. If the system were fair and just, he would not have to resort to thievery. He felt totally justified in what he did. Even when he had a painting gig, he would search the apartment for a small something to steal—to slip into the pocket of his painter's overalls. He'd peg something first, then on the last day of the job when he and his co-workers were cleaning up and packing to leave, he'd take it. Even if an apartment dweller or owner lodged a complaint later, it was impossible to accurately place blame. The foreman would have to deal with it—by most likely denying with convincing theatricality (a Parisian art) that it must have been someone else.
The last time I saw Yves was on a distinctly chilly Monday night in October.
Hunched, practically doubled over, he had on a short-sleeve shirt, and clutching his elbows, possibly to make the most of his body heat, he rocked to and fro slightly.
"Salut!" I said, sitting down beside him on the bench. He shot up as if jabbed, then immediately smiled and extended his hand. He was glad to see me. Maybe he'd even been hoping I'd happen by.
"Salut, mon pôte. . . ." As he pumped my hand, he checked out my new windbreaker. (A woman I'd dated when stationed at a U.S. Army base in Frankfurt was now a librarian at a base in Nancy. Often when she'd come to visit, we'd drive to the Paris PX so I could buy whatever I needed for a very low price. My brown woolen windbreaker was a recent purchase. The jacket I'd used for years—gray, faux suede—had worn out to the extent that it was beginning to reveal its true character.)
"You must be cold," I said as sympathetically as I could in an attempt to dispel his envious gaze.
Denying that he was, he rubbed his hands up and down his arms vigorously for several seconds, then stopped.
We got caught up on each other's lives. We hadn't seen each other for months. He'd had a few small wallpapering jobs here and there. As usual, he averted his eyes while relating his most recent triumph—five cars, one right after the other. He pounded his knee: "Boum! Boum! Boum! Boum! Boum!" They'd been lined up on a quiet street in the Parc Monceau area. His shy, secretive smile flashed and vanished intermittently as he gave the details. [End Page 120]
Mid-glow, he fished from his trouser pocket a folded sheet of paper. Glancing up at the street lamp to check the adequacy of its beams, he unfolded the quartered sheet and placed it down on the space between us. Bending over for a clearer view, I saw that it was a pencil-sketched map. "What do you think?"
"Do you know what it is of?"
"It's a . . . a kind of map. Right?"
"Yes, it is." He placed his forefinger on the opened paper. "You see here. . . is the Champs-Elysées." He ran his finger up the avenue all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, then brought it back down to a point not far from where we sat. I followed his finger as it made its way to the right side of the broad avenue and an inch or two along what seemed to be a sidewalk, then stopped.
"You know this place?" It was one of the many shopping arcades to be found on either side of the Champs-Elysées. In such a locale you can find any number of small stores selling jewelry, gloves, phonographs, LPs or 45s, fancily boxed chocolates. Although they were claimed to be moderately priced or on sale, they seldom really were. Yves tapped his finger on a square—a store—near the end of the right side of the gallery. "It will be here . . . a parfumerie . . . my next job. Maybe on this Thursday . . . or the next one."
He'd been working on his plan for months, he went on to tell me, and had closely observed the comings and goings of customers, their purchases, the workplace routines and behavior of its scant personnel—especially that of the proprietress who manned the cash register at the rear of the perfume store.
"Une vraie garce," he snarled, as if this gave him some justification for what he intended to do. He'd taken copious notes and had studied them well. The arcade shut down at midnight. The gallery attendant would stick a long pole with a hand crank at the end into the socket of rolled up iron-link gate at the top of the arch, then by rotating the handle, lower the gate until it touched the ground whereupon he would securely padlock it to U-hooks on either side of the entrance.
"But what if you get locked in . . . ?"
"I will get out the next morning." He would slip into the perfume shop near closing time and then duck into a curtained-off storage area behind the cash register.
"The owner will catch you." I was certain.
"No." He would crouch down and hide in a space between two counters running along the side wall. At 11:30 her two employees—women—would leave the shop. The owner would see them out and then lock the door behind them. It was at this stage that he would make his way from between the counters to the storage room. The owner would then spend the next 15 or 20 minutes emptying the cash register, segregating the bills into like-amount stacks before binding them with thick elastic bands, then bagging the coins. The day's earnings would then be locked up in the cabinet section of the desk on top of which the cash register stood. The owner would leave at 11:45 or 11:50, and lock the door behind her.
"What if she looks into the store room before she leaves?"
"After she has counted the money," Yves explained, "she is so happy she never considers anything else. When she touches the franc notes, it is as if she is having sex. . . ." [End Page 121] Yves would stay in the storage area until an hour after she left, then he would break open the desk's cabinet and put all of the money into his canvas painter's satchel. "There will be money from days before, too. She goes to the bank on Friday. Her husband comes then with his car to assist her. That is how much money there is!"
He'd observed that the arcade gate was always rolled up by the attendant at 9 A.M. and that the owner would show up a half-hour or so later—never before then. It was during that half hour that he would make his escape.
"But what about the door? She locked it." He would find the keys. There must be a spare set somewhere in the shop; maybe in the desk or under the till. And if he didn't find any, he would jimmy the lock. After all, he would have his tools with him.
I said nothing more. Reflectively, he folded his map and returned it to his pocket. Then he jumped up from the bench and began walking in small circles as he stomped his feet and rubbed his arms vigorously.
"Hey, Yves! I was just thinking." I couldn't leave him like that, shivering. "I've got an old jacket back at my place. Do you want it?"
"I have no money for such a thing. . . ."
"You can have it. I don't need it anymore."
On the subway train to Metro Pasteur, I asked him what he planned to do with the money from his burglary.
"Live like a king," he said soberly. "Travel, eat steak, drink whisky. . . . Get out of this fucking country. Maybe I will go to America. . . and become a truck driver—or a cowboy."
I laughed, expecting that he might, too, at the very idea: a cow-hand—but he didn't.
The apartment in which I had a room was empty. The elder of my two old landladies—unmarried sisters—had died of a stroke. (I'd gone to the memorial service at l"Oratoire du Louvre and shaken hands with the long, lined-up row of mourning relatives while offering my condolences.) The younger sister (75) was recovering from her sudden loss at her brother's estate in Orleans and would not be returning for several weeks.
My room was small and dingy—a chambre de bonne, right next to the apartment door.
I offered Yves the chair at the desk and made some expresso on my small alcohol stove. He'd already put on my old jacket and could not have been happier with it. He kept it on.
"What's this?" he asked as we drank our coffee. He was pointing to a shiny gray plastic contraption on the desk. It was about the size of the Bible.
"It's a tape recorder." His eyes widened. "Would you like to try it?"
"Oh, yes," he said, wonder clearly in his voice. It operated on 4 type C batteries. I picked up the microphone from its cradle, turned the volume on, and did a check test: "One . . . two . . . three . . . testing. . . ."
When I handed it to him, he became at once nervous and excited.
"But what should I say?" he giggled. I handed him a paperback of Prévert poems and suggested he read one of them. He made a few attempts at Je suis comme je suis, muffed his lines, then asked me to stop the tape and rewind. [End Page 122]
Then he chose another poem—Barbara, maybe—perhaps thinking that that might change his luck. It didn't. He kept breaking up, laughing at himself, feeling ridiculous.
When it came time for him to leave, he walked over to me and embraced me tightly.
"Mon copain . . . ," he mumbled. "Merci . . . thank you. . . for this jacket."
Initially, I returned his embrace with a pressure equaling his. I was glad that the jacket meant so much to him; surprised actually. Then I guessed that spontaneous generosity must have seemed somewhat odd to him. A French person would perhaps have sold the old jacket to him, or offered it in exchange for something else. I think he was made especially glad by the fact that he was now wearing a real American jacket from an American friend.
He slowly released his grip from around my shoulders. His cheek still touched mine. His hands gradually slid down to my hips, paused for a moment, then moved toward my belt buckle. As I began to step back uneasily, he brought his hands up again and clasped them behind my back.
"Please . . . ," he whispered. "I cannot accept the jacket if . . ."
I no longer recollect what my feelings were at that time—doubt, revulsion, curiosity, a wanting to understand—I stood still while Yves perfunctorily sunk to his knees.
There was a spiritual distance between us when he got back to his feet. He zipped up his jacket—it was his now. Not looking me in the eye, as was usual, he hurriedly left.
Weeks later, I wondered if Yves had managed to pull off the arcade
"job" . . . if he'd been caught . . . imprisoned. . . . I never took the
Champs-Elysées route for my postprandial walks anymore. Decades
later, I wondered whether Yves had actually been a burglar. He might
have been just a lonely down-and-outer with a rich fantasy life . . . and
Gerald Williams is an editor and a translator (French, Dutch, and German) residing in New York City. His essays and short stories have appeared in Harvard Review, New Letters, California Quarterly, Brilliant Corners, The Massachusetts Review, and Callaloo. He is a winner of the Gwendolyn Brooks Literary Award for Fiction.