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Posts Tagged ‘Algeria’

Paris from Camus’s Notebooks

September 19, 2016 | by

Albert Camus.

Albert Camus.

The myth is tenacious: an unknown writer on the verge of international fame, not suspecting that the scattered pages on his or her desk will become that miracle, a first published novel and a passport to glory. From March to May 1940, Albert Camus was that man, finishing a draft of the book he was calling The Stranger. The city, eerily calm, overtaken with a sense of dread, was weeks from the German invasion. Paris has changed enormously since 1940, but you can still walk in Camus’s footsteps through places that a few literary specialists have put on the map and come close to a moment of artistic creation.

Camus finished a first draft of his novel alone in a hotel room in Montmartre. The former Hôtel du Poirier on the rue Ravignan sits atop one of Paris’s “buttes” or hills, whose cleaner air might have benefitted the young writer, who struggled with chronic tuberculosis. The site is still about as picturesque a place as Paris has to offer: up a terraced set of steps, on one side of a cobblestone square with its own fountain, the little hotel stood directly across from the Bateau-Lavoir, a beehive of artist studios, spread out like a ship. On this vessel of high modernism, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. The glory days of the Bateau-Lavoir ended after World War I, but in March 1940, when Camus lived in its shadow, the place still exuded its bohemian aura. Crowned by the mammoth Sacré-Cœur cathedral, Montmartre was an acquired taste, with its own diehard citizens—pimps and scoundrels, anarchists and poets. Far from the business districts, Montmartre was still, in 1940, practically a separate village, a neighborhood where an artist or writer could get by on almost nothing. Read More »

The Color of Dirty Death, and Other News

June 20, 2016 | by

The ugliest color of them all.

  • Start your week off right: take a long, hard look at the world’s ugliest color, Pantone 448C, aka “opaque couché.” Redolent of baby shit and capable of summoning all kinds of grime in the mind’s eye, 448C is powerfully ugly: “The agency GfK Bluemoon had 1,000 smokers select the colors they found most visually repellent. Respondents overwhelmingly associated Pantone 448C with words like dirty, death, and tar. The Australian federal government initially referred to the color as ‘olive green,’ but changed their terminology to ‘drab dark brown’ after the Australian Olive Association expressed concern for the reputation of olives. After the study, Australia made Pantone 448C the predominant color on its mandatory plain packaging for tobacco products … Since 2012, smoking in Australia has, in fact, decreased.”
  • Talking with Sofiane Hadjadj, cofounder of the Algerian publishing house Editions Barzakh, at a bookseller in Algiers: “Young Algerians are eager to write, but most see it ‘as a form of therapy’, Hadjadj said (not unlike their counterparts in Europe and America). There aren’t many who can both describe their daily reality and achieve the necessary distance to transform it into narrative … Arabic literature generally is at an ‘inflection point’, according to Hadjadj. The great leftist writers of the 1960s, such as Elias Khoury and Sonallah Ibrahim, who had a strong vision of society, have been succeeded by a generation with more questions. ‘Should one write about oneself, about the world, about globalization, about jihadism?’ Hadjadj asked. ‘You need a somewhat stable vision of society to write a novel, but it is changing all the time, and we don’t understand it.’ ”
  • Francis Alÿs’s new paintings depict life in Ciudad Juárez, so to look at them is to ask that age-old question: Is art at all useful in helping us come to grips with massive acts of violence and suffering? “It might seem unlikely that an artist like Francis Alÿs would be able to engage in any meaningful way with life in Ciudad Juárez. He is known for a poetic and absurdist mentality, sending a peacock as his representative to the Venice Biennial of 2001, for example, or arranging for a troop of Household Cavalry to march through the center of London in 2004. Yet the sensitive and understated works on display here pack a powerful punch … The centerpiece of the exhibition is a striking film of Mr. Alÿs slowly kicking a flaming football through the dark night of downtown Ciudad Juárez, attracting stares from locals and scaring away stray dogs as police sirens wail in the distance. The vision is haunting, and the details picked up by the camera as it tracks his progress make reference to the city’s many problems: the sex trade, the drug trade, the ambiguous role played by the police. Perhaps the beautiful but oblique film is guilty, as Sartre put it, of reducing cruelty to the abstract. But then so do statistics.”
  • Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire are remembered for their Book of Greek Myths, from 1962—one of the most popular children’s books of all time. But they made a much less well-known book about America, too, and it’s appropriately mythic: “ ‘Virginia was once a wilderness,’ the D’Aulaires write. ‘Wild beasts lived there, and swift Indians ran through grass and swamps’ … Columbus’ story gets treated even more like a fairy tale. ‘There once was a boy / who loved the salty sea,’ it begins … Like any mythological hero, the D’Aulaires’ George Washington has powers beyond those of ordinary men. He’s stronger than other boys and rides his horse more skillfully. He can hurl a rock across the width of the river. He’s shot, but unharmed. Lincoln is also demigod-like, when they tell of how he ‘wrestled with the strongest and toughest of them all, and threw them to the ground.’ ”
  • Today in the ironies of intellectual-property law: a new suit contends that Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” belongs, in fact, to us, just as the land supposedly does. But all the land in America isn’t actually in the public domain, and the song might not be, either. “[The suit] is aimed at liberating a song known to generations of schoolchildren who have raised their voices to sing about a free country belonging to one and all, sprawling ‘from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters’ … Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 in response to the Irving Berlin song ‘God Bless America,’ which he felt inadequately addressed land and wealth inequality … In 1945, he published the song with a copyright notice that was never renewed … As a result, that copyright would have expired—and the song would have entered the public domain—twenty-eight years later, in 1973.”

The Death Instinct

December 12, 2014 | by

The autobiography of one of France’s most notorious criminals.


Mesrine’s mugshot, 1973.

On the morning of November 2, 1979, a gold BMW pulled up behind a blue truck stopped at a stoplight in Porte de Clignancourt, in northern Paris. After a moment, a tarp covering the back of the truck opened to reveal four men with rifles. They opened fire in unison, blasting holes into the windshield. The man driving the BMW was hit fifteen times; the woman in the passenger seat was blinded and crippled by the attack. Her pet poodle died, too. And that was the end of Jacques Mesrine, France’s public enemy number one.

For nearly twenty years, Mesrine had humiliated the country’s judicial system with repeated high-profile bank robberies, murders, and daring prison escapes. But now the police had caught up to him. His bloodied corpse laid limp in his car, left out for the paparazzi. One of the officers tossed Mesrine’s wig, riddled with bullets, onto the car hood like roadkill into a dumpster. That last detail comes from one of the many YouTube videos you can watch of the shooting’s aftermath, waiting to be compared with Jean-François Richet’s 2008 two-part film Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, both starring Vincent Cassel. And through the bullet holes of mythology, you can see in this tableau a bit of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and a little bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo dying on the pavement, calling Jean Seberg a bitch.

This was a fitting death—and has been a fitting afterlife—for Mesrine. He was France’s most famous criminal not only because of his crimes but for the way he hot-wired the machinery of fame. While he was on the most-wanted list, he gave interviews and was photographed for the cover of Paris Match. Two years before his assassination, Mesrine wrote his autobiography, The Death Instinct, while incarcerated in the inescapable La Santé Prison, from which he later escaped. It was 1977, a bleak time for culture and politics: in England, it was “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten whinnying “no future” into recorded oblivion; in Germany, it was the Red Army Faction, their crimes, and their deaths in Stammheim Prison. For many in France, a few decades out of existentialism, the late seventies were a time of startling political conservatism, a time when the hopes of ’68 were being actively erased. It was this regime of erasure that Mesrine fought against, and that killed him two years later. Read More »


Enlightened: Schiller at the Hohe Carlsschule

December 30, 2013 | by


In 1784, a twenty-five-year-old Friedrich Schiller, then Germany’s most famous playwright, published a notice announcing his new journal, the Rheinische Thalia. “It was a strange misunderstanding of nature that condemned me to the calling of poet in the place where I was born,” he wrote, reflecting on his path to fame. “To be inclined towards poetry was strictly against the laws of the institute where I was educated, and ran counter to the plan of its creator. For eight years, my enthusiasm struggled against the military rules, but passion for poetry is fiery and strong, like first love. What those rules should have smothered, they only fanned.”

These bitter words were written in memory of the Hohe Carlsschule, the military academy founded by Carl-Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, where Schiller spent his teenage years and young adulthood. In Germany the duke was known for his autocratic rule, wasteful spending, and eleven illegitimate children. At the same time, Carl-Eugen was deeply interested in statecraft and, above all, in educational reform. Decades into his rule, he decided to found an academy whose goal was to create a bureaucratic class free of the aristocracy’s tangled family loyalties. The only criterion for entrance was merit. Accordingly, students from bourgeois backgrounds (like Schiller) vastly outnumbered the noble-born.

Schiller was fourteen when he was sent to the Carlsschule, and he was not happy to be there. Visits from family were strictly regulated; female relations, particularly sisters and cousins, were forbidden entirely. Worse, Élève 447, as he was now known, had to wear a uniform, march in formation to meals, and sleep in a dormitory that was kept lit even at night to make sure the students weren’t masturbating. Any violation of the rules or attempt to flee resulted in the student’s having to write out his crime on a red card, which he wore pinned to his chest at mealtimes. As the students ate, the duke would work his way around the tables, read each card aloud, and give the student a slap. Serious offenses were punished by imprisonment or caning. Read More »


Pox: On ‘Contagion’

September 12, 2011 | by

Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

“Pretty grim here,” a girl in Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, Contagion, texts to a friend from a funeral home, where the director is explaining to her father that he’s refusing to accept the infected corpses of her mother and brother. Lethal epidemics usually are grim. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be entertaining. In 1722, Daniel Defoe published A Journal of the Plague Year, which fictionalizes a 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London. Defoe’s novel opens with mortality reports: two Frenchmen died of plague in Drury Lane in early December 1664, and over the next few months, the number of dead swelled from the usual 250 a week to a suspiciously high 474, though the municipal authorities were reluctant to name the plague as the cause of the rise. Statistics!, the habituated news reader thinks. What’s more, untrustworthy statistics! The reader is drawn into the game.

Soderbergh’s movie is scored to a similar drumbeat of numbers. Five dead in London. Three dead in Tokyo. Eighty-nine thousand cases worldwide. Eight million cases worldwide. The human mind can’t really make emotional sense of such numbers, of course, and for that Soderbergh turns to interwoven vignettes of the sort familiar from movies like Traffic and Crash. With such dismaying material, the artist’s challenge is how to make it real but not too real. If the deaths seem too real, sorrow will overwhelm viewers. (This is probably why John Lithgow’s performance of Alzheimer’s is so halfhearted in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If anyone in your family has ever had Alzheimer’s, the last thing you want to see in a sci-fi romp is realism.) Read More »

An Injury-Time Strike Upon a Hill

June 23, 2010 | by

Among the new heroes of this World Cup one must now count Bob Bradley, the grim, predestinarian U.S. coach—on the silent sideline his presence seems more foreboding than forbearing—much maligned by American fans in the qualifying campaign for his tactical inflexibility and cautious squad selections.

Like those other steadfast skippers pilloried for poor performance in early games, Bradley has remained loyal, through the group stage, to a cautious 4-4-2, deploying creative flair in the central midfield, when forced to, only behind his quantum destroyer son, Michael Bradley—his head shaved bald like his father in a show of grim emulation. But Bradley père’s central defense suffocated Wayne Rooney in game one, and his bold halftime substitutions saved the Americans in game two, stockpiling on the field all the technical skill the middling U.S. team could muster, heedless of the tactical consequences.

Today his foresight and patient tinkering paid off again—adjustments made at halftime and throughout the final forty-five minutes—producing a steady stream of American chances which our virtuosity in bungling them proved we hardly deserved. And in the panicked ninety-first minute, Bradley’s alignment produced, at the very end of a half thoroughly dominated by U.S. possession, an improbable opportunity to counterattack—the open field being the only soccer habitat, it seems, in which American strikers can actually thrive. Now, pending results this afternoon, it seems the U.S. path forward will take them first through Serbia and then, given a result there, into a quarterfinal against either overperforming Uruguay, or the pinball side from South Korea. Winning those winnable contests means a place in a World Cup semifinal. And these two miraculous end-game assaults—an unrelenting second half against Slovenia, comical incompetence in front of goal against Algeria preceding a single surgical strike—look now a lot less like the anarchic energy of tactical desperation. They look like providence.