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Posts Tagged ‘France’

The Death Instinct

December 12, 2014 | by

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

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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 »

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Let’s All Go Down to the Bridge and Get Our Teeth Pulled

November 17, 2014 | by

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Louis-Leopold Boilly, 1827.

I’ve been enjoying The Smile Revolution, Colin Jones’s trenchant, very readable history of the smile—specifically its evolution in eighteenth-century Paris, where smiling was once, as the jacket copy puts it, “quite literally frowned upon.”

Obviously the emergence of the smile owes plenty to the emergence of dentistry, but the story as Jones tells it owes as much to shifting social mores as it does to science—and much of the fun in The Smile Revolution is in reading about this cultural shift. Here, for a taste, is the story of Le Grand Thomas, a charlatan who made a career of yanking people’s teeth out. Apparently you could find him standing on the bridge every day, barking and hawking his talents, dressed in a baggy scarlet coat. He traveled with a pair of musicians and a large cart with an enormous tooth (“Gargantua’s awesome molar”) hanging from it. Here’s Jones:

Every day, from sometime in the 1710s until his death in 1757, Jean Thomas stood on the Pont-Neuf, alongside the cheval de bronze … and offered to pull out the teeth of all and sundry.

[…] His portrait proudly proclaimed:

Our Grand Thomas, beplumed in glory,
The Pearl of Charlatans (or so’s the story).
Your Tooth aches? You need never doubt
Le Grand Thomas will yank it out.

[…] The demeanor of le Grand Thomas was such that it seemed that he could terrify peccant teeth into submission. Everything about him exuded mythic power. The medicines he described were made up in doses suitable as much for a horse as a man. He himself weighed the same as three men, and ate and drank for four. His barking voice could be heard across the city. If a client’s tooth resisted his assaults he would, it was said, make the individual kneel down in front of him and then, with the strength of a bull, lift him three times into the air with the hand still clenched on the recalcitrant tooth.

Le Grand Thomas was no mere physician—he was a folk hero. In 1743, toward the peak of his massive popularity, there was a character based on him in a play called Le Vaudeville. A few of his lines:

Beware the lure of windy exaggeration
Which doctors use—for our assassination.
Tho’ I, Thomas, am tongue-tied in truth
At least I can help with the ache of a tooth.
I pull it right from the root.
Crack! Right from the root.

In all my years of dental, orthodontic, and periodontal care—years of care that, don’t get me wrong, I’m quite grateful for—I’ve never encountered a figure with such panache.

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Getting at the Gothic, and Other News

November 12, 2014 | by

Gothic British Library Tales of Terror

From Matthew Lewis’s Tales of Terror, published 1808.

  • In France, 40 percent of TV programming comes from America, which means dubbing is a major industry, and voice-over actors have enough work to collect a following of their own: meet the French Jennifer Lawrence and the French Daniel Radcliffe, for instance.
  • The Brothers Grimm published seven editions of their famous tales—the last edition is best known today. But the first edition sounds a lot more fun: “Rapunzel is impregnated by her prince, the evil queen in Snow White is the princess’s biological mother, plotting to murder her own child, and a hungry mother in another story is so ‘unhinged and desperate’ that she tells her daughters: ‘I’ve got to kill you so I can have something to eat.’ ”
  • In the nineties, Bob Dylan pursued a gutsy alternative career: “After binge-watching Jerry Lewis movies on his tour bus, Dylan came to the conclusion that slapstick comedy was where he wanted to put his artistic stamp … ‘We finally wrote … a very elaborate treatment for this slapstick comedy, which is filled with surrealism and all kinds of things from his songs and stuff.’ ” HBO bought the show, but Dylan’s interest waned soon after.
  • The Gothic is “having a moment” now—and a new exhibition at the British Library explores 250 years of the Gothic tradition. But what does it mean to be Gothic, anyway? “The term suffers from its implicit pluralism: Are we talking about novels, horror films, flying buttresses, Alice Cooper, black-painted fingernails or a specific period in North-European history? On the one hand, it seems fair to say that John Ruskin’s famous comments on the architecture—that most of us know Gothic when we see it, without being able to identify exactly what makes it so—still have something to say about the thing as a whole. On the other, the Gothic really does just mean the spooky and the titillating.”
  • “I’m not a cynic. I prefer irony, which depends on the ability to hold contradictory ideas, which probably springs from ambivalence. People confuse and conflate irony with insincerity and dishonesty; they believe an ironist isn’t serious. But saying the opposite of what is meant allows for at least two meanings to fly. Irony couples and uncouples statements, while revealing the hidden agendas of language and its conventions.”

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In Which André Malraux Kills Death

November 3, 2014 | by

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An engraving by Fernand Léger.

André Malraux was born today in 1901, and his first novel, Paper Moons (Lunes en papier), was published when he was only twenty. If that provokes pangs of jealousy, bear in mind that the print run was limited to 112 copies. The National Library of the Netherlands has a terrific post about the first edition, which was published by Éditions de la Galerie Simon, one of the most forward-thinking publishers of its day.

As that small print-run indicates, Simon wasn’t a major operation. Malraux’s publisher, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, had a shrewd and prescient eye for writers and artists. He was also an art dealer, one of the first to find merit in the work of the Cubists, who were largely written off as pretentious pranksters at the time. As a publisher, he sought work that “accomplished in words what the Cubists did with paint”; accordingly, he published early work by Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Raymond Radiguet, Pierre Reverdy, and Antonin Artaud, among others, often with artwork from his friends. In the case of Lunes en papier he called on Fernand Léger to contribute several wood engravings. This was not, it must be said, a popular or canny decision at the time:

Léger [had] caused a sensation at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 with his Nude in the Woods (Nus dans la forêt). Kahnweiler was immediately intrigued and attempted to contact its creator, who had previously made a living as a draughtsman for an architectural firm. Léger was mockingly called “tubiste” because of his tube-like presentations: he felt isolated and unappreciated.

As for the novel itself:

Lunes en papier continually subverts the reader’s expectations, starting with the cryptic subtitle and the warning in the front of the book: “There is nothing symbolical in this book.” The three stories are absurdist in nature, with strange plot turns and metaphors, airy, sometimes humorous in tone, while still dealing with seemingly serious matters, and ending with the death of Death … Malraux would later qualify his first effort as a “gloire de café.” But it suited the Surrealist and Dadaist ideas of its time extremely well.

There’s a translated excerpt from Cipher Journal that includes the bit where Death dies. More specifically, Death—a woman in a dinner jacket that makes her look like an insect—receives a visit from a dubious physician, who informs her that she may be going bald. He prepares her a bath of nitric acid. She slides on in and begins to corrode; by the time her servant intervenes, it’s too late, and Death has resigned herself to dying. Read More »

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When Paris Learned to Smile, and Other News

October 28, 2014 | by

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Gerard Dou, The Extraction of Tooth (detail), ca. 1630.

  • The triumphs of late-eighteenth-century French dentistry—professionalization, a commitment to canine conservation and oral hygiene, skill in making and installing artificial dentures—were a crucial element in the complex process ... call[ed] the ‘Smile Revolution.’ Only when an open mouth was able to expose white teeth (or, failing that, white dentures), only when dental hygiene dispelled the miasma of halitosis, could a full smile exposing the teeth be countenanced.”
  • At eighty-five, Hedy Pagremanski likes to plant herself on street corners and paint the disappearing buildings of New York. She’s done more than eighty of them. “We have learned that whatever was, isn’t … I once went to the Landmarks Commission and said, ‘What buildings are coming down?’ And they said they never know until the wrecking ball hits. And that was about twenty years ago.”
  • Tony Kushner on Tennessee Williams: “Because he was mining himself, his self, so endlessly, at some point what you call a kind of calcification of the heart manifests itself, and the self-mining becomes a kind of self-devouring, self-cannibalism, even; the business of putting your self and your inner life on stage over and over becomes a form of self-consumption.”
  • The French culture minister, Fleur Pellerin, has never read any of Patrick Modiano’s books—actually, in the past two years, she hasn’t read any books at all. “I haven’t had time to read anything in the last two years except for a lot of notes, legislative texts, and newswires,” she said. Some have taken this news poorly. “Nothing will uplift us, the soul is an illusion,” one commentator said.
  • Lubricious opening lines: Do they attract or dispel readers? (The opening line that prompted this debate is Christos Tsiolkas’s: “My mother is best known for giving blowjobs to Pete Best and Paul McCartney in the toilets of the Star-Club in Hamburg one night in the early sixties.”)

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Being Discovered: An Interview with Calvin Tomkins

October 20, 2014 | by

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Gerald and Sara Murphy with Cole Porter and the Murphy’s friend Ginny Carpenter, in Venice, summer of 1923. Gerald had come to collaborate with Porter on their ballet Within the Quota. © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In the late fifties, Calvin Tomkins, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, moved his family from New York City to a little community on the Hudson River called Sneden’s Landing. “The houses are built on the side of a hill fairly close together,” Tomkins told me by phone this past summer, “but in those days there were no real property lines. Everybody knew each other, and the kids wandered all over.”

Tomkins’s two daughters, Anne and Susan, eventually found their way to Gerald Murphy, then in his sixties, pruning his rose garden. As kids do, they struck up a conversation with Gerald, and when Tomkins and his wife caught up with them, Sara, Gerald’s wife, emerged from the house, taking orders for ginger ale.

“The Murphys didn’t talk about the past in those days, and it was some time before I realized they were the people F. Scott Fitzgerald had used as models for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night,” Tomkins wrote in 1998. In the twenties and early thirties, the couple, along with their three children, spent part of the year in the south of France, on the Riviera, and the rest of it immersed in the salad days of modernism and surrealism in Paris, where they had befriended, among others, Picasso and his first wife, Olga Khokhlova; Ferdinand Léger; Dorothy Parker; Cole Porter; the Fitzgeralds; the Dos Passos; and the Hemingways. It was a fascinating life, though shrouded in mystery and tragedy.

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Gerald Murphy with Picasso. © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Tomkins urged Murphy to write a memoir, but Murphy “scoffed at the notion … he had too much respect for the craft of writing, he said, to attempt something which could only be second-rate.” Tomkins reported the piece instead. It was called “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” a reference to the seventeenth-century poet George Herbert’s mordant epigram, which Murphy had once jotted down on a piece of paper. The piece ran in The New Yorker on July 28, 1962. By the time Tomkins had expanded it into a book, in 1974, “Gerald had been dead for ten years, and Sara, who died in 1975, was no longer aware of the world around her.”

Fortunately, Tomkins was, and Living Well Is the Best Revenge remains one of the most ingeniously reported profiles of the Lost Generation, with the Murphys serving to illuminate the nearly century-old American expat scene that flourished in Europe between the two World Wars. The book had gone out of print until MoMA reissued it earlier this year in a beautiful flex-cover format. I spoke to Tomkins, who’s now eighty-eight, about the Murphys’ past, Gerald’s career as an artist, and his reporting for the book.

Before you got to know them, did you know much about Gerald and Sara Murphy?

I had heard about them. The Murphys were legendary because people knew vaguely about their life in Paris in the twenties, but nobody really knew them very well. They had a party a year, I think—a garden party with candles in paper bags. More or less the whole community was invited. But otherwise, they kept to themselves. We were all very curious about them. It seemed to us that we had these exotic creatures living in our midst. Read More »

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