A French cult classic from 1972 is being published in English for the first time.
Jean-Jacques Schuhl answered the door in slippers, no socks. He offered me, in knowing jest, bio coffee, bio juice, or bio wine (bio is French shorthand for something close to organic). I asked for the coffee. He shuffled out, came back with china in hand, and reported that it was still warm. I cleared a spot on the table between messy piles of paper.
Schuhl’s first novel, the 1972 cult classic Rose poussiere, has recently been published in English for the first time by Semiotext(e) under the title Dusty Pink. It’s a slim little thing, a collage of mixed materials: assorted tear sheets, facsimiles, and news clippings like the ones across his table. Somehow, the net effect is as much a leering void as it is a mosaic of cultural scraps. The cumulative emptiness is as central to the work as the careful text.
At seventy-six, Schuhl’s artistic output has been startlingly small: three books and a handful of essays. In a French publishing landscape where most writers chase mass-market success, Schuhl is what’s left of an underground that can no longer exist.
Schuhl is obsessed with creating a kind of noise that opposes the broadcast of social networks. He riffs on the sounds (and silences) of the late sixties and early seventies countercultures in London, Paris, and New York, of which he was a member and a keen observer. He’s never had any interest in the literary scene, preferring the company of those who work in the theater, on the stage. I found, through a roundabout online search, a rare picture of Schuhl with his friends Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Eustache, and Jean-Pierre Léaud.
In Dusty Pink, Schuhl presents both a veiled criticism of and a longing for the end of the long sixties, up until 1976, and its drug-addled nightlife. His use of artifacts, such as race wire results and magazine tear sheets, gives him the distance to fetishize a moment by creating a cut-and-paste eulogy of its passing. Schuhl’s quick takes on the shifting seventies have aged to reveal that they had a prophetic quality. The title, a shade of cosmetic, is all the more provocative in today’s era of twenty-year-old “self-made” beauty billionaires.
Schuhl’s second novel, Ingrid Caven, was published in 2000 (and in the U.S. in 2004, by City Lights) and went on to win France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt. Ingrid Caven is named for Schuhl’s partner, a German film actress and singer previously married to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. That novel is a more narrative history of seventies counterculture, filled with a rotating cast of famous names including Yves Saint Laurent, Marlene Dietrich, Ava Gardner, and Mao Zedong. But straight reality doesn’t interest Schuhl. He prefers to write a hybrid of recollection and fantasy.
Ingrid Caven originated when a German publishing house asked Caven to write an autobiography. She, in turn, asked Schuhl if he had any interest in writing it for her. “I told her that I hate biography—which is true. I had this idea to make a false biography, a novel, this kind of novel,” he said. “Thanks to her, I had an archive a domicile. If I needed something, she was there, like impressionists who painted their wives.”
Ingrid Caven is often miscast as either a riff on autofiction, or an accurate chronicle of Paris in the seventies. “It is a book very much in the present, but it is misunderstood because two or three scenes take place (back then),” Schuhl said. “The subject—the reason for the book—was the defense and illustration of a certain style which had disappeared. A style made of high and low.”
The first chapter of Ingrid Caven begins with sheet music scattered around a spread of cosmetics. Schuhl writes:
A little powder had slipped onto the white sheet of the score, in the middle of the notes, already there: do re mi… “What is that?” “Rose dust. Rose poussiere. A shade everyone forgot, big in the seventies, I’m the only one who still uses it.”
In the opening section of Dusty Pink, titled “The Boots,” Schuhl gives the address of a store where exact copies of the ankle-high boots worn by riot cops during the student protests of 1968 can be found: “DELICATA BROTHERS ORTHOPEDICS, 84, boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris.” (The footnote mentions its baroque window display.) He also notes that such boots are loaned by the state; they don’t belong to anyone. This is another theme of special interest: things that are ownerless or without a single author, like the events that make up the headlines of the day’s news or a collective undercurrent of sentiment.
Before going to see Schuhl, I stopped by the above address. A blue plaque with a white “84” hung over a double door. To the left, there was a tourist souvenir shop with spinning racks of postcards and refrigerator magnets. To the right, a shuttered comic book shop called Album, with an enlarged speech bubble stuck to the empty windows announcing its new location. I took a few photos on my phone for Schuhl. He quoted Baudelaire: “The form of a city changes more quickly, alas! than the human heart.”
Looking back at Dusty Pink, Schuhl regretted having given so much space to the Rolling Stones, whom he saw as having become a kind of vulgarity, “a huge cash machine.” He offered that a solution could have been to leave in only the late Brian Jones. “I remember when I saw them at the Olympia in Paris. Jones interested me very much, much more so than Mick Jagger. He had a kind of absence, an air of no importance.”
From under a stack on the table in front of us, Schuhl pulled out a small edition of Mallarmé’s Oeuvres Completes, with a bright green cord bookmark and a dozen place-holding paper scraps. Schuhl found Baudelaire to be visually oriented; Mallarmé, purely verbal. Both poets were capable of a feat he had failed at, he said. “With painting, as well as several kinds of poetry, you have all the space, it’s translated immediately. Time stops—everything is given in an instant,” he told me. “And I like the instant— I don’t much like the flow of time.” Schuhl explained that he attempted to capture singular moments with his writing, but felt he could not. “But I must try.”
Along with narrative, he expressed similar dislike for things that were monolithic, essential, or one piece. In Dusty Pink, footnotes break up any singular body of the text. He told me he didn’t like “eternal creations nor masterpieces,” and was a big fan of print journalism (though not Internet journalism, he specified). “I like dust, the froth of things,” he told me. “It is a way to explode the heart. You blow on the book and the sentences, the letters, they fly away.”
Stephanie LaCava is a New York–based writer and the founder of Small Press Books.