RETRO: Surrealism 101: A Night in August 1944 (Fiction/Excerpt)

The 20th century's artistic "In Crowd" gathers at Picasso's Paris studio, 21 Rue La Boetie, August 1944. Included in the picture are Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
(This excerpt is from the author’s forthcoming novel For Paris ~ With Love and Squalor.)

I’m not even sure if Papa knew all that much about her. At that time, I mean. Later on, everyone would know something about her. But Jerry and I were brought along by Hemingway because he’d been invited by Picasso to sit and listen to a reading of a play by someone or another. Well, that someone turned out to be Simone.

From the bits of dialogue and snatches of conversation I was able to put together, it seemed that in the past year or two this cadre of writers and artists had managed to be unmolested by the authorities during the German Occupation, and just a few months earlier Picasso had roped them all in to read aloud and sort of perform for his own amusement—right there in his apartment—a play that he had written. Now a similar workshop reading was underway for a play recently written by Simone.

I’m not sure what was thicker: the omnipresent haze of smoke in the room (pipe smoke emanated from one man’s nervous puffing and others fired up one cigarette after another, thick hand-rolled cigarettes that Jerry referred to as “tailor-mades”) or the barely contained egos. It was more than a lion’s den; it was Minotaur’s lair.

Nonetheless, I was struck by her composure. Simone, I mean. She may have been insecure on the inside or secretly worried about what others would think, but to me her self-possession was remarkable. She looked everyone in the eye. And I mean all those guys, no matter his reputation. She wasn’t about to be intimidated. No sir.

But still, there was no getting around it. The charismatic overflow of lordly male authority was spilling over between Hemingway and Picasso. All the other men who were there were definitely in the shadows, so to speak, and seemed a bit smaller. It was therefore even more remarkable that Simone was the one to finally call out and clap twice to gain the attention of one and all. The reading commenced at her cue.

Jerry sat to the right of Hemingway and I opted not to sit at all. That surprised me. But with a limited number of chairs and more than a few others who’d been invited to hear the reading that night, it was easy for me to step away and just take it all in.

It was also easy to admire the primary choice that Simone had made as a writer. Her play was steeped in the distress and deprivations of recent days, yet she set it all centuries earlier in Vaucelles, which is a town in Flanders. But there was no possibility of anyone missing the analogies to the German Occupation. She spoke briefly before the reading began, and said that her play’s title, The Useless Mouths, required no further explanation. With the chronic hunger that plagued all of Paris and France at large throughout the Occupation, her theme of useless mouths and disposable citizens too old or too weak to work for the invaders was lacerating.

However, none of it seemed cloyingly ripped from the daily newspapers, thanks to her decision to set the scenes back in the 1300s, I think. My memory is fogging up.

But I do recall with certainty (and admiration) that her play was dialogue-driven, as most plays are. Yet it never bogged down due to windy monologues. A play can be so easily weighed down and fast submerged by characters giving speeches. Instead, she had her characters speaking mostly in rapid succession, never spiraling or going off on tangents, and through their quick exchanges her ideas were boldly filtered. Sartre sat there behind his heavy-rimmed glasses, sucking his pipe.

Believe you me, her ideas were blunt. Hunger was her play’s main theme. All of the historical background and whatnot created a necessary backdrop, but the dialogues and ideas driving the play’s content boiled down to the ravages created by hunger and how its devastating effect on the human spirit made conquest easier for brutes.

Like I was saying, the analogy to Nazi Occupation didn’t have to be spelled out. That’s something else I don’t think has ever gotten across. And it still bugs me.

Many years later, when I was patching together my income as an itinerant college instructor (now they’re called Adjuncts, but then we were Instructors and that signified everything right off the bat: anyone dubbed an Instructor was thereby known not to have a doctorate and thus no chance of a permanent position; we had to be reviewed annually and sometimes reapply all over again for the same job, even after we’d been on staff for several years), the ignorance on this subject appalled me.

In the middle or late 1960s, when I asked my students what they thought about how the near starvation of Paris during the German Occupation might have affected the ways in which French morale collapsed, they were mute. And not because the new war in Vietnam consumed their thoughts. I was teaching at that small Catholic college in Chicago, which wasn’t even co-ed until later in the 1970s. And the awful truth is that during those years a favorite television show for all those kids was that rotten nonsense Hogan’s Heroes, making the Nazis into bald, fat, “funny” caricatures.

By that time, of course, Simone was no longer an obscure Paris-based author who surrounded herself with powerful male mentors. By the time I was teaching decades later, her major claim to fame was The Second Sex, a gospel and a definite cornerstone for the Women’s Movement that emerged out of the 1960s. Even that book was largely unknown to the students in my classes. None of which surprised me.  Contrary to all of the myth-makers who have created the delusion that young Americans all across the board were “radicalized” or “transformed” by the 1960s, the truth is that the majority were content to watch TV, marry, and be “traditional.”

But as I sat there on that night when Simone’s play The Useless Mouths had its workshop reading in Picasso’s apartment as Liberation Week approached its peak, all those future years and inevitable disappointments were unknown. Which made it even easier to admire the incisive, radiant intelligence permeating Simone’s play.

Jerry agreed. He had risen from his chair and wandered over to me in between the play’s two acts. Everyone had agreed that a break should be had. Not just to smoke, but also to look over pages and retrieve some energy.

“Each line says something,” Jerry observed, “but every other line also suggests what’s not being said. Her mind is not just stating a theme, but it’s beyond subtle in connecting the past to the present.”

J. D. Salinger in Liberated Paris: August 1944. At that time, he was “Jerry” Salinger, serving with the 4th Infantry Division.

That’s when it hit me right over the head that what Jerry was noting about Simone’s play was pretty much exactly why we’d all admired and sometimes adored those short stories that’d made Hemingway the best of the best, in our time. That subtle and oftentimes seductive restraint. Indirect writing. Allusive flourishes. Leaving out what other writers would pile on about. Never opting for saturation.  Jerry had it right. Throughout the rehearsal reading of Simone’s Useless Mouths, which added up to three tableaux in Act One and five tableaux in Act Two, it was discernible to me that a slew of ideas and mighty themes were being articulated between the lines. “Not too much of it is on the nose,” Jerry concluded. “It really appeals to the ear.”

I envied his ability to instantly ascertain why he liked her play. There was plenty of commotion in the studio that night, what with Picasso’s swaggering hurlyburly at the center of the whole shebang, and everyone there being inevitably a bit cowed yet also galvanized and magnetized by not just Picasso’s self-conscious theatricality but also by the looming presence of Hemingway. Yet, the damnedest thing of all was that, in a funny way, it also felt ridiculously normal. The paradox was beyond me.

And even now, damn near seventy-one years later, the paradox still leaves me mute. I mean, I’m trying to get this across . . . but I can’t. Obviously I’ve been talking about all this, but nothing I say comes close to even hinting at its dizzying momentousness.

It was then and there, as I stood and listened to the remainder of the rehearsal reading of Simone’s play that night at Picasso’s studio at 21, Rue La Boetie, right there and then it finally hit me that every little thing about each of our lives in that summer, that year, that ineffable period . . . it was surreal enough to silence all of us.

(M. J. Moore is HoneySuckle Magazine’s RETRO columnist.  His novel, For Paris ~ with Love & Squalor, will be published by Heliotrope Books on October 17th.)

About M. J. Moore 13 Articles
M. J. Moore’s novel, For Paris ~ With Love & Squalor, will be published in October 2017, by Heliotrope Books. Moore is completing a biography of Mario Puzo.

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