art collecting & anti-semitism in paris: edmund de waal’s the hare with amber eyes

“It wasn’t just Renoir who disliked the Jews . . .”

Chapter 10     My Small Profits

It wasn’t just Renoir who disliked the Jews. A string of financial scandals throughout the 1880s were laid at the door of the new Jewish financiers, and the Ephrussi family was a particular target: ‘Jewish machinations’ were supposed to be behind the collapse in 1882 of the Union Générale, a Catholic bank that had strong ties to the Church, with many small Catholic depositors. The popular demagogue Edouard Drumont wrote in La France juive:

The audacity with which these men treat these enormous operations, which for them are just simple game parties, is incredible. In one session, Michel Ephrussi buys or sells oil or wheat worth ten or fifteen million. No trouble; seated for two hours near a column at the Stock Exchange and phlegmatically holding his beard in his left hand, he distributes orders to thirty courtiers who crowd around him with their pencils extended.

Courtiers come and whisper in Michel’s ear the day’s news. Money is seen to be a bagatelle to these Jewish money-men, implies Drumont, a plaything. It has no connection to the savings carefully taken into the bank on market day, or hidden in the coffee pot on the mantelpiece.

It is a vivid image of covert power, of plotting. It has the intensity of Degas’s painting At the Bourse of a whispered conversation between hook-nosed, red-bearded financiers amongst the pillars. The Bourse and its players segue into the Temple and the money-changers.

‘Who shall stop these men from living then, who shall soon make France look like a wasteland then?…it is the speculator in foreign wheat, it is the Jew, the friend of the Count of Paris…the favourite of all the salons of the aristocratic quarter; it is Ephrussi, the chief of the Jewish band who speculate on wheat.’ Speculation, the making of money out of money, is seen as a particular Jewish sin. Even Theodor Herzl, the apologist of Zionism, always eager to raise money for the cause from wealthy Jewry, is rude in a letter about ‘the Ephrussi, spekulant’.

Ephrussi et Cie did wield extraordinary power. The absence of the brothers from the Bourse was noted with panic during one crisis. Their threat to flood the markets with grain in response to Russian pogroms was taken seriously in an excited report in a newspaper during another crisis. ‘[The Jews]…have learned the potency of this weapon when they made Russia hold her hand in the last Jewish persecution…by reducing Russian securities twenty-four points in thirteen days. “Touch another of our people and not another ruble you shall have, to save your empire,” said Michel Ephrussi, head of the great house at Odessa, the largest grain dealers in the world.’ The Ephrussi were, in short, very rich, very visible and very partisan.

Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper, acted as the marshaller of opinion into print. He told the French how to spot a Jew – one hand is larger than another – and how to counter the threat that this race posed to France. His La France juive sold 100,000 copies in its first year of publication in 1886. By 1914 it had gone into 200 editions. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic, felt they owed nothing to the State. Charles and his brothers, Russian citizens from Odessa and Vienna and God knows where, looked after themselves – whilst leaching the life-blood of France by speculating with real French money.

The Ephrussi family certainly thought they belonged in Paris. Drumont certainly thought not: ‘Jews, vomited from all the ghettos of Europe, are now installed as the masters in historic houses that evoke the most glorious memories of ancient France…the Rothschilds everywhere: at Ferrières and at Les Vaux-de-Cernay…Ephrussi, at Fontainebleau, in the palace of Francis I…’ Drumont’s ridicule of the speed in which this family has moved from being ‘penniless adventurers’ to this ascent into society, their attempts at hunting, their recently commissioned coats of arms, became vicious anger when he thought of his patrimony soiled by the Ephrussi and their friends.

I force myself to read this stuff: Drumont’s books, newspaper, the endless pamphlets in numerous editions, the English versions. Someone has annotated a book on the Jews of Paris in my London library. Written very carefully and approvingly next to Ephrussi is the word venal pencilled in capitals.

There are quantities and quantities of this stuff, swinging wildly between hectoring generalities and splenetic detail. The Ephrussi family comes up again and again. It is as if a vitrine is opened and each of them is taken out and held up for abuse. I knew in a very general way about French anti-Semitism, but it is this particularity that makes me feel nauseated. It is a daily anatomising of their lives.

Charles is pilloried as someone ‘who operates…in the world of literature and the arts’. He is abused as someone who has power in French art, but treats art as commerce. Everything Charles does comes back to gold, say the writers in La France juive. Meltable, transportable, mutable gold to be carried, bought and sold by Jews who do not understand land or country. Even his book on Dürer is scrutinised for Semitic tendencies. How can Charles understand this great German artist, writes one angry art historian, for he is only a ‘Landesmann aus dem Osten’, an oriental.

His brothers and uncles are excoriated and his aunts, now married into the French aristocracy, are savagely parodied. All the Jewish finance houses of France are anathematised by rote: ‘Les Rothschilds, Erlanger, Hirsch, Ephrussi, Bamberger, Camondo, Stern, Cahen d’Anvers…Membres de la finance internationale’. The complex intermarriage between the clans is repeated endlessly to build up a picture of one terrible spider’s web of intrigue, a web even more tightly bound when Maurice Ephrussi marries Béatrice, the daughter of the head of the French Rothschilds, Alphonse de Rothschild. These two families now count as one.

The anti-Semites need to pull these Jews back to where they came from, to strip them of their sophisticated Parisian life. One anti-Semitic pamphlet, Ces bons Juifs, describes an imagined conversation between Maurice Ephrussi and a friend:

– Is it true that you soon have to leave for Russia?

– Within 2 or 3 days, said M. de K…

Well! Maurice Ephrussi replied, if you are going to Odessa, go to the stock exchange to tell my father some news of me.

M. de K promises, and after having finished his business work in Odessa, goes to the stock exchange and asks for Ephrussi the father.

– You know, he is told, if you want it to be done, it is the Jews you need.

Ephrussi the father arrives, an awful-looking Hebrew with long and dirty hair, wearing a pelisse which is completely covered with grease stains.

M. de K…delivers the message to the old man and wants to leave, when he suddenly feels pulled by his clothing, and hears the Ephrussi father who tells him:

– You forgot my small profits.

– What do you mean by your small profits? exclaimed M. de K…

You understood perfectly well, dear Sir, replies the father of Rothschild’s son in law, while bowing to the ground, I am one of the curiosities of the Odessa stock exchange; when strangers come to see me without doing any business they always give me a small present. My sons thus send me over 1000 visitors a year and this helps me to make ends meet.

And with a large smile, the noble patriarch adds: they know well that they will one day be rewarded…my sons!

The Ephrussi, les rois du blé, are simultaneously loathed as upstarts and fêted as patrons. One minute they are to be reminded of the Odessan grain merchant, a patriarch with his grease-stained coat and his outstretched hand. The next, Béatrice is at a society ball wearing her tiara of hundreds of slender ears of trembling golden corn. Maurice, the owner of a vast chateau at Fontainebleau, put himself down on his marriage certificate to Béatrice de Rothschild as ‘landowner’, rather than banker. This was no slip. For Jews, owning land was still a comparatively new experience: it was only since the Revolution that Jews had full citizenship, a mistake – according to some commentators – as Jews were not capable adults. Just look at how the Ephrussi lived, suggested one screed, The Original Mr Jacobs, ‘the love of bric-a-brac, of all odds and ends, or rather the Jews’ passion for possession, is often carried to childishness’.

I wonder how these brothers lived their lives in these conditions. Did they shrug their shoulders, or did it get to them, this incessant hum of vilification, mutterings about venality, the sort of constant, bubbling animosity that the narrator in Proust’s novels remembers of his grandfather: ‘Whenever I brought a new friend home my grandfather seldom failed to start humming “O, God of our fathers” from La Juive, or else “Israel, break thy chains”…The old man would call out “On guard! On guard!” upon hearing the name of any new friend and if the victim had admitted his origins, ‘then my grandfather…would look at us, humming under his breath the air of “What! Do you hither guide the feet of this timid Israelite?”’

There were duels. Though outlawed, duels were nonetheless popular amongst young aristocrats, members of the Jockey Club and army officers. Many of the quarrels were inconsequential, issues of territoriality amongst young men. A disparaging reference to an Ephrussi-owned horse in an article in Le sportstarted a quarrel with the journalist, ‘which led to an altercation and then a hostile meeting’ with Michel Ephrussi.

But some of the disputes reveal the growing, alarming fissures within Parisian society. Ignace was an accomplished dueller, but choosing not to fight was regarded as a particularly Jewish failing. A gloating report tells of one example of this when a business deal between Michel and Count Gaston de Breteuil had ended with substantial losses on the part of the count. Michel, a man of business, did not see it as a matter for a duel and failed to give satisfaction by fighting. When the count returned to Paris after the refused invitation, ‘according to the story current in club circles…he encountered Ephrussi…and twisted the latter’s nose with the bank notes representing the balance, the pin with which they were fastened together severely scratching the proboscis of the great wheat operator. He resigned from the Rue Royale Club and gave a million francs to be distributed amongst the poor of Paris…’ This is recounted as a comedy – rich Jews, gross and without honour, and their noses.

They are not above reproach: Jews just don’t know how to behave.

Michel did fight a bitter run of duels with the Comte de Lubersac on behalf of a Rothschild cousin whose honour had been impugned, and who was too young to stand up for himself. One took place on the island of the Grande Jatte, in the River Seine. ‘At the fourth onslaught, Ephrussi was wounded in the breast, the count’s sword striking a rib…The count attacked vigorously from the outset, and the combatants parted at the finish without the customary handshake. The count left the scene in a landau, and was greeted with cries of “À bas les juifs!” and “Vive l’Armée!”’

Protecting your name and your family’s honour was increasingly difficult as a Jew in Paris.

—from Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Centurty of Art and Loss, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010)

céline’s prose style explained, plus more from normance . . .

. . . Normance is a full-throttle grotesquery. The prose rears up at the reader like an exploding grenade, pumping shards of hate and disgust into the air, the pages littered with the fallout of sentences and word shrapnel. The novel lacerates linear narrative, leaving grammatical scars and the broken bones of syntax. What plot there is is lost in invective and fire-and-brimstone prose. Louis/Ferdinand – the novel’s narrator – trapped in a Paris apartment block, under siege during an air-raid by Allied forces during April 21-22 1944, dodges bombs, falling masonry, spastic dancing furniture, occasionally giving a slap to his girlfriend Arlette/Lili, while all the time aiming his own verbal volleys at Jules the hunchback, pervert sculptor he believes is directing the aerial assault and who has fingered Louis/Ferdinand as “a Kraut, a spy! A traitor!” Huddled under a table or squeezed into the concierge’s office, the inhabitants of the apartment block do anything to survive. The characterization of the narrator, the thug Ottavio, and the monstrous and eponymous Normance force the reader to question how far humanity will go – and how low individuals will stoop – to stay alive. The apartment block is an apocalyptic version of Georges Perec’s building in Life: A User’s Manual, but whereas Perec’s building had its rooms exposed to view, as if the façade had been carefully taken down by the author, Céline’s apartment block has had its floors and ceilings ripped out by Allied ordnance; indeed, Normance could be subtitled Death: A User’s Manual. Normance resists categorization, resists the history of the novel. 


. . . Exclamation marks mirror the bombs’ detonations, used together with Céline’s trademark use of ellipses … which pepper the paragraphs and act like punctuative landmines, these explosive points !!!!! – even before he became politically ostracized – placed Céline beyond the confines of French literature, beyond even his near-contemporary and un-familiar Jean Genet. This anti-academic approach made  Céline a hero to a new generation of American writers such as Jack Kerouac (the prose velocity), William Burroughs (use of the ellipsis and view of humanity), and Tom Wolfe who – in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – took Céline’s experimentation in punctuation to the limits of English grammar: 


Sandy hasn’t slept in days::::::how many::::::like total insomnia and everything is bending in curvy curdling lines. 


—just then—




—Cassady—twenty feet away across the beach road has suddenly wheeled and fired the four-pound sledge hammer end-over-end like a bolo and smashed the brick on top of the fence into obliteration, fifteen feet from the Mexican. 

Compare to Céline’s:

I can hear him!… ‘grrumph!…hraah!’ there’s a rattle in his throat…he’s got a bit of a cold…see, I’m being precise… you don’t care about the little details? well, tough luck!… I’m not going for artistic effect, that “almost-like-life” stuff! I was there, and while there I saw the following sights! that’s my motto!

Other writers, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, and Ken Kesey, have also claimed Céline as an influence. But try to place Céline in a school of writing and your task becomes near impossible. The closest I can get is some awful hybrid writer/monster: Henry Miller + William Burroughs + Pierre Guyotat but that would be without Miller’s ego and Burroughs’ archness. If Zola is an obvious forerunner, then Pierre Guyotat – albeit from a reverse political pole – is the heir to Céline’s incendiary prose and explosive style. We can even see Céline’s influence on contemporary writers: Dan Fante’s A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburetor-V8-Son-Of-A-Bitch from Los Angeles is straight Céline “stinking ammoniac piss-sodden tippling snitching thieving spying abominable agitator” filtered through Bukowski. Céline defies and denies the canon, is resistant to history and political correctness.

. . . Is Céline a racist? An anti-Semite? A Nazi sympathizer and apologist? A collaborator? A misanthrope? Is he a novelist? A pamphleteer? And do these questions really matter when his prose is still shocking and fresh and a whole new generation of readers will have access to the phantasmagoric Normance? What Céline offers the reader is a fresh yet ugly take on human weakness, violence, and suffering – far from accusing the good doctor of  treason, we should applaud him for his honesty. Céline doesn’t blink when faced with human excess and pride – his prose may be rebarbative but it is necessary. Like William Burroughs, Céline preferred felines to human beings (the narratorof Normance worries more about the whereabouts and fate of his pet cat Bébert than he does the suffering of his neighbours). Ultimately, both Burroughs and Céline were moralists, their experimental styles and inflammatory prose became their means to deal with the 20th century’s absurd terrors. Despite the dodgy politics, Céline is an unflinching chronicler of humanity’s ethical depravity and moral relativism.

…they talk about love, in verse, prose, or songs, they can’t help themselves! the nerve! and always procreating! unloading fresh Hell-spawn on the world! and then speechifying! and their endless promises! … constantly swollen with pride! drooling and strutting around! only when they’re prostrate, dying, or sick do they lose a little of their human vileness and become poor beasts again, and then you can stand do go near them… 


—from Steve Finbow, “Roaring Up from the Depths”

Cover Image


Ferdinand versus Jules “the jerk-off artist”:

— Hey, Jules! Hey, Jules!

He could at least answer!

— You try calling him!

He gestures to us to leave him alone… he’s sulking… brooding…

— Leave me the fuck alone!

I can hear him clearly… between two tremendous bombs… a moment of calm… he wants a drink! Ah, a drink?… he’s outta luck!

The whole garden is flaming, all the shrubs…

It’s amazing that he doesn’t catch on fire, and his gondola and platform with him! considering the waves of sparks!

— Hey bozo, in the cart! jump! weirdo!

He called me a Kraut, a spy! a traitor! I can talk trash as well! all the names in the book!

— Faggot! hey, faggot!

— Please, Ferdinand! Take it easy!…

Always trying to calm me down! me, so tolerant and fair!… me, who he’d offended horribly! and publicly! and intentionally!…

— I hope your Jules roasts, the pig! the sub-pig! you were in on it together? tell me you were! admit it!

— No, Louis, calm down! Of course not!

— I hope that bozo of yours roasts! your fondler! I’d like to see him glazed in the flames all right! he’s poised for it! right into the pot!

Vrrouum! vrroum!

You’re probably finding me monotonous… I’m imitating the ruckus… what can I do? that’s how it is, period!… twenty squads fly over us, seething…

Ah! the windmill is leaning! and us! our whole building!… a powerful puff of air!… up above, Jules pitches against the rail, I think he’s going to crash through… no! he slams into it and ricochets off to the other side… he was thirsty, the gondolier now it must be a bit worse! he must have no tongue left!… it’s a dry wind from Levallois! even in our room, we’re baking in this heat!… especially our eyes! our eyes! our eyelids won’t close!… I’m not making it up!… the people who were there will tell you: an eruption! fifty… a hundred bomb craters spurting into the sky!… and not just in the sky, all around! and the windmill still isn’t burning! you want proof: Jules in all his glory on his skates! look how he maneuvers! and pivots! swerves! but he doesn’t break the barrier!… no! no!…

— Nut-job! Lunatic!

I howl at him!

He’s really taking a ride! his little platform is swaying, pitching, rolling and he’s still riding it in his gondola! from one railing to the other!… and in a hell of a wind! it’s blowing in from the Renault factory! from the west, a real oven! tornado after tornado! I’m not making any of this up! all the outskirts are an eruption… not just one little neighborhood!… the factories are torching!… the clown in his crate catches it all… right in the face! he’s a lot more exposed to the wind than we are… the whole windmill is leaning into the wind!… the whole frame… and the big strut and the ladder!… him up there, he rolls with the swells, pitching, then he shoots off again! if the platform really tips, that joker’s going to take a dive! in the lilacs! in the fire-and-phosphorous lilacs! jeez , he catches the railing! pivots! and off again! ah, he’s the acrobat of the elements! if he were overcome with rage, he’d fling himself off!… all the same I’m insulting him good and plenty! he tacks straight up against the swell… seems to me… I think… really!… they played a trick on him bringing him up there… or did he ask his pals to bring him? isn’t that the question?… there are strange forces at work, frequency waves, and more!… nothing would surprise me seeing how Jules behaves! the way he hangs onto his traffic light… acrobat artiste!

— Jump, you vampire!

There’s a little lull… the windmill straightens up… but the wind starts up again from the other side, towards Dufayel… a terrible aftershock!… this quake, I think this is it!

Sail, ship’s pup

The wind is up

I sing to him… he doesn’t give a fuck!… he throws himself against the other rail! his torso, face and nose are lit up… he’s all you see above Paris… naturally, being so high in the air! take a look at all the sparks hitting him! gust after gust!… even for us in our room, what swarms pouring in the window! crackling over us! we should have caught on fire too! we’re as lucky as Jules!

— I’m thirsty, Lili!… aren’t you thirsty?

She doesn’t answer… I shake her… I pick her up in my arms…

Aren’t you thirsty, Lili?

All she’s watching is Jules!… her eyes are glued to him! Jules up there, doing acrobatics with the bombs! I yell at him!

— Go on, chickie! dive!

It’s true, he’s stalling, the jerkoff artist!… I’m spurring him on!… he takes off at a zigzag, starts over! what a scene!… he’s never gonna break the rail!… and it’s flimsy too…


read more from Normance:

at long last: céline’s last novel, normance, now translated into english!


The last of Céline’s novels to be translated into English, this account of an air attack on Paris during World War II shows a hallucinatory, altered space in which human aggressions, appetites, and suspicion come boiling to the surface in preposterous dimensions. A frantic narrator, in search of complicity, relates the story of an apocalyptic ballet that leaves reason and order in shreds, as bombing turns Montmartre into an underworld teeming with dirty deeds, while our guide resists the inhumanity with animal desperation and robust hilarity. Céline animates the events with the exuberance and speed of his narrative style, fully developed and uninhibited, and fully his own. 


“By 1943, Céline’s only


was that the war had not been

destructive enough.”

Andrew Hussey, “Death Sentences” 

In the early hours of 21 April 1944, the combined might of the British and US air forces launched a series of raids on the northern edges of Paris. It was the first time the city had been bombed since the First World War. The assault went on for two days and the results were horrifying a convent destroyed, entire apartment blocks wrecked, more than 600 people killed, and the quarter of Montmartre drenched in sewage and blood. From the Allied point of view the raid was high-risk and possibly counterproductive: the Normandy landings were only months away and the bombing might have made an already volatile population even more pro-German. In fact, the raids infuriated ordinary Parisians, and gave Marshal Pétain reason to rail against the brutality of the Allied forces.


It is those deadly nights that are the background for Normance, here published in English for the first time and not really a novel, but rather a highly poeticised account of life at street level under the onslaught. There is no real story as such, but rather a nightmarish description of a group of neighbours in Paris  loosely based on Céline and his entourage  who find themselves bombed out on to the streets of the city and into a mini-apocalypse. They drink, argue, search for a lost cat, and look for shelter in the Métro and the local bar. The prevailing tone of delirium and ever-present danger makes this no easy read: Céline’s prose is elliptical and staccato, driven by the nerve-shredding tension of surviving a city under siege. Most crucially, the text is written with all the demonic and feverish logic of a hallucination. The effect is mesmerising; in a translation that is fluid, elegant and faithful to the original in both tone and meaning, Céline more than justifies his reputation as one of the best writers of French prose of the 2oth century, on a par with Proust and Camus.


This book is also both compelling and disturbing because it was written by and from the point of view of a virulently pro-Nazi anti-Semite. Céline became famous in the 1930s as the author of the bestselling Journey to the End of the Night, an account of Parisian lowlife that was praised by Gide, Trotsky and Orwell. By the end of the decade, Céline was notorious as the author of a series of “pamphlets” that called for the extinction of the Jewish race and argued for Hitler as the saviour of Europe. He welcomed the arrival of the German forces as “a necessary tonic”, writing: “If you really want to get rid of Jews then you need racism: and it must be total and inexorable. Like complete Pasteur sterilisation.”


By 1943, Céline’s only disappointment was that the war had not been destructive enough. Unsurprisingly, by the time he came to write Normance, he was one of the chief targets of the Resistance, which posted small black coffins to warn him that he was under sentence of death. When the war was over, Céline barely escaped a firing squad, retreating to his lair just outside Paris after a spell in prison, snarling and unrepentant, muttering still about Jewish conspiracies and the end of the world, his hatred clearly more pathological than political.


But this is precisely why it is essential to read hiswork. Normance uncovers the real emotional climate of Paris during the Occupation in all its ambiguous, terrible complexity. This is shocking only because the English-speaking countries have never taken seriously the deep reservoirs of poison that ate away at French political life in the 1930s. But the signs had already been there in the art of the period  in a generation that hated the French Republican tradition enough to betray it. By this logic, Céline is not only a great writer, but a prophet, one of the truest and most authentic literary voices of the French 20th century.


—from New Statesman, June 4, 2009


the opening of Céline’s Normance:  

Telling it all after the fact . . . easier said than done! . . . much easier! . . . After all, you can still hear the echo . . . baboom! your head’s spinning . . . even seven years later . . . your mug . . . time’s nothing, memory’s what matters . . . that and all the world’s infernos . . . all the people we’ve lost . . . the sorrows . . . your pals scattered . . .the nice ones . . . the not-so-nice ones . . . the forgetful ones . . . the blades of the windmill . . . and the echo that’s still beating you down . . . it’ll still be there when they dump me in my grave! . . . Talk about a wind! . . . I’ve had it up to here! . . . the old belly, too! . . . kaboom! . . . I feel it . . . it sinks in . . . my bones quivering, right there in my bed . . . I won’t lose you, though! . . . I’ll catch up with you somewhere or other, down the line . . . that’s all you need! character! . . . rags in the wind! . . . that’s for sure . . . baboom! . . . I’m telling you, they brought me back up! . . . I was telling you they carried me back like Marlborough . . . you know? when they put him in the ground? . . . me, I was in the air . . . with four . . . five knights and ladies-in-waiting . . . Lili told me . . . all seven flights! . . . I’d fallen down the elevator shaft, ’cause the door was open . . . no! . . . further than that . . . I fell even further! . . . into the cellar! . . . Baroom! . . . calling out for Lili! . . . calling out for Bébert . . . calling out for everyone! . . . they’d gathered me up outside . . . the four knights and ladies, to take me back up to my place . . . it’s nothing new, all this baroom, baroom stuff! . . . been going on since ’14, to tell the truth . . . November ’14 . . . baroom! . . . I was thrown into the air by a shell, thrown! . . . lifted right up! . . . I mean a big one! a “107”! . . . on my mare, “Demolition”! in the rear-guard! . . . Saber shining! . . . talk about a wind! I was flying away! . . . just get a load of him! . . . it’s the memories that really unnerve me! . . . you’ll see . . . I’ll gather them all up! . . . I’ll fly away! . . . I won’t keep anything from you! . . . tattered rags of ’14 . . . of ’18 . . . ’35 . . . ’44 . . . I count . . . I recount! . . . I recapture it all! . . . like on the day when we used to count the linens to make sure nothing had gone missing! . . . like the notes on Jules’s bugle! . . . off you go! . . . tatters blowing this way! . . . tatters blowing that way! . . . underpants! . . . C sharp! . . . handkerchiefs! . . . I’ll unjumble it all for you! . . . you won’t believe my quick little hands . . . such deftness! . . . I’ll put it all back! . . . in perfect shape! . . . you’ll be delighted! . . . I’ll really do it right! . . . a piece here . . . a piece there! . . . Baroom! . . . a huge quake rocks the whole Goutte d’Or area! . . . Grandes-Carrières too! What am I saying? Out to Dufayel! . . . and even farther! higher up! my head’s spinning! Oh, and Sacré-Cœur! La Savoyarde, the great bell, the space gong! . . . you heard of it? the Butte

’s big alarm bell! . . . the house quaking! . . . so you can imagine, me, with my spinning head! . . . and they brought me back up! with good intentions! they told me! . . . home again! the building’s seven stories high! I should have told them: you’re hurting me! there were six of them . . . Ottavio, Charmoise . . . Mr. Vluve and Madame Gendron and Arlette . . . I’d fallen down the shaft . . . right onto the elevator car! . . . it’s a good thing the goddamn car was stopped on the sixth floor! . . . any lower and the fall would’ve killed me! . . . I’d only taken a twenty-foot dive! . . . could’ve broken every bone . . . cracked my skull open again!
. . . they asked me: You okay? “you okay” . . . very clever!
— No, I’m not! How’s Bébert?
That’s how I am, body and soul . . . my concern . . . my first thought: my cat.
— Forget about Bébert . . . what about you?
They were worried, especially Ottavio and Charmoise, they knew what bad shape I was in, first of all overworked as hell! and then, excuse me! whack! black and blue! cracks! bruises! . . . they could see! . . .

— No fractures, darling? anything fractured?

I’m a doctor, right? I am, yes! I couldn’t even open my eyes! . . . I’d fallen right on my eyebrows! . . . split the sockets right open! nothing else broken, though! No, just bleeding all over my face . . . especially at the temples . . . I was dripping everywhere . . . real beat up, you might say! . . . a little lower and I could’ve killed myself . . . say the car was on the first floor? . . . I’m telling you! . . . my luck! . . . but I’d had a hell of a blow to the head! . . . dizziness! pulsating! . . . I was throwing up because of it, in my bed! . . . fucking everything up! and I knew it! . . . too bad! courage first! . . . I sneak a peak out of one eye, I have a look around . . . the dresser’s not against the wall anymore . . . the little fucker’s waltzed off! . . . right out the door . . . gone dancing out onto the landing! . . . the building shaking like crazy! what an uproar! all the landings rattling!

— So, Lili? Lili? what happened? the dresser took off?

They’re all answering me at once . . . I can’t understand a thing . . . I’m still buzzing too much . . . there I am, flat on my bed . . . It’s not just the dresser . . . there’s other furniture doing a polka to the door . . . bumping into each other and stomping on each other’s feet! . . . it’s the bombing . . . she’s a frisky little one, our dresser! . . . here she is, coming back towards us down the hallway! . . .

So I was telling you, Ottavio, Charmoise, and Mr. & Mrs. Gendron carried me back to my bed…They found me on the sewer grate in front of Jules’s place . . . Arlette is making me some chamomile tea . . . Arlette, that’s Lili . . . she’s the most loving of loving souls, really! Arlette Lili . . . she has to try and keep her balance with that cup full of tea! . . . the hallway’s rolling . . . surging . . . from one end to the other . . . She better keep away from the dresser . . . but look, Lili’s agility incarnate!

— Some chamomile, Ferdinand? Some chamomile?

They all insist I drink something hot . . .

— What, Ferdinand? What?

I can’t tell if it’s the shock or what, but everybody seems even more stupefied than I am, all my pallbearer friends . . . all they can say is, What, Ferdinand? . . . what? . . . what? . . . I can hardly hear them . . . what? . . . what? what? And I’ve got some of my own noises to worry about . . . I already told you . . . like the bombs! boy, are they coming down! cluster after cluster! And then there’s not just that dresser shimmying in the hallway, there’s the rumble of the cannons and Lili with her cup . . . ping! ping! . . . it’s all settled, it’s over, no more alarms . . . but Jesus! the bombs! . . . they’ve got timers, a delay on them, apparently . . . Baboom! it’s really something! . . .

–Lili! Lili!

I call her.

— To hell with your cup!

I don’t want her to leave me! . . . I don’t want her to go back down to Jules’s place! We have enough water, we have enough milk! If not, we can do without it!

My eyes are gummed up, lined with blood, swollen shut . . . she kisses me, she kisses everything! blood, eyebrows, my split brow . . . my temples . . . she licks me oh so gently, that’s adoration for you . . . she really loves me . . .

You often get adoration like that when your life is slipping away . . . 





Ferdinand & Bébert

Ferdinand & Bébert












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short fiction from ken kalfus

In the linked stories that comprise "Le Jardin de la Sexualité," Ken Kalfus portrays the relationship between Nula, a culturally ignorant Irish au pair working in Paris, and Henri, a young Moroccan student . . .


“Le Jardin de la Sexualité: Bouquet”

Ken Kalfus


The young au pair had grown up only twenty minutes from Grafton Street, in the pastel-colored clapboard suburb of Finglas, and she had expected Paris to be somewhat like Dublin, if bigger. But automobiles here careened down narrow streets, a subtle and capricious grammar tied the language in knots, men and women in flowing desert robes passed her as she walked the children home from school, and everywhere, on everyone’s minds, on the tips of their tongues, like a secret they could not keep, there was sex. On the way to the museum with Marie and Melanie one afternoon, Nula entered a metro station in which every billboard carried the same advertisement for a line of lingerie. The adverts were huge, reaching from floor to ceiling, and were composed entirely of a close-up photograph of two breasts gently cupped by a white lace bra. The image was repeated on nearly every inch of wall space in the station, even alongside the system map, all the way down the stairs, and then on every platform. As the train pulled from the station, the breasts flickered in Nula’s eyes.


The girls, ages ten and eight, didn’t miss any of it. No, they wouldn’t. They stared at the advertisements and, once aboard the train, launched into a discussion about a schoolmate who had begun wearing a brassiere.


"She stuffs it with tissue paper!" cried Melanie, the eight-year-old.


The two of them fell against each other, giggling. The other passengers looked away.


Marie and Melanie knew the au pair’s discomfort; this was their revenge. They hated museums. They would have preferred to spend their Wednesday afternoons, when school was let out early, in the Luxembourg Gardens children’s park or at Trocadero, where they would watch helmeted youths, some just a little older than Marie, glide and spin on skateboards down the Palais de Chaillot’s long driveways. Nula had taken them there once but, burdened by the knowledge that the French school authorities had thoughtfully set aside the half day for educational excursions, she now insisted on searching the newspapers for exhibitions, matinees, and recitals.


It was their first visit to this museum, a majestic block of carved stone, not like those joke structures, all glass and plumbing fixtures, that had been thrown up around the city in the last few decades. Dedicated to the diffusion of scientific knowledge, it sailed through the neatly tended, grassy square like a battleship trimmed with granite weaponry and other appurtenances: a tower, a clock, a gallery of togaed figures perched between decks. Nula swept up the steps with the girls, past a scattering of men sunning themselves at the institution’s prow. Some of them squatted and spat seeds. An elder passed, dangling a single watch for sale from a rough, misshapen hand. Teeth flashed at an unkind remark.


A young man lounged by the museum door, wearing a brown leather jacket and a rakishly askew, oversized plaid cap. He stared at each woman passerby, regardless of her age or appearance, fishing for her eye, and mechanically moved on to the next one after she was gone. It was the cap that caught Nula’s attention: its vulgarity amplified his projection of self-confidence. He thought he was good-looking enough to wear anything. Nula glanced at the youth for only a moment, but the moment was too long, for he smiled at her and knew that she saw him smile.


She looked away, but before she and the girls could enter the building he had reached them. "Good day," he said. His politeness just accented the tiny leer that began around his eyes and turned up the little parabolas of skin at the ends of his mouth.


"Excuse us," she replied in French, passing the children around him.


"English?" he guessed.


"No," she said, and was in the door. Melanie started to look back at the youth, but the au pair seized her and thrust her into the queue at the ticket counter.


When it was time for their baths, the girls would dodge her, running through the flat stark naked, hiding underneath the dining-room table, and once even dashing out onto the terrace to display themselves to the whole of Passy. They were hardly better behaved in their parents’ company. The other night after dinner, when Nula came in from the kitchen with the coffee, she found that Marie had stuck two cups under her shirt and was playing the vamp with Melanie, who examined her sister’s chest with mock lust. But Madame Reynourd had only suppressed a laugh and lightly scolded them: "Dégoûtant!"


Monsieur and Madame Reynourd were easy-going people, if a bit disorganized. They shambled through their flat either half dressed or half undressed — Nula could never be sure in which direction their disarray was heading; they left large sums of cash lying about; they could never remember what plans had been agreed for the children that day. Already in their forties and each a stone overweight, they were nevertheless enveloped in a kind of ripe, luxuriant youthfulness. Paul played rugby on Sundays and came home soaked in sweat. Elizabeth wore her blouses virtually unbuttoned. She flirted with the husbands of friends and, accompanying Nula to the butcher and baker, even with the young shop assistants, on the au pair’s behalf. Nula nearly cowered behind her. At night in her room several stories above their flat, she lay awake and, against the current of intention, her thoughts drifted to the couple below and their seething sexual restlessness.


The girls’ inability to concentrate descended from their parents like a congenital stain. Here on the second floor of the museum, within a glass case, a tree bloomed with stuffed tropical birds outlandishly feathered and preserved so close to the edge of life that Nula could, or thought she should, almost hear them singing, but what drew Marie’s attention was the device that recorded on a rolling scroll the humidity behind the glass. Nula shooed her away from it. The two girls began to jog toward an exhibit describing the construction of the Eiffel Tower and then — in a moment of insight — realized that the surface friction of the hall’s polished marble floors was less than the forward momentum of a little girl in new penny-loafers. They slid the rest of the way.


"Marie! Melanie! Stop!" Nula hissed. The young man (an Algerian? a Libyan?) approached, grinning. He had followed them into the museum and had been shadowing them through it. He had lurked near her in the dark of the astronomy exhibit, his bared teeth purple in the ultraviolet light. In the metallurgy hall, he had stared intently as she read to Marie the explanation of how an iron forge worked.


"Come here," she now called to the children, but, embarrassed in his presence, she called too softly for them to hear, or at least softly enough for them to pretend not to hear.


"Well, you are a American?" the Algerian confidently asked in uncertain English. "You are a student maybe. I am a student. Do you know Vincennes?"


"No." Her education had gone no further than her secondary school leaving certificate.


"My degree is almost finished," he said. "I am two years at Jussieu, and now I am at Vincennes, at the Department of Sexology."


Nula didn’t reply. She looked past him, at the children, who ignored her.


"Do you know the sexology field? Very fascinating field. We are the most foremost department in Europe and America. We include the study of anatomy, anthropology, mass culture, economy, philosophy, human relations. The whole gamut, as it were. Every academic discipline must include a contemplation of human sex, don’t you agree?"

Marie and Melanie, having exhausted their interest in nineteenth-century engineering, took another run and, squealing, slid out of the hall. Nula shook her head at the Algerian and took off after them at a brisk trot, mentally compiling a list of punishments, through one coolly lit hall after another, past the minerals exhibit and the insects and through the computer room, whose collection of computing instruments began with a Chinese abacus and ended with a model of a large punched card ordinateur dating from the Fourth Republic. Every time she thought she had lost their trail, she heard the girls giggle and shriek, and they’d skitter through the door at the far end of the room.


But then, when she was sure they had gone as far as they could into the dim recesses of the building, Nula found herself in a large, bright, completely modern hall, with the girls standing right there before her, as quiet and attentive as a pair of dolls. The au pair’s face was moist. She could feel the wetness above her lips.


"Now you’ll catch it," she said in English. She hunkered and roughly fastened a few buttons on Melanie’s blue school uniform that had come undone. "Mama will hear of this, I promise you. No television tonight. And don’t ask me to buy you cakes on the way home. You’ve been very, very naughty."


But the girls weren’t listening. Nula turned, looked up at the object of their attention, and gasped. The opposite wall contained a floor-to-ceiling backlit color transparency of a man and woman, standing shoulder to shoulder, completely naked. Their arms were at their sides, their private parts exposed. The couple were perched on a diving board and behind them were a range of forested hills and a rich blue sky. Their smiles were placid, as if they noticed neither each other nor the camera. Nula fell silent. The man’s penis seemed small in relation to the rest of him; the mossy equilateral between the woman’s legs was exceptionally black. Then Marie said something — Nula didn’t hear what — to Melanie, and they both giggled.


"Oh, this is biology," Nula said, her mouth dry. "Come, let’s look at the rocket ships."


"We want to stay," Marie told her.


"We can’t."


"Why not?"


"It’s boring," Nula said.


Marie and Melanie remained where they were. Nula took a few steps toward the exit, and the girls, less tentatively, went in the other direction.


The entire hall was devoted to reproduction and sexuality. A film projection demonstrated amoebas splitting. A DNA spiral stairway climbed to the ceiling. Next to it, a plastic model the size of a school bus showed the pistil and stamens of an archetypical flower, accompanied by a softly buzzing mechanical bee suspended from wires. One display diagrammed the courtship dance of two hummingbirds; another the egg-laying strategies of frogs; a third showed two elephants mating.


Side by side were similar exhibits explaining human reproduction, as if men and women were no more than rutting animals (they’re no less, Elizabeth would say). Across from the elephants was a diagram of the developing human fetus, along with a picture of the completely naked mother, her breasts splayed, her belly distended, at the corresponding stages of pregnancy. An actual fetus floated in an amber liquid in a display case below the diagram. Nula’s two charges stood by it, making little trilling sounds of awe. Nula herself stared for a moment, shivered, and then remembered the girls.


"Don’t you want to see the butterflies?"


But they had already moved on to the next exhibit, drawings of the human male and female at progressive ages, including labeled diagrams of their genitals. And, squatting by them, talking quickly and in earnest, was the Algerian! The tawny skin between the top of his jeans and the bottom of his shirt shone like the skin of a piece of fruit. Marie and Melanie listened attentively.


"Monsieur!" Nula cried. The girls snickered. "What are you doing? What do you want?"


He stood and offered her a warm smile as she approached. "My little friends were asking of me some few questions."


"Their questions are not for you to answer," she said. "Leave it to their mother."


"Madame — " he began, allowing a question mark to bob in the pause.


But Nula said, "I’m not their mother," turned to the children, and briskly told them, "Let’s go."


Melanie danced away from under her arm. She joined her sister to stare into the next display case, their faces pressed against it. The idea of the dirt squeezing into the pores of the girls’ skin disgusted Nula. She glanced inside the case. It contained a variety of devices, accompanied by a text and diagrams that described their uses. She didn’t recognize a single one.


"Look, here’s a playground!" she said desperately, glimpsing a patch of green outside an open door around the corner. "Don’t you want to play?"

The two girls ignored her. Nula cooed, pleaded, and demanded — and finally bribed them outside with the promise of a bag of chestnuts. They held out for ice cream, and even then had to be shoved out the door. As they left, the Algerian winked at her.


In the small park and sculpture garden adjacent to the museum, old men sitting on weathered benches gazed at the statuary; couples strolled arm and arm along the park’s paths. Nula bought the girls two chocolate esquimaux from a vendor. "We have a half hour," she told them. "Have fun."


She might as well have told them to do the following week’s homework. "Play," she said, and finally they sulked off down a tightly manicured row of rose hedges, ice cream already dripping to their fists.


Nula was glad to be free of them for the moment. She could find a bench and relax, and perhaps enjoy an ice cream herself. The park was lovely. The flowers were in bloom, the day had turned fair. She wished they had come here from the start. The girls were too young for science.




She turned and glared at the Algerian standing beside her. He grinned.


"You’re a terrible man to fill their ears with such filth," she told him.




"The way you talk and they’re so young."


"But sex is part of life."


"I won’t have it," Nula said, her temper rising. "There’s a proper age for everything, and a proper way of learning about this."


"What age, what way did you learn it?"


"Sexology. I don’t believe there is such a thing."


"Are you a virgin?"


"Yes I am," she said.


The defiant admission made her flush. She had never told anyone this before. Yet she did not regret the confession: She enjoyed its recklessness. She had told the truth as if it didn’t matter.


The Algerian merely nodded his head in a professional manner.


"Have you a boyfriend?"


"Go away."


"It is best," he said pleasantly, "that the first time be with someone who understands the necessary gentleness and is also very expert."


"The first time will be with someone I love."


The Algerian’s shrug was nearly Gallic. "Why begin love with anxiety and frustration?"


"Where I come from, people look for romance. You don’t study that, do you?"


"On the contrary — "


"If you don’t go I’m calling the police. There’s a guard over there. Are your residency papers in order?"


Nula was looking directly into the Algerian’s face as she said this, but she missed the moment his expression changed. He still wore a smile, but his face had hardened around it, leaving his smile not too far from a grimace. The transformation revealed that he was hardly older than she was. The ridiculous cap on his head now looked like something he had to wear because he didn’t own another. The youth started to speak — a retort, a challenge, something fierce — but he interrupted himself to say, "I’m very regretful to have made a disturbance."


He abruptly turned, passed through the door into the museum, and disappeared around an exhibit devoted to venereal disease.


The au pair strolled alone through the labyrinth of hedges and abstract statuary. She was angry at herself and embarrassed by her shrillness. She wished she hadn’t made the remark about the Algerian’s residence permit. There were many people in Paris who didn’t have the proper papers, yet had nowhere else to go. And in the end, the Algerian had been harmless, even flattering. When was the last time (she imagined Madame Reynourd asking her) a man had courted her with such persistence? Of course, she had no choice but to ask him to leave (she imagined telling Elizabeth), but (she admitted) she needn’t have been unkind.


Nula turned a corner and found Marie and Melanie studying a statue, smiles of delight and discovery playing on their faces. This cheered her. No matter what ugliness and corruption there was in this world, Paris’s beauty was fair compensation. She stepped beside the girls, gently running a hand through Melanie’s long hair, and examined the unusual, centaurlike mass of bronze. Itsuddenly resolved: a man behind a woman, both on their knees, his hands firmly gripping her hips.


"It’s bad!" she cried, pulling the girls away. "Bad! We’re leaving now!"


Nula raced Marie and Melanie, momentarily silenced by her vehemence, down one lane and then another, past a dozen statues that only now were recognizable. Nearly every one showed a man and woman in some position of copulation-and those that didn’t, well they were much worse. Prière de ne pas laisser de détritus, no littering, warned a sign along one path, and under the warning was the legend, Musée de I’Histoire Naturelle: Jardin de la Sexualité. "Don’t look," Nula shrieked as they passed a grouping of marble figures demonstrating several forms of oral sex.


As soon as they reached the street, Nula furiously cleaned the girls’ ice cream-smeared hands and faces with the premoistened towelettes she always carried in her purse.


"You’re hurting me," Marie whined.


"Being clean doesn’t hurt."


"The woman was drinking the man’s pee-pee," Melanie said.


Her sister started to explain, but Nula shouted, "Shut your mouth!"

Marie replied with an obscenity.


Someone called from across the street. "Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle!" Nula, still on her haunches, didn’t need to look up.


"Bloody hell,"she muttered.


"Mademoiselle," the Algerian called again, dodging traffic. He approached, breathing hard.


"Accept my apology please for such misunderstanding that I made."


He thrust a bouquet in her face.


Stunned, Nula rose and took the flowers, a clutch of white lilies, yellow peonies, tulips, and a single sunflower, wrapped in newspaper.


The Algerian said, "I too look for romance."


Nula kept her lips pressed together, maintaining her expression of annoyance.


"I want that you should see," the man added. He removed a black vinyl wallet from his jeans. In it was his carte de séjour, his resident permit. On the card, under his long, unpronounceable family name and his twentieth arrondissement address, was a line reserved for his profession: étudiant.


"I have right in Paris like you," he told her. There was less rancor in this statement than pride. Nula had come to France on the ferry from Rosslare; his journey had been much more difficult.


"So you do," she said evenly.


Marie and Melanie stared at the Algerian and then at the flowers. Marie sniffed at the bouquet. "They’re nice," she mumbled, dazed by his gallantry.


"Well then. I now say farewell ladies. Farewell."


The Algerian, or perhaps he was a Libyan or even a Tunisian, bowed and straightened, then turned on the heels of his Adidas and hurried down the street. He didn’t look back before he vanished around the corner. "Men like that," Nula began to tell the girls, but she didn’t complete the sentence. She really didn’t know men like that at all.


By the time they reached home, by way of a crowded, overheated train, Nula, Marie, and Melanie were exhausted. Madame Reynourd met them in the flat’s foyer and asked if they enjoyed the museum. Marie said it was boring, and she and her sister trudged off to their bedroom unbuttoning their school uniforms.


"And how was your afternoon?" Elizabeth asked Nula.


"Marvelous," Nula said.


It was then that Elizabeth noticed the flowers, still in Nula’s hands, unwilted and fragrant despite the crush of the metro. Elizabeth raised her eyebrows in an expression of curious amusement. But Nula, surprised by her own reply, didn’t wish to answer any more questions. She pushed past her, hurriedly explaining, "I must put these in some water."


Nula found a blue cut glass vase in the kitchen cabinet and ran the tap. She removed the cellotape and unfurled the newspaper. As the flowers shifted, an object fell from between their stalks and onto the tiled floor. It was a key chain, without keys, and attached to it was a small tag with a phone number written on it in a very tight, careful print, and a charm: an anatomically correct, dusky plastic phallus.


Nula put her hands to her chest and shrieked, and she was sure the shriek reached every flat in the building, and into the concierge’s office, and onto the street, frightening passersby and perhaps even stopping traffic. But when Madame Reynourd came into the kitchen, it was with an unalarmed step and, when she saw what lay on the floor, it raised a soft, pleased smile.