Images courtesy of the author.
Oxford was rainy and gray that winter. I was never not cold. Everywhere I looked there were shivering students. They crowded into pubs or wandered across medieval courtyards with their heads down. The “headbangers” looked cold too, tough boys in thick leathers who loitered near the bus station and the shopping mall where the frazzled cold students went to score drugs.
I bought a used mohair scarf at an Oxfam shop to wear with my astrakhan coat. I wore that coat everywhere. It was too big for me and weighed a ton. The shoulders were sculpted and padded, and the collar fastened with a small metal clasp. I was sure the coat had once been very elegant, but now it was bald around the edges of the sleeves, which made it look gray and old and sad. I fixed the bald edges by daubing them with India ink. The touch-up job looked pretty good, I thought.
Simonette didn’t seem to mind the cold. I told myself this was because she was English. She was impervious to wind and rain, intrepid in her wool cardigans, tweed hat, and green oilskin cape. She took me around Oxford in any weather, and introduced me to its architecture, pubs, and thrift shops. Simonette was the oldest of my older friends and the most irreverent of them. Not a prude. One time on a walk I watched her slide her hand over the back of a woman’s head, a total stranger sitting at an outdoor cafe. Her fingers searched the sculpted purple coif before she gave a little tug and sped away. “I was curious about the texture,” she told me later.
Simonette and I gravitated to the same kinds of things. Art and books, abandoned churches, burial mounds, secondhand anything, long walks, beer. We agreed about the dual threat of organized religion and organized play. Simonette bemoaned the fate of a mutual friend we believed had been sucked into a cult. “He used to light up a room,” she said, “but I’m afraid he’s become rather tedious.”
Hers was a beautiful house, tall and pale, standing on a crescent that overlooked an oval park. It was comfortably untidy, brimming with books and art. Like most buildings in Oxford it was drafty and cold except for the kitchen. After dinner, Simonette would send me upstairs with a hot water bottle wrapped in a woolen cozy so it wouldn’t scald me. Each night I would lie in the narrow bed and confront a painting of a spiky red cactus flower that seemed to reproach me for so many things.
The day after I arrived, Simonette took me by the arm and walked me around her house floor by floor, pausing now and then in front of a drawing or painting hanging between her bookshelves. Each painting had a backstory. The stories were slight, quirky like the paintings, which were mostly flowers in vases, seashells, and the odd seascape. The painting of the cactus flower was by the English painter Dora Carrington who was part of the Bloomsbury Group. There was an oil of a clunky yellow flower by an artist named Simon-Albert Bussy, also part of the Bloomsbury Group even though he was French. My favorite was a still life that reminded me of Matisse by a woman named Frances Hodgkins. She was from New Zealand but lived in England and died in Dorset.
Simonette scheduled an appointment at the Ashmolean Museum so we could have a private look at the Turner and Constable drawings. They were kept in drawers in a special room. We hardly spoke, just sat there in that wood-paneled room, adrenalized, our white-gloved hands poised tentatively over the ancient paper. I tried to absorb “line” and what I thought to be a swashbuckling movement in the clouds. Afterwards, we visited her favorite pub for Ploughman’s lunch and talked about the ozone layer. I liked Stilton and Branston Pickle more than anything. We finished our pints of bitter and wobbled back to her house to take naps.
Simonette took me to a chamber music concert at Holywell; another time we attended a reading. If Simonette came away unimpressed she would say so. Back at her house, we would make spaghetti or sometimes ravioli, and watercress salad with freshly grated Parmesan and chunks of dry baguette because one person living alone, or even two, could never finish a baguette before it went stale. We ate, warmed by the stove in her subterranean kitchen, and drank wine, a Tuscan red she favored. After dinner, we retired upstairs to her living room and read. I confided in her about not knowing what I should do next, and she told me stories about her past. Marriage to a much older man, whom she loved. A secret illegal abortion. Her decision to live alone despite having taken on, as a septuagenarian, a much younger man for her lover. He was a violinist. I didn’t realize till much later it was his concert we’d attended.
We took the train to attend a dinner party in London. I had nothing to wear, as usual, and spent an afternoon rifling through thrift stores until I found a little black dress that fit. The party was to celebrate the publication of her oldest friend’s recent novel. Simonette didn’t want to go, she disliked anything “posh” and most of the people who would be there, but she felt obligated. We took a taxi from Paddington to a caramel-colored townhouse in Belgravia, where two handsome men greeted us at the door and took our coats. Inside, lots of people were standing around chain-smoking and drinking, an elegant woman with a whippet that looked just like her, and an older woman with a loud laugh who looked a lot like Hermione Gingold. Simonette’s friend, the man whose novel was being celebrated, looked haggard and drawn. He disappeared at one point and returned refreshed, having apparently (according to Simonette) snorted a line in the powder room.
Eventually, we were led from the smoke-filled drawing room to a long, lavishly set table. Metallic helium balloons lolled above us trapped by the ceiling. Servers poured white wine, then red, followed by a succession of courses, some of them tiny, unrecognizable: a bitter ceviche served in a single endive leaf, a coral-colored soup that tasted vaguely of cheese. There were braised kidneys that had been soaked for a fortnight, someone joked, in Guinness. For the first time in my life I had to confront the possibility that I didn’t know which fork or spoon to use, or when.
Much of the talk revolved around an acid-tipped review of a book by someone everyone loathed. Many of the guests were writers, and one was a television producer. Several were well known beyond that dinner party claque, but I had never heard of them. They seemed to have known each other all their lives, and clearly a few had been married to each other at some point and were now married to other people, all of them at that party.
Between courses, a woman turned to me with a quizzical look and asked about my surname. She was puzzled by it, she said. The room quieted, all heads turned towards me. Perhaps they wondered how this American could possibly be a Garnett. I told them the family story, how upon arriving in America my Jewish Russian great-grandfather opened a copy of Crime and Punishment and chose the translator’s name for his own. I always thought it was a cool story, but it landed with a thud.
One gray day, Simonette thought it perfect weather for a jaunt in her favorite cemetery. We entered a fallow enclosure dotted with ancient headstones and surrounded by abandoned brick buildings. The cemetery had been created for workers at the adjacent Victorian ironworks factory, and before that it had been a farm. Simonette came often and never saw anyone else, and wondered how long the place would remain her secret. We picked our way past mossy headstones, some of them broken. It was moist, beautiful and sad. I’d brought my small camera loaded with black and white film, and shot photos of the overgrown hedges, trees, and buildings. I stealthily snapped one of Simonette, even though I knew she didn’t like to be photographed, thinking she wouldn’t notice or that if she did, she wouldn’t mind. She did mind. I caught her ear and part of her face in profile as she moved out of the frame. She gave me a hard look and I felt ashamed. It was the only time she ever showed annoyance. It’s the only photo I have of her.
Not wanting to exhaust Simonette’s hospitality, I moved into an unheated room in a friend of a friend’s “council housing” flat. His name was Brian. He was soft-spoken and had pale translucent skin like a vampire. Brian worked as a teacher’s assistant at one of the colleges and sublet rooms to his friends, most of them poor students.
“Earl Grey or Assam?” Brian was always asking. Tea was how you stayed warm. There were about five of us living in the flat and sometimes Brian threw together meals for us, usually noodle soup from a package. He always had a bottle of cheap wine on hand or beer in bottles, and as we ate he would talk about the books he was reading. I wondered why Brian was working as a staffer and not “at Oxford” working on a thesis of his own.
Years later in New York, I learned that Brian was the wealthy scion of a family that invented some kind of instant powdered vitamin drink popular in English boarding schools. I was having lunch with my friend Kate in a diner on the Upper East Side. She’d been dating Brian back when we were all living in Oxford.
“Brian was a billionaire the whole time,” said Kate, batting her enormous blue eyes as she dragged greasy French fries through the smear of catsup on her plate.
“He had to pretend to be poor because he was lonely,” she said, as though this explained everything.
Kate eventually left Brian. She couldn’t put up with all the sad, threadbare poverty, the endless drinking of tea and peeing in the unheated loo in his council flat.
Before long, I discovered that buses between Oxford and London were cheaper than trains and ran more frequently. I could leave in the morning and get back the same day. Arriving in London early, I’d walk for hours and take advantage of museums that didn’t charge admission fees. I brought a little sketchbook for making drawings. At the Royal Academy, I sketched Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas until my back and feet were sore and I could no longer stand. The painting was on loan from the Archbishop's Palace in Kroměříž, Czechoslovakia for “The Genius of Venice” exhibition. All of London was transfixed by it. The wall label informed me it was one of Titian’s major late paintings, based on a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the painting, as in the story, Marsyas hangs upside down from a tree while Apollo meticulously flays him alive with a small knife. The satyr had challenged the god to a musical contest and lost. A small spaniel laps up a puddle of blood in the foreground and another satyr who looks like the devil is on hand with a bucket. In the background, someone plays the violin. The expression on Marsyas’s face, even upside down, is indescribable.
I was feeling it might be time to leave Oxford when a letter came from a friend offering me her empty apartment in Paris rent-free. It was in the Marais, not far from Place de la République and the Marché des Enfants Rouges. I bought a one-way Sealink ticket back to Paris. Again I crossed the English Channel at night on the “the vomit ferry,” standing on the top deck in the rain and spray to avoid seasickness and the beer-swilling boys below. I was thankful for my astrakhan coat, which blocked the wind and rain. The next morning, my wrists were stained from the inked edges of my sleeves that had bled. I tried washing them with soap and water in the station washroom, but India ink doesn’t wash off that easily. I shoved my hands deep into my pockets to hide them.
It hardly mattered. The Paris I arrived in was gritty, pre-gentrified, the Marais sooty and peeling and rotting away. Ancient walls of the Huguenots sported traces of political graffiti of the past decade, and sky-lit arcades were derelict and empty. There were as yet no boutiques selling designer clothing for toddlers, no Mariage Frères tearoom on the rue du Bourg-Tibourg, and the Musée Picasso had yet to be conceived of. People sat in cafés for hours reading newspapers and the ink came off on their hands, so I relaxed about my stained wrists.
I wandered Paris in a daze. The first lessons I learned were about shit and food and garbage. Public toilets were nearly always à la turque with pull cords and water that flushed over your shoes and your handbag before you could escape. The lights were on timers, never on long enough for you to finish, the switch impossible to reach from a squatting position. Everywhere, the city overflowed with recyclable bottle depositories that the Ville de Paris never bothered to empty. I noticed odd flourishes that I supposed were invented for tourists, like the theater of street sweepers, all young men from former French colonies in West Africa. They wore uniforms with gold buttons and wielded ineffectual plastic brooms. The brooms were intended as replicas of turn-of-the-century bristle brooms, and left a trail of soggy gum wrappers and cigarette butts that swelled with water and clogged the gutters.
I didn’t understand kilograms and made the faux pas of buying a too-large wedge of pâté from a man who cut it from a large round with a thin wire. He scowled at me when I balked, first at the size of the wedge and then at the price. Soon, I discovered the cheap little rounds of French pizza available at bakeries, adorned with anchovies curled around their niçoise olives like salty eyebrows. I stuffed myself with baguette and the hard-boiled eggs that sat in little holders on the counter of every bar until late afternoon. For dinner I ate avocados with a spoon accompanied by a cup of broth—cubes of chicken bouillon I dissolved in hot water from my kettle. When I was really hungry, I splurged on half a roasted chicken. The butcher would pull one off a spit, chop it in half length-wise with a cleaver and slide it into a foil-lined bag. I’d eat the entire thing in one sitting, with my hands.
After about a month or so, I pulled myself together and applied to the École des beaux-arts. On the morning of the entrance exam, I followed the other nervous-looking students across the cobblestone courtyard towards an imposing building with columns. We walked past discarded plaster figures and heads scattered on the ground, copies of Roman marbles and busts left behind by former students. Inside, the amphitheater felt like a time capsule, although which era was encapsulated I found hard to say. The walls were hung with immense allegorical canvases in need of repair. Everything seemed bathed in dust and the golden light of some indistinct former grandeur.
I pushed my way through the prospective students who were already jammed inside, climbed the canted seating and waited. Assistants had set up still lifes on a central platform, and several life models stood smoking in their bathrobes. After seemingly endless clerical activity in which names were checked off lists, we were each given an easel with a giant pad of paper and a little box with wands of charcoal. There was a set number of life drawing and still-life assignments, each timed, all to be completed in unison. A man with a timer paced back and forth while we drew. Afterwards, we milled around while we waited to present our portfolios. I presented mine to a milquetoast man who frowned as he flipped through my drawings. He made a notation in a ledger and handed me a slip of paper assigning me to a specific atelier. I must report there when the doors opened in a few weeks, he said.
I was in, I realized all of a sudden. Elated, I walked home. It was raining and the yellow leaves that clogged the path in the park seemed bright and ebullient. Everything in the world was suddenly good. Even the rain felt delicious on my face. I must never leave here ever, I thought.
My neighborhood was full of laundries and bakeries and wholesalers. Narrow storefronts sold leather and fabric in bulk, their windows festooned with faded draperies and displays of colored buttons. Old men hawked their wares on the street in the early morning hours, time-travelers from another century. The knife sharpener made house calls, and a window glazier carried panes of glass in a wooden contraption like a backpack. Around the corner on rue de Bretagne, the markets lit up like Christmas right before dusk. Gleaming tile-lined shops proffered fantastic arrays of cheeses and artisanal yogurts in tiny clay pots, and things I had never seen before like les oeufs en gélée encased in cognac-colored aspic dotted with green peppercorns. I encountered blood sausage for the first time, black boudin and puce-colored boudin blanc. A bristling wild boar hung upside down outside a butcher shop, blood dripping from its snout into a cup. I could only think of Marsyas.
My little street was quiet save for a few dark bars where men smoked and drank cloudy glasses of Ricard starting from late morning. Directly across from my building was a bakery. It was no bigger than a narrow vestibule with room for one or two customers. Like the glazier and the knife sharpener, it seemed to exist entirely by dint of time travel. Inside, the bakery was dark. The proprietress, a withered lady with a head of white curls, stood behind the counter wearing what looked like a nightgown. Her cataracts glowed, and her skin was powdery like flour-dusted bread. The bakery offered only a few items: a rustic sourdough ficelle, skinnier and tougher than a baguette, a croissant nature baked with lard, les chaussons aux pommes, and clafouti cut into squares and embedded with mirabelles. The custard was rubbery, but the plums were good.
Transactions with the flour-complexioned lady were prolonged and bizarre, and I soon realized she was deaf. She would talk loudly at me, exact my few francs, and send me packing with whatever bread or pastry she decided I should buy.
“A pungent stench like rotting leaves emanated from the apartment next door.”
My apartment was on the top floor at the end of a winding stair that got narrower toward the top. It was paved with octagonal terracotta tiles, many of which were loose, and slats of wood worn down by centuries of feet. There was a shared W.C. on every floor. The doors and banisters were all painted the same dark, shiny brownish orange and the door handles were chrome, matching the décor of local cafes. Lights on a timer went off long before I reached my door, and I would be lost in the dark corridor fumbling for my key.
A pungent stench like rotting leaves emanated from the apartment next door. Other than the concierge on the ground floor, we were the only two tenants who lived in the building, which catered to sweatshops that ran from early morning and closed at night. I looked closely at the handwritten name on my neighbor’s door. It was written in a looping, decorative script from a distant and perhaps more careful era: M. Hubler. Another time traveler, I thought.
My apartment was filled with light from the tall double windows that opened onto the courtyard. There was a minute bathroom with a bathtub just large enough to crouch in. The wallpaper, which had once been blue, was brown and rank and peeling in places. My bed was an old mattress on the floor, folded lengthwise to form a couch and covered with an old blanket. The clunky phone had an extra listening device—the French answer to eavesdropping—but the service had been disconnected. There was a box on the wall with circuit breakers that I fiddled around with during blackouts. The apartment had no fridge. When milk curdled, I would hang it in a cheesecloth bag over the sink in naive attempts to make fromage blanc.
Leery of the unclean, shared toilet situation on the top floor, I made a habit of leaving the apartment first thing in the morning and going to the small café on the rue Beranger. There, I’d warm myself, order coffee, and count to ten before getting up to use their W.C., which was white and spotless and had a toilet with a seat. The café seemed different from other cafes. There was no orange-brown paint, no chrome door handles from the seventies. It specialized in dried fruits, marrons glacées, ice cream, cakes and chocolates, an array of which was displayed in the window. Small triangular wooden tables were arranged in the center of the room with wicker-backed chairs. There were none of the usual male waiters, only young waitresses who wore pink uniforms with white aprons and little lace caps. The young waitresses scurried around taking directions from older women positioned behind the counter who ran the place like a military encampment.
On my first night I was awakened by a furious, disembodied voice coming through the wall.
“Les police!” said the voice. I froze. My apartment-sitting deal was offered with the caveat that I be discreet. I was a guest, not a subletter, and I should avoid prolonged contact with the concierge or anyone else.
I shivered. The voice repeated the same phrases over and over, and soon I realized my neighbor’s anger was not directed at me, but at some incident that involved a valise filled with 17 thousand francs.
“La valise! Mon argent! Donne-moi!” Monsieur Hubler cried plaintively through the night.
Paris was much colder than I expected. I got sick. I visited a French pharmacy where they sold me a box of suppositories and a vial of tablets to dissolve in water until they stopped fizzing. For days I pushed suppositories up my ass while swilling orange-flavored water. I rubbed eucalyptus ointment on my chest and in my nostrils, but nothing seemed to unclog me. I wrapped myself in my coat under all the blankets, alternately shivering and sweating. I tried to read but mostly slept. I stopped caring about the voice that came through the wall at night. After my fever broke, I ventured outside. In the days since I’d been bedridden, the weather had turned colder. There was frost on the fallen leaves and I could see my breath. I took to wearing my astrakhan coat all the time, indoors as well as outdoors. I wore it while brushing my teeth and while doing the dishes. I continued to wear it to bed. In a few months the Seine would freeze, ice floes bobbing in the black water. Later I learned that winter in Paris was the coldest winter in memory, a record-breaker.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances that led to meeting Monsieur Hubler. Our first encounter took place in his doorway and I had to find a way to cut it short because I could not stand the smell. He was tiny, possibly five inches shorter than me, his long greasy hair parted neatly on one side and draped behind his ears. His face was pointy like a vole’s, and he had a large dark mole to the left of his nose above his lip. Oddly, he was clean-shaven. He seemed old, but how old I could not say. His skin had a bluish cast. His legs were not fully functional, and he moved in and out, and down the hall and all those stairs on his hospital crutches. I sometimes saw him making his way slowly and laboriously to a bench in Square du Temple. He never appeared to recognize me in public, even when I greeted him.
I could smell Monsieur Hubler coming at a distance. He emitted an extraordinary array of odors shocking in their complexity and difficult to identify. There was a wet leaves element, and something like a lead pencil smell. While I didn’t understand much of what he said, I found him compelling. It was important to him that I listen to what he needed to say, and this became the basis of our friendship. Les police, la valise, mon argent, gendarmerie, merde. His voice raised, he would spin out the threads of the evil conspiracy waged against him, the theft (by the police?) of his valise stuffed with old francs, French currency from the previous era. The era from which he had time-traveled. I imagined a greasy leather suitcase bursting with rancid bills. I didn’t know the history of currency reform and inflation, but I knew the nouveau franc had supplanted the old franc, and since one new franc was worth 100 old francs, 17 thousand old francs wasn’t all that much.
Monsieur Hubler asked me if he could borrow 200 francs, which was a lot for me to part with. I couldn’t refuse him even though I thought I’d never see the money again, but I was mistaken. A week passed and Monsieur Hubler knocked on my door. There he stood on his crutches waving a 200 franc note at me.
My savings were slowly dwindling. I decided to take a chance and likewise borrow some small amount of cash from Monsieur Hubler until my dad could wire me some. I wondered if he remembered the favor and if he would respond in kind. It was only part desperation, I told myself, and part social experiment. I waited in the hallway while Monsieur Hubler disappeared into the gloom of his apartment. The door was ajar and I could make out objects and furniture in the dim light. Mattresses and box springs stacked against the back wall. Tables positioned end-to-end and covered with opened cans and bowls that appeared to be full of liquid. The constant sound of faucets running. Everything looked and felt orange-brown, like the paint in the corridor, but covered in an additional layer of grime. The stench was overpowering. He returned and presented me with a filthy bill. It was twice what I had asked for.
I invited Monsieur Hubler into my apartment for a drink. I was an aspiring art student after all, and I thought he might agree to sit for his portrait. I sat him in a straight-back chair while I sat on a high stool with my pad and pencil. I offered him a glass of red wine, which he greedily accepted. His hands were gnarled with arthritis. I realized how small he was as he sat in my chair. His hair was freshly combed and he shook all over with a kind of palsy, more evident now that he was sitting and not talking. Somehow the ranting channeled his shaking and gave it direction. We both fell silent as he drank and I sketched. The sun slanted in through the window. I almost stopped minding the smell.
After I started at the École des beaux-arts I was home less often and saw less of Monsieur Hubler. One evening I came home to find he had flooded his apartment. The smell met me at the bottom of the staircase. According to the long-suffering concierge, Monsieur Hubler had been hustled off to a state-run facility and she had his door fitted with a new lock and key. It was the first time I’d seen her smile, and she seemed thrilled by this turn of events. After the floodwaters receded, a band of men in white HAZMAT suits, helmets with visors, and gas masks arrived. They brought industrial wet-vacs and spent days suctioning out the ruined apartment. I saw them enter the courtyard from my window every morning. It was a scene from The Andromeda Strain set in 17th-century Paris. After the fifth day, they stopped coming.
The atelier I was assigned at the beaux-arts had high ceilings with skylights. Someone said it had been the atelier of Gustave Moreau back when he used to teach there, and I thought they were joking but it turned out to be true. High above our heads was a catwalk and racks full of old canvases. At floor level along one wall was a trough-like sink encased in decades if not a century’s worth of oil paint and turpentine, a gray-blue sludge that denoted ongoing serious business. My cohort of students included two young Frenchmen, a handful of students from Greece, two Japanese, a German, a Hungarian, an Austrian who was half Canadian, an Australian, and a Swiss kid about the same age as my younger brother who became my best friend. His name was Mathias. The professor was an Italian from Bologna, and he communicated to us in his bad French, the one language we all spoke. He was a short little man with a large head of silvery hair and bulging blue eyes. We called him Monsieur C.
Monsieur C would arrive punctually at noon on Thursdays. He dragged with him his assistant, Pierre, a middle-aged Frenchman who walked behind him taking notes, presumably about our progress or lack of it. I recognized him, the balding milquetoast who had assigned me to the atelier the day of the entrance exam. The two would appear and we would stop whatever we were doing and gather around to listen to Monsieur C. He usually spoke about something he called l’analyse, the ability to observe acquired through attrition. The power to distinguish all the subtle discrepancies of tone and light, and possibly something like meaning. Monsieur C would inspect our work from the prior week, our works-in-progress perched on easels, all done from still lifes we had each set up in our cubbyholes. He walked with one hand behind his back in a kind of reverse Napoleonic gesture. We followed him like children as he made the rounds. Holding our breath, we waited for him to pass judgment. He seldom approved of anything. He would mutter in Italian before letting loose in French. If he did like something, he would say something dramatic and move on—Vous avez un regard juste, mademoiselle, comme une lame de razoir. Apparently I had an eye like a razor. If he really didn’t like something he would dwell on it until he made someone cry. I remember the German girl crying, she whose obstinate realism was unforgiving, and who otherwise seemed so impervious and cool. He took great pleasure in railing at us about our lack of technical acuity, but mostly it was about where we aimed or failed to put our attention. He exhorted us to leave unfinished those portions of our canvases we weren’t motivated by. We had to ask ourselves what we really cared about. La peinture, ce n’est pas le devoir, he would say. Painting is not homework. He would continue in this vein, quoting Moravia, Calvino, Eco, and Merleau-Ponty, his one concession to French thinking. He called them “mes amis.”
On rare occasions, Monsieur C would talk about himself. About how the outside world was dangerous and how he had dodged death all his life. He described his student days during the war. An image emerged of a hungry young art student working in unheated dilapidated buildings in Bologna during the bombardments. Monsieur C’s father was a Bolshevik, he said, a Sunday painter who taught him the basics. Another time, he divulged that he had grown up under enormous pressure to succeed as an artist, that his middle given names were Raffaello Tiziano. Each week we uncovered a new puzzle piece about Monsieur C, but he remained distant, a figure of authority who nevertheless solicited our sympathies. He had to be at the center of everything, and yet he never came fully into view.
In the evenings, a small faction of us would gather at a dingy café around the corner on the Seine. We liked it for its griminess, the fact that we could dance if we wanted, spread out and be raucous like children from a Godard film. It was while blowing off steam in that cafe that we began to mimic Monsieur C. We trilled our r’s to imitate his thick Italian accent. “Ce n’est pas la peintoorr,” someone would say, “c’est une omelette!”
A rift emerged between those who admired Monsieur C and those who mocked him. The Japanese students, particularly Tadashi, who mixed his own egg tempera, adhered religiously to Monsieur C’s prescriptives. The Greek contingent was also loyal, although they did the best job of mimicking him. I had the impression there was some kind of Mediterranean power alliance among them. One day, when one of the Greeks accidentally let fly his expectation of a teaching job the following year in Modena, I realized my suspicions had been correct. Dietrich the Austrian, and Emmie, the Australian, both started to emulate Monsieur C’s palette, which was overwhelmingly candy-colored and relied heavily on turquoises and pinks, lavenders and purples, peachy corals and diluted yellows. Mathias and I hated this palette and cleaved more than ever to dark hues. Our work trumpeted a rejection of pastels. I bought a large tube of oil paint called Asphaltum bitumen, a tar-like color akin to the substance used to pave streets. I liked its dark and yet transparent qualities. I knew from the store chart it was not the most lightfast of paints, and that it could seep up from lower layers to upper layers to make the painting look dirty.
One day during the weekly critique, Monsieur C announced that my work reminded him of Gooloob.
“Gooloob?” I looked at him, not understanding the word.
“Oui, Leon Gooloob. Vous avez encore quelque chose comme lui...”
His comparison was to the American painter Leon Golub who had lived for a time in Paris. Monsieur C exhorted me to find some Golub paintings to look at, but he couldn’t say why, exactly. That evening, I went straight to the great art book store La Hune and found several books with Golub’s paintings. If there was an affinity I couldn’t find it. I remained entranced by the tidy and discreet beauty of Ste. Ives and the Bloomsbury painters I’d encountered on Simonette’s walls. I wondered what it was about my work that reminded Monsieur C of Golub. One answer kept rising to the surface that made me see Monsieur C in light of his wartime experiences. He thought of us both as New York Jews.
Meanwhile, other dramas were unfolding. Suzanne, the tiny German girl Monsieur C made cry, was having an affair with Janos, the giant Hungarian. No one liked Janos because he was belligerent and unkind, and perhaps also because he was more talented than the rest of us, at least in terms of handling glazes and so forth. Even Tadashi, who mixed his own egg tempera and applied it with fine camelhair brushes in attempts to capture the nearly invisible strands of light that strafed the studio wall at twilight, could not deny the talents of Janos.
Mathias, my young Swiss friend, was the only real competition to Janos in terms of draftsmanship. He liked to rub Janos’s nose in the fact that as a child in Kusnacht his painting mentor had been a rather famous Hungarian emigré who taught him all the tricks. Mathias could draw circles around us during life drawing sessions, but preferred to distort his subjects into monsters. He despised what he regarded as Janos’s “copyism” and called him vendeur de tapis behind his back—rug salesman.
One morning, we arrived at the atelier to find Suzanne and Janos in the middle of a knockdown drag-out fight. They’d spent the night together in the studio and it had not ended well. Janos, who was built like an ox and towered above us all, had pushed the feisty but diminutive Suzanne onto the floor and was dragging her by her foot through a slurry of oil paint. As soon as we pulled him off her she went for his face with a palette knife, screaming invective in German. I noticed Janos was bleeding from one ear. We kept them apart. Someone, maybe Dietrich, took Janos outside for a walk while Emmie comforted Suzanne. We had known for a while about their nights in the atelier, since Janos was married and had a small son, and Suzanne lived in a cramped apartment with roommates. We were all relieved it was over.
By the time spring rolled around we no longer felt scared of Monsieur C. He must have sensed it because he ratcheted up the level of critique. We were all worthless, as far as he could see, except for Tadashi, who was finally getting somewhere with his nearly indistinguishable strands of strafed light, and the Greeks, who were constantly ingratiating themselves. Meanwhile, I had found my stride and a palette all my own where one or two bright colors were heightened by expanses of pale muted grays, beach glass greens and off-whites. Perhaps I was channeling Dora Carrington’s spiky red cactus flower. I produced a number of canvases fairly skillfully, and with a new element. I was in love, I found, with something I was doing with paint. It was hard to explain, and when Monsieur C made the rounds and stopped in front of me, I could see his wheels turning. I knew he would say there was something off about them, that they had more to do with machinations inside my head than with an analysis of le visible. I waited for him to humiliate me as he had done to the three students preceding me. I could see pronouncements forming as his face reddened, his Napoleonic extremity—his painting hand—curling behind his back in a longstanding tic of suppressed rage.
“C’est quoi, ça?”
I could feel my own anger spreading like hot chocolate down from the nape of my neck. I said nothing.
Monsieur C leaned closer to the patch of gray, the sea foam that I knew was right, the angle under the jar where the afternoon light spilled and refracted, the increments of paleness that were half made-up. They expressed something real, though I wasn’t sure what. He straightened. I could see his confusion about this turn of events, why to him it must have appeared out of context, outside of all that we’d been doing. What he saw there was all mine. I no longer needed him.
“Vous n’avez pas utiliser l’analyse, vous avez fait la poubelle....!” he shrieked.
Suddenly, I saw a resemblance to my friend Monsieur Hubler. I understood something else too, though I hadn’t yet found the words. It was just a feeling. I know now that I’d found the edge of something—my “posizione ontologica,” as Monsieur C might have called it—my place in the cosmos of painting. I had yet to fully understand it, but I would operate from that place of knowing for the next thirty-five years. I was a painter, finally, and a contrarian born in that obstinate moment in a state of resistance. Resistance to what? Theory was part of it. I resisted a worldview that had once been avant garde, the musings of old men who had lost everything and wanted back in. I wanted in too. I had never been in. I wanted in, but not if I had to fit into a subset of painting that had already been exhausted. I wanted in on my terms. I wanted in, to be in charge of what I wanted. I couldn’t explain it. Suddenly, I knew what I wanted.
For our final projects we were supposed to follow some sort of assignment, I forget what. Mathias and I were irritable. We were done with Monsieur C and his pronouncements, we were done with Janos the tapis and his boorish misogyny, we were done with the sycophantic Greeks, and even with poor masochistic Suzanne. It was spring in Paris. We wanted to be free.
I took up my oils and glazes, the tube of Asphaltum bitumen, some Payne’s gray, a multitude of sienna and umber, and Titanium white for the glint. I positioned a cheap mirror I had found in the corner of the atelier. When I was finished, I packed up my tubes and brushes, and anything personal I wanted to keep. The self-portrait was firm, not haughty. It looked straight at the viewer with a certain calm that could be interpreted as cockiness. The face was brightly lit on one side, emerging from the deepest shadow, the hand poised and holding a small paintbrush.
Later, Mathias and I stood in our favorite bar drinking to the end of that year. He described what had happened in that final review. Monsieur C had looked for me, and when I was nowhere to be found he began to ask the other students. Where is mademoiselle? And then he turned to the only thing I had left behind, the answer to all of his questions, or at least some of them. My self-portrait on the easel.
“Il avait l’air tout-a-fait écrasé,” said Mathias.
He was totally crushed.