Excerpt from Book 1: Robert Desnos

            There were voices outside and someone pounded on the door. Desnos answered it and let in a group of five or so friends. Before any introductions could begin more people walked right in, so he left the door open to the warm night air. Some of the people I recognized from the theatre this evening, but most were complete strangers. There was only the one smoking lamp on the table to shed its weak beams, so people began lighting the candles that were sitting on a nearby shelf, walking with them and dripping their wax onto the floor to stick them in. This resulted in more shadows being flung across the walls, covering our elongated motionless ghosts with grey animated ones.

I watched in alarm as thin skirts swirled near the flames of the candles on the floor, but no one else seemed to care. In the flickering light the heavily painted faces of the women, and of some of the men, loomed exaggerated and pale, their eyes sunken, their expressions bored. Among them Robert Desnos walked with his casual humor, drawing them out, making them laugh and encouraging them to talk to each other. He had a self-depreciating manner that set one immediately at ease, and it won out over their superior airs. He was naturally friendly and obviously everyone liked him, and I realized that I liked him, too.

            Soon the place was packed with young people talking and laughing, standing about, sitting on the floor, and stepping out of the upper windows in the loft to dangle their legs from the roof. One particular group of men sat apart from the others, near the ancient wood stove, very intent upon their own intense discussion. “More Surrealists—of the peasant stock,” Louis muttered as he jerked his chin toward them, and exchanged a knowing glance with Artaud.

            “Now, now,” Desnos admonished Louis humorously. “Let’s all get along.”

            “Who are they?” I asked again, forcefully so that I would get an answer this time. Desnos at least would tell me, of that I was certain. “Who exactly are these Surrealists? They sound like a political faction to me.”

            “Sh! Keep your voice down!” Roger waved my words off and glanced over at that group, but he sounded amused, not alarmed. “You’re too tanked to protect yourself if you insult them and start a brawl here.”

            “I am not tanked!” I returned indignantly, and Justine smiled down at my empty glass. With a flourish, Roger filled it again for me. “Why don’t you just answer my question? Tell me who they are. Are they a religious sect?”

            At this Justine, Roger, and Louis all burst out laughing. Artaud flicked his cigarette ash into a saucer and contemplated me with a look of sidelong contempt. I was suddenly seized by an urge to reach out and give his collar a challenging yank. “Well, we practically are!” Desnos said in my defense as he laid a calming hand on my shoulder. I caught the glance he exchanged with Artaud and the slight shake of Desnos’s head as if to say, Not this one. “We may as well declare ourselves a religion and start naming martyrs and writing down doctrine for all the fun we’ve been lately, waging holy war amongst ourselves. Fuck!”

            Roger wiped his face and smiled apologetically at me. “The Surrealists are not an easy group to label, Geoff. They’re poets but they’re engaged in a revolt against literature—and against intellectualism in general. As it happens, they are pretty confused about who and what they are right now, and—”

            “I am not confused,” Artaud contradicted him.

            “—If you ask twenty members what Surrealism is, you will get forty answers.”

            “You would get one answer,” Artaud told Roger, “and thirty-nine lashes with a whip, should you ever care to ask me.” The slight lines around his mouth and eyes suggested the ghost of a laugh. In reply, Roger raised his glass and smiled the same biting grin Artaud had given us from the café window.

            Someone wound an old Victrola and put on a record, and the frenetic melody wavered beneath the buzz of so many voices. Waves of smoke caught the candlelight and stretched it across the ceiling like the most delicate of cobwebs. Winking and sliding, the smoke-light reflected back onto faces and arms and enveloped bodies in a weird gauze. Some people were trying to dance in this crowded place and their efforts were met with protests from the Surrealists, who were getting stepped on, yet they refused to move from their spot. They in turn were mocked by Desnos, who shouted that anyone who wanted to dance should go ahead and do so and anyone who sat on his floor did so at his own risk.

A flared skirt somewhere in the crowd suddenly whirled into flames around the girl who had danced too close to a candle, and I gasped. But she merely unfastened the flimsy cloth, dropped it to the floor, and stepped away, a shaky hand to her mouth as she stood giggling in her slip and hose. “It’s all right, Geoff,” Justine reassured me. I had half-risen from my chair to throw my jacket over the flames. “They’re putting it out. It’s all right.” Desnos was heroically jumping on the smoldering dress to thunderous applause. His grin never faltered and the dancing never stopped. Feet stomped on other feet; elbows knocked ribs; heels caught shins, and soon the tinny phonograph made an agonized screech and was quiet again.

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