From Book 1: Roulette

            That night, the women declared their own revolution.

            “No!” Justine proclaimed with relish as she sat in the dining room drinking coffee with Genica. She and Genica talked over each other as a rumpled Louis stared at them from the doorway. “We’re not going to cook supper for you!” “You can starve for all we care!” “We are not servants! This is our holiday, too!” “There’s the larder—cook your own meals.” “And we’re not doing your damned dishes!”

Desnos laughed when he came in and saw Louis’s look of annoyance. “We are men, Landis,” he said.

            “That’s what I thought!” Louis glared at Genica and Justine.

            “No, I mean we can face any terror that rears its head. Come with me!” He yanked Louis by his elbow into the kitchen. As he and Louis began to prepare food for the rest of us Desnos recited his poetry in protest against the women:

            You suicide me, so docilely,
            I shall die you nevertheless some day.
            I-we shall know this ideal woman— [and when Desnos stressed the last two words, Justine yelled back from the dining room, “Can she type?”]
            —and slowly I shall snow upon her mouth.
            And I shall doubtless rain even if I am getting late,
            even if I am a nice day.
            We-you love us so little our eyes and I-this-tear will fall in ruin without reason of course and without sadness.
            Without.

            “Christ, Desnos, speak French,” Roger grumbled as he came up the hall. “You sound like my epileptic aunt.” I went back into our room to change my shirt, and when I entered the kitchen, Louis was sullenly scraping potato slices in a pan on the stove. “O sisters, who sautéed my onions so close by/Where the tongue joins the potato and the egg,” Desnos joked, now parodying a poem of his as he mixed an omelet in a bowl at the counter.

            “And the sisters join my tongue—” Louis muttered baldly as he ground the potatoes in irritation.

            Desnos turned around to look at him and exclaimed, “And the potato joins the pan! Landis, that’s a spatula, not a mortar and pestle you’re using.”

            “Some Surrealist you are,” Louis shot back, and surrendered the spatula to me. I flipped the potatoes expertly to show off. He turned from me in disgust and saw, through the doorway, Artaud sitting at the dining room table with the women and munching a piece of toast. “Unfair, unfair! They are feeding him!”

            “You don’t know how long that bread may have been in his pocket,” Desnos cackled, pouring batter into the other pan. “And I’m afraid the women are going to bend the rules for their men, which is only fair, you must admit.”

            Louis sighed. “I wish our group was evenly divided between men and women.”

            “You just want a woman for yourself. If you had a bed-mate you wouldn’t care how the group was divided any more than Artaud and Thurmon do,” Desnos replied. “As for Weidmann and I, he’s haunted by the ghost of a dead woman and I by the ghost of a living one.”

            “Don’t tell me you’re still writing Yvonne George that slop!” Roger shouted from the dining room while I stirred the potatoes in silence. “She has hundreds of fans, Desnos. What a colossal waste of time. She’ll never notice you.”

            “I like that slop!” Justine protested, making Desnos grin. “I like poems about mermaids and heroes and—”

            “And prostitutes?” Roger asked her.

            “And ghost ships, even if you don’t. And yes, prostitutes too, my pimp.”

            I removed the pan from the flames and emptied the potatoes onto a plate. “Desnos, I wish you would write a poem about that cathedral we visited today…or that thing they’re building in Barcelona, that Gaudi cathedral. It’s amazing. I saw this photograph—”

            Desnos raised his eyebrows, smiling. “I wish you would write something, Weidmann.”

            “But my writing is awful. I can’t seem to summon anything up on my own; only when I have others around me that my thoughts go anywhere.”

            “Then let’s collaborate on something. When people work together there is both a cooperation and a resistance that is difficult to produce within oneself, especially at first.”

            “Collaborate, how?” I asked.

            “I could have you answer questions while you’re in a trance. Or we could do dual automatic writing—I could write something and you could alter it, twist it around…”

            Louis laughed. “If he twists something already twisted, does it get straightened out or become even more perverse?”

“That we shall see.”

            Desnos set a spread of food on the dining room table that made Genica and Justine gape in amazement. They exchanged a sour look. “Plenty for everyone!” Desnos sang out as he eyed the women, but Louis put a hand on my shoulder as I tried to go to the table.

            “We’ll be right with you,” Louis said, and shoved me toward the back bedroom.

            “I thought you were hungry. What is it?” I demanded, as Louis led me to our bedroom. He jabbed an elbow into my ribs to shut me up, glanced back at the dining room, then went into our room and up to the bed on which sat Robert Desnos’s suitcase.

            Louis glanced at the door, then opened the suitcase and dug through the clothes. “Geoff, take a look at this.”

            “What are you doing!” I hissed, and then I stared at the revolver Louis had pulled from beneath the shirts. He prodded me but I refused to take the gun. “So he has it for protection, so what? Put it back, for God’ sake!” I turned to the door when a floorboard outside squeaked, but I saw no one there.

            “Look into the chamber; there’s only one bullet,” Louis said to me. “He plays Russian roulette; a lot of Surrealists do.” We exchanged a look of horror and I took the gun from him.

            I tapped the bullet from the barrel into my palm and pocketed it. “Artaud?”

            “Oh no, Artaud doesn’t participate. He would never do something like that. He has very little in common with the rest of them, really.” Louis helped me place the clothes as they were, covering the gun again with Desnos’s shirts.

            My hand plowed through my hair. “Louis—is it me, or are you and I the only sane people here? Desnos plays around with blowing out his brains; Roger’s courting syphilis and Justine’s in love with him, which I still can’t believe. And Artaud! Actually, I don’t think Artaud is perverse, but he’s clutching for dear life onto that vapid woman while talking about ‘celestial love.’ It’s more pathetic than strange, I guess, but is there anything I should know about you?”

            “Genica is sane,” Louis replied gruffly.

            “Genica is shallow.” I examined the hard piece of metal, rolling it in my fingers. It was one of those modern bullets, developed since the war—quite nasty. The alloy would make an efficient hole in a skull, or explode the brain altogether. I shoved the tiny demon back into my pocket. “Damn him! If Desnos wants to kill himself that’s his problem, but does he have to do this here?”

            Louis sank wearily down onto his bed and rubbed his eyes. “I really can’t believe he’d pull something like that in front of Genica and Justine. Maybe he just brought it with him, as you said, because he didn’t want to leave it behind—but I don’t want to take that chance! Who knows what he and Artaud are really capable of? Surrealists think a poet should be ready for anything. They’re both two of the most decent men I know, but they have few inhibitions.”

            “And what does that mean?” I demanded, recalling what Roger had told me in private. He had said that Desnos’s obsession with automatic writing was making him volatile, even violent, to the point of having to be restrained from stabbing several of his friends. “Are you telling me that we should lock up the knives?”

            “Desnos would never attack anyone here—only certain people, and only when he’s really pissed off.”

            “Oh, that’s a relief, Louis.” I turned on my heel and went back to the dining room, threw myself into a chair, and began to shovel food onto my plate.

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