From Book 3: Our Hobourgeois Needs Help

            While staring into space at Louis’s table in the Dôme one day Artaud’s eyes happened to focus on Genica Athanasiou, who had been pushed toward us by the noonday crowd and was trying to inch past without his noticing. Louis looked up from the sketch he was doing, and I put down the book of poetry he had given me. All three of us knew she was working on a competing film about Joan, a more conventional melodrama, and reportedly Genica was romantically connected to the director Jean Grémillon. Louis and I watched for Artaud’s reaction and Artaud, who usually cut his eyes at her now, merely tilted his head and beamed at her in open admiration, so calm and wondering and shy, as if falling in love for the first time.

“Bravo,” Louis giggled as Genica stumbled toward the door, “that wounded her!” Artaud grimaced sadly without any pleasure.

            “All she ever cared about was my looks.” He went on proofing his rough draft. He was working on a translation of a Russian play, The Dybbuk, based on a Yiddish legend about a woman who is possessed by the malevolent spirit of her dead lover, and he hoped to turn it into a film. Yvonne Allendy was contacting prospective financiers and quoting Artaud in the press that his translation would be “to the glory of the Jewish people.” At least this clumsy statement was a nod to marketing, for he had learned much from his failure with the Alfred Jarry Theatre. Tensing his jaw as he sat, Artaud underlined words, underlined them again, and then scratched them out and churned silently, his eyes flickering without interest toward any woman pushing by in this crowd.

He was also making Louis and me laugh by imitating the annoying lilt of some matron’s jabber at the next table without even moving his lips, hee-hawing and mewling from his throat as she proclaimed with self-important sonorousness her great talent in communicating with dead souls at séances held in her studio for a small fee. He was simultaneously so innocent and so malicious about it that I could not concentrate on this book of poetry by Langston Hughes. Again I marveled at Artaud’s abilities, for during his performances onstage with Vitrac and Lusson he had mugged through comic scenes with a mobile face that did not seem to belong to him and now here he was, gone from being a complete ham to impassively holding his cigarette aloft as he gazed at his papers and lampooned a woman’s shrill crescendo without disrupting that grave stare. Several people twisted around in dismay in their chairs to look disapprovingly at Louis and me, apparently thinking we were laughing at him.

            “I spoke to the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe last night!” squalled the old medium, elongating her vowels, and with all passivity gone Artaud’s hand with the cigarette then covered his face.

            “Quoth the crow,” I gasped at this outrage and Paul Éluard, ever the thoughtful one, chose this moment to propel his body from the counter where he leaned, because he almost never sat at a table. He stepped forward and shoved under Artaud’s nose a large paper with a crude drawing of a scraggly, bearded young man in sandals. Artaud opened his eyes to narrow slits to lance it. I could never tell, since they were ostensibly enemies now, whether those two were goading each other with enmity or affection—or both.

            “Your fan,” proclaimed Éluard. “Do you think he ever found the cemetery?”

            “You saved him from that end. Our hobourgeois looks too animated,” punned the poet as his glance again knifed the medium at the neighboring table, “but perhaps I can help him a bit.” Artaud took his cigarette and applied it first to the long-haired scarecrow figure’s head, burning a hole there, and then to the crotch. He displayed the result proudly. “There’s a better likeness. Think it through next time.” Louis and I collapsed into guffaws as Éluard sourly took back his burned paper.

            “You’re an asshole,” piped Éluard, and withdrew.

            I turned to Louis. “Éluard never looks or talks to you.” But then, he almost never looked at and certainly had not spoken one word to me.

            Louis looked incensed. “Oh, you’ve noticed? He’s an asshole himself!”

            Artaud was back at his work, grave and calm again. “Of course he’s an asshole—he’s a Communist.” Then he visibly chafed as the Theosophists at the next table shifted to add more members to their group with much scraping of chair legs, a clatter surely duplicated when they assembled at the woman’s studio and most likely alarming any ghosts that happened along. “Desnos is heartbroken; have you heard?” he asked me then. “Yvonne George is dying.”

            My head snapped up again from my book of poetry to look at him. “What?”

            “Tuberculosis,” Louis chimed in. “She’s in a sanitarium. Not a pretty death, for such a beautiful woman.”

            I waited as they both turned back to their work. When neither said anything more I gasped, “But you don’t think he’ll do anything rash?”

            “Rash?” Louis cried as Artaud lifted his eyes in amusement. “Robert Desnos do something rash! You mean, such as try to stab Paul Éluard last week? Or get our Antonin Artaud here kicked out of the cinema during the performance of—”

            “Distortion of!” Artaud corrected. “That Dulac bitch.”

            “—His own screenplay, by screaming and—”

            “But weren’t you involved in that, too?” I asked Artaud. “You smashed mirrors in the lobby.”

            “A vicious rumor. I did not smash any mirrors, ever.”

            “Well, someone did. And you called Germaine Dulac a ‘cunt’ during the screening.”

            Artaud smirked. “That was Breton.”

            “—Opium and confessing all to blabbermouth Breton?” Louis had not stopped talking. “Who subsequently spread the story around Paris? Or going to work—in advertising, of all things!—writing librettos about soap? Desnos, rash! Just what the hell has come over you, Geoffrey Weidmann?” He burst into blatting laughter.

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