From Book 3: Aube

I understand Aube Elléouët-Breton still lives in Paris. This fictional section is offered in respect and affection.

It is October, 1937 and Jacqueline Lamba has quarreled with her husband and left Paris for a time, leaving Aube with her father.

            Artaud was still lecturing in Mexico City, and Louis was preoccupied with his upcoming marriage. Lee was preoccupied with her work. She was photographing Man Ray now and the two were at least speaking to each other. Desnos was likewise putting in long hours, throwing lavish weekend dinner parties for crowds of intellectuals, visiting his father, and was engulfed by domestic fulfillment or what passed for it since Youki had affairs with multiple men. I felt cast adrift. I decided one autumn day to visit Breton and see how he was doing.

            He was still living at the rue Fontaine. When he answered my knock, I stepped into a dark apartment strewn with clothes and dishes. “I can’t afford to turn on any lights,” Breton apologized, and I marveled at the change in him. His normally full hair hung in wisps about his face, which was lined with exhaustion. He slumped against the wall as I stood there, and his eyes fought to stay open. Aube fussed in her crib near the fireplace, so I went over to her and smiled down at the tiny girl who was rattling the bars. “Christ, I’m tired,” Breton complained as Aube began to bawl at us in her impatient, word-like almost-language. “I love her, but it’s work. I mean, it’s work!”

            “Yes, it is,” I replied, and despite my sympathy for him I thought how Jacqueline would have relished hearing it. In the months after Aube’s birth Breton had treated Jacqueline more like a nanny than the mother of his child, expecting Jacqueline to remain the mermaid of his fantasies even though she was, of course, no longer employed at the Olympia and reportedly being neglected as a woman. It seemed to me that Breton’s search for Surrealism had its end in Jacqueline, not in the group’s ongoing battles and defections, but once I had thought the same about Artaud with Genica. Artaud was right; I was sentimental, and inert. “You need to eat something, looks like,” I added to Breton.

            “I can’t feed her if I can’t feed myself,” Breton groaned. He swayed on his feet, and I motioned for him to sit down. He collapsed onto the sofa with his head back and threw an arm over his face. “Éluard is practically supporting me.”

“You should rest,” I said. I reached down and lifted Aube into my arms.

“If I go to sleep now, I won’t wake up for a week.”

“I’ll stay here,” I offered. “I’ll watch her while you take a nap.”

He sighed wearily. “Would you really? I would appreciate it.”

As Aube’s father slept, I busied the child with a game of cleaning up. She could not walk but she was a fast crawler, and more than willing to carry objects in her mouth. The girl wriggled around on the floor after me, smiling and opening her lips for whatever I thought she could bit down on. Catherine would have been horrified, but surely socks would not harm a child. As it was, I had to stop her many times from sucking on things. After two hours of this the apartment was almost in order and I was proud of our teamwork. “You’re Marvelous,” I said to the girl as she closed her lips on the edge of that empty, ripped canvas and tried to crawl away with that. I gently pried it from her mouth and picked her up again. “Imagine your father telling your mother that you licked the place clean!”

As soon as they were out the words filled me with sadness, for I could not imagine a new mother leaving her little girl, no matter what an asshole her father could be at times—and an asshole André Breton surely could be. One glance around this apartment told me that Breton was sitting on a fortune in paintings and art objects, but he refused to sell one more piece of his collection. He preferred to starve and live in squalor than to part with one de Chirico or Picasso. I knew for a fact, having overheard the argument in a café, that this had rankled Jacqueline especially. Aube reached out, caught my tie, and began to stuff that into her mouth. “Maybe I shouldn’t have encouraged this,” I muttered, now imagining an exhausted André Breton running after his little daughter, yanking objects from her lips and cursing my name. “Anyway you need some food to chew on.”

As if in answer a bang rattled the door, and it opened. I turned to see Paul Éluard pull a key from the lock. He ported a string bag and embraced a large oval of bread with his other arm. When he saw me his eyes widened in surprise, and I put a finger to my lips and jerked my head toward Breton, who was still splayed on the sofa with his arm over his face. “What are you doing here?” Éluard demanded as he walked past me to set the food on the table.

I had always liked Éluard very much. He was quiet and thoughtful and very deliberate about everything. He did not participate in any of the grandstanding that a Crevel or a Dali would. He was sincerely committed to marrying the Surrealist ideal of the waking-dream to the Communist goal of liberating the common worker. To everyone except me his manner was almost self-depreciating, and he rather resembled André Breton though he was thinner, and his face was more oval, and his hair, though abundant, was not wavy. He was a studious and prolific writer, and I loved his poetry. Unlike so many of the men he did not belittle his wife’s opinions or consign her to merely the role of muse, servant, and entertainer. Paul and Nusch Éluard were equals, partners, and I admired him for it. It stung me to hear his hostile tone. No matter what happened between Breton and my friends, I had nothing against Éluard.

When I did not answer right away, Éluard’s hand stopped in the motion of cutting the large focaccia. I shrugged. “I’m here to help. That should be obvious.”

“Why you?” he demanded.

“Why not me, Paul?” I set down Aube and went to the table for a piece of bread. When I held it down for Aube she took it, stuck it in her mouth, and began to crawl away. Éluard was slicing the loaf again. “May I?” I asked, then dug into the bag. I set the cheese, sausage, and carton of soup on the table, and pulled out one of the bottles of beer. I cracked the top with the church-key and swallowed a long draught before he could object.

Aube was sitting between the front room and the bedroom with a huge, breadless smile on her face. “Hey, you,” I said to her, “you were supposed to put that away in your tummy.” I went into the bedroom to fish the piece of crust out of the open bottom drawer. I picked her up and took her to the kitchen, and Éluard made faces at her so that she gurgled. I handed a new slice to her. Aube took it and shoved it in her mouth. “Chew, like this,” I said. I took a swig of beer and chewed it. Aube moved her lips rhythmically on the bread, then took it out of her mouth again and smiled at me. I sighed. “Well, I guess you’ll swallow when you’re hungry enough.”

Éluard was now slicing the cheese. “How long has he been asleep?”

“About two hours.” I smiled down at Aube when she stuffed the bread in her mouth again. She chewed with more vigor this time and satisfied, I went to the table and pulled out a chair. “I could use a nap, myself.” I settled into the chair with her.

“Ung-ung-ung,” sang Aube around her bread. Then she struggled, so I set her down. She wriggled spiritedly toward the sofa. Éluard set aside the plate of cheese and went to work on the sausage. Leaning back in my chair I grabbed an empty pan from the stove, sniffed it, then set it on the burner and poured the soup into it. Aube crawled up to her father, her jaws still working on the bread. Éluard smiled over at her.

“That son-of-a-bitch registrar would not record her fucking name at first,” he said suddenly to me. “I had to persuade him. ‘Aube’ is too unusual a name!” He reached out a hand to take my beer and lifted the bottle to his lips.

“Jesus,” I said, and he handed the bottle back to me. I remembered that Artaud said Anaïs Nin had told him a similar story—the registrar could not believe that any Frenchwoman would give her child the name of a pagan goddess. I lifted the bottle to my lips, and this seemed to make me pass a test for Éluard, for he smiled a little. “Would there have been any objection if she had been named Aurora? It’s the same thing.”

“We are talking about shit-wits,” said Éluard.

Breton stirred on the sofa, and his arm slid down to dangle in front on Aube’s eyes. She crawled quickly over to it and applied her crumb-encrusted mouth to his hand. “Ung-ung-ung.”

“Eat him up, Aube!” chortled Éluard.

Breton groaned, jerked, and writhed painfully. He rubbed his eyes and opened them. “Uhh. My not-God. I feel like I’m dead.”

“Maybe you are,” said Éluard. That harsh tone had crept back into his voice. I remembered his insulting words to Tzara, and especially to Péret, on the night of Dali’s trial.

Breton gazed blearily at the little girl who was now hanging onto the sofa and pulling herself up to stand. She beamed into his face. “That would make my daughter the Conquering Worm.” He reached out to stroke her face with his finger. Bread debris fell from her cheeks.

“Maybe she is.”

“Ugh. Un-God, Éluard, you and your filthy cheese. It smells like putrefaction.” Breton shoved himself upright.

“And you and your filthy knees. This place is a sty, man.”

“She’ll be back,” insisted Breton. He lifted Aube into his arms. “She’s just taking a very long day off. She’ll be back at the post soon enough.” He spoke of his wife as if she were a maid.

Breton and Éluard ate, and Breton ladled soup into Aube’s eager mouth, but I merely sat at the table with them. I would buy my own meal later, and leave all leftovers for Breton and his daughter. “Why don’t you let me take her for a few days?” I asked suddenly. “Yvonne’s been jumping all over me asking when Aube can visit. Catherine would help. A little girl needs a woman around.” At this Breton looked grateful. Then he blanched and enfolded one large hand on the arm of his daughter as if I meant to snatch her away from him. I noted the unmistakable fear in his eyes and smiled to myself. André Breton, who hated children! Who abhorred the bourgeois institutions of marriage and family, who had insulted mothers and nannies as they pushed their carriages in the street. There he sat, his hands closed around his tiny dawn to shield her from any other breton who might come along.

“I can’t just let anybody take her!” he barked.

“It’s a good idea,” Éluard put in. “It will give us a chance to scrub this place. If Jacqueline shows up at the door and takes one look, she’ll walk right back out again.”

“She’ll be back to stay,” Breton argued.

“Let me take Aube during the day, then,” I suggested. “I’ll come for her in the morning and drop her off here in the evening, and you can have her at night.”

“It’s a good idea,” prodded Éluard.

Breton shook his head. “Someone in the group could do it, too.”

“Yes,” Éluard sneered, “but no one in the group is going to do it, Pops. No one else wants to do it. They’re just a bunch of kids.” Again I detected hostility in Éluard’s voice. In fact, I had detected a certain dissonance beneath Breton’s light banter as well. There was something wrong between those two. I wondered if Éluard wanted Aube out of the way so that the two of them could have a discussion, or a fight.

Breton sagged, lowered his head, and gazed at the floor for a minute. Finally he nodded. “But only during the day,” he warned me.

The next scene is here.

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