From Book 3: Portrait of Antonin Artaud

This is based on research of course, but it’s eerie how much I guessed before it was confirmed by research.

            He was not what I expected, even after all these years. I discovered there was always more to learn about Antonin Artaud. Like me he experienced sudden vertigo, especially at high places but also from standing up too quickly. Unlike me he had earned a driver’s license; it was the main reason he was drafted so late when both France and Germany were hemorrhaging men. He had never driven much, but he told me when he did he had a lead foot. He and I could both sing; we both learned not through formal training but by listening to our mothers. I had assumed him to be without habits but he could eat at the same place—usually the Dôme—every day for weeks on end, and his idea of supper usually began at twenty-three hours. Being a natural night owl myself I sometimes joined him there with Sonia and the painter André Derain even when I had to work the next day. Sometimes Anita joined us. Anie and Marthe also joined us at times and also Louis, and once in a while Desnos showed up for he was also a good friend of Sonia’s.

One time motor-mouth Desnos, frustrated that he and Artaud talked over each other—while the considerably older Derain merely leaned back and continued to pontificate, unconcerned whether any of us heard him—Desnos took a fork and cut into his half-touched dessert and shoved the treat into Artaud’s open mouth. “Oh, shut up! Jesus,” he said while Artaud chewed with entitlement. Everyone burst into laughter. “I cannot get a word in edgewise around here.” Then he stopped Artaud, who had already polished off his own dessert, in the act of stealing his dessert plate. Antonin had quite the sweet tooth.

            “Eat that, then,” ordered Artaud, tugging on the plate.

            “I prefer to diddle it, thanks,” Desnos sneered, pulling it back.

“But does it prefer it?” put in Sonia, “most cream-puffs want to be eaten,” and she won the last laugh. Even chatterbox Desnos did not win space for his words for Artaud could talk non-stop, Derain could argue effortlessly in his cool mien like a high note over Artaud’s motif, and Sonia was also quite the quick one, jabbing in asides even if no one paused for breath. I would just grin at these characters, knowing I was no competition. I thought Derain a rather unfortunate looking chap, once slim and debonair but now with a great round face and limp, straight dark hair not complemented by his limp, straight moustache. His smile, when one saw it, looked like a snarl and he was a great hulk of a man, rather Mussolini-like but he was also a calm, cool arguer in contrast to Artaud’s pushiness, Sonia’s assassin wit, and Desnos’s blubbering theatrics. Again, I sensed in Derain another mentor-friend for Artaud, for the Fauvist was a contemporary of Matisse and at least fifteen years older than him. Nusch and Paul Éluard mugged comically at us from their table nearby, and society matrons of course chuckled at the handsome, sloppy eater at our table who wanted a second dessert. Sometimes even Breton and Péret looked over at us in amusement.

Artaud and I both bolted our food and were giggled at for it, but I was trying to get away from this for it caused food stains on clothes, and I needed to be presentable for work and did not have a long coat for a bib. Anie and Marthe and Sonia were always giggling and wiping at the stains on Artaud’s coat. In private conversation with me Derain echoed Louis’s conviction that Artaud played the comedian with his food, and in general with his dry, angular manner.

I sensed a true connection between Artaud and Sonia Mossé. Sonia would playfully launch sweets with her catapult spoon at Artaud’s open mouth and one time he had to lean far from our table with his hand out to catch a piece of candied fruit before it landed in Nusch Éluard’s lap. A beautiful blond stranger sometimes sat with Nusch but she merely watched us without introduction. We could not help noticing this newcomer, and noticing that André Breton was quite taken by her. Artaud was sardonic and eschewed frivolous pleasures but he was also darkly mischievous, and when he took us down some strange thought-journey he could be very fun to be around. He also fell asleep over dessert and/or discussion, and this was not feigned. He would literally nod off holding a cigarette or a spoon motionless then awake with a start, shove the cigarette or the spoon into his mouth, and make a comment without caring about its relevance.

Derain once took me aside and asked in an uncharacteristically grieved voice, showing the most emotion I had ever seen from him, “Tell me why a man like him is alone?” This echoed my thoughts, and I had no answer. I did tell Derain that if Artaud and Sonia ever stopped acting like teenagers (though Sonia still was a teenager) they might be the perfect couple, and we both agreed this man who was approaching forty years of age needed to get on with it.

Artaud spoke, with varying fluency, three languages—four, if one counted Provençal French in addition to classic French, Italian and Greek, and his extended family also spoke Turkish. He had learned Latin in school but health problems prevented him from passing his baccalaureate. Until the age of nine he’d had an Italian governess. That was the girl who had inadvertently killed his little sister Germaine. Until he was thirteen, when his father’s business took a downturn, his family had employed servants. Not only were his parents cousins but two other children of his grandmothers had also married each other, making his aunt and uncle cousins as well. He was not fond of alcohol and never drank hard liquor, although once in a while Jean Paulhan talked him into sharing a bottle of red wine. Paulhan and especially his wife treated Artaud like a son. Artaud loved taxis and used them when he could, but he bought the cheapest cigarettes, Blues, though he loved cigarettes too.

Mr. No Practical Sense could write a letter or make a telephone call—as a last resort, since he hated disembodied voices—or walk into the office of a publisher or even right up to their table in a restaurant, and sometimes come away with a paid assignment of his creation. I had no idea how he did this and he could not explain it to introverted me. “One merely asks,” he said, looking at me with that arch humor, for while I earned money doing the routine, menial tasks he could never abide, he did admire my goal to do as little as possible in a stable job that cloistered me away from most people and offered so much slack time. He agreed with me that Breton and Péret were jealous and cautioned that they might try to get me fired.

Despite his periods of almost dank solitude, Artaud was not timid. He publicly confronted in a café some publisher who had promised, then revoked, a publishing contract for Desnos. When the man waved a dismissive hand at Artaud, the poet picked up the publisher’s plate and dropped it to the floor, making the man’s squab bounce away on the tile like a severed head.

Then, appearing shocked and pained and always the dandy in his worn suit (shorn of that telltale coat), Artaud pointed the police to nearby René Crevel as the culprit. On the strength of Artaud’s word, and certainly that Look, Crevel was arrested. In raptures, Desnos brought Artaud a cake with frosting splattered like semen from the central male fountain—Desnos of course having to frost this himself—and the words, a play on the title of one of Crevel’s books Putting My Foot in It, had also been applied by Desnos with a pastry tube: “Putting my cock in it.”

Emitting a cry of disgust, I refused to touch the cake whereas Kiki and Sonia and Youki and Anita, sitting on my floor, dug in while laughing at me, and a perpetually famished Louis gigglingly cut a second piece for himself, and Desnos used my axe (carefully), and Artaud in glee cut out the choice center and devoured it with his hands to nauseate us.

It was dangerous on the streets with the political tensions between right wing factions and the Popular Front. In the wake of the demonstrations there was also some street crime. It was cold and wet as well so Artaud, homeless again, mostly stayed with me. Besides finishing up Heliogabalus he was writing a new play, The Torture of Tantalus, which he hoped to stage in a factory. I urged him to work as he needed and sleep as he needed and not worry about my schedule. I meant that to have a double meaning, and he seemed to understand.

Aware that I could be evicted along with him and also that he was older now and his antics less apt to be forgiven by even an indulgent landlady in search of a landlord, he was mostly well-behaved at my apartment. It didn’t help things when my lush caretaker regularly crowed at dawn that I had awakened him and I was to be evicted, behavior the man had displayed from the moment I moved in and whether or not anyone had actually stayed the night. “I didn’t do anything; I didn’t do anything,” Artaud protested more than once with that self-righteous flash from his eyes.

I waved a hand at him. “Ignore him. That’s his blackouts talking. His blackouts have blackouts, and then he’ll shut up.” Artaud would relax back into his manuscript-and-cigarette breakfast, but once I teased him, “But don’t think that we can yell like Aztecs without being tossed out on our butts so he can raid my liquor cabinet,” to which Artaud virtuously riposted, “I’m being good; I am good. I am a mouse.”* He gave me that sidelong gleam I loved.

He rarely slept through the night, but often neither did I, so I would lay and listen to him read aloud or embroider on a thought until I fell asleep again. For someone who could be so blank and serious he had uncanny comic timing, and he delighted in skewering the situation in a café with one rapier phrase while gazing blackly at Nusch Éluard so that she collapsed into inappropriate laughter at the Surrealists’ table, but Nusch seemed always on the verge of laughter anyway, irreverent and roiling with mischief and always knocking her fork to the floor so she could invite several Surrealists to joke beneath the table. She and some other wives of the current Surrealists chatted and laughed with him in defiance of the rules. This irked Breton but I noticed that Paul Éluard seemed increasingly sympathetic to Artaud and vexed by Breton’s pompousness.

Artaud constantly made new friends this spring of 1934, including the painters René Thomas and Balthasar Klossowski, more commonly known as Balthus, whose “The Guitar Lesson” had caused such an uproar across Europe. Balthus was also a friend of André Derain’s, and they both had the same art dealer, Pierre Loeb who ran the Pierre Gallery. Balthus had such a resemblance to Artaud that the two of them could pass for twins despite Balthus being twelve years younger, for Artaud looked almost the same age. Artaud had seen Balthus sitting at the Deux-Magots and, of course, simply walked up to the man to introduce himself. Thereafter he visited Balthus almost nightly in his strange shed atop a building on the rue de Fürstemberg. The younger man encouraged the older on The Cenci and Artaud wrote a favorable review of the exhibition of Balthus’s work at the Pierre Gallery, which was not attracting many visitors. This exhibition only had five paintings but I thought them astounding; they were essentially classical, almost flat, and violently, disturbingly erotic. Pierre Loeb had at his Pierre Gallery previously exhibited works by Picasso, Juan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, André Masson who was a very old friend of Artaud’s and of course André Derain, but the success did not rub off on Balthus who endured outrage and criticism for his subject matter. Like Artaud with his young charges, Balthus called his young female models his “angels.” No one would buy these hard-edged paintings of nude girls; few would even look at them.

In a sense Artaud had no real antagonists. Fights flared, like when Pierre Unik and Breton attacked Artaud at my hotel, then ended with both parties ignoring each other. Most people who did not like Artaud avoided him. I suspected those known as his enemies, who in most cases were also the enemies of Desnos, unconsciously elevated him to the status of Lucifer out of grudging admiration, then realized it and resented him. I heard a rumor that René Allendy, now Artaud’s ex-psychoanalyst, was also the ex-lover of Nin** and his bad-mouthing of Artaud had rebounded into speculation about the doctor’s troubled marriage. Yvonne Allendy, that partner in the defunct Theatre Alfred Jarry, remained a very close friend to Artaud.

See also my scene from the night of Balthus’s suicide attempt.

*Artaud early in his acting career was evicted from a hotel in the rue Troyon for causing a flood while trying to drown a mouse. This and other antics gave him a reputation.

**I do rely on Nin’s diaries for what seem to be reliable facts, but any reader of my works will find I do not like nor respect Anaïs Nin, that I think she exploited Artaud and defamed him sexually, along with René Allendy who was a demonstrable nutjob. I hold Nin responsible for some of Artaud’s decisions and behavior later in his life.

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