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There were three of us at the Office of the Mairie that day: Louis and me and Génica Athanasiou.
She appeared suddenly, gracefully, in the doorway as we waited in our chairs, and stood momentarily framed in doorway’s rectangle of light so that stray beams caught the coppery strands of her hair. Her eyes were still dark with shyness, her skin still rosy despite the few aged lines. Long hair, long skirt—she had not changed much. She seemed nervous, her skin drawn taut over her delicate bones. We gave our recitations, pronouncing our French carefully. Her French had improved a great deal. She was still beautiful, and now possessed the mature poise of a seasoned actress. After the ceremony, we each had a second errand. Génica asked for and received the military deferment for her lover, Jean Grémillon, who was shooting a film outside of France. She looked down in confusion at the papers Louis and I signed that gave our lives to the French army.
“Antonin has written me letters,” she told me after it was all over. We walked out into the Parisian afternoon as Parisians. No, as French citizens. No matter how long we lived in Paris we would never become true Parisians, like Catherine and Aleron D’Arcy and Desnos.
“I didn’t want to mention it,” Louis said, “but he’s written to me, too.”
I grumbled, “People don’t have to tread so lightly around me. I know he writes to friends. I’m glad he does. I want him to.”
“I’m sorry,” Génica said then. “He sends no word to you?”
“I visited him. He doesn’t see me,” I said. “It’s all right. We have an
understanding—or at least, he does. He lives in absolute reality now and I’m fictitious, you see. And I don’t want him to burden himself about me.” Although Louis also was fictional—oh well, it made sense to Artaud.
“I don’t know why you call it reality,” she said. “It’s the opposite. It’s fantasy, what he lives in!”
I talked slightly over her. “But if you don’t mind—I have no right to ask, of course, but would you tell me what he says to you?”
Génica stopped beside a huge gnarled tree and crossed her arms over her chest, shuddering as if from a draught. She leaned against the tree, gazing through the leaf-shadows that flitted across her face. “He writes nonsense,” she said finally. “His letters are full of violence, and there’s little I recognize of him in them. For example, he’s convinced that André Breton died while trying to free him from the hospital in Le Havre. His friends stormed the asylum there, you see. An army of his followers waged war against the hospital staff to save him. That’s what he believes. Yet he writes Breton. He believes Breton is dead and yet writes to him. He prefaces those letters with, ‘When you died.’ I’ve read a few of them.” She turned her face away.
An army of friends, storming the mental hospital. For a moment I wondered why we had not done it, before the war came to disperse us. He was gone from Le Havre by the time we found out where he was, but why didn’t we get together and overwhelm the staff at Quatre-Mares and at least see him? How in hell did we let Antonin Artaud go off by himself to Ireland in the first place? As it turned out it was a good thing he believed in an apocalypse; anyone else might had run off to die. Génica was staring down at the tangled roots on which we stood and her face, now relaxed and neglected for the moment, foreshadowed the old woman she would become. “What does he write to you?” I prodded gently. “Will you tell me?”
She turned to look at me, her brow slightly furrowed and that too revealed her age, the folds between her eyebrows. From a distance she could still pass for thirty if she kept her face animated, but her face was beginning to move in new ways, and the illusion crumpled when she stretched a smile too much, or allowed it to sag into frowning lines. And she was frowning now. Louis, with his sense of propriety, had wandered down the lane to leave us alone. “I know what you think of me,” she accusingly. “I know your take on this: How dare he write me. Why should he write me when I was so cruel to him, and selfish? When I’m nothing but a shallow, fame-
“No, no,” I protested. “I don’t think that.”
“He did.” She drew her fringed shawl closer and stepped into the sunlight. The sun was like a warm hand on my back; the day was chilly. The slightest breeze pierced one’s coat. “Not that I blame him. But my God, everything is meaning to him. Everything was deep, cosmic, complicated all the time, gothic and impenetrable. He could never simply enjoy anything. I finally got tired of going round and round. And of course, there was…his drug addiction.”
Our walk was taking us toward the Pont au Double. I saw Louis was standing beside that old tree, the false acacia that leaned like the tower of Pisa with its ancient scars filled with cement. I led her across the short bridge to Notre Dame. Now I would have a memory of her here with me too, along with Roger and Louis, Barrault and Bernard, and that was how I wanted it. “It’s difficult for me to talk about him,” she continued, “about that time in my life, for he was wonderful in so many ways—gentle and courteous and innocent, so different from other men. Chivalrous, like a knight. After our first rehearsal at the Atelier, he slipped a poem into my hand and ran away. I still have it—he called himself ‘l’Idiot moqué,’ can you imagine? When he could be such a conceited brat sometimes?” She laughed then, a fond laugh, and I watched her in joy to have such a memory of him.
“He made me very happy once and I loved him then, I really did. We spent almost seven years together and most of it was happy, until the end. A part of me will always love him.
“But I want to have a normal life. You understand? A career and friends—nice things. Is there something wrong with that? Besides, did he ever tell you that he wasn’t faithful to me?” Embarrassed at having caused this outpouring of intimacy, I shook my head. “Well, he was having a fling with a pianist named Janine Kahn that summer we went to the Loire. They were exploring doing a theatre project together. She’s the sister of Breton’s first wife. She later married Raymond Queneau.”
I asked, “Is that why you were crying? That night out on the lawn. At the Loire.”
Génica’s face was blank for a moment. Then her hand flew to her mouth and she laughed, an open-throated laugh of pure surprise. She blushed, and it made her eerily young again. “Oh, that! That awful night. No, I really don’t remember why I was upset—I don’t think it was because of Janine specifically. Please tell me you don’t dwell on that—I’d forgotten all about it.” We paused beside the rose garden behind Notre Dame. “Perhaps I was depressed, feeling not attractive anymore, and taunted you a little. I’m sorry. It’s odd to think that since that night, hundreds of silly children have experienced much the same awkwardness. Sex—what a jungle!” She gave me her hand. It was so small and warm. “When you’re going through this for the first time it’s agony, but in terms of the human race it’s nothing new. People just don’t learn anything, do we?”
She took her hand from mine then. She opened her purse and riffled through it, her smile fading. Génica drew out a neatly folded piece of paper that looked as if it had been attacked by a pencil. My heart sped up when I recognized the sprawled scrawl.
Génica, we must leave this world, but first the Reign of the Other World has to begin, and we need quantities of armed troops…. I need heroin to open the occult doors for them and blow up Satan’s enchantment which is keeping them out and me imprisoned here.
We continued on, circling Notre Dame. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said. Why couldn’t she stop saying that?
“Oh Génica, I think nothing but that you’re a very beautiful woman and a talented actress who has made a life for herself, who has enjoyed success in Paris and deserved every bit of it.”
She smiled again.
“We are all of us ‘creatures of artifice,’ to quote Antonin,” I said. “Look at me—I’m a complete fraud. Do you think it was a noble gesture I made today in that office? Do you see a patriot? Forget it. I don’t want to be arrested and sent back to Austria to be drafted into that army, that is all.” We had arrived back to the front of Notre Dame and now crossed to Pont au Double again. This must be my bridge, I thought. Everyone in Paris had a favorite bridge; Louis had said that once.
“But that’s not true,” she insisted. “You’re not doing this for yourself at all. Admit it, Geoffrey Weidmann—you would never abandon Antonin. Everyone knows how deeply you love him. People all over Paris talk about it—not just because of your arrest but because of your loyalty to him in the face of everything. People saw when he became hostile to you that you gave money to others intended for him. André Gide mentioned it, René Thomas mentioned it. Breton has said so, Louis has always said. Desnos would not be your friend otherwise, Barrault wouldn’t. You have never spoken against Antonin, and you have never taken sides against any of the friends he turned to instead, and you’ve stood up to his enemies. It shamed people, even before you were thrown in jail. And I admire you for that—I am grateful to you, for the way they speak about him now is unbearable to me!” Her face crumpled a little, and she hid it behind her hands.
“Don’t listen to the talk, Génica.” I was holding the letter out to her, and with my other hand I gently clasped her elbow. She wiped her hands and face with a handkerchief and finally took back the letter. My hand remained on her arm. She sighed and, after depositing the letter in her purse, let her arm slide in my hand until her fingers gripped mine. With her hand still in mine we turned to walk toward Louis who was on the quai. He straightened up and smiled at us. I suddenly had the sense, and I felt she did too, of not wanting our conversation to end because when it did, I knew that the three of us would never see each other again.
I offered her my arm and she took that, and we entered the Square René-Viviani once more. “I know you blame yourself, but it’s everyone’s fault,” she said, “it’s all of our faults or no one’s, for creating a world in which he cannot live, in which we all barely live. I am the first to declare that an actor’s life is a harsh one. It’s ruthless, Geoff, and poverty always threatens—it’s no place for him, and sometimes I think no place for me. And how can that be true, when there is nothing else for people like us? He was born to be an actor, as I know I was.” I marveled at her insight, her fluency in looking back at herself and others; in this she had surpassed Artaud in maturity.
“And I wish to say—” She stopped. She looked over at Louis near the water, but he was keeping away from us. “I did not intend—” Again she paused. I led her to the false acacia. I stared down at the bench where Barrault had with such dejection shown me Artaud’s letter. How many secrets had this tree heard? “I did not plan it of course, to appear in a competing film about Joan of Arc while he was making Dreyer’s film,” Génica said finally.
“Oh, Génica, of course you didn’t. Besides, Artaud told me something Dreyer said once.” As Barrault had, I reached out to run my hand along the bark. “Artaud asked Dreyer’s opinion of your film, and Dreyer was not troubled at all. Dreyer said, ‘De Gastyne’s Joan is true, and my Joan is also true.’ Artaud loved that quote. He repeated it often. I’m not saying this just to be nice.” She stood looking at me with that long skirt of hers swaying slightly like a bell, as on that first night I ever saw her. “At any rate—neither you nor he played Joan!”
Startled, she laughed. Her laugh was as I remembered it and she looked the same then.
“You have a powerful ally in Jean Grémillon,” I added. “You are fortunate in him. That film you both made, Maldone—I loved it. It was devastating. I still think about it, the man who ruins his life for a gypsy. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a sucker for a good tragedy.”
It was a melancholy look I saw then. “I couldn’t help but think of Antonin the whole time we were shooting Maldone. I love Jean of course but he is nothing like Antonin, who was naïve and scrupulous to a fault. When we were in Dullin’s troupe, Antonin was so shy around me. Yes, I know—he, shy?—but he was, and he put me on a pedestal. Although…” She did not finish. I surmised she bit back a comment on Antonin Artaud’s Samson-like destruction of pedestals, too. “Jean isn’t shy—and he certainly doesn’t write me poems.”
I shook my head. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Louis walking up to us finally. “But he does, Génica. Films are poems. Look at Cocteau: he calls himself a poet and to him, his actors are no less poets than he is. Poetry is an attitude, not a form. It’s life. Antonin thinks so, and so does Louis, and so do I. To Surrealists, you are a poet, too.”
Génica’s hand briefly squeezed mine. “Thank you,” she said, smiling at me and at Louis who was now standing right next to us. “Thank you, sweet Geoffrey.” And, standing on her toes, she leaned forward to plant a quick kiss on my lips. Louis removed his hat and scratched his head. Génica turned and nodded mischievously at him, then briefly took his hand, and then she was walking away from us, her long pleated skirt lifted full by the breeze.
“Weidmann, you are the most unsuccessful Don Juan I have ever met!” Louis declared as we watched her go. She walked toward the Church Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, then turned off and disappeared from view.
“If she and Grémillon had any sense,” I muttered, “they would get out of France.”