From Book 3: A Challenge

            The poor woman now laid her large, beringed fingers on my arm and was thrusting a letter before my eyes. Her name was Valentine Hugo. I remembered the name as the costume designer for The Passion of Joan of Arc. There it was, in Breton’s unmistakable handwriting: I will love you so long as the last particle of myself still knows what love is. Inwardly, I groaned. “Look, can’t you see that the man is a blackguard?” I said with my characteristic diplomacy. My outburst was punctuated by the slam of the apartment door nearby as someone left the building and descended the stone steps toward us. “Don’t you know what he’s been up to? He isn’t a lover—he’s a foxhound. He’s been betting his friends that he can talk married women into trysts. He’s proposed marriage to tourists. He’s even been seen having an intimate dinner with a sixteen-year-old girl!”

            “I don’t believe it,” she said.

            “I don’t believe it!” said a woman’s voice behind us. We turned around and saw a man and woman standing there, Simone Breton and her lover Max Morise, rooted to their spot on the last step, but they were not looking at us. Those two had not even noticed us. They were looking into the blazing eyes of the tall man with russet hair who was standing on the sidewalk in front of Morise, preventing the couple from descending. “I can’t believe this,” Simone repeated, as Breton stretched out a long arm and placed his hand on the ornate wrought-iron railing to deliberately block Morise’s path. A shorter man with a pointed nose and chin, Morise glared at that arm, trying to summon from his thin frame the authority that the Lion easily displayed. “André, go home. Leave us alone. You and I are finished. What does it take to get through to you?”

            “This is my home,” Breton replied. He hadn’t noticed Valentine either. And the dowager, locked in conversation with me, had missed the passing of her god just as surely as I had.

            “Since when?” Simone stepped forward to prevent Morise from flinging Breton’s arm away. “Just because your current slut thinks she can trail you inside and squeeze all of my lotion tubes from the middle doesn’t mean it’s still your home.” Her voice rose like the water in a flooded cup, spilling over. “And when we were married, did you ever act like our studio was your home?”

            Annoyed, Morise looked down at Simone then. “Our studio.”

            “Oh, shut up!” Simone told him. “My studio.”

            Breton said something unintelligible to her. The fury in his voice was manic, wild, making me step forward for fear that he might strike his ex-wife. Madame Hugo caught my arm and clutched it theatrically against her bosom. In trying to disengage myself from her grip, I accidentally knocked that blasted portfolio from beneath her elbow and sent it to the sidewalk with a loud slap. Drawings slipped out of it and onto the pavement.

            Everyone looked up, and Breton saw us at last. He took a step backward in astonished rage, the heel of his big shoe coming down upon the face of his beatific double on the sheet of paper that had landed on the sidewalk again. “You, here!” he gasped, looking first at Madame Hugo, then at me.

            I smiled brittlely. “You,” I mocked—no turning back now—“here!” My arm indicated the steps and I imitated Breton’s expression of astonishment. Then I looked at Simone, who responded with a weary nod. Morise smirked. Breton reddened.

            He stepped forward. So did I. Little Morise shrugged his shoulders and slipped an arm around Simone’s waist, and they passed behind Breton as he and I stood looking at each other. Simone hung back to look at us, but Morise led her into the gathering darkness and they vanished. Valentine Hugo knelt on the sidewalk at Breton’s feet, scrambling to gather up her sketches. The angelic one of Breton now bore a heel mark across its blessed face. As André Breton and I faced each other down, the street lamps winked into life and brightened, making the sidewalk seem like a stage with the lights coming up on the opening scene.

            With an innocent smile on my lips, I waited for Breton to speak. He didn’t. Instead he stretched out an enormous hand and shoved me backward. I backpedaled and caught my balance again, surprised. Breton was a big man and he was as strong as I’d guessed, but this was no shovel-handed lout like Alöis. The power in that shove was artful and constrained, and though it had almost landed me on my back it was merely a warning. Again he reached for me and I sidestepped him, fighting for calm as I dodged his assaults. A smile grew on his lips as I, breathing hard now, struggled to stay out of his reach. I was soon exhausted from trying to watch both his hands at once. Beyond his size, beyond his mania, he was a cunning fighter. He wasn’t even expending any effort—he remained still, while forcing me to dance.

            “You’ve picked the wrong part of town to gutter-crawl,” he informed me.

            Valentine Hugo was watching the scene with that damned portfolio hugged to her breasts. Her eyes were wide with fascination, and no doubt she found it exhilarating. Gutter-crawling indeed! She didn’t even have the sense to know this was not about her. I backed up, but managed a lackadaisical shrug. “As a matter of fact, I was just passing by.”

            “Sure you were.”

            “But I was, André,” I simpered, imitating Desnos at his best. Breton drew himself up in indignation to hear me say his Christian name—he was so niggling about such things. “It’s mere coincidence that I happened to be here. I was playing a Surrealist game—you know—picked a route at random, left myself open to experience, to whoever comes—”

            “He asked me to meet him here,” Madame Hugo interjected, pointing at me.

            I gave her a look of pure disgust. As for Breton, it was obvious he didn’t believe a word of it. “Go home,” he snapped at her, “leave right now, and don’t ever show up here again. Got that?” And as soon as I saw her wilt, the joy that had brightened her face turned so suddenly to hurt there I was again, like the idiot I was, rushing to protect her.

            “I don’t like the way you order women around,” I sneered. “How dare you speak to a lady in that manner! Small wonder Simone threw you out.”

            Some of the pacific calculation left his face. Oh, he was touchy about Simone! “You leave my wife out of this,” he replied.

            Put back on solid ground I stared into his blazing eyes, and then I did something remarkable, even to me. Lifting my gloves, I slapped them with a smart crack across his face. “I shall not kill you here, as you deserve,” I declared. “I shall kill you honorably at dawn tomorrow, in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés just outside the church. Meet me there with your seconds—if you dare.”

            Belatedly his hand flew to his cheek. “What do you—who do think you—what are talking about?” he sputtered. “Are you insane?”

            “Do you withdraw?” I shot back easily.

            “Stop your ridiculous game,” he replied, and turned away.

            I couldn’t believe it. After all his blather about Victor Hugo, anarchism, terrorism—after all the essays he wrote glorifying cannibals and barbarians, bomb-throwers, female assassins such as Germaine Berton and the like—after his nefarious exhortation to the youth of France to murder innocent people at random in the street, he would shrink from my romantic challenge as any modern man would, as any unimaginative, faint-hearted, bourgeois popinjay would. After the rage I had summoned in him he could turn away with mincing distaste like a banker turning away from a beggar in the street. And couldn’t he detect, let alone appreciate, the sarcasm in my challenge? Did he actually think I intended to use guns or swords, when what I had been about to suggest a Surrealistic game, the opportunity of a lifetime!

            “You flabby, impotent braggart!” I bellowed at his back. That made him stop in his tracks. “I’ll be there. Tomorrow at dawn, I’ll be there and you’ll be there, too. You’ll face me. Or do you prefer to bully women and scribble little insults in pamphlets about Artaud and Desnos?” At this, he turned slowly around again and regarded me soberly. “By fuck, you’ll be there, Breton. Because if you don’t show up tomorrow, all of Paris is going to hear about it. Desnos and Landis and Soupault will spread the word. I swear they will.”

            He turned completely to face me again. “Weidmann, you and those limp dicks can do just that. Go ahead and sob to everyone! Stand on top of the Eiffel Tower and let it out in one great blunderspunk! I’ll be there,” he snapped, leveling a finger at me. “But I tell you what. You named the place, so I’ll name the weapons.”

He waited for my answer. Feeling caught, I decided to nod, and he smiled in satisfaction. “We will each bring,” he began, and paused. He stroked his chin for a moment, thinking. “You and I will bring what we think is an appropriate symbol of the other’s hypocrisy. Do you understand?”

            I nodded. “That’s an intriguing idea, Breton. Go on.”

            I found myself smiling at him and he involuntarily smiled too. It was almost an almost friendly moment between us. “There’s nothing to explain, twat wit. You bring whatever it is you think represents my hypocrisy to show to me at dawn. And I’ll bring something that I know will expose you, and give it to you. We then have to sufficiently explain ourselves to each other.”

            “How do we determine who wins and who loses?” I asked.

“The flimsier answer loses. We’ll leave our seconds to decide.”

            “Your seconds will vote with you, and mine with me,” I objected.

            “All right. Then I take you up on your threat of public humiliation. We’ll let the chief editor of the NRF decide,” he told me. “Thank dog’s balls Jacques Riviere is dead, for he was too thin-skinned for something like this. But his successor, Jean Paulhan, will love it. And the more facile explanation of the two gets held up to public ridicule. Agreed?”

            My hand out, I stepped forward. “Agreed.” We shook hands. It was the first time since that night at the Surrealist Research Bureau nearly five years ago that André Breton had shaken my hand. His grip was firm, and being a man of equal height with me, we stood eye-to-eye. There was something in his expression that I couldn’t quite read, and I didn’t want to invent what was there, but did I detect a certain warmth beneath all the arrogance?

            When we released hands he stood back and regarded me again with those cool eyes, and his voice, when he spoke again, did have a trace of humor. “I’m going enjoy this,” he said.

            “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” I returned saucily.

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