From Book 3: Artaud d’Arc


None of us had the nerve to step into the outer office to tell Artaud’s mother and his sister this news. I sat at the desk and tried to calm myself while Louis and Desnos paced around wordlessly. When Paulhan returned half an hour later, I repeated the news for him. After leaving Ireland but before arriving back in France, Artaud had vanished. Paulhan called in the women to tell them and made it seem that he had just learned the news so there would be no hard feelings. With Artaud’s mother and Desnos both so upset, and Marie-Ange and Louis fighting tears themselves, I didn’t want to suggest what I was thinking—indeed, I didn’t want to think what I was thinking—that something had happened to Artaud before his ship docked in Le Havre, that he was not on the disembarkation list because he had left that ship. That he, so afraid of water since his near-drowning at age ten, had fallen off the ship’s deck and drowned indeed. Paulhan, I could tell, feared Artaud had jumped.

            “He is dead!” sobbed Madame Artaud, her whole body trembling, fleshy and mobile like her face. She would have collapsed had she not been supported by Catherine and Marie-Ange. They lowered her again to a chair.

            “No, no,” Desnos groaned. The pain in his voice was terrible. My hands continued to tremble and Catherine placed hers over them. Louis turned ashen, but Desnos rallied bravely. “We’ll find him. He’s in France somewhere—he’s got to be. Artaud can’t be dead.”

            “Everyone knows how bad the red tape is at the ports,” Louis managed. “So he’s not on their passenger list. That doesn’t mean anything.”

            “Franz will investigate,” I added. “He has contacts at the French Consul. Someone knows what happened to him! Or Artaud will contact you himself.” With an effort I kept my voice steady. Madame Artaud and Marie-Ange stared at me with taut, hopeless terror. I saw it on the face of Artaud’s mother; she knew. She’d had the whole of Artaud’s life to dread this moment, the experience of watching her troubled son grow into an incomprehensible, crazed genius and a laughingstock, someone she didn’t even know anymore. A mother knew when her son was lost. A mother knew.           

Euphrasia Artaud then rose up to stand, her tearful face set, her head held erect and her face tensed. Then I saw her son in her! “I shall go to the port myself,” she declared, and I heard our friend’s voice in her. “I don’t have patience for this bureaucracy! I will upend Le Havre to find him. I will seek out every hospital, every jail, every—”

Morgue, I thought, but I gazed at her in admiration. Whatever happened she was still Artaud’s mother who loved him fiercely.

            “That’s the spirit,” murmured Paulhan.

            We were a somber group that trooped downstairs, the women riding the elevator and us men taking the stairs. Our two parties met again in the lobby, reluctant to part company as if our being together sustained Artaud’s life, and if we went separate ways our hope would fall like his cane upon the wine glasses at the Coupole.

            When I finally left them and meandered to the door, I saw Franz sprinting up the steps outside. I stood back to allow him to come through. “Geoff, I found out. Let me tell it to his mother and sister first,” he warned me, “before they hear gossip. It’s getting all over Paris,” he added in a low voice to Catherine, who had rushed to my side. “It’s my fault*—a coworker heard me calling Le Havre police. Dammit!” He squeezed her arm and went toward the women.

            I followed Franz, pleading, “But he’s alive? Franz, just tell me—”

            “Oh yes, he’s alive,” Franz said quickly. “Don’t worry about that.” And he stepped forward to greet Madame Artaud.

            As Franz was speaking, Catherine listened beside him with Marie-Ange holding onto her mother, while Desnos and Landis and I stood by, straining to hear. Desnos heedlessly folded a loose edge of wallpaper back and forth until he’d separated a piece the size of his palm. The receptionist at the lobby desk telephoned Paulhan and he came downstairs. After Franz was finished, Catherine escorted Artaud’s mother and sister out to Franz’s car, and Franz shook Paulhan’s hand in greeting. Finally he gestured to us. “All right, here’s what happened,” he said to us, and placed a firm hand on my shoulder the way that Wilhelm used to. Calm down, Geoff. “Artaud did make it safely back to France but unfortunately, he spent much of the trip restrained. Upon his arrival in Le Havre, he was placed in a mental asylum.

            “After his arrest in Dublin, he was sent to Cobh and put on the Washington just as the port authority told you. But during the voyage he got into a fight. Two men, a steward and a mechanic, entered Artaud’s room unannounced to make repairs. Apparently convinced that they were there to harm him, he attacked them—or so they say—and was subdued and placed in a straitjacket. Once at Le Havre the French authorities put him in the asylum there, then transferred him to Quatre-Mares at Sotteville-lès-Rouen and that’s where he is now. I know it’s not very pleasant for him, but he is all right. He’s being looked after.”

            We just stood there and stared at each other, stunned. Paulhan’s forehead was lined. “Can we see him?” Desnos asked finally.

            “Not as yet, but soon. There is a period of evaluation, and in his case it’s been extended. Only his family can visit him at this time.”

            I opened my mouth to object, but Franz shook his head at me. I cast a disbelieving look around at their faces. This could not be real. Paulhan listened sorrowfully, remaining very calm and professional. Louis wandered away from us, staggering across the carpet with his hands to his head as if he’d been dealt a blow. Desnos, livid, turned and marched across the lobby and out the door, banging it violently. Through the glass we could hear his expletives as he stomped down the steps. Paulhan gracefully withdrew and crossed the lobby, tugging compulsively at his tie. He looked near to tears himself. I extended my grateful hand to him and he moved forward to take it, then backed away again. I was thinking of Barrault and how hard the news would be on the kid.

            “I’ll write to him,” Louis, facing away, finally muttered into his hands. He uncovered his face and turned around. “They will let Artaud read a letter from me, won’t they?”

            “Of course they will.” Franz smiled at him. “He would be glad to hear from his friends. He’s fortunate to have all of you. Come on, Geoff,” he added, prodding me. “Let’s go home.”


            The late lunch Catherine prepared was interminable. I had no appetite and soon left the table. As I crossed to the front closet to get my coat, I saw Yvonne look up at me from her place on the floor. She was holding the book that Artaud had given her, and she had arranged her dolls and her animals all very carefully in the chairs and around her. Only one chair sat empty. Her eyes had that haunted look that clearly said she knew more than Maman or Papa and Uncle Geoff were telling her. I just looked at her and I didn’t know what to say. There was nothing I could add to make it easier on her. All a little girl could understand was that the man who had always been so gentle and kind to her, the man for whom she and her toys were so patiently waiting, was not coming back to visit—as he had promised and as I had assured her—any time soon.

            I left the house and wandered Montparnasse, a spy among tattlers. A Spy in the House of Love—that was one of Nin’s unpublished novels, praised by Miller, praised by Artaud—and that was me. Everyone in Paris was talking about Artaud, discussing him in hushed emphatic voices in the bars, in the cafés, on the street corners. Paris was buzzing with the news that some Irish publisher had mocked the poet in the Irish Times as a man “traveling light in the upper storey,” out of his mind. They nattered that an Irish cop had hit Antonin Artaud with an iron bar during his arrest and nearly broken his back; that because of his six days in jail, he had been unable to retrieve his magical cane or his 200-page manuscript; that he had been deported for vagrancy and disturbing the peace, labeled an “absent-minded student,” then overpowered by two men on the ship Washington, put into a straight-jacket, and taken from the asylum at Le Havre to the asylum at Rouen—Rouen, the city where Saint Joan of Arc had been a prisoner, interrogated and burned at the stake while the priest Massieu stood before her and prayed. And now it was Massieu who was their prisoner—mad, helpless Massieu, the beautiful monk from Dreyer’s film, the transcendent figure with the iridescent eyes who now called himself Arland Antonéo. And now Paris, the people of Paris who had acclaimed Artaud’s performance in that film in 1928, gasped at his beauty, and predicted a triumphant film career for him—everyone except for his few loyal friends was laughing about what had happened.

At the Dôme Nusch sat at a table absently holding a cigarette, letting it go to ash. She said nothing and Éluard looked simultaneously enraged and teary-eyed. Anaïs Nin looked pale and horrified beside her husband who lifted a drink to his mouth again and again without opening his lips. Hugh grimaced sympathetically at me. I acknowledged him, lifting my face in sympathy too. If Nin had ever been pregnant, she and Hugh had no child now. Nin sought my eyes as well but I turned away from her. I did not see Lise Deharme and I was glad I did not. Nin was as single-purposed as Lise, and neither Medici would ever admit her part in this condemnation of a heretic.

Sonia sat quietly with Anie and Marthe and me at our corner table. Nusch and Jacqueline at some point sat with us too. None of us said anything; we merely concentrated on the tabletop. The waiters hovered, circled, then quietly withdrew. Poor Anie, now an adult, now so beautiful and golden with her hair spilling across her L’Inconnue de la Seine face, was too upset even to cry. Sonia put an arm around Anie’s shoulders and spoke quietly to her. André Breton came in and stormed around the tables, circling and circling the interior of the café while people watched him. Then he left again with Jacqueline, his lips moving compulsively, his hand plowing through his hair in a gesture I did not recognize as his. Desnos was too beside himself with grief even to appear in public. Barrault likewise was not here, nor Masson. Anita was in Spain, and Péret was still there; both were alive to my knowledge. Louis, ashen and furious, finally arrived and sat with us and asked a waiter for a carafe of water, and suddenly Sonia lifted her reddened face and smiled a little at him.

People were whispering in fascination, saying that Antonin Artaud was a raving lunatic, calling him dangerous, telling each other that his fate wasn’t a surprise considering how he had behaved in the streets, assuring each other confidently that they had thought him insane all along, and nodding to each other that it was a good thing he was locked up before he harmed someone. They laughed at his ravings, his paranoia, his writings, and his acting, calling him a has-been, a hack, a ham actor as Lise Deharme said, a mediocre poet at best and a writer of incomprehensible nonsense at worst. He was a fool to think he could launch a new theatrical movement based on musty old myths and medieval histories and Edgar Allen Poe. He was an idiot to go to Mexico to cavort with savages rather than cozy up to the Mexican Communist elite who held the key to the future. They derided The Cenci, yet I noticed that more than two years after it closed the public remembered that play when none of us could name a commercial success. They mocked him for not taking proper advantage of the powerful people he had known, the support he had been given, the bloodsuckers who knew how to turn a profit. Artaud had instead made friends with losers, like Edgard Varèse and Balthus and Landis and Jean Dubuffet, who had recently given up painting again for the wine business. Artaud was insufferable, unreachable, so it was his fault he was inconsequential. Antonin Artaud had never figured out how to play the game. And even his friends, the people I sat with, seemed to accept his Artaud’s incarceration as an inevitability, to mourn but not protest.

            Disgusted, I banged out the door too, walked for a long time, and wandered by myself along the Seine. I was unmoved by the beauty of the late autumn leaves still clinging to the bare branches that threw undulating black grotesques on the water. I couldn’t bear to think about Artaud locked up in primitive conditions in some stone prison along this very river, and yet I could not stop thinking about it. Already I was tormenting myself with romantic fantasies of rescuing him, me shouldering my way into locked wards, dressing up as a doctor or as a patient, and slinging his lanky, struggling frame over my shoulder to the waiting getaway car—alternately driven by Desnos or Louis. While I stood looking out over the river and the traffic crossing the bridges, I saved him a thousand times. I loosened his bonds, I fed his frail limbs, I saw his paranoid, ungrateful eyes accuse me again.

*Thus in fictionalizing this story I have changed history. It was Artaud’s mother who went to Le Havre and discovered her son incarcerated at Quatre-Mares. Artaud was catatonic and unable to recognize his mother.

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