From Book 1: Benjamin Peret

            There were voices outside and someone pounded on the door. Desnos answered it and let in a group of five people. Before any introductions could begin more people walked up, so he left the door open to the warm night air. Some of the people I recognized from earlier this evening, but most were complete strangers. There was one lamp on the table and some weak electric lights, so people began lighting the candles that were sitting on a nearby shelf. They walked with them and dripped their wax to stick them on the counter, the shelves, and the floor. Multiple shadows danced across the walls, passing over our elongated motionless shades.

I watched in alarm as thin skirts swirled near the flames. In the flickering light the heavily painted faces of the women, and of some of the men, loomed exaggerated and pale, their eyes sunken, their expressions bored. Among them Robert Desnos flitted, drawing them out, making them laugh and encouraging them to talk to each other. His clown face and friendly manner won out over their superior airs. It seemed everyone liked him, and I realized I liked him, too.

In this crowd I saw again that stocky, bat-eared jokester who stole poems and chairs. Imitating Artaud in the prop cart the man stomped toward our table, a leer on his great round face, though now his mouth showed his teeth, not Artaud’s purloined writing. Roger stood up and waved Desnos over, then saw Artaud’s amused expression and clamped his arms to his sides. “Keep Péret and Artaud apart,” he warned our host, “or they’ll burn the place down.”

“Hell, yes!” Desnos slipped in front of Artaud’s tormentor and humorously stomped him backward toward a divan on the far side of the room. Péret sat down but he kept on glaring at Artaud, who merely sneered back at that strange round face.

“He ate your words earlier,” I told Artaud. “The words you were looking for.”

Artaud nodded, but he never broke their stare-down. “Yes, he ate my sixty-nine words,” he told me, “but he didn’t swallow.”

Roger and Louis laughed again and applauded. Justine covered her mouth and I knew I blushed.

“Fuck you, Jack,” said Bat-Ears on the divan to Artaud, but he never stopped grinning. “Fuck you, Jack-Nanaqui-Mack.” I knew I was behind the times, but even among German speakers the English saying Fuck you, Jack were fighting words. I tensed, expecting those two to rush at each other at any moment.

“Let us Péret,” mocked Artaud back as he put his palms together like a penitent.

“If you please!” Desnos turned around to glare at Artaud too. “Pretty please with sugar on my bottom, no murder in my place unless you two passionately love each other. And have sex first. In front of everyone. Preferably when Man Ray gets here with his camera.”

Péret looked amused then but Artaud screwed up his face in disgust. Justine and Louis laughed again. “Beginning to get the picture?” muttered Roger to me. “André Breton and Benjamin Péret are tight, and Artaud and Breton have philosophical differences. Péret hopes to edge out Artaud. Infighting.”

“Oh, ‘picture.’ Very good,” chortled Louis as he mimed holding a camera. “Man Ray is a photographer,” he explained to me. “Breton disapproves of cinema, but not still photographs.”

“What?” I asked. “That doesn’t make sense.”

Louis chuckled. “Don’t try to figure it out. You’ll meet Breton eventually too. Unfortunately.”

            Now the place was packed with young people talking and laughing, standing around, sitting on the floor, and stepping out of the windows in the loft to dangle their legs from the roof. One group of men sat in a circle on the floor apart from the others and shouted each other down. “More Surrealists—of the peasant stock,” Louis muttered as he jerked his chin toward them, and Artaud nodded.

            I looked at Roger, who explained, “The men in that group have all joined the Communist Party. Artaud and Desnos have not, so…”

            “Now, now,” Desnos admonished sweetly as he came back to us. “Let’s all get along.”

            “Who are they?” I asked again, forcefully to get an answer this time. Desnos would tell me, surely. “Who exactly are these Surrealists? What are they? A political party?”

            “Sh! Keep your voice down,” Roger hissed. He glanced over at that group again, but he sounded amused, not alarmed. “You’re too tanked to protect yourself if you start a brawl here.”

            “I am not tanked,” I returned indignantly, and Justine smiled down at my empty glass. Roger filled it with wine again. “Why don’t you just answer me?” I insisted. “Are they some kind of cult?”

            At this Justine, Roger, and Louis all burst out laughing. Artaud flicked his cigarette ash into a saucer and contemplated me with a sidelong look of contempt. Suddenly I wanted to reach out and yank his collar.

“Well, we practically are,” Desnos said as he laid a calming hand on my shoulder. I caught the slight shake of his head at Artaud. “We may as well declare ourselves a religion and name martyrs, and write down doctrine for all the fun we’ve been lately, waging holy war amongst ourselves. And look around you. Is Breton here? No, he never comes to see me anymore. He’s probably holed up in his apartment on the rue Fontaine, staring cross-eyed at his high-priced Picassos.” Desnos bounded away again, but he looked angry.

            Roger wiped his face and smiled apologetically at me. “Look, we’re not laughing at you, Geoff—we’re laughing at them. A cult, that’s rich. The Surrealists are not an easy group to explain. They’re poets but they’re engaged in a revolt against literature—and against intellectualism in general. As it happens, they are pretty confused about who they are right now, and—”

            “I am not confused,” Artaud contradicted him.

            “—If you ask twenty Surrealists, you will get forty answers.”

            “You would get one answer,” Artaud told Roger, “and thirty-nine lashes with a whip, should you ever care to ask me.” The slightest lines around his mouth suggested the ghost of a laugh. In reply, Roger put down his glass and flapped his arms mockingly.

            Someone wound up an old Victrola and put on a phonograph, and its melody wavered beneath the buzz of so many voices. Waves of smoke from candles and cigarettes caught the candlelight and stretched it across the ceiling like cobwebs. Winking and sliding, the smoke-light reflected back onto faces and enveloped people’s bodies in a weird gauze. Some people were trying to dance in this jammed place and the Surrealists were getting stepped on. This group of men yelled at the dancers yet refused to move from their spot on the floor. They in turn were mocked by Desnos, who shouted that anyone who wanted to dance should go ahead and do so, and anyone who didn’t like it could sit on the ceiling.

            “Or they could dance on the ceiling!” yelled Benjamin Péret. He rose from the divan and pranced about, stepping on his own comrades in a surprisingly lissome performance.

            “So do,” replied Desnos. He smiled again as he pointed to the ceiling.

A flared skirt in the crowd suddenly whirled into flames around a girl, and I gasped. But she merely unfastened the flimsy cloth, dropped it and stepped away, a shaky hand to her mouth. “It’s all right, Geoff,” Justine reassured me as I rose from my chair. “They’re putting it out. It’s all right.” Desnos was heroically jumping on the cloth to thunderous applause. The girl stood giggling in her slip and hose. Desnos’s grin never faltered and the dancing never stopped.

Feet stomped on other feet, elbows knocked ribs, heels caught shins, and soon the tinny phonograph made an agonized screech and was quiet again.

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