A Memory

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A Memory:  On the First Anniversary of the Death of Jules Vallès[1]

When he fell back with a heavy sigh and I knew that death, that wretch, had just taken him, I cried out in revolt against anyone who tried to comfort me. “Leave me alone! Ah, you don’t know what he was to me. He was my father… He was my child!”

My father! He did, indeed, instruct my mind and form my convictions. He pulled me out of the middle class muck. He took the trouble to knead and shape my soul in his own image. He made a simple and sincere creature out of the doll I was. He gave me the heart and mind of a citizen.

Ah, yes, dear father!

All those people who whispered to each other when they saw us passing by or who smiled seeing my twenty springtimes next to his fifty autumns do not know how unimportant their ironies and innuendos were to my utter indifference or to the deepest joys I experienced in the role I accepted by his side.

It would be easy to laugh at Antigone if she were not Oedipus’ daughter—and especially if Oedipus’ eyes were still young under his helmet of white hair. But how little did I care! And what sweet revenge for me when we sat at his desk and he sketched the legend of the proletariat, perpetually wounded, perpetually defeated. His style was visual, to create images—beautiful images always tinted with red… the blood of the oppressed that has run for centuries without its source ever drying up. And then he cradled my young beliefs with the carols of Dupont, the songs of Clément and the refrains of Pottier![2] And at his side, like a good little girl, I recited the alphabet of the Revolution.

My father, certainly, yes! And yet, how much better the second word: my child.

Ah! I am fully aware that for anyone who does not care or who disapproves this motherly name sounds funny coming from a young woman talking about an old man more than a quarter of a century her senior. But it is not for the indifferent or the hostile that I am writing this. Those who are reading me today on this anniversary are those who were part of Vallès’ funeral procession a year ago and escorted me in my grief. This is the family I have chosen as my own, the anonymous relations of the lower classes, the great crowd of sufferers to whom I give all my heart and for whom I hope, one day, to give my life!

To them I can tell my sorrow—they respect tears.

But they only knew Vallès when he was rowdy and full of life, loud and spirited, when his voice filled up the room, his laughter shook the windows and his grip crushed, though it was the grip of such a warm hand.

I did not know this Vallès very well. My Vallès is the one with whom I fought through sickness for three painful years and the one for whom I grappled with death for six dreadful weeks.

In his life, which was almost happy and fiercely free of the old resistance, I was just some fun, some glitter, a common tease, a socialite signed up by his talent, as he strolled around the suburbs with his new recruit. I smiled at this sometimes, when he looked so naïve showing off and his eyes sparkled with cheer in front of the scandalized astonishment of the bourgeoisie yelling, “We’ve been robbed!”

Except, I also felt good that I was such a little thing to him, that I had missed his vagabond years and that our literary collaboration—the strong bond between us—which was developed with so much appreciation on my part, was for him merely a master patronizing his apprentice. I was an extra in his life—nothing more.

But after!

When the sickness cast him down and hounded him like a vulture circling battlefields to finish off the wounded; when it tore off his flesh and gnawed at his lungs with its claws and beak; when nothing remained of the Hercules of old but a kind of ghost, thin as a skeleton and weak as a child, oh, then I was needed in his life and I was, I can say with pride, life itself for him!

In his old Christ’s face, whose skin was as frightfully thin and pale as wax, his eyes burned warmly, full of tenderness and pain, as they followed me around the room. And I found the energy to laugh and cheer him up and distract him, all the while talking his ear off about the coming spring, about getting better, about the hot sun and the green grass that we would go find far away, very far away…

And while his face lit up, he huddled in my arms almost in fear and I felt It prowling around us—That which we cannot avoid—implacable Death waiting for me to let go of him so It could steal him away.

My child! I will never take that back.

He weighed less than a child when I carried his poor, wasted body from bed to bed. He called for me like a child, day and night, every minute, just to see me leaning over him and to feel me near. And I buried him myself like the brave mothers who sew the flesh of their flesh into a shroud.

I am saying all this, I swear, not to talk about what I did. We do not deserve praise for doing our duty when we get such bitter joy from it. And again it is not an “article” I am writing—it is my grief that I express, good or bad, come as it may!

But today on this anniversary there will be no shortage of people screaming out about the selfishness and inhumanity of Vallès…

Well, do you really believe that he was so selfish, cruel and inhuman? He who was able to inspire such motherly and daughterly tenderness and passion? He whom we keep in memory like a religion?

[1] February 14 1886, include in Pages Rouges, 1893.

[2] Pierre Dupont (1821-1870), socialist songwriter; Jean Baptiste Clément (1836-1903), writer of “Le Temps des Cerises”; and Eugène Pottier (1816-1887), writer of “L’Internationale”.

Charenton Bridge

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Paris Commune-night of 23 and 24 May

The Charenton Bridge: May 1871[1]

The cart took the road from Choisy. The spring had come early and little cherry trees lined the whole way, glittering red like they were splattered with drops of blood. The country was in flower, the earth smelled good and the sun crowned the thatched roofs in gold. It was good to be alive.

It had been two months since we left Paris. They said that our “brothers and friends” were going to pillage and massacre everything. My family was scared, so they rented a little cart and crammed it full of all kinds of things. And they wedged me, poor little thing, between two mattresses, holding a parrot’s cage in my right hand and a hatbox in my left, with two shoulder bags and a bunch of umbrellas between my knees.

“As long as the bandits let us through!” my mother said.

Before we got to the roadblock she threw her tartan over my head to make it harder for them to see me. I did not look like a little girl anymore even with my short skirts. She and my uncle hinted at this before bundling me up and they mumbled a lot, but I only caught snatches.

“Capable of anything… In June, remember?… And at Clamecy, right, the prefect’s wife!”

I did not know what had happened at Clamecy, but I knew what was happening in the cart. I was suffocating. I was sweating blood and water.

“Don’t move, poor child! We’re there!”

My parents got down and I heard them talking… it was amazing how nice they were! I sneezed and the shawl shifted.

“So, you’re hiding an animal back there!” someone yelled.

They pulled off the tartan and Cocotte started squawking up a storm. The entire post watched me, laughing so hard I got tears in my eyes seeing how funny Mama looked.

“The kid’s in a good mood,” my liberator said. He was a member of the National Guard[2] who had a big moustache and a red nose but seemed to be the salt of the earth and merry as a starling.

“Move on! There won’t be any trouble, get going! The Guard isn’t mean!” The horse started trotting again and I heard a deep, cheerful voice cry out to me, “Hey, kid, make sure you don’t drop anything!”

We were through and yet my parents were furious. They had called Mama “the mother” as if she were a fishmonger or was hawking slop and they treated my uncle like a “doddering old fool”.

Then they cried out, “Dear Lord, the Prussians! We’re saved!”

#

That is what I was thinking about while we rolled on towards Charenton. The bridge had become the meeting point for high society in the area. It was the place to be: for two days they came to watch Paris burn.

While waiting for the end, to stave off the boredom of the trip, they talked about what was happening over there… Cavalry officers soaked in oil and burned alive like in the times of Nero. Policemen’s wives thrown in the front lines of the battalions to be a screen for the enemy’s bullets. The wounded Communards got drunk on eau-de-vie so they could be sent back to the massacre. In their filthy rage they finished off the wounded from Versailles by sprinkling their open wounds with tobacco and pepper to make their pain sharper and their martyrdom longer.

“Why don’t you say something? Are you so cold-hearted?”

Ah, no, I was not cold-hearted. My eyes were burning and my heart pumping! But if I bottled up the trembling little heart in my young girl’s breast, would you be so surprised or get angry with me—you bourgeoisie who raised me to be like you, to honor the family and the race?

I knew nothing. I understood nothing. But I could not believe what you were telling me! I remembered that the murderers you were talking about were the very ones who let us escape without touching a hair on our heads, without taking a penny from our pockets, without drinking one bottle of our wine—those drunkards!

I also remembered all the poor people whom they housed in the gilded apartments around us. I remembered how sad and gentle they seemed and how proud, too, never asking for a thing; and how uncomfortable they looked in that hostile luxury; and how much they wanted to get back to their crowded slums where they were free, at least, and not humiliated.

But I could not say this and I huddled back up in the cart, closed my eyes and tried to close my ears.

#

The bridge. We arrived.

The whole sky was red, the horizon in flames! We could see nothing, nothing but a sea of fire and a thick fog of gray smoke floating heavily above it.

“Oh, the scoundrels!   In front of the enemy!”

That was the general cry. Indeed, the enemy was there. The bridge was the border between the two armies: French on one side and Germans on the other. The armistice had put both sides in their place. They just sat there looking stonily at each other, especially when they laid down their arms and had nothing to fear but fistfights and brawls.

But for the moment there was no question of brawls. Everyone was friendly and fraternizing. Fried potatoes were selling over here and a barrel organ was set up over there. Some Bavarians had taken our young soldiers around the waist and were teaching them how to waltz. Our men were clumsy and stumbled at every step. Soon two of them took a fall with the German sprawled on top of the French.

“These guys are animals, always on top!” a swaggering soldier yelled.

Big laughs.

On the other hand—not to be lacking good manners—a seasoned officer offered his “fries” to a group of blonde, chubby Germans who dipped their fat fingers in the cone and licked them succulently before drying them on their caps.

A Tilbury carriage arrived. A fat landlord of Saint Maurice, the king of the country, got out with his two majors whom he put in charge of accommodations—and whom he accommodated magnificently. The taller one, they said, would marry his daughter after the peace—a real catch: 500,000 F dowry. While waiting the officer offered his arm to his future father in-law who had gout and heavy legs. And there they were in the middle of the bridge. The German watched in silence and his face clouded over. “Poor Paris,” he murmured. But the other, the Frenchman, the bourgeois, waved his fist toward the city in flames. “In front of the enemy! Ah, the rats!”

 

[1] Séverine, Pages Rouges, 1893.

[2] Defended Paris against the Prussians and during the Commune included anyone able to bear arms.

1-Childhood

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zSeverine1

Traditional Drama

Curtains Open

Lights Up

Séverine was born Caroline Rémy on April 27 1855 into a typically middle-class, bourgeois family in Paris. Her father, Onésime Rémy, had worked his way up through the ranks of bureaucracy to become the head of the Wet Nurse Department within the Prefecture of Police. From eight in the morning until six at night he trudged through the muddy suburbs of Paris to check on the women breastfeeding the children of the petite bourgeoisie and of mothers who had to work. Babies often died in unhealthy conditions and it was his job to prevent such tragedies. He was an honest, hard-working man, but at home he was strict and demanding on Line, as she was called.

It was a sad and solitary childhood. Being an only child and educated at home, Line had few friends and had to learn how to get by on her own in the world of adults and at the same time at an early age discovering her precociousness and rebellion. She taught herself to read using her father’s newspaper, Le Siècle, and her favorite books of Comtesse de Ségur. When she asked to have a pet—a dog, a cat, even a bird—to share her solitude in the second-floor apartment, her father came home with a goldfish. “Are you happy? You’ll have fun with it?” Staring at the bowl to hide her disappointment she answered, “Of course. And we won’t make any noise when we argue.”

In her simple but severe upbringing, she had to steer prudently between her father’s thunderous wrath and her mother’s rigorous austerity. She was dressed in dark clothes so as not to show the dirt and her golden red locks were cut short like a boy (or a prisoner) for tidiness.

One glimmer of light in the middle class gloom was Clementine, the maid. Line admired her pretty brown hair, bright clothes and even brighter laugh. A kind of complicity developed between the two of them. When she ended up leaving to get married it was a bitter tragedy for Line. But she still had her grandmother, cheerful and intelligent, who, being a widow, had come to live with them. She seemed to see more shrewdly than others. “My poor child,” she said, “if you don’t learn how to snuff out your passion, you will be ever so unhappy!” (because Line had slapped a boy who was torturing a bird), which was nicer than what others told her: “You’ll end up on the gallows!”

Yes, she was different. This “wild seed in the family garden” hated her bourgeois upbringing, the hypocrisy and conformity that was meant only to break a child’s will and remold the nascent personality.

Nevertheless, her parents loved her in their way, saving every penny for her dowry and tutoring her in Greek, Latin, music scales and how to act like a lady. Her father took her to the Louvre where he liked to visit the antiquities, the classics—Line preferred Rembrandt. But her mother brought her to the theater, which became a lifelong passion. She dreamed of becoming an actress, one of those grand women in revolt on stage. Her father would have none of that nonsense. He had destined her for teaching. Or a wealthy marriage. As she grew older, marriage looked more and more like her way out. Anything to get away from home.

At fifteen years old in 1870 Line was imprisoned… in a house left emptier by the death of her grandmother and bleaker by the siege of Paris (remember the Prussians). Line went out to help the wounded and dying. She came home with brains and blood on her schoolbooks. War, like the police, she hated from childhood. In the spring the Paris Commune bloomed. Still wearing skirts, she lived through it in a fog. Her parents feared the rebels more than the Prussians; they preferred military discipline to the insecurity of the Communards—those men and women drunk on blood and wine—so they moved out of Paris. Not for long, however, because everyone knew, soon enough, that the end was near. Line heard all kinds of horror stories about the atrocities committed inside the city walls, but she was no longer a little girl; she was already a dazzling beauty and she knew fully well that adults did not always speak the truth.

They spent two months outside Paris, safe from the “Communard Rabble” (as her parents called them) until the end finally came. That last week of May 1871 is graphically and accurately called The Bloody Week. The barricades of the Commune were broken. The rebels were summarily executed or put to flight. The dead and wounded were piled in the streets. The Revolution had dried up, but it watered the seeds of revolt in Line as she watched Paris burn in that surreal fair on the Charenton Bridge.

And the Rémys were safe now to return home.

 

0-By Way of Introduction

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Severine by Rodin-1893(Séverine by Rodin, 1893)

The First Republic was ushered in by the French Revolution in 1789 and officially proclaimed in September 1792 when the monarchy was abolished. Louis XVI was beheaded four months later, followed by internal rebellions, war abroad, an economic crisis and, of course, the ruthless suppression of all counter-revolutionary forces during the bloody Reign of Terror that made the guillotine perhaps the only thing in France not starving. The army gained more and more control, thus preparing its most successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte, to stage a coup and eventually declare himself Emperor in 1804.

During the First Empire the royal dogs were kept at bay and the Napoleonic Wars insured that foreign countries would not meddle in domestic affairs, but while preserving some social gains and instituting civil reforms, Napoleon was not a republican nor a democrat and became increasingly autocratic until the European nations finally allied against him. After his disastrous campaign in Russia he was forced to abdicate on April 11 1814. A yearlong exile on the island of Elba, then he returned to revive the Empire for the famous Hundred Days before his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18 1815. While he wallowed in exile—on Saint Helena this time, ultimately dying there in 1821—the monarchy was restored in France under Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI.

Unlike the previous “absolute” monarchy, the Bourbon Restoration under Louis XVIII was a “constitutional” monarchy following the Charter of 1814, the constitution he had allowed before Napoleon rushed back on stage, but it, too, was far from democratic. He died on the throne in 1824 and was succeeded by another younger brother, Charles X, who ended up becoming more and more authoritarian, suspended the constitution and finally dismissed the government, which led to the July Revolution of 1830 and brought to power Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans, the “bourgeois monarch”. As might be expected, this government, as well, declined into oppression and exploitation that enriched the wealthy until the economic crisis of 1847 exploded in the 1848 Revolution, which sent this last French king into exile in England.

After sixty years of various changes under different forms of government, the condition of the people had not changed.   To solve the problem in this Second Republic, rival schools of thought inevitably came into conflict. Between capitalism and socialism, between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between the rich and the poor were irreconcilable differences out of which imperialist sympathies resurfaced. The conservatives came out on top but on December 10 1848 it was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew and heir of Napoleon I, who won the presidential election. Over the next three years he consolidated his power and influence by suppressing the opposition, playing the monarchists against the republicans, all the while fostering his own personal ambitions that culminated in a coup d’état, an illegal maneuver that dissolved the National Assembly in December 1851 and paved the way, a year later, for the Second French Empire, which lasted eighteen years.

Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, ruled until 1870, developing from an “authoritarian” empire into a “parliamentary” empire during those volatile times on the international scene: wars in Europe along with an economic crisis brought on by the American Civil War that resulted in free trade agreements with Britain, for example. As he continued to estrange his former supporters and fuel his enemies what other result was to be expected but his downfall? And Prussia was the instrument. France declared war on Prussia in 1870, but after a series of defeats culminating in the disastrous Battle of Sedan on September 1, Napoleon III surrendered. It was the loss of more than just his war. On September 4 the National Assembly was mobbed, a new government formed and the Third Republic officially declared, dominated by the “three Jules”, Jules Ferry, Jules Simon and Jules Favre.

The Third Republic ended in 1940 when the Nazis defeated France and the Vichy government was installed. As it ended in war, so it had begun. After Sedan the Prussians continued their march and laid siege to Paris for more than five months. Bombarded, starved, and finally vanquished and sold, the French surrendered to the Prussians in 1871 and set up a provisional, conservative government in Versailles with Adolphe Thiers at its head. The resulting treaty and financial laws, especially for those eternal reparations, were so untenable that the workers, socialists of all stripes and the National Guard rebelled and established the Paris Commune of 1871. This radical left-wing government lasted over two months before it was repressed during the “Semaine Sanglante”, the Bloody Week, between May 21 and 28 1871.

The times were uncertain. Still feeling the wounds from the defeat of Sedan and traumatized by the Commune, France hesitated between a conservative monarchy and a moderate republic. After almost a century of passion and fury, from revolution to restoration, from fleeting republics to authoritarian empires, from coup d’états to unstable monarchies, the country was hoping for a rest, but it did not know which way to turn. Nevertheless, after a failed attempt to reestablish the monarchy, the republicans took control of France, wrote its new constitution in 1875 (voted through with only one vote of majority) and ruled for the next sixty years.

During the 1850s and 1860s the French had lived under an authoritarian government, but they were relatively prosperous times. Unfortunately, the failed war of 1870 plunged it into an economic depression that it would not really crawl out of until World War I. In many people’s eyes those responsible for this deplorable situation were the members of parliament whose self-interest took precedence over any concern for their electors. The growing poverty through this era was phenomenal and the struggle against it monumental. At the start it fell to the Paris Commune of 1871. Even if it is hard to imagine today, it was a time when people of different political ideologies fought together—socialists, communists and anarchists alike—to establish a revolutionary government, flying the socialist red flag instead of the republican tricolor (blue, white and red), and eventually become a model for future generations throughout the world. The Communards, however, paid dearly for their experiment. During the Bloody Week in May 1871 the number of casualties (more Parisians than Communards, of course) in the slaughter was anywhere from 17,000 to 40,000. Officially there were 43,522 arrests that took six years to try in court and resulted in a couple of dozen executions and thousands sent to the penal colony in New Caledonia. Many Communards managed to flee to Belgium or Britain or elsewhere; many others escaped from the colonies to live in exile. When the general amnesty was declared in 1880, they returned to face the Third Republic. By then, Séverine had a role to play.