Saturday, September 17, 2016

Existentialists in America from Bakewell

The existentialist culture of the late 1940s seemed very Parisian to anyone looking in from the outside, but it was also driven by a love, or at least a fascination, for all things American. Paris itself was still full of Americans, including servicemen left behind from the Liberation forces as well as new arrivals. Few young Parisians could resist American clothes, American films or American music. The fact that all of this had been banned by the Occupation authorities added to its appeal-and the ‘zazous’ had been secretly dancing to American jazz for months. The importance of American music for a whole generation is summed up in a story told by Juliette GrĂ©co. She had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, held in a cell, and then, to her surprise, freed again. She walked eight miles home through wintry streets in a thin cotton dress, and as she walked, she defiantly sang an American Song at the top of her voice: ‘Over the Rainbow’.

To go with the jazz, blues and ragtime after the war, people sought out American clothes, readily available in flea markets; there was a particular craze for plaid shirts and jackets. If your twenty-first-century time machine could take you back to a Parisian jazz club immediately after the war, you would not find yourself in a sea of existentialist black; you would be more likely to think you’d walked into a lumberjacks’ hoedown. An impression of the effect can be had from Jacques Becker’s film Rendezvous de juillet, released in 1949, which features an exuberant dance scene in the Lorientais club: as Claude Luter’s band plays on the cramped stage, the check-shirted crowd leaps around on the dance floor. The sleek black turtleneck arrived afterwards-and when Americans in turn adopted that fashion, few realised they were returning a sartorial compliment.

In the cinemas, meanwhile, people devoured American crime movies and, from the bouquinistes along the Seine, they bought American fiction. The most popular writers were the hardest-boiled ones: James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and Horace McCoy, whose despairing Depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? came out in French from Gallimard in 1946. Camus had emulated the style of American noir novels in The Stranger, and Sartre and Beauvoir were also fans. They loved non-genre American authors too: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and John Dos Passes-who was, according to Sartre, the greatest writer of the era. Many American books were translated by French publishers: ‘traduit de l’americain’ became a favourite phrase on covers. Not all books that looked like translations were the real thing, however. A book called I Spit on Your Graves, ostensibly by ‘Vernon Sullivan’ and translated by Boris Vian, was by Vian himself. Written on a kind of dare, it was a violent, sensationalist story about a black man who kills two white women to avenge the lynching of his brother, but is hunted down and eventually shot dead by the police. Vian made money from it, but got into trouble the following year when a man in Montparnasse strangled his girlfriend and shot himself, leaving a copy of the novel by his bed with the description of a strangling circled in ink in case anyone failed to notice the similarity.

Americans, able to visit Paris as tourists for the first time in five years, fell in love with the city all over again as they had in the 1920s. They sat in the Flore and Deux Magots, and ventured down the cellar stairs into nightclubs. They listened to the talk of l’existentialisme and les existentialistes, and passed it on to their friends back home. Cultured New Yorkers began to court the real existentialists: one by one, Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus were all invited to cross the Atlantic for visits and lecture tours. They all accepted.

The first to go was Sartre, in mid-January 1945: at Camus’ suggestion, he joined a delegation of invited French journalists, representing Combat and Le Figaro. (This was why he was away for the Brasillach trial.) He travelled around for two months, meeting countless people, of whom one, Dolores Vanetti, became a long-term lover. His poor English prevented him from talking as freely as he usually liked to, but he watched carefully and took notes, then wrote articles on his return. He focused on socialist questions, such as the matter of how American workers coped with the high-speed automation of American factories. At the time, few thought of technological appliances, consumerism or automated production techniques as widespread features of modern life: rather, they were considered distinctively American, and this added to the country’s glamorous but alarming image in many European minds. Can one actually live with all that technology? What does it do to a person? Sartre observed with surprise that US workers seemed cheerful, despite being cogs in a Chaplinesque industrial machine driven to go constantly faster and faster by their bosses. The whole of America seemed to be such a machine, and Sartre wondered whether it could possibly go on like that.
He returned for further visits in the late 19405, and became more comfortable communicating with people, although his English remained limited. By Sartre’s third visit, in 1948, Lionel Abel~-who met him at a Partisan Review evening-was amazed at his loquacity in a language he barely knew: there was little Sartre could say, yet he never shut up.

Albert Camus was the next to go, touring the US from March to May 1946. He travelled more nervously than Sartre, aware of being a stranger and troubled by the constant small difficulties of figuring out how things worked and what one was supposed to do. His unease made him a good observer of differences.

He noted: the morning fruit juices, the national Scotch and Soda...the anti-Semitism and the love of animals-this last extending from the gorillas in the Bronx Zoo to the protozoa of the Museum of Natural History-the funeral parlors where death and the dead are made up at top speed (Die, and leave the rest to us’) the barber shops where you can get a shave at three in the morning. ..

He was especially impressed by the billboard in Times Square where a giant GI puffed real smoke from a Camel cigarette. The only place that seemed comforting in its familiarity was New York’s Bowery district, then a derelict zone of cheap bars and run-down hotels, with the elevated railway line running through it at second-storey level, casting everything below into deep shadow. ‘A European wants to say: “Finally, reality.“ Like Sartre watching the workers, Camus was attracted and repelled. Above all, he could not understand the apparent lack of anguish in America. Nothing was properly tragic.

In 1947, Simone de Beauvoir made her journey. Unlike Sartre, she already spoke and read English; like Camus, she was astounded at the bizarre devices and inventions. She kept a diary in which she boggled at such phenomena as the way letters were posted in her hotel: next to the elevator on each floor was a tiny chute into which you dropped your envelope so that it fluttered down to a box at the bottom. The first time she saw the white things flashing by, she took them for hallucinations. Next she went to a newsagent and tried to work out how to buy stamps from the machines, but the coins confused her. She made many friends, however, and after coming to grips with New York she set out on a country-wide lecture tour with diversions to visit jazz clubs, and cinemas where she saw 'thrillings’ and ‘laffmovies’. While in Chicago, she met Nelson Algren, a tough-guy novelist who wrote about addicts and prostitutes and the seamy side of American life. They began an affair and she fell in love; they would remain lovers for three years, although they were able to meet only at long intervals in the US or France.

Her response to America was the now usual mixture of wariness and bliss. She was seduced. America 'was abundance, and infinite horizons; it was a crazy magic lantern of legendary images'. It was the future-or at least one possible version of the future. A rival ver' sion was offered by the Soviet Union, which also attracted her. But the United States was undoubtedly the stronger, at the moment. It was more confident; it was wealthy, and it had the Bomb.

One element of American life unequivocally horrified Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus: its racial inequalities, and not only in the South. After his first trip, Sartre wrote in Le Figaro of how black ‘untouchables' and ‘unseeables’ haunted the streets, never meeting your gaze; it was as if they saw no one, and you were not supposed to see them either.

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