Moveable Feast (Chapter 7)
With Pascin at the Dome
It was a lovely evening and I had worked hard all day and left the flat over the sawmill and walked out through the courtyard with the stacked lumber, closed the door, crossed the street and went into the back door of the bakery that fronted on the Boulevard Montparnasse and out through the good bread smells of the ovens and the shop to the street. The lights were on in the bakery and outside it was the end of the day and I walked in the early dusk up the street and stopped outside the terrace of the Nègre de Toulouse restaurant where our red and white checkered napkins were in the wooden napkin rings in the napkin rack waiting for us to come to dinner. I read the menu mimeographed in purple ink and saw that the plat du jour was cassoulet. It made me hungry to read the name.
Mr. Lavigne, the proprietor, asked me how my work had gone and I said it had gone very well. He said he had seen me working on the terrace of the Closerie des Lilas early in the morning but he had not spoken to me because I was so occupied.
“You had the air of a man alone in the jungle,” he said.
“I am like a blind pig when I work.”
“But were you not in the jungle, Monsieur?”
“In the bush,” I said.
I went on up the street looking in the windows and happy with the spring evening and the people coming past. In the three principal cafés I saw people that I knew by sight and others that I knew to speak to. But there were always much nicer-looking people that I did not know that, in the evening with the lights just coming on, were hurrying to some place to drink together, to eat together and then to make love. The people in the principal cafés might do the same thing or they might just sit and drink and talk and love to be seen by others. The people that I liked and had not met went to the big cafés because they were lost in them and no one noticed them and they could be alone in them and be together. The big cafés were cheap then too, and all had good beer and the apéritifs cost reasonable prices that were clearly marked on the saucers that were served with them.
On this evening I was thinking these wholesome but not original thoughts and feeling extraordinarily virtuous because I had worked well and hard on a day when I had wanted to go out to the races very badly. But at this time I could not afford to go to the races, even though there was money to be made there if you worked at it. It was before the days of saliva tests and other methods of detecting artificially encouraged horses and doping was very extensively practiced. But handicapping beasts that are receiving stimulants, and detecting the symptoms in the paddock and acting on your perceptions, which sometimes bordered on the extrasensory, then backing them with money you cannot afford to lose, is not the way for a young man supporting a wife and child to get ahead in the full-time job of learning to write prose.
By any standards we were still very poor and I still made such small economies as saying that I had been asked out for lunch and then spending two hours walking in the Luxembourg gardens and coming back to describe the marvelous lunch to my wife. When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all of your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink.
At the Nègre de Toulouse we drank the good Cahors wine from the quarter, the half, or the full carafe, usually diluting it about one-third with water. At home, over the sawmill, we had a Corsican wine that had great authority and a low price. It was a very Corsican wine and you could dilute it by half with water and still receive its message. In Paris, then, you could live very well on almost nothing and by skipping meals occasionally and never buying any new clothes, you could save and have luxuries.
Coming back from The Select now where I had sheered off at the sight of Harold Stearns who I knew would want to talk horses, those animals I was thinking of righteously and light-heartedly as the beasts that I had just foresworn. Full of my evening virtue I passed the collection of inmates at the Rotonde and, scorning vice and the collective instinct, crossed the boulevard to the Dôme. The Dôme was crowded too, but there were people there who had worked.
There were models who had worked and there were painters who had worked until the light was gone and there were writers who had finished a day’s work for better or for worse, and there were drinkers and characters, some of whom I knew and some that were only decoration.
I went over and sat down at a table with Pascin and two models who were sisters. Pascin had waved to me while I had stood on the sidewalk on the rue Delambre side wondering whether to stop and have a drink or not. Pascin was a very good painter and he was drunk; steady, purposefully drunk and making good sense. The two models were young and pretty. One was very dark, small, beautifully built with a falsely fragile depravity. The other was childlike and dull but very pretty in a perishable childish way. She was not as well built as her sister, but neither was anyone else that spring.
“The good and the bad sisters,” Pascin said. “I have money. What will you drink?”
“Une demi-blonde,” I said to the waiter.
“Have a whisky. I have money.”
“I like beer.”
“If you really liked beer, you’d be at Lipp’s. I suppose you’ve been working.”
“I hope so.”
“Good. I’m glad. And everything still tastes good?”
“How old are you?”
“Do you want to bang her?” He looked toward the dark sister and smiled. “She needs it.”
“You probably banged her enough today.”
She smiled at me with her lips open. “He’s wicked,” she said. “But he’s nice.”
“You can take her over to the studio.”
“Don’t make piggishness,” the blonde sister said.
“Who spoke to you?” Pascin asked her.
“Nobody. But I said it.”
“Let’s be comfortable,” Pascin said. “The serious young writer and the friendly wise old painter and the two beautiful young girls with all of life before them.”
We sat there and the girls sipped at their drinks and Pascin drank another fine à l’eau and I drank the beer; but no one was comfortable except Pascin. The dark girl was restless and she sat on display turning her profile and letting the light strike the concave planes of her face and showing me her breasts under the hold of the black sweater. Her hair was cropped short and was sleek and dark as an oriental’s.
“You’ve posed all day,” Pascin said to her. “Do you have to model that sweater now at the café?”
“It pleases me,” she said.
“You look like a Javanese toy,” he said.
“Not the eyes,” she said. “It’s more complicated than that.”
“You look like a poor perverted little poupée.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “But alive. That’s more than you.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Good,” she said. “I like proofs.”
“You didn’t have any today?”
“Oh that,” she said and turned to catch the last evening light on her face. “You were just excited about your work. He’s in love with canvases,” she said to me. “There’s always some kind of dirtiness.”
“You want me to paint you and pay you and bang you to keep my head clear, and be in love with you too,” Pascin said. “You poor little doll.”
“You like me, don’t you, Monsieur?” she asked me.
“But you’re too big,” she said sadly.
“Everyone is the same size in bed.”
“It’s not true,” her sister said. “And I’m tired of this talk.”
“Look,” Pascin said. “If you think I’m in love with canvases, I’ll paint you tomorrow in water colors.”
“When do we eat?” her sister asked. “And where?”
“Will you eat with us?” the dark girl asked.
“No. I go to eat with my légitime.” That was what they said then. Now they say “my régulière.”
“You have to go?”
“Have to and want to.”
“Go on, then,” Pascin said. “And don’t fall in love with typewriting paper.”
“If I do, I’ll write with a pencil.”
“Water colors tomorrow,” he said. “All right, my children, I will drink another and then we eat where you wish.”
“Chez Viking,” the dark girl said.
“Me too,” her sister urged.
“All right,” Pascin agreed. “Good night, jeune homme. Sleep well.”
“They keep me awake,” he said. “I never sleep.”
“After Chez Les Vikings?” He grinned with his hat on the back of his head. He looked more like a Broadway character of the Nineties than the lovely painter that he was, and afterwards, when he had hanged himself, I liked to remember him as he was that night at the Dôme. They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.
Ezra Pound and His Bel Esprit
Ezra Pound was always a good friend and he was always doing things for people. The studio where he lived with his wife Dorothy on the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs was as poor as Gertrude Stein’s studio was rich. It had very good light and was heated by a stove and it had paintings by Japanese artists that Ezra knew. They were all noblemen where they came from and wore their hair cut long. Their hair glistened black and swung forward when they bowed and I was very impressed by them but I did not like their paintings. I did not understand them but they did not have any mystery, and when I understood them they meant nothing to me. I was sorry about this but there was nothing I could do about it.
Dorothy’s paintings I liked very much and I thought Dorothy was very beautiful and built wonderfully. I also liked the head of Ezra by Gaudier-Brzeska and I liked all of the photographs of this sculptor’s work that Ezra showed me and that were in Ezra’s book about him. Ezra also liked Picabia’s painting but I thought then that it was worthless. I also disliked Wyndham Lewis’s painting which Ezra liked very much. He liked the works of his friends, which is beautiful as loyalty but can be disastrous as judgment. We never argued about these things because I kept my mouth shut about things I did not like. If a man liked his friends’ painting or writing, I thought it was probably like those people who like their families, and it was not polite to criticize them. Sometimes you can go quite a long time before you criticize families, your own or those by marriage, but it is easier with bad painters because they do not do terrible things and make intimate harm as families can do. With bad painters all you need to do is not look at them. But even when you have learned not to look at families nor listen to them and have learned not to answer letters, families have many ways of being dangerous. Ezra was kinder and more Christian about people than I was. His own writing, when he would hit it right, was so perfect, and he was so sincere in his mistakes and so enamored of his errors, and so kind to people that I always thought of him as a sort of saint. He was also irascible but so perhaps have been many saints.
Ezra wanted me to teach him to box and it was while we were sparring late one afternoon in his studio that I first met Wyndham Lewis. Ezra had not been boxing very long and I was embarrassed at having him work in front of anyone he knew, and I tried to make him look as good as possible. But it was not very good because he knew how to fence and I was still working to make his left into his boxing hand and move his left foot forward always and bring his right foot up parallel with it. It was just basic moves. I was never able to teach him to throw a left hook and to teach him to shorten his right was something for the future.
Wyndham Lewis wore a wide black hat, like a character in the quarter, and was dressed like someone out of La Bohème. He had a face that reminded me of a frog, not a bullfrog but just any frog, and Paris was too big a puddle for him. At that time we believed that any writer or painter could wear any clothes he owned and there was no official uniform for the artist; but Lewis wore the uniform of a prewar artist. It was embarrassing to see him and he watched superciliously while I slipped Ezra’s left leads or blocked them with an open right glove.
I wanted us to stop but Lewis insisted we go on, and I could see that, knowing nothing about what was going on, he was waiting, hoping to see Ezra hurt. Nothing happened. I never countered but kept Ezra moving after me sticking out his left hand and throwing a few right hands and then said we were through and washed down with a pitcher of water and toweled off and put on my sweatshirt.
We had a drink of something and I listened while Ezra and Lewis talked about people in London and Paris. I watched Lewis carefully without seeming to look at him, as you do when you are boxing, and I do not think I had ever seen a nastier-looking man. Some people show evil as a great race horse shows breeding. They have the dignity of a hard chancre. Lewis did not show evil; he just looked nasty.
Walking home I tried to think what he reminded me of and there were various things. They were all medical except toe-jam and that was a slang word. I tried to break his face down and describe it but I could only get the eyes. Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.
“I met the nastiest man I’ve ever seen today,” I told my wife.
“Tatie, don’t tell me about him,” she said. “Please don’t tell me about him. We’re just going to have dinner.”
About a week afterwards I met Miss Stein and told her I’d met Wyndham Lewis and asked her if she had ever met him.
“I call him ‘the Measuring Worm,’ ” she said. “He comes over from London and he sees a good picture and takes a pencil out of his pocket and you watch him measuring it on the pencil with his thumb. Sighting on it and measuring it and seeing exactly how it is done. Then he goes back to London and does it and it doesn’t come out right. He’s missed what it’s all about.”
So I thought of him as the Measuring Worm. It was a kinder and more Christian term than what I had thought about him myself. Later I tried to like him and to be friends with him as I did with nearly all of Ezra’s friends when he explained them to me. But this was how he seemed to me on the first day I ever met him in Ezra’s studio.
Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known and the most disinterested. He helped poets, painters, sculptors and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone whether he believed in them or not if they were in trouble. He worried about everyone and in the time when I first knew him he was most worried about T. S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so had insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet.
Ezra founded something called Bel Esprit with Miss Natalie Barney who was a rich American woman and a patroness of the arts. Miss Barney had been a friend of Rémy de Gourmont who was before my time and she had a salon at her house on regular dates and a small Greek temple in her garden. Many American and French women with money enough had salons and I figured very early that they were excellent places for me to stay away from, but Miss Barney, I believe, was the only one that had a small Greek temple in her garden.
Ezra showed me the brochure for Bel Esprit and Miss Barney had allowed him to use the small Greek temple on the brochure. The idea of Bel Esprit was that we would all contribute a part of whatever we earned to provide a fund to get Mr. Eliot out of the bank so he would have money to write poetry. This seemed like a good idea to me and after we had got Mr. Eliot out of the bank Ezra figured we would go right straight along and fix up everybody.
I mixed things up a little by always referring to Eliot as Major Eliot pretending to confuse him with Major Douglas an economist about whose ideas Ezra was very enthusiastic. But Ezra understood that my heart was in the right place and that I was full of Bel Esprit even though it would annoy Ezra when I would solicit funds from my friends to get Major Eliot out of the bank and someone would say what was a Major doing in a bank anyway and if he had been axed by the military establishment did he not have a pension or at least some gratuity?
In such cases I would explain to my friends that this was all beside the point. Either you had Bel Esprit or you did not have it. If you had it you would subscribe to get the Major out of the bank. If you didn’t it was too bad. Didn’t they understand the significance of the small Greek temple? No? I thought so. Too bad, Mac. Keep your money. We wouldn’t touch it.
As a member of Bel Esprit I campaigned energetically and my happiest dreams in those days were of seeing the Major stride out of the bank a free man. I cannot remember how Bel Esprit finally cracked up but I think it had something to do with the publication of The Waste Land which won the Major the Dial award and not long after a lady of title backed a review for Eliot called The Criterion and Ezra and I did not have to worry about him any more. The small Greek temple is, I believe, still in the garden. It was always a disappointment to me that we had not been able to get the Major out of the bank by Bel Esprit alone, as in my dreams I had pictured him as coming, perhaps, to live in the small Greek temple and that maybe I could go with Ezra when we would drop in to crown him with laurel. I knew where there was fine laurel that I could gather, riding out on my bicycle to get it, and I thought we could crown him any time he felt lonesome or any time Ezra had gone over the manuscript or the proofs of another big poem like The Waste Land. The whole thing turned out badly for me morally, as so many things have, because the money that I had earmarked for getting the Major out of the bank I took out to Enghien and bet on jumping horses that raced under the influence of stimulants. At two meetings the stimulated horses that I was backing outraced the unstimulated or insufficiently stimulated beasts except for one race in which our fancy had been overstimulated to such a point that before the start he threw his jockey and breaking away completed a full circuit of the steeplechase course jumping beautifully by himself the way one can sometimes jump in dreams. Caught up and remounted he started the race and figured honorably, as the French racing phrase has it, but was out of the money.
I would have been happier if the amount of the wager had gone to Bel Esprit which was no longer existent. But I comforted myself that with those wagers which had prospered I could have contributed much more to Bel Esprit than was my original intention.