Moveable Feast (Chapter 9)
Evan Shipman at the Lilas
From the day I had found Sylvia Beach’s library I had read all of Turgenev, what had been published in English of Gogol, the Constance Garnett translations of Tolstoi and the English translations of Chekov. In Toronto, before we had ever come to Paris, I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer, but trying to read her after Chekov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer. Mansfield was like near-beer. It was better to drink water. But Chekov was not water except for the clarity. There were some stories that seemed to be only journalism. But there were wonderful ones too.
In Dostoyevsky there were things believable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev, and the movement of troops, the terrain and the officers and the men and the fighting in Tolstoi. Tolstoi made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brady photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents’ house. Until I read the Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal I had never read of war as it was except in Tolstoi, and the wonderful Waterloo account by Stendhal was an accidental piece in a book that had much dullness. To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you. You could take your treasure with you when you traveled too, and in the mountains where we lived in Switzerland and Italy, until we found Schruns in the high valley in the Vorarlberg in Austria, there were always the books, so that you lived in the new world you had found, the snow and the forests and the glaciers and their winter problems and your high shelter in the Hotel Taube in the village in the day time, and at night you could live in the other wonderful world the Russian writers were giving you. At first there were the Russians; then there were all the others. But for a long time there were the Russians.
I remember asking Ezra once when we had walked home from playing tennis out on the Boulevard Arago, and he had asked me into his studio for a drink, what he really thought about Dostoyevsky.
“To tell you the truth, Hem,” Ezra said, “I’ve never read the Rooshians.”
It was a straight answer and Ezra had never given me any other kind verbally, but I felt very bad because here was the man I liked and trusted the most as a critic then, the man who believed in the mot juste—the one and only correct word to use—the man who had taught me to distrust adjectives as I would later learn to distrust certain people in certain situations; and I wanted his opinion on a man who almost never used the mot juste and yet had made his people come alive at times, as almost no one else did.
“Keep to the French,” Ezra said. “You’ve plenty to learn there.”
“I know it,” I said. “I’ve plenty to learn everywhere.”
Later after leaving Ezra’s studio and walking along the street to the sawmill, looking down the high-sided street to the opening at the end where the bare trees showed and behind them the far façade of the Bal Bullier across the width of the Boulevard St.-Michel, I opened the gate and went in past the fresh-sawn lumber and left my racket in its press beside the stairs that led to the top floor of the pavillon. I called up the stairs but there was no one home.
“Madame has gone out and the bonne and the baby too,” the wife of the sawmill owner told me. She was a difficult woman, over-plump, with brassy hair, and I thanked her.
“There was a young man to see you,” she said, using the term jeune homme instead of monsieur. “He said he would be at the Lilas.”
“Thank you very much,” I said. “If Madame comes in, please tell her I am at the Lilas.”
“She went out with friends,” the wife said and gathering her purple dressing gown about her went on high heels into the doorway of her own domaine without closing the door.
I walked down the street between the high, stained and streaked white houses and turned to the right at the open, sunny end and went into the sun-striped dusk of the Lilas.
There was no one there I knew and I went outside onto the terrace and found Evan Shipman waiting. He was a fine poet and he knew and cared about horses, writing and painting. He rose and I saw him tall and pale and thin, his white shirt dirty and worn at the collar, his tie carefully knotted, his worn and wrinkled grey suit, his fingers stained darker than his hair, his nails dirty and his loving, deprecatory smile that he held tightly not to show his bad teeth.
“It’s good to see you, Hem,” he said.
“How are you, Evan?” I asked.
“A little down,” he said. “I think I have the ‘Mazeppa’ licked though. Have you been going well?”
“I hope so,” I said. “I was out playing tennis with Ezra when you came by.”
“Is Ezra well?”
“I’m so glad. Hem, you know I don’t think that owner’s wife where you live likes me. She wouldn’t let me wait upstairs for you.”
“I’ll tell her,” I said.
“Don’t bother. I can always wait here. It’s very pleasant in the sun now, isn’t it?”
“It’s fall now,” I said. “I don’t think you dress warmly enough.”
“It’s only cool in the evening,” Evan said. “I’ll wear my coat.”
“Do you know where it is?”
“No. But it’s somewhere safe.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I left the poem in it.” He laughed heartily holding his lips tightly over the teeth. “Have a whisky with me, please, Hem.”
“Jean,” Evan got up and called the waiter. “Two whiskies please.”
Jean brought the bottle and the glasses and two ten-franc saucers with the syphon. He used no measuring glass and poured the whisky until the glasses were more than three-quarters full. Jean loved Evan who often went out and worked with him at his garden in Montrouge, out beyond the Porte d’Orléans, on Jean’s day off.
“You mustn’t exaggerate,” Evan said to the tall old waiter.
“They are two whiskies, aren’t they?” the waiter asked.
We added water and Evan said, “Take the first sip very carefully, Hem. Properly handled, they will hold us for some time.”
“Are you taking any care of yourself?” I asked.
“Yes, truly, Hem. Let’s talk about something else, should we?”
There was no one sitting on the terrace and the whisky was warming us both although I was better dressed for the fall than Evan as I wore a sweatshirt for underwear and then a shirt and a blue wool French sailor’s sweater over the shirt.
“I’ve been wondering about Dostoyevsky,” I said. “How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?”
“It can’t be the translation,” Evan said. “She makes the Tolstoi come out well written.”
“I know. I remember how many times I tried to read War and Peace until I got the Constance Garnett translation.”
“They say it can be improved on,” Evan said. “I’m sure it can although I don’t know Russian. But we both know translations. But it comes out as a hell of a novel, the greatest I suppose, and you can read it over and over.”
“I know,” I said. “But you can’t read Dostoyevsky over and over. I had Crime and Punishment on a trip when we ran out of books down at Schruns, and I couldn’t read it again when we had nothing to read. I read the Austrian papers and studied German until we found some Trollope in Tauchnitz.”
“God bless Tauchnitz,” Evan said. The whisky had lost its burning quality and was now, when water was added, simply much too strong.
“Dostoyevsky was a shit, Hem,” Evan went on. “He was best on shits and saints. He makes wonderful saints. It’s a shame we can’t reread him.”
“I’m going to try The Brothers again. It was probably my fault.”
“You can read some of it again. Most of it. But then it will start to make you angry, no matter how great it is.”
“Well, we were lucky to have had it to read the first time and maybe there will be a better translation.”
“But don’t let it tempt you, Hem.”
“I won’t. I’m trying to do it so it will make it without you knowing it, and so the more you read it, the more there will be.”
“Well I’m backing you in Jean’s whisky,” Evan said.
“He’ll get in trouble doing that,” I said.
“He’s in trouble already,” Evan said.
“They’re changing the management,” Evan said. “The new owners want to have a different clientele that will spend some money and they are going to put in an American bar. The waiters are going to be in white jackets, Hem, and they have been ordered to be ready to shave off their mustaches.”
“They can’t do that to André and Jean.”
“They shouldn’t be able to, but they will.”
“Jean has had a mustache all his life. That’s a dragoon’s mustache. He served in a cavalry regiment.”
“He’s going to have to cut it off.”
I drank the last of the whisky.
“Another whisky, Monsieur?” Jean asked. “A whisky, Monsieur Shipman?” His heavy drooping mustache was a part of his thin, kind face, and the bald top of his head glistened under the strands of hair that were slicked across it.
“Don’t do it, Jean,” I said. “Don’t take a chance.”
“There is no chance,” he said, softly to us. “There is much confusion. Many are leaving. Entendu, Messieurs,” he said aloud. He went into the café and came out carrying the bottle of whisky, two large glasses, two ten-franc gold-rimmed saucers and a seltzer bottle.
“No, Jean,” I said.
He put the glasses down on the saucers and filled them almost to the brim with whisky and took the remains of the bottle back into the café. Evan and I squirted a little seltzer into the glasses.
“It was a good thing Dostoyevsky didn’t know Jean,” Evan said. “He might have died of drink.”
“What are we going to do with these?”
“Drink them,” Evan said. “It’s a protest. It’s direct action.”
On the following Monday when I went to the Lilas to work in the morning, André served me a bovril, which is a cup of beef extract and water. He was short and blond and where his stubby mustache had been, his lip was as bare as a priest’s. He was wearing a white American barman’s coat.
“He won’t be in until tomorrow.”
“How is he?”
“It took him longer to reconcile himself. He was in a heavy cavalry regiment throughout the war. He had the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire.”
“I did not know he was so badly wounded.”
“No. He was wounded of course but it was the other sort of Médaille Militaire he has. For gallantry.”
“Tell him I asked for him.”
“Of course,” André said. “I hope it will not take him too long to reconcile himself.”
“Please give him Mr. Shipman’s greeting too.”
“Mr. Shipman is with him,” André said. “They are gardening together.”
An Agent of Evil
The last thing Ezra said to me before he left the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs to go to Rapallo was, “Hem, I want you to keep this jar of opium and give it to Dunning only when he needs it.”
It was a large cold-cream jar and when I unscrewed the top the content was dark and sticky and it had the smell of very raw opium. Ezra had bought it from an Indian chief, he said, on the avenue de l’Opéra near the Boulevard des Italiens and it had been very expensive. I thought it must have come from the old Hole in the Wall bar which was a hangout for deserters and for dope peddlers during and after the first war. The Hole in the Wall was a very narrow bar with a red-painted façade, little more than a passageway, on the rue des Italiens. At one time it had a rear exit into the sewers of Paris from which you were supposed to be able to reach the catacombs. Dunning was Ralph Cheever Dunning, a poet who smoked opium and forgot to eat. When he was smoking too much he could only drink milk and he wrote in terza riruce which endeared him to Ezra who also found fine qualities in his poetry. He lived in the same courtyard where Ezra had his studio and Ezra had called me in to help him when Dunning was dying a few weeks before Ezra was to leave Paris.
“Dunning is dying,” Ezra’s message said. “Please come at once.”
Dunning looked like a skeleton as he lay on the mattress and he would certainly have eventually died of malnutrition but I finally convinced Ezra that few people ever died while speaking in well rounded phrases and that I had never known any man to die while speaking in terza riruce and that I doubted even if Dante could do it. Ezra said he was not talking in terza riruce and I said that perhaps it only sounded like terza riruce because I had been asleep when he had sent for me. Finally after a night with Dunning waiting for death to come, the matter was put in the hands of a physician and Dunning was taken to a private clinic to be disintoxicated. Ezra guaranteed his bills and enlisted the aid of I do not know which lovers of poetry on Dunning’s behalf. Only the delivery of the opium in any true emergency was left to me. It was a sacred charge coming from Ezra and I only hoped I could live up to it and determine the state of a true emergency. It came when Ezra’s concierge arrived one Sunday morning at the sawmill yard and shouted up to the open window where I was studying the racing form, “Monsieur Dunning est monté sur le toit et refuse catégoriquement de descendre.”
Dunning having climbed to the roof of the studio and refusing categorically to come down seemed a valid emergency and I found the opium jar and walked up the street with the concierge who was a small and intense woman very excited by the situation.
“Monsieur has what is needed?” she asked me.
“Absolutely,” I said. “There will be no difficulty.”
“Monsieur Pound thinks of everything,” she said. “He is kindness personified.”
“He is indeed,” I said. “And I miss him every day.”
“Let us hope that Monsieur Dunning will be reasonable.”
“I have what it takes,” I assured her.
When we reached the courtyard where the studios were the concierge said, “He’s come down.”
“He must have known I was coming,” I said.
I climbed the outside stairway that led to Dunning’s place and knocked. He opened the door. He was gaunt and seemed unusually tall.
“Ezra asked me to bring you this,” I said and handed him the jar. “He said you would know what it was.”
He took the jar and looked at it. Then he threw it at me. It struck me on the chest or the shoulder and rolled down the stairs.
“You son of a bitch,” he said. “You bastard.”
“Ezra said you might need it,” I said. He countered that by throwing a milk bottle.
“You are sure you don’t need it?” I asked.
He threw another milk bottle. I retreated and he hit me with yet another milk bottle in the back. Then he shut the door.
I picked up the jar which was only slightly cracked and put it in my pocket.
“He did not seem to want the gift of Monsieur Pound,” I said to the concierge.
“Perhaps he will be tranquil now,” she said.
“Perhaps he has some of his own,” I said.
“Poor Monsieur Dunning,” she said.
The lovers of poetry that Ezra had organized rallied to Dunning’s aid again eventually. My own intervention and that of the concierge had been unsuccessful. The jar of alleged opium which had been cracked I stored wrapped in waxed paper and carefully tied in one of an old pair of riding boots. When Evan Shipman and I were removing my personal effects from that apartment some years later the boots were still there but the jar was gone. I do not know why Dunning threw the milk bottles at me unless he remembered my lack of credulity the night of his first dying, or whether it was only an innate dislike of my personality. But I remember the happiness that the phrase “Monsieur Dunning est monté sur le toit et refuse catégoriquement de descendre” gave to Evan Shipman. He believed there was something symbolic about it. I would not know. Perhaps Dunning took me for an agent of evil or of the police. I only know that Ezra tried to be kind to Dunning as he was kind to so many people and I always hoped Dunning was as fine a poet as Ezra believed him to be. For a poet he threw a very accurate milk bottle. But Ezra, who was a very great poet, played a good game of tennis too. Evan Shipman, who was a very fine poet and who truly did not care if his poems were ever published, felt that it should remain a mystery.
“We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem,” he once said to me. “The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance.”