So here I am just a few months after leaving the homewomb and I’ve already joined Circus Bella. Not that I had much choice. I mean, most kids have to run away to make this happen but I was born right into it. My whole family is circus. The Gentiles, sure, that’s us and my brothers and sisters, mom and dad they’re all part of the act, but so are all these other kids and when they’re not doing amazing stuff they take care of me like in that first picture where I’m just hanging out backstage with a few of my brothers. My name’s Giuseppina, but I’m OK with Baby G. That’s what most people call me.
These rehearsal days are tough; everyone’s moving so fast, flying around the room. I need a nap. When I wake up, they’re still at it and then they start throwing stuff like clubs, balls, hoops, and ropes. Of course sometimes they drop stuff but it’s only rehearsal and I notice they’re better when the band’s here, which makes sense because it’s all about timing. I learned that from my parents who also juggle stuff like tables, chairs, planters, and my brothers and sisters, only they do it with their feet. Of course, they also told me we’re all descended from Pickles but I’m not sure what that means.
Anyway, here’s Gianluca learning to fly. Pretty cool.
These people are amazing. I can’t keep my eyes open but they never stop moving. When they’re not juggling they’re doing something else. Look at Dwoira over there. Can you believe it’s possible for a human body to move like that? I saw her warming up and her cat-cow would make most yoga teachers kale green with envy.
I’m a little afraid of heights but Abigail isn’t. The way she flies around up there I think she must be part bird and some kind of magic makes her wings invisible. It’s possible you know, there’s lots of magic in the circus.
My sister, Giulia, told me Natasha has 416 hula-hoops and she can get them all going at once. I can’t count that high yet, and I bet my sister can’t either, so I asked Natasha and she said it’s not nearly that many: “Only 327, but I’m working on it.”
Anyway, I love all this stuff, especially the clowns who really make me laugh and it’s really exciting when they all come together at the end and there’s stuff flying all over the place. There must be a juggle traffic controller somewhere, but I’ve never seen her. Either that, or it’s magic.
Writers talking about writing: sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it ain’t.
When you come across a writer who thinks clearly and speaks well, it can be a rewarding, sometimes inspiring time. So I spent an enjoyable hour with Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem, inspired to read their books, which was exactly the point of it all, but also feeling optimistic about my own work. Maybe it’s just the projection fantasy – seeing myself on that stage – but it’s enough to get me back to work on the next novel.
But sometimes things run off the rails – as they did with a panel of European writers – and often it’s because writers in the audience are looking for THE ANSWER. “Who are your major influences? Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Is it necessary to have an MFA? Do you? Here’s where the moderator needs to step in and limit the scope of the conversation.
Talking about the ideas in a novel, OK. Talking about the craft of writing, not so much. Because, like most creative endeavors, writing is about 10% inspiration and the rest is hard work. So there’s really not much to talk about: you’re inspired to write, or you’re not, either you sit down and do the work, or you don’t.
Now publishing is something altogether different and that took me to a seminar entitled the Lifecycle of a Book, featuring an agent, a small publisher, a publicist, a social media guru, and a marketing specialist. Andy Ross, the agent, found humor in the enormous odds against getting anything published in the traditional way. I didn’t.
Brooke Warner, the publisher, responded by presenting a new hybrid publishing model in which the author pays production costs and receives a larger royalty, as well as editorial, distribution, and marketing services. This is middle ground between self-publishing, where the author pays for everything then has to figure out how to get readers to find the book, and traditional publishing, where the author trades most of the income for these services, although the amount of promotion and publicity publishers do seems to be diminishing and is now seen as a shared obligation. The other speakers filled us in on how much authors will have to do for themselves and how much it’s still going to cost.
If I had left this a little earlier, I might not have been shut out of Adam Hochshild’s sold out talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War. I might have learned something useful there.
Walking north on Kearny from downtown, the landscape changes at Sacramento Street: building heights go down, sunlight finds the street, pedestrians are older, and noodle shops replace office towers. Portsmouth Square is the open space in this densely crowded Chinese neighborhood, a living room for multiple generations, but it sits above a parking garage, easy to miss when walking under the pedestrian bridge on Kearny.
After passing the Chinatown Campus of City College and the House of Nanking, North Beach begins at Columbus, with Coppola’s Café Zoetrope, followed by two poles of the bar culture: the Comstock Saloon and Mr. Bing’s, both closed in the morning. Up the street to Jack Kerouac Alley, the corner of Vesuvio and City Lights, and across Columbus: Spec’s and the new Tosca. This was the center of the world when I first lived in North Beach: browsing books, reading in the basement, and drinking Negronis and Americanos before making the almost sobering trek up Vallejo Street to a room in a house long since replaced by pricey condos. Vesuvio was open for the morning drinkers but not for me today. City Lights is still the welcoming, quirky bookstore it’s always been and an hour uncovered two non-traditional histories of Paris (research) and a noir titled Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette, an author new to me.
I took my books to Café Puccini for a coffee among familiar faces to which I couldn’t add names, probably never knew them. The faces were older, of course, softened by age and memory. I tried to place them here, or another café or bar, but no luck. I nodded and moved on.
Molinari’s, the last Italian deli; the unique and indispensable Mario’s; Il Pollaio; Washington Square, the neighborhood lawn; Liguria bakery, sold out as usual by 11; the line at Mama’s, an unexplainable phenomenon that has persisted for decades; the rebuilt Joe DiMaggio playground; Gino & Carlo’s.
Lunch at the new Original US Restaurant. More than an exercise in nostalgia, this is food from the Italian grandmother you always wished you had. All the other old neighborhood restaurants are gone but the family somehow managed to put this back together, covered the walls with photos of the old place and the family who made it special, and brought back a small piece of the neighborhood.
Ran into Supervisor Aaron Peskin and asked him if he was enjoying being back in City Hall. “I’m having fun,” he said with a wicked smile that left no doubt. Aaron loves to stir the pot by extending the progressive agenda as far to the left as possible. He’s good at it, and it’s a useful service to our complacent, liberal city.
People complain about obscene rents, Airbnb, the lack of grocery and hardware stores, shoe repair replaced by yet another restaurant for tourists, and all the usual urban ills, but there’s still a neighborhood here if you’re willing to look for it.
Walked past several doors that used to mean home, then back down Columbus to the bus that would take me there.
I’m not sure why this image haunts me. At first I thought he resembled me at that age but now I’m not sure. This picture was made at the Mémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes, from a film about camp inmates that is projected on the wall of the museum.
I’m not much of a believer in fate; the idea that I might have been drawn to this place, to this story because of some unknown personal connection doesn’t resonate. I’ve never uncovered any evidence of any member of my family having been at this camp, and I simply do not believe in reincarnation, which nixes the thought that it might in fact be me. It’s tempting but I’ve already written this book and I’m not in it.
So what’s going on here?
My best guess is that the superficial resemblance cemented an emotional connection to the camp that informs the novel. That connection began with my first visit to the site, deepened with the photos I made that day, and went further with the research that followed. It became personal with the challenge in the eyes of this boy looking directly into the camera.
I’m not sure how old he is. I would have thought about fifteen but the dark pouches under his eyes belong to an older man. He is shirtless, which would suggest summer heat on the Rivesaltes plain, and while his face is thin, we cannot see his torso and can’t know for sure if he has had enough to eat. He looks healthy and his direct gaze projects strength.
I’d like to think he survived. Perhaps he was one of the more than six hundred children who were saved from the camp by the heroic efforts led by Friedel Bohny-Reiter of Secours Suisse aux Enfants. Perhaps he made it to a home in the region and was raised by one of the many anonymous families who risked their own lives to save the children of strangers. He could have grown up to be an artist, a musician, or a writer. Or maybe he settled nearby, married, raised a family, plowed his vineyards, and sent his fruit to the coop. Maybe he still does.
It began about five years ago in Maury with a chance remark followed by a visit to an abandoned concentration camp. I stepped past the barbed wire, walked through and around crumbling buildings, made photographs. Then I began to write.
Rivesaltes begins with two historical figures, the photojournalists Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and continues with fictional characters in stories of three wars that intersect at the Rivesaltes camp and together comprise a fictional history of twentieth century Europe. It is a historical novel, but the stories of refugees created by war have an immediate and emotional connection to the present day.
The novel’s cinematic quality is derived from the pictures of Capa, Taro, and other great photographers of the period. A significant amount of research time was spent examining their images. That was the fun part. And it was a pleasure to work in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, a place that confers serious intent with registration as an authorized researcher. A bargain at eight Euros. The microfiche archives of the Conseil Générale in Perpignan were not quite so enjoyable.
Five years of research, writing, and revising. The first draft came out in a rush. The characters drove the story to places I’d never envisioned, new characters appeared when needed and they took the story in different directions. I was just the guy with his fingers on the keyboard. The story raced to its conclusion and then the hard work began.
Photography is instantaneous. An image may be informed by years of experience but it is created in a fraction of a second that captures a facial expression, the peak moment of action, or the perfect light.
Writing is interminable. Revision on revision, finding the right word, crafting the perfect sentence, molding and shaping until you just can’t do it anymore, and decide to call it complete.
Finished? Only until an editor gets her hands on it. But it’s time to find out if anyone wants to publish it so queries will go out to agents who will say yes, no, or nothing at all. First up is an agent who was considerate and respectful of my first book, although she ultimately decided it wasn’t for her. I came to agree with her judgment and stopped submitting it, but I think there’s some value there and I may yet find the way to make it work. Rejection sucks but it’s part of the deal, much more often than not. The odds are long. Capa rarely had a winner at the racetrack; let’s hope we have better luck in the literary lottery.
A beautiful day for a walk turned out to be a beautiful day for wedding photos. That wasn’t part of the original plan but how could I know? We must take advantage of the gifts that come our way. I was walking to the Metro at Hotel de Ville when I encountered the first couple of the day in the little park behind Notre Dame.
They moved on, and soon disappeared into the crowd around the cathedral, but I had the theme for the day.
I took the Metro to Pyrénées, planning to explore the Belleville neighborhood, which is showing some obvious signs of gentrification: lots of stroller-pushing young couples and artisan chocolate shops. Are all cities evolving in the same way?
I walked on to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a beautiful place I’d never been before, with mountains, lakes, bridges, and autumn color, all in the midst of Paris. There are even places where it seems to be acceptable to sit on the grass, a rarity in Paris parks.
Came upon my second couple on a bridge over the lake. The groom is present but he knows his place.
The third group was the best: this was the real deal, a wedding, not just a photo call and suddenly, I was the photographer. I stopped to watch, I had a camera that doesn’t make phone calls, I smiled, they asked, I used their camera, and shot one more for me.
Encountered couple number two again in a different location as the light was fading.
Shooting weddings is hard work. I earned a glass and a petit repose at a café along the Canal St. Martin.
Not along after Endre Friedmann and Gerda Taro invented “Robert Capa” they established the Atelier Robert Capa on the second floor of this building at 37 rue Froidevaux, (François-Xavier-Eugène 1827-1882, a commander in the Sapeurs-Pompiers, the fire and rescue brigade of Paris), in the 14tharrondisement. It was the closest they ever came to having a home and turns up repeatedly as a touchstone in the invented life of Capa. Most interesting is its appearance in Patrick Modiano’s novella, Suspended Sentences, as the setting for a story about creativity and loss.
I don’t know what was on street level in 1936, now we find a florist and funeral service business because across the street is the cemetery of Montparnasse. That’s where I am, standing on the corner of the rue Émile Richard (1843-1890, a President of the municipal council of Paris), which bisects the cemetery and is now the site of a small tent encampment of the homeless. Several campsites along the street are furnished with modern red office chairs in such good condition they appear to have been recently delivered.
Walk through the cemetery and you come to the Boulevard Raspail, (François-Vincent, 1794–1878, French chemist, physician, and politician), one of the main thoroughfares of Montparnasse.
Turn left on the boulevard and you’ll pass several hotels, a school, and a student residence. Paris is a national education center and the presence of students and scholarship animates and rejuvenates this historical city of imposing architectural monuments. Just a few blocks down is the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse, the site of Le Dôme.
In the thirties this café was the gathering place for the growing coterie of photojournalists who were drawn to the city. Some, like Capa and Taro, were Jews who had fled the growing threat of National Socialism in Eastern Europe; some, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Willy Ronis, were French who came here to meet with their peers. They were joined by André Kertész, Giselle Freund, David Szymin (Chim), and others in what must have been the greatest gathering of photographic talent ever to grace a coffee shop. Photographers aren’t always verbally gifted but I’d guess the competitive banter of this group was lively and amusing. This was their living room, clubhouse, and office where they met to compare notes on editors and assignments and plan coverage of the great stories of the time.
Cafes had personalities then, created by the crowds they attracted, so while you might find Hemingway and Picasso in a raucous scene at Le Select, Sartre and de Beauvoir would be presiding over a quieter discussion at Café de Flore.
Le Dôme was the home for photographers and, of course, it was a very different place then. Now the interior is an upscale seafood restaurant that smells only of cashmere and money. The terrace is more casual, and more democratic. I’m seated next to a well-dressed man in his sixties (I need to upgrade my wardrobe), reading Racine and taking notes: a professor, I’d guess. Next to him is a younger man intensely focused on his MacBook, and obsessively checking his phone. I’d like to think he’s a lovelorn novelist. Why not, it’s Paris? There are several women of different ages, some alone, some in pairs, all having lunch. A middle-aged couple orders the skate wing lunch special and the novelist another coffee. A young woman with a suitcase orders a café crème, tends to her text messages, and leaves a few extra coins for the waiter. The professor finishes preparing his lecture and relaxes with a glass of white wine.
I order a beer, which comes with a small bowl of olives, then get a little hungry, so I order a sandwich mixte au pain Poilane, without butter (I love this city but don’t want to die here, at least not yet). I ask for a little mustard. It’s a good thing I’m not very hungry. I make a few pictures and a few notes for this essay and order a coffee. I leave an extra tip for the waiter because I think it’s what Capa would have done, even if he had to borrow the money from Cartier-Bresson.
Capa and Taro have gone off to war in Spain. They are photojournalism novices and their quest is not to document facts, but to witness and support Republican victories. Only Capa will return.
I decide to go to Père Lachaise and find Taro’s grave. I ask for directions in the cemetery office but the computer cannot find Taro, then I remember her birth name, Pohorylle, and we get a hit. I’m following my map down a path covered with autumn leaves when I pass an attendant who shouts and points: “Jim Morrison, that way.” I shake my head and walk on.
Taro is buried in a small Jewish section near the Mur des Fédérés, the group monuments to those unidentified souls who died in wars and Nazi extermination camps.
Her tomb is small, much smaller than her neighbors, and plain, adorned only with a simple block with her name and dates, and the Giacometti falcon that was commissioned by the Communist Party hoping to profit from her death, although she was never a party member. Visitors have left a few stones, several painted with the colors of the German flag, although she was not German, and a print of a Capa photo of Taro resting by the side of a Spanish road. Some flowers are long gone, but their plastic wrappers remain.
She’s mostly forgotten now. After she died in Spain, Capa tried to save her work and he probably did, but credits were haphazard. Many old prints bear stamps that say both “Photo Capa” and “Photo Taro,” and many negatives carry no attribution at all. It’s often impossible to know for sure who made the photos, so the credit usually goes to the famous Capa, who might never have achieved that fame if he hadn’t met and fallen in love with Gerda Taro. It’s a subject that is explored in greater depth in Rivesaltes, a novel in progress.
Paris has something for everyone. Last night I stumbled on the restaurant for people eating alone on a Sunday night. Check out the photo. The woman next to me is writing in a journal. Next to her is a woman reading. Behind the wine glass is a man writing in a journal. I’m the one taking pictures.
We’re in a nondescript Italian restaurant just off the Boulevard St. Germain, across the street from Les Deux Magots. Patricia Wells and David Lebovitz are not regulars here.
When I arrived around 7:30 – early for Parisian dinner but I was hungry – there was one other customer in the room, a man in his fifties, reading a magazine and eating a pizza. Since his magazine was in French and he seemed to know the waiter, I took him for a native. He was drinking only water. He was nearly finished when I sat down and left before my pizza arrived. Then came the reading woman. She ordered lasagna and a half bottle of wine and settled into her book. The woman next to me polished off a cheese pizza in about three minutes, pushed her plate aside, and began to write in her journal. The man behind the wine glass ordered a glass of red wine and wrote in his journal without taking a sip. His pizza arrived before I left but he continued writing as it cooled.
Some obvious questions arise:
Why are you eating pizza in Paris?
Well, as Abe Scherl once said: “You can’t eat gourmet every night.”
Why are you alone in Paris?
I don’t wish to discuss that. Other questions?
It’s just that it seems like a long way to go for a Sunday night pizza. You could have gone to Giorgio’s.
I didn’t come to Paris for the pizza. Anyone else?
Yes. Excuse me, sir, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the impression that all the patrons you describe are, how shall I put it, of a certain age?
Yes. Next question.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that you find yourself there.
What are you implying?
Only that however unintentional it may have been, you may have found yourself in the right place.
The pizza wasn’t bad. Next question:
How much wine did you drink at dinner?
I don’t see that’s any of your business, but just for the record: a picher of 50cl.
How much is that in American?
About 2/3 of a bottle.
What else did you drink?
Just a cognac at the hotel honor bar when I returned.
It’s not easy to find. I expected it to be near the roadside steles that have been in place for years but it’s not there and there are no signs to indicate where they have built this memorial and museum to tell the story of the camp at Rivesaltes. I have to wonder if there isn’t still an element of shame alongside the better instinct that allowed it to be built so we would not forget. More likely just a bureaucratic delay, the museum only opened to the public this week. You can find it at the base of the wind farm.
Camps of all kinds are, of course, numerous and widespread; from Auschwitz to Manzanar they are a feature of life on a planet where war is common. But Rivesaltes is unique in the variety of different populations it has detained: Spanish refugees from the civil war; German intellectuals fleeing Nazism, Roma, Jews, German military prisoners of war, Harkis. Rivesaltes holds the history of twentieth century European conflict.
The site of the camp is huge, over 600 hectares that now wraps around an industrial zone, and the museum has been built behind that zone, beside a farm of wind generators, far from the department road. You would not find it if you didn’t know where to look.
The museum building itself is built into the ground and from above resembles a soaring monument at rest, surrounded by the crumbling barracks and latrines of the detention camp on their way to returning to the earth. There is a path circling the building and, on an overcast day with the wind blowing, you can almost feel what it must have been like to be imprisoned here.
The entrance is a long descending ramp that appears to lead nowhere, but turns to the right to reveal a door.
The receipt for my eight euro entrance fee is printed with the name Marie Weiss-Loeffer, a young Roma woman, and the date of her escape 10 Novembre, 1941.
The main room is divided into sections that tell the story of each of the populations with historical footage projected on the rough cement walls, oral testimonials accessible through tablets, and informational films on video monitors. And there is also a look forward, a consideration of how we will deal with the same issues in the 21st century. The overlapping sounds and the design of the structure itself simulate the lack of privacy in barracks life.
The overwhelming amount of information takes its toll and you begin to understand the incomprehensible scale of devastation. Camps like this were created to separate us from those we fear. They continue to be built today.