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.
I didn’t feel very well yesterday: woke up early but tired. It felt like a hangover but I hadn’t been drinking at all the night before. It was cool and overcast, a touch of autumn. I dressed in sweats and a t-shirt from the 2014 World Series. Had a bit of breakfast and it upset my stomach. A twenty-minute meditation was just a jumble of random thoughts and unexplained anxiety. Went back to bed with a Donna Leon book. Read, dozed a bit, didn’t have enough energy to keep the day from slipping away.
A chicken soup lunch didn’t help, tried to work but couldn’t find the words, back to Brunetti. It began to get dark and I knew what was coming. I poured a glass of rosé to try to keep summer alive but it was too late. 7:15, the first batter singles, the double play ball is mishandled, only one run but way too many pitches. Kershaw breezes through the first and the air grows heavy. They cremated Yogi’s body and now it’s really over.
Yogi was a ballplayer, a great one by many standards and, when judged by the standard of winning, one of the greatest ever. But Yogi’s appeal wasn’t based on his athletic prowess – he played on New York Yankee teams that featured such transcendent super-athletes as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle – no, Yogi was loved because he seemed real, accessible, without pretense, a guy you might run into on the street.
DiMaggio hid behind his own insecurities, Mantle was often lost in the fog of alcoholism, but Yogi was there for us, putting a smiling human face on the most dominant baseball team ever. And we could relate because that face wasn’t pretty, that short, squat body didn’t look like a superstar, he looked like your super, the guy who cleaned out the pipes under the sink, swept the sidewalk in front of the building, and let you in when you forgot your keys.
Yogi was a catcher, the least glamorous and most important position on the field. Catchers call the game, control the pace by controlling the pitcher. In many cases, that’s enough, they aren’t expected to contribute very much on offense. But Yogi was a great hitter when it counted, leading those Yankee teams in RBIs seven times, and he was the Most Valuable Player in the league three times.
Yogi’s fame after the game was based on the legendary wisdom contained in the “Yogi-isms,” double-edged malapropisms credited to him. Yogi never staked a claim to everything that was attributed to him, once explaining: “I really didn’t say everything I said.” But his or not, they stuck to him and, in our super-charged culture where the allotted fifteen minutes of fame has been cut to fifteen seconds, Yogi endured.
I can’t think about him without smiling. What a gift that is.
He will be missed by all of us who dwell in baseball land.
I’ve recently begun the practice of meditation, actually I’ve been doing it most of my life, I just called it watching baseball. (Still deflecting serious issues with humor.)
I’ve been using a program called Headspace and like it very much. It’s a painless entry into the daily practice of meditation and it helps. I’m especially taken with the idea of looking at not only how meditation helps me, but how it also benefits the people closest to me. Anxiety makes me stupid; it blinds me to reality and causes me to obsess over fantasy. Depression makes me numb, forcing me to withdraw from relationships. Not a very healthy way to live. I believe meditation can help clear the fog and allow me to more openly conduct honest relationships, to recognize and accept their true nature, and to enjoy. Early days but that’s the goal.
If you’ve been with me for a while, you’ll know I quit antidepressant medications earlier this year because I thought my senses had been dulled to the point where I couldn’t feel anything at all. I believed, and still do, that the moderating effect of the drugs deepens the shell of depressive isolation by making it acceptable: “I can’t help it, I’m depressed.”
The emotions began to build and I had to learn how to deal with it. It’s been slow going – the drugs have been out of my system for nine months now – because so much of my time is spent alone. Writing takes up much of my day, baseball much of the rest. So it’s been a slow build but seems to be peaking now and not just because the season is coming to an end and the Giants look like they’ll fall short of the playoffs, but also because I’m planning a trip to France and the experience there that led to writing Angle of Reflection still resonates with me. It was intense in many ways but the medication prevented me from processing it all.
The latest rewrite of Angle of Reflection is a much truer emotional narrative. It is deeper and darker, reaching places I could never go before. It’s better, but still doesn’t go far enough. A recent reading has convinced me that I’m still not hitting the essential, honest emotional core I’m seeking.
In other literary news, I’ve completed the first draft of the second novel, Rivesaltes. This is an entirely different book, composed of several stories about people caught up in the violence that engulfed twentieth century Europe from the Spanish Civil War to the French/Algerian War. One of the things I’ve learned about writing fiction is just how rough a first draft really is. There’s a long way to go.