The Boy in the Film

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.

I am not the boy. I am the camera.

©2016 Ron Scherl

Rivesaltes

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 Walk with Bob and Gerda

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 14th arrondisement. 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.

rue Emile Richard
rue Emile Richard

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.

tent and chair
tent and chair

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.

Le Dôme
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.

Le Dôme Terrace
Le Dôme Terrace

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.

Père Lachaise
Père Lachaise

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.

Gerda Taro Grave
Gerda Taro Grave

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.

Taro Grave
Taro Grave

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.

Gerda Taro
Gerda Taro

©2015 Ron Scherl

Memorial du Camp de Rivesaltes

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.

Rivesaltes-9471 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.

Rivesaltes-9508The entrance is a long descending ramp that appears to lead nowhere, but turns to the right to reveal a door.Rivesaltes-9525

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.

Rivesaltes-9555Rivesaltes-9558The 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.

Rivesaltes-9570http://www.memorialcamprivesaltes.eu

©2015 Ron Scherl

Meditation and the Kozmic Blues

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.

A Tale of Two (or Three) Suitcases

One of the joys of researching a historical novel is the uncovering of parallels, unrelated facts that nevertheless strike me as significant. When you read a lot of mysteries, as I do, you come to believe there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything is significant.

The scope of the novel encompasses several wars from 1936 to 1962 and there are many parallels involved. War does awful things to people no matter who’s fighting; brutality breeds only more brutality and what’s learned is passed through generations. You torture mine, I’ll torture yours even more. It’s a chain of iniquity that continues to this day.

But we were talking about suitcases. When photojournalist, Robert Capa, fled Paris as the Nazis arrived, he may have had with him a suitcase full of negatives from the Spanish Civil War, photos by Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) as well as Capa. The suitcase was lost for many years, until it turned up in Mexico in 1995. When it was found, it was hoped by many including Capa’s brother Cornell, that it would contain the negative of Falling Soldier, Capa’s most famous photo that is said to depict the moment of death of a Spanish Republican soldier. Cornell Capa’s hope was that finding the negative intact and in sequence would finally put to rest the controversy that has always followed the photo: real, or was it staged?

Unfortunately the negative was not in the case, the controversy continues, and no one is absolutely certain how the suitcase wound up in Mexico. I have a theory about that and it fits nicely in a novel.

The parallel suitcase belonged to Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in France after fleeing the Nazis, appearing to make it safely to Spain on his way to America, then being turned back by Franco’s guards. Despairing, ill, fearing he would be turned over to the Nazis, and unable to summon the energy to try again, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine in Portbou, Catalonia on the French/Spanish border. The suitcase containing the manuscript of an unpublished book he had carried from Germany was never found.

In a totally unrelated postscript: Harry “Suitcase” Simpson was a well-traveled Major League ballplayer who played for seventeen different teams in the majors, minors, and Negro Leagues. There are two theories on the nickname: one because he was always being traded and two, because his size thirteen shoes reminded a sportswriter of a cartoon character named “Suitcase.” I can’t find any evidence that Harry ever lost a suitcase and as far as I know, he never met either Capa or Benjamin, but I’ll take any opportunity to throw in a baseball reference.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Writers and Agents

My first novel attracted some interest from an agent who read three very different drafts before finally deciding it wasn’t right for her. She was encouraging and complimentary and her feedback was very valuable to me. It made me really want to work with her. The novel has taken on a much darker tone – it’s no longer a light-hearted travelogue of southern France complete with food, wine and colorful natives – it’s more honest, more personal and painful, a true first novel. I may not have revised it to a book the agent wanted to sell, but I’m happy with it, now. Of course I had to go through the early rejection stage of thinking it was all shit and I couldn’t write a want ad, but I’m past that now and submitting to other agents.

I’m close to finishing the first draft of my second novel. This is a totally different animal; set in twentieth century Europe, it tells multiple stories in different time frames that converge in a single location. It too has taken some surprising turns – into consideration of issues of personal responsibility in the face of evil and how we learn violence. And two characters who were not in the original conception, both female, have assumed prominent, catalytic roles.

Let’s talk about agents. They are the gatekeepers to the world of traditional publishing; there’s no entry to major houses without one. There’s some variation but the basic process goes like this: I send a one page query letter describing my novel and hope that some word or phrase strikes a chord that makes her want to read a few pages of the book I’ve been writing for the last three years. If she hears the sweet music in those pages, she may ask to read more. If she doesn’t, there’s only silence. Now I understand the pressures on all sides. The agent already has clients and her first responsibility must be to them. What comes over the transom is future business development, part of the job but not the highest priority. Still, it doesn’t seem too much to ask for an automated return email that says: “No, thank you.” The writer’s only option is multiple submissions, a process that feels something like trying to strike a piñata without knowing it’s in a totally different room.

There are web sites like Agent Query and Publishers’ Marketplace that list recent publishing deals and give me an idea which agents might be a good fit. Then I go to their web sites, see who they represent and what genres they’re looking for, and try to decide if they’re right for me. It ain’t easy. Genres are marketing categories and they’re fluid. Where’s the line between literary and commercial fiction? Why do some mysteries cross over to become literary? What on earth is women’s fiction?

And where do I fit in? If an agent has big name authors will she have time for me? If she doesn’t, is she any good? Is a big agency with multiple divisions and foreign offices better than a boutique with personal relationships?

So I look for any clue that might indicate there’s a chance to break through the clutter, and send another query.

The alternative is self-publishing which holds no appeal for me; although many people think it’s the future, most of them happen to be part of a whole new industry that’s developed to support the new writer-entrepreneur. And if, as my friend Mike Shatzkin writes, very few self-published writers are selling many books, and agents and traditional publishing houses are wary of taking on a title that’s been self-published, then what’s the difference between the new model and the bad old days of vanity publishers?

Enough for now, I need to research the record for oldest writer to publish a first novel.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Detour

I took a few days off from the Rivesaltes book to work on a photography webinar for a medical laser company, which brought me back into the world of cosmetic medicine.

When I returned from France about 18 months ago, I thought I’d be fine if I could pick up a couple days of work per month from the medical device companies I knew before I left. Didn’t happen, rien, nothing. I built a website dedicated to this specialty and got active on LinkedIn trying to rebuild relationships. Nope.

So I got serious about writing and didn’t think much about photography, even spent a few weeks in Paris and, while I did write a journal, I wound up taking more pictures with my iPhone than my camera. When I got back, I decided to take down the medical photo web site and re-start my blog. The same week, I got three calls about medical photo jobs. Probably just a coincidence.

But it feels like when I was a full-time freelance photographer and business was slow, I used to think all my clients were in a conspiracy to torture me, until they decided I had suffered enough and then they all called at once.

So it’s nice to have a few things to juggle, leaves me less time to worry, and hardly any time at all to beat myself up over things I can’t control. I’m back to work on the Rivesaltes book and researching the plight of the Harkis, those Algerians who chose to fight for France in their country’s war of independence.

More about that in future posts, but I want to return to Robert Capa. Actually this is more about Hemingway. I’ve been reading his last novel, The Garden of Eden, and was discussing it yesterday with Dave Sumner. It’s atypical Hemingway for sure and very surprising in that he deals, in very mannered and sometimes abstract prose with his own bisexuality. David and Catherine Bourne, who cut and dye their hair in the same way, tan their bodies to mahogany, trade sexual roles and make love to an openly bisexual woman can be seen as two sides of the same person. Or not. Perhaps they’re Scott and Zelda or Hemingway and one of his wives. It will never be known and doesn’t really matter.

What struck me as most un-Hemingway of all is David’s passive reaction when Catherine burns the stories he’s been writing throughout the novel. It’s an extremely violent act that I thought would beget a violent reaction. Not at all. He just drifts off with Marita, the other woman.

The novel was unfinished, then severely edited and published posthumously.

My friend Dave suggested that Hemingway like Capa may have constructed an image of himself and then felt compelled to live up to it; Capa became the fearless and carefree combat photographer, Hemingway: the macho, brawling, hunter-warrior.

They were good friends, and while I doubt either one was subject to confessional revelations in their conversations, it would have been interesting to be there, to watch and listen to these two master actors.

Any Hemingway scholars out there? Please add a comment.

Spring?

Springtime, maybe. At least the last few days have been much warmer; the almond trees have started to blossom and Friday nights have returned to the café.  We were a small group and several conversations in English and French were going on at once. I was talking to a local winemaker about his upcoming trip to New York when I heard someone else at the table use the phrase “you’ve got to Jew down the middleman.” He wasn’t talking to me and the person he was talking to didn’t react and neither did I.

Now I wonder why.

I thought for a while that I’ve lived too long in a politically correct society and this was no big deal but I haven’t been able to dismiss it.

I also thought this is a small town and the last thing I want is to make enemies. I was afraid that making an issue of this would cause a split and I would be the one left out.

This was what stopped me, in part anyway.

I began to think I was being overly sensitive, probably because I’ve been reading a lot about World War II lately. It’s very hard to find information about the situation of Jews here during the occupation. I’m not even sure there were any Jews in Maury at the time. But there was a concentration camp not 15 miles away in Rivesaltes and though it was first built in 1938 to house refugees from the war in Spain, it remained in use throughout the German occupation of France and beyond. Today there are monuments to the Spanish, Jewish, Tsigane (Gypsy) and Harki people who spent time there. (Harkis are Algerian Muslims who fought for France in the Algerian War and were interned in the camp because no provision had been made for them when the French withdrew). In 1942, about 6500 Jews were sent to this and other camps in unoccupied France, 1800 died there, the rest were sent to extermination camps. Very few survived. A museum of remembrance and education is planned but has not yet received final approval.

Now what.

Is this kind of remark indicative of anything more than thoughtlessness in a casual conversation and is that in itself a dangerous attitude? Is it possible that this person has no idea the remark is offensive? Of course, but that doesn’t mean it should go unchallenged; it is the casual acceptance of stereotypes that leads to bigotry. Prejudice thrives on ignorance and silent complicity; hate crimes, ethnic cleansing, terrorism and other nightmares can be traced to racial and religious bigotry and the dehumanizing effect of stereotypes.

It’s a long way from a casual remark to ethnic warfare and I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve started down that road in our little village, but I can’t seem to put this aside. I went to the camp today looking for what: confirmation, perspective, photos for the blog? The place is huge and appears to have been left untouched for 70 years except for evidence of campers, taggers and garbage disposal. It’s falling down but many walls remain standing. When you see this today – here, not in Poland or Germany – surrounded by modern civilization, the impact is much greater than old newsreel footage. It brings to life the injunction to never forget.

So why publish this? What do I hope to gain?

Apologies are fine but I’m not sure they’d make a whole lot of difference to either one of us. I’d like to believe that you can change the world one person at a time but I doubt it. But I do want this one person to learn that Jew is not a verb and that phrase is offensive and not to use it again.

This blog is a personal journey so I’ll tell you about the first time I can remember an experience like this.

About 50 years ago, the very first real date I had was with a young blond girl from the suburbs. I don’t remember how I met her. Sometime in the course of our lavish Italian dinner at Mamma Leone’s in Times Square – the height of dining for me at the time – she made a similar remark, it may even have been the same phrase. I didn’t say a word, probably not for the rest of the meal and went home feeling ashamed, not of being a Jew, but of not saying anything to her.

Now I’ve done it again but I’ve come to understand that if his casual thoughtlessness is dangerous, so too was my silence.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Saying Good Bye

So I’m launched on a farewell tour, friends and places that I love, doing things that may not happen again, but no guarantees.

Today was lunch with Larry. Now this is undoubtedly not the last time we’ll lunch together because Larry and Mary Ann are partners in the Maury house and we’ll not only eat together in France, but I suspect they’ll show up again in this blog. But Larry and I meet often for lunch and not infrequently in North Beach as we did today and I’ll miss these times.

The lunch menu at Capp’s Corner… today. The food is good and it fits our budget. It also works for Jerry Brown.  Our famously thrifty governor was also lunching at Capp’s today, with friends, without an entourage. The last time we ran into the governor was a few weeks ago at Tommaso’s, San Francisco’s best pizzeria. So I’m thinking the Governor and I share a taste for good Italian food in an unpretentious setting, which may explain why I always find voting for him to be a very satisfying experience.

The first time I met Governor Brown was in 1976. He was in his first term and I was shooting for Time Magazine.

Governor Brown
California Governor Jerry Brown Photo ©1976 Ron Scherl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now he’s back in office, trying to make sense of a political system gone haywire. Good luck Governor, I wish you well.

Enough politics, Larry and I went on to the North Star and Comstock and discussions of Brooklyns, Manhattans and aged Rivesaltes. Diversity is truly a wonderful thing.