Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas was on loan from the Archbishop’s Palace in Kroměříž, Czechoslovakia, part of ‘The Genius of Venice’ exhibition at the Royal Academy. All of London was transfixed. It dominated the news cycle as much as a painting could, buoyed by a quote from a seventeenth-century art critic who contended that Titian used his fingers to blend highlights to halftones, working in red paint like daubs of blood.
I stood and stared, taking in all the action. Based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the satyr Marsyas loses a musical contest to the god Apollo and is condemned to a horrible death. In the painting, as in the story, Marsyas hangs upside down from a tree while Apollo meticulously flays him alive with a small knife. The composition is crowded with figures. A spaniel laps from a pool of blood in the foreground. A woman—or perhaps it’s a young man—plays the violin. A satyr that looks like the devil holds a bucket and leers demonically. Marsyas’s expression, upside-down, is indescribable.
A week later, I crossed the English Channel in rough seas on a medium-sized boat. It had an open-air deck and a bar below that served beer in cans and snacks like potato crisps. I’d bought the cheapest fare, an overnight train-to-boat-to-train journey with ‘Sealink’ that arrived in Paris early in the morning. People casually referred to it as ‘the vomit ferry.’
I stood on the top deck all night to avoid seasickness and the rowdy, beer-swilling boys below, thankful for my weighty, second-hand astrakhan coat, which was impervious to weather. In the first light of morning, I realized the bald edges of the sleeves had bled, staining my wrists grey. Before leaving for Paris, I’d touched up those edges with India ink. At the time, I thought it was ingenious.
The Paris that greeted me was gritty, the Marais was sooty, peeling, and rotting away. The ancient walls of the Huguenots sported traces of political graffiti of the previous decade, and everywhere sky-lit arcades stood empty and derelict. As yet, there were no boutiques selling designer clothing for toddlers, no Mariage Frères tearoom on the Rue du Bourg-Tibourg, and the Musée Picasso had yet to be conceived. People sat around in cafés all day reading newspapers, and the ink came off on their hands, so I stopped worrying about my grey wrists.
I wandered Paris in a daze. It overflowed with recyclable bottles that spilled from modular green depositories the Ville de Paris never seemed to empty. I noted odd flourishes, like the theater of street sweepers—young men from former colonies in West Africa whose uniforms evoked the French Foreign Legion. They’d been equipped with plastic replicas of turn-of-the-century bristle brooms that left a trail of gum wrappers and soggy cigarette butts to clog the gutters.
I quickly learned about things necessary to my survival. Toilets in cafés were nearly always à la turque, with pull cords and water that flushed over my shoes and handbag before I could escape. The lights in the cabines were on timers, never on long enough, the switches impossible to reach from a squatting position. I didn’t understand kilograms and made the faux pas of buying a too-large wedge of pâté from a man who cut it from a large round with a thin wire. He scowled when I balked at the size of the wedge and the price. I soon discovered the cheap little rounds of pizza sold at bakeries, topped with anchovies arranged around a central Niçoise olive like salty pinwheels. I stuffed myself with baguette and hard-boiled eggs that sat in plastic holders on the counter of every bar until late afternoon. For dinner I scooped avocados from their skins with a spoon and boiled water to make broth from Knorr Suisse cubes. I splurged from time to time on half a roasted chicken. The butcher would chop one in half length-wise with a cleaver, and slide it into a foil-lined bag. Starving, I’d eat the whole thing with my hands in one sitting.
The neighborhood where I lived was full of laundries and wholesalers. Narrow storefronts sold bolts of fabric and leather in bulk, their windows festooned with faded draperies and displays of zippers and colored buttons. Old men hawked their wares, calling up from the street in the early morning hours like time-travelers from another century. The knife sharpener made house calls and a window glazier hauled panes of glass in a wooden contraption like a backpack. Along the Rue de Bretagne, the markets would light up like Christmas every night at dusk. Gleaming tile-lined shops displayed an array of cheeses, artisanal yogurts in clay pots, and many things I’d never seen before like les oeufs en gélée encased in cognac-colored aspic dotted with green peppercorns, rows of pintades turning on spits stuffed with pâté made from their own livers, coils of black boudin, and puce-colored boudin blanc. An immense bristling boar hung upside down outside a shop, dark blood dripping from its snout into a tin cup. I could think only of Marsyas.
I was staying in a narrow street dotted with darkened bars where men in blue petrol-stained boiler suits smoked cigarettes ‘sans filtres’ and drank glasses of cloudy Ricard from early in the morning. Directly across from my building was a bakery, more like a vestibule, where one or two customers could fit at a time. It was only open a few hours in the afternoon. Like the glazier and the knife sharpener, the proprietress seemed to exist by dint of time travel. She stood behind the counter, a withered lady with a head of white curls, in what appeared to be a nightgown. Her cataracts glowed, accentuating her feral demeanor, and her pale powdery face looked like a flour-dusted boule. She had only a few items on offer: rustic sourdough ficelles that were tougher and more delicious than baguette, croissants baked with lard, les chaussons aux pommes, and a rubbery clafouti cut into squares and embedded with mirabelles. Transactions with the flour-complexioned lady were mystifying. She would shout at me, exact my few francs, and send me off with whatever bread or pastry she decided I should buy. It took me some time to realize that la patronne was stone deaf.
Every morning, my apartment was awash in white light from double windows that opened onto the courtyard. There was a tiny bathroom with a bathtub just large enough to crouch in. The wallpaper, which had once been blue, was brown and rank and peeling in places. My bed was an old mattress covered with a blanket on the floor, folded lengthwise to form a couch during the daytime. The clunky phone had an extra listening device—the French answer to eavesdropping—but the service had been disconnected. A box on the wall held circuit breakers that I fiddled with every week or so when the electricity cut out. There was no fridge. When the milk curdled, I would hang it in a cheesecloth bag over the sink in attempts to make fromage blanc.
My apartment was on the top floor at the end of a winding stair that got narrower toward the top. It was paved with octagonal terracotta tiles, many of which were loose, alternating with slats of wood worn down by centuries of feet. There was a shared W.C. on every floor. The doors and banisters were all painted the same dark, shiny brownish orange and the door handles were chrome, matching the décor of local cafes. Like the W.C.’s in cafés, the corridor lights were set on timers that went off before I could reach my door, and I would be lost in the dark fumbling for my key. A pungent smell like rotting leaves emanated from somewhere—it seemed to be the apartment next door. Other than the concierge who occupied an apartment on the ground floor, my neighbor and I were the only two tenants who lived in the building, which catered to wholesalers and sweatshops that opened early in the morning and closed at suppertime. I looked closely at the name on my neighbor’s door. It was written in looping, decorative script from a distant and more careful era: M. Hubler. Another time traveler, perhaps.
Leery of the ancient stopped-up W.C. in the hallway, I acquired the habit of leaving the apartment first thing in the morning. I’d head to a café around the corner called ‘Le Béranger,’ after a popular nineteenth-century poet who fell to obscurity after his death. It was different from other cafés in that there was no orange-brown paint, and no chrome door handles from the seventies. There were none of the usual male waiters, only extremely young waitresses in pink uniforms with white aprons and lace caps. They scurried around, taking orders from two older women positioned behind the counter who ran the place like a military encampment. I’d warm myself, order coffee, and count to ten before getting up to use the W.C., which was white and spotless and had a commode with a seat.
The café specialized in dried fruits, marrons glacées, and handmade chocolates, an array of which was displayed in the front vitrines. On the menu under the coffees were names of desserts, some of which were familiar like éclairs, madeleines, gâteaux opéra, mille-feuilles, macarons, flans pâtissier, crème brulée, pot de crème, and crème caramel. But names of other confections evoked geographies and histories completely unknown to me. I repeated them under my breath: calissons, canelé, kouign-amann, mendiant, croquembouche, dariole, teurgoule, gougère, dacquoise, religieuse, Jésuite, poire belle Hélène, dame blanche, puits d’amour, and a dish of crème glacée with kirsch and fruits confits called plombières.
On my first night, I was awakened by a furious, disembodied voice coming through the wall.
‘Les polices!’ said the voice. I froze. My apartment-sitting deal had been offered with the caveat that I be discreet. I was a guest, not a subletter, and I should avoid contact, even with the concierge.
‘Les polices…!’ I shivered. I wondered if I would be thrown out.
The voice repeated similar phrases over and over in manic fury. ‘La valise! Mon argent! Donne-moi!’ After a few nights I began to make out more words and nuances, and came to realize my neighbor’s outrage was directed not at me, but at the police. Something about a valise. An incident with a valise that was missing. A valise that contained 17 thousand francs.
Paris became colder than I expected. I wasn’t prepared. I got sick. I visited a pharmacy where they sold me a box of suppositories and a vial of tablets to dissolve in water until they stopped fizzing. For days I shoved in suppositories and swilled orange-flavored fizzy water. I rubbed mentholated ointment on my chest and in my nostrils, but nothing worked. I wrapped myself in my coat under the blankets, alternately shivering and sweating. I stopped caring about the voice that came through the wall in the night.
Once my fever broke, I ventured outside again. In the days since I’d been bedridden, the weather had turned even colder. There was a thick layer of frost on the fallen leaves and I could see my breath. I took to wearing my astrakhan coat at all times, indoors as well as outdoors. I wore it while brushing my teeth and doing the dishes. I continued to wear it to bed. It was only the beginning. A few months later, the Seine would freeze, ice floes bobbing and flowing under the bridges in the black water.
I don’t remember the exact circumstances that led to meeting Monsieur Hubler. Our first encounter took place in his doorway and I cut it short because of the smell. He was tiny, a whole foot shorter than me, his long greasy hair parted neatly on one side and draped behind his ears. His face was pointy like a vole’s, and a large dark mole sat to the left of his nose above his lip. I found it odd he was clean-shaven. He seemed old, but how old I could not say. His skin had a bluish cast. His legs were not fully functional, and he moved in and out, and down the hall and all those stairs on his hospital crutches. I sometimes saw him making his way slowly and laboriously to a bench in Square du Temple. He never appeared to recognize me in public, even when I greeted him.
I could smell Monsieur Hubler from a distance. The odors he emitted were shocking in their complexity and difficult to tease out and identify. There was a wet leaves element, and an aroma of lead pencil. On the occasions when we stopped to chat in his doorway, I didn’t understand much of what he said. Still, I found him compelling, and it was obviously important to him that I listen to what he had to say—I don’t think he had any friends—and this became the basis of our friendship. His voice raised, he would spin out the threads of the evil conspiracy waged against him, the theft by the police of his valise stuffed with old francs, currency from the previous era. The era from which he had time-traveled. Les polices, la valise, mon argent, gendarmerie—merde! I imagined a greasy leather suitcase bursting with rancid bills. I didn’t know the history of currency reform in detail, but I was aware that the nouveau franc had supplanted the old franc, and that one new franc was worth around 100 old francs. A suitcase of 17 thousand old francs was not worth all that much.
Monsieur Hubler knocked on my door and asked if he could borrow 200 francs. It was a lot for me to part with, but I couldn’t refuse him. I thought I’d never see the money again, but after a week there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find him leaning on his crutches, waving a 200-franc note at me.
My savings had dwindled. I decided to ask Monsieur Hubler if I could borrow a small amount of cash until my dad could wire me more money. I wondered if he would respond in kind. It was only part desperation, I told myself, and part social experiment. I waited in the hallway while he disappeared into the gloom of his apartment. The door was ajar and I could make out objects and furniture in the dim light. Mattresses and box springs were stacked against the back wall. Tables were positioned end-to-end and covered with opened cans and bowls full of liquid. There was a constant sound of faucets running. Everything was orange-brown, like the paint in the corridor, but covered in an additional layer of grime. The stench was overpowering. He returned and presented me with a filthy bill. I protested that it was twice what I had asked for, but Monsieur Hubler insisted, crumpling it into my hand.
I invited Monsieur Hubler into my apartment for a drink. I was an aspiring art student after all, and I thought he might agree to sit for his portrait. I put him in a straight-back chair while I sat on a stool with my pad and pencil. I offered him a glass of cheap red wine, which he greedily accepted. His hands were gnarled with arthritis. His hair was freshly combed and he shook all over with a kind of palsy, more obvious now that he was sitting still and not talking. How small he was. We fell silent as he drank and I sketched. The sun slanted in through the window. I almost stopped minding the smell.
I came home one evening to learn that Monsieur Hubler had flooded his apartment. The smell met me at the bottom of the stairs. The long-suffering concierge told me he’d been hustled off to a state-run facility. She’d already had his door fitted with a new lock and key. It was the first time I’d seen her smile. It took me a moment to understand that Monsieur Hubler was gone and I would never see him again.
When the floodwaters receded, a band of men in white HAZMAT suits arrived. They wore helmets with visors and gas masks, and spent days suctioning out the ruined apartment with industrial wet-vacs. I saw them enter the courtyard from my window every morning to re-enact a scene from The Andromeda Strain set in 17th-century Paris. After the fifth day, they stopped coming.
In the Spring, I submitted my application to the École des beaux-arts. On the morning of the entrance exam, I followed other nervous-looking applicants, all carrying identical black portfolios across the cobblestone courtyard towards the Palais des études, an imposing nineteenth-century building with Corinthian columns flanked by more ancient cloisters. We walked under medallions sporting portrait reliefs of apparently famous artists, past broken antiquities scattered on the ground, and plaster busts that were copies of Roman marbles left behind by former students. Inside was gloomy. The walls of the amphitheater were hung with immense allegorical canvases in need of repair. It felt like a time capsule, though what era the space encapsulated was difficult to say. Everything seemed designed to riff on something more ancient than itself.
I pushed my way through the sea of prospective students already jammed inside, climbed the canted seating, and waited. Assistants were busily setting up still lifes on a central platform, and models stood around in their bathrobes smoking, like extras from a Lautrec biopic. After feverish clerical activity in which names were checked off lists, we were each appointed an easel with a giant pad of newsprint paper and a little box of charcoal wands and stubs of sanguine Conté crayons. There was a set number of assignments—life drawing and still life—each timed and to be completed in unison. A man with a stopwatch paced back and forth while we worked, and barked unintelligibly when it was time to put down our charcoal wands. Afterwards, we milled about the hall clutching our identical portfolios, waiting and hoping to be asked to present our work. I was directed to show mine to a milquetoast man armed with a ledger who frowned as he flipped through my drawings. He made a notation in the ledger and handed me a slip of paper with the name of an atelier. ‘Report here when the doors open in September,’ he said.
I was in. I walked home in the rain, elated, as if I’d never seen rain before. The yellow leaves that clogged the path in the park looked bright and ebullient, and everything in the world was suddenly good. Even the cold and wet felt delicious on my face. I must never ever leave Paris, I thought.
Our atelier had high ceilings with skylights, and a catwalk with racks of old canvases. A wall-length trough was encased in a century’s worth of oil paint and turpentine, a gray-blue sludge that denoted ongoing serious business. Someone said it had once been the atelier of Gustave Moreau. I thought they were joking but it turned out to be true. My cohort of students included two French, a handful of Greeks, two Japanese, a German, a Hungarian, an Austrian who was half Canadian, an Australian, and Mathias, who was Swiss and the same age as my younger brother. We became friends. The professor was Italian from Bologna. He was a short sparkplug of a man with a large head of silvery hair and bulging blue eyes. We called him Monsieur C.
Monsieur C would arrive punctually at noon on Thursdays. He dragged with him his assistant, Pierre, a middle-aged Frenchman who walked behind him taking notes, presumably about our progress or lack of it. Always taking notes. I recognized him as the balding milquetoast who had assigned me to the atelier the day of the entrance exam. The two would appear and we would stop whatever we were doing and gather around to listen to Monsieur C. He communicated in terrible French, the one language we could all speak. He would go on at length about ‘l’analyse,’ a capacity for observation, he explained, acquired through attrition; the ability to distinguish subtle discrepancies of tone and light, and possibly something like meaning.
Every Thursday, Monsieur C would inspect the works-in-progress perched on our easels. They were usually still lifes based on arrangements of objects we’d each set up in our separate cubbyholes. He paced the atelier, one hand behind his back in a kind of reverse Napoleonic gesture. We’d follow him like children, holding our collective breath as we waited for him to pass judgment. He would mutter in Italian before trying it out in French. He seldom approved of anything we did. If he liked something, he would pause and make a dramatic pronouncement before moving on. ‘Vous avez un regard juste, mademoiselle, comme une lame de razoir,’ he once told me. My eye was sharp, like a razor. If he was offended by something someone had done, he would dwell on it, and sometimes he was so brutal he’d make the student cry. I remember the German girl crying, she whose realism was obstinate and humorless. Monsieur C took visible pleasure in ranting at the room, usually over our lack of technical acuity, and he groused about our individual shortcomings. He determined that we should leave unfinished those portions of our canvases we didn’t like—the parts that didn’t motivate us. ‘La peinture, ce n’est pas le devoir,’ he would say. Painting is not homework. He was right. We had to ask ourselves what we really cared about. He would hold forth for an hour, quoting Moravia, Calvino, Eco, and Merleau-Ponty, his one concession to French thinking. He called them ‘mes amis.’
On rare occasions, Monsieur C would tell us about his life. He described his student days in Bologna during the war. An image emerged of a hungry young art student wearing Fagin gloves, working in unheated dilapidated buildings between bombardments. His father was a Bolshevik and a Sunday painter who taught him all the basics, an authoritarian who pressured him to succeed as an artist. He revealed to us his given names: Leonardo Raffaello Tiziano. Otherwise, Monsieur C remained distant, a figure of power that solicited our sympathies. He needed to be at the center and yet he never came fully into view.
In the evenings, a small faction of us would gather at a dingy café overlooking the Seine. We liked it for its griminess and the fact that we could dance and be raucous, like delinquent children from a Godard film. It was while blowing off steam in that café that we began to mimic Monsieur C. We trilled our r’s to imitate his Italian accent. ‘Ce n’est pas la peintoorr,’ someone would say, ‘c’est une omelette!’
A rift emerged between those who admired Monsieur C and those who mocked him. The Japanese students, particularly Tadashi, who mixed his own egg tempera and glaire, adhered religiously to Monsieur C’s prescriptive about l’analyse. The Greek contingent was loyal to a fault and even mimicked his painterly style. Mathias and I believed some kind of Mediterranean power alliance had been forged among them. When one of the Greeks accidentally let fly his expectation of a teaching job in Modena, we realized our suspicions had been correct. Dietrich the Austrian, and Emmie, the Australian, started to emulate Monsieur C’s palette, which was overwhelmingly candy-colored and relied heavily on acquas, lavenders and purples, peachy corals and diluted yellows. Mathias and I rejected this palette and cleaved more than ever to dark hues. In fact, our work came to be seen as a rejection of pastels. I bought a large tube of Asphaltum bitumen, a tar-like color akin to the substance used to pave streets. I liked its dark yet transparent qualities. I knew from the store chart it was not the most lightfast of oil paints, and that it could seep up from lower layers to upper layers to make the painting look dirty.
During a weekly critique, Monsieur C announced to the room that my work reminded him of Gooloob.
‘Gooloob?’ I looked at him with uncertainty.
‘Leon Gooloob. Vous avez encore quelque chose comme lui…’
He was talking about the American painter Leon Golub who had lived for a time in Paris. Monsieur C encouraged me to find some Golub paintings to look at, but he couldn’t say why. I went straight to La Hune, the big art bookstore on the Rue de l’Abbaye, and found exhibition catalogues and monographs with Golub’s paintings. If there was an affinity with Golub, I didn’t see it. I remained entranced by the tidy and discreet beauty of Ste. Ives and the Bloomsbury painters I’d encountered in England. I wondered what it was about my work that reminded Monsieur C of Golub. Perhaps he thought of us both as New York Jews.
Meanwhile, a drama was unfolding at the atelier. Suzanne, the diminutive German whom Monsieur C had made cry, was having an affair with Janos, the Hungarian giant. No one liked Janos, who was belligerent and unkind, but it also had to do with the fact that he was more skilled than the rest of us. Mathias was Janos’s only competition. As a child in Kusnacht, Mathias had a mentor who was a famous Hungarian emigré. Aping Goya, Mathias distorted his subjects as monsters. He despised what he called Janos’s ‘copyism.’ Behind his back, he called him ‘vendeur de tapis’—rug salesman.
We all arrived at the atelier one morning to find Suzanne and Janos in the middle of a fight. They’d spent the night there and it had not ended well. Janos, who was built like an ox and towered above us all, had pushed the feisty but slight Suzanne onto the floor and was dragging her by the foot through a slurry of paint. As soon as we pulled him off her she went for his face with a palette knife, screaming invective in German. Janos was bleeding from one ear. Someone, maybe Dietrich, took Janos outside while Emmie sat with Suzanne. We’d known for a while about their nights in the atelier—Janos was married and had a small son, and Suzanne lived in a cramped apartment with roommates. We were relieved it was finally over.
By the time spring came, we’d all stopped feeling afraid of Monsieur C. He must have sensed it because he ratcheted up the brutality of his critiques. We were all worthless, as far as he could see, except for Tadashi, who was getting somewhere with his nearly indistinguishable strands of strafed light, and the Greeks, who never stopped ingratiating themselves. I’d hit my stride and had conjured a palette all my own, where one or two colors were heightened by expanses of muted grays, glassy greens, and off-whites. They had a grittiness—perhaps looking at Golub had rubbed off, or for that matter, late Titian. Maybe I was finished with those tidy English still lifes, ready to channel the dark side of, say, Dora Carrington’s uncanny red cactus flower. I was in love, I found, with something I was doing with paint, and while it was hard to explain, it was indisputable.
Monsieur C made the rounds that week and paused for a long time in front of my paintings. I saw him blanche. I waited, knowing he would come for me just as he had come for the other students. I knew he would say there was something off, that this had more to do with machinations in my head than l’analyse du visible. His face reddened as he pored over my canvases, and I could see his Napoleonic extremity—his painting hand—curling behind his back in a longstanding tic of suppressed rage.
‘C’est quoi, ça?’
I too felt something, not quite anger, more like triumph, spreading like hot chocolate from the nape of my neck.
Monsieur C leaned closer to the patch of gray, the foamy color that I knew was right, the angle under the jar where the light spilled and refracted, the increments of pallor I’d fabricated that were based on nothing in the real world. They expressed something real, though. I could read his confusion. To him, they must have seemed out of context, outside all we’d been working towards. I watched him straighten and step away. He’d figured it out. What he saw was all mine. I no longer needed him.
‘Vous n’avez pas utiliser l’analyse….!’ he said, ‘vous avez fait la poubelle!’
I suddenly saw a resemblance to my poor friend Monsieur Hubler. Monsieur C’s anger confirmed I’d found the edge of something, my ‘posizione ontologica’ as he might have called it. My place in the cosmos of painting. I had yet to explore that place, nor did I know I would come to operate from it, a painter born in a state of resistance. But resistance to what? I’d rejected the musings of men, I suppose, and this old man who had lost everything and wanted back in. I wanted in too. I had never been in. I wanted in but not if I had to fit into a subset of painting that had been exhausted.
It was spring again in Paris. Mathias and I felt irritable. We were done with Monsieur C and his pronouncements, with Janos the tapis and his boorish misogyny, masochistic Suzanne, the sycophantic Greeks. It was spring in Paris and we wanted to be free.
For our final projects we were asked to follow some sort of assignment, I forget what. Instead, I positioned a cheap mirror I’d found in the corner of the atelier, and took up my tube of Asphaltum bitumen, Payne’s gray, a multitude of sienna and umber, and Titanium white for the glint. When I was finished, I packed up my tubes and brushes, anything personal I wanted to keep. The self-portrait was firm, it looked straight at the viewer with a calm that could have been hauteur. The face, emerging from the deepest shadow, was lit on one side; the hand was poised and held a small paintbrush.
Later that evening, Mathias and I stood in our favorite bar drinking to the end of that year. He recounted what had happened in my absence in that final review. Monsieur C had looked everywhere for me. When he couldn’t find me, he began to ask the other students. ‘Où est mademoiselle?’ And when he saw my self-portrait on the easel, the thing I’d left behind, the realization I was gone washed over him.
‘Il avait l’air tout-a-fait écrasé,’ said Mathias.
He was totally crushed.