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If compromise was an ugly word, it was far less offensive than collaboration. The French knew that their record under the occupation was less than impeccable. The profound revelations of the Holocaust, and all it implied, were just beginning to emerge. In a recent issue of Les temps modernes I had read a document that overwhelmed me, written by a Hungarian Jewish doctor, Miklos Nyiszli, who had been deported to Auschwitz in and survived to tell the tale. To what degree did I collaborate? Meanwhile, on a whole other level, a thousand miles to the east but seemingly almost next door, the Soviet Union, our erstwhile ally, suddenly loomed as the ultimate solution to some, the ultimate menace to others.
No in-between. For much of the war, almost to the very end, these people had lived a life free from fear: their dinner parties, their dances and entertainments, their visits to the nightclubs and concerts virtually unchanged. But good and evil are rarely as clear-cut as people would like to believe, and for the French there was now almost as great a fear of Uncle Sam, with his frightening new weapon of ultimate destruction and paranoid politics, as there was of Uncle Joe.
The scare stories coming out of Washington almost daily left us perplexed and distraught. The other Joe, the bejowled McCarthy, struck fear in our expatriate hearts, and whenever two or three Americans met—I speak still of the Left Bank—sooner or later the conversation would turn not only to the coldly self-serving machinations of the maverick senator who, thank God, was three thousand miles away but, more immediately, to his two swashbuckling sidekicks, Roy Cohn and David Schine, the not-so-funny comedy team traipsing through Europe, wreaking havoc at every embassy and consulate along the way, turning over stone after spurious stone, hoping to find a Communist, or at least a fellow traveler, cowering underneath.
The French regarded these two stooges with a mixture of ridicule and disdain, wondering how we Americans could grant them—long before the phrase was born—even fifteen minutes of fame. But the French could look at the McCarthy phenomenon with distant objectivity; as far as they could tell, it did not affect them directly. We Americans, despite the watery distance between us, felt personally threatened. What had happened to the world in so short a time? A time to relax and recoup, to enjoy our presumed triumph over evil?
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After World War I, our elders had mistakenly believed, with the world made safe for democracy now and forever, it was a time to play. Drink and dance the nights away. And Paris had indulged them. Not so our generation: rightly or wrongly, we felt we had awakened from one nightmare only to find another looming. The bomb may have won the war, but it now posed a problem such as the world had never faced before.
Existentialism, not hedonism, was the order of the day. Still, on this radiant spring day, it was easy to put all that behind us. Now the Algerian rug merchants reigned, their heavy wares slung over their shoulders, their hands either full of baubles they were trying to hawk to unwary tourists or, more than half the time, it seemed, nervously fingering prayer beads. As for the hotel itself, it reeked of cabbage and urine—cause and effect? From the looks of two of its presumed lodgers lounging in the murky lobby, prostitution must have been the mainstay of the establishment.
Up we climbed the four flights of rickety stairs, mostly in the dark because that great electricity-saving convention the French had devised, the minuterie —literally the minute-long light switch —here lasted at most ten seconds before plunging the climber once again into Stygian darkness. We finally reached a landing into which a sliver of light had somehow managed to slip.
Open Book: The Tender Hour of Twilight, by Richard Seaver
Pat knocked, and the door opened to a tall, hawk-nosed man, who I judged was in his mid- to late twenties, with thick, tousled light brown hair. Barefoot, he was dressed in khaki trousers and an open-neck light blue shirt that matched his deep-set, laughing eyes. This is the American friend I was telling you about. Patrick nodded in my direction. Dick Seaver, Alex Trocchi. Alex thrust out his hand, grasped mine in a firm grip, and said, Welcome to our humble abode, and with a sweeping gesture of his right arm invited us in.
It was a typical Left Bank hotel room of the time, small and dimly lit, with hideous flowered wallpaper scuffed and peeling in a dozen places. Its only window looked onto an oversized air shaft that made a vague claim to courtyard status with a scrawny tree that had managed, against all reason, to push its fragile branches as high as this floor. A hesitant handful of lance-shaped leaves fluttered just outside the window. It turned out to be a sumac, waywardly spawned no doubt by some chance seed from the West. A four-poster bed occupied a goodly portion of the room, whose only other furnishings were a bulky armoire separated from the bed by a scant three feet and, in front of the window, which from all appearances had last been washed just before the war, a small wooden table bare except for a vintage typewriter and, parked precariously on the far-left corner, a hot plate.
REVIEW: The Tender Hour of Twilight by Richard Seaver
Majestically curled into a near-perfect ball on the center pillow of the bed lay a Siamese cat, its blue eyes taking in our every move. Can I offer you some tea? Alex said. Or coffee? Or perhaps a bit of fine Scotch? He paused. Or is it too early for that? His voice was soft as silk, punctuated every sentence or two with a broad smile. I declined, but Patrick said tea would be fine. It seemed like a strange chaser for the morning beer, but who was I to judge?
Perhaps beer plus tea was the national drink of South Africa. But we do intend to be good.
These are parlous times, mon, what with the Russians on the one hand and the ugly Americans on the other rattling their apocalyptic bomb. She had silken dark brown hair that she wore with schoolgirl bangs, china white skin, into which were set dark flashing eyes, an easy smile, and, it turned out, a sunny disposition that nothing seemed to faze. Besides, she had the good sense to have a banker for a father.
Maybe it had to do with taxes, I thought. Please stay for lunch, she said. No label, but what the hell. Gros rouge : at Buci, as at most wineshops in the area, you could, if you brought your own empty bottle, buy a liter of wine for a hundred francs—roughly twenty-five cents—poured from the vast oaken casks in the back. Mostly Algerian, not smooth by any means, but eminently drinkable, especially for our untutored palates.
Over lunch Trocchi talked about the magazine he envisioned. Some extraordinary writing came out of that period, though, I said. Start with Joyce.
Total self-indulgence. Epitome of literary arrogance. But, by God, look what resulted! Of course, mon. So where does that leave poetry?
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Pat asked. Does poetry have to be politically aware? God forbid! One step further and you have the socialist drivel of the Soviets. Picasso was able to be political without compromising his art. Ditto Malraux. And, yes, Sartre. Trocchi turned to the typewriter and, unscrolling a page, added it to a couple of others on the table.
Still needs a bit of fine-tuning, but it expresses what I feel the magazine should be. We want to find new writers.bundedabiturn.gq
The Tender Hour of Twilight — By Richard Seaver — Book Review - The New York Times
And not just English language. Patrick says you know the French scene better than anyone here—. Pretty stupid when I look back, but I really was determined to learn the language, immerse myself in French culture. A girl I met my first summer here gave me a list of those I had to read. Barely halfway through it. One or two in particular. My livelihood still depended on it.