Faits Divers, August 1927
Germaine Jolivet’s shooting of her lover is reported in La Vigie. During the year he has worked as chauffeur to the English painter Noel Mirlees, Georges Roussel has often been away. Now, after a week without news, and suspecting infidelity, Germaine has followed him here from Paris. They argue in a restaurant, fiercely, and are asked to leave, without having eaten. They walk back to Georges’ shabby room in the bout du quai, and the row continues, getting angrier, louder. ‘Is that any way to treat a woman!’ some neighbours shout when they hear Germaine’s screams, in no doubt that Georges is beating her. Then three gunshots. Two miss completely, one grazes a forearm. Before long, the police arrive. Her face pressed against the wall, Germaine is weeping. Georges sits on the bed, eyes blank, as if stunned.
At Varengeville, along the coast, André Breton hunts owls in the woods surrounding the Manoir d’Ango. It is here, in a hut artificially camouflaged with shrubbery, that he has begun writing Nadja. Nadja is beautiful, passionate, capricious, mad; a woman made for men’s dreams.
… now the tower of the Manoir d’Ango explodes and a snowfall of feathers from its doves dissolves on contact with the earth of the great courtyard once paved with scraps of tiles and now covered with real blood.
From prison in Milan, Antonio Gramsci writes to his wife’s sister Tatiana describing the death of a sparrow from a stroke.
He cried out like a child… but died only the following day: his right side was paralysed and he had to drag himself painfully to eat and drink… What I liked in this sparrow was his resistance to being handled. He would rebel fiercely, beating his wings and pecking my hand with great energy… I think his spirit must have been eminently Goethean (‘Uber allen Gipfeln’).
In his cell another sparrow, tamer, servile, has replaced the dead bird. The latter marks nine months of imprisonment.
On the sea-front near the Casino, where Yvette Guilbert is this week’s star attraction, the police arrest Anna Haavikko, twenty-three, Finnish, for possession of a knife and revolver. Before the magistrate, her lawyers plead that the current situation in Finland makes possession of arms a common occurrence. A small fine is imposed, along with a suspended sentence. When arrested she was staring out to sea, hatless, her pale hair wispy in the wind. She was fingering the gun, her thoughts elsewhere. It was low tide and gulls had gathered along the sandy shoreline, facing the waves. Perhaps she was homesick, or perhaps, with the reluctant northerner’s sense of release, only glad to have left the even more fathomless greyness of the Nordic sky up there in the past. If she were to turn her back, then this was surely where the south began, on this lip of stony beach. Spasmodic drops of rain were falling. The weather this August had made it the most dismal for years.
In Charlestown gaol near Boston, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists, walk to their execution. Waiting six years for their death to be final, this shoemaker and this fish-peddler have become known to millions, in New York and Moscow, London and Geneva, in every great city of the world. Now, as they walk to the electric chair, they sing. Voices that soar and tremble sing Mario’s aria from the last act of Tosca: ‘E lucevano le stelle…’; their farewell to life, to the brightness of the stars and the fragrance of the earth in the land where they were born. Their places of birth are far apart, almost as far as Italy’s north and south can be, separated by diet and dialect in a country where the language of music is the one still most shared. Vanzetti was born in Villafalletto on the narrow Grana river which runs only a little way from its source in the Alps to join the Po. Sacco in Torremaggiore, on the edge of the sun-blasted Puglia plain that then swells out to become the verdant hilly promontory of the Gargano, Italy’s bootspur, sending out green sparks over the sea’s sheer blueness: the Tremiti islands.
Were it a hotter August in Paris, the whole of the city would ignite. All through the night demonstrators rule the streets. Shots are fired, windows smashed, scenes of devastation and looting erupt across the boulevards, Hausmann’s strategic channels for the containment of chaos. Among the wreckage everywhere, worst on Sébastopol, scattered placards and banners read ‘Sacco and Vanzetti shall not die’. What seismic register can measure the world’s shock at the unjust deaths of a cobbler and a fish-peddler, its tremors of rage, its spasms of love and anger, all the convulsive fury of a final struggle already overcome. Down on the Seine, what chaos has flung overboard, things bereft of ownership, floating, bobbing: a tennis racket, a lampshade, a wedding dress, a shoal of unmatched shoes. In the place de l’Etoile a group of men pisses on the flame that burns by the tomb of the unknown soldier – dousing it.
From Morval, where the cliff curves out and away from the bay, Louis Aragon sets off down the steep path. To reach Dieppe for the demonstration he will drive from Pourville, or be driven. When he enters the Terasse several women turn and stare. Whether they like it or not, their eyes are on an object of desire: tall, blue-eyed, an impassive object, militant charmer. His friend Breton is too absorbed by his writing to be joining him there as half promised, so perhaps it is his ever unpunctual lover Nancy who will come. Nancy Cunard, the absconded heiress with the downturned mouth and the wide, stubborn eyes. One of Nancy’s passions is for ivory: African bracelets by the double armful, stern deities and intransigent masks. In the rundown bars of the bout du quai she and Aragon have gone in search of sailors who will sell her what they’ve brought from West Africa’s ports. Nothing carved here in this town, famous for centuries for its ivory-work, is of interest to her: the finely-wrought portraits, the fans, the exquisite architecture of scaled-down palaces, the hinged cases for tobacco leaves and the tableaux of wretched poverty after Victor Hugo. A labour that strained eyes, a froth of creamy powder with each minute incision. As the craft died, its masters came to violent ends: murder, suicide; an elephant’s curse.
In Le Havre, an agent of the Sûreté, having been discovered as an infiltrator in the committee for solidarity with Sacco and Vanzetti, is stabbed. His condition is critical.
A certain Lady Bailey, holder of a world altitude record, makes the first solo flight by a woman across the Irish Sea.
Another shooting. After arriving from England on the ferry, a Birmingham man named Robert Friel hires a taxi to take him to Rouen for the day, and back again. The return journey is nearly over, when, at St Aubin, he asks the driver to stop and fetch him cigarettes from the tabac by the crossroads. Friel takes his opportunity, jumps out of the cab, and disappears, his fair unpaid. Heading for the station over the fast-flowing stream of the Scie, and seeing there’s no lucky train, he strikes out across the fields for Offranville, easily eluding his pursuer in the dark. Later that night, when the police visit his hotel, he fires on them. No one but Friel is hurt in the ensuing exchange of shots; a flesh-wound on his shoulder. Once in custody, he confesses his readiness to die, says he’s a desperate man, in flight from impossible gambling debts.
At night among the beech trees, where it is moist underfoot from the rain, Breton wills an encounter with a lovely naked woman. She would be a tabula rasa whatever her guise, Circe or Melusine. Trotsky, whose latest work Breton had bought just before first meeting Nadja in the street, wrote: The creative union of the conscious with the unconscious is what one usually calls ‘inspiration’. Revolution is the inspired frenzy of history. In the centre of the courtyard of the Manoir d’Ango stands a colossal hive, its dark rafters packed with doves.
When there is nothing else, the gobiers eat seabirds, trapping the young ones as they loiter, flightless, on the beach. Sometimes a fledgeling tumbles from a high nest on a roof up in town, and wanders to and fro beneath it, foolish and ungainly, every so often attempting flight but failing, until it dies of hunger or falls prey to a dog. You can catch them easily, never mind the frantic beating wings, whose span is nearly that of the adult’s, only they are greyer. The gobiers scavenge more fruitfully from the sea than from the land, whose rejects they are, pushed to its extremity and below. Outside the gobes, pitting the cliffbase like mouseholes in a wainscot, tides and seasons tyrannise, and families implore the August squalls to end. Inside there is chill, tubercular dampness, and everything – broken pots and dishes, the pallets and blankets people sleep on, even the shrimp nets – is smoke-blackened from the cooking fires. They burn when it is cold, and always at night, and from out at sea, far enough for distance to charm and deceive, they glimmer with the lure of ancient, mythic lights.