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Here is the ultimate American road book, one with a perspective unlike that of any other.
In January 1947 Simone de Beauvoir landed at La Guardia airport and began a four-month journey that took her from one coast of the United States to the other, and back again. Embraced by the Condé Nast set in a swirl of cocktail parties in New York, where she was hailed as the "prettiest existentialist" by Janet Flanner in The New Yorker, de Beauvoir traveled west by car, train, and Greyhound, immersing herself in the nation's culture, customs, people, and landscape. The detailed diary she kept of her trip became America Day by Day, published in France in 1948 and offered here in a completely new translation. It is one of the most intimate, warm, and compulsively readable texts from the great writer's pen.
Fascinating passages are devoted to Hollywood, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and San Antonio. We see de Beauvoir gambling in a Reno casino, smoking her first marijuana cigarette in the Plaza Hotel, donning raingear to view Niagara Falls, lecturing at Vassar College, and learning firsthand about the Chicago underworld of morphine addicts and petty thieves with her lover Nelson Algren as her guide. This fresh, faithful translation superbly captures the essence of Simone de Beauvoir's distinctive voice. It demonstrates once again why she is one of the most profound, original, and influential writers and thinkers of the twentieth century.
On New York:"I walk between the steep cliffs at the bottom of a canyon where no sun penetrates: it's permeated by a salt smell. Human history is not inscribed on these carefully calibrated buildings: They are closer to prehistoric caves than to the houses of Paris or Rome."
On Los Angeles:"I watch the Mexican dances and eat chili con carne, which takes the roof off my mouth, I drink the tequila and I'm utterly dazed with pleasure."
January 25, 1947
Something is about to happen. You can count the minutes in your life when something happens. Strokes of light sweep the ground, shining red and green; it's a gala evening, a late-night party—my party. Something does happen: the propellers turn faster and faster, the engines engage. My heart can't follow them. In a single movement the red beacons are crushed to the earth. In the distance, the lights of Paris flicker, sober stars rising from a dark blue abyss.
There. It's happened. I'm flying to New York. It's true. The loudspeaker called out, "Passengers bound for New York ...," and the voice had the familiar accent of all voices heard through loudspeakers on station platforms. Paris-Marseilles, Paris-London, Paris-New York. It's only a trip, a passage from one place to another. That's what the voice was saying; that's what is written on the steward's blasé face. Because of his job, he finds it quite natural that I'm flying to America. There is only one world, and New York is a city of the world. But no. Despite all the books I've read, the films, the photographs, the stories, New York is a legendary city in my past; there is no path from the reality to the legend. Across from old Europe, on the threshold of a continent populated by 160 million people, New York belongs to the future. How could I jump wholeheartedly over my own life? I try to reason with myself—New York is real and present—but this feeling persists. Usually, traveling is an attempt to annex a new object to my universe; this in itself is a fascinatingundertaking. But today it's different: I feel I'm leaving my life behind. I don't know if it will be through anger or hope, but something is going to be revealed—a world so full, so rich, and so unexpected that I'll have the extraordinary adventure of becoming a different me.
The smooth flight is already a promise: I've already escaped myself. The earth has slipped to the bottom of an alien ether. I am nowhere: I am elsewhere. And what time is it? What season are we in? It's summer in the Azores, in the shade of broad straw hats. The ground of Newfoundland is covered with snow and frost. It's eight o'clock in Paris and two o'clock in New York. Time and space are intertwined. My dreams are less extravagant than this great wing I'm attached to, gliding motionless between clouds and stars.
I've slept. I open my eyes. In the black sky carpeting the abyss, horizontal, stationary fireworks suddenly explode: stars, webs, circles, showers of multicolored lights. Water trembles between the glittering chandeliers. It looks like Venice gone mad. Or some great victory being celebrated on earth ... "Boston," says the stewardess. The Puritan name evokes a city of sober stone. Traced in fire and gold on the velvet of the plain, its image looks giddy. Boston. America. I look avidly. I can't yet say, "I'm in America." In only a minute I could crash to the ground, but I'm in a sky that belongs to no continent: the sky. Beneath me the night gathers again; America is sleeping. But in the distance fireworks explode from a new celebration: a city, a village. It seems that in this country the stones and bricks change at night into blazing spangles; every little village is a glowing Christmas tree.
Descending from sky to earth is a small ordeal. The limpid, weightless air thickens into an atmosphere hugging the terrestrial crust and swept by eddies. The splendid flight becomes applied navigation. My temples throb, my ears hurt; my eardrum becomes that membrane described in the natural history books: it tightens, it vibrates, it hurts. I was only a gaze, an expectation: now I have a pocket of a stomach, a bony box of a skull, a membrane of an eardrum—a whole machinery of separate and ill-fitting parts. I've closed my eyes; when I open them again, all the stars in the sky have rolled onto the earth. It's a glittering mass of gems and precious red stones, ruby fruits, topaz flowers, and diamond rivers. I haven't known such splendor and such passionate desire since childhood. All the treasures of The Thousand and One Nights that I dreamed of back then and that I never glimpsed—here they are. All the fair booths I didn't go into, the merry-go-rounds with wooden horses, Magic City, Luna Park—here they are. And the stage sets at the Châtelet Theater, the birthday cakes, the crystal chandeliers lighting up the night in rooms full of music—these are given back to me, given to me. That holly branch hung with necklaces, bracelets, clusters of transparent, glossy candy that I so badly coveted one Palm Sunday—here it is. I will hang these sugar jewels around my neck, my wrists; I will crack the crystal between my teeth; I will crush the shining sugary fruit against my palate and savor a taste of cassis and pineapple on my tongue.
The plane descends; it pitches. Bound to the winds, the fog, the weight of the air, it is living a turbulent life among the elements; it belongs to nature. It descends. The strings of pearls become streets, the crystal balls are streetlamps; it is a city after all, and the very words of childhood are too impoverished to name its promises. A factory smokestack sways in the sky. I make out houses along an avenue, and I think, "I will walk down those streets." The smokestack sways a second time; we are circling around. The woman next to me murmurs, "The engine's making an odd noise." We turn, leaning on one wing, and I think quickly, "I don't want to die. Not now. I don't want the lights to go out." The smokestack has disappeared. The red beacons draw near, and I feel the thud of the wheels touching the runway. We were just waiting our turn; an airplane lands at La Guardia every minute.
The elements are conquered, distances annihilated, but New York has vanished. To rejoin it, you have to go through the narrow tunnel of terrestrial life. Papers are passed from hand to hand; a doctor perfunctorily examines our teeth, as if we were horses for sale. We are led into an overheated hall, and we wait. My head is heavy; I'm stifling. People had warned me, "It's always too hot in America." This dulling heat, then, is America; and this orange juice handed to me by a young woman with shiny hair and a practiced smile is also America. It will have to be discovered slowly; it will not let you devour it like a big piece of candy. The Christmas trees and luminous fountains are far away. I will not catch another glimpse of that festive face; it doesn't shine for those who bear down on the land with all their human weight. My name is called; a bureaucrat examines my fine visa made of stiff paper, decorated with red seals like a medieval charter. He nods his head. "You come from a beautiful country," he says, "but you've come to an even more beautiful one." He asks me for eight dollars. Then the customs officers rummage idly through my suitcase, and I enter the great round hall where people get bored and doze off. I'm free, and on the other side of the door, New York is waiting.
D. P. [Denise Perrier, from the French cultural services] has come to meet me; I don't know her. But off I go, borne away beside a young woman I've never seen, through a city my eyes don't yet know how to see. The car drives so fluidly, the road beneath the wheels is so smooth, that the earth seems as evanescent as air. We follow a river, we cross a metal bridge, and my neighbor says suddenly, "That's Broadway." Then, all at once, I see. I see broad, brightly lit streets where hundreds and hundreds of cars are driving, stopping, and starting again with such discipline you would think they were guided from above by some magnetic providence. The regular grid of the streets, the immovable stop signs at the perpendicular intersections, the mathematical sequence of red and green traffic lights all create such an impression of order and peace that the city seems silent. The fact is, you don't hear a single honk or exhaust backfiring, and now I understand why our American visitors are surprised by the awful screeching of brakes at our street corners. Here the cars glide by on a blanketed roadway punctuated by rising geysers of steam. It's like a silent film. The shiny cars look like they've just left the showroom, and the pavement seems as clean as the tiles of a Dutch kitchen. Light has washed away all the stains; it's a supernatural light that transfigures the asphalt, that wraps a halo around the flowers, silk dresses, candies, nylon stockings, gloves, bags, shoes, furs, and ribbons offered in the shop windows. I look avidly. I will probably never find this silence, this luxury, this peace again; I will never again see those ramparts of black lava around Central Park, those gigantic dominoes of stone and light. Tomorrow New York will be a city. But this evening is magical. We drive around without finding a parking space. This is an obligatory rite, and I give myself over to it with a neophyte's curiosity. In the restaurant decorated with red and gold palm trees, the dinner is a meal of initiation; the martini and lobster taste of the sacred.
D. P. has booked me a room in a huge hotel at Forty-fourth Street and Eighth Avenue. She asks how long I can stay. "As long as she likes, if she behaves herself," says the manager with a big smile. This seems to be a stroke of luck; it's not that easy to find lodging. D. P. leaves me, but I don't go up to my room. I walk across Broadway. The air is soft and humid, a southern winter; after all, New York is at the same latitude as Lisbon. I walk. Broadway. Times Square. Forty-second Street. My eyes have no memory; my steps, no plan. Cut off from the past and the future, a pure presence—a presence so pure, so tenuous that it doubts itself. All the world seems in limbo. I say, "This is New York." But I don't completely believe it. No rails, no tracks—I have not traced my path on the surface of the earth. This city and Paris are not connected like two elements of the same system. Each has its own atmosphere, and the two do not coincide, they do not exist together, and I couldn't have passed from one to the other. I'm no longer in Paris, but I'm not here either. My presence is a borrowed presence. There is no place for me on these sidewalks. This strange world where I've landed by surprise was not waiting for me. It was full without me; it is full without me. It is a world where I am not: I grasp it in my perfect absence. This crowd I'm jostling, I'm not part of it; I feel invisible to every gaze. I am traveling incognito, like a phantom. Will I manage to reincarnate myself?
In the middle of the night, in the depth of sleep, a wordless voice suddenly says, "Something has happened to me." I'm still sleeping, and I don't know if it's a great happiness or a catastrophe. Something has happened to me. Perhaps I've died, as so often happens in my dreams. Perhaps I'm going to wake up on the other side of death. As I open my eyes, I'm afraid. And then I remember: this is not quite the otherworld. It's New York.
It wasn't a mirage. New York is here; everything is real. Truth bursts in the blue sky, in the soft damp air, more triumphant than the night's unreliable charms. It's nine o'clock in the morning. It's Sunday. The streets are deserted. A few neon signs are still lit. Not a pedestrian, not a car; nothing disturbs the rectilinear grid of Eighth Avenue. Cubes, prisms, parallelograms; the houses are abstract solids and surfaces; the intersection, an abstract of two volumes—its materials have no density or structure; the space itself seems to have been set in molds. I do not move; I look. I'm here, and New York will be mine. This joy is familiar. Fifteen years ago I was leaving the train station, and from the top of the monumental staircase I saw all the rooftops of Marseilles at my feet. I had a year or two to spend alone in an unknown city. I didn't move; I just looked, thinking: "This strange city is my future; it will be my past." Between these houses that have existed without me for years, for centuries, these streets were traveled by thousands of people who were not me, who are not me. But now I'm walking here. I go down Broadway; it's really me. I'm walking in streets not yet traveled by me, streets where my life has not yet been carved, streets without any scent of the past. No one here is concerned with my presence; I'm still a ghost, and I slip through the city without disturbing anything. Yet from now on my life will embrace the contour of these streets, these houses. New York will belong to me; I will belong to it.
I drink orange juice at the edge of a counter, sitting in a polished booth on one of three armchairs raised on a little dais; little by little, I take on flesh and blood, and the city grows familiar. The surfaces become facades; the solids turn into houses. On the pavement the wind stirs up dust and old papers. Beyond Washington Square, the grid begins to bend. The right angles break down; the streets are no longer numbered but have names; the lines curve and tangle together. I'm wandering though a European city. The houses have only three or four stories and come in opaque colors somewhere between red, ochre, and black. Sheets dry on the fire escapes that zigzag against the facades. These sheets that promise sunshine, the shoeshine boys posted on the street corners, the rooftop terraces—they vaguely evoke a southern city, yet the worn red of the houses makes one think of the London fog. The fact is, this neighborhood is like nothing I've ever seen. But I know I will love it.
The landscape changes. The word "landscape" suits this city that's been deserted by men and invaded by the sky. Rising above the skyscrapers, the sky surges through the straight streets; it's too vast for the city to tame, and it overflows—it's a mountain sky. I walk between the steep cliffs at the bottom of a canyon where no sun penetrates: it's filled with a salt smell. Human history is not inscribed on these carefully calibrated buildings; they are more like prehistoric caves than the houses of Paris or Rome. In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn't have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of their giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.
The sun is so beautiful, the waters of the Hudson so green that I take the boat that brings midwestern tourists to the Statue of Liberty. But I don't get out at the little island that looks like a small fort. I just want to see a view of Battery as I've so often seen it in the movies. I do see it. In the distance, its towers seem fragile. They rest so precisely on their vertical lines that the slightest shudder would knock them down like a house of cards. When the boat draws closer, their foundations seem firmer, but the fall line remains indelibly traced. What a field day a bomber would have!
There are hundreds of restaurants in these streets, but they are all closed on Sunday. The one I find is packed. I eat hastily, rushed by the waitress. No place to rest. Nature is kinder. Within this harshness, New York becomes more human again. Pearl Street with its elevated train, Chatham Square, Chinatown, the Bowery. I am beginning to get tired. Slogans run through my head: "City of contrasts." These alleys smelling of spices and packing paper at the foot of facades with thousands of windows—that is one contrast. I encounter another contrast with each step, and they are all different. "A vertical city," "passionate geometries," "thrilling geometries"—such phrases are perfect descriptions of these skyscrapers, these facades, these avenues: I see that. And I've often read, "New York with its cathedrals." I could have invented the phrase—all these old cliches seem so hollow. Yet in the freshness of discovery, the words "contrasts" and "cathedrals" also come to my lips, and I'm surprised they seem so faded when the reality they capture is unchanged. People have told me something more precise: "On the Bowery on Sundays, the drunks sleep on the sidewalks." Here is the Bowery; the drunks are sleeping on the sidewalks. This is just what the words meant, and their precision disconcerts me. How could they have seemed so empty when they are so true? It isn't with words that I will grasp New York. I no longer think of grasping it: I will be transformed by it. Words, images, knowledge, expectations—they won't help me at all. To pronounce them true or false makes no sense. It is not possible to confront things here; they exist in another dimension—they are simply here. And I look and look, as astonished as a blind man who has just recovered his sight.
If I want to decode New York, I must meet New Yorkers. There are names in my address book but no faces to match. I'll have to talk on the telephone, in English, to people whom I don't know and who don't know me. Going down into the hotel lobby, I'm more intimidated than if I were going to take an oral exam. This lobby stuns me with its exoticism, an unnatural exoticism. I'm the Zulu frightened by a bicycle, the peasant lost in the Paris metro. There's a newspaper and a cigar stand, a Western Union office, a hairdresser, a writing room where stenographers and typists take dictation from clients—it's at once a club, an office, a waiting room, and a large department store. I perceive around me all the conveniences of everyday life, but I don't know what to do. The slightest action poses a problem: How do I get postage for my letters? Where do I mail them? Those flutterings near the elevator, those white flashes, I almost took them for hallucinations. Behind a glass window, letters fall from the twenty-fifth floor into the depths of the basement—the mailbox. At the newspaper stand there's a machine that spits out stamps. But I'm confused by the coins. One cent, for me, seems like both one sou and one centime; five cents is then five centimes but also five sous (that is, twenty-five centimes). For ten minutes I try in vain to get a telephone line; all the machines reject the nickel I stubbornly keep sliding into the slot meant for quarters. I remain sitting in one of the booths, worn out. I want to give up: I hate this malicious instrument. But in the end I can't just stay wrapped in my solitude. I ask the Western Union employee for help. This time someone answers. The faceless voice vibrates at the other end of the line: I have to talk. They weren't expecting me, and I have nothing to offer. I simply say, "I'm here." I have no face either; I'm just a name bandied about by mutual friends. I say again, "I'd very much like to see you." It's not even true, and they know it; it isn't them I want to see, because I don't know them. But the voices are almost friendly, natural. This naturalness already comforts me, as a kind of friendship. After three calls, though, I close my address book, flushed.
I go to the hairdresser; I feel less uprooted. In every city I've known, these places are much alike—the same odor, the same metal dryers. The combs, the cotton balls, the mirrors have no personality. Surrendering to the hands massaging my skull, I'm no longer a ghost: there's a real meeting between me and these hands—it's really me turning into flesh and blood. But even this moment isn't entirely routine. For example, I notice that I don't have to hand the hairpins one by one to the girl doing my hair: they're attached to a magnet she wears around her wrist, and a magnet removes them when my hair is dry. This little trick amazes me.
Everything amazes me, both the unexpected sights and those I've anticipated. I didn't know that in front of the apartment buildings in the elegant neighborhoods there would be a greenish canvas canopy marked with a big number and extending onto the sidewalk, announcing some kind of wedding. A porter stands on the threshold, so every building really looks like a hotel or a bar. The entry, too, guarded by uniformed doormen, resembles the entrance hall of a palace. The elevator is staffed by an employee: it's difficult to receive clandestine visits. On the other hand, in movies I have often seen these buildings without any concierge, similar to provincial apartments in France. You step inside a glass door and find a series of bells corresponding to each tenant; each person has a mailbox. You ring the bell, and a second glass door opens. I also recognize the broad, flat doorbells I've seen in films. They make a more muffled sound than French bells do. What disconcerts me is that those movie sets that I'd never really believed in are suddenly real.
So many small surprises give the first few days a particular grace—I could never be bored. This business lunch in a restaurant on Fortieth Street is perfectly dreary. With its carpets, its mirrors, and its polished surfaces, this elegant place looks like the tearoom in a big department store, and of course it's overheated. But in my martini, in the tomato juice, I learn the taste of America. This meal is another communion.
This grace has its price. The exoticism that transfigures each of my moments also leads me into traps. It's a beautiful sunny day, and I want to walk along the East River. But the "Drive," that broad elevated causeway spanning the river, is reserved for cars. I try to cheat, and I walk along, glued to the wall. But it's difficult to cheat in America. The gears are precise; they serve man, provided he's quietly compliant. The cars hurtling along at sixty miles per hour over this sort of highway come dangerously close to me. There's a square near the water where people are strolling, but it seems impossible to reach them. I muster my courage and cross to the center line separating the two lanes of traffic, but I have to stand there a long time, planted like a traffic light, waiting for a brief lull so that I can cross over. I still have to jump over a metal railing to get to safety. Under my winter coat, which is too heavy for this sun, I'm more exhausted than if I'd climbed a mountain. A few moments later, I find out that there are pedestrian passageways under the Drive and that it's also spanned by bridges.
The river smells of salt and spices. Men are sitting on benches in the sun: tramps and blacks. Children on roller skates hurl themselves over the asphalt, jostling each other, shouting. Low-cost housing is under construction along the Drive; these vast buildings, which narrow as they rise, are ugly. But beyond them I glimpse the city's high towers, and across the river I see Brooklyn. I sit on a bench looking at Brooklyn amid the noise of roller skates, and I feel quite happy. Brooklyn exists, as does Manhattan with its skyscrapers and all of America on the horizon. As for me, I no longer exist. There. I understand what I've come to find—this plenitude that we rarely feel except in childhood or in early youth, when we're utterly absorbed by something outside ourselves. To be sure, on other trips I've tasted this joy, this certitude, but it was fleeting. In Greece, in Italy, in Spain, in Africa, I still felt that Paris was the heart of the world. I'd never completely left Paris; I remained inside myself.
Paris has lost its hegemony. I've landed not only in a foreign country but in another world—an autonomous, separate world. I touch this world; it's here. It will be given to me. But it's not even to me that it will be given; its existence is too dazzlingly clear for me to hope to catch it in my net. The revelation will take place somewhere beyond the limits of my own existence. In a flash I'm freed from the cares of that tedious enterprise I call my life. I'm just the charmed consciousness through which the sovereign Object will reveal itself.
I walk for a long time. When I reach the bridge, the sun is all red. The black trellis of the steel bridge bars the flaming sky. Through this iron gridwork I can glimpse the high square towers of the Battery. The bridge's horizontal thrust and the skyscrapers' vertical lift seem amplified. The light is a glorious reward for their audacity.
I have a rendezvous at six o'clock at the Plaza Hotel on Fifty-ninth Street. I climb the stairs of the elevated railway. This railway is touching, like a memory; it's scarcely bigger than a provincial miniature railway. The walls are wooden; it seems like a country station. The gate is also made of wood, but it turns automatically—no employee. To go through, all you need is a nickel, the magic coin that also activates telephones and opens the doors of toilets, which are modestly called "restrooms." We roll along above the Bowery at second-story level. The stations whiz by: we're already at Fourteenth Street, then Thirty-fifth, Forty-second. I'm waiting for Fifty-ninth, but we rush past—Seventieth, Eightieth—we're not stopping anymore. Below us, all the streetlamps are lit. Here is the nocturnal celebration I glimpsed from up in the sky: movie houses, drugstores, wooden horses. I'm transported through a wondrous amusement park, and this little elevated train is itself a fairground attraction. Will it ever stop? New York is so big ...
I've gotten on an express train. At the first station I get off and take a "local." I wait for a long while in the Plaza's scented, overheated lobby. It's the same setting as in the restaurant this morning: too many mirrors, too many carpets, drapes, polished surfaces. I wait an amazingly long time, and suddenly I realize that I'm at the Savoy-Plaza; my rendezvous is across the street. Tired, confused, dazed after so many discoveries and mistakes, I sit down at the Plaza bar. Fortunately, everyone's waited for me. The martini revives me. The big, dark, oak-paneled room is overheated and overcrowded. I look at people. The women surprise me. In their carefully coifed, perfectly waved hair they wear whole flower beds, aviaries. Most of the coats are mink; the intricately draped dresses are sewn with bright spangles and decorated with heavy, unimaginative costume jewelry. All these women are wearing open-toed shoes with very high heels. I'm ashamed of my Swiss shoes with the crepe soles I was so proud of. In the street, on this winter day, I haven't seen one woman with flat shoes. None have had the free and sporty look I attribute to American women. All are dressed in silk, not wool; they are covered with feathers, violets, flowers, and flounces. There's too much finery, too many mirrors and drapes; the food has too many sauces and syrups; everywhere, there's too much heat. Superabundance, too, is a curse.
Yesterday I had dinner at D. P.'s with some French people. This evening I'm having dinner at the home of more French people. And after dinner, B. C., a Frenchwoman, is going to take me to some bars. When I'm with French people, I sense the same disappointment I felt when I was with my parents during my childhood, that nothing was completely real. There was a glass wall between things and me, so all birds seemed to be in birdcages, all fish seemed to swim in aquariums, all chimpanzees seemed stuffed—and I so dearly wanted to see the world truly, without restraints ... I don't like the taste of whiskey; I only like these glass sticks you stir it with. Yet until three o'clock in the morning, I drink scotch docilely because scotch is one of the keys to America. I want to break through the glass wall.
I have a lecture to prepare. I sit down at one of the desks in the "writing room" amid the murmur of voices dictating reports to stenographers and the clacking of typewriters. It's quiet and subdued; you'd think you were at Bon Marché [a popular Parisian department store]! I decide to sit in one of the bars around Central Park. I don't much like them; they belong to the big hotels and are bathed in the same cozy and respectable atmosphere as the lobby with the luxurious display cases. Although they serve alcohol, they remind me of tearooms for old ladies; whiskey takes on the innocence of fruit juice. These are places where the street doesn't intrude: nothing can happen here. Yet they have a magic for me. Friends whose trips to America I've so envied pronounced these names—the Sherry Netherland or the Café Arnold—with the pride of the initiated. I follow in their footsteps. I have no past of my own, so I borrow theirs. New York still belongs to them. I'm only a newcomer, and it's already something for me to slip into their intimacy with the city. I have the modesty of a guest invited at the last minute.
It's not customary here to do work in places where people drink: this is the land of specialization. In places where drinks are served, you drink. As soon as my glass is empty, the waiter comes over to inquire; if I don't empty it fast enough, he prowls around me, looking at me reproachfully. This morning the taste of whiskey doesn't seem so bad. But it seems wiser to leave before the fourth glass.
I give my lecture to a French audience. I go to a cocktail party at the home of a Frenchwoman. All the guests are French, except for two French-speaking Americans. I'm not, however, in a colonized country where the local customs make it nearly impossible to mingle with the natives; on the contrary, we're the ones who form what they call here a "colony." I would really like to leave. I'm quite excited by the time I arrive at the house of A. M. [Dorothy Nordman], who has invited me for dinner; at long last I'm getting inside an American home. But apart from Richard Wright, whom I knew in Paris and whom I'm delighted to see again, everyone is French. There are even people from the embassy, and everyone is speaking the French of France in a very official tone.
All these French people I meet are pleased to explain America to me—according to their experience, of course. Nearly all of them have a strong bias: either they hate it and can think only of leaving or they shower it with excessive praise, as the collaborationists did with Germany. R., a university professor, is one of these. As soon as he shakes my hand, he asks me to "promise" to write nothing about America: it's a such a difficult, complex country that even twenty years isn't enough to understand it; it's deplorable to criticize it superficially, as certain French people do. America is so vast that nothing anyone can say about it is true. In any case, I must "promise" to write nothing about the blacks. This is a painful and difficult problem on which no one can have an opinion without a wealth of information that would require more than one lifetime. And besides, why are the French so determined to concern themselves with the blacks? Aren't the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of whites far superior? Even the music of modern white composers has more value than jazz.
V., who is anti-American, explains to me scornfully that this attitude is the only feasible one for a Frenchman living in this country; otherwise, he would live in a state of intolerable anger and revolt. No European values are acknowledged here, and V. acknowledges no American values. The daily atmosphere seems unbreathable to him. He despises New York.
The servility of R.'s attitude disgusts me; besides, during the war he supported Pétain—a dyed-in-the-wool collaborationist. But I can't believe there's nothing worthwhile in this country. I'm utterly taken with New York. It's true that both camps tell me, "New York is not America." V. irritates me when he declares, "If you like New York, it's because it's a European city that's strayed to the edge of this continent." It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I'm even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York—a city of foreigners and Jews—to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard "the real France" praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.
I still have nothing to say; I can only listen. But I think that America is a world, and that you can no more accept or reject a world than you can accept or reject the world. It's a matter of choosing your friends and enemies, of asserting your projects and your singular revolts. America—a piece of the planet, a political system, a civilization; classes, races, sects, and men taken one by one. There are the cops and the robbers, the engineers and the artists, the malcontents and the smug, the profiteers and the exploited. I know very well that every hatred will be the inverse of a love, every love the inverse of a hatred.
Again I slept late. But there's something in the New York air that makes sleep useless; perhaps it's because your heart beats more quickly here than elsewhere—people with heart conditions sleep less, and many New Yorkers die of heart problems. In any case, I'm enjoying this windfall: the days seem too short.
Breakfast in the corner drugstore is a celebration. Orange juice, toast, café au lait—an unadulterated pleasure. Sitting on my revolving stool, I participate in a moment of American life. My solitude does not separate me from my neighbors, who are also eating alone. Rather, it's the pleasure I feel that isolates me from them. They are simply eating; they're not on vacation.
The truth is that it's all a holiday for me. The drugstores especially intrigue me. I stop at one on any pretext. To me, they are the essence of American exoticism. I was not really able to imagine them. I hesitated between the tedious vision of a pharmacy and—because of the word "soda fountain"—the image of a magical fountain spewing out billows of pink and white ice cream. The fact is, drugstores are the descendants of the old general stores in colonial towns and the encampments of the Far West, where the pioneers of past centuries found cure-alls, ointments, tools—all the necessities of life. They are at once primitive and modern—that's what gives them this specific American poetry. All the objects seem related: the same great bargains, the same unpretentious cheerfulness. The glossy paperback books, the tubes of toothpaste, and the boxes of candies have the same colors: one has the vague impression that reading these books will leave a sweet taste in your mouth, and that the candy will have stories to tell. I buy soap, creams, and toothbrushes. Here the creams are creamy, the soaps are soapy: this honesty is a forgotten luxury. As soon as you stray from this norm, the quality of the products becomes more dubious. Certainly, the stores on Fifth Avenue will satisfy the most exacting tastes, but those furs, those suits of such international elegance are reserved for the international capitalist. As for the more popular shops, at first their abundance and sparkling variety are astonishing. But if the men's shirts are attractive, the ties are doubtful, the women's handbags and shoes are quite ugly, and in this profusion of dresses, blouses, skirts, and coats, a Frenchwoman would have trouble finding anything that didn't offend her taste. And then one soon perceives that beneath their multicolored paper wrappers, all the chocolates have the same peanut taste, and all the best-sellers tell the same story. So why choose one toothpaste over another? In this useless profusion, there's an aftertaste of deception. There are a thousand possibilities, but they're all the same. A thousand choices, but all equivalent. In this way, the American citizen can squander his obligatory domestic freedom without perceiving that this life itself is not free.
I'm strolling alone, looking at the window displays. Yet those inspired by Dalí are worth a look: those gloves flying in trees like birds, those shoes stranded among seaweed—only one or two stores in Paris could offer something similar. If one had to pay to enter, there would be a crowd to admire this fashion theater. But the show is free, and even the women pass by without looking; everyone in the streets is striding purposefully ahead. Other, less inventive displays evoke the windows you see in big department stores at Christmastime: here's Broadway through the ages, elegant women in turn-of-the-century dress climbing into a carriage in the light of an antique streetlamp. I am certainly a tourist—everything entertains me.
I spend the afternoon and evening with old friends, Spanish communists who came to New York as refugees in 1940. I know that for many refugees, America has been a land of exile, not a place they've come to love. These Spaniards don't like it either. They say life is cruel in New York for immigrants and for the poor.
C. L. [Fernando Gerassi] is a painter, and like many artists he knew in Berlin, Madrid, and Paris, he lives in semipoverty. But in Europe there was nothing dishonorable about poverty: a poor artist experienced the favors and friendships of bohemian life. By lending him money, people provided one of those services that is natural between friends. Here, says C., no one would let you die of hunger, perhaps, but offers of a dinner or a loan are alms granted grudgingly, making friendship impossible. In any case, even now that they have improved their material situation, my friends live in great isolation: there are no cafés or salons where intellectuals meet; everyone leads separate lives. And the distances are so great, S. L. [Stépha Gerassi] tells me, that after a day of work one hesitates to spend another hour on the subway to get together. There are people we would like to see, S. L. says, and with whom we have to limit ourselves to occasional telephone calls—preserved friendships that lose their fragrance like strawberries frozen in blocks of ice. Under these conditions, without peers, without competition, creative effort is particularly thankless. An unknown painter wouldn't know how to elicit the interest of other painters who are unaware of him, or that of the informed public, given that there is no informed public. Almost the only way to be discovered is to hire a publicity agent. One of them has made overtures to C. He put forward three proposals: a little publicity, a lot of publicity, enormous publicity. With the third proposal, success is assured, claims the agent. The second plan will bring only some opportunities. In any case, even the first plan, which is worthless, is too expensive for a painter who doesn't sell his work.
Returning from a French restaurant where we ate a duck à l'orange worthy of Paris before the war, I'm struck by the beauty of the big boulevards under the neon sky. My friends sigh. They are thinking of forbidden Madrid, of Paris, where they neither belong nor work now. And I sense that New York can also be a prison.
I explore New York neighborhood by neighborhood. Yesterday, I saw the banks of the Hudson and Upper Broadway. Today I walked for hours along the East River and roamed the German streets around Ninetieth Street. New York gives me all the pleasures of a walking trip through the mountains: the wind, the sky, the cold, the sun, the fatigue. When I turn back toward the hotel, around five o'clock in the afternoon, I've walked and looked so much that I'm intoxicated. My legs no longer carry me, but my eyes, tired from seeing, want to see more. Next to my hotel, they're showing Henry V, with Laurence Olivier. I go in.
I love the film, but when I leave the movie house, I feel unsatisfied. Those colored images didn't speak to me of America. Looking at them, I forgot New York. This evening, more than any evening, I would like to grasp it—with my hands, my eyes, my mouth. I don't know how, but I will grasp it. I walk in the same streets where I walked like a ghost Saturday night. I've become embodied. I hear the sounds of Times Square; I see the painted cardboard smoker's round mouth blowing real smoke rings. I jostle people; they see me. And the city is organized around me. I know where my hotel is. My Spanish friends' apartment house and D. P.'s place point me in my favorite directions. I've explored the streets from 125th Street to the Battery ... Saturday, I was enchanted with my perfect ignorance; this evening, I'm quite proud of my expertise. We always find something to feel superior about.
I walk slowly. I want to string the lights around my neck, stroke them, eat them. Here they are—and what can I do with them? My hands, my mouth, my eyes have not taken in this night. There are bars and restaurants here; I'm not hungry or thirsty. The stores—none of the objects they're selling will give me New York. A book would tear me away from New York. But strolling around Times Square won't help either. These people seem to be walking just like me, but they're going somewhere. The night is leading them ceremoniously toward a desired encounter. My desire is nothing but a myth—New York, which is everywhere and nowhere.
I go into another movie house. The black-and-white screen is like morphine, and the actors' American accent moves me. The film is entertaining—Lady in the Lake. But when I leave, I'm disappointed again. I've forgotten New York once more. For a long time, movies represented America for me, and I remember in August 1941, when I crossed into the unoccupied zone under false pretenses, how excited I was to find American films in Marseilles. I went to see three a day. But now I'm in America, and nothing can represent it anymore.
I drink orange juice in a drugstore and then whiskey in a bar. If America were far away, perhaps the taste of scotch would restore my memory of it in one fell swoop. Here it's powerless; and how can I get back something I've never found? I return to the movies and choose a newsreel program so that no other story deflects me from what I'm looking for. I need black-and-white images like a drug, but I would like them to fill me without distracting me completely. After an hour I'm in the street again. It's midnight; the city is bathed in that captivating and cool clarity that the summer sun sheds during the white nights of the Far North; it's impossible to go home and go to sleep. On Forty-second Street the vividly colored posters announce mostly "thrillings"—scary films—and "laffmovies"—funny films. I stop. On every side of the cashier's window, warped mirrors reflect the passersby. I look at myself; for a moment I stand and make faces at myself. My head is heavy. I go in. This time, I almost reach my goal; the film is stupid enough for me to think, "This is New York, and I'm in a New York movie house." But I've sought this joy too intensely. It vanishes, and I'm bored. Boredom leads me nowhere. It's two o'clock in the morning; I go back to the hotel.
|Foreword by Douglas Brinkley||xi|