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New Fiction in Translation: From “Paris Vagabond”

By Jean-Paul Clébert & Donald Nicholson-Smith

Photograph: Patrice Molinard

Jean Paul-Clébert's Paris Vagabond will be published by New York Review Books on April 12, 2016. The forthcoming edition is translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and accompanied by the photographs of Clébert's friend Patrice Molinard.

The Merits of Tea

. . . Because, in Paris, if you are not going to starve, you need a number of assets: an open mind, an ever-curious eye, a sharp ear, a hound’s nose, a fleet foot, and a certain contempt for private property—in short, the vagabond’s usual baggage. One does not immediately appreciate just how little food is required to sustain a life on the edge. The whole trick is, in winter, to have a bowl of hot soup and a piece of bread every day, the rest of one’s nourishment being made up of a relatively meager amount of various and unpredictable items whose very heterogeneity usually ensures that the vitamin requirements defined by science are met. A great many armchair adventurers keep the sluggish rhythms of their carcasses active by consuming nothing more than steaming hot Maggi bouillon, four or five times a day, and dunking crusts of bread into it. I am thinking especially of all the youngsters in their little intellectual’s digs—brothels of ratiocination where they hole up to jerk off and get stupid together in the contemplation of the basic truths. None of which prevents life from flourishing among them—far from it! They may be found sprinkled all along the Seine, overlooking three kilometers of quays. Or buried in the old districts of the Left Bank, nesting like swallows beneath thousands of roofs in identical maids’ rooms with no running water save that in the WC on the half-landing, no ventilation save that from a prison-like skylight, no space other than that, precisely, of a cell, all with the same bookshelves built of crates, the same camp bed with a ragged coverlet tossed over it, the same bric-à-brac of old metal utensils, the makeshift camping gear, and the same décor of photos cut out from Life or postcard reproductions of modern paintings. I have slept in countless dumps of this kind, legally or illegally, moving in and moving out, bouncing from one to another with no recollection of what made one different from the next. And I learned to appreciate the irreplaceable value of tea, drunk in such places by the liter (whereas ordering such a libation in an ordinary bistro would be sure to raise any waiter’s eyebrow), accompanied or not by baguettes, and I found that you ended up none the worse for wear, meaning that you were ushered into a kind of embryonic life perfectly suited to the working out and discussion of metaphysical problems at the cost of only relative inconveniences, such as an aesthetic leanness or, alternatively, a corpulence caused by fatty anemia. All it takes is the luck to have found, bought, or borrowed some kind of little stove, made the inevitable sacrifices needed to supply it with fuel, and formed a few smart ideas about gastronomy.

Among these youngsters, however, and I tip my hat to them, were some whose “means of support” were quite special. One such was Élie, who lived in a flat as ancient and austere as the old spinster it belonged to. I would go there to kip from time to time, sneaking in, because the old dear would never have understood that at my age I might have no money or work, being certain that I procured both just like Élie, who she believed worked in some company or other and who naturally had no desire to disillusion her, so I was supposed to creep in after eleven, when she had gone to bed, and leave before six in the morning, when she got up, with the inevitable result—given my indolent nature and my great appreciation for the real bed that I was sharing with Élie—being that I did not always awake in time, nor was I loath to spend the day there and remain until the next morning, taking the opportunity to wash from head to toe, shave, and browse in the books, living my life in slow motion for that day as I took several minutes to cross the room, turned pages with infinite caution as though reading incunabula made of lace, and glided about like a fish in a tank until Élie’s return vouchsafed me greater freedom of movement, though I still had to communicate with him by means of grimaces or scribbled notes. Happily Élie had some records, which broke the irritating silence. At the time he was approaching thirty, but he could not remember ever having lived on anything but random foods notable far more for their low commercial rather than high calorific value, especially the canned applesauce that had seen him through a good part of the war years and “Maltymel,” a sort of thick brown syrup with a dubious and quickly cloying taste that had the economically advantageous effect of limiting his consumption; now he too was on bouillon cubes, whose multifarious ingredients kept the motor turning over comfortably enough—and all washed down with plain sugarless tea, that universal beverage whose taste you forget by drinking so much of it. Not so, though, at Blagatoff’s place. Another likeable lunatic, but much older, who lived in a smelly hutch in the leatherworkers’ district, Blagatoff taught me how to brew Tibetan-style tea, which he had been drinking exclusively since the previous postwar period, and he was in the pink of health. This tea, bitter and black, was boiled for the longest time and enriched with a pinch of coarse salt and a pat of margarine, the prime purpose of this being to impress visitors, though in the long run it turned out to be highly nutritious. Blagatoff himself had the curious habit of haunting food stores, which according to him (and he was a lettered man) were the antechambers of paradise, and he took a perverse pleasure in entering such shops on the pretext (which seemed obvious to the shopkeeper but which was in fact secondary to him) of begging for scraps of food or spare change: he would use every ruse in the book to loiter as long as possible, wandering up and down, looking, examining, inhaling, sniffing, and reveling in all kinds of smells—rollmops, sauerkraut, smoked hams hung up by the trotter, giant loaves of rye bread, herrings in oil, various trans-Alpine cold cuts, and prepared dishes—with no particular concern about being tossed out without anything to show for it under his arm or in his pocket, leaving with a blissful smile on his face, delighted to have thus rehearsed a meal. At first I strongly suspected him of pinching small food items, but not at all. He told me that looking in windows did not satisfy him, because, more than mere contemplation, his olfactory sense—he called it “nasal”—was what nourished and gratified him. Life led him, you might say, by the nose.

But the most highly prized foodstuff among those who eat almost nothing is unquestionably rolled oats—“Quaker Oats” to those in the know—whose cost, no more than small change, and ability to expand and become very filling when cooked, makes it truly precious, and it has the added advantage that it can be prepared in a host of ways, for example with salt, with sugar, with nothing, with garlic, with onions, with clear broth, with meat broth, with tea, with plain water, with rice water, with noodle water, with crusts of bread, with vermicelli (luxury), with red pepper (ditto), with margarine, or with ground meat (slap-up feast).


Copyright 2016 New York Review Books.

Published Apr 5, 2016   Copyright 2016 Jean-Paul Clébert & Donald Nicholson-Smith

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