Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 5: SIGHT
Chapter 35. Exquisite Corpse
He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?
The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night.
Isaiah 21:11-12, King James Bible
For years, my friend Kevin and I had talked of taking a surrealist walk around Paris, following in some of their footsteps and documenting the experience as a magazine article, a radio or TV documentary, even a book. Nothing came of it, for reasons which, to anyone who knows Kevin, don’t need explaining.
Kevin’s home is a village outside Cambridge, so deep in the English countryside that it can seem like something reconstructed on the back lot of Ealing Studios circa 1948. A stream flows at the foot of the garden, the crack of willow on leather echoes from the cricket field beyond the hedge, and just up the road, a half-timbered pub serves a selection of local ales and a bar lunch of homemade beef pies.
This rural tranquility makes Kevin’s other activities that much more improbable. As a busy journalist, one week might find him on the Antarctic ice, the next in a helicopter rising off the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. His hobbies range even further afield. Writing the definitive text on his favorite animal, the moose, took him to the Canadian north woods, while his standing as chevalier in the College of Pataphysics, that companionship of mischievous intellectuals devoted to the memory of French playwright Alfred Jarry, might find him participating in a five-day bike race for tandems or delivering a scholarly discourse on the relative melting rate of ice creams.
He also directs short films about vampires, long on blood and religious symbolism. Dinner party conversation at his table has ranged from changes in methodology within the Catholic Church to the suggestive songs of prewar music hall star George Formby, complete with a capella performances over the port and Stilton of such classics as “When I’m Cleaning Windows.”
Pajamas lyin’ side by side
Ladies nighties I have spied
I’ve often seen what goes inside
When I’m cleanin’ windows.
There could be no better companion for a surrealist walk, obviously, if I could just nail him down. That was a task I put on the back burner—until the morning Paul emailed me that, after three months’ work, the rebind of Last Nights of Paris was completed and on its way to me.
Opening the heavily wrapped parcel had an element of foreboding. Would Paul have sensed in Soupault’s text the same mystery and promise as myself? The moment I peeled away the last layer of bubble wrap, I knew I would not be disappointed.
For a start, he had created a special case in which to house the book. Sometimes called a clamshell case but more correctly a Solander box, these were invented by Swedish botanist Daniel Solander while working at the British Museum, where he cataloged the natural history collection between 1763 and 1782. Custom made, Solanders signify an item too precious to be entrusted to the open shelves. Most are plain, but Paul had incised the title of the book in gold on the spine and added a spray of gold to the upper face of the box. To do so, he would have made a metal die of his design, then impressed it into the cloth-covered board with gold leaf; a process as old as the Renaissance and so rare that only a handful of artisans could achieve it with this degree of success.
Placing my thumbs on the edge of the decorated face, I eased open the two halves of the case.
Of the original binding, nothing remained. Gleaming black calf, richly decorated in gold, now covered both boards and the spine. A nocturne of black and midnight blue, spangled with gold lamplight and stars, his transformation drew me back to the Paris of Cocteau, Prévert, Satie, and those soft, smoky surrealist nights.
Bypassing the first edition’s unimaginative art deco, he had audaciously accessed the symbolist artists who inspired surrealism—Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Edvard Munch. On the interior of the case itself and on the fore edges of the pages, a painted design of midnight blue evoked forests and jungles. If one stood the book, spine outward, flanked by the pictures on the interior, it created a kind of diorama in which the nature of the text was reflected and amplified in black leather, gilt, and gouache. This was craft raised to the level of art.
One of my favorite poems of the beat generation is by a lesser light of the movement, Lawrence Lipton. I first heard his Night Song for the Sleepless read by John Carradine on an album called Jazz Canto that matched poetry to jazz performances. The music chosen for Lipton’s verses was “Blue Sands,” by drummer Chico Hamilton. Paul’s binding brought to mind the subdued rumble of Hamilton’s tympani, Buddy Collette’s shrill flute, and Carradine’s portentous bass baritone.
Or have we lost that ancient cunning, you and I?
Night blooming symbols rooted deep
Beneath some moon-bedeviled stone.
Dark knowledge that we once have known.
This was no time for hesitation. I fired off an email to Kevin, demanding his immediate presence in Paris, under pain of excommunication from all future society. An answer came almost immediately. Arriving Friday. Let the exquisite cadavers walk again.