by Guillaume Apollinaire, tr. Peter Behrman de Sinéty & Petya Ivanova
Sometimes at dusk I stop by the Napo, with its terrace and famous ice cream. The Café Napolitain, right on the boulevards, once had a great run as a literary café. You can still find a few writers or theatre people there, but its literary heyday was before the war, when you’d see Jean Maréas, Catulle Mendès, the Silvains, and above all Ernest la Jeunesse, lording it among the courtesans….
Still, that isn’t where I met the author of The Boulevard…
One day in 1907 I was rounding the corner from Boulevard des Italiens to rue Gramont when a fluttering white piece of paper caught my eye. I grabbed it on the fly, by instinct, thinking it was a theatre bill. At that moment, raising my eyes to the fourth floor of the nearest building, I saw a masked figure duck back and cry: “Hold on to that paper, Sir! I’ll be right down for it.”
I waited five or six minutes. No one came, so I went in to leave the document with the concierge for the fourth floor tenant, but he replied: “You must be mistaken, Sir. The 4th floor's empty. It's a 12,000 a month apartment, for rent.”
Without betraying the least surprise, I pretended to reread an address on the fold, claimed I’d mistaken the building number and was about to apologize and leave when, just as I opened the glass door, I saw the masked figure run past without his mask. He was clean shaven, blond, by all appearances. This little incident I’d witnessed was so mysterious that it relieved me of any inclination to return the lost paper. I was intrigued and alarmed. Turning to the concierge, I inquired about the apartment in question—I claimed it so happened I was looking for a place and, after all, I might very well settle on the boulevards. In a moment, the concierge and I were visiting the fourth floor’s empty rooms, which to all appearances contained nothing even remotely connected to the strange case in which I was now involved. I left quickly, eager to examine this piece of paper which I was certain held some grave secret.
The man wasn’t in the street. As I’d expected, he must have judged from the fourth floor that I was taking the rue Grammont, and when he hadn't seen me he must have dashed down the street and even at that moment thought that if he ran fast enough he would catch up with me.
I doubled back on my trail, took the rue Richelieu to the Palais Royal and found a quiet brasserie where I started doing my utmost to decipher the contents of the strange document. I saw, traced with an unsure hand, the following collection of signs:
“A. B. C. D. E. F. G. H. I. J. K. L. M. N. O. P. Q. S. T. U. V. W. X. Y. Z.”
Next to these capitals appeared a crude drawing of a man with two horns of flame coming out of his forehead, and beside this the number 1 placed just above the number 5. I was in the presence of a rebus, but I knew instantly it wasn’t one of those idle rebuses you still find in certain newspapers, the kind for would-be Oedipuses to spend an evening puzzling out in a café. The rebus I had here bespoke the ancient art. Its maker was versed in the popular symbolism that gave rise to the rebus in Picardie, where medieval pamphleteers expressed in pictures what they could hardly have dared to say in words, for a public that, not knowing how to read, could only understand by image. Spared this latter reason for shunning numbers and letters—thanks to mandatory schooling—the author of my rebus had used them freely, fusing the Picardie manner with the literary style of the Renaissance, which already marks the rebus’s decline. For such a rebus, I knew it wouldn’t be a matter of finding an exact phonetic match between the signs and what they expressed. In short: I saw that all the letters of the alphabet were written on the paper except R, that the man with the two horns of fire on his forehead was Moses, that the numbers 1 and 5 placed beside the Hebrew lawgiver signaled the first book of the Pentateuch, that all of this was in French, and that the rebus obviously read: R n’est là, Genèse, which, beyond the shadow of a doubt, meant: Ernest La Jeunesse.
And so this strange adventure had brought me to the author of The Boarding Houses and Boredoms of our most Notorious Contemporaries, The Imitation of Our Lord Napoleon, Five years among the Savages, and many another work of subtle verve. I decided to call on La Jeunesse at home, and though we’d never met he welcomed me cordially at his hotel at the end of a long boulevard near Bastille. So there I was at the home of the author of the Boarding Houses and Boredoms, this second Musset who isn’t just the poet of youth like his predecessor, but La Jeunesse in the very flesh.
I barely noticed him as I greeted him mechanically. His room had caught all my attention. The floor was cluttered with beautifully bound books, enamels, works in ivory, rock crystal, nacre, compasses, Rhodes and Damascus faience, Chinese bronzes. To the left of the door, on a white wooden table, stretched a profusion of cameos, intaglios, archaic Greek gems, Etruscan scarabs, rings, seals, African statuettes, toys, netsukes, Chelsea baubles, champagne glasses and chalices. In front of the table, against the left wall, running to the very end of the room, rose an immense mountain of books, of all sorts of weapons ancient and modern, pieces of military equipment, canes, paintings etc. To the right of the door, an open bedside table gave a glimpse of a chamber pot brim-full of old watches; beside it stretched a little iron bed, and above this, up the wall all the way to the ceiling, hung a considerable number of miniatures depicting military figures. At the bed’s foot more weapons were piled amidst rare fabrics, helmets and wax portraits in glass boxes.
In front of the window, on a round table, a collection of old bon-bons, of figurines in colored sugar, confectioner-built cottages and little chocolate ewes surrounding a large Italian Easter lamb cake seemed to have been waiting more than a century for a troop of rowdy children who had never come, who had grown up, grown old and died without ever even having touched these ancient and charming sweets, precious artifacts of a species of gluttony that doesn’t exist anymore, whose history was never written and which doesn’t even have its own museum.
I stared at Ernest La Jeunesse, who, ready to step out, beaver hat on brow, daffodil in hand, was waiting for me to recover from the astonishment his little room had caused.
Ernest La Jeunesse was solidly built. I’ll leave it to others to describe him, his jewels and his canes, but I want to mention his voice, whose pitch was remarkably high. I soon became convinced that this way of expressing himself in a soprano’s high tones was an effect neither of birth nor accident. Rather, it was a habit of hygiene Ernest La Jeunesse practiced with great care. Speaking in falsetto purifies the soul, clears the mind, even confers willpower and decisiveness.
I pulled out the rebus and for a moment Ernest La Jeunesse looked bewildered. But he quickly collected himself and declared it to be one of his café scribbles, recopied by an idiot. Then he changed the subject.
It was time for Ernest La Jeunesse to go out. He invited me to join him and we stopped at the Napo where a man came up and asked him to name the officers of a certain cavalry regiment. Monsieur La Jeunesse recited them to him off the cuff. Remarking my surprise, he mentioned that he knew the entire Army Register by heart. Then he reminded me of how a few years earlier he had stumped the Minister of War himself in a public argument. Next he drew a portrait of that minister, then a self-portrait, and afterwards a portrait of Napoleon, and gave them to me.
He cried out: “Bring me my child-size sabre.”
They brought it to him and, for my perusal, he had the waiters hand over, one by one, all the pieces of an arsenal he owns and stores in the café where we were. Suddenly, a man who seemed a person of quality, with an accent I couldn’t place to any one nation, came up and asked my companion for several details regarding the genealogy of a certain ruling family. Ernest la Jeunesse furnished these readily, after which he revealed that he knew the entire Gotha by heart.
On that note, we parted company, and Ernest La Jeunesse went to inquire about a play he’d offered several years before to a theatre I can’t remember, a play entitled, I think, The Dynasty.
I often saw him again at that same Napolitain where he spent a large part of his days after the Bols and the Kalisaya were gone.
He died on May 2nd, 1917, of throat cancer, at the infirmary of the sisters of Bon-Secours on rues des Plantes, at age forty-three.
Born in 1874, this native of Lorraine who had spent his whole childhood dreaming of conquering Paris didn’t wait long to become almost famous in the world of men of letters, theatre people, art connoisseurs and sword fighters.
He made his début with an exceptional master stroke: praising in print Edouard Drumont who, not knowing that Ernest La Jeunesse was Jewish, enthusiastically reviewed his first book.
That first book did more for its author’s reputation than everything he ever wrote afterwards.
It was entitled: The Boarding Houses, Boredoms and Souls of our Most Notorious Contemporaries, and it preceded, with sharper fancy and more nuanced irony, the famous In the manner of… later to be imitated in every rear-line officer’s mess by staff-sergeants who, in years past, would have whiled away the hours translating Horace into French verse.
The Boarding Houses and Boredoms amused everyone mentioned in it. The press teemed with articles and its author’s reputation was made.
His city clothes had something to do with it. They were disheveled, not Verlainian disheveled, but disheveled decked with amethyst rings, extraordinary canes, sensational trinkets: in a word, Boulevard disheveled.
From the moment he first came on the scene in Paris, La Jeunesse took up rooms in that hotel on boulevard Beaumarchais where I found him; he stayed until, shortly before the war, royalties from his anonymous contributions to the Petit Café allowed him to live a little larger and carry to rue Liège – rue de Berlin, at the time – his helmets, weapons, scrapped Napoleonic army uniforms, books, canes, miniatures, medallions and coins which he had crammed into that hotel room where the pile had little to go to reach the ceiling. Those admitted to that hurly-burly remember the chamber pot overflowing with old watches.
In the days of the Revue Blanche, Ernest La Jeunesse sometimes strayed to the rue de l’Echaudé where his friend Jarry would tease him to wit’s end.
Later, he once accompanied Moréas to La Closerie des Lilas.
All in all, he confined himself to the right bank, or more precisely to the boulevards where he had his habits.
It once caused quite a stir when, after God knows what literary discussion, he abandoned the Kalisaya, where he had first made friends with Oscar Wilde, to take up quarters at the Bols across the street.
Around tea-time, La Jeunesse could still be seen at the Cardinal, where he had an antiques depot.
His evening aperitif at the Napolitain had become a tradition. You’d find him there every evening; three days before his death he was still there.
He would also go to the Vetzel, to the Tourtel, and to the Grand Café, but less regularly.
Theater critic for the Journal, he was still responsible for the Academie Francaise obituaries. He first wrote theatre reviews there in the interim after the death of Catulle Mendès.
After the Boarding Houses and Boredoms, he found a certain amount of success again with the Imitation of Our Lord Napoleon, written in a tone well suited to an age in which Stendahlian snobbery was de rigueur among men of letters, and crafted in that enigmatic and anarchical-elegant form first brought into fashion by Maurice Barrès, whose subtlety and gongorism are far from being the least seductive charms of his remarkable works.
People were still talking about Five Years Among the Savages, with its poignant account of Oscar Wilde’s burial. But his final books, The Holocaust, The Boulevard, and The Honorary Convict met with only critical success.
The new generations seemed to have forgotten this man with disheveled hair, in a gray lounge suit, with twisted up pants and a soft plush hat, who was the last boulevardier.
From Sem to Rouveyre, not to mention Capiello, all the cartoonists popularized the figure of Ernest La Jeunesse. His was a Parisian silhouette, through and through.
Ernest La Jeunesse’s style, which belonged to the school of Jean de Tinan, is neological, that’s its weakness, but it is greatly moved with emotion, that’s its strength. But will that strength be enough to keep certain of his pages from oblivion? One might have one’s doubts, and believe rather that, if he’s to be remembered, it will be above all as the last man of the boulevards.
PETER BEHRMAN de SINÉTY grew up in Maine and teaches as lecteur d’anglais at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris.
PETYA IVANOVA was born in Shumen, Bulgaria and holds a PhD in Medieval English Literature from the University of Geneva. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Geneva and works as assistant dramaturge at the Grand Théâtre de Genève.</b