It was a Sunday afternoon, much like this, when I first met Germaine. I was strolling along the Boulevard Beaumarchais, rich by a hundred francs or so which my wife had frantically cabled from America. There was a touch of spring in the air, a poisonous, malefic spring that seemed to burst from the manholes. Night after night I had been coming back to this quarter, attracted by certain leprous streets which only revealed their sinister splendor when the light of day had oozed away and the whores commenced to take up their posts. The Rue Pasteur-Wagner is one I recall in particular, corner of the Rue Amelot which hides behind the boulevard like a slumbering lizard. Here, at the neck of the bottle, so to speak, there was always a cluster of vultures who croaked and flapped their dirty wings, who reached out with sharp talons and plucked you into a doorway. Jolly, rapacious devils who didn’t even give you time to button your pants when it was over.
Led you into a little room off the street, a room without a window usually, and, sitting on the edge of the bed with skirts tucked up gave you a quick inspection, spat on your cock, and placed it for you. While you washed yourself another one stood at the door and, holding her victim by one hand, watched nonchalantly as you gave the finishing touches to your toilet. Germaine was different. There was nothing to tell me so from her appearance. Nothing to distinguish her from the other trollops who met each afternoon and evening at the Cafe de l’Elephant. As I say, it was a spring day and the few francs my wife had scraped up to cable me were jingling in my pocket. I had a sort of vague premonition that I would not reach the Bastille without being taken in tow by one of these buzzards. Sauntering along the boulevard I had noticed her verging towards me with that curious trot-about air of a whore and the rundown heels and the cheap jewelry and the pasty look of their kind which the rouge only accentuates. It was not difficult to come to terms with her. We sat in the back of the little tabac called L’Elephant and talked it over quickly. In a few minutes we were in a five-franc room on the Rue Amelot, the curtains drawn and the covers thrown back. She didn’t rush things, Germaine. She sat on the bidet soaping herself and talked to me pleasantly about this and that; she liked the knickerbockers I was wearing.
Tres chic! she thought. They were once, but I had worn the seat out of them; fortunately the jacket covered my ass. As she stood up to dry herself, still talking to me pleasantly, suddenly she dropped the towel and, advancing towards me leisurely, she commenced rubbing her pussy affectionately, stroking it with her two hands, caressing it, patting it, patting it. There was something about her eloquence at that moment and the way she thrust that rosebush under my nose which remains unforgettable; she spoke of it as if it were some extraneous object which she had acquired at great cost, an object whose value had increased with time and which now she prized above everything in the world. Her words imbued it with a peculiar fragrance; it was no longer just her private organ, but a treasure, a magic, potent treasure, a God-given thing — and none the less so because she traded it day in and day out for a few pieces of silver. As she flung herself on the bed, with legs spread wide apart, she cupped it with her hands and stroked it some more, murmuring all the while in that hoarse, cracked voice of hers that it was good, beautiful, a treasure, a little treasure. And it was good, that little pussy of hers! That Sunday afternoon, with its poisonous breath of spring in the air, everything clicked again. As we stepped out of the hotel I looked her over again in the harsh light of day and I saw clearly what a whore she was — the gold teeth, the geranium in her hat, the rundown heels, etc., etc. Even the fact that she had wormed a dinner out of me and cigarettes and taxi hadn’t the least disturbing effect upon me. I encouraged it, in fact. I liked her so well that after dinner we went back to the hotel again and took another shot at it. “For love,” this time. And again that big, bushy thing of hers worked its bloom and magic. It began to have an independent existence — for me too. There was Germaine and there was that rosebush of hers. I liked them separately and I liked them together.
As I say, she was different, Germaine. Later, when she discovered my true circumstances, she treated me nobly — blew me to drinks, gave me credit, pawned my things, introduced me to her friends, and so on. She even apologized for not lending me money, which I understood quite well after her maquereau had been pointed out to me. Night after night I walked down the Boulevard Beaumarchais to the little tabac where they all congregated and I waited for her to stroll in and give me a few minutes of her precious time.
When, some time later, I came to write about Claude it was not Claude that I was thinking of, but Germaine…. “All the men she’s been with and now you, just you, and barges going by, masts and hulls, the whole damned current of life flowing through you, through her, through all the guys behind you and after you, the flowers and the birds and the sun streaming in and the fragrance of it choking you, annihilating you.” That was for Germaine! Claude was not the same, though I admired her tremendously — I even thought for a while that I loved her. Claude had a soul and a conscience; she had refinement, too, which is bad — in a whore. Claude always imparted a feeling of sadness; she left the impression, unwittingly, of course, that you were just one more added to the stream which fate had ordained to destroy her. Unwittingly, I say, because Claude was the last person in the world who would consciously create such an image in one’s mind. She was too delicate, too sensitive for that. At bottom, Claude was just a good French girl of average breed and intelligence whom life had tricked somehow; something in her there was which was not tough enough to withstand the shock of daily experience. For her were meant those terrible words of Louis-Philippe: “and a night comes when all is over, when so many jaws have closed upon us that we no longer have the strength to stand, and our meat hangs upon our bodies, as though it had been masticated by every mouth.” Germaine, on the other hand, was a whore from the cradle; she was thoroughly satisfied with her role, enjoyed it in fact, except when her stomach pinched or her shoes gave out, little surface things of no account, nothing that ate into her soul, nothing that created torment. Ennui! That was the worst she ever felt. Days there were, no doubt, when she had a bellyful, as we say — but no more than that! Most of the time she enjoyed it — or gave the illusion of enjoying it. It made a difference of course, whom she went with — or came with. But the principal thing was a man. A man! That was what she craved. A man with something between his legs that could tickle her, that could make her writhe in ecstasy, make her grab that bushy twat of hers with both hands and rub it joyfully, boastfully, proudly, with a sense of connection, a sense of life. That was the only place where she experienced any life — down there where she clutched herself with both hands.
Germaine was a whore all the way through, even down to her good heart, her whore’s heart which is not really a good heart but a lazy one, an indifferent, flaccid heart that can be touched for a moment, a heart without reference to any fixed point within, a big, flaccid whore’s heart that can detach itself for a moment from its true center. However vile and circumscribed was that world which she had created for herself, nevertheless she functioned in it superbly. And that in itself is a tonic thing. When, after we had become well acquainted, her companions would twit me, saying that I was in love with Germaine (a situation almost inconceivable to them), I would say: “Sure! Sure, I’m in love with her! And what’s more, I’m going to be faithful to her!” A lie, of course, because I could no more think of loving Germaine than I could think of loving a spider; and if I was faithful, it was not to Germaine but to that bushy thing she carried between her legs. Whenever I looked at another woman I thought immediately of Germaine, of that flaming bush which she had left in my mind and which seemed imperishable. It gave me pleasure to sit on the terrasse of the little tabac and observe her as she plied her trade, observe her as she resorted to the same grimaces, the same tricks, with others as she had with me. “She’s doing her job!” — that’s how I felt about it, and it was with approbation that I regarded her transactions. Later, when I had taken up with Claude, and I saw her night after night sitting in her accustomed place, her round little buttocks chubbily ensconced in the plush settee, I felt a sort of inexpressible rebellion towards her; a whore, it seemed to me, had no right to be sitting there like a lady, waiting timidly for some one to approach and all the while abstemiously sipping her chocolat. Germaine was a hustler. She didn’t wait for you to come to her — she went out and grabbed you. I remember so well the holes in her stockings, and the torn ragged shoes; I remember too how she stood at the bar and with blind, courageous defiance threw a strong drink down her stomach and marched out again. A hustler! Perhaps it wasn’t so pleasant to smell that boozy breath of hers, that breath compounded of weak coffee, cognac, aperitifs, pernods and all the other stuff she guzzled between times, what to warm herself and what to summon up strength and courage, but the fire of it penetrated her, it glowed down there between her legs where women ought to glow, and there was established that circuit which makes one feel the earth under his legs again. When she lay there with her legs apart and moaning, even if she did moan that way for any and everybody, it was good, it was a proper show of feeling. She didn’t stare up at the ceiling with a vacant look or count the bedbugs on the wallpaper; she kept her mind on her business, she talked about the things a man wants to hear when he’s climbing over a woman. Whereas Claude — well, with Claude there was always a certain delicacy, even when she got under the sheets with you. And her delicacy offended me. Who wants a delicate whore! Claude would even ask you to turn your face away when she squatted over the bidet. All wrong! A man, when he’s burning up with passion, wants to see things; he wants to see everything, even how they make water. And while it’s all very nice to know that a woman has a mind, literature coming from the cold corpse of a whore is the last thing to be served in bed. Germaine had the right idea: she was ignorant and lusty, she put her heart and soul into her work. She was a whore all the way through — and that was her virtue!
Easter came in like a frozen hare — but it was fairly warm in bed. Today it is lovely again and along the Champs-Elysees at twilight it is like an outdoor seraglio choked with dark-eyed houris. The trees are in full foliage and of a verdure so pure, so rich, that it seems as though they were still wet and glistening with dew. From the Palais du Louvre to the Etoile it is like a piece of music for the pianoforte.
For five days I have not touched the typewriter nor looked at a book; nor have I had a single idea in my head except to go to the American Express. At nine this morning I was there, just as the doors were being opened, and again at one o’clock. No news. At four-thirty I dash out of the hotel, resolved to make a last minute stab at it. Just as I turn the corner I brush against Walter Pach. Since he doesn’t recognize me, and since I have nothing to say to him, I make no attempt to arrest him. Later, when I am stretching my legs in the Tuileries his figure reverts to mind. He was a little stooped, pensive, with a sort of serene yet reserved smile on his face. I wonder, as I look up at this softly enamelled sky, so faintly tinted, which does not bulge today with heavy rain clouds but smiles like a piece of old china, I wonder what goes on in the mind of this man who translated the four thick volumes of the History of Art when he takes in this blissful cosmos with his drooping eye. Along the Champs-Elysees, ideas pouring from me like sweat. I ought to be rich enough to have a secretary to whom I could dictate as I walk, because my best thoughts always come when I am away from the machine.
Walking along the Champs-Elysees I keep thinking of my really superb health. When I say “health” I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the 19th century. I’m a bit retarded, like most Americans. Carl finds it disgusting, this optimism. “I have only to talk about a meal,” he says, “and you’re radiant!” It’s a fact. The mere thought of a meal — another meal — rejuvenates me. A meal! That means something to go on — a few solid hours of work, an erection possibly. I don’t deny it. I have health, good, solid, animal health. The only thing that stands between me and a future is a meal, another meal.
As for Carl, he’s not himself these days. He’s upset, his nerves are jangled. He says he’s ill, and I believe him, but I don’t feel badly about it. I can’t. In fact, it makes me laugh. And that offends him, of course. Everything wounds him — my laughter, my hunger, my persistence, my insouciance, everything. One day he wants to blow his brains out because he can’t stand this lousy hole of a Europe any more; the next day he talks of going to Arizona “where they look you square in the eye.”
“Do it!” I say. “Do one thing or the other, you bastard, but don’t try to cloud my healthy eye with your melancholy breath!”
But that’s just it! In Europe one gets used to doing nothing. You sit on your ass and whine all day. You get contaminated. You rot.
Fundamentally Carl is a snob, an aristocratic little prick who lives in a dementia praecox kingdom all his own. “I hate Paris!” he whines. “All these stupid people playing cards all day… look at them! And this writing! What’s the use of putting words together? I can be a writer without writing, can’t I? What does it prove if I write a book? What do we want with books anyway? There are too many books already…”
My eye, but I’ve been all over that ground — years and years ago. I’ve lived out my melancholy youth. I don’t give a fuck any more what’s behind me, or what’s ahead of me. I’m healthy. Incurably healthy. No sorrows, no regrets. No past, no future. The present is enough for me. Day by day. Today! Le bel aujourd’hui!
He has one day a week off, Carl, and on that day he’s more miserable, if you can imagine it, than on any other day of the week. Though he professes to despise food, the only way he seems to enjoy himself on his day off is to order a big spread. Perhaps he does it for my benefit — I don’t know, and I don’t ask. If he chooses to add martyrdom to his list of vices, let him — it’s O. K. with me. Anyway, last Tuesday, after squandering what he had on a big spread, he steers me to the Dôme, the last place in the world I would seek on my day off. But one not only gets acquiescent here — one gets supine.
Standing at the Dôme bar is Marlowe, soused to the ears. He’s been on a bender, as he calls it, for the last five days. That means a continuous drunk, a peregrination from one bar to another, day and night without interruption, and finally a lay-off at the American Hospital. Marlowe’s bony emaciated face is nothing but a skull perforated by two deep sockets in which there are buried a pair of dead clams. His back is covered with sawdust — he has just had a little snooze in the watercloset. In his coat pocket are the proofs for the next issue of his review, he was on his way to the printer with the proofs, it seems, when some one inveigled him to have a drink. He talks about it as though it happened months ago. He takes out the proofs and spreads them over the bar; they are full of coffee stains and dried spittle. He tries to read a poem which he had written in Greek, but the proofs are undecipherable. Then he decides to deliver a speech, in French, but the gerant puts a stop to it. Marlowe is piqued: his one ambition is to talk a French which even the garcon will understand. Of old French he is a master; of the Surrealists he has made excellent translations; but to say a simple thing like “get the hell out of here, you old prick!” — that is beyond him. Nobody understands Marlowe’s French, not even the whores. For that matter, it’s difficult enough to understand his English when he’s under the weather. He blabbers and spits like a confirmed stutterer… no sequence to his phrases. “You pay!” that’s one thing he manages to get out clearly. Even if he is fried to the hat some fine preservative instinct always warns Marlowe when it is time to act. If there is any doubt in his mind as to how the drinks are going to be paid he will be sure to put on a stunt. The usual one is to pretend that he is going blind. Carl knows all his tricks by now, and so when Marlowe suddenly claps his hands to his temples and begins to act it out Carl gives him a boot in the ass and says: “Come out of it, you sap! You don’t have to do that with me!”
Whether it is a cunning piece of revenge or not, I don’t know, but at any rate Marlowe is paying Carl back in good coin. Leaning over us confidentially he relates in a hoarse, croaking voice a piece of gossip which he picked up in the course of his peregrinations from bar to bar. Carl looks up in amazement. He’s pale under the gills. Marlowe repeats the story with variations. Each time Carl wilts a little more. “But that’s impossible!” he finally blurts out. “No, it ain’t!” croaks Marlowe. “You’re gonna lose your job… I got it straight.” Carl looks at me in despair. “Is he shitting me, that bastard?” he murmurs in my ear. And then aloud — “What am I going to do now? I’ll never find another job. It took me a year to land this one.”
This, apparently, is all that Marlowe has been waiting to hear. At last he has found someone worse off than himself. “They be hard times!” he croaks, and his bony skull glows with a cold, electric fire. Leaving the Dôme Marlowe explains between hiccups that he’s got to return to San Francisco. He seems genuinely touched now by Carl’s helplessness. He proposes that Carl and I take over the review during his absence. “I can trust you, Carl,” he says. And then suddenly he gets an attack, a real one this time. He almost collapses in the gutter. We haul him to a bistrot at the Boulevard Edgar Quinet and sit him down. This time he’s really got it — a blinding headache that makes him squeal and grunt and rock himself to and fro like a dumb brute that’s been struck by a sledge hammer. We spill a couple of Fernet-Brancas down his throat, lay him out on the bench and cover his eyes with his muffler. He lies there groaning. In a little while we hear him snoring.
“What about his proposition?” says Carl. “Should we take it up? He says he’ll give me a thousand francs when he comes back. I know he won’t, but what about it?” He looks at Marlowe sprawled out on the bench, lifts the muffler from his eyes, and puts it back again. Suddenly a mischievous grin lights up his face. “Listen, Joe,” he says, beckoning me to move closer, “we’ll take him up on it. We’ll take his lousy review over and we’ll fuck him good and proper.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Why we’ll throw out all the other contributors and we’ll fill it with our own shit — that’s what!”
“Yeah, but what kind of shit?”
“Any kind… he won’t be able to do anything about it. We’ll fuck him good and proper. One good number and after that the magazine’ll be finished. Are you game, Joe?”
Grinning and chuckling we lift Marlowe to his feet and haul him to Carl’s room. When we turn on the lights there’s a woman in the bed waiting for Carl. “I forgot all about her,” says Carl. We turn the cunt loose and shove Marlowe into bed. In a minute or so there’s a knock at the door. It’s Van Norden. He’s all aflutter. Lost a plate of false teeth — at the Bal Negre, he thinks. Anyway, we get to bed, the four of us. Marlowe stinks like a smoked fish.
In the morning Marlowe and Van Norden leave to search for the false teeth. Marlowe is blubbering. He imagines they are his teeth.