Photo: Sabrina Jones
The Village Idiot
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Steve Stern
Chaim Soutine wakes with the sun, feeling awful. His joints are stiff, his guts wound tight about the crucible of his belly. The seething crucible has come close to boiling over from his anger at his lover Marie-Berthe and his abiding sense of dread. His condition is not helped by Monsieur Crochard’s sulfuric coffee, which he sips lest he insult his host. Otherwise, he has a flaming itch to be painting again. He thanks Crochard and, leaving the cottage, is reminded of the roll of charitable souls who have given him shelter over the years. Sadly, his gratitude flickers out before it’s properly set alight. Still, Chaim remembers that his friend Garde once called him fortunate, and Garde was never wrong. “I am a fortunate man,” he says aloud, catechizing himself as he steps out into the bright new morning, but saying doesn’t make it so.
What is truly fortunate is that Chaim has left his materials for the sake of convenience in Monsieur Crochard’s hay barn. He sets up his easel outside a fold wherein the cabinetmaker has penned his single lamb, Desirée. Chaim has never understood the French habit of naming animals you plan to eat. He has also left unanswered the question as to when and why his own preference in beasts has shifted from the dead to the quick. In any case, by offering her a succession of the dried butter beans he scooped from a jar in the barn, he induces Desirée to hold an approximate pose throughout the morning and well into the afternoon. When the painting is finished he realizes, to his dismay, that he has transferred his anger and fear to the bleating lamb behind the fence—“like on Yom Kippur the Jews will put on the kapparot chicken their sins.” Can you scapegoat a sheep? he wonders. But this is unfair; this poor walking soap foam of an animal does not deserve to be a vehicle for his schmerz. Art is not an exorcism and Chaim Soutine does not paint allegories. He takes out his jackknife, opens its blade, and is about to lacerate the canvas when, like Abraham on the verge of murdering his son, an angel (or is it an imp, or maybe the presence of that oafish kid spying on him from behind the garden wall?) stays his hand. Then it’s sunset, and having stored his accessories once again in the barn, he carries the picture with him on the grueling walk back over the fields to Champigny.
He asks himself why he should return to Marie-Berthe at all. The word destiny enters his head, which makes him laugh, the laughter causing an agonizing contraction of his gut. “Sometimes,” considers Chaim, struggling to straighten himself, “I think I am maybe giving birth.” He arrives in the village leaning on his cane, too toilworn to worry about stealth. Crossing the little postage stamp of a village square, he totters into a circle of light from the single lamppost, where he is met by a tall figure coming toward him from the opposite direction. It’s a German soldier and at his martial “Monsieur!” Chaim abruptly halts. He can see by his high boots, peaked cap, and beribboned tunic that this is an officer of some rank. It’s unusual to encounter German military in tiny Champigny-sur-Veude, though its trifling black market has warranted the occasional investigation; then the inquiring officer will freely select his portion of swag before shutting the operation down. Judging from the bulging haversack this one is carrying, he has most certainly done just that.
Chaim is too bone-tired to experience the appropriate terror.
He waits to be asked for his papers, which he has neglected to keep on his person, and expects that their absence will likely result in his brutalization and probable arrest. “Do your worst,” he moans to himself. But instead of demanding his documents, the courtly daytshlander asks him in a serviceable French, “Monsieur, you are an artist?”
Chaim looks down at his paint-besmirched garments, notes the picture under his arm, as if only just realizing that he is what the German has perceived him to be. “Oui,” he says, blanching at how the French affirmative still sounds like “Oy” on his lips. The officer lowers his sack to the cobbles and unsnaps a pouch at his duty belt to withdraw . . . But rather than the weapon that Chaim has anticipated, he produces a wallet, and from the wallet a well-thumbed photograph. Though his brow is largely obscured by the shadow of his visor, Chaim can see that, despite his high station, the German has a youthful face seemingly free of malevolence.
He holds out the snapshot for Chaim to examine, tilting it a little so that it’s spotlit by the streetlamp.
“Ma fille chérie,” he says, “mayn Liesl.”
It’s a photo of a pretty six- or seven-year-old daughter of the Master Race, her blond braids encircling her ears in the style of Jeanne Hébuterne. Even in black-and-white one can tell that her eyes are a pellucid china blue. “Make me a portrait of her,” says the officer, “and if I like it, I will pay you well.”
Assuming he has no choice, Chaim nods and takes the photo. He agrees at the German’s direction to meet him on the square under the awning of Madame Pichoreaux’s café in three days’ time. Some minutes later he enters the wreckage of their hotel suite and sees on the floor, among the dust devils, empty bottles, strewn clothes, and broken-spined books, the ghastly tapestry that Marie-Berthe has created from the stitched-together bits of her portrait. It is the handiwork of a madwoman. The subject of the patchwork portrait is sitting on the floor beside it looking undone and in tatters herself. She’s still wearing the dingy nightgown, her back leaning against the gutted divan, her legs splayed open like a discarded rag doll. She seems, with her washed-out features and livid-pink eyes, to have turned the corner overnight from femme fatale to aging frump. But if Chaim is alarmed by her appearance, she is just as shocked by his. His ordinarily sallow complexion is the blue-green of verdigris, and when did he get so thin? Consumed with sorrow for herself during his absence, she’s been poised to lay into him on his return. But all she can manage at the fearful sight of him is, “Soutine, you’re a ghost!”
“This makes of us two,” he replies.
She rises awkwardly from the floor, but instead of attacking him, she sets about preparing his bismuth cocktail, adding a splash of marché-noir vanilla for flavor. She brings it to him and Chaim acknowledges the kindness by squeezing her wrist.
Then it’s a coin toss as to which is the source of his greater pain: the time wasted on a portrait whose facile aspect amounts to a lie of the soul, or the pain in his abdomen that has spread to his shoulders and back? Plus the chronic nausea and the heaving into the toilet of what looks like coffee grounds mixed with blood. He employs a soft palette—beige, peach, honey yellow, water blue—and finishes the portrait of the little girl long before the allotted three days. The results are no better than the academic exercises he’d been made to produce in Vilna and later at Cormon’s. No better nor worse than what any street artist might execute, and thereby inoffensive. After completing it, Chaim takes to his bed and refuses to leave it until the appointed hour of his meeting with the German. He is visited in his inanition by shretelekh and the levitating shade of the rebbe Tsvi Poupko of Ger.
Punctual for a change, Chaim finds the officer already seated at a table outside the café. There’s a gunmetal pocket watch on the table beside his demitasse, a lit cigarette in the saucer, but he gives no indication of impatience. His pleasant demeanor remains at odds with a uniform that ought by rights to exclude him from all humane sensibility. It’s a fine afternoon and Madame Pichoreaux has emerged from the interior of her café to hobnob with the pork butcher and the pockmarked stationer sunning themselves in front of their shops. Chaim notices as well the armored car with its waiting driver parked in the street. He can see—his eyesight remains acute even as the rest of him is failing—beyond the car and driver to the hills and valleys of dry bones that the insignia of the smiling man before him has engendered. At an encouraging nod from the officer he unrolls the painting and holds it in front of him like a shield.
The officer is instantly on his feet and leaning close to examine the portrait. “Wunderschön!” he exclaims. Chaim peeks over the top of the painting to observe the man wiping an eye with the back of a chamois-gloved hand. Then, affably, he offers the same hand to the artist: “Sturmführer Dieter Vogt, and you?”
Were it not for the pain that wrings his gut like a wet rag, Chaim might have clamped the canvas with his teeth; he might have twisted his head to tear the portrait, then pulled it apart and flung the two halves to the ground. He might have stomped the halves in a vicious clog dance under his heels. As it is, he passes the painting respectfully to the German’s extended hand, and in response to his introduction says, “Karl . . . ,” then clears his throat of some blockage. “Chaim,” he states, “I am Chaim Soutine, degenerate artist and Jew.”
The Sturmführer’s spine stiffens, his gallant jaw twitches. The sudden annulment of his sham cordiality has the effect of removing a mask to reveal a skull. Then, by degrees, the smile returns, this time tinged with bile. Rolling up the canvas, he clicks his heels sharply, pivots, and returns to his car.
Madame Pichoreaux, alert to a change in the atmosphere, spares Chaim a melancholy glance before retreating into her establishment. The other shopkeepers follow suit. Left standing alone beneath the café awning, the artist gives himself up to a convulsive quaking; he lets loose a sepulchral sob at the realization that he has suffered what is politely called “an accident” in his pants.
Back at the hotel Marie-Berthe ignores his admission that he has sentenced himself to death and tells him to for God’s sake clean himself up and change his clothes. Only gradually does she come to understand that he has done what he has done.
“Chaim, we have to get out of here!” she insists, uttering the phrase that has been a frequent refrain of their shared days. It has an urgency now like never before. Chaim doesn’t argue but is too drained from his recent encounter, the spasming of his gut, and his general hopelessness to budge from his chair.
The woman has begun haphazardly throwing garments into a pair of suitcases. She sits on the bags in order to close them, though sleeves and flounced hems hang out of them like bunting. Her frantic activity appears to Chaim to include at least three actions for every one that is necessary. He bites his tongue to keep from calling aloud for Garde to come to his rescue. “Marie,” he says, while she actively disregards his paralysis, “you should leave me.”
She drags their bags to the door and turns around to retrieve a forgotten corselet from under the bed. “I should have left you months ago,” she replies without stopping.
“It’s not too late.”
This time she pauses to consider. She presses a forefinger to her temple as an aid to contemplation or in mimicry of a gun. “Yes it is,” she concludes, and continues making ready for their departure.
The problem is, they have nowhere else to go. In the course of their peripatetic existence, they have long since worn out their welcome in the village. (They still have the remnants of chilblains from two frigid nights spent in an open field between lodgings.) They have exhausted the patience of Mayor Moulin, who is too preoccupied with unthinkable compromises and an epidemic of anthrax in the region to worry about a single sick Jew—for who hasn’t guessed by now that Chaim is a Jew? As a consequence, this scratch house of a hotel has become their last resort. Marie-Berthe sits on the bags as if waiting at a depot. They’ve often talked of escaping Champigny, perhaps finding sanctuary in the Unoccupied Zone, in Montpellier, where Chaim’s former physician Dr. Guttman has settled. Marie-Berthe has written him, floating such a plan, only to receive unasked-for dietary advice and prescriptions that have been little help to the patient. She has also corresponded with Guttman’s assistant, Dr. Lannegrace, who is still practicing in Paris, asking whether she might visit Chaim in the Loire—so far have Marie-Berthe’s good intentions strayed from the feasible. The lady doctor assured her that was impracticable, inviting her instead to bring Soutine to Paris for consultation, an undertaking she must know could be ruinous for everyone involved.
Marie-Berthe gazes at the sapless artist and seems finally to grasp that he’s unfit for travel. His jaundiced flesh appears nearly translucent, and hugging his abdomen, he sways in his chair like an old Jew at prayer. What do they call it, their ritual of mourning? Sitting shiva. It’s like he’s sitting shiva for himself. She might once have walked away from him but now it seems the only vocation left to her is to try to keep him alive—and to participate with him in the vigil that Yids are everywhere observing: that is, waiting for either the Messiah or the sound of boots on the stairs, whichever comes first.
But days pass and neither comes. What does arrive is the concierge Monsieur Galipeau, who doesn’t bother to knock. He barges in, a heavy-set, putty-nosed party accompanied by a fresh-faced village policeman, so young he looks to be just out of short pants. Galipeau directs the young flic in his ill-fitting uniform to deliver the piece of paper he’s holding, which he seems almost embarrassed to do. It’s a document bearing an official oath to the effect that the undersigned is not a Jew. In this way the concierge clearly hopes to cover his postérieur. (The wily Pippin Galipeau employs a variety of unofficial devices for keeping the authorities off his back but avails himself of legitimate resources when he must.) Before the cop can hand over the paper to the artist, however, Marie-Berthe lunges forward to intercept it and rip it in two.
Why, wonders Chaim, has she done this, after all the trouble she’d gone to to attain his false identity? Is it a gesture in solidarity with his own suicidal impulses? Or is it just that, now that he’s so incapacitated, she feels obliged to carry on his custom of tearing things to shreds? Whatever the case, she has left the practically apologetic youth no recourse but to issue Chaim the yellow star.
“I got one already,” says Chaim.