After WWII the enigmatic Marcel Duchamp, arch avant-gardist and art world provocateur was widely have believed to have turned his back on art to dedicate himself to competitive chess. However for the next twenty years Duchamp would work in secret on his tableau Etant Donnes: 1 La Chute D’Eau 2 Le Gaz D’Eclairage (Given: 1 The Waterfall 2 The Illuminating Gas), it was to be his final work. The tableau was only installed after Duchamp’s death in 1968 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It immediately caused a sensation. The tableau is only visible through two tiny peep holes which presents a mysterious scene whose meaning remains elusive. In the foreground against the painted sylvan landscape is a naked female (comprised of parchment, hair, glass, paint, cloths-pegs, and lights). Her head is hidden, all that is visible above the torso is strands of blonde hair. The posture of the body is extremely disturbing, the immediate impression is of violence against the supine figure. The model for most of the figure was Duchamp’s lover from 1946 to 1951, the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins. After meeting Martins Duchamp increasingly introduced the erotic into his previously cerebral art and he would obsessively draw her voluptuous figure. Duchamp’s second wife Alexina (Teeny) was the model for the arm. Duchamp consulted extensively with both women during the artistic process.
A work as opaque as Etant Donnes invites all manner of interpretations. For me several features are highly suggestive of alchemy and Hermeticism. The oil lamp could be alluding to the alchemical fire that accelerates the process of perfection in the Great Work. The headless women was a frequent symbol of Mother Nature in early cultures and her position could be taken as someone ready for either childbirth or sexual intercourse. If this is the case then the spring would refer to the womb where new life is formed and nourished. Is Etant Donnes an alchemical allegory on artistic creation?
While researching the rather sinister figure of Georges Bataille, the author of the infamous surrealist pornographic novel The Story of the Eye, originator of the theory of base materialism and the leading light of the journal Documents (see Dreams of Desire 13 (Serene Beauty) which was the home for several major expelled and dissident Surrealists, I chanced upon the above stunning and intriguing photographic study Komposition fur eine Rhombus (Composition for a Rhombus).
Fabian Marti is a Zurich based artist and Komposition fur eine Rhombus was part of an exhibition in Bordeaux on Secret Societies and the Occult in modern and contemporary art. Apart from its purely formal considerations it certainly possesses a heavy, ritualistic feel that Bataille, himself the founder of the secret society Acephale, would have appreciated. It also brings to mind Maya Deren’s (with a little help from Marcel Duchamp) experimental film The Witch’s Cradle (see Alpha & Omega).
Bring on the Night
For the Night is the time
The only time there is
For the likes of you and me
Only in the Night
With its compulsions
And its repetitions
Of obsessive desires
Can we be truly ourselves
Because in the vulgar glare
Of the censorious daylight
We are exposed to the
Prying eyes of simulacra
Of cold unfeeling automata
Bring on the Night
Let the black Sun
That absorbs all radiance
Stay high in the sky
And never set again
So that I can play
My bizarre childish games
While you work away
At your women’s work
For during the night
Magic and Alchemy
Are living realities
First the Alchemy
Of the holy word,
Word into deed,
Deed into actuality
Then the Alchemy of
Our bodies as we turn
Each other inside
Out to transmute
Our base natures into
The stuff of spiritual gold
With the admixture
Of saliva and blood
We will greedily swallow
Each other’s essence
The elixir necessary
To achieve the intensity
Required to slow
This shit right down
So that the sacred
Unholy night never ends.
Halcyon days indeed;
The dragged down moments
The spaced out seconds
Our inert bodies
On the unmade
Mussed up bed
A grimy idyll in a rented flat;
Love without bounds
You bruise so easily
I like that about you,
I’ll smoke and drink incessantly
Nurse you into illness
I prefer you that way
With a haunted look
Around your grey eyes
Fever suffusing your sallow skin
Your breath sweet with distemper
Just for once you will have need of me
Of course I am going
To catch your sickness
Be rendered immobile
By this delirium
We know what is coming next
Once I recover you are gone
Out into the cold
Harsh light of day
Never to return, never to experience
Premonitions of indivisible diversity
Again never no never again
Manners forbade you leave just yet
You have to return
All my favours
Like for like
Wound for wound
I also bruise easily;
You shave me so gently
Watching you watching yourself
In the mirror
I would ask you
To murder me the whole while
Slit me from ear to ear
Give me a second grin
Just like a Cheshire Cat
To die at your hands
What other alternative exists
When you no longer need my love
Whatever hurt I had ever caused
Could never equal the pain
You inflict on me so lovingly
As you walk away forever,
With a smile on your lips
And a kiss on your fingertips.
Arthur Cravan remains an elusive figure. A tireless self-promoter he caused a scandal and generated legends wherever he landed up and as he led a wandering peripatetic existence this meant he was infamous on both sides of the Atlantic. However what is not in doubt is that his exploits were an inspiration to the Dada movements in Europe and New York, leading to his canonisation by the Surrealists.
Born in Lausanne, Switzerland he had fond memories of his uncle, Oscar Wilde, ‘I adored him because he resembled a huge beast’ (he later perpetuated a hoax in his self-published magazine Maintenant in 1913 that he had recently had met up with Wilde, that was taken up by The New York Times; Wilde had been dead for over a decade). He was expelled from an English boarding school for spanking his teacher, certainly not the last of his anarchic provocations. He travelled throughout Europe on documents and passports he had forged himself and could convincingly pass himself off as German, French, English or Swiss depending on the locale. While in Paris he give an announcement that he would hold a talk which would culminate in his suicide. When the hall filled up in expectation he then accursed the spectators of vulgar voyeurism and proceeded to bore them with a lecture on entropy instead. Proud of his imposing physique (he was 6’4) and his boxing prowess he managed to become the French Heavyweight Champion without winning a single fight and would later go on to fight the World Champion Jack Johnson in the Canary Islands. He lasted a respectable six rounds although Johnson later noted in his autobiography that Cravan seemed out of training.
Dodging the draft he went to New York, where through the agency of Francis Picarbia, his partner-in-crime from his Barcelona days he fraternized with the future Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray and would meet his future wife Mina Loy, who nick-named him Colossus. While in New York Cravan also indulged his taste for provocation; upon giving a lecture on humour he turned up dead drunk and proceeded to strip while berating the crowd, the police were promptly called and he was dragged off to the cells.
To once again avoid military service Cravan and Loy went to Mexico where they were married. As I wrote in my previous post Surrealist Women: Mina Loy, Cravan set off in his small sailing boat never to be seen again, leading to all sorts of rumours and reported sightings, further sealing the legend of the anarchic poet-boxer provocateur.
The Forrest Gump of the international avant-garde, Mina Loy had the unerring knack of being in the right place at just the right time. Born in London in 1882 to an Hungarian Jewish father and an English Protestant mother Loy caught the tail-end of the fin-de-siecle in Jugendstil infatuated Munich in 1899. She moved to Paris in 1903 and entered the circle of writers and artists centred around Gertrude Stein. 1907 saw her de-camping to Florence where she spouted Futurist aphorisms with Marinetti and his cohorts. 1916 saw Loy sail for New York where she promptly made the acquaintance of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.
It was in New York that she met and fell in love with the love of her life, the heavyweight champion of the Dada-verse and nephew of Oscar Wilde, the poet-boxer Arthur Cravan. They were married in Mexico City in 1918. Afterwards they intended to move to Argentina; however lack of funds and the fact that Loy was pregnant with Cravan’s child meant that only Loy took the commercial liner while Cravan set off in a small sail boat with the intention that they would met again in Buenos Aires. Cravan was never seen or heard of again; presumably the boat capsized and he drowned in the Pacific, however his disappearance has led to some wild and improbable theories, my favourite being that Arthur Cravan became the mysteriously reclusive, anarchist novelist B.Traven, famous for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that was made into a film of the same name by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart.
The twenties saw Loy in the thick of modernist Paris. She published her collection of poems Lunar Baedeker and with the backing of Peggy Guggenheim opened a shop selling decorated lamp-shades. In 1933 she begin her close friendship with the German Surrealist Richard Oelze (see The Expectation) which resulted in her posthumously published Surrealist novel Insel, with its insightful (though disguised) portraits of Andre Breton, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. Loy states that there is something ‘fundamentally black-magicky about the surrealists.’
Loy moved to America in 1936, this time for good. She settled in the Bowery district of New York City which was soon to become the world’s art capital. Here she made collages out of the rubbish she collected around her home and be-friended the shy Surrealist artist of Utopia Parkway, Joseph Cornell.
The first part of the story can be found atTempting Fate: Part One. Thanks again to Dr. Meg Sorick for editorial support and advice. Please visit her at drmegsorick.com. Part Three will be available next Saturday May the 27th.
After a particularly busy lunch, and the Saturday evening rush ahead, Max decided to clear his head with a walk around the neighborhood. Throwing on his new grey jacket, he set out with no particular destination in mind. He strode purposefully through the crowds aimlessly gathered in small clusters around the shops and boutiques along the way. The contrast he presented relative to the people around him was exceedingly apparent. Clearly, he was a man on a mission, on a journey towards bluer skies and wider horizons. Unlike the semi-hypnotised masses around him, who were perpetually rushing toward destinations unknown with ever narrower boundaries.
Things were definitely looking up for Max. Tonight, the cash tills would brim as the increasingly in-demand tables turned over and over in the hot, new restaurant. The word, first spread by local newspapers, had been taken up by the national trade publications after several glowing reviews. If the restaurant continued on its current trajectory, they would have to start thinking seriously about expansion or perhaps even a second location.
Dreaming of the potential future that lay before him, Max failed to notice the ominous clouds gathering overhead until the skies opened and the rain poured down. Yet, the deluge only served to increase his euphoria. Smiling, Max turned up his collar and ran through the quickly emptying streets.
He was drenched by the time he arrived back at the Cafe. As he opened the door, his phone rang. By the time he had fished his mobile from his coat pocket, the caller had hung up.
‘That was me Max,’ Nina said, approaching him. ‘Catherine wanted to know how far away you were. They are waiting for you in the nook upstairs.’ Then, helping him out of his jacket she added, ‘My God, Max. You’re soaked through.’
‘I know. The storm came out of nowhere,’ he said. ‘Nina, who exactly, is waiting for me upstairs? I wasn’t aware of any appointments today. Why didn’t you warn me earlier?’
‘Sorry Max, Catherine said she reminded you earlier in the week. It’s some writer from Food and Drink magazine.’ She winced. ‘Oh god, I’ve already forgotten her first name. It’s something Blanca. She’s going to do a piece on the restaurant. Catherine is with her at the moment. You better hurry.’ Then changing her mind, she put a hand on his arm. ‘Wait! You can’t go up there like that, better if you dry out a bit. Your shoelace is undone as well.’
‘Don’t panic, Nina. It will be fine. I’ll freshen up in the bathroom,’ Max replied as he bent to fix his shoelace. As he pulled, the lace broke off in his left hand.
‘Damn,’ he cursed.
‘What’s wrong?’ Nina asked anxiously.
‘Oh nothing; just broke my lace. Not to worry,’ he said, reassuringly. Tucking the dangling lace inside the tongue of the shoe, he added, ‘There. Easily fixed. Now, go and tell Catherine that I’m here and that I will be up in five minutes. Ok? Oh and Nina….?’
‘Try and find out this writer’s name, will you? I don’t want to look like a complete idiot. Discretely, though.’
‘No problem, Max,’ she said, heading for the stairs.
In the bathroom, Max ran his fingers through his damp hair and adjusted his belt. On the way to the door, he gave himself a last glance and decided that he would pass.
Nina waited anxiously at the bottom of the stairs. ‘You took your time. Her name is Catarina. Catarina Blanca. You got that?’
‘Yes, yes, I’ve got it. Catarina Blanca. Unusual name. Is she Spanish or something?’
‘I don’t know. She definitely looks exotic but her English is impeccable –not even a hint of an accent.’
‘Alright,’ he sighed. ‘I better get up there, otherwise I’ll be hearing it from Catherine later. Thanks, Nina. Can I leave you in charge of tonight’s set up?’
‘Sure, no problem Max, I’ll take care of everything on the floor for now. You get upstairs and start charming this Blanca woman. And don’t worry, I’m sure the restaurant will get a fabulous review.’
‘Hopefully. No reason not to be confident, but you never know with critics. They’re a moody bunch, in my experience. She must be staying to eat. Do you mind taking her table yourself, tonight?’ Max asked, on his way upstairs.
‘Not at all. I’m all over it,’ Nina said.
Catherine was talking animatedly to the writer as Max approached the nook. Max waved and Catherine stood. ‘Max you’ve made it at last,’ she said, relieved. ‘I would like to introduce you to Catarina Blanca. She’s going to do a piece on the restaurant for the September edition of Food and Drink magazine. Isn’t that wonderful?’
As Catarina rose and faced Max, his words died on his lips. It was her —his Lady Luck from the casino in Vegas. She was dressed in black again, although instead of a cocktail dress, she wore an expertly tailored suit with a black blouse, the top two buttons open to reveal that familiar necklace —the one that so complimented her striking emerald eyes. She probably never left home without it. Yes, it had to be her. There couldn’t be another. One was more than enough. But what were the chances they’d cross paths for a second time?
‘Pleased to meet you, Catarina,’ Max said, pulling himself together and shaking her hand. ‘Hopefully, you will be suitably impressed with what we’re trying to do here and you can share that with your readers.’
‘Oh, I’m sure that I will, Max. I have friends who’ve eaten here, and they’ve done nothing but sing your praises. And after talking to Catherine, I’m just dying to sample the menu. Such innovative use of such humble ingredients.’
Max studied her face for any sign of recognition, but there was none. Granted, it had been over a year ago and they hadn’t actually met. Yet surely some memory of that evening’s excitement must have made at least a passing impression on her mind. However, apparently it had not.
Max struggled to concentrate on the shop talk between Catherine and Ms Blanca. How was it possible that this woman discussing their restaurant was the same woman largely responsible for its existence? What odds would a bookmaker give? He’d wager that it would be an astronomical computation, running in the millions. Yet here she was, talking with his wife about the sourcing of high-end product. When Nina came in he ordered an espresso, hoping to focus his attention on the task at hand. He’d just have to chalk it up to being one of those random anomalies that occur from time to time. It is a small world, after all.
‘If you’ll excuse me, Catarina, I have to get back to the kitchen, but I’m leaving you in my husband’s capable hands. He’ll answer any more questions you may have,’ Catherine said rising. Turning to Max, she added, ‘Just make sure, darling, that you don’t go showing Ms. Blanca the skeletons in all the closets.’
‘I’ll try not to, even though there are so many of them lying around,’ he replied, raising an eyebrow. ‘You see how she has no faith in me?’ he chuckled to Catarina. ‘Anyway, you better hurry into that kitchen and start cracking the whip, otherwise we’ll never be ready for the evening service.’
‘You’ll be staying for dinner, I trust?’ Catherine asked.
‘Of course. I’m looking forward to trying the John Dory. It sounds delicious,’ Catarina answered.
‘Well, I’ll see you later then. We can enjoy a nice bottle of wine together.’
‘We will indeed.’
After Catherine left, Max drained his espresso and looked over at Catarina. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t help but be attracted to her. Her beauty was unearthly. She, in turn, was looking back at him. Max waited for her to begin the interview, but she seemed in no hurry to start and just continued to stare at him. Finally, in an effort to break the increasingly unnerving silence, he asked her about her name.
Instead of answering straight away, she reached over the table and placed her left hand over his right hand and smiled sweetly. Bewildered by her gesture, Max made no efforts to disengage from her touch.
‘Well, Max, here we are at last,’ she said, still smiling. ‘You have to tell me something. How does a man like you manage to snare a lovely creature like Catherine? I just can’t make sense of it. How does something like that happen?’
‘Pardon?’ he replied, wondering if he had heard correctly. Surely not. Her fingers were tracing intricate geometric patterns on his palm. Under normal circumstances, receiving such attention from such a splendid specimen would have been one for the ego, but these were not normal circumstances. The whole situation was out of kilter.
‘Hmmm,’ she purred. ‘You heard correctly, Max. So tell me, I’m very curious. She loves you and yet here you sit, thinking of nothing else but how to get me into bed. Isn’t that true, Max? Wouldn’t be the first time though, would it Max? You spent hours in that casino back in Vegas thinking exactly the same thing, didn’t you Max?’
That confirms it, Max thought numbly. She was the woman from Vegas. But what was this? What the hell was going on? He tried to extricate his hand from hers but she grabbed his wrist and held on tightly.
‘You’re keeping quiet there, Max. What’s wrong? Has the cat got your tongue? Rather unusual for you isn’t? You’re not one to be at a loss for words, are you Max? But then again, you can’t downright deny what is obviously true. Not to me, anyway. And I wouldn’t try if I were you, Max. You see, I know what goes on inside that head of yours. I know you. Unlike poor Catherine. She sees only the handsome exterior, the charming façade. She doesn’t know what makes you tick, has no idea of what you’re willing to do if push comes to shove. But I do, Max; I know exactly how low you’re prepared to stoop. Tell me, how do you think Catherine would feel? I know what you’re thinking; this isn’t going at all liked you’d hoped and you’re dying to tell me to get the hell out of here. However, if you do that, I might decide to speak to Catherine and tell her all about that night in the Heaven Hotel and what you considered doing. Now, she would undoubtedly tell me to go away and disappear, but I would have planted a seed of doubt in her mind and she’d begin watching you closely, so much more closely than before —a little too close for your comfort, in fact— for confirmation that you are not the man you have always appeared to be but the man she secretly feared you were, all along. I really don’t think you want that, do you now, Max?’
She relaxed her grip a little and Max managed to free his hand. He glared hard at her, trying to reconcile the contrast between her angelic features and her vicious words. What the hell had just happened? How dare she brazenly insinuate, insult and threaten him to his face in his very own restaurant? Obviously, all this was a prelude to some sort of sordid shake-down attempt; but she had a strange manner of going about it. What exactly was she driving at? It was apparent that she’d done some research and that she believed that she’d dug up some dirt. She evidently knew things about him. That alone was reason enough for treading very carefully, but when he factored in the guilt he felt over his initial attraction to Catarina —or whatever her real name was— Max concluded it would be best to avoid any kind of scene.
‘Excuse me, Ms. Blanca, but I’m not quite sure I’m following you. I was under the impression that you were a restaurant reviewer with Food and Drink magazine and that you were here to do a piece on the Noir Et Rouge. Yet, it appears from your conversation, that you have no such intention and therefore, you are here under false pretenses. So then, I’m at a loss as to what you are really after.’
He shrugged. ‘So you happened to see me win at roulette one night in Vegas, over a year ago. What of it? It isn’t any kind of secret. Catherine knows about it. She was with me in Vegas at the time. Just because you were sitting across the table from me, doesn’t mean that you can presume to know me. You know nothing at all about me.’
‘Oh, Max.’ Catarina leaned back into the banquette and let a long weary sigh before continuing. ‘If you think I don’t know you, you’re wrong. Very, very wrong. First of all, I know your type. And let’s be honest, you are a rather stereotypical representative. But secondly, and more specifically, I know you, Max Edward Chasm. Everything about you. From the major facts, down to the dirtiest little details, as well.’ She paused, studying his face. ‘I can see you need some convincing. Where would you like me to start? From the beginning? That would be best, don’t you think?’ She fingered the necklace while she waited for an answer.
‘Sure why not? Though I doubt you’re going to tell me anything I don’t already know,’ Max replied, trying to inject a note of nonchalance into his wavering voice. Obviously, she had gone to great efforts, but for what purpose? The situation seemed to be spiralling out of control.
‘Ok, Max the beginning it shall be… though it can’t be said that you had a particularly auspicious start in the world.’ She sat forward again and began.
‘After an unusually difficult and painful pregnancy, which she never really recovered from, your mother, Julie Chasm née Bateson, gave birth to you at 3:13 am, January 23rd, a Wednesday morning. You were born on a cold, rainy, winter’s night and it could be said, in a certain sense, that your mother was never to leave that place where it was always winter, always night and always raining. She was to keep on reliving the horror of that moment for the rest of her days.
Given such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that you remember little of your mother and what you do remember is so distressing, that you automatically repress it. After all, who would want to remember the visits to the clinic of the moment, the wordless Sunday afternoons spent fidgeting in a chair opposite the pale stranger who failed to acknowledge your existence? Nobody really…
At least your father was well disposed towards you, after a fashion. However, you had a great many rivals for his affection, didn’t you? Daddy’s many girlfriends made for more suitable companions, so you spent a good deal of your childhood at the home of your maternal grandmother, Edith Bateson. Now Grannie Edith, it must be said, admirably stepped up and assumed responsibility for your upbringing. Good job really, as nobody else was prepared to accept it.
A fine, upstanding woman —your grandmother. She does have one minor vice, though. Perhaps vice is too strong of a word, really more of a foible. It’s really a question of degree, don’t you think? One man’s casual time-killer is another man’s overriding obsession. Anyway, your grandmother liked to have a little flutter now and then on the gees-gees. Nothing much, a fiver here and a fiver there. No harm done, just enough to make things a little more interesting.
Nothing wrong in that, but it did mean that you spent a good many afternoons in front of the TV watching horses run in a circle around a track. Every race held you mesmerized. You readily picked up the rudiments of form and odds and you passed your intuitive understanding onto your grandmother who often followed your tips. Still, only a fiver though, for her gambling would never be more than an amusing diversion. If she won, you would get a little extra pocket-money or a special treat, like ice cream or a toy that you coveted. Every gift received served to focus your attention on studying the guides, discerning the tricks and playing the angles. Even in school —when you bothered to show up— your mind was never on the blackboard. Instead, you were thinking of combinations and permutations, calculating the possibilities of the big win.
She paused and sat back again. ’My, I must say, Max, you’ve gone rather pale. Look at yourself, you’re shaking. You obviously need a drink. So do I. All that talking is thirsty work. Where has that waitress gone? Nina, isn’t it?’ She stood. ‘Probably easier if I went downstairs and got it myself. A bottle of red would suit, don’t you think?’
“Red is fine,’ Max answered in a dull voice.
Catarina slipped from the room and went down the stairs.
Usually, he would have derived great pleasure watching the retreating backside of a woman as beautiful as Catarina, but instead, he carried on staring at the space she had vacated. He wished with every nerve in his body that she would pass the bar downstairs, continue though the door onto the street and carry on walking until she was far, far away.
Max knew, however, that was a vain, idle hope. Whoever this woman really was, she was here for a reason. She had a purpose in mind and that purpose involved him. As to why he should be targeted in such a manner, he couldn’t begin to fathom. But she was targeting him, no doubt about that. She knew all about him. She knew things about him that he’d never told to anyone else, not even Catherine. She knew every, last, dirty, little secret. All of them. How was that possible? How did she know about Gran, his father and, and… His stomach knotted. Oh god, no, not that…
She even knew about all the stuff he’d buried. All those memories that he’d chosen to forget, because they were just too painful to recollect, even in passing. Max, Max, poor little orphan boy, lost and alone in the cold, cruel world. No, he hadn’t been an orphan in any legal or technical sense, not until he was seventeen, anyway, after his father had gone and done what he did. Nevertheless, that cunning bitch had clearly been insinuating as much, and he might as well have been, with parents like his.
She had stirred up those long-suppressed memories from his childhood. Dredged from the depths of his mind, they floated to the surface like pond scum…
He’s on the long bus trip with Gran. She’s brought a paper packet filled to the brim with pick-and-mix sweets. There’s a dense fog. They’re going to visit mother in her new place. It’s way out in the sticks. He spends the trip silently sucking on boiled sweets. They get off the bus and stand on the empty village street for a long time. He’s cold. He complains about it. Gran tells him that they won’t have to wait much longer, mum will be here soon to take us into her nice, warm house and make us a lovely, hot cup of tea, or maybe hot chocolate, if you prefer and she’ll also have some bourbons, biscuits, or even a piece of cake. ‘Now isn’t that something to look forward to?’ she asks, ‘and besides, I’m sure you’re looking forward to seeing your mum again, aren’t you?’ Max nods his head in agreement and says, ‘Very much so.’ But he wishes she would hurry up and come, as it’s so cold out here. He feels guilty because he told a lie. He doesn’t really want to see his mother, although he knows that he should want to. She is his mother after all, but Max feels scared whenever he is with her. He wants to be back home with Gran, sitting next to the fire, drinking hot chocolate, eating biscuits and watching the horses like they usually did, instead of standing around on this eerie street in the middle of nowhere. Gran answers that she’s sure she’ll be here soon, something must be holding her up.
After waiting for what seems to be an eternity, Gran silently takes his hand and walks down the road until she sees a red, public phone box. She tells him to wait outside, but not to go anywhere, just stand right there where she can see him, and enters. He watches Gran fumbling in her purse. He knows, from the way her lips are drawn together in a thin line, that she is angry. He hopes that she is not angry with him. She picks up the receiver and puts some coins in the slot. Max stands stock still so that Gran can see where he is. After a long while, during which Max can see her talking and again, fumbling around, Gran pulls out a pencil and paper. After writing on the scrap of paper, she slams the phone down. She grabs his hand again and pulls him along, as she marches through the town into the open countryside. He doesn’t say anything. He knew all along that mum was going to let them down. She always had done, why should today be any different?
He is tired and frozen to the bone by the time they reach the small one story cottage where his mother has just moved to. Gran has to use the lion’s head knocker several times before the door finally opens. His mother, still in a dressing gown, lets them in. In the hallway, she grabs hold of Max and hugs him too tightly for too long. The house is chilly and damp. There is no hot chocolate or even tea. He sits in front of the television and drinks weak cordial that barely disguises the taste of rusty tap water. He turns up the volume on the racing to drown out the sound of arguing. Later on, he knows Gran will let him stay up late as a special treat, to make up for having to visit his mother…
Catarina returned with an uncorked bottle of Malbec and two red glasses. She had been right; he really did need a drink.
‘That waitress of yours loves to chat, doesn’t she?’ she said, as she poured two glasses and returned to the seat opposite him.
‘Yes, Nina is very vivacious. Guests love that though,’ Max answered guardedly.
‘Of course,’ she agreed. ‘And she is such a pretty little thing, you can’t help but love her.’
Max sipped the wine. He had to restrain himself from draining the glass. What game was she playing?
‘Who are you?’ he demanded, draining his glass and pouring himself another.
‘Have you already forgotten Max? Thought I made more of an impression than that,’ she said, feigning hurt. ‘I’m Catarina Blanca, restaurant critic with Food & Drink magazine. But you can call me Cat if you like.’
She was the picture of innocence. A guileless expression played upon her flawless features. Max knew he’d been had. Enough already, it was time to get to the bottom of all this.
‘Don’t give me that. I’m not stupid, you know,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t want to hear anymore of that shite about a review. We’re way past that point, don’t you think? No, what I want to know is: who the fuck are you, really, and what do you want from me? Why the hell are you here in my restaurant and how come you know so much about my past, Cat? I can see you’ve done your homework on me. You’ve snooped around and you think you’ve got something on me. So do me a favour, please, and come straight out with it, this time. Ok, Cat?’ He spat her name out like a curse.
She didn’t respond, she merely smiled. Normally, Max would have interpreted such a warm, friendly smile as expressing a degree of empathy. But under the circumstances, he wasn’t buying it for a heartbeat.
‘You know what you need right now, don’t you Max? A cigarette. I know I’m dying for one. Let me get mine,’ she said, searching in her black handbag. ‘Ah, here we are,’ she exclaimed triumphantly as she produced the pack with a flourish. She took off the clear wrapper, edged out two cigarettes and leaning her elbows against the table offered one to Max.
‘Thanks, but I’ve given up. Besides, you know you can’t smoke in a restaurant these days. It’s against the law.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want one?’ she repeated, shaking the pack slightly. ‘No? Suit yourself, I suppose, but you really look like you need one, to take the edge off. I don’t know about you, but I can never understand why people worry so much about their long-term health prospects, when they have no idea what’s coming around the very next corner. Mind you, maybe that’s just me.’
Now what was that supposed to mean? Surely there was no other way of interpreting a statement like that other than as a thinly veiled threat. ‘Thanks again, but no thanks. And if you insist on smoking, then you’ll have to go outside.’
‘Come on now, Max,’ she said, pursing her lips in a pout. ‘Are you really going to make me go outside? I do believe it’s still raining. Besides, I don’t see anyone around to complain, do you? Really, I’m surprised, but then they always say that the ones who give up are the worst. Why do you think that is, Max? Is it because they can’t stand to see other people enjoy what they can no longer enjoy themselves? Rather petty, don’t you think? Are you like that about certain other vices in which you no longer indulge? What do you feel in your heart when you pass a bookie’s or a casino? Is it rage? Or maybe envy? Disgust? Desire? Maybe a mixture of all those conflicting emotions that you’ve had to fight long and hard to overcome and master? But tell me this Max, is denying yourself like that really worth it? Deep down, I know you doubt the wisdom of such virtue. Because at the end of the day, it really isn’t you, is it? Go on now, Max, take the cigarette, you know you want to. The shame that you will force yourself to feel is nothing compared to the pleasure that you will experience. Go on and take one,’ she said, waving the pack in front of him.
She was right. There hadn’t been a day yet that hadn’t involved desperate cravings at some juncture. Since returning from Vegas, he had been determined to resist all temptations on the logic that if you surrender to one, then you’re more likely to succumb to others. But he badly needed a cigarette right now. He needed to think. And despite all the bad things you could say about tobacco, it certainly helped him concentrate.
‘Thanks, have you got a lighter then?’ he said, pulling a cigarette out of the pack and raising it to his lips.
‘Sure,’ she said, passing Max the elegant gold lighter after lighting her own cigarette.
He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply. God, that was good, even better than he remembered. He’d almost forgotten that delicious, light-headed sensation. A dizzying bliss. He offered Catarina her lighter back, but she told him to keep it, just in case he needed it in the future.
They smoked in silence for a couple of minutes, using the saucer as an ashtray, as there were none in the restaurant. Max looked warily through the drifting smoke clouds at Catarina. She hadn’t answered any of his questions —she had deflected them with this whole cigarette charade. Yet with each drag, the possibility of posing questions to this creature sitting opposite him, seemed evermore unlikely. In fact, with every sharp intake of nicotine, Max felt increasingly detached from this whole unreal situation. And tired as well. Very, very, tired all of a sudden. Even stubbing out the cigarette in the saucer required an effort that took an inordinate amount of time. She had started talking again, but he paid no attention. His arm had fallen off the table and lay like a leaden weight in his lap. His whole body had become heavy and dense; the slightest movement was suddenly out of the question. All Max could do was swallow the iron-tasting saliva that flooded his mouth and close his sand-filled eyes.
The world could just go and fuck off, as far as Max was concerned. Obviously, I’m exhausted, he thought, as the sound of Catarina’s voice and the distant hum of the restaurant equipment receded into an echo-y reverb. A power nap would be just the ticket. He would awake refreshed and re-invigorated, ready for anything. Max was drifting further off when an unpleasant thought struck him. Something was wrong, everything was wrong. It wasn’t his way to nod off in the middle of the afternoon like this. He hadn’t been exhausted before this sinister little tête-à-tête. Even during the interview. The two glasses of wine that he’d drunk might have made Max a little sleepy-eyed, but certainly not this overwhelming stupor and general paralysis, this near catatonic state.
Of course… the wine…She’d slipped him a Mickey Finn or maybe spiked that cigarette she’d been so insistent he smoke. She’d given him something —some poison to contaminate his body and fuck with his head.
Max knew he had to fight against whatever substance was coursing though his blood stream. He tried opening his eyes but they were glued shut like the time he’d come down with conjunctivitis. He tried clasping his hands into fists but they remained inert. He couldn’t even move them a fraction of a millimetre.
After an indefinite period of time, Max become aware of the quiet. Even the echoes of Catarina’s voice had faded. There wasn’t a hint of sound. Instead, there was an absolute silence, the likes of which is not found anywhere in this world, in this life.
Was this what death was like? The brain continuing to function, yet in a void, divorced from the body and deprived of all necessary sensations? An after-life of absolute negation? And if so, did that mean he was already dead? Had the poison she’d given him killed him? Was this it…?
But then, sounds, distant at first, but gradually becoming louder, began to filter through to Max. Not the sounds of the Noir Et Rouge, yet sounds that were still distinctly and instantly recognizable to Max. Before he’d managed to get his eyes unstuck and opened, he knew by the incessant chiming of hungry slot machines, demanding to be fed, and the hubbub of the multitude of excited voices punctuated by the louder, dispassionate tones of number callers and croupiers, that he was in a casino.
A dramatic subversion of a convention even before it had become a commonplace. The Papin sisters were responsible for one of the most sensational murder cases in 1930’s France. After seven years exemplary service as domestics in the Lancelin household they killed and mutilated Madame Lancelin and her daughter when a blown fuse threw the house into darkness. The sisters promptly confessed, however it was revealed during the brief trial that they were locked in an incestous lesbian relationship.
This wasn’t the first time nor would it be the last that the Surrealists venerated criminals. Earlier in the first issue of La Revolution Surrealiste they had placed mugshots of themselves around a photograph of Germaine Berton, an anarchist who had assassinated the leader of a far right party organization. Later they would advocate for Violette Noziere who poisoned both of her parents and whose subsequent spectacularly deranged testimony gripped the nation.
Being born out of anarchic Dada, the Surrealists delighted in provoking shock and outrage. The targets were the traditional representatives of bourgeois society; the law, the army and politicians. However they reserved their greatest contempt for the Church and never missed an opportunity in attempting to scandalize an institution that would frequently rise to the bait.
Is the above photograph an example of a chance encounter, an event so beloved by the Surrealists, that Peret found too tempting to pass up; or is rather a more calculated, stage-managed affair? Either way it remains a provocation.
There inevitably comes a point in every gambler’s career when he is compelled to call upon the aid of unseen powers. Because they instinctively follow the smart money, which these days is laid heavily against God, a gambler need only make dubious entreaties to these shadowy entities. But then a true gambler will do anything to win, consequences be damned.
So it was with Max Chasm, who in the early hours of June 23rd of an ill-starred year, was seated at the roulette table in the casino on the 33rd floor of The Very Heaven Heavenly Hotel by Hilton-Tetragrammaton™ in Paradise, Nevada. At 1 am, when his young wife Catherine —always a Cinderella— had left him for their suite and their bed, he found himself ahead and on a streak which he was determined to pursue.
As the hours passed, the tide had slowly but perceptibly turned against him. Where once there had been mountains of chips, there was now a vast plateau of green baize dotted with scattered, eroding hills. How on earth could he explain to Catherine, in the unforgiving morning light, that he had lost all that money in such a short period of time? And once he started, he would have to reveal the true state of affairs, something which he was loath to contemplate. Max had refused to acknowledge, even in passing, the utter, absolute mess he had created.
Of late, his gambling had become all-consuming, he had lost his job two weeks ago and still hadn’t dropped that bomb on Catherine, and the debts…. oh yes, the debts for which he had borrowed £15,000 from his Grannie. And bless her, the dear soul thought it was a bridging loan to help him start-up a restaurant. Of course, once he had the wad in his hot hands, the idea of turning it over to Harry Diamond and all the rest of the piranhas seemed a lot less attractive than going to Vegas and winning a pile. Besides, it would be a nice treat for Catherine —it hadn’t been easy for her lately and she deserved a little spoiling.
“What was I thinking?” Max reproached himself. All his callow dreams were rapidly evaporating and soon he would be forced to confront the unavoidable reality. If Harry didn’t get his money upon Max’s return then Harry would not be best pleased…and you always wanted to stay on the right side of Harry. His experiences growing up a Jew in Belfast during the Troubles, had taught Harry the importance of making examples. This knowledge had served him well in his various careers as landlord, nightclub owner, bookmaker, debt collector and other assorted enterprises that you couldn’t put down on paper. Max knew that Harry would never abandon the tried and true methods that served him so well. Mr Diamond was the perfect embodiment of his name: flashy and very, very hard.
As he watched the croupier rack up yet more of his money, Max toyed with the idea of never returning to England. That would be, at best, a temporary solution inevitably leading to more problems, since Harry had his tentacles everywhere and undoubtedly had enough information about him —like the names and addresses of his friends and family— to make life even more difficult and dangerous than it already was.
It would also mean having to persuade Cathy to stay out here, which actually wasn’t that far outside the realm of possibility, since he’d already convinced her to marry him against her beloved father’s strong objections. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be an easily won argument. For a start, what would they do for money? For a moment he considered that if worst came to worst, he could put her on the game. Cathy would definitely make a killing looking the way she did. Now that was a thought, if it came to the last resort.
Max decided to sit the next few turns out to give himself time to think. He had to hit upon a strategy to come back from underneath. He ordered a gin and tonic from the kimono-clad cocktail waitress and resolved that he wouldn’t bet again until she returned.
All the while, as Max waited nervously, he fingered the lucky dice in his jacket pocket as he ran through a half-crazed litany of desperation and desire addressed to vaguely remembered deities.
“O Fortuna,” he muttered, “do not desert your loyal servant in the hour of his greatest need. Eris, give me one last chance to make my life right, and I’ll give you anything you want in return. Lady Luck, please look down upon me with your blessed smile. And Kali, use your immutable power to change my destiny, I beg of you.”
He vowed everlasting allegiance to Chymerica and the Secret Illuminati Sisters for a taste, just a whiff of success. Hell, he was prepared to strike a bargain with the Devil Himself, if that’s what it would take.
When the waitress appeared with his drink, he tipped her with a precious chip from his diminished pile. Lighting up yet another cigarette and sipping slowly on the syrupy gin and tonic, he looked across the roulette table and studied the assortment of late night revellers, searching for some sort of omen.
“My God, what a crew,” thought Max. Shrill-voiced working girls draped themselves over the bloated bodies of middle-aged businessmen and egged them on to ever greater excesses with their childish shrieks and giggles. And that was just the winners. More numerous by far, were the sullen-faced losers —chancers with their all-nighter flesh tones illuminated by the sickly, unchanging, artificial light, who wouldn’t have been out-of-place in some nightmarish canvas by Grosz or Bacon or even Bosch.
Who was he to judge, though? Deep down, he knew this was where he belonged; these were his kind of people. Max briefly returned to staring into the depths of the glass before downing the rest of the viscous liquid. As he set about looking for the waitress again, he noticed that a newcomer had taken a seat at the table directly opposite him. Max blinked and looked again. Max wondered how it was possible to look so fresh at this ungodly hour, as he watched the serene figure accept chips from the croupier. No one else at the table, absorbed as they were in play, paid her the slightest bit of attention. Max, however, was entranced.
She was slender and even seated, Max could tell that she was very tall, possibly as tall or even taller than he was, measuring in at a good 6’1. Her shoulder-length, raven-black hair was the same colour as her satiny dress —a striking contrast with the lustrous porcelain of her skin. Most mesmerizing of all though, were her green, shining cat’s eyes, which matched the emerald necklace around her exquisite neck. Max guessed that she was around his own age, 35 or so, but really it was impossible to tell —she was simultaneously youthful and mature.
Max managed to attract the waitress’s attention and he ordered two gin and tonics. He needed to fortify himself for the following few moments. Because this was definitely it. His life could go one of two ways and he had to be prepared for whatever fate threw at him.
The waitress brought over the drinks. Max glanced over the top of his glass at the woman again. Never before had he seen the like. She was an angel in human form: a perfect ten. For Max, that was as good a sign as any. So, after a quick calculation of his remaining chips which amounted to a little over a thousand dollars, he thought, “fuck it,” and placed the whole lot on black ten.
As the croupier placed the ball in the wheel and told the punters that no more bets were allowed, Max raised his glass and silently toasted the newcomer, hoping she was the harbinger of some much needed luck. Then, of course, he watched the wheel.
This was definitely it now —his last chance. It was now or never, do or die. With this crazy bet, it really had come to that. As the ball did its usual mad dance, he asked himself why? Why had he just risked it all with odds of exactly 37 to 1, stacked in the house’s favour?
He could barely watch, yet there was no question of turning away or closing his eyes. No way. The ball continued to bounce. Max just wanted it to land so it would be over and he could start reconciling himself to his drastically straitened circumstances. One more bounce and then it settled.
“That’s it then, I’m finished,” Max thought, not registering the fact that the ball had landed in the slot numbered ten. Ten? Ten. Yes, it was definitely ten!
“Yessssssssss, thank you, thank you Sweet Lord above or whoever controls such matters!” Max prayed, as the knowledge sank in and became a reality. It was nothing less than a miracle. He’d been saved at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute.
As the croupier pushed over pile after pile of chips, Max calculated that he over $40,000 dollars and with the current rate of exchange, it worked out to between 24,000 and 25,000 pounds. With that money, he could pay off Harry Diamond and the other loan sharks, and still have some change left over. Of course, it wouldn’t be enough to pay off Gran, which was a shame, but she was hardly likely to take a baseball bat to his kneecaps or a meat cleaver to his little finger.
All things considered, this was a result and he decided to cash the chips in right then and there. But when he looked over at the blessed newcomer who had been the inspiration for his life changing win and saw a faintly ironic smile play on her deep red lips, it occurred to him that he should stay a little longer to see how everything played out. After all, why not? Why leave when the luck was starting to go his way? Who knows where it could all end? Yes, why not indeed?
Max went for the maximum of ten grand on red. That would still leave him with enough to clear his major debts. Twenty three red came up. Another result. He glanced again at the woman. She reached out with her immaculate hand, manicured nails painted the same shade of red as her lipstick, to grasp her drink. Max took his winnings and left his original bet to ride.
The ball landed in lucky number nine. Red again. “How long could this streak last?” Max thought, anxiously. With a deep breath, he decided that as long as she was there he would just roll with it. He was surprised she hadn’t noticed him staring at her. Then again, she probably had and wasn’t letting on. Elegant ladies always played it cool. When she ran her fingers though her glossy hair, he switched his bet to black. Black thirteen.
Surely morning had broken by now, but Max didn’t care as his run showed no sign of ending. Before every turn, he would watch the raven-haired angel, taking her every movement as an augury that infallibly came true.
Max’s success was generating excitement at the table as the other players, including the enigmatic stranger, who was the source of this good fortune, followed his bets. After the string of chances on red and black paid off, Max changed tack and started playing the odds and evens, taking his cues from the positioning of her hands on the baize.
As she began dreamily stroking the emerald necklace circling her throat —a throat worthy of a Mannerist masterpiece— Max didn’t hesitate and put ten thousand on zero. And after everything that had gone before, he wasn’t the least surprised when the ball nestled cosily in the green slot.
Max realised that if he carried on at this rate, it was entirely possible that he could break the bank. With his 24th consecutive win, he had amassed over $600,000 and his fellow gamblers were raking it in, too. Heady with this prospect, Max ordered half a dozen bottles of champagne for the table from the chatty, flirtatious waitress just starting her shift.
While his attention was diverted, Max failed to notice that his charm had collected her winnings and had left the table, disappearing into the recesses leading to the massed banks of slot machines. He would have liked to thank her and maybe gotten to know her better —a lot better, actually— but it was already too late. She was lost to the casino and by the time he cashed in, he knew she could be anywhere.
He gave a tip of a thousand dollars to the croupier, ignored the pleas of his fellow gamblers (for once, he was going to quit while still ahead) and headed for the elevator to take him up to his suite. He was going to wake Catherine. She would be furious that he had stayed out all night long, but at least he felt sure he could sweeten her mood.
That night marked the start of a new beginning for Max and Catherine. With the money Max had won, he paid off the loan sharks and cleared all his other debts. With that unpleasant task behind him, he vowed never gamble again and to do something worthwhile with his life. Most importantly of all though, he vowed to start treating Catherine right.
Max lived up to his promises admirably. They put a large deposit down on an inter-bellum, three-story, semi-detached in an up-and-coming borough. Then, after a few months of drawing up a business plan and searching for the ideal location, they opened a restaurant which Max, in an homage and a farewell gesture to the game that had made their dream a reality, named Noir Et Rouge.
With Max working the front of the house and Catherine crafting her unique creations in the kitchen, the restaurant was such a success that Max gave no thought to having an occasional flutter or buying a lottery ticket on a Saturday night.
As the present was just so and the future looked exceedingly bright, Max chose not to dwell on the past. Whenever a stray memory from his gambling days did surface, he instantly suppressed it. He was no longer that person — the degenerate gambler, staring ruination in the face, yet still only thinking of the next bet. What possible connection could exist between that man and the successful businessman with a beautiful, talented and loving wife?
This is the revised, edited and improved version of a story/start of a novel that I have previously posted. Dr Meg Sorick (https://drmegsorick.com/)has once again kindly taken the time to review the material and has waved her magician’s wand and pulled a rabbit of the hat. Please visit her site. The next instalment will be next Saturday May 20th.