(Paris, with side trips to Bordeaux and London. Four months.)
Following my previous Paris trip (fall 1973) I and my Bay Area situ friends continued our writings and related activities. As our collaborations became increasingly extensive, we began to refer to ourselves informally as “the Notice group” (alluding to a poster-manifesto that we had jointly posted). I also carried on extensive correspondence and collaborations with Daniel Denevert and the other members of the CRQS (Centre de Recherche sur la Question Sociale/Center for Research on the Social Question) in France, including translations of some of each other’s texts:
In early February 1976 I made my third trip to Paris. This time I stayed almost the whole time with Daniel and Françoise Denevert in their apartment on Villa Ornano in the 18th Arrondissement. Like many of my Paris friends’ places, it was on the top floor (the 6th as I recall) and was quite cheap (about $125 a month), but it was slightly more spacious than Roger and Linda’s, so I had a small bedroom of my own instead of sleeping on a couch. During the first four or five days after my arrival, Jean Pérès was also visiting the Deneverts (up from his home in Bordeaux).
I generally got along very well with Daniel and Françoise. Since (like most French people) they were much better cooks, they agreed with my proposal that they would continue to do virtually all the cooking and I would do all the dishes. Françoise was a grade-school teacher, so she was at work during the early part of most weekdays. Daniel did occasional carpentry jobs, but for the most part he was collecting some sort of long-term unemployment benefit that paid almost as much as if he had been working.
We always talked in French, which by this time I was able to get along in pretty well, though my accent was not great. (They were able to read English fairly well, but they had little experience in speaking it.) Besides discussing all sorts of political issues and brainstorming about a variety of possible projects, we worked on translations of each other’s writings, with the idea (which didn’t pan out) of publishing joint anthologies of our writings in France and the US. They also turned me on to the great French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens. His magnificent eleventh album had recently come out, and we listened to it repeatedly as they explained the nuances and allusions in the lyrics. (Many years later I wrote this short introduction to Brassens and other French singers.)
They had a tiny TV set which we rarely watched, but one evening while I was in the kitchen washing the dishes Françoise said, “Ken, viens vite!” (“Come here quick!”) I dashed to the other room and saw that a television book-review program was discussing Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s book True Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy, which had just come out in Italy and simultaneously been translated into French by Debord. The French talking heads (generally far more sophisticated than those in America) were discussing, with great amusement, the magnificent coup that Sanguinetti had pulled off. (The book was originally published anonymously, giving the impression that the author was an unusually lucid conservative thinker, and almost all the Italian politicians and pundits had fallen for the hoax.)
We went out to see Debord’s film The Society of the Spectacle (1973) along with the just-released sequel, Refutation of All the Judgments, Pro and Con, of the Film “The Society of the Spectacle” (1975). At other times we saw three or four ordinary films, including Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the reggae film The Harder They Come, and I went fishing a couple of times with Daniel and his brother, but apart from that we didn’t go out much together.
A few months before I arrived in Paris there had been a break between the Deneverts and the two other CRQS members, Joël Cornuault and Nadine Bloch, and the two couples were no longer seeing each other. I saw Joël once or twice, but I saw Nadine quite often — we had a romantic relation during my entire stay in Paris. Neither she nor the Deneverts expressed any objection to my seeing the other(s), but this estrangement between my closest Parisian friends was nevertheless rather awkward and tended to dampen things a bit.
Joël was a school teacher and Nadine worked at the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research). Although they had been partners for several years, they had an open relationship and each had their own apartment — both in the 18th Arrondissement, not far from the Deneverts’.
(I should perhaps note that there was a fair amount of sleeping around in the situ scene, just as there has often been in other radical or bohemian milieus, but there was also a lot of not sleeping around. There were a few times when I slept with someone almost on the spur of the moment, but many other times when I slept alone for long periods, whether I was in Paris or Berkeley.)
When I was with Nadine, we often played chess (she usually beat me) or went swimming at a public pool in the neighborhood, as well as seeing a number of classic films at the Cinémathèque Française. But as always, I also spent a lot of my Paris time just wandering around the city on my own. Most of the time I walked, but the Métro (the Paris subway system) is excellent (much better than most American mass transit systems), so I used it whenever I was going a long distance. Here’s my Métro/bus pass from that trip:
During my stay I made two out-of-town trips — to Bordeaux and to London. I stayed in Bordeaux for about a week, visiting Jean Pérès and meeting some of his friends there. I don’t remember much about the trip now, except for a general impression that Bordeaux was much quieter and less frenetic than Paris, despite being a large city. Being located beside a large ocean bay seemed to cool things off, literally as well as figuratively.
Nick Brandt (London) and I had been in contact for some time — he had expressed enthusiastic interest in my writings and had reprinted several of them — and he came over to Paris for a few days and joined me at the Deneverts’. He didn’t know much French, so this was the only time I heard Daniel and Françoise talk in English. I also showed Nick around Paris a bit, including, of course, taking him to see the two Debord films.
Nick and I got along reasonably well, and he invited me over to London. I went there for two weeks, staying with him and his wife Bernie and meeting a few of his friends.
Roaming around London was interesting, but despite the fact that it was an English-speaking country, I actually felt more at home in France. I was more used to it and preferred it in many regards. Certainly regarding the food! I remember one time when I had been visiting the British Museum, I came out and was pretty hungry, so I bought a hamburgerlike thing from a street vendor. I took one bite and instantly tossed it into a trash can. It still astonishes me to think that someone could make his living selling such garbage, not in skid row but right out in front of the prestigious British Museum. Needless to say, all English food is not like that, but still — if somebody tried to sell that kind of thing in France they’d probably be beaten up by their outraged customers!
When I was back in Paris, I saw Roger Grégoire and Gérard Lambert once each, but I felt less affinity with them than in the past. Meanwhile, through the Deneverts I met a number of other people in the situ milieu — Jean Pérès, Paulette Cudek, Jean-François Lahaeye, Daniel and Christiane Daligand, Guy Bernelas and his girlfriend Guylaine, Daniel’s sister Karine and her Vietnamese boyfriend René, and a few others whose names I don’t remember.
I’d already met Paulette briefly during my previous trip, and this time I ended up staying at her apartment for a few days when she was out of town. Once or twice a month the Deneverts and I had dinner with the Daligands, either at their place or ours. (Among other things, Daniel Daligand published a situish newsletter called Les Fils de Mister Hyde.)
Relations with some of the others were more volatile. Toward the end of my stay the Deneverts broke with Jean Pérès, and then with Guy and Guylaine, and their estrangement from Joël and Nadine became increasingly hostile. I no longer have any interest in dredging up the details of these antagonisms (most of which I don’t think are now taken seriously by any of those involved), but at the time they made the latter portion of my visit more constrained and less comfortable than it otherwise would have been, particularly my relationship with Nadine. At times there might seem to be a rapprochement in the making between her and the Deneverts, but then it would be broken off because of some seemingly trivial matter. Though I could by now understand French pretty well, some of the nuances were still over my head — one side might explain to me, say, that such and such a phrase in a letter implied a snide irony, only to have the other deny this, leaving me in a confused and sometimes delicate situation in relation to both sides.
On that uneasy note I returned to Berkeley on June 8.
Account of Ken Knabb’s 1976 Paris trip.