Today’s homework is to compare and contrast this RATP Paris Metro announcement and Magritte’s famous painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. The text of the Metro announcement reads, in English: “The information on this screen is temporarily unavailable. Our agents are working to restore it as soon as possible.”
Fluide Glacial, the French monthly humour magazine (BD), is 40 years old this year. When I first came to Touraine in 1976, an impoverished young unemployed couple living in an old barn invited me to see their collection of cartoon books, and the first hilarious issues of Fluide Glacial had pride of place. I immediately became a regular subscriber, and learned most of my street French from this wonderful source, with its strip cartoons about the oafish Bidochon family, the grouchy Carmen Cru (a wizened old hag living in provincial France), or the gross Catholic nun, Soeur Marie-Thérèse de Batignolles with her inflatable Christ-on-the-Cross, and great artists like Edika.
The magazine began as an offshoot of Pilote, and was allegedly inspired by the American Mad magazine (which had great graphics, but was never outrageously funny, to Europeans at least), and stands alongside l’Echo des Savanes and the defunct Hara Kiri as part of that great 1970s’ wave of irreverence through a medium in which the French have always excelled. Today it’s just as droll, ribald, hare-brained and cheeky as ever, with a great stable of artists and writers.
When my sister Clare came to Paris many years ago, I took her to a street market and she stared at the huge variety of fruit, vegetables, cheese and seafood and said “Why don’t we have this at home?!” I always felt the same about Fluide Glacial. When Viz popped up, it was a close runner, but too puerile and relentlessly scatological. There is simply no British equivalent of Fluide Glacial. It’s surreal, quirky, silly, witty – a hoot. The more people tease me for liking it, the more I think I will… So there.
Happy birthday, Fluide Glacial!
From Zelig to Tom Ripley or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the chameleon-like ability of con-men and imposters to pass themselves off for someone other than who they are has a lasting fascination in film and fiction, not least because it throws into relief the specious basis on which our social and human judgements are made.
Real life has generously provided us with a motley crew of career imposters, perhaps the most intriguing recent example of which is the Frenchman Christophe Rocancourt (born 1967) who, in France and the USA, has masqueraded as a movie producer, a former boxing champion, a venture capitalist, the son of Sophia Loren, fooling along the way Mickey Rourke and French filmmaker Catherine Breillat.
One of the most stupefying tales of imposture is told in the documentary The Imposter (2011), narrated largely by the imposter himself, another Frenchman – Frédéric Bourdin. In a nutshell, Bourdin had a long history of impersonating lost youngsters – real or imaginary – when, from Spain, he phoned a lost children centre in the USA to find an American identity he could adopt. That identity was Nicholas Barclay, an American boy of 13 who had disappeared three years previously. To his own astonishment, his more or less random choice worked, he passed all the lie-detection hurdles and he was taken back by the family.
This was all the more amazing since he was tall and Nicholas was short, he had dark hair and Nicholas was blond, he had brown eyes and Nicholas had blue eyes, he was and looked half French and half Algerian and Nicholas was an all-American boy, he spoke with a marked French accent and knew nothing of America, and – in short – looked and behaved nothing like the child he was impersonating. Moreover, he was 23 and Nicholas Barclay would have been 16.
There is no doubt from his own commentary that he knew all the tricks and wiles of the imposter, but nothing could explain the scale of this deception and the odds against it. To all appearances, the Barclay family was desperate to find their long lost darling and were so eager to believe that he had reappeared – allegedly after years of sexual abuse at the hands of high-ranking military – that no evidence to the contrary would deter them.
What was in it for Bourdin? In short, a life in America, and a warm family environment that he had never known. In this stunning documentary he recounts each stage of his deception, and his growing amazement at what he was getting away with. Until, that is, a sharp-eyed private investigator, Charlie Parker – a character who seems to have stepped right out of a film noir – spotted the obvious, and it had to do with his ears.
But the incredible twist in this story is when Bourdin himself begins to suspect that his adoptive family has been telling a much bigger lie than any he himself has told.
Patricia Highsmith could have written this, but she didn’t. It’s all true. This documentary will knock your socks off!
The Mysterious Schneider of the Club Artistic Israëlite advertises his mysteriousness on a tin plaque with a rear prop that features, to the left, an oval portrait of “Miss Sonia” and, to the right, an oval portrait of “Sim’s”. In the middle is a three-legged cauldron with a serrated edge, like a decapitated soft-boiled egg, from which fire and a question mark emanate.
Miss Sonia is in a black dress with a lace collar and has dark hair, an odd kiss curl on her forehead and strong eyebrows. Sim’s is in evening dress and black bow tie, with short hair and prominent ears, a rather long white handkerchief hanging from his breast pocket suggesting the art of prestidigitation. Why “Sim’s” has an apostrophe is part of the mystery, since the possessive form is followed by no object of possession, unless it be the French foible for putting apostrophes in the wrong places for an air of Englishness, which the surname Sim’s might connote – and here I recall that when I was no more than nine or ten, in a cinema, a boy called Roger Sims struck a match and set fire to my scarf in the dark. “Sim’s” is also an anagram of “Miss”, and “Miss Sonia” and “Sim’s” combined are an anagram of “Amiss Missions”. Indeed, the letters “M” and “S” proliferate in the three names. And why the use of English in what is apparently a French club?
There is no indication that either Miss Sonia or Sim’s are The Mysterious Schneider who may, indeed, be a third person or entity entirely, cryptically alluded to by the question mark in the fiery cauldron. The mystery deepens when, on closer inspection, a marked similarity between the facial features of Miss Sonia and Sim’s becomes clear. Is it because they are both Jewish? Could they be brother and sister? Could they in fact be one and the same person, perhaps the female and male manifestations of a split-gender Schneider? The name “Schneider” means “someone who cuts”.
The little metal plaque – picked up at a flea market – is old, from before the Second World War, and one can only imagine the fate of the sibilant SSS – Sonia, Sim’s and Schneider – perhaps at the hands of the slightly less sibilant SS. An Internet search reveals that others have alighted on this same image, in the form of postcards, but no elucidation is forthcoming. The Mysterious Schneider has locked up his mystery in a burning question mark and time has smiled, sealed its lips and tossed away the key.
“Among other things in Kafka’s posthumous papers there were eight little blue octavo notebooks of the kind we used to call ‘vocabulary notebooks’ at school … made up almost entirely of literary ideas, fragments and aphorisms.” Max Brod
The Blue Octavo Notebooks date from 1917 to 1919. The diversity and singularity of the entries lead us through the inner corridors and antechambers of this prodigious man’s mind. Here is a personal selection.