Sometimes, a writer finishes his text. Sometimes, the text kicks the ass of the writer so hard that the writer has to stop. This text is one of the latter. It is part of a series of true/fiction Cold War stories that I've been playing around with. With some suggestion from Sebald, some from the classic use of historical fact - from Merimee to Tolstoy - and some from my own dumb curiosity.
I have substituted, for the protagonist, the first letter of his last name. This is a warning to the reader: character N. is the equivalent to, but not the representation of, the historical personage from whose biography I have ripped these facts.
The complete work is over on Medium.
photo is taken in the Bois de Boulogne, January 25, 1937. It is published in Excelsior, a Paris newspaper. Excelsior was in the avant garde of newspapers, trying to combine the photogenic style of Life with the quotidian pace of your usual daily. Its archive is a treasurehouse of photos. This one has a certain dramatic movement. It shows a corpse in a clearing in the bushes. All that remains of the Russian economist N. N.’s “governante”, most likely his housekeeper, from the accounts of other newspapers, stands in her woolen dress at the head of the corpse, and is making some point to the group of detectives who are grouped at the corpse’s side. There’s a rather soggy newspaper at the housekeeper’s feet. In the center of the group of detectives is Commissaire Guillaume, who is bowler hatted. In the background, the trees are bare, wintering. This grouping distinctly resembles certain Renaissance paintings — a pietá for the era of Detective magazine and the gangster.
- Another photo appeared in many papers on January 26, 1937 and afterwards, whenever some event or statement from officials made the murder hot again. It was published on the front page of L’oeuvre, Le Journal, Le Petit Journal, Le Matin, and the Republique among other newspapers. It is an undated portrait photo showing N.’s face. Rimless glasses, a broad bare forehead, a somewhat petulant expression about the mouth, a little moustache.
- The posthumous life of the murder of N. has become a variant in one of the great binary structures that define Cold War mythology. Depending on who one’s favorite candidate for the murderer is, his name figures in two series of victims. One series consists of Eugen Miller, Rudolf Klement, Walter Krivinsky, General Koutiepov, and Ignaz Reiss. This is the Comintern series. Another, opposing series consists of Laetitia Toureaux, Carlo and Nello Rosselli, and Marx Dormoy. This is the fascist series. Left/Right, powerful absolutes. There are other names one could add to the first chain — for instance, Juliet Stuart Poyntz, or Leon Trotski. To the second chain one could add Maurice Juif and Jean Zay. The first series haunted the Cold War liberals; its shades attended parties with the Partisan Review notables and went to Cultural Conferences where, it was decided, Communism was the God that failed. The second series ended up in court in 1947–1948, in the Palais de Justice in Paris, where it was called the trial of the Cagoule — the nickname for the underground, extreme-right group of terrorists that operated in France from 1936 to 1938. More properly the Comité secret d’action révolutionnaire (C.S.A.R.), or as they called themselves, Organisation secrète d’action révolutionnaire nationale. Cagoule means hood, and the word comes, vaguely, from the initiation ceremony, which involved a black hood and an oath that bound the life of the oathtaker to the organization. The ferocity of the ceremony was devised by F. — who in this narrative murdered the Russian economist N.
- The postwar trial was not, by all accounts, a satisfactory reckoning; strings were pulled and the bloodiest perpetrators fled abroad — for instance, F. — to other lives and names. Many of the accused were out of prison in less than a year. One of them, in fact, went on to rise to the head of a huge international corporation, L’Oreal, successfully navigating the postwar world until, at the end of his career, attention was suddenly focused on his anti-semitic salad days. The burning of Paris’s synagogues. Under the approving eye of the German occupiers.
- After the postwar excitement of the purges, the collaborators, the lovers of German soldiers with their shaved heads, the affair was buried under the non-gaze of the turned backs of the French establishment, generally.
- N.’s corpse is one of the facts in our universe of facts, we hold this truth to be self-evident. As for everything else about the scene, from January 1937 until now, self-evidence has not been the order of the day. The blurring began with the first newspaper reports, with their conflicting details (mostly small) and their heavy implications about who did this (a bigger and bigger argument), and none of this was really cleared up.
- There were witnesses: one, M. Theophile Levoeuf — sometimes misspelled Leveuf or Le Veuf. The ligature is often bobbled. Use your search spelling accordingly. Two, M. Mallet. A cantonnier. That is, a roadworker, streetsweeper, repairer of the trails in the park, general presence in the streets of this part of Autueil. He’d been operating on Rue Michel-Ange, he’d often swept the sidewalk in front of 28 Rue Michel-Ange, “a pavilion” that went for at least 24,000 francs in rent per annum (the corpulent corpse it appeared, lived well, on an income estimated at “300,000 francs” per year). Three, the people who fled when the cops arrived, which always happens. Four, the anonymous sources feeding info to the police, or to private investigation agencies, blackmailers, informants, whisperers, who play it back to interested parties and the press. A political assassination is what we have here, with the attendant confusions, both real and designed. Agendas out the ass.
- Mr Levoeuf, January 25, 1937, 10:20 a.m. The weather is — as all accounts agree — “glacial”. Mr. Levoeuf, an unemployed accountant, living at 25, Rue Le Marois (the addresses in this story are, oddly, of a specificity…) is making for the bus stop near the gate to the Bois de Boulogne park, the Porte de Prince, across from the Roland-Garos stadium. “The witness crossed paths with an elegant, corpulent man with a still young face, under a crown of white hair, dressed in a beige tweed jacket and gray flannel pants, accompanied by two dogs, a white fox terrier and an auburn haired spaniel.”
- The clock is ticking.
- M. Levoeuf moves forward. Somewhere on the street the roadworker, M. Mallet, is busying himself with his usual observations of the neighborhood. M. Mallet, we suspect, was the kind of man who had a drink with the cops now and then. Had a second source of income, perhaps. His tips, their tips. As we will learn from the papers in the days ahead, M. Mallet is no ordinary streetsweeper, but a man of parts in his own way. He spent time, in his youth, in a Russian speaking milieu. He prides himself on accents, and can tell proper French from sloppy French, a Slavic accent. What an appropriate streetsweeper for the Russian economist N.’s street!
- M. Levoeuf is now at an angle from the gate into the park. He can look over the barrier into the park. ‘The gate of the Princes, which gives access to the woods, faces the street of the same name. The place where the body fell is thirty meters to the left of the [walking] path, which is to say, seen from the gate, slightly to the left of the line going perpendicular to the gate. Levoeuf… was on the side not of the woods, but on the opposite side, near the busstop where he was waiting to attend to his “business”. The distance between these points is 150 meters.”
- Does M. Levoeuf have any idea that his face, with a black beret, his everygull’s face, is going to be on the front page of many of Paris’s papers tomorrow? He does not. Did his friends goof about it with him? Or did he have friends? We know little about the life of this unemployed accountant at the beginning of 1937. After the difficult year, 1936. Year that Leon Blum was elected, on the Left. The Popular Front. Year of the strikes, the reforms. The civil war breaks out in Spain. But M. Levoeuf is a minder of his own business, from the brief bit of his life that surfaces in the paper. So when he sees the man with the dogs and another man arguing, it doesn’t attract his attention. Maybe they are exercise partners. Not M. Levoeuf’s world, frankly. This is Autueil, where the residents have the big francs, and perhaps M. Levoeuf is even here this morning to dream a little about becoming, one day, a success and getting a villa or apartment here.
- As an unemployed bookkeeper, he is probably not on the side of the factory worker. Petit bourgeois, this guy. These distinctions count in 1937. The headlines in the great dailies are about Stalin’s show trials, with the fantastic confessions of the great group that once made the Russian revolution. One of the accused was a friend of the man in the park, L’Humanité -the Communist newspaper — thunders that they are traitors all. Le Jour, on the right, goes in for the irony of quotation marks: The accused Trotskyists of Moscow continue their “spontaneous confessions”. LeVoeuf is likely more interested in the Petit Parisien story about the soccer match Sunday at Roland-Garros: “The Austrians squarely beat France.” Being unemployed, though, does M. LeVoeuf even give the newsvender 30 centimes for a paper, or does he simply forage among the newspapers left behind on benches and bus seats?
- M. Levoeuf is taken out of whatever daydream he is nourishing by the sight of the conclusion to the dispute in the park. “The two men appear to be boxing!” “Suddenly one of them collapses”.
- One account of what happened at some point between 10:30 and 11: “The witness heard no cry, no shot. Two small dogs walk around the fallen man, barking furiously. M. Levoeuf hurries to where the pugilist lay. He found the corpulent man, comfortably clothed in a beige tweed sweater and flannel pants, with expensive moccasins, extended, face down. He leaned over, wanting to help the wounded victim. He turned him on his back. But he saw, with horror, that the blood was escaping in abundance from a gash in his left cheek. A red spot was growing larger and larger on the gray wool vest of the victim. M. Levoeuf saw instantly that the man was dead. He cried for help. A park guard came, stopped for a moment, stupefied, and said he knew the man.” (Le Journal, January 26, 1937).
- Or: perhaps: “In his clenched hand he [the victim] still held the two leashes of his dog. The two dogs were there, a spaniel and a fox terrier, at the foot of the master, two poor beasts who understood nothing of what had just happened, whose worried looks seem to await an order.” (le Petit Journal, Jan. 26, 1937)
- Or perhaps: “the dogs were howling” (Le Jour, Jan. 26, 1937). Or perhaps: M. Levoeuf had “a difficult time separating the dogs, a fox terrier and a German shepherd [sic], who vigorously defended the remains of their master as he approached.”(Petit Parisien, Jan. 26, 1937). Or perhaps, as Candide, a weekly, reported later, after Levoeuf turned the body over, and saw the man was dead, “at that moment a road mender was passing by with his cart. Levoeuf hailed him and asked him to remain by the body, while he himself, stopping a car, went to find a guard.” (Candide, Feb. 25, 1937).