I have wanted to read this novel, Tous Les Chevaux du Roi since 1986, when I first read about the author, Michele Bernstein, in Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces. This would have been my introduction to Situationism, that alluring French counter-tradition of radical ambling. I lost my copy of the Marcus books years ago, I think when I offered a pile of books to the general library of the Sea Cabin, a sway backed hippy shack become cedar and glass architectural object, back on the west coast. (The library there was composed of warped volumes from the two great 20th century counter cultural moments, the ‘30s and the ‘60s—so HG Wells rubbed shoulders with Rosicrucian tracts, palm reading manuals and handbooks to healthful fasting with the help of cayenne, early New Directions and City Lights editions of Snyder and Ginsberg, The Golden Notebook, The Female Eunuch, and various philosophical treatises by Watts, Suzuki, and Alexandra David Neel, on tantric matters and zen. Around the year 2000 I thought that Greil Marcus, along with an assortment of early titles from Zone, on the history of the body and anthropology of the sacred and so on, would supply the crucially missing dimension of the quite recent, but already slightly tangy, bibliophilic past. It was a kind of reciprocity since it had been from the Sea Cabin’s driftwood shelves that I appropriated my crisping copy of Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Reader, my introduction to Reage).

What I remember about Michele Bernstein is that she had been married to Guy Debord, was herself a member of the Situationist International, a frequent contributor to the magazine Potlatch (some of her texts can be found online), and that she financially supported Debord and herself by writing the horoscopes of racehorses for a betting tabloid. Could this be true? She also wrote various art and literary reviews for the TLS, and two novels, both of which were pastiches of wildly popular books of late ‘50s France, one by Francoise Sagan, and the other, Nathalie Sarraute. This one, All the King’s Horses was a takeoff on Bon Jour Tristesse, and also a roman a clef about Bernstein’s apparently complicated ménage with Debord.

It was published in 1960, has been out of print for decades, and I’ve never been able to find a copy. Then the same day I spotted the bio of Dominique Aury, expecting nothing more, I found myself asking the clerk at Les Cahiers du Colette if he might locate a copy. Amazingly, I learned it is in print again for only six Euros, in a slight and elegant little paperback from Editions Allia. I ordered a copy, and later read it on the way home to the country on the TGV. The cover, in moodily pixilated dark greys, shows Bernstein mid-sentence, a thinking pixie in standard issue chunky black turtleneck. The bio note on the back flap says simply that she was born in Paris in 1932, and that this was her first novel. I haven’t found it possible to learn anything more about her. In one of my periodic Google sessions in search of her trace, I once reached the conclusion that she was doing radical political puppet theatre in the streets of San Diego, but surely this is wrong. After her relationship with Debord ended, she was for a time married to the English Situationist Ralph Rumney. I think that she wrote a column for a while in Liberation, but I’m not sure. She leaves no biographical detritus behind her, resisting entirely the spectacle of publicity as Debord himself failed to do. I assume she is still living.

I’m amused by Bernstein’s deft appropriation of pop genre. Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, published in 1954 when she was 19, was immediately as successful as it was scandalous. When Sagan died in Paris last year, the kiosks were filled with glossy souvenir special editions of the ladies magazines, commemorating Sagan’s racy life, her penchants for casual sex and fast cars, her refusal to pay taxes, her honed life-long garconette style. (Now I can’t believe I didn’t save my copy of the special Sagan issue of Marie Claire.) At her death, Sagan had become the bad girl’s Lady Di. Already in 1960 she was fabulously rich, bought and crashed fancy sports cars at will, slummed on the Cote d’Azure, and grinned impishly into the cameras of a million paparazzi. Why not detourne Sagan and maybe make some housekeeping money at the same time? Both novels narrate the summertime frolics of open marriages, between Paris and the hot south, and involve prematurely sophisticated gamines. But the startling thing about Bernstein’s novel, the quality that hooked me right away, is its deadpan humour, entirely at the expense of the marginal art scenes the couple frequented. The scenarios and conversations she describes could be taking place right now in East Vancouver, or somewhere in Williamsburg or the 19th arrondissement.

(from the middle of the novel:

—What do you do anyways? I don’t really know .
—Reification, Gilles replied.
—It’s serious work, I added.
—Yes, he said.
—I see, Carole said with admiration. It’s very serious work with thick books and a lot of papers on a big table.
—No, Gilles said. I walk. Principally I walk.)

Here is a crisply worked opportunity to laugh at ourselves, to feel just slightly, and slightly intelligently, outside the scrawl of theories and complications we use to decorate the fiscal and popular minimalism of a freelance life in poetry. I began to translate as soon as I finished the novel. Here, a draft of a first installation.

Michele Bernstein Tous les Chevaux du Roi

I don’t know how I caught on so quickly that Carole attracted us. I had only just heard about her the night before, in a small gallery stuffed with that crowd that always comes to the openings of painters destined to remain unknown. The few old friends I ran into there were precisely the ones I would have rather not seen again. In a loud voice that tried hard to be worldly, the gallerist spoke of her shoes so that anyone important could understand that she was already cashing in on the success she felt coming. There was no bar and we had nothing to drink.

When I looked around to rescue Gilles, I saw that the painter was talking to him excitedly. A little group was already forming around them. He was a bad painter but a charming old guy, a fossil of an obsolete modernism. Gilles answered without revealing his weariness, and I admired his style. The old painter was already lost in the generation before ours, but he didn’t let that discourage him. He liked us. Our youth inspired his, I guess.

Me, I was stuck in a conversation with his wife.

—I should really bring you my daughter, she was saying. She’s almost your age, but she’s not very mature. You would do her a lot of good.

Indulgence rarely accompanies boredom. I assessed the blandness of this lady. A girl like her, outdated on top of it—I didn’t want to imagine her upbringing. But one ought to take an interest in people. I asked what the girl did.

—She paints. I think she has some talent, but she hasn’t found herself yet.

—Like her father I say rudely. Then I find out that she’s not the daughter of Francois-Joseph, she’s from an early marriage . . . By the end of the sentence I’m saying how much I really want to meet her. Was my eagerness convincing? I’d rather Gilles was in my shoes. He always seems nicer than me.

But finally, after she had finished talking about Beatrice, her daughter’s best friend, who wrote pretty good poems for her age, and who she’d give the copy of Rimbaud she’d just picked up, she had invited me for dinner the next day, with my husband.

The meal was pleasant. Francois-Joseph, not thinking now of the fate of his canvases, was at ease. His friends trotted out in fine form the ideas of thirty years ago. It was amusing. The people of that era appreciated black humour. Even their nonsense could take on a certain ambiguity. When, like good Frenchmen, they evoked the allures of the person who sold paintings without even offering finger food, Francois-Joseph defended her hips.

—Not like you, Carole, he said, you don’t have much yet to offer the gentlemen.
—I’ll have my day, Francois-Joseph, she replied as she moved sinuously in her chair.

Francois-Joseph was so visibly sensitive to this possibility that I hesitated to assist him in his awkward efforts to help Carole loosen up. He’d obviously been digging himself into this hole for quite a while. Maybe I looked at Carole because she was the object of this annoying attention.

A girl of twenty quite easily makes fifty year old men understand that she finds them decrepit, and this girl better than any. I took advantage of the moment when she got up to make coffee. I went to the kitchen to help her.

I felt half-hearted suddenly.

At first I found her quite tiny and incredibly slender. The tousled bangs, the cropped blonde hair, the childish outfit—white collar, blue pull-over—she didn’t look her age. But her awkwardness was expert: Carole didn’t make coffee, she made disorder, ostensibly. It was to give me the chance to lose, if I showed the slightest domestic capability, or if I was ridiculous enough to give her advice.

There’s nothing like a trap avoided. When I run water or look for cups, I am capable of a contrariness that could dissociate me completely insidiously from this group. They were speaking about rare publications. We served a black liquid that caused friendly indignation. Objects now of a general disapproval, it was inevitable that we felt like accomplices. To take advantage of this, I trained a slightly ironical conversation on Carole, speaking to her parents like an equal. Francois-Joseph, happy to focus on her, babbled on. Disconcerted, she kept quiet. I heard that she lived quite far from there, in the 16th district, and that she played the guitar. Gilles also remained silent and looked at us with an interest that I recognized.

But it was me who proposed to take the girl home in a taxi. And when Gilles found me later in the corridor and teasingly asked what we were going to do, I replied:

—Win her, of course.

Originally Published: June 27th, 2006

Poet Lisa Robertson was born in Toronto in 1961. She lived for many years in Vancouver, where she studied at Simon Fraser University, ran an independent bookstore, and was a collective member of the Kootenay School of Writing, a writer-run center for writing, publishing, and scholarship. While in Vancouver, Robertson...