Quai des Orfèvres (film poster, segment)

Quite by chance, I read Jean Ferry’s story, Le Tigre Mondain. I was captivated, and started trying to find out a little bit more about this characteristically elusive figure. (He spent the war years eluding the Nazis, which is when he changed his name from Levy). As I had read all his short stories, and as his three books about Raymond Roussel each cost over eighty pounds, I decided to watch Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film Quai des Orfèvres (1947) for which Ferry has a writing credit. He was most likely working on his stories at that time, almost all of which were published around 1950 in an edition of a hundred copies. André Breton’s preface to the 1953 Gallimard edition (1650 copies) is actually dated August 1949.

I was watching the scene in which Martineau goes to the music hall to establish his alibi. He makes his presence known to a few friends (he is in show business himself, a pianist) intending to sneak out the backdoor during the performance. He’s planning to drive to the home of hunchback and sexual predator Brignon, murder him and then drive back to the theatre without anyone realising that he had ever been away. This plan goes awry, quelle surprise, because Martineau arrives at Brignon’s to find him already murdered (no one likes a sexual predator). Meanwhile Martineau’s car is stolen, he has to run back to the theatre and arrives after almost everyone has gone. I’m sure this plot device has been used before. A version of it can be found in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958) the one with the Miles Davis soundtrack, where a murderer’s car is stolen by a juvenile delinquent (leather jacket, Gene Vincent hair) who goes on to commit a murder of his own. Ferry worked with Malle, but not on that film.

Anyway, while Martineau stands around at the back of the stalls, checking his hat and coat and making himself conspicuous, you can actually see the act that is currently taking place on stage, A very blurred series of images appears in the distant background for just a few seconds. Acrobats, I would say. It occurred to me that Clouzot had captured, accidentally, the only record of the act of these anonymous performers, the one tantalising trace they left on the world.

Now that we all agree feature films result from an intensely collaborative process, it can be difficult to ascribe just who is responsible for what. Ferry is credited as a writer, but so is Clouzot, who is also credited with the dialogue, even though Ferry’s reputation in the film world was that of a writer of snappy repartee. So what did Ferry write exactly? Can we track him down? Unlike Martineau, he may not have been interested in pushing himself forward; film work for him was ‘drudgery’. But at the end of Jenny’s tra-la-la song, a scene from which we cut disappointingly early, we just have time to see a fleet of clowns bicycle onto the stage. The same bicycling clowns, surely, who enter to a deafening fanfare meant to disguise the fury of the waking tiger in Le Tigre Mondain? Yes, indeed, Ferry’s clowns. We are on his trail here.

Quai des Orfèvres has an astonishingly large cast. If there’s room for six men round a table, why have five? That seems to be Clouzot’s approach. Could one of these non-speaking, hard-smoking, journalists/policemen/theatre-goers be Jean Ferry himself? Does he flicker momentarily into life once more beneath our notice?

The day after scrutinizing Quai des Orfèvres, I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (through which Paul Éluard’s Capitale de Douleur runs like a thread). In a scene towards the end, Ivan Johnson has Anna Karina order him breakfast in the hotel. Well, the waiter who wheels in the breakfast trolley mere moments later, says nothing and leaves straightaway without a tip, is certainly Jean-Pierre Léaud. This actor gave a sensational performance as the little boy Antoine Doinel, the lead role of Truffaut’s first film, Les Quatre Cents Coups, and went on to become one of the faces of the New Wave. Godard knew fully who he was, and was in the habit of inserting cameos in his films purposefully, as a kind of postmodern commentary. While other creators used the substance of the world around them unconsciously, Godard used our common catalogue of experiences and images, in this case the French film culture, to construct his film’s content.

Film is undiscriminating; the camera captures what it is pointed at. In 1913, Katherine Mansfield did some work as a film extra. The young woman sitting at a café table chatting to a bored fop and sipping pretend wine in some unwatched reel of some forgotten silent movie might well be the twenty-five year old Katherine Mansfield, dreaming of New Zealand. In 1914, Katherine Anne Porter had the same job though not on the same continent.

These accidental captures can become commonplace. Once we move into the era of the snapshot we can hypothesise a whole gallery of characters strolling behind grandma as you immortalise her sitting before Margate Pier; Kim Philby, Jocelyn Brooke, Derek Jarman? Then there is recorded music. Listen to those late and undistinguished Swing Era 78s and you know that the alto player in the chorus is Charlie Parker and the tenor is Coleman Hawkins or John Coltrane. It doesn’t matter the music is inaudible, we have lots of their records. Vladimir Nabokov once paid to have a recording made of his son Dmitri’s bit-part performance in an Italian opera and so also recorded Pavarotti’s debut without knowing.

But the impression left by some people is so slender altogether. Ferry with his hundred-copy edition. Even the optimistically entitled “Mass Market” paperback version is now out of print. His stories were translated into English in toto only in 2013, – such a meagre allotment for such an interesting writer in a world of a billion books.

He mentions his wife, Lila, in a couple of stories, or at least a character has that distinctive name. Who can doubt that she has red hair as Ferry’s loveliest women invariably do. She still bursts into posterity with her chevelure de flammes. Is Mansfield’s mention of a storeman smelling of nuts and new boxes all that is left of a man once as substantial as you and me? Hold up a tarnished mirror into which Mansfield once peered and see only your own blank face staring back.

Many works by poets of Classical Greece and Rome now survive only as quoted in exegetical texts. Ironically, the excerpts are not necessarily quoted accurately, nor with an intention to praise. But influence is so much less easy to detect and to identify than a quotation. When you read a story as well known as Borges’ The Library of Babel, you are, in a sense, reading Kafka’s The Great Wall of China, without which Borges’ story would not have come to exist. If Kafka’s friend, Max Brod, had burned The Great Wall of China as Kafka had asked him to do, Borges’ Library would have gone up in the same conflagration. But take the imaginary situation in which Borges reads Kafka’s story before it gets destroyed. Now the Library stands solid again and we would still have Kafka’s Great Wall in a sense, but we would not know it. The same happened to the many minor Latin writers that the teenage Virgil cut his teeth on and who now stalk the labyrinth of the Aeneid, like the unacknowledged masons of the European cathedrals.

What ghosts, what whispering gallery of voices, haunt this squib I offer up to you now? We can sense the obvious ones, angry head tucked under arm, but the nameless, by definition, go unidentified along with the scars of forgotten wounds, the stubborn stains that cannot be scrubbed away. We are alerted to their presence, if at all, merely by the raising or the lowering of the tone.

May I submit that a great deal of literature is made of such voices? Lost, anonymous, but all around us all of the time. That’s the substance texts are made of. Exit, stage left, three clowns on bicycles.