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Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray

Portrait of Jacques Rigaut by Man Ray

In an earlier post, I presented the synopsis of my novel in progress, Housebreaking the Muse. As noted, the novel is haunted by the figure of Jacques Rigaut, the French Dadaist, gigolo, addict, and suicide. Though I’d long had an interest in the Dadas, I didn’t hear the name “Jacques Rigaut” until I stumbled upon it in the following passage on page 233 of the 1990 Penguin Books edition of Paul Auster’s novel, Moon Palace:


I can’t remember all the pieces I worked on, but at least several of them come back to me when I strain hard enough: a meditation on money, for example, and another one on clothes; an essay on orphans and a somewhat longer piece on suicide, which was largely a discussion of Jacques Rigaut, a minor French Dadaist who declared at the age of nineteen that he was giving himself ten more years to live, and then, when he turned twenty-nine, held good to his word and shot himself on the appointed day.

In the margin, I wrote, “If true, a story?” I soon began researching Rigaut and, over time, began to piece together the biographical details of his life. Part of my research involved attempting a translation of the posthumous collection of his works, Écrits, published by Gallimard in 1970. I also wrote the story, “Jacques Rigaut’s Happiest Birthday – A Dada Bedtime Story” which has served as a seed for the novel. The following is my translation of the story “E.L.,” which appears in the “Posthumous Publications” section of Écrits.

E.L.
Jacques Rigaut

E.L. never read without chagrin newspaper bulletins of the sort: “Chauffeur X brought a wallet to the commissioner that he happened to find in his car,” or: “He had lost or forgotten in a taxi a briefcase containing the sum of … etc.” Any time he got into a taxi, he never failed to pass his hands between the seat cushions and the walls of the taxi’s interior. He sometimes went so far as to lift the cushion to be sure the previous fare hadn’t allowed anything to slip from his pocket.

Laziness getting the upper hand on his dishonesty, this young man never took the trouble to dream up a swindle–let alone take a job–but rather had placed an infantile trust in supernatural encounters: a woman so much in love with him as to give him a fortune: a godsend. The wallet found in a taxi was more than a convenient image representing, for him, luck, but an idée fixe, so much so that not a morning went by when he didn’t flip a coin to see if the day just dawning would truly be the one on which he would find the wallet. The next morning he flipped again, despite the erroneous answer of the day before, and played as long as was necessary to obtain a favorable result. Not even the size of the sum itself was left to chance; he determined it by process of elimination through his system of heads or tails: the amounts were in 300; 9,000; 37,000; and 72,000 francs.

From such childishness one derives a certain security and, throughout all his troubles with money, he owed his peace of mind more to his hope of finding a wallet in a taxi than to the loans that dressed him up and allowed him to go out. In his poorest moments, to try his luck, he didn’t hesitate to take a cab rather than the metro or a bus.

The morning he passed along the Quai des Tuileries, when E.L.’s hand met a hard object which his eye recognized a bank messenger’s satchel, the thickness of which hinted at the value of its contents, he yielded to a smile. Even more, he laughed and got excited over the random circumstances that put one of the four or five large sums mislaid in a year between the hands of one of the four or five people with the simple genius to wait for it. Suddenly aware of his exaltation, he calmed himself, worried he might lose his godsend through some vulgar blunder.

Concealing the satchel under his coat, E.L. glimpsed his face in the taxi’s rear-view mirror and, at the same time, his particularly bright hat, which managed to dispel his nervousness.

First lucky break: he had given the cabbie the address of a café. Not that he was going there, but the apartment of a friend he was on his way to visit was located above the café. Second lucky break: the cabbie had difficulty paying attention to the cab stand at which he’d picked him up. Third lucky break: this cab stand was located near a train station which would not make the investigation the authorities were sure to make any easier.

The taxi was on the point of arriving at his destination. E.L., after having thrown a glance at the meter, discovered to his chagrin that he had nothing smaller than a five-franc note, an amount appreciably greater than what he had to pay. To wait for the change would allow the cabbie the opportunity to familiarize himself with his fare’s face and bright hat–to forget about the change would arouse attention, impress the cabbie by the extravagance of the tip.

The cab pulled up to a stop. E.L. called out to the cabbie: “I don’t see the person I was to meet on the terrace. Take me to 28 Boulevard des I…”

It was the address of a financial establishment to which E.L. had never gone, far enough away to raise the fare to the neighborhood of five francs. His calculation was exact. Guarding against putting himself in the cabbie’s field of vision, he got out of the taxi, handed the cabbie the bill, and slowly made his way to the bank’s entrance. A few minutes later he left and walked three blocks before hailing another taxi.

He lost no time, flying up the stairs to his apartment two at a step, burying the satchel in the bottom of a drawer. Then, as if he were just beginning his day, he calmly descended the staircase, got into a third taxi, and set out for the house of the friend he he’d put off visiting just a few minutes before, nor did he skip any of the other items of the personal agenda he’d intended to follow that day, which only allowed him to return very late to his apartment or, more precisely, to that of his mother, where he still lived.

Only then was he able to take stock of his godsend. Counting up the bills he re-experienced the same exaltation which, in the taxi that morning, had been pre-empted by the need to take every precaution. In the days to come, he was bound never to rediscover this feeling, despite his efforts, and he ceased to discern the least extraordinary element in the accident. One thousand three hundred and sixty-seven thousand-franc notes, plus a few small bills, plus some stocks worth in the neighborhood of forty thousand francs. E.L., who was not pig-headed, pardoned fate for failing to meet his expectations by not yielding one of the four designated figures: 300; 9,000; 37,000; and 72,000. For an instant, he hoped that this bit of luck originated from the bank to which he’d randomly conducted himself that morning, but the initials engraved on the leather dispelled this whim.

His heart beat. E.L. indulged himself by counting the bills a second time. So it was, in dreaming about it later, that he learned he was miserly.

E.L.’s usual point of view was that of risk. He was a gambler, naturally, a gambler to the extent of refusing every human quality to those who weren’t gamblers. Frequently enough and, in general, voluntarily, he contemplated gambling like someone under the influence of a narcotic, certain he was under the influence of this idea: No failure, no offense, no humiliation, could keep him awake nights like the idea of gambling. It was at such times he would dream up for himself a baccarat match: seated at a table where the stakes were modest, he waited to have won enough to match wits with the high rollers. In great detail he imagined all the turns, agonized over not drawing a five, let pass a turn without playing, anguished a little over losing, in one hand, half of his winnings, attributed his bad luck to his lack of generosity with the croupier. Then would come the three or four big moneybucks who would make a rich man out of him. One broke banker bet him, to recover some of his losses, his Rolls Royce. E.L. won it from him, as well as a necklace of large pearls from his partner that he hastened to offer to his other partner, with whom he didn’t hesitate to leave in the Rolls Royce. By that time his good luck prevented him from sleeping. Nothing like this time. From the oppression moreso than from joy, like certain gamblers who, after a winning bet, remain more sensitive to accrued danger than to success.

His course became clearly evident to him the morning when, after having hidden the satchel, he’d decided to cut out of his schedule the first excursion. It was a question of leading for several weeks, in all ways, the same life he’d usually led and, in those that followed, of converting the loot into legal, justifiable property by means he’d not yet envisioned.

At first he decided to telephone one of his friends to borrow 5 thousand francs from him; soon enough he was berating himself over having wanted to resort to so crude a trick, afraid that such a step might cast more suspicion on him than any extravagance until, through this, a blunder easily enough avoided, he discovered how to turn it around to his advantage, that his precautions were less attributable to him than his effronteries, that he had to be on guard against his cunning as much as his carelessness. In the end he compromised on one thousand francs as the unit of his loans.

For several years, nearly every night, he’d been covering his daily expenses by paying a visit to his mother’s handbag. He was bound to do likewise that night, as much to remain faithful to his plan by changing nothing of his habits as out of fear of exciting the attention of his mother, for he suspected her of knowing all about his previous “withdrawals” and of keeping quiet about it so as to allow him the least the benefit of doubt.

It remained for him to get rid of the stocks and the satchel, and his mirthfulness suggested some practical jokes to him. If he hadn’t feared giving himself away by his handwriting, the post mark on the envelope, or the courier of the parcel, he would have chosen to send to Sir W.R.B., the wealthiest man in the world, the compromising excess of his fortune, following the example of that anonymous writer who, for several months, had sent to a certain sailor, suddenly rich to the tune of thirty million francs following an unexpected inheritance, a cheque for seventy-five francs to which was attached this note: “for your poor.” The stocks were burned. He was saddled with the satchel a bit longer. He waited for nightfall–he knew he had to go out–to throw it in a letterbox at the Post, Telegraph, and Telephone.

From now on he was free to speculate on how he’d use his money. This game wasn’t new to him, but for the first time he wasn’t merely engaging in idle speculation. Indeed, so abruptly had he become rich that, on the day he attempted to precisely outline his expenditures, he astonished himself with the boorishness of his plans: he couldn’t see beyond a few accessories of the deluxe life: cigars as long as canes, a grand entrance at the theater in which he is preceded by three extraordinarily beautiful women held at the end of a triple leash of pearls, etc. Though the calming effect of such shining images passed, his desire to be rich did not diminish: the automobiles in the street made him positively sick; he lost his heart to each and every one of the beautiful cars passing along the Champs-Élysées. And the palaces; and the women who dressed to kill. He felt that, having had, for so long, no fortune to spend, he was not vaccinated against “palace fever,” as he called it. Until then, the inoffensive tenuousness of similar considerations had diverted him from seriously worrying about an outlook so short and he remained convinced that, if needed, he wouldn’t be embarrassed to put his fortune to a less artless use. That night, he nevertheless had to satisfy a desire a little less simplistic. E.L. tried; he tried and at the end of an hour he had to admit that he hadn’t found better than: first, an apartment at the Ritz……………………………………………………………..; second, a system of spending by which, beyond the maturity of the bonds, the capital would be progressively cut into until being exhausted at the time of his death (he had to die poor), fixed approximately at the age of fifty,–in case of need he could help himself; third, to buy a car and be seen.

Which far from satisfied him. The principal benefit of a windfall: to allow the one favored by fate to turn over a new leaf. The sheer possibility of moving to a new city or even to a new neighborhood, of setting up house out in the country under a new name and, if he had to, of dining there with the parish priest, when there is not one compulsion in the decision and not one obligation to go on with this role, almost justifies the horrors of saving money. A man, if he changes his name one day, cannot continue to think as he did the day before. Likewise, it’s incredible that most men resign themselves to keep the same name all their lives. That this opportunity to disavow an out-of-date personality has tempted so few people speaks volumes about self-satisfaction and the superstitious submission to the way things are.

E.L. clearly realized that the accessories of life he might choose might not be of much importance, and that as long as he hadn’t assigned a justifiable wellspring to his fortune all of these reflections were denied him.

E.L. felt the absolute necessity of winning one million three hundred and sixty-seven thousand francs, it was nothing to laugh about.

A few days passed. E.L. had read the newspapers without emotion, and didn’t blink when he learned the bank messenger had been arrested, then released on the day the satchel had been found in a letter box. He fell back on the old saw that a thief is always ruined by his accomplices. It cost him little to keep his story to himself and to not have a laugh over his luck with a friend; scarcely two or three times a day did it cross his mind that he had to make a resolution, in spite of a sudden upsurge of boredom, like you expect on New Year’s Day, about an inevitable transaction. He felt like he was on vacation. All he’d yielded to was an order for shirts–four, no more–and the purchase of bottles of whiskey he could drink at home. He didn’t offer any of it to his friends.

Things could drag out in this way and they would not spoil anything. E.L.’s principal vice was without doubt his inability to undertake the slightest work if it could be put off for half an hour. This explains how it was beyond him to answer a letter, not that he neglected it: to the contrary, he considered this setback to his schedule with a kind of reproach, a reproach which before long turned into a grudge against the friend who, although most often through a friendly provocation, uncovered in him this malady, this incapacity to begin whatever it might be. E.L. didn’t confuse this special idleness with the lack of a decisive spirit, for he took a secret pride in his skill at crossing busy intersections and, in any case a little dangerous, of his speed in shooting the gap. This is the way things dragged along. E.L. wasn’t free from deriving certain advantages from his fortune. First by adding a sum double or triple of that he could deduct in advance on his little packet of bills to the cash loans he’d continued to arrange (he allowed himself to go so far as to yield to the demands of two particularly tiring creditors) then, as was easy to predict, his desires, if not having grown weaker, at least lost their laborious character. He put up with going out in a tired monkey jacket, he only lost his heart to beautiful automobiles. (“I’m waiting to become a millionaire to take the Metro.”) He was, for the time being, delivered from that horrible circumspection of men who spend more than they have and who, while ostensibly leading the same life as their more fortunate friends, derive no satisfaction from it for none of their expenditures is made deliberately: they seek to evade them; but whatever they try to stop themselves from spending their money on is, almost reluctantly, the very thing they decide to indulge themselves in, and the next day they suffer the pangs of regret.

Without having changed his lifestyle, E.L. was well provided for, postponing his pleasure for another day, besides which he knew how to put off a boring job. Why must a demoniac need for dignity push him to a conclusion? Better he should admit that fear helped him along. One day, as he entered his room, he discovered his mother holding a paper bag full of money. E.L. was shaken. The woman was looking for an old prescription of hers among her son’s papers. Happily for this story, he could easily, under some pretext, steer his mother’s search in another direction. No matter, the alarm was given, this game of hide-and-seek had its dangers. I must, I must, I say, come up with an explanation for this loot. And then he gets tired of being rich for nothing.

He posed himself the problem in precise terms, like a professor questioning a student on an exam, and he answered accordingly, like the unconfident student who has twenty seconds to think about the questions and three minutes to come up with the answers.

What are the odds by which a man might find himself so rich in so short a time?
–The track, baccarat, the stock market, the death of a parent, by virtue of someone’s love.

The track, E.L. went there with the honest hope of losing about 100 francs and to later make out as if he’d bet to win at long odds. The poor guy won fifty francs, it’s true, but none of the odds that day allowed him to carry out the deception he’d cooked up. Moreover, he knew quite well that those who pretend to owe their fortune to the track are precisely those who, like himself, are forced to come up with an explanation for somewhat suspicious gains.

To the contrary, those who make a living off gambling–there are some–don’t have to defend themselves this way.

The death of a parent isn’t an option you have a family to deceive.

Finally, to attribute his fortune to someone’s love demands an investment in accomplices, the return on which is little more than the means of acknowledging the source of this fortune.

And so on in this way do you discover more acceptable propositions. To take off for a year and return with fortune made; to live off the racetrack, etc., sufficient enough to justify expenditures. But E.L. rejected all these schemes in advance because he believed in posing the question as a problem, intending thereby to find an exact solution, the solution (like children who are warned about their mistake if, in solving a problem, they don’t arrive at a whole number, without decimal places), and this solution, there had to be one, would not merely be an expedient, but a valid and credible alibi.

He had no lack of expedients, from the fake masterpiece found in an attic and sold to a fence, to the commission on a fictitious deal. What he lacked was a situation, a kind of provisional occupation. E.L., for whom the alternatives between laziness and activity had no other explanation than an equal horror of work and poverty, had been driven by his very fortune itself to find work,–or was no more left to him than to drop off his money in another taxi?

Think about it yourself a little and you judge how easy is it to make one million two
hundred thousand francs in a week […]

With Reference to E.L.
(Unpublished)

A vampiric friendship bound him to a young girl whose indifferent means had turned him away from every plan for marriage that her faithful and tolerant zeal hadn’t already rendered undesirable. His friend, at one time, had profited from a more favorable situation. On the death of her father, contrary to all expectations, she found herself face to face with a rather muddled up inheritance that would force them, her mother and her, to cut back appreciably on their lifestyle.

Then comes E.L. to insinuate himself into the life of the young girl, to introduce into their friendship an authoritarian care, a jealous supervision which did not fail to unleash the hope of his partner.

E.L. was sordid: he became engaged, in spite of the heartache he was causing his family, to a poor young girl; all appearances were with him. A fortnight after the couple were happily affianced, the young girl received a summons from a Parisian notary. This man ought to have taken note of the following letter himself:

“Mademoiselle,

Your father did not die a rich man; maybe it was my fault, I had him, contrary to a previous agreement, kept out of an affair from which I derived the principal of my fortune. Now I am elderly, and would be grateful if you accepted, in restitution, the sum of 1,200,000 francs that you may recover from Mr. X, lawyer and notary in Paris. As I desire that my name not be known, this sum will be turned over to charity in the event you should refuse it. I do not ask for your thanks, but to help me, through your forgiveness, to die a peaceful death.”

To the sparkling joy exhibited by his fiancée, E.L. responded with a joy more modest, as is befitting a man who understands well the delicacy of the situation.

It was a taxi that had made his fortune, it was a taxi that unmade it. At the intersection of rue de Provence and rue Mogador, the cab in which his fiancée was riding was properly flattened by the AB bus against an apartment building. Somebody extracted the body of the young girl, who must have regained consciousness before dying. The fortune of this poor unfortunate passed to her heirs. A misfortune doesn’t occur alone; E.L. had paid his debts. Sadly, he helped lay her in her coffin; someone had left the engagement ring on the young girl’s finger; E.L. asked [1 word illegible] that it be left to him as a souvenir, it was not paid for.

On the return from the cemetery, E.L. once again got into a taxi. A woman had left her purse on the seat. E.L. picked it up and, without anger, tossed it to the doorman.

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