Simone Kahn was the first wife of André Breton, founder of Mouvement Dada in Paris and more famously known as the lifelong “pope of Surrealism.” But before she knew Breton, Kahn, a young student at the Sorbonne, was the close friend of Jacques Rigaut, the dadaist poet, gigolo, drug addict, and suicide who haunts the novel on which I’m currently at work, Housebreaking the Muse. Kahn and Rigaut maintained correspondence while Rigaut was serving in WWI. Reading between the lines of Rigaut’s letters to Kahn, I found a romance aborted on the launchpad.
In the manner of Greek theater, Housebreaking the Muse features a number of narrative entities (actors) who step forth, say their piece, and recede. The excerpt below is the opening of the chapter in which Kahn makes her first appearance on the stage.
Not in the least pious, we Kahns were Jews nonetheless. And no matter how well you assimilated to the prevailing culture, this fact could still fetch you exile to emotional and social ghettos having nothing to do with certain streets in certain arrondissements—even Jews born and raised in Paris carried no immunity to the minor snubs and oversights that forbade you absolute welcome. Of course, born in the Iquitos fug, I thought myself more Peruvian than Jew, a mad jungle tsatskeh, a diminutive Amazon moving through the world to the beat of her own distant night drums. No matter that Iquitos had been thoroughly Europeanized by the captains of the rubber industry, no matter that Mr. Toots himself had transplanted Eiffel’s house of iron from the Paris Exposition to the fashionable Mercado Central—“jungle girl” was a myth too juicy to forsake, even for a cheeky délurée sampling the rarified air of La Sorbonne. I enjoyed teasing a kind of double exoticism, dubbing myself “jungle juif” when asked about my origins. Said with a doe-eyed smirk, it came off disarming, self-deprecating. But make no mistake: I owned it. Even more so when later, armed with a bit of English, it came out “jungle Jew,” which bristled on the tongue with a bit more verve and seemed to rebut through embrace a wider spectrum of bigotry.
But whether adorned in the spangles of Jew, Peruvian, parisienne délurée, jungle juif, night drummer of the immaculate Amazons, mademoiselle Kahn, or some impromptu amalgam of several or all, I never suspected bad faith greasing the clockworks of Jacques’ reticence. No latent anti-Semite, I’m sure, demanded his self-composed balk when I presented the bait, dropped hints like keys on a Persian rug, keys he might have used to unlocked a Simone aching to make him her loverboy. The mother, well yes: though icily polite to me, I could hear the telegraph operator behind old Madeleine’s eyes, working another kind of key, clicking a desperate Morse communiqué to her country bumpkin ancestors:
DARK SALOPE BORN IN JUNGLE. STOP. DAUGHTER OF JEW BANKER. STOP. GOD FORBID JACQUES MIX IN WITH THAT. STOP.
Which is all the more reason Jacques’ demurs vexed me so. Much more his style to sweep me away and propose for the sole purpose of driving his mother, if not me, mad. There was a time I thought he just might. But, like Zeno’s arrow, though he always approached he never touched. Well, never much. Certainly, we grew close enough to peck each other’s cheek on hello and goodbye. And we did so in a way much less stiff and formal than books on etiquette might recommend. Sometimes our greeting was charged by a little twist of neck that brought the tip of Jacques’ nose against that spot just below my earlobe, the one strangely saturated with nerve ends made for sparking a shiver that knifed cold and delicious into my scapula but finished humid and demanding you know where. Other times his goodbye left behind a trace of Van Cleef & Arpels, citrus and juniper effervescing on my skin like gin and tonic. I would caress it into my hanky as soon as Jacques had left, then lay the hanky on my pillow and bother myself until I’d slipped into the fronds and tendrils of deep, verdant, illuminating sleep. I was a child. And so was Jacques. A pretty dream that always ended in the three-inch banner headlines that daily shrieked the end of youth.