TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1984

books

For Georges Remi/Hergé

I THOUGHT LONG ON HOW to write about my friend Georges Remi, known everywhere as Hergé, the creator, or—as they called him in the European press the day he died in March, 1983—the father of Tintin.

I first assumed I would describe his work, analyze its images and themes, but there are already scholars and experts, such as the French cultural philosopher Michel Serres, who thoroughly know the Hergé oeuvre and can elucidate the nuances of the transformations of Tintin from his earliest black and white avatar as boy-reporter in Land of the Soviets (1930) to his final, color-filled incarnation in Tintin and the Picaros (1976). Left to my own iconographical analysis, I would merely say that throughout the fifty years Tintin did his world adventuring his physical image underwent huge change, out his fundamental and elemental sense of justice burned always with the same ardor.

I thought too to tell of our friendship, how we met, who made up the connecting links of our friendship these past 14 years, and to report some things about our conversations as they touched upon his ideas and feelings of the world. I’ve known few people for whom art meant as much as for Hergé. I would have reported, for example, of his admiration for contemporary American art, of his delight in studying and collecting works by Mel Bochner, Dennis Oppenheim, Andy Warhol, and, above all, Roy Lichtenstein, whose “Cathedral” series he hung in his office. Of all the American artists, it was always Lichtenstein he asked me about when we met and to whom he wished me to pass along his respects.

In his book The Crippled Giant (1950), Milton Hindus records his disappointment and eventual distress in meeting his idol, the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, whom he found petty and spiteful and paranoid. In spite of his chagrin, Hindus had the advantage, from the point of view of the memoirist, over the writer whose subject is neither adventurous nor vile. After all, it’s the villains and the monsters we love to read about. Of Hergé’s incidental life I knew little; of his character, his personality, I felt much. He was impeccable, insofar as any human can be, sweet and noble. The problem, then, with writing about Hergé was that I found myself ferrying between hagiography and effacing caution. I needed to grasp some focal point of feeling or incident, some significant image that would simply and without sentimentality illuminate Hergé and make vivid what had made him and his art so loved.

To this seemingly reasonable end, I began to assemble the documents of our friendship, the letters we had exchanged—I always kept carbons of my correspondence in those days, finding this the easiest sort of diary—and the photos taken in New York and Brussels over the years. I was on the wrong track. Nothing in these documents, and nothing in my recitation of them, could help me realize my underlying wish, to pay Hergé/Remi my respects and to offer him my homage. But there was something in a letter I had written him in 1972 which gave me a clue to how I might do this. Let me quote a passage:

Dear Georges,
I was happy to hear from you, and even happier to learn that you are bringing another TINTIN into the world, another gift to us. Great artists, the ones whose creations take us completely into the creation, always keep their audiences in a fever of expectation. I re-read Mann’s
Magic Mountain for the tenth time this summer. And when I finished, I felt lonely, as if my friends Castorp, Chauchat, Peeperkorn had left me, left me waiting for their return into my life. I wanted to hear them speak again, to find them, as it were, living another life, in another book. And TINTIN is such a world for me, complete, vital. And so you may understand the spirit in which I ask you to please bring my friends back again soon!

Awkwardly phrased and crude as it went, I had expressed both my feelings about Hergé’s work and also what I had been ruminating on for some while and which finally took shape as a novel—as yet unfinished—using some of the characters from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain but principally those from Hergé: Captain Haddock, Tintin’s drunkard companion; Snowy, Tintin’s not always loyal dog; and Tintin, the boy-reporter himself. By 1974, the novel had taken some clearer form, and when I lunched with Hergé in Paris that June I told him about the work in progress, and asked his permission to use his characters. He agreed without a second’s hesitation. Over the following years he asked from time to time how my work was progressing. I was evasive. Eventually he stopped inquiring—even after 1980, when I asked him for, and was given, written license to use his characters.

I was afraid, of course, to show Hergé what I was writing. How could I ever face his disapproval—should he ever have disapproved—of a work predicated on his art (yet founded in my own nature), and how could I do justice to his original vision without falling into vulgar illustration of his conception? Thus, year after year, I kept from him that which in principle he had approved, approved without qualification, without my ever having to submit a page for him to see—the reordering, reconstructing of his world in my terms. I’m too late, in one sense, but I offer Hergé the following. a chapter from this ongoing novel, tentatively called Noches de Machu Picchu: A Romance. In it I imagine Tintin in love, his childish heart touched and inflamed by passion, much as was that of another youth, Hans Castorp, and inflamed for the same woman, Clavdia Chauchat. I here take the liberty of pitting Tintin against his rival in love, Peeperkorn, or should I say, of pitting Peeperkorn against the young man, for that is exactly what the prepubescent boy-reporter is becoming through this newly found love-emotion. I thought it would amuse Hergé to find his son caught in the role of art critic when the stakes were played for love.

—————————

PEEPERKORN USHERED TINTIN INTO a large, sunlit room where, with an exaggerated flourish, he directed the young man to seat himself in a wicker chair set before a solid French easel. In the brief interval since their last meeting, Peeperkorn had exchanged his highland Indian costume for simple coveralls and a coarse linen shirt, open at the throat. While Tintin sat expectantly, the old man slipped on a thick, brown tweed jacket patched with leather at the elbows and, after some moments of searching his trunk, produced a wide-brimmed straw hat which he patted affectionately before crowning his head.

“My good luck hat.”

“Are you going for a walk, Monsieur?”

“Walk? Why would you think that?”

“Your costume, sir, suggests an out-of-doors atmosphere.”

“These are my work clothes,” Peeperkorn bellowed, “though naturally I wear them au plein air during clement days.”

“Are you going to work now?”

“Why, of course, I work every day, and shall till these eyes and hands fail me. Work invigorates, fuels body and spirit.”

“I should be leaving then,” Tintin said, disappointedly.

“Leaving? Nonsense! This is our little moment. There is so little I know about you, my dear youth—of your exploits and adventures, naturally, as does the whole world; but to learn of you and your thoughts, your inmost history—this was my intention in organizing our little tête-à-tête this morning. Oh! Yes. And now, by way of preamble, an introductory note, let’s turn to a related matter, my life’s passion, my work, about which I ask your opinion and your advice, because I’ve come to an impasse, one that I believe your judgments and feelings may help me to span, being, as you are, wholly honest and wholly knowledgeable about the matter at hand, since, as I’ve learned from your salty companion, the great-hearted Captain Haddock, you’ve a taste for painting, if your acquisition of one of the most precious artifacts of contemporary art, that Matisse of yours, I mean, reflects such taste.”

“Well, sir, I do like pictures.”

“Ah, yes, pictures. But I was thinking more in the line of paintings. I have arranged here, along this wall, as you see, my portable museum of uniform-sized miniatures, scaled-down copies of the original canvases I’ve executed over the years. I hasten to add that what I shall show you is merely an anthology, a fraction of my total oeuvre; it represents each of my various periods, from the earliest to the very present.”

“I’m honored, Monsieur Peeperkorn, yet as to the advice you seek, I’m certainly not qualified to render you or any other artist such service.”

“Come along, then,” said Peeperkorn, seemingly oblivious to the young man’s objection. “The exhibition proceeds chronologically from left to right.”

The canvases, each the size of a large handkerchief, rested against the base of the wall.

“How do you expect to see them from up here? On your knees!” ordered Peeperkorn.

Tintin obeyed as if on reflex, and, in kneeling position, he swept his eyes over the span of the 16 paintings.

For all their differences, all (except for those of the later period, where the image was not distinguishable) were paintings of women and men, but one face repeated itself in differing contexts and costumes—Clavdia’s. It was Clavdia who reclined, nude (except for a narrow black bow about her neck, a tassled bracelet high on her forearm, a green shoe on her left foot) on a pillowed divan, her face serenely turned to some visitor, or to the painter himself, but most certainly to the viewer facing the canvas. Behind the divan, a thickset black woman in white robes extended a bouquet of flowers, probably a gift just arrived—for they were still wrapped in tissue paper—to this Clavdia, who for the moment took no notice, but who would perhaps momentarily turn in acknowledgment of both the black flower-bearer and the flowers.

And the smiling, youthful face of a ballet dancer, her body tilted forward slightly as if bowing to an appreciative audience, also belonged to Clavdia. In the background, other dancers were bathed, as was she, in the warm burnished glow of the stage lanterns. Dancers whose faces were, on closer look, mere smudges of paint. What warmth, what happiness animated this moment for the performers, who, as Tintin imagined, must soon make their way backstage to change into ordinary garments (thick sweaters and burly cloth coats) and from thence would leave the theater to walk cold streets and cross frozen iron bridges.

There, in three-quarter view, was Clavdia in blue silk high-necked dress and matching blue bonnet seated in a wicker chair at the seashore. The modeling of the upper body and face was precise, clear, while the cliffs behind her were a blur of autumnal colors, the sea a scrubbing of blues and whites. There was a sweetness in her expression, the start of a smile as she looked out beyond the canvas, perhaps to one who had just called her name or voiced some endearment—this idea suggested itself to the enchanted Tintin as he turned to the next painting.

Clavdia, her skin dark cocoa, her long hair shiny black, reached for a turquoise green banana hanging low on a purple stalk girded by an orange snake. About tier waist was a vermilion cloth which fell to her knee; the black nipples of her full bare breasts glistened, as did the narrow golden halo about her head. Beside her a thin lemon yellow dog slept on a swatch of ocher earth. Smoke rose from palm-frond huts set in jungle clearings. This Clavdia neither smiled nor seemed serene: her broad masklike face was a surrender to blood, to deep pools and waterfalls, to the meat of near-raw fish braised by green-sapling fires in early evening.

In the main sketchy, seemingly unfinished, the next painting took solid form in the handling of the upper torso of the figure, in the modeling of the slightly inclined head. There the planes of the face seemed to dovetail into rectangular shapes. It was a middle-aged housetending Clavdia these shapes suggested. Clavdia of the kitchen, Clavdia of the scalded morning milk and the pot of steaming coffee set on her husband’s wooden tray. This was the Clavdia who kept the household accounts and made the butcher tremble and the maid’s eyes tear. Yet presently under Tintin’s insistent gaze the domestic face proposed nothing but the shapes that so subtly composed it.

He was growing dizzy with these sights and reflections. The small of his back and his knees ached. He thought of rising, but at that very moment Peeperkorn’s sharp voice brought him to attention.

“Too much for you? Tiring? At your age! Surely, Madame deserves more of your attention.”

“Oh! Sir,” cried Tintin. “I’m neither inattentive nor remiss in my affection for you or for Madame.”

“Well, rise, then. Anxiety makes me gruff. I beg your pardon, my dear boy. So profound is my concern with these efforts that I’m apt to take any hint of less than unswerving interest as lack of approbation, a dismissal of all I’ve suffered to achieve.”

“But they, they are magnificent!”

“Do you think so?”

“Stupendous,” answered Tintin, genuinely moved.

“Not too eclectic, eh?”

“You at once capture and transcend the original sources, you synthesize and distill, from the old you create the new.”

“Your words gratify me, young sir. Quite,” the older man interjected. “When all is said, my art so far would not exist at all if those whom you deem my models had not labored before me. But now I must explain that I’ve reached my crossroads—a momentous occasion. For I shall either continue to travel the route you’ve here witnessed, a worthy route, culturally wholesome and with honorable precedent, or I shall set forth to take the path to the new, the wholly virgin land, where only I shall have the moral and esthetic authority to issue passports and visas to those who may wish to follow me there. And this is why I need you. For what is it to have struggled for the discovery of virgin lands only to suspect that others have trod those paths before, and perhaps have even built their outposts in the very regions one seeks to claim?”

“I had no idea, sir, that you had such serious interests. . . . ”

“And, indeed, why should you? To the world, and, at times, even to myself, I am a gluttonous fop, distracted, senile even. That is, in fact, precisely how I wish to be noted, all the better to keep my dwindling energy intact. Show nothing of yourself to the world, my young man, for it is a jealous, vicious world. But I’m sure you know all this—one cannot be a lamb, in your trade.”

“One cannot neglect the devious side of things. Criminals do have their tricks, and one must learn to notice and to fathom them, yet I’ve fared well in this life with Captain and dog by my side. No need of guile with them.”

“You are fortunate, my boy,” Peeperkorn said, falling suddenly into the whisper of an old man, “for obviously you’ve lost nothing in life. No need, then, to hold tightly to your heart.”

At that instant Tintin’s heart fluttered. Some dizzying apprehension seized him, and he returned to his seat by the easel. His voice was suddenly muted, distant, the voice of someone about to fall into a heavy sleep: “I think the world an endless seam of pain where loss and gain come round and round again; here the heart and there the mind and ever yet the world to find. When one lives well within one’s skin then all the world’s in bloom again, but bloom too shrinks to death and nothing, and one’s own skin cases Mattress stuffing.”

Peeperkorn, tenderly: “Count not the cycles of these things; bloom and shrink and nothing be, but feed the heart its fertile springs, grant the mind its wide periphery. But you’re pale, my lad; I must have taxed you too hard. Yes, sit there awhile, restore yourself. A glass of champagne to brace you, a sip or two of this blond tonic and you’ll be back with us again.”

“Thank you, Monsieur, but I think some fresh air will help more.”

Tintin opened the window, thrust out his head, and inhaled. Blood slowly colored his cheeks; his eyes again focused sharply. In the distance he could discern Clavdia, in her long blue dress, strolling. She tossed back her head, as if laughing. Tintin longed to be by her side, to carry her purse, to offer his arm as she stepped over the outcroppings, to help her descend the ancient stone Inca stair, to say amusing things to amuse her.

“You are wholesome once again! Air is your champagne, I see.”

“Quite fit, and ready, with your permission, to examine the rest of your marvelous paintings,” said Tintin, resuming his kneeling position on the floor.

"Well then, consider these last few, the most recent, for here the problem lies.

Tintin inched away from the central paintings to the cluster terminating the exhibition, to come upon Clavdia standing alone on a tropical islet (the vegetation resembling none known to any botanist) in a calm lagoon. A fur cape that was draped about her shoulders fell to her manacled wrists. How more voluptuous and seductive that body as when now topped by a nightingale’s head! Indeed, in no other painting thus far had Clavdia’s form been so beautiful and desirable.

To row across that silent lagoon, to beach boat and alight, to unchain those wrists and feel her grateful embrace—yet perhaps only to have her thrust her rapid beak into his pounding, love-filled heart. Bound and captive she must remain, Tintin mused, the words so loud in his mind he feared Peeperkorn might hear them.

Yet, in the following painting, unbound, naked, joyous Clavdia wheeled with other naked, happy, loose-limbed young men and women in a dance of life. Hand in hand, they spun in ovoid orbit on a field of timeless blue.

He would have remained at this painting had not Peeperkorn’s sounds of impatience (or so the young man interpreted those huffs and throat-clearings) urged him on.

Her mouth a jagged jack-o’-lantern, her wide face seemed to fly to the canvas edge; one eye had already left the facial terrain and leapt from its socket to seek an ear. The canvas sputtered and glided with paint. Clavdia, for he could only assume it was she, was the swirls and streaks and drips of yellows, reds, greens, zinc whites.

But in the penultimate canvas Clavdia, or rather the image symbolic of her, was once again restored, her face occupying almost the entire canvas. It was a face boldly outlined, as were all her features, suggesting an enlargement from a cartoon or bande dessinée; no less indicative of that archetype was the “balloon” above her head, embracing in its wavy closed circuit the motto, Noli me tangere.

The final picture (a mechanical reproduction of a silkscreen) was the word “CLAVDIA,” stenciled letters frozen in a flat field of gun-metal gray. The gray letters glistened dully, and with what seemed to Tintin a transcendental shimmer.

Tintin rose and thrust his hands into his pockets. Peeperkorn’s voice broke the silence.

“There you have it and there I rest. There on the easel a newly primed canvas and here, in my imagination, a blank—I’ve mastered the technique and spirit of every modern movement and every major artist’s modality right to the present and now I’m off on my own, all alone, all me, into future history. But I have a minor problem, which you may help me to solve. In short, what shall I paint next?”

“But why ask me?” implored Tintin, drawing his hands from his pockets and clasping them before him.

“You have a strange mannerism there—” said Peeperkorn, staring at the youth’s hands, “much like a beseeching schoolboy. But it is I who am beseeching, I assure you.”

“How shall I answer such a question?”

Peeperkorn paced about the room, turned to the easel, studied the tiny handkerchief-sized blank canvas, frowned, smiled at it, caressed its surface, inclined his head toward it and whispered. He placed his ear close to the canvas, as if waiting for a voice to reply. Hearing none, or dissatisfied with what he may have heard, he withdrew and once again addressed the youth.

“Here is the problem. I have explored all forms of Clavdia in all forms. Will my subject, this Clavdia, or my ostensible subject, this same Clavdia, be the subject—present, willing, able—of my next work? Will she be there, I ask, to go with me, hand in hand, so to speak, to that land where I shall have sole dominion—issuing there those passports and visas mentioned earlier, or must I, subjectless, terminate my career and retire, with only this small museum to show for all my efforts?”

Frederic Tuten is Books Editor of Arforum, a novelist, and director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York.