Jean-Jacques Schuhl - Consisting of memories, mixing real and invented people and events, Ingrid Caven reveals the cold heart of the European counterculture of the 1970s, an era of celebrity glitz, cocaine-fueled excess, gay bathhouses, and young idealists-turned-terrorists
Jean-Jacques Schuhl, Ingrid Caven: A Novel, Trans. by Michael Pye, City Lights Publishers, 2004.
A novel about the life of German cabaret singer and film actress Ingrid Caven, who was once director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's star, and his wife, muse to Yves Saint Laurent, and a protege of Pierre Berge. Consisting of memories, mixing real and invented people and events, Ingrid Caven reveals the cold heart of the European counterculture of the 1970s, an era of celebrity glitz, cocaine-fueled excess, gay bathhouses, and young idealists-turned-terrorists. Ingrid Caven was an immediate bestseller in France, where it sold over 235,000 copies in its first year of publication. It has been translated into 18 languages.
"Adolf Hitler, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Yves Saint Laurent – German-born cabaret singer Ingrid Caven's life flowed around these icons of 20th century European counterculture.... a collage of that strange postwar period in Europe of high artifice, drugs, terrorism, leather jackets and cinema." —Los Angeles Times Book Review
"The novel... could be read as an intimate, literary dialogue between France and Germany. (Caven is German and Schuhl is French and Jewish.) That such a dialogue can be embodied in a single female character as seen through the eyes of her lover is a testament to Schuhl's originality and narrative imagination." —Speakeasy
". . . a semifictional 2000 Prix Goncourt winner about the vagaries of 1970s European counterculture. . . . Schuhl's staccato yet contemplative prose (transl from the French by Michael Pye) illuminates celebrity excesses against a decadent and violent world backdrop." —Publishers Weekly
"[Ingrid Caven in]. . . her many metamorphoses: a bohemian Madame Bovary, a redheaded noir vamp, an aristocrat in a boa, a singing sleepwalker." —Frédéric Bonnaud
"Magnificent and violent, strange and disquieting. Provocative and harshly moving." —Josyane Savigneau
‘”I have a very small cult reputation to protect,” Jean-Jacques Schuhl protested to me a few months ago in Paris when he learned that he’d been nominated for the Prix Goncourt (and the four other top French literary prizes) for his first book in twenty-three years. Now that he’s won the Goncourt, this avatar of Duchampian wit and encyclopedic misanthropy will just have to live with a much bigger cult. Ingrid Caven, his novel, is named for the celebrated singer he lives with, the former wife of Rainer Fassbinder and muse of Yves Saint Laurent; La Caven returned to the concert stage in November, at the Theatre de I’Odeon, in postmodern triumph, as a fictional character who sings. Ingrid Caven is not her biography, however, but a phantasmagorical riff on the social, political, and artistic history of our times, filtered through a meditation on stagecraft, the voice and attitude of the singer, the diva, the personae of history’s actors.’ — Gary Indiana
‘Jean-Jacques Schuhl was born in 1941 in Marseille. In 1972, he published Rose Poussière mixing pop collages (extracts from newspapers, scores …) and descriptive fulgurances on real characters (Mao, Marlene Dietrich, the Stones …), elevated to the rank of myths unique and yet all interchangeable. Rose Poussière will become the fetish book of a whole generation. And the next one. His second text, Telex n ° 1 (1976), remains unavailable for a long time before his reissue this spring at L’Imaginaire. In 2000, Schuhl, after 24 years of absence, signed his great return to the literary scene: he received the Goncourt Prize for his novel Ingrid Caven, around the life of his companion, German singer and actress in the years 1960-70 . His latest book, Entry of the Ghosts, was released in 2010, again at Gallimard, in L’infini, the imprint of his friend Philippe Sollers.
‘Jean-Jacques Schuhl is an esthete who perceives the mutations of society with a deliciously feigned distance, at the periphery, that of the half-world. His taste for the observation of majestic decadences and his writing, elegiac or luminous, always chiseled, made him one of the most precious French authors (in the sense of sacred). And rare. So valuable. We are careful not to tell him, fearing to pass, like his alter-ego against Fred Hughes in the news of Vanity Fair, for “a complacent memorialist” (passage that will be cut in the course of the numerous discussions and corrections which will enlace the Elaboration of the text.) One evokes his readings of the moment: Reverdy therefore, and Proust, regularly. In the face of our avowed reluctance, he suggests that the best way to approach the work of the author of Swann is to leave aside all the sociological and theoretical analyzes “rather boring, it must be said” To the benefit of descriptions of atmospheres, portraits and dazzling associations of ideas.’ — Jean Perrier
‘Jean-Jacques Schuhl was only 50 francs (about £5) better off yesterday after winning France’s top book award, the Prix Goncourt, for a difficult and experimental novel based on the life of his lover. But his back manager will not be worried: Schuhl can expect to sell up to 500,000 copies of his book, Ingrid Caven, such is the prestige of the award. And the real Ingrid Caven, a German singer and actor, will not do too badly as a result of the book’s success, either. She tells this morning’s Le Monde that she has received several film offers as a result of its publication earlier this month.
‘Schuhl, 59, is hardly a well-known writer in France, not least because Ingrid Caven is his first novel for nearly 25 years. “It’s been a long time since I’ve written, and it’s a dramatic turn of events,” he told France-2 television after winning the award. “I didn’t expect it.” Caven was married to the film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and starred in many of his pictures. She was later a lover of Yves Saint Laurent. Caven was last seen in Britain in Raoul Ruiz’s movie adaptation of Proust, Time Regained.
‘The choice of Schuhl’s novel is certainly a vote for French literary iconoclasm at a time when the country’s literary prizes in general, and the Goncourt in particular, have been widely criticised for not rewarding literary merit but bowing to the pressures of leading publishers. But Schuhl’s award was described as the “a vote for quality” by Michel Tournier, one of the judges and a previous winner of the prize. “Jean-Jacques Schuhl’s novel isn’t a commercial book and it won’t be displayed prominently in bookshop windows,” he said. That last point may well be an exaggeration, since the award of the Prix Goncourt usually guarantees huge sale, the winner’s book often bought as a Christmas gift in France.’ — Stuart Jeffries
‘Singing for the Führer’s troops at age five makes material for Ingrid Caven’s lifelong running gag—and the definitive event novelist Schuhl returns to again and again in recounting her life. Ingrid is a plucky girl from Saarland with a terrible skin problem and a wondrous voice, which propels her through classical training and on to accolades on the Munich stage (that’s when she meets a lonely boy in black leather who wants to make films—the Wunderkind of German film). Over the years, Ingrid will mingle with the likes of Andy Warhol and Yves Saint Laurent, and even become embroiled with the Baader Meinhof Gang. A sensational Paris debut and suddenly the “little hurting girl in borrowed clothes” becomes really famous, meeting Bette Davis and Satie, flying about the world as the wife of Fassbinder, who turns out to be a drug-using homosexual. In telling Ingrid’s story, Charles is a kind of misanthropic alter ego: he follows the singer around, has affairs of his own, reports a lot of hearsay and snatched dialogue, but provides little sense of interior life. The climax comes at Fassbinder’s untimely funeral (he was 38), when, with all his actresses linked up front as if at a premiere, a posthumous piece of paper is discovered detailing Fassbinder’s outline for a script about the life of Ingrid Caven, “the woman he loved.”’ — Kirkus
‘Adolf Hitler, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Yves Saint Laurent — German-born cabaret singer Ingrid Caven’s life flowed around these icons of 20th century European counterculture. Caven was married to Fassbinder and starred in many of his movies; she was Saint Laurent’s model and muse. At 4 1/2, she sang “Silent Night” in the barracks for the German troops. This novel, by her current lover and based on her life, is a collage of that strange postwar period in Europe of high artifice, drugs, terrorism, leather jackets and cinema. Behind the glamorous backdrop of hotel rooms, the Brasserie Lipp, the Rue de Bac, the clothing by Saint Laurent, Issey Miyake and others, you can still smell cities burning, lives decaying. Artists drape themselves over rich American producers and patrons. The “era of Potsdam and Sans-Souci … matching plates and Meissen dancers” is over. But so is the era of cabaret, and Caven finds herself a relic: “The time of stars and divas was long gone, and haute couture was disappearing, too…. Why go on singing when all the voices have been flattened, standardized, synthesized?”‘ — Los Angeles Times
OLIVIER ZAHM – Do you still belong to the underground?
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – The underground, it does not exist any more since now everything is in the light. It’s horrible ! It’s no longer attractive … It’s like poetry. In France, a poet is someone who has not known how to make a novel … In Germany, it is different: poetry has another status. Kafka, for example, is considered a “dichter”, that is, a poet in a very strong and wider sense … In America, too, with the poets of the Beat Generation … Even Edgar Allan Poe is Curse, but with all that entails prestige. Here, it is still and always head in the moon! The underground, no longer exists because it was recovered by the mainstream. And it is no longer erotic to say underground in the current context of the unprecedented cult of money and power.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Is the term “novelist” better for you?
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – I received the Goncourt prize with Ingrid Caven … I have no problem with it. At the bottom I have almost written nothing … Three books in all and for all … That I am hardly classifiable, I want … Well!
OLIVIER ZAHM – You have written little, yet you play the figure of the novelist for a whole new generation.
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – Maybe it’s because I’ve disappeared! After Rose Poussière came out in 1972, I did not write for very long. There was indeed Telex No. 1 . Then I left in the stratosphere: radio silence … But I returned with a literary brilliance and a price for Ingrid Caven.
OLIVIER ZAHM – Your trajectory is enigmatic, mysterious, very unusual today. It has an elliptical shape that enhances the “Schuhl myth”.
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – In silence and absence are made fantasies … What has he done all this time? Where was he ? If I had definitely disappeared, we would no longer ask the question, but I came out of the silent desert to make a surprise mediaatic-literary hold-up! A beautiful booty indeed! Surveillance cameras have not spotted me! Stories of ghosts, it works
OLIVIER ZAHM – But this mystery has been linked with your vision of writing and probably with the decline of literature which is now a machine to reveal everything from the author (memoirs, autobiography, autofiction …).
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – For there to be an echo or a resonance, there must also be a little emptiness around. The music resonates with silences that count as notes, as in printing, the white has value in the typography of signs in its own right. We must never lose sight of silence. One always thinks of the full, it is the fault of the West. Without silence, without emptiness, things do not resonate or very badly.
OLIVIER ZAHM – This silence for more than twenty years has not been deliberate?
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – There is undoubtedly a share of powerlessness in that or the requirement of something I could not develop after Rose Poussière . This narrative was intended as a manifesto for a sort of impersonal writing, made up of a mosaic of genres, quotations, observations, press articles, poems made of AFP dispatches, telexes with horse names Or hotel listings … It was something very personal. And impersonality leads quite normally to withdrawal and silence. I wanted to capture the air of the time without being too present. It was about being a simple sensor-transmitter … It was three times nothing, hardly a book, and that wrote itself, without me … I should not have signed it!
OLIVIER ZAHM: But why have not we pursued other texts?
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – As of 1975-76, for me things are a little extinct. I was no longer stimulated as I had been in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Perhaps I could no longer observe, seize, listen to or see all these frail indecisive indices, but it was That I had no more matter. It was perhaps an alibi to justify a personal state. Perhaps a laziness. Take fashion in 75-76 for example, it has already swung into what it has become now: a market, economic powers, a kind of globalization and standardization, the dictatorship of commercial demand. Already was foreshadowed the resumption in hand by new forces … All that there was of savage and which had interested me, a kind of spontaneous emergence, was diluted … Everything that had fascinated me also in the English musics , Or the stuff that came from the East – including the history of the Chinese Red Guards – all this happened without warning, strikingly and unpredictably … It was very clear in fashion. I remember one of the first parades of Claude Montana in 1976-77, room Wagram, an old boxing room. There was an effect of unpredictability, of sudden emergence. I do not want to be nostalgic, say it was better before! Not at all ! But today we see quickly where things happen: revival, cloning, return of the same, reinterpretation, mixing weakened … So in more and more stifling … We see where it comes from! Not that before, it did not come from somewhere, but there was a dazzling and subversive rise that blurred immediate comprehension. What inspired and fascinated me was the savagery of something remote or foreign. Maybe I can no longer see or hear him. I always ask myself the question. Is it me or the world?
OLIVIER ZAHM – This is the question that despairs everyone …
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – Hence the persistent fascination for the 60s and 70s. It is this period of emergence that keeps coming back to the heads and phagocytating us. Retro fashion and disembodied technology. But I’m still alert. In Search of the Present Time!
OLIVIER ZAHM – During all these years of silence, I have the impression that you have never given up, nor stopped observing, refine your perceptions. One feels it in Ingrid Caven which finally covers the time of this prolonged silence. As well as in your next novel of which I have read a few pages.
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – Rose Poussière was made in chance. It is an assemblage of things that were in the air: the newspaper, the English fashions, a few dialogues of films, short portraits, a personage that I had wanted a little futuristic, Frankenstein-le-Dandy. All that made scarcely a book, between the manifesto, the narrative, the newspaper. Rose Poussière was directly connected to what can be called “reality”. With Ingrid Caven , I told a biographical romanticized story. Now I write through the screen of artistic elements, with filters. I look at David Lynch. I dive into Edgar Poe. Whereas at the time I read very little, and almost not … except the press, France Soir and magazines … I went out at night in clubs, I watched the street, fashions, styles, clothes … The Red Guards wanted the books burnt … Today I keep looking around. I read fashion magazines, but I’m less interested. I return to literature and cinema … In the excerpts of my next novel you read, I placed a character of mannequin with a certain reluctance, because it interests me less than before. It’s just the idea of the mannequin, this automatic, inhuman or say non-human and manipulated thing, that always fascinates me.
OLIVIER ZAHM – How do you explain the confidential and persistent success of Rose Poussière through the years?
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – An extract from a newspaper can be as important as a book. I like what passes and leaves very little trace: an extract of article, fugitive tracks on newspapers or magazines, words on the sand … But precisely, Rose Poussière which was hardly a book, Crossed the time. Before it was published, I brought some fragments of texts to Gallimard, like that, without thinking of anything … It was made of bric-a-brac, a kind of ephemeral collage of telex, newspapers, film dialogues and a few Texts from me. I am glad that this thing has become a little cult book … A friable and light thing that first sold to a hundred copies and then a few thousand and more. You yourself asked me to use the title for an exhibition on French art at the Grand Palais, La Force de l’Art . One day I was at a parade of Christian Lacroix. I did not know him personally and he whispered in my ear: “Rose Poussière” … Like a password … I had wanted to put in
Featured accessories. Pink Dust was a shade of make-up I’d seen in London: Dusty Pink . My title is a makeup! Now, accessories have become the essential, 70% of the brands revenue. They clutter up everything, they see nothing but themselves. They too are in full light. I do not care. What I like, these are the stars in the shadows! Personally, I prefer Ingrid Caven , I think it is a novel more accomplished.
But what made it so that Ingrid Caven shot 350,000 copies and Rose Poussière became a cult book with so much resonance, the great echo of a little thing …
OLIVIER ZAHM – It’s the butterfly effect!
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – Yes, it’s relatively hushed for years and it’s growing and spreading. In fact objects found came to fit in a book and I was medium of the times. The best of arts is a medium. People are barring this today with the cult of “Me I”. If one is a medium, as the fisherman tends the net, things come to it.
OLIVIER ZAHM – You still have to know how to throw the net, because you are a great stylist.
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – Yes, of course, you have to open your ears and your eyes, be there without being there … Everyone can be a medium at times on his zone. Go for a walk in the night for example and let things pass through you … Intermittent medium, voila!
OLIVIER ZAHM – There are very few writers who, like you, go out at night, read fashion magazines, are interested in modern and contemporary art. In Paris, it is the self of the writer, self-fiction and psychology that predominate …
JEAN-JACQUES SCHUHL – I really like journalism. Mallarmé directed and wrote his own newspaper, La Dernière Mode , all the sections, including under feminine pseudonyms … I put my rare articles on the same level as my books. I do not make any difference. A writer should be at least a little journalist in the twist: openness to the world, capture of what is happening, precision of copyist, scribe …
It wasn’t the sight of the saucepans, it was the noise they made that seemed so unholy, such a vulgar noise for a singer and such a seedy noise, too, as though her whole past was dragging behind her, and above all the sound was so entirely out of place, nothing at all to do with the luxurious and old-style setting – carpets, wall hangings, such well trained staff: the hotel was like a ventriloquist’s dummy, letting out a cry that didn’t belong to it, something irritating, agonising, making the brain falter. Maybe Ingrid also remembered Sundays at home, her mother cooking in the kitchen with a clatter of pans that mixed with the Liszt, ‘Hungarian Rhapsody,’ that her father used to play over and over in the next-door drawing room. That, too was in her mind, making it tilt like a pinball machine. A saucepan bumped up against one of the metal bars on the stairs, and came to rest, dumb.
There’s a photograph of Marlene Dietrich, which she once gave to Hemingway (1): She’s all legs, sitting, like in those famous shots for the Blackglama furs, her head is down, so all you can see is the line of nose, mouth, chin: enough to identify her at once like a logo, a Chinese pictogram, a coat of arms, and, alongside those long, bare famous legs that were insured for $5 million at Lloyds, she’s written: ‘I cook, too.’ Were they lovers, friends, loving friends? The old story keeps the crowds agog: the writer and the actress, or the singer, D’Annunzio and la Duse, Miller and Monroe, Romain Gary and Jean Seberg, Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange, Phillip ‘Portnoy’ Roth and Claire ‘Limelight’ Bloom, the marriage of word and flesh, intriguing, puzzling, riotous.
Hemingway? Maybe, if it comes down to it, the picture wasn’t dedicated to him at all but to one of her other men – Erich Maria Remarque, or Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin? Jean Gabin, perhaps? Or to Mercedes d’Acosta, that exotic lesbian? Or just to some nameless fan? Doesn’t matter, it’s all ancient history, the young woman with the saucepan is also a chain smoker, but she uses a common black plastic cigarette holder, Denicotea, only twenty-five francs from your neighbourhood tobacconist.
She’s still laughing in the elevator and when, with the manager going ahead, she enters her suite, she’s amazed by what she sees: white lilies, on the night table, on the desk, the vanity, in the bathroom, in the entrance hall, everywhere white lilies. Yves paid tribute to his queen with a suite in white. After saucepans, lilies, after the hausfrau, the vamp. Pans and lilies – a good title if one day she wrote her memoirs; Eva Gabor, sister of the more famous Zsa Zsa, called her book Orchids and Salami.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, could be one of those surprising productions of her friend Werner Schröter whose nickname – but why on earth? – was ‘The Baron’: Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, The Death of Maria Malibran … she was bound to arrive in Paris under this particular sign, because, truth to tell, her real range of mind is more from lilies to saucepans, if you see what I mean, just as at the end of some exquisitely turned sentence – like this one – you need a break, but even the break is still too exquisite, those lovely rhetorical cadences I never quite escape. On stage with a flourish of her hand followed by a broken wrist, a back kick in the air that was a wink at flamenco, she knew just how to break up all that virtuosity, that panache, to do it neatly and dryly, to cut things short, never to make them too rich, yes, that was it, heading for the world of lilies and orchids, then turning back abruptly to saucepans and salami. Lupe Velez was engaged to Johnny Weismuller, but she fell out with Tarzan, wanted to kill herself, but looking lovely, image before everything, even when dying, hours and hours of fixing her makeup and her hair. She had no luck at all, pills and booze upset her guts and so it was that they found her, in her loveliest frock, immaculately styled, powdered, bejewelled, virtually embalmed, but stifled on her own vomit with her head down the toilet. That’s the art of breaking a mood, a right-angle turn of mood, art upside down, the leftovers restored, and anyway a kitchen utensil is always handy: John Cage wrote a concerto for mincer and beater.