Tag: prostitution

Katherine Anne Porter, “Magic” (1924)

Toulouse-Lautrec, "L'inspection medicale" (1894). Lautrec grew up at 24 Rue des Moulins in Paris, a whorehouse, at a time when 34,000 prostitutes were licensed in Paris.

Toulouse-Lautrec, “L’inspection medicale” (1894). Lautrec grew up at 24 Rue des Moulins in Paris, a whorehouse, at a time when 34,000 prostitutes were licensed in Paris. See this interesting paper.

The whorehouse the maid describes in her Creolish patois to her aristocratically white and prissy employer Madame Blanchard–note the frosting on the name–is no Maison Tellier. As if to entertain a Blanchard who could be no less of a madame than the brutish one the maid is describing, she tells the story of Ninette, a prostitute whose wages are garnished and accused of stealing, and who is routinely beaten. Ninette saves up enough to flee. Her madam doesn’t object until her customers, all white and rich enough to be, in a different generation, sending money to adopt poor children as far away from their clipped lawns as possible, demand that she return. It takes magic to pull that off. The madam’s cook, clearly feeling no solidarity toward the whore–cooks considered themselves superior in the hierarchy–provides the recipe. “And then they did it just as the cook said. They took the chamber pot of this girl from under her bed, and in it they mixed with water and milk all the relics of her they found there: the hair from her brush, and the face powder from the puff, and even little bits of her nails they found about the edges of the carpet where she sat by habit to cut her finger and toe-nails; and they dipped the sheets with her blood into the water, and all the time the cook said something over it in a low voice; I could not hear all, but at last she said to the madam, Now spit in it: and the madam spat, and the cook said, When she comes back she will be dirt under your feet. Madame Blanchard closed her perfume bottle with a thin click.”

Seven nights later Ninete returns. There may be a touch of Isaac Singer’s supernatural here but not really, not if the madam had “began to ask the police to bring her again,” not if Jim Crow worked as intended on the oppressed, whatever their pigment or uses. Whores have always been aristocracy’s fetish.

Transition, Summer 1928

Maupassant, “Les tombales” (1891)

A cedar at Greenwood Cemetery, June 9, 2019. (© FlaglerLive)

A cedar at Greenwood Cemetery, June 9, 2019. (© FlaglerLive)

Friends are hanging out. Joseph de Bardon tells them his story as he was hanging out at Montmartre, because he likes cemeteries: the story seems to be an excuse to rhapsodize about cemeteries: “j’aime aussi les cimetières, parce que ce sont des villes monstrueuses, prodigieusement habitées.” But this story is all about “le comique de la prose tombale.” He meets a woman crushed by her chagrin on an adjoining tomb. He revives her. They walk together–all the way to a three-week affair. “Cette liaison nouée sur les tombes dura trois semaines environ. Mais on se fatigue de tout, et principalement des femmes. Je la quittai sous prétexte d’un voyage indispensable.” But “cette petite amoureuse funéraire” tgurns out to be something unexpected. He sees her aagin at the cemetry, walking with another man, from a different direction. She recognizes him, but makes sure not to let on more than that. “Je m’en allai stupéfait, me demandant ce que je venais de voir, à quelle race d’êtres appartenait cette sépulcrale chasseresse. Était-ce une simple fille, une prostituée inspirée qui allait cueillir sur les tombes les hommes tristes, hantés par une femme, épouse ou maîtresse, et troublés encore du souvenir des caresses disparues ? Était-elle unique ? Sont-elles plusieurs ? Est-ce une profession ? Fait-on le cimetière comme on fait le trottoir ? Les Tombales !” Nothing more than that. A story a little less deep than six feet.

There was this description of the protagonist that seemed uncomfortably familiar: “Un des plus gais était Joseph de Bardon, célibataire et vivant la vie parisienne de la façon la plus complète et la plus fantaisiste. Ce n’était point un débauché ni un dépravé, mais un curieux, un joyeux encore jeune ; car il avait à peine quarante ans. Homme du monde dans le sens le plus large et le plus bienveillant que puisse mériter ce mot, doué de beaucoup d’esprit sans grande profondeur, d’un savoir varié sans érudition vraie, d’une compréhension agile sans pénétration sérieuse, il tirait de ses observations, de ses aventures, de tout ce qu’il voyait, rencontrait et trouvait, des anecdotes de roman comique et philosophique en même temps, et des remarques humoristiques qui lui faisaient par la ville une grande réputation d’intelligence”

Gil Blas, 9 janvier 1891

Maupassant, “La maison Tellier” (1881)

“L’on allait là, chaque soir, vers onze heures, comme au café, simplement.“ a house of prostitution, unremarquable, beloved, in the country. Five women and Madame, the widow and her “intarissable bonne humeur.” The house is busy. Madam runs it like Cheers: everyone knows your name with complete discretion, so the bourgeois can keep coming. One night the house is shuttered. Man after man encounter each other, wander about town, their numbers and disappointment increasing proportionately. They bicker, just as a bunch of equally disappointed sailors make noise. French and British sailors brawl. The six bourgeois eventually split. “Seul, un homme errait toujours, M. Tournevau, le saleur, désolé d’attendre au prochain samedi ; et il espérait on ne sait quel hasard, ne comprenant pas, s’exaspérant que la police laissât fermer ainsi un établissement d’utilité publique qu’elle surveille et tient sous sa garde.” The ostensible cause of the closure? A first communion.

No joke. Madame takes her entire brood to her brother’s place for her 12-year-old niece’s the ceremony. In the train, it’s a whole ménage with a  jarretières salesman. Joy. He wants them to try them on. One by one they do, letting him up their legs. (Maupassant was up on his porn-acteress names even then: Flora Balançoire). Others on the train are incensed, blaming “ce satané Paris.’” At Oissel Joseph Rivet the carpenter picks up the jarretièred brood in a carriage.at The Rivets’, it’s a feast: whores or not, everyone is family. Or so it seems. When they all take a stroll through the village of ten homesteads, “chacun suivait longtemps du regard toutes les belles dames de la ville qui étaient venues de si loin pour la première communion de la petite à Joseph Rivet.” no one knows they’re whores. A superb detail: “Lorsque rentra la petite fille, ce fut sur elle une pluie de baisers ; toutes les femmes la voulaient caresser, avec ce besoin d’expansion tendre, cette habitude professionnelle de chatteries…” they pet the girl with abandon.

Then the quiet of the country night: “Les filles, accoutumées aux soirées tumultueuses du logis public, se sentaient émues par ce muet repos de la campagne endormie. Elles avaient des frissons sur la peau, non de froid, mais des frissons de solitude venus du cœur inquiet et troublé.” And a daring detail: Rosa is alone. She can’t sleep. She’s not used to sleeping alone. She hears Constance, the girl also unused to sleeping out of her room, crying. She takes her in her bed: a substitute trick. “Et jusqu’au jour la communiante reposa son front sur le sein nu de la prostituée.”

The next day, the great ceremony, the carpenter’s pride, the girl’s entourage on its way to the “house of God,” all of them beautiful Magdalens not quite yet washing Christ’s feet. The train of ironies. The village is breathless at the sight of the beauties surrounding the little girl. In church, Rosa cries, remembering her own first communion. (Isn’t it always so?) it’s contagious. Louise and Flora turn into Florida storms. Then Madame. Then the entire church. The comic of the scene is moving. “ Hommes, femmes, vieillards, jeunes gars en blouse neuve, tous bientôt sanglotèrent, et sur leur tête semblait planer quelque chose de surhumain, une âme épandue, le souffle prodigieux d’un être invisible et tout-puissant.” The sacrament is delirium. The priest turns to the congregation, calls it a miracle: “le Saint-Esprit, l’oiseau céleste, le souffle de Dieu, s’est abattu sur vous, s’est emparé de vous, vous a saisis, courbés comme des roseaux sous la brise.” No doubt. The power of women: he thanks his “sisters” (the whores), “qui êtes venues de si loin, et dont la présence parmi nous, dont la foi visible, dont la piété si vive ont été pour tous un salutaire exemple. Vous êtes l’édification de ma paroisse;” (my underline of course.)

The brood must return to work. Madame atelier and her sister have a conversation about a Constance, but nothing is settled. Were they negotiating the girlks graduation to whoredom? And really, in repressive, sexist late 19th century France, what other emancipating business was there for women?

Rivet is drunk. He tries to have his way with Rosa, who laughs him off as Raphaële and Fernande hold him back. “Salope, tu ne veux pas ?” Évidemment, nonm you don’t ask a doctor at a party to treat your bunions, nor do you ask a whore to tend to your repressed desires. Madame is incensed. They throw him out. He cools off with water, and the whole brood trundles back out to the train in joyous song, Rivet at the reins, “cette carriole enragée et hurlante emportée dans la poussière.” They make it home, home to the whorehouse that Madame Tellier missed, “et la petite lanterne allumée, la petite lanterne de madone, indiquait aux passants que dans la bergerie le troupeau était revenu.“ It’s another delirium in town. A judge, a former mayor, many others are horny for the women. Tourneveau can’t wait. It’s a debauch of a feast: whores and clients had missed each other like old and passionate lovers.

Contrasts, memories, ironies. Superb. And that unforgettable line:  Fermé pour cause de première communion.”