I confess I know little, and almost all of it circumstantial, about this atmospheric sketch of a gutter-dwelling worm. It was written by André Bay (1916−2013), for more than four decades a senior editor at Éditions Stock. Among the diverse writers he championed there were Jorge Amado, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Wolfe, Anaïs Nin, and Virginia Woolf. His was the first French translation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night; he also translated Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, and Jonathan Swift. In 1948, along with Raymond Queneau, founded the Prix du Meilleur livre étranger, a literary prize for the best foreign novel. He was also an artist and art critic.
Born André Pierre Robert Dupont, Bay was given his pen name by his close friend, painter Mario Prassinos. Prassinos frequented Surrealist circles — his sister, poet and painter Gisèle, numbered among them — and it is likely that he introduced them to Bay. Among them was a writer named Lise Deharme (née Anne-Marie Hirtz, 1898 – 1980).
Deharme’s first encounter with the Surrealists is immortalized in Nadja by André Breton, who was so enchanted with her glove that he pinned it to the wall and dubbed her the Lady of the Glove. Deharme is remembered, in Marie-Claire Barnet’s words, as the “first impossible mad love dreamed of by André Breton,” but her reputation as an author in her own right has recently been recovered from oblivion by the vein of feminist scholarship that also restored the likes of Leonora Carrington and Gisèle Prassinos. According to Barnet, Deharme was a prolific organizer of Surrealist salons, and the founder of a subversive publication, Le Phare de Neuilly [The Neuilly Beacon], which featured James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Jacques Lacan.
In 1937, José Corti published Le Cœur de Pic [Heart of Spades], a book of Deharme’s children’s poems paired with black-and-white photo-assemblages by Claude Cahun (brought back into print, after long years during which it was a collector’s item, by Éditions de MeMo).
The transgendered Cahun — artist photographer, poet, and writer — was the niece of fantastical symbolist Marcel Schwob, soon to appear in these pages. Cahun’s twenty illustrations, made from unusual juxtapositions of ordinary things, are compositions of miniature worlds that elevate ordinary objects — dolls, dollhouse furniture, flowers, leaves, seeds, forks, spoons, scissors — into the mysterious and extra-ordinary. Cahun herself was interested in objects domestic and Surrealist.
Man Ray once described Deharme’s house, where she held her salons, as “a rambling affair, filled with strange objects and rococo furniture.” After her book with Cahun, Deharme then became to be known in the Surrealist circle as “la Dame de Pique,” or the Queen of Spades, as in this photograph by Ray:
Deharme exhibited a wicked sense of humor in her supernatural writings, and Barnet claims the charm of her writing is that it is “more venomous than it first appears.”
But then Deharme in any of her Surrealist incarnations would bear as little resemblance as an incarnated card from Lewis Carroll (a favorite author of the Surrealists) to the terrifying creature André Bay describes in his mysterious and moody little fragment. If any readers out there have any more clues to the circumstances surrounding its composition, please do leave a comment!