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Le Cabaret


"There were men there who had spent all their lives making nights look shorter to those who paid for them; they were real instruments of joy, born to sing and to please, like the violins they instinctively played."
Joseph Kessel, Nuits des Princes, Éditions de France, 1927
chapter 1

Artifices of joy

Those who, in the years 1924-1925, dragged their misery, their idleness, their sadness or simply their nocturnal mood under the artificial daylight of Montmartre lights, those who loved the unique landscape of the streets Pigalle, Fontaine and Douai, landscape of drunk Americans, of negroes with saxophones, of Argentinean tangos, of girls a little crazed, of pimps in tuxedos, of flower vendors, of beggars and taxi drivers, a landscape that smelled of gasoline, perfumes, make-up and, secretly, drugs, those who liked to see, from the place Pigalle, the cascade of signs hurtling down and dancing, signs as fascinating and disappointing as the artifices of joy, those who mingled with the strange people who begin to work when normal people go to bed […] – those remember the number of Russian night restaurants gathered on a few square meters of the night zone.

These bars grew and multiplied like unhealthy plants. They came in any size and style: from three-story music factories to tiny little ones of half a dozen tables. In some of them, under a bluish church light, which was reflected on silver cups, one silently intoxicated oneself, as if to celebrate a rite; and from others, on the contrary, music, songs, and wild dances resounded, non-stop. In each step, we bumped into Cossacks who were standing like sentries, in front of the gates of these cabarets. […]

There were men there who had spent all their lives making nights look shorter to those who paid for them; they were real instruments of joy, born to sing and to please, like the violins they  instinctively played.

chapter 2

Russian nights

They were the gypsies of the great restaurants of Moscow, of the Petrograd Islands, that the river of emigration had carried to Paris.  Some had played for the Grand Dukes, for the Tsar, for Rasputin. We had thrown small fortunes under the bows they offered us […]

Mixed like that, hungry, disguised, colonels of the guard, professors, women of the nobility, prostitutes, improvised artists, famous gypsies came to deliver -sometimes with a soul violent and sincere, other times with an adulterated theatricality- to couples knocked-out by noise, light and champagne, the barbaric, desperate and sometimes sublime breath that Russia has deposited in her songs, her dances and in her worst children, without any limits or form. […]

The Russians who belonged to these nocturnal establishments were sleeping in these hotels, working in these restaurants, and getting out of their sleep only to sing, serve, and drink, and would never stop singing and drinking until they fell asleep again. In this closed district, in which gargotiers, hoteliers and even hairdressers of their country popped up, they did not need to use a word of French for weeks. They lived so confined by their profession and their fatigue that many of them even ignored the Bois de Boulogne and the Arc de Triomphe. And, like that, they named the district after the square that dominates it, Pigal.

Joseph Kessel,
Nuit des Princes, Éditions de France, 1927

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