Carcassonne, The Poet Joe Bousquet and His Bedroom

Climbing up to the top of St. Vincent’s Gothic Church from the 14th century, this is what I saw of Carcassonne.  A city that everyone told me I would not like.

Some info about the church:  During the French Revolution, between 1794 and 1795, the church was transformed into a metal foundry to manufacture artillery mountings. Subsequently reinstated as a church, St Vincent’s has numerous chapels, and other features including an old, ornate church organ and a carillon in the tower dating from 1710.
It is possible to ascend the church tower at no cost, climbing the 232 steps to the top, where there is a magnificent view across Carcassonne to the mediaeval city. 

This church was just stunning in a bare sort of way, you could feel the struggle in this church to stay relevant.  One felt they were having alot of financial issues, but still the energy in here was powerful.  There was a saint in there, and I tried to get information about him but very difficult.  A gorgeous little chapel with sparklings on the wall, of all the WWI men from the area who died in battle.  I have never seen such a strange glimmer from the wall.  Take a look.

Photo:  This was a jaw relic of some sort from a church near the Citadel called St. Gimer.  Again, this was a struggling but stunning little church.  Truly worth the visit.   Located just outside the ramparts of the medieval city, Saint Gimer was built between 1854 and 1859 by the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc who was responsible for the restoration of the Cite. One of three churches designed by Viollet-le-Duc, it is the embodiment of his Gothic vision reimagined in the 19th century. The views of the church from the Comtal Chateau are quite wonderful.

I was told to stay away from this city simply because of all the hoopla with the Citadel.  It is known as ‘La Cité’, and it dominates Languedoc’s tourism map. It is huge and completely over-the-top, encompassing no less than 53 towers, strung together by two enormous concentric walls, surrounded by a moat, and punctuated here and there by heavy barbicans, portcullis and draw-bridges. Within these fairy-tale fortifications sits a castle, a basilica (church), and a small town. And the whole thing struts its stuff at the top of a hill, giving it superb views of the modern city of Carcassonne to the west, the Aude river and Canal du Midi to the north, and the often-snow-capped Pyrénées to the south.

Well, I stayed away from this place.  I was more interested in the non touristic area of the city.

And there are treasures to be found.  Along with this ancient city, I sensed the rot and menace.  Sorry tourist guides!  But it felt raw which is usually good, but there was a sense that this was a small, poor and disregarded city where now many refugees, were flocking to.  One could feel the tension.  I spoke to a few residents and figured right.   There was resentment with the locals who themselves seemed in struggle mode, yet not as poor as the migrants coming in, nevertheless, there was vulnerability.   I sensed troubled migrants, young kids with nothing to do and already a poor city with probably no jobs and opportunities.  But the city architecturally, building-wise was stunning.  If i had money I would have bought something here as truly, the streets were amazing, but the amenities were dire and it just seemed “cheap” i.e. low-market.  There just weren’t enough people there spending money for the amenities to up-grade.  There were cheap shops, with cheap stuff from China and really a few cafes but everything else seemed grubby and low-brow.  This made me very sad.  There seemed to be a disconnect between the original inhabitants and the outsiders brought in.  The sense was a huge gap, an ocean between people.    I sensed the menace after dark, and a few people had told me the city was not a great place to live.  One part of the city was full of tourists to see the Citadel but the rest seemed to be in a struggle mode of operandi.   I didn’t see a lot of brocante shops, or antique shops all I can say is this city felt problamatic like it was really trying breathe and find its stability but somehow it couldn’t lift itself up.

Photo of Citadel where most tourists flock to.  I could care less and avoided it!

I was more intrigued with these old buildings.  I wanted to find my way inside!

And then I found a treasure.
I found Joe Bousquet.

Joe Bousquet was born in Narbonne in 1897.

In this medieval citadel the lower town is a maze of streets. I found 53 rue de verdun where a poet lived and died more than 60 years ago by accident.  There was no way I would have known was treasures lay upstairs.

In 1920 Joe Bousquet moved to Carcassonne in the hope of becoming a writer.  “Every day I wake filled with anxiety.  I feel the terror of a shipwrecked man.” He had no one to talk to, no visitors and knew nothing about the new developments in French literature.  In 1929 he began a correspondence with Jean Paulhan, part of the Marseille literary review.  He discovered Paul Eluard and the surrealist painting of Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Rene Magritte.

“Deep in a disgust far greater than my misery, I found the first poems of Eluard and I knew that was the greatest poet of our time.  I wrote to Andre Breton, I wrote to Max Ernst.  We became friends”  Ernst told Bousquet that he too had been a soldier in the very German attack unit that had confronted Bousquet the day of his terrible injury.

Joe Bousquet was bedridden and confined to a wheelchair.  When World War 1 broke out he had volunteered before being conscripted.  He was wounded in Lorraine and then on May 27, 1918 a bullet hit his spinal cord.  He was 21 and would never walk again.

So in 1920 he dreamed of being a writer and moved to Carcassonne.  He said: “The painters satisfied a need in me.  When I was poor as them they turned my room into an enchanted place to live.”

Dali, Bellmer, Klee, Arp, Miro became his friends!  He had paintings because he had these artists as friends and had great feeling for them as he did for pretty women.  He was bed bound but he had the hunger to be the charmer and the cavalier.

He always dressed to kill and exerted an irresistible fascination on the host of young women who came to visit him.

A young Russian woman, Gala, Paul Eluard’s wife, brought him his first surrealist art-works and spoke to him of a Catalan painter whose muse and partner she would later become.  This was Salvador Dali and he took to buying Dali’s paintings often without seeing them first.

In the afternoon or evening after dinner, the poet held court for Parisian friends passing thru and for a small local circle of intellectuals.  He was surrounded by family, his sister, his aunt and his mother.  He wrote late into the night amid the smoke of the opium that alleviated his chronic pain.

During WW2 his bedroom became the meeting place of resistance fighters from the Aude region.

The publisher Gaston Gallimard moved to the area with his family.  Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet, Andre Gide, Simone Weil and many visited him regularly to talk painting and literature.

The alcove bedroom remains exactly as it was.  A figure of 20th century French literature.

In this room, bedridden Bousquet lived for more than 30 years.  A poet’s room.

Visitors had to go up the large stone staircase of this gardenless town house to the first floor and wait at the end of the corridor in front of a heavy curtain, opened only at the poets invitation.

Then in semi darkness they would enter into a shrine to scholarly disorder.  In the intense heat of the room he would spread across his bed the books, magazines, newspaper and letters he received.

In this mysterious space he would listen to the streets, to the stairs, to the sounds around him and create and dream.

Today the shelves are filled with rare books and there are portraits of friend and yellowed photos.

On a table opposite the bed sit a bunch of fresh flowers.

Joe Bousquet retains a special place in the hearts of painters and poets.

His writing transcended his physical impairments.

His collection of paintings has sadly been dispersed but his home hosts exhibition, events, and even a publishing house.

Maison des Memores Centre Joe Bousquet
53 rue de Verdun
11000 Carcassone

Some of the information and extra photos taken from article by Catherine de Montalembert found in NYT.

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