Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe and the Paris House of Illusion Described in the Web and the Rock

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe and the Paris House of Illusion Described in the Web and the Rock

Article excerpt

Thomas Wolfe's April 1935 note on the Scottsboro case reveals, according to Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves, "the illogic of many of Wolfe's social and political positions," and how important personal experience and intuition were to him (qtd. in Wolfe, Notebooks 2: 736). (1) The note, however, is also significant because Wolfe reminisces about his first visits to sex workers and is honest about the cause of his continued frequentation of them:

I have never in my life known how to "get women." My ideas about getting them are primitive, crude, and plain. At college (in North Carolina) I used to go to the neighboring towns--Durham, Raleigh, Salisbury, etc.--and go to a whore house down in the nigger section or on the fringes of it, or in a cheap hotel.... (Notebooks 2: 736)

Wolfe's solicitation of prostitutes is representative of his time, as men bought sexual services more commonly in the past, (2) and the notebook entry suggests this was sometimes his only physical intimacy with women. Other entries, dating from 1924 to 1936, show that he depended on commercial sex when traveling abroad (1: 41-42; 2: 837). The only brothel scene Wolfe set in Europe is one of the most detailed in his fiction: in chapter 45 of The Web and the Rock, Monk Webber is taken to a licensed bordello in Paris one night from the Folies Bergere. (3) As in much of Wolfe's work, personal experience may also factor into the brothel scene in The Web and the Rock. The passage illustrates many aspects of his time, shows Monk's ambivalence regarding bordellos, and suggests a certain illogic in Wolfe's views. In France, bordellos, which were legal until 1946, were called "houses of illusion," because, as Wolfe notes, a secret world exists "behind the plain, untelling facades of familiar houses" (645), and because the women made each man briefly feel like a sexual hero. Wolfe contrasts them with American houses of prostitution, which were illegal. The house of illusion passage contains many facts, but Wolfe's Paris bordello is also his own house of illusion in that he applies poetic license, describing the scene in an expressionistic manner, revealing Monk's unease. The scene's place in the novel, and among the modernist projects of the period, makes it more noteworthy still. Finally, it suggests that Wolfe's views on prostitution, though somewhat contradictory and definitely of his time, are still relevant today.

In September 1927, in Paris after a trip with Aline Bernstein, Wolfe wrote that he had bought a prophylactic advertised in Le Sourire at the Faubourg Montmartre and gone to a brothel once Bernstein had returned to the United States (Notebooks 1: 129-30). In September 1928 he mentions a Folies Bergere show seen in Paris, and he went to another in May 1930 (1: 184; 2: 452). His protagonist, Monk, in the summer of 1928, is late for the Folies Bergere. The show had recently featured Josephine Baker in her famous banana belt. (4) As Monk hesitates over ticket prices, a typical "vulpine" Parisian in evening dress approaches him, claiming to be an attache of the theatre, helps him get a ticket, then, claiming the show hasn't started, offers to take Monk to the dancing girls. Monk is surprised to be taken outside. The direction they take is vague: "A block or two from the great theatre they turned into another street and paused before a house which had a very closed and secret look ..." (644). The facts are that the two maisons nearest the Folies (located at 32 rue Richer, 9th arrondissement) were, at the time, Le Montyon, a block away, old and select, in what was a neo-gothic building at 14 rue Montyon (a "Pressing" in a modern building today); and two blocks away, a middle-class bordello called the Star of Venus, at 7 rue de la Grange-Bateliere. (5) The Paris police files for both establishments are rife with complaints about guides bringing in customers from the Folies Bergere under false pretenses. One complaint about the Star of Venus is a near perfect match with Monk's story. …

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