Bawdyhouse for Beggars

Translated from French by Edward Gauvin



BEFORE THE WAR there was, I think, in the Saint-Paul neighborhood on rue de Fourcy, a most astonishing public space, a whorehouse for hobos. This bedlam, now vanished from the earth if not its clients’ memories, whose sorely missed atmosphere can be readily imagined, consisted of two rooms-the Senate, where the rate was ten francs across the board, and the House of Representatives, where it hovered, according to mood and quality, around fifteen. It is pleasant to listen to an old woman who thought to live out her days as a pensioner there try and recover her memories of the extraordinary comico-heroic theatre that went on: an old panhandler with formidable whiskers making a racket, making threats, shaking his fist at some low-rent floozy, howling in a voice more-than-soused at her face: ten francs? You tart! You’re not even worth twenty centimes . . .

Now: how, where, when, with whom do they make love, the tramps and vagabonds of this big city, the everyday collapsees of metro seats, waiting rooms, hospitable bistros, squares, avenues, alive and well and sleeping head to toe at the feet of stairwells, in the corners of porte-cocheres, on church steps, on park lawns, beneath the bridges of the Seine and on the quaysides of canals, wherever there’s a shady, solitary spot; how do these folks who almost always manage to rustle up a crust of bread, a can of soup, a liter of red-how do they get some? Not the old ones, who don’t care anymore, settling now and then, whenever a chance is in reach, for stretching out beside some aging vagrant whose thighs are still white beneath her reeking black rags, the skin of her belly still soft despite the gray hairs: someone who, deep in the smell of booze, filth, whiffs of cigarette butts and rotten breath, soon gets her hips back in the swing of things, recalls the slow caresses and, amidst a barrage of profanities, the sighs and whispers that punctuate an amorous embrace. Not the old folks, but the young ones. That is, if they’re not built like spiffy sailor boys marauding along fairground shores, if they’re not more or less well-dressed and presentable despite no-meal-in-three- days, and manage to “do” maids right outside the movies or ugly girls outside their offices-how do they get some? A mystery difficult to fathom, for none are more discreet than the destitute, and many get their satisfaction with each other, many make do just dreaming about it, one eye wide, gazing at posters, pinups, stars, bra models, panty dummies, pairs of legs flying flesh-colored hose-advertising having, as it does, standards that surpass their fantasies. How many times have I hung around town, tapped out down to the last crumb, no longer stopping in front of charcuterie windows but lingerie boutiques instead-yeah, me too, staring vacantly but piercingly at the splendid photos of splendid girls, with their beguiling bosoms sculpted in soft cloth, then hopelessly feasting my eyes on every woman that walks by, sitting on a bench and keeping a naïve tally-the kind you laugh about later-of all the ones who might have, well . . .

On the Quai de la Tourelle, I watch a pervert who’s just approached a rag- picker, a woman. He’s got the mug for it: middle-aged, turned-up collar, hands in pockets. He must’ve offered her money to get his rocks off on her, and now she’s giving him an earful. Neither young nor old, she’s a drifter, dirty, her legs sheathed in black varicose veins and red splotches. Bastard, she yells, I’m no whore, I don’t want your money! Bugger off, you filthy animal! Hands off! But the guy insists, keeps following her. She threatens him with a fist, a bottle. Don’t give a fuck about your stupid dough, you piece of trash, my ass is my own, it’s cleaner than yours. I don’t fuck nutjobs, and I’m no floozy, I tell you, I’m not for sale, so beat it, you worthless trash!

I go over and the guy steps back into the shadows between the trees. He’s pulled out his tool, which he points at the vagrant, who spits at him, disgusted. Beat it, she screams, or I’ll break you in two. The guy straightens himself up and drifts off. She comes toward me. It’s Mimi, from the Magasins Généraux. Of course, she launches into an endless commentary on this sordid story. Guys like that, they’re coming out of the woodwork, I’m telling you, off their rockers and twisted too, they should lock ’em all up, I can’t even sleep easy with them lurking around here anymore, the sons of bitches. Would’ve killed ‘im if I’d had my man with me. And she adds, with a knowing air: Probably some American.


Jean-Paul Clébert (1926-2011) was the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction. After joining the French Resistance and traveling Asia he frequented the Surrealist and Situationist movements, as well as reporting from Asia for Paris Match and France Soir. Prominent works include The Blockhouse and Les Tziganes. His later works were dedicated to the history, nature, and culture of Provence, where he spent his final years. 

Cover of TLR's "John le Carre" issueEdward Gauvin has won the John Dryden Translation Prize and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award as well as prizes, fellowships, and residencies from PEN America, the NEA, the Fulbright program, Ledig House, the Lannan Foundation, and the French Embassy, and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellow for his work on Pierre Bettencourt. Other publications have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Subtropics, Harper’s, and World Literature Today. The translator of eight works of fiction and over 300 graphic novels, he is a contributing editor for comics at Words Without Borders. 

“Bawdyhouse for Beggars” was published in John Le Carre (TLR, Winter 2015) and reprinted in Harper’s Magazine in October of the same year.