On Rewriting Hemingway: Inside Joann Sfar’s Intertextual Web by Fabrice Leroy

28 Feb

Within Joann Sfar’s extremely diverse and prolific comics production, intertextuality constitutes a recurrent device by which an unusually erudite cartoonist weaves in, recycles, and reworks a multitude of literary, philosophical, and pictorial references inside his own whimsical creations. This essay focuses on a micro-sequence from one of Sfar’s early works, his imaginary biography of the Franco-Bulgarian modernist painter Pascin (written between 1997 and 1999, and initially published by L’Association in six short fascicles between 2000 and 2002), in an attempt to explore the various dimensions of Sfar’s habitual borrowing from external sources and integration thereof into his idiosyncratic universe.

A two-page passage of Pascin [1] (181-182) rewrites Ernest Hemingway’s ‘With Pascin at the Dôme,’ the famous description of his encounter with the painter in A Moveable Feast (81-86), Hemingway’s diary account of his experiences as a young expatriate writer in 1920s Paris. Unlike Hemingway’s chronicle of the event, the scene depicted by Sfar is told from Pascin’s point of view, and the extent to which Sfar takes liberties with the intertextual material and reverses not only its perspective, but also the portrayal of the two protagonists, is striking. Contrary to Hemingway’s account, in which Pascin waves to invite him to his table [2], in this version, it is Hemingway who initiates the encounter and intrudes upon the scene, as he ‘stops by to say hello’ to the painter, who is having drinks with two beautiful models at the Café du Dôme, a frequent Montparnasse hangout for 1920s bohemian artists who often referred to themselves as ‘Les Dômiers.’ The young American writer, initially anonymous, then identified parenthetically as Ernest Hemingway, is presented as a sweaty, overweight man with red ears and a mustache, a far cry from the ‘tall, handsome, muscular, broad-shouldered, brown-eyed, rosy-cheeked, square-jawed, soft-voiced young man’ described by his biographer Jeffrey Meyers (Meyers 70). In a sequence of four frames, Sfar summarizes the interaction among Hemingway, Pascin, and the two models in a manner that efficiently synthesizes the writer’s original account, but also distorts it considerably.

Some of the important characteristics of the scene remain unchanged: Hemingway immediately asserts that, from the start of the encounter, ‘[Pascin] was drunk; steady, purposefully drunk and making good sense’ (84), which Sfar conveys in his sketchy yet expressionistic depiction of the wine glass in the painter’s hand, as well as his unkempt and unshaven appearance, heavy eyelids, and sideways sneer. The two women accompanying him are also faithfully rendered by Sfar: like in Hemingway’s narrative, one is blond and the other a brunette, both are attractive, and they claim to be sisters (although Hemingway takes this information at face value, while Sfar suggests that it may be a game designed to stimulate the erotic arousal of onlookers). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the nature of Pascin’s offer to Hemingway remains identical in both versions: he proposes sex with the models to the young man [3].

However, the discordant elements between both accounts are worth examining, as Sfar constructs an image of the two male protagonists that is radically different from the double portrayal that Hemingway carefully composed in A Moveable Feast, in which the writer appears just as concerned with self-image as with the depiction of a cast of other artists. Sfar deconstructs Hemingway’s pretense in an often lucid, if unkind, manner. First, he turns the writer’s sexual desire for the two models from implicit to explicit, stating overtly that ‘one can plainly see that he wants to have sex with them’ in a caption positioned over a clearly flustered Hemingway, who shows his discomfort by tugging uneasily on his shirt collar. By contrast, in the ‘With Pascin at the Dôme’ chapter, Hemingway’s physical attraction to the dark-haired sister is expressed more indirectly, through the writer’s insistent gaze on the woman’s ‘beautifully built’ body (to which he finds no match ‘that Spring’) (84), and more specifically her breasts, which he intently studies under her sweater, and whose seduction he fends off by viewing it as a manufactured construct, questioning her ‘falsely fragile depravity’ and imagining that she is purposefully ‘displaying’ her body for his glance, like any model (85). Second, Sfar deprives Hemingway of the latter’s defense strategies: in the cartoonist’s tale, the American novelist is visibly shocked by Pascin’s libertine offer and simply leaves, which implies a puritanical mindset that Hemingway’s memoir contradicts (although he states that he must go back to his ‘legitimate’ woman — his first wife Hadley Richardson — as a reason for his departure). In his own account, Hemingway defuses the painter’s provocation by a witty retort that sends the painter back to his own debauchery, yet constitutes a compliment of sorts: ‘You probably banged her enough today’ (84). Although the authenticity of this reply may be questionable, as such clever retorts are often conceived post-facto in diaries, with the obvious intent of saving face, Sfar goes beyond doubting the writer’s wit and makes him the target of an unfavorable portrayal.

What does he have against Hemingway, one may ask? Does he, like other critics (Kennedy 185-187), see through the writer’s autobiographical hubris behind the veneer of modesty, and call into question Hemingway’s constructed self as a hyper-masculine, poverty-stricken apprentice to great artists in a great city? Or does he prefer Pascin’s artiste maudit ethos to Hemingway’s egoistic écrivain engagé posture? The following page (182) articulates Pascin’s and therefore Sfar’s criticism more fully: he appears to be turned off not only by the writer’s self-conscious bravado (which translates into chivalrous affectations in front of women that imply a condemnation of Pascin’s own libertinage, as well as a heroic stance in general: ‘Regarde-moi ça, il se prend pour un héros de chaipaquoi. C’est un fou!’ [Look at him, he takes himself for a hero of I-don’t-know-what. He’s a madman!]), but also and perhaps more importantly by his culturally fraudulent and opportunistic co-optation of the Parisian art world: ‘Il croit que tous les trucs autour c’est fait pour lui. Paris, moi, vous, on est là pour lui donner des idées de branlette où il est le héros. Il se croit où?’ [He thinks that all the things around him are made for him. Paris, me, you, we are only here to give him topics of masturbation where he is the hero. Where does he think he is?]. In this adverse judgment, Sfar is careful to assert that he is not another Hemingway, and presents his own take on Pascin as neither exploitative nor self-serving, precisely by virtue of the cultural closeness that he shares with the artist (which includes their shared Sephardic heritage). Unlike the prudish 1920s American buyers of French paintings that Sfar describes on a previous page (180), who hypocritically seek an erotic thrill in the canvases they purchase but remain disconnected from their true artistic value, the cartoonist indirectly claims a more profound and authentic bond with the history of visual arts in France. Perhaps Hemingway’s main mistake was in describing Pascin ‘more like a Broadway character of the [eighteen] nineties than the lovely painter that he was,’ which would be akin, in Proustian terms, to judging the great painter Elstir by his social behavior (his moi social) rather than by his creations (his moi intime). At any rate, Sfar takes a shot at Hemingway’s masculinity by having Pascin call him a ‘puceau’ [virgin].

However, for all its self-conscious attempts at alleviating its author’s insecurities through autobiographical heroism, Hemingway’s ‘With Pascin at the Dôme’ is filled with introspective regret — that of having missed a sexual opportunity, undoubtedly, but predominantly that of having turned down an offer to spend more time with an artist who will soon after commit suicide, making the bitterness of separation more profound and more irreparable: ‘Afterwards, when he had hung himself, I liked to remember him as he was that night at the Dôme’ (86), concludes Hemingway. In that sense, even though his understanding of heroism (like André Malraux’s) may not have aged well in Sfar’s eyes, Hemingway’s textual monument to Pascin’s memory — preserving the artist in a permanent state of generosity and artistically justified debauchery — is not all that different from Sfar’s.

In that regard, Sfar’s abrupt and somewhat judgmental rendition of this episode does not do complete justice to the subtlety of Hemingway’s chapter, which is, at its core, the story of a failed interaction tinged with sadness and ambivalence. Some of the elements captured by Hemingway in this scene are indeed used elsewhere in Sfar’s Pascin, such as the painter’s unfailing generosity and compulsive need to entertain others: ‘I have money. What will you drink?’ (84) is his way of inviting the young, struggling writer. He insists that he order whisky instead of beer, because it is a more expensive beverage. When the two models request to eat in a restaurant, he graciously accepts and lets them choose the place (they suggest an establishment called ‘chez [les] Viking[s],’ also in Montparnasse, rue Vavin) (86). Hemingway also records Pascin’s complex interaction with his models through a triangular device similarly used by Sfar: in this exchange, the writer occupies the same position as the Toussaint character in Pascin, that of a privileged external witness to the dialogue between the painters and his subjects, a third party who enters the contextual intimacy of creation. In Hemingway’s description, Pascin appears like a sum of contradictions, equally provocative, debonair, indifferent, jealous, and abusive: ‘He’s wicked, but he’s nice,’ concludes one of the models, as a perfect summary of Pascin’s duality (84). Although he offered the dark-haired sister’s sexual availability to the writer as a gift, he is irritated because she is posing for Hemingway’s glance, and tells her that she looks like ‘a Javanese toy,’ ‘a poor perverted little poupée’ (85). When, taking offense at this blatant objectifying, she replies that she may be a doll, but that she is ‘more alive’ than him — which we assume to imply an insult to his virility — she also dismisses the painter’s sexual prowess: ‘”Oh that”, she said, and turned to catch the last evening light on her face. “You were just excited about your work. He’s in love with canvases,” she said to me. “There is always some kind of nastiness”‘ (85). In the model’s assessment, as it was recorded by Hemingway, Pascin’s sexuality is therefore intertwined with representation (‘He’s in love with canvases’), to the point when libido or perversion (‘some kind of nastiness’) becomes indistinguishable from the act of drawing itself, as Sfar demonstrated in the numerous painter-model interactions he staged throughout Pascin. The painter’s response to the model’s lament is just as dismissive and despairing: ‘You want me to paint you and pay you and bang you to keep my head clear, and be in love with you too […] Poor little doll.’

Sfar’s borrowing from Hemingway — despite the freedom it asserts over its original source material — does more than confer literary validation to the often undervalued art of comics; it affirms the author’s complex stance on representation, artistic exploitation, sexuality, and the politics of heroism, all in a manner that intersects with the thematic predilections of his other albums. Sfar’s personal take on the Hemingway chapter, beyond its erudition, appropriates and transforms its citation according to the unique voice of a remarkably original oeuvre.

Works Cited

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. The Restored Edition. New York: Scribner, 2009.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. ‘Hemingway’s Gender Trouble.’ American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 2, June 1991.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1985.

Sfar, Joann. Pascin. Paris: L’Association, Collection “Ciboulette”, 2005.

Fabrice Leroy ( is Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he teaches French and Belgian contemporary literature and graphic novels. He is the editor of the scholarly journal Etudes Francophones. Among other projects, he co-authored the literary anthology Littérature Française, Tome 2 (Wiley, 1997); edited (with Adelaide Russo) a thematic issue of the journal Etudes Francophones devoted to Belgian comics (2005); and published two books devoted to the Francophone literature and culture of Louisiana: a critical edition of Bras Coupé et autres récits louisianais (2007) by 19th-century Louisiana novelist Louis-Armand Garreau, and Tout Bec Doux: The Complete Cajun Comics of Ken Meaux and Earl Comeaux (2011). He has published several articles and book chapters on French-language comics, and is currently completing a monograph on Joann Sfar. 

[1] – All page numbers in this article refer to the complete edition of Pascin, published under single cover by L’Association in 2005.

[2] – “I went over and sat down at a table with Pascin and two models who were sisters. Pascin had waved to me while I had stood on the sidewalk on the rue Delambre side wondering whether to stop and have a drink or not” (A Moveable Feast 83-84).

[3] – In Hemingway: “ ‘Do you want to bang her?’ He looked towards the dark sister and smiled. ‘She needs it’” (84). In Sfar: “Pascin lui propose de les baiser [Pascin proposes to him that he have sex with them]” (181).

Leave a comment

Posted by on 2013/02/28 in Guest Writers


Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: