First meeting – 1956
This year, the magazine “Styrshel” celebrated its tenth anniversary. Prominent humorists and cartoonists from several countries – mainly the socialist ones – were invited to the celebration. From France came Jean Effel. I knew for a long time his series, most notably “The Creation of the World” – small drawings filled with subtle simplicity, gentle humor and a lot of kindness.
I remember meeting him at the airport well. He was a little under medium height, thin, slender, with a pale matte face and thin features. His hands were expressive, commensurate with his figure. He looked like an experienced swordsman who wanted to hide it at all costs. I especially liked his smile – it expressed something like a slight irony or a soft cunning. From the very first words we exchanged, I realized that the person is capable of a thin conversation that never goes into pathos and always manages to preserve itself from any spiritual manner with an irresistible sense of humor.
During those few days when I was accompanying him, we talked about various issues – the cultural state of France after the war, various artists, the fashionable back then literary phenomena. Not only was Jean Effel aware of the problems, not only he knew the most prominent representatives of the French intelligentsia, but he was also able to tell hilarious spicy facts about them. From distant hints, I learned that he was very active in the opposition.
I also learned that he was not a member of the FCP, but close to it. Each week he donated one cartoon to the “Humanite Dimanché”. He had visited Czechoslovakia and Poland and was convinced that the path to the future was through socialism. I remember the conversations quite broadly, because I have never taken notes, even with the most interesting people I have had the lucky chance to meet. I only remembered certain moments, certain lines that were piling up in my memory. So it is now. I remember the two meetings between Jean Effel and Ilia Beshkov.
The first one took place at Beshkov’s home. It was him, Jean Effel, myself and Todor Dinov, who, as I recall, occasionally recorded Beshkov’s conversations (I think he knew how to transcribe). Of course, I had explained to the guest who Beshkov was not only for our caricature, but also for our culture in general, without exaggerating with superlatives, as I wanted to let Effel evaluate the great cartoonist and painter himself.
As far as I remember, at the beginning of the conversation Beshkov expressed his admiration for Effel’s talent and manner of drawing, his subtle sense of humor, and his childlike belief in the creation and the Creator. It seems to me that Beshkov praised his guest too much and that somehow annoyed me. But Jean Effel’s response was surprising. He explained simply that he was not a painter but a feuilletonist. And because he could not use the word, he expressed his feuilleton imagination with drawings. There was a dialogue about the language and they both agreed that it was the greatest means of expression (I don’t remember the exact words). Then the guest wanted to see Beshkov’s drawings and he willingly pulled out a large pile of his work. Mostly cartoons – both domestic and political. Effel was looking at them carefully, silently, without comment. I saw Beshkov following the guest’s face to catch his reaction. Finally he did not restrain himself and asked what Effel’s opinion was about his works. The Frenchman replied that Beshkov was like their Daumier. He immediately added that he respects this artist very much. However, it seems that this is not enough for Beshkov. After explaining that he also liked Daumier, he said he will show the guest the drawings he had been making lately. They were really nice. There was no longer the complicated drawing technique, the line was clear, simple, clean. Jean Effel seemed to like them a lot, because he noticed that “he would have admired the author if he himself had not tried to paint in a simple way.” Beshkov liked this compliment. Still, there was something about the guest’s reaction that didn’t quite satisfy him. Then he pulled out his famous pipes and started playing. We listened, at least Dinov and me, fascinated by these improvised tunes. When it was over, there was a long silence. Then Jean Effel asked me to tell Beshkov the following: he, along with the other Strassel guests, was invited to tour Bulgaria, but since he was busy and had to return to Paris, he refused, regretting that he would not get to know the real Bulgaria. “But now,” he added, “after hearing Mr Beshkov’s tunes, I think I should not regret it. Through them, I somehow touched the soul of this people. ” Beshkov was really, very happy. He wished to meet again, if possible, once again, and Jean Effel agreed with sincere readiness. The next day in the evening, before Jean Effel’s departure, we had a dinner at the red lounge of Hotel Bulgaria. There were, I think, a lot of people. It seemed to me that Beshkov came even shortly before the appointed hour. Jean Effel, who lived at the hotel, arrived a little later.
The two of them spoke most of the time. They talked about art and artists, about the philosophy of history, about modern art, about contemporary and ancient mythology. I must say that Beshkov was brilliant. He expressed his original, at times seemingly absurd, sentences with such ease, with such a sense of humor, that I felt proud that our culture possessed such a person, though I did not always agree with him. Jean Effel kept the conversation going – he also had knowledge of many issues, but did not point it out.
When we separated, he said that Beshkov was a truly great interlocutor with his own thinking – something he thought was less common in Europe these days.
The next day, on his departure, Jean Effel invited me to visit him in Paris, promising me that he would introduce me to whom I wanted from the French intellectuals. And he did not forget to order me to greet Beshkov and to express his admiration and pleasure from their two meetings.
In the early 60’s, my friend, the artist Mana Parpulova, was in Paris. On departure, I asked her, if she had the time and desire, to call Jean-Effel and send him greetings. When she returned, she said that she once walked down the Bonapard Street (I had given her Effel’s address) and decided to visit him – something that was not acceptable at all, even indecent, especially to such busy and prominent figures. However, they invited her to come in. Jean Effel came and she explained to him in her not so perfect French that she was a friend of Stefan Gechev, who sends him a lot of greetings. He revived, showed interest in me and especially in Beshkov (who had died in 1958). The fact that he remembered with sympathy for his stay here and for the people he met, gave me the opportunity, if I happened to come to Paris, to meet him.
Second meeting – 1968
I arrived in Paris towards the end of September, after the famous May events had faded away, but their echoes were not only over France, but in a sense also throughout Western Europe. Still spirits were bubbling.
Some time after I arrived, I called Jean-Ephel. He expressed his temperate pleasure to hear from me and invited me to lunch at 11 o’clock the next day.
Bonaparde Street is long; it crosses Saint-Germain Square, which houses the church and the famous “Two Cigarettes Ends” Café from the beginning of the century. Number one on the street is located almost at the corner with the Malake pier. A narrow street with old houses and numerous antique bookstores.
A white elevator, installed exclusively for the last floor, where Jean Effel’s apartment was, led me to the door. The maid opened and before she could announce my arrival, the host appeared.
He greeted me very cordially and invited me to his studio – a huge, no less than six meters high, on two levels, with a veranda, which had cabinets, filled, as I understood, with sketches, drawings, archives of Effel, arranged and maintained by his devoted secretary, to whom I was introduced by the host. At the higher level was the workbench of the artist, there were large library cabinets. The lower one, which came down with three wooden steps, was like a saloon. We sat down there in front of a table full of bottles. Jean Effel explained to me that we will drink the aperatif at his place and have lunch at the restaurant. Then he started asking me about his acquaintances in Bulgaria. He was very lively, that noticeable reservation from Bulgaria had evaporated. He was here in his home, in his atmosphere – and now I began to understand that his reservation was simply the consternation of a creator who found himself in a pleasant, interesting, yet alien environment …He asked about Beshkov first and truly got upset of his tragic end. “He was an extraordinary man,” he was repeating.
His wife came, a strict middle-aged lady dressed in elegant discretion. François (that was Effel’s real name, as I understand it now) spoke of recent events – the rebellion of students and workers that could have caused not only De Gaulle but also our system to fall if there was an organization to lead the movement. “I was very happy,” he said, “that the revolutionary traditions are not just a thing of the past for our France, that the youth has not gone too bourgeois.” But the rebellion was crushed “without a drop of blood” and now France is – here he turned to his secretary and asked her to give a copy of his “poster” – the image of Mariana with her mouth glued. Francois said he gave it to me and asked for a pencil to sign. To the secretary’s remark that there were only two or three copies left, the artist replied “that is even better,” it would be even more valuable to his guest. I still keep the poster.
We went to dine at the famous Lipp restaurant, twenty paces from Effel’s home, on Saint Germain Boulevard. It is a narrow room – a ground floor and a balcony, which is reached by a narrow wooden staircase. As in most French restaurants, the tables are small and quite dense. We had a table reserved. With the particular attention of the waiters, it was clear that Jean Effel was a regular and accurate guest. The dishes were excellent and the wine – the Burgundy brand Pomar – was splendid. By the way, I saw Francois Mitterrand at the neighboring table, and Effel greeted him and whispered his name to me – “great guy, he has a role to play in our political life.”
After lunch, Mrs. Effel said goodbye because she had some work to do. “I hope you won’t be too late,” she told her husband as she was leaving, and he replied with something cheerful – in the sense that he was available to his guest, who had sacrificed him so many days in Sofia.
When we were alone, Francois felt somehow free. He said that another bottle of that wonderful wine would be a good end to lunch and he immediately made the order. It was then that I noticed for the first time (in Sofia he hardly drank) his addiction to alcohol, which brought him to the fatal end ten years later. So, having a conversation, we drank the bottle and then I asked for coffee. “Not here, dear” he said. – Never drink coffee at a restaurant. It’s always bad. We’ll have coffee elsewhere. ” This “elsewhere” was located almost opposite the restaurant, it was the famous “Flora” cafe. Artists, writers, and actors have been gathering in it since the beginning of the century. Here in the evening Apoliner used to meet his friends frequently. Now, at two o’clock, the cafe was almost empty. Effel ordered coffee and cognac. He became very close to me that day. Especially when at five o’clock he decides we should split. “If by any chance my wife asks you one day about this day, tell her we were together until late night,” he said, smiling with that naively wicked smile, which I knew well.
A third meeting is coming soon