Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint: “Tennessee Williams and Tangier, it’s a long story of love and friendship”

His multiple visits to the city of the strait, the nooks and crannies of Tangier that he frequented, his meetings with Mohamed Choukri and Paul Bowles, his inspirations drawn from the Mediterranean landscapes, Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint recounts in short the highlights of life in Tangier from the world-famous author of the best-seller A Streetcar Named Desire», Tennessee Williams. Journalist at Radio France Internationale (RFI) since 1992 where she hosts a weekly literary magazine, widely followed in Morocco, in which she receives the greatest French and French-speaking writers of our time, Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint is also the author of the critically acclaimed book “Tennessee Williams: A Life“, published in 2011 by Baker Street, a high-level thematic biography that has now become a reference on the life and work of the American playwright.

Le360: Tennessee Williams in Tangier, who will become friends with Mohamed Choukri, is it a whole section of the Beat generation?

Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint: Tennessee Williams and Tangier are a long story of love and friendship. The first time he went to Morocco was to join Paul Bowles and his wife Jane. The three writers know each other well, they met for the first time in Acapulco in 1940 and as Paul Bowles was also a composer, Tennessee Williams asked him to write the music for some of his plays including “The Glass Menagerie“, “Summer and smoke» and “Sweet Bird of Youth» among others, and above all he adores Jane of whom he does not hesitate to say, in his “Memoirs» that she is the best American novelist of her time. So in December 1948, Tennessee Williams arrived by boat in Gibraltar with his companion at the time Frank Merlo and they were welcomed by Jane and Paul, they would spend several weeks in Tangier at the home of the American couple who had emigrated to Morocco. Obviously, it was cold, the swimming pools were closed, it was impossible to swim in the sea either, although it was his favorite daily activity, he also said he had difficulty isolating himself to work, but ultimately that didn’t help him. not prevented from returning.

Several stays followed between 1954 and 1975, the date of his last documented visit, but it is especially that of 1973 which is the most documented, because we have a precise and detailed trace thanks to Mohamed Choukri. The future author of the book “Bare Bread» recounts in a fascinating story, written almost like a logbook, his conversations with Tennessee Williams whom he met in July thanks to Paul Bowles who informed him of them. Introduced to each other in the street almost by chance by a mutual friend, Choukri who wanted to initiate a dialogue with the American writer by telling him about “Cat on a Hot Tin Tin Roof”.» of which he has a copy with him in Arabic, finds himself in fact asked to find a rental for the couple since Tennessee came with a certain Baxter whom Choukri compares to a statue.

“Choukri finds Tennessee very cheerful, even if he has a sadness that is always on the surface.”

— Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint.

After this first incongruous contact, the flow passed and for almost a month the two men saw each other very regularly, even if the obstacle of a common language sometimes limited exchanges a little. Which doesn’t stop them from getting along very well, laughing a lot together, for example with a tragi-comic episode at the post office. In any case, what we think we understand is that it is a very simple, very relaxed relationship, without rivalry which is established between the two writers. They pass each other in the street, meet on the terrace of the Café de Paris, at the Minzah hotel, at Madame Porte’s tea room and talk freely about everything, books sometimes, love, they eat, they they drink and Choukri finds Tennessee very cheerful, even if he has a sadness that is always on the surface. Their last exchange took place on August 9, 1973, but once again it is really thanks to Mohamed Choukri and his text “Tennessee Williams in Tangier” that we have the most faithful and moving testimony of the link between the American writer and the Moroccan city.

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Most writers who have stayed in Tangier such as Kerouac and Burroughs cite the strait city in at least one of their works. Did Tennessee Williams do the same?

Tangier inspired Tennessee Williams with two proven texts, first a poem entitled “Tangier: the Speechless Summer”, published first in a magazine then in the collection entitled “Androgyne mon amour” (1977). It is a long prose poem in three parts where he quotes Paul and Jane Bowles, where he recounts his walks in the Medina, he evokes his companion whom he calls “the poet” and above all he remembers this summer when he had lost his voice, his fear of no longer being able to speak and how his friend Jane had reassured him and eased his anxiety.

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We also know that a long short story published in 1981 under the title “It Hapened the Day the Sun Rose” looks back on her stays in Tangier at the end of the 40s and 50s. A very surprising text which appeals to magical realism by putting features a witch who, to take revenge on a man who resists her advances, transforms him into a crow. And if they were not directly inspired by Tangier, other texts were worked on or rewritten on site. This was his working method, he started a version then kept modifying it until the last moment and he was capable of rewriting several pieces in parallel without rest, and without a doubt that in Morocco Tennessee Williams had the same literary frenzy.

Thirteen years after writing the excellent “Tennessee Williams: A Life”, published in 2011 by Baker Street, what memories do you have of this work and what are the main challenges encountered during its writing?

For the centenary of his birth, I wanted to write this book which was not strictly biographical in the chronological sense of the term, but rather thematic, because I was very frustrated by the absence of reference texts in French on this author who was very famous and widely performed in France. It’s a work that took me several years, and which I also nourished from meetings in New Orleans where he lived for a long time, because as much as the sources in French are almost non-existent, the bibliography in English is phenomenal. . We must not forget that in the United States, Tennessee Williams is still considered a major writer of the 20th century, that several festivals are dedicated to him each year and that his work is monumental. In addition to the numerous pieces, there are short stories, poems, essays, a very voluminous correspondence, a diary, in short a sum which only partially exists in French translation. But beyond my numerous readings, the main difficulty was cross-checking the information.

“I had the chance to meet an old lady in the Casbah who had known Tennessee Williams, and above all I understood why he loved Tangier so much.”

— Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint.

In life, but also in his “Memoirs», Tennessee Williams has rewritten his story a bit. Whether it was about his age, about which he had lied, or about his sister Rose’s operation, the central theme of part of his work, the real timetable of which he ignored, he always had to be very vigilant and check the sources several times to validate the information. But I keep very intense memories of my research, like a detective sometimes, I think that there is still a lot to write about this author and finally it is because I wanted to follow in his footsteps that I I went to Tangier twice last year. A personal journey where I wanted to see the places where he had passed. Many have disappeared, like Madame Porte’s tea room, although I took a photo of the ghost in the window, but I had the chance to meet an old lady in the Casbah who had known Tennessee Williams, and above all I I understood why he loved Tangier so much, because it is one of the most endearing cities I know and I feel lucky to have discovered it and it is thanks to him.

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