Like a Shipwreck
By Erica Berry
From issue 21.1 of Fourth Genre, a winner of the Steinberg Memorial Essay Prize, and a notable essay in Best American Essays 2020.
In the spring of 1940, a man with a coif like a scalloped shell ordered 350 glass ampoules from a local pharmacist. He was making models of a project he had started 20 years before, 50 cc air de Paris. First you empty the serum from the tear-shaped capsule, then you seal it with a blowtorch, locking the air inside. Paris on the brink of war. Paris, caged. Marcel Duchamp was making miniature replicas of his work for a project that would become La Boîte-en-valise, “the box in the suitcase.” He had been compiling miniature reproductions of his paintings and photographs since 1933, and now he was moving into the third dimension.
A year earlier, looking to flee Spain, Salvador Dali had unfolded a map of France. “I studied my winter campaign, trying to plan it in such a way as to combine the possibility of a Nazi invasion with gastronomical possibilities,” he wrote. And so, Dali settled on Arcachon, a seaside village in Bordeaux known for oyster ports, pine forests, and the highest dune in Europe.
On May 16, 1940—just days before Paris’s Ministry of Public Affairs employees tossed flaming government documents from the window of the Quay d’Orsay, igniting the bright green of the garden outside—Duchamp fled Paris by train, joining Dali in his white villa on the coast.
Erica Berry is a writer and teacher based in Portland, Oregon. Recent essays appear in The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, The Yale Review, and Colorado Review, and were listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2019 and 2020. Her nonfiction debut, Cry Wolf, is forthcoming from Flatiron/MacMillan in the U.S. and Canongate in the U.K. in 2022.