Nine seconds of Edgar Degas on the sidewalks of 1915 Paris – and Philip Hoy has written an exquisite book about it.


Eminent publisher now an acclaimed author, too!

Philip Hoy has been in the service of literature for decades, and I’ve been privileged to know him as a publisher and friend for the last 18 years of them. He’s the founding publisher of Waywiser, one of the leading poetry publishers in Britain. (My a book-length conversation with British poet Peter Dale was published by Waywiser in 2005, and I interviewed L.A. poet Timothy Steele for Three Poets in Conversation in 2006.)

Now it’s Phil’s turn for literary accolades for his own writng, with his new acclaimed book, M. Degas Steps Out.

The book-length essay is based on a 9-second 1915 film clip of the octogenarian painter Edgar Degas on the sidewalks of Paris. Author Julian Barnes called it “a fascinating forensic study and a scholarly tour de force.”

Phil begins his story this way:

In the autumn of 2011, I went to see Degas and the Ballet, an exhibition which had recently opened at the Royal Academy in London’s Piccadilly. Long an admirer of Degas’s art, I cherished this opportunity to see so many of his works – not far short of one hundred paintings, sculptures, pastels, drawings, and prints, as well as a number of the photographs he had taken in his later years. Although the exhibition was everything I could have hoped for, and more, my most vivid memory is not of the works on display, but of a grainy sequence of black and white film which was being shown in the exhibition’s last room. The sequence was very short, running for a mere nine seconds, but it was being played on a continuous loop, and I sat and watched it again and again, totally mesmerized. A notice to one side explained that the central figure in the sequence – a bowler-hatted man walking along a busy Parisian street, accompanied by a much younger woman – was the artist whose exhibition we had just visited. I don’t recall if it said anything else.

According to Matthew Reisz, writing in The Guardian, Phil Hoy was so mesmerized by the film clip of the elderly painter that he downloaded it onto his computer, slowed it down and broke it up into 250 stills – 42 of them are included in the book. Reisz continues: “Just before the screen fades to black, we witness what he describes as a ‘beatific’ moment as a passing young woman turns towards us, ‘we register how beautiful she is’ and she ‘positively beams at [the camera], and in so doing beams at us as well’ – and ‘the more than one hundred years which separate us are wholly annulled.’

“By subjecting this tiny sequence to intense analysis, Hoy shows how it reflects a tragic turning point in French life. Early in the first world war, the actor and playwright Sacha Guitry put together a short propaganda film showcasing leading figures in French culture. Friends such as Sarah Bernhardt and Claude Monet were happy to perform for the camera, but when Degas grumpily spurned his approaches Guitry was obliged to film him surreptitiously.”

Prof. Sherod Santos of the University of Missouri claimed, “I haven’t read a stranger, more original book in a very long time. It’s a wonder. I suspect that M. Degas, lover of privacy that he was, would have been delighted by the book, which it’s an understatement to call an ‘essay,'”

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