Friday Fun: Literary Villas in France

It’s been roughly a century since the French riviera and countryside were discovered by foreign writers. Here are a few of their villas and chateaux for your envious gazes…

Chateau de Charry, patrimoines. midipyrennes.fr
Chateau de Charry, patrimoines. midipyrennes.fr

After his separation from Angelica Bell, Bunny Garnett (former lover of Angelica’s father Duncan Grant) spent the rest of his days at this chateau in the south-west of France.

La Bergere, Cassis. Painting by Vanessa Bell.
La Bergere, Cassis. Painting by Vanessa Bell.

Vanessa and her family spent every summer in Cassis in the south of France. Virginia Woolf also visited them there.

Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat.
Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat.

Somerset Maugham lived in this spectacular villa near Cap Ferrat for over thirty years, until his death in 1965. It was remodelled and renovated for him by American architect Barry Dierks. Everyone who was anyone visited Maugham here: writers such as T.S. Eliot, Noel Coward, Ian Fleming but also political figures, including Winston Churchill. It is now a boutique hotel.

Vila Picolette, from curbed.com
Vila Picolette, from curbed.com

The villa where F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly wrote ‘The Great Gatsby’ was up for sale in 2012. Although the Fitzgeralds moved in and out of several villas on the Mediterranean, the “price upon request” (read: an arm, a leg, and your first born) property in Cap d’Antibes boasts those delightful unnecessaries found in 19th-century homes: staff accommodations, pool terraces, a sauna, portholes, and “immaculate” gardens.

belles-rives-antibes

Above, the kind of hotel Rosemary might have stopped at on the French Riviera in the first part of Tender Is the Night.

And finally, this little treasure below. I could not establish any literary connections for it, but it’s in Provence near Avignon, it looks fabulous and it’s available for rent. When I have my next $9000 or so to throw away spend, I will stay a night or two there, invite all of you writer friends over and then it will have us as its literary connection!

Chateau Ventoux, from luxuryretreats.com
Chateau Ventoux, from luxuryretreats.com

Echo Poetry

A really fun prompt at dVerse Poets Pub today: to write ‘echo poetry’. An Echo Verse is a poem where the last word or syllable in a line is repeated or echoed underneath to form a rhyming liner. My attempt below is just a quick sprint, inspired by conversations between my parents (and of course the first line of a poem by T.E. Brown). But there are some far more wonderful examples linked up to the site, both funny and thoughtful,  so I strongly urge you to check them out.

A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Hot?
Even in a heat wave, there’s bliss to be found.
Around?
Ferns, palm-shade, pool to cool us down…
You frown?
Flowers burst forth in coloured refrain.
Again?
Oh, you’re such a philistine and bore!
Once more.

Women in Translation Month: Judith Schalansky

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good fair few. Today we’re heading over to Germany. I read this book in the original, but it has been translated very skillfully into English by Shaun Whiteside, published by Bloomsbury.

schalanskyJudith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)

Inge Lohmark is a biology and sports teacher in a ‘Gymnasium’ (selective state school, grammar school equivalent) in a provincial town in what was once East Germany. The town is dying, as is the school, forced to close soon because of lack of pupils. Everyone dreams of escaping from that claustrophobic place to search for jobs or a better life, including Inge’s own daughter, who has been living in the States for the past 10-12 years.

Inge, however, is inflexible and judgemental. She believes in the survival of the fittest and refuses to intervene in bullying incidents. Although she teaches biological adaptation, she is unwilling to alter any of her principles and firmly-held beliefs herself. Short shrift, military in style, believing any display of emotion or affection to be a weakness, her style is perfectly captured with the short, staccato sentences, often without verbs, like barked orders. She is the teacher we all feared and loved to hate or mock at school.

Her story is in many ways the story of my parents’ generation, for whom the fall of Communism came too late and who will never be able to adapt to a new world they do not understand nor like very much. Because of my own experience with recalcitrant relatives who live in a nostalgia of a life that never really was the way they remember it, I have more patience for Inge than most readers would. Many of her acerbic observations of modern life and young students will strike a chord, perhaps provoke a wry smile of recognition. She is also a profoundly lonely person, barely sharing a word with her husband – who is immersed in his ostrich farm – and rarely engaging in conversations with her colleagues or neighbours, unless they become arguments or point-scoring exercises.

Example of illustrations from the book.
Example of illustrations from the book.

The book is presented entirely from Inge’s point of view and I have to admit that I would have liked to see her through the eyes of others at some point. There are also plenty of digressions about the animal kingdom and evolution theory, with some beautiful illustrations. These digressions are quite interesting and (of course) symbolical, albeit not always in the way Inge thinks of them, but they do become repetitive after a while. Nor is there much in the way of a plot, other than being a witness to Inge’s increasingly disturbing thought processes, which do not really translate into any major action. Finally, my main bone of contention is that Inge has not really learnt or changed as a character, there has been no development as such (and we learn next to nothing of the other characters). For a Bildungsroman, there was remarkably little ‘Bildung’ (learning).

I thought it was well-written and an interesting love-hate elegy for a lost world. Inge is remarkably clear-eyed about the GDR society and ideology as well. I thought it did a great job of giving voice to a thoroughly difficult, unlikeable and yet pitiable character. But, blame my shrinking attention span or my love for crime fiction, I did feel this book was too long at 200 pages. I think all the points would have come across, the character would have been fully described in a novella half that length.

 

Thoughts on L’Adversaire

adversaireA couple of months ago I mentioned that I discovered that we lived in the same village as a notorious mythomaniac and killer, who has been the subject of a book and a film. I recently succumbed to my morbid curiosity and read the book, which pretty much reiterated all the things I had found out from my neighbours. The author Emmanuel Carrère has been accused of romanticising Romand, but I don’t think he does that at all. In fact, he allows Romand to be condemned by his own words and actions (his coldness and lack of remorse are completely chilling), but also revealing the charm and intelligence of a man who managed to fool so many people for so long.  The author is a proponent of the Catholic idea of evil residing in all of us, and that perhaps this ‘adversary’ has been so cunning in this case that the perpetrator has started believing his own lies. 

Instead of a conventional book review, however, I just wanted to share a poem inspired by the whole story.

Village Blues on a Sunny Day

We lived nearby but
in the growth of tulgey wood and velvet moth
he went unnoticed.
A busy town, a hasty life.
We knew each other for hello,
discuss the weather, will it snow,
school events to plan for,
but no substance to the smiles.

I peer from my upper window now
with less envy at your hammock of ease
poolside limbs perfectly tanned
flower tubs pregnant with beauty.
For beneath the poised completeness
who knows what lies, ice fraud,
the curdling compromise of a heart fraught
with keeping up appearances.

Women in Translation Month: Crime Fiction

WITMonth15Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few. Today I am heading to northern climes, where the nights are long and the mood is often dark (at least in crime fiction).

 

DrownedBoyKarin Fossum: The Drowned Boy (transl. Kari Dickson)

With Karin Fossum you know that it’s never just about the crime and its detection/solution, it’s always about the people, the motives and the consequences. This book addresses a difficult subject: a toddler drowning and parents being suspected of having harmed their child, with the added complication that this is a child with Down’s Syndrome. 

As always, the author makes us question our own assumptions. The father and mother have very different styles of grieving, but no one is unmarked by the little boy’s death. Inspector Sejer is, as always, melancholy, measured and trying hard to fight his prejudices (while also relying on gut instinct). The ending does feel a little contrived, although it will probably feel satisfying for most readers, but the journey there is what Fossum is really interested in. And what a thoughtful and unsettling journey it is.

For a guide to the previous Inspector Sejer novels, have a look at this great article on Crime Fiction Lover.

DefencelessKati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless (transl. David Hackston)

For my full review of this book, see Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in the series featuring rookie detective Anna Fekete, a Croat of Hungarian origin who came to Finland as a child to escape the war in Yugoslavia. I am pleased to say that this second novel lives up to the promise of the first one and indeed surpasses it. The action takes place in a town in Northern Finland and, as in the previous book, we get a real feel for the place and the changing of the seasons.

The characters of the two main investigators, Anna and her ‘old dinosaur’ of a colleague Esko, are given more definition and depth. We see them both as more vulnerable and lonelier than in the first book. Although they may be said to represent the sad, loner cop cliché, they come with some added extras. Anna is unsure of where she belongs, torn between cultures, lonely but professing to like the non-interfering and aloof nature of the Finns. Like them, she doesn’t know any of her neighbours. Esko meanwhile tries to forget about his ex-wife and the pains in his chest, and dreams of escaping to a quiet, self-contained lifestyle in the woods. But, of course, they have a case to work on: in fact, several cases – drugs, gangs, murder and a hit-and-run, all ultimately linked.

The most moving part of the novel is the story of Sammy, a refugee from the persecuted Christian minority in Pakistan, who has followed the same route into Europe as the heroin that’s smuggled in (and which is no stranger to him either). When his asylum application is unsuccessful, he goes underground and starts playing with fire, Subutex and unsavoury characters.

I love the ‘social critique’ style of crime fiction which seems to be on the rise now, and this is a great addition to that school of writing.

 

 

Rereading ‘Tender Is the Night’

To say that this is one of my favourite books is an understatement. It’s amongst my top ten (and I am very, very picky). Nine years in the making, revised endless times, Fitzgerald himself considered it his best work. First, here are some covers of ‘Tender Is the Night’ which I have admired over the years.

tender2 tender5 tender4 tender3 tender1My own battered copy dating from 1983 (goodness, so I must have read it for the first time when I was quite a bit younger than Rosemary, no wonder I found it so shocking!) has a less immediately appealing cover.

Tender

 

It has been with me for thirty-two years now, across nine moves to a different country, fourteen house moves, my own first marriage break down, through my own darkest days of depression, through my greatest personal triumphs and it has witnessed two children growing up to be nearly the age I was when I first laid eyes on it.

But I had not reread it cover to cover in oh-so-many years now. Would it disappoint? Not exactly, but nor did it delight me quite so much as before. One critic commented that anyone who loved Gatsby would end up loving this novel even more. In my case, I’ve moved the other way. I used to prefer it to The Great Gatsbybut I am no longer sure that is the case. Gatsby is concise and leaves a lot to the imagination. We never quite find out enough about Jay Gatsby’s missing years, unsavoury connections, or the way he made his wealth. It is the subject of myth and speculation. In Tender Is the Night everyone’s back story is much more clearly spelled out (although here too, there is plenty of gossip) and the points of view shift. The style feels much less in control, even repetitive at times. Some of the characters feel a bit extraneous, although each one contributes to the atmosphere around the gilded couple.

I remembered very clearly the French Riviera and Paris locations, but had forgotten about Lausanne and Vevey, so it was rather charming to read about the locations that are now so close to me. Some of the scenes that I remembered very clearly were still there, glittering like gems of absurdity and yet extremely poignant: the anecdote about trying to cut a waiter with a musical saw, the ridiculous duel which neither participant really wants, what Mrs. McKisko witnesses in the bathroom…

But the downward spiral of the marriage and the descent into alcoholism felt much more restrained this time round, not as shocking as I remembered – perhaps because I’ve read so much about dysfunctional families and breakdowns since. Now that I’m so much older, I had more sympathy with Nicole rather than with Rosemary. In fact, Rosemary seemed to me already tainted with the allure of fame and the artificiality of the film world. Yet I still understood her youthful hero-worship of Dick Diver, and her ultimate disappointment.

Finally, what struck me is how F. Scott Fitzgerald is so aware of the deadly consequences of privilege, how he mocks both those born with money and those chasing after it (or fame), how relentlessly self-aware he is in his work… and yet in his real life he could never escape the siren call of this very world he professes to despise. Tender Is the Night recognises that man is weak, filled with self-doubt, but that he is at his best when he still seeks out perfection. Doomed to failure of course, as we finally admit that there is no perfect moment, all is transient, but oh, how we hate ourselves for giving up…

Finally, what about the chronology? There are two versions of this novel. The best-known (the one first published in 1934) starts on the Riviera and then deals with the back story of Nicole and Dick’s meeting and marriage in flashback. The second version, published posthumously, follows the events in chronological order. The original version is best, even for people like me who don’t overly like complicated flashbacks. In this case, it’s not: Fitzgerald knew what he was doing. That chapter (X in Book II) from Nicole’s point of view, taking us right back to the present – priceless!

Friday Fun: Converted Barns

Barn conversions are very popular not just in France, but all over the world. Here are some examples:

Farmhouse annexe in Switzerland.
Farmhouse annexe in Switzerland.
Typical Gessien barn, France.
Typical Gessien barn, France.
Traditional farmhouse in Ain, from Ain Tourisme.
Traditional farmhouse in Ain, from Ain Tourisme.
English barn, from Spirit Architecture.
English barn, from Spirit Architecture.
American barn with a modern twist, Pop Sugar.
American barn with a modern twist, Pop Sugar.
Traditional barn conversion, from The Telegraph.
Traditional barn conversion, from The Telegraph.
Renovated stables, from Le Bon Oeil.
Renovated stables, from Le Bon Oeil.

I can’t help hearing my grandmother’s voice, clucking somewhere above my shoulder: ‘Tsk, tsk, why would people want to live with cows and pigs?’