I can’t let the day pass without wishing a happy 200th birthday to my beloved Mr. Dickens. Though I’ve mentioned the brief and less than Dickens-worthy comments Charles made on his first visit to Paris, I’m celebrating his birthday by taking the opportunity to begin a couple of posts I’ve wanted to write for quite some time — basically free-form riffs on some of the books and commentary I’ve found most useful, interesting, pithy, thought-provoking, entertaining, and sometimes just nutty, about France. There is no pattern or order to their appearance. These are just some suggestions you might find worthwhile, enlightening or fun before your next travels.
I am compelled to start with my favorites, Henry James and Edith Wharton. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but bear with me. Henry and Edith spent quite a bit of time travelling about the continent, sometimes together (when Mrs. Wharton would foot the bill for the always cash-strapped Henry.) She was a rabid fan of motoring, and detailed at least three lengthy car trips throughout France, one of which included Mr. James. I will return to her later but, first, my favorite curmudgeon.
James is at his cranky best in A Little Tour in France. He has lots to say about the chateaux of the Loire, mostly complimentary, though he does find the rounded towers of Chambord “stupid.” He adores Chenonceaux, proclaiming it more villa than chateau – and, to Henry, all things Italian are the standard by which all else is measured. He gets around – to Bourges, to Tours, to Nantes, to Toulouse. His observations on the Roman ruins at Nimes are surprisingly contemporary and generally laudatory, although he can’t resist his habit of judging most Roman ruins, including the miraculous Pont du Gard, “in some way brutal and stupid” and “somewhat ridiculous.” Hmmmm.
He barges westward, through Beaucaire and Tarascon toward Arles, where he admits to his contrary nature; in describing the inadequacy of his lodging place, he writes: “I suppose I had better mention that I am well-aware of the inconsistency of a person who dislikes the modern caravansary, yet grumbles when he finds a hotel of the superannuated sort.”
In Arles, Henry and his compatriots scale a wall in the moonlight (quite a feat for our rotund correspondent!) In the quiet of the Roman arena, James chooses not to think of the clamor of “the smashing blows, of riven armor, of howling victims and roaring beasts,” but of the “intonations and cadences” of the Roman theatre, the ruined columns evoking, for him, silent moon-lit actors. He found this spot “one of the sweetest legacies of the ancient world.”
Not to be missed is James’ excursion to Vaucluse (the town is now called Fontaine de Vaucluse.) It was here that Petrach wooed Laura, and where the origins of the river Sorgue spring from the cliffs. What James viewed as a “hideous paper mill” despoiling the landscape is now a big tourist draw. His diatribe against souvenir shops (“dreadful little booths”) is priceless. “It is not only we in America, therefore, who besmirch our scenery; the practice exists, in a more organized form (like everything else in France), in the country of good taste.” His conclusion: “Vaucluse is indeed, cockneyfied, but … I should have been a fool, all the same, not to have come.”
I greatly enjoyed this book, as much for James’ s quite grumpy grumbles on the discomforts and inconveniences of travel as for his observations of people met and places seen. He cannot contain his annoyance at the French railway system: “The express from Marseilles, which I took at Orange, was full to overflowing; and the only refuge I could find was an inside angle in a carriage laden with Germans, who had command of the windows, which they occupied as strongly as they have been known to occupy other strategical positions. [This in 1884!] I scarcely know, however, why I linger on this particular discomfort, for it was but a single item in a considerable list of grievances – grievances dispersed through six weeks of constant railway travel in France….This form of locomotion…is attended with a dozen discomforts; almost all the conditions of the business are detestable. They force the sentimental tourist again and again to ask himself whether, in consideration of such mortal annoyances, the game is worth the candle. Fortunately, a railway journey is a good deal like a sea voyage; its miseries fade from the mind as soon as you arrive…. let this small effusion of ill-nature be my first and last tribute to the whole despotic gare; the deadly salle d’attente, the insufferable delays over one’s luggage, the porterless platorm, the overcrowded and illiberal train.”
Substitute “plane” for “train” and there you have it. (And who says dead writers aren’t relevant?) Next up, Edith’s much less cranky views.