10 July 2007

Des nuits d'été

The Château of Beynes: un chouette tas de pierres

Thirty years ago today, I was running amok in the streets of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, near the Spanish border on the southwest coast of France. I want to apologize right now for my behavior. I was a tourist. I was only fifteen. It was my first trip to this country, my first glimpse of the Cathedral of Chartres and the châteaux of the Loire, my first champagne and my first real baguette, my first opportunity to speak the French language with people who might actually understand what I said. I was an excitable boy to begin with, and in these circumstances, it’s only natural that I was overexcited. But still. I’m sorry.

I have been trying ever since to be, if not French outright, at least French-like. French-esque. French-worthy. And today I celebrated the successful renewal of my residency permit by doing something I never do: eating lunch at the Brasserie du Château, overlooking the crumbling remains of the Château de Beynes, a few doors from my house.

There’s not much left of the old castle, it must be said, and in my more disrespectful moments I call it le tas de pierres (the pile of rocks). Construction began in the fourteenth century, and in its heyday the Château was the property of Diane de Poitiers, the celebrated beauty who was mistress of Henri II and one of the most powerful women in France. (It’s on her account that you see statues and paintings of the goddess Diana all over this country.) But since Diane’s day, nobody seems to have given much of a damn about the old place, and starting in the nineteenth century, my neighbors began picking away at the walls, using the stones to build their own homes. Perhaps even the one I live in: I can’t be sure. The pile of rocks is open to the public only one day a year; it’s surrounded by a grassy moat, long since drained, where a Battle of the Bands is another annual event, and where there’s a flea market sometimes.

The Château lies near the river Mauldre, in a valley where stands anything that passes for a landmark in these parts: the Church of St. Martin and the monument to the French war dead; the municipal playing fields, duckpond and tennis court; the ugly city hall and post office; the town market (Thursday and Sunday mornings), and the médiathèque, La Barbacane, which boasts a library, art classes, movie screenings, and touring theatrical productions. These are the images that are preserved on (rare) postcards and (rarer) websites, and they’re the heart of the Bourg, the old town — right behind my house.

Nestled among wheat fields and rolling hills, Beynes is less than an hour from Paris by commuter train. The town famous for nothing, and I wouldn’t live here, nor even have heard of the place, if it weren’t for my friend Bernard Boutrit. Bernard’s grandmother was a close friend of Juliette Chalat, the previous owner of this house, and Bernard’s mother used to come here on holiday as a little girl; later, she brought her own children to visit Juliette for vacations. In those days the place was linked to the house next-door, part of a complex of farmhouses, shared with Juliette’s half-witted half-brother, Marcel, who’s still remembered for his insistence on sitting behind the television set to listen as if it were a radio. Today, the house next-door is a dog-grooming salon, Tif’s Toilettage, and the home of the salon’s owners.

Juliette was a schoolteacher, slight of stature and remarkably plain of face. She never married, and when she died, she willed her house to Bernard’s mother, as near to a daughter as she’d ever known. The house still bears traces of the old woman. The kitchen sink is built to her requirements, meaning that I have to bend over to wash the dishes. Some of her papers and books still turn up in odd corners, and we lately discovered a little paperback entitled Dictateurs de nos jours, with pictures of Mussolini and Hitler on the cover, bought in the 1930s, that surely would have created trouble for her if the Nazis had ever searched this house during the Occupation.

I suspect that hers was a lonely life, although that’s perhaps a reflection of my own solitude in this town: apart from the owner of the Brasserie, a couple of merchants, and the folks in the houses next-door, nobody knows me here. Did Juliette have friends and a busy social life? I don’t know. I don’t even know how to find out. She has been gone a long time; she was dead already when I first set foot on French soil.

So many of the old buildings still stand: she might recognize Beynes, but there’s little left in Beynes that would recognize her. Her pupils have moved on, retired or dead. The view from her front window is changing, as new owners are tearing down the barn across the street. I think of her in the house, clumping down the narrow staircase or sleeping in the bed where I sleep now. I think of her in the garden, and I wonder why she dumped a truckload of gravel in the basse-cour, where my attempts to raise vegetables are thwarted annually by the narrow inch of topsoil that conceals a layer of fallow rocks. I think of her in the marketplace, and I wonder what she’d say, as she ran into neighbors in the street, about this town’s persistent inability to sustain a decent bakery.

(And a word on that: the French know their bread. As the Eskimos for snow, the French have a vast vocabulary for bread. Its shapes, its ingredients, its country of origin and its cooking time: all these things have informed the language. There are separate words for the outside and the inside of the bread. A bookload of laws defends the rights of bakers and protects the market for bread, which accounts not only for the rolling fields of wheat all over the country but also for the fact that France boasts more bakeries than any other country in Europe. Nevertheless, for more than a decade the bakers of Beynes have struggled to bake and sell a loaf worthy of the name. The croûte isn’t crusty, the mie lacks flavor. I keep thinking it’s inappropriate for an American to tell the French about bread: don’t my neighbors notice? Only a few years ago, the Beynois forced the town’s newest baker to close up shop, so inedible were her wares. But the folks who took her place represented only the slightest improvement, and today nobody does anything about it. Either they drive to some other town for bread, or they don’t care, and in either case, it’s a grim sign for the future survival of French culture.)

The walls of Juliette’s house are thick, keeping it cool in summer and almost intolerable in winter. This summer has been almost indistinguishable from winter, or autumn at least, with cold temperatures, grey skies, and frequent, pounding rains. It’s just as well I didn’t try to plant tomatoes this year.

The cold front moved in on 5 May, the day before Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as President of the Republic. It was as if the weather gods were trying to cool us off, in advance of the car-burnings and riots that seemed certain to follow Sarkozy’s victory. Yet in the event, fewer than a thousand cars burned, and the worst protests came not from the banlieues but from Lyon, where the Socialist mayor, no fan of Sarkozy, had to remind the young protesters (mostly college students) that it was unseemly for people to react this way to the outcome of a democratic process.

Though friends here who are Socialists remain unenchanted, Sarkozy’s first weeks in office have received glowing notices from most foreign and many local journalists, and several of his ministerial choices do bespeak a real interest in inclusion. That’s significant in a country with so many important differences and barriers among its people. But it is still raining. Bastille Day is four days away. And I am still sleeping under not one but two quilts.

It is not like the summer of 1977, when the nights were so long and warm. The background music for those nights was the Beatles, whose songs I hardly knew at the time but whose Red and Blue albums were the constantly playing cassette tapes on the tour bus that carried us around the countryside. In later years, I came to know a better music for that backdrop, and it’s Berlioz, the “Villanelle” from his Les nuits d’été, as sung by Régine Crespin.

The soprano died last week, a few days after Beverly Sills, and much as Sills was all-American, Crespin was all-French: a Marseillaise by birth and in spirit. And her recording of the Nuits d’été, under Ernest Ansermet, from 1963, is a miracle of art, a shimmering lifetime of experience in six songs. Not until Susan Graham came along did I believe there was any point in permitting anybody else to sing this music: what would be the interest in any Mona Lisa but Leonardo’s? Yet concert music is by its nature interpretive, and it gains value when different musicians bring their art to the composer’s; Susan Graham’s recording reminded me of that truth. Nevertheless, on a summer evening in France, it’s Crespin’s voice I hear on the breeze.

I walk by her house sometimes in Paris. At the opera house, I heard her only once, at the end of her career, when she sang the Old Prioress in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Met. At the end of a harrowing death scene, the Old Prioress is, in John Dexter’s staging, carried offstage on her deathbed by four nuns. The night I heard her, Crespin sang the hell out of that scene, in English as the composer prescribed, collapsing on her little cot. Her voice was no longer the rich cream of her “Villanelle,” but it didn’t need to be: the Prioress dies shrieking and clawing at a sudden doubt in the promises of her faith. I’d never seen this opera before, and Crespin’s performance left me stunned and breathless. Then the attendant nuns silently picked up her cot and began to move — and dropped Crespin just before they got offstage. It was an inadvertent illustration of Sister Constance’s assertion that some people die deaths that are meant for others.

Better, then, to think of Crespin in the “Villanelle,” exhorting me to join her as she and her friends race off on a warm summer evening to gather wild strawberries. Because that, mes amis, is the sound of France, the country where I live.