I was recently sent a novel, Villa of Delirium, about the lives of the historical inhabitants of a villa on the Côte d’Azur built at the turn of the last century as a copy of a palace in ancient Greece. The book is written as the memoir of a family servant named Achilles, who from his youth embraces, through the kindness of his wealthy and erudite employer, the cultures represented by the villa – old and new. But in the end, it appears, Achilles rejects the validity and appeal of the new villa, at least – and possibly the very idea of classicism and classical beauty.
The book is by Adrien Goetz, who teaches art history at the Sorbonne and edits Grande Galerie, a quarterly published by the Louvre. Villa of Delirium has not been published yet but is due out on May 5. I have an “advanced reading copy, not for resale” sent me by my former colleague of decades ago at the Associated Press, Michael Z. Wise, a co-founder of New Vessel Press, which specializes in the translation of foreign literature into English. Villa of Delirium was translated by Natasha Lehrer.
Michael did not tell me that Villa of Delirium was not just a historical novel but a suspense novel. Early on, Goetz writes that his fictional protagonist falls out of love with Kerylos. On page 4, he has Achilles note in his diary: “When I was twenty it represented a kind of perfection. Today I find myself wondering how I could have ever found it beautiful.” On page 12 he adds:
I needed something new. I moved away. I couldn’t stand this absurd passion for Greek antiquity anymore. I became a painter. I wanted to be of my time, I exhibited many paintings, destroyed others. I loved purity of shape. I was a Cubist. It was not the simplest life I could have chosen.
These passages, which stabbed me in the heart (if not in the back), have transformed my attitude toward the book from the pleasure I take from historical novels to the perplexity of a suspense novel – one that toys with my fondest beliefs. Will Achilles in the end reject what is good and beautiful for the vile and ugly? Or will he regain his passion for Greek antiquity, and for Kerylos. The passages above leave little room for hope. The possibility that Achilles might in the end embrace a more enlightened view, which I was obliged to fabricate so that I might cling to hope against hope as I read on through the book, adds to it an intriguing dimension.
On the other hand, passages like the following serve to pull me on, and give me reason to suspect that Goetz has not created a character who, as we are told in advance, will undermine the credibility of his narrative, which, so far, is all about the ancient, delicate, beautiful, classical sensibility that was cast out by the global elite’s embrace of modernism. In this passage, the family patriarch – Theodore Reinach, a French archaeologist, mathematician, lawyer, papyrologist, philologist, epigrapher, historian, numismatist, musicologist, professor and politician (says Wikipedia) – meets the architect whom he then hires to build Kerylos:
They only met by chance. Theodore found in him an interlocutor who knew Greece in a different way. [Emmanuel] Pontremoli was not so knowledgeable when it came to classical texts, but he had been on excavations and come up with a design for the reconstruction of the Pergamon monuments, the city that reached the peak of its glory under Alexander’s successors, where an exuberant, unbridled artistic style developed: monuments laden with draperies and garlands, statues that were restless and tormented. In a small gallery, Pontremoli was exhibiting drawings that showed the citadel as it might look after restoration. They talked about the more austere temple of Apollo at Didymaion, the site the architect-archaeologist would be working on next. The subject fascinated the archaeologist, who had always dreamed of becoming an architect. They had found each other.
I was unable to find any image of the original Kerylos (if that is what it was called), on the Greek island of Delos, whether intact or in ruins. Among other places, I looked at the website of the modern Kerylos, which was built in 1902-08, and is now a French heritage site. The overseers of Kerylos are apparently embarrassed that it copied the past: “Far from a pastiche, for Théodore Reinach and Emmanuel Pontremoli it was about creating an original piece of work while “thinking Greek.” In the book Kerylos is described as if it were an exact duplicate of the original, down to the furniture. Achilles, if he remains at the end of the book in the frame of mind suggested on pages 4 and 12, would be proud of the official apostasy.
I will continue reading Villa of Delirium with a gimlet eye.