One of the most beautiful passages in contemporary literary history will surely be, when it is published on May 5, chapter 20, “Sunlight on the Furniture,” in Villa of Delirium, by the French author Adrien Goetz. Its English translation by Natasha Lehrer will be published by New Vessel Press, of New York City.
In my recent post “Tale of a Greek villa rebuilt,” I wondered whether Goetz has forced his protagonist to dislike beauty as he grows older. I’m about two-thirds through the book and so far the answer remains unclear (to me). But whether I end up liking the book in principle or not, its literary style is delicious, especially (so far) in chapter 20, and commands my respect. I copy it below in its entirety.
The book, a historical novel of the early 20th century, is the reminiscences of its fictional protagonist, a poor boy taken up by the rich family that built the Villa Kerylos – now a national cultural landmark – on the French Riviera.
The furniture in the library [of the Villa Kerylos] was, to my twenty-year-old self, the most beautiful in the whole world.
Pontremoli [the villa’s French architect] designed the pieces as he went along. One day he gave me a couple of sketches for tables, wonderful to behold. It’s not easy to furnish an ancient villa. In Greece, apart from caskets, chairs, and beds, there was little furniture. Fanny Reinach [wife of the villa owner] drew up lists of what she needed and [husband] Theodore amused himself thinking up ideas for them. A dressing table? A chest of drawers? A small desk for keeping up with correspondence, where his wife could sit in the morning and reply to invitations? A little bell on the table? He took note of everything. He was making it up as he went along.
I sometimes went up to Paris, to the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, to check on the progress of the furniture, which was being made in Louis-François Bettenfeld’s workshop. Bettenfeld crafted solid furniture from carefully chosen wood: lemon from Ceylon, wild olive from the Mekong Delta, plum from Australia, tamarind from the Indies … [ellipse in text]. Pontremoli wanted inlays of mother of pearl, ilex, ivory, subtle touches of mahogany, nothing too elaborate. It was like watching [his lover] Ariadne’s watercolor palette, the way she layered colors, waiting for the flat tints to dry before dabbing on a touch of purple or emerald in just the right place. Rays of sunlight pierce the curtains and sweep over the furniture, sketching new and unexpected lines, making me think of her, her delicacy, the way she explained everything to me so that my illustrations would be less dry and precise.
To have style is rather easy; to invent a style is more extraordinary. Theodore’s directives were straightforward. That requires talent. He knew what he didn’t want. He wanted to avoid any variation of neo-classicism, a return to Grecian style as has been practiced for centuries. The warmth and pale wood of Austrian Biedermeier furniture could be kept; the main thing was to forget the Empire style, in spite of its straight lines, and the gracious style of Charles X. He wanted simple forms, occasionally broken up with turned feet, bronze scrolls, or huge nails, to give an impression of asceticism and refinement. The furniture in Kerylos is quite unlike any other. It was the kind of furniture that before the First World War people looked for, but didn’t find: imposing, solid, practical, comfortable, and elegantly crafted. Like the house, measurements were calculated in Athenian cubits and feet, the measurements of the Greeks – there was no question of using meters and centimeters. The most extraordinary pieces, in my eyes, were the chaise longues where Theodore liked to lounge and read, the fruit of a guilty romance between the English deckchair and the starkly virile Roman chair portrayed by David in his prerevolutionary paintings. When, several years later, I came across Art Deco furniture, I detected a family resemblance to those chairs: as is so often the case, it is by reinventing the past that one catches a glimpse of the future.
Cerberus [their dog] died of old age. Theodore, for whom these daily walks were immensely important, replaced him with a watch-dog called Basileus. At last the villa would be guarded – one might have suspected that, on our return from Athos, Theodore wanted to dissuade prowlers and burglars. He did not dare ask Pontremoli to design a kennel, even though the architect hadn’t forgotten even the most trivial objects for the bathrooms – but those were for humans; it would not have been seemly to ask him to make something for the dog. The caretaker enjoyed the task, nailing together several planks in the shape of a temple with a pediment, designed according to the animal’s dimensions so that it could lie down comfortably inside. Theodore himself picked up a paintbrush and wrote Basileos, which could mean either the dwelling place “of the king,” or the kennel that belongs to Basileus. This folly, enlivened with small columns, sat proudly beneath the peristyle in front of the entrance to the library.
The books were hidden away. Theodore arranged them in wall cabinets, trunks, and behind the curtains in the gallery above the library. It was unthinkable to display modern bindings; he wanted people to imagine scrolls, as numerous as those that had been found in the ashes of the volcano at Pompeii, in the Villa of the Papyri. Theodore was a genius. He didn’t flaunt quotations like his brother Joseph. He didn’t bludgeon other people with his knowledge. Joseph, when he read about a discovery in the Journal des savants, would cry, “Well now, this is absolutely extraordinary! I shall have to write about it!” One day, during lunch, Fanny Reinach burst out laughing when she heard this familiar phrase. Joseph didn’t understand, but he fell silent.
Theodore, rather than responding to my question about the golden crown [of Alexander the Great, which the two of them had stolen from a Greek monastery], took down from a shelf a volume published by Hachette, the translation of a dialogue attributed to Lucian of Samosata, who composed dialogues with the dead and voyages to the moon as if they were true stories. He hastily assured me that this was not the work of the great poet himself, but probably of a certain Leon, one of the academic philosophers, about whom nothing more is known.
“It is called Halcyon, or the Metamorphosis. Look.”
I have since got hold of another copy. I remember reading to him:
” ‘What voice is that, Socrates, a good way off from the shore? How sweet it is to the ear. I wonder what creature it can be, for the inhabitants of the deep are all mute.’
” ‘It is a sea fowl, called the kerylos, or Halcyon, always crying and lamenting. It is very small, but the gods, they say, bestowed on her a recompense for her singular affection: while she makes her nest, the world is blessed with Halcyon days, such as this is, placid and serene, even in the midst of winter. Observe how clear the sky is, and the whole ocean tranquil, without a curl upon it.’
” ‘This indeed is as you say, a Halcyon day, and so was yesterday; but how, Socrates, can we believe the tales you spoke of, that women can be turned into birds, and birds into women? Nothing seems to be more improbable.’ ”
According to myth, the halcyon built its nest upon the Aegean Sea. The seven days that precede and the seven days that follow the winter solstice mark the period when the seas are flat, everything is calm, and, according to legend, the halcyon’s eggs were protected. During those days of calm between two storms is a time of quiet, for doing nothing, thinking about nothing, eyes wide in the light of the day.
Typing out such a long passage this evening was almost as delightful as reading it for the first time last night. (Fortunately I was a dictationist at AP WX in my youth and learned to type fast, though maybe typing this slowly would have been even more pleasurable.)