Review: “Villa of Delirium”

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Ionic columns (l.), Doric (r.) at Villa Kerylos. (http://ee.france.fr/en/discover/greek-villa-kerylos)

In our reading of the novel Villa of Delirium, we last left our hero, Achilles, hanging on the ledge of beauty at Villa Kerylos. Would he fall?

As a boy, Achilles was adopted by a wealthy French family and raised on the Riviera in a château inspired by an ancient Greek villa. A lofty academician family instilled in the boy a love of Greek culture. Once of age, he had a brief but transformative affair with Ariadne, wife of the surveyor to Emmanuel Pontremoli, the Reinach family architect, who designed Villa Kerylos.

Achilles is fictional – the book is written as a fictive memoir – but the villa, his adoptive family, Pontremoli, and Gustave Eiffel, who lives next door, where Achilles’ mother was a servant, are genuine figures from the Belle Époque, and much of the plot, action, ancient lore and details of late 19th and early 20th century contemporary society and archaeological scandals revolve around historical events.

Fine. But did Achilles manage to hang onto the ledge or did he drop off? Well, it seems he let go.

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.

I was dismayed. Of his time? The canard of an unthinking modernist. My eyes rolled, and I almost placed the book on a pile near my chair.

What had I got myself into? I had agreed to read the novel, written in French by Adrien Goetz, an art historian at the Sorbonne, to be published May 5 by New Vessel Press, as a favor to Michael Z. Wise, founder of the firm and an acquaintance of my years at the Associated Press long ago. But did I want to invest time in a novel whose protagonist reveals, early on, his eventual rejection of beauty in favor of Cubism, of all things? Good grief!

Onward I read, nevertheless. And I’m glad. I did not want my architectural prejudices to ordain my opinion of the book’s literary and cultural merit, yet they did add a layer of suspense. Would Achilles regain his aesthetic compass in the end? It was hard to guess from his recollection of a youth spent as the family confidant amid the objets d’art and erudition of one of France’s most accomplished families. Théodore Reinach‘s entry in Wikipedia describes him as “French archaeologist, mathematician, lawyer, papyrologist, philologist, epigrapher, historian, numismatist, musicologist, professor, and politician.” His two brothers, Joseph and Salomon, are barely less impressive, and together they rival the Rothschilds in wealth and social respectability (more perhaps the former than the latter, in the book and in history).

I was delighted by how Goetz uses imaginative rhetoric to vivify the aesthetic arcana that might otherwise suffocate his plot. For example, luxuriate in this passage, inspired by the entryway to Kerylos:

The broad columns without a base are Doric. On the vestibule side are slender Ionic columns, with capitals that coil like reels of cotton. One of the most commonly repeated banalities in architecture studies, I once heard Grégoire explain to an attentive Ariadne, is that the Doric column, with its unadorned capital, represents virility, while the more graceful Ionic column represents femininity. Seeing her sardonic smile, he hastily added that he had no idea how true that was, but you read it everywhere. The ancients believed it, repeated it, but actually, said Ariadne, why might a woman not resemble a Doric column? She said she thought the painting by Cézanne of a cook in a blue apron was Doric. And why would the Ionic style not be used to describe the elegance of a young Zouave in a blue jacket embroidered with coils of red braid?

Such passages explain why the novel is entitled Villa of Delirium.

But it seems, as Achilles slowly discovers, that there is scandal in the family background, including an allegedly fake archaeological discovery that infects the plot like a virus. Alongside, there is romance. Boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy seeks girl. Finally, after achieving some success as a modernist, does Achilles reassess his inconstant relationship with beauty? However you slice it, Goetz is a master at weaving together the two plots (or three, if you count my suspenseful overlay) as they wind toward a conclusion with, it seemed, no perceptible resolution of narrative.

I don’t want to let any cats out of any bags here, but it does not undermine the suspense to assure readers that Villa of Delirium is a fine novel – and it may be that it is even finer because it was translated by Natasha Lehrer. My devotion of two blog posts in addition to this review (see “Tale of a Greek villa rebuilt” and “A deliriously lovely chapter“) suggests the degree of my admiration for both novelist and translator, and of New Vessel Press for its upcoming publication of the book.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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