Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas in Provence

A Provençal nativity with local villagers dropping in.
In Monsieur: The Prince of Darkness, the first book of his Avignon Quintet, Lawrence Durrell writes lovingly about Christmas in Provence. 'In my memory it will always be Christmas here', says Durrell's character Bruce, 'the Noel of 19-, the year that changed the direction and leaning of my life. Nothing had ever happened to me before - or that is how I felt about the events of that year.'

Bruce is visiting the chateau of Verfeuille in Provence where he and Sylvie fall in love.  The chateau is owned by Bruce's friend, Piers, who is Sylvie's brother, and you might as well know that Piers and Sylvie are also in love with one another. That is not so unusual in Durrell's novels; Pursewarden and his sister Liza in The Alexandria Quartet are lovers, for example, and there are many other relationships in the Quartet and elsewhere that are disguised brother-sister affairs - just as sometimes in E M Forster's novels, notably in Howards End, the relationships are disguised homosexual ones. 

Piers had gone ahead to Verfeuille, 
while Sylvie and I had elected to stay on in Avignon, and then pick up horses at the half-way house and ride the last few miles to the chateau. Our saddle bags were full of presents, coloured sweets for the children, confetti, crystallised fruit, and little bottles of cognac and liqueurs. Also we had brought a huge family of little santons of painted terracotta for the crèche. No Provençal Christmas is complete without these little figures which populate and deck out the family crèche which itself does the duty of our northern Yule-tide Tree. 
Santons pay their respects to the newborn child.
I became curious about these santons - the word means 'little saints'.  Curious about their place in the Christmas festivities of Provence but also because I wondered what they might signify, if anything, about Durrell's characters.  Just as in the Alexandria Quartet Durrell describes his characters in terms of tarot cards, so maybe these santons who have invaded the traditional nativity scene with the Holy Family also had some meaning.  But probably not - though Durrell can never resist a homunculus. 

Durrell goes on to explain.  
Originally the cast, so to speak, was a small one, restricted to the Holy Family and two or three other personages who figured directly in the legend, like the kings and so forth; but under the influence of the hardy Provençal sense of poetry the whole thing had flowered rhapsodically and we had found in the shops about forty santons, all different. Their verisimilitude might have been suspect but they brought the story up to date with characters out of stock like the village policeman, a poacher, a Camargue cowboy, and the like. All this gear was carefully wrapped against breakages and stowed in our capacious saddle bags before we attacked the slow winding ascent to the chateau.
In Caesar's Vast Ghost, Durrell's book about Provence, he says 'The little Christmas santons of Provence with their butcher-baker-candlestick-maker preoccupations must echo the same concern with the persistence of archetypes through the different vocations'.  

A santon produce-seller.
And so they turn out to do, and in a surprising way. For on the face of it there is nothing ancient about these santons, these figurines of painted terracotta; the tradition is barely two hundred years old. They owe their existence to the French Revolution and its suppression of religion and outward displays of belief, including the traditional nativity scene with its Joseph and Mary and Christ Child and magi and shepherds and sheep and cows and so on - all of this was banned.  But people liked them.  And there were artisans who had made a living turning them out.  And so everyone just continued on as before, but instead of the Holy Family the figures were butchers and bakers and fishwives.  And the santons thrived.  No Christmas in Provence is complete without a vast cast of characters who have nothing to do with the birth of the Son of God but everything to do with one's neighbours and local tradesmen and the passing gipsies and fishermen at sea.

As for Bruce and Sylvie making their way back from Avignon to the the chateau, their saddlebags filled with santons,
From time to time all visibility was reduced to nil, and then Sylvie, who was in a particularly mischievous mood, pushed her horse into a canter, to be swallowed at once in the mist. It was not a procedure to be recommended and the second time she did it I plunged after her and punished her with an embrace that left her breathless; feeling her cold lips and nose against my face, seeking me out. Such was its magnetism that we became fused into this posture, unwilling to detach ourselves from each other. I tried to at last - for I could feel the mist condensing into droplets on the collar of my old tweed coat; but she whispered 'Stay' and it was only too easy to obey her.
Santon woman with donkey.
Their arrival at Verfeuille was followed by a warming log fire and a magnficent Christmas dinner. (If you want to know about the traditions of a country, particularly the gastronomic ones, you could do worse than read a Durrell novel.)

The wine was going about now and the most important supper of the whole year was in full sail. By old tradition it has always been a 'lean' supper, so that in comparison with other feast days it might have seemed a trifle frugal. Nevertheless the huge dish of raïto exhaled a wonderful fragrance: this was a ragout of mixed fish presented in a sauce flavoured with wine and capers. Chicken flamed in Cognac. The long brown loaves cracked and crackled under the fingers of the feasters like the olive branches in the fireplace. ...

So it went on, our last dinner, to terminate at last with a whole anthology of sweetmeats and nuts and winter melons. The fire was restoked and the army of wine-bottles gave place to a smaller phalanx of brandies, Armagnacs and Marcs, to offset the large bowls of coffee from which rose plumes of fragrance.

Now old Jan's wife placed before the three lovers a deep silver sugar bowl full of white sugar. It lay there before them in the plenitude of its sweetness like a silver paunch. The three spoons she had placed in it stood upright, waiting for them to help themselves before the rest of the company.
For Bruce, that Christmas remained forever impressed into his mind.  
It was not a place or time easy to forget, and I had returned to it so often in my thoughts that it was no surprise to relive all this in my dreams. I must have unconsciously memorised it in great detail without being fully aware of the fact at the time. I know of no other place on earth that I can call up so clearly and accurately by simply closing my eyes: to this very day.
But the day itself came to an end as they moved off across the snow to midnight mass at the village church.
Painted terracotta figures coming to life.
By now the old man had discovered that it was nearly time for the village mass. 'We will have to hurry up,' he said consulting the old clock, 'we must set a good example on the day of the days.' The company donned hats and scarves and we straggled out into the night with its washed-out late moon trying to guide us. Our feet scratched the flinty path which led away to the tiny hamlet of Verfeuille whose ancient church was now so ablaze with candles that the whole fragile structure seemed to be on fire. I walked arm in arm with the brother and sister, silent and preoccupied and wondering about the future – the future which has now become the past.
Except that with Durrell nothing ever becomes lost within the past. Time plays itself out again and again, like the placing of familiar tarot cards and like santons introducing themselves into the world of ancient beliefs and mysteries, as the following volumes of the Avignon Quintet make clear.
Sommieres, the town where Durrell lived in Provence, with the Roman bridge crossing the Vidourle - recreated like a nativity scene and populated by santons. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013

L'ascension et la chute

The French edition of my book The Tragedy of the Templars will be published by Ixelles Editions on 5 February 2014 as La Tragédie des Templiers: L'ascension et la chute.

Under the title Les Templiers: De la légende a l'histoire, Ixelles already publish the French edition of The Templars: History and Myth.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

English Cavafy

One of the last photographs taken of Cavafy, 1932.

I was reading this entry for the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in The Oxford Companion to English Literature.  It mentions the several ways in which Cavafy is connected to England and the English language and which justify his inclusion in this companion.  

But what it fails to mention is how much Cavafy's mind was an English mind and how his Greek poetry began life in the English language.

When reading Cavafy's poetry in English translation one has the uncanny sense that one is reading it in a language whose rhythms and nuances inhabited Cavafy.  Cavafy spent many years of his childhood and youthful education in England and to his dying day he spoke Greek with an English accent and he most certainly first 'thought' some of his poems in English before writing them in Greek.

Evidence of this was found by Gwyn Williams who in the 1930s was a lecturer in English literature at Fuad (later Cairo) University and then became a close friend of Lawrence Durrell's in Alexandria during the Second World War, by when Williams had become head of the department of English Literature at Farouk University in the city (today's Alexandria University).   

After Cavafy's death in 1933, Cavafy's friends and downstairs neighbours Rika and Alexander Singopoulos brought out the first edition of Cavafy's works, but there were also numerous pieces of paper of all sizes and quality, some of them pages torn from exercise books, others small irregular scraps, on which Cavafy had scribbled severely truncated, almost coded notes in English - some of them after he had been out prowling at the tavernas. 

Rika and Alexander Singopoulos wanted them deciphered, and so they gave a sheaf of these papers to Michael Perides, another friend of Cavafy's, for Gwyn Williams to see. Many offered glimpses into his homosexual emotional life, while others, to Williams' surprise, bore first drafts of his poems written in English prose which Cavafy would then rework into poetry in Greek. 

As The Oxford Companion to English Literature says, for more on Cavafy 'see Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (2005)'.

Alexandria in World War II

Alexandria in World War II is a 'found poem' composed by Anis Shivani and published in the summer 2013 issue of The Missing Slate.  It was 'found' in my Alexandria: City of Memory; that is all the words and phrases are taken directly from my book.  I have only just found it myself, by chance, on the internet.  It works very well, I think, and made me smile.

The Britannia Club at 26 Rue Fuad, “proof of the British ability”:
we danced with Durrell’s future friend the painter Clea Badaro
during the summer the Burg el Arab served as base for Indian troops,
the long-threatened concert party having descended in force.

We danced with Durrell’s future friend the painter Clea Badaro,
marching about in a snake dance including the band at the Excelsior,
the long-threatened concert party having descended in force.
Since spring, Geneva has thrown open her home to soldiers.

Marching about in a snake dance including the band at the Excelsior,
air raid in the middle, buffet afterwards, breakfast for sixteen.
Since spring, Geneva has thrown open her home to soldiers,
the Choremis, the Benachis, the Casullis, the Salvagos and others.

Air raid in the middle, buffet afterwards, breakfast for sixteen,
the Karam Palace became very grand, almost too grand I’m afraid.
The Choremis, the Benachis, the Casullis, the Salvagos and others
rushing about like mad, celebrating in Pastroudis, dead with Cavafy.

The Karam Palace became very grand, almost too grand I’m afraid,
the glamorous women of Alexandria founded the best reference 
Rushing about like mad, celebrating in Pastroudis, dead with Cavafy,
holding thirty percent of all the shares of banks and limited 

The glamorous women of Alexandria founded the best reference 
during the summer the Burg el Arab served as base for Indian troops.
Holding thirty percent of all the shares of banks and limited 
the Britannia Club at 26 Rue Fuad, “proof of the British ability.”

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nuns Having Fun

The Tragedy of the Templars recently rose to the rank of number one in books about Christian Church Institutions, according to Amazon UK.  The competition was fierce, but in the end the Templars triumphed over Nuns Having Fun.
Nuns Having Fun driven into second place by The Tragedy of the Templars.
What is more, Mother Teresa was driven into third place, and Rowan Williams, hairy Welsh druid and former Archbishop of Canterbury was consigned to fifth.

The mirthless Mother Teresa driven into third place and Rowan Williams, self-confessed druid and recent Archbishop of Canterbury, knocked into fifth place.  A triumph for the Templars!