The songs my father’s mistress taught me ignited my love of France

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

When John Julius Norwich was a boy, his father was British ambassador in Paris.School holidays were spent in the exceptionally beautiful embassy which had been purchased by the Duke of Wellington from Pauline Borghese. He would mix dry martinis for Jean Cocteau, and sing songs to the dinner guests which he had been taught by his father’s mistress, the poetess Louise de Vilmorin, who got on famously with his mother, Diana Cooper. It makes you long to have been there. This warm, delightful short history of France, aimed convivially at the general reader, is his love letter to the country he knew so well: and, he writes, most probably his final book.

In energetic style, we are transported from the primitive stockades of the Gauls (‘carnivores through and through’), via the boorish, dissipated and exceptionally complicated Merovingians; in France, Norwich drily notes, the dark ages ‘were very dark indeed’. We gallop past Charlemagne and his five legitimate and four ‘supplementary’ wives, who invested the previously bickering kinglets and princelings with the grandeur of empire; we wave at Hugh Capet, whose name ‘sounds remarkably plebeian, as indeed it is’. It was Capet who constructed France as a nation — ‘although inevitably, he left the job unfinished’.

The chapters on early modern France are well contextualised and full of delicious fodder, especially those on the Crusades and the interactions of the French with the Byzantines. I had not known that in 1216 Louis VIII not only claimed the kingship of England, but landed at Thanet, took Winchester and ended up controlling more than half the country. It is so easy to forget how impermanent national boundaries are; and how closely France and England have been intertwined over the centuries. Later on, of course, our own Henry VI was crowned King of France in Paris: the service, however, was ‘poorly attended’.

We learn that Louis X preferred to play tennis with his friends, neglecting his ‘feisty and shapely wife’; and that tennis plays a significant part in French history. Louis XII married Princess Mary of England, Henry VIII’s sister: she was 15, he much older. Less than three months after the marriage, in 1515, Louis died, ‘exhausted, it was generally believed, by his exertions in the bed chamber’.

With the arrival of Louis XIV, the Sun King, the glory of Versailles is well evoked — and its tedium and discomfort. Apart from lacking sanitation it was also bitterly cold. Norwich’s account of the Revolution is exciting and poignant, particularly the attempted escape of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. When they were captured, they were confined to their carriage and forced back on a long journey to Paris. The king helped his little son pee into a silver cup, unbuttoning his breeches himself. In later chapters, Napoleon and his successors, the surprisingly successful Louis-Philippe and the charmless Charles de Gaulle, all come alive.

Norwich does not skim the horrors, and the account of the terrible siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian war is heartbreaking. The inhabitants starved, eating first rats, cats and dogs, and then the animals in the zoo, though no one would touch the hippos — they were too much for any butcher.

Even if the general subject matter, as Norwich freely admits, is not new, he tells it with such easy charm and wit that it is a pleasure to be in his company. It is as if one were with him in that embassy, guitar strumming softly, cocktail to hand.

The history of France leaches into its landscape, its houses, into physical marks on doors, beams and stones. Adam Thorpe, a distinguished English novelist born in Paris in 1956, has lived in the Cévennes for the last quarter of a century with his wife and family, on ‘the last thrust of the Massif Central’. From his house, on a clear day, you can see the Alps, ‘small and sharp as a shrew’s lower teeth’. Here the events told by Norwich live on in a palimpsest, and Thorpe is highly attuned to the ‘eerie’ gusts that blow through from the past.

His novels — solidly structured, full of tension and power — are concerned with how the past and the present, reality and fiction elide into each other, particularly through landscape; and Thorpe, in this series of tightly controlled, involving vignettes, finds evidence of this every-where he looks. A film crew visits and makes his village look more ‘authentic’ by putting up fake signs; these signs survive the shoot: ‘What is true, what is false?’

A poppet he discovers in the cellar may have been used for black magic; a femme de ménage, cleaning his neighbour’s house, finds an eyeball under the bed. Violence and suicide render the landscape bloody; the village is riven with feuds. When Thorpe is informed about a local murder, he dreams details he couldn’t possibly have known; they are later proved correct. There are neighbours, menacing and friendly. Martens move onto their roof, and drug dealers onto the pavement outside their flat in Nîmes.

The comic is deftly handled, as in a hilarious scene where the villagers take their postman hostage in protest at the post office’s imminent closure. Yet overall there is constant struggle: on a grand scale, against the climate, and Brexit; on the everyday scale, against leaks, storms, and the precarious life of a novelist. During one particularly bad rainstorm, he and his family are trapped in their car and almost struck by lightning: Thorpe quotes Lear.

Gleaming with polished insights, this sensitive book is both a warning, plea and salutary reminder that even the tiniest action affects the universal. France profonde, indeed.

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