In the last column, you kindly gave me your patience while I rambled on about the châteaux of France: what makes a château different from a castle, how France's Renaissance shaped the shift from fortified heap to gilded birdcage, and the link between the classical château and the French "Grand Siècle," or "Great Century": that seventeenth-century period when, under the reign of Louis XIV, France overflowed with as much intellect, decadence, and sheer over-the-top civilization as any place on the planet has ever seen.
Furthermore, I told you that when I first came to France to work, I viewed the iconic French château as being nothing anyone should pay to visit. I considered them overpriced, sparkly traps for deluded tourists, nasty Baroque excrescences whose tacky ostentation was exceeded only by their dullness. But I think I also told you that eighteen months later, by the time I was preparing to leave the country, I had so thoroughly changed my mind as to fling myself into a four-day sightseeing spree. I gladly took hectic trains, and paid exorbitant entrance fees, in order to see the grounds of three important châteaux near Paris before I left. I had two important reasons for this conversion, which had come to light over the course of my eighteen months in Lille, and which outweighed even the uneasiness I felt about châteaux and all their associations with creepy gilded chandeliers, and twenty-euro admission fees, and the untimely deaths of young queens. And these reasons, which it had taken me a year and a half to learn about, but which I will try to recount to you in a little less time, taking just long enough to get us to the end of this column, were, first, ghosts and, second, gardens.
The ghosts had something to do with architecture. And that had to do with the university, so maybe I had better backtrack a little and explain how all this worked.
The first year that I lived in Lille, the great brick-and-stone city where chance and the hand of the Ministère de L'Education Nationale had landed me, I worked in the public schools as an assistante de langue anglaise—an English-language teaching assistant. This job had a number of disadvantages, but it also had a few upsides. One of the best things about it was that one was only required to be present in the classroom twelve hours a week. So in my free time, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, I rode the number-fourteen bus across town to take classes at the Université Catholique de Lille.
This imposing institution is known to its English-speaking exchange students as the Catholic University of Lille, and to everyone else as la Catho. (This is an effect of the French fondness for nicknames ending in "-o." Should you care to hear this for yourself, the next time you're in France, try approaching an adolescent (un ado) in a fast-food joint (un McDo) and ask what he or she thinks of France's new President (known, not always lovingly, as "Sarko"). If you choose your teenager right, you should be in for an earful. But I digress.)
La Catho is a private university, one of very few in France. Most institutions of higher learning here are funded by the state; tuition is low, and there is a place for everyone who passes the baccalauréat, the comprehensive high-school leaving exam. But in consequence most universities are crowded and underfunded, with students crowded into large classes and left largely to their own resources to sink or swim. There does exist a sort of cream-on-top group of special institutions, known as the grandes écoles (the "big schools"). These benefit from ample funding, up-to-date equipment, and small classroom sizes; some even offer monthly stipends. They were established to train the leaders and civil servants of tomorrow, and general opinion holds that an education from a grande école is a ticket—some say an indispensable one—to professional success, influence, and a life-long government post.
But the grandes écoles are so competitive that only a tiny percentage of students can pass the entrance exams, even after spending two to four years after high school in a course of intensive preparatory study. This is where a place like the Catho finds its modern relevance. The Catholic Universities were founded by the French bishops in 1875, around the same time that theology faculties were being abolished at state-run schools. But these days, it's not so much about religion; many of the Catho's students are comfortably areligious, in line with the rest of France. (Depending on who you ask, somewhere between one and two thirds of the French identify themselves as agnostics or atheists.)
What people come to the Catho for today is quite simply an individualized education, one that features things like small class sizes, well-funded buildings and equipment, a strong professional networking system, and advisors and administrators who have the time—and motivation—to be personally invested in students' success. The sort of things that you would find at a grande école, and for which the public universities have no money. The result is a diploma that will open more doors (because it is viewed as more reliable) than one from the local public university. And this is accessible without the impossibly selective entrance exam, available to any student whose family is willing and able to pay the fees.
It may be that what I am describing strikes you as an elitist, inegalitarian system, favoring the privileged few, perpetuating generational privilege under the guise of meritocracy. Or on the other hand, perhaps the grande école structure is a smart way to encourage and nurture excellence, and the existence of the Catho schools is a reasonable accommodation to the market: providing a solid education to students who can't make the cut at the grandes écoles, and funneling their profits back into providing the kind of support that the state universities can't. (The yearly tuition fees at the Catho add up to ten times those of a French state school, which is still less than what one would pay at an American state university, and less, by an order of magnitude, than an American private college.)
I can't give you "the French opinion" on how well the system works, for people are split on the point. I have some anecdotes—but I was going to tell you about the ghosts, and so I'll restrict myself to three comments here. First, while teaching and studying at la Catho, one does indeed remark the thoughtful attention that is paid to the academic progress of the paying students. Second, the students I studied with and those I taught were, with rare exceptions, white, middle-class, and broadly bourgeois in their tastes and opinions. Third, even though it seldom came up in conversation, there were little details around the place that reminded you that you most definitely were not in a state school, where the distinction between church and state—l'Église and l'État—is maintained with almost obsessive care. At the Catho, you could see the difference in the cross pendants around teachers' and students' necks, some more discreet than others. You could see it in the crucifixes nailed incongruously below certain clocks. And, though this is a little difficult to explain, you could see it in the architecture.
This latter is an important point and one I must try to make clear. I loved the architecture of the Catho; it made my heart jump, and to be honest, the first time I laid eyes on it it made me feel that I had to come back. The main campus was built in the 1880s, but it was meant to evoke the great age of cathedrals, and it accomplishes this successfully despite being faced in the trademark reddish-brown brick of the North. The buildings sport brave neo-Gothic façades, framed with towers and columns and crenellations; stained-glass angels shine dimly in the windows of the chapel where students take their final exams, and the neatly trimmed courtyard is brightened below by parterres of purple flowers. Below the arch of the roof, framed against the sky, a solemn Saint Michael leans on his marble sword. Even the windows are high and pointed, in what is called lancet style—not for any practical reason, but because the shape evokes the medieval cathedral, that ancient marvels of engineering, where new technology allowed the stone roofs to float gracefully above the floor and the stained glass spanning the opening flooded the faithful in holy light.
Inside, things feel more like an ordinary aging building. The great rose window by the fifth-floor vending machine has built up so much dust on its transparent glass that you can barely see through to the city rooftops below. The tall windows show cracks along their inside frames, and in the third-floor teachers' room the janitor has to put up a sign begging everyone to keep them latched so the pigeons can't make nests in the armchairs. All this, however, somehow didn't manage to dispel all the glamour. It was still fascinating to look out a rose window, down onto the pigeon-tracked and cigarette-stubbed ledge, next to the half-broken coffee dispenser that regularly ate my twenty-centime coins.
This glamour, mixing together with the wet brick, the heavy sky, the stained glass and high windows and the smell of coffee and the tidy grey gargoyles on the eaves, had a curious effect on me. It left me feeling unsettled, a little bit confused about the flow and the passage of time. Sometimes, looking down an empty stairwell or wiping chalk dust off a board as the light settled through the pointed windows, it seemed to me that I was sharing my space with some kind of heavy presence, compounded out of history, time, ideas, ghosts.
I don't think this is what the Catho's designers had in mind when they built the place; I think were trying to make their students feel the presence of the Church, or something of the sort, by evoking the ghost of the thirteenth-century cathedral. But I am not Catholic; I'm not even European. For me, these Gothic architectural flourishes said less God is with you than they said Europe and history and it goes back and back. They made me constantly aware that I was standing in a place where seven-hundred-year-old buildings do actually exist, in a city whose roots run back more than a thousand years on the same spot.
In a sense, I suppose this is what university architecture does in the United States, when it tries to echo the atmosphere of Cambridge or Oxford and in so doing make its passers-through aware of a longer history, and an older world, than the one we think of every day on our young continent. But in Lille it was different, because in that city real Gothic cathedrals were nearby and easy to find. The actual city around me was an accumulation of stonework that had been crumbling and rebuilding for centuries. And so the Catho buildings, nineteenth-century constructions though they were, made me feel the weight of the eight hundred years they drew on. It is hard to explain the way this seemed to thicken the air, to compound the meanings and implications of the day-to-day things that surrounded me. But when I say that living in France often felt to me like living on another planet, this is very much the kind of thing I mean.
How to describe this feeling, this supercharging of the space and air around one? Of being constantly aware of the presence of time? It was like an accumulation of energy, but instead of speeding things up and making them harder to understand, it made things very slow. And at some point, in my mind, the emotional oddness of the architecture became inextricably entwined with the courses I was taking inside those rooms. It associated with the decades and centuries I was reading about, with the kings, essayists, clerics, poets, whom I was absorbing for the first time. These were names that the French students had learned with their nursery rhymes, but who to me might have come from another star. I read slowly, slightly disconnected from this unfamiliar language, and poets and cities took shape mistily in the pages of my mind. It felt like studying a ghostly history, parallel to my own, and the halls and towers and high windows made me all the more aware that I was living in it—walking through corridors shaped like someone else's history, reading a foreign alphabet under the heavy light of someone else's sky. It got tangled up also with classrooms, with the smell of chalk, and the rattle of students focused and frantic sorting through their folders of papers, their briefcases, and the strange pencil cases they all carried. I sat with my own new pencil case at my hand, looking out a high closed window at the grey sky, as blank as an unwritten page, and as I listened to professors lecturing in a half-known language on the history of the nation about which I knew nothing, I felt my own history slipping away.
It was in a classroom that I met Joachim du Bellay and started thinking about ruins. The first year I lived in Lille, I was a simple student at the Catho, there for fun only, and the classes I chose were meant to improve my grasp of the language, give me a chance to speak and listen, and help keep me anchored and entertained in an unfamiliar world. I studied French for foreigners, and the history of cinema, and medieval and Renaissance art in Italy and France. These were subjects that I didn't know much about but wanted to learn more, and that had a visual element to help me figure things out when my ability to attend to the lecturer flagged. At university I had studied English literature, but I didn't feel ready to tackle that in French. Literature is the most dangerous place of all for an unsure foreigner. I was frankly afraid of the idea: if you don't have a firm grasp of the language, how easy it would be to get lost in the maze of words, to drown in their swelling sea.
The year after, the Catho hired me as a part-time English teacher. In deference to the baroque requirements of my work papers, I had to maintain a student status, which meant taking three courses during the year. I was not sorry, I felt up to the challenge, and I thought it was time to tackle some literature. I turned to the past in search of some equipment or tools against the fog of strangeness that made me feel disjointed from the past. Therefore I chose a course on Joachim du Bellay. Du Bellay was a sixteenth-century poet and thinker, a Renaissance man of the kind I like best, a figure from the century I had studied from the English side of the pond: the era of Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. He was one of the principal poets of the loose group known as the Pléiade, leading literary figures of the French Renaissance.
The Pléiade are among those figures that a French student encounters before leaving grammar school; I had never heard of them before. My class was filled with first-year students planning to major in French literature. To the other people in the room, studying du Bellay was like an American taking the first required course in Shakespeare, or perhaps Marlowe or Spenser. Sir Philip Sidney at the very outside. Du Bellay was part of their canon and they had been forced to hear so much about him already that they were bored. I sat at my desk feeling the prickling strangeness of it all. I was by far the oldest person in the classroom, except for the professor, and by far the most ignorant. I imagined being back at my home university, sitting beside a foreign classmate who had never heard of Shakespeare. The feeling that I had entered a parallel universe grew stronger by the day.
Happily, du Bellay turned out to be right up my alley: a downbeat Renaissance over-thinker with whom I could empathize. He had one of those lives that probably seemed typical at the time but whose details become evocative and romantic at the distance of centuries. Born to a nobleman in 1522, he was orphaned at eight, neglected by his older brother, and spent a lonely adolescence in an echoing manor house by the Loire river. As if that wasn't enough, his childhood dreams of being a soldier were quashed when he started to lose his hearing in his teens.
Instead, he went off to study law and then the humanities in Paris, where he made friends with a circle of young men led by the charismatic poet Pierre de Ronsard, who wanted to shape the future of French literature in his image. Like kids in a garage band, they couldn't settle on a name or a lineup, calling themselves the Brigade for a while before the name finally settled on the less militaristic-sounding Pléiade, as in the seven-starred constellation. Du Bellay dabbled in literature, became a canon at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris (with help from his well-connected cousin, Cardinal Jean du Bellay), and wrote a radical manifesto defending the value of Middle French—as opposed to Latin—as a literary language. Then he went to Rome as secretary to his cousin the Cardinal. He wound up stuck there for four years, which, if you believe what he says in his poetry, seem to have gotten worse and worse. His health was bad, he was disillusioned by the worldliness of the Papal court, and he fell in love with a lady with a very possessive husband. Also, he missed France like anything. When he finally got back to Paris, he was carrying the manuscripts for no fewer than four books of poetry he had written while away—one per year, including 238 sonnets—which I really think, if you think about it, more than anything else demonstrates that he hadn't been having a lot of fun.
Of the three books written in French, the first was called Les Divers Jeux Rustiques, which has the surprisingly upbeat meaning of "Various Rustic Games." The second is Les Antiquités de Rome (which was translated into English by Edmund Spenser, of Faerie Queene fame, as The Ruins of Rome and became a surprising success in England), and Les Regrets, "The Regrets." In my class we didn't read Les Divers Jeux Rustiques, but we did read Les Antiquités de Rome and Les Regrets, and I have to say that if du Bellay was having any fun in The Rustic Games, he certainly didn't show it here. The Ruins of Rome and The Regrets are, as their titles imply, splendidly, wallowingly depressed. The themes are disappointment, frustration, isolation, and exile; and those are on his good days.
"Du Bellay is in many ways related to the Existentialists," said the professor cheerfully—I liked him a lot; he was a tall, cheerful, grey-bearded man who astounded me on a weekly basis by standing before the class and lecturing for two hours on the French Renaissance as if he had it memorized, which I suppose, by the time he got to us, he had. But he had the gift of sounding as if he was interested in what he was saying, and this kept the class awake. "Because what is the favorite subject of du Bellay? Himself. But does he glorify himself? No, he's always complaining: he can't write, his muse has deserted him, he's completely blocked and will never win immortality. And he repeats this in hundreds upon hundreds of skillfully crafted sonnets! You see how cleverly he calls attention to himself? By minimizing himself, repeating that his worth is so small it can barely be seen, he actually justifies going on about himself at monumental length. A neat trick indeed! Some people say that the sorrowful Romantics are indebted to du Bellay, or the Symbolists, but in fact not a bit of it; they in the end are aspirational, looking for a better world, while I would say that du Bellay deconstructs himself. His theme is that there is no point to Art, to Life, that everything returns to dust, and that the writer is nothing better than a speck of dirt. And out of this ongoing complaint he builds his immortality. Mademoiselle Verhaeghe, will you read for us Sonnet number nine?"
He would periodically break off his speech to make such a request; this was the other way he kept the class awake. It had the double advantage of discouraging people from nodding off, and of making sure that students were forced to actually read a poem. It was a method I approved of, if only because it let me learn that when it came to reading sonnets in Middle French, few of the freshmen could do much better in comprehension or pronunciation than I could; which made me feel sort of bad about the French educational system, but considerably less sorry for myself.
In my melancholy, ghost-haunted, dissociated state of mind, du Bellay's poems resonated with me wonderfully. I suppose the best way to give their flavour is through the poems themselves, like this sonnet from Les Antiquités de Rome:
The Ruins of Rome, Sonnet #7.
O sacred hillsides, and you holy ruins,
Which today retain nothing of Rome but her name,
O you ancient monuments to great and divine souls,
Still upholding their dusty honor:
Triumphal arcs, that brought the sky close to hand,
That made even the heavens marvel at your sight,
Alas, little by little you crumble down to ash,
Reduced to a nation's legend, and to visitors' plunder.
No matter that, for a while, these great structures
Do battle against Time; for Time will end
By bringing all works and names back to the earth.
Ah, my sorrowful desires, wait in patience:
For if Time can destroy things so firm and strong,
It must someday end the pain that I endure.
I suppose you can see what I mean about melancholy. Reading his sonnets, I felt for du Bellay. On the one hand, you can laugh at him for being so overly dramatic about everything, and you wish you were there to nudge him in the ribs and suggest he try to relax a little—he's in Rome, he could at least enjoy the food. On the other hand, the way he's haunted by history, the way staring at architecture overwhelms him with that intense awareness of what used to be there and what's been lost, made a lot of sense to me. I was also a foreigner in a strange country, inhaling an unfamiliar past, wallowing in loss, and even if I didn't consider myself in exile or suffering with yearning for my homeland, I still thought I had an idea how du Bellay must have felt.
And it was that that started to change my mind about châteaux, because it got me started thinking about what might be interesting and valuable about visiting a place where nobles had lived and died, in a distant past, so far away as to be like another country, as L.P. Hartley said, and yet who left their house behind them—maybe in ruins, like what du Bellay saw when he looked at Rome, or maybe restored and integrated into the modern world as a stop on educational history field trips, or as a tourist destination that presented itself as a representative piece of the country's past and culture. In either case, whatever that object was, there must be something interesting about it. There might be something, even, uncanny. What would it be like, to be in those places? With chattering tourists all around, but at the same time one's awareness, the understanding, of the slow dark weight of history piled and breathing in the corners? And the contrast, the simple weirdness of the clash between the silk and gold and crystal that you see all round, and the plots and uncertainty and blood that, over the course of the centuries, stained the air of most of these noble houses.
What would it be like to be inside, thinking, looking for the weird? I thought that perhaps it might be like walking around inside a beautiful shell, something shiny and gilded that an animal had crawled out of long ago, leaving it behind, or simply died inside, when its whole race went extinct. I liked that idea—the gilded shells of gigantic translucent mollusks left scattered around the Loire valley like scallop shells dotting a beach. Or on the other hand, maybe it would be quite simply like visiting a house whose inhabitants have died, but who left palpable traces behind them. That seemed actually very likely—after all, what do tourists visit an ancient house for if not to try to touch its past? I liked that idea, I decided, because what that sounded like was quite simply a haunted house. And, me, I have always liked ghost stories.
To be continued next month, containing the following: miracles of Renaissance engineering; a man falls in love with a painting; a Sun God visits his fountains; the dead have a garden party; and invisible castles are reflected on the face of the waters. (I have heard some people say, I have wondered myself at times, whether perhaps all of this—history, journeys, another air—have nothing to do with the fantastic after all. But then there is something strange, the fall of light, a statue's gaze, and I say to myself: Are you sure? Are you sure? Are you sure?)