Category Archives: France

Agincourt

I was away for a few weeks, vacationing in Barcelona and Provence (pictures to come!), and of course I had to make the big decision about what to take along to read. A plane ride without a book is unthinkable. We were determined to travel with only carry-on bags, so that made the decision harder. I decided to bring my little MP3 player, which is always loaded up with audiobooks and podcasts.

I was already nearing the end of Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt, so Nicholas Hook and his adventures at the famous battle kept me company for the flight to Barcelona. A week later, when we arrived in France, Agincourt turned out to have been an ideal reading choice. Our first stop, after picking up our rental car in Montpellier, was Aigues-Mortes, a remarkably well-preserved medieval walled and fortified city.

Although the setting of the Cornwell’s novel is the northwest of France and not the south coast, Aigues-Mortes is contemporaneous with the walled city of Harfleur, the location of one of the battles Cornwell so vividly describes. At Aigues-Mortes, I could “see” what Cornwell was describing, a further reminder that the more we know about where we travel, the more meaningful the trip.

I don’t usually read war stories, but Cornwell has such a sterling reputation as a historical novelist that I thought I’d give him a try. He doesn’t spare the reader the descriptions of bloody warfare, but the characters he creates are real and compelling, their lives woven seamlessly into the beautifully realized historical setting. It also didn’t hurt that the narrator–Charles Keating–was superb, creating distinct voices for each character that captured the essence of their personality. It was a tour de force of writing and narration. I’m hoping that Agincourt is the first in a new Cornwell series–as the characters rode off into the sunset at the end, I had a strong feeling that Cornwell had more in mind for them.

Property Values

Rose Tremain’s 2010 novel Trespass is a dark story about two pairs of brothers and sisters with convoluted relationships and how property further entangles them in old quarrels and sorrows, with disastrous results. It’s also a tale of outsiders and insiders, as is often the case with novels set in France. (If you haven’t read Diane Johnson’s elegant, satirical novels Le Mariage, Le Divorce, and L’Affaire, now would be a good time.)

Trespass opens when a young girl, wandering away from a class trip, discovers a crime; Tremain uses this event to tell story of the roiling emotions that have led to this point. Anthony Verey, once a wealthy, celebrated British antiques dealer, decides that living near his cherished sister Veronica will cure his depression and give him a fresh start. Veronica lives in Provence with her lover, Kitty, who hates Anthony. He sets off to find the perfect house, one that will be an elegant setting for his “beloveds,” a few perfect treasures from his shop. Anthony’s quest made me think of David Sedaris’s comment about “the rejuvenating power of real estate.” (It appears in  Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.) But lest you think that there’s humor in Tremain’s book, I’ll remind you right away that this is a dark story, filled with the awful baggage the characters bring from childhood.

Anthony is enchanted by Mas Lunel, an old stone house owned by Aramon Lunel, a dissipated, alcoholic wretch, who has relegated his sister Audrun to a makeshift cottage on the edge of the property. The rifts in their relationship are seismic and Mas Lunel looms as a symbol of all that went wrong. Anthony’s   narcissistic interest in Mas Lunel as a canvas for his life sets in motion a chain of events with fatal consequences.

This bare outline of the story doesn’t reveal that how Tremain’s damaged characters come alive on the page, with all their hopes and sorrows. I read an earlier novel, The Way I Found Her, several years ago and always meant to read more of her novels. Now I will.

Below I’ve put together a short list of novels and memoirs about houses and how they affect family relationships. It’s a common dream that the place we live will change our lives. Anyone who reads the articles in the Sunday NY Times Real Estate section sees that weekly.

Novels:
Barker, Pat. Another World
Forster, E.M. Howard’s End
Lively, Penelope. Family Album
Mawer, Simon. The Glass Room
Memoirs:
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Boylan, Jennifer Finney. I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted
Fiennes, William. The Music Room: A Memoir