Sunday, October 29, 2006

Constellation No. 3

One day when, at Combray, I had spoken of this seaside resort of Balbec in the presence of M. Swann, hoping to learn from him whether it was the best point to select for seeing the most violent storms, he had replied: "Yes, indeed I know Balbec! The church there, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and still half Romanesque, is perhaps the most curious example to be found of our Norman Gothic, and so singular that one is tempted to describe it as Persian in its inspiration."

And that region which, until then, had seemed to me to be nothing else than a part of immemorial nature, that had remained contemporaneous with the great phenomena of geology--and as remote from human history as the Ocean itself or the Great Bear, with its wild race of fishermen for whom no more than for their whales had there been any Middle Ages--it had been a great joy to me to see it suddenly take its place in the order of the centuries, with a stored consciousness of the Romanesque epoch, and to know that the Gothic trefoil had come to diversify those wild rocks too at the appointed time, like those frail but hardy plants which in the Polar regions, when spring returns, scatter their stars about the external snows. And if Gothic art brought to those places and people an identification which otherwise they lacked, they too conferred one upon it in return. I tried to picture how those fishermen had lived, the timid and undreamt-of experiment in social relations which they had attempted there, clustered upon a promonotory of the shores of Hell, at the foot of the cliffs of death; and Gothic art seemed to me a more living thing now that, detached from the towns in which until then I had always imagined it, I could see how, in a particular instance, upon a reef of savage rocks, it had taken root and grown until it flowered in a tapering spire. I was taken to see reproductions of the most famous of the stuates at Balbec--the shaggy, snub-nosed Apostles, the Virgin from the porch--and I could scarcely breathe for joy at the thought that I might myself, one day, see them stand out in relief against the eternal briny fog. Thereafter, on delightful, stormy February nights, the wind--breathing into my heart, which it shook no less violently than the chimney of my bedroom, the project of a visit to Balbec--blended in me the desire for Gothic architecture as well as for a storm upon the sea.

Proust, Swann's Way ("Place Names: The Name"), pp. 417-418.

Early Saturday morning, at the square by the train station, I find a cab willing to take me to the Sables d'Olonne.

As we're headed out of the town, we run into some blankets of mist, then, the last traffic intersection now behind us, we plunge into a pool of absolutely opaque fog. The road and the surrounding countryside are both buried from view. You can't make out anything, apart from the occasional tree, or a cow emerging in a provisional, indecisive fashion. It's very nice.

When we get to the seashore, the weather clears up suddenly, all at once. It's windy--plenty windy--but the sky is almost blue; with a few clouds rapidly drifting eastward. I get out of the 504 after I've tipped the driver, who wishes me a "Nice Trip" tinged with regret, it seems to me. I'm sure he imagines I'm about to do some crab-fishing or something of the sort.

First I walk the whole length of the beach. The sea is gray, rather agitated. I feel nothing in particular. I keep walking for a long time.

At about 11, people start turning up with their children and dogs. I set off in the opposite direction.

At the far end of the Sables d'Olonne beach, on the extension of the pier that closes off the port, there are some old houses and a Romanesque church. Nothing too spectacular: these are buildings of sturdy, crude stonework, made to withstand storms, as they have done for hundreds of years. It was very easy to imagine the ancient life of the fishermen of the beach, with Sunday meals taken in the little church, the communion of the faithful, with the wind blowing outside and the ocean crashing against the coastal rocks. It was a life free of distractions and free of hassles, dominated by difficult and dangerous work. A simple, rustic and abundantly noble life. A rather stupid life to boot.

Michel Houellebecq, Extension du domaine de la lutte, pp. 106-7.

Certain names of town, Vézelay or Chartres, Bourges or Beauvais, serve to designate, by abbreviation, their principal churches. This partial acceptation comes at length--if the names in question are those of places that we do not yet know--to mould the name as a whole which henceforth, whenever we wish to introduce into it the idea of the town--the town which we have never seen--will impose on it the same carved outlines, in the same style, will make of it a sort of vast cathedral. It was, however, in a railway station, above the door of the refreshment-room in white letters on a blue panel, that I read the name--almost Persian in style--of Balbec. I strode bouyantly through the station and across the avenue that led up to it, and asked the way to the shore, so as to see nothing in the place but its church and the sea. People seemed not to understand what I meant. Old Balbec, Balbec-en-Terre, at which I had arrived, had neither beach nor harbour. True, it was indeed in the sea that the fishermen, according to the legend, had found the miraculous Christ of which a window in the church that stood a few yards from where I now was recorded the discovery; it was indeed from cliffs battered by the waves that the stone of its nave and towers had been quarried. But this sea, which for those reasons I had imagined as coming to expire at the foot of the window, was twelve miles away and more, at Balbec-Plage, and rising beside its cupola, that steeple which, because I had read that it was itself a rugged Norman cliff round which the winds howled and the sea-birds wheeled, I had always pictured to myself as receiving at its base the last dying foam of the uplifted waves, stood on a square which was the junction of two tramway routes, opposite a café which bore, in letters of gold, the legend "Billiards," against a background of houses with the roofs of which no upstanding mast was blended. And the church--impinging on my attention at the same time as the café, the passing stranger of whom I had had to ask my way, the station to which presently I should have to return--merged with all the rest, seemed an accident, a byproduct of this summer afternoon, in which the mellow and distended dome against the sky was like a fruit of which the same light that bathed the chimneys of the houses ripened the pink, glowing, luscious skin. But I wished only to consider the eternal significance of the carvings when I recognised the Apostles, of which I had seen casts in the Trocadéro museum, and which on either side of the Virgin, before the deep bay of the porch, were awaiting me as though to do me honour. With their benign, blunt, mild faces and bowed shoulders they seemed to be advancing upon me with an air of welcome, singing the Alleluia of a fine day. But it was evident that their expression was as unchanging as that of a corpse, and altered only if one walked round them. I said to myself: "Here I am: this is the Church of Balbec. This squre, which looks as though it were conscious of its glory, is the only place in the world that possesses Balbec Church. All that I have seen so far have been photographs of this church--and of these famous Apostles, this Virgin of the Porch, mere casts only. Now it is the church itself, the statue itself, they, the only ones--this is something far greater."

It was also something less, perhaps. As a young man on the day of an examination or of a duel feels the question that he has been asked, the shot that he has fired, to be very insignificant when he thinks of the reserves of knowledge and of valour that he would like to have displayed, so my mind, which had lifted the Virgin of the Porch far above the reproductions that I had had before my eyes, invulnerable to the vicissitudes which might threaten them, intact even if they were destroyed, ideal, endowed with a universal value, was astonished to see the statue which it had carved a thousand times, reduced now to its own stone semblance, occupying, in relation to the reach of my arm, a place in which it had for rivals an election poster and the point of my stick, fettered to the Square, inseparable from the opening of the main street, powerless to hide from the gaze of the café and of the omnibus office, receiving on its face half of the ray of the setting sun (and presently, in a few hours' time, of the light of the street lamp) of which the savings bank received the other half, affected simultaneously with theat branch office of a loan society by the smells of a pastry-cook's oven, subjected to the tyranny of the Particular to such a point that, if I had chosen to scribble my name upon that stone, it was she, the illustrious Virgin of Balbec, the unique (which meant alas, the only one), who, on her body coated with the same soot as defiled the neighbouring houses, would have displayed--powerless to rid herself of them--to all the admiring strangers come there to gaze upon her, the marks of my piece of chalk and the letters of my name, and it was she, finally, the immortal work of art so long desired, whom I found transformed, as was the church itself, into a little old woman in stone whose height I could measure and whose wrinkles I could count. But time was passing; I must return to the station, where I was to wait for my grandmother and Francoise, so that we should all go on to Balbec-Plage together. I reminded myself of what I had read about Balbec, of Swann's saying: "It's exquisite; as beautiful as Siena." And casting the blame for my disappointment upon various accidental causes, such as the state of my health, my exhaustion after the journey, my incapacity for looking at things properly, I endeavoured to console myself with the thought that other towns still remained intact for me, that I might soon, perhaps, be making my way, as into a shower of pearls, into the cool babbling murmur of watery Quimperlé, or traversing the roseate glow in which verdant Pont-Aven was bathed; but as for Balbec, no sooner had I set foot in it than it was as though I had broken open a name which ought to have been kept hermetically closed, and into which, seizing at once the opportunity that I had imprudently given them, expelling all the images that had lived in it until then, a tramway, a café, people crossing the square, the branch of the savings bank, irresistibly propelled by some external pressure, by a pneumatic force, had come surginginto the interior of those two syllables which, closing over them, now let them frame the porch of the Persian church and would henceforth never cease to contain them.

Proust, Within a Budding Grove ("Place Names: The Place"), pp. 708-710.

A stone's throw from these houses there are some modern apartments, intended for the use of vacationers. They are comprised by a group of 10-to-20-story buildings. These buildings are set on top of a multi-level esplanade, the lowest level of which is devoted to parking. I walked for a long time from one building to the next, which allowed me to ascertain that most of the rooms had an ocean view, thanks to various architectural tricks. At this time of year, the whole place was deserted, and the whistling of the wind blowing between the buildings had something decidedly sinister about it.

I then headed toward a more recent and upscale apartment house, situated this time right next to the sea, literally only a couple of meters from it. It bore the name of "The Buccaneer Apartments." The ground floor consisted of a supermarket, a pizzeria, and a discotheque; all three closed. A sign invited you to take a tour of their model apartment.

At this point a nasty feeling came over me. The thought of a family of vacationers coming home to their "Buccaneer Apartment" before wolfing down their escalope sauce pirate, and of their youngest daughter being schtupped in a "Ye Olde Cape Horn"-style nightclub--it was getting a bit annoying, but there was nothing I could do about it.

Houellebecq, EDL, pp. 107-108.

No comments: