Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Rather scuffed and dog-eared from a sleepless overnight flight, I arrived on Thursday last to find the sun shining clear from the bright blue sky of a crisp and comfortable pre-autumnal day. This happy omen was an accurate harbinger of my first week in Paris: joyous reunion with granddaughters, some full and productive library days, a dish of pears and cheese, and some medieval countryside.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Joan had spent the previous ten days or so at Pertuis, in Vaucluse, at a kind of chamber music camp. The players were all amateurs, but many of them at an impressively high standard; and they came from many parts of the world. Among them was a lovely gentleman in our general age group, a Parisian bio-medical computer type on the cusp of retirement, named Marc Le Bret. Marc and Joan became friends, and he invited us to spend a day at his country place in nearby Montfort-l’Amaury. Our rapidly filling calendar suggested “Now, or never,” so on Saturday morning we headed off for Montparnasse station. Montfort is on a suburban line only thirty-five minutes west of Paris, not far beyond Versailles. But the village, at least M. Le Bret’s part of it, seemed at least a hundred years away.

His cottage, which dates from the era of Henri IV and shows it, is a part of a large old family compound at the village edge, with several old houses and a jumble of walled gardens. It practically abuts the large Fôret de Rambouillet, the second largest green space in France. In a leafy orchard garden amid fig trees, grape vines, and rows of kitchen vegetables we shared a huge grilled beefsteak with Marc, Marc’s son and Chinese daughter-in-law, and two delightful Franco-Chinese grandchildren.

Montfort denotes a fortified hill, and there are charming castle ruins at its highest point. The medieval lords of the place, the de Montforts, were international big shots. You don’t even need to be a medievalist to have heard of Simon de Montfort. (On the other hand you do need to be one to know which Simon de Montfort, since for purposes of maximal confusion there were about a dozen of them.) The one I’ll call the really “Bad” Simon de Montfort led the Albigensian Crusade. His just reward was having a large stone dropped upon his head from the walls of Toulouse by its besieged defenders. In order to appreciate the really “Good” Simon de Montfort you have to know that these guys were also the Earls of Leicester in England. “Good” or “English” Simon won the Battle of Lewes in 1264, took Henry III prisoner, and forced him to honor certain provisions of the Magna Carta ostensibly agreed to but in fact mainly ignored by his father, King John. One of these was consulting with the barons in a meeting that was vaguely parliamentary, on account of which Good Simon is sometimes known as “the Father of Parliament”.

There is a huge parish church in Montfort-l’Amaury, far larger than any conceivable past population could have required. It dates mainly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The town’s more interesting medieval relic is the vast necropolis, a combined cemetery and charnel house, which still has its portal in flamboyant Gothic, along with parts of its fabulous wooden arcade roof. On the outside wall one can still (if barely) make out the inscription of an old French memento mori: “As you are now, I once was; as I am now, you will one day be.” This ditty must be imagined to be spoken by an accompanying skeleton mounted in a niche. The term charnel house (also known as an ossuary) does not deserve its grimmer connotations.

Charnel houses were common in places where constrained space or other physical limitations did not allow for an infinitely expandable burial ground. When bodies were completely decomposed, the remaining bones, which took up considerably less space, could be compactly and even reverently stored in a charnel house. That made room for a new grave. Though long since laicized, the cemetery at Montfort-l’Amaury still has a thirty-year time limit. One of the graves had a note posted upon it from the Municipality announcing that its time was up and that the responsable needed to get to the Town Hall d’urgence. I presume the current tenant is no longer the responsable.

a bug and a bogue

Since Marc and Joan are musicians, a requirement of our tour of the town was a visit to the house, now a quirky museum, of Maurice Ravel, who lived there from 1921 until his death in 1937. You never know when you are going to learn something fascinating. We walked toward Ravel’s house along an old wall under chestnut trees. On the ground were bits of the prickly chestnut hulls or burs. I learned that the French word for this cortex, which I did not know, is bogue. Computer English has pretty thoroughly invaded the French language, despite the best efforts of the purists, who insist the thing is not a computer but an ordinateur. But there is one witty counter-attack. In speaking of a computer glitch, imperfection, or malfunction, Anglophones will speak of a bug in the system. Frenchmen speak of a bogue—a kind of bur beneath the cybernetic saddle I suppose!

Ravel’s house is a funny, steepled, old slate-roofed thing strung out in railway car fashion along a high ridge with a fabulous view—which is no doubt why he called it “La Belvédère”. The local lady who oversees the museum at hours of her choosing--and, as we learned, of her arbitrary alteration--is a delightful eccentric. As you enter the house she starts playing Boléro very loud on a stereo. Fortunately, she then turns it off. (Ravel himself famously said of Boléro: “Yes, it’s my masterpiece. Too bad there’s no music in it.”) Only when you see Ravel’s bed do you realize he must have been a midget. There was a good deal of potentially fascinating musical stuff, but the gardienne seemed more interested in the huge collection of bibelots. Several of these—especially a variety of miniature animal automata in metal, wood, and porcelain—fascinated three-year-old Jade Le Bret.

We came at last to the composer’s small study, a third of which was taken up with his magnificent piano. The gardienne insisted that one of us play it. Joan alone among the visitors was even a church hall pianist, and though she stoutly resisted, the gardienne’s repeated importunities at last so bogued her she did for a moment sit at Maurice Ravel’s piano and play—a snatch of Beethoven. In 1928, just before the Crash, Ravel made a kind of rave tour of America, which included an all-Ravel program in Boston greeted with a standing ovation. I thought Joan had made at least partial repayment, while at the same time earning a most happy memory of a most happy day.

The day was, however, not yet quite over. On our way to the station our genial host dropped a last delicious morsel of invaluable French trivia. After Ravel’s death his brother brought a new housekeeper to La Belvédère to keep the piano polished and the tchotchkes dusted. Her name was Celeste Alberet, and she had previously performed this office in the domicile of a certain literary gentleman named Marcel Proust. She was, one presumes, the world’s greatest expert on fastidious French bachelors.