There are two ways of telling how we got here, some forty years ago. One is my mother’s, one is my father’s. Each of them denies the other’s story pretty categorically, but that’s all right. I’ve come to feel that this place, for all its undeniable solidity, the weight of its stones, the noise of its thunderstorms, the heat of its dog days, is more than a little fictional.
My mother’s version of the story is both succinct and mystical. She and my father were touring through Burgundy with no particular plan. Their Green Guide mentioned a town with a Carolingian crypt and they were vaguely making towards it, down a road winding between hedges. It had been raining all day, and the road ahead of them was almost invisible. They came around a bend, and as they did so, a single beam of sunlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the hillside above them with its pointed spire, broken roofline, and fortified walls. The village seemed to be floating on a sea of fog, golden above the silvery damp. Stunned, they slowed to a halt—and in the back seat, I gurgled in glee. “That’s it!” my mother exclaims in her version of the story. “That’s where I want to live!” And so they did.
My father’s version of the story is longer and more circumstantial; I don’t know whether this makes it truer. He’s a book illustrator by trade, so attention to detail is part of what he does. He spent quite a few years in the 1950’s working for a marvellously eccentric printer in Paris by the name of Maurice Darrantière. Darrantière had typeset the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, and many things besides. When asked what Joyce was like, he had only one answer: “Oh, my poor dear,” he would say, “he was the devil. The devil!” I am not quite sure what this means; nor, I think, was my father, but he learned a great deal from Darrantière, mostly about what would or would not pass muster in a sort of Bohemian French society that was directly descended from Théophile Gauthier and the Goncourts. When my parents, having (finally) acquired reasonably stable academic employment in the United States, along with a family (in the shape of myself), decided that they wanted to buy a house in France, nothing was more reasonable, according to my father, than that they should ask Darrantière for advice. Darrantière was originally from Dijon and so to him, if you wanted to live “in the provinces” there was only one place to go: Burgundy. Anywhere else would be uncivilized; the south was too close to Spain, Normandy was too English, Alsace-Lorraine unthinkable; Burgundy on the other hand was the site of ancient and civilized culture.
So my parents got into the tiny car, with me in a car seat, and they drove down the A6, past Fontainebleau with its chateau, Sens and Auxerre with their cathedrals, until they ended up in a place near Vezeley called Quarré-les-Tombes. I don’t know which of them was responsible for this particular choice, although I suspect that my father, who has always had a taste for the macabre, couldn’t resist the name of the place, which is, as it turns out, entirely descriptive. The village of Quarré-les-Tombes is laid out in a square (carré) around its church, at a respectful distance. Huddled right up against the walls of the church are the tombs (tombes), hundreds of them. They are great big stone sarcophagi from the early middle ages. Most of them gape, one way or another; their tops have fallen off, or they’ve been tipped onto their massive sides. Mercifully, there’s nothing osseous inside peeking out. Archaeologists aren’t sure whether the place was a coffin factory and this its show room, or whether what you see now is a real necropolis, lying for some reason on top of the ground and not under it. What it really looks like is as if some giant hand with a grim but playful sense of humour had dropped the massive things from a height, like pick-up sticks or knucklebones, all around the church. This cheerful spot, in any case, is where my father left me with my mother when he set off to look for houses.
It was late afternoon when my father drove into the village, having explored quite a few towns along the way. It was raining gently, as it often is in Burgundy in the early part of the summer. He walked around entranced by the ruinous state of the place. Roofs were falling in and towers collapsing; swallows were building nests in the windows of unoccupied houses, and great late medieval mansions had been converted into barns where cows stood and chewed and swayed thoughtfully in the dimness. There were chickens in the streets but not many people; sometimes a farmer in his bleus de travail would stalk by, bent over beneath the pitchfork on his shoulder, sometimes a door would open and a woman in a house dress would furiously flap a dust cloth before retreating inside again. He found the general air of decay irresistible (this is the man who once wrote, in another context, “gloom, as a matter of fact, is my mind’s natural illumination”). The rain came down harder and he turned back to the café. It had a sign out front proclaiming it to be Le Bon Coin, and it was indeed perched on a corner where a street dove steeply downhill. The windows were shuttered but there was light from inside and a murmur of voices. My father pushed open the door and stepped into the bar. The atmosphere inside was as foggy as that outside. Four or five men were there, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, drinking wine, and having a conversation incomprehensible both because it was in patois and because it consisted entirely of monosyllables. In village conversations, you really don’t have to say much because you’ve said it all before and will say it all again: it’s about the awful weather, the prospects for a dreadful harvest, the appalling thing that happened to someone’s tractor, the dire impossibility of living this kind of life at all. The men wore the uniform of La France Profonde: bleus de travail, big grey rubber gum boots. But, I should add, not berets. Only two people in our town ever wore berets, and perhaps I’ll tell you about them later..
The conversation, such as it was, stopped when my father stepped in, and heads swung around to inspect him. To be fair, he probably looked a bit odd. He is a burly man who has always liked trench coats, and on top of that he had a beard. This was in 1964 and nobody except Fidel Castro wore a beard, least of all anyone in rural Burgundy. On top of this, he speaks French well but no one could ever mistake him for a Frenchman, and in this town at that time even people from Lyon or Paris were considered foreigners.
“Good afternoon,” he said, and he ordered a coffee. When it arrived, he asked politely “I wonder, could you tell me if there are any houses for sale in the village?” There was a long silence and then one of the men began to laugh. Then another guffawed, and another, and soon the whole place was uproarious. They slapped the tables and each other’s shoulders. Finally, one of them wiped away his tears and drew breath.
“But monsieur!” he exclaimed. “Why would you want to buy a house in a shithole like this?”
The shithole part was almost literally true. When my father stepped back outside into the damp afternoon, after partaking of a petit rouge or two, the sun had broken through the clouds and was coaxing fragrant threads of golden steam from the manure piles that seemed to fill every courtyard. But he had the name of a real estate agent in his pocket and within a matter of weeks my parents had purchased—for a song, as they say—the only available house in town possessed of both electrical power and running water.