Health crises sharpen so many inequalities. But they also give us one major thing in common.
You’re trapped. I’m trapped. We’re all trapped.
After a while, it doesn’t matter what theoretically fabulous place you inhabit. I have friends losing their minds in Venice. Going batshit in Beverly Hills. I’m in the Périgord, a place of truffles and châteaux and vineyards and wide slow rivers. The Périgord is a place where every village seems designed for maximum Instagram impact, the valley of Lascaux and the cave paintings. It’s a place so idyllic that I can literally eat my yard, which is full of wild mint and dill and salad greens.
It’s also a place that, over the last year, has become These Four Walls. And it’s become urgent to rediscover the reasons I wanted to be here when I didn’t have to be. For me, the best way to get re-interested in a place is to discover a new writer.
The Périgord has a classic trinity: Montaigne, Brantôme, and Fénelon. This would be an impressive group anywhere in France—all the more so here. Like many formerly shitty areas repurposed for tourism in the twentieth century, the Périgord was poor, lonely, and isolated until long after the Second World War—when it was suddenly reinvented as a gastronomical paradise, the home of unadulterated Frenchness.
The ways that idea was more a product of canny marketing than of reality are outside the purview of this Substack, but the point is: this was more Appalachia than Riviera, charming because it was so underdeveloped—because it allowed city people a fantasy of an unspoiled Eden.
It’s important to keep that in mind when reading François Augiéras, a writer I discovered last year thanks to my Insta-friend Fabrice.
Augiéras’s life story is cinematic, in good ways and bad. He was born in—of all places—Rochester, New York, on July 18, 1925. His father, a pianist teaching in the United States, died before he was born, stranding his mother and, soon, her baby; in November they managed to return to France. His embalmed father was in their luggage.
They first lived in Paris. Young François hated it—not, he emphasizes, in the way lots of people hate big cities, but really, really hated it. When he was eight, he and his mother came to Périgueux, the largest city or county seat of the Dordogne. (The Dordogne and the Périgord are more or less synonymous.)
He recalls his childhood in a memoir called Une adolescence au temps du Maréchal. (An Adolescence in the Time of the Marshal; not translated into English.) The Marshal in question was, of course, Pétain, the puppet ruler of France. As a teenager, Augiéras joined the local philo-Nazi youth group, not because he was anti-Semitic or pro-German but, as he explains, because he was attracted to the paganism in their rituals. He soon left and discovered the theater. His love of theater was the kind of Nietzschean love you find in The Birth of Tragedy, or something out of The Golden Bough: a way of recreating the world.
For as he hated Paris, Augiéras really, really hated Judeo-Christian civilization. (What place symbolizes that civilization better than Paris?) As soon as the war was over, he began to travel to places that symbolized that rejection of civilization: the deserts of Algeria and then, principally, to Mount Athos. (His book about Mount Athos is available in English.) He published a few works under a pseudonym, including The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. (Also available in English.) This book attracted the interest of the elderly André Gide, but his publishing career was mainly unsuccessful. And you really don’t get the idea that he was working very hard to make the bestseller list.
Instead, he was, to use Susan Sontag’s term, “unassimilable,” committed to an absolute version of the truth, a desire for communion with the universe so extreme that he was willing to die for it. He exhausted himself in his spiritual researches and wore out his body and came, like a mad anchorite saint, to the mountain fastness of Domme, a tall rock that looms over the River Dordogne.
The book he wrote, which was only published long after his death, was called Domme ou l’Essai d’occupation.
My heart broken, and my health ruined, I find myself, at forty, alone, incurable, impoverished, admitted to a hospice.
He chose Domme, which is just down the road from where I live.
The site of Domme is revealed in its savage grandeur. At a good distance from the crenelated walls of the city, the narrow path, still on the edge of the cliffs, allows you to discover an admirable landscape: the twists of the Dordogne and, quite far away, other rocky cliffs, those of Beynac and La Roque-Gageac, barely visible in the cold, sad mist of this April morning.
An incredible magnetic power is unloosed from the Acropolis of Domme, which is a kind of natural pyramid dominating the river and a hundred kilometers of wild forests. This powerful magnetism, this beauty and this geometrically perfect environment are very favorable to me; I am attracted by force fields, unlike Men who do not feel them. Their civilization is not Ours. I shall live at Domme as we live Elsewhere, I shall practice secretly the religion that is Ours, without taking notice of the consent of Man, whose tastes, fashions, and opinions are perfectly foreign to Us.
He died at age 46, in 1971. And the book is a masterpiece. It is composed in elegant, controlled, classical French—and at the same time the work of a madman.
Not a ranting, raging madman. Domme opens with a pair of medical reports that prove that he was perfectly sane. Instead, he was the kind of madman, like his contemporaries Antonin Artaud and Simone Weil, who expands the vision of the possible. They were the kinds of people who didn’t just sit around grumbling about “society”; they’re the people who actually created an alternative idea of what the world could be and were willing to risk their lives to make it real. This was exactly the kind of madman I needed in a time when madness seemed so close. Maybe it took a pandemic for Augiéras to make perfect sense.
This week I went to Domme to look for him. The huge acropolis had views as wide as ever, and the village up on top was as charming as ever—though the cemetery presented that odd French phenomenon: in a place where everything is beautiful, the cemeteries are hideous. They are decorated with fake flowers and heaped with ugly marble plaques with Hallmark-card-like poetry—“Nobody has a heart like Grandma’s”—that seem to strip individuality rather than commemorate it. There is very little text telling you who lies here, or how much they are missed, or what they were in life. They are strangely unmoving places.
In the uncrowded cemetery of Domme, Augiéras’s tomb was hard to find. I walked around, then walked around again, then finally gave in and googled it. It was near a ruined tower that formed part of the city’s ancient ramparts; I had seen the tower. When I went over there, I found the tiny little grave.
Standing at his grave, I felt happy to feel his presence here. This was still his place; he was well-matched to it. His was the spirit of a place that, for all its Michelin restaurants (it’s anyone’s guess if they’ll ever reopen) and bright happy families canoeing down the rivers (who knows if they’ll ever come back), still feels wild, ancient—uncivilized and unassimilable.
This week I wrote about Minae Mizumura, a Japanese writer I have long admired, in The New York Times.
I’ve interviewed her before, and I really encourage you to read her new book, An I-Novel. It’s new in English, but it was published in Japan in 1995. It’s the story of being caught, mentally, between English and Japanese, between the Tokyo where she was born and the suburbs of New York, to which she was brought as a twelve-year-old.
If anyone is out there thinking: you haven’t recommended enough books this week, here are some books I recommended in the Houston Chronicle. By Chris Kraus, Vincent Bevins, Porochista Khakpour, Ariel Sabar, and Phil Neel.
A mis amigos hispanohablantes: Tengo el gran orgullo de anunciar la llegada a México de mi edición de los Cuentos completos de Clarice Lispector, por el Fondo de Cultura Económica. Gracias a Eduardo Matías por esa bellíssima edición.
Finally: a huge thank you to everyone who subscribed last week. Asking people for money is not my most natural or comfortable mode, but I really do appreciate your support. I want to keep this free and I don’t want anyone who is having financial difficulties to feel obligated in any way, but if you can afford it, well, it’s just $7 a month or $70 a year, and it really does make a difference. I will do my best to keep it interesting, I promise.
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If anyone is still here, thanks for reading this far, and I hope you have a good week, and that we’ll all be vaccinated soon.