Archive pour le 6 novembre, 2006

From Normandy to the Pyrénées, de Henry James

Henry James fait revivre ma Normandie… et je ne résiste pas au plaisir de vous présenter ce « petit bijou » à mes yeux…

 normandie.jpg

The other day, before the first fire of winter, when the deepening dusk had compelled me to close my book and wheel my chair closer, I indulged in a retrospect. The objects of it were not far distant, and yet they seemed already to glow with the mellow tints of the days that are no more. In the crackling flame the last remnant of the summer appeared to shrink up and vanish. But the flicker of it’s destruction made a sort of fantastic imagery, and in the midst of the winter fire the summer sunshine seemed to glow. It lit up a series of visible memories.

 

I.

One of the first was that of a perfect day on the coast of Normandy —- a warm, still Sunday in the early part of August. From my pillow, on waking, I could look at a strip of blue sea and a section of white cliff. I observed that the sea had never been so brilliant, and that the cliff was shining like the coast of Paros. I rose and came forth with the sense that it was the finest day of summer, and that one ought to do something uncommon by way of keeping it. At Etretat it was uncommon to take a walk; the custom of the country is to lie all day upon the pebbly strand watching, as we should say in America, your fellow boarders. Your leisurely stroll, in a scanty sheet, from your bathing cabin into the water, and your trickling progress from the water back into your cabin, form, as a general thing, the sum total of your peregrination. For the rest you remain horizontal, contemplating the horizon. To mark the day with a white stone, therefore, it was quite sufficient to stretch my legs. So I climbed the huge grassy cliff which shuts in the little bay on the right (as you lie on the beach, head upward), and gained the bleak white chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde, which a lady told me she was sure was the original of Matthew Arnold’s “Little Grey Church on the Windy Hill.” This is very likely; but the little church today was not grey; neither was the hill windy.

I had occasion, by the time I reached the summit, to wish it had been. Deep, silent sunshine filled the air, and the long grass of the downs stood up in the light without a tremor. The downs at Etretat are magnificent, and the way they stretched off toward Dieppe, with their shining levels and their faintly-shaded dells, was in itself an irresistible invitation. On the land side they have been somewhat narrowed by cultivation; the woods, and farms, and grain fields here and there creep close enough to the edge of the cliff almost to see the shifting of the tides at it’s base. But cultivation in Normandy is itself picturesque, and the pedestrian rarely need resent it’s encroachments. Neither walls nor hedges or fences are anywhere visible; the whole land lies open to the breezes and to his curious footsteps. This universal absence of barriers gives an air of vastness to the landscape, so that really, in a little French province, you have more of the feeling of being in a big country than on our own huge continent, which bristles so unconsciously with prohibitory rails and stone-piles. Norman farmhouses, too, with their mossy roofs and their visible beams making all kinds of triangles upon the ancient plaster of their walls, are very delightful things. Hereabouts they have always a dark little wood close beside them; often a chénaie, as the term is —- a fantastic little grove of tempest-tossed oaks. The trees look as if, some night, when the sea-blasts were howling their loudest and their boughs were tossing most wildly, the tumult had suddenly been stilled and they had stopped short, each in the attitude into which the storm was twisting it. The only thing the storm can do with them now is to blow them straight. The long, indented coast line had never seemed to me so charming. It stretched away into the light haze of the horizon, with such lovely violet spots in it’s caves and hollows, and such soft white gleams on it’s short headlands—-such exquisite gradations of distance and such capricious interruptions of perspective —- that one could only say that the land was really trying to smile as hard as the sea. The smile of the sea was a positive simper. Such a glittering and twinkling, such a softness and blueness, such tiny little pin-points of foam, and such delicate little wrinkles of waves —- all this made the ocean look like a flattered portrait.

The day I speak of was a Sunday, and there were to be races at Fécamp, ten miles away. The agreeable thing was, of course, to walk to Fécamp, over the grassy downs. I walked and walked, over the levels and the dells, having land and ocean quite to myself. Here and there I met a shepherd, lying flat on his stomach in the sun, while his sheep, in extreme dishabille (shearing time being recent), went huddling in front of me as I approached. Far below, on the blue ocean, like a fly on a table of lapis, crawled a little steamer, carrying people from Etretat to the races. I seemed to go much faster, yet the steamer got to Fécamp before me. But I stopped to gossip with a shepherd on a grassy hillside, and to admire certain little villages which are niched in small, transverse, seaward-sloping valleys. The shepherd told me that he had been farm-servant to the same master for five-and-thirty years —- ever since the age of ten; and that for thirty-five summers he had fed his flock upon those downs. I don’t know whether his sheep were tired of their diet, but he professed himself very tired of his life. I remarked that in fine weather it must be charming, and he observed, with humility, that to thirty-five summers there went several rainy days.

The walk to Fécamp would be purely delightful if it were not for the fonds. The fonds are the transverse valleys just mentioned —- the channels, for the most part, of small watercourses which discharge themselves into the sea. The downs subside, precipitately, to the level of the beach, and then slowly lift their grassy shoulders on the other side of the gully. As the cliffs are of immense height, these indentations are profound, and drain off a little of the exhilaration of the too elastic pedestrian. The first fonds strike him as delightfully picturesque, and he is down the long slope on one side and up the gigantic hump on the other before he has time to feel hot. But the second is greeted with that tempered empressement with which you bow in the street to an acquaintance with whom you have met half an hour before; the third is a stale repetition; the fourth is decidedly one too many, and the fifth is sensibly exasperating. The fonds, in a word, are very tiresome. It was, if I remember rightly, in the bottom of the last and widest of the series that I discovered the little town of Yport. Every little fishing village on the Norman coast has, within the last ten years, set up in business as a watering-place; and, though one might fancy that Nature had condemned Yport to modest obscurity, it is plain that she has no idea of being out of the fashion. But she is a miniature imitation of her rivals. She has a meagre little wood behind her and an evil-smelling beach, on which bathing is possible only at the highest tide. At the scorching midday hour at which I inspected her she seemed absolutely empty, and the ocean, beyond acres of slippery seaweed, looked very far away. She has everything that a properly appointed station de bains should have, but everything is on a Lilliputian scale. The whole place looked like a huge Nuremburg toy. There is a diminutive hotel, in which, properly, the head waiter should be a pigmy and the chambermaid a sprite, and beside it there is a Casino on the smallest possible scale. Everything about the Casino is so harmoniously undersized that it seems a matter of course that the newspapers in the reading-room should be printed in the very finest type. Of course there is a reading-room, and a dancing-room, and a café, and a billiard-room, with a bagatelle board instead of a table, and a little terrace on which you may walk up and down with very short steps. I hope the prices are as tiny as everything else, and I suspect, indeed, that Yport honestly claims, not that she is attractive, but that she is cheap.

I toiled up the perpendicular cliff again, and took my way over the grass, for another hour, to Fécamp, where I found the peculiarities of Yport directly reversed. The place is a huge, straggling village, seated along a wide, shallow bay, and adorned, of course, with the classic Casino and the row of hotels. But all this is on a very brave scale, though it is not manifest that the bravery of Fécamp has won a victory; and, indeed, the local attractions did not strike me as irresistible. A pebbly beach of immense length, fenced off from the town by a grassy embankment; a Casino of a bold and unsociable aspect; a principal inn, with an interminable brown façade, suggestive somehow of an asylum or an almshouse —- such are the most striking features of this particular watering-place. There are magnificent cliffs on each side of the hay, but, as the French say, without impropriety, it is the devil to get to them. There was no one in the hotel, in the Casino, or on the beach; the whole town being in the act of climbing the further cliff, to reach the downs on which the races were to be held. The green hillside was black with trudging spectators and the long sky line was fretted with them. When I say there was no one at the inn, I forget the gentleman at the door who informed me positively that he would give me no breakfast; he seemed to have staid at home from the races expressly to give himself this pleasure. But I went further and fared better, and procured a meal of homely succulence, in an unfashionable tavern, in a back street, where the wine was sound, the cutlets tender, and the serving-maid rosy. Then I walked along —- for a mile, it seemed —- through a dreary, grey grand rue, where the sunshine was hot, the odours portentous, and the doorsteps garnished with aged fishwives, retired from business, whose plaited linen coifs looked picturesquely white, and their faces picturesquely brown. I inspected the harbour and it’s goodly basin —- with nothing in it —- and certain pink and blue houses, which surround it, and then, joining the last stragglers, I clambered up the side of the cliff to the downs.

The races had already begun, and the ring of spectators was dense. I picked out some of the smallest people, looked over their heads, and saw several young farmers, in parti-coloured jackets, and very red in the face, bouncing up and down on handsome cart-horses. Satiated at last with this diversion, I turned away and wandered down the hill again; and after strolling through the streets of Fécamp, and gathering not a little of the wayside entertainment that a seaport and fishing town always yields, I repaired to the Abbey church, a monument of some importance, and almost as great an object of pride in the town as the Casino. The Abbey of Fécamp was once a very rich and powerful establishment, but nothing remains of it now save it’s church and it’s trappistine. The church, which is for the most part early Gothic, is very stately and picturesque, and the trappistine, which is a distilled liquor of the Chartreuse family, is much prized by people who take a little glass after their coffee. By the time I had done with the Abbey, the townsfolk had slid en masse down the cliff again, the yellow afternoon had come, and the holiday takers, before the wine-shops, made long and lively shadows. I hired a sort of two-wheeled gig, without a board, and drove back to Etretat in the rosy stage of evening. The gig dandled me up and down in a fashion of which I had been unconscious since I left off baby-clothes; but the drive, through the charming Norman country, over roads which lay among the peaceful meadows like paths amid a park, was altogether delightful. The sunset gave a deeper mellowness to the standing crops, and in the grassiest corner of the wayside villages the young men and maidens were dancing like the figures in vignette illustrations of classic poets.

Publié dans:Littérature américaine |on 6 novembre, 2006 |Pas de commentaires »

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