The Consolations of the Forest, by Sylvain Tesson (2011)

Dans les forêts de Sibérie Sylvain Tesson

The summer before my senior year of high school, we moved from Washington DC to Moscow. It was the first time my father had been posted to a non-English speaking country since Japan in the early eighties, and the biggest adventure my siblings and I had ever embarked on: the street signs in Cyrillic script; the bone-chilling winter cold; the doorman of our building, who recorded our comings and goings in a notebook he didn’t even bother to hide from us; but also the glittering Imperial splendour of the Bolshoï; the golden onion domes of Orthodox churches; and the incredible hospitality of the Russians who became our friends… We certainly had enough to keep us busy and entertained.

So when the head teacher of my class decided to organise a  trip the following January to visit Lake Baikal, in Siberia, I was markedly less receptive to the idea than those of my classmates who had already been in Moscow for several years and who had had ample occasion (in theory) to see all the sights. To be perfectly honest, however, my lack of enthusiasm had much less to do with timing and destination than with my classmates, almost every one of whom I thoroughly disliked. I could think of very few worse fates than being cooped up with them in a coach and a cramped hostel for more than ten days. Siberia being synonymous in my mind with gulags, in any case, I could see no advantages whatsoever in the scheme.

To my relief, my parents took an equally poor view of the proposed trip, considering it extraordinarily foolhardy, if not downright stupid, to want to take a bunch of school kids to Siberia in the depths of winter. It was out of the question I should go. I spent my classmates’ absence peacefully reading, and viewed their return with dismay – could they have been lost forever along the icy shores of the lake, I would undoubtedly have been happier.

After that, I thought no more of Lake Baikal for the next twelve or thirteen years.

Then, two Christmases ago, a friend of my sister-in-law’s gave her The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga (Dans les forêts de Sibérie), by French travel writer and adventurer, Sylvain Tesson. I took a sneak peak at it one day when she’d left it on the coffee table and became engrossed. Then my father caught sight of it. Before the Christmas holidays were over, there were three of us trying to read it simultaneously and my sister-in-law complained she never knew where to find her book from one moment to the next. The first thing I did when I returned to Paris was order a copy of my own. I was far from being the only one – The Consolations of the Forest was something of a literary sensation among our circle of friends that winter.

The premise of the book is simple enough: fatigued by the hustle and bustle of life in a globalised, ultra-capitalistic world, Tesson decided to carry out a long-cherished dream and retire to a log cabin in the woods along the western shore of Lake Baikal. He bade girlfriend, family and friends farewell and set out with a truckload of books, cigars, vodka and tea, a rifle, and a flare gun to warn off bears. During the six months he spent there, from February to July of 2010, he kept a journal, chronicling the minutiae of his daily life and thoughts.

Most people, I suppose, would view those six months of solitude and – let’s face it – hardship with undisguised horror (never mind wifi, what about proper plumbing???). Tesson seems to relish almost every minute. Having crossed the Himalayas and most of central Asia on foot, he is used to roughing it and the prospect of being a two-day drive across the frozen lake away from his nearest neighbours is not calculated to intimidate, but rather to delight, him. He is a man in search of peace and the freedom to live his life on his own terms, unfettered by the conventions of society. In fact, the only form of social contact he seems prepared to put up with is the occasional night of drunken philosophising with passing rangers. Tesson speaks fluent Russian and it is easy to see he feels a strong kinship with the people and culture of Russia.

He describes hacking a hole in the icy surface of the lake with his axe and sitting there for hours, in the hope of catching enough Arctic char for his evening meal; sitting on the bench outside his cabin, with his back against the rough logs, letting the winter sun warm his face and play across his closed eyelids; hiking up the mountainside, through fog-wreathed cedar forests, first alone, and later with Aïka and Bêk, the pups a friendly ranger loans him to scare off the bears come spring; sitting at the window, near the warmth of the wood-burning stove, watching a timid blue-tit hop a little closer to the window-sill, while the steam from his mug of tea rises in curls and gradually fogs up the pane of glass. Life as a Siberian hermit suits him. “Recipe for happiness: a window looking out onto Lake Baikal, and a table in front of the window”, he is reported as having told journalists. Even the inevitable moments of boredom and loneliness are not enough to dim his pleasure in his way of life. They give rise to vodka-fuelled midnight meditations (when in Rome…) on the life of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, an eighteenth-century Orthodox monk who spent twenty-five years living as a hermit in the woods, and whose face stares mournfully out at him from the cheap icon he bought and propped up in front of his camp-bed.

For the reader, his book is that window looking out onto Lake Baikal. It is highly doubtful I – or anyone I know, for that matter – will ever travel to Siberia. But for those of us who grew up reading Thoreau and have fantasized about going to the woods to live deliberately, Tesson provides a bit of satisfaction by proxy. His almost painterly evocations of Siberian landscapes combine with a knack for an aphoristic turn of phrase, which can make him as caustic as he is, at other times, poetic. The reader is saved from an overdose of earnestness (induced by too much Kierkegaard or Schopenhauer) by the twinkle in his eye. I kept The Consolations of the Forest on my bedside table for over a year, voluntarily taking my time over it. I found that reading a few pages, even a single paragraph, every night had a soothing effect upon me. Nestling beneath the bedcovers, I would slip into a cool, quiet world, fragrant with the scent of cedar sap and wood smoke. I had no cause to regret that high-school trip: I was there.


© Florence Berlioz 2017

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James Herriot Country

And so, another school year is under way.

While I did not relish sitting through endless, tedious start-of-term meetings, and bidding adieu to mornings in bed is proving to be a wrench, it has been fun catching up with colleagues and settling in again. “Did you have a good holiday?” was the question on everybody’s lips over the first few days. I wonder if anybody ever answers “no”?

I myself had a splendid holiday. I was lucky enough to be able to spend time in Italy and England, as well as the French countryside. I had been particularly looking forward to my trip to England, as it was to be my first visit to the Lake District. I, and two friends, had booked ourselves into a cosy, white-washed B&B in some remote spot we could barely locate on a map, and long hikes, scones with clotted cream, and visits to Dove Cottage and Hill Top Farm (home to William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter respectively) were on the agenda. Absolute heaven.

We had forgotten, however, that the access to heavens of any kind is rarely easy. They must be striven for. In our case, traffic on the drive up from London was so bad that we began to fear we would never reach our destination. As we inched our way up the M6, we realised we were going to waste an entire day of our lovely holiday just getting there.

It was nearing dinner-time when we passed a sign reading “Welcome to the Dales”. I had been slumped despondently on the back seat but at that, I sat up straight.

“Oh look!”, I cried excitedly, “We’re in James Herriot country!”

No response from the other two. Perhaps they hadn’t heard me properly. I tried again.

“Did you see? We’ve entered James Herriot country!”

Still no answer, but I saw them exchange an embarrassed glance. Finally, one of them said:

“Um. Who’s James Herriot?”

I stared in disbelief. I had genuinely thought that everyone knew Yorkshire’s most beloved vet. I grew up with James Herriot. I learned my geography of the British Isles through the works of the writers who wrote about them: Dickens for London, Daphne du Maurier for Cornwall, the Brontës for the Moors… James Herriot’s descriptions had brought the Dales alive for me like nothing else – and certainly no map – could have done.

As we drove through, I recognised the windswept hills, the dry-stone walls rambling up and down through the bracken and heather, the flocks of sheep huddling in the distance, a black and white sheepdog yapping at their heels, the remote grey stone farmhouses that were only accessible via rutted, muddy country roads. It all felt as familiar as if I’d spent my childhood there – which, in a way, I had.

I remember a picture-book my mother used to read to us, called Oscar, Cat-About-Town, about a stray cat the Herriots adopted. Later on, on the long drives back to Paris after weekends spent at our country house in Normandy, my parents would put on audio cassettes to keep us occupied. Among those we liked best was James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, narrated by Christopher Timothy. Years before my siblings and I ever saw the BBC series, or even knew it existed, and years before any of us read Herriot’s books for ourselves, we were familiar with all of his stories, thanks to those tapes. To us, Christopher Timothy was James Herriot, and even now, whenever I read the books, it is his voice I hear in my head. Sitting in the car, the four of us would listen, utterly engrossed. Those weekend trips were peopled with marmalade cats, enormous, gentle draught horses, stray dogs of all shapes and sizes, and Yorkshire farmers with broad accents and weatherbeaten faces. Any knowledge I may have of how to deal with a colicky horse or a calving cow I owe entirely to Herriot, and if anyone had told me beforehand I would find such subjects to my liking, I would have laughed in their face – but there you have it.

It’s all in the telling of the story, and from the moment when the newly-qualified James Herriot stepped off the bus in the small Yorkshire market-town of Darrowby, crossed the street and rang the doorbell of Skeldale House to attend his very first job interview, not only was he embarked on an adventure that would change the course of his life, but so was I. During the course of that memorable day, he was mobbed by a motley pack of seemingly ferocious dogs, had to explain his presence to a dour housekeeper who had absolutely no prior knowledge of his intended visit, was forced to face the disconcerting fact that his would-be employer had forgotten their appointment, and was finally discovered by said employer fast asleep under a tree in the garden. As first impressions go, it was a doozy. Had he but known it, that day was to prove characteristic of his new life.

The life of a country vet in the 30’s seems to have been fraught with many an unusual or incongruous situation. I fancy, however, that no-one but James Herriot could have boasted of quite such an unusual and incongruous employer, and later, partner, as Mr Siegfried Farnon, MRCVS. As a figment of Herriot’s imagination, Farnon would have been a literary masterpiece of inventiveness; the mind simply boggles at such a man really existing. In an attempt to protect his friend’s reputation and not to cause offence, Herriot both changed his name and tried to tone down his portrayal of him. To no avail: the real Farnon was furious, and the book Farnon leaps off the page, large as life and twice as natural, brilliant, generous, warm-hearted, but irascible, disorganised and forgetful, apt to blame others for his own errors and to read them long lectures on the proper way of doing things, infuriating, endearing, and hilarious.

While Herriot was as frequently on the receiving end of his partner’s vagaries of temper as anybody else in the vicinity, Siegfried’s most blistering tirades were reserved for his younger brother, Tristan. Also training to be a vet, Tristan had nevertheless elected to put his share of the family talent and eccentricity to the service of mischief-making, repeatedly flunking his exams and annoying his brother as much as possible. As an inmate of Skeldale House, his antics include accidentally setting fire to a barn during a consultation, and impersonating the ghost of a mediaeval monk to frighten nocturnal travellers – a prank that backfired quite spectacularly when James decided to get involved. The reader is left alternately groaning in dismay and laughing uncontrollably. As for Herriot, caught between the Farnon brothers, it is a miracle he did not take to the gin bottle. Long walks through the heather, the sympathetic presence of his wife, Helen, and his own sense of humour seem to have gone a long way towards preserving his sanity.

I tried to convey a little of all this to my friends, but the joy of Herriot’s adventures is in his own unique way of telling them.

A week or so later, I was at my parents’ new house, unpacking boxes, when I came across a pile of audio cassettes and the portable tape-recorder we used to have in our attic playroom in Normandy. There was Herriot, alongside Austen and Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis. And to my delight, the tape-recorder still worked. I claimed it forthwith for my bedroom above the old stone barn. That night, I closed the door against the bats and a neighbouring cat that somehow occasionally manages to get into the barn, despite closed doors and the discouraging presence of five dogs, slipped the first cassette of Favourite Dog Stories into the machine, and settled back against my pillows with a cup of tea and my knitting.

When I decided to be a vet, I knew that I wanted to be a dog doctor, so I could spend all my time with dogs.

Christopher Timothy’s voice filled the quiet room and I heaved a sigh of pure contentment: whatever was going wrong in the world, I knew that I would always be able to seek comfort in James Herriot country.

© Florence Berlioz 2016




Posted in Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Non-Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Classic Quilts, by Laura Beresford and Katherine Hebert (2009)

classic quilts cover     A little while ago, I finally got around to reading Tracy Chevalier’s 2013 novel The Last Runaway, which tells the story of Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman who leaves England to start a new life in Ohio in 1850. Amid the loneliness, the hardships of homestead life, and the troubles resulting from her defiant involvement in the Underground Railroad, Honor seeks solace in the traditional quilting techniques she brought with her from England. Quilting is the running theme of the book, and Chevalier shows us what an important role it played in pioneer women’s lives. Beyond their obvious usefulness, quilts served many purposes: their number and quality contributed to a young woman’s status (and, of course, eligibility); they were a valuable source of entertainment and opportunity for socializing, at a time when neighbours were often few and far between; and they provided a creative outlet for women whose male-dominated worlds and tiring daily rounds of chores offered very little else in the way of self-expression.

While I enjoyed The Last Runaway very much, what it really did for me was reignite my love of traditional patchwork quilts. As a result, I have finally decided to bring to fruition a very old plan to sew my own quilt, and have had a lot of fun hunting for fabrics (there are some wonderful online shops out there!). I needed inspiration, however, so I also set about finding a good book on quilts. There is a plethora of books available on the subject, but I was less interested in step-by-step instructions than in the history of American quilt-making.

Classic Quilts from the American Museum in Britain supplied all that I wanted, besides providing the touch of British eccentricity of which I am so fond. For who would have thought of looking to the UK for information on American arts and crafts? No one, indeed, had it not been for the dedicated efforts of an Anglo-American couple in the fifties, who poured family money, personal expertise, and almost a decade’s worth of hard work, into creating a museum that would bring American decorative arts to the British public. The American Museum in Britain, situated in Bath (and now on the list of sites I must see next time I visit that lovely city), opened in 1961 and included a collection of patchwork quilts which has grown over the years and won international renown. Classic Quilts features fifty-five of the quilts in the collection, some of them dating as far back as the eighteenth century. Pieced together by pioneers, Quakers, Amish, slaves, men as well as women, they do more than demonstrate the skill and inventiveness of their creators, they bear all sorts of messages within their seams: good wishes to newlyweds, mementoes for friends heading west, or bold statements of political convictions. They are not always attractive (personally I find the Amish quilts downright ugly) but they are always interesting. Decades, sometimes centuries later, the book’s beautiful colour photographs once more tell their stories. I recommend Classic Quilts to anyone who wishes both to travel back into the past and to seek inspiration for the future.

© Florence Berlioz 2016





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Here We Go A-Bloomsburying

My dearest friend recently moved to Paris. To the heart of the Marais neighbourhood, no less, where, across a cobblestoned courtyard and up six flights of steep, winding stairs, he occupies a charming, light-filled flat, all honey-coloured wood floors and cream paintwork, with windows opening onto a view of the fabled grey-blue rooftops of Paris. It is the very epitome of Parisian bohemian chic.

So far (I hope), the only fly in my friend’s ointment is the empty space on his built-in shelves. Row after row, they climb up the wall of the living-room, all depressingly empty, save for a quartet of diaries and travel journals, which huddle together in a corner, looking lost. « I need to buy books ! », my friend declared the day he moved in, surveying his empty shelves with distaste. Then, a week later, turning to me : « Lend me some books ! »  he begged.

It is a mark of my affection for him that I agreed to this without demur, for I am not fond of lending my books. It is one thing to recommend books – I can make a dozen or more book recommendations in a single half hour, pulling titles off shelves to wave them excitedly under the nose of whoever I am speaking to – but lending them out is quite another matter. « May I take it home with me ? » X innocently asks, and the hand holding out the treasured volume falters (note how it invariably becomes a treasured volume the instant my ownership of it is threatened). I am certain the dismay I am feeling must be written all over my face. For the problem with lending books is that so few of them ever return. I could point the finger of accusation at several people of my acquaintance – but then I recall that I have been guilty of the same crime myself. As I write this, the bookshelf opposite me holds books lent to me more than three years ago by my landlord, my neighbour, and my sister-in-law. I haven’t got around to finishing them yet – and if truth be told, I have grown used to seeing them there ; I would be sad to see them go.

This is why, when my friend reiterates his request, I surreptitiously check to make sure my name is written on the flyleaf of the books I hand over. « Bring them back ! » I order. The gaps on my shelves are already causing me separation anxiety.

However, the prospect of discussing the books after he has read them is cheering. The other night, over dinner, we were talking about – well, I have forgotten what we were talking about at the beginning, but I do remember asking if he’d ever read any Rosamond Lehmann and getting up to fetch The Ballad and the Source (I have recently purchased a rare first edition and can afford to lend him my Virago paperback – though, as to that, I happen to like the painting on the front cover of the Virago very much and would be loth to lose it. I may not be able to lend it after all !).

« What was the name of the group you said Rosamond Lehmann belonged to ? » Ah… a Bloomsbury novice ! I settled more comfortably on my chair and launched into explanations. In passing, I thank Providence for Virginia Woolf’s celebrity, which facilitates introductions. Twenty very happy minutes ensued, during which I attempted to be vivid, clear, and concise – and very probably failed at all three. The convoluted lives, loves and careers of the Stephen sisters and their friends are not exactly easy to sum up. The thing is, one doesn’t even wish to sum up. The subject is inexhaustibly fascinating. New topics spring to mind before the first are properly finished with. I keep jumping up to fetch books – before long I have forgotten the meal and am crouching on the floor, surrounded by books I have moved off the shelf to reach the row of Bloomsbury literature I collected during my research. « I never realized John Maynard Keynes was part of the Bloomsbury Group ! » my friend says, looking over a biography of Lydia Lopokhova. He is impressed.

I wax lyrical about the Hogarth Press (what could be more delightful than running a printing press out of a London basement ?!), expound on the Omega Workshops and produce photographs of hand-painted vases, tiles, and doors. I recall the emotion I felt when sitting in the King’s College archives, sifting through a box of Rosamond Lehmann’s correspondence, and reading letters from Carrington, decorated with sketches of cats, flowers, or Lytton Strachey reading by the fire. I try to convey some of the magic of the houses linked to the Bloomsburies, houses with names as marvellous as their strange and colourful interiors : Monk’s House, Tidmarsh Mill, Ham Spray, Charleston…Tea parties and picnics on the lawn ; easels in the living-room ; books and manuscripts in the bedrooms ; fires roaring in the chimneys and voices raised in endless debate ; plays performed in the garden on summer evenings ; and then a shot ringing out through an empty, lonely house ; and ripples eddying out from the middle of a river, where a pocketful of pebbles has accomplished its sad office… There is a dark side to Bloomsbury too.

Soon, instead of a mighty tree trunk growing straight and true, and supporting three or four majestic limbs, my explanation has grown somewhat twisted and gnarled, with branches and off-shoots criss-crossing and intertwining in every direction. Oh well. I have enjoyed myself enormously, and my friend looks interested.

That night, I took Hugh Lee’s A Cézanne in the Hedge to bed with me and fell asleep trying to decide which titles to include on a Bloomsbury-themed reading list for the uninitiated. I think I may have found a way to fill my friend’s shelves !


© Florence Berlioz 2016


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First Time Blurbs and Pitches

Ever since I finished my novel, a few weeks ago, I have been mulling over what I should do next. The task of finding an agent willing to represent me (never mind actually landing a book deal!) is rather daunting. There are times when my book seems very puny and vulnerable. Luckily, the dream of fame and glory is there to spur one on! In the meantime, some of the readers of this blog have kindly expressed an interest in my novel and suggested I post a book blurb.

Possibly one of the hardest things for a writer to do is talk about his own work. In the past, whenever people have asked about my book, I have always found it extremely difficult to gauge the exact level of their interest and respond accordingly: are they just being polite? or do they really want all the gory details? And then, how do you sum up thousands of words, and years of work, in a few pithy sentences? Sometimes you end up rambling in a rather embarrassing fashion. It’s a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Eventually – hopefully – you learn to do a little better.

Here then, without further ado, is my first attempt at pitching my novel. I would love to know what you think!


Twenty-three-year-old Lucy Vent has never thought her life was perfect – far from it – but she did at least think she had everything strictly under control. Suddenly, however, her life seems to be unravelling : her father is dead, her beloved brother Robin is refusing to talk to her, she’s suffering from a bad case of writer’s block and, to cap it all, she’s getting unsolicited advice from a woman who claims to be the ghost of the eighteenth-century Gothic writer, Ann Radcliffe. Following her mother’s advice for the first time since she can remember, Lucy decides to take a break and spend the summer in Rome.

There, she meets Luke, an attractive, scholarly Anglo-Italian with a penchant for Shakespeare and playing the saxophone, who takes it upon himself to show her about the city and introduce her to a colourful cast of characters – including his large, and very eccentric, family. Over the summer, their friendship blossoms into something more.

But Lucy needs to lay her ghosts to rest before she can think of the future. Will the combined efforts of Luke and Mrs Radcliffe suffice to show her where she went wrong and set her on the right path towards a new, and more fulfilling, life ?


© Florence Berlioz 2015

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V For Victory!!

Relevant: the first 0:44 seconds. (The rest is just for fun!)

last page end of book

© Florence Berlioz 2015

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A Postcard From Melk

There is something so delightfully romantic about getting postcards from abroad! Yesterday I received one of Melk Abbey, in Austria, from an American friend who spent the month of March touring Europe. Austria is down on my list of places I want to visit before I am old: this is partly due to growing up with “The Sound of Music”, and even more so to the charm of Eva Ibbotson’s Austrian novels (Magic Flutes is a particular favourite).

As I admired my postcard, something about it rang a bell. Somehow the façade of the abbey seemed familiar. And then I realized I’d read a description of it several months ago, in Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts. When Leigh-Fermor was eighteen, he decided to walk across Europe, all the way to Constantinople. Sometime in mid-January 1934, while on his way to Vienna, he stopped at Melk. The pages in which he describes his memories of the place are truly marvellous – armchair travelling at its best.


High on a limestone bluff, beneath two baroque towers and a taller central dome, tiers of uncountable windows streamed away into the sky. It was Melk at last, a long conventual palace cruising above the roofs and the trees, a quinquereme among abbeys.

No janitor was about. A young Benedictine, finding me loitering in the gatehouse, took me in tow, and as we crossed the first great courtyard, I knew I was in luck. He spoke beautiful French; he was learned and amusing and the ideal cicerone for all that lay ahead.

Afterwards, it was in confused musical terms that the stages of our progress strung themselves together in my memory. This is how they resound there still. Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues. The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the décor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene. A magnificent and measured polyphony crept in one’s ears. It was accompanied by woodwind at first, then, at shortening intervals, by violins and violas and ‘cellos and then double basses while a sudden scroll-work of flutes unfurled in mid-air; to be joined at last by a muted fanfare from the ceiling, until everything vibrated with a controlled and pervading splendour. Beyond it, in the church, a dome crowned the void. Light spread in the painted hollows and joined the indirect glow from the ovals and the lunettes and the windows of the rotunda. Galleries and scalloped baldachinos and tiered cornices rose to meet it; and the soft light, falling on the fluted pilasters and circles of gold spokes, and on the obelisks wreathed with their sculpted clouds, suffused the honeycomb side-chapels and then united in a still and universal radiance. Music might just have fallen silent; unless it were about to begin. In the imagination, instruments assembled – unseen cymbals just ajat that would collide with a resonance no more strident than a whisper; drums an inch below their padded sticks with palms ready to muffle them; oboes slanting, their reeds mute for a moment more; brass and woodwind waiting; fingers stretched motionless across the wires of a harp and fifty invisible bows poised in the air above fifty invisible sets of strings.

For me the famous buildings were a peak in a mountain range of discovery which had begun at Bruchsal and continued long afterwards. Again and again during these weeks I was to find myself wandering through great concavities illuminated by reflections from the snow. Sunlight flared in lintels and broken pediments, and streamed in over snowy sills so close to the ceilings that they gave a last lift to the trompe l’oeil Ascensions and Transfigurations and Assumptions as they poured across them and quickened the white and cream wreaths of stucco holding them aloft: garlands doubly etherealized by the reverberated radiance of the snowflakes, and composed of all that reed and palm-leaf and tendril and scallop and conch and the spines of the murex can inspire.

In this high baroque style, halted at a point on the frontier of rococo where the extravagant magic of later decades is all implicit, how easily the same aesthetic mood glides from church to palace, from palace to ballroom, from ballroom to monastery and back into church again! Paradox reconciles all contradictions. Clouds drift, cherubim are on the wing, and swarms of putti, baptized in flight from the Greek Anthology, break loose over the tombs. They try on mitres and cardinals’ hats and stumble under the weight of curtains and crosiers while stone Apostles and Doctors of the Church, who are really encyclopaedists in fancy dress, gaze down indulgently. Female saints display the instruments of their martyrdom as light-heartedly as dice-boxes and fans. They are sovereigns’ favourites, landgravines dresssed as naiads; and the androgynous saint-impersonating courtiers who ogle the ornate ceilings so meltingly from their plinths might all be acting in a charade. Sacred and profane change clothes and penitents turn into dominoes with the ambiguity of a masked ball.

In the half-century following Melk, rococo flowers into miraculously imaginative and convincing stage scenery. A brilliant array of skills, which touches everything from the pillars of the colonnade to the twirl of a latch, links the most brittle and transient-seeming details to the most magnificent and enduring spoils of the the forects and quarries. A versatile genius sends volley after volley of fantastic afterthoughts through the great Vitruvian and Palladian structures. Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of articial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus. Light is distributed operatically and skies open in a new change of gravity that has lifted wingless saints and evangelists on jouneys of aspiration towards three-dimensional sunbursts and left them levitated there, floating among cornices and spandrels and acanthus leaves and architectural ribands crinkled still with pleats from lying long folded in bandboxes. Scripture pastorals are painted on the walls of the stately interiors. Temples and cylindrical shrines invade the landscape of the Bible. Chinese pagodas, African palms, Nile pyramids and the a Mexican volcano and the conifers and wigwams of Red Indians spring up in Arcady. Walls of mirror reflect these scenes. They bristle with sconces, sinuous gold and silver boundaries of twining branches and the heaped-up symbols of harvest and hunting and warfare mask the joins and the great sheets of glass answer each other across wide floors and reciprocate their reflections to infinity. The faded quicksilver, diffusing a submarine dusk, momentarily touches the invetion and the delight of this looking-glass world with a hint of unplanned sadness.

But one is always looking up where those buoyant scenes in grisaille or pastel polychrome, unfolding elliptically in asymmetric but balancing girdles of snowy cornice, enclose room after room with their resplendent lids. Scriptural throngs tread the air among the banks of vapour and the toppling perspectives of the balustrades. Allegories of the seasons and chinoiserie eclogues  are on the move. Aurora chases the Queen of the Night across the sky and Watteau-esque trios, tuning their lutes and their violins, drift by on clouds among ruins and obelisks and loosened sheaves. A sun declining on a lagoon in Venice touches the rims of those clouds and veils the singing faces and the plucked strings in a tenuous melancholy; irony and pity float in the atmosphere and across the spectator’s mind, for there is little time left and a closing note sounds in all these rococo festivals.

Ceremonious and jocund, Melk is high noon. Meridian glory surrounded us as a clock in the town struck twelve. The midday light showered on the woods and a yellow loop ofthe Danube and a water-meadow full of skaters, all foreshortened as they wheeled and skimmed beneath the flashing line of windows. We were standing at the centre of a wide floor and peering – under a last ceiling-episode of pillars and flung cloud where the figures rotated beneath a still loftier dayspring of revelation – at a scene like a ballroom gallop getting out of hand. Draperies whirled spiralling up biblical shanks and resilient pink insteps trod the sky. We might have been gazing up through a glass dance-floor and my companion, touching me on the elbow, led me away a couple of paces and the scene reeled for a second with the insecurity of Jericho, as trompe l’oeil ceilings will when a shift of focus inflicts the beholder with a fleeting spasm of vertigo. He laughed, and said: “On se sent un peu gris, vous ne trouvez pas?”

A bit tipsy… It was quite true. Wa had been talking about the rococo interplay of spiritual and temporal, and for a few instants, at these last words, my companion was transformed as well: habit, scapular, cowl and tonsure had all vanished and a powdered queue uncoiled down his brocaded back from a bow of watered silk. He was a Mozartian courtier. His light-hearted voice continued its discourse as he stood with his left hand poised on his sword knot. With explanatory sweeps of a clouded cane in his right, he unravelled the stratagems of the ceiling-painter; and when, to balance the backward tilt of his torso, he advanced a leg in a Piranesi stance, I could all but hear a red heel tap on the chessboard floor.

One of the Abbey’s bells began tolling on a more insistent note and, with an apology from my mentor, who was safely back in his native century, we hastened our step. In a few minutes I was several fields away, high above the Danube with the dome and the cupolas already dropping out of sight below a clump of trees. Twin gold crosses followed them and the cross on the dome last of all. Nothing remained in those hills to give the Abbey’s presence away. The vanished pinnacles might have been the pigeon-loft of a farm.

Un peu gris. It was too mild a term.

From Patrick Leigh-Fermor, A Time Of Gifts, Chapter 6 (1977).

© Florence Berlioz 2015

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