A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia
July 28, 2013
Reposting this older post about a trip to Katherine Mansfield's grave outside Paris
Whenever I am in Paris, I make a private pilgrimage to Katherine Mansfield’s grave in the cemetery of Avon, near Fontainebleau. Recently in town for a reading at Shakespeare & Company, I take a day out of a hectic schedule to pay homage to a writer who deeply influenced my life.
A row of driverless taxis waits outside the Fontainebleau-Avon station. It’s lunchtime and the drivers are probably all at table. Each taxi displays a sign with a mobile number to call should the driver be absent, but I am informed by an
American couple ahead of me in line that only one has answered their calls, promising to come “toute de suite,” nearly an hour ago. Chatting with them I learn that they are from California and that they too are on a pilgrimage to the cemetery
of Avon, to visit Gurdjieff’s grave there. We decide to share a taxi, should one arrive, and within moments, voilà, an unlicensed taxi pulls into the stand and we strike a deal with the driver for a tour.
The cemetery of Avon, located at the end of “Rue de Souvenir” is beautifully kept.
The black marble tombs are polished to a mirror’s perfection and decorated with bright bursts of yellow and rust-orange chrysanthemums and flares of purple heather. Wandering back to an older part of the cemetery, I find Katherine’s grave –
simple, stern, unadorned except for a small vase of ivy set at the head. The name “Katherine Mansfield” is etched in large letters. This is the name by which the world knew her, but not the one printed on her passport, “Kathleen Mansfield
Murry.” Beneath appears the title by which she longed to be known, “wife of John Middleton Murry.” Barely legible today is the epitaph: “Out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower, safety,” summing up the contradictions and tug of opposites
within Mansfield’s life, character, and writing. Not far off, just “next door,” as it were, is the Gurdjieff family plot, a large rectangle of green turf edged in yellow pansies, surmounted by two rough hewn menhirs, and shaded by a gnarled
The graves are unmarked but the tourist board has added an unobtrusive sign briefly explaining who Gurdjieff was and his connection to Avon. My fellow pilgrims film the grave from every angle. We stand a while in silent reflection and then return to our taxi. Although our driver has lived in Fontainebleau for all his forty-some years and is fiercely proud of this fact, he is perplexed as to our request to visit the Prieuré des Basses Loges. He is unsure where it is exactly. The Californians have a map, which indicates a building at the end of Rue de Katherine Mansfield, but it turns out to be a
modern nursing home. I have been to the Prieuré once before, while doing research which would later develop into my novel, Katherine’s Wish, based on the last five years of Mansfield’s life, and I know that it is not easy to find the Prieuré.
The modernization of this area of the town, the division of the old estate, taller walls, and a certain reticence concerning Gurdjieff and his school make the place hard to spot, but at last we find it, secluded behind a tall stone wall. We follow
the wall to a front gate and peer in. Since my last visit, the place has been transformed into an elegant residential complex. No plaque on the gate denotes the presence of Gurdjieff’s school in the 1920s, or Katherine’s death here in
1923, or even the name by which the building was known. Continuing along the wall, we come to a side entrance leading to a parking area. The gate is locked, but a young woman in a track suit, noticing us on her way to her car, comes to enquire if we are looking for someone. Quite simply we tell her we are looking for the place where Katherine Mansfield once lived, and where Gurdjieff had his school.
She seems puzzled and tells us that she thinks Mansfield lived elsewhere, down the street perhaps, and has never heard of Gurdjieff. However, she lets us in, shows us how to open the gate to let ourselves out again and apologizes for not
being able to help us on our search. “I have only been living here for a couple of months,” she says, before driving out the gate. We go in and walk around the grounds, to what is now the rear of the building on the southern side, where the
great lawns and flower beds once extended, now parceled off today with fences. There are few trees save a large plane tree shedding its yellow leaves on the shaggy lawn. It must be nearly a century old and was surely standing here in
Katherine’s time. I picture her in the elegant room she occupied on the upper floor of the Chateau, known as The Ritz to pupils who stayed in more Spartan quarters.
I imagine her standing at the window, looking out at the lawns, at this tree, feeling the autumn sun on her chest and eyelids, desiring to become “A Child of the Sun.” A large dog comes bounding out of the bushes toward us. Luckily he is
friendly, but we take this as a sign that we should not prolong our visit. Slowly we circle the house, pause to examine the fountain with blue tiles out front, now drained, then discreetly slip back out to the street. There are many accounts of the
intense, whirling life that went on within these walls –from C.S: Knott’s Journal of a Pupil, Fritz Peters’ delightful memoir, Boyhood with Gurdjieff – but none are more moving than Katherine’s own letters written in the last weeks from the her little
writing table upstairs. It seems strange to me that the drama of this writer’s last days, which has touched so many readers for four generations, should remain completely unknown to the people who now eat, sleep, and carry on their daily lives in the
place where Mansfield died. But that is Paris and its environs – rife with ghosts, layer upon layer, who unseen breathe upon us.
Linda Lappin is the author of Katherine's Wish a novel about the last five years of Katherine Mansfield's life and her stay at Gurdjieff's institute in Fontainebleau, which won the IPPY gold medal in historical fiction and was short listed for the ForeWord Book of the Year award in fiction, among other prizes. She is also the author of the prize winning essay: Katherine Mansfield and DH Lawrence, a Parallel Quest discussing the spiritual journeys undertaken by these two great modernists in the last phase of their lives. The essay shared first place in the international essay contest sponsored by the Katherine Mansfield Society. She is also the author of an essay on Mansfield and Gurdjieff, The Ghosts of Fontainebleau published in the Southwest Review. Katherine's Wish is available on Kindle at a discount throughout August 2013 @ amazon
July 16, 2013
"We are all Chimeras" -- Ugo Bardi
Not too long ago, I made a trip to Florence to visit an old friend who has dwelled in my unconscious for a very long time, ever since I first laid eyes on her at the Archaeological Museum: the Chimera. This bronze statue, cast in one piece, depicting a three-headed beast composed of a lion, a goat, and a snake is considered by many art historians to be among the major masterpieces not only of Etruscan sculpture, but of all ancient religious art that has come down to us from anywhere the world over. After years of absence, she does not disappoint, radiating electrifying power and intensity.
The sculpture, eighty centimeters tall, shows a regal beast on the defense, with a jagged mane of spikes, its sinuous body tensed to pounce, ribs protruding from its sleek, gaunt sides, suggesting hunger. Its open jaws roar in pain and fury. The extremely realistic, flat-eared goat head sprouting from its spine leans downwards, shedding drops of blood on the base of its neck. Soulful eyes gaze out helplessly as a vicious serpent, which is the Chimera’s own tail, stretches out to strike, seizing the goat’s horn in its jaws.
The Chimera, as notes Ugo Bardi distinguished chemistry professor at the University of Florence, environmental blogger, and author of a study on the beast, Il Libro Della Chimera, (edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 2008,) is portrayed in a moment of suffering. She is a fighter, but she is losing.
Bardi goes on to say that the Etruscan artist who made this Chimera, roughly in about 400 B.C. may have wanted to express the fate of his people who at that time were gradually being overcome by the Romans. Or perhaps he wished to express his own destiny, that of all human beings, who will eventually be overcome in a final, individual battle. “We are all chimeras,” Bardi suggests.
Once face to face alone with this astonishing creature your first desire is to reach out and caress its smooth sides and haunches, then to run your hand across the cold bronze spikes of its mane and hackles and test the sharpness of the claws. But your next immediate response will be a question: But what does it mean? for this curious three-headed combo must mean something. What Ugo Bardi sets out to do in his thought-provoking study is to illuminate that meaning on many levels.
First, he provides us with a historical account of its discovery unearthed by workers digging outside the Arezzo city walls in 1553, her transferal to Florence where she captivated Cosimo I De Medici, and soon became a symbol of Tuscan cultural and political identity. He describes the vogue for Etruscan culture to which she contributed, as scholars tried to link the undeciphered Etruscan language to Hebrew and sought traces of the mysterious race who were the forefathers of the Renaissance Tuscans, rivals to the Renaissance Romans. He explains why indeed she is not a fake, as some have claimed. He investigates her mythic background as a fire-breathing female creature who laid waste the land of Lycia until she was slain by the hero Bellerophon, riding on Pegasus. To kill the Chimera, Bellerophon shot a wedge of lead to the animal’s throat, where it melted on contact with her fiery breath, causing her to die of suffocation. Bardi reminds us that the Chimera was no monster but a goddess. Later accounts attempted to rationalize the myth, by claiming that she represented a volcano.
Readers will find all this and more in Bardi’s exhaustive study which includes a fascinating essay on the origins of the myth of the Chimera and the female archetype it represents, akin to both the Sphinx and the Great Mother. Citing both Freud and Joseph Campbell, he traces the recurrence of this archetype in religion and art from Mesopotamia to the present day, offering a psychoanalytical interpretation for the myth as an Oedipal rite of passage.
Thus far, we might say that in the Libro Della Chimera Bardi has assembled all the known facts and lore about this mystifying beast, along with a beautiful selection of photographs and drawings, but he goes even further, to make a momentous discovery of his own which may indeed lead us to solve the enigma of her essential meaning.
When the Chimera was pulled out of the earth, she was found to have a word engraved on her right foreleg TINSEVIL, which over the centuries has been interpreted in dozens of ways, related to the Etruscan god of thunder, Tin. Bardi conducts his own linguistic research on this term and finds connection with one of Europe’s most ancient and mysterious languages: Basque. From this he derives an extraordinary theory as to the Chimera’s true meaning and identity.
In many cultures letters and words are sacred, not mere abstract symbols of sounds, but seeds from which may germinate emotions, visions, entire universes. When spoken aloud or merely formulated in the mind, words can conjure gods and demons, materialize blessings or curses, shatter a brick wall into fragments or even make the limbs of a statue shudder to life. Such power may lie dormant in the word TINSEVIL, for it has also inspired Bardi’s newest literary project, a novel, about which soon I hope the world will have news.
Il Libro della Chimera is at present only available in Italian but much of the material can be found in English on his wonderful website Ugo Bardi Chimera Site
The book in Italian may be purchased here
Ugo Bardi, one of the most followed environmental bloggers in Italy, writes beautifully in English on some very scary topics about which he is expert: collapsing systems and planet plundering. Follow him here