Prieuré de Marcevol, Pyrénées-Orientales

For a recent sojourn in the Pyrénées-Orientales, I asked Dennis Aubrey to recommend some Romanesque churches and monasteries to visit.  Marcevol was on his list.  Thanks Dennis.

On our way to spend a weekend in the higher Pyrenees, a friend and I visited the Prieuré de Marcevol which had unfortunately closed two minutes before we arrived.  But the sun sets late on these spring nights and I was able to take some photos of the exterior.  It’s a twelfth-century priory founded by the Order of Saint Sépulcre, destroyed in an earthquake in 1428, abandoned as ruins during the French Revolution and only properly restored in the last 40 years.  The priory now welcomes groups for cultural and sporting activities.

Facade, Marcevol Priory, France
Facade, Marcevol Priory, France

The facade is impressive, but the eye returns again and again to the rosy marble framing of the door and window.  The marble comes from the nearby quarries in Villefranche-de-Conflent, and has been used in many churches in the region.

Marcevol priory, Pyrénées-Orientales, France
Rose marble, Marcevol priory, Pyrénées-Orientales, France

Uphill from the priory, there’s the small hamlet of Marcevol and a small eleventh-century church, Nostra Senyora de las Gradas (Santa Maria de las Grades).

Church in the hamlet of Marcevol, France
Romanesque church in the hamlet of Marcevol, France

We drove up the hill to see if we could go inside but unfortunately we were out of luck again;  it is not open to the public.  It’s right next door to, practically adjoining, a house which we thought was part of the church structure.  The owner, sitting on the steps by his back door, set us right.

Church, Marcevol, France
Eglise Sainte-Marie des Grades, 11th-century church, Marcevol, France

The chevet of the church is decorated by Lombard Bands, or a series of blind arcades, which are believed to also enhance stability.  Blocks of stone, much longer and wider than the others in the structure, were set deep into the thick walls above and below the arcades.  Lombard Bands were widely used on Romanesque churches in the Catalonia region of southern France and northern Spain, where Marcevol is located.

Since the little church and houses are all of stone, there’s nothing ugly in this hamlet.  For even when stone structures are neglected and tumble down, wildflowers grow quite naturally in the gaps. On the web site for the Marcevol priory, I read:  ‘Anyone who has never been to Marcevol does not know everything about the world’s beauty.’  It’s not just the priory, the hamlet and church that inspire, but also the setting, close to the majestic Mount Canigou (2785 m), the mountain loved by the Catalans.

Steps up to the church, Marcevol, France
Steps up to the 13th-century wall protecting the nave, Marcevol, France

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Anzac Day 2015

On 25th April it will be 100 years since Australian and New Zealand soldiers charged the beaches in Gallipoli, Turkey, in an attempt to beat the Turks and give the Allies a chance to take Constantinople.  They were mown down, slaughtered.  The battles continued for months until December 1915 when they withdrew, defeated.  Out of a population of less than 5 million, Australia lost 8,000 young males at Gallipoli.

The following year, 1916, my grandfather, Ernest Bruce, joined the army after stowing away on a ship of volunteers headed for Egypt.  In July at Pozières, France, on the Western Front, he was trapped under concrete in an explosion, and then gassed.  But he survived.  He was one of the 40,000 Australians killed or wounded in 1916 on the Western Front (see AWM).  That’s a huge part of a population of 5 million.

When he returned to Australia, he was too ill to work for more than a few days a week, yet it took the government years to offer him a pension.

His oldest son was my father, Ronald Bruce, who hadn’t learnt a thing about the futility of volunteering to fight in a war.  In 1941 he joined the army, was sent to Egypt, and months later was sent home with shell shock.  He couldn’t hold down a job, and at 25 was offered a pension.

This Anzac Day, I honour my father and grandfather for volunteering to participate in Australia’s defence.

Ernest and Florence Bruce
Ron Bruce, before leaving for the Middle East, 1941
Ron Bruce, Heliopolis War Cemetery, Cairo, 1941

At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra there is a wall called the Roll of Honour.  It’s covered in the names of Australians who have died in war.  My grandfather and father are not on the wall because they returned alive;  but my grandfather’s three cousins, the Shaw brothers, and my grandmother’s two cousins, the Burley brothers, did not.  They are all buried on the Somme in France, and their names are here on the wall.  I put poppies beside their names.

Since I learnt that they were all killed while my grandfather returned, I haven’t looked at life the same way.

George Ronald Shaw, Roll of Honour, Australian War Memorial
D’arcy R. N. Shaw and Frank A. P. Shaw, Roll of Honour, Australian War Memorial

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Weekly photo challenge: Early Bird

I’ve been to Port-Vendres in France twice, and each time I found the early mornings to be a great introduction to the day.

Once, I was awake before sunrise, admiring the blue cargo ship moored in the port overnight beneath the lightening sky of deep pre-dawn blue.  By a happy coincidence, the dome of the church at the centre of my view is also blue, and the lighting on the obelisk at the right is mauve-blue.  But that day wasn’t a blue blue day.  The sun rose and shone on the old village houses, highlighting the pink and orange tones of their walls, promising a good day.

Pre-sunrise, Port-Vendres, France
Pre-sunrise, Port-Vendres, France
Early morning, Port-Vendres, France
Early morning, Port-Vendres, France

Thanks Weekly Photo Challenge for the prompt.

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Chopin's Raindrop

Today in Valldemossa, Mallorca, I heard two Chopin piano concerts, each lasting ten minutes.  They were included with the ticket to the Real Cartuja Municipal Museum which exhibits Frédéric Chopin and George Sand memorabilia in a few cells of the old monastery.  Though one of Chopin’s pianos is present in another cell, the Celda de Chopin (a different, privately owned museum), it was not played today;  the pianist played on a grand piano in the adjoining Palace of King Sancho, who owned the monastery before it was a monastery.

The Chopin pieces give visitors an impression of the sounds that drifted from the monks’ cells where he was staying in the winter of 1838/39.  Though he began his sojourn by composing on a borrowed instrument, in the last few weeks of his stay his new Pleyel piano arrived from Paris.  In the cold bare cells he composed a few Preludes, a Polonaise, a Ballade, a Scherzo – pieces now famous. Today’s tourists come to see this very piano in the private museum, they photograph it and even hear it played by concert pianists, but only in summer.  I missed out, being here in spring.

Chopin's piano in the Real Cartjua, Valldemossa
Chopin’s piano in the Celda de Chopin, Valldemossa

They photograph his handwritten musical scores, his death mask, his hand mask.  There’s little information attached to the exhibits, and if visitors can’t speak to the guide in Spanish, they can only look but not learn. Yet if Chopin’s name is famous here, it is a modern phenomenon;  when he and his lover, George Sand, were staying in Valldemossa, they were anything but popular, he having a disease which in the Mallorcan mind was contagious and deadly, and she wearing men’s clothes and not attending mass on Sunday.  Even two years later when she wrote her account of their stay, Un Hiver à Majorque, Sand did not reveal the name of her companion but discreetly referred to him as the sick one, the invalid, our friend, someone in my family.

Time passed, and the world learnt that Chopin had been here, had composed here.  They wanted to come and feel his presence, hear the echoes of his music in the cloisters, see his music scores with all their corrections exhibited on the walls.

George’s photos and images also adorn both of the museums, samples of writings by her and about her are exhibited under glass, with no indication of who wrote what.  Copies of paintings of Sand, Chopin and their contemporaries hang on the walls.

Display for George Sand in Chopin Museum, Valldemossa
Display for George Sand in the Celda de Chopin Museum, Valldemossa

The view from each cell is stunning, a distant perspective with a foreground of Mediterranean plantings in a monk’s garden. While Chopin composed, Sand finished Spiridion, the novel she’d begun a year earlier, coincidentally about monks in a monastery. What providence for a writer to land in her imaginary setting, to live for a short time the life of her protagonists!

View from monk's garden, Valldemossa
View from monk’s garden, Valldemossa

Copies of Sand’s travel account, Un Hiver à Majorque, are on sale in both museums in many languages. An English translation by Shirley Kerby James, A Winter in Mallorca, sells well. Clearly tourists like to buy it and relive Sand’s experience here with Chopin, its ups and downs, mostly downs.  His health deteriorated with the winter rains, the cells were miserably furnished and bitterly cold and the local food was unpalatable to them.  If you listen to Chopin’s Prelude in D-flat major, Op. 28 no. 15, sometimes called the Raindrop prelude because of the repeating A flat which seems to imitate insistent raindrops – it’s believed he wrote it during a rainstorm – remember him at this low point in his physical health, remember that this music came from his suffering.

As for Valldemossa, I can recommend it if you like well cared-for stone houses and cobbled streets, green-shuttered windows, and if you like to be surrounded by your fellow human beings, for masses of them flock to this village to see the place that unceremoniously inspired Chopin to write beautiful music, the place where Sand observed so astutely the Mallorcans and a few monks left over from the days when the Real Cartuja was a functioning Spanish monastery.

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George, Frédéric and Valldemossa

Early morning moon, Valldemossa, Mallorca
Early morning moon, Valldemossa, Mallorca

Morning, Valldemossa.  Defeated by the insomnia of jet lag, I rise and open the curtains to a full moon shining on me.  It’s four o’clock.  Sheep down below the valley wall shuffle through grass, chewing and bleating.  No other sound; no other presence; it’s the other extreme of Valldemossa.  Twelve hours ago the streets crawled with tourists, Europeans on spring holiday spending their money in the restaurants and terrace cafés, in the souvenir and art shops.  Their numbers surprised me.  I’d expected this small village to be of minor touristic interest, but I was wrong.  It’s all because of George Sand.  Well, more precisely, because of Frédéric Chopin.

His is the famous name.  Even the non-musical could tell you he composed music in some past century.  Without him, Valldemossa’s cafés wouldn’t be nearly as profitable.  It began when he fell in love with one of nineteenth-century-France’s gifted writers, George Sand, a woman six years older with two children in tow. In need of a warmer, healing clime for his bad chest, they ventured to Mallorca in the Mediterranean.  After a few weeks of hurdles and blocks (inevitable when travelling abroad) they found themselves on the west coast of the island, temporary residents of three monk cells in a recently secularised monastery, the Real Cartuja de Valldemossa. Real for Royal. Cartuja for Carthusian.  Once a king’s residence, then a Carthusian monastery.  Now a museum and tourist attraction.

Real Cartuja, Valldemossa
Real Cartuja, Valldemossa

I’m quietly, very quietly, celebrating the publishing of my translation of Spiridion, George Sand’s novel that she finished in the cells of the Real Cartuja while Chopin, in his poor health, composed several pieces – Preludes, a Polonaise, a Ballade, a Scherzo.

When you wake at three, the morning is long.  I wait for the new day by writing, and eating scraps of leftover food, my First Breakfast, like the hobbit.  Now it’s ten to seven and the ragged Mallorcan mountains are silhouetted in the east. It’s seven o’clock and church bells in the monastery are ringing. It’s twenty past seven and there’s light, soft and shaded by mountains. The warm yellow street lamps are still on. It’s a quarter to eight and the lamps are now off.  It’s half past eight and the hotel owners have set the tables.  Time for Second Breakfast.

Valldemossa sheep
Valldemossa village with sheep
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Spiridion

Four years ago I began translating one of George Sand’s novels:  Spiridion.  She was, some say, the first French feminist.  I wrote a post about her here, not because she was a feminist but because she did what people said she couldn’t do:  George Sand was a female who earned her living from writing, which, if it’s difficult in the 21st century, was next to impossible in the 19th.

Two years ago I finished the translation, and SUNY Press agreed to publish it.

Today, sitting in an airport in a foreign land – an unusual experience no matter how many times I do it – I’ve received an email from them to say Spiridion is now available as an ebook from their website.  I’ve had a few short translated pieces published in literary journals, but this is the first novel.  It’s a morning of unusual things.

In May it will be available as a real hold-in-your-hand book.  Fantastic!

Here’s the book cover and summary of the story, with a little bit about me as the translator, copied from the web page.  Hope it tickles your 19th-century-French literary fancies!

‘Spiridion’, cover

An abbot’s ghost searches for an intelligent monk to exhume his manuscript from a hellish crypt and learn the truth that monks lack two things: freedom of inquiry and benevolence.

Both Gothic and philosophical, Spiridion tells the story of a young novice, Angel, who finds himself cruelly ostracized by his monastic superiors and terrified by the ghostly visits of his monastery’s founder, the abbot Spiridion. Though he founded the monastery on the search for truth, Spiridion watched his once intelligent and virtuous monks degenerate into a cruel, mindless community. Turning away from the Church and withdrawing into his cell, he poured his energy into a manuscript that tells the “truth” about Roman Catholic doctrine and monastic life and provides a vision of a new and eternal gospel. The manuscript was buried with him, and his spirit now searches for a monk who is intelligent enough to exhume it from his crypt, which is guarded by hellish spirits, and share its vision with the world.

Translated into English for the first time in more than 160 years, Spiridion offers a fierce critique of Catholic doctrine as well as solutions for living with the Church’s teachings. Although Sand had broken with the Church several years earlier, she nevertheless continued to believe in an omnipotent God, and her novel makes the distinction, as Angel’s protector, Father Alexis, puts it, “between the authority of faith and the application of this authority in the hands of men.” As translator Patricia J. F. Worth argues in her introduction, the novel’s emphasis on freedom of inquiry, benevolence, and moral reform inspired other nineteenth-century writers, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Matthew Arnold, and Henry James, and the novel is also relevant to twenty-first-century discussions of religious authority and rigid adherence to doctrine.

“This is an excellent translation of a tale of the supernatural by a major French author. With her searing critique of Catholicism and its labyrinthine structures, Sand in Spiridion deconstructs her culture in a way similar to what Mary Shelley has done in Frankenstein. Both works are effective as horror stories, but both can also sustain serious academic inquiry, yielding still deeper rewards. Beyond academe, serious students of religion will also find that Spiridion’s subject matter raises provocative theological questions.” — Lynn Hoggard, translator of Nelida by Marie d’Agoult

Patricia J. F. Worth is a French-English translator and private tutor of English and French. She received her master of translation studies from the Australian National University, Canberra, where she focused on nineteenth-century French literature and recent New Caledonian literature.

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On the SUNY Press web page for Spiridion there’s a link to what is called the ‘first chapter’, but it will in fact take you to the introductory material.  So, to read the first chapter you will have to get the book…

Happy Reading!

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