Subsequent to a series of rent hikes by greedy landlords, my mother had at last moved out of the English villa on Chemin Bonvent in Geneva, with its sheep field and ambivalent neighbors, and into an old two-story row house in the French border village of Ferney-Voltaire, under the benign stare of Voltaire and his elegant chateau, in the département of the Ain in historic Burgundy, a few miles and a cultural light-year from the city of Geneva and its relentlessly growing suburbs (of which Ferney hardly formed part back then, but does now).
My mother’s house, the sellers claimed, had once accommodated watchmakers and their families imported from the High Jura by Voltaire as competition for Geneva’s keystone industry. The house allegedly dated to the great philosophe’s time; to be precise, to the last year of his life, 1778. This made it two years younger than the United States and eleven years older than the first French Republic. I was seduced. The house had little but charm, but charm it had in abundance. When I first pushed open the groaning old front door and descended two steps into a narrow hallway at the end of which was a soft pool of ethereal light from a recessed window, I was transported into the aloof, provincial world of Daudet or Bernanos, or the early films of Clouzot and Renoir.
With its heavy creaking shutters and swaybacked tile roof and teetering chimney and deep-set windows that peered out like the eye-sockets of a skull, the house was la France profonde undiluted. Inside, a steep staircase ascended abruptly from the narrow entrance hall to the upper floor, itself divided into a kitchen and an apartment, with on clear days a tantalizing view across the verdant bassin lémanique to Mont Blanc and its promise of the Mediterranean world beyond, all of which—including the undulating waves of greenery and, in the distance, the blue line of the lake—could be seen to even better advantage from the skylight of the enormous attic, or grenier, on the top floor. One mounted a rickety ladder, opened the screeching skylight, dodged the sudden rain of roof grit and dried bird droppings, and took a deep breath. Beyond slanting rooftops and chimneys and a pear tree towered the Alps, and shimmering on the horizon Switzerland, Italy, and the Midi: all the world I wanted to know.
After two minutes’ silent contemplation of this view one would become aware of the faint rustling of mice and the burbling of wood pigeons in the eaves and all around the sussurating hush of provincial France, broken on long ideal summer evenings by the faint ringing of the Angelus or the snarling of Citroens in the street below or the low rumble of a plane taking off from Geneva airport nearby. It was an odd, poorly-planned, outmoded, dusty, and decrepit house, and my mother loved it more than anywhere else she’d ever lived and it loved her back so much that in the end, like the house in Oliver Onions’ story “The Beckoning Fair One,” it became both companion and captor, and killed her.
But without malice, and not until she was 80 and content to be living in her dreams.