A Trip to Solliès-Pont, alias Molignac
In 1992 Maurice Couturier organized the first of the glorious conferences in Nice on Nabokov. In a panelled hall, a sort of board room of the university, which served as the salle de réunion, black curtains tried to keep the sunshine outside. The participants were solemnly gathered around a big table. Copious four-course luncheons stimulated our palates and our loquacity. The littoral setting of this part of the university at the end of the Boulevard des Anglais provided an opportunity for crepuscular continuations of the discussions as we walked to the hotels downtown. During the conference’s finale, a grand buffet on Friday night, Gene Barabtarlo and Pekka Tammi invited me to join them on a trip to Solliès-Pont the next day.
Solliès-Pont is a small country town in Provence, some 15 kilometres north of Toulon. It was nearby, on the estate Domaine de Beaulieu, that Nabokov spent almost three months, from May to the beginning of August 1923, working as a farmhand. The estate was managed by Krym, who headed the Crimean Regional Government while Nabokov’s father was Minister of Justice. Nabokov’s stay is beautifully described in Brian Boyd’s biography with many delightful details. The sojourn followed a painful tribulation in his life, the break-up with Svetlana Siewert, to whom he was engaged. In Glory, Nabokov recreates the time he spent in Solliès-Pont, known in the book as Molignac. The farm in Molignac resembles the actual estate in many ways, as do his young Italian fellow workers, the cherry picking, his preference for watering the nurseries, the sounds of the frogs and nightingales at night. Like Nabokov, who wrote a desperate letter to Svetlana, Martin, the novel’s hero, writes an equally fruitless missive to Sonia, who shared her dark eyes with Svetlana. But, just before he left for France, unlike Martin, Nabokov had met another girl, his future wife Véra.
On Saturday morning we drove off, Gene and Pekka sitting in the front. Gene was, in spite of the blazing sun, clad in battledress, a sleeveless vest covered with numerous small pockets on the front. The small appurtenances of a photographer’s equipment, such as cartridges for snapshots, peeped out from the pockets. I looked at the landscapes that hurried past us, bleached by the powerful sunshine, and dozed off. As Gene had told me that the village was somewhere near Toulon I was surprised to see, when my drowsiness had passed, that we were approaching Aix-en-Provence. Pekka and Gene were absorbed in a recondite discourse on Nabokov. I asked for the map and suggested that we should turn around at the very first opportunity. After quite a while we were again at the exit were we had to leave the highway. Solliès-Pont has a splendid marketplace hidden from the sunshine by many dense huge trees, which did their job as finely as the curtains in the salle de réunion. On the many inviting sidewalks outside the cafés, lunches were already being served. A suggestion that we should honour the series of excellent meals during the conference by continuation, was swiftly waved by Gene, whose impatience to reach the domain had not been diminished by the detour. We left the town and again exposed our car to the sun. Apart from the large map we had a smaller one of the environs of Solliès-Pont, which showed the name of the Domaine. We drove through many fields that gave us a good view, but couldn’t detect any house. The map had a few black dots, most likely representing houses and farms, but any of these could belong to the name of Beaulieu. Suddenly we saw a house hidden by some trees and equally suddenly Gene decided that this was the Domaine. He parked the car at the front of the house and started to spread the legs of his tripod. His enthusiasm for mounting his apparatus on a tripod in a strategic position prevented him from noticing that the house couldn’t have been older than at most ten years. Even more remarkably, it prevented him from noticing the two furious dogs. These dogs, mad, bad, and genuinely dangerous, barking as if they were competing for the starring role in Baskerville, were firmly chained, and this saved Gene’s ankles, in which they showed great interest. Of course, this deafening ordeal alarmed the owners of the house, who were surprised to find a professional photographer about to take their picture. Before they could ask how many millions they had won, I informed them that we had mistakenly landed on their premises and that we were looking for a large farm that has been inhabited by Russians some half a century ago. This question was understood at once and we were directed to a small lane leading to the farmhouse, which could be reached within ten minutes. Armed with this piece of information Pekka and I were able to disengage Gene from his lenses.
The narrow drive to the manor farm was walled by orchards of fig trees. At the end of it we reached the farm, a square building composed of houses and barns surrounding a large inner court. It was quite old, as were the huge trees which protected it against the sun. With unabated ardour Gene planted his tripod in the soil as if it was to stay there forever. Pekka enjoyed the open air, happy to leave the small car. As there was no bell to ring, I knocked on the door. After some time a shutter was opened from one of the windows and a dishevelled lady appeared and began talking. I went down the circular steps leading to the front door and walked to the spot under the window from which the lady was ranting. It appeared that she was ordering us to leave. I told her that two American professors would like to visit the place because half a century ago a famous Russian writer spent some months here. And if it would be allowed to take some pictures.
Changing Pekka’s nationality seemed to me advisable because one can expect any oddity from Americans visiting Europe. But someone from a country as no nonsense as Finland is an unlikely candidate for such a sentimental journey. And I hoped that by mentioning Nabokov’s nationality she would be reminded of the previous owners of her house, just as her neighbours with the canine alarm system had been. But it was to no avail. She told me that we were tax collectors, colleagues from the tax inspectors from last year. And, she added, if we were not gone within a few minutes, her husband would come with his rifle. And she told how he had shot at our colleagues straight through the front door. I could still see the holes made by the bullets, if I would like to have further proof.
I looked at Gene, who was completely engrossed in consulting his exposure meters. I discussed our predicament with Pekka. It was clear to us that, whatever difficulties might follow, it would be easier to deal with the lady than with Gene. He seemed unaware of what was going on beyond the realm of his tripod and meters, and any suggestion to leave would have been met with complete incomprehension. As I noticed that the landlady was quite proud of the bullet holes, I asked her to show them to me. She disappeared, red in the face, and after a while I heard someone trying to open the door. I trusted that this would not be her husband, since he was in the habit of greeting visitors from behind a closed door. And indeed, it was the lady who reappeared. I went to the door and admired the holes. Then I thought that Gene’s preoccupation with his new role as photographer might impress her as well. So I asked her to look at him. Anyone could see that no tax collector in the world would be able to disguise himself so successfully as a photographer. I explained to her once more the reason for our visit. Then she left us, but I felt that we were no longer seen as masquerading tax inspectors.
While Gene was preparing his own shots, Pekka and I walked around the farmyard. I was feeling nostalgic about the copious lunches during the conference. Pekka told me that having reached his destination was as good a reason for Gene to proceed as not having reached it, so lunch would not be on that day’s menu. The farm was, notwithstanding the fact that the buildings were terribly neglected, a beautiful place. We visited the ruisseau, still running with brownish water, in which Nabokov swam. And we admired the beautiful canal around the house from which the field could be irrigated, a job much enjoyed by Nabokov. After some time, long after the equally neglected lunch hour, the landlord himself turned up. He was not in battledress; on the contrary, he wore swimming trunks, which enabled us to enjoy the full glory of his imposing belly. He was clearly flattered that his farm attracted such distinguished people as professors coming all the way from the States, and was soon on familiar terms with Gene, both being fine shots.
Gene then proposed to make a photograph with Pekka , the landlord and me, which was accepted by the man who cared more for his belly than his house. He disappeared into the house, to return only after a quarter of an hour. He was still wearing his swimming trunks, but now he wore a T-shirt as well, as little able to cover his belly as his trunks.
After the photo session he turned into a real host. He showed us his fields and gave a discourse on figs and the health-giving powers of the leaves of its trees. Pekka confirmed his claims. “Nothing beats a fig leaf,” he said.
Domaine de Beaulieu, near Solliès-Pont
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