Nobel Prize winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio celebrated his sixty-ninth birthday on April 13. In commemoration, we offer this post about one of his short stories.
When a place you’ve loved dearly in childhood changes irrevocably, can you bear to return there to live?
That’s the question the narrator of Le Clezio’s short story, “Villa Aurora,” must answer. This story, which appears in France: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, pays homage to the old, grand villas of Mediterranean France—villas whose lands, buildings, and picturesque charm are increasingly threatened by sprawling commercial and residential development.
Le Clezio’s story begins with the narrator recalling the seemingly timeless Villa Aurora in whose gardens he used to play as a boy:
Aurora had stood, for all time, up there on the hilltop, half lost in the lush tangle of plants, yet still visible between the trunks of latania and palms, a great, white, cloud-covered palace quivering in the leafy shadows. It was called Villa Aurora even though no name had ever been inscribed on the pillars of the gateway, only a number engraved on a marble plaque that had worn away long before I could even remember it. Perhaps it had been given the name precisely because of its cloudlike color, so like the faint, iridescent hue of sky at dawn’s first break.
The villa is high, remote, and enshrouded by mists, much like the abode of the old Greek gods. The ancient, otherworldly character of the villa is reinforced by the worn away street number and the likeness of its color to dawn. We’ll soon learn that the villa includes within its walled garden a small stucco temple inscribed with the Greek word for “heaven.”
Aside from the myriad cats roaming its gardens, the villa has a single inhabitant: the lady of Villa Aurora. Like her ethereal home, she is difficult to pin down. At the beginning of the story, the narrator’s recollections of her are “blurred, elusive, barely perceptible.”
As a boy, the narrator used to sneak into the villa’s garden through a breach in its wall. There he and his friends would explore, play hide-and-seek, and relax.
The days were long and bright back then in the garden of Villa Aurora; there was nothing else of any interest in the town or the streets or the hills or even the sea, which we could glimpse off in the distance between the trees and the palms.
But the narrator grows up, and he no longer visits the villa. He even comes to forget about it, cutting himself off, he says, from the “heaven” promised by the temple’s inscription.
Years later, just before exams, he returns to his home town and the environs of the villa. In this part of the story, Le Clezio paints a vivid picture of a new French Mediterranean landscape: a paved, almost savage terrain crowded by the elevated freeways and high-rises.
Everywhere up on top of the hill were gutted gardens, ruins, gaping wounds dug into the earth. At the building sites, tall, threatening cranes loomed motionless, and trucks had left muddy tracks on the pavement. The buildings hadn’t finish sprouting up yet. They were still growing larger, biting into the old walls, scraping the earth, unfolding sheets of asphalt, dazzling concrete grounds at their feet.
Soon the narrator comes upon the villa itself:
All of a sudden, I saw it. I hadn’t recognized it because it was below the level of the circular highway, so crunched down under its supporting wall in the crook of the curve that I saw only its terrace roof and its chimneys. . . . I’d never seen it up so closely before, and most of all, I’d never imagined what it might look like seen from above, as if from a bridge. Then it struck me as looking sad, gray, forlorn, with its high, close-shuttered windows and the plaster stained with rust and soot, the stucco eaten away with old age and misfortune. It had lost that faint pearly color that had once made it seem ethereal when I spied on it from between the low laurel branches. It had lost its color of dawn.
The villa, which once surmounted the hilltop, is now itself surmounted by a freeway and high-rises. Modern development is strangling the quaint, lush world of Villa Aurora.
The narrator discovers the name of the villa’s inhabitant: Marie Doucet. She still lives in the villa, and a year later she posts an ad, seeking a student “to look after the house and protect it.” The narrator finds this opportunity irresistible. He applies for the job. After decades of admiring the villa from the outside, he at last enters the villa itself and meets Mme Doucet.
The question in the story then becomes, can he bear to take the job and live in what remains of Villa Aurora? Can he stand to live in a place cherished in childhood but now utterly transformed and under siege, caught in the crook of the highway’s curve?
He cannot. He flees, abandoning Mme. Doucet, who remains in her home like a creature fixed in amber.
You’ll find the complete story of “Villa Aurora”—and many other wonderful French stories—in France: A Traveler’s Literary Companion.
I don’t know how I ended up leaving there. I think I must have slipped away like a coward, like a thief . . . The old lady was left alone in the middle of her big, forlorn house, alone in the large room with flaking plaster walls and amber-colored sunlight. I walked back down the street, down the avenues, toward the bottom of the hill. . . . As I went into the crowd of cars and trucks between the high walls of the buildings, I thought I could hear, off in the distance, the wild cries of the city’s thugs bringing down the roofs of Villa Aurora one after the other.