A lyrical hymn to the irrecoverable past, Robin Fedden’s memoir Chantemesle takes its title from the house in which he grew up, itself named after a tiny hamlet in the Île de France. Over the years, Chantemesle has been haunted by a succession of artists. It rises above a silver bend in the Seine, its back pressed against vast, grotesque outcrops of chalk scars wrapped in scrub, created by eruptions of the last Ice Age.
For centuries this valley was the haunt of painters, including Poussin, and the strange violence of the scars against the languid river and the lush green of the plains attracted Monet, Bonnard and Pissarro. Later, the English Impressionist Conder was invited by Arthur Blunt, then owner of the house, to paint in the summerhouse. Soon after the devastation of the First World War, Robin’s water-colourist father, Romilly Fedden, bought Blunt’s house and settled down to paint there in his turn. This part of France had managed to preserve its historic tranquillity, and the child grew up watching leaf-patterned light playing on the ceiling.
It was with a sense of partial, almost dreamlike recognition that we both read Chantemesle, a record of the aesthetic and emotional awakening of a young boy during the 1920s. A perfect fairytale, it features an enchanted forest and a floating island; everything in it is infused with a profound sense of magic and awe, of undiluted good and evil, and events seem to unfold outside time. Years before, Elisabeth had visited the region in the company of her husband, also a painter. Now the two of us determined on a literary pilgrimage. We set out with that tantalizing sense of nostalgia for something we had not experienced and might never discover. For we knew that memory can alter as well as preserve and, with the passage of time and a shift in perspective, the remembered often becomes something quite other.
Proust, Fournier, Waugh and Lehmann all turned the pain and incomprehension o
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