Monday, November 27, 2023

ah, Montpellier

The French burg that I know best, after Paris, is Montpellier. Just as General Douglas McCarthur landed at Inchon on his way up the Korean peninsula…. Hmm, scratch that. Just as many another overseas for a year student ended up at Paul Valery university for the year in France, so did I. That was a crucial year for me, a defining year. Montpellier, at that time, was still the crossroads of the last hippy contingent, for one thing. In Agnes Varda’s Sans Toit ni Loi, from 1985, the Sandrine Bonnaire character wanders in the Languedoc region – which was a shrewd hit. No novel conveys that late walkabout period like The Savage Detectives. The decision-driftmaking is perfectly conveyed in part of that novel. The  zeitgeist went like this:

“Our money ran out in Paris, but we weren’t ready to go home, so we made our way out of the city somehow and hitched south. Near Orléans we were picked up by a camper van. The driver was German and his name was Hans. He was heading south too, with his wife, a French-woman called Monique, and their little boy. Hans had long hair and a bushy beard. He looked like a blond Rasputin, and he’d been all the way around the world. A little while later we picked up Steve, from Leicester, who worked in a nursery school, and a few miles on we picked up John, from London, who was out of work, like Hugh. It was a big van and there was plenty of room for all of us. Besides—I noticed this immediately—Hans liked to have company, people he could talk to and tell his stories to. Monique didn’t seem quite as comfortable having so many strangers around, but she did what Hans told her to do and anyway she was busy taking care of the boy.

Just before we got to Carcassonne, Hans told us that hehad business in a town in the Roussillon, and that if we wanted he could find good work for all of us. Hugh and I thought this was fantastic and we said yes straightaway.”

In the novel, this takes place in 1978, 1979. Same business, same thought processes were in the air in 1981.

All of this being prelude to something nobody told me about Montpellier. Which is simply: Joseph Conrad wrote most of The Secret Agent there, sitting what is now the Jardin des Plantes, but what was then the Jardin de Peyrou – which has been separated off into a big park. He stayed, in 1906 for a few months and then in 1907, at the Hotel Riche – the remnant of which, the Café Riche,  you can sit at and have your aperatif and watch the buskers on the Place de la Comedie. It was there he had an experience which any transient resident of Montpellier can sympathize with:

“Last night at seven I had my pocket picked in a crowd around a man who had been knocked down by a tramcar.  [his son] and I were in the car and of course were the first in the business of pick¬ ing the man up—and my pocketbook either fell out or more likely was lifted out; there were 200 francs in it. Please send me a £10 note instanter because life without pocket money is not worth living.”

The last phrase is the slogan and essence of student life abroad!

I’m rereading The Secret Agent and loving how Conrad edges up to the two acts of violence that define the novel’s trajectory. The Montpellier interludes throw some light on the thing. During Conrad’s stay in Montpellier, the great Wine growers revolt overflowed onto the Place de la Comedie.  The wine growers and other farmers of Languedoc had benefitted from a boom, encouraged by the government, in the 1890s, but the bust came afterwards, with bad weather, overproduction, and a feeling among the oenophile that Languedoc wine was yucky – a sentiment that you still run into, sometimes, today. This led to a good old fashioned jacquerie, a peasant revolt, which brought in unbelievable numbers of people. 150,000 demonstrated in Beziers, 200,000 in Carcassonne, and on June 9, 1907, below the windows of the Hotel Riche, between 500 and 650, 000 demonstrators gathered. In France, a demonstration automatically attracts cops.

Clemenceau, the president, pulled a Macron and tried out the strategy of waiting for the savages to get bored. Jaures, my man, the great Socialist leader, opposed Clemenceau, taking the vigneron side – which incidentally established the left in Southern France for decades afterwards.  The troops were sent to quell the crowds, which they did by shooting into them. Some of the troops, prefiguring WWI, revolted against these orders and joined the masses. In the meantime, the government adopted laws lifting taxes, reforming the regulations on wine, and in general making some money flow to the vineyards. But the problem of surproduction wasn’t really solved until, happily, the troops were called out in August of 1914, when the World War started, and the government bought all the wine on the market to nurse its soldiers. An army runs on its intoxicants, a little known but universal law.


As for Joseph Conrad, he’s removed himself from Montpellier by that time. However, in February 1906, when he first arrived, he did experience the Montpellier habit of force, counterforce and anarchy – in this case, the riots were about the laws recently passed to enforceseparation of church and state in public education. In a letter to J.B. Pinker, his literary agent, he writes: “I spent the whole of yesterday hunting high and low for rooms, lodgings, anything – in the midst of a most extraordinary uproar reigning over the whole town an amazing mixture of carnival and political riots going on a the same time. In the same street troops, infantry and cavalry drawn up in front of churches, yells, shrieks, blows – people with broken heads carried into chemist’s shops, and through it all bands of costumed and masked revellers pushing with songs and ribald jokes.”

Ah, Montpellier.


Anonymous said...

The title of the Varda film is Sans Toit ni Loi. The literal english translation could perhaps be 'Without Shelter nor Law.' For the English release, the title is 'Vagabond'. I'm sure you know the etymology of vagabond. As for the title in French, the least one can say *today* is that without shelter nor law is not restricted to Languedoc....

- Sophie

Roger Gathmann said...

Darn, thanks for the note. And yes, you just have to check the front of the BHV on Rivoli to discover that Sans Toit has come for Christmas. We have a friend who is trying to feed the people there, who are families with kids that go to school, but it is impossible on a private basis to cover this need. Meanwhile, in LVMH luxury goods sell like hotcakes, making the richest man in the world, Bernard Arnault, even richewr. And Macronist France sails ever nearer the crack into which Netherlands and Italy have fallen.

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