A warm day in late September. The air is still, in that strange foreign way: at home the air is never so still. Always tickling at willow leaves, always a jittery breath on bare skin, the restlessness of gaunt, seablown latitudes.
Here, where the Riviera comes to an abrupt end against the solid wall of the Alpes Maritimes, the air refuses to play. It lies over mouth and nose like a woolen blanket, heavy and prickly. The hills rise behind the town in steep crags of white limestone, stained red with ochre. At sunset they turn pink: an old-fashioned colour. Ashes of Roses. The exact tint of blood stains on white linen once that linen has been washed many times and hung to bleach in brilliant light. The hills exude a steady warmth.
A bony reef made up of countless multitudes of those tiny creatures with whom we share a distant ancestry, 300 million or so great-grand-parents ago. A reef that rose dripping from beneath the ocean to be sculpted by air and water into a precipitous landscape: peaks and crags and the caverns that lent their shelter for hundreds of thousands of years to our more recent ancestors. Their artefacts are laid out in dimly lit cabinets in the Menton museum: chipped flints, gnawed bone, the nubs of red ochre with which they ornamented their dead, the charred remnants of the first hearth in Europe, a plaster replica of Menton Man as he was laid out for burial 30,000 years ago in the Grotte de Cavillon wearing a headdress of threaded seashells and reindeer teeth. Thousands of years of barely imaginable lives, lived up there on the hillsides overlooking the mansions of Cap Martin and Roquebrune, the apartment blocks of Garavan, the casino and toytown castle at Monaco. The bones of an old woman tenderly furled about the bones of a child at Grimaldi, the hunters of Terra Amata flinging aside chewed bones of deer, rabbit and the occasional rhino, before poohing about their shelter with a cheerful dog-like lack of restraint. From the seeds and pollens studding their copious fossilized turds – ‘coprolites’ to the more fastidious - archaeologists surmise a summer encampment 400,000 years ago, when the broom was in flower and all the resinous woody plants of the garigue that still scent the bare mountain slopes.
One cabinet in the museum contains a lineup of tiny goddesses no bigger than my thumb, plump of bum and heavy of breast. Back in 1995, when I had the Mansfield Fellowship and we lived here for six months, we walked up to the summit of Mont Bego a few miles inland to see the scratchings on rock that hint at later worship of a bearded god, holding aloft in his hands two lightning bolts. On the day we were there, thunder did indeed roll about the tops, like iron wheeled chariots rumbling and circling till the clouds burst and drenching rain and lightning drove us in a childlike panic to the shelter of the pines.
I think about the people, all those people walking here, and their feet: the cracks at the heels, the big spread toes, the flat instep, the soles covered in toughened skin, like our feet when we were children and ran about all summer without shoes. ‘Summer feet’ we called them, when our feet became hard like a pony’s hoof or a pig’s trotter, impervious to thistle pricks and the sharp edges of shingle. ‘We’ve got our summer feet!’ It felt like triumph.
So here we are, two more little humans in the long procession, walking up the lower slopes of the Alpes Maritimes. The hills loom ahead, walling off the ends of streets and the gaps between buildings. We are walking towards them, away from the beaches where the tourists sunbathe, though it is early autumn and the shops already have displays of woolen jackets and heavy boots. The sunbathers sprawl in the last of the summer sun, on shingle and sand trucked in to cover the harsher reality of sharp coastal rock. They doze on their manufactured beach, buffed and brown, like so many leather goods laid out for inspection. The sand is white and soft as ash. It has a high tide line of tiny shells and cigarette butts. When we lived here and swam every day, there was a panty-liner that floated in the lee of the breakwater. We began to look out for it, the way you begin to look out for an elastoplast on the bottom of a swimming pool as you do lengths. It floated there, white and undefiled all that summer, a triumph of plastic technology. I wrote a poem that began
‘Nothing could be finer
than to be a panty liner
on the Cote d’Azur…’
The sunbathers sprawl on the white beach, while beyond their somnolent bodies the mountains continue their vertiginous descent. Down down down - beneath the swimmers thrashing out to the little bobbing raft and back, out and back. Down into that dark landscape that exists off this shore as a dark negative to the sunny place depicted on the post cards in the Rue Saint Michel. Up in the world of light, the crags are home to sweet villages with tubs of pink pelargoniums. Menton itself perches, perky, at the point where France stops and other customs, other words begin. Menton occupies the uttermost tip of France like so many teacups on a narrow shelf, arranged about the little ornamental pepperpot tower of Saint Michael’s church.
Today is the saint’s feast day. The bells began ringing early. The church was packed for solemn mass, the air was heavy with incense and doleful hymns. The parishioners are now at lunch, down on the waterfront. There’s a band and plump dignitaries in suits and the pancakes of the region and a man announcing things over a fuzzy loudspeaker system.
We can hear them dimly in the distance as we turn into the Avenue de Sospel. Here, the sounds of municipal festivity mingle with the everyday whine of scooters racing away from the lights, the heehaw of an ambulance, the rattle of a train crossing the railway bridge and slowing for the station. We walk up the wide avenue past the library where there is a special display marking the anniversary of the Mansfield Fellowship. For forty years New Zealand writers have been coming here to live and work for a few months in the town where Mansfield wrote The Daughters of the Late Colonel. The library windows have the familiar photos of Mansfield at her desk, and on the terrace at Garavan, like a wild kitten, trapped. There’s a list of Mansfield Fellows, including Bille Monhire, Wity Ihimara , Lady Fiona Kidman - and me, with two n’s. That’s why we are here in Menton: for the anniversary round of mayoral receptions and dinners and poetry readings and talks from members of the Mansfield Society – English women, for the most part, several with their hair cut in blunt Mansfieldian bobs. But today nothing is programmed. We’re free to do whatever we want. We cross between the cars and take a smaller narrower street leading uphill. We are walking to see the Winter Palace.
We have seen it often enough from the lower town. It stood just across the hillside from the Palais Lutetia where we lived in ‘95: a massive rectangular slab of white, ornamented with decorative golden scallops like some festive cake. The Lutetia was painted pelargonium pink, its only nod to fantasy a vaguely Egyptian turret on one corner. It was small and plain compared to the Winter Palace. Behind it we could just make out the corner of the even more massive Riviera Palace, the original of the big hotels which sprang up all over the hillsides of Menton overnight, like funghi in a fertile field, to house the sick of Europe’s Belle Epoque.
The Riviera came first, a pseudo-baroque fantasy of which its builder was so proud that he had his name engraved with an Art Deco flourish across the façade: J A WIDMER 1898-1910. Its walls were palest ochre and eggshell blue ornamented with extravagant swags of plaster by the curiously named (at least for a New Zealander) Guillaume Cerutti-Maori, depicting the nations of Europe. Inside there were frescoes of putti and wild animals and a sweeping La Traviata of a staircase. Outside, the gardens were filled with palms that now seem at home and unremarkable, but were once considered exotic, a fitting setting to the extravagant theatricality of the buildings they foregrounded. These hotels had many comfortable rooms. They had central heating and electrical elevators. They occupied the most desirable location in Menton only meters from that wonderful convenience, an international railway line. More modest establishments were relegated to the seafront: the Balmoral, the Windsor, the Orient Palace with its Moorish windows and its twinned gatekeepers’ lodges sporting golden Ali Baba cupolas. Sixty hotels in all, constructed to impress and house the tubercular tourists of England, Poland, Holland, Russia, during that era when Menton and those other insignificant and desperately impoverished fishing villages, Nice and Cannes, were transformed into one vast coastal sanatorium.
The word has a cloying sound. Some sticky residue of vulnerable human flesh, some whiff of mortal decay like the green stain on a bath at an elegant spa. Beyond the gaming rooms, the botanical gardens, the white linen of the dining room and the string quartet, beneath the eau des violettes, there’s the stink of sulphur that is also the signature of rot and putrefaction.
It conjures up the imagery of pale children lying in rows of deck chairs to receive their measure of healthgiving sunlight. Hans Castorp beneath his woolen blanket among pines on the magic mountain. Frail youth dancing recklessly toward premature death.
When my mother was 21 she went to a sanatorium. She went ‘up to Waipiata’ to nurse her younger brother. Rob was 19. He was ‘highly strung’. He was musical.
He could play the violin, by ear, which was much better than being able to simply read music from a page. He could reproduce the tunes he heard at the pictures after listening to them only once. He was also clever, the first person in the family to go to the university. He planned to be a lawyer. He contracted tb in his first year from a young man with whom he shared digs in Cumberland Street. All that winter, the young man coughed. The disease flew across that icy room and took lodging in Rob’s spine, already weakened from an accident. He owned a motorbike. He used to ride it recklessly. One night, riding down the Kilmog in a storm, he hit a fallen tree. Something pierced his spine, leaving a weak place, a portal through which disease could enter. We knew the bike. It was out in the barn, its curving handlebars, its little Indian head festooned in dusty cobwebs. On wet days we sat on its cracked leather saddle, clutching the handlebars and pretending to ride. Among the hay bails and feral tribes of skinny farm cats we rode to distant places. We rode recklessly. We rode through storms. We were impervious to harm…
So the tb flew like a damp little bird across the room and nested in the weak spot on Rob’s spine and there it grew in the dark. (We imagined a kind of rot, like the damp rot in the weatherboards behind the wash house: white paint barely concealing disorder and decay and smelling of mushrooms.) The tb spread and Rob’s spine rotted and our mother had to go up to Waipiata to nurse him. She seemed to be immune to the disease. An immunity I later inherited. I was one of the few children at Oamaru South School who did not have to join the orderly line for the Health Nurse and her scary nee Our mother had nursed other tb patients at Oamaru Hospital and while others succumbed and died, victims to their vocation fighting the invisible battalions of disease in their uniforms, medals and stiff white veils, she remained untouched. She volunteered to care for Rob and in time he did indeed seem to recover. He returned home. But the disease was cunning. It had not been defeated by our mother’s stout campaign, but simply moved elsewhere. A devious enemy, it oozed the length of Rob’s spine and found the soft white flesh of his brain and there, it made him mad. It destroyed whatever part it is of us that enables us to play the violin and reproduce all the tunes from the pictures. It destroyed speech and reason and turned him into the shambling wreck of a man in cardigan and slippers who shuffled out to the car from the villa at Cherry Farm for Sunday church and lunch.
Rob had ‘cracked up’ He was mental, like those other alarming men who shouted suddenly or sat simply staring at the villa floor as if pallid linoleum might burst open, break into flowers. When Rob climbed into the car he smelled of stewed cabbage and pee. We turned sideon to look out the windows and tried not to breathe too deeply.
Somewhere in that word there is a woman hugging her shambling brother and the seesaw squawk of a violin playing something that might be Jingle Bells or Happy Birthday, because she has said to him after roast lamb and jelly and cream, ‘Go on Rob, give us a tune,’ and handed him his instrument. He remembers how to hold it, to draw the bow over the strings. The sound could be Three Blind Mice.
A queasy word that oddly resembled ‘Sanatarium’ on the peanut butter jar and Weetabix packet, lending a faintly dubious air to substances intended to make us strong and ‘build up our resistance’. We did a lot of things to build up our resistance: swimming in the sea as soon as it was even slightly warm enough, sleeping winter and summer with the window open, swallowing a daily spoonful of sticky malt extract and little leathery capsules of halibut oil. Our bodies were small bastions under constant siege. We avoided ‘overdoing it’ or ‘getting run down’. We were warned against studying too hard, lest we like Rob, cracked up. Our brains like our bodies were frail things, delicate as bone china. They could so easily become weighted down with fact and crack under the strain.
The winter before we came to Menton and walked to the Winter Palace, I visited Waipiata. A hoar frost lay thick over the valley. We weren’t even sure it was a valley. The fog hung low on every side, obscuring the Rough Ridge and the peaks of the Raggedy Range. Frost draped every willow tree in traceries of brilliant white. It created baroque swags from sagging fences and telegraph wires. Cows huddled disconsolate beneath small clouds of their own breathing. All sound was muffled, all colour leached from roadside grass. We lost all sense of north or south. We were simply following a narrow strip of damp black tarmac. From time to time, cars emerged from the fog in a blur of headlights and disappeared into silence. And then we turned a corner and the road rose a little from the valley and we burst suddenly out into sunlight like swimmers from heavy surf. There it was on a roadside sign: Waipiata. A name from childhood. We decided to go there.
The complex is no longer a sanatorium. That ended back in 1961, when such places were closing down all over the world. During the war, a poorly paid research student in the Department of Soil Microbiology at Rutgers University had discovered a cure for tuberculosis in the throat of a chicken, and within twenty years, the world changed. The big wooden bungalows on the bare hillside at Waipaiata were no longer needed to house the sick. The broad verandahs emptied of their beds and reclining chairs – the Adirondak chairs specially designed for tubercular patients confined to months of total rest and fresh air. The bustle in the laundry, the dining room, the kitchen with its massive ovens for the preparation of restorative meals heavy on cream and butter and all things necessary to build up the resistance of bodies under siege – all this had disappeared. It had vanished as if into heavy fog: a white dream, a nightmare. It’s impossible now, up here in the bright sunlight, to remember quite how it went.
The beginning is the bacillus, evolving in primeval mud, just one of the billions who have always truly owned the earth. A tiny slender living thing, slow-growing, slow to multiply. Its discoverer, Koch, in 1882 even thought it beautiful, that silvery rod that had made its way into human hosts from the earth through mouth or nose, or via the bodies of browsing cows, when humans tired of walking unencumbered across the world and settled to farming eight thousand or so years ago. ‘Take, drink,’ said those big sweet-breathed creatures with their soft, brown eyes, willingly sharing the milk intended for their own young. But the bacillus had no such fellow feeling. It simply swarmed aboard and settled to consumption. Its work is discernible in the bones of Pharoahs. A child’s skull from one of those caves near Menton bears the marks of a meningeal tumor that is possibly tubercular in origin.
Then there is the story of human resistance: the search for a cure. The oils and decoctions, the King touching sufferers of scrofula, those ‘little piglets’ which were swollen tubercular lymph nodes. There’s such poignancy in the desperate longing of superstitious practice. How strange that Sam Johnson was taken as a four year old to be touched by that little pink porker of a queen, Anne! How strange that the man who became the exponent of rationality should have been touched by something so primitive!
There is the tale of consumption’s triumph when the poor of Europe and America were herded into cities in the nineteenth century, until fully half the population of Britain is thought to be have been infected in some fashion, and a third died from its ravages. By the turn of the century, it’s estimated that fifty million people worldwide were tubercular: those ‘small potatoes’, those little white tubers, had found fertile soil.
It flew across the room between friends. It passed in the breath of lovers, of mother to child, between complete strangers on a street, between sailors and the inhabitants of warm Pacific isles, between people doing nothing more dramatic than renting a new home: they walk about admiring the rooms, while the bacillus stirs to life in the floorboards, for while it dies in direct sunlight, it can survive for months in household dust. The pale factory girl tiptapping in her clogs to her loom before daybreak and the languid musician playing his melancholy nocturnes to a scented audience in some country house, the windows open to a smooth lawn, the fountain splashing beneath the terrace – they died the same death. Revolutions make adjustments, but disease enforces a more ruthless equality. They died, objects of pity and the veneration we offer those who are young and pale and far too thin, like the holy anorexics of an earlier era starving themselves into sainthood, and the pallid ‘models’ of our own. They became fit subjects for art and literature, their tiny hands perpetually frozen, their death greeted with anguish and a high Bflat.
They were also good business. Sanatorium treatment – clean air, rest interspersed with moderate exercise, a rich diet – may have had no proven scientific basis, but it made luxurious international destinations of formerly obscure mountain villages like Davos, Nordrach, St Moritz.
In New Zealand, the style was less ostentatious. Waipiata is a complex of wooden buildings, more military camp than Swiss hotel. Viewed from the road, the complex seems to be drawn up in ranks on its bare hillside to confront the enemy.
Then in 1943, there was the chicken, and the miraculous microbe: streptomyseus griseus. The source of the antibiotic stretomysin. It’s a great story, complete with a hero: the graduate student, Al Schatz, 23 years old, subsisting on $40 a month, sleeping rough in Rutgers’ Plant Physiology green houses, living on fruit and vegetables scavenged from the Agricultural Research Station and consigned to work in a basement because his boss is terrified at the presence of the tb bacillus in his laboratory. And a villain: the boss himself, Waksman, who remained safely ensconced on the third floor but stepped up to take all the credit when it rolled in, including the Nobel Prize and thousands of dollars in royalties until Schatz finally filed suit in 1950 for some token recognition. Schatz continued to be the good guy, following compelling curiosity to work for the good of others in Pakistan and Chile. One of his research papers reproduced on-line is dedicated to his fellow scientist and friend, Salvador Allende. Waksman merely became rich and famous.
But after the chicken and the nights in the basement, the days of the sanatoria were numbered. The Swiss turned them into hotels for winter sports, while in New Zealand they were torn down to make room for subdivision, or were occupied by other government departments. For a time, Waipiata became a place where youth went for correction. Now it’s a Christian retreat. God took a hand. Like one of those tv presenters scouting the perfect location, he directed a pastor and his wife to its purchase and now there are families in the bungalows, a pink tricycle on one side on the grass, the sound of a chain saw from a stand of gumtrees up the hill. The pastor invited us in for a cup of tea, then showed us around. The laundry with its high ceiling for drying linen is now a chapel, the dining hall was buzzy with adolescents with that scrubbed look of Christian youth, horsing around where once the sick gathered for meals and Saturday socials. The pastor’s wife had written a book about the transformation. We purchased a copy. It seemed that God had attended to every detail from the moment of their arrival. He had even found them soft furnishings at a very reasonable price.
Menton was a more lavish affair altogether, though those ornate palaces with their plaster friezes and mirrored halls echoed to the same cough in the night, the same feverish hope -the ‘spes phthisica’ noted by the physicians.
And here we are on a warm autumn day going to visit one of them. We follow the Avenue Riviera as it winds uphill toward the Winter Palace. The road is narrow between high walls. There’s the sound of cicadas up here away from the traffic and the clink of cutlery from open windows. We walk between slabs of shade, for the sun is intense. About us walk the wraithes in their summer voiles, their slender necks supporting straw hats ornamented with veils and flowers. They carry parasols and stop from time to time, as we stop, to perch on a low wall to catch that elusive breath.
They did not come so early in the season of course. They did not, like those tourists now spreadeagled on the beach at Garavan, come for the summer, but for the winter, drawn south by a book. You can look it up on Google: it is there, every foxed and well-worn page. Menton and the Riviera and the Winter Climate, by the English doctor, James Henry Bennett. From the moment of its publication in 1861 it was a best-seller, as were its successors. (Bennett knew when he was onto a good thing): ‘Menton, the Riviera, Corsica and Biarritz as Winter Climates’ (1862) and finally, ‘Winter in the South of Europe’ (1865).
Reading it now, Menton and the Riviera seems an odd book to become a best-seller. It kicks off with a detailed account of the topography of the region with tables of diurnal temperatures. Bennett describes the geology of Menton: the limestone that retains the summer heat long after winter has set in elsewhere, radiating its benevolent warmth onto the little town. He describes the vegetation: the groves of lemon trees which form the basis of the region’s economy, the olives and wild thyme with their tough aromatic leaves, breathing, he says - for he is a lyrical man as well as a doctor – all in unison ‘like little lungs.’ He mentions the brilliant light and the way the cloud comes in from the sea only as night falls, climbing the steep hills ‘like a Turkish genie’. The English climate, he says is best for invalids in summer, but in winter this climate is incomparable.
He compares Menton as a health destination with other southern places long considered ideal by northern Europeans – and he dismisses them roundly. Naples, he says, is nothing but ‘500,000 dirty southerners in damp sunless streets in the midst of every abomination by which the eye or the smell can be offended.’ He describes its evening passegiata along a promenade where seven sewers empty their load into a filthy sea. In storms the effluvium floods the streets. The fishermen take their catch from this vile ocean to lay upon the table at the tourist’s hotel.
The Mentonnais, by comparison, are a superior people: poor, of course. Bennett has witnessed a family of ten or twelve draw in their meager catch of tiny sprats with every appearance of satisfaction. But they maintain a certain sober dignity.
They keep the doors to their houses decently closed. And unable to graze large animals like cattle or sheep on the steep mountain terraces that surround the town, they are forced to husband their own manure. With some delicacy, Bennett manages to hint that the nightsoil of Menton does not therefore find its way in that casual Neapolitan fashion into the harbour, but is spread productively beneath the lemons and olives that form the basis of the town’s economy. There it decomposes rapidly without giving offence to the visitor’s senses. In Winter in the South of Europe he describes the process in greater detail: trenches are dug about the trees where ‘indescribably filthy’ rags of wool and linen imported from Italy are laid, to which the manure is added and the whole covered in soil.
To his report of a modest industrious population, a sheltered location and a warm climate, Bennett, like all his successors in the popular health genre, adds his personal endorsement. He himself had visited Menton unwell, troubled and overworked, and recovered there. He promises that others following his regime, ‘walking when they are well enough in the open air, indulging in moderate activity in the optimistic company of other invalids,’ will, like him, find a cure.
The effect was instant. Bennett’s later books ice the cake with poetic descriptions of excursions by carriage or donkey to fern-fringed torrents the equal of any in Scotland, where visitors may gather posies of primroses and violets (though by 1865 the locals were already, it seems, charging for the violets.) Handsome and picturesque young women still walk barefoot down from the mountain terraces bearing baskets of lemons on their heads. When no longer young and strong enough to bear the heavy loads, they move on to harvesting olives on their hands and knees. For eight pence a day. But commodious villas are already nudging the lemon groves aside, where in suburban ‘hygienic situations’ a short distance from the town, those stricken with physical affliction may recline on cushions ‘like an invalided lizard on his wall’ to be exposed to the open air and the healing balms of nature. Roads are being constructed, the railway is steadily extending its reach, letters now take only 36 hours to travel between Menton and London. Nice already has its promenade, Monaco its rather suspect German casino, but those places attract mere ‘health loungers’ who are not truly ill. Those who are so afflicted should waste no time in dedicating every energy to spending as much of the winter as possible in this earthly paradise, Menton. ‘The most satisfactory cases of arrested and of cured phthisis that I have seen have been among those who have the power and the will to return again and again…’ The frontispiece of the third volume bears an engraving of a swallow and the Latin tag: Euns rediensque gaudet. ‘Going and returning, he rejoices!’
Thousands were persuaded by the little swallow, the violets, and the scent of lemons. The new railway transported them in comfort from the north. It also made possible the transportation of all the foodstuffs necessary to sustain people less inclined to survive on sprats. Good butter is brought in from Milan, familiar fish species from the Atlantic coast, beef almost as good as British beef is imported from the mountains north of Nice.
On horsehair and mahogany, swaying in their first class compartments, the sick followed Bennett’s siren call from Paris, from London, from St Petersburg and the hotels went up to accommodate them, massive structures of hundreds of rooms surrounded by gardens of plants never before seen on this coast. You cannot help wondering what the local people, those discrete Mentonnais behind their closed doors, thought of the invasion. As an aside, Bennet mentions that historically they had been reasonably free of tuberculosis: recurrent fevers, yes, cholera, typhus – but lives spent in the open air with no fires for heating even in winter seemed to have kept the local people strong. Were they not worried by this sudden influx of coughing, spitting and death?
Other southerners so visited definitely were. When Chopin and Georges Sand visited Majorca in 1838, the innkeeper requested them to leave as soon as he became aware of Chopin’s condition. Furthermore, he insisted that Sand pay for a thorough cleaning of their room, including whitewashing the walls. They were unable to find any local people who would help them move to alternative digs in an uninhabited monastery. “We could not secure any servants or any help of any kind from the local peasantry, as not even the poorest wretch wanted to work for a phthisic,’ wrote Sand in a book detailing their tribulations.
‘Un Hiver en Majorique’, (Winter in Majorca) written in 1852, reflects the odd division that existed at the time within Europe. Around the Mediterranean - on Majorca, for example – it seems that ordinary people had no doubt whatever that tuberculosis was contagious. Without any knowledge of bacilli, or any medical authority, they were convinced it could be passed, stranger to stranger. In northern Europe, on the other hand, medical authority insisted upon hereditary weakness as a prime cause: individuals became tubercular because they had inherited a weak constitution, sometimes exacerbated by reckless living. So the Catholic south believes in an invisible but potent agent before which all humans are rendered equal, while the Protestant north prefers a doctrine of individual responsibility: live moderately, avoid sexual excess, choose your procreative partner wisely – and all will be well.
What the people of Menton felt as the Winter Palace and Riviera rose on their hillsides can only be guessed at. They lived well within the zone that believed in contagion - but perhaps the offer of work overcame any natural caution. They donned their smart hotel uniforms, emptied the blood spattered spittoons, swept up the dust and washed the plates of their smart, sick guests - and simply hoped for the best.
It was all a sham, anyway. These hotels with their gilt and Oriental fakery are indeed as flimsy as an operatic set, founded upon scientific fallacy. Possibly those little walks and optimistic diversions provided some respite, but the tubercular tourist was no more likely to be cured in Menton than in London or St Petersburg. The air here is warm and faintly sticky, trapped within the armpit created by the muscular bulk of the Alpes Maritimes. Humidity can reach 95% - perfect for the growing of lemons, but fatal for anyone whose body is in the business of growing those little potatoes. The results are obvious on the terraces above the town occupied by Menton’s cemetery, a place De Maupassant called ‘the most aristocratic cemetery in Europe.’ The dead are English for the most part, though there are also Russians and Swedes and Dutch and Germans – and they are nearly all young, for tuberculosis is a disease of the young. A Polish woman, Janina Lewandowska who died at 27 in 1912 flies up in white marble from an ornate sarcophagus. William Webb Ellis is here, who picked up a ball and ran with it and invented rugby. Aubrey Beardsley is here, dead at 25: a young man who wouldn’t have dreamed of picking up a ball and running with it anywhere. With his grass-green hair: If I am not grotesque, I am nothing…
Mansfield isn’t here, though back in 1995, visitors to the Mansfield room at Garavan often assumed she was. No, I said. Not here. Fontainbleau. Near Paris. After she’d run up the stairs to prove how well she was feeling after time spent sleeping in a stable, imbibing the healing breath of sweet dairy cows. But she did spend time sitting on the terrace above the room, composing the vision of Menton that has become the lens through which others see it: mimosa and orange blossom, a sweet place rendered in repeated diminutives – ‘little’ ‘small’ – so that the effect is defiantly of love. She writes of things seen or heard or smelled with all the intensity of fever. Reading Mansfield’s letters from Menton, always reminds me of the flowering currant. As children, my sister and I both came down with scarlet fever: a dimly recalled state of heat and strange dreams, blood pouring from my nose and soaking the pillow. And then it passed, and we woke one morning to a kind of lightness. We felt cool and fresh, as if we had grown new skin. We were allowed at last to get up, to walk on unfamiliar wobbly legs to the sitting room where we discovered the table set with a birthday tea. Cheerios popping from their skins, a meringue cake with candles. We had been ill for weeks, right through both our birthdays and not even known. And after the cake, our father gathered us up, one on each arm, and carried us out into the garden. It was spring where before it had been bare grey winter. The sun was warm on our faces and everything jittered, everything smelled rich and beautiful of damp earth and growing things, and by the dunny, the flowering currant was in full pink blossom. Our father held us close so we could see it properly. The tree was dizzy with bees: every blossom had its bee, burrowing down headfirst, their tiny legs wriggling and bulbous with little yellow rompers of fresh pollen.
That’s what I think of when I read Mansfield ecstatically describing an orange.
It is no longer fashionable to believe in spes phthisica, that special nervous and creative energy gifted by tuberculosis as some tiny compensation to its sufferers. Earlier commentators were more certain. A friend has lent me a study published in 1945 by the French critic Vincent Le Rolle, of three tubercular artists: the painter Watteau, the symbolist poet LaForgue and Mansfield. He identifies tuberculosis as one of the factors driving Watteau to retreat to his gilded Cythera; as a primary cause for the deep melancholy pervading the work of Laforgue, and as one of the reasons for Mansfield’s intense engagement with everyday reality. “Elle vit dans une sorte d’extase perpetuelle devant la vie la baigne d’une radieuse lumiere,…elle veut apprendre aux hommes toute cette magnificence pres de laquelle ils passent indifferents…” (“She lives in a sort of perpetual ecstasy before life bathed in radiant light...she wishes to bring to the attention of people all that magnificence lying close by to where they pass, indifferent…’) The tough, ironic stories of the German Pension, Le Rolle dismisses as work written when Mansfield was ‘not herself”. She became herself truly, he says only when she became ill: separated from the world, the wraithe on the terrace at Garavan, unable to enter a sanatorium because patients were forbidden to work under the sanatorium regime and she could not bear not to write. She prefers the terrace, though it is lonely despite her best efforts to persuade Murry to join her in the south: despite the recitation of sensations, the mimosa, the charming fishermen, the orange blossom - that might tempt a timid husband fearful of contagion from grey old London. Isolated upon the terrace, like Linda Burnell reclining on her cane steamer chair, feeling light as a leaf and tentatively, delicately, risking love. ‘Hallo, my funny!’
And Le Rolle in his highly perfumed fashion, prefers her there too, evincing that same strange blend of sexual fastidiousness and eroticism that created Mimi and Violetta, those child women too skinny to menstruate.
He does not say exactly that the ‘bacille de Koch’ carried with it some mysterious toxin that conferred creative genius. But the human psyche, he says, is like a harp. Not all the strings on a harp reverberate at the same pitch. Just so, when tuberculosis touches the strings of an individual being, they resonate, and for those already highly strung, possessed by a great gift for painting, or words, or music, the disease can heighten ‘les fonctions nerveuses, met a nu et developpe les traits principaux de la nature de l’artiste. Elle aide a devenir pofondement lui-meme, et le depouille du conventionelle dans lequel s’embourbe le bien portant, vivant de la vie commune.’ (‘heightening nervous function, exposing and developing the principal traits of the artist. It helps the artist to become profoundly him or herself as it strips away the conventions within which the healthy conduct their communal life.’) So Watteau’s delicate constitution from childhood prevented him taking up tile manufacture, his father’s trade: it opened the way to Paris and that strange Pierrot confronting the viewers with his white mask, and the lovers embarking not to go to the isle of love, but to leave it while they are still young and in perfect beauty. And the public at the dealer’s gallery turning away to expose the full sweep of their silken gowns as they take down all the artist’s paintings and pack them away. The artist’s final work. Unless of course you count the invisible ones he was executing while supine on his death bed: rendered mute by disease, paintbrush still in hand, he furiously painted his ‘poemes peints’ on the empty air above his head.
It may not be fashionable but a part of me wants to believe it is true: that ill health can bring with it some special favour.
Maybe it is spes phthisica we hear when the young Keats stands
‘tip-toe upon a little hill,
The air was cooling, and so very still
That the sweet buds, which, with modest pride,
Pull droopingly, in slanting curve aside
Had not yet lost those starry diadems
Caught from the early sobbing of the morn.
The clouds were pure and white as flocks new-shorn,
And fresh from the clear brook: sweetly they slept
On the blue fields of heaven, and then there crept
A noiseless noise among the leaves,
Born of the very sigh that silence heaves:
For not the faintest motion could be seen
Of all the shades that slanted o’er the green….’
Maybe it is spes phthisica that transformed New Zealand’s Eastbourne into Eden, viewed across that great distance of time and space and experience:
‘Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began…A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall: the silvery fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness.. Ah-Aah! Sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, spilling between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and…something else, - what was it? A faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such silence that it seemed someone was listening. Round the corner of Crescent Bay between the piled up masses of broken rock, a flock of sheep came pattering. They were huddled together, a small tossing wooly mass, and their thin stick-like legs trotted along quickly as if the cold and the quiet had frightened them…”
I want it to be so. I desperately want suffering and ill health to have some purpose, rather than the destruction of tissue. I don’t mean a divine purpose: I haven’t believed in a divine controller since I was fifteen. But I find myself wanting to believe that the influence of some bacillus on a human organism might be a blend of good and bad. The bacillus is not evil in itself. It is simply going about its aeons old purpose, replicating itself and trying to burrow through to the air it needs to survive. And on the way, as a kind of incidental fact, it kills. But I want to believe that during its sojourn in a human body, it might also stimulate something wonderful in its host organism. Hairloss, diarrhoea, haemorrage yes - but also Cythera, and etudes and the intense awareness of the beauty of early morning and twilight.
So here we are at midday, the air hot and still, cicadas sawing away in the gardens of the Winter Palace and the Riviera. The two buildings nudge at one another like a couple of cruise ships in a too-narrow berth, jostling for the view of the coast. Close up, the buildings seem a little shabby, the gardens a little ragged. There are cars parked where once carriages turned. The elegant dining rooms, the reception rooms, the big bustling kitchens have all been displaced by apartments, no doubt similar to the apartment we lived in for six months in the Palais Lutetia. Pale walls with pictures of fishing boats daubed on an azure sea. Cool floors of interlocking hexagonal tiles, some cracked in our case, and slippery under the feet of uncomfortable chairs upholstered in Provencal florals, a bow fronted side board with gilded feet containing old photos of the owner as a young woman before the war, modeling for health and beauty on the foreshore at Menton. The bottom had already begun to fall out of the tubercular market and the Riviera was rebranding itself as a summer destination. She wears a dashing white tennis dress and carries a raquet. The drawers were broken too and some lacked their gilded handles. The rooms however were big and airy, with tall shuttered windows. The air was cool after the hot climb up the hill from the market with bread and tomatoes and little round goat cheeses coated in black ash that squeaked on the teeth. The back windows looked out onto a steep bank rank with nasturtiums where tribes of wild cats ranged and squabbled.
Perhaps the apartments in the Winter Palace and the Riviera are a little more elegant, but maybe not. We can’t go inside to check. There are locks and codes to negotiate. And having got here, I’m not quite sure why we came. We’re hot and sticky and it all feels a bit anticlimactic. Perhaps we should have just stayed at the beach and had another swim instead of walking up here in the midday heat. We stand and look up at the white face of the hotel with its windows and balconies, like some limestone cliff where birds roost in the crevices. And I’m thinking about the girls in their button boots and the boys in their uncomfortable collars. And I’m thinking about how their illness characterized its age: the hectic flush of Violetta, a fallen woman falling further, falling faster and the pathos of short lives. And all those funerary rituals which seem rather creepy now: the watch chains made with your darling’s hair, those sad sad songs.
And I’m thinking about Mansfield and wondering if a style of writing can in part be attributed to the impact of a bacillus. And would she have chosen those words, that narrative, had she been fit and well and lived to grow old, in furs, an imposing literary doyenne with a double chin, publisher of an influential literary magazine, holding court in some smart place in Kensington?
The cicadas in the ragged gardens are deafening. Clinging to dry bark they are sawing away, in the brief interval allowed them in the light: seven years below ground, then a day or so up here in the sun and open air to fit it all in. Courtship, mating, procreation, death. Pick me! Pick me! They call, their little legs
rubbing frantically. The sound is highpitched, almost painful on the ear. And somewhere in that sound is the sawing of a violin, a man in a brown cardigan. And the sound could be Three Blind Mice.
Or the vibration of slender silvery rods, here in the shadow of the Winter Palace, with its walls white as bone, overlooking the shining sea.
Foot note: No one can write about tuberculosis without reference to the masterpiece on the subject, the utterly brilliant The White Death, by Thomas Dormandy. (Hambledon Press, 1999) Also interesting – though written in a kind of National Geographic gee whiz! style - is The Forgotten Plague; How the Battle against Tuberculosis was Won - and Lost by Frank Ryan (Little, Brown and Company, 1992).The last title is pertinent: I have written most of this essay in the past tense, but of course tuberculosis is thriving in the present, wherever poverty and overcrowding give it room. In the west, it is staging a dramatic comeback among the urban poor and homeless. The silver rods meanwhile have been busy adapting for another phase in their long long history, ensuring their own survival by acquiring resistance to current drug therapies.