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Death in the Luberon

A group of girls can always talk about eggs

Sarah Schumann, der Ruinenberg. 2012, pigment on canvas. 36 × 54". © VAN HAM Art Estate: Sarah Schumann.

When we arrived at the property, the first thing we did was grab handfuls of lavender and rosemary, the eponymous herbes de Provence, stripping the leaves from the sinewy stems and breathing deeply. The beating sun made the fragrance all the more lovely. Columns of cypress trees rose behind the house at the end of the driveway and the stone walls were covered in dangling plants that had grown dry in the August heat. Drier than usual, it seemed, because the places that had reportedly been green before were now a wheat-like yellow, and the chalky gravel covered my shoes in dust.

Beyond the door, a removal of shoes, a dumping of bags, and a brief tour of the house ensued. As my eyes got used to the dark interior, large watercolors of tropical leaves came into focus. Down a half set of steps to the right, a couch with thick upholstery and the kind of pleasingly lumpy cushions that look like they might be filled with grain or hay. The house was not very old compared with the medieval structures dotting the landscape around it, but it was built with the same large stones that kept French houses cool, but not quite cool enough, without air conditioning. We went upstairs and quickly changed into swimsuits; my armpits felt sticky from overnight travel.

I carried the spirit of Thomas Mann with me, as I’ve done on the handful of trips I’ve made to Europe. Crossing over the peaks of the Alps always makes me think of The Magic Mountain. On the plane I found myself pursing my lips with an imaginary intake of cold air into my tubercular lungs. Temperature outside: –40 degrees in both Fahrenheit and Celsius. Mann’s tale of a Swiss sanatorium in the years leading up to World War I was possibly my favorite book of all time. When I was a teenager in Chicago, I used to sit on a folding chair on our wooden third-story porch in winter, wrapped in a blanket and declaring myself on a “rest cure.” Isn’t it funny how books can make you want to be sick, for the sake of convalescing?

I was trying to ignore the seriousness of the drought, too, though images of death seemed to creep in on all sides.

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But when we dipped south, and I could see the sun-coated coast of the French Riviera outside the left wing of the plane — and, beyond it, the small mountains of the Luberon — I thought instead of Death in Venice. An aging author with writer’s block decides to travel to the famous city to drink in inspiration and beauty. He is met not with refreshment but a horrible, hot wind: “Day after day now the naked god with the hot cheeks drove his fire-breathing quadriga across the expanses of the sky, and his yellow locks fluttered in the assault of the east wind.” It is the inverse of the healthy atmosphere of The Magic Mountain; the stagnant atmosphere cultivates disease.

But Aschenbach, the writer, pushes away the signs of a looming plague, focusing instead on a teenage boy with luscious curls who is staying at the same resort on the beach. I had finished reading it for the first time just before the trip. The homoeroticism made less of an impression on me than the voyeurism, and the function that the voyeurism performed for Aschenbach. For me, the book encapsulated the way the libido — and the decadence it seeks out — distracts us from the apocalypse roaring at the edges of perception. The life instinct can be used to crowd out death. To dissolve into the beautiful and the luxurious is like being consoled with a drink of mother’s milk: “He loved the ocean for deep-seated reasons: because of that yearning for rest, when the hard-pressed artist hungers to shut out the exacting multiplicities of experience and hide himself on the breast of the simple, the vast.”

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