Original title and publisher: Deux étés – Paris : Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1997
The first sentence of Deux étés is made up of no less than 175 words. After reading it, I was somewhat discouraged and put it aside, at the bottom of my ‘must read’ pile. After a week or two, I picked it up again for a retry and found myself reading it in one go. And since then I can not help but wonder why this book was never adapted for the screen.
Place of action is an idyll : île de B., a Breton island, ”deterring the clouds; they keep their distance, as if they’re attached to the mainland. An irresistible smooth sky, it must be the caress of a sidetracked Gulf Stream. Flora from different climates, aloes, mimosas, palm trees, a piece of Sardinia in in the middle of the Channel.” Orsenna’s visual and colourful language makes you experience the blue of the ocean, the green of the trees and the variegated flower splendour.
People in transit wrote a large part of the history of this urban island. Refugees, immigrants, newcomers, departees, fortune seekers, expatriates, pipe-dreamers, visionaries, castaways, outcasts, illegals, emigrants, wayfarers, wanderers and exiles, they all left a story behind.
Migrants from all over Europe travelled to Antwerp between 1873 and 1934 for the crossing on one of the Red Star Line ships, that docked in the Rijnkaai. Because the shipping company had to pay the return voyage for emigrants rejected on Ellis Island, the immigration law was strictly controlled (“no idiots, cripples, infectious sick persons, criminals and pregnant women”). In what is now the Red Star Line museum, the medical checks were carried out. Off to the promised land or otherwise stay behind in the the dregs of society.
‘t Eilandje used to be called Nieuwstad (‘new city’). It’s located between the Scheldt, Kattendijk and three large docks. If all bridges and locks are open, it is still an island.
The island spells its own poetry. I do not mean the ‘Kaaiengedicht’, a poem written by Antwerp dwellers about the river Scheldt that runs along the quays like a typewriter ribbon. This new poem writes itself. While walking, you travel through unfinished urbanity. Temporariness on the move. As a current visitor you are not a tourist, but a discoverer of painted images, of buildings and destinations under construction. They come your way unprepared, you can’t know them from any travel guide, and this rough version will only remain for a while. You connect the many street artworks. Today’s Antwerp island is at odds with the one of the past.
The island itself has also been in transit during the centuries. The district began its existence in the 16th century as an ingenious, impoldered part of the harbour within the city walls. It grew into a flourishing port until the beginning of the 20th century, moved from the 1960s towards abandonment and decline, and blossomed into new prosperity in the 21st century.
We walk along giants from the past. There is colour in the row of 12, but they do better in black and white, in the heavy iron and immeasurable power of construction and technological ingenuity. Monumental and industrial, you feel dwarfed in their shadows.
Year after year, they were pivotal in the harbour’s activity. They came alive with freezing dock water. They nodded and toiled, the water forced through the undergound city veins and reached the harbour cranes’ limbs, prompting them into action. Electric cranes came on, but until 1974 they proudly held their ground. Now they point and nod to the new harbour further along. Technology has outrun them.
The colossuses have numbers, no names. It makes no difference for the history buffs; there is admiration, even love for these museological showpieces. The 20th century action and liveliness has completely died down and all is quiet now.
What does one send to the Lighthouse? It opened doors in one’s mind […]
Woolf set her story about the holidaying Ramsay family on the isle of Skye. The Scottish island setting is distinctive – the weather, the sense of isolation, the sea, the vast and often inhospitable landscape – but there are no clearly recognisable landmarks. And the lighthouse is not a distinct Skye lighthouse, but was inspired by her own childhood memories of Godvery beach n Cornwall. Fans have no locations to trace.
So much has already been written about this gem of a novel; people have obtained their doctorate with a dissertation on its structure, symbols, hidden meanings. And when you take the time, To the Lighthouse will capture you and transport you the island of all childhood summers.
I first read it when I was still in high school, where the modernist classic was considered essential reading (meaning obligatory). As a teenager I was taken by the allure of the lightly connected sentences that seemed to mean much more than I could understand. Nothing was too obvious, it was all so inconclusive. The characters seemed very old-fashioned and vague. All that ado about not going to the lighthouse, and then going after all.
Thirty years later, for my visit to Skye this year, I read the book for a second time and it was like reaching a new destination. I now understood the lighthouse to be a symbol of unfulfilled desire, an unreachable destination. The quiet, profound love of Mr and Mrs Ramsay’s marriage says it all.
This novel about a family holiday to a far away island, in a time when not many people had the privilege to go on vacation, is essentially a group psychoanalysis of familie ties, braching off at friends, memories, time and death.