Kerylos is the Greek word for the halcyon, a kind of kingfisher. According to Greek myth, the halcyon nests during a lull in the weather at the winter solstice: “days of calm between two storms” (197). The novel Villa of Delirium by Adrien Goetz and translated into English by Natasha Lehrer describes how the real-life Reinach family built their own nest, the Villa Kerylos (the title of the French version), on the Côte d’Azur at the turn of the twentieth century, a time the narrator views in retrospect as a sort of idyll—halcyon days—before Europe exploded into two wars that would leave many of the family dead.
Villa Kerylos was home to Theodore Reinach, one of three brothers along with Joseph and Salomon, who were Jewish millionaire scholars and politicians with a wide range of interests, including Hellenism. With architect Emmanuel Pontremoli, Theodore conceived Kerylos as a re-creation of an ancient Greek villa, a way of making manifest all the knowledge in his head. The story is narrated by the fictional Achilles Leccia, a young man of mixed Corsican-Greek heritage whose mother works as a cook for the Gustave Eiffel. Through Eiffel, Achilles enters the Kerylos household with Theodore Reinach as his benefactor, becoming something between a servant and an adopted son. Achilles studies ancient Greek under Theodore’s tutelage along with Theodore’s nephew Adolphe, who would go on to become an archaeologist himself and with whom Achilles becomes bosom friends.
Achilles narrates from the vantage point of 1956 as he returns surreptitiously to Villa Kerylos on the day Grace Kelly and the Prince of Monaco are getting married just up the coast, but most of the action takes place during the construction of the house up through the interwar period. The intrigue of the novel arises from three main questions: what happened to the married woman with whom Achilles had an ill-fated love affair, what caused the eventual falling-out between Achilles and Theodore, and what object is Achilles now searching for in the house?
Though Villa of Delirium presents these three mysteries of a sort, its non-linear narrative is not really driven by plot. We also don’t see much directly of the wars, in which Adolphe dies on the battlefield in 1914, the villa is ransacked by the Nazis, and Theodore’s son Léon is exterminated along with his family at Auschwitz. The historical context of the novel also includes the Dreyfus affair, which Joseph chronicled at great length, with all its anti-Semitism that is later also directed against the Reinach family in a case of national public embarrassment. This scandal and an archaeological trip to Greece constitute some of the novel’s action, but The Villa of Delirium is rather more a meditation on the Reinach philosophy and the house that embodies it.
As Goetz is an art historian, it comes as no surprise that the novel abounds with architectural, archaeological, and artistic detail. Yet for all the lengthy descriptions of the villa and its construction, the novel is a relatively quick, pleasurable read—a testament to the skill of the author and translator—with the descriptions only wearing thin 300 pages in as the novel is wrapping up. The depictions are rich and clear: “But at Kerylos the visitor, gaze drawn far out to sea, could breathe. Guests awoke in rooms flooded with sunshine, pure white light dancing on ocher stone, the sea sliced into large rectangles. There was the smell of salt, freshly starched sheets, olive oil, and resin. There was no reason to be discontented” (31).
One of the strengths of the translation is that, while it contains a good deal of architectural terminology, it doesn’t overburden the text with glosses; the same can be said of the several historical figures, events, or cultural references mentioned. There is usually enough context to understand the relevance or function without getting bogged down in information, and if the reader wants to, they can always look these up. It would also obviously take only a few clicks to find images of Villa Kerylos online, but I chose instead to be guided by the book’s portrayal until after I’d finished reading. Though what I imagined didn’t exactly match the actual villa, it was still a vividly painted world.
The villa exemplifies the esteem in which the Reinachs hold ancient Greek society and the benefits they see in its study. For the Reinachs, ancient Greek and its texts, unlike the utilitarian languages of German or English, will give students a sense of “universalism” and help them “learn how to think” (273). The novel puts forward a kind of paradox where the study of Greek has the use of instilling humanistic values but is also posited as serving no purpose: “it is precisely with what serves no purpose that one achieves great things,” says Theodore (273). The Reinachs also seem to draw a line of Western civilization from Greece to France, from demokratia to the droits de l’homme: “If Latin was the church and its priests, Greek was democracy and thus it signified France. They truly believed that. … They knew everything there was to know about Jewish history, were passionate about all religions, but their France was secular France, the kingdom that belonged to one and all” (281).
The novel’s position in regards to the Reinachs’ philosophy is conflicted, and after his falling out with Theodore, Achilles’s own stance is rather cynical. Indeed, he eventually becomes a cubist painter because he sees it as a form of rebellion against classicism. But he also cultivates a nostalgia for those halcyon times before the war and the idealism of the Reinachs. There’s a deep sense of loss, though also of having lost something that wasn’t really ever there. The anti-Semitism that would culminate in Nazi genocide was already roiling through French society, as illustrated by the Dreyfus affair and the Reinach scandal.
Were those halcyon days really so halcyon after all, then, and could the Reinach philosophy live up to its ideals? At one point, in his bitterness, Achilles notes that all the Reinachs’ learning didn’t save them from extermination, nor did the reading of the classics sway their exterminators: “The Germans were great humanists too—they loved the arts of antiquity, had admired Greece for centuries, they translated Plato—none of which stopped the Nazis from becoming executioners” (234). What the novel doesn’t really grapple with, though, is the failures of French humanism and the way Theodore and Joseph Reinach, as politicians, would have participated in the French becoming executioners of millions of Africans. The novel also doesn’t make a connection between the French “civilizing mission” of schooling colonized children and Theodore’s instruction of the working-class Corsican Achilles. While the Reinachs, especially Adolphe, do take interest in non-Western cultures, Achilles’s characterization of it smacks of racism, even when he’s praising it: “Picasso combined classical rigor … with the art of African masks. A little barbarity, a kind of primitive force, was what was needed to brutalize and bring the dusty plaster casts to life” (235). The novel thus falls within the greater readiness in French culture to reckon with the nation’s anti-Semitic past than its colonialism.
The Villa of Delirium is a thoroughly congenial read—to put yourself in a world of sun and sea, of marble and mosaics, of books and learning for learning’s sake—but there’s also something unsettling about it. The celebration of Western civilization in which the Reinachs engage in the novel echoes into the white nationalism to which the family fell victim and down into current white nationalist movements. Like the halcyon, we might nest in the pleasures of the novel for some hours, because we know the storm is coming.
Goetz, Adrien. Villa of Delirium. Translated by Natasha Lehrer. New Vessel Press, 2020.
Corine Tachtiris is Assistant Professor of Translation Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and prose translation editor at The Massachusetts Review. As a literary translator, she works primarily on texts by contemporary women authors from the Francophone Caribbean, Africa, and Canada as well as from the Czech Republic.