Vil­la of Delirium

Adrien Goetz, Natasha Lehrer (trans.)

  • Review
By – May 18, 2020

Part social doc­u­men­tary, part archi­tec­tur­al analy­sis, part quest nov­el, Vil­la of Delir­i­um is an intrigu­ing amal­gam. In the first decade of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Theodore Reinach, a mem­ber of the French par­lia­ment and a major arche­ol­o­gist, and one of three broth­ers of Jew­ish descent who rose to intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal promi­nence inBelle Époque France, built him­self a unique res­i­dence on the French Riv­iera. Unlike the faux chateaux and Louis XIV-style palaces favored by many upper class French, Vil­la Kery­los was mod­eled on ancient Greek domi­ciles, dec­o­rat­ed with Greek mosaics and murals and fit­ted out with cus­tom-built Hel­lenic-style fur­ni­ture. This unusu­al build­ing, still stand­ing on a promon­to­ry over­look­ing the Mediter­ranean near Nice, is the focal point of art his­to­ri­an Adrien Goetz’s unusu­al novel.

Theodore and his broth­ers engaged in a wide vari­ety of intel­lec­tu­al and polit­i­cal pur­suits and their fam­i­ly con­nec­tions linked them to the Roth­schilds and the Eif­fels, as well as to promi­nent artists and writ­ers. The broth­ers’ poly­math­ic inter­ests and prodi­gious pub­li­ca­tions earned them celebri­ty and drew them into a noto­ri­ous art fraud scan­dal and not a lit­tle anti­se­mit­ic hostility.

Goetz looks at the Reinach fam­i­ly and Theodore Reinach’s chef‑d’oeuvre through the eyes of a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter, Achilles Lec­cia. A decade after the end of the Sec­ond World War (on the day of the cel­e­brat­ed wed­ding of Grace Kel­ly and Prince Rainier in near­by Mona­co), Achilles, a suc­cess­ful artist enter­ing his eighth decade, returns to the house where he spent most of his youth, drawn there after many years by an anony­mous post­card. Achilles, descen­dant of a Greek-Cor­si­can fam­i­ly, son of a cook in the home of Gus­tave Eif­fel, of tow­er fame, had been wel­comed into the Reinach home as a pro­tégé of Theodore’s and com­pan­ion to Theodore’s nephew, Adolphe. As he learned ancient Greek and devel­oped his artis­tic tal­ents, he was a wit­ness to the house’s con­struc­tion, its near anni­hi­la­tion by the Nazis, the family’s jour­neys to Greece, and the family’s tragedies.

Achilles’ mean­der­ing through the house, then in a decayed state, forms the back­bone of the nov­el. Each room of the house leads him to rem­i­nisce about major events in the family’s his­to­ry and in his own tan­gled rela­tion­ship with them. His thoughts flash back and forth across a fifty-year span from the days of the Drey­fus affair (the Reinachs were promi­nent in the cam­paign to free him from prison), to the days of Word War I, and to the after­math of the Holo­caust that claimed many of the Reinach descen­dants. He attempts to under­stand the moti­va­tions of this com­plex fam­i­ly, as well as his own.

Except for Achilles’ quest through the house to uncov­er a long-hid­den arche­o­log­i­cal find of Theodore’s, noth­ing much hap­pens by way of con­ven­tion­al plot. But, a great deal is revealed of a bygone era. The nov­el presents a com­pelling por­trait of some unique his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, and it recalls the sig­nif­i­cant role Jews played in French cul­ture. It is also a stark reminder of how frag­ile that role was, Achilles observes the fate of many of the next gen­er­a­tion of the fam­i­ly dur­ing the Holo­caust: all the Reinachs’ cul­ture, all their knowl­edge, all that they knew and taught me, had not pro­tect­ed them from hell.”

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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