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.”