Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Magic of Lavigny - Part I

Living at the Château de Lavigny

Entrance to Chateau Lavigny
[Last year I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks at this Writers' Residence in Switzerland. You can find out more about it via the link]

Part 1
The night before we left Château de Lavigny there was a wild storm. We'd had windy days, even rainy ones, but nothing quite like this storm that came out of nowhere just as it was getting dark. We were sitting at table, in the veranda, with a spectacular view out over the garden. The massive branches of the 200 year old plane tree were thrashing about just outside the French windows. We joked at table, that the place was giving us a farewell send off – a reminder, to embed in our memory - or even a blustery embrace.

Life at Lavigny felt very close to nature and the elements. Every day the weather was different, and what could be seen and heard shifted as well. When there was no wind, the sounds of water trickling into the large water troughs in the village of Lavigny, could be clearly heard from the balcony, which was where I worked, unless it was raining. On clear days, the Alps could be seen, on the other side of Lac Léman. On the few misty days, nothing could be seen beyond the garden, not even the vineyards. Birds, particularly swallows, could be heard discussing travel plans. Butterflies drifted around in the garden and adjoining fields. On the last few days, towards mid-September, out on the bicycle, there were gatherings of sluggish gnats and once, not noticing a cloud of them before they were all around me, after I'd ridden through them I found several stuck to my trousers and t-shirt.
Lac Leman and the Alps

The sky was often clear and cloudless though on some days there was a thin patchy cloud fabric. Sometimes rain clouds would gather, and then disperse. But only on the evening of our departure did the sky become thick with storm clouds and though I was hoping for thunder and lightning, it did not happen, there was just this wild wind and brief, lashing rain.

But this storm was not just the eve of our departure, it also marked the end of habitation, for the house. As we were the last group of writers, the house would be closed up until June next year. Along with nature, the house played a large part in our experience and was certainly one of the main characters. Built in the 18th century, it had passed through many hands before it was bought by Heinrich Ledig Rowohlt and his wife Jane, in the early 1970s. There are many photographs on the walls of Heinrich, often in the company of famous writers, and from them and the various pieces written by, about or to him, it's clear he was a bon viveur, enjoying life, company, ideas and particularly, books.

Born in 1908 Heinrich Ledig Rowohlt was a publisher, responsible for many well known authors appearing in German translation – Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Nabokov, to name a few. He was an idiosyncratic character, a seeming extrovert, a survivor of WWII, and a through and through bibliophile. He seemed to be genuinely liked by his authors and not just because he published them, but because he enjoyed their company and became friends with many of them. He'd been known to break tense situations by performing somersaults in public places and apart from an antique rocking-horse, and a very lifelike Mexican sculpture of a bull [both of these are still outside the house] the house contains his library, and many photographs and copies of letters sent to him, and its furnishings and décor have been left unchanged, just as they were when he and Jane lived there.

As for Jane, she remains much more enigmatic. Several years younger than Heinrich, she was English, from a well-off family. Apparently, on their first meeting, she had talked to Heinrich at such length about Proust, that he decided there and then, that he would marry her. This took place a few years later. They bought and settled in Château de Lavigny in the early 70s - Heinrich was keen apparently, to leave Germany, with its painful memories of the war and he loved Lavigny's peaceful atmosphere, the roses in his garden, and the incomparable view of the Alps and Lac Léman. But he also loved travel and movement, and meeting people. He was actually in India when he died in 1992, of pneumonia, while attending an international publishers' conference.

He and Jane were clearly very close and happy together. They had no children, so one can only imagine what it was like for Jane to return to the house where they had shared so much time together, which had been the centre and theatre of their lives, and which was now empty of his laughing and ebullient presence. Within a year and a half, she too was dead. SK felt that she lost the will to live after Heinrich had gone. In her will she bequeathed Château Lavigny to be turned into an international centre for writers, and so it is thanks to her generosity that, since 1998, writers from all over the world have been welcomed here, for a period of three weeks, during the months of June-September. 

Morelle Smith 


Sue Reid Sexton said...

Lovely post. What a beautiful place to write. Makes me want to go there too, or somewhere similar with a bit of weather battering in about me. How did the residency come about?

dritanje said...

If you click on the link to Chateau Lavigny, you'll find out all the information you need, to apply. I recommend it very very highly!

JL Williams said...

What an evocative description... and gorgeous photos. Thank you for sharing - I almost feel as if I've visited.