Over the course of a lifetime, I’ve read biographies, autobiographies, survivors’ accounts, histories and fiction concerning WWII and the Holocaust, but the sheer destructive drive of the Nazis continues to yield new material. Those jackboots trammeled millions underfoot. And while we mourn artists, there are also the regular people who didn’t leave much behind in the way of landmarks of history. Just ashes and dust.
Adrian Goetz’s Villa of Delirium joins the ranks of books that illustrate the wanton destruction that took place in Europe during WWII. This fiction book concerns the wealthy French Jewish Reinach family. I had no idea these were ‘real’ people, a wealthy family who built a replica of a Greek palace in the French Riviera in the 1900s. The villa, which took over 6 years to finish, is close to Chateau Amicitia, the home of Monsieur Eiffel. The arrival of the Reinachs and the construction of the villa, from 1902-1908, is the focus of local gossip and attention. When it comes to the locals’ attitude to the Reinachs, the class divide marries with brewing antisemitism.
The Reinach family is composed of Theodore, his wife Fanny, their children, and there are visits from Theodore’s brothers Salomon and Joseph. Into this rarefied atmosphere where classical education is valued above all else, Achilles, a Greek/Corsican boy, the son of a maid and a gardener, becomes the sort of adopted mascot for the family. He’s 15 when he first meets the Reinachs in 1902, and when the novel opens, it’s 1956. Grace Kelly is about to marry the Prince of Monaco, and Achilles, now in his 70s, returns to the villa where his memories pour forth in the decaying, abandoned villa.
I was there when the Nazis came to arrest Julien Reinach, one of Theodore’s sons., who I had known since childhood.
He was in the library translating Gaius, the classical author of works about the laws of ancient Rome, when he was arrested. The Croix de Guerre he had been awarded after the 1914 war offered him no protection from the French police.
While the plot construct, which focuses on loss, is somewhat weak and artificial, this slow-to-unfold story told through the eyes of Achilles succeeds best in its examination of the loss of a family of scholars. Their ivory tower pursuit of education, and the way in which they were destroyed, makes the family seem almost like museum pieces. Stamped out (although some survived) under those jackboots.
At the end of the book, the author includes several sources for those who wish to read more about Villa Kérylos
Translated by Natasha Lehrer