Michael was approached by the Literary Review to create a diary entry covering his thoughts on life under quarantine and his unexpectedly long stay in Southwest of France:
If you have to remain in quarantine, the house where we live in southwestern France is probably as good a place to be as any. It is naturally isolated with only a handful of farmsteads in sight and a small, Romanesque chapel. For the past month, our trips outside the house have been strictly limited to buying food at the nearest supermarket and an occasional walk through the surrounding woods and fields. Even for the latter, we need a printed ‘attestation’, with the box duly ticked under ‘activité physique individuelle’, because the local gendarmerie has been zealous in handing out heavy fines for anyone caught without; but so far we have come across no human beings at all, only horses and cattle grazing and the odd bird of prey circling overhead.
I miss not being able to go further afield to see the more dramatic, sweeping views around our hamlet or the numerous prehistoric sites that dot the landscape. With their base long eroded by rivers, these rock shelters overhang ancient pathways or loom out of tangled copses, immediately evoking a way of life so primitive that the mind stalls and falls back on stock images of Neanderthal man. Once you have identified one of these sites, you recognize them immediately and realize that some have remained in use until quite recently. Close to our house is an old ‘lavoir’, a rough stone reservoir fed by a stream under an overarching cliff, where clothes were beaten and washed until less than a century ago.
Other ubiquitous landmarks are the Romanesque churches that grace almost every town and most villages in Charente. Some of them are in poor repair and many no longer hold Mass, but the miracle is that they are still so present, in a wide variety of sizes, styles and architectural detail. Our house is an old presbytery and, towering over one side of our garden, is a 12th-century chapel with a handsome, storeyed bell-tower and carved stone figures on the façade; its vaulted interior contains a faded medieval fresco of mounted knights at battle. The other evening, in a show of solidarity by all the churches in France, the chapel bells rang out for the first time in ages, and the whole hamlet, where votive candles glittered in every window, reverberated as night fell.
The most unattractive sight for miles around is the graveyard, a gloomy, walled compound filled with pompous tombstones. Death is very much on all our minds, but what surprises me most, as a relative newcomer who has lived his entire life in major capitals, is how plainly visible death becomes in the deep countryside. Deer roam freely through the fields around us, wonderfully graceful as long as they don’t break through our hedge, as they often do, and crop all the flowers. The other day we were shocked to come across a handsome young roebuck that had just died, apparently of natural causes, in the undergrowth. A local farmer helped dispose of it, silently and nonchalantly. Since then, I have overcome my squeamishness and now remove dead animals – animals as opposed to the daily hecatomb of insects indoors – on a regular basis. There have been salamanders and lizards, mice and rats, snakes and voles. Most moving are the birds that have flown full pelt into our windows and broken their necks. They lie there with their tiny feet pointing upwards, and when you pick them up they feel unbearably soft and as light as feathered air. Meanwhile, the quince bushes, the wild plum and the magnolia trees burst into vibrant glory.
We flew down to Bergerac well before travel restrictions were imposed, thinking we’d come back to London after a fortnight. Now I am wondering whether our short stay, like Hans Castorp’s at the sanatorium in The Magic Mountain, might not turn out to be far more definitive. A change of scene or some human contact would certainly be welcome, but we are lucky enough to have exhibitions to curate and books to write, and if the evening gets cold masses of fallen branches to build a roaring fire. We also have an extensive music library and a fair collection of pictures but, as we are now increasingly aware, not nearly as wide a choice of things to read as we should like, having left the bulk of our books behind.
Most of what we do have here comes from the thirty years I lived in Paris and, like the paintings, they form a kind of record of my life there. Many of them are in French, of course, and they include a few treasures such as signed copies by writers I knew and whole runs of art magazines like Minotaure and L’Oeil, which I used to consult feverishly to find ideas for Art International, the art magazine I published from my apartment in the Marais. But what I’m proudest of is a complete Collection blanche edition of A la recherche, not because it is so rare (or is it?), but because I tracked all fifteen volumes down over several years in the 1970s by combing through various second-hand book shops in Paris; I still remember vividly the thrill of pouncing on a new, missing tome in some dusty recess. All the volumes (the first took the longest to find) are in good condition, and none of them cost more than a drink on a café terrace. I should like to add that I’ve read the entire series, but actually, although I became obsessed with the Proustian universe, I got waylaid around the middle of it forty years ago and have never returned.
Once I knew we were stuck here, I combed our bookshelves to put together a random selection of books that I might get my teeth into. Volume One of Proust, who knew all about self-isolation, is now first in line on the bedside table. Then comes Erwin Panofksy’s Studies in Iconology, which terrified me as an art history student by what seemed its impenetrable erudition, and, the joker in the pack, Plutarch’s Lives, which I didn’t even know we had. The first few pages of Proust were very much as I remembered them but less immediately seductive, and they have not yet reignited the fire. I was delighted to find that, if one skipped the lengthy quotations in Latin and Greek, the Panofsky was both accessible and rewarding. As for Plutarch, he entranced me most by the strange familiarity of his distant world and the reassuring balance and clarity of his sentences. Like everything else, however, this order might be turned topsy-turvy from one brief nocturnal read to the next.