Two new coming-of-age novels set against memorable geographical and historical backdrops remind me of what I especially value in reading historical fiction: the opportunity to learn about times and places beyond the circumstances of my life.
Achilles Leccia, the narrator of Adrien Goetz’s “Villa of Delirium,” is a fictional character, but the small world he portrays on the French Riviera was absolutely real. Villa Kerylos was a coastal residence built between Nice and Monaco by French Jewish archaeologist Theodore Reinach at the onset of the 20th century.
Reinach was enthralled by the values of ancient Greece, and the home he created for his family, designed by Jewish architect Emmanuel Pontremoli, took classical architecture and ideas as its inspiration, with its rooms and furnishings modeled closely on Greek originals, adorned with mosaics, frescoes and statues.
The novel is presented as Achilles’ memoir written in 1956, reflecting on events decades earlier. Achilles moves from Corsica to France as a boy, where his mother becomes a cook for architect Gustave Eiffel, whose estate is next to Theodore’s Villa Kerylos. Theodore takes the teenage Achilles under his wing, tutoring him in ancient Greek and bringing him into the family in a profound, but also limited way. Achilles and Theodore’s nephew, Adolphe, become best friends. The two fight in World War I together, where Adolphe is killed before Achilles’ eyes.
The book is low on conventional plot. What dramatic tension it contains emerges largely from Achilles’ conflicted attitude toward Theodore as he matures, as well as his feelings for Ariadne, a married woman with whom he has an affair following his return from the war.
But the novel is rich in other dimensions, including its portrayal of the historical Reinach family.
Heirs to a banking fortune, Theodore and his two brothers were astonishingly erudite, composing books on archaeology, history, philosophy and other subjects. They were also deeply patriotic and politically involved, with two of them serving as deputies in France’s National Assembly.
Achilles links even the Reinachs’ passionate interest in ancient Greece to their loyalty to France and its political ideals: “If Latin was the church and its priests, Greek was democracy and thus it signified France. They truly believed that…They knew everything there was to know about Jewish history, were passionate about all religions, but their France was secular France, the kingdom that belonged to one and to all.”
The book illustrates how that confidence would be tested by antisemitism from across the economic spectrum: by the Dreyfus Affair, in which Theodore’s brother Joseph was among Captain Alfred Dreyfus’ most vocal defenders; and by the Nazi era, in which Theodore’s son Leon, along with his wife and children, would be murdered at Auschwitz.
And then there is the villa itself, which may be considered the book’s starring character. Achilles may be reflecting the perspective of Goetz, who teaches art history at the Sorbonne, when he states admiringly that “the Greece of Kerylos was not a masquerade; it was an attempt to recover the essence of beauty.”
I should mention that the restored residence is now a national monument — an internet search for Villa Kerylos will reveal its stunning beauty. I had not viewed pictures prior to reading the novel, and was delighted to take a virtual tour afterward and compare the actual building with what my imagination had constructed from Goetz’s rich descriptions.
Elements in Jennifer Steil’s “Exile Music” will be familiar to readers of novels set in Nazi-era Vienna. What distinguishes this novel is where the family ends up.
Orly Zingel is a Jewish girl whose mother is an opera singer and whose father is a violist in the Vienna Philharmonic. Orly’s dearest friend is Anneliese, a Christian girl who lives in the same apartment building.
With the rise of Nazism, their world rapidly changes. Both of Orly’s parents lose their livelihoods, and Anneliese’s parents participate enthusiastically in ejecting the Zingels from their apartment. While Orly’s teenage brother Willi goes on the run, the rest of her family seeks a way out of Austria. With only a few nations accepting Jewish refugees in the late 1930s, they opt to flee to Bolivia.
Settling in La Paz, they have difficulty acclimating to both the physical climate of the Andes as well as the cultural one. While feeling entirely out of place, they understand the uselessness of longing for a world that can no longer be their home. Orly continues writing to Anneliese for years, but cannot bring herself to send the letters.
The family members’ relationship to their new lives are reflected in their musical directions. Orly’s father throws himself into playing and teaching, as music is what enables him to cope. Orly’s deeply depressed mother stops singing altogether. And Orly becomes enamored of Andean music and finds her voice while playing indigenous instruments.
The Zingels’ lives revolve largely around the community of Jews who have arrived in Bolivia as refugees — both those fleeing Nazism in the 1930s and, later, those who survived it. What they do not expect is the arrival of Nazi war criminals who have come to the country in order to flee justice. Their presence provokes fear and desires for vengeance.
Steil, a journalist and a novelist who spent several years living in La Paz, has created a vivid and welcome portrait of a world that rarely has been captured in Jewish literature.