I have had a great run so far with the novels published by Kolkata based Seagull Books. In 2016, Florence Noiville’s Attachment made it to my Best Books of 2016 list. And a couple of months back I loved and wrote about Tomas Espedal’s Bergeners.
Looking for something more from their catalogue, I was intrigued by Pascal Quignard’s Villa Amalia. And what more, the book cover was stunning.
When the book opens, the protagonist Ann Hidden (a musician), is hiding in the bushes to spy on her partner Thomas who she suspects is cheating on her.
‘I wanted to cry. I was following him. So unhappy I wanted to die.’
But she is caught doing so by a friend from her past – Georges Roehl. He berates her for spying and soon he becomes Ann’s confidant in the drastic plan she is going to put into action.
Ann Hidden decides to ditch her partner (whose affair is confirmed), give up her old life in the Paris suburbs and altogether disappear. But she is intent on keeping Thomas in the dark of what she is about to do. Thomas, meanwhile, desperately tries to hold on to Ann, but she is indifferent and quite set on radically altering her life.
When Thomas is in London for a week for a business meeting, Ann successfully sells off their home and furniture, withdraws money from the bank, and decides to spend some time travelling.
Her friend George is privy to her new plans, or is he? Ann tells him that she will be heading to Morocco. Instead, she travels to Switzerland, and Italy, and finally enamoured by the volcanic island of Ischia off the Italian coast, halts there.
Days are spent in a hotel (with a sea view), swimming, walking and reveling in solitude. But hotel life soon begins to grate on her.
It is then that she comes across an abandoned villa atop a cliff that is surrounded by the sea on all sides. It’s a villa she immediately falls in love with. After a meeting with its aged owner, she rents the place and settles in her new home.
She was passionately, obsessively in love with Zia Amalia’s house, the terrace, the bay, the sea. She wanted to disappear into what she loved. In every love there is something that fascinates. Something much more ancient than can be indicated by the words we learnt long after we were born. But it wasn’t a man now she loved this way. It was a house that called out to her to be with it. It was a mountain wall she was trying to cling to. It was a recesses of grasses, light, lava and inner fire that she wanted to live in.
It’s a new phase in her life and promises all the solitude that Ann craves for. There is also all the time in the world to compose music.
She re-learnt how to be without a man, not having anything to prepare, not having to wash herself, not having to dress with care, taste or attention, not out on make-up or do her hair. The pleasure of collapsing into an armchair, lighting a marvelous cigarette and closing her eyes without anyone shouting, humming in the distance, coming up to you, speaking commenting on the weather, the day or the passing hour, tormenting you.
And yet ironically, even though her past relationships with men have left a bitter taste in her mouth and she yearns to be alone, she doesn’t really shut off people.
On the contrary, once settled in Villa Amalia, Ann Hidden actually begins a new life, forging new relationships.
Will this new phase give her satisfaction, or will she remain a restless soul aching to move on?
Villa Amalia is a beautiful book (both the cover and the content), and Ann’s story – especially the sections of her life in Ischia – is immersive and engrossing. Quignard’s prose is spare and poetic, and there is an enchanting quality to his storytelling (wonderfully translated by Chris Turner).
There a couple of themes that are dominant in this novel. The first that comes to mind is how we choose to deal with loss and abandonment. Her partner’s betrayal, of course, disorients her, possibly making her feel anchorless. But we learn that she has been abandoned by her father earlier leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves (Mind you, mother-daughter do not have an easy relationship either). And even in the new relationships that she forms when in Ischia, there comes a point when she is confronted with loss.
Villa Amalia is also about transformation, about breaking the shackles of convention and choosing to live life on your own terms. We live with this perception that the older we get, the more difficult it is to change our thinking or our way of life. But that does not have to be necessarily be so. After all, Ann Hidden is middle-aged when she decides to live her life differently.
Ultimately, in Ann Hidden, Quignard has created a fascinating character. Her metamorphosis from a woman leading an ordinary existence to a life filled with adventure and new possibilities was fresh and invigorating adding another dimension to her personality.
She was a complex woman.
As Magdalena saw it, the mistress of the storms was, in some deep way, a magical being, a fairy creature.
In the eyes of Leonhardt, Ann was an extraordinarily inward artist, almost indifferent to those around her, strong, wild or at least relatively untamed, solitary.
In the eyes of Giulia, she was a great gentle body that was silent, sensual and reassuring, a bundle of bones, evasions and elusions.
In Georges’ eyes, she was a little girl who was proud, rather hostile, always on her guard, easily upset, fragile, worried, mysterious.
In my eyes, she was a genius of a musician. I very seldom heard her play. Yet I did everything I could to do so.