Ainay-le-Chateau 2

Sunday, August 11

The mansion in which the film crew will be staying for the next month is called le chateauby the villagers - not to be confused with the all but vanished grand fort-castle that set the boundaries for Ainay in the Middle Ages. Butler, gardener and all-purpose handyman for the premises is Louis. He is one of those charming, garrulous, slightly batty caretakers one frequently meets in novels about country estates. Today he was bubbling over with excitement. He never tired of showing us the extent of his handiwork around the estate: the staircases he's repaired, the well covered up to protect the children who stray onto the grounds. the iron railing descending into the untended garden behind the house.

His French is sometimes difficult for me to understand. He was able to communicate his belief that Napoleon had stayed over in the mansion at least once. By his estimate it was built in 1792, although it wasn't clear if this referred to the construction of the mansion or to some event connected with the Revolution. When pointing to a cupboard, statuette or piece of china service he will sometimes rub together the forefingers of his right hand - the universal sign-language for money: "Beaucoup d'fric, m'sr."

"The former owner .... that would be about 15, maybe 20 years ago... he went broke. Not a centime to his name! O, but once he had a fortune .. a colossal fortune! Wasted it all on big parties he did, drinking and high living. Well, you know as well as I how that class of people live... He sold everything. Had to! You can't tell from what you see how it used to be around here. Antique furniture, paintings to fill a warehouse! I couldn't begin to tell you what this building held!

The present owner - you almost never see him down here - he bought the whole works: mansion, grounds, furnishings. All of it, for 7 million francs! Hah! If he sold it for 20 millions today he'd be giving it away. I should know, I've fixed up every inch of it all by myself."

Louis walked me around the grounds as he spoke, showing me more examples of his conscientious devotion. His greatest pride was the latrine behind the abandoned bake-house he'd discovered and refurbished. He even sat down on its seat and stamped on the floor just to let me see for myself how solid it was!

"Done it all myself, m'sr. Know my business all right.."

Louis said that his age was 55, a good 25 years older than myself. He's a short man, somewhat stoop-shouldered, with stringy arms and a bright beam in his eye. Apart from his obsession with being useful, he's determined that you should always know just how useful he is. All the day long he's offering us things we didn't know we needed. He will turn the house upside down to find a lampshade. This morning at 7 when I got out of bed A.M. Louis was already out there mopping the salon.

Walking away from the latrine he pointed out the long deep trenches of the ancient moat of the fortress-castle, now covered over with trees and dense overgrowth:

"This would be a good location for the film you're making. Hey I know all about movies, I was an extra in one myself." He chuckled, " I played a German." He laughed, "I was in a German prison camp during the war, two years, but , oh well, so I played a German! You film people don't impress me none : drunk from morning to night."

Louis pointed to the low buildings on the other side of the moat just back from the lip of the hill : "That's where the castle used to be. Five centuries, maybe more. The fosse ( moat) goes under the street as far as the clock-tower. Over there", he pointed, "was the castle pont-levis .

"Before I came here all of this was a garden, m'sr., a magnificent garden, un jardin legumié .. It was fantastic!" , Louis indicated the disordered undergrowth filling the moat, " Eh bien .. the present owner lets everything run down, it's all gone to seed. Imagine, m'sr what it would look like if I weren't here!" , he snorted with contempt, " He does nothing all day long but spend money. Once in a very long while he comes here .... always on a Sunday..... stays .... maybe two hours ..... then he's on his way. I alone keep this place,, from being eaten by the ants!"

Suddenly changing the subject as he is apt to do, Louis began talking about his deceased wife and his children. In 1983 when his wife died he lost the will to live:

"You have to understand, m'sr. Up every day at 5 AM .... Work .... Sleep ... I was fed up." A year later he jumped off the parapet of a bridge in Paris. He survived by a slim margin

"I fell on the wrong side of the bridge. A few inches more to the left and I would have been done for. It was a miracle, plain and simple. Eh bien , he cops picked me up off the ground and took me to the Hôpital St. Antoine. I ended up here.

"It's not hard to understand, M'sr. I was married twelve years. Lived in Paris my entire adult life. Bad city, M'sr, bad city. Normandy's where I grew up. They're my people. Very different from the folks one finds down here. What can I say? In these parts you see, they've got une attitude. I've never gotten used to it."

Louis paused. It clearly caused him great pain to relive the past, even though he must have related his tale many times: "Three kids, M'sr. All grown up now. My sons are in the same profession as yourselves; they're both technicians with the ORTF (French television). My daughter's with the PTT (French post office) " Suddenly he seemed to recall the central issue of our conversation. Once again he made the money gesture:

"You understand, M'sr? Fric ! ( Dough). Everybody's out to rob them. You'll find out soon enough, they don't take to outsiders! They don't trust a soul. You walk past somebody's yard around here and you'll find him running out to make sure you've not taken something! The big boss, the one I work for, he's the same way." Again Louis chuckled:

" Look into the garden, M'sr! I call it a garden, though it's not a garden anymore. Once it used to be un jardin legumié You can still see some of the trees - right down there! Believe it or not, they're prune trees. There's nothing on them now but there soon will be. Le patron, he called to tell me you were coming. He asked me to make sure that you don't steal any of the prunes! Hell, I don't care! Eat as many as you want. They're just going to rot, anyway.

"What can I say? That's the Midi for you (Strictly speaking we are in the Bourbonnais , but I gather that, like "Upstate New York", the "Midi" can refer to any region of France south of Paris.)

"Oh, but we stick to ourselves in Normandy, too, but not like here! No, never! Not like that."

Sunday, August 11th, 1968

The mansion is at the northern end of the village. All I've managed to learn about it is that it was used as a storage loft for the tax collectors of Le Condé. The rich proprietor who once lived there, but was forced to sell everything, also owned large tracts of land in the surrounding countryside.

It's a bright summer day. The sunlight rebounding off the porous whitewashed walls of the front facade brightens the dusty driveway. Yet the entrance compound , flanked on either side by long barns and sealed at the front by means of an elegant wrought iron gate, is in the shade of bushes and trees, and always cool, even sombre. A low stairway rises up from the gate to the door way ; its stones are worn and uneven. Dirt has filled in the crevices opened through years of erosion, and clinging moss secured a firm foothold in the tarnished rock. On either side of the staircase, behind the narrow unadorned and rusted iron railings, the ivy hedges create perpetual shade, inviting one to sit and reflect on subjects of minimal importance.

From thia vantage one may observe the turmoil of the disordered jungle of weeds in the compound and the two long flanking walls of the barns, pale, rough and dirty. In the middle of the walls one finds large, gray driftwood doors. The rooves of the barns are covered with the ubiquitous red brick tiles. On the roof to the left sit 3 garret windows covered with gray driftwood planks.

Even on the brightest days the compound is dark, owing to a bulky spruce-tree with wide spreading branches. Its wide pool of shadow shrouds more than a third of the grounds. Reaching to the gate, it hovers above a slender holly tree, its leaves and branches drooping over the spears of the iron gate.

Irregular rows of flower pots begin at the steps and extend into the shade. Lilacs, roses and new flowers in their early stages are distributed at randow, suggesting desultory neglect.

Three windows look out from each side of the doorway, cut into the whitewashed face of the mansion at a man's height. The large gray shutters on the left have been thrown open, exposing the glass windows. At the head of the stairs there are two narrow blue doors, with oblong windows protected by a white-washed grillwork of involuted leaf and flowe

Wednesday, August 14

Today I returned to the church. Approaching it from the south-east I realized the power of its effect on the beholder. Each block fuses with the next to produce a serene sweep to the summit. From each of its perspectives it imparts a different message.Yet it is so small, so simple!

When I went to open the door on the west side it turned out to be locked. An old woman dressed in peasant's black stepped out of the doorway of a small cottage facing the church and began walking in my direction. As she came closer I noticed her lively eyes, the silvered hair tied up in a bun, the wrinkled features, the hands indicating a life of toil.

"Can I help you?" she asked.

"Well, maybe you can tell me how old the church is. "

"It's very old, sir, very old." She regarded the doorway, nodded and repeated " Very old. It was built by the English. Very old. Much has been added since then. The Pièta over the doorway is older than anything else in the church. No one knows where it came from. Yes sir; it's very old." Between the delivery of each bit of information she retained a respectful silence,

"Yes sir. L'Église de Saint Étienne. Built by the English. There've been many changes since then, that's over 600 years ago. The tunnels they built underneath go a long distance , as far as the Forêt de Tronçais . They've all been caved in, but they go that far. Yes sir. L'église de Saint Étienne." Thanking this gentle aged figure in black I took my leave.

Ruminating upon the rich history of this region one might be led to believe that today's village had hatched in some mysterious fashion from the ruins of the old. Yet it has worked the other way around: the modern modern world that has imposed its arbitrary depotism upon the ancient site. Combining these impressions with the beauties of the surrounding countryside, the perverse yet colorful community of psychotics, and all the riches at hand for literature, history, film, art, it is natural that I would become appalled at the silly, when not outrageous, manner in which Maya Films has exploited its resources. For everywhere there is beauty and history; yet every ounce of time and energy of this production is directed to the creation of a product that deliberately caters to the lower levels of public intelligence and taste.

Even the name is suggestive: Ainay Certain etymologists think that it derives from the Celtic word for island: "innis". Indeed, even as it was an island in former times, so it continues to be one now: a landed island, one as thoroughly isolated though in the heart of France, as it would be surrounded by ocean.

In the Middle Ages, encircled by moats and ditches it was almost literally an island. Then there was a lake outside the south wall which extended a quarter of a mile. In the valley which has replaced it there are houses and roads. Yet insularity continues to connect Ainay to its past. Hidden in its buildings and rude huts are the senile, the psychotic, the alcoholic, collected from all over France Certainly the real world indeed seems far away.

Friday August 16

Although it was possible to see pieces of the castle standing less than a decade ago, most of it has since been dismantled to provide paving stones for the Route Nationale.Yet the towers remain, gigantic rooks. The narrow look-out windows have been filled with rubble.

Louis took me to see the towers behind the mansion. One of them is also visible from the village.Its southern face has been cut away, and its dull red interior hangs open like a cut of meat. Its other face forms part of a wall delimiting the mansion's garden.

Louis had discovered the other tower after clearing away the undergrowth. It held stones covered with carvings, destroyed or carted away by workmen as recently as seven months past. Of course Louis insisted once again that I revisit the well he'd covered over , the railings he'd fixed up and his great pride and joy: the latrine!

Eventually, through observations extending over several days, a piece of a tower here, a wall there, a ruined domicile or bit of street or trench, the entire castle- fortress has, as it were, risen from the past to my mind's eye. I can sense it all .... the priests threading the narrow causeways, the odors of horses and soldiers, the soldiers carousing through the night, the measured tread of the businessmen and the town worthies.

It was the very insularity of this venue that attracted Maya Films to it a village "au bout du monde" , without a train station, street lighting, motion picture house, hardly a TV or telephone; a sombre, haunted village on the verge of a sinister forest.... Little it concerned them that this locale had been in former days a mighty stronghold, an all but invincible fortress from whence the Sires de Bourbon imposed their will upon the land by force of arms, where they often held court, upon whose defences they founded the continuance of their power over a territory of many square miles.

Rarely is the irony of history so patently manifest. Today the butt of ridicule, the "village of madmen", useful to the France nation as a place of internment for those it wishes to forget, sunk even beneath oblivion, a once-powerful fortress that has ceded its significance most unwillingly over the centuries: wars, famines, plagues. Given in dowry to Catherine de Medicis, guardian of the royal hunting domain of the Forest of Tronçais.

Now alcoholics and epileptics lounge in the shadow of the one remaining gate, that holding the clock-tower. Here where Archambaud V departed in 1147 for the 2nd Crusade preached by Bernard of Clairvaux one finds fools strutting and gawking at the multicolored tourists who, unable to make head nor tail of this incomprehensible place, soon make it back to their cars and head down the road.

The remnants we see around us have survived centuries of destruction:occupation by the English during the 100 Years War, 1335; the plagues of 1481, 1581, 1600; persecution of the Catholics,1568; the predations of La Ligue; occupation by the forces of Le Condé, 1650; the cruel winter of 1693.....

After which it ceases to have any history at all, disintegrating bit by bit until the Revolution, when all of its records were consumed by fire. Even the island of Ainay could not escape the relentless battering of the storms . Today its very insularity has become the means of sealing its final ignominy:

Les monuments qu'on trouve a chaque pas
Disènt bien haut la race antique et fière
Donts les enfants de dégenerent pas
C'est Souvigny, la vaste basilique
Ainay , Charroux qui gardent les remparts
- Louis Audiat

August 17

Valuable assistance in my research on the village was rendered me by M. Daubertes, the village school-master whom I visited this afternoon. He is the author of the historic synopsis one finds in the vestibule of the Mairie. A very correct and friendly man in advanced middle age, M. Daubertes expressed a genuine passion for the town's past. At his living-room window he pointed out a piece of the main gate of the fortress, a stump of a building, its roof twisted like a nautilus shell.

To the left he indicated a steeply descending street. This marks the edge of the old moat. The south gate, now completely vanished, one stood at its far end. The north gate is the curious clock-tower. M. Daubertes excused himself to go dig out a wooden model he'd made of the medieval town. In a few minutes he returned with the paste-up. His wife dusted it off and we all sat down to examine it together.

The old fortress was shaped like an octagon drawn within an ellipse, its principal axis oriented north-south. It had 4 gates. Two have disappeared, one remains only as a twisted stump. The towers were placed along the walls at regular intervals. They still exist in various states of disrepair. M. Daubertes was able to inform me as to the state of preservation of each of them.

A wooden construction stood up on the paste-up: the castle itself. Only the manor remains, a kind of watch station upon the courtyard directly in front of it. One still finds pieces of the original wall here and there. Combining these with the trenches of the moat, which unite the scattered ruins, one can still get an impression of how it must have looked.

Taking his advice I began walking through Ainay following the bed of the moat. This brought me to the series of towers and wall fragments at the south-west village limits. Cottages and garden plots rise in terraced levels between these towers and the basin of the dried-up lake. The church spire provides the keystone to this composition of walls, gardens and cottages.

As I regarded Ainay-le-Chateau from the "plague chapel" of St. Roch on the other side of the vanished lake, this solitary medieval fortress, fearful, insular, proud, tightly confined between the twin pinnacles of aristocracy and religion, everything suddenly fell together as a complex unity. One has only to imagine the lake , dazzling under a summer sky and covering the verdant basin like a silver mirror, to reconstruct the image of the old fort of Ainay-le-Chateau as it must have looked to a 12th-century knight approaching on horseback along the road from Moulins.

The terraces have broken down along the eastern face,the steep defile leading to the house of M. Daubertes. Here also one discovers 3 towers, thoroughly devastated, one of them little more than a truncated cone worn almost to the ground. Crabgrass and stickers fill up the crevices between the broken sections of the wall which form the enclosures, and even parts of the walls of the cottages lining the road. Dilapidated cottages, chickens running about in their tiny gardens, line the rise of the road. A scrawny enraged grey dog barked at me. I stepped back, slipped into the moat, and fell into a sea of burning nettles! Even the dog must have found it amusing; its owner certainly did.

Ainay, continued: Film Diary

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