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Norman Conquests

The OSS (forerunner of the CIA) dispatched an agent to Mount Holyoke to see what the fuss was all about. What the agent found, on the whole, was a gathering of tolerant, humanistic, and nonsectarian intellectuals and artists. When the great mathematician Jacques Hadamard was asked whether, after a French victory, ethnic Germans should be evicted from France, he responded forcefully in the negative. The French, in that case, Hadamard said, would be mimicking the crimes of the Nazis.

Sitting in the library of the château at Cerisy, listening to Professor Jeanpierre and the ensuing conversation, I began to feel the special mood of these occasions that had spanned a century and crisscrossed the Atlantic. Jacques Derrida, the eminent philosopher and godfather of deconstruction, flew in later that night from Nice and described Pontigny-Cerisy as a "counter-institution" outside the normal routines and rituals of academic life. "One never knows truly, totally, what, in the future, is going to happen when one comes to Cerisy," Derrida remarked.

For me, such reflections drove home the transatlantic events of the summer of 1944. As the students left the Mount Holyoke campus to make way for debateson such questions as the fate of 20th-century art, Eisenhower was making his decision to invade Normandy—exactly 60 years ago this June. Omaha Beach is just an hour's drive from Cerisy, past stone villages and dairy farms. The landscape—perhaps because my mind kept shifting between Cerisy and South Hadley—reminded me of New England. But Henry Adams, a passionate Normandy pilgrim, had also noted the resemblance, believing the inhabitants of these granite coasts to be "as hard and practical a fact as the granite itself." My own vague image of the American Cemetery, drawn from films and history books, hardly prepared me for the sheer emotional impact of Omaha Beach. The sky was ashen and the surf down the cliffs was rough and roiling. A single row of pines lined the bluffs overlooking the landing beaches. Spreading out on the level turf as far as the eye could see was an ocean of white crosses, some 10,000 of them, like doves alighted on the grass. Each cross, with an occasional Star of David mixed in, gave four stark pieces of information: the soldier's name, rank and regiment, home state, and date of death. The afternoon I visited, it was rare to hear an American voice, though I heard Italian, Japanese, German, and French spoken—reverently, and in hushed tones. Somehow this mix of languages made the current French-American hostility over Iraq all the more distressing, and the graves were a painful reminder that American soldiers might again be risking their lives far from home.

A few minutes eastward, the no-frills fishing village of Port-en-Bessin, which served as a communications center for the Allies, offered another perspective on the invasion. Port-en-Bessin is the main port with access to the city of Bayeux, and its docks were lined with brightly colored fishing boats. On the high ridge above the town, a steep five-minute hike from the docks, the German gun emplacements looked like medieval redoubts, with vivid, blood-red poppies sprinkled among the stones. On the way down, I came upon a bronze easel with a marker explaining that the Pointillist Georges Seurat, along with his disciple Paul Signac, had come often in the 1880's to paint this view. I found myself thinking that not only was this landscape layered with historical memory—from William the Conqueror to the D-day landings—but that every traveler has brought his or her own fresh interpretation to the scene, stitching the present to the remote past.

Here and there along the coast, you can still see signs of how, in the 19th century, fops and dandies from England and France turned the austere Norman coast into the most popular seaside resort in Europe. In the sleepy resort town of Cabourg, a few miles east of Port-en-Bessin, which Proust immortalized as Balbec in Remembrance of Things Past, the casino where the young novelist whiled away the time is still standing. The Proust family were themselves close friends of Desjardins, the founder of Pontigny, who described Proust in 1888 as a "Persian prince" with "huge gazelle eyes and languorous eyelids...a collector of pleasures." Though Cabourg has not been slow to capitalize on its association with Proust—the boardwalk is named Promenade Marcel-Proust—it is possible even here to see Normandy as the author first saw it.

When the beaches—miles of dunes and oyster bays—ceased to amuse, the cathedrals were waiting. At the turn of the 20th century, such cultural pilgrims as Proust, Monet, and Henry Adams turned Normandy into a different kind of vacation spot, one where the traveler could idle—while his motorcar and driver waited—in the landscapes and mindscapes of the medieval past. "The architectural highway," as Adams wrote in his great travelogue Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, "lies through Coutances, Bayeux, Caen, Rouen and Mantes." Elstir, Proust's fictitious painter, who is in part modeled on Monet, is enraptured by the carved bas-reliefs in the little church at Balbec (Cabourg). "What exquisite trouvailles came to the old carver," Proust wrote, "what profound thoughts, what delicious poetry!"

Monet himself had studied the great cathedral façade in Rouen, which Henry James had described as "magnificently battered, heavy, impressive." Monet, by contrast, tried to give the massive cathedral an airy, polychromatic lightness. Though he painted canvas after canvas—30 in all—he had a recurring nightmare about the cathedral: "It fell on me [and] seemed to be pink or blue or yellow."

I was having a little daydream of my own, tracing in my imagination my progress across Normandy from steeple to steeple across the hill towns and battlefields. Proust had remarked that you see French country towns long before you get to them, their stone spires shifting with your changing perspective. Something similar had happened with my own quest for Pontigny-en-Amérique. I found a pocket of American history in the heart of Normandy and of French history in western Massachusetts. From her rooms at Mount Holyoke, Marianne Moore had experienced the same sense of being in two places at once. As she wrote to Elizabeth Bishop in the summer of 1943: "You should see the tiny hemlock cones at Holyoke; and hear the bells, which clang sonorously every hour and half hour so you feel as if you were in Europe."


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