Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
The citizens of Charleston, SC continually lament the change created by an international spotlight that touts: “Visit Charleston for an unforgettable adventure.” The City has become a beautiful place to not only visit but also to make one’s home base because of its delicious blend of history, architecture, academic life, food, art, natural resources, affordability (for some), and iconic views and vistas. But all of these wonderful attributes have created traffic congestion, gentrification, tourism impacts, taxes, and unaffordability for many. Some may call these the problems of success; many see them as changing the very attractiveness and livability of the city.
Interestingly in 1982, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio explored similar problems of success — alienation, poverty, loss of beauty, to mention a few — in his compilation of eleven short stories in “La ronde et autres faits divers.” I found a translated version: “The Round and Other Cold Hard Facts,” at the Charleston County Library. The front flap of the book jacket describes the stories as depicting “the harsh realities of life for the less-privileged inhabitants of a very privileged area” — the French Rivera. Just goes to prove there is no such thing as a unique problem and one might learn from the wordsmithing of a Nobelist. I sit on the City of Charleston’s Planning Commission, time to read and gain perspective. I randomly picked the story “Villa Aurore” which tells the story of how “a man stands by helplessly as a place of great beauty and childhood memory is slowly consumed by a quickly developing city.” Could be a quote from any 2019 Facebook forum commenting on Charleston’s growth.
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature as an “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” (Sidebar: This was the year before I began the Booklover column — seems like yesterday.) Le Clézio was born in Nice, a city in the French Rivera, which also experiences amazing tourism pressure and popularity. The family also lived for a time in Nigeria where his father was stationed during World War II. Le Clézio studied in both British and French schools, ultimately earning a doctoral degree in 1983 from the University of Perpignan. In addition to his extensive literary career, that began at the age of seven when he wrote his first book about the sea, he has taught at numerous universities around the world describing himself as a “nomad of bilingual heritage” in an article published in the Wall Street Journal after receiving the Nobel accolade.
The story opens:
“Aurora had stood, for all time, up there on the hilltop, half lost in the lush tangle of plants, yet still visible between the trunks of latania and palms, a great, white, cloud-colored palace quivering in the leafy shadows. It was called Villa Aurora even though no name had ever been inscribed on the pillars of the gateway, only a number engraved on a marble plaque that had worn away long before I could ever remember it. Perhaps it had been given the name precisely because of its cloudlike color, so like the faint iridescent hue of sky at dawn’s first break. But everyone knew about Aurora, and it was the first strange house ever shown to me, the first house to etch itself on my memory.” The boyhood memory of sneaking into the gardens at Villa Aurora when there was “nothing else of any interest in the town or the streets or the hills or even the sea…” gives way to the adventure of young man deep in his study of law who decides to go visit again. “I’d left the neighborhood so long ago that I had a hard time finding the street, the one that climbed all the way to the top of the hill, right up to the wall of Villa Aurora. There were tall apartment buildings everywhere now; they’d cropped out in a disorderly fashion on the hillside, right up to its crest, huddling against one another on their great blacktop platforms. Most of the trees had disappeared, except one or two here and there that had probably gone unnoticed in the havoc that had swept over the land: olive trees, eucalyptuses, some orange trees, now lost in the sea of asphalt and concrete, seemed scrawny, drab, aged, on the brink of death.” Yet he finds the Villa, gains the nerve to ring the bell and meets the lady of Villa Aurora. However, he soon realizes “my childhood memories seem petty now that the city had eaten into Villa Aurora, for nothing could hide the wound, the pain, the anxiety that reigned here now. Then abruptly I knew that I couldn’t stay in the house. The realization was like a shudder; it came over me all of a sudden. The destructive forces of the town — the cars, the buses, the trucks, the concrete mixers, the cranes, the pneumatic drills, the pulverizers — would all come here sooner or later; they would penetrate the sleeping garden and then the walls of the villa; they would shatter the windows, tear holes in the plaster ceilings, splinter the cane screens, crumble the yellow walls, the floorboards, the doorframes.” The young man feels despair, emptiness, helpless to stem the tide of change and he “slipped away like a coward, like a thief…I thought I could hear, off in the distance, the wild cries of the city’s thugs bringing down the doors of Villa Aurora one after the other.”
In our city by the sea with its moss-draped oaks and iconic vistas, let’s hope for continued courage, forethought and progressive planning to halt the destructive forces knocking at the battery wall, the row house doors, the iron gates.