I’ve just arrived at the Chateau de Lavigny. It’s near Lausanne, Switzerland — the nearest train station is Morges. The house is grand and marmoreal, with an atmosphere of beautifully worn luxury. Its terrace has white wrought-iron tables and chairs and a railing festooned with roses. Lake Geneva, about four miles away, floats in the magisterial distance, along with a blue outline of Alps. I’m one of six writers here, a mix of novelists, poets, playwrights, and translators. Our group includes a couple from Russia, Maria Galina and Arkady Stypel; Dilys Rose, from Scotland; Andrea Smith, from Atlanta; and Draga Potocnjak, from Slovenia.
The presence behind this colony is that of Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt, a German publisher who was great friends with both Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov. The list of writers he published (and knew) includes Junichiro Tanizaki, Jorge Amado, James Baldwin, Robert Musil, John Barth, Tom Stoppard, and Ogden Nash. This year is the hundredth anniversary of his birth; he died in 1992. The foundation, which brings writers to the chateau, was founded by his (now late) wife, Jane Ledig-Rohwolt. There are five three-week residencies every summer—the application deadline for 2009 is March 1. For details on applying, go to the website, www.chateaudelavigny.ch
How I got here is a long story. It starts in 1987, when I saw a call for submissions in the back of POETS AND WRITERS from a Swiss journal (published in English) called 2PLUS2. I submitted prose poems and received an acceptance in record time, along with an invitation to lunch at the editor’s home, in Lausanne, Switzerland. Thus began my friendship with James Gill, who was born in Russia, moved with his family to Paris, then fled with them to the U.S. As Charles Simic has said of his family, Hitler was the Gill's travel agent. James was a young boy then, and the family (because of the treachery of French banks) penniless. James’s prescience about music took him from mailroom boy to executive at Capitol Records. After the assassinations of 1968, he moved to Switzerland, later starting 2PLUS2, a beautifully produced literary annual whose managing editor was Jamie Lehrer, daughter of PBS’s Jim Lehrer. Because of James Gills’ continued support of my work, I took part in the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam in 1989, and after it ended we had lunch in Lausanne, the first of several between then and 1994, when James died. Through him I met the American poet, non-fiction writer, and novelist Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, who lives in Parma and is a member of the board of the Chateau. A few months ago she encouraged me to apply for a residency, and I did. Though I had an “in,” I’m quite sure that’s not necessary. Since there are six spots for each of 6 sessions, chances of acceptance are good.
This is the first writers’ retreat I’ve ever attended. It’s exceptionally peaceful. There’s no one else around except a very nice young woman named Sophie, available to help us with info about the area, etc. We are left alone during the day (breakfast and lunch are self-serve) to write. Our only “obligation” is to come to a brief cocktail hour at 7 and dinner at 7:30 each evening. There are vineyards all around here, and we share a bottle of white wine for an aperitif and a bottle of red with dinner (I have a feeling we will be visiting the nearest vineyard soon to supplement our supply.) I’m hoping to write new poems here. My latest book, NIGHT CLERK AT THE HOTEL OF BOTH WORLDS, came out last fall.
The sense I have at Lavigny, to start with at any rate, is that I’ve been privileged to live and try to write among ghosts of greatness. Downstairs there are copies of many books published by Heinrich Ledig-Rowohlt, along with photographs of him with Miller, Nabokov, and others. His giant rocking horse (shades of D.H. Lawrence?) rests on the front steps. Since the Chateau is possible because of him, I don’t mind the reverence, but there’s something sad about being part of his postscript. Is the golden age of literature finished? I think every generation must have elegiac feelings about the ones preceding, but the world has suffered such massive changes and so much loss during my adulthood, it’s hard not to feel like the living ghost of a richer past. All the bedrooms here are named for writers: I’m staying in “Nabokov.” Though I haven’t visited my friend James’s grave, I know that it is in a mountain churchyard near here, where there were wildflowers with snow on them the March day he was buried, just behind Vladimir Nabokov.
-- Angela Ball