November 27, 2020

Château de Lavigny


Château de Lavigny, summer 2010

Most writers have a life beyond their computer and I have always been curious how fellow writers balance their work with other responsibilities. A novel, play, or poem doesn’t just happen. Months of mental meandering may occur before the first word appears. But this activity comes without a salary. Of course, many writers have university grants, government allowances, generous family members, inheritance, and other sorts of financial and practical help to assist them. But what about those writers who are without such help?

When I began my writing career I used to dream of a regular income and a cottage by the sea, Ireland seemed ideal, where I could be alone with my imagination. Does this sound familiar?

Fortunately, many countries have developed writers’ colonies where artists may retreat for a while and concentrate on their art. Between Lausanne and Geneva, in a village overlooking the lake and the Alps, a quiet, elegant retreat exists where writers from all over the world may go for three weeks and be left alone to write. The submission directives are simple – the applicants should have one book published (not self-published), speak fluent English or French and be able to pay their travel expenses.

Two decades ago, Jane Ledig-Rowohlt bequeathed her fortune and her home, the Château de Lavigny, to be used as a literary colony in memory of her husband Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt. A “spirit of international community and creativity” was the foundation stone for the establishment. For the last fifteen summers, in five different sessions, up to eight writers are provided each with a private room, all their meals, and time to write and to discuss their ideas with their companions. Once a session, on a Sunday evening, local guests are invited to a reading performed by the residents.

Whenever I go to the readings I am struck by the music of the different languages. The writers often recite part of their work in their mother tongue, be it Mandarin or Swahili. There are unusual rhythms and rhymes and something faintly exotic as if I have traveled across oceans and continents. I recognize the contentment of children who play together though they do not understand one another’s language.

Cocktails after a reading

The legacy of Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt continues to penetrate the Château de Lavigny. He was a great editor and translator, a man who influenced international publishing and contributed to the cultural rebirth of post-war Germany. In the 1930s he was already bringing internationally celebrated authors to German readers and after the Second World War he continued to remain open to new trends while still keeping his publishing house’s high-quality literary tradition. His list includes the works of such writers as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Updike, Gunther Grass, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Italo Suevo, Henry Miller, James Thurber, Harold Pinter and Vladimir Nabokov. But most of all, Heinrich Maria Ledig-Rowohlt cultivated friendship and generosity with his protegés. The Château de Lavigny contains letters from many grateful authors speaking of these qualities.

In reality, these qualities are still within the castle’s grounds. You hear the result in the readings. I have copied out a poem written by a Ukrainian poet, Natalka Bilotserkivets, who read to us last Sunday evening so that you may share in the pleasure.

Angels’ Wine

There’s a peaceful place of girls, flawless as crystal,
of unbreakable children, strong as steel,
where snake-victors in silent, frozen halls
sip angels’ wine dropped to their knees.
There’s a peaceful place of surrendering grasses
where the dragon sings for all undying hours.
He bids his time, wise head bowed,
a brocade of wings embroidered with flowers.
Monks dwell in cells of burgundy-colored rocks.
Poverty burns inside their bowls.
Angels’ wine has neither been seen nor tasted
like tears lost to a river or in our elapsing souls.
The scorpion sleeps at the foot of the rhododendron.
No victories or failures prevail.
And in the window’s light, a sacred darkness.
Like script on a scorpion’s scales.
(by Natalka Bilotserkivets)

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