“s there then any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness?”
This is the question the narrator asks towards the end of Ford Madox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier. There is something wistful about this question, and suggests that paradise can be complicated, which is in fact one of the themes of the book. Perhaps that is what the tramps in Godot were waiting for, for paradise to come to them. Not the thick skeins of paradise as we mortals know it, joy woven in with its bumps and problems, but something pure, easy, delightful.
Apart from the missing olive-leaves, the anticipated move to Paris, or more particularly Suresnes, a near suburb of Paris, was the very idea of paradise. Living just outside of Paris? Are you kidding! Living the dream, right? Well, mostly.
Moving to France got us in the mood for the kings and queens that awaited us. I had been prepared by the Queen Anne’s lace from home. Notice the red center? That’s for Anne Boleyn.
The day we arrived, almost 22 years ago now, was so hot that there were no shadows and no coolness. We stayed and sweltered in my then husband’s place of employment, an archive, called the Archives, in the basement of a small old house, with kitchen walls painted a hospital beige in that shinny oil-based paint, which housewives of yore scrubbed within an inch of its life. Sagging, flaccid mattresses in the two bedrooms, were, naturally, a trial on the back, and rugs on desks were testimony to the Dutch heritage of the place.
Across the street was the mansion that housed the man who generated all this activity in the Archives: Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882 -1927). A musician and a philosopher, Inayat Khan was the first to bring the tradition of Sufism to the west from India. One of his followers in Suresnes gifted him and his family of four children a beautiful house called Fazil Manzil, house of blessings, the house still inhabited then by three of his four children.
The children were dark skinned, although lighter than their Indian father. Bullied at school, insulted or ignored because of that, they struggled. Their father was refused permission to marry their American mother in part because of his dark skin.
CONVERSATIONS ABOUT RACE
Conversations about race were rare in the time that the children were growing up. But if they had had access to So you want to talk about race by Ijeoma Oluo it would have helped. There’s an example I love in the early pages where Oluo imagines a Black person walking down the street. She is punched in the arm, which is a metaphor for racist aggression. It happens again, repeatedly. Now another person who is gesticulating wildly, engaged in conversation, punches the Black person in the arm also. This causes pain, although unintentional. This is not the time to defend your right to gesticulate wildly. You see it causes pain, so you can take that into account. This text is filled with gems like this. (Students ask me, Miss, what is a text?)
Here is a photo of Fazil Manzil.
One of the students of Inayat Khan had a vision where when he looked from Suresnes toward Paris and saw the marvel of the city, Paris seemed to be at the center of the world. Fazil Manzil, for him was a twin star, a similar, but esoteric beacon.
If you read between the lines, it might occur to you that Fazil Manzil carried the burden of a kind of paradise, and thanks to Ford we see that that can be complicated!
The house itself is complicated, containing in large measure the ecstasy and sorrow of an unusual family. Taken over later by the Nazis and used as a headquarters, the very roof of the place sags in parts due to the heavy weight of the cannons lugged up there. It’s a quirky house, built by an architect, a célebataire, an unmarried man, with his coat of arms in stained glassed windows in the drawing room. A floor for each of Inayat Khan’s children, at that time fairly elderly, revealed something of the personality of each. The ground floor, a semi-basement level for the second son had a luxurious garden; the main floor, which boasted high ceilings with beautiful moldings plus the Oriental room where Inayat Khan would play the vina, was the home of the oldest son. The upstairs apartment was fitted with a grand piano for the youngest daughter.
Only a plaque on the outside of the house gives testimony to Noor, the oldest daughter, code name Madeleine, who was shot and burned in Dachau.
Let’s cross back to our side of the street, leaving the gates of paradise where they were.
Our paradise was of a simpler nature. Croissants! Ah, the farmer’s market. The beautiful park holding a tomb of the unknown soldier, the flame always lit. And the forays into Paris, the delightful life of the tourist.
We lived with the shiny beige paint for a few months as my husband got the hang of computerizing the lectures given by Inayat Khan during his life. We had hoped to move out by Christmas and had even decorated the Christmas tree in the new house. But it was not to be: the heating wasn’t working. So we carried the decorated tree down the street back to the Archives, where a passerby said, “I’ve seen everything now. A Christmas tree that walks!”
BTW Kevin Barry’s driving test. No pass.
Ever decorated a house in France?