"Father Leterrier, what will happen to people who stray from the path of Holy Purity?" "They will rot in the fires of Hell. Their flesh will melt, and all of the impurities in their blood will be filtered onto the floor like a carpet of evil dust."
It is the summer of 1920 and Christian Aragon is about to graduate from school. The sixteen year-old covets the body of an older woman-married and a teacher at his school. This not only imperils his mortal soul, but threatens other consequences as well. Surrounded by vineyards and mountains and the relentless heat of the Provencal sun, there is passion, anger, fear, and blood in this tiny village at the foot of the Dentelles. But what prize awaits those who dare defy tradition, and what is the price to be paid for following one's heart?
|Publisher:||Permanent Press, The|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
CONOR BOWMAN lives in Ireland and practices law, though he hasn't quite gotten the hang of it yet. He is married to a wonderful woman who saved him from himself. They have four fabulous children and an apple tree. His previous books are Wasting By Degrees (a novel) and Life and Death and in Between (a collection of short stories).
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The Last Estate
By Conor Bowman
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2010 Conor Bowman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhen I was nine years old, a boy at school cut me on the left side of my face with a hunting knife, in a fight about nothing.
"You don't even own a dog," he said.
"Yes, I do," I replied, "Mangetout."
"He's not yours. He belongs to your brother."
"We both own him."
The air between us grew damp with argument and we crossed the divide and fought as if we were two mongrels. A crowd of our school comrades encircled us, each boy calling out the name of the warrior he supported. In the heart of the fight, my opponent pulled out a knife and I was injured. I think the wounding frightened him even more than it did me; the battle ended the instant blood had been drawn.
The scar was three-and-a-half centimetres long and it lay diagonally across the top of my cheek, pointing simultaneously at my left eye and the bottom of my left earlobe. Cicatrice is the French word for a scar and for a while people called me that as a nickname. I didn't mind the nickname, it's not the worst. I suppose I don't even really mind the scar itself.
By the time I was almost seventeen, and in my last year in the village lycée, the scar had grown slightly longer, but also more vague, as my skin tightened and stretched the cicatricial line to its thinnest. The boy who slashed me died from tuberculosis in 1914. He was eleven. His name was Yves Couderc. Less than a month after they'd buried him, the war began.
The last time I'd seen him he was shopping in the village square with his mother. He'd been waiting for her outside the bakery, and he stood beside a small grey poodle that was tied by its leash to the handle of one of the double doors. Yves was coughing into a handkerchief. Over his hand, in the bunch of cotton that resembled an opened flower, small flecks of red mottled the hem. It was the only time in two years that he hadn't pretended to smile secretly to himself about my scar when we'd met. It was the only time, in those two years too, that I hadn't tried to hide my left cheek from his view. There was something special about that shared moment in the village square which has remained with me to this day. Some strange, almost barely perceptible thought or emotion passed between us and it was as if we knew we were saying goodbye. He nodded a greeting and I acknowledged it in return. I then discreetly allowed my attention to be drawn elsewhere, in order to permit him to continue his bloody coughing in peace. Even the small dog looked away. Nobody wants to catch a glimpse of death if they can avoid it.
To be legally classed as Côtes de Rhône-Villages, wine from this region has to be made from at least twenty-five percent of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault grapes. It is less clear what the blood of a person must contain to be classed as local. What I do know is that my great-grandfather served under Napoleon at Waterloo and that made us locals of all France. Our family prided itself on its heritage, and I suppose, that was a start. Nothing comforts us in the present perhaps, so much as the knowledge that our forebears endured hardship and survived. We draw solace from the gene pool. It grants us continuity. We live side-by-side in the here and now, confident that the march of progress and industry has fashioned a slightly more cushioned world. That is the theory at least.
In 218 B.C., Hannibal passed through Provence and then on to the Alps. In 1720, The Great Plague crept north from Marseille and devastated the region. In 1918, on a Sunday in October, the Germans proposed an armistice and yet the war did not end for some weeks after that. This region, with its holm oaks and olives and cypress and almond trees, has always been holding its breath, just as the entire nation did that October. Good news usually seems too good to be true here. When the waiting is over, the confirmation of that news is usually overtaken by some greater and darker realisation: that things are actually worse because of the news we waited for but never got to enjoy.
Forest fires, when they occur, drive with the wind and the drought and often only stop at the coast. There are few mountains, but here in the department known as Vaucluse, the Dentelles provide a backdrop for the minute portion of this country which I really call home. You can smell the lavender all summer. In the winter, the small cloth bags of it usher the scent out the doors of every wardrobe. This is the place where I spent all of my time and my energies as a boy, trying to understand the entirety of the outside world through my small experiences in the village of Gigondas.
Our home is a château on the western approach road to the village. It was called Montmirail, after the tallest peak in the mountain range that hugs the village to the east like a surprise embrace in a shop. It is not really a castle, but it is the largest house in the village. It earned its title of château more by default than anything else. It is a grand building with a tree-lined avenue that sweeps rather impressively up from the main road to Sablet, a neighbouring village. The house was reputedly built in medieval times on the site of the wedding-ring exchange of Pierre of Provence and Princess Maguelone of Naples. Legend has it that the couple travelled to the Dentelles from Aigues-Mortes where Pierre had been restored to health by the princess. She had turned her hand to charitable works as a way to forget her previous unhappy love. True or not, we all believed it and it made Montmirail even more special than it already was.
The house has six bedrooms, and an enormous dining room on the ground floor with south-facing windows which suck in the sunshine all year round. It is built of local stone, and the outside walls are imbued with a sort of russet solidity that is typical of Provence. The roll-tiles on the roof are the colour of sunset and the house is clearly visible from the summit of its namesake in the Dentelles. From the air I imagine it resembles a red tortoise, sleeping at the entrance to the village.
Our village is like thousands of others. It has a café, a small hotel, a school, a bakery and a town hall. There, the mayor, Monsieur Gustave de Vay, kept a tiny office which allowed him refuge from a wife he'd never loved. Each year, in the mellow September heat, on the feast of St. Cosme and St. Damien, all the inhabitants of the village gathered to hear the priest deliver his sermon, dressed in his ceremonial robes. Later on, in the evening, after the magnificent feast at the fountain, we would all stand and stare up into the benign Provençal sky and wait, while a member of the police from the station at Carpentras supervised the fireworks display. It was perfect, and in September 1919 it was no less so, in the first celebration of this feast day since the war.
"Christian," Miss Pleyben the geography teacher said, as she touched me on the shoulder at the display. "Some day that will be you. You'll be the one setting off the fireworks."
I turned around, and saw her lovely face illuminate, and then become dark, as the Catherine wheels and fizz rockets exploded and died away above us. She was slightly shorter than I was, with long hair the colour of sunlight. Her shapely body was gathered in at the waist, as a curtain might be by a drape holder, and her eyes sparkled all the time as if she knew something she wasn't yet prepared to share. Sometimes her face was sad, as if she were remembering when really she'd rather not. But the combination of all of the elements comprising her was a person whom it would be impossible not to notice in a crowd.
Everybody knew that her husband had left her because he was about to be conscripted. He was an evil man who beat her so regularly that it was almost shocking to finally see her natural beauty when she no longer needed makeup to hide the bruises. On one occasion, years earlier, I'd seen them arguing in the square and he'd raised his hand to strike her. He'd noticed me standing there and had allowed his hand to make some mawkish false diversion to his own head, where he smoothed down his generous allocation of greasy hair.
Most of the other teachers occasionally called me Cicatrice, or mentioned my scar in some oblique nasty way, but not Miss Pleyben. I wanted to hurry up and grow into a man so that I could marry her. I would take care of her and love her and never ever treat her badly, and she'd never have to spend another sou on mascara. I would lie with her, and well, you know— And in the mornings I'd bring her breakfast in bed and make her coffee with fresh milk and black coffee beans from the market in Sablet.
"Yes, Miss," I answered. "Someday that will be me."
The lifeblood of the region is wine, and my family have been winemakers for more than two centuries. In 1672, when the original—and smaller—house was built on the same site, it was a very similar terrain which bordered the foothills of the Dentelles. The soil is not much good for anything except vines and olives. As a result, the area has developed in the only direction open to it. The massive granite, pudding-shaped stones, which give an impression of being unwelcome where cultivation is concerned, in reality play an important part in the successful production of wine in the area. These stones, in areas where the vine has been established, act as reflectors and direct the sun back onto the grapes. The end result is big, high-in-alcohol reds, and even some respectable rosés. The eleven-and-a-half hectares attached to Montmirail produce deep red wine every year. The cellars are among the oldest in France and even predate the original house.
I have to say, though, that this weight of tradition was not sufficient to convince me of my role in its continuation. That belief is perhaps at the heart of my story and my life. I never believed that just because something is one particular way that it must remain so forever. I cry out for the right of the individual, the self, the soul, to reach out past itself and into the hearts of others, rather than to constantly look back over its own shoulder. I yearn for the freedom of spirit, the latitude, the opportunity in myself and in everyone else, to become what we want, and to refuse to continue to be who and what we are if those manifestations do not reflect our own desires. I believe most of all in the inherent capacity man and woman possess to change.
In the countryside, where the village is the kingdom and the child is the peasant, the father is king. The son is like a granite rock on the edge of a vineyard; his job is to reflect, and his destiny is to remain in that place forever. The only power higher than man is God, so that even in the kingdom the high priest is sometimes the real king for a time.
Despite the separation of church and state common to most areas in France by that time, the power of the landowning class was still very much in evidence. The Jesuits owned the school, and their trade-off for nominal rent was to insist on at least a modicum of religious instruction by one of their number to every class. As I progressed through the lycée, the classes became smaller and smaller; people drifted out of the education system and back into their farms, having mastered the ability to count, and read road signs and medication labels.
Father Leterrier was a Jesuit. He came twice a month from the monastery at Crillon-le-Brave on the other side of the Dentelles, to give us religious instruction. He was a tall, almost elegant-looking priest with an air of great confidence and self-importance. He also possessed a religious fervour that he was unable to impart to his students. As I grew tired in my early teens of attending his classes at all, Fr. Leterrier seemed to grow commensurately more and more interested in his students' moral welfare so that, in my last two years at the lycée, the lessons he taught us dealt solely with the moral state of near-perfection that he called "Holy Purity":
"Puberty marks a dangerous time; its onset heralds untold hazards. The young adult is faced with desires and impulses infinitely more evil than those which tempted our forefathers in more guarded and disciplined times. Holy Purity is known as the Angelic Virtue because it is the quality which most makes man like the angels. It is the most precious of possessions. Purity—the very word is redolent of sacrifice and self-control."
This man, who had begun our religious instruction years earlier with lively stories about Noah and the Ark and the struggles of Daniel and David, began to transform before our eyes, on a twice-monthly basis, into an obsessive fanatic. His every waking moment seemed dedicated to the care of a warped ideal he had planted years earlier in some earthenware pot deep in his churning heart. For the girls, he was twice-monthly menstrual pain.
"Have no doubt about it; temptation will attempt to enter your hearts. The enemies of Christ make battering rams from the debris of hope. They fashion siege machinery from the arrogance which promiscuity begets. The offspring of the Damned are the foot-soldiers of this onslaught. You must fight against these powers and temptations with every last ounce and drop of your strength and blood. Leave no avenue unexplored in your quest for sustenance against the herd of evil Satan sends to do his work. The pure of heart will be the bulwark in Christ's battleships. But those who falter, and succumb to the pleasures of the flesh, are no longer fit company for Heaven. A failure to obey Christ's teachings in any way whatsoever, but in particular in matters of Holy Purity, renders the soul of the individual transgressor abhorrent to God. To die in such a state would be a disaster beyond description!"
I wondered if Yves Couderc had died in such a state. Had his actions, in scarring me, marked his own soul out as unfit for Heaven? I was terrified that because we'd never made up the argument, never spoken of forgiveness, I might have unwittingly condemned him to eternity in a furnace. Perhaps I should have gone to him and said, "It's alright, I don't mind the scar, it's not the worst." Would this have wiped his slate clean? Did God send him sickness because of his sin? I just didn't know; yet I harboured a residual hope in a corner of my mind that somehow, the last time I'd seen him, the glance that passed between us might have meant more than goodbye.
When I was fifteen-and-a-half, I went one July evening to the Chapel of Saint Cosme, on the small hill on the Vacqueyras Road. I pushed open the warm wooden door and made my way inside. As usual, the place was empty. It was just myself and God, and the chipped statue of Saint Cosme with its flickering wax candles on the brass stand in front of the side-altar. I knelt in the front row on an embroidered kneeler which was old and red. In a way, I suppose, I thought that the further up the church I went, the closer to Him I'd be. I told Him that I didn't mind the scar at all and that I wished Couderc well, wherever he was.
"You know, God, if you cast your mind back to that day I saw him for the last time, outside the bakery, I'm sure you probably thought that I was only saying goodbye to him, or something like that, when we looked at each other and nodded. It may have looked that way, but what I was actually thinking, in my mind, and my heart, was that I forgave him. I didn't realise it at the time, but later on, looking back, I'm pretty sure too that he was saying I'm sorry to me. I know he was sorry, although he never actually said the words. Anyway, I just thought I'd let you know in case you watched that day and weren't sure that the whole scar thing had been settled for good before he died. I know you're pretty busy, what with looking after all the people who have died in the war and everything. My mother used to say before the war that when the winter comes, you get really busy. But you probably haven't had a moment to draw your breath for a long time. I have to go now, but just one last thing: if you get a chance, say hello to Mangetout for me and tell Eugene that I hope he doesn't mind that I got his room."
Excerpted from The Last Estate by Conor Bowman Copyright © 2010 by Conor Bowman . Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Written by an Irishman, set in the wine-country of 1920s France, The Last Estate by Conor Bowman combines the darkness and depth of Irish story-telling with the beauty of a French village, the mystique of the Pon D'Avignon, and the cruel history of the first world war. The story is beautifully crafted. It starts with a cut that slices a young boy's face; one moment, one blade to change everything, though forgiveness waits in the wings, even beyond the grave. Cut again by fate and his father's scorn, Christian seeks an unlikely healing in his teenage fantasies. Meanwhile the geography teacher, another wounded soul, seeks solace in memories of a generous glance. And the priest wounds vulnerable hearts and souls in the name of Holy Purity. Love blossoms unsanctioned, cutting its own sweet way through boundaries, and a delightful love story unfolds. The writing maintains the self-consciousness of a young man looking forward, or an old man looking back, but it draws the reader to the author's feet and fastens him there to listen. Still, evil as well as forgiveness waits only so long, then comes the cruelest cut. Life transcends accident, and love transcends time. Even a person's sense of self can transcend the boundaries of duty, law and family. In the end it's Christian who cuts himself free from his past. Christian and Vivienne open their separate doors and the future floods in, washing away the decay of long-spilled wine. Did I forget to mention, I really liked this book; another gift from the Permanent Press, sent in hopes that I'd read and review it. Read, with thanks.
Much to the reader's delight, the author uses the literary form of the memoir to relate the forbidden love affair enduring more than twenty years between Christian Aragon and Vivienne Pleyben. The affair began when Christian was a boy of seventeen and Vivienne was his teacher. Before the relationship could flourish, Christian finds himself charged with the murder of Vivienne's abusive husband recently returned after a six-year absence. The couple maintains their relationship during the long stretch of Christian's twenty year prison term. The First Estate is also about the ageless generational struggle between fathers, who wish to continue their legacies through their sons, and sons who wish to break free of the limited futures that their fathers would thrust upon them. Robert Aragon believes that it is some times necessary to break a person down so that you can rebuild them according to the demands of tradition; his preferred method of preparing Christian to continue the family tradition. Robert already bitter because his favorite son was lost in the war becomes most bitter when Christian's arrest destroys all hope of continuing the family legacy. Can the father ever forgive the son for his indiscretion? Can he forgive him for not wanting to bear the mantle of familial obligation? None of the characters is fully developed; however, the traits discussed are enough to elicit sympathy and outrage when appropriate. The entire cast of characters consists of one giant cliché. The two starring women are subservient and abused wives who live in fear of their husband's wrath and do nothing without prior consent. The two abusive husbands and their reasons for abusing (Robert: tradition and control. Stpehane: insecurity and control) have been scrutinized again and again --- nothing new is gained from revisiting these characters. Despite the redundancy of the formula, Bowman has masterfully summarized the interplay of family dynamics. His summary of familial relationships is succinct, "families are the great marketplace, where all members barter and trade on an ongoing basis, sometimes for great loss and little gain. From the moment we kick our way into them, families demand all sorts of bargains from us and we from them. No argument or silence or caress or compliment comes free of charge. There is always a price to pay, and sooner or later the debt is called in or the credit note cashed. No one counts their change quiet like a blood relative." The level of suspense was low but kept me turning the page to learn what would happen next. As one who teaches readers to predict and visualize what will happen next, I was pleased that the author was able to confound me with an unexpected twist. I would like very much to follow Christian and Vivienne on their venture to America where they will have an opportunity to grow and develop as characters.