Friday, August 03, 2007

Exploring Wells


If you thought that publishers supported vast marketing operations so that authors, once they’ve finished one book, will be free to get on with the next, you can think again. You may also think that it’s a bizarre business concept to ask the creators of one's product to stop producing and put creativity on hold while they involve themselves full-time in the task of flogging said product – and you would be right. But that is indeed what happens.
Being a naïve sort of person, it took me some time to work out why this happens, and then it dawned on me: you have to pay marketeers, but writers come free.
I’m telling you all this because I think those few readers who have missed the blog deserve to know that I’ve been so busy with the preparation for the launch of the paperback that I haven’t had much chance to think about blogging – or anything else. Thus although I’ve no wish to commercialise my blog by plugging The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers (which, since you ask, is out next month, only £11.99), I'll just have to do it in the interest of art.

Here’s another story adapted from the aforementioned Literary Guide:
It took me more than a year to find Lou Pidou, one of the several Riviera love-nests of the English novelist and journalist Herbert George (H. G.) Wells (1866-1946). Wells, whose long association with the Côte d’Azur centred mostly in the countryside around Grasse between the Wars, was best known for science fiction novels such as The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, and for his many social novels like Kipps and The History of Mr Polly. In fact I didn’t find his house until after the book had gone to press. It was on my third pilgrimage into the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes that, lost in the maze of leafy lanes of Magnosc, I asked a postman for directions. He was so helpful that I decided to ask him if he knew where Wells had lived. He was not only friendly, but literate: Ah oui, l’écrivain anglais!’, he said, and took me to the house and introduced me to the concierge.

A serial womaniser, Wells left his wife Catherine and their two sons for long periods while keeping a constant string of mistresses. His autobiographical H. G. Wells in Love barely mentions love: it is a catalogue of his extra-marital dalliances, beginning with ‘a certain little Miss Kingsmill’ shortly after his first son was born in 1901.

While remaining married, he replaced his foreground lovers in ten-year cycles. His most famous was the English novelist Rebecca West - who wrote that the Riviera was ‘the nearest thing to paradise’. In 1923 he began the affair with an Austrian writer which he later called ‘the vociferous transit of Odette Keun’, and in 1933 Keun was discarded for a Russian Baroness, Moura Budberg, formerly – and sometimes concurrently - mistress of the Russian poet Gorky.

All this was against a background of transient lovers who included the wife of a New Zealand High Commissioner; the Irish writer Elizabeth Beauchamp; an anonymous American widow who lived in the Hôtel Negresco in Nice; and the trivial pursuit of what he called ‘women I had only a brief and simple use for’.

His succession of love-nests on the Grasse verges began in Magagnosc, followed by Lou Bastidon and the villa that he and Keun built to their own design. They called it ‘Lou Pidou’, Provençal for ‘The Treasure’, and above the fireplace they carved the words ‘Two lovers built this house’. Lou Pidou still stands, remote and hidden behind tall hedges: a plaque bearing these words is also built into its terrace.

Wells’s Riviera dream was to have, ‘hidden away in the sunshine, a home to which I could retreat and work in peace. I wanted a mistress to tranquillise me.’ But life at Lou Pidou was anything but tranquil: Wells said that Keun was ‘addicted to every extremity of emotional exaggeration’. A former Jesuit nurse, she was able to slash her wrists without doing permanent harm, and would make use of this unusual skill when thwarted.

His many works written at Lou Pidou included The Shape of Things to Come and The Book of Catherine Wells, a eulogy of his neglected wife. He based his novel Meanwhile in Hanbury Gardens at La Mortola, just across the Italian border.

He also found time to socialise with contemporary Azuréen writers, both at Lou Pidou, where he hosted novelists Aldous Huxley and Arnold Bennett; and as a guest of Somerset Maugham on Cap Ferrat In 1930 he visited D. H. Lawrence as he lay dying in hospital in Vence.

In an untypically chivalrous gesture, Wells decreed that his account of his voracious love life should not be seen until the last of his lovers was dead. It was not published until 1984. Before the postman left, he asked me not to tell anyone where the house was, lest the owner be pestered by tourists.

4 comments:

Ed R said...

I can't wait till this book comes out on Paperback, Ted. I'm sending a copy to James Salter;)

riviera writer said...

Better lay it at his feet, on a velvet cushion. (Palgrave MacMillan, $15.95 if you must know.)

Ed R said...

Is it available yet? ;)

riviera writer said...

No Ed, but thanks forasking all the right questions. Should be available from September 28.