On July 21, 2021, from the train that connects Paris to Nice at a speed of about 320 kilometres per hour, I saw the Mount Sainte-Victoire as I had never been able to see it before.
There are many ridges in that area of Provence with stern, rough outlines standing out above the lavender fields. None of them, however, is as startling. The drawing power of Sainte-Victoire brings to mind that of the Egyptian pyramids, despite its rugged geometry. This peak, part of a limestone mountain range, doesn't compare in size with the fabled Mont Blanc, or farther off, on the Northern Pacific coast, with the volcanic crest of Mount Rainier, both snow-topped and deceiving the eye like master illusionists. But precisely because it seems so within reach, Sainte-Victoire is even more puzzling.
As the train dashes through a green tunnel of pine, olive, and fig trees, it sparkles in the distance.
The Mount overlooks Aix-en-Provence and you need to track it down past Avignon, just after Marseilles, those places that wandering writer Joseph Roth called "the white cities". Roth ambled along the river Rhône, without map or guide, before he reached the old centre of Avignon and was bedazzled by the gleaming stonewalls, remainders of the ancient city once called Avennio. Instead of contrasts between the point where he was in time (in the 1920s) and the Roman era, he grasped correspondences. They radiated from the old walls and the maze of narrow stone alleys, from the southern inflections of French and the surviving Occitan dialects rooted in the Latin spoken centuries ago in those places and throughout what was going to become (and is still in the process of becoming) Europe, as English connects people throughout the globe these days.
From the upper deck of the train, under the scorching sun, Avignon looks rather like a film set, the way downtowns of American cities do when you approach them from the airport.
But where is Aix? Where's Sainte-Victoire? Are we there yet? Or have we already passed it by?
Art imitates nature! Yet the stunning beauty of this environment seems to turn that cliché around. From among pine trees and calcareous formations, the Mount looms out the way dream flashes do, or perhaps how that implacably white whale, Moby Dick, rose in and out of sight throughout Captain Ahab's life on the sea.
The first time I saw Mount Sainte-Victoire — other than in its many versions painted by Paul Cézanne — was in early July 1986. After a much longer train ride at the time (seven hours against two at present), I got off at Aix station and took a bus for La Baume-les-Aix. Due to an eye lesion, my sight wasn't at its best, even more so under the dazzling light of the south cast back by every stone, stream, or metallic surface.
When I looked ahead to check if the bus approached my destination, there it stood, at the end of the road (or so it seemed), as if we were about to run into it.
Montaigne Sainte-Victoire: shimmering white, or blue, or yellow; pale mauve perhaps.
Larger than life.
A magical apparition.
My first thought: it looks just like Cézanne’s Moutain. But that was it, Sainte-Victoire in the flesh! The apparition that had seized my injured eyes and, in a unique way, my entire body, was indeed that Mount in the vicinity of which Cézanne had spent long days of his life, painted at different hours, in all kinds of weather, and where, one rainy day, he was to catch a fatal cold.
On my first morning in what used to be a nun's cell at La Baume monastery (about three miles away from Cézanne's studio), I opened the bleached turquoise shutters over a cluster of Mediterranean pines bent by storms, their trunks copper-red, their bristling crowns a mineral green: and there it was again, the Cézanne canvas, dry and alive in the frame of my window. It exuded turpentine, the gift of firs and pines distilled into paint tubes. A landscape with the redolence of a freshly finished painting that affirms its existence to all senses.
Since that first encounter with Sainte-Victoire — Mont Venturi, in Occitan — I have been playing a guessing game each time I take the train to the South.
And Sainte-Victoire has been playing hide-and-seek with me.
The train's fantastic speed transforms the scenery into a rapid brush stroke, which the digital camera captures in a special kind of blur. If you think you have spotted the Mount and want to photograph it, you have to be quick, just as Cézanne would have been when sketching, or otherwise hope you might catch a glimpse of it on a better day.
What exactly was Cézanne looking for when, day after day, he scrutinized what he called the motif, or, when he rambled around, as Paul Gauguin remembered, reading Virgil? What kind of colours was he seeing? What is that colossal white of the Mount made of?
Limestone is a fascinating rock. It formed in the clear, warm, and shallow marine waters that once reigned in the area and communicated with other bodies of water in what is now France and beyond. Limestone has a wide variety of shapes and shades, which preserve the memory of dunes, ripples, and waves. You can find blue in limestone, yellow, white, and any of their variations, ranging from a special kind of gray to pale violet. Other than the result of chemical sedimentations of calcium carbonate, it is made of organic debris: layers of shell, coral, algae.
It is said that William Smith, who made the first geological map of Britain, was able to recognize the composition of the underground just by scrutinizing the landscape. So too Cézanne saw through the solid body of limestone to make of the Mount a gigantic map of unseen life.
A host of minerals form in limestone: quartz, feldspar, clay, and particles of chert, pyrite, or siderite. Names that shimmer the way crystal grains do on the Mount, ground and bound together by time, rain, wind, and the sun. Beneath the surface of Sainte-Victoire lies time's fabric woven by small earthly processes, only just sparkling into the light as they spread farther into the atmosphere, there to mix with the fragrance of turpentine that permeates the humid air.
In one of his letters on Cézanne Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to his wife, Clara Westhoff, he mentions a remark made by his perceptive friend Miss Villmoeller. On a visit to the Paris Salon d'Automne of 1907 (a year after the painter's death), she noticed how, standing among the Cézanne canvases, "one feels a soft and mild gray emanating from them as an atmosphere, and we agreed that the inner equilibrium of Cézanne's colours, which never stand out or obtrude, evokes this calm, almost velvetlike air which is surely not easily introduced in the hollow inhospitality of the Grand Palais".
But in the hospitable atmosphere of Provence, for anyone who takes the time to look at it, Sainte-Victoire confronts the beholder with the painter's conundrum:
The bewildering light and the shimmering crystals make of the mountain a compelling presence.
Still, it is the mist that makes it possible for us to see it, the humid air that sifts the light, otherwise too strong and unbearable for the eye.
As the light holds it off from the viewer, the mist brings the Mount closer.
At the opposite side of Cézanne's homeland, in Flandres, at the northern limit of France, where one can unknowingly pass into Belgium biking or sauntering around, there is a series of mounts, much smaller, coated in variations green.
On one of them, the Mont Noir, is located a writers' residency, on the site of a mansion and stables owned (and lost in gambling) by Marguerite Yourcenar's father. Thereabouts she spent her early years wandering among daffodils and crow garlic, a persistent memory throughout her life on Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine. Framed in the windows of that house in Flandres, the colours of hills and mounds blend with the changing skies and look more like an immense expanse of water.
Far away from the sun-scorched Provence as they are, the composition of those mounts is not so different from that of Sainte-Victoire. They share the legacy of an archaic body of water: seashell powder, sand, algae, and innumerable fossils.
It is this underlying assemblage, more than the sight of them, that draws me to these two Mounts, for they embody what I strive for in writing, their geology mirroring my mental geographies. Having lived in more than one country and writing in more than one language, in time, I have come to think of writing as an association of matters, materials, textures that speak to all senses.
An aggregate of what we can see, and what we cannot.
Of what has endured.
Full and empty spaces.
Now distant, now close.
They all come together matching the colours in Cezanne’s seascape "La mer à Estaque" as described by Rilke: "airy blue, blue sea, red roofs, talking to each other in Green and very moved in this inner conversation, and full of mutual understanding".
One can paint a mountain so as to see it in three dimensions, and almost feel it with one's eyes. Yet there are also ways of literally turning the visible into a palpable surface, as the traveller may discover at the Alinari National Museum of Photography, in Florence, the former studio of the world-famous brothers.
In a fantastic pioneering conception, each photograph on show is paired with a tactile reconstruction meant for the blind. Among these miniatures, there is a plaster model in cross-section of the Egyptian pyramids photographed by Maxime Du Camp, travel companion of Gustave Flaubert.
Just close your eyes. Pass your fingers over layers of sand, stone, and crystals whose names may have slipped out of your memory. In this "inner conversation" organic debris, rock, pigment, and light feel like part of who we are, "full of mutual understanding", or who we hope to be, collectively, at any point of the horizon in the wide world.
It has been a long time since I have seen any of the more than eighty versions of Mount Saint-Victoire that Cézanne sketched or painted from different angles, and whose geometry first appeared in his work, in 1877, on the backdrop of "Bathers at Rest" with the qualities of bodies and rock flowing from foreground to background in natural reciprocation.
In my mind, reminiscences of those images mingle with glimpses of the peak I happen to catch once in a while from the train. In the space between one flash and another, I think of Cézanne trying to figure it out, the motif.
How to bring it down to human scale?
How to account for its shape and colour, ever transformed by the changing skies?
Above all, how to make sense of the layers of underground that show in its rugged surface?
In the train's rush, it often happens that I mistake Santa Venturi for some other calcareous formation, or perhaps for a cloud. More than once it has escaped my vigilance. And, since I hold the most fugitive sight of it for my journey's lucky charm, I sometimes cheat telling myself that was it, even if I well know it wasn't.
That time, though, on July 21, 2021, I did see it.
Large, shimmering, overwhelming, Cézanne's treasured motif loomed out again and again, as if it followed the train: its blur softer, its slope fluid, like the long trail of a silver robe.
And now it shall forever stay with me.
—Staying still and moving all the time—