Wrote and recorded this for NPR a while ago for a canceled series called Wish You Were Here, about places writers remembered. They never published that audio, but an FB message on Juan Les Pins from great friends of mine gave the memory back to me. It was written for radio.
“Antibuh! Antibuh!,” the train conductor sang approaching Antibes, in the south of France, between Alpine foothills and the Mediterranean: a Greco-Roman port with medieval ramparts and silver glints of a storied sea—the sea of Odysseus, Picasso, Zorba the Greek. It was The Joy of Life. It was Tender is the Night. Graham Greene’s haven. Kazantzakis’s chosen exile. A winter refuge where I imagined Fitzgerald working on a problematic manuscript, maybe Trimalchio, later called Gatsby.
We were unpublished novelists writing our second books. In 1996, the franc was weak and we were bold. Rents were cheap. We paid, sight unseen, for a summer hovel near Placette Kazantzakis, thinking the name was a sign.
We had blundered into bliss. The patchwork of Provencal facades stuck out in unplanned streets with crooked lanes, like a child’s pastel mosaic, or a Matisse. Bougainvillea enflamed the air and hid the writer’s plaque: Zorba had been here. We saw sailboats from our window, cutouts in a livid blue. The sea breath of mussels mingled with the malingering scent of lavender from the Alpilles.
Daily we saw the sea.
The Mediterranean throws sunlight back up in centrifugal shards that boomerang into its azure. This brilliant economy of light spreads a glut of haze across the water: material, luxuriant, blinding. And the beach—orgastic overload of naked breasts with careful tans, bronzed grandmothers, babies glittering in the sun—gleams as if in gold.
Sounds of travelers—Swedes, Spaniards, Swiss—kept us awake in an endless loop of sensuous alertness. Cicadas’ songs, lovers’ fights in unknown languages, vagrant wafts of moules frites, whistling waiters walking home among Monet’s leaning pines at four a.m. Our senses never deserted us.
We’d wake up to buy croissants from the boulangerie girl who looked vaguely familiar. Later, I understood why—she looked different with clothes on. We’d become communards, joined by neighborly nakedness, lying spread-eagled like cultists embracing a voluptuous mortality, baking our bodies as if death had already been conquered—we were in paradise.
Going home on warm cobbles wet with beach footprints, we’d revisit sellers of Proustian magic lanterns and Victorian silhouettes, jugglers by the toyshop, old men throwing balls in the sand—ancient arts in living guises. Everywhere on the Riviera the old men played boules, an infinite regression that made you believe the game went on forever.
Our daughter acquired a habit: she’d end with gelato, clutching her merry-go-round ticket, a neon-colored heart. As Baudelaire described it: Luxury, calm and pleasure. She’d spin slowly around on that carousel—a snapshot of eternal joy.
Years later, I bought a poster of Picasso’s painting of Antibes—The Joy of Life. A naked girl dancing with piping fauns and happy goats in blue and yellow Antibes. After the war, Picasso had found a site of immortal pleasure in defiance of disaster. Antibes! Antibes! In my novel begun those summers, I slipped in slices of Antibes, as if by writing one could preserve it, the joy of life, forever, even though, of course, one would not.
that’s the Joy of Life, hanging on a wall…