14 July 2013


The Rings of Corsica - In memory of W G Sebald

"....my wishful thinking about a few last years with no duties of any kind soon gave way to a need to fill the present afternoon somehow, and so I found myself, hardly knowing how I came there, in the entrance hall of the Musee Fesch, with notebook and pencil and a ticket in my hand."  So wrote W G Sebald in an essay entitled "A Little Excursion to Ajaccio," written in the mid-90s, but now published in "Campo Santo."  Sebald died in December 2001, when the car he was driving (with his daughter - who survived - as passenger) swerved into a lorry coming the other way. He may have suffered an aneurysm.   Sadly he did not have many years with no duties of any kind. [Perhaps I should add that W G Sebald was Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia and was the author of five of the most influential psycho-fictional-travel books created in recent times, which include, "The Rings of Saturn," a book to take to heaven.]

Napoleon Bonaparte, in a toga, in Ajaccio

He wrote at the time that, "It was a beautiful, sunlit day, the branches of the palms in the Place Marechal-Foch moved gently in a breeze coming off the sea.... and I wandered through the streets feeling care-free and at ease....."  I remember that day, too, and I too have wandered carefree and easily in the Ajaccio streets.  It is an energetic city, slightly out of place on the wild island of Corsica, as it seems more continental than its companion urban centres.

However, both Sebald and I were under the spell of Napoleon, who was born here on August 15th 1769 (that's his mother above). This was the second house the Bonaparte family had occupied in Ajaccio, where Napoleon's father, Charles-Marie Bonaparte, was Lawyer to the Superior Council of Corsica. The house is cool and uncluttered. It is difficult to imagine the young emperor and his seven siblings careering round the chambers, but it is not hard to envisage his father sipping a glass of Muscat with some prisuttu ham and figatellu sausage, gazing out of the first floor window, wondering how his children would turn out.....


Corsica has a wonderful roller-coaster metre-gauge railway that connects Bastia with Calvi and Ajaccio.  At the meeting point of the two lines, Ponte Leccia, there is a station, with a waiting room.  In the middle of absolutely no where - no nothing, not even a view to recommend, though of course it is wild bandit country all around - there is a station, a platform, and a waiting room.  And in the waiting room was (perhaps still is?) a portrait of a plump Napoleon Bonaparte, as if he was the current ruling dignitary of the island. Dusty, eerily quiet, and desolate;  I waited there for the train to take me to Calvi, and for an hour or two thought I was back in the early nineteenth century.

I have always arrived in Corsica by sea - so far, never by air - and the port of entry has been Bastia, a typically Mediterranean fishing-come-ferry port, with restaurants overlooking the harbour, and narrow streets unwinding away to the boulevardes of the modern city.

It is very Mediterranean, and could well be Italian, though there is an underlying Frenchness on this side of the island.  Once ruled by Genoa, but for generations uncomfortably under the supervision of the Gendarmerie, it is a francophone version of La Spezia, or a smaller cross between Livorno and Marseilles.

The south of the island, once ruled by the Pisans, is more Italian, and also is geologically dissimilar in that it is limestone rather than granite.  Bonifacio perches perilously over the cliffs veering towards Sardinia, and has a character, and a dialect, much more Italian than French.  The restaurant in this picture is called 'A Marichella' with a Neapolitan resonance.

And only a stone's throw (quite literally) away the sea erodes while the beautiful people fry their skin cells.

While on the west of the island, the aforementioned Ajaccio, flies the common flag of the whole Mediterranean, the string of washing (characteristically displaying the French colours) run out from apartments with no other space.

The island is tortuous to explore. In 1765 James Boswell journeyed from Bastia to Corte, and back; "For some time I had very curious travelling, mostly on foot, and attended by a couple of stout women who carried my baggage upon their heads." A little later he was more fortunate, and, "From Murato to Corte I travelled through a wild, mountainous, rocky country, diversified with some large valleys. I got little beasts for me and my servant, sometimes horses but oftener mules or asses....."


Ultimately everyone arrives at Corte, once capital of the island, though a curiously small town, dominated by a sinister citadel perched precariously atop a crag. Boswell records visiting this castle and being shown round. There were three prisoners on death row and a miserable hangman, who was a Sicilian. Being, "held in utmost detestation," this poor chap, "was obliged to take refuge in the Castle and there he was kept in a little corner turret, where he had just room for a miserable bed and a little bit of fire to dress such victuals for himself as were sufficient to keep him alive....." 

In Corsica time could be measured against the menhirs which appear at various sites on the island. These curious stones, with minimalist but absolutely recognisable human faces, are found here and there, with little apparent reason, and date back some 3,500 years. The settlement at Filitosa, one of the most impressive of these sites, may have been occupied by menkind for some 7,000 years, but there are only megaliths, not megabytes, to record this.

"The head was clearly shaped: a large round head with protruding ears, sinister close-set eyes and a faint indication of moth and nose. Neck and shoulders were carved from the block; but the body was simply a flattened shaft of stone, with a ridge, just discernible, crossing it diagonally: not an arm, it seemed, but a sword....."

"Few works of art have ever made so strong an impression on me as these enigmatic, rudimentary human figures. They were uncouth, they were barbaric; yet their impact was sharpened by what I recognised as familiar in their strangeness...... They moved me in the acute and disturbing way of things long lost and suddenly rediscovered, which is more poignant, far, than the shock of what is altogether unknown." This is Dorothy Carrington in "Granite Island," ("A Portrait of Corsica") a book first published in 1971, but which was based on a trip to the island in 1948 and subsequent visits over twenty years. The book is a dense but mesmerising account of Corsican history and culture.

Dorothy Carrington tells of the customs of old Corsica, but also evokes the scenery, the jagged edge of a Mediterranean culture that is not so remote as one would expect. In some ways hers is a book that would have pleased W G Sebald, though it is more detailed, more precise and focussed than his work appears.

"Sebald's work is driven by associative thinking – coincidences, connections – but his chief aim was to evoke and capture, and his images, rich in mystery, or resonant with pathos, are what linger. A corpse released by a glacier. An office spilling with paper....."   Leo Robson, The Guardian, 21st June 2013.  

Corsica lends itself to fanciful images and combinations of ideas.  In the picture above, the human viewer will note the road and simple houses, the ruined wall, the clouds and the rugged mountain ridge, and then will come back to the browsing cow with the flickery tail. Carrington would most probably link the picture to pasturage and husbandry and account for the development of the high bergeries.  Sebald would find a way to pursue his theme of desolation even in the brightest of light, identifying the cold heights as sources of hope, of a kind.  "This story of the burning of the frozen substance of life has, of late, meant much to me, and I wonder now whether  inner coldness and desolation may not be the pre-condition for making the world believe, by a kind of fraudulent showmanship, that one's own wretched heart is still aglow."  (The Rings of Saturn, Part IV).

My own love for Corsica derives from the juxtaposition of life and hardness: the way that trees sprout from barren rock; wild boar forage amongst the brittle stones, and remote dwellings are shaped from the natural environment.

On my first visit I was alone with Lord Byron, walking and reading, and sleeping rough to the rhythm of Don Juan.  The first night, in a wild patch on the outskirts of Bastia, I found I had slept on a scorpion's nest.  Another night I shared with some of the most aggressive mosquitoes I have ever met, in a low lying wood near the coast at Porto.  On another, more romantic occasion, I tried to sleep in "An English Park" near Ajaccio but was pestered by some deluded and amorous tortoises. Up on the Grande randonnée 20 (now said to be the toughest long distance path in Europe), which then was overgrown and almost impassable, despite being one of the main mule tracks across the island at one time, I slept in a stone hut whose floor was entirely dried goat and donkey droppings.....

Returning some years later, the spot was virtually unchanged, except that it had passed from black and white to colour, and I was in the company of my wife.  The Restonica was as fresh and clean as ever and our bathing was a thing of paradise before the fall.  

A touch of paradise

Later still we returned with our children, who in their turn appreciated the isolation and remoteness, the splashing of clear waters and the rustling of breeze driven leaves.

Rock dominates Corsica.  The terrain is severe, the geology unforgiving.  High in the hills you can find erratic features and along the deep valleys you will struggle to bypass boulders and cliffs.

Sebald did not have enough time in Corsica to weave the same allusive magic that he found for The Rings of Saturn, but he made a start. "My first walk on the day after my arrival in Piana took me out on a road that soon begins falling away steeply in terrifying curves, sharp bends and zigzags, leading past almost vertical rocky precipices densely overgrown by green scrub, and so down to the bottom of a ravine opening out into the Bay of Ficajola several hundred metres below....." (Campo Santo.)

What he perhaps did not experience is another natural (?) phenomenon that continually plagues the island, which is fire. In summer, the intense sunshine dries everything to tinder, and then winds can whip up to one hundred and fifty km/h stir ring the dust and awaiting a spark, which may come from a piece of broken glass, an electrical fault, a discarded cigarette or a deliberate match or lighter.

While the burning of undergrowth and even trees is a natural part of regeneration, it is very scary to wildlife and humans alike, and the experience of trying to sleep when there is a blustering wind shaking the shutters, the sound of sparks showering and spitting across the sky, and the acrid odour of charcoaled broom, is not something that tour operators will promote.

Those that fight the fires are brave and tireless.  Canadairs, some from Italy, will bank and bomb for an hour or more, providing they have a lake nearby to refill from.  In more difficult terrain, helicopters will suction up water from wells or ponds, and then pour it down on the undying flames.

But firemen on the land, with their vulnerable appliances, battle against the scourge, valiantly attempting to divert conflagration from property or livestock, vineyard or orchard. It is devilishly difficult and many of the fires are set deliberately by unscrupulous developers perhaps.

At the end of the day, however, to cite a cliche, the sun will go down, the wind will drop, the air will cool and the rain will fall (Corsica has a higher average rainfall than Ireland).  

"Only as the sun sank beneath the horizon was the surface of the sea extinguished; the fire in the rocks faded, turned lilac and blue, and shadows moved out from the coast. It took my eyes some time to become accustomed to the soft twilight, and then I could see the ship that had emerged form the middle of the fire was now making for Porto harbour so slowly that you felt it was not moving at all....." (The Alps in the Sea.)

Time to Kill

Sundown is time to take stock of the day, to unwind with a book and to take refreshment, which in French style is with a long glass of Pastis with lots of ice and water.  In the first part of The Rings of Saturn Sebald writes that, "All I could hear was the wind sweeping in from the country and buffeting the window; and in between, when the sound subsided, there was the never entirely ceasing murmur in my own ears."

Corsica resonates.  I Muvrini, once a most popular group on the island, sing in harmony and intone their tales of bandits and shepherds.  I remember meeting a shepherd in the hills above Corte once, and discussing, in Italo-French, the difficulty of the terrain and the variable weather.  He smiled in a relaxed and patient way.  

WG Sebald
W G Sebald

The heart of Corsica is stone, but it beats with calm defiance.  Never laid waste, never tamed, still a place of virgin territory despite the charter planes that invade the northern shores, Corsica resonates with tradition and flavour.  On the feast of Sampiero (a sixteenth century Corsican hero) I stepped off a bus in Sartene, at breakfast time, and soon found myself seated with a group of young men drinking brandy for breakfast.  

On a return from the island, I took a slow train from Piombino and unpacked a ripe Corsican ewe's milk cheese to revive me as a snack.  In little time the carriage was empty but for one other person, the film director Francesco Rosi, who sat unconcerned at the rustic savour, lost in a Sebaldian reverie, circling, circling.

"Between two worlds life hovers like a star
'Twixt night and morn upon the horizon's verge.
How little do we know that which we are!"

Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto XV, 99

Musée Nationale de la maison Bonaparte, rue Saint-Charles - 20000 Ajaccio

Campo Santo: W G Sebald, ISBN 978-0-141-01786-0

The Rings of Saturn: W G Sebald. ISBN 1-86046-399-1

Granite Island: Dorothy Carrington, ISBN0-14-009524-1

Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica and France, 1765

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