Novels based on history can be fascinating, particularly when the author demonstrates both a convincing commitment to facts and a dramatic ability to animate characters, events, and settings of the past. Adrien Goetz’s fictionalized history of the actual Villa Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera, follows this dual agenda. While the ups and downs—friendships, love, betrayal, and adventure—are given their due, the book is most successful in its historical research. Still, Goetz’s exploration of such themes as class disparity and anti-Semitism—set against the construction of a villa based on one from an era, ancient Greece, known for its democratic ideals—adds a certain piquancy to the tale.
The main protagonist is the Villa Kerylos, built in 1902–08 by the architect Emmanuel Pontremoli, for his clients Theodore and Fanny Reinach, who are French, Jewish, and extremely affluent. The narrator, the fictionalized Achilles Leccia, is a Greek Corsican whose mother, a chef, and father, a gardener, live nearby on the estate of Gustave Eiffel. (For all the engineering innovation of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, its designer occupied a rather traditional house.)
Through Eiffel, the young Achilles gets to know the Reinachs. In spite of his admitted lack of culture and being an “absolutely hopeless” student, Achilles is taken under the wing of the scholarly patron Theodore, who insists he learn archaic Greek as well as draw the house while it is being constructed. Achilles later becomes a painter.
Goetz’s description of the house is precise in its details but strangely vague in suggesting the overall experience of the place. Differentiating it from its antique model, Theodore wanted it to have a lot of windows—each a “frame for a fragment of landscape”—along with modern plumbing. But for all his interest in the architecture, Goetz doesn’t apply the Greek notion of ekphrasis (a vivid description for a work of art) very thoroughly in discussing the result, with its peristyle of Doric columns, mosaics, and other design features. Although the plans are in the book, it might have helped to have included photos. But you can see views of the furnished rooms and exteriors online—or even visit the restored house-museum. In addition, there is a French book of essays and photos, La Villa Kérylos, edited by Regis Vian des Rives, with a preface by Karl Lagerfeld. This is not to be confused with The Villa Kerylos: A Novel, by Carolyn Doggett Smith, that takes place during the Roman Empire with another house named Kerylos (Greek for sea swallow). With this publishing background, it is easier to understand the current title, Villa of Delirium.
While Goetz’s undertaking is impressive, there is a point when all his scholarly digging makes you want to say, “Just get on with the story.” The author, who teaches art history at the Sorbonne and is editor of Grand Galerie, a quarterly published by the Louvre, has been praised for his erudition. But erudition can seem so precious, even if you think that stuffing the novel with tons of facts is edifying. Here, the ambience oddly gets lost.