Frederick Turner, who lives here in Santa Fe, is the writer or editor of over a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction. This volume is a delightfully easy read, because of both its style and subject. Who wouldn’t want to read all about the famous temple caves of France, by a writer who knows more than a thing or two about them, and relays it all in a delightfully erudite and travelogue style? Turner has a range of companion accomplices, all of whom are as interested in the history of the caves and what they tell us, as they are in good food, wine and art. Turner is himself a great character, and the comrades in his quests, from St. Emilion and Alain Querre to St. Sulpice and Turner’s son, Charley, stand up well alongside him in these tales.
We learn, of course, about the caves, the dozens of millennia they span, and what they tell us about the history of human interest in and capacity for making art, as it developed over time. We get readable and sophisticated accounts—not just from professors and professionals, but from vintners, rustic hoteliers, and all manner of interesting other people—on what we know and don’t about the various caves and other sites Turner visits. “If your antennae are out, even your mistakes and meanders can give you gifts that enrich your sense of a territory in ways you appreciate only later.” We get an unexpected jolt from a chapter about a site that has little to do with art, but tells the astonishing story of Oradour-Sur-Glane, where war crimes were committed by the Nazis on a solitary village—a place that is no more, but was intentionally left to stand as a reminder of the power of the darkest human souls. Astonishing and unsettling.
Two slim chapters near the end, “Balzac versus Hitler” and “Degenerate Art”, serve as a poetic ramble, through some singular country places, about what the place of Art is in human life. To attempt all this in language that is both elegant and simple, while tackling all the intangibles of lives well lived and lives lost to the worst in people, is to shoot for the moon.
Turner’s done that, and hit a star.
So find a copy online, or put your local independent bookseller on it. You’ll both be glad you did.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .