Name in the Sand

In the early 1960s I was living in a village in southwest France overlooking the river Dordogne. For most or all of the year I explored the countryside on foot, and eventually I bought, from an acquaintance who was leaving the region, a Vespa, a wonderfully quiet model on which I could go putt-putting along back lanes too far away for me to walk in an afternoon. There was far less traffic in those days than there is now, and before I had the moto for long I took to fastening a bedroll and a few essentials onto the rack over the rear wheel and taking off to wander for a few days at a time, discovering the country to the southeast, southwest, always to the south. I wound my way along the Aveyron and across the Causse Noir. I slept in empty barns in woods or in small village hotels. The country, as I remember it, was still magically unselfconscious, as one hopes discoveries will be. It had years to go before the touch of tourism reached it. I am not sure now how many times, on those trips, I crossed the river Tarn and went up the hill along the river into the main square of Albi beside the huge brick block of the cathedral.

In college, a few years earlier, I had read what Cyril Connolly had written about Albi, a favorite city of his. He considered it one of the key points of what he called the magic triangle, the heart of what he loved in southern France, and in Europe. I had never seen Europe when I read him, and I had tried to imagine the Albi he wrote about, where he, in turn, looking out across the river from a window of the old Bishop’s Palace—a kind of fortress that had been turned into a museum—tried to imagine the Albi of roughly half a century earlier, when it had been Toulouse-Lautrec’s city, before the painter went off to Paris. I had not known then, when I read about Toulouse-Lautrec, just how long the echo of those two names, Toulouse and Lautrec, had resounded in the antiquity of the region. I had read almost nothing about the city’s earlier history. My knowledge of what came to be called the Albigensian Crusade—named for the city, of course, although Albi was not one of those that suffered most—was sparse and scattered.

Connolly had written of his admiration for the massive red cathedral and for its looming, grisly altarpiece with the helpless figures of the damned reaching vainly, out of a sea of damnation, for the world they have lost, and I stared at it trying to recognize what he had seen in it, since I knew little about the place or the painting except what I could remember of his writing, and the details in the few brochures in the church porch. I had not heard then of a French explorer named Jean-François Galaup, Comte de La…

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