The Hôtel Chevillon in Grez-sur-Long has long been a place of artistic endeavour. The Swedish writer and playwright August Strindberg and his wife Siri resided there. Another Swedish writer, Carl Larsson, lived in a small house in the surrounding compound and his daughter was born in the attic room.
The bridge that crosses the River Loing at the foot of the hotel grounds featured in paintings by The Glasgow Boys. And Robert Louis Stevenson, then 25, romanced his future wife Fanny Osbourne at the Chevillon in 1875, making an initial impression by crashing through the terrace window into the dining room.
The skies are postcard blue in Grez when I finally arrive. In a sweaty daze I pass the church, the remains of a castle and reach the main street, Rue Larsson. A small silver plaque on the hotel’s grey exterior bears its name. After opening the front door with a skeleton key, I’m immediately struck by the winding staircase which showcases paintings of the river and bridge. The bridge is drawn from different perspectives and in a range of palettes – sketches, watercolours, oils – and in summer hues, bright hellfire colours and muted blues. To the left of the staircase is the salon, with worn sofas and blue and yellow stained glass windows. Beyond the salon is a library with a shabby red chair and stacks of books, including a hefty Scottish section donated by previous recipients of the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship.
There are six apartments in total, named after August Strindberg, Finnish cartoonist Ville Vallgren, Stevenson, Julia Berg and Carl Larsson, as well as the Skagen painters. My apartment is number 3. There’s a framed photo of a moustachioed RLS placed outside it. His stepdaughter, Belle Strong, once called him ‘a nice looking ugly man’. That seems about right. No. 3 is the best of all the apartments, not for its size but because of its central position above the grassy courtyard. I can see silver ribbons of the Loing, the dip and hump of the bridge, the roofs of the other flats and the leafy trees which provide a sylvan walkway down to the river.
Stevenson arrived at Grez in 1875, along with his cousin Robert Alan Mowbray Stevenson (known as RAM Stevenson) and returned for two summers after that. In an essay he wrote of the Hôtel Chevillon: ‘The inn garden descends in terraces to the river; stableyard, kailyard, orchard and a space of lawn; fringed with rushes and embellished with a green arbour.’ After I put away my things I go for a wander. Stevenson was right about the garden descending in low terraces but where the stable yard was there is only a shambling wood structure and a lone apple tree is all that’s left of the orchard. What was once ‘an English-looking plain, set thickly with willows and poplars’ on the river’s opposite bank is now a raucous campsite, teeming with people in neon swimsuits riding unicorn-shaped inflatables. The Loing has a shimmering gold and green hue, clear to the bottom, with sunken stones and floating reeds. RLS wrote a rather mawkish poem about it:
Know you the river near to Grez,
A river deep and clear?
Among the lilies all the way,
That ancient river runs to-day
From snowy weir to weir.
The bridge doesn’t disappoint. Stretching across the Loing, its seven muscular pillars support the concrete decking that fills one’s view. Today it’s a springboard for young French men from the camp ground who dive into the only part of the river deep enough to absorb them. Their gymnastic leaps provide entertainment for our side of the river and cannonball splashes soon become a part of my daily background noise.
That evening from my open windows, I spot other residents gathering on the rusted chairs near the river. I tentatively join them, armed with some bottled poetry. RLS once wrote of the goings-on at Chevillon: ‘Dinner over, people drop outside to smoke and chat. Perhaps we go along to visit our friends at the other end of the village, where there is always a good welcome and a good talk, and perhaps some pickled oysters and white wine to close the evening.’
Everyone by the river is Scandinavian. There are Swedish writers, academics, visual artists and sound artists, as well as a Finnish writer and a graphic novelist. They quickly switch to English when I join them, which I feel a little guilty about as it means the pace of conversation slows. We speak about cold winters and ice hockey. We agree about the talented Sedins, Swedish twins who played hockey in Vancouver where I am originally from. One of the Swedish writers claims that Scotland and Scandinavia are connected by their upper latitudes, drink and depression. ‘We all ride the melancholy line,’ he says, ‘the whisky and aquavit line.’ My new friends also tell me that a previous occupant of the RLS apartment heard knocking in the night. ‘Stevenson died in Samoa,’ I say hopefully, ‘so that’s a long ways away.’ ‘Perhaps it’s Strindberg,’ one of them laughs. That night we drink for a long time by the river, build a fire in a makeshift pit, and watch the planet Mars shine like a small torch over the bridge.
* * *
After such an intense first day, the subsequent days tumble into each other. Some mornings I wake up excited and ready to work; others, I struggle to get started. Like Stevenson, I am usually awake early, courtesy of dawn breaking and amorous birds on the roof: ‘If you have not been wakened up by some adventurous pigeon,’ he wrote, ‘you will be awakened by the light.’ On the advice of seasoned residency goers, I try to develop a routine. In the mornings I cross the street to the boulangerie, where they delicately wrap your baguette or éclair in monogrammed paper. I run along the path to the neighbouring town of Nemours, passing dogs sleeping on fishing boats. I cycle, too, on a white road bike named Nakamura. I pedal to one town, sit in the hot sun for a while, and pedal to the next town. I like running or cycling over the bridge back to Grez; it raises a small, triumphant flag in me, like I’m coming home. I know what to look out for: the strip of burnt grass on the bank, the glowing Loing, and on our side of the river, the rusted chairs and the red shovel which has no obvious purpose.
And I write, of course, more drafts of poems in a month than I normally do in a year. At my window overlooking the courtyard, I work on the sequence of villanelles which come easily due to the freedom of only being expected to do one thing. I work on my sequence on the life of Muriel Spark too, using material I had previously excavated from her archive in the National Library of Scotland. Spark adored Stevenson; her best friend Frances Niven lived next door to Stevenson’s house in Edinburgh. I read a biography of him, which says that he and Fanny consummated their relationship in Grez, and I clean the surfaces in the apartment even more vigorously. I struggle a bit with the seclusion and having such a big space to fill up with my thinking. ‘It’s strange to have no one need you for anything’, I say to the Finnish writer, who is spending six months here, from summer to New Year. In the evenings I look out the window, bemused by my new temporary life. Once a hot air balloon, farmhouse red, flies over the roof of the hotel and its tiny flame makes me well up.
* * *
There are more social gatherings by the river, fuelled by copious amounts of wine and, sometimes, cognac. Going to the river was code for wanting to socialize, though I often sat there in complete silence with the others while we all read. ‘There is a wish for solitude,’ Stevenson said. One night after writing solidly for a few days, I wander out to the courtyard with a glass of wine, wondering if I’m being unsociable. I see rows of lit boxes, windows pooling with light; everyone was working, on the hottest evening in August.
On the last evening, there is a big dinner for everyone in the courtyard. As we sit having an after-dinner aperitif, a Swedish writer says that the Chevillon was a secret SS Headquarters. It would make sense, she says, because of its proximity to Paris and reports of soldiers bathing in the river. A shadow is suddenly cast.
The next day, I depart. I have mixed feelings about leaving. ‘Life at Grez,’ Stevenson wrote, ‘was deliciously complicated as life in an artists’ colony should be.’ Though when RLS was here, he was chasing after his future wife Fanny, while his cousin RAM had his eye on Fanny’s young daughter Belle. Most of the ‘complication’ for the writers now at Grez seems internal; we were hard at our work, enjoying the experience of being at Chevillon, then moving on.