Sometimes, casting around for the next destination, I find it between two covers. When the book is deeply-felt, closely-researched and beautifully-written, there can be no better inspiration for a trip, no better guide; in rare instances a satisfaction as complete as taking the journey.
I have never been to Conques, nestled in the uplands of south-central France, but I feel as if I have thanks to Little Saint, an exquisitely tender book by Hannah Green about the medieval hamlet and its patroness, St. Foy.
In the 4th century A.D. she converted to Christianity at the age of 12 and held firm even when her own father turned her in to Roman authorities. Afterward, the girl saint’s reliquary in the abbey church brought a steady stream of pilgrims who, as Green put it, “pray for her help, again and again in their devotion renewing her life, this eternal girl-child, daughter becoming woman, who held within herself the promise of all that is good and beautiful and healing."
Green and her husband, the artist Jack Wesley, discovered Conques in 1975, shortly after the publication of her first book, The House of the Dead--reading it was “like falling in love,” wrote critic Richard Ellman in the New York Times. But Green was a painfully slow writer who died in 2000, leaving Little Saint behind to be published posthumously.
The book unlocks the town, with its narrow streets and half-timbered houses in the Aveyron, a part of France famous for blue cheese but otherwise not especially favored by tourists. French people on the way from Paris to the Riviera zoom across the region on a remarkable new highway suspension bridge, the Millau Viaduct, designed by Norman Foster; others sightsee on the gorge of the River Tarn or hike in the Massif Central à la Travels with Donkey in the Cevennes, by Robert Louis Stevenson (but that’s another posting).
For those who find their way to Conques, Little Saint describes sites and diversions: dinner at the 17th century Hotel Sainte Foy, a bike ride past vineyards, springs and prehistoric standing stones in the surrounding countryside and, above all, a visit to the Abbey Church of St. Foy with its treasury museum and beguiling tympanum depicting the Last Judgment where St. Foy prays for sinners and the devil tries to tip the scales of justice his way.
Every place has a meaning, from Minnesota’s Mall of America to St. Foy’s Conques. Let us all stop for a moment to praise the books that tell use what it is. (more…)