This Fabled Coast - Treasures of Provence

This Fabled Coast

On the Riviera, almost every town and village proclaims its literary associations. Wall plaques and street signs – from the avenue Somerset Maugham to the avenue Katherine Mansfield – recall former writer residents.

 The French Riviera, the sun-drenched south-eastern corner of France squeezed between the southern Alps and the Mediterranean Sea, has been a magnet for writers for seven centuries. Early in the 14th century, the exiled Florentine poet Dante passed through and wrote of its vertiginous mountains in his Inferno. Since then, generations of literary migrants have followed.

On the Riviera, almost every town and village proclaims its literary associations.Wall plaques and street signs – from the avenue Somerset Maugham to the avenue Katherine Mansfield – recall former writer residents.

Even its name is a writer’s creation: in 1887, when the French author Stephen Liégeard wrote a book about the Provençal coast, he never thought that its title, La Côte d’Azur (the Azure Coast) would live on to spawn a million glossy brochures. He must have kicked himself that he didn’t copyright it.

The early diarists were sons of the nobility, like the young biographer, James Boswell, rounding off their classical education with the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. But the Riviera was still only a side trip.

All that was to change with the arrival in 1763 of another writer, a 42-year-old Scottish surgeon, Tobias Smollett, a pioneering novelist whose work was a major influence on that of Charles Dickens. Smollett had handicaps that were incompatible with a travel-writing career: he suffered from chronic sea-sickness, and he was afraid of pirates. So he made his way to Nice along the almost road-less coast.

Smollett’s phobias were the Riviera’s bonanza. After his Travels Through France and Italy in 1766, the coast was no longer a diversion but a destination in its own right – and writers have flocked here ever since. Nice, the capital of the Côte d’Azur, credits Smollett with putting the Riviera on the tourist map, and in appreciation has put him on its own map, naming one of its streets the rue Smollett.

The reasons the writers came were as varied as their origins. Many came in search of freedom of various kinds. The British censor drove a number of writers abroad, including D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. Some authors, like Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov and playwright Berthold Brecht, fled tyrannical regimes: book-burning tends to discourage creative writing.

Many homosexual writers left Britain after the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 to avoid mounting public hostility, and the main motivation for the departure of P. G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess was an aversion to paying British income tax.

For some writers, the Côte d’Azur offered an escape from domestic complications: Maugham and H. G. Wells left token marriages behind them. Others, like Hans Christian Anderson, Aldous Huxley and Baroness Orczy, author of The Scarlet Pimpernel, were lured by the Mediterranean sun.

The stream of Americans who arrived in the 1920s, including novelists Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and humorists Dorothy Parker and James Thurber, creator of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, were fugitives from Prohibition – and beneficiaries of the extremely favourable exchange rate.

But the most distressing group of migrant scribblers were the many hundreds who came on medical advice which usually proved to be a well-intentioned ticket to eternity. The Côte d’Azur owed much of its prosperity to the misplaced faith of northern European doctors in the curative powers of its climate. In those pre-antibiotic times, British and Russian doctors who should have been sending their tubercular patients to Switzerland or the Black Sea shipped them by the trainload to Monaco and Menton.

In fact, only the bacilli flourished. After the railway was completed in 1859, pulmonary Pullmans puffed their way southwards, disgorging their wheezing cargoes onto sunny platforms. Baroque necropolises competed for the corpses of the bronchial Brits who spluttered their last here, their tombstones attesting to the brevity of their lives. Guy de Maupassant called it ‘the flowery cemetery of aristocratic Europe’.

The cultural windfall from the myth was enormous. Musicians came: Paganini and Rubenstein; painters like Aubrey Beardsley and Matisse; and especially writers – France’s de Maupassant, Russia’s Anton Tchekhov, Germany’s Friedrich Nietzsche, England’s Alan Sillitoe, Scotland’s Robert Louis Stevenson, Ireland’s W. B. Yeats and New Zealand’s Mansfield – all trekked to the azure coast in the hope of a miracle.

From Hyères to Eternity
The journey in the footsteps of these hundreds of expatriate writers is a rapturous one, taking in every corner of this meandering, 120-miles-long shore. It starts at the Riviera’s gateway, the old Roman port of Hyères, whose literary ghosts include the Russians Tolstoi and Turgenev, Americans Henry James and Edith Wharton, the Pole Joseph Conrad and Britons Kipling and Stevenson. Brecht, Huxley and the critic Cyril Connolly lived in nearby Sanary-sur-Mer.

Eastwards along the serpentine coastline, every road evokes leisure and literature: Cannes, where Arnold Bennett wrote The Regent; Antibes, where Jules Verne wrote Around the World in 80 Days, Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night, and where Greene wrote his last seven novels.

The sweeping 5-miles-long palm-fringed crescent of Nice’s Promenade des Anglais has been strolled by scores of writers, from Dickens to Wilde. On it, Louisa M. Alcott set parts of Little Women, and a young American poet named Sylvia Plath wrote a euphoric postcard to her mother.

Around the next bay, where the Cap Ferrat dangles like an earring into the Mediterranean, Somerset Maugham spent his last 40 irascible years. Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, chose Monaco, his ‘mini-Manhattan’, while Yeats and Mansfield breathed their last in Menton, within coughing distance of the Italian border.

Writers created the Côte d’Azur, and, down the ages, writers have perpetuated it. Its inspirational force is evident in the wealth of literature that was created here. For not only were established writers, relieved from day-to-day pressures, free to explore new styles, new genres and even new languages, but many new authors, inspired by sunshine, serenity and the proximity of other writers, found their voices here.