Napolean’s Roads

David Brooks

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else.

—R. M. Rilke, “The Panther,” trans.
Stephen Mitchell

 

At first I thought they were windbreaks to shield the vines and villages from the Mistral, or else some charming custom of the particular area in which I found myself, a throwback to an earlier and nobler time. More than once in my mind’s eye I saw a grand ducal carriage making graceful progress down one of these long, tree-lined avenues in the early autumn twilight. But no. Madame Elizabeth told me, when I mentioned them, that they were Napoleon’s roads, the Routes Napoleon, and that he had had the trees planted to shade his troops, while on maneuvers, from the harsh high-summer sun. And the idea had stuck. Even now, she said, almost two hundred years later, hardly a new road was opened that did not soon have, on either side, its avenue of trees.

     • •

All through the region they run among vines. In
the winter the clipped stocks reach out for acres on either side
of the avenues of trees like ranked armies being inspected by lines
of silent officers, or else quietly waiting, before battle, for
a signal. Watching them there is also something else, that you have
also seen before—the ranked order, the long rows of stunted
crosses, as if these too were somehow Napoleon’s idea, or there
had been an idea, a shape before all of it, running through Napoleon’s
veins.

     • •

At the Jardin des Plantes there is no panther,
only a couple of aged lions in an ancient cage at an intersection
of paths with a commanding view of the broad, central avenue. They
do not pace, as the panther might, but sit at the base of their
large rocks, looking out over the sparse winter crowd, with rheumy
eyes that, it suddenly occurs to me, might well be totally blind.

Another day, walking back toward the fifth arrondissement,
from the Gare d’Austerlitz, we pass the Jardin on the river side
and find we can see clearly into the cage of wolves from the Cévennes.
It is 4:00 p.m. The
traffic is heavy on the Quai Saint Bernard. The wolves are relentlessly
pacing out a large figure eight, over their small hill, down the
other side, along the bottom end of the cage, back up the hill to
cross the path they have just taken, then down on our side, along
the fence, back up, crossing the path, down. Watching them, I am
glad there is no panther, that he is out there somewhere, long dead,
free of the cage. Paris is freezing. As we set off toward the hotel
the wind picks up and an icy rain starts. I imagine the wolves pacing
just to keep warm.

     • •

Napoleon’s roads are very straight and very dangerous.
There is little room to maneuver. Drivers in this country have a
lust for speed, and for passing the car in front of them—a
kind of wild impatience behind the steering wheel that is probably
the inverse of their famous grace and civility in the office and
drawing room. They are sauvage, my landlady says, and will tailgate at high speed, pass in almost impossible
places. With large trees every five meters or so on either side
of the road and only centimeters from the bitumen, there is no margin
for error. Where in another country a slewing or swerving car might
veer into an open field or ride up onto pavement, here there is
only almost certain death, wrapped around one of Napoleon’s trees.

     • •

Coming home from Montpellier long after sunset,
nearing the turnoff, using low beam behind a car a few hundred meters
in front of us, its light caged in by the long, straight avenue
of trunks and winter branches, it is as if we are speeding through
a tunnel far underground, or perhaps a vein, an artery in the night. 
“Do we have to take the turnoff?” my daughter asks me.
“Can’t we keep going? I love driving at night.” As if,
after all that, there would still be home at the end of it. Or this
were home for the moment, this warm capsule, flying through the
dark body of things.

     • •

A web—une toile d’araignée—with Paris at the center. Une toile abandoné? Or does the web still invoke the spider?

     • •

The first of the roads between the D32 and Puilacher,
the one closest to Canet, is only one car wide but still has its
row of plane trees along either side. To let past a car that is
coming the other way you have to pull over to the very edge, almost
into the ditch between the road and trees, or back up a hundred
yards to the highway, running an even greater risk of ditching yourself.
We call this road the stink road because of the large dam beside
it, full of the foul-smelling tailings from the winery. On warm
days when the smell is worst we try to avoid the road entirely,
or else quickly wind up the windows, drive along it holding our
breath.

     • •

They are pulling up the road to Claremont in preparation
for the autoroute. Now, instead of the great trees between Canet
and the Nebian turnoff, there are only the trunks of them, cut into
segments, and the enormous, ploughed root-balls, almost lost, at
sunset, in the gathering shadow below the pylons.

     • •

On the vast plain between Paris and the sea, the
roads to Chartres are lined with tall poplars, bare winter branches
interlacing high over the bitumen, the cathedral at the hub, stone
branches in its nave and narthex just touching, as if the builders
had been dreaming of poplars, or the tree-planters dreaming of the
high gothic arches, the tracings in the rose windows that seem to
remember the way the winter branches, interlocking over the roadway,
are like a three-dimensional map of roads in the sky, seen from
far off.

     • •

Late autumn, the harvest long over and the trimming
and uprooting of stocks well under way, the stocks and cuttings
and dead leaves raked into the ditches or piled in open spaces and
set alight. But some of it is out of hand. Tonight eleven large
blazes are visible from the Paulhan turnoff alone, and the fire
brigades from Clermont, Gignac, Paulhan, and Le Puget are all out.
Sirens everywhere. And the police, driving slowly along the darkening
vine-roads, looking for a culprit.

     • •

In London, up from the Languedoc and eating Lebanese
at the Gallip-li Café, I try to tell my English editor about
Australia. We are talking about Shakespeare and she doesn’t quite
see. I tell her about my resentment, my frustration. She tells me
about the great oaks and beeches and plane trees. I try to tell
her how they line the roads, how dangerous and complicated this
is, how they mark and shut out the countryside about them, but she
can see only the trees, how ancient and solid and majestic they
are, how nobly they mark out the land. Later, driving back to our
borrowed flat—past Picadilly, Trafalgar Square, the Smithfield
Markets, all those old names—I  remember what I should
have remembered then: how the great oaks and beeches of the New
Forest were cut down to build the ships that discovered Tahiti and
New South Wales; how on the Federal Highway, between Goulburn and
Collector, there runs an avenue of poplars (“piboule,” Madam said—we are living on the Avenue
de la Piboule—”that is also old languedocien for poplar”) remembering the soldiers killed in Amiens, Arras, Gallipoli.
Or how, beside them, someone has started to grow vines.

     • •

My daughter has an image that amuses her, of the
Emperor, on his days off, with a shovel and a cart full of saplings,
trudging along the roads between the grapevines, doing the planting
himself. Did Napoleon get the armies to do it, we wonder, or was
it gangs of prisoners, or perhaps of laborers, forced away from
their vineyards for the job? And, if prisoners, what kind of prisoners
would they have been? Common criminals? Political prisoners? Prisoners
of war? It’s like the Great Wall of China, I tell her, and perhaps
not; the different work sites, different regional commands, the
building piecemeal, the intention to connect it all at last in some
time far in the future (“You start from Béziers, on
the way to Pézenas; others will be starting at Montagnac,
St. Jean de Vedas, Gignac . . .

     • •

Car headlights, far back, in the rearview mirror,
like a large cat’s eyes in the darkness, and I think, That’s how
they are, or we, coming and going, from Paulhan to Belarga, Canet
to Plaissan, if seen from out there: the panther, pacing back and
forth, behind the bars of the trees.

     • •

Approaching the Intermarché just north
of Canet, along the short stretch of older trees before the river,
we are passed by a speeding ambulance, and twenty minutes later,
coming home, find it again, with two others and a police van in
a cluster blocking half of the highway. It must have happened while
we were buying the milk and the cigarettes. One car, front badly
crushed, is still on the road and the other, that had been trying
to pass it, is as badly crumpled on its side in the ditch. There
are enough people there already. I am concerned only to drive slowly
past and cannot look, but my daughter tells me they are taking a
bald man out of the car in the ditch—that they’ve had to cut
the car open to do so. The accident is just around the corner from
the stink road and we take it into Puilacher without thinking, winding
up the windows against the sudden smell of it.

     • •

On a hill beside Plaissan is a dolmen, though
you do not get to it from Plaissan but from Le Puget, up a long
dirt track and then through thickets of some wiry brush I don’t
ever manage to get a name for. A depression, or trench, or wide
grave, the earth held back by giant stones to create a narrow space
for the body, though whose body no one can say: a chieftain perhaps,
two thousand years ago. And around it—you can take in almost
a full circle if you stand on the huge lintel—the roads, with
their snaking, parallel lines of trees, in some pattern you would
need to be under a balloon to see properly. And perhaps, if you
could, other hills, other dolmens. Nazca. A summoning. Except that
the tombs remain empty, waiting.

     • •

Dogs on the road. Running toward me with no intention
of stopping. A game of chicken. So that I have to slow down, pull
to the side to let them pass, in their rush to get wherever they
are going. Part of a hunting pack, lost or on the scent of something,
the rest of them out among the vines. Up in the hills they are hunting
deer and wild boar, but here it is rabbits, or quails bred for the
purpose, released into the vines after the vendange, two weeks before the season starts. When you go out
walking, they say, wear bright colors, stick to the paths.

     • •

The problem with a question is that it implies
its own answer. The problem with an answer, that it responds to
a question. But the question that rejects its own answer? The answer
that will not fit its question? The memory of the tidal flats about
Mont St. Michel, and in the fields beyond them the stands of trees,
ranked, silver in the winter light, like fragments of roads long
washed away, or that never came, answers to a question no one ever
got around to asking.

How do you write like sand?

How do you write like water?

     • •

. . . Artarmon, Clovelly, Clontarf, La Perouse
. . .”)

     • •

To see the other roads, the other trees, is not
easy. You must almost risk your life. Particularly if you wish to
take photographs. You must pull to the side, half on and half off
the bitumen, on the thin strip of unmown grass that sometimes runs
between the ditch and the road itself, or turn on to one of the
service paths of the vineyards. Or else come to a dangerous halt
in the middle of the narrow road itself, hoping that you can be
finished and driving again before the next car comes. Bearing in
mind that while, when you’re moving, you can think yourself the
only driver on an otherwise deserted road, when you stop you’re
likely to find that this is far from so, that within a minute, or
not very much longer, a second car will pass, and then a third,
a fourth. Bearing in mind, too, that, unless you stop, unless you
risk your life, you may never see, in that articulated sky-map of
winter branches, a large crow landing, shaking the whole, or a flight
of swallows darting through, straight from a meal among the vines.

     • •

I am beginning to drive like a Frenchman, my daughter
tells me, taking greater risks, judging distances more finely, passing
when there’s no need to, driving at 120 in the 100 zones. I want
to tell her about Rimbaud, his “dérèglement
de tous les sens
,” “long,
immense et raisonné
.”
But it is not that. I have no excuse. The way, waking late at night,
I can sometimes hear my blood, raging down its avenues. The way,
not waking, I sometimes dream a dream of earliest childhood, in
the Humber with my mother and father, somewhere between Belgrade
and Zagreb, the rain, the long, straight road, the long avenues
of trees. The heart like a creature pacing, inside the cage of bones.
Things I cannot say, cannot retrieve.

     • •

Outside Canet, where the road narrows before the
bridge, the great bruised trees, or by the Gignac crossroad in ghostly
light, like scared men running, or the already-crucified, mile after
mile. No unknown but we try to cage it, as if that were our greatest
fear, the loose.

Driving in to town on a Tuesday evening, on the
road toward Gignac, I become aware of a giant moon, and have to
struggle to keep my eyes off it, to keep the car on the road. I
have never felt the moon’s power so strongly, so dangerously. All
the way to the autoroute it comes and goes, strobing through the
avenue of trees, slipping now behind a hill and appearing again,
suddenly, through a cloud of vine smoke. In Montpellier, safe among
the buildings, I feel lucky to have survived—as if, very physically,
something that had been pulling at me had at last let go.

     • •

How to say that these roads are about what is
not road, this text about what it is not? In the apartment on the
Avenue de la Piboule there is an aerial photograph of the surrounding
countryside and the villages of Les Six Clochers—Puilacher,
Tressan, Belarga, Canet, Plaissan, Le Pouget—in such detail
we can see the roof of our own building; the tree-lined roads like
dark ribbons through the lighter quadrilaterals of the vineyards,
the unlined roads and paths among them a lighter and finer filigree.
The Routes Napoleon, then, and the openness beyond them, the paragraphs
of vines, whiteness. And even this is not it. Even this is not what
I mean.

     • •

The road outside Capestang, or over the river
at Trèbes, above the ranked barges. There is a sudden turn
there, as the road, that has been straight for five or six kilometers,
enters the village and you cross the bridge—and calm, a moment’s
slowness after the highway speed, the majestic trees bending in
over the water, forming a great bower, and then the thin, winding
streets, the café, the tabac, the boulangerie, before highway
again, out through the acres of vines.

     • •

The plane and the poplar are fast-growing trees,
but even Napoleon, planting them along his roads, can’t have thought
they would be tall enough to shade his troops the next year, or
for several years to come. What was it then? Investment? Empire?
Belief in the future? Each year, when they did go on maneuvers—those
who lived, those who survived—the trees were a little taller,
a little fuller of foliage.

     • •

I imagine them singing as they marched, though
perhaps it was harsher than that, only the occasional soldier, singing
under his breath.

     • •

Thursday, 5:15 p.m.,
huge moon over Campagnon, round and full and riding low over the
scattered lights. Impossible to return the next night, but there
at the same time Saturday, with camera. No moon. Have clearly miscalculated
the rising times. Decide to pull off the road and wait anyway, to
see. And within two minutes a police car appears—I can just
make out the “Gendarme” sign in the half-dark—and
moves carefully up beside me. One of them—there are three
men in the car—winds the window slowly down as I do the same.
Does he think I have a shotgun? Matches?

“Un problem?”

“Non, pas de problem . . . J’attend un photo,”
holding up the camera, “—de la lune . . .”

“D’accord,” he says, calmly—not
the slightest reaction—and they drive off.

God knows what they say. Maybe nothing. The moon,
after all, is a remarkable thing. Even gendarmes watch it. Or must
have—I think as I drive away—an hour ago, as they paced
the D32, unable to take their eyes off it, huge and dangerous through
the bars of the trees.

 

     • •

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