There can’t be many things I have in common with the down and outs of Richmond, but it is clear that we both share one affinity; the local graveyard. I know why I like it. Apart from it being a short-cut to the station there is something special about its airy calm, elegantly bordered York-slab paths and dappled light. Though it offers many places to sit and ponder, as I hurry through to catch my train, my eyes are drawn to two particular monuments.
One is a plaque half way up the church wall erected in memory of the writer Barbara Hofland, who died in 1844, which shows, in relief, a beautiful young woman in a décolleté dress. The other is a low, rectangular tomb with a striking inscription at one end, in clear, bold lettering announcing “WILLIAM HICKEY; Gent 1728”.
I imagine the down and outs are also attracted by the calm and the idea of not being disturbed. They are usually sitting on a stone bench under a fig tree just opposite the church door, where they chat, muse, stare, and sip for hours on end. Here then is an intimate, unpretentious graveyard that is much loved and much used.
How different it is from the vast, packed, busy and impersonal cemetery in the Montparnasse district of Paris that my wife and I visited last week. In fact we went twice. This is where Guy de Maupassant, who died when he was only 42, is buried. In recent weeks I have fallen in love with his short stories and wanted to pay him my respects. It is certainly more than his parents did; neither deemed it worthwhile to attend his funeral. On our first visit we arrived at 5.45 in the afternoon. No sooner were we through the front gate and some way along the Avenue Principale than we were interrupted by men blowing whistles and by a guard tolling a bell over the exit. We were being asked to leave. We dawdled and were the last out. At 6.00 the big iron gates slammed shut behind us, locking in the souls of thousands in the company of, no doubt, the occasional Parisian down and out clochard, to sleep the night behind some faulty mausoleum doors. It was all very eerie. There are no such gates around my local graveyard!
Next day we were back; this time it was morning. From the various cemetery maps dotted around, we discovered that Maupassant’s grave was in the north west corner of the cemetery in the centre of section 26A. There must have been tens of thousands of graves in all, packed so tightly that it was difficult to walk in between them. Finding our goal was going to be difficult.
With Samuel Becket, Maurice Chevalier, Simon de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Seberg and Constantin Brâncusi all close by, Maupassant was certainly in excellent company. But whatever was going on underground, it all seemed very empty and heartless up on top.
Then we spotted some people taking photos at, or close to, a grave in the distance. Could that be it? After clambering between gravestones made slippery by a recent shower, we were there. The ‘group’ that had acted as a beacon were actually an American mother with her gently sobbing daughter and a middle-aged German couple. We waited our turn, and then we too admired, inspected, touched and photographed Maupassant’s grave. After a few minutes we wandered quietly off. The pilgrimage was over.
But why had we bothered? I cannot speak for Rohan, but in a primitive way I went to pay homage and to say thank you. For years I have rarely read novels, but as part of my French homework I have been working through a book of Maupassant’s short stories. They have been a revelation. His beautiful, even ingenious, use of words to draw me along, to create images, to tease, amuse and involve, has been an eye-opener. Normally I have found make-believe stories a problem. With him, they feel right. Maybe his writing will get me into reading novels again. Something I have hardly done since I was a teenager.
And there is a confession. I chose Maupassant by mistake. I had intended to buy the short stories of the sixteenth century French essayist Montaigne, but asked the sales assistant for Maupassant in error. Not a bad mistake as it turns out!
Be that as it may, as we left the impersonal, somewhat hostile cemetery of Montparnasse, I thought of our intimate, almost friendly, graveyard in Richmond. I am sure Maupassant with his whimsical stories would have felt more at home there.