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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

Gaston Vuillier (Part Three)

Welcome back to the final instalment on Ibiza's first travel writer, the much-maligned Gaston Vuillier (see Ibiza History Culture Archive Weekly Edition 061 of Saturday 27th April and Weekly Edition 063 of 11th May 2002 articles for the story so far). To kick off, I would like to share a few unusual titles from the travel genre which have recently caught my eye. If readers should spot any of the following in local libraries, bookshops or databases, your correspondent would appreciate a line with full bibliographic details:

1.Over the Cliff by Eileen d'Eauverre
2.Where to Find Islands by Archie Pelago
3.Weekend in Hong Kong by Rick Shaw
4.Two Yankees in Mexico by Peregrine Goase
5.Desert Walkabout by Mustapha Kammel
6.Swimming the Channel by Frances Neare
7.On the Beach by C. Shaw
8.How we Got to Bethlehem by Don Keyes
9.Crossing Rivers by Bridget Furst
10.Catching Butterflies by Annette Anne de Jarre
11.All My Travels by Wanda Lust
12.A Long Walk by Miss de Busse
13.Five Thousand Miles in the Saddle by Major Aspern

Hmmn. Back to Vuillier and the real world. Before moving on to his career after Ibiza, I would like to quote a few upbeat passages, in order to rectify the dark legend that he only had bad things to say about the island:

During my stay I noticed that all the children, not even excepting the infants, were perpetually smoking cigarettes. I learned that this had been prescribed by the doctors of the town as a precaution against the prevailing epidemic of diphtheria.

Well, perhaps not that one. Let's try again:

I should probably not have stayed in Iviza longer than I could help, except that I was virtually a prisoner, as the steamer for Palma only calls once in ten days, and not as often as that in rough weather.

Gaston Vuillier, Steamship

Neither. How about this?

The Carthaginians gave it the name of Ebusus, signifying unfruitful.

Oops. (And two more factual errors: Iboshim, the Phoenician name, means ‘Island of Resinous Pines'). In fact, when one consults the English version of Les Iles oubliées, it is extremely difficult to find a single complimentary passage: either the translator, Frederick Breton, carefully weeded them out, or Vuillier's editor at Hachette censored them from the original articles in Le Tour du Monde. Those interested in the full version, should consult the excellent Viaje a las Islas Baleares published by Olañeta of Palma in 2000, based on the original articles. If your Catalan is up to it, Les Illes Oblidades: Viatge a Eivissa (Res Publica, 2000) makes a reasonable alternative, although the engravings are distinctly fuzzy. So, with that clear, let us proceed with a ‘nice' quotation about Ibiza:

The quarter of la Marina, in other ways, contrasts strongly with the ancient walled city. It is now a populous quarter, lively, full of movement and its own customs, completely different from the Upper Town … The two quarters are completely different and have no relationship with one another. Up there, apparently dead; here (La Marina), life itself. … I was very taken with the quarter of la Marina.

After the Ibiza piece appeared in 1890 in Le Tour du Monde, Vuillier went on to write about four other localities; an eighty-page article about Corsica was published by the same journal in 1891, followed between 1894 and 1896 by twenty articles on Sicily. Then there was an entire book on La Tunisie (1896) and finally an article (again for Le Tour du Monde) on Malta and its Order. All the abovementioned pieces were to appear later in book form an impressive record in itself , Les Iles oubliées (1893) and La Sicile (1896) promoting him overnight into the western Med's first and arguably finest travel writer. Vuillier first landed in Sicily in the spring of 1893, just as the first opus magnum was in the press. Stepping off the Palermo boat, he immediately went in search of the father of Sicilian ethnography, Giuseppe Pitré. This erudite but unassuming doctor, known to scholars far beyond the island, was eventually located deep inside a bookshop on the city's principal boulevard. This highly auspicious beginning led to a lasting friendship and also consolidated Vuillier's growing ethnographic interests.

Gaston Vuillier, The Aguadores

The five hundred and three quarto pages of Les Iles oubliées placed its author firmly on the literary map: within a matter of months two leading German monthlies, Globus and Vom Fels zum Meer, had published summaries of the Balearic sections by Friedrich von Hellwald, a leading travel writer also known as a Darwinist who influenced Nietzsche; a Spanish translation of the Balearic sections entitled "Viaje a las Baleares" appeared in the Barcelona journal La Velada (1893-94, Vols 2-3); and three years later the English version (The Forgotten Isles, 1896) was published simultaneously in London and New York, a distinction which was to throw the Archduke Luis Salvador, permanently into the Anglo-Saxon shade. Also worth mentioning here is an Italian edition of La Sicile, which was brought out in 1897 by a leading Milan firm, the same year that a second edition of The Forgotten Isles hit the shelves in London. During the eleven decades which have since passed, no one has really taken Vuillier's place. In the last thirty years alone, five local editions of his Balearic and Corsican writings have appeared, as well as a complete re-edition of La Sicilia.

It is time now to turn our backs on the wine-dark sea with its seasonally-overrun islands, and head north to the sleepy, forgotten province of Limousin, exactly half way between Ibiza and Paris as the swallow flies. The winter temperature in those hills can drop well below freezing, leading to the development of a caped cloak which in the days of open-air motoring gave its name to a luxurious vehicle. After cycling across the western part of the province a decade ago, I made a solemn resolution to explore further, but the following spring marked my initial encounter with Ibiza. Sad to say, I have never been back.

Both Ibiza and the Limousin share two features which are irresistible to artists and writers the world over - picturesque, rolling hills and charming, unspoilt villages. It was in the 1880s that Vuillier began his autumn visits to this quiet backwater, drawn by the lovely vistas and quaint local traditions. The upper Corrèze valley was the perfect place for a budding folklorist to fill notepads and sketchbooks between island-hopping, and before long he was submitting his first pieces about rural France to Le Tour du Monde. Five articles appeared between 1892 and 1902, with evocative titles like "Chez les magicians et les sorciers de la Corrèze" or "Le culte des fontaines en Limousin". These texts have recently been rediscovered by local-history enthusiasts in Tulle, whose new editions mirror the activities of their counterparts in Toulouse, Palermo, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona, Cagliari and now Ibiza.

Between 1898 and 1902 Charles-Gaston began to acquire land around the waterfall at Gimel near the town of Tulle. Like the Archduke with his prime pieces of Mallorcan real estate, Vuillier targeted this picturesque corner not simply to enjoy it, but also to preserve it from the land sharks. His Nature Park, one of the first of its kind, included a ‘Pavilion of Living Water' restaurant where tired trampers could fill stomachs and rest their feet while contemplating the natural marvel. It was so tastefully done that in 1909 he even received the prestigious Grand Prix du Paysage. But the trophy hardly had time to gather dust when an Alsatian industrialist arrived with a hydroelectric scheme which would have spelt the end of the aesthetically-framed cascade. Our hero emerged from the ensuing eco-battle victorious but not unscathed, his local reputation tarnished by tabloid-style publicity about Andalusian beauties brought back from a sketching trip in Granada. Further ammunition was provided by his fascination with sorcerers and pre-Christian folklore.

As well as travelling, sketching and writing, Vuillier found time to produce two serious works on social-historical themes, La danse (1898) and Plaisirs et jeux (1900), the former translated into English, Italian and Russian, and recently reissued in English; his illustrations for an Arabian book (A Pilgrimage to Nejd by Lady Anne Blunt, granddaughter of Byron and pioneering horse-breeder) was followed by others on Indo-China (1898) and Scotland (1898) as well as Prosper Mérimée's Carmen (1911); finally, two volumes of verse Aspirations religieuses (1905) and Devant le tabernacle (1906), wrapped things up. Never, it seems, did our Gaston-Charles know a dull moment.

And so we reach the end of the Vuillier story. My thanks to Christine Bellan, without whose assistance these articles would have barely penetrated the surface of this forgotten and much-underrated figure. I will leave you today with his closing comments on ‘Iviza':

Mounted on an ass, as in primitive days, and accompanied by the hospitable priest of Santa Eulalia, I started back to Iviza town to catch the steamer for Palma. At a turn in the path, I looked back and took a last glance at the village with its white presbytery and old rampart-flanked church. In spirit, I seemed to hear again the wild scream which had made the professor shudder, the dull report of the murderous musket, and the cry of distress which followed. I wondered if I should ever again visit this strange, half-forgotten people, with their barbarous customs and terrible superstitions. I said as much to the clergyman when he bade me farewell at the top of the hill.

"Quién sabe?" was his wise reply.

Martin Davies



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