( Originally Published 1938 )
An amiable old ruffian, buttonholing me at the junction of the Boulevard Alphonse Daudet and the Quai de la Fontaine, inquired whether I did not consider Nimes a handsome town. I answered that I did, with moderated vehemence, lest an unofficial tax should be levied on enthusiasm.
"Joli Nimes, sales Nimois!" cried he; adding in support of this charge, that many of them kept dogs. I could not dispute the truth of the allegation; for in any French town nowadays there are quite as many dogs in number, if not in bulk, as there are in an English one of the same size. There is scarcely a French family but has its dog, if you can extend the name to the pop-eyed sausage in a knitted jacket which stands for the type of the commonly encountered Gallic Fido. It is true that the sophisticated keep Alsatians, or those rather agreeably fantastic creatures, bearing an exotic resemblance to the frilled lizard of South America, which one sometimes sees depicted in the company of the inadequately clad young ladies in the lighter magazines. In the country, too, one finds many very tolerable-looking sporting dogs; around Banyuls and Collioure they have a breed of long-eared bassets which are most engaging beasts; but the canine friend of the average moderately situated urban family is a skimpy creature, which has more of the points of the echidna or the eight-toed boojum than of any breed known to the Kennel Club. He is the object of devoted care, has his own repas prix fixe at the restaurant, and enjoys a much more pampered life than the average French child, who spends sixteen hours of the day at school or doing homework. I have never actually seen one drinking wine, but I expect they do. What I do not understand is how French frugality supports the expense of feeding a beast which brings no profit in return. Does the explanation lie in the translation of a notice which I saw displayed in an hotel on the Riviera: Dogs Pay for their Board? Is it possible that the French dog works his passage, as it were, or has access to some source of wealth unknown to Anglo-Saxon humankind? One thing is certain: it is not by ratting that he pays his way, since any reasonably courageous mouse would be too hard a match for him. His poor physique, indeed, suggests a more likely explanation, and this is, that the succulent meals one sees him gobbling in a restaurant are not a fair sample of his ordinary provender, and that on six days of the week he only gets what is considered not worth giving to the poultry or the pigs.
It was not, however, to the quality of the prevailing dogs that my interlocutor objected, but to their existence. Dogs, he contended, ought not to be allowed; and the fact that they were allowed in Nimes was sufficient evidence of Nimois depravity. I was either American or English, was it not so? English? Then in England, doubtless, things were differently arranged; it was not probable that a people like the English would put up with dogs. There would be a few, of course, just as there were always a few rats and spiders, since nothing in this world was ever absolutely perfect, evidently; but as for tolerating any number of the creatures, only the unmentionable Nimois were capable of that. In the country dogs were very well, went on the old man, changing suddenly from a monomaniac into an enlightened critic of society; but in the town they were a pest.
At this point, as if he thought his last remark too moderate to carry conviction, and destructive of his case, he shifted his ground, directed my attention to a solitary winged insect rising from the surface of the ornamental canal beside us, and assured me that the number of mosquitoes infesting the city was enormous. In the summer there were millions of them.
Did they come from the Camargue? I asked.
From the Camargue, from everywhere: the sky was black with them. It was a wonder one was not choked.
But the old man had not the same loving animus against mosquitoes as he had against dogs and the inhabitants of Nimes. For lack of it the stream of his eloquence ran dry, and he could only repeat his opening words.
"But it's a fine town," I said as we parted.
"Ah, c'est joli. C'est une jolie ville." And I left him looking for another passer-by on whom he could impress his conviction that the people were a dirty lot.
It's a pretty town! The compliment is conspicuously inadequate. Impressive, dignified, imposing, grand, are luster epithets. The city became a Roman colony more than a hundred years before the beginning of the Christian era, and appears to have been a favourite field for the display of that characteristically Roman taste for arrogant and sumptuous architecture. Everybody knows that Nimes possesses a greater number of antique memorials than any other town in France. What is equally interesting, and less generally realized, is that, despite the interruption of the Dark Ages, a tradition of good solid building, a little debased at one period, a trifle lightened and refined at another, seems to have persisted here right up to modern times. Antiquity has left its mark all over the lower valley of the Rhone, not merely in substance, but on the temperament of the inhabit-ants as well as on their faces; and if to suppose that one can trace the influence of a continuous architectural tradition through a period of two thousand years of fluctuating for-tune, warfare, revolution, and changing fashion is a little fanciful, one may at least legitimately assume the survival of a taste for certain qualities. The subject of cultural influence is so complex that it is impossible to say anything under this head which has more than a relative truth. But Nimes has in many respects a very Roman feeling, yet it is a very French town, too. And in Nimes one would be at least as well placed as anywhere to form an estimate of the extent to which those characteristics that we regard as typically French form part of the Roman legacy.
The Roman Nemausus was sacked by the barbarians at the beginning of the fifth century; and as the city suffered violence of one sort or another at irregular but fairly frequent intervals throughout the next twelve hundred years, the wonder is not that more of the antique fabric does not stand, but that the amphitheatre and the Maison Carree remain in such extraordinarily good condition as they do. The medieval city must have centred about the cathedral of St. Castor. Eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century Nimes are represented by a series of concentric layers which have become deposited about this nucleus. The Boulevard Gambetta, the Boulevard Amiral Courbet, the Boulevard de l'Esplanade, and the Boulevard Victor Hugo, with its continuation, the Boulevard Alphonse Daudet, form a girdle which encloses the old part of the town; and most of the best architecture is to be found either just outside this ring, or just within it. These five are all fine handsome streets, though for dignity and grandeur of proportion inferior, perhaps, to the Avenue Feucheres, leading from the station. When you consider, however, that they are the principal business thoroughfares of an important commercial city, with more than eighty thousand inhabitants, and compare them with what you would find in any town of equivalent size in England, you will be forcibly reminded that commercial importance and provincialism do not necessarily entail the aesthetic frightfulness which we have come to think of as being inevitably associated with them in this country. I must add a qualification in respect of scale. There is for every organism, I believe, a certain optimum limit of size, beyond which, if it should increase, it must inevitably lose its individuality, its character, and, with these, the only justification in the eyes of Nature for its continued existence. It is damned in the Absolute, so to speak, for the gods delight in Beauty and Variety, not in Excess. I have been told that cancer is the inability of certain cells in the body to stop reproducing themselves when the measured task to which they have been summoned by some external excitation is completed. Modern industrial society is cancerous.
Nimes comes just within its given limit. Only just, I think; but as a whole it is at least a town, not a random huddle of incongruous buildings. It has that charm of completeness which is independent of the excellencies of individual parts. Nimes would be remarkable without its Roman monuments, without some of its best features, provided something which did not injure the general pattern took their place. Still, one would not expect that in a place of this size some parts would not be better than others. The important thing is that one should receive first the impression of unity; the discovery of variety comes afterwards; and since art, like life, is rarely perfect, one seldom, when the scale is large, discovers varieties of kind without discovering varieties in quality as well. There are streets in Nimes that it is not worth going out of your way to visit, obviously; others in which, though they fall short of perfection, it is peculiarly easy to recapture the sense of an age which was richer in potentialities, at least, than ours. The Quai de la Fontaine rebukes the normal hideous present with a hint of what an urbane, polished city life might be. There is another thoroughfare, called the Boulevard Jean-Jaures, of a different character, another triumphal avenue like that from the station, but much longer, which might claim a place among the most remarkable streets in Europe, especially as it goes nowhere in particular. It is as wide, I should think, as the three widest streets in Lon-don put together, and about as long as the Edgeware Road. Throughout my stay in Nimes a large fair was held in the centre of this boulevard, without interfering in the slightest degree with the passage of either vehicles or pedestrians. I was prevented by this circumstance from seeing the vista along it to the Jardin de la Fontaine at its end, and the wooded Mont-Cavalier behind; but this view must obviously be superb in the extreme.
As for the Jardin de la Fontaine itself, I do not know what I can say that is likely to recommend it to the taste of my readers, for there is not a single piece of crazy-paving nor a Birmingham sundial in it. There are some nineteenth-century statues, certainly, which are fairly naturalistic, and not outstandingly good; but since the place as a whole is conceived in the manner of the most supremely conscious elegance to which art can be brought, so that it is at once beautiful and stands on the brink of mocking its own perfection, it is not likely to appeal either to the mod-ern aesthete, for whose weak stomach, habituated to the primitive, it will be a thought too rich, nor to the ordinary man, who likes nothing but what stoops to flatter his own crudity. Only that rare creature, the man of taste, the eclectic, who realizes that art so completely conscious, so perfectly sophisticated, can never really be criticized, be-cause it has anticipated all disparagements, and turns back to smile at its critics, and the connoisseur of the precious, who is right for the wrong reasons, will care for it. But of course such people, the people of discernment, are not so rare as I have made out: it is only that they grow less in proportion to the fools as the population of the world increases. And such places as this garden, in which the tradition of the Renaissance drew its last healthy breath, will always have their admirers, as long as our always has any meaning, as they will always be the finest testing-ground for the aesthetically spurious.