A stroll to the devil’s headquarters: Menton to Monte Carlo

9 November 2023

On a calm, sunny November day there is probably no more pleasant way to get to Monte Carlo from Menton than to walk. The pedestrian-only trail hugs the coastline, passing between the bright blue Mediterranean and the white limestone-rock shore to one side, and steep ochre-tinted cliffs to the other. There are expansive views towards Menton and Italy and then, after rounding the point at Cap Martin, the city-state of Monaco is in sight on the hills ahead. There are groves of paddle cacti, patches of wild rosemary, olive trees, cypress, pines and cedars. Well-worn foot tracks veer off the main path for access to azure rock pools tucked in behind the sharp shoreline.

The central section of the walkway, near the town of Cap-Martin-Roqueburn, is named after Swiss-born French modernist designer and architect Le Corbusier, who spent many summers here and is buried in the Roqueburn cemetry. His simple, wood-clad ‘cabinon’ still stands (fenced off) between the walkway and the sea. Le Corbusier was born in 1887, and is one of several famous modernist artists, thinkers and creative spirits born in the 1880s whose names are connected to this area – Katherine Mansfield for one. KM, who was born in 1888, died aged only 34 in 1923. Le Corbusier was 77 when he drowned off the coast here in 1965. Jean Cocteau (born 1889) died in 1963; Pablo Picasso (born 1881) died in 1973; and Marc Chagall (born 1887) was almost a century old when he died in 1985. I can’t help but wonder what KM’s oeuvre would have looked like had she had three or four more decades. I wonder how she would have responded to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, whether she’d have got hooked on Coronation Street, if she would have enjoyed the Beatles, and from which of the world’s towns or cities she would have watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. London, Paris, Menton? Wellington?

One thing I’m pretty certain about – she wouldn’t have moved to Monte Carlo. In February 1920 KM was driven along the coast road from Menton. Her description of that day in a letter to her husband shows that she was enchanted by the landscape and its beautiful sea views, just as we were as we walked the track this week. But Monte Carlo? ‘Monte,’ she wrote, ‘is real hell.’

Maybe not hell exactly, but Monte Carlo, the hillside harbour city that fills the entire two square kilometres of the principality of Monaco, is definitely an abrupt change of scene. These days it’s the most densely populated country on the planet, and it sounds like it. When we visited there was a cacophany of drills and jackhammers, and many cranes swinging new building parts into place on many new tall buildings. The poor mallard ducks in the construction-surrounded “tranquil” Japanese gardens should probably be fitted with earmuffs.

Our Monte Carlo seemed to be covered in a layer of building dust, but in KM’s 1920 letter to Middleton Murry she describes an apparently ‘cleanest, most polished place.’ Yet she detected great falsity. Her Monte Carlo was a place of enormous villas with ‘strange malignant towers’. She usually loved flowers, but her Monte Carlo flowers are grotesque symbols of greed, decadence, stupification and excess: ‘Immense poppies sprout out of the halls and roses and geraniums hang down like carpets’. The Casino, she reported to Murry, was ‘the devil’s headquarters’. She was repelled, but she was also fascinated, and she told Murry that she yearned to ‘go to the Rooms and see it all.’

In fact she didn’t go back to the Casino, but she didn’t really need to. She had already hit the imagination jackpot. She poured her impressions into ‘The Young Girl’, the story inspired by that day. The story pulses with the duelling forces of magnetism and disgust, and peels back conventional ideas about perfection and decay, innocence and experience. It starts (and ends) on the steps of the Casino, where a young girl in a blue dress who ‘might have just dropped from this radiant heaven’ is standing. Not long afterwards, a cackling old woman in a green satin dress approaches, an ‘ancient, withered creature’, and is ‘jerked slowly, slowly up the steps as though she were being drawn up on wires.’

This week the parking spaces around the Casino were filled with luxury cars: Bentleys, Porsches and Mercedes. The stores were stocked with luxury goods. There are still plenty of shiny surfaces in Monte Carlo, and perhaps the boldest trick of all is the large distorting mirror that these days has pride of place on the courtyard in front of the Casino. I stood for a while and watched people, just as the narrator does in ‘The Young Girl’. Plenty of people flowed up the steps and in the doors, but there was nobody obviously being jerked up to the Rooms on wires.

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