The Gardener of Versailles
by Alain Baraton
Translated by Christopher Brent Murray
Rizzoli Ex Libris, 2014
In this age of the unnecessary memoir, when the desire to tell a story is far more important than actually having a story to tell, it is refreshing to come across a book as charming as The Gardener of Versailles. Having been the head gardener at Versailles for thirty years, Alain Baraton certainly has a unique story to tell, as well as an endearingly straightforward way of telling it. One could be entirely uninterested in gardening and still find plenty to enjoy in this book.
Although Baraton plays a relatively minor role in the rich and colorful history of Versailles, this book—his first to be translated into English—is at its most engaging when he is describing his own experiences, not those of Louis XIV or Marie Antoinette or any other French royalty. The historical anecdotes are interesting, of course, and they provide a necessary context, but they are secondary to Baraton’s personal reflections. This is a memoir, after all, not a work of academic scholarship; the author’s talents as a storyteller are most effective (and apparent) when he is telling stories about himself.
Baraton is proud of his accomplishments as the head gardener at Versailles, but he is also honest about his failures. He is unpretentious and self-depreciating, but not exaggeratedly humble in the way so many memoirists are. And, perhaps most importantly for a memoir of this kind, he maintains a buoyant sense of humor, never taking himself too seriously or becoming excessively sentimental. Though he is nostalgic at times, the past he longs for is the park’s, not his own. He mentions his unhappy childhood and the three miserable years he spent at horticultural school, but these are details that do not belong in the story he wishes to tell, the story that truly begins when he is hired to work as a gardener at Versailles.
Baraton’s knowledge of plants is impressive, as is his enthusiasm for his profession. It is obvious that he cares deeply about his work—that his life and work are, in fact, inseparable: “The intertwining of the garden and my life is so complete that I sometimes feel like the paintings by Arcimboldo, portraits of men made entirely of fruits and vegetables, the plants that I’ve spent my life growing—the gardener’s ultimate destiny.”
Though he is eager to entertain his readers with amusing anecdotes (of a woman exposing herself in a quiet corner of the grounds, for example, or an interrupted tryst in which a young man is caught “gulping” between the legs of his lover), he has more serious purposes as well: to educate his readers and instill in them an appreciation for the quiet moments of life, the moments one might spend wandering through a lovely garden or sitting on a park bench, far away from the noise and pollution of the modern world. “Trees allow us to come to terms with a scale of time that is longer than our own,” he writes, revealing the pensive and philosophical side to his personality and proving that his simple prose is often rather eloquent.
Throughout these pages Baraton contrasts the past with the present, the old ways with the new. The Versailles he arrived at as a young man was strikingly different from what it is today, and he makes it clear that he prefers the former to the latter. He devotes a considerable amount of time to lamenting the loss of traditional methods, censuring the use of modern technologies, and complaining about the shortcomings of his subordinates. “My apprentices know their botany textbooks backwards and forwards,” he writes, “but they are incapable of recognizing a plant when it is found in the garden instead of on a computer screen.” In short, he is a Luddite, and quite proud of the fact.
Some of the most enjoyable moments of this book occur when Baraton describes the idiosyncrasies of Versailles in the 1970s. “When I see our polite, civilized personnel and consider the huge number of regulations and other recommendations that they are expected to uphold and respect, I remember with astonishment and a bit of sentimentality the Versailles of my youth,” he writes. “It was like something out of a film by Tati: cars driving in whatever direction they liked; people honking their horns; and to keep the order, two armed policemen on motorcycles, who drove on the lawns and raced each other down the allées in the evenings. One of them…liked to use his revolver and had taken to firing shots in the air to enforce the ‘keep off the grass’ signs.”
A good memoir captures those precious little details of the past that history books ignore. In this respect The Gardener of Versailles succeeds, though perhaps a bit sporadically. After I’ve forgotten the names and dates quoted in this book, I will remember the seemingly inconsequential things that make the past convincing. I will remember, for instance, that a rose’s name can be determined by a late-night encounter in a bar in China; that the birdsong Baraton once awoke to was rudely replaced by the sound of cars hurtling down the highway; and that long before a fleet of armored cars was employed to transport the day’s earnings from Versailles to the bank, Baraton himself performed this task—on his motorbike.
As I have already said, there is plenty to enjoy in this book. But there is also plenty to avoid, and it would be disingenuous of me not to mention it. The Gardener of Versailles suffers from one great fault: it is too long. It seems as though an enthusiastic editor, inspired by Baraton’s natural talents as a storyteller, demanded more than was feasible. The book begins to read like the term paper of a procrastinating undergraduate struggling to meet his professor’s requirement for page count. After a while I grew impatient with the very things that had at first endeared me to Baraton. His simple style becomes simplistic, his childlike honesty childish, his philosophical reflections trite, and his sly humor somewhat tiresome. The generous use of exclamation points is amusing at first but then just distracting and annoying. The clichés that were benign in small doses become toxic as they proliferate. (To say that one knows something like the back of one’s hand is forgivable once, but certainly not three times.)
As a consequence of these blunders, Baraton’s story becomes misshapen and dull as it staggers past two hundred pages. I read the first half of the book slowly, indulgently, savoring every little detail, but I read the second half restlessly, hurrying along, counting the pages, eagerly awaiting the end. I wanted to preserve my first impressions, but as the book progressed it became increasingly difficult to do so.
Nevertheless, I am glad to have read The Gardener of Versailles, glad to have been introduced to its remarkable author. He portrays a world I would not have encountered elsewhere, a slow, quiet, old-fashioned world, one among so many others that are quickly disappearing in our modern age. Much would be lost without books such as this one, without storytellers such as Baraton.
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.