In Residence at the Villa Gillet

June 11, 2013 | By Edward Gauvin
View of les Subsistances from the roof of the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourvière

The newest feature of Residencies in Review, In Residence allows a unique window into international residencies by asking current residents to share their experiences. Immediate and detailed, these accounts provide an "on the ground" narration of life in some of the world's most coveted residency programs.

In this edition, Edward Gauvin shares his experiences from the Villa Gillet in Lyon.


Edward Gauvin has translated over 60 books from the French, including numerous important graphic novels, and is working on an anthology of fantastic literature. He has received French Voices grants for his translations of Zeina Abirached's A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return and A Life on Paper: Stories by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud. His translations and writings appear frequently in journals and anthologies such as Words Without Borders, Conjunctions, Best European Fiction, Tin House, and The Brooklyn Rail. He is a Provost Fellow at the University of Southern California and has received a Fulbright Fellowship and a CNL Translation Grant. He has previously been a resident at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, the Ledig House International Writers Residency, and the Maison des Écritures Midi-Pyrénées.


It’s been like this for the last four days, said the cabbie at the station the rainy Saturday I reached Lyon from Los Angeles. No, it’s been like this since the start of spring, said Isabelle and Valentin of the Villa Gillet, who met me with an umbrella at the gates of Les Subsistances. Behind and below us swelled the brown river Saône, overflowing the lower quays.

“Do you know Alyson Waters?” asked Isabelle. I did: she was a friend, had held this residency twice, and recently won the French-American Foundation’s Florence Gould Translation Prize. Isabelle smiled, showing me into the studio where I would be spending the next month. “Well, Alyson called this a perfect little nun’s cell.”

Happily, it lacked the low, oppressive vaulting I associate with monastic diligence. The ceiling was high and the window tall, with a sill as deep as the stone walls were thick. There was a kitchenette tucked into the vestibule, as in Le Corbusier; a printer with a fresh ream; a lamp solicitously craned over an armchair snug as an egg cup. Of course there were the usual Euro-curiosities: the bathroom light switch outside the bathroom, the wooden pallet shower mat, rather than our usual rug, hall lights on timers with their glowing switches, the pushbutton release for the magnet-locked lobby door. But the subtle welcome of such rooms extends past layout and décor to the relics of former residents: how another translator whiled away downtime. The bookshelf held those essentials: the two-volume Robert Collins dictionnaire, Lyon maps and Michelin guides, but also thrillers (Scandinavian and otherwise), the Vintage paperback Swann’s Way (Moncrieff-Kilmartin translation), and as if in benediction, a copy of Kosinski’s The Painted Bird translated by Maurice Pons, a writer I had visited my last time in France. I looked forward to study, industry, and good bread.

A little over a full working day divides Californian time from French, but when I got over jet lag the rain still malingered. In fact, it was the chilliest spring in forty years. Outside, the wind, funneled between the buildings of Les Subsistances, had a tendency to howl.

Les Subs, as the Lyonnais call it, is a compound of stone buildings imposing in their sturdiness: three to five stories apiece, but think high stories with arched windows, gray quoins softened by cream walls. They face the river Saône, backs pressed to a hill that rises steeply—sometimes in a zigzag of tiny terraced gardens, sometimes in sheer bluffs—toward Croix-Rousse (which one might call the rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn of Lyon). The oldest of the buildings at Les Subs had indeed been a convent; after Revolutionaries ousted the nuns, the property was turned over to the military. During the 19th and 20th centuries, it made and stocked products to feed that belly on which armies are said to march—hence its name. For twenty years now, it has been an international center of arts and culture, a hub of innovation and experiment providing artistic spaces from studio to performance, gallery to residency. Since 2007, it has also housed Lyon’s École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. The building closest to the river is the restaurant Quai des Arts, known for its lavish brunches. In the upstairs dining room, paper lanterns hang from artfully exposed rafters, but ample outdoor tables and a shade tree also testify to typically lively café activity.

“All this is usually full of people,” said Cédric Duroux. Duroux is, with Adélaïde Fabre, in charge of programming at the Villa Gillet, and also runs the transatlantic literary festival Walls & Bridges. His gesture took in the cobblestoned campus, where a tent had been raised for local indie bookstores to display their wares during the upcoming festival, Les Assises Internationales du Roman (The International Forum on the Novel).

“You know what they say—buy an umbrella, and the rain stops. Well, we tried everything this year. I even got my summer do.” Duroux smiled, running a hand through his close-cropped hair. Les Assises was usually a bustling festival, convivial yet intimate, involving author readings throughout the Rhône-Alpes region, but drawing crowds to Les Subs nightly for the main events. The compound’s centerpiece is a great glass courtyard called La Verrière, from 1870: think rivets and wrought iron in the style of Eiffel. Fifteen rows of stadium seating rise from the main stage, past the second floor of the surrounding building. Last year, the problem had been heat: sun beating down through the greenhouse roof. And so massive canvas veils had been strung between roof and crowd like hammocks for the sunlight—efforts this year’s weather had made irrelevant. Duroux was worried about attendance.

If anything, Les Assises, now in its seventh year, exudes planning: something every foreign author I ran into remarked on. The logistics of arrivals, departures, and lodging alone are daunting, much less wrangling simultaneous interpretation in several languages through multi-channel headsets. A co-production of the Villa Gillet and the newspaper Le Monde, the festival is truly international in scope—this year’s guests spanned five continents—and imaginatively conceived events, including such regular features as “A Little Conversation with Ghosts,” in which a contemporary figure is invited to riff off past writers and thinkers via projections of video snippets provided by the INA (France’s national audiovisual archives). Thisyear it was the austere Pierre Bergounioux, whose literary diaries are the latest evolution of French creative nonfiction.

Speakers at Les Assises include novelists and critics, but also philosophers, playwrights, and physicists, while moderators are journalists, editors, and television hosts. Panels are as carefully assembled as an Enlightenment salon, or an ideal dinner party. Disciplines are mixed in hopes of unpredictable intellectual fizz: a balance of taste and experiment. Too often, authors seem bewildered at festivals, convened from their creative fog to opine on unfamiliar topics with strangers. Les Assises has always tried to give its guests some common ground by commissioning short prose pieces on each year’s themes, which are then published in a chapbook from Bourgois. Theatre students preface each event by reading of one of these pieces—a kind of amuse-bouche, if you will. But each year the festival also features dramatic readings by noted actors, and often multimedia events (readings with music, documentary premieres). Services even include babysitting  for literary-minded parents.

On the second evening of the festival, French sociologist Bruno Latour was set to speak with American novelist Richard Powers. The two had met over Latour’s Aramis, or The Love of Technology and Powers’ Galatea 2.2—both scientific romances that blurred the line between fact and fiction, each from the opposite end of that spectrum. Together, Latour and Powers had concocted an oddly prophetic short dialogue about climate change (Powers gallantly read his half in French, which Latour had translated). In the bleachers, the audience sat huddled in sweaters or bundled in blankets handed out at admission by young ushers in parkas. Drafts snuck in from the gap between the canted glass above and the venerable building all around. By the night’s end, the man in front of me had wrapped his bald head in his purple fleece like a babushka.

“Please,” whispered Cédric Duroux to a photographer, “get a picture of someone not freezing.” Duroux had been worried about attendance, but he needn’t have been. Night after night that festival week, five hundred people filled the bleachers, freezing for literature. What a sight! And by Sunday, the sun we were all pining for had arrived.


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