The Slow Breath of Stone
An absorbing travel book, a meditation on geology, photography, Romanesque art and the romance of physical decline, The Slow Breath of Stone throws a mirror on Europe of the Middle Ages and its hold on us today.
In the years following the devastations of the first world war, a brilliant, young American couple, Kingsley and Lucy Porter, travelled to south-west France to document the abbeys and basilicas of the Romanesque period. Their extraordinary photographs revealed some of the most feverishly inventive stonescapes in Europe, stories chiselled from the Bible and nightmares: rams playing harps and devils eating men’s brains; a female centaur pulling a mermaid’s hair; women suckling snakes at their breasts. For the Porters, these were images of an imagined world that unlocked secrets of the eleventh century but, menacingly, cast a dark shadow over their marriage. In The Slow Breath of Stone, Pamela Petro rents a car and, using the Porter’s photographs and Lucy’s journal as her map, retraces their journey through the wild landscapes of the Rouergue. She visits the beautiful and disturbing sculptures of monsters and animals devouring prey that adorn the cathedrals of Cahors and Carcassonne, and she explores a limestone quarry from where these great slabs of stone were hewn a thousand years ago. She walks the routes of pilgrimages, testaments to the tenacity of human hope, meeting people along the way and savouring the local food and wine. Above all, she journeys deep into the strange relationship of the sexually incompatible Lucy and Kingsley, following them to Donegal where their marriage was to end tragically and mysteriously on the cliffs of Inishbofin.
Petro’s approach is quirky and original. The Slow Breath of Stone is a curious mélange of confessional biography, travelogue, meditative essay and cultural critique.
Eccentricity seeps from these pages…and mimes the charmed bewilderment we feel when looking at a Romanesque capital or tympanum and its curious polyvalent figures (Cubism, as Petro points out, before its time). Splashing perfume on herself in lonely hotel rooms…Pamela Petro makes us warm to her voice so that, when we reach Lucy and Kingsley Porter’s tragic climax in 1930s Ireland on Inishbofin’s granite…this does not seem contrived. The curious pilgrimage, with its temporal interlacings and conflations, has justified itself [and] become part of the tradition of pilgrim literature.
Adam Thorpe, The Times Literary Supplement
[Petro] writes vividly about the Romanesque, the ‘weary graininess of the thousand-year-old carvings,’ the parades of devils and the damned, scenes poised on the ‘rim of time.’
Joanna Kavenna, The Guardian
Both the Porters and Petro find liberation in the past. The couple’s absorption in each other and the stones they documented is mirrored by Pamela Petro’s own love affair, both with the doomed Porters and with the ferocious, deeply humane art of the 11th and 12th century, ‘the eccentric, embarrassing forbearer of Gothic sophistication.’
This philosophical travel book is a call to pack your bags and head for south-west France, where heaven can be found not only high on carved facades but deep beneath your feet.
Juliet Clough, The Daily Telegraph
Like geographical strata, there are different layers to Petro’s story: she travels through ancient Quercy and Rouergue to the west of Ireland, guided by the work of Kingsley and Lucy Porter, and the time frame shifts between the geological, the historical and the biographical.
Other writers on the Chemin de St Jacques may reach Santiago but this book brings a small part of the route to life. The geographical and chronological itinerary circles around southern France and the Proters’ lives, and the excitement of discovery draws the reader into the landscape in all its stony detail.
As a good travel writer should, she leaves me impatient to revisit south-west France with a new perspective on the stone in all its forms.
Teleri Williams, Planet: The Welsh Internationalist