Departure

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Henry Miller had written about his city, and Francis Lenôtre too had known happy days in his birthplace. The street was calm, a few children were playing near the school, a familiar sight. Francis closed the door, turned slowly round holding his light suitcase in a firm hand. The metro station was ten minutes walk from his apartment, a well trodden path he had followed many times in the thirty years he’d lived there.
A short and wiry man, in his early sixties, he still projected a sense of energy and strength, and the attentive face of a fit, mature man, at ease in the lecture room as much as in the training room. Today, his first stop would be the Gare de l’Est, where he would catch the afternoon high speed train to Berlin. The journey would take six hours, with a fifteen minutes stop in Frankfurt. He would have plenty of time to read the brief for the literature conference he would be attending two days later, to polish his own paper, and perhaps he would even be lucky enough to catch Myriam, his ex-wife, on her busy schedule.
In front of the town hall he noted the new graffiti on the wall of the old party local office, and the hate symbols freshly painted from the previous night. The day before he had read several articles describing the explosive situation in the East, the coastal cities, and western Ukraine. The internet was awash with speculations and warnings of an impending war, of the next move by the powerful Eurasian Federation, and of the neutral silence that was now a feature of US diplomacy. He boarded an almost deserted underground train, and soon he arrived at his destination.

As he entered the station, Francis reflected that, at a time when high speed trains were finally replacing internal European flights for the greater common good, rail stations looked more and more like the previous century’s airports: Mammon temples. A patrol of four soldiers led by an NCO marched past him, as he was checking the news panel. The NCO’s beret revealed an elegantly shaped feminine nape, and a young face with beautiful dark eyes. He was already walking to the gate, then boarded his coach, found this seat, and checked for messages. He had tried to contact Myriam since he knew for certain he would attend the conference. He always told her what he was doing, and where he was going, a habit of ten years of marriage he had not abandoned. Of course, he was never sure of where she was, since the compliment was rarely returned. To his mind, it did not matter, as it was still his duty to ensure she knew where he was, in the unlikely but still possible event that she would need him. Francis logged his pad to the train network, and accessed the conference site, checked the timetable of speakers.

The subject of the conference was “fiction and reality in the days of neutrality”. This was a clear reference to the situation of writers, now that the East-West old rivalries had finally been made all but obsolete by the newly elected US president’s unilateral and popular decision, five years earlier, to return his country to near isolationism, declare neutrality, remove his troops and most of his diplomats from Europe, quit the Alliance military wing, as well as withdraw from all but a few of the now useless overseas bases. Authors, who had long thrived on stories of Middle-eastern wars and western special forces heroics, were now high and dry, like their predecessors spy hunters at the end of the Cold War. But western Europe was holding forth, in the shape of a resurgent, and, occasionally, vociferous German conservative government, that had taken again the mantle of defender of the “free world”, whatever that now meant for the Alliance.

As his train was leaving the Paris conurbation at accelerating speed, Francis checked his pad again for messages. Myriam was, as ever, silent. On one of the Eurasian Federation news sites he followed, Francis noticed a recent post describing the violence and racism of some groups in one of the coastal countries. The author claimed that no amount of Alliance armour or ex-US fighter jets would soon protect those thugs from a just punishment. The tone was patriotic but calm, and Francis wondered whether the blogger was writing for herself, or inspired by some officious source. Some news channels reported movements of Alliance troops close to the Federation border. The day before, the chancellor had made an uncompromising speech in the Bundestag, affirming that the Republic would stand by its allies, and the “common European values”. But who counts now as her “allies”, thought Francis, and as for “values”…

Half empty at the departure in Paris Est, the train filled up in Frankfurt, a mix load of passengers including military personnel travelling east on duty, business travellers like him, and families. The journey to Berlin would only take now two hours, which Francis intended to use to polish his speech. His subject was a humoristic comparison between John Le Carré and a fictional young writer who had achieved some fame singing the praise of the old intelligence services, champions of freedom, before neutrality set in, and this genre became quaint and, finally, irrelevant. He meant to contrast the spirit of Le Carré’s writing, denouncing the elites’s collusion with forces of evil, as in the “Constant Gardener”, and the early Cold War Smiley’s novels, with the total adhesion of some recent authors to the myths of the “War on Terror”, the threats to civilisation and the glory of its heroic defenders, reflecting, in his view, the subservience of many of these youngsters to a crumbling order. Francis expected a moderate approval in response to his thesis, at best. Did he care? In a sense he did, as he was still of the old school, who believed in a role for literature in the business of living, and therefore, politics. His invitation to the conference had been from an old acquaintance in the german publishing world. He’d accepted for the sake of old time, and for the opportunity this gave him to be back in Berlin.
As the forested landscape of central Germany flew past the Intercity window, Francis reflected on the events of the past decade, and on his own life. His wife Myriam had divorced him ten years ago, and they had since remained “friends”. Myriam, born in Tel-Aviv in the 80’s, from a jewish observant American mother and a French entrepreneur father (entrepreneur in what, Francis had never known for certain), was attractive, sure of herself, and determined to have everything her way. Even to have him, Francis, whom she’d married, first and foremost, to prove to herself that she could master the art of being a wife, and, secondly, have a son from a man she could respect. Their son, Philip, gifted with his father’s charm and his mother’s determination and looks, was now starting in his career as architect.

The marriage had not lasted more than ten years, which Francis thought, at the time, was an achievement in itself. Myriam was unfaithful, openly, and seriously so, compared with his own infidelities, a very successful business woman, who rapidly tired of their life together in his old-fashioned suburb, even though, in the later years of their marriage, she did not spend there more than two or three months in the year. She now lived in London, with a lucrative job as a private financial consultant to high net-worth individuals, or to the façade companies that shielded them from preying eyes. Their meetings were far apart, but not so infrequent for them not to get a little closer, occasionally. Philip had decided, after Oxford, to live close to his mother, and mother and son shared a spacious penthouse in the East End.

They were now approaching the marches of Saxony. Francis checked his pad: he had a message from Philip who said that his mother would call him once he’d arrived in Berlin; but, of course, he reflected, this had to mean she wanted him to call her then. Memories came back to him of Myriam and him in Berlin, before their divorce, one of the happy trips away from France, which had found them once again in love, and in love with the city. The city of Faust. They had even, briefly, considered living there, exploring Brandenburg, visiting Poland, perhaps even Russia…

They’d arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, all glass and steel. Francis checked the time, packed his pad: it looked like a warm late afternoon in Berlin, so he would walk to his hotel on Friedrichstraße. He enjoyed the walk, past the chancellery, along the river bank and the Reichstag, and Unter den Linden. When he reached his hotel he found a message from the conference organisers: the start of the conference was to be delayed by a couple of days since delegates from Eastern countries – did this refer to Poland? – were experiencing travel disruption. He was to call the organisers’ information desk the next day to get a new schedule. It crossed his mind that he wouldn’t mind spending a little longer here: nothing was urgently requiring his return to Paris, and he knew where to rent working space, if needed. When he tried and called Myriam, to his surprise, he found the network congested. He unpacked, and decided to take a stroll to Gendarmenmarkt before dinner.

The old square, and the two churches, were a nostalgic spot for him, where he had often stood and watched the crowds, the demonstrators holding various nationalities flags and symbols, the balloons sellers, the bubble blowers, the tourists in summer dresses. The square in this early evening was crowded; he noticed various flags, but there was no confrontation. Several trucks of black-clad city police were parked along the eastern side of the square, at a distance. The mood was somewhat more subdued than he remembered, but his last stay here was back four years. His walk took him past an Austrian restaurant he remembered he had, almost in another life, appreciated. The interior was cosy and light, the waitress smiled at him and asked what his accent was. Am I losing my Berliner? He asked himself, a little puzzled. But then the waitress was not German, unless she came from a remote germanic tribe in the Far East, for neither could he identify her own accent. He ordered a generous salad and half a bottle of Austrian red.

It was then that his phone rang, with the hallmark tone of the lady Myriam. She wanted to know how long he was planning to stay in Berlin. She’d heard some noises of panzers close to the Polish-Federation border. But this wouldn’t deter her to come to meet him in Berlin, if he did not mind, and stay a little. No, he did not mind, in fact, he said, it would be nice to see Berlin now, with her, and perhaps they could discuss the situation then. She laughed: ever the talkative type, Francis! She said she would call back once she had sorted her flights. Flights, plural, of course, he thought. But he was delighted. What could be more agreeable than the company of his best friend?
In the lobby of his hotel, a group of American tourists were watching the news. Columns of armour were following a long motorway, viewed far away from the air. The colours or flags were not visible. Where was this? He would read a little, then turn off.

Viktoria Park I © 2017 Honoré Dupuis

Photography: Gendarmenmarkt, Leon Bovenkerk Eigenwerk

The Guardian Angel

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The old man looked out of the window into the familiar expense of the suburban garden, taking in the brightness of the tulips, the now fading bluebells and the impertinent grass, absurdly green. What a contrast with the arid plateau at the foot of the mesa!

There, on his desk, near the photograph of the assembled family – the one he’d taken on his terrace the summer before – she stood, her delicate silhouette arrested in the position of the butterfly dance, the colours of her wings shimmering in the morning light. “You are a beauty,” he thought, “And I am lucky to have you: my inspiration, my living companion…”

Soon, a cup of steaming coffee to his side, he went back to work. “This novel will never be finished,” he said to himself; “Not that I don’t want to, but now I am so slow, and I know… I will run out of time!” It was true that since his wife’s departure (he never thought of her death, merely of a delay in them being reunited) he had become very slow, as if he’d adopted a different rhythm of life. Yet he was waking up at the same time, as if she was still there, and carefully brewed coffee, as if she was waiting for her first cup, upstairs, in their room. But, now, he had gone back to long hand writing, and he was lucky to get a few hundred words into shape during his morning work.

Behind her mask, the kachina was observing him. “You are a good man,” she was saying to herself, “and, you are right, your end is near. But since you have led a good life, and understand the meaning of your life, I will do something for you…”

The old man put his pen down, and looked at her: he knew she was talking to herself, but could hear the soft voice, and he could sense the imperceptible motion of her fingers, holding the pahos, the ceremonial prayer sticks.

“Maiden, do you miss the mountains?” He asked, smiling at her, perhaps not expecting an answer. He resumed his work, the pen scratching the paper, honing words.

Later, as he was feeling more light-headed than usual, he heard her voice again.

“When the time comes, you will know what has to be done,” she said slowly, “and your people will bury you according to your rites,” she continued, “but later, you will take the trail to Maski, the Land of the Dead, and on your way there you will find me: I will wait for you, and guide you, have no fear.”

Image: A mural depicting Tawa, the sun spirit and creator in Hopi mythology. Painted Desert Inn, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona. By Fred Kabotie, National Park Service – http://www.nps.gov/common/uploads/photogallery/20140223/park/pefo/BBBAA541-155D-451F-6780A798473458A3/BBBAA541-155D-451F-6780A798473458A3.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23228610

Hopi mythology at Wikipedia

Amnesia #AtoZAprilChallenge

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Amnesia is the absence of memories, or the inability to recall them.

In his book “Rue des Boutiques Obscures” (translated as Missing Person), the French novelist, and 2014 Literature Nobel prize winner , Patrick Modiano tells the story of a man who has forgotten all about his past, and indeed lost even his identity. His slow and painful investigation reveals  names and places he cannot recall, until some old photographs start stirring what appears like a misty recollection. But who is he really? Is he the rich playboy who married the Russian heiress, or his friend, the tall South-American diplomat, with whom he sought peace, and perhaps surviving an ancient threat, in the snows of Megève? A tragedy took place then, and witnesses can be found, but no clue to who he really is.

Amnesia is not rare among victims of violent traumas, or torture.

Image: “Blitz”, ©Eduardo Seco

 

As a #writer, is #Facebook useful to me?

Au Pont de la Tournelle

Today, a very good friend of mine, in real life as well as in cyberspace, quitted her Facebook account, which she created in 2009. She said to me she no longer had time to keep her page up to date, even to the minimum level that would be of interest to her “friends”. And she added: “But of course, the real friends and I keep in touch, by writing – yes! oldfashion letters – and via our blogs, that are the right places for a genuine exchange of ideas.”

It makes sense to me. When I started using Facebook, it was an attempt to build up the main character in my first novel, and later on, to promote my work. It has been a mixed success. Quickly the character achieved a life of her own, and was never really dependent on social media for her development. From a writing and work promotion viewpoint, I have to admit having had close to zero contribution through the Facebook page I created for the novel. By comparison I found Twitter a far more effective tool, to meet other writers, keep up to date on news that interested me, and promote my work.

In truth, the real writer tool is the blog. There, it is possible to develop a meeting of minds, with genuinely interested readers, and people of common interests, who are willing to take the time to comment and follow. It’s give and take. There is nothing artificial in the development of such communities. Given the time it takes to keep up on social media, one has to be economical, and discerning. Has Facebook helped me in my development as a writer? The answer is, probably, very little, compared with the real progress made on the blogs, and, also compared with the source of inspiration and contacts I found via Twitter.

Is this then, conclusive? I have nothing against Facebook, it’s fun to use, but just appears, often, pointless. This is of course a very personal viewpoint, what does not work for me may well do marvels for others! Our main resource is time. So, maybe, it’s time to reconsider?

The search for Cesárea, a #reading of “The Savage Detectives”, Roberto Bolaño

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Roberto Bolaño” by FarisoriOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

From the Golden Fleece to The Two Towers, from the Holy Grail to Heart of Darkness, great works of world’s literature are often stories of quests. So goes for Roberto Bolaño‘s masterpiece, The Savage Detectives, which follows two young poets, Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, in their odyssey in search for the mythical Cesárea Tinajero, great priestess of the “Visceral Realists”.

We follow them, often under the bemused eyes of Juan García Madero, seventeen when he joins the visceral realists (no initiation ceremony), from the streets of Mexico City to the Sonora desert, via Chile, Nicaragua, California, Barcelona, Rome, Angola, Sierra Leone, and other places in history, meeting biblical whores, murderous pimps, corrupt policemen, incorruptible generals, and, of course, lost poets.

This is a story of poets, fugitives, witnesses… perhaps apostles? Its roots are in the horror and miracles of a continent, steeped in literature and death.

“Bolaño,” writes his translator, Natasha Wimmer, “took seriously the idea of literary immortality – never more than when he turned it into a joke. Failed writers are frequent characters in his stories and novels; so are lost writers, whose legacy must be preserved. In ‘Photographs’, the only published story in which Arturo Belano reappears, he comes upon a kind of illustrated encyclopaedia of forgotten French poets from the 1960s and ’70s. As he looks at their pictures and reads their biographies, remote and irrelevant now, he sees a line of birds on the horizon, ‘an electrocardiogram that flutters or spreads its wings in expectation of their death, thinks Belano, and then he shuts his eyes for a long moment, as if he’s thinking of crying with his eye closed.'”

Geography is equally important for Bolaño, who describes meetings, encounters, love affairs and murders with a careful labelling of time and place: “Rafael Barrios, in the bathroom of his house, Jackson Street, San Diego, California, September 1982.”

I went on to read “Distant Star”, and hope to read “2666” soon. An important writer, a genial novel.

The Guilt that Haunts Me #DailyPrompt

Share a time when you were overcome with guilt. What were the circumstances? How did you overcome you guilt?

Hamish Blakely I opened the door, the light came in, there was nowhere to hide. Was it fair to show you the way? Was it right to seize that instant, the beauty of that second in our lives?

Then, I wrote the story… As if I could find a reason, perhaps even redemption?

You said it was right: you said it took the two of us.

But I know who opened the door, on that day. Now, there can be no end to the dream.

Image: Hamish Blakely, via benbrahemb

Edit, Rewrite, or… Scrap: #Writer’s dilemma #amwriting

SentinelI know this work is far from being completed, let alone publishable. Friends have, politely, ignored invites to comment, always a bad sign… Yet I am reluctant to scrap, while accepting that making this good would require a lot of effort, probably more so than it took to scribble in the first place.

What hope is there of turning this into a cohesive, structured, readable THING? The structure is like straw in the wind, and I am not convinced it ever was readable as a story. There are good intervals, and those are rarely followed by a consistent development: it’s all very fuzzy.

I have asked the characters, and some of them are willing to help, all in different ways. One suggests making his part the central narrative! Evidently a biased view. Another to tell the tale backwards, with flashbacks. Who knows? I like the characters, even the unruly ones. But the story? I know how it started, how it meandered… to end nowhere, in a confusion of styles, hesitating between futurist, nostalgic or plainly erratic!

So, the question remains, what is there to do? Edit? Rewrite? Or scrap. Plenty of new ideas, plenty of possible projects… Reusing the material – some 100k or thereabout – is tempting, perhaps in an entirely new context.

The books Gustave Flaubert never wrote #WritersWednesday

From Julian Barnes’ “Flaubert’s Parrot”, chapter 9, The Flaubert Apocrypha.

Anna Plesingerová-Božinová (20. 4. 1883 - 24. 11. 1977)His Autobiography: “One day, if I write my memoirs – the only thing I shall write well, if ever I put myself to the task of doing it – you will find a place in them, and what a place! For you have blown a large breach in the walls of my existence.” From one of his earliest letters to Louise Colet; and over a seven-year period (1846-53) he makes occasional references to the planned autobiography. Then he announced its official abandonment. But was it ever more than just a project for a project?

Story of Mycerinus: in 1850, while in Egypt, Flaubert spends two days pondering the story of Mycerinus, a pious king of the fourth dynasty who is credited with reopening temples closed by his predecessors. In a letter to Bouillhet, however, the novelist characterises his subject more crudely as “the king who fucks his daughter”…

Three projects: in 1850, from Constantinople, Flauberts announces three projects: “Une nuit de Don Juan (which reaches the planning stage); “Anubis”, the story of the woman who wants to be fucked by a god”; and “My Flemish novel about the young girl who dies a virgin and a mystic… in a little provincial town, at the bottom of a garden planted with cabbages and bulrushes…” Gustave complains in this letter to Bouillhet about the dangers of planning a project too thoroughly: “It seems to me, alas, that if you can so thoroughly dissect your children who are still to be born, you don’t get horny enough actually to father them.” In the present cases, Gustave didn’t get horny enough; though some see in his third project a vague forerunner of either Madame Bovary or Un coeur simple.

La Spirale“: in 1852-3 Gustave makes serious plans for “La Spirale”, a “grand, metaphysical, fantastical and bawling novel”, whose hero lives a typical Flaubertian double life, being happy in his dreams and unhappy in his real life. Its conclusion, of course: that happiness exists only in the imagination.

Chivalry: in 1853, “one of my old dreams”is resuscitated: a novel about chivalry. Despite Ariosto such a project is still feasible, Gustave declares: the additional elements he will bring to the subject are “terror and a broader poetry”.

Insanity and theatre: in 1861 “I’ve long been meditating a novel on insanity, or rather on how one becomes insane.” From about this time, or a little later, he was also meditating, according to Du Camp, a novel about the theatre; he would sit in the green room jotting down the confidences of over-candid actresses. “Only Le Sage in Gil Blas has touched upon the truth. I will reveal it in all its nakedness, for it is impossible to imagine how comic it is.”

Harel-Bey“, an Eastern story: “If I were younger and had the money, I’d go back to the Orient – to study the modern Orient, the Orient of the Isthmus of Suez. A big book about that is one of my old dreams. I’d like to show a civilised man – to develop that contrast between two worlds that end up merging… But it’s too late.”

Battle of Thermopylae: he planned a book about the battle after finishing Bouvard et Pécuchet.

A novel featuring several generations of a Rouen family.

A Parisian Household” or “Under Napoleon III“: “I will write a novel about the Empire and bringing the evening receptions at Compiègne, with all the ambassadors, marshals and senators rattling their decorations as they bend to the ground to kiss the hand of the Prince Imperial. Yes indeed! The period will furnish material for some capital books.” (Du Camp reports him saying.)

Un “roman trouvé“: was found by Charles Lapierre, editor of Le Nouvelliste de Rouen. Dining at Croisset one evening, Lapierre told Flaubert of the scandalous history of Mademoiselle de P-. She had been born into the Normandy nobility, had connections at Court, and was appointed reader to the Empress Eugénie. Her beauty, they said, was enough to damn a saint. It was certainly enough to damn her: an open liaison with an officer of the Imperial Guard caused her dismissal. Subsequently she became one of the queens of the Parisian demimonde, ruling in the late 1860s over a loucher version of the Court from which she had been excluded. During the Franco-Prussian War, she disappeared from sight (along with the rest of her profession), and afterwards her star waned. She descended, by all accounts, to the lowest level of harlotry. And yet, encouragingly (for fiction as well as for herself), she proved able to rise again: she became the established mistress of a cavalry officer, and by the time she died was the legal wife of an admiral.

Flaubert was delighted with the story: “Do you know, Lapierre, you’ve just given me the subject of a novel, the counterpart of my Bovary, a Bovary of high society. What an attractive figure!” He copied down the story at once, and began to make notes on it. But the novel was never written, and the notes have never been found.

All these unwritten books tantalise. Yet they can, to an extent, be filled out, ordered, reimagined. They can be studied in academies. A pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel. The same is true with these stubs of books.

Image: Anna Plesingerová-Božinová (20. 4. 1883 – 24. 11. 1977)

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