On my last full day in France, I went for one last walk on the Voie Verte, with Kelly Riviere, my collaborator, who translated and today performed my museum piece. I promised her that, contrary to its reputation, Normandy had been beautifully sunny during my stay, and as we set out, this seemed to hold true. We saw ducklings in a stream, a father fishing with his small son, families on bicycles. It was only when we turned around that we noticed the lowering darkening sky, and no sooner had we said, “Oh dear it’s going to rain,” then it began to rain. The rain came in the form of hail, icy fragments that melted on contact and soaked us by the time we’d reached the village again. But as you can see from the photo above, we appear to have a similar sense of adventure.
A few hours later, we’d dried off and readied ourselves for the performance at the museum. As planned, at the start of the piece, I positioned a chair and sat in it, laptop open, as if preparing to write about the paintings before me — the first paintings discussed in the piece. I was quite close to the paintings, and I sat looking at them as the room behind me began to fill. And fill. And fill. I realized, without turning around, that the small gathering we had expected was not small at all. Kelly began. And the crowd followed her and stayed with her — with us — for the entire time, as we moved through the museum. This was quite remarkable given the limitations of the space, and the size of the paintings or etchings, many quite small, which meant people were standing and listening to Kelly describe and illuminate a painting they could not see.
It was a moving experience, and unlike any I’ve ever had or expect to have again. And that sums up this whole trip, I think. This whole wholly embracing and embraced trip into what seems to be another world. One in which I’ve been opened, again, to the beauty of possibility, and the possibility of beauty.
It’s funny, but throughout the trip I kept saying to myself, “I think I came to France to …” and filling in the blank with something different. I think I came to France to write. I think I came to France to be alone and listen to myself. I think I came to France to appreciate art (hello, Paris!). And now, I think I came to France to discover the magic of collaboration. But I think it must be for all of these reasons. I needed to be here for awhile, longer than seemed reasonable when I was chalking out those columns on the board at home. But here we are, in the last day of the last column, all still standing.
I’m excited to be going home. I can’t wait to see those beautiful faces again. But I think — no, I’m certain — that whatever comes next will be better because I’ve been here. And I hope to come back again soon.
I suppose I should know better than to blog under the influence of extreme emotion or wine, or, much worse, both, but here goes.
I am “home” from a truly wonderful evening that completely focused on and celebrated Invisible sous the lumiere, as Girl Runner must be called while I am in France. It was a truly remarkable evening. I can’t believe it, actually. Nearly three hours, all focused on Girl Runner. The first performer (above) was actually a writer, not an actress, a young woman who has already published novels herself and who is also a runner: she memorized at least half an hour of text directly from the novel and performed it — embodying Aggie at different times in Aggie’s life. After her performance, which was very moving, the same woman did a short lecture on sports and literature, and the book. This was followed by a second performance, a reading from the book performed by a male actor, who showed us a whole different aspect of Aggie’s character — her humour. The audience was really laughing. I started to think that I’d written not a novel but a play! When his reading of the text was done, it was my turn on stage for an interview, with a warm reception from the audience.
After all of this, there was a dinner for the artists. During which I had some wine along with the meal. And I’m only “home” now, and it’s after midnight.
I feel like I’ve seen something that I won’t forget, and also that’s changed my view of what I can do and imagine. Being in France has shown me Aganetha as I never saw her before, but it has also shown me something about my own writing that I hadn’t appreciated, somehow. I don’t know how to describe it. All I can say is that it’s amazing to feel such energy and to be in such a different creative space. This trip has been a complete gift. Full stop.
Tomorrow is the performance of my museum piece. And on Monday I come home. But meanwhile, here I am, floating.
And this is where I’m staying, courtesy of my publisher, Gallimard, and I see that they also publish Elena Ferrante so I’m feeling rather fan-girlish just for being here, so close to brilliance.
That’s really I have to say just for now. I’m in Paris!
I have an interview at France inter this afternoon (like France’s CBC radio, I think), followed by an event this evening at the Maison de la Poesie, and then tomorrow I will be wandering around like a tourist taking photos of places I feel like I’ve seen before — but I haven’t! This is my first time in Paris. The streets are like mazes of similar looking buildings, like this (below), but I’ll figure it out.
**I am rating this post a PG13: it contains mature language that may offend some, and amuse others. You have been warned.**
When I am immersed in another language, even one that I cannot speak very well, I pick up the cadences and rhythms, the particularities of its grammatical construction, and almost immediately I sound like a foreigner when speaking in my native tongue. That might have been the problem at Saturday night’s reading, during the interview afterward when it may have appeared to the audience that I could speak and understand neither French nor English. Even as I write this, I am hearing these words flow out of me as if spoken in a French accent. A poorly imagined French accent. I apologize.
The woman who read from my book on Saturday night is an actress. She is very tall, slender, and I noticed her backstage immediately because she radiates an unselfconscious beauty, with a face that looks like it is carved, large dark eyes, an expressive mouth, her hair cut short and a bit messy as she ran her fingers through it. On stage, she read marvellously, kinetically, seeming to inhabit Aganetha, to bring her to life. Although my French can only be called deficient, I could understand the text because I know it so well and the translation must be very good. As she read the prologue, tears sprang to my eyes. I felt such pride, as if I were seeing and hearing a child of mine perform upon the stage, but it was something more, too, the gift of seeing what one has made from outside oneself. Perhaps because it was a translation, perhaps because it was being read by someone else—I could appreciate the book’s language, the imagery, the story, the appeal of the character in a new way, in fact in a way I have never before been able to appreciate it. I was moved at different moments during the reading by the story. I was moved by the ideas. But nothing was more moving than the initial surprise of seeing Aganetha come to life. I felt lit up. I felt it was a moment I would not forget.
The actress sitting at a small table on stage, lit from above, leaning in and out of the microphone, her voice changing as she became the characters, her free hand running through her hair. Before her, the text printed out on paper and scribbled all over (necessary cuts to bridge or shorten material). She read for 45 minutes, stopping several times to take a drink of water, once to check discreetly the slender watch on her wrist. At the end, the audience clapped and clapped and did not stop clapping. There was emotion in the room. It was magical. When I stood up to be acknowledged, I was confused, as if it were not of me. The interview on stage immediately afterward was, as I mentioned above, rather clumsy. I felt lost; but maybe I was just dumbstruck, in awe of the moment that had come before. All of my emotion was caught in the before, watching her, watching Aggie.
We drove back to Dieppe in a packed van, and I sat in the front seat beside Marie-Sophie, the actress, who told me about her time in Montreal last year putting on a play. It was late by this point, almost 11PM, and we were very hungry, very tired. The driver rolled down the windows because one of the women in the back was feeling sick. The headlights lit up a small portion of the narrow road and the grass beyond, and we plunged up and down, up and down until I began to feel sick too. Behind us, the women were discussing translation—two were actors who translate plays, and the other was my publisher. “It is not ‘sweet fuck,’” said one. “It is ‘sweet fuck-all.’” “Sweet fuck?” “Sweet fuck-all.” “Sweet fuck-all?” “You can say fucking this fucking that.” “But not sweet fuck? Sweet fuck?” “Sweet fuck-all.” “Ah. Sweet fuck-all.” They went on and on. I started to giggle, but I couldn’t share my laughter with Marie-Sophie or the driver, who were talking to each other past me, as neither seemed to understand what the women were saying. I couldn’t turn around, either, or I would have felt even sicker.
When we got out of the van after driving around the town of Dieppe—the driver was lost—and we were standing disoriented on the sidewalk near the restaurant, one of the women asked me, “How do you say it, ‘sweet fuck,’ or ‘sweet fuck-all’? What does it mean?” “I heard you talking,” I said, laughing. “It sounded like dialogue from a strange play.” “Can you say ‘sweet fuck?’” asked the actress named Kelly, with the Irish grandmother, who will be translating the work I’ve been commissioned to write while in Louviers; she will perform the translated work in Louviers’ museum next week. Kelly has a very sweet, innocent face, a bow-shaped mouth. “Not really,” I said. “What does it mean?” she asked. I said, “Sweet fuck just means … sweet fuck.” “Sweet fuck means sweet fuck,” repeated Dominique, the translator of the Scottish play that had been read earlier in the evening. “Yes,” I said, “like ‘nice lay.’ But we never say it. It’s not a saying.” “Nice lay,” repeated Dominique. “Then ‘sweet fuck-all,’ what does it mean? Does it mean ‘nothing’?” asked Kelly. She pronounced each word individually, so that the phrase did not sound in her mouth like it would sound in mine. Sweet Fuck All. I said, “Sweet fuck-all means ‘I don’t care,’ or ‘it doesn’t matter.’ ‘Nothing matters.’ Or ‘nothing,’ I guess, yes, it means ‘nothing.’”
“This is what I say to my students, when they are learning translation, I say, throw out everything you learned in school, forget it, you know nothing. They want to translate word for word and you cannot, because in language there is not translation, there is only interpretation. There are so many phrases particular to the culture,” said Dominique, as we crossed the street and walked toward the restaurant, where we would eat fish and rice in a cream sauce, a cheese wrapped in pastry, and I would choose the creme brûlée for dessert.
There is one more detail that I want to record, although it does not relate, only in the most peripheral sense. Earlier that evening, I saw a child’s sock, very small, toddler-sized, yellow with green detailing, stuffed with shit and left beside a park bench in the square near the theatre. I looked down and noted its existence as I walked past, I said to myself, that is a child’s sock stuffed with shit. I could imagine the mother or father having to wipe up the child who had shat himself or herself, and in desperation yanking the sock off the child’s foot and saying, there, we’ll leave it, we don’t need it, forget it, it’s a small loss; although all in French, of course.
Thursday evening, Toronto airport, 5PM
Yesterday afternoon when I was standing looking out at the ocean, watching an old man walk into the freezing blue water and begin to swim, while his son and grandsons watched him too, I overheard two men talking in English about the monument to Canadian soldiers that is here, somewhere, in Dieppe. Dressed in business suits, they were perplexed; they couldn’t find the war memorial. I couldn’t find it either. In World War Two, this beach, with its smooth round stones that would fit easily into the palm of the hand, held a scene of massacre. It is impossible to imagine. Yesterday afternoon I walked the promenade all the way to the end, where the ferry was preparing to leave for Brighton, in England; you can’t see England standing on the beach in Dieppe. It is a four hour crossing. The afternoon was sunny, almost warm, and people were going for a stroll, small children on scooters, many breeds of dogs being walked; a couple embraced in the middle of a vast green field that separates the promenade from the line of hotels overlooking the ocean. The vendors were closing up their shops: board shacks selling crepes or sandwiches, postcards, brightly coloured tourist paraphernalia. The groups of teenage boys made me the most homesick, for some reason I could not explain.
Friday evening, Dieppe, France, 5PM
For supper, I walked into the town proper and bought a sandwich and an apple pastry, which I ate back at my hotel, after asking the woman in the shop to direct me to it. I was quite turned around, and lost, but the hotel was in fact just around the corner. I fell asleep at 8:45PM, which at home would have been 2:45 in the afternoon; and I slept for twelve hours. This morning I ate a fresh buttery croissant for breakfast in the hotel lounge. I also had a tiny amount of coffee diluted with lots of warm milk, a boiled egg, applesauce. The festival’s director found me in the lounge, reading David Sedaris on my mini-Kobo, and sat with me briefly, effusive over a review of Girl Runner (Invisible sous la lumiere) that just came out in Le Figaro. “I am so proud!” she said.
Tonight is the first reading, in a small town about 30 kilometres from here, called Envermeu. I will be meeting my French publisher for lunch today, too. At a certain point, a book takes on a life of its own. I feel this has happened with Aganetha, that she is making her way in the world, almost without me. I am following her, now.
I need to get up the energy to go for a walk or a run along the ocean this morning. I need to but I also just want to sit in my hotel room and do nothing at all. I wanted to sleep and sleep and sleep last night, I felt so greedy for it; even twelve hours was not enough. Yet most nights at home I sleep no more than seven hours. I wonder whether I will spend this time in France sleeping, catching up on lost sleep, reviving. I wonder how I will spend this time.
I see the days as I mapped them out on our calendar at home: three columns, seven rectangles in each column, each filled with tiny print in white chalk, of activities over which I have no control, and in which I will not be participating, even though in my mind I am still there too. This morning, lying in bed with the curtains drawn against the sun, I saw the columns and knew that I was not there, and thought of the days as blanks for me to fill as I wished, here, not time to be endured, but time to be filled in ways different from the ways I fill my time at home.
How much could you write in those empty rectangles, I thought?
Yesterday, I drove to Toronto for a reading, and stopped in for a jolly afternoon visit at my publisher’s new office. I was going to visit my sister too, and really make a day of it, but she was sick. (I should have brought her chicken soup, but my germophobe tendencies won out.)
I noticed that many of yesterday’s conversations revolved around the idea of space.
Space for the mind to think. Space to breathe. Space to relax. Time is a form of space, and when it’s packed, it can feel cramped and tight. But even time that is packed with events and duties can feel spacious, in certain moments. My goal is to make even a busy day feel spacious, by settling into the present event, and offering my full attention.
I don’t always manage it, it’s true. When I’m tired, when I’m anxious about what’s coming up next, when I’m pulled in different directions, when I’m longing to do something else instead … then there’s no space, no flow, limited attention. I can ruin my own fun in this way. I call it: pushing myself ahead. What I mean is, I’m pushing myself out of the moment I’m in by occupying the ones upcoming, rehearsing them in advance, usually with a worried or impatient furrow to the brow. There’s also the problem of pushing myself back, going over errors in the past. And what about pushing myself entirely out of the picture?
My meditation right now is focused on Generosity. (Fittingly, I use an app called Headspace.) “What would you like to give to yourself?” asked the friendly voice of Andy-the-meditation-guide this morning. What would I like to give myself? My mind went blank.
Finally, I thought, forgiveness … enjoyment …
Forgiveness? Well, I understand it. I’m feeling guilty for slipping out early after my readings these past two nights. Terribly guilty. Both evenings I had a long drive before me, and I was very tired. I’d given my best effort on stage. I wanted to go home and sleep. No matter the circumstances: slipping out early is antithetical to how I’ve disciplined myself to behave. So I’m crawling with discomfort at having prioritized rest over being gracious, polite, respectful of the readers yet to come and of my hosts. I don’t know what’s right. And clearly I don’t know how to forgive myself for this decision.
As for enjoyment … I had a fun day yesterday. Once it got rolling, I didn’t worry, I felt relaxed and content. My uncertainty came when it ended. I wasn’t sure when to end it, when to transition to the next part, the part where I drive home and go to bed. I didn’t know what was best for me; indeed, as I write this post I can hardly let myself pose the dilemma in those terms: what was best for me? Maybe I didn’t know what was best for me because I frequently fail to take that into account; I was genuinely stumped by Andy’s question, thrown back on my heels. When I do something for myself, I feel like I’m stealing it. I shouldn’t take this. It isn’t mine.
Of course we all do many things we don’t particularly want to, for reasons of necessity, and we can find ways to enjoy rather than endure many of these. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about those little things we do for ourselves. What are they? And do you give yourself permission to enjoy these little things, wholly, without guilt, without suspecting you’ll be penalized? Do you give yourself that kind of space? It’s occurred to me that I do this only rarely. And that if I were to give something to myself, that is what I would give: the ability to recognize what I want, and to enjoy it when it comes.
Sounds easy. Strange it should be so hard.
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