Monday, June 13, 2011

A Question From The Hay Festival (or, The Quasimodo Moment)

Last week I gave a reading, along with two other novelists, at the Hay Festival. When it came time for questions from the audience, a girl of about nine or ten directed a question at all three of us: “What was it that inspired your books?” What I liked about the question was that it was not asking what inspired us in general, where we got our ideas, etc (Harlan Ellison, at the beginning of his career, when asked where he got his ideas, would say they arrived every month from a mysterious mail order outlet in Peoria, Illinois), but, as I interpreted the question, what was that thing, that moment, on which the rest of the story was built. What immediately came to mind was a moment ringing bells in an Episcopalian church in downtown Philadelphia. Which is odd, because the novel in question, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind, takes place in a Belgian cement factory town. Stranger still, I’m not Episcopalian. Or even Christian. But there it is.

I once worked maintenance in a museum with an ex-Benedictine monk. He had left the monastery and the Catholic Church six years before, and in those intervening years had married, became a father of three, and joined the Episcopalian church (not necessarily in that order). He was quite a talker – whether it was because of the endless cups of coffee he drank all day or because he’d had to remain relatively silent throughout his twenties and thirties, I don’t know. During my time at the museum I heard stories about his childhood, his life in the monastery, but, for the most part, his main subject was religion. Maybe the talk always turned to religion because we were surrounded by it: Buddha’s from Cambodia, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass from Europe, Hindu gods from India, exquisitely carved ivory Kuan Yin’s (the bodhisattva of compassion) from China. The museum was the eclectic collection of a wealthy family. Probably most of the ‘pieces’ had been bought for a song right after World War II when the US dollar had no competition. And, as it is in most museums, it was just plain weird to see these things separated from the context in which they were created. 
When you see a stone Buddha from Cambodia sitting in the middle of a small room in a museum outside Philadelphia, what exactly is it?  The use for which it was sculpted has disappeared. So it becomes an object, floating alone in the universe, without a context (a bit like the photos that accompany this blog – where did they come from, what were they originally for?). Until someone comes along, slaps a display plaque on it. Then it’s an objet d’art. While I was working at the museum the collection was in the process of being divided into different display rooms: The Asian room, the African room, the Native American room...

Divide and conquer. 

(I sometimes used to slip into the museum library at lunch time, climb the shelf ladders, pull something interesting down,  and page through it while I ate. I once found an original print of Blake's illustrations of The Book of Job.

plate xx
 No, really. I spent the entire lunch hour paging through it, entranced. It was only at the end of that hour that I realized with horror that I’d been paging through BLAKE PRINTS - the first copies of William frickin’ Blake prints! - while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

There were no stains on the prints, thank god.
plate iii

  As to the stain on my soul...)

We waxed the floors around glass-encased displays of Native American pipes (and yes, someone in the museum sampled one of the pipes...not me...too many levels of bad karma involved...), painted the walls of rooms filled with stone Buddha’s, built and climbed scaffolding to adjust and dust off medieval tapestries. The usual. All the while the ex-monk talked. What was clear from all his talk was that his personal religion was deeply wrapped up in its presentation: Incense, chanting, stained glass, sculpture, church bells. He had a passion for church bells. And his passion included ringing those bells. I think he even belonged to a group that was involved in the maintenance and ringing of church bells all over the city. 

About once a month, in the middle of a conversation, he’d invite me to attend one of his church services. I always declined. I’m not Christian. On top of that, back in those days I was fiercely devoted to doing absolutely nothing on Sunday mornings. I felt it was less a privilege than an absolute right. Then, of course, there was the issue of not owning a suit. Or a tie (nothing I’m proud of – just the facts). I only started to think about attending his church when he started talking about bell ringing. I had visions of myself as Quasimodo madly pulling a rope below a cacophony of clanging bells. So I made a deal: I would attend the church service if I got to go up into the belfry and ring the bells with him. 

Did I get a good deal? Not sure. The church service was an interminable two hours long. But up in the belfry afterwards there were three bells and three ropes, and once I started pulling my rope like a mad hunchback the rest of the morning fell away. 

Swinging on a bell rope (or just swinging?)
So there I was, in my borrowed suit, tie flying around, pulling on the ropes, the clang of the bells resounding so loud above us I couldn’t hear myself think. There must have been some method to the madness but now I can’t remember what it was. I remember pulling and pulling and soon discovering that if I didn’t let go after pulling down, the swinging bell could easily pull me up into the air. 

I hung on with both hands, rode the rope about four feet off the ground, my laughter drowned out by the chaos of the bells above. When I landed back on the stone floor I saw that my tie had wrapped around the rope. A vision of my neck instantly snapping when the tie was jerked back into the air flashed through my mind. I quickly grabbed the rope with both hands above the entangled tie, hung on. When I came back down, the tie was still wrapped around the rope, so there I was riding up into the air again, hanging on for dear life. Up and down, up and down. How many times I rode the rope up, while swinging my head this way and that like a crazy man, trying to pull the tie away from the rope – while the other ringers were probably thinking I was having the time of my life – I have no idea. Eventually the tie fell away from the rope of its own accord, and I stumbled away, exhausted, my hands blistered, bleeding.

Quasimodo indeed.   

That moment when I almost had my neck snapped by a bell rope (would it have made the papers? Man Killed in Freak Accident with Bell Rope) was the initial image I had in mind when I started a short story called Poisson that eventually became the novel A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind. Initial images for stories are like stones dropped into water. Once the writing begins you ride the waves resonating out from the point of impact and suddenly you find yourself writing about a cement factory town in Belgium on the morning of the festival day for St. Woelfred. Then you realize there are dead fish scattered all over town. No one knows how or why. Keep riding the waves and you find out that an infamous environmental activist dance troupe named Contexture has scheduled a rally at the same time as the festival, to protest the cement factory’s decision to lease their empty quarries as toxic waste dumps.

 Six characters take shape: Guy Foulette, a magician who learned his trade from a transvestite Buddhist magician named Chiqui in Amsterdam; Leisl Grafft, a Canadian/American freelance writer covering the rally, currently in a relationship with Guy; Casimir Ducasse, an aging local Casanova in possession of several lost poems of the famous French poet Arthur Rimbaud, willing to sell them to the highest bidder on the black market in order to escape his life; Marie Ledoux, a clairvoyant able to see into the future or past of things she touches, also the wife of Poisson, the town drunk, and Casimir’s current lover; Father Leo, the town priest, who has given up his youthful radical beliefs, thinking that his former class-consciousness has blocked him from the ability to love everyone unconditionally; and Raoul E., a Rimbaud scholar.

Pieter Breughel, Kermesse
All six wind their way through each other’s lives, finding either chaos or illumination when festival and rally collide.

All from that moment when my tie entangled itself with a bell rope?

Near the end of the novel, the town drunk, Poisson, steals into the belfry and begins ringing the bells. The local priest arrives just in time to witness the drunk wrapping a descending rope around his neck. Just as the rope begins to sail up toward the bells again, Poisson stretches his arms out to either side. The priest lunges forward... 

One of six endings.

Six characters, six endings. (Hey, it's not my fault...I was just following the waves...)

Here’s the opening section of the novel.

                         I. And the fish is a fish of...

Philippe Souzain leaned over a dead cod, poked it with a stick. The still eye reflected columns of grey smoke from the cement factory behind him. He raised his head, made a count of all the dead fish lying scattered across Madame Foulette’s pasture, then looked into the face of Madame Foulette’s cow. The cow kept chewing.
‘Get away from my cow!’
Philippe turned toward Madame Foulette’s back door. The old woman stood in the mist-covered grass just outside her back door, waving a broom. She looked like a potato. The boy laughed and waved – ‘Bonjour, Grosse Patate!’ – picked the fish up by the tail and slid beneath the lowest wire of the pasture fence, dragging the carcass behind him. He dumped the cod into the handlebar basket of his bicycle and pedalled down a narrow road between the cement factory and a vast, rectangular quarry. Conveyor belts carrying limestone up out of the quarry lake creaked through a tunnel beneath the road, into the factory.
The boy stopped at the guardrail above the belts and felt his pockets for something to throw over the side, onto the shuddering piles of wet limestone. He did this every time he rode past. Marbles, rocks, empty cans, and once, the head of a doll he found alongside the canal. Short black hair, huge black eyes. The head had miraculously settled onto the limestone upright, staring back at him – fierce, defiant – as it took its last journey towards the mysterious grey-dusted interior of the factory.
Philippe thought of dropping the cod, but looked over the side and saw a magpie passing beneath him, sitting on the shaking belt, picking at the eye of a dead whiting. He scooped some pebbles from the road’s shoulder and flung them at the magpie. The gravel fell short. The bird paid no attention.
He crossed the road, leaned his forehead against the chain link fence, and looked down into the quarry. Leftover fog hung over the water. No matter how many times he looked down into it, the sight of such immense space always made him giddy, as if the lake was sending a current up through his thighs, into his chest, tugging him gently towards the edge.
The boy’s Uncle Casimir once told him you could fit fourteen towns the size of Villon into the quarry. Casimir had done the maths.
Philippe mounted his bike again, pedalled past the factory gate and coasted down a short hill, through the last remnants of an ancient stone wall that once encircled the town. Some said the wall was built by the Romans. Casimir said that was absurd, the wall was definitely from the Christian age. If it had been built by the Romans, he told the boy, it would still be standing. But the boy wasn’t interested in the history of walls.
He rolled past the alternating patterns of cracked plaster, stone, and brick of the terraced houses on rue d’Arcy – windows shuttered, everyone still asleep – into the Grand Place.
Four streets and three alleys emptied out into the cobbled circle at the centre of town, like spokes fitted into the hub of a wheel. Casimir once told the boy that all circles contained a certain amount of magic, leftover from pre-Christian times. But it was something you could only feel late at night. Philippe had slipped out of his house in the middle of the night several times over the past few months, wandered around the Place, waiting for something magical to happen. Nothing ever did. Once, pigeons scattered from the belfry of the church. Another time, Marie Ledoux – Poisson’s wife – appeared from the dark alley next to the brasserie, alone, with no coat, holding herself. She looked right through him, then disappeared up rue Demesne. It was strange, but not magic. The boy thought he should tell Casimir that if he was looking for real magic, all he had to do was go down to the east end of Foulette’s field on Saturday morning and watch Guy Foulette perform. That man could make anything disappear.
The sound of Philippe’s rusted wheels bounced over the cobbles, echoed between the wooden doors of the church and the aluminium shutter covering the large window of the brasserie. The boy steered the bike towards rue Lefebvre, dodging Poisson, who suddenly lurched into view, probably drunk.
Poisson screamed his wife’s name across the Place, but Philippe had already turned the corner down rue des Ecoles, and heard nothing but the sound of his own tyres.


  1. A good lesson on following the image ... thanks. I needed that.

  2. could you two be my private professors?