When I first saw her, a few weeks ago, while crossing the Pont Saint-Michel, she looked like the ghost of a bygone age, her earthly life a memory, her soul gone from the stone. Grey against the bleak, overcast night sky, her two towers seemed bereft without the roof or the timber flèche that used to pierce the heavens.
In one of his beautiful essays on Notre Dame, writer Sylvain Tesson ponders the significance of the flèche (arrow) as a sense of direction, and speculates about its destruction in the fire, last 15th April, as perhaps a symbol of the loss of direction on the part of our society. A thought-provoking remark. I remember the spire snapping in two, devoured by the flames.
I noticed the news headline on the BBC website. I rushed to switch on the television with an overwhelming sense of Tragedy. With a capital. With that life-changing quality presented in Greek plays. Both spiritual and visceral. Tears were flooding my face and I sobbed from the depths of my belly. Shaken by grief, anger and disbelief. Also incomprehension. My crying while watching the news is nothing new. I weep at the sight of children maimed by war, people hunted down by religious intolerance, and other human injustices. But I couldn’t understand why I was crying so hard over a building. A building, moreover, that I greatly admire but do not love. In city that does not touch me. H. loves Paris. It’s his heart’s home. For me, Paris is the handsome, learned, interesting, charming and generally perfect man you keep meeting and, frustratingly, just cannot bring yourself to fall in love with, to the point of wondering what’s wrong with you.
Perhaps, like many other people watching the devastating images, I felt a sense of grief and outrage at the very possibility of continuity, of stability being snatched away from me. Whether or not it is your favourite church, and whether or not you are a Christian, Notre Dame is a point of reference in our geographic, cultural and literary (Victor Hugo made sure of that) consciousness. We can no more imagine Paris without Notre Dame than New York without the Empire State Building, or Barcelona without the Sagrada Familia. For all my telling myself that there were no doubt other splendours that had been and gone throughout history, and that human civilisation was still alive even though the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were no longer visible, a powerful No was resounding in my body and mind. No. This can’t be happening. No. I don’t want this to happen.
I began thinking about the people I knew in Paris. None of them close acquaintances. Heedless of whether my gesture was inappropriately over-emotional, I grabbed my laptop and e-mailed them messages of shared sorrow and heartbreak. I needed to reach out to them, connect with them, weave a bridge over the void of this destruction. One of the recipients was Alexis Ragougneau, a writer I’d not yet personally met, and whose debut novel, The Madonna of Notre Dame, I had translated a few years earlier. I had only been to Paris once before, so when I went again a year or so after my translation was published, I walked around Notre Dame Cathedral with A. Ragougneau’s descriptions still fresh in my mind, like a mini-guide. In particular, I stood staring for a long time at the Madonna of the title. The most beautiful statue of the Blessed Virgin I have ever seen. She holds the infant Christ supported on her hip. She is young, slender, with elongated eyes and the hint of a knowing smile. And so, while H. sat next to me, hoping his beloved Rose Windows would be spared, I prayed that the Madonna with the discreetly knowing smile would survive.
Notre Dame had been a part of my cultural formation even before I first went to Paris. As I child, trying to acclimatise myself to the French language, I struggled with the pages of Notre-Dame de Paris. When I see her towers I instantly picture Gargantua hanging the bells around the neck of his horse. And, above all, there is the music. L’école de Notre-Dame and the birth of polyphony, the twin of the Gothic church. The Magnus Liberi Organi of Léonin and Pérotin. Voices like moonbeams, rising to the vaults, quivering against the stone, filling the air with sparks of colour in a perfect marriage of mathematics and faith. Music I could listen to for hours – and, H. will say long-sufferingly – frequently do. A sound I yearn to hear someday in a Gothic cathedral.
After a few hours, something inside me suddenly rebelled. I couldn’t stomach the news coverage anymore, watch Notre Dame burning, and listen to the reporters’ fears that she might not make it. I don’t know why I did it. It made no rational sense. I left the room and spent the rest of the evening writing my own mental script for the future. I filled my imagination with images of the fire extinguished, of Notre Dame whole, in all her glory, and reporters’ voices rejoicing that she had been saved.
I stopped on the Pont Saint-Michel and stood looking at Notre Dame, fenced off, grey against the bleak, overcast night sky. Strange without its usual illumination that throws a cloak of gold over her, and it occurred to me that this is how she would have looked in her early days, in Mediaeval Paris, when her power required no electric floodlights to inspire awe. And, although gravely injured, she suddenly seemed more alive to me. Grey against the bleak, overcast night sky, she was like a woman who, without the embellishment of her customary make-up and cosmetic enhancements, finally radiates with the inner beauty and splendour of her soul. Grey against the bleak sky, I could feel the power of the Lady of Paris. I could almost feel her breathe.
Night is slowly permeating the evening sky in Place André Malraux. The rain has eased into a steady drizzle and the yellow street lamps have come on. The air is imbued with car exhaust fumes and roast chestnuts. A smell of autumn in Paris. The sound of traffic plays against the background of a gurgling fountain in the middle of the square and the wind rustling the brown leaves on the trees.
The queue under the colonnade of the Comédie Française is stretching all the way to the theatre shop. We are all waiting for the box office on the side of the building to open and release the €5 tickets for the restricted view seats an hour before the show. Molière’s Les Fourberies de Scapin. €5 for a performance by one of the top theatre companies in the country. Like hell would you get this in London, no matter what the view or the altitude.
In front of us, stand two children. The boy must be about ten, his sister a couple of years younger. Their mother is standing a few feet away, leaning against a pillar, smoking a cigarette. She expels the smoke into the square, and darts regular, vigilant glances at her offspring. The boy is reading aloud from a dog-eared, folded back copy of Les Fourberies de Scapin while his little sister listens intently. He tells her the names of the characters before reading their lines, and occasionally pushes his blue-framed glasses back on his nose. Occasionally, he trips over a word and goes back to it, re-reading it until he gets it right. Every so often, his sister asks for an explanation. Why does he say that? What does it mean? Her blue eyes are filled with admiration but her tone is that of a challenge. Her brother explains. A mixture of patience and irritation.
He comes across a series of difficult words. Too many in a row. He tries to tackle them but it’s hard work. He knows he’s done very well up to now and there’s no shame to walk to the pillar and ask his mother. She throws down her cigarette butt, blows out the last of the smoke and takes the book from his hand. She reads the sentence and explains it. She comes back to stand in the queue and takes over the reading shift. All three sit on the pavement by the wall and she slowly reads aloud. Her son listens but his attention occasionally wanders as his eyes follow cars and passers-by. His sister has huddled against their mother, head on her shoulder, staring at the printed page. Every so often she smooths her pony tail. Three ash-blonde heads close together, reading and listening to Molière.
When restlessness disrupts the reading, and the siblings clearly need some physical exercise after the mental culture, horseplay starts. There is some kicking and shouting. Stop that now. You’re disturbing everybody. The mother hands them paper and pen and sends them on a mission: to write down the names of all the playwrights whose profiles are displayed in medallions on the walls of the Comédie Française building. They are excited by this new venture and set off immediately, arguing about who is going to write the names down.
A few minutes later, they’re back with a list. Their mother asks them to read it out. Jean Racine. Pierre Corneille. JBP – Molière.
So what does JBP stand for?
Yes. Jean and what else?
And the P?
No, no, it’s Patrick!
Poquelin. Molière’s real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin.
There is not much appetite for running around anymore, and the box office is about to open. The mother opens the dog-eared book again.
The crescent of a new moon is slowly emerging through the darkening sky. A pale silver at first, now with a bright, almost golden glow. A waxing new moon. A middle-aged lady in the flat down the corridor, when I was growing up in France, taught me how to distinguish the moon quarters. “Just hold up an imaginary stick against the moon,” she said. “If it forms a P, then it’s premier – first, so a waxing moon. If it forms a D, then it’s dernier – last, a waning moon.”
Tonight, my imaginary P has a very straight, perfectly vertical stem.
My grandmother would have smiled and said, “It’s going to be a sunny month.” She always checked the new moon and, depending on the inclination of the crescent, would predict the weather, or at least the chances of rain. The more vertical, the least chance of rain, the more inclined, the more likelihood of a wet four weeks. If it lay practically flat, with its tips sticking up, then don’t even think of leaving the house without an umbrella.
The funny thing is, her predictions always came true. In the thirty-five years since I left my family home, it has never occurred to me to check for myself. I wonder if the English moon follows the same pattern as its French and Italian counterparts.
I have always found the moon inspiring and soothing. I love the delicate, golden sliver of a curve promising new beginnings, and I love moonbathing in its bright, silver fullness. I once had a bedroom where once I month I went to sleep with the curtains open and the full moon shining brightly in my face, making me feel safe and deeply at peace.
The moon for me is indisputably female. I don’t know what Eric Maschwitz was thinking when he wrote the line “Poor puzzled moon, he wore a frown” in A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. I can’t see any Man in the Moon. Only a kind, understanding, maternal smile that says Sleep peacefully, I’ll watch over you.
At school, during maths classes, I would sometimes write sonnets or free verse in honour of the moon. I spent summer nights in Rome lying on a sun lounger, staring up at the moon. If I’d had to choose between the sun and the moon, I would have sworn allegiance to the moon without the slightest hesitation.
When I was much younger and brazen, I would sometimes tell people who insisted on my defining my accent that I originally came from the moon. Didn’t they know there was life there that couldn’t be detected by machines? Of course there was. Everybody lived in houses made of crystal, with roses and honeysuckle climbing up the walls, and musicians playing the lute to lull you to sleep every night.
In recent years, I have steadily been moving towards the sun camp. Hardly surprising after over thirty years in a country where the sun, far from being a rude imposition, is rather an overly tactful visitor constantly anxious about outstaying its welcome. Now, I rush out to catch ever sunbeam I can.
And yet the moon is splendid tonight. So slender, so straight. I remember my grandmother’s words. I must pay attention to the weather this month.
Yesterday morning, when I opened the windows my skin suddenly felt taut. It was like a slap. There was a a chill in the wind. The sky was a pale, drab grey. My heart sank. It’s only the middle of August. Oh, no, not autumn already. Not yet.
Growing up in Rome, I hated August. The month of the deep sleep. Everything ground to a halt. All my school friends away. Although the city centre was, as ever, overrun with tourists taking pictures of anything they couldn’t buy, residential areas would turn into ghost towns, with every Roman who could escaping to the beach or the mountains. Many shops were closed for a couple of weeks, you would wait even longer than usual for a bus, no theatre, no opera, no concerts. Hardly any cars. You could practically walk in the middle of the road. And, of course, the stifling heat. My family couldn’t afford holidays away, so even though I hated school, I would look forward to September injecting some life into the late summer stupor.
When I moved to London, I found it exhilarating to live in a place that functioned all year round, where you could go to the theatre or a concert even in August. All right, there were two weeks (now three) of general lethargy and inefficiency excused by Christmas, but I no longer dreaded the approach of late summer.
Now that I am much older and no longer have two months off in the summer (a weekend off is a major event) and have spent the last thirty-five years living on an island where the climate has severe commitment issues, I increasingly miss that month when an entire country slows down. I now see August in Italy as the equivalent of the Wu Chi stand in QiGong. The time of nothingness that creates. A time of rest to take stock, to gather your energies, a time of merging with the allness before becoming yourself again.
I find that I miss the month of Ferragosto. The feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on 15th August is not marked in England. In Italy, in France, in Greece and other parts of Catholic and Orthodox Europe, it is a bank holiday. But like so many Christian holy days, the Church superimposed the Day of the Assumption over a pagan celebration, in this case the ancient Roman festival Feriae Augusti.
After thirty-five years of Protestant work ethic, it’s not the heat and the boredom of Ferragosto that come to mind. It’s the peace and quiet, it’s having breakfast on the balcony and playing music from the flat loud enough to hear it outside without worrying about disturbing the neighbours because the entire building is empty for at least a week. I miss a chorus of cicadas singing you to sleep in the torrid hours of the afternoon. Lying on a sun lounger late after midnight, looking at the night sky, counting shooting stars, until you feel as though you are falling into the sky.
As a write this, the rain is pitter-pattering on the window panes, the cornflowers on our balcony swaying in a half-hearted wind, and the sky is a dreary grey, I recall another Ferragosto tradition in Rome – the post 15th-August thunderstorm. I remember it as happening practically every year, right at the end of the holiday. One of those Roman thunderstorms, with thunderclaps like loud firecrackers, rain pelting down so hard you couldn’t hear the radio or TV, rivers rushing down the streets. The kind of rain – once the thunder and lightning have ceased – you want to stand under after two months of stifling heat, feel it soak through your clothes, hammer on your scalp, drum on your face. Then, half an hour or so later, it all stops, the sun dispels the clouds and its rays make the wet streets glow, and a rainbow draws an arc across the now bright blue sky. But everything feels just a little cooler. Cool enough to mark the end of a chapter. You know the worst of the heat is now over for this year. You know that in the next couple of days, the shops will start reopening and your neighbours returning. And you feel refreshed, rested, ready for the new chapter.
We were in Paris this time last year. I was enjoying the buzz and feeling shortchanged: we don’t have national holidays in England, at least none that carry any kind of historical significance. No religious holidays except Christmas and Easter, and even the country’s patron Saint, George, doesn’t warrant a day off. That’s Protestant work ethic for you. If our May and August bank holidays do have roots somewhere in history, then they have been forgotten by the common man (and woman) and appear to have been randomly tacked on at the end of three weekends, almost like a grudging concession by an employer related to Ebenezer Scrooge. We have no dates when we celebrate freedom from oppression, change of regime, the end of a conflict or independence. No day that unites the entire country in a civic celebration.
Almost all the shops were closed and there was a mildly festive ripple in the summer air. Notre Dame was crammed with tourists. Noisy invaders with little respect or awe for this ancient church or its prayer-soaked walls. Calling out to one another in loud voices, stomping around in large groups. Too loud to be able to hear her voice or her heartbeat.
Once again, I longingly tried to imagine what it would be like to stand in an almost deserted Notre Dame, listening to Mediaeval voices rising to the Rose Window, singing Léonin or Pérotin, music composed for a perfect marriage with Gothic architecture. I went to smile at the stone Virgin and Child, one of my favourite Madonnas. I like her delicate features, her gentle, youthful smile. A few years ago, I translated a crime novel by French novelist Alexis Ragougneau, The Madonna of Notre Dame, and it brought this beautiful statue to my attention.
When we approached the cathedral exit, the noise of the crowd was suddenly drowned out by a loud roar. A row of fighter planes tore across the sky, a trail of blue, white and red in their wake. I find the sound of fighter planes eerie and something in my chest always seizes up when I hear them slicing through the air above Norwich, where I live, but there, in Paris, as part of the Quatorze Juillet parade, I stared and marvelled with the other tourists. I felt strange, standing inside a church, a building symbolising peace and compassion, while above me, there were these war machines, designed for war.
We strolled to Île Saint-Louis and stopped in a café for a late breakfast of crêpes and coffee. There was a television broadcasting the parade on the Champs Elysées (Elysian Fields – nowhere would be called this in England). We were the only customers and the manageress started chatting to us. “Macron’s been lucky with the weather both years since he’s been elected,” she said. “It’s been lovely and sunny on 14th July.”
“Oh, is that unusual for this time of year?” I asked, surprised.
“Under François Hollande it always seemed to rain or something would go wrong whenever there was some kind of event. That’s why he was nicknamed le chat noir.”
The black cat. How funny.
We ended up staying in the café, following the live coverage of the parade, President Macron and guests watching as what looked like the country’s entire human fighting force and arsenal processed before him. Tanks, military vehicles, men and women in uniform, weapons of every kind, the Garde républicaine on horseback, helmets and swords gleaming in the sunlight.
As always when watching a national parade – in any country – I felt a sense of wrongness, or at least of incompletion. I always look at all that military personnel, at all those tanks, fighter jets, weapons, and all those politicians, and I want to ask out loud, Where are the country’s writers? Where are the scientists and the scholars? Where are the all the medics? Where are the actors? Where are the farmers? Where are all the other people who contribute to the country? Have they not also played their part in forging history?
Is the nation not proud of them, too?
The fountain pen feels heavy in my hand. I haven’t written for a long time. I mean written – not typed. That I do every day, all day. Click, click. Irregular, hollow. I tap the plastic keys, one letter at a time, and words appear on my computer screen. Words someone else has written, thought, felt. Words I mutate into another language. Making myself think them, feel them. Click, click.
No words flow out. My nib is like a dried-up fountain. The pathway between my brain and my hand is overgrown with brambles, and my thoughts are caught up somewhere in that darkness.
I suddenly realise that even writing these few lines has been stressful and tiring. An effort.
I pause. Shall I put the pen down? What if I can’t pick it up again? A flush of anxiety rushes into my face. Cold. I begin to write again. Slowly, gingerly. Piano piano.
I think of a cartoon in The New Yorker that hangs framed in my study, my bottega. A little boy watches as a cute little girl is scribbling on the sidewalk. I try to write a little every day, the caption says.
Baby steps. One foot, then another. The black ink briefly glistens on the paper before turning matt. I take my time to form the letters, join them, taking care to place the dots above the is and not let them float randomly. Making sure I round my letters so my as and es are legible.
My rosewood and chrome Faber Castell seems like a close friend you haven’t seen for a long time. You used to talk over each other and now you can’t think of anything to say. The intimacy’s gone. You look at each other with trepidation and fear of disappointment, hoping to detect the gold thread that connected you in the past, so you can pick it up again. You search for the bridge that used to join you. You know it can’t have crumbled – nothing that can’t be repaired with a few stones and a little mortar – you just can’t remember the way to it. Any minute now you’re going to turn a corner and see it right in front of you.
And so I keep writing, slowly, gingerly, trusting in the brilliant black ink flowing steadily through the nib, taking root on the cream page. Forming every letter carefully, lengthening the stems, evening out the loops, connecting them into words. Almost any words.
Trusting that my thoughts will start to light up the overgrown pathway and seep into my nib. Soon.
One word at a time. Slowly. Piano piano.