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.