Saturday, August 25, 2012


At least I have pictures of paradise: the chateau, the sycamore tree, and my desk (now someone else's).

Monday, August 20, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Last Post

Morning walk through the vineyards, past the ponies in the meadow, along the winding village street. In the chateau, the sounds of leaving: the zip and thud of suitcases, the car in the courtyard.

Writing is its own place: you have to go inside (yourself) and stay there. As long as it is quiet enough, I think I could write anywhere.  But I will miss the physical joys and material pleasures of Lavigny, its rolling fields and rose gardens, the view to the lake and the Alps, the silk-canopied beds and deeply quiet rooms. I will miss my writing desk in front of a window completely filled with the cool green leaves of a sycamore tree. I will miss getting up from this desk in the late afternoon and going down to Lake Geneva to swim. I will miss the magpies and the starlings and the lavender sky at dusk. 

I will miss having breakfast with poets. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Six

Sunday morning walk through quiet fields and orchards. A crow, a cat, a silent cyclist. We climb a hill and at the top, the Alps soar up. A church steeple stands above the sharply pitched village roofs. Paths invite us off the road, to find other fields and views, but we head back to the chateau to write. It is our last day.

I do not want to leave.

I want to "wander through the woods and meadows singing and playing, and what could be even worse, become a poet, and that, they say, is an incurable and contagious disease." 
-- Don Quixote, the Edith Grossman translation, which I am reading because it is here

Friday, August 17, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Five

Revised from morning until it was time to go for a swim in the very blue waters of Lake Geneva. Revising still feels like making it worse. Swimming in Lake Geneva makes it better. What will I do when I get back to Toronto? I suppose I could take the TTC down to Lake Ontario after a day of revising, but this seems untenable. Also, when I get home, I'll have to bother with bothersome things like getting groceries, and cooking, and cleaning. Here, we drift downstairs at breakfast and fetch freshly baked bread from the hook on the back door. We drift downstairs again at dinner and are served a three-course meal. Someone comes in once a week and cleans our rooms. No phones ring. No sirens shriek. No garbage trucks clatter and grind. When we need to get up for just a minute or two, we can stand at the windows and look at the tip of Mont Blanc.

It's a little like leaving Bhutan. Yes, you take it with you, but what you really want is to stay.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Four

A break from writing in our rooms and wandering through the vineyards to visit CERN, where they are slamming protons together deep under the earth to find the answers to such questions as 

What gives particles mass? (It is all the work of the Higgs-Boson, apparently.)

Why can't quarks be pried apart? (The quark-gluon plasma that existed just after the Big Bang was a soup so hot the quarks wouldn't stick together. It cooled. They stuck. So far they haven't been unstuck.)

Why is there something rather than nothing? (If matter and anti-matter immediately annihilate each other, why is the universe made mostly of matter? Where has all the anti-matter gone?)

The equipment -- tunnels, magnets, pipes, coils -- is ugly. The graphs are incomprehensible. But the names are often poetry.

Quark is from Finnegan's Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark."

Quarks have flavours. The names of their flavours are up, down, strange, charm, truth and beauty.

Truth and beauty quarks are now more commonly known as top and bottom quarks. This was a bad marketing decision.

"Strong interactions conserve all flavours."

Gluon: not beautiful, but at least its function is clear.

Cold Dark Matter: perhaps the most beautiful name of all.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Three

Revising the first draft.

I feel like I'm making it worse. "It's going to get worse before it gets better," my grandparents used to say. About everything. 

I hope they were right.

Outside the sun is pouring down. It's too hot to walk in the vineyards, but I walk anyway. Under a walnut tree I meet a woman from the neighbourhood, Phyllida, walking her two small dogs. She tells me the shade of the walnut is said to be deadly on very hot days. "They say it affects your lungs," she says. "The cool air can give you an awful cold."

Save-This Sirens are going off in my head. Who in my novel can be killed off by the cool shade of the walnut tree? Must discuss with my friend Google.

Google says that walnut trees emit something called juglone, which suppresses respiratory certain plants.

Damn! None of my characters are plants.

Still. I am going to use this. I'm in Switzerland! There are Jungians everywhere! It's synchronicity! (Or else I'm making it worse.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day Two

Three of the other writers here at Lavigny are poets. I almost never write poetry, but listening to them read their work I often feel a longing for the economy of their genre, the perfection of their lines.

Novels are full of clutter: closets, curtains, cupboards. Calendars. Clocks. Novelists are always worried about the clock: what day is it? how much time has passed? is it winter yet? Poems don't need clocks.

Novelists are hoarders. They never want to throw anything out in case they need it later. Poets throw most everything out. If the plastic iced tea jug with sunflowers from 1974 requires matching glasses and a backstory, they expect you to bring your own.  

Novelists are liars. They want to tell you things but they don't want to tell you why they are telling you because that would spoil the trick, the scene, the light, so they create elaborate deceptions and then hide behind the curtain. Poets just point. 

Novelists mostly add. Poets mostly subtract.

Novelists can afford to be reckless. Poets can afford to be brief. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Writers' Residence, Last Week, Day One

This is the start of my last week here at Lavigny. A glimpse of our days:

In the morning we walk alone in the cool air, in the evening, together, through vineyards and orchards, past shorn golden fields, inhaling the damp smell of earth and the light perfume of pesticides. In between, we work in our separate rooms in the deep quiet of the chateau.

At 7:00, we gather on the terrace for a glass of white wine from the very vineyards we have been walking through. (Try not to think of the pesticides.)

After dinner we work or read or talk. The night before our public reading, we spill over several tables, pruning translations, grooming our texts. It is quietly thrilling to be at work with people who will argue the merits of the word "gathering" over the word "collecting," and then change their minds and argue the reverse.  

Later we argue over an epigram by Goethe. Does the fact that it is (apparently, in German) beautifully phrased excuse the fact he says you can "use" a girl as you would a boy? (Our first night here, we discussed whether you could be an asshole and a good writer. There is ample evidence that these are not mutually exclusive occupations.) 

My goal for this last week is to write the last two chapters of my novel. Already I am pulling it apart in my head, preparing for the second draft. This has been a very good place to write and think. When I get stuck, I lift my head and listen: aside from the rhythmic cooing of doves and the wind in the sycamore tree, I can hear the other writers working.  They don't make any noise, but their silence hums. That's how I know they are writing.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Writers' Residence, Chateau de Lavigny

The chateau is deeply quiet. When I am not writing, I feel like I'm in a Jane Austen novel. We are always taking a turn in the garden (and the orchards and vineyards), even after the paths are drenched by rain (had I a petticoat, it would be "six inches deep in mud, I am certain"). We cut stalks of gladiolas and carry them back to the house to arrange in vases. We carry tea in on trays and dress for dinner. After dinner we read in the salon. One night a visitor played Beethoven sonatas on the piano. ("Do you play, Miss Bennett?"). There have been no balls or officers, however. And when we venture onto the narrow winding village streets, we have to be careful that the twenty-first century doesn't run us down.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Thunder ripples over Lake Geneva, but in the gazebo, we don't believe it, even when the mountains are erased by rain, because the sky is all awash in golden light.

Then suddenly it is pouring and wind is tearing flowers off the oleander trees and crushing them on flagstones as thunder cracks and rolls and hail hurls itself into the sodden grass and still we sit, because it is so bright, this liquid citrus summer night.

Finally lightning strikes the house, the burglar alarm goes off, and we rush inside and fight to close the windows against the wild wind and slanting rain.