5 January 2007

Retrospective 2003: The Stations

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 2:20 pm


In the fall of 2003 I started writing a novel. At first I called it Daughter of Man’s Tale; later I renamed it The Stations. I had started writing a novel in 2001 and abandoned it; now I found I could salvage some of what I’d written before and work it into the new novel. After the New Year I started what would be the next to last section of the completed novel.

Here’s the first draft of my first day’s writing in 2004. Reading it over I’m surprised at how little editing I did of this segment. Prop Hanley is the narrator; he’s traveling with Mrs. Dervain. They’re discussing two handwritten copies of a Notebook that’s recently come into Prop’s possession…

I could talk about pulling into a big-city European train station after dark, about being the obvious American muscling his ridiculous backpack through the clattering narrow corridors of a commuter-jammed Metro, about hustling through the third arrondissement in a thin Mediterranean jacket trying to outrun the raw discomfort of a late winter evening in Paris. But to talk about such things would mean conflating that night’s experience with other nights, constructing a theoretical Paris evening out of memories decoupled from the specific memory of that particular night, when Mrs. Dervain and I reached the end of the run from Toulouse.

None of the charms of Paris, none of its irritations, registered in my awareness during that short stay. I had become a pretty nonobservant traveler generally speaking. After awhile, even the world-class cities begin to meld into one city. When I had been a businessman, hopscotching across the interminable and anonymous American urban zones, I had come to feel at home in the zone of blasé indifference that surrounds all professional travelers. I had thought I would never feel that way about Europe. I was wrong.

There is a long and narrow corridor connecting every place with every other place, equipped with machinery of movement on which you, the traveler, gain passage. All along the corridor you find places to eat and meet and drink and sleep, arenas to watch the staged spectacles of history and art and sport. You are seduced into believing that you have been to many places, whereas in fact you’ve never left the corridor.

“Okay,” I said to Mrs. Dervain, probably over yet another kir aperitif, “I’ve read the Notebooks. Where do we go next?”

“Patience, Mr. Hanley. I did say that you would know, didn’t I? What did you make of the Notebooks?”

The two Notebooks, one weather-beaten and mildewed almost to illegibility, the other looking as though it had been written yesterday, had exerted an initial disorientation. Soon, however, I began to read the parallel texts with amused satisfaction, until I got to the brief passage appended to Mrs. Dervain’s copy. Then I realized that I wasn’t quite grasping something.

“It’s an alternate reading of the first part of the book of Genesis,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Very good, Mr. Hanley. Although that’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? Yet I suspect you have attained a degree of familiarity with the holy texts of our civilization. Not many have, you know. Go on.”

“Obviously the strangest feature of the Notebook’s exegesis – it presents the Biblical story of creation from the point of view of the creator, or creators. It’s like the writer is trying to learn about himself by reading the book of Genesis. And also,” I paused to clarify my thinking, “it’s like the writer is using the Bible to teach his fellow gods about themselves.”

“Good again. Now.” I remember Mrs. Hanley suddenly turning toward the window at this point, as if she had recognized someone walking by. I looked too; evidently whatever had distracted her attention had already passed. “Why would Geraldo Rodriguez and I both have a copy of this same document?”

Apparently the same document,” I corrected.

“Apparently, then, if you like. Why?”

“Because,” I began slowly, then consciously paused before continuing, “because this version of the story has attained some kind of canonical status within the Pilgrimage?”

“Yes.” She said no more.

“What do you mean, ‘yes’? Where did it come from? Who wrote it? How is it disseminated? What’s it for?” I wasn’t really irritated or impatient, not at all. I felt confident and in control. I knew things about the Notebooks that Mrs. Dervain did not.

Mrs. Dervain responded without hesitation. “You wrote this Notebook.”

I was stunned. “How did you know that?”

“I wasn’t certain until just now. But,” she looked quickly toward the window again, “you didn’t write it exactly this way, did you?”



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