Carving mountains

We arrived in the village of Aubeterre on a Monday afternoon, the place pretty much empty, even of tourists. Aubeterre is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, which is a not a value judgment so much as a brand, with strict regulations the local Town Council must adhere to. To be considered for this esteemed title, the population of a village must not exceed 2000 inhabitants, and it must have at least two protected areas (picturesque or legendary sites, or sites of scientific, artistic or historic interest). Apart from its cobbled streets, its restored public lavoir, its pristine white houses and hanging baskets of flowers, it boasts one of the most remarkable churches I have ever seen. The monolithic Église Saint Jean was carved out the limestone hills that surround the village. It dates to the twelfth century, on the site of an earlier burial chamber. You enter the church along a wooden gangplank which brings you into the nave, a cave-like chamber 20 meters high, and then ascend along a spiral staircase to a horseshoe-shaped walkway along its upper ridge (for someone who is prone to vertigo, like me, the walk along the top is spectacular but terrifying). The floor of the nave is honeycombed with tombs, like an elaborate maze. Pilgrims would stop here (and still do) en route to Santiago de Compostela – walls throughout the village are studded with scallop shells, the symbol of the pilgrimage. It is an austere and imposing place, in odd contrast to the bright and postcard-perfect village.

It was my first visit to the Dordogne, and although I was assured that the region is heaving in peak season, it seemed sleepy, cut off. An ideal place to spend a week writing – as readers of Invective will know, I’ve made a recent decision to revisit the novel I started last summer. Although writing prose is a slow business for me, my new setting perhaps enabled a sort of release. I found myself typing quickly to keep up with my pace of thought. I sat on the terrace, under a vine humming with wasps and hornets, overlooking the field beyond the house, where a kestrel hovered, wings fluttering. The air was still – warm, but with that slight edge that signals shorter days, long cool evenings. Everything felt suspended, including my usual life back in London. Place has always had a profound effect on my writing, and so it might have been expected that the landscape would enter my narrative. But I found that I was reaching back, writing about an entirely different place – the manicured lawns and strip malls of my childhood.

I have a difficult relationship with the place where I grew up, which is perhaps reflected in the novel I’m writing. I have chosen to live in another country, thousands of miles away. I feel at home in my adopted city in a way I could never now feel at home in the place I left. How was I able to conjure that place so vividly while situated in a place so vastly and wholly different? Perhaps that difference, that alien quality, was what freed me; a place that has no associations can act as neutral ground. It takes me a long time to assimilate a new landscape; I have only recently starting writing poems set in Suffolk although I’ve been spending extended time there for the past seven years. So perhaps my poem set in the Dordogne will arrive in about seven years …

I was pleased not only that I could reconstruct that landscape from memory, but that it felt, for once, relatively easy. There are lots of analogies for the process of writing, often borrowing metaphors from hard labour; I like Seamus Heaney’s comparison of writing to digging, the ‘squat pen’ like a spade, the earth yielding words (and of course Heaney found all those early poems through archaeological excavations, resurrecting bog men and their ancient tongue). And that makes me go back to that monolithic church, the sheer impossibility of the feat, overcome perhaps through the devotion to complete it. I am lazy, I don’t have that sort of faith, and I punish myself for my various shortcomings constantly. I have no stamina, no staying power; that’s what I tell myself each time I pick up and then put down something I have not succeeded in finishing. But I have come back feeling quite positive; in my small way I’ve set myself a task, a little space that I must not so much ‘carve’ out as ‘fill’.