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PAINTING THE CLOUDS

 

I asked a landscape painter friend about this. When most of his subject matter stood conveniently still all the time – trees, buildings, hillsides – how did he deal with the ceaselessly changing skyscapes above them?

He told me politely that I hadn’t thought my question through. Everything he painted was constantly reinventing itself. The wind moved the leaves, altering shapes and colours, the sun came and went among those shifty clouds as well as modifying its position in the sky minute by minute, which in turn altered everything. This was the point that Monet was making, my friend reminded me, when he painted the intricate west front of Rouen cathedral nine times at different times of day and in contrasting weathers. His twenty-five haystack pictures likewise, to say nothing of the two hundred and fifty paintings he did of the water lilies in his garden at Giverny.

This set me think about the ‘scene painting’ that we find in books: the indoor and outdoor landscapes that serve as the backdrop to the action in novels, my own as well as other people’s.

I haven’t yet written a book set in Berlin. I visited Berlin for the first (and so far, only) time in the summer of 1989. The unique atmosphere of the divided city created an unforgettable, spine-tingling impression. The silvery clock-chimes that filled the still air in the hot afternoon in the Tiergarten. The topless sunbathers on the banks of the River Spree whose very presence was a deliberate taunt to the hot-uniformed soldiers manning the watch towers on the other side. The U-bahn trains that glided through ghostly stations in the east. The divided city went about its separate businesses with a strange outward serenity, all Technicolor in the western side, sepia-tinted in the east. The strongest impression I came away with was a sense of the permanence, the immutability of the status quo. How wrong can you be?

It was only four months before all changed. So I’m glad I didn’t decide to write a book with divided Berlin as background. It would have been out of date before it was finished, let alone published. So, yes, places change. Your eternal city may become unrecognisable as a result of political upheaval, your beloved hillside vanish in an earthquake or a flood.

Yet sometimes you can – or have to – take a gamble on some landmark staying put for long enough to make a point with. In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty the enduring nature of a street corner is used to highlight the transience of life, in particular the life of a young man who is expecting to hear he has been diagnosed with Aids and also (with consummate economy) as a symbol of the mystery of existence itself. “It wasn’t just this street corner but the fact of a street corner at all that seemed, in the light of the moment, so beautiful.” The street corner in question is firmly anchored in the real. It’s the intersection of Kensington Park Gardens, Chepstow Villas and Kensington Park Road – a tennis-serve from the bustling souks of Portobello market, and also to be found (in square H7) on page 59 of the London A-Z.

A London A-Z is a useful companion to many of Ruth Rendell’s novels, as is the Ordnance Survey when her stories venture out of town. The juxtaposition of fearsome and extraordinary events with real street names and landmarks, their physical character and their atmosphere all painstakingly researched, and skilfully evoked in prose, adds not only verisimilitude but also a very special, characteristically unsettling, quality to her tales.

In the pursuit of verisimilitude Bram Stoker went further afield, researching even the railway timetables of Transylvania, so that he could not be caught out by readers of Dracula in any errors of continuity or fact. (I can’t quite believe I’ve just written that. …The author of Dracula did not wish to be caught out in any error of fact…! But it is part of the game that writers play.)

Sometimes a writer takes the map and cuts a little hole in it, then pulls the hole open just wide enough to make room for something else. J.K. Rowling did this memorably with the ground plan of King’s Cross station (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) in order to create platform nine and three-quarters – which, in its turn, provided the gateway to a whole new world. C.S Lewis had done the same in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, not with the A-Z this time, but with the mental map we all carry around with us of the usual dimensions and capacities of the furniture in the spare room.

I’ve done it myself. Readers of Blue Sky Adam can follow, if they wish to, either on the Michelin map or on the ground, the road to Adam’s mill house from St-Emilion. You can park at the top of the escarpment a mile or so before the village of St-Genès and admire the view of the Dordogne valley that Adam saw from the top of his drive, “the trees, not yet starting to turn colour themselves, looking almost black beyond the luminous yellow of the slopes; the flinty track diving downhill to where a huddle of roof ridges and gables appeared teasingly among the trees.” Only, the flinty track isn’t there and the huddle of roofs and gables together with the vines that surround them in fact belong to the real life Château Mangot, which is approached from a different road, almost invisible in the valley below. (I had to borrow Adam’s mill house from near Vélines, some ten miles away.)

There are other ways to fiddle with the landscape which do no harm to anyone beyond slightly disorienting any readers who happen to live there. Colm Toibín, in his brilliant book The Master has Henry James and his friends cycling from Rye to Winchelsea Beach by way of Udimore hill. This would be a masochistic exercise for anyone wanting to get to the beach on a hot day, involving a three-mile inland climb before freewheeling back down to the coast. Presumably Toibín simply liked the sound – or the look on paper – of Udimore. So do I. It’s where I live, which is the only reason I find the detour disconcerting. For all I know he may have taken similar liberties with the coastline of County Wexford in The Blackwater Lightship or with the geography of Argentina in The Story of the Night. I wouldn’t know, and would be quite unbothered if he did – simply because I’ve been to neither place.

Some landscapes have already changed dramatically by the time a book is written. (Remember Berlin!) This is fine if you’re not trying to be topical. Descriptions of vanished places or now-stilled activity can deliberately convey an elegiac note. My first novel, Orange Bitter, Orange Sweet, was written in 1998 but is set in the Seville of twenty years earlier. Youngsters crowd the streets around the cathedral till the small hours and peseta-challenged students haunt the cheap bar at La Moneda as they still did when I knew the city in the eighties and nineties. Not so now. The historic buildings remain unchanged, as if trapped in amber, but the cathedral area is pedestrianised and, once the tourists have departed and the trams stopped, empty of life at night. Youth and action have decamped – a twenty-minute, take-a-ball-of-string-with-you, walk through needle-eye streets to the Plaza de Alfalfa. (At least, that was the case last year.) And the restaurants and bars that one’s characters favoured are particularly prone to the effects of time. The Bodegón Torre del Oro that was the centre of my characters’ social life was a roofless shell at the time of my last visit, its vaults open to the sky.

“Summer was well advanced; most colours were gone except – in the shadier places – for rampant green. Tall seed-heads nodded on either side of them and had to be brushed away where they encroached upon the path. The springs were merely trickles feeding the mossy limestone basins, and the boggy patch across which lay the sleeper path of logs was nearly dry. They followed the path on up, then down a bit, then up again to the grassy clearing on the jutting spur, to the place where the brief length of wooden fence stopped you from missing the U-turn in the path and disappearing over the cliff edge: the spot where he had first made love with Sylvain.”

That was from my second novel, Adam, which I wrote in 2000. I lived on the Plateau de Langres, where that scene is set, in 1993, but I haven’t been back since. It’s a fair bet that the path still exists – it’s part of the Grande Randonnée 7, after all, a designated hiking trail – but I can’t vouch for the vegetation, while the sleeper path of logs with its rickety wooden handrail may well have rotted away and been replaced by something more cutting-edge.

Probably the following vista – one mile away up the hill – will have remained unaltered. “They sat down upon the stubble, just where they were, on the edge of the wood, without going into it. On this side of the hill the sun had gone. But where they looked down, across the landscape, it lit the village roofs, clusters of orange round the church spire, and coloured the broad bleached sweep of the eastern plateau all the way to where the cathedral, like a capital letter ‘H’, indicated the position of the town of Langres. Then a few minutes later it caught the high peaks of the Vosges mountains, impossibly far away and hanging weightless above the horizon, ethereal as clouds.” The mountains shouldn’t have shifted much, though whether you’ll find stubble underfoot this particular summer is anybody’s guess.

That’s because of the rotation of the crops, which neither writers nor painters can do anything about. The year I visited the site of Van Gogh’s last painting, Wheatfields, at Auvers, a little way outside Paris, the fields were sprouting maize, not wheat: paler in colour and three times as tall. Yet as I walked towards the familiar scene crows flew up jaggedly from the crop to take me by surprise, just as they did in Vincent’s day a century before. Sometimes, perhaps, our landscapes, whether painted on canvas or in words, may turn out to have more staying power than we’d dared to hope.