Friday, February 16, 2024

The Unwritten

originally appeared via my substack:

I imagine a thousand Greek ships arriving, their hulls covered in black pitch, each with a single sail.
               Anne Simpson, “What Does Poetry Do? Notes on Sōphrosynē



To illustrate a point during his post-reading on-stage interview, the senior novelist mentions a story he once meant to write of an accountant named Artaud, who fell out of the sky. He fell out of the sky and survived, and no one could figure out how.

Is this something you’re working on now? the interviewer asks him.

The novelist waved off the suggestion with his hand. No, no. He was too old, it would take too long. There are other things I must do.



He preferred to answer questions on his latest book, a nearly six hundred page epic that explores four generations of a family across two continents. The narrative stretches across more than a century, and took him twelve years to finish. He spent months wading through historical and personal archives, travelling six months from the United Kingdom through various points across Europe. How many more books might he have in him? He was already eighty years old. With every project, every book, the fear that it might be his last. And yet, every book was a new beginning. To start from nothing but scraps.

He'd spent twelve years splicing and braiding various odds and sods, including the whispered tales of his Great Uncle Silas, who may or may not have had to quickly abandon Dublin over the murder of a local shopkeeper. He wrote a sequence of four generations of men, from Lithuania to Belfast to London, before arriving amid the Family Compact of Toronto, and Upper Canada College. At points the story held shades of a spy thriller into a family drama, to a tale of romance, loss and instability. It was about seeking one’s home, and the sins of the father. A complicated romance of strangers, during the time of the First Great War.

And then there was Artaud, who scratched at the back of his consciousness. Why even bring him up?



The fictional Artaud woke in an open field. The first cut had been poured into furrows, and he found himself lengthwise, laying across a bedding of dried hay and clover. How did he get here? He had scrapes on his legs and his arms, and a considerable bruise on his torso, but no broken bones. There were leaves in his hair.

He remembers the passenger jet during take-off. He remembers the ambient engine hum, enough that it soothed him to sleep.

Seeking his bearings, he recognized the surrounding fields, and the curl of the river. The tin roof of a farmhouse and red painted barn, past the trees. The bridge, further south.

And not a sign of the aircraft. No contrails, no wreckage. It was as if he had been plucked from his seat by an invisible hand and placed on the ground.

A breeze rolled up from the river. Three sparrows flecked by. A cool brush past his cheek. The sky a deep, endless blue.



After the on-stage event, the novelist stood in the festival pub with a pint of some local delicacy. His agent asks about the story of Artaud. Is this something you’re working on? Is this a short story or novel? No, no, he responds. It isn’t anything. Well, the agent says, if you ever write it up, I’d be interested in seeing it. A knot forms in his stomach.



Artaud was fifty-one years old, although numbers couldn’t save him. At least, not any longer. He had built his career around a certainty that numbers made everything possible. He believed in the God Equation. He had faith that a mathematical formula was indeed possible to explain creation, and everything that followed. He had faith in this, all of which came crashing down on that third day of June, in his fifty-second year.

Three thousand to forty-two hundred feet in the air.

He was flying home after a conference, to visit his widowed mother. She hadn’t been feeling well and Artaud wished to check in. He still bore the weight of the good son.

He was in the air. He was on the ground. He had his briefcase in hand. How did he get here?



The novelist knew that Artaud would never be the same again. Four years after he woke in a stranger’s field, Artaud’s mother would suffer a stroke, and linger a few months before dying.

The plane landed, as it had been scheduled. Artaud was recorded as having boarded the plane, but there was no one at his destination to claim baggage or pick up his rental car. The airline offered a statement that pointed to human error, and the possibility he hadn’t boarded at all, before considering the matter settled. No crime had been committed, and no one had been injured. There was nothing to claim, and even less to refute.

The novelist knew he’d created a puzzle he hadn’t the bandwidth, nor possibly the imagination, to solve. How did Artaud make it safely to the ground? The novelist worried a younger writer would have been able to write his way out of it, or at least not paint up into corners. Were his best books, finally, behind him?



From then on, Artaud couldn’t look skyward without trepidation. He never truly felt safe on the ground again. Was some part of him still in the air?



The Wicked Witch of the West’s “Surrender, Dorothy” wasn’t directed at Dorothy. It was an excision from a longer quote, “Surrender Dorothy or die,” directed squarely at the people of Emerald City. She never expected the Ms. Gale to give up so easily. She knew her reign of terror would mean nothing to this stranger, this interloper. The Wicked Witch went after the people.


No comments: