Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Le Chateau de Lavigny: First Brief Impressions

So, I just survived my very first writer’s residency!

Three weeks in a Swiss chateau, all comforts catered for, time and space rigged up for writing. With living literary history not only haunting the quaint villages but dwelling within each photograph and painting and sketch on the walls, woven even into the spectacular silks of Jane Ledig-Rowohlt’s bed where I sleep.

There were five of us. All writers. From across the world: USA, New Zealand, Nigeria, and of course yours truly.  

All in a beautiful summer villa, full of books and art and literary memories.  Water colours by Henry Miller; photographs of Lewis Carroll’s child muse, Alice Liddell framed in burnished gold and cream.  Scattered amongst the books are numerous pretty pieces of glass, and china and metal. And little artefacts of whimsy: a couple of dozen porcelain King Charles spaniels of varying sizes, some whose heads wrench off to reveal a pitcher; they unnerve the writer who must sleep in that chamber. A pair of heeled wooden sculptures carved like Victorian buttoned shoes stand on an imposing chinoiserie, too small to fit any feet even had they been real.  In the library, the books seemed to be held in place by hefty vintage earthenware jars from Fortnum and Mason’s marked cheddar and stilton.  Why do they live in the library? No one seems to know the answer.

Our interaction at the beginning is a little awkward, a bit hesitant, like a blind date with no convenient way out.  But slowly we manage to get along, carefully avoiding any rough edges, any potential pitfalls.  It is a diplomatic manoeuvre that I renounced, consciously and deliberately, many years ago and is a great effort to revert to childhood manners; I can imagine I would not be able to retain the fa├žade for much beyond the required three weeks. 

Indeed, midway through I make a long distance, expensive, late night call to a friend. Much like an addict needing a fix. Our conversation is wholly political, heated, silly; wholly inappropriate.  I hang up knowing I will survive the self-imposed isolation.  My sister rather aptly pronounces that I am “volunteering for self-imposed house arrest” although, in all fairness, I do take walks to the neighbouring villages, wander through the vineyards and orchards and sunflower fields.  So perhaps, house arrest with a little electronic bracelet to ensure I don’t wander too far afield?

At the end of the second week, we have a reading of our works, not necessarily what we have been writing but whatever we choose to read.  Strangely the reading does more to break the ice than any other activity we have undertaken.  Suddenly, we can identify each other, mentally find a place for ourselves: our words are indeed our disembodied selves, perhaps far more powerful than any other.   

The rest of the residency passes with greater camaraderie, a great deal of hysterical laughter over the routinely extra bottle of chasselas at dinner.

The end, when it arrives, is a relief; and a surprise; and strangely tinged with sadness.