I began working on a novel in 2009 that takes place in France. Though I am officially against this sort of thing, the inciting incident came to me in a particularly awful dream. In the dream, my small daughter is hit by a car in a plaza in Europe. It haunted me, and made me intensely paranoid about crossing streets with my kids, until I began to think of this scenario as the beginning of a story.
Who is the husband and who is the wife? Who is driving the car? What does the wife do? What does the husband do? I had been to France as a tourist so I started working on it in Canada. It didn’t work. I decided I had to move to France for a year, to write the thing.
The smell of France was not easily detectable from Mill Creek.
There was a tension at the heart of the thing: a family that needs saving goes to the most romantic place they can imagine: The South of France. Nothing that happens there is particularly romantic. I thought, the novel shall be called “The South of France.”
I finished a draft and showed it to my agent. Several hundred drafts later (if I am ever the pope my first saint will be my agent) it was time to show it to editors. Editors in Canada didn’t have this problem but editors at publishing houses in, say, London, thought it was among the worst titles in history. I imagine Londoners think of The South of France the way I think of Palm Springs or the suburbs of Phoenix. A far away but close place, warmer than my place, but also a bit of a pain in the ass. If there was romance there, it is gone now, swallowed up by Wal-Mart and Starbucks drive-throughs.
There are no Wal-Marts in France but there are plenty of strip malls and power centres with French approximations. Every perched village of any size in Provence is surrounded by them. Brits know that the South of France is no longer “The South of France.”
Those of us who were working on the book began thinking of new titles. It’s a bit of a thrillery novel so we wanted a bit of a thrillery title. It’s also a bit of a literary book so we didn’t want anything too thrillery. My friend who suggested “Bullet in the Face” on Facebook was somewhat off, tonally.
We made lists! We made more lists! I lost sleep. Finally, at the last minute, last week, I discovered the title of the book in a paragraph at the end of the first scene in the novel:
“The lieutenant gestured out at the ruins, the swipe of his arm a bit of a flail. Come, barbarians, to our village. Burn it down.”
The Internet is alive with Santas doing un-Santa-like things, like fist-fighting and smoking marijuana cigarettes, because we think it’s funny. It is funny, but it’s still a loss. Santa is accessible, ubiquitous. He’s in-store credit. To little kids today, who are denied little, a friendly Santa who represents their desire for toys, video games and candy is about as magical as Visa.
Belief, in North American culture, is effortless. Missionaries offer home delivery. Churches advertise on bus benches and billboards, offering us the possibility of instant conversion miracles. But if something comes so easy, is it worth dreaming about?
The last time Avia visited Santa, in a nearly deserted mall, she decided he could skip our chimney-less house. She said she had enough toys already, too many, and Santa would be busy with other kids. None of this came from her parents, at least not consciously; we want Avia and Esmé to believe in Santa and then, someday, to secretly grieve over their unbelief. Like we did.
But if Santa is simply a conduit for a Barbie Fairy-tactic Princess, which is worth slightly more than a pack of smokes, is he worthy of lost sleep on Christmas Eve?
Ideally, he fills a void — wondrously. So what’s our void?
The Catholic religion, a foundation of French culture and society until the wrecking ball of doubt that was the Second World War, is more alive in museums and art galleries than in places of worship. Posters advertising the arrival of Père Noël were pasted all over Douarnenez. I had always translated Père Noël, Father Christmas, as Santa Claus.
There were differences, both subtle and profound.
Père Noël was not pulled to Douarnenez by reindeer. He would sail into the bay in a pretty boat. People talked about him for weeks; both children and adults spoke of his coming visit with sincere, curiously ominous joy. French humour takes longer than a year to comprehend, so until the big night I never knew if our friends and acquaintances were being ironic.
There were no parking spots anywhere near the marina; everyone in the city had come. A carousel had been set up, and a truck was selling ice cream. We spotted our landlords, Jean-Michel and Angèle, near the water. As soon as he saw the kids, Jean-Michel picked up Esmé and hauled her like a battering ram toward a small metal fence. He shouted at me to follow with Avia.
“If we’re not close, they won’t see anything.” Jean-Michel jostled his neighbours. “It’ll be a failure.”
We stood making small talk about the price of champagne and fending off Douarnenistes who sought to muscle us out of our prime positions. None of this made any sense. France is, officially and unofficially, a rigorously secular country. Belief and the trappings of belief, since the middle of the 20th century, have fit anywhere on a continuum from unfashionable to illegal.
Why had so many people come out to see a man dressed up as a cartoon?
Just as Avia and Esmé began to yawn and struggle impatiently, red floodlights popped on in the marina. A mist rose up out of the bay. A yellow star appeared in the distance. Everyone fell silent, even the sugar-spiked 11-year-old boys who had resolved not to believe in Santa, as the phantom boat, decorated like a Christmas tree, docked.
“Ca c’est Père Noël?” said Avia.
“Shh,” said Jean-Michel.
Music began to play, the haunting French Christmas classic Petit Père Noël by Tino Rossi, first recorded in 1946. Men in robes walked up the pier, out of the red fog, bearing long smoking candles; it was a Catholic procession. The song, a little boy’s plea for Santa not to forget him, is in the form of a hymn. It begins with cathedral bells and progresses with a grand church organ, leading to a sweet and modest chorus.
Angèle and Jean-Michel were silently weeping. So were other adults, old enough to remember the comfort that came with a national religion. The children were not screaming for Père Noël like he was a rock star, or shouting that they wanted Barbie Fairy-tactic Princesses. They were absolutely silent, obedient.
Finally he appeared. He was thin, like the man in Locronan, and walked slowly. He nodded gravely at the children: he did know if they had been naughty or nice, and a decision was forthcoming. He wore his hood like a bishop so his face was too shadowed to see. There was no bag; he carried toys in a lobster trap fashioned into a backpack. As he passed, he shook some hands. He reached for Avia’s hand. This was a silent negotiation; if she was good, pure of heart, she would be touched, somehow, by this magic man.
Père Noël was no jolly, happy soul. He didn’t represent simple want or desire. He was the spirit of the empty churches and cathedrals of France, the lost comforts of God and faith and community and mystery. In the postwar rush to be different than we had been before, more vigilant, less superstitious, something beautiful had been abandoned along with the cruelty and stupidity. He was the Ghost of France Past.
The mayor, senator and regional councillor welcomed Père Noël on stage, ceremoniously, the way they would welcome the president of the republic — though without any of the artificial backslapping and small-talk that accompanies a political rally. He was asked how the sea had been.
The Garneau Block is in the final five for the Canada Reads Prairie and North region. There is only one voter left, so neither the author nor his friends and followers and readers on social media will feel in need of a herbal cleanse anytime soon, from voting and pumping and pumping and voting.
I have had the good fortune of reading all but one of these novels, and I am on the last of them now.
My novel is the least transparently literary of these five. It’s a comedy, a fairy tale really, set in contemporary Edmonton. It doesn’t have the heft of history, like Fred’s novel, or the sense of discovery about a northern place, like Elizabeth’s book. The Diviners is a recognized classic and The Age of Hope, which I am reading now, is a lovely example of what Canadian literature has been doing so well in the past twenty years: it is a hybrid between the poetic and the prosaic.
While I find myself trying to enter the head of the mystery panelist, using dangerous shamanistic techniques I have learned on the internet, it really does come down to personality now. Some people are most comfortable in the cozy realm of the syllabus classic. Others feel it’s essential to build a sense of where we have been through a piece of historical fiction. As the Dominion Institute reminds us, Canadians are more-or-less miserable about history. The beauty of the line is where a whole generation of Canadian literature has lived.
Stacked up against all of this, who would choose a funny/sad novel about a worrisomely pregnant girl living in her parents’ basement, whose dad keeps an ugly hairless dog, and whose neighbours are psychologically and sexually disturbed? With a prince charming and some rednecks and a glass buffalo head?
Someone really goddamn amazing, that’s who. Now back to my peyote.
It’s pleasant to know that when the shit goes down I have this guy. His name is Kirk Babiak and he owns several crossbows. He knows the names of guns, which comes in handy when you’re writing a book with Corsican mobsters that takes place in 1992.
One of his big dreams is to fight an ostrich, naked. Once I made him laugh so hard he had a heart attack.