My part of Burgundy (Côte-d’Or) is a landscape of ‘manicured’ rolling hills. The French farmers are meticulous, the crop rows straight ( three harvests a season), the hillsides dotted with white (charolais) cattle, occasionally a sheepfold. Burgundy has been farmed by damn-good farmers for 2000+ years.
Northern Wisconsin had been farmed about 100 years and is progressively returning to the wild. Family/friends have sent fall photos: the leaves vary from colorful to just jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, making-you-stop-and-lose-consciousness, Pantone’s Book of Colors colorful. Northern Wisconsin can be like that – hypnotizingly beautiful. I once sat in a camouflaged deer stand at sunset, an eight-pointer squared under the 10-yard pin on my compound bow, a northern harrier passing me by at eye level. I did not shoot. It would have disturbed the moment.
So, Novels. I am writing one and reading two.
I am reading Vasily Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’ [Жизнь и Судьба]. Grossman, was a WWII Red Star war correspondent (Red Star was the Soviet equivalent of Stars and Stripes). Grossman creates with a cast of many a 900-page sweep of the Eastern Front 1941-45. Slavs at war with themselves and with Germany– never a pretty sight. The Germans had visited WWI and WWII plus Communism (Karl Marx) and Fascism (Adolf Hitler) upon the Slavs. The deaths were in the multiples of millions. Vasily Grossman (a Jew born in Ukraine) describes the Eastern Front as well as any man.
I have just finished Robert Olen Butler’s latest but-as-yet- unpublished novel, Twice Around a Marriage, Two twice-married (to each other) septuagenarian literaturs and academics––the wife a writer and the husband a literary critic––are Covid-confined in Paris where they had met as students, where they now gnaw upon one another and upon their marriage. They gnaw with the tools they have, stories true as memory allows. The premise of the novel is ridiculous; ROB’s treatment is sublime. I consider it a 2nd Pulitzer Prize material (after his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Good Scent from a Strange Mountain). )
Me? And I am thrashing through last 3-5000 (10-15,000?) words of my novel Resurrection. This is the fifth of five novels which narrate the journey of two Northwoods kids through America’s late twentieth century wars.
The ‘final draft’ of this the fifth and final novel in the series is misery-making. One weaves together the threads of multiple storylines–– the incident on page 37 on the farm road in Upper Peninsula, Michigan must agree with outdoor cafe scene three-years later set on the Una River, Bihac, Bosnia-Herzegovina, pg 257. ROB has written a literary gem with two people in one apartment in Paris over the course of a week. Vasily Grossman’s eighteen or so main characters traverse WWII’s Eastern Front over several years. Both novels are perfections in their genre. Below is an opening scene at my attempt a literary perfection.
______________________________ Marie-Jeanne Belise nee Charbonneau Low clouds dropped heavy snow through the still air onto the chapel roof, tombstones, and the heads and hats of mourners. White pines bounded the forest clearing on the north and west. A boulder-strewn river course, upon which an otter had grooved a track between ice crevices, was the churchyard's west boundary. A green John Deer backhoe stood next to the chapel, a discordant splash of summer green upon a winter tableau––the white of the chapel and the snow, the black of the forest, and the heavy coats of the mourners. Pick-up and logging trucks, cars, and a hearse parked along the county highway, beyond which lay a corn-stubbled field and a hardwood forest. Father Vukelich was seated beside Berta Belisle and her brother, Zoran Karaklajic, beneath the funeral tent. The open grave, green outdoor carpet laid over the excavated pile of dirt, and coffin set on a lowering device were before them. Beyond the grave stood the VFW honor guard, two tall, gaunt identical twins, Kurt and Kyle Langenkampf, with the pudgy and short Dieter Weatherhogg between. The priest, crippled by arthritis and leaning on a cane, stood, adjusted his douillette, and stepped from beneath the tent to examine with distaste the falling snow. He had buried a sufficient number of peasants to know the Rite of Committal by heart. A few words here and there out of order would not divert this dead pagan's soul from its divine plan, which was an eternity in hell. The priest gave Marie-Jeanne Belisle nee Charbonneau a sour look. Baise-le, she thought. Marie-Jeanne straightened to her full 5'4″. She stood to the left of the grave opposite the dirt pile. She was elegantly dressed––tall boots, long black skirt, hooded woolen cape––save for her husband's old leather mittens––' choppers' in the local parlance––with lighter fluid hand warmers inside. Her fingers were always cold. It was her Ricky's cross to bear if he wished to sleep with her. 'Tu peux choisir, cher Mari. Where shall I warm them…back or chest?' She placed her mittened hand upon her husband's arm. The soft fall of snow suggested music, a fragment in a minor key, to her inner ear. Marie-Jeanne searched her repertoire, listening to an additional two bars. Finally, she recognized the dismal and foreboding Erlkonig, a Goethe poem Franz Schubert had set to music. Across the cornfield, she caught a flicker of blaze orange. It was a late date in the state's whitetail deer hunting season. "Our brother, Lott Belisle, has gone to his rest in the peace of Christ. May the Lord now welcome him to the table of God's children in heaven. With faith and hope in eternal life..." Marie-Jeanne had brow-beaten Father Vukelich into reading the Rite of Committal. 'Lott's not Catholic. He's pagan if one ever existed,' he pronounced. 'He accepted God's grace at the moment of death,' she replied, then purchased the indulgence––Father Vukelic's airline ticket to pilgrimage in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. A disciple of the Croatian Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb, he had been stranded in Chicago when Germany invaded Yugoslavia. Over one winter and one spring, Father Vukelic taught Marie-Jeanne and Richard the Rite of Christian Initiation. Berta warned Marie-Jeanne to never leave the priest alone with Richard. 'Colonel Belisle and I offer it for your service, Father.' "We read in Sacred Scripture: Our true home is in heaven, and Jesus Christ, whose return we long for, will come from heaven to save us." Marie-Jeanne looked up at her husband, snow on his hair, shoulders as broad as the horizon, garrison hat held level with the belt of the Army greatcoat. In her heart, he became her husband that October morning four decades ago when in Spirit Falls Graded School, a six-year-old lout in overalls and brogans assumed she was an ignorant Canuck and translated the teacher's question into his gibberish Serbo-Croatian. 'Husband.' The word formed against the gray-white sky in firm, precise and black gothic script. 'Hers.' It resounded in a major chord. The farmhouse, the village, and the vast north woods had been their Eden until, one day, they were cast out. She shivered. Father Vukelich had yet to give them their first communion. The flawed priest nodded to the undertaker, who touched a switch, the coffin descending into the earth. "In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother Lott, and we commit his body to the ground/its resting place: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." Yet, she had brought Chrystelle, then her twins to Eden, to this priest, for baptism. "The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious to him..." Could it have been but a decade plus months after the first day of second grade that they became husband and wife, if not in the eyes of the law, at least in God's averted eye? The dreams of her man shattered, she found him on that Colorado mountain pasture. The sheep camp bunk was surely no wider than a 2X6 board and as soft, and there, surrounded by 6000 fretful sheep with two sheep dogs watching them intently, they made love. For birth control, she counted the days between periods on her fingers, said a prayer to the virgin mother, and gave it her all. Nine months later, Chrystelle arrived with the awful inevitability of God's plan. She smiled wryly––she must one night have forgotten to ask the Virgin's intercession. A third word wriggled in the air and traversed the county highway to settle in the field of corn stubble. Infidèle. Richard's daughter, Murielle, obstinate and articulate, stood opposite, holding her father's arm. She was a beauty, dark, bright-eyed, and intelligent, oh so intelligent. 'You can't deny that one, Marie-Jeanne,' strangers asserted. Richard, inarticulate and uncomprehending, stood between them. Always, he stood between them. "Now let us pray as Jesus taught us...." The soft impact of heavy snow undertoned the discordant murmur of the Catholic and Lutheran Lord's Prayer. 'Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done... Richard was in Okinawa, awaiting orders... "Give us today our daily bread." He sent the marriage power-of-attorney and a $60.00 monthly pay allotment, keeping $12.00 for himself. It paid half the rent. "And forgive us our trespasses," She was eight months pregnant when Kitty appeared at her door, Murielle in her arms. Richard, the idiot beyond all telling, had given Kitty Marie-Jeanne's address. The young woman's Hasidic grandfather had cast her out. Kitty's biological father denied her. Murielle was Richard's child. What could she do? She took her into her one-room New York walk-up. Kitty slept with Murielle in the single bed, Marie-Jeanne upon the floor. God, she had been so angry. Had Marie-Jeanne not been pregnant herself, Richard would have found himself and his stupid power-of-attorney married to Kitty. "...as we forgive those who trespass against us." She had forgotten, ignored, ditched her pride, and made peace with her mother. Still, she had not forgiven. Chrystelle was born in the Army hospital at West Point. "For thine is the kingdom and power... forever and ever, Amen." The VFW honor guard fired a ragged volley into the air, startling Marie-Jeanne. One of the Langenkampf twins, Kemper or Kurt, croaked out an inarticulate command. Rifle butts staccatoed against the frozen earth. Another shouted command. Another ragged volley. The mourners shuffled, the funeral over. The thud of earth on wooden coffin. The wind picked up. The other twin, Kurt or Kemper––Marie-Jeanne still could not tell them apart––glared. They no longer spoke, some long-ago argument over folding the flag, which would be settled when one buried the other. "Oh, Chrystelle, I am so afraid for you," Marie-Jeanne whispered into the wind. Richard turned. "Ricky," she said, "if anything...anything at all... happens to Chrystelle...there...I'll leave you, I swear."