“Sometimes,” Edward Albee wrote, “it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.” My story, “Forgiven” (in the current NAR), took its first faltering steps back in 1962, when as a skinny twenty-year-old I fell painfully in love with a Belgian girl I’d met at a youth hostel in Chartres.
A quadralingual older woman (she was twenty-two), Nicole was also a Rilke-ridden poet who was just publishing her first volume of verse in her native Flemish. I need not add that she was beautiful.
If you read “Forgiven,” you’ll see the degree to which I’ve plundered my past, especially when I add that we drove around Europe for five weeks in her little Citroen, slept side-by-side in a tiny tent, and never so much as kissed.
When it all ended and I returned to the States, she wrote that one day I might write about her. It took most of a lifetime before I could, and (if she’s still alive) she’d be surprised at how different fiction is from fact. First of all, she is no longer entirely herself, but also my dear wife of thirty-four years, Wyatt, who is herself a fine poet.
Probably, “Forgiven” would never have been written if it weren’t for Vladimir Nabokov. Several years ago, I came across his story, “The Vane Sisters.” The sisters in question, Sybil and Cynthia, have died by the end of the tale, but the narrator leaves us with a few cryptic sentences which turn out to be an acrostic, in fact a message from beyond the grave: “I could isolate, consciously, little. Everything seemed blurred, yellow-clouded, yielding nothing tangible. Her inept acrostics, maudlin evasions, theopathies—every recollection formed ripples of mysterious meaning. Everything seemed yellowly blurred, illusive, lost.”
Take the first letter of each word and you have: “Icicles by Cynthia; meter from me, Sybil.” All of which makes revelatory sense in the context of the story.
My first reaction was a simple, non-literary “Wow!” My second thought was, “Hey, maybe I could do something like that.” What that might be I had no idea. Then I remembered Nicole, my Belgian poet. I made her into Marisa, who is neither entirely Nicole nor exactly Wyatt—in fact, a fictional character—then had her communicate by otherworldly acrostics with her former love.
It was a challenge to write, to be sure, but much more than an intellectual exercise. I grew to love Marisa—that monstre sacré of the imagination—and mourn her fictional fate. And I felt for the poor sap who loved and betrayed her, and who is not me (well, except for that growing bald spot of his). Isn’t that what we all try for as artists, to be like the ancient sculptor, Pygmalion, carving the statue of Galatea, and hoping that she’ll turn real?
Sometimes, I can now attest, it happens.