Whenever I have finished a novel, a strangely ambivalent feeling gets hold of me, which is best described as “lusty wistfulness”. On the one hand, I feel relieved knowing I have mastered such a long journey full of adventures and sometimes almost insuperable obstacles. On the other hand, when I have to bid my characters good-bye, a pain of separation grasps me that couldn’t possibly be any stronger, even if I was forced in real life to leave behind my home with all the people I feel at ease with and close to.
As I did not care to fall into the infamous black hollow, I decided to go in holidays as soon as I had finished Stolen from Heaven (Himmelsdiebe). In the morning of June, the tenth, I handed in the corrected proofs at the post office, and an hour later I hit the road. With each kilometre I put behind me I hoped to create a distance, not only between me and my work, but even more between me and my subject, my story and all the aberrations I had lived through and suffered through together with my characters during the last few months.
But who is man to try and make plans? When I got out of the car that evening, I was somewhere in Southern France and I felt as if waking up within my own head. Was that reality? Or a fantasy? In front of my eyes I saw a place beyond time, a tiny, sleepy village, a river, gleaming in the evening’s sun, a suspension bridge and behind it a mountain range. All this appeared to be exactly as in my novel – so real and truthful, as only a perfect illusion can be.
As if wandering ghostlike through the scenery of my own dreams I went off to explore the village. While the villagers greeted me like an old friend who had been absent for a long time but who had now returned home, I was puzzled by the names of the street. Every square, every road and mew was dedicated to the memory of a painter, male or female: Salvador Dalì, Leonora Carrington, Pablo Picasso, Harry Winter, Laura Paddington, Max Ernst … Could it be that all those celebrities had lived here once, in this sleepy little town? Impressed I looked around me, hoping to discover some traces of their presence and their work. But the only piece of art I noticed was a rather boring sculpture of a saint that I found in the market square, made by a nameless sculptor.
Disappointed, I wanted to turn away, when I suddenly saw a man, suspended in the air above me. He appeared to have no visible ground beneath his feet, but was leaning nonchalantly against a wall, as if that was the most natural thing in the world. And while the people walked around under his legs dangling in the void, he raised a hand to show me the way.
When I saw the building the hovering man showed me my hands became sweaty with excitement. It was the Hôtel Les Touristes hardly a stone’s throw away, the very same hotel with the bistro where Laura Paddington and Harry Winter, hero and heroine of my novel, had spent so many evenings almost a lifetime ago – together with Lulu, their landlady and friend. They had even got married here! I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. This bar really did still exist … utterly confused I sat down on the terrace and ordered a drink. With the aperitif, however, I had my next surprise: The inn’s landlord was none other than my airy guide – and he, it turned out, was my Lulu’s grandson in the very flesh! The whole evening I spent listening to him, while he was told me the story of Laura and Harry, the same story, which I had written last year, as if it belonged to this place just as the church and the market square and the river beneath our terrace with its quiet murmur.
As the night went on, a question became more and more urgent to me, although I could hardly muster the courage to ask it: Could the house still be there – the magic house where Harry and Laura used to live? Of course, was the landlord’s answer, as soon as I at last managed to ask, of course it was still there, up at the hillside, less than a quarter of an hour away, and it was even more or less in the same condition as it was when the two lovers left it, more than five decades before.
The very next morning I went off to find it, using the path, which Laura and Harry had used so often, a small track, leading from the village through a vineyard and up the hillside. My heart was hammering when I entered through the gateway, made from stone. And then I stood in front of the house.
As if in trance I let my glance roam over the old stonework. Here my hero and my heroine had spent the most precious moments of their lives and their art, all those moments they had stolen from the heavens. Here they had painted a picture together, their loot of heaven, the journal of their love – I almost thought I could hear their voices, their calling and their laughter – I even thought I could recognise the patch where their grew their weed of miracles.
Cautiously and silently, as if afraid to wake up from a dream, I crept around the house. While I was touching the stones that my lovers had touched, walking the paths that they had walked every day, I suddenly felt as if someone was observing me. Maybe the new owners who felt disturbed by my presence? With a pang of conscience I looked up, but there was no inhabitant looking down on me, but a giant with a knobbly nose, a full-breasted woman and a funny, birdlike creature which was familiar to me as my own reflection in the mirror: Dada and his family, the tutelary gods of the magic house. Harry and Laura had hoped that they would protect their self-made paradise, their love and their art from the demons of reality.
When I returned to the village, I had only one wish left. Luckily, Lulu’s grandson was not wandering through the air, so I was able to ask him without any fuss: Would it be possible for him to show me the place where Laura and Harry bathed in the river? During my research, nothing else gave me a more intense image of the idyllic life the two of them led than the stories about the summer afternoons they spent bathing. Certainly, the landlord replied, there are still a few old ones living in the village who used to hide between the bushes as youngsters, in order to secretly look at the pair – after all the two of them preferred to bath naked and Laura was a stunningly beautiful woman. But if I wanted to really feel the entire story, which Laura and Harry had experienced here, if I wanted to understand the whole magic and the whole drama of their relationship then I would have to visit two other places first.
My first trip brought me to Largentière. When I saw the half crumbling, half renovated castle high above a ravine rising against the sky, I remembered everything as if it was yesterday: Here, at the craziest art school in France Harry had taught his lover how to see, supported by teachers who were able to see things that remained invisible to all other people, teachers who accepted no reality apart from their own. Because their inner imagination was stronger than any outer reality could be.
This thought, however, was it more than a beautiful illusion? Those tutelary gods that were supposed to protect Laura’s and Harry’s happiness – did they not fail, when the enormous war started? The lovers were torn apart, French soldiers led Harry away like a criminal, without Dada or the two giants intervening. Yes, Dada was still resplendent on the wall of the magic house, but where once had been his mighty virility, now his stony wound was gaping.
From Largentière to Les Milles, the second place I was supposed to visit, before the landlord of the Hôtel Les Touristes would show me the way for the last time, I had to drive for several hours. One afternoon, during a terrible storm bearing down over the entire South of France, I arrived at the shut down brickworks, where Harry Winter was brought as an internee shortly after the beginning of the war – together with several thousand other Germans who were considered hostile foreigners back then. Many of them were Jews and members of the resistance, intellectuals, and artists who had fled their homeland from the Nazis, hoping to save their lives in France.
The sight of the gloomy brick building ducking under the cloudy sky heavy with rain strengthened the doubts I had felt when looking at Dada’s destroyed virility. What can dreams do, what power do imagination and fantasy have, when faced with the reality of a war? Reluctantly, I entered the former internment camp, which had meant captivity and deprivation for so many people. But here of all places, at this apparently hopeless, comfortless place, I discovered a message that once again seemed to turn everything upside down. Artists who had been imprisoned here, had, ordered by their camp commander, filled the walls with fantastic paintings. In the middle of an elysian abundance of painted delicacies, I read: If your plates are only scantily filled, may our pictures still your hunger.
I wanted to ask which artist had made those murals, but there was nobody who could have given me an answer. But did I not know my answer anyway? I knew only one man who was able so light-heartedly and light-handedly to overcome the reality and its borders. Harry Winter, the hero of my novel who, although I had created him myself, he had during the writing long turned into my teacher.
Deep in thoughts, I returned to the place of my dreams. In the meantime, the rain clouds had disappeared and warm sunshine greeted me in front of the Hôtel Les Touristes. I looked around for the landlord, but I could find him nowhere, neither up in the air nor behind the bar of his bistro. When I asked for him in the inn, out of the blue nobody seemed to know him, even the waiter merely shrugged his shoulders when his name was mentioned. But did I really need his help anymore? Without searching for him a moment longer, I went down to the river, on my own. Because I know that my dreams were no illusions, and neither were my thieves of heaven. And when my novel was as real as the happiness of Harry and Laura, then I would need no guide.
My novel did not desert me. Even before I realised myself I had found the place, which I wanted to see, before I would return home. That place where Laura and Harry might have experienced the most beautiful moment they had ever stolen from heaven, a moment of eternity, in this unreal, super-real place beyond time, on the shore of this river that was forever changing and forever the same in Harry’s and Laura’s paradise.