25th August, 2015
It was Richard Wagner’s house that we visited long ago in Switzerland, not Liszt’s home, and it was situated at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne, not on the outskirts of Bern, as I’d first thought. This is where having a long-time relationship with someone is a very good thing, especially for a writer engaged in a memoir project, because the shared history is of great assistance when you are trying to surmount the memory blanks and even more importantly when you wish to verify the dimly-remembered fragments that seem more like dream than reality. There is such a sense of relief when you find that you’re not imagining things.
Last night Julian went searching on Google for the missing house. Earlier I’d tried and given up when my search words, ‘famous composer house museum Bern’ failed. Even adding ‘Switzerland’ to the search had failed. Feeling frustrated and starting to doubt my own memory I asked for help —‘I’m sure there was a house in the snow,’ I said to Julian, and he replied ‘yes there was’—while I got ready for bed.
One of Julian’s very best qualities is perseverance. That’s what has made him a good surgeon. It got him through the exams and the inhumanely long hours, and through the training with the cranky, temperamental and exacting divas that were the senior surgeons in the hospitals of New Zealand and London, where he worked. It’s what takes him through an eight-hour operation now and the weekend hospital visits, every day of every weekend throughout the year except when he’s giving a paper at a conference or taking a short holiday, and many other knotty life matters as well. I don’t know how he managed it last night but, after a long and persistent search, cracking through the codes, he found the house in Lucerne plus some photos of the house with snow on the ground. The house in this recent photo is painted white and there are green shutters and an extra floor, but I’m not bothered by those inconsistencies. In my memory I still see a pale lemon, two-storeyed building with white shutters and the pale peach rose on its island in the snow.
I had completely forgotten about going to Lucerne but of course, now when I think back I’m remembering that the train took us from Ravenna, where we had been to see the Byzantine mosaics at the Basilica of San Vitale, past Liechtenstein to Zurich for a night or two, and then on to Lucerne and Bern and lastly Geneva. They were fleeting all those visits, a night or two here and there and possibly only a day in Bern but I’m happy with the memories. They have an evocative and trancelike quality that I like. As soon as Julian mentioned Lucerne then another image surfaced, this time of the place where we had stayed. This is how to unlock the memories, step by step, through discussion, research, writing and being responsive to mental triggers. ‘It was above another river, wasn’t it Julian.’ I said. ‘Yes it was, Deborah. The Reuss.’ He was looking at the screen. And I remember the room it was white and there was fresh, crisp linen on the bed and the reflections from the river and the snow on the ground outside shone through the wide windows on the duvet covers picking out the colours in the floral pattern. Chancing upon this lovely place to stay was a welcome find after the youth hostel in Zurich, where we had to sleep in separate dormitories, and the cheap pensiones, dark and creaky, that we had stayed at in Spain, France and Italy.
Today in Lausanne the family divided into groups. One group went to the Olympic Museum, while I accompanied my niece and Cleo to view the medieval cathedral and take a quick look in the shops. The plan was to meet on the terrace at the Nespresso café for special coffees — in fact I had a violet coffee that had mauve crystals scattered on the milk and a pansy, not a violet, dropped into the froth, I guess the violets are not in season — in the late afternoon. Switzerland is the home of the giant exporting success that is Nespresso. We had passed the factory on our way to Lausanne.
I’m feeling shattered tonight and when I consider writing about the day, about finding two long-sleeved nightgowns in the modal fabric that is so soft and slinky to wear, made by Hanro a Swiss manufacturer, one peach with crocheted embroidery in the v of the neckline, the other a graphite blue with a matching silk inset — I see the writing as a trap, a bind and a pressure. Probably I shouldn’t even start writing in this negative, foggy space but here are some scattered thoughts before I fall into bed.
The cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne. When I walked into the building my eyes went up, first, to see and admire the clever fancywork that can be found in the vaulted ceiling of a medieval cathedral. Work began on this cathedral in 1170 and it was consecrated in 1275. I love these displays of intricate and splendid craftsmanship. You can actually see the result of the patient piecing together and slotting into place of all the stones that make up the miraculous tall vaulted arches that defy gravity and produce the soaring sensation that to me is suggestive of possibility and imagination. Initially the plan for these sacred, fantastic spaces was to show the congregation the power of the church, to wow them, I think and bring them pleasure. It must have been comforting back in the middle ages to know that if you lived your short, difficult life piously, by the bible, you would one day, escape the struggle and be safe, with God as protector in a soft blue heaven with puffy clouds, tinted apricot and pink, amongst which the deity, along with the cupids and angels, would float and ride.
When I was growing up I didn’t find comfort in that idea and I did think about Heaven a lot because I had two people up there, my father and my brother and I really wished to get there and be with them. My anxiety was about how everyone would fit. I never saw a depiction of people in heaven. There were Bosch paintings of people in the stifling, fiery agony that was Hell and damnation but I can’t remember seeing any images of ordinary people ascending to heaven and finding loved ones, first and then a space to settle. This worried me terribly. My small head was beset with existential angst. It was the idea of eternity and continuing as a soul forever that gave me nightmares. Even now I can access the child’s existential terror — my chest grows tight, my breathing gets shorter — as I remember the void and the thoughts that ran like this, ‘how can you go on in some form, forever and ever? But what would happen after forever? And after that? AND AFTER THAT? On and on my thoughts would trundle. I never found a satisfying answer.