We first noticed it when it was still a construction site, but even on a grimly dank and overcast day, there was something about this tall, light, filigree structure in the middle of fields on the edge of a farming village. You could see it from miles away and we did a detour to get closer. What could it be?
There was a narrow access road, muddied with diggers, and we approached what seemed the entrance to the complex. A billboard gave details of what was being built and by whom. We wrote it down so we could check when we got home.
It turned out to be a foundation created in memory of a publisher’s husband, dedicated to writers and writing. A year or two later I looked it up again and it seemed to have been opened. I had a friend coming to visit, a Brazilian fool (in the best sense of the word), and we spent a dazzling autumn day driving along the Jura going to magical places, including book places. This was one of them.
The sky was a limpid, boundless, hyacinthine blue and the leaves of the new-planted trees at the entrance shimmering pendants of sun gold. These cool-warm colours immediately imprinted themselves on my memory of the place. I have always struggled with German, but the opening sentence of a novel by Christa Wolf had easily stuck: ‘Blau und Gold sind die Farben des Mittelalters’; blue and gold, the colours of the Middle Ages.
The colours of a place built in a field for writers.
We walked to an airy semi-covered courtyard with a terrace looking to the Alps across the lake. No roof, rather a lofty concrete canopy, allowing sun and shade to play on the floor as they would in a forest. Writers’ cabins were suspended from the canopy and there was a library.
We went in and were welcomed. No paperwork, no identification, no questions, just welcomed. A long narrow atrium with gallery upon gallery, and the floors, stairs, and shelves all in the same smooth honey-hued timber. Shelf after shelf of literature in dozens of languages. And when you walk along the outer gallery, facing the lake and the Alps, there are desks with windows in secluded bays.
We continued on our journey, to another, much older place of enchantment, but I knew that the next free day I’d come back, and we talked about the possibility of returning for a writing retreat. A writing treat.
Two days later the fool, who was wise, went up a mountain to do some thinking. After seeing him off, I took a bus, a train, a smaller train, and a walk through cow-bell tinkling fields, then pacing up and down to find the right bay to work in, with the right light. I found one near the Chinese books and picked a title off the shelf that I hadn’t seen in years and never in such a sumptuous edition: Pu Songling’s (1640-1715) Tales from Liaozhai Studio. I opened it at random and landed on ‘Le fou des livres’, ‘The book fool’.
Seems I was in the right place. I sat down, took out a pillar-box red notebook and started typing up some tentative these-are-only-ideas-not-really-a-book-yet notes.
In other words, I started writing a book.
See: The Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature, Montricher, Switzerland