On the platform, the writer is composed, answering each question precisely, without hesitation. What is the meaning of the symbolism in your stories? The towers, the mirrors and labyrinths? French critics have not yet found a language for talking to a living writer. They are suspicious of Creative Writing, and, strangely, in a country which gave us the Death of the Author, frame their discussion in terms of intention rather than process. The writer’s head is lit by the computer projector, left over from previous panels, creating a peculiar band of light, like a bandage, on his bald head. He has a fringe of white hair, a moustache and round glasses. The only biographical information he’s willing to disclose is his date of birth, 1943. Because I’ve only discovered his work recently, I’ve been thinking of him as a new writer, some one much younger, a dark, saturnine figure, conflating him with Edward Norton in The Illusionist.
Throughout the conference, he’s referred to, not by his full name, but as Millhauser, the proper noun turned into an abstraction. He first materializes at our private tour of the Apocalypse Tapestry, whose panels serendipitously call to mind the structure of his story ‘Klassik Komix #1’. He reads this story now, in the light of the screen, interposed with the sections of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which it has rendered into comic book images. It’s a shame he doesn’t give you ‘Klassik Komix’ without explanation, leaving the reader to figure out what is it, but perhaps he isn’t sure how familiar Eliot’s poem is to French short story specialists.
I didn’t know that, as with the best Turkish carpets, the weave on the back of the tapestry matches the front, except that the side that’s hidden, protected from the light, is still dazzlingly bright, vivid because it’s unseen. If I were Steven Millhauser I’d see my way into a story through that underside. Story ideas have kept coming to me, while I’ve been away, partly a result of the conference itself, partly the effects of a long train journey. Revelations are scribbled all over the programme and the speakers’ handouts - changes to unpublished and half-completed stories, and the beginnings of new ones. I wish I’d brought my laptop, except it could be that my brain’s on overdrive because I left the writing equipment at home.
The Apocalypse Tapestry is like a great medieval slide show, showing scenes from the Book of Revelations - many-headed monsters with docile lion’s faces, the Great Whore combing her hair and St John eating the Book because the word of God must be physically digested. The previous guest writer, Helen Simpson, gives the reader a guided tour of this ‘double decker cartoon’ in ‘The Boy and the Savage Star’. I especially like the wild flowers and grasses running along the border; if you look carefully you can see the hindquarters of a rabbit, its head emerging further on. Maybe that rabbit followed Alice into the brighter looking glass world on the reverse. This evening the rain falling on Angers is like the rain in Millhauser’s story, ‘Rain’.
The copies of Dangerous Laughter that were for sale have vanished by the time the talk is over. I feel sheepish talking to a writer empty-handed. Close to, the writer seems more fragile, almost transparent. He sits at the bare table, like the magic table in ‘Eisenheim the Illusionist’, poised to sign books that aren’t there. The next day, in Paris, my feet take me back automatically to the patisserie in Rue Mabillon, where I used to go for breakfast, twenty years ago or more.