Letting go, Stephanie de Montalk

I was making coffee, gazing into what I like to think is the eastern ambience of the trelliswork, diamond paving, corner grotto and leaves in the garden courtyard next door, going through my writer’s routine, when my husband said,

“You must be just about done with it.”

“Yes,” I replied, mixing in honey with my lucky long spoon, “I’m finally on the home run.”

“That means you can get out of the turret.”

“True,” I said, relieved that a workable draft of “the Polish play”, as he’d taken to superstitiously referring to my novel, was nearing completion and soon I could shelve my research, tidy my files, clear the portraits and photos from the walls, store the stacked cartons and ironing boards that had doubled as desk tops and come down from the cramped summer room; but also sorry because part of me did not want the process to end.

It wasn’t that I would no longer be writing. Narrative poems were waiting to be composed in snatches over breakfast, on the phone, and in the evening when once again I would be upright and lively (instead of drained in front of Survivor and taking more than a passing interest in Extreme Makeover) – condensed stories that would be as a sprint in the sun compared to the first novel’s grind up a mountain. Indeed, to carry the comparison further, there’d been days when my daughter, tanned and taut in training for the London marathon, had seemed, youth aside, to be on the better end of the deal despite her formidable mileage.

No, the reason was one of an impending sense of departure and loss – of desolation even, as I dramatically declared to a friend. I was starting to realise how close I was to farewelling the people with whom I had shared the past year: a Russian poet, a Polish concubine, a Tatar khan, a Circassian maid, and a Georgian murderess. Also the settings: a fountain, a poem, an Eastern palace, a room (right down to the exact placement of its divan, crucifix, window and door). How close I was to seeing the steppes of Eastern Europe and the shores of the Black Sea return to the atlas, and the lines and shadows of serfdom, aristocracy, slave trading and the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire fall back into books.

I was anticipating the tug of them all leaving, warning of their intention to pass to the other side of the window, hover, dissolve ever so slightly and fade. I had felt them turning my ear, hoping for reprieve as they found new insights, produced irresistible snippets of information, insisted that I was pushing them away and they were not relinquishing me. I understood Keri Hulme’s dilemma when, in 1996, she told an audience at Writers and Readers Week that she was having trouble letting go of a character – only for fellow-panelist E Annie Proulx to quip: “Give him to me for a weekend!” The relationship some writers have with their characters is more than a brief attachment to be cut loose at will.

As a biographer (of my cousin the poet Geoffrey de Montalk), I had examined a life, entered a mind and ended a relationship. Known the intensity. Known also that the world of biography, no matter how fascinating, is resolutely defined, leaving only limited scope for enlargement, and that when the story finishes the subject itself says, “Enough and goodbye.”

As a writer of historical fiction, however, I had engaged with characters – real as well as imagined – who lived in endlessly possible worlds. Who had grown and matured like children, causing me to be “hideously worried” and “mortally depressed” and to nod with feeling when Flaubert (struggling with Madame Bovary) proclaimed, on the one hand, “I am exhausted. My head feels as though it were being squeezed in an iron vice”, and, on the other, “Let us strum our guitars and clash our cymbals, and whirl like dervishes in the eternal pageant of Forms and Ideas.”

My characters had moved me around in a universe in which dialogue, image, interior monologue and sometimes music ran in my head like a film. The year was 1821. The poet was Alexander Pushkin, in exile in southern Russia, the victim of censorship and the pain of an unrequited love. He had recently visited the palace of the Tatar khans on the Crimean Peninsula where he’d seen a fountain of tears – a khan’s monument to an unwilling concubine, murdered before she could learn to love him, and to his own perpetual grief – and was about to immortalise the fountain in a long, Byronic verse tale. The year was also 1755. The concubine was a young countess abducted by Tatars on a slave raid into eastern Poland. She languished in the harem of the khan’s palace, her death at the hands of a jealous first wife imminent.

Because their stories were based on legend and factual events, the characters had, not surprisingly, been demanding and cautious. There had been questioned sources, negotiated accuracy. There had been Warsaw – where, researching the concubine, I had fractured three ribs, only to read an article the following day about a writer being “battered and scarred for life” by the curse of Byron, the poet to whom reference is made in my own novel – a warning of the possible consequences of taking liberties with other people’s lives! Also, because the characters had retained their own names and known personas (unlike, for instance, Lara who stood in for Olga Ivinskaia in Dr Zhivago, and Aletha Pontifex for Mary Ann Savage in The Way of All Flesh), they had been understandably tense when questions of verisimilitude and shaping arose – all of which had resulted in the rewards, as well as the extra commitment, of a close relationship.

Moreover, somewhere in their background of exile, murder and the events that conspire in the making of a poem, the characters had shown me a place of parallels and connections of my own making, where I could “meet myself … [and] come home to all my running thoughts”, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it. They had demonstrated, as Stevenson wrote of David Balfour and Alan Breck “stepp[ing] out of the canvas” when he was writing Kidnapped, that they could become “detached from the flat paper”, at which time “my task was stenographic … it was they who spoke and wrote”. On good days, when my fingers flew and the keyboard sang, they made me understand the attraction of writing trilogies and serials and unexpurgated epics that stumble and ramble and take forever to end.

My characters were, in the words of Richard Holmes, who was “possessed” as much by the possible as by the “powerfully received” lives of Shelley and his circle, “more a haunting than a history … peculiarly alive and potent”. They were the reason I was prostrating myself writing prose when, to quote Flaubert again, prose was “a bitch of thing … never finished”. They were the reason I was trying to give my prose “the consistency of verse”, make it – make them – “unchangeable, just as rhythmic, just as sonorous”.

Now that they are preparing to leave, I’m looking for ways to keep them alive. I’m reminded that Daphne du Maurier took a long time to let go of Manderley, the character-home in Rebecca based on Menabilly, the “secretive and silent” Cornwall manor house which had intrigued her as a child. So “possessed” was du Maurier that five years after finishing the novel she returned from abroad, rented Menabilly, and lived in it for 26 years.

I’m thinking that, like du Maurier, I could stretch the process of separation to the point at which, like the sky, it is continuous yet distant. I could visit my characters in Lambton Quay at Astoria – model for a restaurant in Odessa. I could visit them in the absence of light in the town belt surrounding the Kumutoto Stream where I found the mood for a Polish forest. Or between the marble and old stone of the khan’s palace in the Bolton Street cemetery, and the harem’s Sweet Briar in the Botanical Gardens. You may see me there. I’ll be the one reading the sundial and picking the rose hips, trailing my hand in a fountain, oblivious to the tour buses and diesel-powered weeders.


Stephanie de Montalk is a Wellington writer, who has published two collections of poems and a biography and has just completed her first novel.


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