Monday Motivation: Walking on water
We thought we’d escaped the worst effects of the latest cold spell to grip these emerald isles. In December, ten days of sub-zero temperatures left the lake on which our houseboat floats frozen. Worse, from the perspective of the residents of Pontoon F – we’re one of twelve houseboats tethered there – the icy temperatures froze the pipes supplying us with clean water, and the pipes disposing of our waste water. “Keep calm and carry on,” we muttered as we passed each other on the pontoon.
That was December. Now, in January, a second spell of unusually cold weather was forecast by the Met. Quite fortuitously, we’d arranged to spend a few days in the Lake District with a friend, and a couple more in Stow-on-the-Wold in the Cotswolds making arrangements for our writing weekend in April, so we imagined that by the time we got back to our lake the ice would have melted and the pipes thawed.
And so it seemed. We unlocked the gate that prevents curious by-passers from venturing onto the pontoon, and made our way down the causeway in the light drizzle that had greeted our return to Bedford.
The ice covering the lake indeed seemed to have melted. But then we were struck by the sight of two of our resident swans just a few metres off the pontoon.
They were, to our astonishment, standing on the water.
“It’s impossible,” I muttered.
And then we realised that it was just an illusion. The drizzle had covered the ice with a thin sheen of water. The swan was, indeed, standing on ice – but the ice was covered with a skim of water.
But for that moment, it had seemed like… magic.
Back in the late ‘70s, Peter Sellers starred in an extraordinary film called Being There. I’m not going to paraphrase the story – it’s not necessary for my purposes here – but the film ends with the protagonist, a simple-minded man called Chancy Gardener, walking out onto a lake. He seems to be walking on water**. But that image, like the image of our swans, is an illusion created artfully by the director as a means of underscoring the satirical message of his film.
Neither art nor artifice was involved in the illusion that so captivated us on Pontoon F. And yet it struck me that this is what all writers seek: the illusion of real life, of a real world in which real people make real choices.
Fiction only works when the illusion is complete, when the swan – or Chancy Gardener – actually walks on water.
But when it works, we marvel: it’s magical.
Which is perhaps why Colm Toibin chose to call his book about Thomas Mann The Magician*. Because he magicked worlds and characters into being. And because his simulacra were seamlessly convincing. The sheen of art concealed the artifice, the craft, the magician’s tricks, that writers use to persuade readers of the reality of their fictions.
Three days after our return to our houseboat, the ice has melted, the swans glide imperiously across the lake, the magic, for the moment, has faded.
But it will return, I have no doubt.
* Mann’s children called their father “the magician” because he performed magic tricks for them as children. But the nickname stuck.
** Here’s a link to those final seconds of the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25MKHbrZ45I