I found her by chance, a few weeks back, after Googling my new address (no doubt a pleasant way to avoid some difficult questions posed by my novel-in-progress).
Her name is Maline Russou, according to the J.J. Rousseau Educational Institute's student enrolment list for the 1927-28 winter semester. She's immediately special because we have things in common: she's also from Romania, and she lived in my apartment.
Excited, unsettled by this discovery, I tell a few people a Romanian woman lived in my apartment a long time ago. They're not impressed: You know it probably wasn't your apartment, they say. Probabilistically speaking. Unmoved by their bad faith, I hold on to the knowledge that poetically speaking the chances of imagination, encouraged as they must be by the license of hope, are greater.
I think about Maline a lot these days. I find her at the window, watching the low, bewildering clouds that astound the Jura mountains. Sunday afternoons we arrange flowers on the mantlepiece together, trade daydreams of our grandmothers' gardens and other abandoned things. Monday morning, 6:51 a.m., we lope across Avenue Pictet-de-Rochemont to catch the tram—which lands me with an unforeseen research assignment. I need to discover the age of that tram, to confirm that it would've been crawling dutifully along for Maline once, too. (The Compagnie Genevoise des Tramways Électriques assures me that the answer is yes.) It's important somehow, comforting to catalogue the things that belonged to both of us. I contemplate writing a letter to my mother, forsaking the convenience of my touchscreens, to be more like Maline.
My online forays conclude with a photograph of a group of blurry, sepia-toned people. They're seated and standing and heavily clad, mostly an agglomeration of unremarkable shapes. In the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau, volée de 1928, the caption says, but I see no shape that looks like Maline. (And besides, there're far fewer people in the photo than on the enrolment list. Words, though, insist on playing their games with me, even in a language I'm still struggling to master, because volée has something to do with stolen, and with flight, I think.)
But curiosity, for a writer (or most), can hardly be satisfied. I want to know more, bristle at the injustice of that ink-smudged enrolment sheet being the only trace of Maline's life. Then I remember that most of life is still or maybe lived off screen, and that surely, surely there's some other earthly vestige of Maline to be found. A photograph, a notebook, a story, something told, or dreamt. A living memory, even, precarious and perishable deep inside some cortex or other. My math says it's possible, within the confines of what time, ever the unforgiving disciplinarian, might allow.
But even that won't be enough.
No. I want to resurrect Maline. To rebirth her generatively, bestow sundry futures onto her past. Give her days and words and silences, and fears, love, and taste and touch. I'm ready to ordain myself Maline's master of possibilities, chief of complications.
At least I recognize my small, unhumble drama for what it is. The writer's impulse. The compulsion spurred by the author living with her characters, the created dwelling inside their maker—sure markers of that co-dependency, which spells fiction-in-the-making.
But that's not all.
Former student of history that I am, I find that my affair with Maline evokes an act of reifying history. And that my recent novel-writing is, in its own way, an exercise in confabulating history. One premised in equal measure on conversantly, faithfully calling on, and fabulating into, history.
I'm reminded of being in graduate school and delving into the embattled sub-field of Alltagsgeschichte. That dreamlike compound word means everyday history, denotes inquiries into the micro-, so-called ordinary experiences, the problematics of daily life. In short, the stuff of fiction.
Unsurprisingly, the output of Alltagsgeschichte verges invitingly on novelistic. With pointillistic precision, Alltagsgeschichte narratives draw landscapes peopled by the individual, the intimate. Canvases minutely, tediously exploratory of wearied life phenomena.
Human behavior, lived experience, social interaction—the same stuff that, in fiction writing, draws life from the mantra's literary craft. (Conflict! Protagonist! Characterization! Climax! Point of view! Place!)
I've always been a fan of Alltagsgeschichte, but I know that we don't need it to recognize that sometimes-spellbinding symbiosis between writing fiction and writing history. For this, we might point to their reliance (albeit in varying degrees) on a common set of tools. Observation and interpretation, discrete forms of memory, prose, and certainly language, and imagination. To their common dealing in the archetypes of human and life and death and society; to their mutual deployment of character, event, time, meaning, conclusion; to the aim of telling, and teaching.
And while history posits itself as nonfiction, it's often palpably, if empathically, tinged with a hint of fictional artifice. With the vague indeterminacy sprinkled, however lightly, by a few lingering questions, or lurking counterfactuals.
History, some have said, is a special case of fiction. Fiction, we might then say, is a unique vessel for living in history.
Like history, fiction places us in both space and time. It helps us recognize how things have stayed the same and how they've changed at once.
Weaving its stories, fiction swaddles us in understanding.
By renouncing literal claims to facts, to truth-telling, fiction plunges, plunders, and takes flight.
It frees itself from the incompletion of life, of history—and takes us with it.
It's an ecotone of self and world and other. Some ships of Theseus, beyond navigating beyond.
It's present-absence and absent-presence. Paradox of possibilities, unending yet untouchable.
It's true or false, or suns and nights, all ever-other things I'll share with Maline, without her. It's with, but outside. Imagined friend inside, without.
It's memory, dolloping incompletion. It's stirring fodder for the future.
Always, it's assembling hope.