This morning, I watered the flowers on the porch and deck, and just as I turned off the hose, church bells started ringing. I stood, listening to the bells and the sound of birds chattering in the trees, breathing in summer, remembering that I’d also heard the bells last weekend. Late Saturday afternoon, walking my dog Louise in the park. I stopped then, too. I noticed the thwack of a tennis ball on the court behind me, the sound of kids splashing in the sprinkle pool, the whoosh of a car going by. It had been raining (again); it smelled green.
I was there, in the park, and also, suddenly, in Assisi, listening to the morning bells in my cool, shuttered hotel room and in the sunlit studio, painting, and mingled with the clink of silverware on china and the sound of laughter and dinner conversation as the sun turned pink and sank behind the spires of the church in the piazza below. I closed my eyes, and it seemed to me that I might as easily have been in one place as the other. Here or there. I felt that way again this morning.
Which made me think of the book I finished just before I went out to water the flowers—Peace, by Richard Bausch. It’s the kind of deceptively simple novel I love. Three soldiers sent into the mountains near Cassino in search of the retreating German army, an old Italian man of indeterminate loyalties their only guide. The main action of the novel covers one single night in which the soldiers, haunted by an elusive sniper, battle freezing rain, then snow; fear, fatigue, confusion; and, perhaps worst, tensions and animosities that have built up among themselves. Through it all, the main character, Corporal Marsdon, travels in his mind back and forth to Palermo, where he spent the blistering hot summer waiting for the invasion, and home, to his parent’s front porch on the evening of his departure for the war. “These parked cars,” he thinks, marveling at the immediacy of the memory, “this house, this sky. Twelve thirty-six Kearney Street, Washington, D.C.” Twilight, the cab waiting to take him to the station. His wife weeping silently, her hands on her swollen belly, her cigarette smoldering in the ashtray.
I never know whether to be amused or annoyed when someone says, usually in a superior tone of voice, “I never read fiction. I’d rather read something real.” But what could be more real than a good novel, especially if we want to go beyond the facts to the deeper truth of human existence. History books teach us about history. Novels teach us how history felt.
So I guess the connection between hearing the bells after watering my flowers and Richard Bausch’s wonderful new novel, Peace, is that the novel mirrors the feel of life lived. Who hasn’t had a moment like mine, lifting off from the mundane to another time and place? Who doesn’t live in countless time zones on any given day? Who doesn’t wonder at least once in a while what time really is?