On writing ‘Lovebirds’
I think some of the greatest rewards of writing often have nothing to do with what the reader gets. By which I mean that it’s not about how good a story you manage to write, what emotional depth you manage to mine. There is only so much one can get out of writing a brilliant story that really speaks to a reader’s heart. No, it turns out the ultimate goal of writers might in fact be to fit into their stories little references which no one except them will get, and which wouldn’t mean anything if ever they did. There lies the utmost nobility in writing.
‘Lovebirds’, for me, is a case in point. I’m not going to talk about the pleasure of trying to conjure up a specific place, somewhere close to one’s heart (here, the park moating Nantes’ castle) with your bare pen and paper. Or how one can play with all the levers, plot down to near zero, like these huge, monochrome canvas dudes do – clear the mess of too many shapes, revel in the simple though endless mind-fuck of colour. Or like a sound-engineer fussing over their mixing desk, bring plot and action way down until the buzzing of midges and the bobbing of empty bottles in the pond, the very thoughts of your character on how this first date is going can be clearly heard.
Recently, while proofing my short story collection, a particular passage lifted my spirit. It’s a long-winded sentence, probably not particularly exciting for the lay man (read here: not educated in the intricate ways of Armel’s brain), but that I wrote with, and can’t now read without, a quote in mind. I can’t remember who it’s by, or what exactly it is (I remember “When [rhythm rhythm rhythm] we close up shop”), but a friend used it to start a poem he sent the writing group we used to have.
As you can see, we’re not exactly in Ulysses territory here, taking one of the most famous stories of all times and slapping the name clearly on the cover to make sure no one misses it. No one’s likely to spot what I’m talking about – and that’s fine. (Apart from here, now – but I promise then I’ll shut up about it.)
It isn’t usually done on purpose. Not like Joyce (unchecked quote here, but I’ll let it stand) saying that with his book he’d keep scholars busy for a hundred years. For the story that was to become ‘Lovebirds’, it wasn’t until I was writing a young punk à chien greeting the awkward first-daters (“Have a good day, lovebirds”), that I thought of Joe Dassin’s similarly inappropriate “Salut les amoureux”. In Dassin’s song, the broken-up couple were no more “amoureux” than my not-yet (not-ever?) couple were lovebirds. Reading what I’d written over, I realised that they shared the same problems, “hardly finding words to talk about the weather” (Dassin’s words), whereas my character wonders “if he should make a joke about how much he sweated,” just for the sake of having something to say.
The title, then, was obvious: an ironic ‘Lovebirds’, to echo Dassin’s Salut les amoureux.
What’s a writer to do with this? A reference, an angle no one will ever get. Which for me, of course, colours the story, but that isn’t in any way necessary for it to work (it was a later addendum, after all, or rather epiphany – wink wink James Joyce).
Every time one of these little earworms brainfarts their way into one of my stories, I dig up the pet idea (ran over many times by the truck of the Next Day’s cold eye of reason) of a collection of stories more or less based on songs, accompanied maybe by short, personal biographical statements on the artists. ‘Lovebirds’ would be printed alongside a short bio of Joe Dassin and an analysis of his music, written through Armel-tinted glasses that would render my relationship with the singer, from first ironic interest in the absolute cheesiness to seriously liking his stuff, and sometimes being weirdly, cornily, moved by his songs (see for example his tacky bohemianism, and me going Hey, I’ve slept in my coat on people’s floorboards too!)
It could be a small-print-run, this collection, of course, as I’d probably have to shift it all myself, soliciting passers-by standing under one of Paris’ lesser bridges. It might take a while, but it would finally pay off. A hooded figure would approach, having found directions keyed into an old phone booth among ads for téléphone rose, others promising the return of lost loves, and they would slip ten francs into my palm, and take the hood off their head to reveal me– and I’d see me walk away, leafing through those half-quoted tunes, and giggle to myself.
And this, folks, is one of the noblest rewards of writing. Take that, James Joyce!
‘Lovebirds’ is published in Issue 9 of The Lonely Crowd.