For the second year running we have been on a walking holiday in the Italian Alps with a couple who are among my wife’s oldest friends. Our relationship is that relative rarity – a foursome in which all members get on with each other equally well.
Hughes is French and Caroline English, though she has lived in France for nearly four decades. My wife, Sarah, is Scottish but was raised in the French Alps. She and Caroline are bilingual. Hughes’s English has a certain idiosyncratic fluency all of its own. My French is the weakest link, though serviceable enough for most of our conversations to be conducted in a comfortable blend of both languages.
Our walks this year were punctuated by stops to photograph the glossy, docile cows that graze the high summer pastures, whose softly clinking bells offer an almost constant accompaniment to our alpine rambles. An architect by profession, Hughes is also an artist who, as he approaches retirement from his architectural practice, is reacquainting himself with the easel by painting portraits of these delightful creatures.
But it’s not his buildings or paintings that we talk about so much as his novels, for Hughes is also a novelist. And this is where we’re limited by our respective linguistic proficiencies, for neither of us is really able to read the other’s work. So instead, we tell each other the stories of our books as we walk. This is a thoroughly companionable acitivity. It’s also energising: rather as work songs help fishermen haul in their nets, so storytelling is a wonderful aid to tired legs.
It can be instructive: hearing oneself speak aloud a story of one’s own creation throws its strengths and weaknesses into sharp relief. And in this context, the effort to make myself understood requires me to be more than usually precise, which in turn makes me more sensitive to the nuances, the authenticity and integrity, of the narrative. My listener’s particular attentiveness heightens my comfort or discomfort in the telling of my own story, and there on the mountainside, issues I can fudge on the page come to stare me in the eye.
But most of all it’s revealing. We have probably learnt as much about one another from these fictions, as we have from all the conversations we’ve had over the years. They have enriched an already cherished friendship because to invent a serious story is to engage with one’s deepest human preoccupations; and whether we mean to or not, we lay ourselves bare in the telling of them.