Today's Reading

Tonight, the forecast is for minus twenty-eight Celsius, with a wind chill of minus thirty-four. Christmas is in four days. Nicholson will celebrate the occasion with his family, all of them with impeccable dentition, whitened by the paterfamilias. The youngest daughter will be wearing braces and her mother will promise that this winter will be her last with a mouthful of metal. A full spectrum of ridiculous ornaments and lights will sparkle and blink throughout the house as in all the houses of the city, the department stores will play Christmas carols to grease the customers' credit cards, and in a senseless ballet, all sorts of useless and expensive objects, pulled from the void and soon to return there, will transit from one hand to the next while, for the occasion, enchanted radio frequencies will programme "All I Want for Christmas Is You".

But in here, a low-cost priest will rush through a standard-issue mass for people who love to genuflect, and, without believing a word of it, he will promise us that one day we will sit at the right hand of our Creator. Then he will head for the door to breathe in the juvenile perfume of choir boys. Meanwhile, we miscreants, impious, occasional bandits and muscle-bound criminals will be treated to a double portion of brown chicken and gravy accompanied by a spongy object made of expired maple cream. As I dig in, with all good intent, I will wish Patrick Merry Christmas. As he chews on his submissive fowl, he will tell me, "Don't bust my balls with your Christmas shit."


SKAGEN, THE CHURCH BURIED IN SAND

I was born in Toulouse, in the Clinique des Teinturiers, on February 20, 1955, at ten in the evening. In the room I was assigned, two people I had never seen watched me sleep. The young woman lying next to me, who seemed to be coming back from an evening out, stunningly beautiful, smiling, relaxed despite the labour of childbirth, was Anna Margerit, my mother. She was twenty-five. The man sitting next to her, trying not to put too much weight on the edge of the bed, tall with blond hair and pale blue eyes full of benevolence and kindness, was Johanes Hansen, my father. He was thirty. Both appeared satisfied with the finished product, initiated in circumstances whose consequences they might not have been aware of at the time. My parents had chosen my first names long before my birth. I would be Paul Christian Frederic Hansen. Hard to get more Danish than that. Born into the culture, its blood flowing in my veins, everything you could desire, starting with serendipity, I would all the same bear French citizenship.

Like his four brothers, Johanes was born in Jutland, in the town of Skagen, with its eight thousand inhabitants, located at the northernmost tip of Denmark, where fish is spoken exclusively from birth onwards. Fishermen from generation to generation, the Hansens contributed to the quiet prosperity of the town, which seemed to cling to the earth to keep from drifting towards the nearby coasts of Kristiansand, in Norway, or Gothenburg, in Sweden. As the world changed habits and priorities, some of the Hansen brothers adapted to new ways and sold their fishing boats to specialise in fishmeal processing. Thor, the eldest, continued to sail among the reefs of the dangerous waters that tourists liked to admire from the tip of Grenen when, with the weather at its worst, the ancestral conflict between the currents of the Baltic and those of the North Sea stirred anew.

Johanes belonged to that slender minority of Hansens, the branch of the der bør i landet, "those who live on the land". Very early in his life, my father turned his back on the sea. He preferred to contemplate the peninsula's special luminosity, which attracted the greatest painters of the country, who created, with style and perseverance, the famous Skagen school. Paintings of peaceful landscapes, simple men and women at work, the North Sea in its fusion, boats on the Baltic, nothing that would shake the doors of the museums or ruffle feathers at the art schools. Just beautiful canvases faithfully worked, made for the people of this country, who did not ask for more.

Besides being a bør i landet, in his twelfth year my father took up religion, a sport that until then had been totally neglected by the family. Much later, he told me of the unusual circumstances that led him to become a pastor. It is a story of sand, shifting sand, driven by history and the wind.

In the fourteenth century, at the northernmost point of the peninsula, at the edge of the town, a church dedicated to the patron saint of sailors was built a few steps from the sea. Forty-five metres long, with a 22-metre-high gabled bell tower, and thirty-eight rows of pews, it was an imposing building unique in all Jutland. No doubt too exposed to the sea spray, too close to the breath of the storms, helpless in the face of the wind, for soon the building began to suffer from earth sickness, and, beginning around 1770, sand gradually invaded first the parvis, then the nave, the hungry dunes working night and day to nibble away and push back the walls of the church. In 1775, a terrible storm blocked the entrances and the good citizens had to dig tunnels in order to worship at their temple. They continued to do this for another twenty years, clearing the walls and exits, week after week. But the wind kept blowing and the sand kept piling up. One day, overwhelmed, admitting defeat, God gave up the struggle and the clergy closed the church for good after selling its furniture at auction. Today, sand has completely covered the building. Only eighteen metres of the bell tower still emerge from the dunes.

The sight of this buried church, this wreckage of faith, gave my father the will to become a pastor. "You see, at the time I thought I had no faith, I didn't even know what that meant. I felt a purely aesthetic emotion as I looked upon this unique and moving sight, the kind of thing you see only once in a lifetime. A true canvas of the Skagen school. If on that day, in its place, I had seen a station covered by sand, with only the gable and the clock tower visible, perhaps I would have become a railwayman." Such was my father. Bør i landet certainly, but most of all aware of the need to navigate constantly through the permanence of doubt, at times attracted by the fragile sail of an abandoned church, other times drawn by the robust and adventurous life of the railways.


This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book The Secret Love Letters of Olivia Moretti by Jennifer Probst.
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