Thomas Sanchez is convinced that the type of novel he spends years and years writing has fallen out of fashion. "We're in a very cynical time in America," he says. "Everybody wants to be famous for their five-and-a-half minutes. They want to go out and get rich dot com by the time they're 22. They're not going to spend ten years writing a novel that may never be published, may never make any money."
We're sitting in Francis Ford Coppola's cafe in San Francisco's North Beach. Sanchez has just returned from Paris, where an intense auction for the rights to his new novel, Day of the Bees, is underway. Instead of seeming jet-lagged, however, Sanchez is passionate, energized. Words spill from him.
He's delighted that the two main contenders for the French rights to the book have strong family ties to the French Resistance. The activities of the Resistance during World War II are an essential part of the emotional and narrative background in Day of the Bees. "I had to know the price of kerosene on the black market and on the white market," he says. "I had to know how many ration books it would take to make an apple pie, or if that was even possible. Most of these details weren't directly used in the book. Instead, they are what shape how Louise and the other characters in the book respond in a given situation." Sanchez believes that the bids of these particular publishers validate the exacting historical research he conducted. He also believes he can hear the cynics sharpening their knives, getting ready to carve up Day of the Bees.
Maybe he's right.
Since the publication in 1973 of his magisterial first novel, Rabbit Boss, Thomas Sanchez has shown himself to be a writer of towering ambition, a writer who is intent on exploring personal and historical landscapes that are alien to most contemporary American writers. "The obligation of a writer," Sanchez says, "is not simply to write evermore diminutive domestic dramas about himself. Rather it is to state, to elucidate, how we are all part of something larger, something grander."
Despite the fact that Day of the Bees is in many ways Sanchez's most intimate work, like Mile Zero (1990) and his other highly regarded novels this one strives for something larger and grander. At its most essential, Day of the Bees explores the mysterious love between Francisco Zermano, a great Spanish painter in the mold of Picasso, and his French muse, Louise Collard. After the Nazi invasion of France, Zermano takes Louise to Provence in the south of France for her own protection. Zermano returns to Paris, and the two lovers never meet again. After the war, while Zermano's fame grows, Louise becomes merely a footnote to history. Then 50 years later, after Louise's death and quite by accident, a scholar happens upon Louise's unsent letters to Zermano, and a powerful counter-history unfolds.
According to Sanchez, three emotional strands inspired the book. The first was the story he heard about a famous artist's mistress, who had been abandoned by her lover during the war and then lived a life of almost total isolation in Provence until her death. The second was the story of a woman who had been active in the French Resistance during the war; when her group was betrayed, the men were shot and she was nailed by the hands to the door of the village church. The third emotional strand was a personal one: Sanchez's father was killed during World War II before Sanchez himself was born. On his 50th birthday, Sanchez's mother gave him his father's love letters to her, some of which she received after she learned of her husband's death. Little wonder, then, that Day of the Bees has a dense emotional and metaphorical weave.
The story unfolds largely through Louise's letters, which are by turns, beautiful, plaintive, courageous, combative, and embarrassingly carnal. "People do two things in letters," Sanchez says. "They express themselves in ways that they would not normally do when they are speaking. And they withhold information. The information that people withhold, especially emotional information, is every bit as important as what they expose."
Among the most moving and mysterious letters in the book are those in a section called "Night Letters," which reveal Louise's harrowing activities on behalf of the Resistance. Reflecting on the art and psychology of these letters, Sanchez says, "When people go through a profound trauma, like a near-fatal accident or a smash-up in their emotional life, they often have a sense of otherness, where they are suddenly looking down on themselves being themselves. It's a strange sort of paranormal state where we have a sense of being transported outside of our own skin. I think that state gets very close to the origins of existence. And I wanted to design the language of these letters to show that kind of fragmentation of Louise's consciousness."
Also astonishing are the descriptions of nature and the French region of Provence. In the pivotal moment of the book, the moment that lends the book its title, Louise is enveloped by a swarm of bees. It's surely one of the most amazing emotional and metaphorical scenes in recent fiction. Sanchez seems to have found a particular inspiration for this scene and for the book in the landscape of Provence: "Living deep in the country of Provence, you are so connected to the earth, to the life force of the place, to the movement of the place, that the real tick of time is the flick of a wing of a bee or the song of a cicada. It is nature overwhelming you with sound and energy. That became important to me, because we so easily lose sight of nature and become disconnected from it."
Returning to his passionate concern about our current era, Sanchez says, "We're living in a very dangerous time. We're being told that our emotions aren't real unless television tells us they're real. We're being told to deny our emotions or not to have emotions. In literature we're being told to write from the gut and not from the heart. If you write from your gut, you write from instinctive reflex. A dog has a reflex. But if you're writing from your heart, interacting with your intellect, then you are making a statement as an individual, not as an animal. In Day of the Bees, I've tried to write directly from the heart, to find a language that is simple on the page and that goes directly to the heart."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.