About the book
About the author
Thomas J. Childs lives in Winnipeg. His writing has appeared in Grain, Prairie Fire, Descant, Canadian Fiction Magazine, Rampike, Zymergy and in the anthology 200% Cracked Wheat. Bettina is his first full-length book.
Our first time was at night, between Paris and Lyon, 1968. I beheld him through the heady ricochets of arguments about the student protests. I saw him by his window—rather, felt him—burning brightly, silently reading his Roman de la Rose. He consumed the book as a starving man would bread—centred on it, his sustenance—he would devour it likewise on each of the Friday nights that followed. Guillaume de Lorris' thirteenth-century masterpiece Le Roman de la RoseThe Romance of the Rose.
It has been so many years. When I concentrate, focus hard on the distance between us, it seems he is more like the memory of a vivid dream than the recollection of a physical person with whom I passed nights. In one way, he is vague, a reflection in one of my windows. But still, and this has equal force, I feel an ache when his image enters me. I feel his loneliness, and the weight of his sturdy, purpled heart, its sadness—what Le Roman does to a true lover's heart! His devotion to the God of Love above all other deities.
It was his devotion I felt first.
I call him my scholar, though I know that he was never mine. A graduate student of medieval literature, who left Paris on Friday nights for Lyon to see his parents. Sometimes he travelled with other students, though he felt most alone among close acquaintances. I spent our Friday nights on the road between Paris and Lyon memorizing him: his deep, brown eyes, his blond hair long, in the manner, the girl told him the last time, of a medieval knight. I memorized his nose, which he described as flattened (s'écrasé), though I thought it very beautiful. I memorized the pace of his breathing as he slept, his dreams. The colourful shirts fashionable at the time—though I knew his concern for clothing was glancing—his gaze went inward.
He was happiest reading Le Roman de la Rose, and, I believe, had planned his thesis around it. When he read it, he seemed to glow, filled my body with a rare, pure light, caused me almost human pain. He who is nearest the flame.... No mortal could have known Love better and I experienced a state of joie with him, the state of perfect sharing with a lover, experienced by the courtly lovers. Perfect knowing. Joy: spiritual, round. Bold.
Until our last night, late in the spring of 1969. I drove him through a rainstorm and he told Guillaume's allegory to the young woman sitting in the seat beside him. A lovely girl, only seventeen or eighteen, almost a child. They had talked about many things, until he began to narrate Guillaume's dream of entering a splendid garden in which the God of Love was holding court. Wandering until he discovered a perfect rosebud, and falling in love with it. How he would have picked it were it not for the opposition of others in the garden.
My scholar told his favourite story passionately, near-bursting, and his story was a form of love-making, transported the girl out of her world into Guillaume's dream one, onto the inner landscape of pure, spiritual Love. The exalted struggle: one gentle person giving their heart to the other. The graceful love that Guillaume knew. How different courtly love, than the catastrophe of courting-as-combat, from the heresy of calling vulgar conquest, naming some barbaric struggle between predator and sexual prey, "Love."
After midnight. We neared Lyon, and it was plain to me that there would not be time to finish the story before we reached the terminal. So, slowly, with complete attention to safety, I closed my brake shoes against my drums and held them there, so my driver pulled me to the side of the road, and was forced out into the rain to find a telephone to order another bus to come out from Lyon for his passengers.
Though my stunt aroused no end of cursing from the other passengers, my scholar was able to finish his recitation of the Roman to the young woman. Even to the tragic conclusion wherein Guillaume de Lorris' dreamer discovers that the rose—purest heart of Love—is unattainable in this world; is, simply, undeniably, impossible. So the young woman was moved. (Such is the power of the Roman to change us forever.) When the replacement bus arrived forty-five minutes later, my scholar and the young woman alighted me together, their little fingers linked.
Of course locking the brakes was my undoing. The unexpectedness of it, added to my age, made me "no longer reliable," so by the following Friday I had been reassigned to an inconsequential run between Paris and Amiens, and my scholar taken from me. Late the next Friday evening, when I should have been warming up in Paris, in exquisite anticipation of my scholar's arrival and boarding, I was dropping shoppers in Oise, leaving grey commuters, like packages, in Clermont. I moved sluggishly, imagined him stepping onto the factory-new bus.
How did he feel when he noticed the brazen upholstery in the sixth row, or when he caught the factory scent after my wealth of mustiness? Did he miss me? And, could a bus fresh off an assembly line possibly appreciate him? Could it care a nut for his fine features or splendid thoughts, even begin to sense his depth of feeling? Or would it toe that factory-efficient line that brooked no emotion, that fascist no-nonsense Newness? Step along now, take your seats, we'll be at our destination on time come Hell or high water.... How I detest the spanking New!
The hours that Friday night constituted my object lesson in the impossibility of Love, and the lowest point of my existence. The last of my power seemed to leave me, it was as though everything about me seized. The administration's pessimistic prophesy about my unreliability fulfilled itself. The question I used to ask, Can the French really die of love, die for love? Yes! I knew that night the answer was yes. Yes, I believed I really could.
And though he was years ago, my scholar's power resists fading. Even now, though my vocabulary for love is out of date, I feel the world through his words, and through Guillaume's words, which he uttered so beautifully. The kilometres that have raced beneath me! Here on a faraway continent, an ocean between us, and still I feel his warmth. Back in France, it's late at night. Is he lying in bed beside his young woman—not as young now, but as fetching—re-reading Le Roman? Or has he set the book on the night-table, shut out the light, laid his lovely head on the pillow? Is he drifting toward sleep, deepening, recalling strains of our Paris-Lyon rides...?
“Perhaps the most unusual of these quest narratives is the quirky Bettina, which is a modern love story loosely based on maedieval allegory and told by the aging but perceptive bus after whom the book is named. Yes a bus!…” >>
“This wry, heartfelt little gem of a novel is a romance told by an aging but resilient omnibus with its heart (oil pump? alternator?) set dangerously close to its human cargo. The tone feels like Seinfeld meets Chaucer, bawdy and…” >>
— The Globe & Mail
“Thomas J. Childs has accomplished a nearly impossible feat: he has written a first novel that is utterly unlike anything else currently being published. Told from the point of view of a compassionate and erudite bus, Bettina is a brilliantly…” >>
— Keith Maillard