Genesis and Research for The Night Gate

Peter May visits the site this week to share how COVID-19 hindered his initial book idea, how artwork from the Louvre inspired his novel, and his bold choice to have The Night Gate take place across two different timelines: France in 1944 at the peak of World War II and Autumn 2020 as France re-enters COVID-19 lockdown.

My new novel, The Night Gate, found its roots in the Coronavirus pandemic which has swept the world.

I had planned to write a book set on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, in the Arctic Circle. My story was well-developed, the research done, and my trip to research the location booked for last May.

Then along came Covid-19, and I had to cancel the trip. Which meant that I couldn’t write the book. But I still had a publisher’s deadline to meet, and readers around the world who had been promised a new book in 2021.

So when I sat down at my computer last June I had to come up with something completely new, using locations that I was familiar with, and research that I could do entirely on the internet. Not an easy ask.

Then suddenly I remembered a photograph I had posted the previous year to a photoblog that I contribute to. The photo I posted was a mock-up of the Mona Lisa in a replica of the wooden crate in which she had been evacuated from the Louvre during the war. It was taken at an exhibition in the town hall of a village just along the road from where I live, the subject of which was the mass evacuation of almost every artwork held by the Louvre in the months before the German invasion in 1940. For the next four years they were moved from château to château, from the Loire to the Aveyron, to the city of Montauban, to the Valley of the Dordogne—always just one step ahead of the Germans.

And the reason the exhibition was being mounted locally? Almost all of the most valuable paintings and artworks ended up right here, where I live. Most, including the Mona Lisa, were housed in the nearby Château de Montal. But because it wasn’t big enough to hold everything, other paintings were stored in smaller buildings in the area.

To my astonishment, when visiting the exhibition, I found myself staring at an old black-and-white photograph of a building I owned—a double garage with an apartment above it that I was in the process of converting into my personal creative workspace. Which was when I discovered that some of the world’s most famous paintings had been stored there—huge canvasses removed from their frames and rolled around long wooden poles for transportation. Paintings which I had in fact seen hanging in the Louvre during a fairly recent visit: The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese, The Coronation of Napoleon by David, and several other priceless works. They had been laid on the floor along the length of the apartment where I am sitting writing this article right now.

I also posted the piece on my Facebook author page, and on Twitter, and received an overwhelming response from readers who thought it would make a great book. At the time, I didn’t see what the story might be. But the cancellation of the Svalbard trip a year later focused my mind, and I came up with The Night Gate.

It is a story that unravels across two timelines: one contemporary, the other set in 1940s wartime France. Across the summer I was able to revisit all the local locations, but for the historical thread, I had to delve deep into internet research, turning up many things that I hadn’t previously known.

I discovered the real-life character of Rose Valland, who deserves a book all to herself. A mousy woman in her forties, she was curator of the Paris art gallery Jeu de Paume, when the Nazis occupied the city. They commandeered her gallery as a depository for the art they were stealing from the French, mainly Jews, before shipping it off to Germany. Without revealing that she understood German, Rose kept meticulous secret records of every piece of art that came into the Jeu de Paume, when it left and where it was sent. So that after the war she was able to go to Germany and recover much of it. An interesting footnote is that Göring himself made several visits to the gallery during the war to select stolen items of art for his own collection. Rose would later confront him at his trial at Nuremberg.

An interesting footnote here is that the eccentric Göring kept pet lion cubs at his hunting lodge near Berlin.

My research also threw up the existence of a French version of the Gestapo (the German secret police), known as La Carlingue. It had been set up in the Rue Lauriston in Paris and was run by French criminals and collaborators. One of them was a former French athlete who had represented her country in an international competition, Violette Morris. She had competed successfully in various events, including the shot putt, and boxing—where her opponents were men. During the thirties, she had a double mastectomy performed to make herself more masculine and was much feared for her brutal interrogation techniques. She got her just desserts in 1944 when the car she was traveling in was ambushed by resistance fighters who shot her dead.

Another interesting fact that emerged from my delving into history, was the extraordinary character of René Huygue. He had been the Louvre’s curator of paintings for ten years before the war and accompanied all the evacuated art around France. When he ended up here in the south-west, where I live, he used the artworks stored at the Château de Montal, including the Mona Lisa, as a cover for hiding guns which he supplied to the local French resistance. When one of the guards stole some of the weapons, Huygue locked him in the attic of the château until they could be recovered. Post-war he went on to become a successful writer.

All this, and much more, fed my imagination and lent colour to a book which I now regard as one of my best.

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  1. mxplayer

    hanks for sharing the article, and more importantly, your personal experienceMindfully using our emotions as data about our inner state and knowing when it’s better to de-escalate by taking a time out are great tools. Appreciate you reading and sharing your story, since I can certainly relate and I think others can too

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