Authors: Anita Brookner
“Anita Brookner, perhaps singlehandedly, has brought the intelligent discussion of moral issues back into serious literature by writing novels that are more fun to read than anybody else’s.… This tale of a late life education has been written many times, but never as well as it has here … a reference not only to its impeccable style but to its level of moral intelligence.”
“Brookner’s portraits of inner life are unsurpassable—always penetrating and astoundingly on the mark—but she has outdone herself.… A dazzling book.”
“Poignant … Brookner hammers home with quiet grace a scathing sendup of the traditional
. Out of this small man she has fashioned something large: an everyman.”
“With … delicate perception and unhurried clarity … [Brookner’s] subtle insights create humor where we anticipate despair. Her satire is penetrating but never cruel, and it always hits the mark.”
LOOK AT ME
HOTEL DU LAC
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
A FRIEND FROM ENGLAND
FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, MARCH
Copyright © 1989 By Anita Brookner
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape Ltd in 1989. First published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1990.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lewis Percy / by Anita Brookner.—1st Vintage contemporaries ed.
p. cm. — (Vintage contemporaries)
Madame Doche, with an air of appreciation no less generous for being regularly at her command, took the camembert from Lewis Percy, prodded it with an expert thumb, pronounced it to be good, and ushered him into the salon. There the regular cast of his private theatre was assembled. What he thought of as the evening’s entertainment, the evening’s instruction, the evening’s reward, was deployed for his pleasure. All he had to do was take his seat.
Sometimes he brought a bag of cherries: something minor but decorative was thought appropriate to his subordinate status. In the salon the women, his fellow lodgers, were eating their irregular refreshments, and as he was the only man he did not feel emboldened to add a note of robustness, although he was nearly always hungry and would have appreciated something more serious than the slices of ham and the couple of apples that he allowed himself. Occasionally Mme Doche took pity on him and served him a plate of the thick gruel-like soup which she made for her employer’s evening meal. The soup had usually to go down after the apples. An equally thick concoction of semolina might precede the ham. Lewis, being young, could accommodate these discrepancies. The pleasure of the evening did not reside in the food, though that was always welcome. The pleasure of the evening for him lay in the warm and uncritical company of the women, all temporary inhabitants, like himself,
of the cavernous apartment of Mme Roussel, the eighty-three-year-old widow under whose roof they happened – for a year, for six months, for two years – to find themselves, for that was as long as their assignments in Paris were to last. While Lewis’s contemporaries sighed out their time in meagre student lodgings, Lewis, thanks to a stroke of luck at the Alliance Française and the money his father had left him, found himself in some splendour in the Avenue Kléber. His room was the smallest in the flat, little more than an afterthought to the main accommodation, but the supreme advantage was the conviviality of his fellow migrants. He thought of them as guests, Mme Roussel’s guests, although they paid rather highly for the privilege. Mme Roussel herself, being old and rarely completely dressed, was a benevolent absence. Her quarters, entered only by Mme Doche, were separate, at the end of the corridor. Occasionally, on their way to the bathroom, to which they were allowed strictly regulated access, they could hear her playing patience and talking to herself in a loud and surprisingly coarse voice.
After handing over his camembert or his cherries Lewis would take his place with Mme Doche, Roberta and Cynthia, among the Louis XV chairs with their dingy tapestry seats, frayed, in the unseemly way of tapestry, by years of wear, under the twinkling bulbs of clusters of widely spaced wall lights. The salon was dim, its former splendour no longer even a memory. This faded background served only to bring into further prominence the presence of the women. Use of the salon in the evenings was one of the privileges for which they paid so highly. Having paid highly they then put it to their own use. Cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes were placed carelessly on the marble topped iron legged occasional tables, besides packets of smoked salmon and the matzos favoured by Roberta. Working at
she had access to far greater luxury than the rest of them and thus took further licence: a greasy paper might float down to the nineteenth-century Savonnerie carpet from the card table which she imported for her evening snack, or a riveted
Sèvres saucer play host to the pips of her grapes. Cynthia, a student like Lewis himself, was more fastidious; indeed she was almost too fastidious for Lewis, although he was nearly in love with her. Cynthia, sipping her camomile tea, looked on appalled as Mme Doche sucked out the insides of mussels or tugged on the leaves of artichokes. Mme Doche, being the only one of them who was, so to speak, at home, was also the only one who ate regular meals.
It was 1959. The windows of the salon had perhaps been closed since 1950, when Mme Roussel, then ‘
cette chère Mélanie
’, had last played hostess to her busy friends, women like herself of good family and limited interests and outlook. Since then she had declined into vigorous old age, tended by Mme Doche, who was both servant and companion. Mme Doche, however, had never graduated to the position of friend, and that was why she appreciated the company of Roberta and Cynthia, and even of Lewis himself. What prevailed, in that dim salon, in the evenings, was a below-stairs camaraderie, ready money defiantly making weight with the family portraits and the riveted Sèvres saucers, Roberta’s salary and Cynthia’s and Lewis’s allowances cocking a snook at the restrained gentility and the inherited fixtures of a long vanished bourgeois French family. Lewis saw their little group as a temporary encampment in alien territory and was continually and pleasurably divided in his loyalties both to the real if dingy chairs and the Bohemian life those chairs were forced to witness. But then he was writing his thesis on the concept of heroism in the nineteenth-century novel and was forced to dwell on higher things, even when he wished to be free of them.
In this contest between the established and the imported it was the women who won him over every time. To them he owed his lasting conviction that women were a congenial and compassionate sex. As they welcomed him, his camembert and his bag of cherries, with apparent enthusiasm, an enthusiasm that seemed to contain a peaceable indulgence for his youth, his obvious lack of sophistication and his
enquiring and anticipatory smile, his heart expanded, and he felt himself to be in a company that had in it something maternal, something undemanding, something even slightly pitying. In later life he was to accept this as the very climate of femininity. It was what he had known in his mother’s house, and it never occurred to him to question this. Modest and timid, he looked forward all day to what he thought of as his homecoming. It was not the salon that constituted home. It was the women.
An additional bonus was that after welcoming him they paid him very little attention, but continued to talk among themselves, as he thought women should. The subjects they discussed were nearly always the same: Roberta’s day at the office and what Mme Van de Waele, the Belgian delegate for whom she worked, had said, done, and worn – this last being of interest to Mme Doche – and Cynthia’s ailments, for which Mme Doche, a former nurse, offered advice and remedies. To Lewis all this represented important material, and as it was discussed conscientiously in French he thought it the height of worldliness. While meekly serving himself with a slice of his own camembert on one of Roberta’s matzos, he would in fact be surrendering his daily self, the self that went to the Bibliothèque Nationale and wrestled with the heroes of fiction, to this warm atmosphere of women, who, though largely ignoring him after their initial welcome, were, he felt, kindly disposed, and would muster as a body to protect him if the need arose. Mme Doche, in particular, seemed to him benign: her appreciation of his little contributions never ceased to touch him, and, more important, to make him feel comfortable with his gawky youth, the ankles and wrists that protruded from the sleeves of his tweed jacket and the turn-ups of his grey flannel trousers, the hair that sprang straight up from his forehead and which no amount of water could flatten. Her special softness he put down to the fact that she had a son somewhere: that, and her medical background, gave her a certain importance, a certain authority in the group. She was a large
placid blonde woman who had once been a pretty girl and who still had an air of coquetry about her. Yet she too seemed happy with the company of women.