Authors: Sybille Bedford
Tags: #Jewish families, #Catholics
a novel by
To Evelyn Gendel
spent the first nine years of my life in Germany, bundled to and fro between two houses. One was outrageously large and ugly; the other was beautiful. They were a huge Wilhelminian town house in the old West of Berlin, built and inhabited by the parents of my father's first wife, and a small seventeenth-century chateau and park in the South, near the Vosges, bought for my father by my mother.
I was born, however, in a flat rented for the occasion in the suburb of Charlottenburg. My father and mother were living in Spain then (it was the beginning of this cen
tury); circumstances brought them to Berlin. My father's first parents-in-law, with whom he normally stayed, were averse to having any kind of bother underneath their roof; a nursing-home was not thought of. So a flat was fitted up, the main advantage of which seems to have been that it afforded space and access for their horses, neither of my parents liking the idea of the animals' being boarded out in some strange stable. A ramp from street level led to their quarters; these happened to be separated only by a thin wall from my mother's bedroom, and she later told me that she used to listen to their champing at night, and that she found it consoling.
The house in which I was not born was in Voss Strasse; it gave on to the back of the Imperial Chancellery and is, I believe, now destroyed.
There we all moved about three weeks after my birth.
My father's first wife had died young, leaving a small girl. The widower's continued position as a son of the house, even after his marriage to my mother some ten years later on, was not looked upon as anomalous by anyone concerned; his octogenarian hosts had formed the habit of seeing him as a member of their family. Their perceptions were not fine; and they were not struck by the extension of their hospitality, on the same terms, to my mother, her household and her child. Their name was Merz. Arthur and Henrietta Merz. They were I believe second cousins, and belonged by descent to the Jewish upper-bourgeoisie of Berlin, the Oppenheims and Men-delssohns and Simons, the dozen families or so whose money still came in from banking and from trade, but who also patronized and often practised the arts and sciences, and whose houses, with their musical parties and their pictures, had been oases in the Prussian capital for the last hundred and twenty years. The Merzes were direct and not remote descendants of Henrietta Merz, the friend of Goethe and of Mirabeau, Schleiermacher and the Humboldts, the woman who barely out of the ghetto
set up a salon where she received the translators of Shakespeare with advice and the King of Prussia with reserve. This celebrated lady had a tall figure and a Greek profile, a large circle, many lovers and an enormous correspondence; like George Eliot, she spoke English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and unlike George Eliot she could also read in Swedish. No trace of this heredity survived in Grandmama and Grandpapa Merz, the name I was taught to give them when I learnt to speak and the only one, I find, I can now use with ease. They had no interests, tastes or thoughts beyond their family and the comfort of their persons. While members of what might have been their world were dining to the sounds of Schubert and of Haydn, endowing research and adding Corot landscapes to their Bouchers and Delacroix, and some of them were buying their first Picasso, the Merzes were adding bell-pulls and thickening the upholstery. No music was heard at Voss Strasse outside the ballroom and the day nursery. They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and then they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets.
They took no exercise and practised no sport; they kept no animals—except carriage horses—and none were allowed in the house. The caretaker couple kept a canary in their basement by the furnace, but no truffled nose had ever snuffed the still hot air upstairs, no padded paw had trod the Turkey pile, no tooth had gnawed, no claw ripped the mahogany and the plush, and there was a discreet mouse-trap set in every room. The Merzes had no friends, a word they seldom used; they saw no one besides the family, the doctor and an occasional, usually slightly seedy, guest asked to occupy the fourteenth place at the table. They were never alone; when it wasn't the barber, it would be the manicure; Grandmama Merz had never taken a bath without the presence and assistance of her maid. They did not go to shops. Things were sent to them on approval,
and people came to them for fittings. They never read. There was a smoking-room, and a billiard-room nobody used, but there was not so much as a courtesy library, and I cannot ever remember seeing a book about.
The only evidence of print on paper was a slender sheet, the Kreuz Zeitung, a Prussian daily now long defunct and even then regarded as somewhat out of touch, a kind of limited Morning Post given over almost entirely to obituaries, marriages and births. Extracts from these were read to Grandpapa in the afternoon in the presence of his wife to whose attention items within her grasp would occasionally be brought. A middle-aged son—a real one unlike my father—who lived in the house often came in with a copy of the Stock Exchange News. In his younger days Grandpapa Merz had gone to board-meetings; now he still received at intervals the visit of a decent-looking individual who presented himself with a satchelful of papers to be signed, bank notes and gold. This man was called the bookkeeper. The money he brought was handed over to the butler, Gottlieb, who paid the wages and the housekeeping bills, had charge of his master's and mistress's personal expenses, tipped my mother's cabs at the door and lent what were not always small sums to my half-sister. The bank notes were new. Money, like animals, was not hygienic, and no one employed in the house was supposed to handle used notes. Thus everybody was paid straight off the press. The subsequent problem of change was not envisaged.
During the years when, intermittently, I lived with my nanny, my toys, and very much with myself, as a guest on an upper floor of the Merzes' house, Grandpapa was turning ninety. He was a small, frailly made, dapper old gentleman, standing very straight and clean in a long old-fashioned coat and narrow, buff-coloured trousers. He had a smooth pink head, snow-white tufty side-whiskers and no beard, and a smooth pink unlined, almost polished, face.
His feet were small, and his boots had stubby toes. He walked stiffly and slowly, but upright and without the help of stick or arm; and he spoke in a brief dry drawl, affecting the provincial accent and cabdriver's retort of the Berlin of his youth.
Grandmama Merz was a short bundle of a woman, all swaddled in stuffs and folds and flesh, stuck with brooches of rather grey diamonds, topped by an arrangement of rough grey hair. She had plump tranquil hands, and a waddling walk. Her face was a round, large, indeterminate expanse, not smooth like her husband's, though unlined for her age, with features that escaped attention and an expression that was at once querulous and placid. Her voice was a slow high quaver, and when she spoke it was not always certain whether she was addressing others or herself. She wore a dog-collar of pearls, a watch on a ribbon from her neck and a bunch of keys at her waist, and she saw the cook herself for half an hour every morning.
Grandmama had given up carriage exercise some twenty years ago; Grandpapa Merz still took his and kept up the diversions of his youth and middle-age to the extent of looking in at his club and of brightening his afternoons by the company of a shapely leg. This presented some difficulties to the family. Grandpapa was far too frail to be allowed out cavorting with the corps de ballet, and members of the corps de ballet at Voss Strasse were unthinkable. Where then could a shapely leg be found, this being literally the one perfection insisted on by the old gentleman. Certainly not in their own circle in which the acquaintances even of the younger relatives were past their seventh season at Marienbad. The answer was, in the Prussian aristocracy. Long, well-turned legs were natural to the ladies of that caste, and as a caste they were not well off. Thus a succession of stinted sisters of splendid cavalry brothers and thinly pensioned widows of line-regiment captains, long-limbed women of sparse figures and worn, closed, shiny faces, Fraulein von Bluchtenau, Fraulein von
der Wahnenwitz, Frau von Stein and Frau von Demuth, presented themselves at Voss Strasse after the luncheon nap to read the Kreuz Zeitung and to go for drives, clothed in plain, high blouses and long skirts that revealed sometimes the promise of a fine-made ankle. They were styled companions; and Grandmama used to shake her slow head at the turnover. For none of these stiff women lasted long. The old gentleman had tried to push a bank note under the garter of Fraulein zu der Hardeneck, and had called Frau von Kummer his little mouse. Gottlieb, who knew everything, saw to the successors.
"Young Reussleben owes everywhere," he announced at luncheon. Gottlieb took the initiative of speech whenever he felt like it. He was nearly seventy, and had entered the house fifty-five years ago as a boot-boy. He had a full, cleanshaven, florid face, small, shrewd blue eyes, and a bouncy senatorial bearing. He belonged to, and observed the conventions of, the Lutheran creed, and in this set the example to the servants of the house. "I understand he is being pressed by his tailor."
My father looked up. "Tailor?"
"Fasskessel & Muntmann, Herr Baron."
"Never heard of them," said my father, gently touching his coat.
"Expensive firm," said Friedrich, the son who lived in the house. "Much too good for poor lieutenants."
"What's too good?" said Grandmama Merz from the head of the table.
"Nothing, Mama," said her son.
"The souffle is dry."
My father cast about the table for someone to address. He had several subjects. He believed that fish should be whole and seen, not whipped into a souffle, and he could not understand why a man should want to go to a German tailor; he was also extremely polite. There were, besides the old couple and their son, Grand-uncle Emil and Cousin Markwald, two old gentlemen, one of them a hunchback
and very sweet, who having lost or dissipated their own fortunes in their youth had come to live in the house some thirty years ago; and there were also my half-sister and her French governess. My mother seldom came down to luncheon, and nanny, who would not have understood a word of what was said, had hers on a tray upstairs. My father's look fell on me. I may have been four or five. He gave a slight cough.
"You see," he said evenly, "it is not that you cannot find a good man for boots in this country."
"Five sisters, sir," said Gottlieb. "Two of them grown-up. We might try the eldest."
"What's that?" said Grandmama.
It was explained to her.
"Isn't Fraulein What's-her-name coming today?"
"Fraulein von Kalkenrath has chosen to leave us, ma'am," said Gottlieb, sounding every syllable.
"Very inconsiderate," said Grandmama, her face on her plate.
"A change may not always be unwelcome, ma'am."
"I don't want a change," she said on a higher note.
"Did you say the elder sister?" said her husband, who had been following.
"I understand the younger has a limp, sir."
"All the same to us," said Grandmama.
"If I may be permitted to point out, ma'am," said Gottlieb in his ringing voice, "a lady steady in the leg would be of more use to Herr Geheimrat on his outings."
"That will do, Gottlieb," said Friedrich.
"I was only explaining our problem to Frau Geheimrat, sir."
My father raised his head with an expression of controlled despair. He was at once delicate and worldly, and much affected by lapses that were neither. He picked up his fork, stared at it, and put it down almost at once, reminded that he did not like the design and that Gottlieb, in his opinion, overdid the silver.
The old Merzes had not been happy in their children. Both daughters died of consumption in their twenties. These pretty, pampered girls were struck one after the other in the same year. Each went through a brief marriage. Their deaths made an impression in Berlin—the old Merzes had always been regarded as something apart from human kind: the loss of the daughters was invested with almost mythological significance and it was not forgotten in anyone's lifetime. The girls who died had been called Melanie and Flora, and their names were not mentioned in their home.
The second son, Friedrich, was a leather-faced, idle bureaucrat of fifty-eight or nine, of whom it was said that he put by half his allowance and all his pay each year. He was supposed to have been a dull boy but a good son. He had been to a couple of universities, sat for his exams, and in due course entered the judicial branch of the Prussian civil service. He ruined his career by meeting a Frenchwoman, who though presentable was not respectable. One of the counts against her was that in an age of rubber tubs she travelled with a silver bidet. The old people put their foot down. They managed to prevent marriage, but they prevented nothing else. Friedrich brought the lady to Berlin; his parents finally regularized the position by setting her up in a hat shop. I do not believe that Jeanne, as we came to call her, had any particular disposition for the trimming or selling of hats, but the provision was one regarded suitable for all Frenchwomen of not entire virtue. Friedrich went on living at home. His advancement, however, was compromised, and he continued into late middle-age in a junior and unexacting post at a Berlin tribunal. Jeanne was not received at Voss Strasse. Other houses opened to her; and as the years went on and the rumour of her being amusing as well as agreeable spread, younger members of the family began to seek her out. From an alien and faintly scandalous presence, Jeanne, in forty years, came to be looked upon in the town as a paragon
of constancy, a victim of parental power, the representative of a more graceful world and an ornament at a dinner party. When at last I was allowed to see her, she had blue-white hair extremely well done, kind eyes, and talked with an animation that lit up the surroundings. Her own clothes, like the hats she sold, were Paris, but a different Paris, as my father said, who knew. Friedrich married her the day after his mother's funeral.