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Authors: Anita Brookner

A Start in Life

BOOK: A Start in Life
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Anita Brookner

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Follow Penguin



Anita Brookner was born in London in 1928 and, apart from three postgraduate years in Paris, has lived there all her life. She trained as an art historian and taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art until 1988, when she abandoned her title of Reader in the History of Art at the University of London for the anonymity of a small flat in Chelsea and the cultivation of certain fictional characters who may one day appear in future novels.

Also published or forthcoming in Penguin are the novels
Lewis Percy, Brief Lives, Providence, A Closed Eye, Look At Me, Family and Friends
Hotel du Lac.

By the Same Author


Look At Me

Family And Friends

Leaving Home

The Bay of Angels

The Next Big Thing

Falling Slowly

At the Hairdresser's (Penguin Specials)



The Rules of Engagement

Undue Influence

Hotel du Lac

To my friends of that summer


Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.

But really it had started much earlier than that, when, at an unremembered moment in her extreme infancy, she had fallen asleep, enraptured, as her nurse breathed the words, ‘Cinderella
go to the ball.'

The ball had never materialized. Literature, on the other hand, was now her stock in trade, if trade were an apt description of the exchange that ensued three times weekly in her pleasant seminar room, when students, bolder than she had ever been, wrinkled their brows as if in pain when asked to consider any writer less alienated than Camus. They were large, clear-eyed, and beautiful; their voices rang with confidence, but their translations were narrow and cautious.

Dr Weiss, who preferred men, was an authority on women.
Women in Balzac's Novels
was the title of the work which would probably do duty for the rest of her life. One volume had already been published and had met with discreet acclaim. Her publisher had lost interest in the other two volumes, being preoccupied with
problems of his own. Dr Weiss invited him to dinner every six months and outlined forthcoming chapters into his unresponsive ear. Both wished that she did not feel compelled to do this. The book would, in any event, be completed, published, and moderately well reviewed.

Dr Weiss also blamed her looks on literature. She aimed, instinctively, at a slightly old-fashioned effect. Her beautiful long red hair, her one undisciplined attribute, was compressed into a classical chignon, much needed to help out with the low relief of her features. Her body was narrow, delicate, and had been found intriguing. A slighty hesitancy in her walk, which made her appear virginal, was in fact the legacy of an attack of meningitis, for which she had had to take sick leave, for the first, and, she intended, the last time in her professional life. Her appearance and character were exactly half-way between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; she was scrupulous, passionate, thoughtful, and given to self-analysis, but her colleagues thought her merely scrupulous, noting her neatness with approval, and assuming that her absent and slightly haggard expression denoted a tricky passage in Balzac. In fact she was extreme in her expectations and although those expectations had never been fulfilled she had learnt nothing. When life was particularly uncomfortable she wished that time might be reversed and that she might fall asleep once more to the sound of the most beautiful words a little girl could hear: ‘Cinderella
go to the ball.'

But she was working on
Eugénie Grandet
and Balzac's unnervingly accurate assessment of Eugénie's innocent and hopeless love was making her uncomfortable, as it always did. ‘
Je ne suis pas assez belle pour lui.
' Why had her nurse not read her a translation of
Eugénie Grandet
? The whole of life might have been different. For moral fortitude, as Dr Weiss knew, but never told her students, was quite irrelevant in the conduct of one's life; it was better,
or in any event, easier, to be engaging. And attractive. Sometimes Dr Weiss perceived that her obsession with Balzac stemmed from the fact that he had revealed this knowledge to her, too late. She grieved over Eugénie, and this was the only permissible grief she allowed herself. Beyond the imposed limits it hovered, threatening, insinuating, subversive. Better to invite Ned to dinner again and tell him her theories about Eugénie's relations with her parents, whom she still blamed for the defection of Eugénie's lover. She was wrong to do so, she knew. For had not Balzac given the right explanation? ‘
Aussi, se dit-elle en se mirant, sans savoir encore ce qu'était l'amour:

Je suis trop laide, il ne fera pas attention à moi

There is no need to hide one's inner life in an academic institution. Murderers, great criminals, should ideally be dons: plenty of time to plan the coup and no curious questions or inquisitive glances once it is done. Dr Weiss's colleagues maintained a state of perfect indifference to her past life. She was occasionally, over coffee, invited to witness a fit of silent hilarity, stimulated by an article in
History Today
or the
Modern Language Review
, but knowing this to be a solo performance she usually declined, murmuring that she would look at the paper later, even if she had read it rather recently. In this way academic anxieties were appeased. Only Tom, the porter, darting forward every morning with his meteorological information, appeared to be in touch with the outside or climatic world. Secretaries, their heads turned by the flattery of senior lecturers, drifted with eyes cast down like mermaids; librarians were usually writing a report on the last conference; students were voluble and uninterested. Dr Weiss's pale face prompted no speculations whatever.

And yet she had known great terror, great emotion. She had been loved, principally by a leading philologist at the Sorbonne, but that was not her story. Her adven
ture, the one that was to change her life into literature, was not the stuff of gossip. It was, in fact, the stuff of literature itself. And the curious thing was that Dr Weiss had never met anyone, man or woman, friend or colleague, who could stand literature when not on the page. Those endless serial stories that intimates recount to each other are trivial, banal, even when they deal in secrets. Who had the time to listen to a narrative that might have been composed in another dimension? So it seemed to Dr Weiss, who, silently, on certain evenings, let the dusk gather in her small sitting room, propped her head on her hand, and thought back to the play in which she had been entrusted with such an exacting part.


She remembered herself as a pale, neat child, with extraordinary hair that made her head ache. Most things cost her a great effort; even now she could recall her attempts, tongue protruding gracelessly, breath coming heavily, at trying to replace her cup in the exact depression of the saucer. Nurse had been patient but brisk; she was expected to grow up as fast as she could decently manage it, and to this end was supplied with sad but improving books. From Grimm and Hans Andersen she graduated to the works of Charles Dickens. The moral universe was unveiled. For virtue would surely triumph, patience would surely be rewarded. So eager was she to join this upward movement towards the light that she hardly noticed that her home resembled the ones she was reading about: a superficial veil of amusement over a deep well of disappointment.

It was these things because of the nature of her parents and her grandmother and because her grandmother's sad European past was a constant rebuke to her father George (born Georg) Weiss's desperately assumed English nonchalance. Mrs Weiss the elder wore black, slept in the afternoons, presided over the kitchen, cooked too heavily, and disapproved of her daughter-in-law. Disapproved of her? She hated her. But she would have hated anyone who claimed her son and usurped her suzerainty. Poor high-spirited Helen did not mind this too much; she was an actress, excellent in the madcap roles
for which her short red hair and entrancing smile well fitted her. She hated cooking, never put on weight, and was delighted to have her husband's domestic arrangements planned and her daughter's timetable supervised.

Mrs Weiss had brought with her from Berlin pieces of furniture of incredible magnitude in dark woods which looked as though they had absorbed the blood of horses. Wardrobes with massive doors and fretted cornices seemed to house regiments of midget Renaissance
Sideboards, in the Louis XIII style, fumed and contorted, with breaks and returns in their brooding silhouettes, supported épergnes, silver cake stands, entrée dishes, while cupboards opened beneath on to sauce boats, platters, and wine coolers. There was a separate press for the table linen, and green baize drawers in stumpy dressers held the knives and forks. The dining room table was always half laid, although all members of the household tended to eat separately; Mrs Weiss longed to preside over a roomful of sons and their spouses, but was forced, through the raggedness and temporary character of her translated life, to sit first with George at breakfast, then with the child and the nurse at lunch, and with the child and the nurse at tea, and at their supper. Helen came home late, when she was working, and George joined her for a snack, which felt illicit and always provoked giggles. George adored his English wife; she had all the lure of an alien species. And a forbidden one, for he had married her against his mother's wish.

To the child it seemed as if all dining rooms must be dark, as if sodden with a miasma of gravy and tears. She imagined, across the unknown land, silent grandmothers, purple flock wallpaper, thunderous seascapes, heavy meats eaten at speed. Velvet curtains, the damask cloth laid over only half the table, the intricate siege architecture of the chair legs and cross bars. Nurse cheerful, English, unimpressed by anything except the quality of the food. The doleful atmosphere at mealtimes the
child assumed to be universal, as if the faintly sour flavours of the buttermilk, rye bread, caraway seeds, cucumbers, had something penitential about them. She was named for her grandmother: Ruth. They got on well, each as silent as the other, brooding, obsessed with absent families, one real, the other between the covers of the same unending book. Nurse seemed an alien, a caretaker, a servant. In that dining room, while her grandmother buttered a poppy seed roll for her, the child learned an immense sense of responsibility. After the meal, while her grandmother slept in a small velvet armchair under the window, the child accepted silence as a natural condition. She disliked other children because they made such an uninhibited noise.

If the dining room belonged to her grandmother, the drawing room was Helen's. It was light and bright and frivolous, and it had a piano and a lot of photographs in silver frames and cut glass vases filled with slightly stale flowers, and a white carpet. It looked exactly like the set for one of Helen's more successful comedy roles and she used it as an extension of her dressing room; women friends dropped in on those afternoons when Helen had no matinée and they all drank tea and nibbled biscuits and smoked. There was a great deal of frail china, collected by an aunt on George's side, in cabinets: never used because Helen was careless about these things and preferred the kitchen cups. Her friends dated from before her marriage; they were actresses or singers, rather noisy, good-humoured, heavily made-up. ‘Poor Helen,' they said to each other as they left the flat. ‘Can you imagine living with that mother-in-law? George is a sweetie, of course, but a tiny bit dull. And the child doesn't seem too bright.' But Helen did not seem to mind. She was still beautiful and successful, her thin cheeks and jaw still unmodified by advancing years, and she was only interested in living in the present. Her quarters seemed less substantial than the grandmother's.
More alluring, but less safe. At any moment, the child felt, the friends might try to rescue her mother from the alien atmosphere into which she had fallen and take her away with them, back to the West End and a shared past of theatrical digs, and a late supper somewhere. They had the advanced girlishness of their profession, and they were high-spirited and petulant and charming.

There was a great deal of charm about, not only from Helen but from George or Georg himself. George as Georg obediently ate two boiled eggs under his mother's gaze every morning, retired to his dressing room and re-emerged as George, glossy and cheery, a bit of a dandy, off to Mount Street where he dealt in rare books. This profession left him a great deal of time, and as he was of a gregarious disposition he frequently attended his wife's rehearsals or dropped in to the theatre with a fresh supply of cigarettes or an invitation to lunch. If Helen was insubstantial, George, for all his wholesome presence, was more insubstantial still. Or perhaps he was simply inaccessible. With his ready smile, smart tweed suits, and heavy gold ring, George had no quarters or attributes, like the female members of the family. His shop, which the child had visited, was not even a real shop. George was affable, by nature and by profession. He was a good son, a tender father, but against these admirable sentiments, of which his mother approved, he was passionately in love with his wife. And yet he was unfaithful to her. He had an assistant, a Miss Moss, with whom he spent the evenings until it was time to collect his wife from the theatre. To Miss Moss he confessed to being unhappy, vaguely and unspecifically unhappy, a man with unrealized aspirations which he had almost forgotten. He even, to please Miss Moss, pretended to doubt his wife's fidelity. Miss Moss, who also cooked him a snack in the evenings, took him seriously and thereby proved herself invaluable. George's unhappiness stemmed largely from the fact that most of the time he
did the listening. Talking was, for him, quite a thrilling experience. Miss Moss understood this; she too was a great reader and knew that there might be something in the past that made George feel unsafe. When George left, at around ten thirty, she would wash up, straighten her little flat, and retire to bed with a novel. George, refreshed, would take his bearable melancholy (for it was genuine) round to the stage door. For his wife he must be all smiles. And he was. Sitting astride a chair, joking with members of the company, he was the jovial and expansive provider. He enabled Helen to be her adorable self. As she became more girlish and outrageous, he too enacted his role, supplying her with forgotten names, lighting her cigarette, seizing her hand and kissing it, all without interrupting the babble of talk which she kept up until the excitement of the evening wore off and it was time for George to take her home.

Poor Helen. Poor George. The grandmother knew, and bore the knowledge grimly and in silence, that her son was a lightweight and her daughter-in-law a lighter weight still, that each needed the protection of the other, that neither had grown up or would be able to grow old, and that their ardent and facile love-play would damage the child. She knew that had it not been for the accident of her late husband transferring his stock of rare books from Germany to England, George would now be a car salesman or an insurance agent. He had the character for it. Helen would outlive her looks and her parts would grow smaller: her teeth were not good enough for television. The child was too quiet and too thin. Already she blinked nervously. She had no friends. None of them had friends. At this point in her reflections the grandmother would be moved to take a glass of hot milk and cinnamon to the child's bedside, persuade her to lay aside her book, and sit there until the glass was emptied and the light switched off. She retired before the silence of the dining room could be disturbed by the return of George and Helen.

The child loved her parents passionately and knew them to be unsafe. Not threatened by the dangers that had threatened her grandmother, but unsafe against disappointment. This presentiment was the strongest conviction she had. She noticed how their eyes clouded when things went wrong, how their excessive good nature could turn swiftly into argument, how little they valued her own earnest efforts. ‘Darling heart,' they would call to each other, ‘do come and talk to me; I'm so lonely/bored/frustrated/furious.' Their great strength, had she but known it, was that they were able to voice every passing anxiety. This process, which sounded like a litany of hardship, was in fact an alleviation of disappointment. The child registered only their disappointment, and felt apologetic about her presence which somehow marred the hectic honeymoon atmosphere which they sought to prolong. She was aware that they did no real work, that the household was supervised by her grandmother, that without her grandmother there might be no more food. She knew that her mother's bedroom was untidy, with clothes strewn about the chairs, and balls of pink-tinted cotton wool on the dressing table, that her father's dressing room contained few books but many smart clothes, that they were each separately but passionately concerned with their appearance. ‘Darling heart,' called her mother, as she outlined her eyes with blue, watching her mouth uttering the words. ‘Yes, darling,' called George, admiring the fit of a new jacket, tying a silk scarf at his neck. The reflections in the mirror did not suit them so well these days. Helen's teeth, George's weight were problems that would have to be faced. To the child they were still glamorous and beautiful. To the grandmother they were fools.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Maintained in childhood by her youthful parents and her ageing grandmother, the girl marvelled at the stability of her world. In books, to mention only the works of
Charles Dickens, such great trials were undergone. Inside the flat, in Oakwood Court, there was no change. The same heavy meals were eaten at the same heavy table; the silent brooding presence of the grandmother, in her black dress, guaranteed the uninterrupted thought processes of the ruminative child. Bursts of laughter in another room signalled the presence of her parents, never to be taken for granted because of the many more attractive places they might have been. Her mother promised to buy her some pretty clothes, ‘when we get to the end of this run, darling'. Her father kindly kept her supplied with books, usually in the Everyman edition, with its comfortable assurance on the fly-leaf: ‘Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side'. She had a room of her own, now, and did not even notice that it was as dark, as silent, as heavily furnished, as that of her grandmother. ‘You'll ruin your eyes,' said Helen, ‘always reading.'

But certain changes can be relied upon to take place. One hot autumn morning, the elder Mrs Weiss, placing her leather shopping bag on the kitchen table, turned a different colour, faltered, and collapsed untidily on to the floor. There was no one else in the house. When Ruth came home from school she was surprised to get no answer to her call, panicked when she entered the kitchen, and ran out to get a neighbour. The neighbour called the porter, and together they manoeuvred Mrs Weiss on to her bed. George was telephoned. Within an hour he was home, red-eyed, hapless, and smoking heavily. His first call was to a nursing agency. His second, much longer, was to the theatre. Helen was too busy to come home, and anyway she was made up for the matinée, which there was no question of cancelling. ‘Just relax, darling, and don't worry. We'll get a woman in tomorrow to look after things.'

‘There will be no dinner,' said George dully.

Mrs Weiss took three months to die. She lay in her
massive bed, quite unconscious, ministered to by a pair of Irish nurses who took one look at Helen and decided to do their own shopping. George rallied slightly in their company and was very gallant about offering them lifts in the car. Ruth sat with her grandmother every afternoon when she came home from school. At first she tried to talk to her, but, ‘She can't hear you, dear,' said Nurse Imelda. After the first month, during which she had gazed fascinated at the heavy but childlike sleeping form and heard with dread the whistling breath, she let her attention wander. The room was stern, ancestral, but strange; she realized that she had never even seen the inside of that wardrobe. Her grandmother wore long white lawn nightdresses with drawn threadwork at the collar, slightly stained by the seepage from her mouth. After the second month, Ruth took a book in with her to the sickroom. When Mrs Weiss died, Helen was at the theatre, George was in the drawing room joking with Nurse Marie, and Ruth was reading. When Nurse Imelda, coming in to draw the curtains, said, ‘I think she's gone,' she was surprised that Ruth did not lift her eyes from her book. Not until George burst in, noisily sobbing, did Ruth look up and look away. Then, said Nurse Imelda later to Nurse Marie, she did a strange thing. She took her grandmother's hand and kissed it, then raised the book to her cheek and held it there for a little while, as if for comfort. Finally she slipped out of the room and was later found in the kitchen, trying to prepare the evening meal. ‘Why not?' said Helen tiredly, when she came home later, at her usual time. ‘It's only until we can get a woman in. And she's bound to be better at it than I am. In the meantime, we might as well keep the nurses on for a bit. These three months have worn me out. God knows it hasn't been easy, trying to make people laugh every night, with poor Mother lying here. And you need a rest, too, darling heart. Breakfast in bed for both of us, from now on.'

BOOK: A Start in Life
12.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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