Mme de Blazac and I

Anita Brookner

When I first went to Paris as a student I was directed, by an association set up to sort out the problems not so much of visiting students as of indigent widows with large apartments, to Mme de Blazac in the rue des Marronniers, in the 16th arrondissement. Initially, the rue des Marronniers struck me as a haven of suburban rectitude: I did not then know that it was expensive. Mme de Blazac, unlike the sort of Frenchwoman I had had in mind, was welcoming, though with an infinitude of reservations. Rather than formidable and omnicompetent, as I had imagined from the aristocratic name, Mme de Blazac was small and tremulous, and clearly more nervous than myself. She had shaken hands, had hovered in the corridor, while indicating a room covered with dustsheets. Layers of plastic were wrapped round the few books on a shelf by the bed. When I opened the wardrobe, which was empty, I was met by a nose-tingling blast of moth repellent.

Mme de Blazac informed me that the room had formerly belonged to her daughter, Marie-Odile, and begged me not to disturb anything. From this I understood that I was not to make myself at home. It had taken some time for the dustsheets to be removed. The day I came back to a room in which the odour of moth repellent was finally vanquished I began to consider my surroundings as familiar. Although I had initially been enjoined to take few baths and to keep friends at arm’s length, I settled down without much thought to the company of Mme de Blazac, who occasionally invited me into the salon for a cup of coffee. After a while it became clear that I was there for Mme de Blazac’s benefit rather than my own, and if I stayed there rather longer than was convenient it was because my contribution to the rent was by way of being an important factor in Mme de Blazac’s income.

The price I paid for my room, which, when finally unveiled, was seen to be small but pleasant, was not so much financial as personal. Mme de Blazac required a complaisant ear, so unfortunate did she consider her fate to be. The noble surname had been acquired, it seemed, for its own sake, since her husband, whom she described as a saint, did not appear from her account to be up to much as a provider, and had left Mme de Blazac without resources of her own, since in her subdued and incompetent way she had assumed that marriage would arrange her life for ever, and that her husband would assist her from beyond the grave. Photographs were produced: Mme de Blazac, in a wide skirt, smiling, at a picnic, her husband shifty, and smooth-faced, behind dark glasses, looking like a lesser member of the Gestapo. He had married the pretty girl, to whom he explained nothing of his circumstances, which I immediately concluded were dubious. The name was authentic enough: he was a minor cousin of a numerous clan, from whom he received a small income on account of a piece of land, originally belonging to his grandfather, which he rented out to his relations.

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