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.

This he supplemented by his other, or rather sole activity, which was to escort wealthy Americans and South Americans round Paris and its more pleasant environs: Longchamps, Maisons Lafitte, very occasionally Versailles, if it could not be avoided. He was efficient: he steered his parties to the right restaurants, the right hotels; he was less a cicerone than a world-weary host. Here, too, the name counted. And if, at the end of the evening, or the weekend, or the week, the man of the party took him to one side, and, embarrassed, handed over an appropriate sum of money, he would make the right charming gesture of protesting, with upraised hands, before allowing himself to be persuaded. And the Americans or South Americans would tell their friends, of whom there were many, so that Philippe de Blazac would receive numerous telephone calls in the rue des Marronniers, where he was always a little bored, and was consequently always ready to book a table at Taillevent or get tickets for an evening at the Lido. This seemed to him a way of life like any other. While he went out Mme de Blazac sat in her salon, looking around her with timid pride, and always ready to welcome the bread-winner when he returned home after his punishing duties.

From this union a daughter, Marie-Odile, was born. Here more photographs were produced, and here the voice grew tearful, for not only had Philippe de Blazac dropped dead at the tables at Enghien, but Marie-Odile, who apparently had more in common with her father than with her mother, had, at the age of 17, run off with one of those self-same South Americans and was now living with him in Caracas. At this point, Mme de Blazac’s tiny hands were pressed to her eyes, while I maintained a respectful silence. To my relief I was never asked about myself, and in Mme de Blazac’s heartbroken company I was allowed to be sturdy, resilient and much older than I was accustomed to feeling.

These sessions with the photographs were always followed by the same exchange: I was assured that Mme de Blazac thought of me as a daughter. It was after I had first heard this that I had requested the removal of the dustsheets and the moth repellent. With my financial contribution Mme de Blazac was able to engage the services of a silent Portuguese woman, who came in each week to clean and change the beds. It did occur to me to wonder if I was paying too much for this privilege, but the arrangement suited me, and I became both fond of and exasperated by Mme de Blazac. By this time I was adept at keeping my emotions to myself; in any event I was needed to keep Mme de Blazac’s fears at bay. And these were numerous. Her still pretty blue eyes, in a face composed largely of mournful folds, would widen with horror as she recounted her experiences at the hands of would-be predators. Only the other day she had been jostled in the Prisunic, and when she went to pay she found that her bag had been opened! Anyone could have abstracted her purse, or, more serious still, the piece of paper on which she had written her name and address in case she collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital. Having me in Marie-Odile’s old room was the equivalent of having a policeman on duty outside the building. In time I came to think of myself as large, impassive and immovable, though in fact I was the same size as Mme de Blazac, and would not have been much use in an emergency.

One of my duties, whenever I took up momentary residence in the rue des Marronniers, was to escort Mme de Blazac to the cinema in the rue de Passy. For these occasions Mme de Blazac wore a thin thread of lipstick and a dab of violet scent, but she rarely appreciated the film, preferring to hark back to films she had once enjoyed with her husband. Maria Chapdelaine: had I seen that? The question was always the same, as was the answer. By way of compensation I would indicate a table at a nearby café, and Mme de Blazac, greatly daring, would order a Dubonnet. This brought a little colour to her pallid cheeks, and I would imagine I could see the pretty and fatally innocent girl who had attracted the lounge lizard husband. I was grateful to Mme de Blazac for being harmless, while her affection for me was grounded in exactly the same association of ideas. I had come to terms with her mouselike patterings in the flat, while she, having satisfied herself that my room contained no seditious material, came to rest quite peacefully in the knowledge that her lodger was also her protector, and a subject of conversation to offer the one or two friends whom she very occasionally met in a salon de thé. She even permitted herself to think of making a visit to her sister in Bourges, since if I were there she need have no fear that the gas might be left on or the water wasted. The Portuguese woman, though an efficient cleaner, was not as careful as Mme de Blazac would have liked. She enjoyed thinking of herself as an employer, although far too nervous to issue a request or a suggestion. With me she need have no such fears. Besides, I was English and therefore used to a coarser way of life. This opinion she managed to keep to herself but not altogether to conceal. Concealment was enacted on both sides, in the interests of civility. Mme de Blazac, who still looked like a puckered girl, did not otherwise impose and was therefore to be classified as harmless. To be asked to keep watch over the gas and the water was a service I was only too pleased to render.

I thus fell into the role of attendant. This is a restful condition, but it precludes one from higher consideration. Attendants, however, can also be dictatorial. I would urge Mme de Blazac to go to bed early, after our frugal supper, if we happened to eat together: ‘Vite, au dodo!’ Mme de Blazac would smile and obey. Of Marie-Odile de Blazac, still presumably de Blazac, since no notice of a change of name had been received, there was no sign. Once my curatorial duties had been completed for the evening, I was free to escape, though my diversions were largely virtuous. I would wander down the avenue Mozart, calculating how many thousands of years it would take me to save up and buy the flat in the rue des Marronniers, where I could spend a peaceful old age. The area seemed well-behaved, as did the building itself. Apart from the dentist on the ground floor there was no masculine presence to disturb Mme de Blazac, to whom I was becoming increasingly attached. Only the jealously guarded telephone was a bone of contention. Whenever I made a call, Mme de Blazac would hover behind a crack in the door, as if all communications were hers as of right. In all other respects our association was peaceable, and I could see myself in years to come much as she appeared to me then, reading the illustrated weekly papers which she enjoined me to buy, emerging cautiously to shop in the rue de Passy, contenting myself with a modest aura of Violettes de Toulouse, and eternally contemplating a journey which I should never make.

But Mme de Blazac did make that journey. When she accepted the inevitable and went to live with her sister in Bourges, I transferred, or rather was transferred through the good offices of my friend Louise, to Mme de Franqueville in the rue Jouffroy. This was in many ways advantageous; in the rue Jouffroy the central heating was switched on, although the bathroom, it was explained to me, was ‘no longer in use’. Mme de Franqueville was an excellent woman, large, jovial, of indeterminate age, though certainly very old, and content to sit in her room reading the memoirs of the duc de Choiseul. She was looked after by an elderly maid who, every evening, brought me a day-old copy of Le Monde with Mme de Franqueville’s compliments. My reciprocal offerings would call forth an invitation to cross the narrow corridor dividing our two rooms and to discourse on faith and reason, subjects close to Mme de Franqueville’s heart. I would explain, as delicately as I could, that I was not a believer: ‘il faut donc que la raison me suffise.’ At this her face would light up. ‘Mais quel défi! Que vous êtes courageuse, mon amie.’ We would part for the night on the best of terms; in the morning I would hear her loud, unmodulated voice explaining to her son, who looked in each day on his way to work at the Ministère des Finances, that although she had not succeeded in persuading me to her way of thinking, and although she doubted whether I were intellectually quite sound, she had come to the conclusion that I was trustworthy, unlike my friend Louise, whom she suspected of being Jewish. From her son would come a warning rumble of dissent: guilt by association. When their worst suspicions were confirmed, it became my delicate task to take my leave, assuring Mme de Franqueville of my resolution to re-examine the faith/reason question, and in all matters to keep an open mind.

From the rue Jouffroy I went to Mme Martin in the rue de Tocqueville. This was a step down geographically, although the people at the bus-stop were more convivial. Poor clerks all, we greeted each other with respect. Mme Martin was a woman who had shouldered many burdens, not the least of which was her unmusical son, who sang loudly all day behind the open door of his bedroom and who showed no signs of moving on. This brought forth a sad, tired smile from Mme Martin, and in time a sad, tired smile from myself. By now it was 1970, and I took the giant step of installing myself in a hotel. I have rarely been so happy. As a long-term resident I was treated like the lodger, which imparted to the whole exercise an air of continuity. Finally, at home, I continue to behave like the lodger, agreeably surprised that I am allowed to make myself a cup of tea. Heaven may turn out to be a sort of hotel, the bills being sent to another place. Entrance qualifications, however, will remain problematic, although one hopes that that original hotelier’s refusal to provide accommodation, on the grounds of there being no room at the inn, will have been corrected.