An “almost flawless novel” (People) about a quiet scholar who is convinced that her life has been ruined by literature and that she must make a new start in life.
Since childhood, Ruth Weiss had been escaping from life into books, and from the attentions of her eccentric parents into the gentler warmth and company of friends and lovers. Now at forty years old, an academic devoted to the study of Balzac, she believes that literature has ruined her life and that she must once again, make a fresh start. “Lively, filled with gentle humor” (Miami Herald) this is an elegant and wry novel that will stay with you long after the final page is turned.
The Debut One 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 a faintly remembered moment in her early childhood, she had fallen asleep, enraptured, as her nurse breathed the words “Cinderella shall 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 well received.
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 the low relief of her features. Her body was narrow, delicate, and had been found intriguing. A slight 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 halfway 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 everything, knowing now the grave lengths to which she had been driven and to which she might be driven again, hoping that her solemn life would soon end, or that time would be reversed and that she might fall asleep once more to the sound of the most beautiful words a little girl could hear: “Cinderella shall 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, bu 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, enormous, unending, and inevitable. 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 report, 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 latest conference; students were voluble and uninterested. Dr. Weiss’s pale face prompted no speculation whatsoever.
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 adventure, 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 a strenuous part.