The Life Of Objects

by Susanna Moore

The Life of Objects

Hardcover, 239 pages, Knopf, List Price: $25 | purchase

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The Life Of Objects
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Susanna Moore

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Book Summary

Drawn by a mysterious countess into the Berlin household of an aristocratic couple, Beatrice, a young Irish Protestant lace maker, is introduced to the highly rarified world of affluence and art collecting on the eve of World War II.

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From ancient Greece we travel forward, to novelist Susanna Moore's clear-eyed vision of wartime Germany in The Life of Objects. Moore tells the story of a dreamy young Irish country girl, a lace maker named Beatrice, who gets hired by an aristocratic German family just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The book is the story of Beatrice's initiation into the thick of modern life — and ours, no matter how many times we may have read about the Nazis' rise to power — into the

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Excerpt: The Life Of Objects

The smiling brother and sister who were at Christmas lunch left for Spain at the end of March, hoping to make their way to Algiers. Dorothea was angry when she discovered that Felix had given them the exit visas, perhaps imagining that they themselves might one day use them. It was the only quarrel I ever knew them to have — whether to fly to safety or to stay at Lowendorf. Once Felix gave away the passes, it would be difficult for the Metzenburgs to leave the country. Kreck told me that Dorothea had considered for a moment going to Copenhagen, where she had cousins, but the Nazis invaded Denmark the first week of April, and she did not mention it again.

When a family of smiling gypsies appeared in the stable yard, Frau Schmidt flung open a kitchen window and screamed, "Raus, ihrSchweine, oderichlasseeuchverprugeln!" Get out, you swine, or I'll have you thrashed. The gypsies did not bother to answer or even to look at her, sauntering down the avenue, followed by Felix's dogs.

When I saw that one of the boys carried Bessie, Felix's favorite brown-and-white spaniel, I put down my work and rushed after them. When the boy saw me, he gave a loud laugh and threw Bessie high into the air. She fell on the grass unharmed and I was able to grab her collar, but the other dogs ran after the gypsies, ignoring my command to heel. When, a few minutes later, the dogs came yelping into the yard, there were only two of them.

It was uncommon to see strangers at Lowendorf, but workers from Poland, many of them young and wearing the letter P on their clothes, had begun to appear in the village soon after the war began, headed for Ludwigsfelde and other nearby cities. The conscripted foreign workers, sent to work on the land when the farmers were mobilized, were tormented by the farmers' children, and the farmers' wives gave them only a portion of the meager rations allotted the workers by the government. Some of them soon escaped to find their way home, but others came to the Yellow Palace after dark for food. Felix instructed Kreck to give them cheese, bread, and beer. Fortunately there was enough for everyone. Cows had begun to disappear mysteriously from the village, and it was growing hard to find good. When Caspar came upon bits of hide from Felix's prize Friesians, he lost his head, running across the park with the reeking skins in his hands. Alarmed by his cries, we rushed into the stable yard. "People are hungry," Felix said quietly as he led Casper to the pump to wash his hands.

Soon after this, Felix asked Kreck how much food was held in reserve at Lowendorf. Along with their treasure, the Metzenburgs had brought champagne and wine, Turkish tobacco, gramophone records, and books from Berlin, but not much food, relying on the countryside to supply the needs of the estate. A levy of grain, meat, and poultry was by law sent each month to the army, with rapid and dire punishment for hoarding, resulting in a shortage of food, with inevitable speculation, even in a small village like Lowendorf. The quality of food was beginning to suffer (flour mixed with sawdust).

Kreck reported that we had stores of rice, potatoes, salt, dried fruit, cheese, flour, jam, and vegetables (not much coffee, sugar, or oil), and, of course, the wine from the old baroness's cellar. There was enough animal fodder, hay and oats to last to the next harvest.

***

The village women engaged by Dorothea as maids stopped coming to the house that spring, and the old men who worked as grooms and gardeners disappeared. I began to help in the kitchen and in the laundry, and Caspar and I worked in the garden. In Ballycarra, I'd swept the house, washed dishes, and made beds, but I was not used to working outside. I soon discovered that I preferred it to other work. As I bent to lift a basket of potatoes or reached to hang sheets on the line, I could feel the strength streaming through my arms and down my back, and it made me happy.

A certain amount of time was necessary to prepare dinner, given the numerous ways to cook and, what was perhaps more important, to present root vegetables. I learned from Schmidt six recipes for potatoes (which for an Irishwoman is something). Caspar's ferret caught rabbits, and I learned to skin and clean them. We bottled fruit from the orchard and hid the jars in the basement.

Roeder, who'd made it clear that any responsibility other than caring for Dorothea would be met with resentment, was soon worn down by the simple fact that she, too, required nourishment — I noticed that she was willing to perform any task deemed sufficiently refined for one in her position. Shelling peas fell into this category, as did watering the topiary on the terrace and making toast, although scouring pots, cleaning the stove, or washing sheets did not qualify. As she wore black lace gloves at all times, I had never seen her bare hands, and I still didn't see them.

Kreck tended the door, although there were no longer many visitors, and saw to the general running of the house, as well as serving at table with Caspar's assistance (Caspar, to Kreck's begrudging admiration, was a flawless servant). I offered to polish the parquet floors, which seemed only to require me to skate soundlessly through the rooms, arms clasped behind my back, feet wrapped in pieces of old carpet, but Kreck refused my help, perhaps because he liked to skate himself.

Kreck was also in charge of the ration books. Each citizen of the Reich was meant to receive seven ration cards a month, but the number of calories was continually reduced, the cards difficult to obtain and frequently unavailable. Blue was for meat; yellow for cheese, milk and yoghurt; white for jam and sugar; green for eggs; orange for bread. Pink was for rice, cereal, flour, tea, and coffee substitutes. Purple was for sweets, nuts, and fruit. Seafood was impossible to find because of the mining of coastal waters and the war in the Atlantic. The coffee substitute, called nigger sweat, was made of roasted acorns, and we counted ourselves fortunate when Kreck could find it.

***

On the tenth day of May, the Germans violated the neutrality of Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg in a surprise attack led by the Tank Corps, with a view to invading France at its weakest point. On the thirteenth, as anticipated, the German army crossed the Meuse and entered France. In June, we heard the news that Italy had joined the war on the side of the Axis, which confirmed to some, although not to Felix, that the rapid defeat of England and France was imminent. Thousands of Jews who had managed to leave Germany were arrested and sent to work camps.

Not a week passed when something did not arrive from the Metzenburgs' friends in Berlin for Felix to hide. Silver teapots and rolled canvases were easily managed, but chairs and tables — even an organ on a wagon drawn by two weary horses — were more difficult (Felix sent the organ back to Berlin with his regrets). Kreck, convinced that we were surrounded by enemies, refused to hire boys from the village and Caspar unloaded the treasure before wrapping it in canvas and packing it in metal-lined trunks. They were like actors on a stage, illuminated by lanterns, as Kreck would only allow Caspar to empty the wagons after dark, pacing and waving his arms (I once heard Kreck say, "This is a very inferior Reubens, my dear"). It soon became necessary for Felix to draw a map of the location of all the buried and hidden treasure, the Metzenburgs' as well as that of their friends, which he kept in his waistcoat pocket.

***

The summer was unusually hot, with frequent thunderstorms. Hundreds of redhead smews arrived on the river and I made sketches of them for Mr. Knox.

When I could find time, I worked in the library, packing books. Shortly before tea, Kreck would arrive to change the blotting paper on the desks. The mother of FrauMetzenburg had been abruptly exiled to Lowendorf in 1919, according to Kreck, thanks to a careless maid who'd forgotten to change the paper. Herr Schumacher had held the compromising blotter to a mirror in order to read the letter his wife had written that morning to her lover, and Kreck did not want it to happen again. His moustache made him look as if he were always smiling, a deception that fooled me for some time, and I couldn't tell if he was teasing me.

I'd discovered that before coming to Lowendorf, Herr Elias had been a teacher at the Youth Aliyah School in Berlin, where he had prepared Jewish children for emigration to Palestine, teaching Hebrew and Zionist history. After Kristallnacht, Felix, who'd met Herr Elias through a dealer in rare books, had arranged for him to leave Berlin to teach at Lowendorf. The village children, whose idea of a Jew was a man with horns, had quickly grown attached to Herr Elias, who lived in the village, perhaps because he played music for them on his gramophone, and fed them.

I was surprised one evening by a small black bear in a ruffled skirt that had strolled away from some Hungarians busy stealing fruit in the orchard. Fortunately, she was tame, and when I turned to run, she did not chase me.

***

When I spoke to the Metzenburgs, I addressed them as Herr Felix and Frau Dorothea, but that summer they began to call me Maeve, rather than Miss Palmer. Felix preferred the company of as many people as possible, and I was occasionally asked to join them in the dining room. I wasn't asked if guests were expected, but visitors had become rare at Lowendorf. The Metzenburgs' isolation was difficult for Felix, accustomed as he was to brilliant conversation (or so I imagined), if not the distraction of sophisticated companions, but Dorothea did not seem to mind it at all. I seldom saw her. During the day, she drove to the village to visit the sick, taking them clothes and medicine, and to call on the old people who'd been left behind, often without food or money, when their sons were sent to the front. I'd noticed that a house, a dog, a child, or even a crisis often enabled, if not compelled, people to remain together. It gave them, among other things, a subject. I was not the Metzenburgs' subject, but I provided an easy distraction for them while they learned to be alone. It was not my conversation that was sought, but my presence, which both inhibited and stimulated them.

I was a bit stiff at first, and always five minutes too early in the dining room, having raced to change my clothes after I helped Caspar and Schmidt to prepare dinner (the first night, I caught Dorothea staring at Inez's black dress, trying to remember where she'd seen it before). It didn't take long to learn that it was considered bad luck to hand a saltcellar to someone rather than to place it before him, and that one did not say "God bless" at the start of a meal. If, for some reason, you had to leave the table, you did not do so without first asking to be excused. You did not drink tea with dinner, as did my mother. You did not use your napkin to wipe anything other than your mouth, as did my father. You did not eat with animals on your lap, as did some of the Metzenburgs' friends (I didn't count Mr. Knox and his gull, who always took tea with us).

The Metzenburgs kept to their vow not to speak at night about the war, talking instead about books and paintings, or the care of the estate — the weirs needed to be cleaned and the fields planted (there was no seed and no one to plant it), but most of the time they, too, were silent. When they spoke to friends on the telephone, they used a code, grinning slyly, that seemed alarmingly obvious to me — horses meant England, chickens meant Germany, peacocks meant France, bears meant Russia — but fortunately there seldom were telephone calls.

They often listened to the gramophone, perhaps a recording from 1936 of Der Rosenkavalier, or Karajan conducting Straus. When Dorothea said that Strauss wrote EinHeldenleben (we were listening to it for the second night in a row) after a quarrel with his wife, the jarring notes reminiscent of his wife's voice, Felix asked her where in the world she heard such nonsense. He thought it very romantic of her to countenance everything that she heard. As he believed that things could be made perfect, which was to me the most romantic idea of all, his condescension seemed unjust. I waited for Dorothea's answer, but she was silent, bent over a book on Japanese moss gardens. "It was Strauss," Felix said as an afterthought, "who expressed his gratitude to the Führer for his interest in art." He paused. "It presents a conflict, of course, but there are greater ones."

Most nights, however, we listened to dance music. I looked forward to it, the songs going through my head all the following day. I was fond of the French heartthrob Jean Sablon, especially his song "Two Sleepy People." And Lys Gauty, whose song "La Chaland qui passe" made me sad (Felix noticed its effect on me and pointed out that it was a song about a barge). Felix preferred Adam Aston, particularly when he sang "Cocktails for Two" in Polish, and I wondered if it reminded him of a love affair, or two. Once, while listening to The Threepenny Opera, music banned by the Nazis, Felix and Dorothea rose with a smile at the start of "Wie Man SichBettet" and danced to it.

When it was time for the news, Dorothea preferred a program on Berlin radio called Atlantis. It was very popular, perhaps because it featured gossip about the Nazis, and it left her less frightened than the other broadcasts. There were frequent reports of Eva Braun's brother-in-law and of Reichsmarschall Göring, who liked to entertain foreign diplomats while wearing gold leather shorts, his toenails painted red. Felix said that the program clearly had many informants, as the scandal was often only a day or two old, and almost always accurate, which made me wonder how he knew.

It was after an evening of listening to music with Felix and Dorothea that I slipped the amber cigarette holder, the silver dish, the gloves, and the pen that I'd hidden in my room into a drawer of a desk in the library, keeping only Felix's batiste handkerchief.

From The Life Of Objects by Susanna Moore. Copyright 2012 by Susanna Moore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf.

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