From the Publisher
"You may never read a novel crafted with more wonder and mystery than Nancy Huston's The Mark of the Angel. At once compelling and highly original, it probes not merely the characters' hearts and lives but the very nature of storytelling." -Arthur Golden, author of Memoris of a Geisha
"Huston's language is beautiful, with startling juxtapositions of imagery.... Huston has made a chilling and beautiful work of art." -Boston Phoenix
"Describing Nancy Huston's wonderfully provocative and enigmatic new novel as a tale of adultery in the dreary and uncertain Paris of 1957-1963 is to suggest that The Scarlet Letter is about infidelity and Moby Dick about whaling.... This is a superbly readable story spun with perfect ease and balance." -The Providence Journal
"The writing style is almost tactile, like a dressmaker caressing a fine peice of silk or satin the better to show it off. Huston has a sensitive yet sure-handed grasp of her craft." -Washington Times
"A brilliant, powerfully written novel." -Rocky Mountain News
"At once [a] love story, war tale and psychological thriller....An engaging, intelligent novel." -The Plain Dealer
"How can so many worlds exist simultaneously on one little planet? Which of them is the most genuine, the most precious, the most urgent for us to understand?" Some people might argue that it is a literary mortal sin to posit a philosophical question in the midst of a fictional narrative, that it jeopardizes the illusion of the tale and jolts the reader out of a continuous dream in which the characters and their individual trials are all-important. But for Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born author who now lives in Paris, this question is the key to the plot of her brilliant U.S. debut. Already a bestseller in France, and winner of the Grand Prix de Lectrices d'ELLE, Huston's novel hits the mark with what is at once a love story, a poignant meditation on guilt and innocence, and a profound collision of past and present, of real and imagined experience.
The tale begins in 1957 in Paris, a city still scarred by the humiliating memory of Nazi occupation. When Monsieur Raphael Lepage posts an ad for a maid, he could not have expected someone like Saffie to appear at his doorstep. Stoic and detached, with a voice resembling that of Marlene Dietrich, Saffie instantly enthralls Raphael with her utter indifference. Raphael is "a flutist on the verge of becoming famous" and as passionate as Saffie is passive; he instantly hires her. And although she is German, a word that is taboo in his apartment on the Rue de Seine, his desire for Saffie consumes him, and she consents to becoming his mistress and then his wife.
Saffie soon becomes pregnant, and after a failed attempt to abort, she gives birth to their son, Emil. While Raphael hopes that motherhood will awaken affection in his loveless but dutiful wife, it only makes her more distant and resigned. We soon learn the depths of this detachment, for Saffie acutely suffers the ghoulish and private memories of her childhood in Germany during World War II -- the bombing that killed her best friend, the rape of her mother by Russian troops, her father's complicity with the Nazis.
The reader is constantly reminded of the domestic microcosm of their trials, for the couple remains largely ignorant of the foreign conflict that has divided Paris: the escalating tension between France and its former colony, Algeria. Raphael, through his mastery of circular breathing, is able to focus on two things at once -- an ability that lays the groundwork for the rest of the story. Just as Saffie is able to function numbly in the present while bearing the pain of her past, to exist and not to exist, the borders of Raphael's reality are suspended by his dual concentration, at the expense of ignoring the outside world. Thus, "Both of them, albeit for different reasons, carry on their existence at a remove from that particular level of reality. Saffie's mind is hermetically sealed around her pain, like an oyster around its pearl. Raphael -- his brain wholly taken up with the effort of thinking simultaneously about his pregnant wife and his evening concert -- is better endowed with concentration than curiosity."
Raphael eventually does orchestrate Saffie's awakening, albeit accidentally, when he sends her on an errand to András, a repairer of musical instruments living in the Marais, Paris's Jewish quarter. Saffie immediately falls in love with András, a Jew who witnessed the destruction of his family and friends by the Nazis in Budapest. He becomes her lover, and as if animating a statue, brings Saffie to life. Raphael, delighted with his wife's increasing happiness (believing it caused by the birth of their son Emil), and content with his increasing fame and now peaceful bourgeois home life, travels to performances for weeks or months at a time -- a circumstance that allows Saffie's romance with András to thrive unnoticed, with tragic consequences.
But all of Huston's characters lead lives beyond the range of other characters' vision. Just as Raphael and Saffie live in denial or blissful ignorance of each other's "other" lives, András is also a Marxist involved in the war between France and Algeria -- a struggle that gains increasing significance, not only to Saffie and András as a brutal reenactment of the atrocities of the 1940s but also as a reminder of this book's refrain: "How can so many worlds exist simultaneously on this one little planet?"
This question is asked by the narrator, an omniscient, ironic voice that pervades the novel. While some might initially question whether the self-conscious narrator (whose self-congratulatory asides and pitying commentary steer the reader through the events like a modern Greek chorus) is too active in the storytelling, this voice is surprisingly consistent with -- and ultimately necessary to -- Huston's intentions in the novel. Paired with the sensitive observations of the concierge in the Lepages' apartment building, Mademoiselle Blanche (an "obese and ugly woman...but [one whose] eyes are filled with treasures of kindness and wisdom where her fellow human beings are concerned"), the narrator both distinguishes and bridges the boundaries of each character's perceptions, reminding the reader that their blindness and failures are just as significant to the purpose of this tale as their concerns and successes.
In light of these countless worlds of struggle, the central question remains, "Which of them is the most genuine, the most precious, the most urgent for us to understand?" The answer to the question, which Huston brilliantly demonstrates, is that "Every person's suffering is the most important, isn't it?" More importantly, The Mark of the Angel seeks to prove that although sometimes hermetically sealed, or bound by the limits of our own self-preserving illusions, no one person's suffering is ever solitary. Our imagined securities are informed by past and present, other worlds and other lives, and press against harsh realities that -- like the surface tension of a bubble that could burst and vanish in an instant -- make each moment tenuous and precious and have the power to restore lost innocence.
Without making the mistake of claiming that there is no distinction between guilt and innocence, Huston's novel suggests that both can exist in a single individual and be hard to disentangle. Her novel also pays tribute to the subjective truths of individual experience....[T]he central point of the novel [is] the tragic clash of multiple histories, multiple worlds, that simultaneously inhabit a single planet...
The Christian Science Monitor
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Drenched in irony, and very French in sensibility, Huston's U.S. debut must overcome an unfortunate beginning before it gallops away with the reader's mesmerized attention--but once underway, it fascinates with its blend of cynicism and romance, and its dramatization of the roles of accident and fate, and of evil and injustice, in human history. Initially, one must accept a far-fetched plot: that when world-famous flutist Raphael Lepage sees Saffie, the young German woman who answers an ad for a maid to clean his luxurious Paris apartment, he immediately succumbs to overwhelming love and soon afterward marries her--despite the fact that she is as emotionless as a zombie, does not even remotely return his affections and is anathema to his beloved mother, who has never forgiven the Nazi occupation 20 years before. Even the birth of a son does not thaw Saffie's cold indifference, which persists until she meets Andr s, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee who repairs musical instruments; the mutual recognition of irresistible passion releases all her emotions. During their liaisons in his little shop in the Marais, Andr s tells Saffie about the destruction of his family in Budapest, and she reveals her own traumatic memories of WWII--the Allied bombings, her father's complicity with the campaign of annihilation, her mother's brutal rape by conquering Russian soldiers. Even as their affair unfolds, however, the horrifying events of the 1940s are being repeated in Algeria and France, as FLN terrorists strike back at French atrocities. In the end, innocence must die, as, Huston reminds us, it always has and always will. While Huston often overwrites and sometimes indulges in arch asides, once she establishes her story's central ironies, the narrative achieves a relentless velocity. A scene in which both Saffie and Andr s recall separate incidents in which poorly buried bodies erupt through the earth, drenching the soil with blood, is a shattering reminder of the endless cycle of human violence. Canadian-born Huston has lived in France for more than three decades, where her books (seven novels plus nonfiction works) are bestsellers. BOMC and QPB selections; paperback rights to Vintage. (Oct.) FYI: The Mark of an Angel won the French Prix des Lectrices d'ELLE and the Prix des Librairies in Canada, and is shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt in France. Huston's other awards include the Prix Contrepoint, the Prix Goncourt Lyceen and the Canadian Governor General's Award in French. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
In 1957, Paris is still recovering from World War II, France is fighting to retain control of Algeria, and de Gaulle is about to return to power. In this political environment Raphael, professional flautist, advertises for a maid. Finding Saffie, the strange German woman who answers the ad, irresistible, he makes her his maid, his wife, and the mother of his son in quick succession. Saffie has been frightened most of her life but has learned to hide her feelings. One day she takes Raphael's flute to be repaired and falls in love with the Hungarian instrument maker. When Raphael discovers the affair, he takes his son to the south of France, with tragic results. The book captures this chaotic point in history and geography; while it is not a happy story, it is compelling. Reader Richard Aspel delivers the text jerkily but with feeling; he portrays a wide variety of foreign accents with skill. Recommended.-Joanna M. Burkhardt, Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Univ. of Rhode Island, Providence Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Acclaimed Canadian-born Huston, a longtime resident of France (where this novel, her seventh, was originally published), debuts here with a melancholy tale of a proud French flutist and a Marxist Hungarian Jew who, in the late 50s, share a secretive German woman. As France's brutal war against its former colony Algeria erupts, the silent Saffie appears at Raphael's door in Paris in response to an ad for a maid; without saying much, she soon has the job. In fact, her diffidence so excites the passions of her young employer that he seduces her, then asks her to marry hima change of status she agrees to. What doesn't change, even after their son is born, is Saffie's attitude: she still feels indifferent about Raphael, though she cares for him in the same obsessive way she keeps house, while Raphael takes inspiration from his little family on his way to becoming the most acclaimed flutist of his generation. Little does he suspect that an errand run by Saffie to the shop of his instrument repairman has resulted in her giving herselfbody and soulto the man there. She lives for the next tryst with her lover, András, and Raphael unwittingly obliges the couple with his frequent tours and lengthy practice sessions. Only to András can Saffie, the child of a Nazi veterinarian, talk about her wartime past: living near Berlin, bombs killing her best friend, she and her mother being raped by Russian troops, her mother committing suicide. But to András, as a Jew in Budapest during the war, such horrors pale next to his own family's suffering. What's more, as a dedicated Marxist in Paris, he moves in dangerous circles, helping the Algerians to bring thesavagery at home back to France. Despite their differences, however, the affair prospersuntil Raphael finally discovers what's going on and intervenes, with tragic results. A stylish, sophisticated story, complete with archly ironic narration, marred only slightly by an overly melodramatic end.
Read an Excerpt
There she is.
Her face very pale. Or to be more accurate pallid.
She's standing at a door in a shadowy hallway on the third floor of a handsome old house on the Rue de Seine, about to knock. She knocks. Her gestures are vague, preoccupied.
She just arrived in Paris a few days ago a Paris trembling through raindrops on filthy windows a gray, foreign, leaden, dripping Paris. The Gare du Nord. Having gotten on the train at Düsseldorf.
Twenty years old.
Neither well nor badly dressed. Gray pleated skirt, white long-sleeved blouse, white ankle socks, black leather purse, matching shoes rather ordinary clothing but when you look at her closely, Saffie herself is anything but ordinary. She's strange. Not easy, at first glance, to put your finger on what's strange about her. And then ah you see it: it's her utter lack of hurry.
In the apartment, on the other side of the door she's just knocked on, someone is practicing Marin Marais's Folies d'Espagne on the flute. The flutist goes over the same phrase six or seven times, trying to smooth it out, preserve the rhythm, keep from hitting any wrong notes and finally manages to play it to perfection. But Saffie isn't listening. She's doing absolutely nothing other than standing at the door. Nearly five minutes have elapsed since she knocked on it, and no one's come to open it. She hasn't knocked a second time, norhas she turned to leave.
The concierge, who saw her entering the building earlier and has just gotten to the third floor to distribute the mail (she takes the elevator up to the top of the building then walks down floor by floor) is taken aback to see the young stranger standing motionless in front of Monsieur Lepage's door.
"What! ..." she exclaims.
She's an obese and ugly woman; her face is dotted with hairy moles; but her eyes are filled with treasures of kindness and wisdom where her fellow human beings are concerned.
"But he's at home, Monsieur Lepage! Did you ring the bell?"
Saffie understands French. She speaks it, too, albeit imperfectly.
"No," she says. "I knocked."
Her voice is soft, deep, husky a Marlene Dietrich sort of voice, minus the mannerisms. Her accent is by no means grotesque.
"But he can't hear you!" says Mademoiselle Blanche. "You must ring!"
She leans insistently on the bell and the music breaks off. Triumphant smile from Mademoiselle Blanche.
"There you go!"
Bending forward with difficulty, she slips Monsieur Lepage's mail under his door and disappears into the stairwell.
Saffie still hasn't moved. Her immobility is quite astounding.
The door is flung open. Light floods the shadowy hallway.
"What the hell! ..."
Raphael Lepage isn't really angry, he's just pretending. It seems to him a bit inappropriate to ring so aggressively when one's looking for a job. Saffie's silence, however, strikes him with the force of a blow. Calms him down. Shuts him up.
And now, this man and this woman who've never met stand on either side of the threshold, staring at each other. Or rather, he stares at her and she ... just stands there. Raphael is nonplussed. He's never seen anything like it in his life. A woman who can be standing right in front of you, yet somehow not be there.
When the doorbell's strident F-natural sounded a moment earlier, he'd been in the middle of playing a high F-sharp. He'd broken off, nerves jangling with the dissonance. Distracted. Suspended between the two worlds. Neither here, where the air rippled and streamed with sonorous shades, nor there, where young women answered his advertisement in the Figaro.
"Damn!" Carefully setting his Louis Lot on the blue velvet of its open case, he'd walked across the living-room rugs and down the hardwood floor of the hallway. Everything in the apartment around him was refined and burnished and genteel; wall tapestries and smooth oak furnishings glistened and gleamed, whispering affluence and good taste; reds and browns and golds reigned and the textures cried out to be caressed. A million motes of dust, however, danced in the shafts of sunlight the whole thing did need to be kept up.
His mother had given him careful instructions on this subject the previous week before she packed up lock, stock, barrel, and maid to leave for their house in Burgundy, handing over the Paris apartment to him. First, she'd told him, he'd have to compose a proper ad for the Figaro, and second, handpick the prospective employees. "Watch out for the quick-fingered ones!" she'd warned him. "They're easy to spot; their eyes move in zigzags."
"Seek maid for light housework. Room and board. Culinary skills required."
A text reduced to the bare essentials, chosen by Raphael because he hated playing the role of the bourgeois, and by Saffie because it didn't contain the phrases "references required" or "good morality."
When she'd called an hour ago, Raphael had noticed she had an accent. He couldn't have said from what country, but her French seemed a bit shaky. This was actually an asset, as far as he was concerned. The last thing he wanted was a chatterbox like Maria-Felice, the Portuguese maid who'd been his mother's confidante for as long as he could remember. He intended to explain to his future employee that he was ultrasensitive to sound. That it would be out of the question for her to do the vacuuming when he was at home. That she mustn't dream of humming while she dusted the furniture. That dropping a pot or pan in the kitchen during his practice hours would be cause for dismissal.
Now he yanks the door open, feigning anger
"What the hell! ..."
Blinks, as his eyes adjust to the darkness in the hallway. Tries to check out her expression for shiftiness, and is brought up short.
A smile that looks painted on. Arms hanging loosely at her sides. A slender body. This is all he has time to notice before he falls headlong into the well of her eyes. Green and opaque, like two fragments of jade. Placid pools, unshimmering, unmoving.
Yes from the beginning, it is Saffie's indifference that fascinates Raphael. Captivates him. Bewitches him. From the beginning, even before he learns her name, he can see that this young woman doesn't give a damn whether she gets the job or not. Whether she's alive or dead. She seems to have been somehow thrown out into the world, dispassionate and unfearing. She displays neither the hypocritical, calculating modesty of well-brought-up girls nor the equally calculating impudence of whores. She's just there. He's never seen anything like it.
"Please come in," he says at last, in a totally different voice, gentle and filled with respect.
As Saffie crosses the threshold, he sees that her movements are just as motionless and indifferent as her eyes. His stomach leaps wildly when he closes the door behind her, and he has to stop to catch his breath, his eyes riveted to the wooden doorjamb, before he can turn around.
He then precedes her down the hallway, feeling her empty green gaze on the back of his head.
In the living room, he sits down on the couch and motions for her to take a seat in the armchair across from him. She obeys, wordlessly. Seeing her eyes glued to the rug, he rapidly surveys her appearance. Longish hair held back in a ponytail by a plain rubber band. High forehead, prominent cheekbones, lipstick-coated lips, ears like perfect seashells studded with false pearl earrings, finely sculpted nose and carefully arched eyebrows a well-modeled face, on which it's impossible to read anything. There's no shyness in it, no simpering, nothing. The makeup and jewelry clash with the spectacular neutrality of her features. Raphael stares at her in a daze.
Stupidly, he reaches out a hand and grabs the little bronze bell to summon the maid, ask her to bring them some coffee then shakes his head, laughing inwardly: there is no maid, she's the maid, where are we, who are you, my dear ...
"You are Mademoiselle ? ..."
"My name is Zaffie," she says and, when he asks her to repeat it, then to spell it, it turns out that it begins with an S; her name is Saffie but she pronounces it "Zaffie," because she's German.
German. The word itself virtually taboo in this apartment on the Rue de Seine. His mother called them neither Krauts nor Boches nor Jerries nor even Germans, she simply said they, in fact more often than not she didn't say anything at all, merely pressed her lips together until all you could see was a red horizontal line in the middle of her narrow bony face because, even if her husband hadn't exactly died fighting them, it was still the Germans' fault that Madame Trala-Lepage had found herself widowed at the age of forty, with so many years left to live and practically no hope of finding another man to love her, cherish her, shower her with gifts. Raphael's father, a professor of history at the Sorbonne whose specialty had been the secular and humanist tradition in France, had met his end in the quarter of Les Halles in the fateful month of January 1942, when a pack of frenzied housewives had hurled themselves upon a truck of potatoes, overturning it with him underneath. (What the great professor had been doing in the Rue Quincampoix at six in the morning before perishing under the truck is another question....)
Two years later, the Occupation army had massacred four Resistance fighters right in front of their house and Raphael, his hands gripping the wrought-iron railing of the balcony, had leaned out the living-room window to see the pool of blood the shots had ceased a full minute earlier, it was all over, the young men were no longer young men but corpses, a heap of inert flesh, and how not to stare at that?, so Raphael had stuck out his lovely head covered with soft black curls as far as possible, craning his neck, widening his gentle brown eyes to see not death, but the truth behind death, behind the messy mass of arms and legs, the bloody embrace of four comrades fallen together and then Hortense's hysterical scream piercing the eardrum of her musical offspring "What are you doing? Have you gone berserk? Shut the window, for God's sake! You're all I have left in the world, I don't want them to take everything from me! ..."
Raphael is certain that, had it not been for his mother's explicit and unshakable opposition, he would have joined the Resistance movement at the end of '43 (he could have then, he was fifteen and longed to be part of the romantic ranks of the Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur), but, his father being dead and his mother having no one left but him, he'd had to support the struggle against the Germans in purely moral and spiritual ways. It was for the same reason, namely the semi-glorious death of his father while fighting (in the broad sense of the term) for his country, that Raphael hadn't been called up to serve in Algeria. Instead, he'd gone on to the Conservatory. And done brilliantly there. Which was just as well, for his political convictions would probably have led him to favor independence for Algeria. With the least possible damage, naturally, to the image of France....
And now Saffie, a German, was sitting right in front of that same living-room window. And no one had sat in this living room in quite the way she was sitting there since it had first been built in the middle of the seventeenth century. No one.
Her thick painted lips smile fixedly; her large green eyes rest on Raphael in calm expectancy.
Raphael is so overwhelmed by her presence that he's almost forgotten the reason for it. Rising, he starts to pace the room, running his left hand over and over through his hair, backward from forehead to crown, with fingers spread. This feverish artistic gesture has been a habit with him since adolescence, but it's growing faintly ludicrous because his black curls are receding farther and farther on his forehead yes, the fact of the matter is that at age twenty-eight Raphael Lepage is prematurely bald, so that now, for fully three quarters of its trajectory, his left hand meets nothing but naked skin.
Even as he thus paces the room and runs his hand over his balding head, Raphael is holding forth. He describes the tasks and responsibilities that will be those of the young woman he hires as a maid. To tell the truth, he's not particularly conversant in domestic matters and is spouting information virtually at random, grasping at whatever memories of Maria-Felice come to mind Maria-Felice standing on a stepladder to wash the windowpanes, Maria-Felice bringing him his mail and breakfast at nine in the morning and his tea at five in the afternoon, Maria-Felice going out to do the food shopping, serving bowls of soup, struggling up the back staircase with a heavy bag of logs for the fireplace.... Raphael summarizes all this as best he can, illustrating with gestures and pantomime, glancing at the young woman now and then to make certain she is following. She appears to be. Yes, she seems to know what he means, but then ... it would seem she knows everything about the world there is to know, and always has.
He tells her he's a professional flutist, a member of an orchestra (he articulates the orchestra's name with care but Saffie doesn't blink, her eyebrows don't go up, her mouth doesn't drop open clearly she's never heard of it). He adds that he's frequently away on trips, that his absences are sometimes short (concerts in the provinces) and sometimes long (tours abroad); that Saffie's duties during these periods will naturally be fewer, but that she can take advantage of her free time (does she understand the word "advantage"?) to oh to polish the silver, for example.
Her room's on the seventh floor. Visitors strictly forbidden. He realizes that he's now speaking in the indicative, as if they'd already reached an agreement on the subject of her working hours, her wages, the very fact that it is she, Saffie, who will be taking this job that, starting tomorrow morning and for the foreseeable future, it is she, this strange and silent young German woman, who will be looking after him, Raphael Lepage, a flutist on the verge of becoming famous, in his large apartment on the Rue de Seine, dusting his books, putting sugar in his tea, ironing his shirts, washing his underwear, and changing the sheets after his lovers leave his bed.
"Do we have an agreement?"
Slowly, she nods her head.
"Where are your things?"
"Not many things. Two suitcases only. I go get them now?"
Good Lord, her voice. He hadn't noticed it before. A devastatingly fragile voice. It paralyzes him. He needs to make a conscious effort to stop standing there staring at her like an idiot. And another effort to grasp, in an inward echo, the meaning of the words she's just spoken.