The Washington Post
Sea Houseby Esther Freud
The architect Klaus Lehmann loves his wife, Elsa, with a passion that continues throughout their married life despite long periods of separation. Almost half a century after Lehmann's death in the village of Steerborough, a young woman, Lily, arrives to research his life and work. Pouring over Klaus's letters to Elsa, Lily assembles the story of their lives… See more details below
The architect Klaus Lehmann loves his wife, Elsa, with a passion that continues throughout their married life despite long periods of separation. Almost half a century after Lehmann's death in the village of Steerborough, a young woman, Lily, arrives to research his life and work. Pouring over Klaus's letters to Elsa, Lily assembles the story of their lives together and apart. And alone in her rented cottage by the sea, she begins to sense an absence in her own life that may not be filled by simply going home.
The Sea House is the story of the village of Steerborough and the marshes and the sea beyond. It is the story of one generation living in the footprints of another; of a landscape shaped by lives, and lives shaped by landscape. With characteristic skill and a new depth and range, Esther Freud explores the twisting paths that people take and the places where those paths meet.
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The Sea HouseA Novel
By Esther Freud
Chapter OneGertrude's house was pink. That stone-ground Suffolk pink that managed to be manly, and from the front it looked closed in and dark. Max waited for a moment before knocking on the door, wondering who had built on the ugly flat-roofed porch, and then a shadow appeared behind the mottled glass. 'Come in, COME IN.' Gertrude spoke too loudly, unable to accept Max couldn't hear, and he stood quite still in the open doorway and watched the exaggerated movements of her mouth.
Max Meyer was in Steerborough to see if he might do a painting of Marsh End. It was a mercy invitation, a probable last wish from his sister Kaethe, but all the same he was grateful to have been asked, grateful to Gertrude for remembering him and asking him to come. Dear Max, she'd written. I know how much you must be suffering your loss, how much we, all of us, miss Kaethe, but would you consider coming up to do a picture of my house? I shall be here all summer. If you feel you can, please let me know and I'll explain about the trains. The letter was dated May the 29th, and, to his surprise, within a week he had packed up his paints and brushes, a roll of canvas and some clothes, and set out for Liverpool Street Station to catch the first of three connecting trains.
Gertrude Jilks was a child psychoanalyst, a woman with no children of her own, but standing beside her on the doorstep was a small boy with white blond hair. Gertrude didn't introduce him, and he stood there looking at his feet, shuffling them back and forth inside his shoes. 'COME IN,' Gertrude said again, and Max remembered with a pang that she disliked him.
'Yes, thank you, of course.' He lowered his head and together they stepped through into the main part of the house, a drawing-room with French windows open to the lawn, dark furniture falling into shadow after the shock of so much sun. Max walked across the wooden floor and out into the garden. The lawn was rich and wide, spreading out in lanes to one tall tree, a spruce pine with sand around its roots, and as Max walked out to it, his bag still in his hand, he imagined that behind the raised ridge of garden hedge the ground was shingle to the sea. 'Yes,' he said, 'I will paint the house, the back of the house certainly.' There was a bench cradled up against one wall and the windows of the upper floor were open to the sky.
'That is the house.' Gertrude had followed him. 'Alf,' she said, turning, 'you may go.' Alf was seven. He was the only child of her cleaning lady and Gertrude was paying for him to learn the piano. He didn't want piano lessons, but it didn't seem right just to give him money, so each Saturday at half past two he went to Miss Cheese for his lesson and then came back to give her his report. No, he wasn't making any progress, she explained to Max, but there was nothing else to do but carry on.
'I see.' Max nodded, although he wasn't at all sure that he did, and Gertrude picked up his bag and showed him to his room.
All his life Max had dreamt of houses. It didn't need a psychoanalyst, not even a children's one, to explain to him why that was so. But even before the move from Germany that was likely to have shaken him, he'd been dreaming of his home. He'd made a map of his house, Heiderose, when he was ten years old - the garden, the park, the big and little woods, the fields, the river and the road. This map had been one of the few things he'd taken with him when he left. The map, and an unwieldy wooden table he'd carved from one of the estate trees himself. Why he'd taken the table he still didn't know, when he'd fully expected to return, but he'd sealed his lifetime's correspondence up into its one deep drawer and had it shipped ahead to England. Max had the table, the letters in their drawer, but not the map, and it occurred to him he might even with his eyes closed, now in 1953, sit down and draw it from memory.
Houses, walls, villages and roads. Since the start of Kaethe's illness his dreams were overrun. He'd be travelling, always at the wheel of some majestic car, when he'd take a turning and find a hidden piece of land. Sometimes it was a cluster of houses, high up, their pathways dropping to the sea. Or he would come round a bend, out into the open, and find white railings, a square in a village that had not been there before. But what he never found was the actual house he dreamt of in the day. It was always just around the corner, out of his view, and sometimes his search was like a tunnel, leading only to one oval patch of sky. Now he dreamt of Gertrude's house, its rich, dense lawn, and the pine tree so straight and feathery, a lookout over the sea. He'd start with that, he thought, it was thin enough to stand right in the foreground of the painting and not obscure the view.
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