It all starts with the death of Martijn van Vliet’s wife. His grief-stricken young daughter, Lea, cuts herself off from the world, lost in the darkness of grief. Then she hears the unfamiliar sound of a violin playing in the hall of a train station, and she is brought back to life. Transfixed by a busker playing Bach, Lea emerges from her mourning, vowing to learn the instrument. And her father, witnessing this delicate spark, promises to do everything and anything in his power to keep her happy.
Lea grows into an extraordinary musical talenther all-consuming passion leads her to become one of the finest players in the countrybut as her fame blossoms, her relationship with her father withers. Unable to keep her close, he inadvertently pushes Lea deeper and deeper into this newfound independence and, desperate to hold on to his daughter, Martin is driven to commit an act that threatens to destroy them both.
A revelatory portrait of genius and madness, Lea delves into the demands of artistic excellence as well as the damaging power of jealousy and sacrifice. Mercier has crafted a novel of intense clarity, illuminating the poignant ways we strive to understand ourselves and our families.
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We first met one bright, windy morning in Provence. I was sitting outside a café in Saint-Rémy, studying the branches of the bare plane trees in the pale light. The waiter who had brought me my coffee was standing in the doorway. In his worn-out, red waistcoat he looked as if he had been a waiter his whole life. Every now and again he took a drag on his cigarette. Once he waved to a girl who was sitting side-saddle on the back of a rattling Vespa, like in an old film from my schooldays. After the Vespa had disappeared, the smile stayed on his lips for a while. I thought about the clinic where things were carrying on without me for the third week. Then I looked across at the waiter again. His face was closed now and his expression blank. I wondered what it would have been like to live his life instead of mine.
At first Martijn van Vliet was a shock of grey hair in a red Peugeot with Bern plates. He was trying to park, and even though there was plenty of room he was making a poor job of it. This uncertainty about parking didn't match the tall man who now got out and strode confidently through the traffic towards the café. He glanced at me sceptically with his dark eyes and walked inside.
Tom Courtenay, I thought. Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. That was who the man reminded me of. But he didn't look like him at all. The two men resembled one another in their gait and their expression – the way they seemed to be in the world and within themselves. The headmaster of the college hates Tom Courtenay, the gangly boy with the sly smile, but he needs him to win against the other college with its star runner. So he is allowed to run during class time. He runs and runs through the colourful autumn foliage, the camera on his happy, smiling face. The day comes, Tom Courtenay runs far ahead of the rest, his rival looks as if he has been paralysed, Courtenay turns into the home straight, close-up of the headmaster's fat face, beaming with anticipated triumph, only another hundred yards to victory, another fifty, then Courtenay becomes infuriatingly slow, puts the brakes on and stops, incredulity on the headmaster's face, now he recognizes the intention, the boy has him in the palm of his hand, this is his revenge for all the bullying, he sits down on the ground, shakes out his legs, which could have gone on running for ages, his rival runs across the finishing line and Courtenay's face twists into a triumphant grin. I had to see that grin over and over again in the lunchtime showing, in the afternoon and evening and in the late show on Saturday.
A grin like that could appear on the face of this man too, I thought, when Van Vliet came out and sat down at the next table. He put a cigarette between his lips and shielded the flame of the lighter against the wind with his hand. He held the smoke in his lungs for a long time. As he exhaled he glanced at me, and I was at amazed at how gentle those eyes could be.
'Froid,' he said and pulled his jacket tighter. 'Le vent.' He said it with the same accent as I would use.
'Yes,' I said with a Bernese inflection, 'I wouldn't have expected that here. Not even in January.'
Something in his face changed. It wasn't a pleasant surprise for him to meet a Swiss person here. I felt intrusive.
'No, in fact,' he said now, also in dialect, 'it's often like this.' His eyes drifted across the street. 'I can't see a Swiss registration number.'
'I'm here in a rental car,' I said. 'I'm taking the train back to Bern tomorrow.'
The waiter brought him a Pernod. For a while neither of us said anything. The rattling Vespa with the girl on the back seat drove past. The waiter waved.
I set the money for the coffee on the table and started to go.
'I'm driving back tomorrow too,' Van Vliet said now. 'We could go together.'
That was the last thing I had expected. He could see that.
'Just an idea,' he said, and a strangely sad smile, asking for forgiveness, darted across his features; now, once again, he was the man who had parked so maladroitly. Before going to sleep I thought that Tom Courtenay could smile like that too, and in the dream that's exactly what he did. He brought his lips close to the mouth of a girl who recoiled in horror. 'Just an idea, you know,' said Courtenay, 'and not much of an idea, either.'
'Yes, why not?' I said now.
Van Vliet called the waiter and ordered two Pernods. I gestured that I didn't want one. A surgeon doesn't drink in the morning; not even after he's stopped work. I sat down at his table.
'Van Vliet,' he said. 'Martijn van Vliet.'
I held out my hand. 'Herzog, Adrian Herzog.'
He'd been staying here only for a few days, he said, and after a pause during which his face seemed to become older and darker, he added: 'In memory of ... before.'
At some point on our journey he would tell me the story. It would be a sad story, a story that hurt. I had the feeling I wouldn't be up to it. I had enough on my plate dealing with myself.
I gazed along the avenue of plane trees that led out of the town and looked at the mild, muted colours of Provence in winter. I had come here to visit my daughter, who was working at the hospital in Avignon. My daughter who no longer needed me, hadn't done for ages. 'Taken early retirement? You?' she had said. I had hoped she would want to know more. But then the boy had come home from school. Leslie was annoyed that the nanny was late, because she was on the night-shift, and then we were standing in the street like two people who had encountered one another without really meeting.
She saw that I was disappointed. 'I'll visit you,' she said. 'You've got time now!' We both knew she wouldn't. She hasn't been to Bern for many years and doesn't know how I live. We know very little about each other generally, my daughter and I.
I'd rented a car at Avignon Station and had driven off at random, three days on small roads, spending the night in rural inns, half a day by the Gulf of Aigues-Mortes, sandwiches and coffee, time and time again, Somerset Maugham in the evening by dim light. Sometimes I was able to forget the boy who had suddenly appeared in front of the car back then, but never for longer than half a day. I started from my sleep, because anxious sweat was pouring over my eyes and I was nearly choking behind my surgical mask.
'You do it, Paul,' I had said to the senior doctor and handed him the scalpel.
Now, as I drove through the villages at a walking pace and was glad when I was on the open road again, I sometimes saw Paul's bright eyes above the surgical mask, his expression one of shock and disbelief.
I didn't want to hear Martijn van Vliet's story.
'I want to go to the Camargue today, to the Saintes Maries de la Mer,' he said now.
I looked at him. If I hesitated any longer, his expression would harden like Tom Courtenay's when he was standing in front of the headmaster.
'I'll come with you,' I said.
When we set off the wind had stopped and it was warm behind the windscreen. 'La Camargue, c'est le bout du monde,' said Van Vliet, when we turned south after Arles. 'That's what Cécile, my wife, used to say.'CHAPTER 2
The first time I didn't give it a thought. The second time Van Vliet took his hands off the wheel and held them a few inches away, I thought it was curious, because once again he was doing it while a truck came towards us. But it was only by the third time that I was certain: it was a security measure. He had to keep his hands from doing the wrong thing.
For a while there were no more trucks. On either side of the road were rice fields and water in which the drifting clouds were reflected. The level landscape created the feeling of a liberating expanse. It reminded me of my time in America, when I learned to operate from the very best surgeons. They gave me self-reliance and taught me to master my anxiety, which threatened to break out when I had to make the first incision in the intact skin. By my return to Switzerland in my late thirties I had hazardous operations behind me; for the others I was the epitome of medical calm and confidence, a man who never lost his nerve. It was unimaginable that I would one morning cease to trust myself to hold the scalpel.
In the distance I could see an approaching truck. Van Vliet braked sharply and drove down from the road to a compound with a hotel and a paddock with white horses in it. PROMENADE À CHEVAL, it said by the entrance.
He sat there for a while with his eyes closed. His eyelids twitched and there were fine beads of sweat on his forehead. Then he got silently out of the car and walked slowly over to the paddock fence. I joined him and waited.
'Would you mind taking the wheel?' he asked hoarsely. 'I ... don't feel that great.'
At the hotel bar he drank two Pernods. Then he said, 'Let's get going.' It was supposed to sound brave, but it was a threadbare courage.
Rather than going to the car he walked back to the paddock. One of the horses was standing by the fence. Van Vliet stroked its head. His hand was trembling.
'Lea loved animals, and they sensed as much. She simply wasn't afraid of them. Even the most furious dogs calmed down when she appeared. "Dad, look, he likes me!" she would cry. As if she needed affection from animals because she didn't experience it otherwise. And she said it to me. To me of all people. She stroked the animals, she let them lick her hands. How frightened I was when I saw that! Her precious, her so terribly precious hands. Later, on my secret journeys to Saint-Rémy, I often stood here and imagined her stroking the horses. It would have done her good. I'm quite sure it would have done. But I couldn't bring her along. The Maghrebi, the damned Maghrebi, he forbade it. He simply forbade me to do it.'
I was still frightened of the story, even more so now; none the less, I was no longer certain that I didn't want to hear it. Van Vliet's trembling hand on the horse's head had changed things. I wondered whether I should ask questions. But it would have been wrong. I needed to be a listener, nothing more than a listener, quietly making my way into the world of his thoughts.
He mutely handed me the car key. His hand was still trembling.
I drove slowly. When we met a truck, Van Vliet looked far into the distance on the right-hand side. As we entered the town, he directed me towards the beach. We stopped behind the dune, walked up the embankment and stepped out on to the sand. It was windy here, the glittering waves broke, and for a moment I thought of Cape Cod and Susan, my then girlfriend.
We walked along, side by side, some distance apart. I didn't know what he was doing here. Or rather I did: now that Lea – about whom he had spoken in the past tense – was no longer alive, he wanted to walk once more along the beach that he had had to walk along alone when the Maghrebi had forbidden him access to his daughter. Now he walked towards the water, and for a moment I had the idea that he was simply going to walk into it, with a straight, solid stride, not to be stopped by anything, further and further, until the waves closed over his head.
He stopped on the damp sand and took a hip flask from his jacket. He unscrewed the top and glanced at me. He hesitated, then threw his head back and poured the spirits down his throat. I got out my camera and took a few photographs. They show him as a silhouette against the light. One of them is here in front of me, leaning against the lamp. I love it. A man drinking defiantly in front of the eyes of another man, who didn't want a Pernod when he was offered one. Je m'en fous, says the posture of this tall, heavy, tousle-haired man. Like Tom Courtenay marching off to be arrested after refusing to apologize.
Van Vliet walked on along the damp sand for a while. Every now and again he paused, threw his head back, as he had done while drinking a moment before, and held his face into the sun. A man, perhaps in his late fifties, tanned and his eyes baggy from drinking, but otherwise looking healthy and fit, someone you would have expected to do sport, but behind that appearance filled with grief and despair that could turn at any time into rage and hatred, hatred not least for himself, a man who no longer trusted his hands when he saw the high hood of a truck thundering towards him.
Now he came slowly up to me and stopped right in front of me. The way it came pouring out of him proved how much the memory had raged within him when he was standing by the water.
'Meridjen is his name, the Maghrebi, Dr Meridjen. Now it's all about your daughter. You will have to get used to it. Imagine. That's what the man dared to say to me. To me! C'est de votre fille qu'il s'agit. As if that hadn't been the guiding principle of my life for twenty-seven years! The words pursued me like an endless echo. He uttered them at the end of our first conversation, before he stood up behind his desk to walk me to the door of his consulting room. He had mostly listened; every now and again the dark hand with the silver pen had flown over the paper. In the ceiling the huge blades of a fan turned wearily; during the pauses in our conversation I heard the quiet humming of the engine. After my long report I felt drained, and when he cast one of his black, Arab looks at me over the lenses of his half-rimmed glasses, I felt as if I were the guilty party sitting before a judge.
'You aren't moving to Saint-Rémy, he said to me in the doorway. It was a devastating sentence. Those few words made it sound as if my devotion to what I saw as Lea's happiness was nothing but an orgy of paternal ambition and a desperate attempt to bind her to me. As if my daughter needed to be protected from me more than anything. When I had only this one desire for Lea, this one desire that swept all others aside: that her grief and despair about Cécile's death might be over for ever. Of course, that desire also concerned me. Of course it did. But who would reproach me for that? Who?'
There were tears in his eyes. I would have loved to run my hand through his windswept hair. How had it all come about? I asked, after we had sat down in the sand beside the embankment.CHAPTER 3
'I can tell you to the day, indeed the hour, precisely when it all began. It was a Tuesday eighteen years ago, the only weekday when Lea's school continued into the afternoon. A day in May, deep blue, with trees and shrubs blossoming all around. Lea came out of school, with Caroline beside her, her friend from her earliest schooldays. It hurt to see how sadly and stiffly Lea came down the few steps to the playground next to skipping Caroline. It was the same dragging walk as it had been a year ago, when we had come together out of the hospital where Cécile had lost her battle against leukaemia. That day, saying goodbye to her mother's unmoving face, Lea had stopped crying. Her tears were used up. In the last weeks leading up to that moment she had talked less and less, and with every day, it seemed to me, her movements had become slower and jerkier. Nothing had been able to loosen that stiffness: nothing that I had done with her; none of the many presents I had bought when it seemed to me that I could read a desire in her face; none of the awkward jokes that I wrested from my own stiffness; not even going to school, with all the new impressions that it brought; and not even the efforts that Caroline had made from the first day onwards to make her laugh.
'"Adieu," Caroline said to Lea at the gate and put her arm around her shoulder. For an eight-year-old girl it was an unusual gesture: as if she were the adult sister giving the younger one protection and consolation to take with her on her way. As always, Lea kept her eyes fixed on the floor and didn't reply. She silently put her hand in mine and walked along beside me as if wading through lead.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lea"
Copyright © 2007 Carl Hanser Verlag München.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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