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The Life of Objects

The Life of Objects

by Susanna Moore


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Berlin, 1938. When Beatrice, a young Irish Protestant lace maker, is whisked away from her dreary life to join the household of Felix and Dorthea Metzenburg, she feels like she’s landed in the middle of a fairy tale. Art collectors, and friends to the most fascinating men and women of Europe, the Metzenburgs are part of a world where there is more to desire than she ever imagined.
However Germany has launched its campaign of aggression across Europe, and, before long, the conflict reaches the family’s threshold. Retreating to their country estate, the Metzenburgs do their best to ignore the encroaching war until the realities of hunger, illness, and Nazi terror begin to threaten their very existence. In searing and emotional detail, The Life of Objects illuminates Beatrice’s journey from childhood to womanhood, from naïveté to wisdom, as a continent collapses into darkness around her.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307388827
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/04/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Susanna Moore is the author of the novels The Big Girls, One Last Look, In the Cut, Sleeping Beauties, The Whiteness of Bones, and My Old Sweetheart, and two books of nonfiction, Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i and I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i.  She lives in New York City.


Read an Excerpt

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 Löwendorf. 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, ihr Schweine, oder ich lasse euch verprugeln!” 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 Löwendorf, 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 Löwendorf. 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 Löwendorf. 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 Frau Metzenburg had been abruptly exiled to Löwendorf 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 Löwendorf, 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 Löwendorf. 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 Löwendorf. 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 Inéz’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 Ein Heldenleben (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 passé” 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 Sich Bettet” 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.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“A frightening and wholly convincing evocation of life in Germany during the twilight of the Third Reich.” —J. M. Coetzee
“I find this book exhilarating—truly exciting, new, everything good—the people, the clothes, the food: every word.” —Joan Didion
“This is a deceptively simple novel that manages that uncanny trick of great fiction: turning the familiar (ambitious provincial girl, World War II, glamorous aristocrats) into a thrilling, enchanting story you’ve never encountered before. Imagine Downton Abbey crossed with In the Garden of Beasts as fashioned by a literary master at the peak of her powers.” —Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers
“In The Life of Objects, Susanna Moore tells the story of a young woman’s initiation into the worlds of beauty, suffering, cynicism, and grace. What astounds me about this work is its ability to attend with equal fidelity to the quiet nuances of self-discovery and the deceptions and depravities of World War II. This is a lyrical and courageous book.” —Tracy K. Smith, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry
The Life of Objects isn’t long but it gives the full sweep of the Nazi reign and the Soviet occupation. Its details are so convincing, it reads like a memoir not a novel—a magnificent achievement.” —Edmund White
“I hadn’t realized that the lives led by people in the camps had a shadow existence outside the fences, that people were constantly faced with the chance to step one way or the other so that the person next to them would be chosen instead, and that forever after they had to bear their choice. Treachery one wants to call it, but it isn’t so simple. Some of the details and evocations of the house and the landscape and the habits of the connoisseur and the self are so striking that at times I had the feeling I was reading a memoir, something like Edmund Gosse, where the writer is trying to keep his head among belligerent circumstances, or, on the other hand, fiction like Samuel Butler’s. The writing in places is close to a standard that is nearly flawless. So much can happen in a sentence, by such slight (to the reader) but rigorous and elegant means. I nearly gasped at some parts. And there is something gravely and humanly funny about others.” —Alec Wilkinson, author of The Ice Balloon
The Life of Objects is absolutely gripping in the precision of its wartime narrative, and chilling in its evocation of a fidelity to the sensuality of this world in the face of the most deeply cynical of the world’s capacities.  This extraordinary novel speaks to class, emigration and tragedy in our time as devastatingly as Buddenbrooks spoke to Thomas Mann’s own young century.” —Susan Wheeler, winner of the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Letters
“A marvelous book, devastating in its simplicity. It’s a beautifully controlled examination of a life stripped, like a body in wartime, of inessentials. I love the fact that kindness—though not sentimentality—turns out to be an essential. But for me the heart of the matter is Moore’s language: as strong as plainchant, and as beautiful.” —Nicola Griffith, author of The Blue Place and Ammonite


Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Susanna Moore’s elegant, haunting new novel, The Life of Objects.

1. What contributes to Beatrice’s unhappiness and disaffection in Ballycarra? What does her devotion to novels and fairy tales show about the influence literature has on dreams and expectations? In what ways does her reading increase her isolation and estrangement from those around her? How do the heroines Beatrice admires (p. 5) and the specific works she refers to (pp. 21, 45, 47–48) help to create a sense of her character? What else do they add to Moore’s novel?

2. In addition to being her teacher, what role does Mr. Knox play in Beatrice’s life? What is the importance of his interest in bird-watching and making lists? In what ways do Mr. Knox’s habits and behavior anticipate the qualities Felix Metzenburg exhibits?

3. Why does Beatrice adopt the name of Maeve as she embarks on her adventure?

4. “Because her wealth served to isolate her, Frau Metzenburg did not trouble herself with the customary prejudices of her class. Herr Felix . . . was unusual in that neither money nor adoration had ruined him” (p. 40). How do Felix’s and Dorothea’s manners and demeanor differ, and how does this affect Beatrice’s feelings about each of them?

5. What do Inez’s description of Felix’s past and Beatrice’s observations of his daily activities establish about the changes occurring as the Nazis assume power? What hints are there of the injustices and cruelties to come?

6. What does the novel convey about the response of ordinary citizens to the extraordinary events occurring around them? Discuss, for example, Felix’s reaction to the invasion of Poland, the disappearance of his friends in Berlin, and the implementation of anti-Jewish laws; Fraulein Roeder’s “admiration of Hitler’s frequent speeches” (p. 51) and her insistence that “Frau Metzenburg’s great-grandmother had not been a Jew, despite the lies spread by the wicked (p. 54); Herr Elias’s revelation that he is Jewish; and Beatrice’s subsequent conversation with Casper about Jews (p. 53).

7. Beatrice says, “Part of [Dorothea’s] fascination, of course, was her secretiveness. She could not bear to be anticipated, or forestalled, taking great care to conceal a meaningless or innocent gesture” (p. 90). What information does Dorothea (or the author) withhold and why? Do the details about Dorothea’s background and marriage revealed later in the book cast a different light on her behavior and the things she values (pp. 134–38)?

8. Why do Felix and Dorothea remain in Germany despite Inez’s urging that they leave (p. 138)? Does hiding their treasures (and valuables given them by others) and the sheltering of refugees at their home represent a stubborn refusal to face reality, or can these be seen as acts of defiance—or hope?

9. At the Adlon Beatrice observes, “No one was who he appeared to be—it was too dangerous to be yourself, unless you were one of them, and perhaps even then” (p. 104). Does survival in wartime necessitate deception and self-deception? Does such intentional artifice undermine the moral foundations of a society? What effect, if any, does it have on an individual’s sense of self-respect?

10. Like the villagers in the novel, many Germans blamed the Jews for what was wrong in their country and dismissed reports that the Jews were being annihilated. Do you agree with Felix’s reflection that “By the time that we understand what is happening . . . we are already complicit” (p. 113). To what extent are Felix and Dorothea complicit in the madness that has engulfed Europe? Do their generosity and humanitarian efforts as the war progresses and the Red Army wreaks destruction on the countryside mitigate the blame and shame of their failure to act earlier?

11. What do Beatrice’s reports on actual events gathered from German, Swiss, and BBC news broadcasts, as well as the busy network of rumors, reveal about the often-blurry line between journalism and propaganda, fact and speculation?  In this context, discuss the American choice to ignore for so long stories about the Reich’s systematic murder of Jews and other “objectionable” people (p.150).

12. How does the discovery of the American soldier in the woods change Beatrice’s sense of purpose and self-worth (pp. 159–75)? In the course of caring for him and listening to his stories, what does she realize about what was missing in her own life?

13. Only hours after she leaves the American, Beatrice is brutally raped by Red Army soldiers (pp. 179–80). Is the juxtaposition of these two incidents significant? In what ways do the encounters, one tender, one horrific, symbolize Beatrice’s coming-of-age?

14. At the end of the war, Beatrice says, she and others were “left with the inexhaustible presence of evil. . . . We had survived, but we were different people” (pp. 198–99). How does the legacy of the war and the new order in Germany shape the trials and the final tragedy Dorothea and Beatrice must deal with? What personal strengths and emotional needs underlie and nurture the intimacy between the two women? What signs are there that both women are ready to move on with their lives?

15. Several vividly drawn secondary characters enhance the intricacy of the portrait presented in The Life of Objects. What roles do Countess Inéz, Kreck, Herr Elias, Caspar, and Fraulein Roeder play in the novel and in Beatrice’s life? How does each character teach her something, or reveal something, that changes her understanding of the world?

16. Moore is a master at creating precise visual images--of clothing, household objects, and especially the rare items in the Metzenburg collections. In what ways do the finely wrought precision and vividness of these descriptions serve as a counterpoint to the dark themes Moore explores? Do they illuminate and explain the novel’s title?

17. How does The Life of Objects differ from other novels you have read about Europe during the Second World War? What effect does Moore’s choice of an uninformed young woman as narrator have on the power and credibility of the novel? In what ways does the book’s focus on a domestic drama deepen your understanding of the qualities, good and bad, that enable people to endure the atrocities of war?

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