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Ignorance a novel, p.21

Ignorance: A Novel, page 21


Ignorance: A Novel

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  Did I want to? With him? He’d captured me, somehow. My life was finishing here. In front of a blank wall. Yet he said I’d captured him.

  I could leave before they woke up in the morning. Hardly anything to pack: I could be away from here in five minutes. Who was the person who’d flee? Who was I? I didn’t know. Squares of paper lost in the sea. Would I ever start existing again and who would I be if I did? If I thought about it too much I might go mad. I’d disintegrate completely. But Bernie was saying I might become a wife and Florence was saying I might become some kind of friend.

  I could turn into someone English. Learn the language, put on the clothes. Mrs Mathers. In a grey felt hat. Then I’d be a person, belong somewhere. Know people. Be accepted by them. Good morning, Mrs Mathers. I could pull all that round me and hide inside it. Keep safe keep warm. Layers and layers of soft, thick clothes so people’s fingers couldn’t jab at me.

  And then.

  Baby crying. Calling for me.

  I was biting my thumb, ripping at a piece of skin with my teeth. Don’t think any further ahead than that. Don’t. Or you really will fall apart.

  Shivering, I got up and switched on the light. I put on my jacket over my nightdress, dragged out my suitcase from under the camp bed and opened it. I laid out my possessions on my pillow.

  Maman’s cookery book. If Florence wanted French recipes, here they were.

  I Want To Cook, by Brigitte Marisot. I held the volume in both hands, its spine braced by brown paper, let it fall open. Brittle pages yellow at the edges. Recipe titles in bold. On the flyleaf my mother had written my name under my father’s inscription. Josef. Liliane. Jeanne. There we were, the three of us.

  I turned the pages. Not just any old cookery book. Her cookery book. The one my father had given her, the one I used to flick through.

  Why hadn’t I noticed before? The book’s copyright date was 1920. Not just the year my mother got engaged but the year she had converted. She had told me often enough. She used jokingly to call the book her Bible. Now I wondered: had she decided to learn specifically French dishes at the moment of converting? Was this a version of the catechism for good French wives?

  The book certainly handed on a precise French tradition. I could hear Madame Marisot declaiming: this is exactly how you do it! An allegorical figure of Cookery, with the brass scales for flour and butter in her hand.

  Turning over the crisp, friable pages, I noticed something else I must have seen before but had not bothered to think about. My mother had adapted her adopted tradition, scribbling little marginal notes, altering proportions of ingredients, adding comments and question marks. The cookery book had given her instructions and she’d talked back to it. She’d entered into discussion with her Bible. She’d insisted that she and the Word of God were equals. No, if I were cooking for a dinner party, I’d prefer a little raw onion, rather than cooked, chopped on to the cream topping celeriac fritters. No, for babas I think you’d need two tablespoonsful of rum not one. No, I don’t think lamb’s liver will do, I’ll insist on calf’s. When had we eaten these dishes? Never, in my memory. Perhaps she’d cooked them for Papa, before we became so hard up.

  The recipes she knew by heart had come from her mother’s family background in eastern Europe. She hadn’t had a Polish cookery book, as far as I knew. Nor a Jewish one: did they even exist?

  The cookery book was a memory box. You lifted the lid and days of your past flew up and out. White pages. White oblongs striped with black type. The recipe for Délicieuses, snowy beaten egg whites folded with grated gruyère and quickly deep-fried to become fat puffs, which we’d had on my thirteenth birthday. Salt and hot oil on my lips, the billowy cushion of egg white melting to wateriness on my tongue. The recipe for Nuns’ Farts, the little sweet choux buns, very delicate and light and airy, which Maman made just once, on the day I left the nuns’ school. Laughing fit to bust.

  From between the flyleaf and the title page a loose piece of paper shook itself free. No bigger than a playing card. I pulled it out.

  The recipe for Liqueur 44.

  A square of cream-coloured paper cut from a school exercise book, pale brown lines criss-crossing it; ruled in red down the left-hand side. My mother’s handwriting, shrunk down to fit into the small space. Fine point of her nib. Dark brown ink. Cramped lines of curly words, with scrolling flourishes over the capitals. She had written me a letter. A recipe that began: my dear Jeannette.

  A recipe that was a love letter. From my mother to me and no one standing in between to stop her words darting across the sea. No one to catch her words, intercept them. Her message reached me. Do you remember how you didn’t like this liqueur the first time you tried it? I’ve still got a drop or two left in the bottle. It’ll have to last until our reunion. You can only make it with proper coffee beans. Rationing will be over at some point and oranges will come back into the shops. Use the best quality ones you can afford. Stab them forty-four times. Don’t forget, once you’ve made your liqueur, you leave it for forty-four days. Remember you tap the bottle forty-four times with a knife before you open it and take your first sip. Papa’s favourite aperitif, did I tell you that?

  My mother had written a recipe like a poem, a song. Each word, each ingredient, in its right place; chosen and measured. Cooking, speaking, writing meant selecting. This not that. But also: this and that. Judge well, mix well. Don’t waste food. Don’t waste your words. The art of using leftovers: out of waste scraps make something beautiful and new.

  I traced Maman’s handwritten words with my forefinger. Traces of herself. She was invisible, she was absent, but she was present too, curls of writing like brown lace, like the frilled edges of pancakes, the brown crust at the neck of a bottle of liqueur, I pressed her to me, paper and ink to my lips, paper was flesh, I smelled her lily-of-the-valley skin.

  Hot skin. Smell of fresh sweat. Long ripples of green. A field of grass blowing in summer sun. Hands reached down and hauled me along through the thicket of tall green stems tickling my bare legs. My bare feet sticky inside my sandals. Grass twitching with heat, jostling very close; fizzing with insects. Swaying folds of a yellow skirt on one side. Blue trouser-legs scissor along on the other. Over my head their butterfly voices dizzy back and forth. They press into the green meadow-forest, they push it back on either side, dividing it, they cut a path through and pull me with them. Birds spiral up at my elbow, flash into the sky, ribbons of singing. Blueness swings over me. I lose my balance and stumble, nearly fall over. Hands lift me, scoop me into the air. Suddenly I’m high up riding above the green field on Papa’s shoulders he clasps my ankles grips my feet against his chest and Maman is laughing we’re making towards the river we’ll always be going on here together we’re rocking through the green field this is now this is for ever it will never end.

  Wetness fell on to the pages of the cookery book, soaked in. I put out a finger to wipe my staining tears. Behind the thin curtain the basement railings drew strict black vertical lines. Fleur-de-lis tops like splayed pen nibs. Iron bars that melted. Streams of ink flowing down.

  Crying broke me open, gouged my guts. All the people I’d loved were gone, they were all lost, I was on my own. Embracing a bundle of barbed wire. Nobody could take that pain away from me and nobody would. It was mine.

  After a while I made myself stop crying. I began yawning. Tiredness fidgeted under my eyelids, scratched me to stay awake. I put down the cookery book, replaced it with my other things in the suitcase, pushed it under the camp bed again. Shivering, still wearing my jacket, I got back beneath the blankets, pulled them up round my ears.

  If I stayed, I’d take sticks of charcoal, gouge paper with them, stroke paper with them. I’d take sticks of oil and chalk pastels, make coloured marks, rub them, soften them. But if I stayed, how much of the truth would I tell Florence and Bernie?

  Find a language. Not their English foreign language. The language of food. The art of composing a menu. Compose a menu. Menus exist in the futu
re tense: I want to sit with them at the kitchen table, tell them this really matters, ask Bernie to translate, wait, dare to look at their faces.

  Her crumpled face when she was born, her shut eyes, her red crinkly legs bent up like a tiny frog’s. She is my truth. Write a recipe for truth.

  How far back to begin? Eggs inside eggs inside eggs. Take one mother and one daughter, crack them, separate them, don’t let them touch, beat them in their separate bowls, whip them well. Take also one young man and one young woman, add one future mother-in-law, mix well, stir well, season with bitterness and despair, when the mixture curdles add the milk of human kindness, the yeast of doggedness, leave it to rise for as long as necessary, punch it back down, take the resulting story with a good pinch of salt.

  Take as many Jews as you like, crack them whip them beat them put into the oven turn on the gas wait till they’re well crisped throw into the rubbish pit take another batch start again.

  In the cold dark kitchen.

  The words tottered like a baby trying to walk.

  The father’s name was Émile. I lost touch with him at the end of the war. I gave my baby up, I left her behind in France. Everyone except my mother said it was for the best. What did my mother say? She coughed and covered her face with her handkerchief. What happened when we said goodbye? Greyness.

  I spoke to myself as a nun might, taking a child into the orphanage. It’s all right it’s all right calm down. Well-worn phrases. Nothing wrong with those. Meant to offer soothing. Possibly true. I needed to settle, recover a bit. Here, people offered a haven. Don’t make a fuss. Crawl inside. Let them shelter you.

  Not good enough. Need ripped me open. If ever I saw my daughter again, if ever it were possible, I’d try to explain. If she wanted me to. I’d try to find her again, I’d try to talk to her.

  I’d ask her to forgive me for abandoning her. I’d try to tell her what happened. Bring the memories into language. Put the words together. Give them a shape, out in the world. Tell her the true story.

  One day I’d try to discover what happened to those dear others. Those lost ones. I whispered their names. I’d try to find out. Uncover the true facts. I’d write to my mother, ask her to help me.

  The story stirred in me, wanted to jump out and fill the room. Fragments of the past, like dying cinders in a mound of grey ash, made a faint glow. Ghosts shuffled in, formed a crowd of shapes standing round me.

  Black paper cut-outs. Burnt paper shrivelling to black fragments. Black shadows with the light behind them. Ghosts were dead people who hadn’t had time to tell their stories. They’d come, in their black mourning clothes, to listen to one another, to speak. To tell the story of what had happened. They invited me to become their witness.

  Shivering. Blanket round my shoulders in the cold kitchen. Would I be able to hear them out? I hoped so. I didn’t know.


  Many authors’ books helped my research. Among these are:

  Carmen Calil, Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland

  Laurent Douzou, La Résistance française: une histoire périlleuse

  Adam Nossiter, The Algeria Hotel: France, Memory and the Second World War

  Richard Vinen, The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation

  Thanks to Ayesha Karim and all at Aitken Alexander Associates. Thanks to Alexandra Pringle, Erica Jarnes and all at Bloomsbury, and to editor Gillian Stern and copy-editor Audrey Cotterell. Thanks also to Patricia Duncker, Sarah LeFanu, Hermione Lee, Jenny Newman, Bill and Hilary Startin, and Richard Wainwright.


  Michèle Roberts is the author of twelve highly acclaimed novels, including The Looking Glass and Daughters of the House, which won the WHSmith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Her memoir Paper Houses was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. She has also published poetry and short stories, most recently collected in Mud: Stories of Sex and Love. Half-English and half-French, Michèle Roberts lives in London. She is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.



  A Piece of the Night

  The Visitation

  The Wild Girl

  The Book of Mrs Noah

  In the Red Kitchen

  Daughters of the House

  Flesh and Blood

  Impossible Saints

  Fair Exchange

  The Looking Glass

  The Mistressclass

  Reader, I Married Him


  The Journeywoman

  Child Lover


  The Mirror of the Mother

  Psyche and the Hurricane

  All the Selves I Was

  The Heretic’s Feast

  Short Stories

  During Mother’s Absence

  Playing Sardines

  Mud: Stories of Sex and Love


  Food, Sex & God: on Inspiration and Writing

  Paper Houses

  Artist’s Books

  Poems (with Caroline Isgar)

  Fifteen Beads (with Caroline Isgar)

  Dark City Light City (with Carol Robertson)

  The Secret Staircase (with Caroline Isgar)

  Copyright © 2012 by Michèle Roberts

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Bloomsbury USA, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

  Published by Bloomsbury USA, New York


  Roberts, Michèle.

  Ignorance / Michèle Roberts. — 1st U.S. ed.

  p. cm.

  eISBN: 978-1-60819-788-0

  1. Young women—Fiction. 2. World War, 1939-1945—France—Fiction.

  I. Title.

  PR6068.O155154 2012



  First U.S. Edition 2013

  This electronic edition published in January 2013



  Michèle Roberts, Ignorance: A Novel



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