Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Perfect Waiter

by Alain Claude Selzer
Bloomsbury Publishing
211 pages
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

This book was sent to me by Bloomsbury. I must say that those doom mongers who said that after the last Harry Potter book Bloomsbury would find it hard to survive, are doing this house a disservice as they seem to have an endless stream of fascinating books published and ready to come in 2009 and this is one of them.

A Perfect Waiter tells the story of Monsieur Erneste. He is the perfect waiter, discreet, efficient, non intrusive and has been a fixture at the Restaurant am Berg for sixteen years. Before that he worked at a grand hotel in Switzerland, just before the outbreak of the Second World War:

His was an unplanned existence. Any plans affecting him were made by others, people who knew their business and to whom he willingly deferred...having always been alone, he was barely conscious of his solitude. At night when he sank wearily into bed he felt safe...he had no reason to wish for a change in his circumstances...he could have gone on living like that for many years more.

And then one day, this ordered life is plunged into turmoil when he is sent down to meet the steamer crossing the lake bringing new staff for the hotel, two laundry maids and a new waiter who he will train. He meets Jakob and immediately falls in love.

Jakob shook Erneste's hand and introduced himself...the handshake seemed to say "Here I am, having come here purely for your sake" and the little world in which Erneste had so blithely installed himself collapsed.

And so a feverish love affair begins in the hot drawn out summer days where the febrile pre-war atmosphere heightens the senses as the cataclysm is awaited. The room Ernest and Jakob share is high under the eaves and is hot and sweltering and this sense of heat and tension adds to the passion they feel for each other. This is a fairly explicit book, but I did not find it offensive in any way and the reader knows that this intensity cannot last and that Erneste is destined for heartbreak. So it happens as one day he returns to the room unexpectedly and finds Jakob with one of the guests, a wealthy writer who has fled Germany because of his anti-Hitler views. When he leaves to go the USA, he takes Jakob with him and Erneste's heart is broken.

Years pass and Erneste's life as the Perfect Waiter continues, alone and solitary, he has managed to conceal his heartbreak and carve out an existence for himself and then one day, out of the blue, comes a letter from Jakob, he is in trouble and is asking for Erneste's help. He is to go and see the writer, Klinger, whose lover he was and who now lives in Switzeralnd and ask him for money, Jakob is desperate.

Erneste is in turmoil as his life is turned upside down and his memories of Jakob and his betrayal are revived but he cannot say not to Jakob and finds his way to Klinger's house. He now lives alone, a widower, his daughter in America and his son dead. He first refuses to help but when Erneste threatens to expose his double life if he does not, the author tells Erneste the story of his love for and his life with, Jakob. The telling of this tale, not only exposes Jakob's true character, but also shows that Erneste was not the only person who was betrayed and ruined by love for this fascinating and flawed man.

Used to gay relationships nowadays, it is easy to forget that being homosexual at the time of the setting of this novel, was regarded as perverse and immoral and one night when Erneste goes what would now be called "cottaging" he is set upon by thugs who despise his kind, and he is beaten badly. He manages to get back to his small apartment, knowing that the police will not be sympathetic to his plight and that he can seek no redress. He curls up and heals himself, like an animal and for the first time in his life, has to take time off work. Though this is a horrible episode it has a rather uplifting moment as he returns to work, scared that he might lose his job and finds an unexpected reception:

He was surprised to find that his reappearance was greeted with pleasure, not only by the manager but also by his fellow waiters, even by the chefs and kitchen hands. Although none of them slapped him on the back, he could tell from their friendly faces that they had missed him a little.

So, not so unloved or unappreciated after all.

When reading this book I thought of Aschenbach in Death in Venice staying in a grand hotel and becoming obsessed with the youth and beauty of Tadzio (who surely knew of this love and encouraged it), of the butler in Remains of the Day, repressed and always the perfect servant, the setting reminded me of Hotel du Lac and the feeling of a world encapsulated for a short period of time in one place which, for the purposes of this novel, is isolated from the happenings in the world.

A review in The Guardian says of this book, "The real perfect waiter of the title is, I suspect, the author himself. Like his hero he is unobtrusive and alarming in equal measure, he does his job not just with great polish, but with real heart".

An elegant, quiet, deeply felt book. Oh dear, how love does make fools of us all.

1 comment:

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I keep forgetting that I have this book on my shelves. After reading your review I think I need to take it down and read sooner rather than later.