Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Best selling author Zoë Jenny - Sophie's Summer

Zoë's first novel The Pollen Room (1997) won her global critical acclaim and is the all-time best selling debut novel by a Swiss author. The novel has been translated into 27 languages since publication.

The Sky is Changing (published by Legend Press is May 2010) is Zoë's first novel written in English, and featured in the May selection of Exclusively Independent.

Zoë has written a lovely short story for the site entitled Sophie's Summer. Today, the first half will be posted, and check back here tomorrow to read the second half.

What happened back then in the summer home of the Schmitz family was unimaginable for all of us, and in the end nobody was able to explain how this family could have been destroyed within just a couple of days and how its members could be so estranged from one another that it was as if they had never been related.

Clarice, the only daughter of Martin and Sophie Schmitz, was a friend from my early childhood. Our friendship evolved from casual encounters over a long period of time into a regular part of my life, similar to the way isolated stars only add up to a recognizable picture when seen from a distance of light years.

Clarice had big eyes, which changed color from green to blue depending on the light falling on them. It was as if she inhaled each word I spoke with her eyes. I guess that was the reason I loved her so much: because she listened with her eyes and, as if coming from nowhere, came out with sentences like, “I can be as lonely as a man.”

As kids we lived on the same street and walked round our neighborhood hand in hand disguised as princesses. We would spend weekends alternately in the home of her or my parents. Clarice’s mother had a small, high-pitched voice. When we used to come out of the bathroom and crawl under the covers, still smelling of chamomile, she would sometimes stand in front of her bed, call her husband and, while clapping her hands, tell him how we looked like sisters. In reality, however, Clarice had brown, curly hair, whereas mine was brunette and straight. Once, as a token of our friendship, I cut off a lock of her hair and kept it in a matchbox.

We were both sent to the same school and, pressured by us, our parents saw to it that we were put in the same class. We sat next to one another for the first couple of years and copied each other’s mistakes during our school exams. During lessons we exchanged folded messages, on which we had drawn small and mean caricatures of our teachers and made fun of them. Eventually we were separated because, as they used to say, we were a “bad influence” on one another. As a result, we no longer saw each other as regularly as before. But even if I didn’t see her for weeks or months, we shared a bond and the knowledge that we understood one another without having to say so.

When she turned seventeen, Clarice took a small apartment in the city and on weekends worked until two in a bar. At that time, her parents bought the summer home on the beach. Clarice visited her parents only during agreed-upon times. “Family relations have to be scheduled, too,” she once said when she showed me her calendar, where I could see the entry, “visit parents,” in red. She visited them at Easter and Christmas. And in the summers she would spend two weeks in the house on the beach. From that point on, she never went by herself but always brought along whatever boyfriend she had at the time. For the most part, I would hear from her only when one of her affairs had run aground. Clarice was passionate about being in love. She carried her beautiful curvaceous body through the streets of the city as if it were a gift. Once she called me in the middle of the night to tell me in a husky voice that her parents and I were the only remaining anchors of stability in her life. That was shortly before we were presented with our high school graduation certificates, then Clarice disappeared abroad and I didn’t hear from her for years. Occasionally, I would bump into Sophie at an intersection or while shopping: “Clarice is attending a famous acting school,” she announced. She was doing well. For the summer, she had plans to return to the holiday home, together with her boyfriend. I extended my best regards. Every time I met Sophie, her small high-pitched voice had shrunk even more; her voice seemed to shrivel year after year. When I inquired about Clarice, she would whisper faintly “yes,” she would see her in the summer when she planned to return home with Thomas. The names of her boyfriends changed from Thomas to Paul and from Erich to Robert. In my thoughts I envisioned an empty chair at the table in the Schmitz family summer home on which, year after year, sat a different young man next to Clarice in front of the same plate as his predecessors.

Years later, following a short and unusually harsh winter, I bumped into Clarice in a clothing store in our hometown. I was looking for something to wear for the wedding of a friend of mine, and was standing in front of the mirror trying on a festive, sequined dress, when she tapped me on the shoulder. Clarice’s eyes had gotten even bigger, as if the life she had witnessed had stretched her pupils. We sat down at a street café and both watched the people go by. As she pulverized the ice cubes in her glass with the handle of her spoon, she related how she had stopped going to acting school after having a nervous breakdown. She had been running around from morning to night with a palpitating heart supercharged on cocaine. She hadn’t been eating for days, simply because she had forgotten to, and one morning in class she collapsed midway through a recitation. Now she was living with her parents again and trying to relax. She was doing better, and on her way home on the train she had fallen in love with a photographer. I nodded and congratulated her by clinking my glass against hers. The same evening she called to say that she was going to their summer home in a couple of days and asked whether I’d like to come along.

Clarice was driving and we sang along loudly and badly to the music blaring from the radio. Her parents were already there when we arrived that evening. They were standing on the veranda and calling our names as we spotted them whilst walking through the garden. Sophie clapped her hands and said to her husband: “Don’t they look like sisters?”

The summer home was smaller than I had imagined it. “It is an ok house,” as Clarice phrased it. Sophie had put flowers all over the place. Depending on the room, it smelled of azaleas, lilies, and orchids. On the first floor was a kitchen and a spacious living room. That’s where we sat, with the veranda door open, until late at night talking over old times. You could hear the sea in the distance. Mr. Schmitz put his arm around Sophie’s shoulders. He was a 56-year-old man full of the pride and self-satisfaction of success because he had worked hard for it. Mr. Schmitz was on the road for much of the year, so he didn’t feel like moving while on vacation. He lay the whole day in a yellow-and-white striped lawn chair in the garden, his face covered by a sheet of newspaper set up like a tent. When Clarice, Sophie and I, late in the morning, walked past him through the garden in our bathing suits, he lifted his arm and waved at us. His face remained invisible beneath the newspaper. The beach was only a couple of minutes away from the house. Barefoot we climbed over the dunes behind which the sea was hidden. We began the day by rubbing sun tan lotion on one another’s backs. I rubbed Sophie’s back, she did mine and that of her mother. From the corners of my eyes, I observed how Clarice’s hands moved in a circular motion on Sophie’s back. All the other women I knew had problematic relationships with their mothers dominated by feelings of hatred, guilt, and envy, and even death did not always bring about a solution to these tensions. I couldn’t help but stare at Clarice’s hands on her mother’s peaceful back.

When we returned that evening, Mr. Schmitz awaited us relaxed and in a good mood. He cooked for us women light dishes, cold soups and fish. He called Sophie “princess,” and sometimes even “sweety,” when he had drunk a bit too much; I always felt awkward hearing this phrase, even though the term was fitting, except when coming from his mouth. We spent some calm and peaceful days together. Clarice relaxed and her body turned brown and round. One evening the phone rang, and Clarice was gone for an hour. When she returned, she let us know in a happy voice that her photographer-boyfriend was on his way here.

1 comment:

Guy Mankowski said...

"I can be as lonely as a man” - there's some really beautiful and evocative sentences here, the characters all emerge so distinctly as it progresses. Look forward to the next installment.