The Mark of the Angel: A Novel
The year is 1957, and the place is Paris, where the psychic wounds of World War II have barely begun to heal and the Algerian war is about to escalate. Saffie, an emotionally damaged young German woman, arrives on the doorstep of Raphael, a privileged musician who finds her reserve irresistible. He hires her, and over the next few days seduces her and convinces her to marry him. But when Raphael sends Saffie on an errand to the Jewish ghetto, where she meets András, a Hungarian instrument maker, each of their lives will be altered in startling and unexpected ways. As Saffie learns to feel again, her long buried memories coupled with the inexorable flow of historical forces beyond anyone’s control, create a tableau of epic tragedy.
The Mark of the Angel is a mesmerizing novel of love, betrayal, and the ironies of history.
From Nancy Huston, a Canadian writer who’s lived in France for a couple of decades, comes a modest proposal in the form of a novel: Maybe millennial fiction shouldn’t look forward. Maybe it should look back to the shames and sadnesses of the 20th century. The Mark of the Angel, Huston’s U.S. debut and a bestseller in France, tells the story of Saffie, a young German girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in 1957 Paris. Her employer, a brilliant young flautist named Raphael, falls hard for her, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he finds her “impassive” and “impenetrable.” Hard-eyed Saffie seems to sleepwalk through life, and as if in a dream, she and Raphael marry and have a son, Emil. When Raphael sends her off to have his flute repaired one day, he little suspects what he’s setting in motion. In András, the instrument maker, Saffie finds a damaged twin. Both are victims of the horrible experiment of Hitler’s war: German Saffie has endured not only rape and torture but also the knowledge of her own family’s Nazi sympathies. Hungarian Jew András has lost his family and his country. The two embody the horrors that Europeans visited on each other in the middle of the 20th century. And they covertly embark on a five-year affair, during which their love comes to be sorely tested by the Algerian war for independence from France.
Huston’s prose is cool, opaque, ironic, and intensely romantic. Her style and her story both owe a great debt to Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, a debt she seems to acknowledge explicitly: “Saffie is crushed, stifled, petrified by the…how to put it…the unbearable tenuousness of the moment…Dizzy with inexistence, she clutches at András’s arm—and he, misunderstanding, sets Emil down in a chair on the café terrace—turns to his lover—takes her in his arms and begins to waltz with her…Ah! Thanks to András, the hideous unreality of the world has been held at bay once again, movement has turned back into true movement, instead of immobility in disguise.” Kundera’s preoccupation with Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return is clearly at work here too: The past, Huston warns us loud and clear, is never past. —Claire Dederer
Barnes and Noble
“How can so many worlds exist simultaneously on one little planet? Which of them is the most genuine, the most precious, the most urgent for us to understand?” Some people might argue that it is a literary mortal sin to posit a philosophical question in the midst of a fictional narrative, that it jeopardizes the illusion of the tale and jolts the reader out of a continuous dream in which the characters and their individual trials are all-important. But for Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born author who now lives in Paris, this question is the key to the plot of her brilliant U.S. debut. Already a bestseller in France, and winner of the Grand Prix de Lectrices d’ELLE, Huston’s novel hits the mark with what is at once a love story, a poignant meditation on guilt and innocence, and a profound collision of past and present, of real and imagined experience.
The tale begins in 1957 in Paris, a city still scarred by the humiliating memory of Nazi occupation. When Monsieur Raphael Lepage posts an ad for a maid, he could not have expected someone like Saffie to appear at his doorstep. Stoic and detached, with a voice resembling that of Marlene Dietrich, Saffie instantly enthralls Raphael with her utter indifference. Raphael is “a flutist on the verge of becoming famous” and as passionate as Saffie is passive; he instantly hires her. And although she is German, a word that is taboo in his apartment on the Rue de Seine, his desire for Saffie consumes him, and she consents to becoming his mistress and then his wife.
Saffie soon becomes pregnant, and after a failed attempt to abort, she gives birth to their son, Emil. While Raphael hopes that motherhood will awaken affection in his loveless but dutiful wife, it only makes her more distant and resigned. We soon learn the depths of this detachment, for Saffie acutely suffers the ghoulish and private memories of her childhood in Germany during World War II—the bombing that killed her best friend, the rape of her mother by Russian troops, her father’s complicity with the Nazis.
The reader is constantly reminded of the domestic microcosm of their trials, for the couple remains largely ignorant of the foreign conflict that has divided Paris: the escalating tension between France and its former colony, Algeria. Raphael, through his mastery of circular breathing, is able to focus on two things at once—an ability that lays the groundwork for the rest of the story. Just as Saffie is able to function numbly in the present while bearing the pain of her past, to exist and not to exist, the borders of Raphael’s reality are suspended by his dual concentration, at the expense of ignoring the outside world. Thus, “Both of them, albeit for different reasons, carry on their existence at a remove from that particular level of reality. Saffie’s mind is hermetically sealed around her pain, like an oyster around its pearl. Raphael—his brain wholly taken up with the effort of thinking simultaneously about his pregnant wife and his evening concert—is better endowed with concentration than curiosity.”
Raphael eventually does orchestrate Saffie’s awakening, albeit accidentally, when he sends her on an errand to András, a repairer of musical instruments living in the Marais, Paris’s Jewish quarter. Saffie immediately falls in love with András, a Jew who witnessed the destruction of his family and friends by the Nazis in Budapest. He becomes her lover, and as if animating a statue, brings Saffie to life. Raphael, delighted with his wife’s increasing happiness (believing it caused by the birth of their son Emil), and content with his increasing fame and now peaceful bourgeois home life, travels to performances for weeks or months at a time—a circumstance that allows Saffie’s romance with András to thrive unnoticed, with tragic consequences.
But all of Huston’s characters lead lives beyond the range of other characters’ vision. Just as Raphael and Saffie live in denial or blissful ignorance of each other’s “other” lives, András is also a Marxist involved in the war between France and Algeria—a struggle that gains increasing significance, not only to Saffie and András as a brutal reenactment of the atrocities of the 1940s but also as a reminder of this book’s refrain: “How can so many worlds exist simultaneously on this one little planet?”
This question is asked by the narrator, an omniscient, ironic voice that pervades the novel. While some might initially question whether the self-conscious narrator (whose self-congratulatory asides and pitying commentary steer the reader through the events like a modern Greek chorus) is too active in the storytelling, this voice is surprisingly consistent with—and ultimately necessary to—Huston’s intentions in the novel. Paired with the sensitive observations of the concierge in the Lepages’ apartment building, Mademoiselle Blanche (an “obese and ugly woman…but [one whose] eyes are filled with treasures of kindness and wisdom where her fellow human beings are concerned”), the narrator both distinguishes and bridges the boundaries of each character’s perceptions, reminding the reader that their blindness and failures are just as significant to the purpose of this tale as their concerns and successes.In light of these countless worlds of struggle, the central question remains, “Which of them is the most genuine, the most precious, the most urgent for us to understand?” The answer to the question, which Huston brilliantly demonstrates, is that “Every person’s suffering is the most important, isn’t it?” More importantly, The Mark of the Angel seeks to prove that although sometimes hermetically sealed, or bound by the limits of our own self-preserving illusions, no one person’s suffering is ever solitary. Our imagined securities are informed by past and present, other worlds and other lives, and press against harsh realities that—like the surface tension of a bubble that could burst and vanish in an instant—make each moment tenuous and precious and have the power to restore lost innocence. —Elise Vogel