Ulrike Hugenot is a young pianist who arrives home to her Berlin apartment and discovers a fat envelope stuffed into her mailbox. She is astonished when she realizes that it is from her late father Gustave’s Canadian lover.
“I am writing to you because my daughter has died,” writes Beatrice Mann. “But this explains nothing.” In the eighty pages of her letter that follow, Beatrice details her decades-long love affair with Gustave Hugenot. Grief, passion, fury, regret, fear, longing – Beatrice meticulously charts these emotions through the course of her life as she unburdens herself to the young woman she has only glimpsed a few times, many years ago. Why does she choose Ulrike as her confessor? And why now, seven years after Gustave’s death?
Beatrice is a 51-year old sculptor who creates precisely rendered objects out of found materials. She is married to fellow Canadian Isaac Friedman, himself a photographer of some acclaim. Despite Beatrice’s long-simmering affair with Gustave, their marriage has not been a turbulent or resentful one. But with the sudden death of their 18-year old daughter Ines, who was killed while riding a bicycle on a Montreal street, the two find themselves dwelling in separate agonies, unable to come together in their grief. They throw themselves into their work; Isaac takes a long photographic road trip and Beatrice shuts herself in her studio to write the letter to Ulrike. “There is a detail concerning Ines’ death that I cannot bring myself to reveal to Isaac,” writes Beatrice. This detail speeds her pen, compelling her to write to Ulrike.
Beatrice’s love affair with Gustave began when she was 17 and he was 28 during a summer spent at her parents’ cottage on Georgian Bay. Before the war, Gustave’s parents had put up Beatrice’s father while he was recuperating from a bicycling injury in Geneva. The families had maintained contact so when Gustave, a professor of political science, came to Canada for a conference, he was invited to stay. Despite their many differences – in their ages, in their nationalities, in their perspectives on life – the two quickly fell into long conversations, conversations that never really stopped over the course of decades, despite years of silence. “I love you. I’ve loved you since I was seventeen,” writes Beatrice to Gustave in a letter she now transcribes to Ulrike. “Of course, I don’t know you very well, but that has not prevented the passion I feel for you from accompanying me on my long journey to the present state of happiness in which I live my life with Isaac and Ines.”
“Can you love two people at once?” Isaac once asked Beatrice early in their courtship. At that moment she had no answer. But she grows to believe it is possible, as she eventually finds herself in love with two men – for she does indeed love Isaac, too. “What role has Isaac played in my life?” writes Beatrice, “In bed, his feet warm my feet, his stomach warms the small of my back, his hands wake my breasts. Together we produced a daughter.” That daughter, Ines, was brilliant and spirited, with a bright future that was extinguished in an instant. This loss has paralyzed Beatrice, who can now only write this letter, begging for judgment–forgiveness or condemnation?–from Ulrike.
Beatrice’s letter creates ripples in the smoothly flowing stream of Ulrike’s life but helps her recognize that she should be pleased with her situation. She has had some reasonable success as a pianist, lives a tidy, ordered life, and has a sweet lover, Max, who takes her to dinner and even does her laundry when she is overwhelmed. Still, she has been unable to loosen herself from the ambivalence and distrust she feels for her situation. Reading Beatrice’s letter forces Ulrike to reconsider her own history and world-view. This man, Gustave – her father, Beatrice’s lover, her mother’s betrayer, as walled-in and conflicted as his beloved Berlin, who has cast such a long shadow over her life, even in death – did she ever really know him? Can we ever really know the people we love? Can we trust them? Can we forgive them?
Written with great sophistication and lyricism, Martha Baillie’s The Shape I Gave You compels us to place ourselves in the roles of its complicated protagonists, to hold up and scrupulously examine our own histories, our own loves and deceits, in a new and penetrating light.
About the author
Martha Baillie was born in Toronto. After studies at the University of Edinburgh and the Sorbonne in Paris, she returned to Toronto where she continued her studies at the University of Toronto, and for a time trained as an actor. It was following a year of extensive travel in Asia in 1982 that Baillie began writing, and had her first poems and a novel published. She is the author of three previous novels, and has been published in Canada, Germany and Hungary. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Descant, Prairie Fire and the Antigonish Review. The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach, was published by Brick in 2007. Her manuscript-based sculptural installation, Core Sample, has been shown in the Sidespace Gallery and the Type Books basement gallery. She has worked part time for the Toronto Public Library in branches throughout the city, for close to twenty years. Baillie is a bilingual storyteller (English/French) who has told in schools around the city and at the Toronto International Storytelling Festival.
Excerpt: The Shape I Gave You (by (author) Martha Baillie)
Standing at the corner of Leopoldstrasse and Theodorstrasse, waiting for the traffic lights to change, Ulrike curled her toes to warm them inside her boots. She turned her head to the left and looked in through the window of the Kosmopolit Beauty Salon, where a middle-aged woman sat in a white chair, holding out her hands. The beautician was saying something and smiling as she examined her client’s cuticles.
A girl, no older than five, installed in the chair nearest the window, was occupying herself by drawing a picture on a large pad of paper. The child was going at her work with utmost concentration, eyebrows scrunched together, pencil gripped between her small fingers. Ulrike took a step closer and, with her forehead nearly touching the glass, looked straight down at the girl’s drawing. It was of a boy with large ears and dark, serious eyes, a thin boy holding what was either a shovel or a butterfly net in his hand. Ulrike looked up. Both the beautician and her client were staring coldly at her. She stepped quickly away from the window.
The light changed and she hurried across Leopoldstrasse, the child’s portrait of a young boy and the disapproving faces of the two women trading places, back and forth, in her mind. She arrived at the streetcar stop. By now it felt to her as if all the cold in the city were gathered in the skin of her left cheek, in a spot the size of a pfennig. She rubbed at this spot with her mittened hand. The brilliant, freezing air gave even the ugliest buildings, the concrete monstrosities from the 1960s, those that used to so offend her father, a newness, a sharp eagerness. The streetcar was scheduled to arrive in ten minutes.
To escape the increasingly loud, embittered exclamations of a man standing at the streetcar stop, clutching his cellphone to his ear, Ulrike opened the door of the nearest café and was about to go in but thought better of it. Unless she succeeded in positioning herself in the window, she might just miss the streetcar. She stepped back outside, fished in her pocket for a tissue and blew her nose. The man at the streetcar stop put his cellphone away and started to cry. When, Ulrike wondered, was the last time she’d seen a man weep?
In the window of the café, perched on a bar stool, elbows propped on the high narrow counter, a slender blond girl, seventeen or eighteen years old, with thoughtful eyes and a ring in her nose, was reading a book. Though the book’s spine faced the window, when Ulrike tried to read the title she found she couldn’t. It was in Greek. A young man came and stood beside the girl, who set her book down and kissed him on the mouth.
For an instant, Ulrike was opening the heavy wooden door of the shop where, at seventeen, she had bought her sheet music. She was leaning over the counter and, in full view of any customer who chose to notice, planting a kiss on the skinny neck of the boy behind the till.
The streetcar arrived and Ulrike climbed on. Perhaps the man had not been weeping, his small blue eyes merely watering profusely because of the cold. He now sat opposite her, reading the newspaper, sturdy, with a cleft in his chin and a grey moustache that seemed out of place, it had been trimmed so small. As the streetcar glided forward, Ulrike decided which book to take with her on the train to Düsseldorf the following morning. In Düsseldorf she would give a recital, a balance of Bach and Schubert, and teach a master class. She felt well prepared, comfortable with the Bach. Her final, critical hours of practice in the morning had quieted her nerves. She’d set this afternoon aside to relax and make any small but necessary last-minute arrangements. Her errands done, she was now free to go home. On the train tomorrow morning she would read Ian Rankin’s Mortal Causes to keep up her English.
She glanced at the man seated opposite her. His eyes were dry. But his earlier sorrow had been real. She must call her agent straight away, she told herself, and agree to play, despite her dislike of politics, at the Green Party benefit in Frankfurt at the end of April. She must also phone two of her students to reschedule their lessons. Packing her clothes for Düsseldorf should be quick. She’d reward herself with a hot bath. More snow was expected for tomorrow. Tonight she’d dream.
Whenever she left Berlin to play in another city, her sleep swelled during the night preceding her departure. It released dreams, surprising as flying fish. A month ago she’d set out to give a concert in Rome, followed by a second in Florence. The night before her departure, she’d found herself riding in a train headed for Geneva. Just as the truth dawned on her, that she was being rushed through the wrong countryside, the train came to a sudden stop in a field planted with sugar beets. She stepped down from the train. She walked between the rows of leafy plants, across the field, toward a burning house of a suitable size for a doll. When she reached the house, she went in. Nothing was charred or smelled of smoke, the white walls looked clean and women with soft, heavy thighs and breasts, who might have escaped from a painting by Rubens, danced from room to room, waving diaphanous scarves about. In the yard behind the house a wooden crate stood on the ground. She knew what was expected of her. She knelt beside the crate. She waited. Soon the gladiator would come and cut off her head. He arrived, but equipped with only a twisted, rusty scrap of metal, a tool clearly inadequate.
Whatever she dreamed tonight would be less disturbing. Approaching concerts in foreign cities of importance might bring on a burning house, buried sweetness under a leafy field, nudity and the threat of losing her head, but Düsseldorf was not a demanding engagement.
From the Hardcover edition.
"The Shape I Gave You is a richly evocative story about Ulrike, a musician trapped in the recurring themes of her father's adultery. She is forced to exhume dead loves and lives in this sophisticated novel about how the past haunts the present."
–Sandra Martin, Elle Canada
"[An] old-fashioned quality . . . gives Baillie’s work its charm and elegance. Her stories have weight and value history. . . . Baillie’s made a strong statement on the pain of grief and the unexpected way in which compassion can be sown. She’s also shown that with each new novel her voice becomes stronger."
"[T]he story pleasantly seduces you. . . . There are so many strengths . . . [The Shape I Gave You] does what the best novels do: it not only takes you deep into the characters and their beliefs and preoccupations, it makes you reflect on the choices you made in your own life."
–Winnipeg Free Press
"[W]e put down the book commending Baillie not only for the poetic grace of her prose, but for her masterful delivery of an exquisite plot twist. . . . The novel’s precise, multi-faceted construction includes astute commentary upon the nature of letter-writing and of literature . . . This is a novel to savour rather than devour. Essentially monogamous people plagued by a singular adulterous temptation of the nostalgic kind will want to send Baillie a thank you note, for understanding."
–The Gazette (Montreal)
"Haunting…. What would you do in such a situation, with no one to unburden your heart to? The best novels pose such compelling moral questions, and this is a very good novel. . . . A literary style that occasionally echoes both Anne Michaels and Elizabeth Smart. . . . Full of finely wrought detail. . . . These are grown-up thoughts and this is a grown-up, rather European-feeling novel."
–Bronwyn Drainie, Quill & Quire
Praise for Madame Balashovskaya’s Apartment:
"What I would give to be invited to a soiree in Madame Balashovskaya's apartment.....Baillie gives richness to these lives in a book filled with beautiful writing."
–The Globe and Mail (Laura Robinson)
"....the portrait of Eugenie is a heart stopping evocation of a life's slow fade.....Baillie conveys both the beauty and the beastliness of the rain-soaked metropolis, its café culture and the pointed ambitions of its intelligentsia, in what turns out to be a nugget of a novel."
–Now (Toronto), Susan G. Cole
Praise for My Sister Esther:
"....impressive for its language, superb characterization and almost quiet desperation of day to day living... Baillie gives us a sincere, unpretentious novel that impresses, even haunts."
–Rob McLennan, Ottawa X Press