A Perfect Waiter: A Novel

The Waiter
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Erneste didn't know if they realized it. Perhaps they merely sensed that they were growing older by degrees. The knowledge that they were not yet decrepit lent them the requisite sense of security. They had yet to resemble their elderly parents, who languished someplace in the country or the suburbs, where their offspring never made an effort to visit them except on Sundays.

Plenty of things would change here too, but less drastically, no doubt, than elsewhere. Erneste wasn't blind. On the contrary, he had good eyesight and an excellent memory, and not just for the orders he took.

Erneste was entirely devoted to his profession. He had left home at sixteen, desperately eager to get away from his native village, his parents and his brothers and sisters, who had detected something alien and repellent in him. He went off to Strasbourg and became a waiter. He loved his profession because it brought him the freedom he'd craved for so long, the ability to do and think whatever he pleased without being observed.

In that regard, nothing had changed since his first job thirty-five years ago. He was free. He wasn't wealthy, but he was a free agent. He didn't know whether his siblings were still alive, but they probably were, since they weren't much older or younger than himself. At some stage—how many years ago was it? His mother had died a few months later, but he didn't respond or attend the funeral. Her image had faded long before. He hadn't acknowledged the death notice. Nobody knew who he was.

No one was interested, no one cared about his private life. When diners asked how he was they were merely uttering a form of salutation. And how are you? Still, a restaurant wasn't a hotel, and besides, times had changed. The rules weren't quite as strictly observed these days. The patrons of the Restaurant am Berg knew only that Erneste was an Alsatian.

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This was obvious, but they didn't call him an Alsatian; they referred to him as a Frenchman even though his accent was unmistakably Alemannic, not French. How old was he? Over forty and under sixty, but he was such a staple part of the restaurant's inventory that no one devoted any more thought to his age than they did to the true age or authenticity of the various pieces of furniture that had always stood there, which were, of course, Louis Quinze or Biedermeier reproductions.

And he himself felt a part of that inventory.

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After all, he knew every plate, every knife and fork, every napkin, every irregularity in the parquet floor, every fringe of every carpet, every picture, every vase. Being reputed to have an artistic eye, Erneste was responsible for the restaurant's floral decorations.

He was indifferent to the days of the week. They came and went as he worked and he worked as they came and went, each as unmomentous as the next.

He took little notice of the seasons. In springtime he exchanged his heavier overcoat for the lighter one, in wintertime his lighter overcoat for the heavier one, and that was that. First came spring, then winter. In the intervening periods he made do with jackets, two dark and one pale. He never wore cardigans.

On Sunday, his only day off, he slept in, often until noon.

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He savored the peace and quiet and thought of his next working day, listening to classical music on the radio—operatic arias and lieder for choice. Choral music he liked less, but he never turned a program off and stayed with it to the end. He had never been to the opera, even though his salary would have enabled him to afford the occasional theater ticket. He had seen singers visit the restaurant and noted their names, but they never stayed long because they couldn't stand the cigarette smoke.

They didn't smoke themselves, drank nothing but mineral water, and said little. So Erneste contented himself with lightweight fare such as Adolphe Adam's comic opera Le Postillon de longjumeau. He was happy listening to the radio in his warm bed. He was alone but he didn't feel lonely—or only sometimes.

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Nine Perfect Strangers. What does it mean to serve? Diane Setterfield. By clicking 'Sign me up' I acknowledge that I have read and agree to the privacy policy and terms of use. We look at them and then just as quickly look away, they're invisible.

That was when destructive thoughts coursed through him, only to disappear as quickly as they had come. He didn't abandon himself to them, nor did they haunt him. When he took a vacation, which was seldom, he usually spent it in the mountains. He had also been once to the Loire Valley and once each to Venice and Biarritz. The better rooms of the little hotel in Biarritz were already taken, unfortunately, so he'd had no view of the sea, but it was audible day and night. Erneste sometimes went out after work on Saturdays, except that then he ran the risk of drinking too much.

He didn't like making a fool of himself, which wasn't always easy at his age.


Once he started drinking he couldn't stop—he simply couldn't help it. He had a recurrent dream in which a gang of schoolkids demanded to see his identity card, which he either didn't possess or wasn't carrying, and when they saw he couldn't produce it they got angry, and no one restrained them. Incapable of defending himself, he was glad to wake up. Only two bars came into consideration when he went out. He seldom encountered any patrons of the Restaurant am Berg there. If he did, he would say a polite hello but avoid getting into conversation on the principle that one's leisure time and professional duties were mutually exclusive.

If he encountered them at the restaurant he showed no sign of recognition, although their faces belied this. He occasionally smoked a cigarette or two in one of the bars, which didn't close until three in the morning, and chatted there with strangers or casual acquaintances. At other times he spoke to nobody and nobody spoke to him.

Afterward he would set off for home on his own. When he emerged into the open the cold morning air enveloped him like an intimate embrace, a dank, agreeable penumbra that reminded him of Paris, although it smelled quite different here. As he slowly skirted the lake and made his way along the river bank, the moisture seeped gradually through his clothes to the skin. He liked that too. He was free, exempt from any commitments outside his job. He never paused, always walked on, trying to think of nothing at all.

Then he dreamed. There was no hurry. He let two days go by before he finally decided to open the letter during the early hours of Sunday morning. He gave his imagination free rein while he waited table, thinking of the letter. By not opening it he brought time to a halt. He didn't read it on Friday, nor on Saturday. The time he brought to a halt—the time concealed in the envelope—burned through his waiter's dickey and seared his chest.

He carried the letter around for two whole days. At night he put it on the bedside table and fell asleep looking at it—a titillating pleasure. He brought time to a standstill by not opening the letter, not yet.

Read More From Alain Claude Sulzer

A Perfect Waiter: A Novel [Alain Claude Sulzer] on ebimutijymyj.tk *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. A sweeping, powerful novel about a man forced to come. A Perfect Waiter book. Read 72 reviews from the world's largest community for readers. Erneste works in a grand hotel in Switzerland. He is the 'perfect.

He waited, trying to imagine what was in it. The letters he had received in the last ten years could be counted on the fingers of both hands. Customers didn't write, colleagues wrote to the entire staff, and of friends he had none.


Any mail he received consisted of bills or circulars, Christmas mail-order catalogs advertising watercolors by disabled artists, some clumsily executed, others painted with surprising skill, using the feet or the mouth, and an occasional postcard from his cousin in Paris.

He put off reading the letter until he felt he knew its unseen contents. For two whole days, from Friday morning until the early hours of Sunday, his thoughts revolved almost exclusively around this unopened letter from America, this rare excitement in a life so devoid of it. All his emotions were centered on the envelope and its contents.

A Perfect Waiter

Back in the pre-Holocaust summer of , the guests whom the then-young waiter devoted himself to serving and observing were of course not mere holidaymakers, but the first wave of well-heeled refugees fleeing the rise of Hitler. The dining room and terraces of the hotel have, as he describes them, the odd, dislocated air of a holding pen for disaster. Not just he, but the guests are waiting - waiting for something huge and horrible to overtake them. When it comes, however, Erneste's Anschluss is an entirely personal one. Sent down to the hotel's landing stage to meet a new member of staff, he sees, standing in the prow of a motor launch steaming towards him across the still waters of the lake, a young man called Jakob Meier: tall, German, effortlessly goodlooking and, as such fatal young men invariably are, As the senior employee, Erneste is given charge of Jakob, and they share an attic room.

Two months later the new arrival makes an oddly expert pass at his by now smitten roommate - and Erneste is plunged into a sex-sodden idyll of ruinously perfect happiness. Suffice to say, the affair does not end happily.

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On first reading, it is the mechanics of the havoc that draw the reader into this alarming little world; second time around, the truly absorbing thing about this book - and, for me, its real achievement - is its strange, never-resolved hinting at and explorations of how, exactly, the big and small betrayals of its story are related. Is Jakob's serial villainy active or passive, calculated or merely animal, expedient?

Is Erneste's acquiescence both to the initial invasion of desire and to its aftermath of hopeless, life-denying devotion heroic or culpable? Does disaster - either in love or war - happen by accident, or because people let it? Because this is Switzerland, there is no carnage; because Erneste is a waiter, and a perfect one at that, his narrative decorum never breaks not even when he is being beaten and urinated on ; because the story is set in a series of strangely impersonal rooms - the staff quarters of the hotel, a mausoleum-like lakeside villa, a bachelor bedsit - everything feels provisional, doubtful, anxious; but nonetheless, there is an unmistakable sense of life-and-death decisions hinging on the turn of a glance, the opening of a door, the discovery of a five franc piece hidden under a pillow.

Although the prose is austere and clear-eyed - Sulzer's depiction of his hero's forays into Swiss small-town gay life in the s is as convincing as it is nasty - the story like the hotel deliberately evokes the grander traditions of an earlier era. In particular, Erneste's account of his obsession restores homosexual desire to a tragically old-fashioned kind of de facto impossibility; Jakob is as necessarily treacherous and heartbreaking as Proust's Charlie Morel or Thomas Mann's Tadzio - indeed, one of the guests at the hotel turns out to be a fascinating fictional variation on the historical figure of Mann himself.