Chapter 1: CHATEAU ZEDELGHEM, NEERBEKE, WEST VLAANDEREN, 29TH—VI—1931
A man named Robert Frobisher writes a letter to someone named Sixsmith, starting out by telling Sixsmith of a dream he had. He was in a china shop, smashing everything, but instead of crashing noises, it was a musical symphony.
Frobisher woke and had to flee the hotel he was staying in—and the young gentleman he'd left in bed—because he was unable to pay his debts.
Frobisher says he'd rather jump off a bridge than ask Pater (what he calls his father) for money, so he's concocted a scheme: he will travel to Belgium, south of Bruges, and propose to be famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs's amanuensis, a fancy word for "assistant."
"You groan and shake your head, Sixsmith, I know, but you smile too, which is why I love you" (2.1.9).
Frobisher boards the Kentish Queen, a "rusty tub" (2.1.9), to Belgium, where his dining companion offers him a job in sales. He refuses.
There's a knock at Frobisher's door. It's the steward who carried his bags. Frobisher invites him in and gives him "rather more than a tip. […] One part of [him] wanted that voyage never to end" (2.1.10). Mhm.
After taking a train to Bruges, Frobisher convinces a music-loving policeman to lend him a bicycle, and he rides to Vyvyan Ayrs's chateau.
Frobisher meets the family: Vyvyan Ayrs; his wife, Jocasta van Outryve de Crommelynck (say that five times fast; heck, say it once); and their daughter, as yet unnamed.
Ayrs and company agree to let Frobisher spend the night and audition in the morning.
Chapter 2: ZEDELGHEM 6TH—VII—1931
Frobisher opens this letter imploring Sixsmith not to send any more telegrams, especially not regarding his parents' concerns, which Frobisher dismisses entirely.
After the audition, Frobisher, refusing to let Ayrs see him "pathetic with gratitude" (2.2.5), takes a walk.
Frobisher sees Ayrs's daughter, Eva, on horseback near the duck pond. She's not exactly civil. As Frobisher says to her, "Your dressage is more polished than your manners" (2.2.7). That's a total equestrian burn.
Later, Ayrs's wife tells Frobisher that she hopes her husband will take him on.
After breakfast, Frobisher and Ayrs have another composing session. Ayrs is batty, to say the least, and Frobisher has no idea if he'll hire him or not. He asks Sixsmith for a loan in the letter's postscript.
Chapter 3: CHATEAU ZEDELGHEM 14TH—VII—1931
Things are looking up. Since the last letter, Sixsmith, pretending to be Frobisher's uncle, has sent a loan, and Frobisher has been hired by Ayrs.
Frobisher details his work routine—and all of Ayrs family history, including their blunt opinions on politics.
Some of Ayrs's friends—the Dhondts, Morty and the Mrs., and the conductor Tadeusz Augustowski—drop by from time to time, and things with Eva are still tense.
Also, Frobisher found something interesting in Zedelghem's library: a journal by a notary named Adam Ewing. "To [Frobisher's] great annoyance, the pages cease, midsentence, some forty pages later" (2.3.22). That annoyed us, too.
Frobisher asks Sixsmith to see if he can find anything out about it. "A half-read book is a half-finished love affair" (2.3.22).
Finally, Frobisher discloses that he's planning to nick a few valuable volumes from Zedelghem's library and sell them. He asks Sixsmith to check with Otto Jansch and get a list of values.
Chapter 4: CHATEAU ZEDELGHEM 28TH—VII—1931
Ayrs and Frobisher have completed their first piece, "Der Todtenvogel" (German for "the dead bird").
Meanwhile, Eva is irritated that Frobisher is practically part of the family. To complicate things further, Jocasta, Ayrs's wife, is flirting with him.
On top of all that, Ayrs shows off his pistol and brags about how he's killed a man before, "at least once" (2.4.11). It looks like Zedelghem has turned into The Young and the Restless.
Chapter 5: ZEDELGHEM 16TH—VIII—1931
This letter is full of juicy little tidbits.
Frobisher reveals that he and Jocasta are having an affair. He doesn't feel guilty about it all; she's had numerous affairs since Ayrs contracted syphilis in 1915. Plus, she can't have another child. No one will find out.
Good news: "Der Todtenvogel" is a hit. It's such a hit that it's caused riots in Germany, where critics see it as "a frontal assault on the German Republic" (2.5.8). Who knew music could be so political?
Frobisher has come to the conclusion that Eva "is almost a female Me" (2.5.9).
And finally, Frobisher has agreed to meet Otto Jansch in Bruges to hand over the books he's stolen from Zedelghem's library. With that money, he says he'll pay back Sixsmith's loans.
Chapter 6: ZEDELGHEM EVENING, 16TH—VIII—1931
Thanks to a forged letter from Sixsmith, in which Sixsmith pretending to be Frobisher's father's solicitor, Frobisher has an excuse to travel to Bruges and meet Otto Jansch.
In Bruges, Frobisher sells the books to Jansch. And he sells his body for a little extra cash.
After their, um, transaction, Frobisher goes on a shopping spree. While shopping, he sees Eva with a man twice her age and wonders what's up with that.
Frobisher confronts her in French, and she reveals that the man is Monsieur van de Velde, the head of the family she stays with when she's away at school. She also says, in French, that if Frobisher tries to ruin her reputation, she'll ruin his.
Frobisher concludes the letters saying, "Why is it I never met a boy I couldn't twist round my finger (not only my finger) but the women of Zedelghem seem to best me every time?" (2.6.17).
Chapter 7: ZEDELGHEM 29TH—VIII—1931
Ayrs busts up into Frobisher's bedroom while he's sleeping with Jocasta. She hides under the sheets while her husband and her lover compose a tune.
The tune came to Ayrs in a dream: "I dreamt of a... nightmarish cafe. […] I'd been dead a long, long time. The waitresses all had the same face. The food was soap, the only drink was cups of lather. The music in the cafe was […] this" (2.7.15). How haunting.
Composition complete, Ayrs bustles out, only to return seconds later. He asks Frobisher if his wife has made any advances toward him.
Frobisher says, "Emphatically, no!" (2.7.22)—even though Jocasta is hiding under the sheets right at that very moment.
Chapter 8: ZEDELGHEM 14TH—IX—1931
Frobisher is getting increasingly frustrated with Ayrs as the old man takes all the credit for their work, as he did with "Der Todtenvogel."
When Ayrs says he wants Frobisher's services for another six months to work on a composition called Eternal Recurrence, Frobisher makes him sweat it out. He says, "I want the old bugger to admit to himself that he needs me more than I need him" (2.8.6).
Chapter 9: ZEDELGHEM 28TH—IX—1931
Frobisher spends half of this letter talking about his and Jocasta's affairs. She plays with the comet-shaped birthmark on his shoulder and asks him about other women he's slept with.
Jocasta's also getting very possessive of Frobisher, saying that he will not abandon her or her husband.
Frobisher observes, "There's a joylessness in her lovemaking. No, a savagery" (2.9.4).
Despite all this, Frobisher has agreed to stay on another six months. Summer has ended, and a new season has begun.