Wintry Lessons

Dinah Birch

  • The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner
    Viking, 247 pp, £16.99, June 2002, ISBN 0 670 91302 2

Anita Brookner’s first novel appeared in 1981. Since then she has published it again, slightly altered, almost every year. It is a remarkable feat. Nor is it irrelevant to what she has to say, for quiet persistence is part of what her fiction affirms. The same characters, the same situations, the same histories of seclusion and distress appear over and over again. Lonely children are brought up in exiled families. The middle-aged become helplessly old, and eventually die – often from cardiac disease. Violence is rarely a threat in Brookner’s etiolated world, but hearts constantly give way. The central characters are fastidious, scrupulous and articulate. They exhibit no worldly ambition, though their taste and intelligence are indisputable. They wear respectable clothes, carry clean handkerchiefs, know a great deal about painting and literature, and are formidably perceptive about the forces that have defeated their lives. They are widowed, or have never married, and are generally childless. They spend time in France, Germany or Switzerland, often in lakeside hotels, in misty weather, overwhelmed by memories of irreparable mistakes. Doleful alliances between disappointed women are common – mothers and daughters, sisters, disenchanted friends. Their comforts are modest, but uncompromising. Anita Brookner is always persuasive on the solace of a cup of good coffee. No sensible reader would venture to offer her Nescafé.

One of the many things that makes Brookner unique is the elegance of her didacticism. You always imagine that she must smell exquisite, and wear beautifully-made shoes. The novels exhibit that kind of finished care, but they do so with the purpose of instruction rather than display. Taken as a whole, they are an exercise in the elimination of illusion, with all its crude and vivid distractions. Her narratives are a long denial of what has been a key motif in popular fiction – the rehabilitation of the loser, the long-denied rewards finally offered to those who have most deserved them. Brookner’s most famous novel, Hotel du Lac, an unexpected Booker Prize winner in 1984, puts the case simply. Edith Hope (note the irony) is a romantic novelist whose own emotional life is a waste land. Unlike her creator, Edith is prepared to cater to those hungry for vicarious satisfaction. Readers welcome the stories they want to believe – usually versions of Aesop’s tale of the hare and the tortoise.

People love this one, especially women . . . it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie . . . In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market . . . Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation. Like the meek who are going to inherit the earth.

Brookner is also writing for the tortoise market, though her strategy reverses the conventions of Hope. The dispossessed must confront their own damaged lives. Zoë, the narrating voice of The Bay of Angels, knows what she is doing. ‘That is why stories are so important: they reveal one to oneself, bringing into the forefront of one’s consciousness realisations which have so far been dormant, unexamined.’ These realisations, always painful, are a precondition of maturity. ‘At last I understand that acceptance is all,’ Zoë remarks as she concludes her own story of negotiated regret.

The desolate virtues of integrity might make Brookner’s work seem outmoded, overtaken by the contemporary inclination for fragmentation and misbehaviour. Oddly, the reverse is true. Brookner’s subject is the isolation of the self, unsupported by family affection, the gratifications of art or work, the fulfilment of romantic love, or the promise of religion. Above all, she insists that her readers consider the daunting consequences of age. ‘What courage it must take to grow old!’ Zoë reflects. It is an observation that reverberates through the novels. Immune to the seductions of fashion, Brookner’s preoccupations have nonetheless begun to parallel contemporary anxieties. The thought that the trials of old age are as inescapable as ever, and might have to be faced alone, is beginning to chafe many people’s minds. Secularism and individualism mean that neither faith nor a dutiful family can be counted on to see us all through to the end. These apprehensions make for unreassuring fiction, of the kind that Brookner has long been writing.

Always shrewd with titles, Brookner has chosen an especially resonant one in The Next Big Thing. Her latest novel is an unflinching contemplation of age, and the slow approach of death. Julius Herz, 73 years old, lives alone. Throughout a long and unsatisfied life, he has accommodated his needs to the requirements of others – ‘trying to make things better’. He is Jewish, and his family have been driven out of their reasonably prosperous existence in Germany by the Nazis. Though they seem to be among the fortunate ones, their lives do not recover. The musical talent of Julius’s brother Freddy, which had seemed prodigious, slides into neurotic illness. Freddy becomes a complaining invalid in a charitable institution. His weak father and fearful mother dwindle into a sad and stricken old age. Julius’s service doesn’t falter, but he can’t help his dislocated family. Their deaths do not liberate him. ‘His heart still ached over the intervening middle years, which were ones of curatorship, of his parents, of Freddy.’ The unhappy habit of self-abnegation seems to be unbreakable.

Like many of Brookner’s protagonists, Julius is haunted by an unfulfilled love. He has never stopped dreaming of his wilful cousin Fanny Bauer. Her ruthless egotism always meant more to him than the good humour of his ex-wife José, whose short-lived attempts to push him out of his cycle of sacrifice had proved useless. Fanny’s utter selfishness makes her both enviable and desirable, ‘a character to be reckoned with’. During the course of the novel Julius unexpectedly renews his contact with Fanny. Her life has worked out no better than her submissive cousin’s, for she, too, turns out to have been in thrall to the misguided schemes of her mother. Tentatively, Julius and Fanny move towards the possibility of a belated union. They had more in common, it seems, than either had realised. What is moving, and compelling, in the difficult process that enables Julius to renounce the numbing routines of his retirement, is the recognition of what must be given up for an uncertain prospect of gain. He is not sentimental about the chancy expectation of romance, or even companionship. It will be dearly bought, for time has taught him to value the cold comfort of loneliness: ‘That was why he was half contented with his present solitude, recognising it as something merited, something that was his due, and moreover something that would not fail him. On his own he could manage better than he had ever managed in company of any sort.’ Brookner has thought deeply about the balances and choices that age imposes. Dignity is important, though it cannot count for everything. ‘Keeping one’s dignity is a lonely business. And how one longs to let it go.’ Freedom is also important, but Julius understands that it, too, is a ‘mixed blessing’. ‘Love and freedom are incompatible, although freedom seems to beckon with each new enthusiasm. It is an illusion . . . There is no such thing.’ These are not original insights, but Julius has earned them with such prolonged and meticulously remembered suffering that they strike with renewed force.

Julius is passive, but not weak. His reported perceptions are expressed with clarity and vigour. He shares to the full Brookner’s contempt for easy delusions. Even his own gentle unselfishness comes under scrutiny. Had it been anything more than a perverted selfishness, an obdurate refusal to acknowledge resentment, breeding more poison than balm? In confronting his failures, and learning from them, Julius attempts to move beyond the limitations of his understanding. There is a fragile heroism in his persistence, and a generosity in his increasing admiration and compassion for young people, ‘who must be preferred to the old, whom they would eventually replace. The onerous duties that lay ahead for them must be palliated by the pleasures accorded to them – again by nature – throughout their early years.’ The young are to be pitied and tolerated, because they will be the old. A similarly far-sighted character in Brief Lives (1990) remarks that she ‘should be training myself for old age, which takes a certain amount of training’. This is Brookner’s austere lesson. Training oneself for duty, for achievement, or even for eternity, are all beside the point. Julius’s progress, like Zoë’s, is towards acceptance. ‘He accepted the prospect of endless solitude, and, in a moment of heightened awareness, embraced it . . . He would endure, as long as he was able. That was the only message he was likely to understand.’

Given the relentless bleakness of her vision, why should Brookner choose to revisit it so regularly? Partly because its graceful patterns absorb and please her, for her severe taste conceals an expansively Jamesian aestheticism. The echoing rhythms of her work are in themselves a denial of extinction, an assertion of the self and its continuing demands. Her fiction defies oblivion. No matter how forlorn their lives become, at no point do her characters allow themselves to entertain the temptations of suicide. Here again, Julius speaks for many: ‘better a stoical pessimism, a hard look at life’s realities, and most of all a determination to enjoy that life, certainly to value it’. Sturdy and admirable sentiments; but even this fortitude (closer here to Hardy than to James) cannot wholly account for the impulse to write. Brookner has occasionally permitted glimpses of something closer to the sources of her perseverance. One of her strongest books, Look at Me (1983), is narrated by a novelist. Frances Hinton broods on the motivation of the writer. Like Stevie Smith (‘When I am happy I live and despise writing’), Frances is dismayed to find that contentment and creativity do not go together:

I felt a revulsion against the long isolation that writing imposes, the claustration, the sense of exclusion; I experienced a thrill of distaste for the alternative life that writing is supposed to represent. It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me. It is your penance for not being lucky. It is an attempt to reach others and make them love you. It is your instinctive protest, when you find you have no voice at the world’s tribunals, and that no one will speak for you. I would give my entire output of words, past, present and to come, in exchange for easier access to the world, for permission to state ‘I hurt’ or ‘I hate’ or ‘I want.’ Or indeed, ‘Look at me.’ And I do not go back on this. For once a thing is known it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten. And writing is the enemy of forgetfulness, of thoughtlessness. For the writer there is no oblivion. Only endless memory.

What Brookner’s projected novelist has to say here sounds a different kind of contemporary note. The emphasis on writing as enacted memory, a constant refusal of forgetfulness, reveals Brookner’s enduring interest in displacement. Perhaps the most profound motive for her fiction is a commitment to the generations uprooted by 20th-century restlessness, and especially by European war. She identifies deracination as the defining condition of the modern world. The refugees, the emigrants and their disturbed children who people her elegiac urban landscapes are perpetually bound to remember what cannot be restored. Their nervous reluctance to draw attention to themselves, or to ask too much, their uneasy clinging to old habits, all mark the exile’s experience. It is a mistake to charge Brookner with complacent Englishness. Like James, she writes out of disconnection. Her fiction lies on the edge of the English social order, repeatedly speaking for those who can never feel quite at home in its settled landscapes.

Brookner’s steady voice gathers more authority as her readers, no matter how prosperous or sheltered they might be, find themselves sharing some of the insecurity and apprehensions of the ageing exile. Her wintry lessons are salutary, and valuable. And yet they remain obstinately incurious. The focus on the static values of discernment and taste shuts down coarser but more warming possibilities. The vulgar satisfactions of gossip, gardening, cheap chocolate, chips (with tomato ketchup), American sitcoms, furry pets, gaudy new clothes of dubious quality, gin or science-fiction movies are certainly unreliable, and rarely long-lasting. But they do get us through the days. So do the unpredictable pleasures of friendship and the troublesome diversions of work. Brookner’s fine novels sometimes suggest a need for lower standards.