So far as the evidence of five novels goes, Anita Brookner has one basic theme, which she varies with considerable and increasing technical resource. All five books are quite short, and all have some of the qualities of what James called the beautiful and blest nouvelle, since they are intensive in plot and on the whole refuse the temptation to broaden into novels. This limitation, if that is the right word, is not at all the consequence of any diffidence or lack of skill in the registration of milieu or of character: Brookner is good at both, so we had best say we are dealing with works that exist in a no man’s land between two genres. We should be glad of this, for we escape on one side the danger of an obsessed narrowness of treatment, and on the other some possibility of failure consequent on the too obvious stretching of the great central topic, which is, after all, the central topic of long romantic novels already in existence, and usually lacking the humour as well as the fineness of the pathetic moments in this writer.
The heroines have hitherto been mostly writers of one sort or another. A Start in Life tells us how Ruth Weiss, a scholarly woman, elegant and capable, has had little success with men. She is writing a thesis on Balzac’s women, and of any handsome man is likely to say, with Eugénie Grandet, Je suis trop laide, il ne fera pas attention à moi. How such an attractive woman got into this state is explained by her family, a crazy actress mother and a useless father, a car salesman manqué – all rather like early Angus Wilson. It is a family call that aborts her affair with a handsome Sorbonne professor, dragging her back to London; her other men are a do-gooder, and an unsuitable husband whose early death leaves her to look after her decrepit father.
Ruth has the luck of most of Brookner’s women. Modest, intelligent, dutiful, they are surrounded by irresponsible raffish family and friends, observing them, envying them, but condemned to disappointment and to the full understanding that nice women finish second, or worse. Their special fate is the theme of all the books. Providence is about Kitty Maule (a name bearing a curse). Her beautiful clothes contrast strongly with the standard garb of her academic colleagues, inhabitants of a provincial Senior Common Room ‘where low armchairs house many spreading bottoms and stomachs clad in grey flannel or beige tweed, where legs may be seen protruding in maroon socks and ginger suede shoes, where shirts and blouses give off the dingy glare of nylon.’ Kitty develops a passion for a devious Christian history professor with a tragic romantic past. We watch her teaching, taking a class through Adolphe, a work important to her own book on The Romantic Dilemma, and one which enables her to reflect sombrely on such painful sentences as the one beginning: Mais quand on voit l’angoisse qui résulte de ces liens brisés ... Again the frieze characters, students and teachers and others, have a Wilsonian weirdness. The big moment, well-prepared, well-written, but not altogether unexpected, is Kitty’s discovery at a party that the history professor, after all his messing about with her, has chosen another. Of course she behaves very well, being expert in the dissimulation of ‘separation anxiety’.
Look at me, probably the best of the books before this new one, has an ‘I’ narrator, Frances Hinton, who works in a medical history library and writes; writing is her panacea, her cure for separation and anxiety. She is, as usual, a very superior young woman, and very acute on the grotesque citizens who use the library: but she falls victim to handsome Nick, whom they all adore, and so to his spoilt and even rather gross wife Alix. For a while she seems to be bridging the gap between these people, the fortunate and wicked, and herself. There is her kind of person, and there are ‘the others, the free ones’. She tries to learn from them: ‘I needed to know that not everyone carries a wound and that this wound bleeds intermittently through life.’ An oddly ambiguous sentence but it comes off. Then: ‘I needed to learn, from experts, that pure egotism that had always escaped me, for the little I had managed to build up, and which had so far gone into my writing, was quickly vanquished by the sight of that tremulousness, that lost look in the eye, that disappointment that seemed to haunt me.’ And her addiction to the perfectly awful free ones leads her to an ultimate disappointment and deception: a lover she couldn’t dispose of in her book, who offers tenderness but not desire, and leaves her, ‘foolish with desire’, for another free one.
The famous Hotel du Lac has another writer and self-acknowledged loser, this time Edith: as a tortoise, she knows that hares win. The setting is an expensive hotel, with more grotesque and more or less free ones. Edith is there because she disgraced herself by leaving an unsuitable fiancé at the registry office. She writes novelettish letters to her unsatisfactory married lover, to whom she will return, resuming her unfree though refined existence. As in other instances, the man who irrupts into the young woman’s life at the hotel is not without a perhaps deliberately novelettish quality. Such men are handsome and tend to be immaculately dressed (an expression Brookner is a bit too fond of – she doesn’t appear to mean simply that they manage not to get food stains on their lapels or ties).
The central myth of Family and Friends is the same one, though interestingly varied. The men now matter a bit more, though much less than the women – especially, of course, the loser woman; and in all sorts of ways the texture of this book is richer (it is less an extended nouvelle than a shrunk saga) and a great advance, I think, on Hotel du Lac. It starts with a wedding photograph and ends with one, these frozen frames being interrogated and explained by an inquisitive knowing narrator, who uses only the present tense except when demonstrating that she really knows all the outcomes: ‘When he is a little older, this imperviousness will drive women to unwise acts and statements, which they will later regret,’ or ‘Alfred possesses both types of love, sacred and profane. He will grieve for such plenitude for ever after.’ Thus, although the surprises are fewer and the ethical positions less idiosyncratic, this book has a slight flavour of Muriel Spark.
The family of the title is rich London-Jewish, established, we are told, from the debris of its European predecessor: living in pre-war London and enjoying what it offered, but without altogether sacrificing traditional Middle-European manners and style. It is presided over by the widow Sofka – herself European but possessing four English children, two boys and two girls: Frederick, an amiable playboy adored by his mother; Alfred, who knows he is destined to prefer duty to inclination, whose dreams are foiled because he must go into the family business instead of Frederick; Betty is selfish, beautiful, ruthless; and Mimi, who has to carry on the Brookner tradition in this new setting, is modest, considerate, and not good at flirting, which ought to be her principal occupation. The book gives the story of their lives, recounting in a newly hectic mode and with notable modifications the triumph of the hare over the tortoise, of the free ones over the disappointed. This time the triumph is hollow and the disappointment far from unmitigated.
The book has a central episode very characteristic of this author, though more richly developed than before. Betty has escaped to Paris, where she means to be a dancer and do a double act with Frank. Mimi and Alfred go to fetch her back. Mimi takes over the negotiations; she knows Betty won’t come back, and hopes to have Frank herself. Even before she sets out we know she is hoping that the union of Frank and Betty has not been consummated. ‘She begins, in the way of all those who are born to lose, to imagine her way past this terrible damage.’ In Paris she is convinced that Frank will prefer her as more honest than her sister. ‘Mimi thinks this is how hearts are won,’ observes the narrator, ‘not believing for a moment that Betty’s is the surer way. Behind this certainty lies an unbearable vision of the world’s duplicity that must not come to full realisation.’ It has, of course, done so in the mind of the narrator.
But Frank gives Mimi some cause to think she is right. A finely written page, which has its congener in every one of Brookner’s novels, describes Mimi as she waits for Frank in her Paris hotel room, dressed first for dinner, then, as the time goes on, for bed. Finally she lies on her bed alone, wearing, as we are quite ready to believe, a smile ‘tinged with intimations of absolute horror.’ This horror, and a sense of deep disgrace, stays with Mimi over the years, and her appearance reflects her ‘total dereliction of spirit’. ‘Somehow she knows, correctly, that without this false start, this disgrace, this defeat, she could have taken her chance like any other woman.’ The plight of Mimi, and of others like her in these books, is an image of some aboriginal catastrophe, not merely the betrayal of a modest passionate woman by a good-looking man who turns as if by some law of nature from the unfree to the free. Mimi’s disaster proceeds both from her unfreedom and from her willingness to shed it if she can, as she appears to be doing while she waits confidently for Frank as the hours pass; meanwhile Frank is with her sister. Had she been more like her mother none of this could have happened, for Sofka has always avoided passion and ‘knows nothing of that voluptuous flight from the contingencies of normal living, that surrender of will, that rich harvest of inner thought and memory’ which is said to accrue from letting go.
Betty, free, ruthless but finally less passionate, marries a film director whose ‘films are interesting because they concentrate on emptiness, on the time before things happen, the time when the outlaw might just get away with it’. Failing to get into the movies, she grows fat beside her Beverly Hills pool. Frederick marries a vulgar but satisfactorily carnal heiress, and is given a hotel to manage at Bordighera, where he is able to get on well with enemy officers during the war and maintain into late middle age his role as homo ludens: a happy life, though hardly what was promised, and a shade mauvais genre, as Sofka would say. Virtuous Alfred enriches the business and pursues his fantasies of country living, meanwhile developing affairs with the wives of friends. Mimi eventually marries a devoted servant of the firm, indispensable but subordinate, and much too old for her. Alfred is disgusted: but she achieves pregnancy and her husband is more deeply attached to the family than most of its true members. However, she still suspects that the good live unhappily ever after.
Sofka dies, knowing she misses Betty and Frederick most. But there is a final wedding photograph, and in this Mimi is the matriarch, while Alfred slyly indicates his relation to a child born late and unexpectedly to an old friend, whose husband stands off to the side. If Mimi replaces Sofka, Alfred replaces her discreetly libertine husband, and the dancers appear to be in place for the next set.
The book moves from such static poses to the intricacies of lifelike movement and plot; it is about rich and not very interesting people, but is itself rich and interesting. There is great assurance – in the contrasts between the manners of the generations, in the registration of types and variants in families, in the ways a house can be ruled and servants included as members of the clan, in the varying degrees of intimacy achieved by friends. One ends it with some surprise that Mimi and Alfred have come out of it so well, their siblings languishing in vacuous California and dull Bordighera while the unfree become the family in their place. The surprise reminds us that Brookner continues to prefer the shorter forms, even when the richness of the material available must tempt her to the longer.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.