Rachel and Heather

Stephen Wall

  • A Friend from England by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 205 pp, £9.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 224 02443 4
  • The New Confessions by William Boyd
    Hamish Hamilton, 462 pp, £11.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 241 12383 6
  • The Colour of Blood by Brian Moore
    Cape, 182 pp, £10.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 224 02513 9

Anita Brookner’s novels have been preoccupied with women who feel themselves to be profoundly separate. This may be the result of either choice or necessity, or of stoically making a choice of necessity. They are often tempted to alleviate this solitariness by falling in love with a man or attaching themselves to a couple or a family, but this usually ends in recoil and failure. When Miss Brookner is not at her best, the gestures that this despondent view of things demand can seem sentimental, especially when fortitude is subsidised by elegance or at least comfort and by financial independence. In A Friend from England, however, one is left in no doubt that life really is hostile to happiness, even in Wimbledon. It resembles Miss Brookner’s Look at me (1981) in that it develops a moral and emotional intensity that precludes any modification of the heroine’s terminal loneliness. The finesse with which the new novel is organised makes the prize-winning Hotel du Lac look flimsy, although its materials will be entirely familiar to addicted followers.

Anita Brookner’s heroines tend to be bookish – academics, writers, librarians – and it’s no surprise that Rachel, the narrator of A Friend from England, is part-owner of a Notting Hill bookshop and a reader of Stendhal; her first novel A Start in Life (1981) took its title from Balzac and had a heroine whose life was ‘ruined by literature’. Nor is Rachel unusual in feeling a strong attraction towards people for whom comfort is more important than culture. In her case, the soothing solidity of the bourgeois is embodied in the mutually devoted Livingstones and their unnervingly contented daughter Heather. Despite being an accountant, Oscar Livingstone has won a very large sum on the pools, and this enables him to give his family every luxury that a conventional middle-class imagination can conceive. They take to their wealth as to an oddly onerous duty; frequent use of the Harrods account seems like an obligation. Rachel is welcomed to their home, and it comes to be felt that Rachel’s advanced worldliness will be useful to the sheltered Heather. One of the novel’s successes is the way in which the Livingstones’ transparent innocence and goodness are unpatronisingly conveyed. Their domesticity may be ‘engulfing’ (which is part of the attraction for the parentless Rachel) but their simplicity is ‘Biblical’, and remarkably the epithet doesn’t seem absurd, despite the deep sofas, huge ashtrays and shag-pile carpets. Miss Brookner’s sharp eye for decor has always been a resource.

Although Heather runs successfully enough the boutique her parents have given her to play with, at home she remains impenetrably placid. Initially she reminds us of the rich daughter staying with her protective mother at the Hotel du Lac, but here the novelist gives herself far more room to explore what lies behind a comparably enigmatic opacity. In fact, Rachel’s progressive discovery of Heather’s true calibre and the finally devastating effect of that on her own sense of self provides the novel’s momentum. The story develops into a kind of contest between them.

Perhaps the most fundamental question in Anita Brookner’s work is, how is a woman to live? Family and Friends (1985) gave the problem a historical dimension; A Friend from England, like the intervening A Misalliance (1986), looks at the matter in contemporary terms. Rachel regards herself as ‘liberated’, and is demonstrably earning her own living and in control of her life. She may seem in a different category from her immediate predecessor, the well-to-do, hospital-visiting Blanche, but they share with some of their fictional sisters a wish to act well, and to be seen to do so. They are too modern to think that the old proprieties are still viable, but they want to behave with dignity; the word ‘honour’ recurs. When Blanche’s husband leaves her she behaves with an absence of rancour that contrasts diametrically with the egocentricity of her protégée Sally. As the romantic novelist of Hotel du Lac reflects, in life it’s the amoral hare that wins, not the altruistic tortoise. In the real world virtue will probably have to be its own consolation.

The real world is what, in A Friend from England, Rachel gets increasingly exasperated with Heather for not living in. At first, Rachel wonders if Heather’s passivity may imply a decision to remain within the parental enclave – a decision that, given the almost edenic tenor of life there, is at least understandable. Heather, however, decides to marry the specious and boyish Michael, whose flighty lack of seriousness Rachel and Mr Livingstone suspect – and rightly, as it turns out. After the marriage all is not well, but Rachel’s offer of a willing ear – made out of a sense of loyalty to the parents – is again rebuffed. When Dorrie Livingstone becomes seriously ill during Heather’s absence in Italy, Rachel feels obliged to stand in, and this compounds her resentment when Heather returns to announce that she’s fallen for a man in Venice to whom she will return. Rachel attempts with increasing hostility to dissuade Heather from such a romantic, irregular and unfamilial course. She finds herself irritatingly trapped into arguing on what for her as a free spirit is the wrong side; Heather has ‘usurped’ her independence. A final excursion to Venice to outface the now utterly self-confident Heather leaves the latter in untroubled command, and her disconsolate but loyal parents and the demoralised Rachel must cope as best they can.

What gives Heather strength is simply romantic love – the dangerous, old-fashioned, but unavoidable prime mover of the Brooknerian world. It is this which Rachel wants to deny and which her own life is programmed to avoid. She has herself been its victim once, but the man was married and since then her discreet and well-managed affairs have been designed to contain passion, not enfranchise it. The men in Rachel’s life don’t appear, which is an advantage technically since male lovers in Miss Brookner’s stories are often shadowy and inexplicable. The fact that the narrator (though not necessarily the author, of course) is anti-romantic is a further refinement: it avoids casting the heroine in attitudes that can easily look anachronistic, novelettish or soppy. This distancing is a better insurance policy than that used in Hotel du Lac, where the writer-heroine is committed to non-orgasmic romances of the traditional kind, because it allows for a more complex interplay between different evaluations of experience. Rachel wants Heather to accept that the love she trusts in is an illusion which will lead to disaster; she feels she is the voice of reason which Heather in her protected and protracted childishness won’t listen to. Heather must realise that the world is terrible and that marriage won’t shield her from it. There are always other men. But marriage, as Heather says, is what ‘I always wanted ... to be married and stay married, like my parents’. The declaration is more telling than she knows, for what drew Rachel to the Livingstones but the romantic innocence of their middle-aged love? As so often in Anita Brookner, two kinds of female life are opposed. The kind that Heather and her mother live has been dogmatically put aside by Rachel, but she cannot entirely resist its appeal.

It becomes increasingly clear that for Rachel romantic love is the traitor within the gates. This is clearly – perhaps too clearly – signalled by the patent symbolism of her fear of water and her equation of passion with drowning. Rain brings out her worst fears – and the weather in this novel can be relied on to do the collusive thing. Rachel loses her struggle to stop Heather being dragged down into the depths in Venice, city of water. As she says earlier, ‘no bourgeois sentiments for me, no noble passions. The surface, the surface only.’ She goes to Italy as a Jamesian or Forsterian ambassador, to ‘demystify’ Heather and destroy her idea of a great love, to find herself not only worsted but pitied. Beginning as Heather’s defender, she has in the end to defend herself against her. Her rout – in the city of many previous literary defeats, from James himself to Ian McEwan – is a reversal that brilliantly catches up and concludes the various narrative strands that the novel has so deftly kept in play.

Initially we have been led to assume, as Rachel herself does, that she is in control and reliable, but our increasing suspicion that she is neither of these things is finally confirmed. But although the power of romantic love is thus asserted (though not on Heather’s part lived through), the narrator’s own compromised involvement with it and our reliance on her point of view ensures that every objection to it is seen to be made – from its obtuse innocence to the impossibility of sustaining it in face of the terrors of life, and of death. Rachel cannot help being deeply affected by Dorrie Livingstone’s near-fatal illness, which not all the amenities of the London Clinic can assuage. Some of Miss Brookner’s earlier novels have included poignantly unsentimental scenes of pain, age, and the only end of age, and their presence – as here – gives a weight to what might otherwise seem a too unwounded epigrammatism of style. If in the end middle-class comfort won’t help you and love however romantic has to give way, how is one to live – how, in particular, is a woman to live – meanwhile? A Friend from England is much the most morally subtle and technically adroit articulation of the question that Anita Brookner has so far produced.

In William Boyd’s The New Confessions a crucial part is played by Rousseau’s old ones, and the presence of its precursor is not altogether to the novel’s advantage. The revelations are made by John James Todd, a forgotten film-director in Mediterranean exile putting his memories in order. These are varied enough: born in Edinburgh in 1899, Todd proves largely ineducable but has a talent for mathematics and holding a camera. He endures an unsympathetic family, an eccentric education and the atrocities of the trenches before stumbling into the film business. His great, even grandiose period is in Berlin during the last days of the silent era when he begins his life-long efforts to transfer Rousseau to the screen with the successful Julie. The Confessions – Part I – the first of three projected pictures – is killed by the arrival of sound; Todd’s subsequent decline into Hollywood hack-work is briefly redeemed by a respectable Western and a cinematic last will and testament based on Rousseau’s Rêveries d’un Promeneur Solitaire. His wife and children are abandoned with a self-absorption worthy of his hero.

Todd’s obsession with Rousseau – discovered in prison when the Confessions are fed to him in instalments by the German guard who later becomes his star – and questions of film aesthetics take up less space than his struggles for survival, whether in both world wars, Mexican poverty, or before a McCarthyite committee. Todd’s tendency to act on impulse and think later makes for a volatile professional and sexual life, and he clearly wishes to emulate his master in candour. But although Boyd has amassed a quantity of historical detail which feels lived in, it isn’t energised by a central personality of sufficient interest. Todd’s egotism isn’t mesmeric enough to justify the extent to which it is indulged, even though we are encouraged to view him critically. Boyd’s natural instinct is for fictional characters at the mercy of accident and contingency, as shown by the random mutilations of the battlefield (treated both here and in An Ice-Cream War with tellingly laconic effect) or by the more farcical disasters that await Britons abroad. It would certainly need genius of a kind to transcend such conditions through art, and Boyd’s hero never persuades us that he might have it.

After such diffuseness, Brian Moore’s A Colour of Blood is a model of economy. It raises large issues about church and state but is content to dramatise rather than discuss them; its virtues are linear, not discursive. In the opening sequence (the narrative is highly cinematic throughout) someone tries to shoot Cardinal Bem, Primate of an unspecified Eastern Bloc country; the attempt leads tautly to the novel’s last tense pages. Bem is taken into ‘protective custody’ by men who claim to be secret police but aren’t. He evades his captors and learns belatedly of a plot to mount an anti-government demo by some Christian terrorists, who sound Buñuel-like but threaten all the accommodations for the Church that Bem has won by co-operation with the regime.

The Greeneian temptation to glamourise the self-doubting priest on the run is firmly resisted, but Bem’s humility as he moves among the common people with whom he has lost touch because of his eminence seems authentic. As the Cardinal reminds his bishops, the Church is given its power to save souls, not for ‘political thrills’, and The Colour of Blood neatly bears him out by skilfully and unsanctimoniously using the form of the political thriller to spiritual ends without capitulating to cliché.