Dreams of Avarice

Patrick Parrinder

  • A Closed Eye by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 255 pp, £13.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 224 03090 6
  • Underwood and After by Ronald Frame
    Hodder, 246 pp, £14.99, August 1991, ISBN 0 340 55359 6
  • Lemprière’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 530 pp, £14.95, August 1991, ISBN 1 85619 053 6

‘The rich are different from us.’ ‘Yes – they have more money.’ Though it is Hemingway’s riposte that sticks in the memory, Scott Fitzgerald’s belief in the difference of the rich has one thing to be said for it: it makes far more sense of the history of the novel. The rich and their doings are clearly over-represented in the house of fiction, and access to wealth almost invariably affects or confirms a fictional character’s identity. It may do so for the better or worse, and either way it tends to act as an enticement to readers.

We like to think of the wealthy as enjoying their wealth, but we also like to be told that they don’t always enjoy it. In fiction the rich and the rest of us can change places. Anita Brookner’s new novel shows Harriet, who is married to a rich businessman much older than herself, travelling out of London on the Brighton line. The suburban houses by the tracks strike her as ‘poignantly homely, beautifully unassertive’. She pictures herself in one of the houses, sitting by the French windows with a cup of tea and ‘listening to a serial on the radio’ – though why not ‘reading a novel by Anita Brookner’? But, alas, Harriet is marked now, both by affluence and by dissatisfaction’. When, after painful experiences, she is finally able to live her own life, she chooses to spend her days in Switzerland (‘Your holiday would be entirely at my expense,’ she writes to her god-daughter), doubtless to the relief of the suburban reader.

In a great deal of fiction the attraction of the wealthy is that they live near the dangerous edge of things; this is true in Balzac and Dickens, and in two of the three novels under review. Making and spending money, means exercising power, shouldering responsibilities, taking risks – and, often, getting caught up in plots and conspiracies. The novelist, it might be said, is properly concerned with the rich, since it is they who are most able to control things and influence people. And there is a long tradition of investigative fiction probing the façade of wealth and money-making, and showing that credit and commerce may be no more than a cover for crooks and criminals. But there are also the silver-fork novelists who make no inquiry into how money is made: it is there simply to add to the hero’s fascination and to the heroine’s spending power. Of the three men who count for most in the life of Brookner’s protagonist, one is described as ‘pleasantly wealthy’, another is ‘discreetly wealthy’, while the third – a television journalist has ‘no money’ but is, we are told, a wonderful lover.

Has any of Anita Brookner’s heroines ever married for love, rather than for material comforts as Harriet does? Born in 1939 and with a birthmark on her cheek, her future husband’s wealth (this is some time in the Sixties) is described by her mother as ‘the best dowry her daughter could possibly have’ – a rather confused perception, one would have thought. The husband, Freddie, is one of her mother’s contemporaries, but ‘it was not as if their way of life cast young men into their daughter’s path.’ Harriet in turn emulates her mother’s sheltered existence, but such things are too good to last, and in the next generation Imogen or ‘Immy’, Harriet’s daughter, goes to the other extreme. Immy takes no time to acquire a bachelor flat, a job in advertising and a string of boyfriends, and the next thing we hear is that she has come to a swift and brutal end.

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