Living with a little halibut

John Bayley

  • Fraud by Anita Brookner
    Cape, 224 pp, £14.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 224 03315 8

The novel and story depend a good deal on mystery. Pip has great expectations – where do they come from? – but more important, who is Pip, and what is he after? Everyone can be made to seem both banal and mysterious. The Sherlock Holmes tales exploit both the puzzle and the adventure, and the humdrum oddness of the society in which they take place: but writers who are cunning by nature or naturally fortunate know that mysteries are not there to be solved. Todorov said that Henry James’s stories mostly depend on a query and a riddle, which their endings formulate with complete artistry but without solving: the puzzle is itself the solution.

Anita Brookner is a good hand at something similar. In her latest novel there is naturally something wrong with the heroine: a wrongness emphasised by the banal Kensingtonian calm in which she lives. When friends suggest this or that – religion, a love affair, a caring occupation – she replies: ‘That is not what I’m looking for.’ In what literary context have we heard something like that? In several no doubt, but notably in that formulaic little tale by Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’. With Bartleby the case is different. ‘I would prefer not to.’ He continues to prefer not to until he dies of inanition.

What is the mystery behind the life of Bartleby, or of Anna Durrant? Really none at all, and that is the point. Art makes mystery, as Henry James claimed it made interest, made life itself. Like other Brookner heroines, Anna’s situation as she lives in a Kensington flat, first with her mother and then on her own, is ‘eerily emollient’ – a phrase which attaches her yet more firmly not to the literary life so much as to the life in literature. Like all successful characters, she could only exist in a book, but her author is perhaps rather too wryly conscious of the fact. One wouldn’t say she exploits it: she just makes her own thing out of it, but it is true that Kafka or Melville, perhaps even James too, formulate their fantasies and mysteries more absolutely.

Brookner’s consciousness of literature is made rather pointed by her decision to use and blend both kinds of mystery: that of the detective solution and that of the life in waiting. On page one Anna Durrant, ‘a woman in middle years, living alone in apparently comfortable circumstances’, has disappeared, gone missing. The policier note is unmistakable, and a friend who dislikes Anna, the redoubtable old Mrs Marsh, makes a joke about Maigret to the two police inspectors who have come to make inquiries. The Who/Whom possibilities of the thriller are deftly indicated. ‘I don’t know whom else to ask,’ Mrs Marsh tells them, ‘and the elder of the two policemen, Butterworth, noticed that she said “whom” and decided that she was a reliable witness. Which was useful, for there were apparently no others.’ A clue laid for a wrong hypothesis? Not quite that kind of formula: more the sort where Maigret and Lucas and their enquiries reveal to us just what life can be like in a particular village or arrondissement.

In a sense wrong again, for we never reencounter the two policemen and the narrative moves into unobtrusive flashback. Are we really with the Jamesian mystery of the Beast in the Jungle, the liver who is sure that life has something in store for him, but who finds that his only destiny is a sense of something missed? That is about it, with the difference that James’s brilliantly moving mock-Gothic conclusion has become here a very deliberate banality, with the heroine finding what she is looking for in ceasing to care about it, in getting some more smart clothes and deciding to design them in Paris for middle-aged women like herself. James would have been amused but also disturbed by this new form of literary démarche in which real living, as it were, takes over so completely from the sweet mystery of literary life that we at once lose all interest in the heroine, and in her situation. This is the point, for the novel’s life is over – would we go on being interested in a married Emma or Elizabeth Bennet? – but Anita Brookner performs the feat in a characteristically unnerving if elegant way. Her heroine Anna is still there on the page, in the last few pages, when she loses her point and joins all the rest of us in our all too real banality.

The Lady of Shalott took drastic measures in terms of art when the curse of living came upon her. Lolita survives her enchanting nymphetude, and for a while is as interesting as a dull little wife as she was when presenting Humbert Humbert with his destiny. Brookner takes the dire risk that her heroine’s literary debacle or misdemeanour may spread back into the whole image of the novel and spoil it in retrospect for the reader. That this does not happen shows what a humorous and humane as well as accomplished artist she is. She abounds in consciousness to a point that would satisfy even a Henry James – perhaps almost beyond that point. Fully aware that we will feel little interest in her heroine, even if we do not actively dislike her, she has the splendid Mrs Marsh show mild dislike and an equal lack of interest. Mrs Marsh is deliberately allowed to steal the body and blood of the novel. Its best sequence, and a finely compelling one, is her fifty-year old son who has incipient flu visiting her, being put to bed and looked after, to their mutual comfort and satisfaction – he is a tiresome man and she normally loves but does not like him – whereupon the wholly surprised old lady finds herself in turn getting ill, becoming convinced she will die of it, and being rescued by heroine Anna, a Samaritan she cannot take to, cannot be more than perfunctorily grateful for. As flu submerges Mrs Marsh she makes a last attempt to assert her self-respect by keeping an appointment with the hairdresser, who has a special regard for her because she once told him, with a touch of old woman’s malice, that he looked as if he were about to go in for the Tour de France. Tony was delighted by that, and now one of the girls kindly hands Mrs Marsh a magazine as she sits bemused beneath the dryer. ‘ “How to tell if you’ve had an orgasm,” she read studiously.’ The adverb has all Brookner’s slyly humorous precision, and the joke is more subtle, even surrealist than it seems. Mrs Marsh in her time no doubt had the standard number of orgasms without knowing or caring what they were called: the absurdities of modern identity-seeking mean nothing to her – the article might as well be titled ‘How to tell if you’ve fallen downstairs.’

Certain people have the gift of making one wonder what they are really like. Brookner has always endowed her heroines with this gift, equivocal and illusory as it may be; and Anna, coolly distanced as she is, is a particularly successful example of it. The texture of the novel is even richer than that of its predecessors, the perceptions more subtly unemphatic. Mrs Marsh reflects uneasily that Anna may indeed be as good as she seems to be, one of those devoted daughters of a bygone – or is it? – age who sacrificed themselves like their brothers in the trenches, a sacrifice that now seems irrelevant, ‘even faintly repellent’. Like most naturally good women, Mrs Marsh is also impatient with well-intentioned attempts to understand those who conceal their troubles. The prospect of having ‘the painful and ultimately serious process’ of her decline and death ‘interrupted by the visits of such a one as Anna Durrant was not to her liking’. Not that Anna has the slightest wish to air her own troubles or speculate about her own ‘fate’. That is why she arouses wonder and unease in people like Mrs Marsh, for whom it is natural that two real women in meeting ‘fall greedily into exchanging the stories of their lives’. Mrs Marsh can easily combine reticence with forthcomingness: Anna shoulders the thankless task of doing good without giving anything away.

Her mother’s young doctor feels a tendresse for her, but allows himself to be carried off by Vickie, a noisily sexy girl. Anita Brookner’s readers probably get addicted to the way she can combine a calm adroit discretion with sudden fits of almost self-indulgent clumsiness, even grossness. After the quietly superb pages describing Mrs Marsh’s and her son’s flu, with Anna to the rescue preparing a tray with ‘a little halibut, turned in butter, sprinkled with grated cheese, followed by a baked apple’, the author takes a deep breath, rubs her hands, and lets herself go on a venomous account of the dinner Vickie, at her husband’s insistence, cooks for Anna. It could be George Eliot squashing Rosamond Vincy in Middlemarch. With such endearing maladress is the thing done that the dully inscrutable Anna is abruptly lent the quietly formidable sharpness of her creator, and becomes her mouthpiece for the duration of the scene, although Brooknerian shafts are in any case totally wasted against Vickie’s tough hide.

All Anita Brookner’s novels have both suffered and benefited from this instability: the precarious hold she has on characters who pop inside her own consciousness before being pushed back, sometimes with a bit of an effort, into their created selves. This is common enough in novels not produced at the highest level of imaginative intensity, but she manages to make it an asset, as if freely entering and leaving her own novel world. This may indeed be the point which produces her special interest as a novelist, her version of Todorov’s formula of the Jamesian riddle and query: the unsolved query which her art solves is about both her subject and herself. She overdoes it, of course. Even Mrs Marsh is borrowed back from her status as successful character to ruminate in the elderly solitude she prefers about ‘dear Henry James’ and his advice to ‘live all you can’; while Anna and her French friend and alter ego have ‘both read their Jane Austen, and prided themselves on keeping a cool head’. James and Jane Austen are co-opted as consciences rather than creators, and the most damaging effect is in the title: Anna makes a short statement about the ‘fraud’ she has perpetrated upon herself by agreeing to wait for things to happen, instead of going out and grabbing them.

That will scarcely do. The reader would rather be left, as James well knew, to enjoy the riddle and its art as coincident with each other. In one of his very early and very best stories, ‘A Landscape Painter’, James presents a near-perfect version of the character whose ‘something wrong with him’ is at once his art, his world and his story. The female version of something similar is much more robust. Whatever ‘went wrong’ in the lives and fates of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, they used it as a source of comedy, as the inspiration for their formidable sense of fun. They are all quite different otherwise, and so is Anita Brookner: and yet the resemblances are unmistakable. Something about you is a bit of a mystery, something seems privately wrong: so let the artist in you have a good laugh about it, and make it live all it can.