Brookner, Anita (Vol. 134)
Anita Brookner 1928-
English novelist, critic, art historian, biographer, editor, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Brookner's career through 1998. For further information on Brookner's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 32, 34, and 51.
A popular and prolific novelist, Anita Brookner is admired for her lucid, finely crafted prose and realistic portrayals of lonely, sensitive women who are often betrayed by unrealistic notions of love and marriage. Brookner's studies of everyday life and desperation commonly feature children dominated by selfish parents, isolated women who search in vain for love and social integration, and English characters who feel out of place in their native country. Though Brookner insists that she is not a feminist, her work is consistently praised for its penetrating psychological portraits of intelligent women whose self-fulfillment is undermined by personal insecurities, undeserved malice, and demands imposed by careers, marriage, and motherhood.
Brookner was the only child of Maude Schiska, a former singer, and Newson Brookner, a Polish immigrant who worked in the Schiska family's tobacco factory after immigrating to England. Born near London, Brookner lived with her parents, grandmother, and uncle in a suburban home where her family frequently took in Jewish refugees during the Second World War. Despite her English birth and middle-class upbringing, Brookner's Jewish, Eastern European background set her apart. She was a lonely child who early in life assumed the role of caretaker for her eccentric, careless parents. Brookner studied history at King's College in London, then earned a doctorate in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1953. In 1959 she began teaching art history at the University of Reading, returning to teach at the Courtauld in 1964. The following year she published her first book, J. A. Dominique Ingres （1965）. Brookner became the first female Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University, a position she held from 1967-1968. Brookner carried on her role as surrogate parent to her mother and father as they grew older, nursing them for several years before they died. Her personal history and relationship with her parents led her to write her first work of fiction, A Start in Life （1981; published in the United States as The Debut）, written during her summer vacation and published when she was fifty-three. The following year Brookner wrote Providence （1982） and since then she has continued to produce a novel each year. She won the Booker McConnell Prize for Hotel du Lac in 1984 and was named Commander of the British Empire in 1990. Brookner retired from academia in 1988 to concentrate on writing fiction.
The trademark heroine of Brookner's early fiction is a middle-aged intellectual who has sacrificed her youthful happiness to a controlling parent. The protagonist is characteristically contrasted with another non-intellectual, voluptuary, selfish figure who is rewarded in the end for his or her egotism. Often Brookner's central character unknowingly competes with this figure for love and a traditional role in society and loses. In Brookner's world the righteous and honorable invariably get short shrift in human relationships as reward for their goodness. In her early novels she frequently uses a work of literature or art as an analogue to her story. The character Ruth Weiss in A Start in Life parallels Honore de Balzac's heroine Eugenie Grandet. Weiss, a doctor of literature who has subordinated her personal life to her demanding parents, attempts to find romantic happiness but is thwarted by her friends and lovers. In the end she abandons any attempt to seek love and returns to live out her lonely life taking care of her ailing parents. In Providence, Brookner uses Benjamin Constant's Adolphe, which literature professor Kitty Maule is teaching to her literature students, as a counterpoint to Kitty's restrained but passionate affair with a colleague, Maurice, who does not return her love. Kitty eventually loses Maurice to one of her students, a pretty and vapid young woman, and resigns herself to disappointment in life and love. Similarly, in Look at Me （1983） Frances Hinton is introduced to James by her new friends, Nick and Alix, and believes she has a chance at having a real relationship. But Alix proves to be selfish and manipulative and James becomes involved with another woman. Hotel du Lac begins on the same note as Brookner's earlier work but ends with a slight variation. Edith Hope, a writer of romance novels, has retired to a deserted Swiss resort hotel after undescribed misfortune in London. As the story unfolds Brookner reveals that Edith is passionately in love with a married man but was about to marry Geoffrey, whom she did not love. She left Geoffrey at the altar and fled to the resort to consider her choices. Edith denies the existence of the romantic stories she writes about but seeks such romance in her own life anyway. She rejects another offer of a loveless marriage from a fellow guest at the hotel and decides to return to her married lover, choosing a one-sided love over the social status conferred by marriage. Brookner widened her reach in Family and Friends （1985）, a generational story centered upon a family of German immigrants in England over several decades. She returned to more familiar ground with A Friend from England （1987）, in which Rachel Kennedy becomes involved with a married couple and Heather, their twenty-seven-year-old daughter. Rachel sees herself as a mentor and role model to Heather, but when she advises Heather against leaving her husband for her Italian lover, Heather tells Rachel what she really thinks of her loveless, husbandless life—and Rachel is left alone once again. In Latecomers （1988）, Brookner focuses on two men, Thomas Fibich and Thomas Hartmann, both of whom were sent to England as children during the Second World War and lost their families to the Holocaust. After meeting in school they become business partners and live near each other in England. Brookner explores the two men's lives and their attempts to deal with the tragic losses of their past. In Lewis Percy （1989）, Brookner again uses a male character to explore themes of innocence, love, and loneliness. Lewis is a naïve librarian who is bereft after his mother's death. He searches for a substitute mother and enters into a disastrous marriage with Tissy, who becomes pregnant and leaves him. Brookner continued a subtle departure from her earlier work by allowing Lewis some measure of growth; he takes a new lover and reevaluates his view of women solely as caregivers and mother figures. Fraud （1992） opens with the disappearance of Anna Durrant, a middle-aged woman who cared for her mother until her death and has vanished without a trace. Anna is found at the end of the book in Paris, where she has decided to cast off the vestiges of her unhappy life and open her own business. Brookner once again contrasted a restrained personality leading a quiet life with a flamboyant, sensual figure in A Family Romance （1993）, published in the United States as Dolly. Jane Manning's life brings her back into contact with her uncle's widow, Dolly, a poor French-Jewish relation who keeps in touch with Jane's family for money. Dolly is Jane's antithesis in every way, but by the end of the novel they make a connection and familial bonds of their own. A Private View （1994） concerns the attempts of George Bland to find a purpose in life after his retirement and the death of Putnam, his closest friend. He casts about for something to live for, flirting with a much younger American staying in a neighboring apartment, before embracing human connections by becoming involved again with his lost love, Louise. Altered States （1997） explores sexual obsession, describing fifty-five-year-old Alan Sherwood's one-sided passion for Sarah, a relative by marriage. The more Sarah mistreats Alan, the more he desires her, though he eventually tries to console himself by marrying Sarah's friend Angela. Angela dies and the novel ends darkly, with Alan once again leading a solitary life devoid of passion. In Visitors （1998） and Falling Slowly （1999）, Brookner once again chronicles the solitary life of characters who consider breaking away from the constraints of their stifled lives, but in the end seem predetermined to continue their stoic acceptance of a dull, empty existence. The elderly widow Dorothea May in Visitors and the middle-aged translator Miriam Sharpe in Falling Slowly are tempted to choose human connection over seeming passivity and isolation. Dorothea's life is disrupted by a visit from a young relative and her friends, while Miriam has a love affair. But neither can break away from the established pattern of their lives and both accept their lot impassively.
Brookner's fluid, descriptive writing and striking ability to render delicately wrought portraits of ordinary, lonely people struggling to reconcile themselves to their failures in life has led critics to compare her to Henry James, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. She is widely respected for her convincing characterizations and talent for visual description. Critics praise her ability to portray complex psychological motivations in simple, eloquent language. Brookner's affinity for depicting socially repressed women in her works has also prompted commentators to compare her novels to the fiction of Margaret Drabble, Barbara Pym, and Virginia Woolf. Though criticized by some feminists for her female characters' desire to fit into patriarchal social roles, others commend Brookner for examining the difficulties faced by educated women who attempt to assimilate such conventions. Reviewers frequently note the narrow range of Brookner's oeuvre. While some praise her distinctly circumscribed exploration of loneliness, sexuality, human isolation, and depression, others accuse her of hiding a lack of originality by rewriting a thinly veiled autobiographical story over and over. In addition, some reviewers consider her characters depressing and humorless and object to her disheartening view of human nature and inverted moral code—the meek do not inherit the earth in Brookner's world, but are punished for their meekness by the selfish and demanding. Critics consistently acknowledge Brookner's talent for description; however, some find fault in her tendency to “tell, not show” by writing her story in expository prose with little dialogue instead of letting her characters and events tell the story themselves. Despite such criticisms, Brookner is widely regarded as a talented stylist whose shrewd depiction of certain middle-class, middle-aged women represents a significant contribution to contemporary literature.
J. A. Dominique Ingres （criticism） 1965
Watteau （criticism） 1968
The Genius of the Future: Studies in French Art Criticism （criticism） 1971
Grueze: The Rise and Fall of an Eighteenth-Century Phenomenon （criticism） 1974
Jacques-Louis David, A Personal Interpretation: Lecture on Aspects of Art （criticism） 1974
Jacques-Louis David （criticism） 1980
A Start in Life [published in the United States as The Debut] （novel） 1981
Providence （novel） 1982
Look at Me （novel） 1983
Hotel du Lac （novel） 1984
Family and Friends （novel） 1985
A Misalliance [published in the United States as The Misalliance] （novel） 1986
A Friend from England （novel） 1987
Latecomers （novel） 1988
Lewis Percy （novel） 1989
Brief Lives （novel） 1990
A Closed Eye （novel） 1991
Fraud （novel） 1992
A Family Romance [published in the United States as Dolly] （novel） 1993
A Private View （novel） 1994
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SOURCE: “Anita Brookner: The Autumn of Romance,” in Washington Post Book World, February 10, 1985, pp. 1-2.
[In the following review, McPherson offers a favorable assessment of Hotel du Lac.]
Edith Hope, the protagonist of this highly acclaimed novel from Britain, winner of the 1984 Booker Prize, has done an “apparently dreadful thing,” although the reader does not know exactly what that thing is or how dreadful until two-thirds of the way through Anita Brookner's slim and elegant and rather Jamesian novel, her fourth. By that time, of course, the diligent reader is hooked. Which is more or less the idea.
Entertainment, after all, is a perfectly legitimate reason for reading, and to find out what happens next—or, in the case of Hotel du Lac, what improper thing has already happened to precipitate Edith's flight from London to a fairly ghastly and very proper Swiss resort hotel at the end of the season—is usually the first reason the common reader （and the uncommon reader as well） turns the pages, carried along by the teasing currents of the story, the mystery at its core, and the power of the writer's style. The reader wants to know the secret the writer is privy to and will, he trusts, reveal at the proper moment. Who did what and why? Of course, if that were all reading fiction was about, then we would have stopped at Agatha Christie or the equivalent....
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SOURCE: “Romancing the Novel,” in Commonweal, September 20, 1985, pp. 502-03.
[In the following review, Jones offers a negative assessment of Hotel du Lac.]
Romance novels are one of the most conservative forms of fiction, but even they have made concessions to the social revolution of the twentieth century. Mass-audience gothic novels once included among their characters orphaned governesses with a penchant for handsome landowners; now even in the world of Harlequin romances, the heroine is allowed a career in the larger world and may swoon less coyly at the feet of the dashing bodice-ripper. The popularity of the fiction lies in its predictability; more than in any other form of writing, the dimensions of its world are determined by the demands of its audience. There is no peril in selecting a romance novel: the reader is guaranteed a happy ending, and no anti-nuclear activists or homosexuals will be numbered among its characters.
If the view of love expressed in these novels is not often found in personal experience, and if its view of the behavior of men and women ignores the subtleties and ambiguities of human behavior, they satisfy a need for spurious excitement in much the same way as soap operas and mini-series do. Their entertainment value is that they claim no relationship whatsoever to life as it is lived by anyone but the most hopeless daydreamer. Romance novels are...
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SOURCE: “Post-War Women Writers: Challenging the ‘Liberal Tradition,’” in Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern, Routledge, 1989, pp. 126-67.
[In the following excerpt, Waugh examines female characters and feminist themes in Brookner's fiction.]
This chapter will consider the work of five post-1945 British and North American women writers whose work has generally been received in terms of an orthodox ‘liberal’ critical reading. Certainly the work of Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, Sylvia Plath, and Ann Tyler has been read as formally unadventurous, eschewing the narrative experiment of postmodernist fiction and espousing a broadly realist aesthetic. （The work of Grace Paley has been either ignored or assimilated to a ‘liberal’ reading） In my view, this reading has ignored their significant, though often unobtrusive, formal innovations （no fabulatory fireworks here）, and their contribution to a political and psychoanalytic understanding of gender and subjectively. They are, by no means, all declared feminists. Brookner has explicitly distanced herself from feminist politics and declared that her aesthetic ideal is one of Enlightenment rationalism, yet her work is similar to Woolf's in its perception of the relational basis of identify and its portrayal of her women characters’ obsessive need for and fear of connection. Woolf observed that ‘women have seemed all the...
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SOURCE: “Anita Brookner's Quartet in Autumn,” in Washington Post Book World, March 12, 1989, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yardley offers a favorable assessment of Latecomers.]
Anita Brookner's eighth novel will not be to all tastes, as it is less what we customarily call a novel than a meditation: a leisurely, ruminative consideration of the strange yet powerful ties that draw people together and of the mysterious yet endlessly gratifying workings of love. It is a book in which almost nothing happens and in which there is relatively little dialogue to ease the reader's passage through Brookner's dense, richly textured descriptive and contemplative paragraphs. This is very much to my own taste—Latecomers seems to me arguably Brookner's most moving, accomplished and interesting book—but those readers who feel otherwise will be excused without penalty.
With the exception of Family and Friends, Brookner's previous novels have been less about love ascendant than love thwarted. The paradigmatic Brookner protagonist is a shy, unconfident woman whose intellectual life is often full but who is frustrated in the pursuit of romantic and sexual happiness. From time to time these women score their victories, but they tend to be small and evanescent; Brookner has made her name as a chronicler of quiet despair, and in the best of these novels—my own favorite is Look at...
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SOURCE: “Nice Tries,” in New Yorker, May 1, 1989, pp. 111-14.
[In the following excerpt, American novelist Updike offers a positive evaluation of Latecomers.]
In a decade when the differences between the sexes are on the one hand being minimized （equal pay for equal work, males should learn to dust and cook, females are scoring better in spatial-relations tests all the time） and on the other schematized （women want relationships, men want achievements, their wavelengths are so different the signals pass right through）, it takes some nerve for an author to attempt a protagonist of the opposite sex. Tolstoy did it, George Eliot did it, but that was long ago, when classics walked the earth and women and men were simpler mechanisms, as their hoopskirts and stovepipe hats signified. Yet here, right on my bedside table, two bright, brave, bay-laden novelists whose names begin with “B” have boldly barrelled into the territory beyond the gender barrier. Anita Brookner's Latecomers concerns the enduring friendship of two men who as solitary boys escaped to England from Germany, and Saul Bellow's A Theft seizes upon the psyche of a middle-aged, four-times-married New York fashion editor from the Christian wilds of Indiana. The first sentence of each novel defiantly stakes its claim in alien turf: Latecomers begins, “Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar...
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SOURCE: “Exiles,” in New York Review of Books, June 1, 1989, pp. 34-6.
[In the following excerpt, Dinnage provides an overview of Brookner's novels and gives a favorable assessment of Latecomers.]
Twenty years ago the art historian Anita Brookner was Slade Professor at Cambridge, author of a book on Watteau and then, within a few years, of books on Greuze and on Jacques-Louis David. Her first novel, A Start in Life, came out only in 1981; and since then she has written one in each summer vacation, and collected two literary prizes and a television adaptation. Latecomers is her eighth novel.
“Her books are so English,” an American friend said to me; by “English” meaning, perhaps, reserved, fastidious, ironic. Certainly she makes some American women writers look disheveled and a little vulgar, like the particularly unpleasant woman who reappears in different guises in all her books. But to the English, Brookner essentially seems Continental, foreign; all her novels （like Anita Desai's Baumgartner's Bombay） are about exile. The families in them have attenuated roots in Vienna, Paris, somewhere unspecified further east; childhood holidays are recalled, not in Cromer or St. Ives, but Baden-Baden, Scheveningen, Vevey; they may or may not be Jewish, but Jewishness offers no background or support. It is not only the roots of nationality that are twisted, but...
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SOURCE: “Can Innocence Go Unpunished?,” in New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1990, p. 10.
[In the following review, Lopate proffers a positive assessment of Lewis Percy.]
The reader approaching Anita Brookner's novels for the first time may be permitted a certain skepticism. Is she really as good as the critics say? And if so, how can she be so prolific? This convert's answer would be: yes, she is that good, and she keeps producing quality fiction at a calm, even rate precisely because she knows what she is doing.
Each new Brookner novel seems a guarantee of the pleasures of a mature intelligence, felicitous language, quirky humor, intensely believable characters, bitter-sweet karma and shapely narrative. Some tastes may find her structures too neat, her academic milieu too constricting, her themes too consistent. But the charge that she writes essentially the same book over and over again is simply untrue. Rather, she is thoughtfully mining a certain vein of psychological analysis and moral perplexity （unwanted innocence）, the way Eric Rohmer does in films, and within her territory there is significant variation, individuation and experiment, even at times a reckless gambling spirit.
Lewis Percy may be seen as both an extension of and a departure from earlier Brookner narratives. The title character could be the male cousin of the female...
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SOURCE: “A Grudge against Their Lovers,” in New York Times Book Review, July 21, 1991, p. 14.
[In the following review, Kornblatt praises Brookner's Brief Lives.]
In Anita Brookner's quiet novels, women document their constricted lives as if summoned, for once, out of their timidity by an anthropologist who is good at getting reluctant subjects to talk. When the elderly narrator of Brief Lives, Fay Langdon, confides that “the grudge that women feel against their lovers is really a desire to be taken seriously,” we hear the plea hidden in her wistful voice: Will we take seriously, as her lovers did not, the story of a woman who “aspired to normality”? Will we attend with interest to the memories of one who only “hankered after a bourgeois calm”?
It is a testimony to Ms. Brookner's gift for portraying the depth beneath the calm that we remain engaged by Fay's chronicle, despite the character's self-effacement （“Heroines are not made of women like myself”） and her repressed spirit （“So dangerous is it to be so close!”）. Like Barbara Pym and Kazuo Ishiguro, two writers who are equally skilled at conveying the passions their British protagonists commit themselves to containing. Anita Brookner locates her narrative close to the edge of her character's lifelong denial.
We read Fay's self-limiting memoir, but we also read Ms. Brookner's...
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SOURCE: “Chasing Austen,” in Nation, September 9, 1991, pp. 274-76.
[In the following review, Cooke favorably assesses the novel Brief Lives.]
The British novelist Anita Brookner writes orderly, limpid prose about women who have been good girls all their lives, who have lived carefully and within the rules, but who, when they reach a critical mass of experience and disappointment, harden. The question is whether they acquire a granite toughness and become venerable, or, like sandstones too long exposed to weather, they grow brittle and crumble. This tension between venerableness and brittleness informs some of Brookner's best work—The Misalliance, A Friend From England and the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac—and it is the central theme of her newest novel, Brief Lives.
Like Edith Hope, the writer of romance novels in Hotel du Lac, or Blanche Vernon in The Misalliance, who “occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay,” Fay Dodworth is a woman turning to dust. She is unfertile, sere, pristine as a chalk cliff and—this unfortunately is true of most of Brookner's characters—humorless. Without the context Brookner tries to give her, a locus of empathy and psychological realism, Dodworth would be just another stiff upper lip casting a shadow on a Burberry, a rigid tweedy figure among the boxed biscuits at Harrod's....
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SOURCE: “Only the Lonely,” in Washington Post Book World, March 22, 1992, p. 6.
[In the following review, Smiley describes the narrative of A Closed Eye as lucid and subtle, stating that “Brookner's control over the material is absolute.”]
Anita Brookner has been compared to Jane Austen—the unhappy fate of any British woman novelist with a limpid style and an ironic tone—but the comparison does justice to neither writer. Austen explored social networks of mores and morals; in A Closed Eye, Brookner explores social isolation. Her portrait of Harriet Lytton is both compelling and disturbing, not a social comedy but an exploration of a particular mode of feminine existence that seems to be, is intended to be, but is not, harmless.
Brookner focuses steadily on Harriet, ranging her few friends and relations around her. Her parents, in thrall to their own good looks and to the father's nameless war injury, offer her a slim sort of family life, played out in the back room of her mother's shop. When they seem tired of raising her, ready for something new, she marries Freddie Lytton, a man her father's age, in fact an old war buddy of his, more to get out of her parents's way than anything else. Her path in life, as the idle and circumscribed wife of a prosperous member of the English bourgeoisie, is set. In the meantime, her best friend has taken up with a Byronic...
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SOURCE: “‘One Name Must Never Be Mentioned,’” in New York Times Book Review, April 12, 1992, pp. 12-3.
[In the following review, Casey portrays A Closed Eye as a “marvel of ease and clarity and precision that Ms Brookner's readers expect.”]
The consistent pleasure for readers of Anita Brookner's 11 novels is that her heroines have their eyes wide open. They are mistresses of the telling observation and the nice distinction. The latest heroine, Harriet, looks at her life with as much clear understanding as any previous Brookner character, though she is the center of a novel called A Closed Eye. The title comes from a Henry James observation about one of his characters that she “has struck a truce with painful truth, and is trying a while the experiment of living with closed eyes.”
I suspect that if Henry James were around, the only writer he'd be reading with complete approval would be Anita Brookner; A Closed Eye is the marvel of ease and clarity and precision that Ms Brookner's readers expect. But once you've observed how elegant her writing is, how subtle, you may be left thinking, as I was, how beautiful, how sad, how creepy.
As prologue there's a Gothic device: a letter from Harriet, a well-off widow living abroad, to Lizzie, the daughter of her dearest and now deceased friend. Could Lizzie come from London for a visit? Could...
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SOURCE: “The Curse of Being a Good Woman,” in New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1993, p. 7.
[In the following review, Hegi finds Brookner's novel Fraud overall satisfying, but states that its conclusion is “too abrupt, too convenient” to be convincing.]
Anita Brookner's brilliant and complex new novel, Fraud, opens with a mystery: a woman “in middle years, living alone,” has vanished from her London flat. Her name is Anna Durrant, and she has worn the mask of good manners all her life, deceiving others with her cheerfulness but most of all betraying herself.
Intelligent yet confused, Anna longs to have a voice of her own, to free herself from the maze of politeness “which she herself found burdensome, as if she were only just learning what other women had always known, so that she made too many efforts, and all of them inept.” She sees deeply into others and is sensitive to their discomfort at her helpfulness, her compulsion to please.
In her 11 earlier novels, Miss Brookner has often written about women who are alone in a world that feels alien to them. Her strength lies in exposing her characters’ internal lives—every thought and feeling, every nuance of a thought and feeling—and creating tension by juxtaposing these perceptions with the characters’ external lives, which are governed by proper behavior. Of course, proper...
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SOURCE: “Clothes, Men, and Books: Cultural Experiences and Identity in the Early Novels of Anita Brookner,” in English, Vol. 42, No. 173, Summer, 1993, pp. 125-39.
[In the following essay, Baxter examines the social and cultural alienation of Brookner's female characters in A Start in Life, Providence,and Hotel du Lac. According to Baxter, Brookner's heroines are largely defined by their physical appearance, relationships with men, and by literary allusion.]
Anita Brookner's explorations of women's loneliness address contemporary issues of gender, culture and the relationship of literature and life. She examines the dislocation arising from simultaneous impulses towards personal fulfilment and social integration （and the resulting conflict of moral identity and social codes）, through the treatment of various cultural experiences in her narratives. Her protagonists manipulate （and are manipulated by） these experiences out of a confused sense of what ‘Englishness’ represents, and a desire to belong which is constantly undermined. What seem to be poignant yet drily witty romantic novels in fact represent the uneasy relationship between the centre and those it relegates to the margins.
In his examination of Christina Stead's novel The Man Who Loved Children, Jonathan Arac considers the process of literary refunctioning. He claims that in the character of...
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SOURCE: “Small but Perfectly Formed,” in Spectator, June 19, 1993, pp. 29-30.
[In the following review, Kermode offers praise for Brookner's novel A Family Romance.]
Priority in the use of this title could be claimed by Richard Wollheim, who, in 1969, gave it to an ingenious novel, which also made stronger reference than this one to the original sense of the term. However, Anita Brookner [in A Family Romance] does establish a Freudian association by situating some of her characters in Maresfield Gardens; they have Viennese connections and there is significant mention of an address in the Berggasse. Not for the first time she offers us samples of middle-European bourgeois life comfortably transported to London. But the heroine and her family, more English in their manners, live in Prince of Wales Drive, a middle-class bastion regarded as inaccessibly far to the south, and lacking （so far as I know, and I once lived there） any obvious Freudian associations.
This, Miss Brookner's 12th novel, is a sharp, fastidious and finally impressive rehandling of a now familiar theme. Its narrator is a girl, Jane, with ‘no beauty to speak of ‘ （‘I was lacking in charm, of course’） and the principal character is a woman known as Dolly, a name which always vaguely suggests raffishness or fecklessness. These characters are richly specified, and we are offered ample information...
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SOURCE: “You Aren't What You Eat: Anita Brookner's Dilemma,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 28, No. 3, Winter, 1994, pp. 1-7.
[In the following essay, Galef examines the dynamics of female self-fulfillment, love, and food in Brookner's fiction. Galef argues that in Brookner's novels “food becomes an ambiguous emblem, indicative of love and yet a poor substitute for it.”]
From her first novel on, I had an overwhelming desire to see the contents of Anita Brookner's refrigerator. Though not all her protagonists are such adept cooks as The Misalliance's Blanche Vernon, endlessly preparing for the absent guest, most have some kind of fixation on food. This is not all that unusual, especially considering what it represents: as the social anthropologists Peter Farb and George Armelagos observe, “In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships.” To go further, at the risk of contradicting Shakespeare, the food of love is not music but perhaps a nice lamb chop.
The connection between food and love is more poignant for women who have traditionally begun by eating but have grown up taught to serve others. This pattern is inevitably repeated in relationships, as Brookner's characters learn to their dismay. And yet Brookner's characters, starved as they are from childhood on, are nonetheless trying both to...
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SOURCE: “More Excellent Women,” in Washington Post Book Review, January 9, 1994, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yardley offers high praise for Dolly.]
Anita Brookner is a novelist at once immensely rewarding and immensely vexing, but in Dolly she has chosen to be exclusively the first of these. Of the dozen novels that have preceded this one, all but a couple are elegant yet attenuated: withdrawn from “the menacing outer world” in which most of us live, rich in feeling yet devoid of passion, sophisticated yet airless. None of this can be said of Dolly. On its own, Brooknerian terms it meets the world, engages the passions, lives and breathes. Not merely is it the best of its author's novels; it is—on its own, Brooknerian terms—close to perfection.
To which a caveat must at once be attached. Brookner, even more than most original and distinctive writers, is not to every reader's taste. Not merely is virtually everything about her fiction, from its characters to its plots to its prose, quiet and reticent. Beyond that, Brookner repeatedly and routinely violates all the old strictures about showing and telling. Her characters and themes emerge far less from dialogue and action than from explication. She delights in peeling off layer upon layer not by permitting her characters to expose themselves all unwittingly but by describing them. Here, chosen at random, is...
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SOURCE: “She Married Well-Off Uncle Hugo,” in New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1994, p. 12.
[In the following review, Kino offers a tempered evaluation of Dolly, noting flaws in the novel's later stages.]
“Dolly was the wife my uncle had acquired before my birth,” explains Jane Manning, the narrator of Anita Brookner's 13th novel. And in two shakes of a Dunhill fountain pen, we're back to familiar territory: the echoingly empty London flat; the dead, beloved parents; the “working woman” who grimly battles for her place in the world with an alluringly framed décolletage; and the other woman who observes, rendered hors de combat by her own wealth and emotional chasteness.
The working woman in question is Dolly, a half-Jewish Parisian who comes to postwar London seeking better times, and finds them with Jane's well-off uncle Hugo. After extricating him from his mother's orbit, Dolly lures him to the Continent, whence they loom large in Jane's childhood imagination. When Hugo dies some years later, having somehow run through his money, Dolly returns to be near the family—or, more likely, its fortune. And so she enters Jane's life, fluffing her furs, smoothing her hand-tailored frocks, enjoining the girl's artless mother to make more of herself and always admonishing, “Charm, Jane, charm,” as she exits, freshly written check in hand.
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SOURCE: “The Man Who Has Nothing to Offer,” in Spectator, June 18, 1994, p. 33
[In the following review, Bayley offers high praise for A Private View, terming Brookner “both infinitely various and adorably unique.”]
Adorable Anita Brookner! And as adorable as a man as she is as a woman! But steady the buffs, that's hardly something one can say in these unisex days. Nor would it be much more PC to call her as good a woman writer when she is exploring a man, as when she is delicately probing the susceptibilities of one of her own sex.
In the writerly sense she has been a man before, in her fourth novel back, Lewis Percy, a study as uniquely unusual and distinguished as all her novels are, in their very different ways. For although it is commonly said that her world, and those who live in it, are always much the same, nothing, in the deeper sense, could be further from the truth. As far, indeed, as the rather shadowy figure of Lewis Percy is from the George Bland of A Private View. George Bland is, as Henry James would put it, most tremendously there.
A personnel manager who has just passed the age of retirement, George has been for many years devoted to his friend Michael Putnam, who has just died of cancer. They worked for the same firm; they had retired more or less together; and they had planned together to take a long leisurely...
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SOURCE: “Oh, To Do Something Shocking!,” in New York Times Book Review, January 8, 1995, p. 9.
[In the following review, Simon offers an unenthusiastic evaluation of A Private View.]
Anita Brookner, in her previous 13 novels, has written about genteel Englishmen or women who have lived circumscribed lives, seeking but never finding the kind of romantic love glorified in literature. They are often dutiful sons or daughters to self-absorbed mothers who do not deserve such loyalty. They may have friends, but not intimate relationships; they may have felt sedate affection, but never fevered, torrid, rapturous love. We find them at a moment when they hope to change their lives, when they are on the verge of doing something outrageous, but they never do. Instead, they retreat, resigned and regretful.
If this basic story interests you, as well it might, I suggest that you read the novel that still stands as Ms. Brookner's finest, Look at Me （1983）. Frances Hinton, the medical librarian whose quest for romance ends in failure, is one of Ms. Brookner's most complex and sympathetic protagonists, and Look at Me is written with a freshness and passion that Ms. Brookner has not sustained in subsequent novels, including her latest, A Private View.
As Ms. Brookner ages—she is now 66—so do her characters. The aptly named George Bland is 65, retired...
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SOURCE: “Waiting Game,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 22, 1995, pp. 3, 13.
[In the following review, Busch offers tempered acclaim for A Private View, commending Brookner's prose and intelligence though finding the novel predictable.]
Anita Brookner, whose Hotel Du Lac was awarded England's Booker Prize, is justly praised for her restraint and insight, and once more she demonstrates them in her 14th book, which begins in the mind of a man, George Bland, whom we have met before. Sensitive, depressed, wealthy, in flight from his nightmares and in search of something about which to dream, he pitches up in Europe. He is 65, and his dearest friend, Michael Putnam, not his lover but his soul's truest mate, has died. Brookner writes that in Nice, he “had sought a restorative, conventional enough.”
As an admirer of her work, I cannot imagine the author hurling down a gauntlet, but I can envision her placing it with some firmness before the reader and herself. I can see her daring herself and the reader by offering a “conventional enough” situation that she must then make her own. No serious writer wants to employ conventions without altering them to suit her or his sense of structure and language, and no serious reader wants to read a repetition of conventional form that isn't, somehow, a pushing forward of the form's capabilities. Here, Brookner reaches...
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SOURCE: “Déjà View,” in New Yorker, January 30, 1995, pp. 89-91.
[In the following review, Lee depicts Brookner's A Private View as exhibiting a well wrought “poetry of forlornness.”]
Every year for the last fourteen years, the distinctive Brookner perennial has reappeared in the mixed herbaceous border of the English novel, looking formal, old-fashioned, faintly Continental. Pale and elegant at first glance, it seems darker, almost grotesque, on closer inspection. It is greeted with habitual critical reactions, ranging from settled adulation （“vintage Brookner”; “a class of her own”） to impatience or unease. Devotees praise her irony, her sadness, and her beautiful prose; dissenters long for more talk, more action, more vulgarity, and more sex. Those in the middle （like me）, who are both addicted to and dismayed by these compulsive, straitjacketed novels, feel a resigned admiration in the face of a great stylist who does one kind of thing supremely well.
Brookner herself anticipated all these responses in her second novel, Providence, in an exchange between her heroine and a professor of art: “'I like your drawing. But why do you always do the same one?’ ‘Ah, that is called stylistic mastery.’” She must know that her novels invite recognition rather than surprise. They often have titles that suggest limitations: Latecomers, Brief...
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SOURCE: “Hunger Art: The Novels of Anita Brookner,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 41, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 1-15.
[In the following essay, Fisher-Wirth examines the recurring motifs of loss, sexual longing, parental deprivation, and self-denial among female characters in Brookner's novels.]
I read Anita Brookner with chagrin and fascination. I have never before been addicted to a writer with whose values and vision I so consciously disagree. Every time a new Brookner novel is published, I buy it the day it arrives—in hard cover, no less. My life remains on hold until the new novel is finished. Yet when I close the book, more often than not I am angry. How can she offer that, I ask myself again and again, as an image of life, of womanhood?
One of the sources of my frustration is Brookner's well-known belief that nice girls finish last—that, as Edith Hope says in Hotel du Lac, life is a race in which the hare wins every time. There is some truth to this, as there is bitter truth to the line from the Bible that could stand as a text for Brookner's fiction: “Unto every one that hath shall be given … : but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” （Matthew 25:29）. It's just that, in Brookner's vision, there is little acknowledgment that decency, kindness, or generosity could characterize the hare, could coexist with...
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SOURCE: “Open Lies to Cover Truth,” in Spectator, June 17, 1995, pp. 43-4.
[In the following review, Waugh calls Brookner's novel Incidents in the Rue Laugier both enjoyable and unusual.]
The trouble with Anita Brookner's new novel [Incidents in the Rue Laugier] is that you cannot get it out of your mind. Once started upon, it haunts you, follows you down the nights and down the days like the Hound of Heaven, never leaving you alone. It is hard to say exactly why it has this effect considering how infuriating all the characters are, and considering its peculiar structure.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, novelists went to great ends to persuade the reader that what they were writing was true and no figment of their imagination—hence the epistolary novels of Richardson and Laclos, and hence Wuthering Heights’ uncomfortable construction. Imagine then the dismay of today's reader on learning from the narrator at the very beginning of Brookner's novel, that everything which follows is untrue. In order then to enjoy this book at all, a willing and double suspension of disbelief is required. This, oddly enough, is so hard that throughout the tale, even the most seasoned reader of novels is likely to want to throw the book aside with a ‘Why am I reading this anyway, if it's not true?’
Off we go, then, into the realms of reality and what...
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SOURCE: “Mother of Invention,” in New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1996, p. 13.
[In the following review, Mantel offers a tempered assessment of Incidents in the Rue Laugier.]
“Please accept me as an unreliable narrator,” says Maffy, the shadowy initiator of this shadowy tale Anita Brookner's 15th novel, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, begins warily, as if the business of storytelling might be an infringement of good manners. A history is to be reconstructed, a history of a life that has left few traces. Maffy's mother, Maud Gonthier, “read a lot, sighed a lot and went to bed early.”
Maud was born in Dijon, France, and brought up by a widowed mother in straitened middle-class correctness: these are the facts Maffy knows. That Maud married an Englishman, Maffy's father, a bookshop owner, is also a fact, and the one to which Maffy owes her existence. But how did this marriage come about? Why does Maffy feel that “some gigantic quarrel must have taken place in the past, long before I knew either of them”?
Maud has slid quietly from life, dying, it seems, from lack of interest. Among her few possessions is a rose-pink silk kimono that seems to hint at a sexual flowering, there is also a small spiral-bound notebook, empty except for unconnected phrases, the name of Maffy's father and the word “blood.” From these fragments, Maffy creates this...
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SOURCE: “Lifelong Loneliness,” in New Leader, December 16-30, 1996, pp. 28-9.
[In the following review, Roiphe admires Altered States for its ability to harken back to and emulate “the days when a novel could transport you out of yourself.”]
Anita Brookner's 16th novel is not a surprise. Winner of the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, she is a master of the repressed, the inhibited, the left out, the trapped-in-a-social-web. She is also a superb critic of the stiff upper lip, the duty done, form instead of substance, an opportunity missed, and the shadowy prison-like life that appears to be peculiarly English, drab, dull, yet mutely desperate.
This time Brookner's hero or antihero is a man, Alan Sherwood, a solicitor following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He tells us about the one great irrational passion of his life and the tragedy it led to in measured, accurate, slightly stiff, but increasingly compelling words. Something in the tone of the language—its very properness, its containment—warns you that hell is under the surface and seems to shout out for action instead of acceptance. Even though Alan Sherwood is telling this tale, he is perhaps the last to know how events have sabotaged him, how mostly excessive, self-inflicted guilt has suffocated him. He willfully remains out of touch with what Freud called the Dark Continent.
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SOURCE: “Invisible Man,” in New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1997, p. 12.
[In the following review, Mason offers a positive assessment of Altered States.]
Obsession is a heavily traded public stock, its object just as likely to be New York's Knicks as Anna Karenina's count. Nevertheless, it is most familiarly portrayed in the arts as a catalyst for grandeur, as an agent of high drama. How refreshing, then, to find that Anita Brookner's stinging new novel, Altered States, shows how obsession can also constrict a life, thinning it down to a muted charade of action and feeling.
That life belongs to Alan Sherwood, the kind of highly educated, deeply repressed Brit in whom Ms. Brookner specializes. He is a man whose reflexive politeness and exaggerated devotion to the needs of others conceal his propensity to become, as he puts it, “a lonely fanatic.” A widowed London solicitor in his mid-50's, Alan recounts the onslaught of his obsession, almost three decades earlier: he was nearly 30 and at a family party when he first saw Sarah Miller, a distant relative, fresh from Oxford and notable for her cloud of red hair and very short skirt—and for the fact that she was vamping every man in the room.
Sarah is the kind of person, Alan tells us, who “was to be allowed to behave badly on account of her youth, although she was not that young.” She behaves...
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SOURCE: “Solitary Man,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 9, 1997, p. 4.
[In the following review, McAlpin depicts the writing in Brookner's Altered States “as supple as ever,” but further states that “it's her subject that is tiresome.”]
Once again, in her 16th novel, the Booker Prize-winning author of Hotel du Lac has written a minutely observed study of a solitary individual. Her narrator, Alan Sherwood, is a solicitor, self-described as “stolid and prudent and slightly behind the times” yet “capable of passion.” He is very close to his mother, a “sensitive and civilized” woman who married an older man, the father of two of her friends, and was left widowed with her young son at an early age.
Altered States focuses on the turning point in Alan's life, when his options close off just as his mother sensibly succumbs to the cultivated gentleman who has courted her for years. Alan's constriction is largely due to an obsessive and unrequited relationship with his father's granddaughter Sarah—that is, the daughter of one of his mother's old friends—that leads him to make several big mistakes. The book details an essentially practical man's loss of control over his life and the drastic measures he takes to regain that control.
Brookner's old-fashioned, prematurely aged narrator, about 30 when his story begins and 55...
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SOURCE: “Rough Winds Do Shake,” in Spectator, June 7, 1997, p. 38.
[In the following review, Egremont admires the transformative and optimistic elements of Brookner's Visitors.]
Mrs Dorothea May is a widow of 70 who lives in a ground-floor flat in a smart district of London. She has the use of a small garden and it is into this that she ventures early on summer mornings, wearing her dead husband Henry's dressing-gown. Slightly cautious in her movements, she suffers from a failing heart, not only in the physical sense, but through sudden capitulation to anxiety. She is childless, in touch only with some of Henry's relations whom she finds overbearing and not entirely sympathetic.
Widowed now for 15 years, she sees her marriage, to an older man whom she is sure that she loved, as an aberration. It had begun late （she had been aged 39） and had interrupted a generally solitary life. Mrs May was an only child, from a bleak, silent home; the reading of novels had, for her, taken the place of experience. Her parents were loving but inarticulate, rather dingy, not quite the background that the Mays expected from those who became intimately involved with them. Henry May, a refugee from a miserable first marriage about which he seems never to have spoken, brought her comfort, pleasure, companionship but not erotic passion. Expansive, smelling slightly of cigar smoke and cologne, exotic...
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SOURCE: “Bleak House,” in New York Times Book Review, January 18, 1998, p. 10.
[In the following review, Carey praises Visitors as possibly “the book Brookner has spent her life aiming toward.”]
Anita Brookner is a frightening writer. A decade ago, my friend Anne went to Paris for a soul-searching type of vacation and happened at the outset to read three Anita Brookner novels in a row. She did not get out of bed for the rest of her visit. Because of Brookner's almost antiquely elegant prose and the occasional glittering flash of her scalpel, it is easy to forget how truly bleak her vision is. Set beside it, the despair found in most modern novels feels as artificial and forgettable as an advertisement based on the already dated heroin chic.
Since her first work of fiction, the ironically titled novel A Start in Life, published in 1981, Brookner has written book after book about loneliness, blighted hope and unfulfilled desire—and with such persuasive, aphoristic grace that we have been disarmed; all we can do is nod in stunned acquiescence. Her point of view has hewed to this same narrow line even as her palette has grown more varied. Now, suddenly, in her excellent new novel, Visitors, she has thrown off all extraneous accumulations in character and story, giving us the starkest delineation yet of her particular pessimism, still in that same beguiling,...
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SOURCE: “The Female Bildungsroman at the Fin de Siècle: The ‘Utopian Imperative’ in Anita Brookner's A Closed Eye and Fraud,” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 39, No. 4, Summer, 1998, pp. 325-40.
[In the following essay, Usandizaga examines the narrative structure and presentation of female experience in A Closed Eye and Fraud. According to Usandizaga, Brookner's novels “offer new alternatives and interpretations of women's destinies and specific insights into the complexities of women's growth and independence.”]
In past centuries, the fin de siècle has coincided with remarkable literary moments in both Europe and America. The sixteenth century ended in the eloquence of Elizabethan drama; the seventeenth, with the first echoes of the rhetoric of reason; the eighteenth, with the French Revolution and the rise of romanticism; and the nineteenth, with decadence, symbolism, and modernism. The end of our century, when literature is defined as postmodern, seems to invite a comparison with the 1890s, when modernism flourished. In this article, I will analyze the connections between those two periods in relation to Bildungsromane written by women.
The history of the genre in the West has been well studied. Maurice Beebe established the tradition of self-analytical writing by artists in the permanent tension between the parameters of...
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SOURCE: “The Stifled Life,” in New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1999, p. 7.
[In the following review, Messud presents a positive assessment of Falling Slowly.]
The title of Anita Brookner's latest lament for the unlived life is drawn from the final words of a shipping forecast heard on the radio; but it also refers to the premature decline of the two middle-aged women at the center of the novel, Beatrice and Miriam Sharpe. “This was not maturity so much as anticlimax,” observes Beatrice, the elder of the two sisters. “She had not been warned about this, but had to accept its reality, rather earlier than she had anticipated.”
Beatrice, a disappointed romantic, is a pianist whose career as an accompanist comes to an unexpected end and who subsequently finds herself drifting through her days, hovering between shame and relieved resignation. She “now embraced vacancy as a state to which she had always been condemned.” In the course of the novel, she succumbs to a series of mild strokes that lead, indirectly, to her sudden death. Meanwhile, her sister, Miriam, whose routines as a translator of French novels are disrupted first by a decorous love affair and then by her sister's illness, is less ready to relinquish the thrill of experience, and although she suffers not only the loss of Beatrice but also that of a new friend named Tom Rivers, she is granted a modicum of...
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Angier, Carole. “Birth Marks.” New Statesman and Society （23 August 1991）: 35.
A favorable review of A Closed Eye.
Annan, Gabriele. “Still Life.” New York Review of Books （14 May 1992）: 25-6.
A positive review of A Closed Eye.
Betsky, Celia. “Brief Review.” New Republic （30 May 1981）: 38-9.
A positive review of Jacques-Louis David.
Bowen, Deborah. “Preserving Appearances: Photography and the Postmodern Realism of Anita Brookner.” Mosaic 28, No. 2 （June 1995）: 123-48.
Explores aspects of realism, moral ambiguity, and postmodern aesthetics in Brookner's fiction through analysis of the incorporation of fictional photographs and visual cues in her novels.
Buchan, James. “Sex, Death, and Cups of Tea.” Spectator （22 August 1992）: 20-1.
A negative review of Fraud.
Craig, Patricia. “An Absence of Volition.” New Statesman and Society （31 August 1990）: 35.
A tempered review of Brief Lives.
Davis, Hope Hale. “Respectability Is Not Enough.” New Leader （7-21 October 1991）: 20-1.
An unfavorable review of Brief Lives, citing fault in the novel's...
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