A Closed Eye (Magill Book Reviews)
Harriet Lytton, the protagonist of Anita Brookner’s eleventh novel, is a daughter who feels she must please and protect her parents. A CLOSED EYE is Harriet’s story, from birth through childhood, a loveless marriage to a man her parents’ age, motherhood, and lonely widowhood. An intimate study of Harriet’s feelings and moral development, particularly her relationships, the novel shows Harriet’s resistance to self-knowledge, her awakening at midlife, and her flirtation with adultery.
Readers familiar with the work of Henry James will find many similarities here: slow pacing, emphasis on moral decision, and the use of confrontational scenes followed by extensive rumination. Brookner updates James by focusing on contrasts between docile, obedient characters and the self-assured and grasping. The novel’s central themes include the importance of self-awareness, freedom, and the life of the senses. The failure of marriage to fulfill most women and the transience of life are also dominant subjects.
A retrospectively told tale, A CLOSED EYE offers many literary pleasures for the astute reader. Carefully interwoven throughout are images of light and dark, reflecting the characters’ moods, and numerous allusions to several nineteenth century novels, including the works of Henry James, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and the French writer Stendhal. Scenic detail and descriptions of interior decor also enrich the novel.
Since 1981, Anita Brookner has published a novel every year—subtle, ironic, and carefully written portraits of isolated, melancholy protagonists struggling with moral dilemmas the more frivolous never consider in their pursuit of personal pleasure. Harriet Lytton is such a protagonist, yet her life seems especially bleak. By the novel’s end, everyone closest to her has died. Brookner’s beautifully written novel deserves a less stark ending.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. March 22, 1992, XIV, p. 7.
The Christian Science Monitor. July 10, 1992, p. 11.
Library Journal. CXVII, February 1, 1992, p. 121.
Los Angeles Times. March 27, 1992, p. E4.
New Statesman and Society. IV, August 23, 1991, p. 35.
The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, May 14, 1992, p. 25.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, April 12, 1992, p. 12.
The New Yorker. LXVIII, April 27, 1992, p. 106.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, January 13, 1992, p. 45.
The Times Literary Supplement. August 23, 1991, p. 20.
The Wall Street Journal. March 30, 1992, p. A14.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, March 22, 1992, p. 6.
A Closed Eye (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Harriet Lytton, the protagonist of Anita Brookner’s eleventh novel, is, like her creator, the daughter of parents adversely affected by World War II, whom she feels she needs to please and protect. Consequently, as Brookner said of herself, she becomes “an adult too soon and paradoxically never” grows up (Paris Review, Fall, 1987). A Closed Eye is Harriet’s story, from her birth in 1939 and childhood with Merle and Hughie Blakemore, two people “too young, too feckless” to be parents, through a loveless marriage with a man her parents’ age, motherhood, and ultimately lonely widowhood. An intimate study of Harriet’s feelings and moral development, the novel offers an ironic, tragic portrait of a woman who has chosen to keep self-knowledge “at bay for half a lifetime” and who, once awakened, finds despair. Indeed, because Harriet has obeyed and acquiesced to others her entire life, she has been both untrue to herself and inauthentic in all her relationships.
Taking its title and epigraph from Henry James’s novella Madame de Mauves (1874), A Closed Eye is a novel James himself might have written. Moreover, midway through, the reader imagines that had James written Mrs. Bridge (1959), Evan S. Connell, Jr.’s masterpiece, the result may well have been A Closed Eye. Brookner’s heroine feels as desperate in her “truce with painful truth” and her stultifying, conventional middle-class marriage as did Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, yet the style and pace of Brookner’s novel, its concern with moral decision, and its use of confrontation scenes followed by extensive rumination by the main character are typically Jamesian. Structurally, A Closed Eye is retrospective fiction, apart from two opening chapters that set the stage for what will follow. The opening chapter, in fact, evokes a mystery. Harriet is writing an invitation to Lizzie, later revealed to be the daughter of Harriet’s deceased friend Tessa. One name, Harriet writes, must be avoided at all cost. It is only much later in the novel that the reader discovers this name is Imogen, Harriet’s own daughter, who has been killed in an automobile accident. From this opening epistle and the chapter that follows, A Closed Eye explores Harriet’s relationships with all the major characters: her parents, her girlfriends, her husband, and her friend’s husband—Jack Peckham, who opens Harriet’s closed eyes—as well as Imogen and Lizzie. Although Harriet remains the center of consciousness through most of the novel, Brookner shifts the point of view occasionally to provide insights from others, particularly Freddie, Merle Blakemore, Imogen, and Lizzie. Thus the novel’s main point of view is omniscient, though Brookner refrains from the nineteenth century device of direct authorial commentary on her characters. Others’ views of Harriet, however, provide an essential contrast to her own shame-filled judgments of herself.
What characterizes the relationships in A Closed Eye, as in other Brookner novels, is contrast: contrast, for example, between the self-assured and often selfish and the docile and obedient; between those of sanguine and those of melancholy temperaments. Harriet Lytton fits decidedly in the latter categories in the above examples, but this is not to suggest that Brookner takes a simplistic view of her characters. On the contrary, her focus is the struggle of the melancholy, obedient type to take action—a conflict evolving from their keenly developed moral consciousness—and their failure to grasp what comes easily to the more self-confident. That it is pleasure, sensation, and feeling that define life is made clear throughout A Closed Eye. The self-assured know this and grasp for what they want. (Tessa, Harriet’s friend, wants the handsome Jack, her lover, as husband, and so gets pregnant.)
Harriet comes to realize the value of the sensory life through the course of the novel, though she is never able to find physical fulfillment. Ironically, she is born to people who know the pleasures of active sociability. Harriet’s father, permanently damaged by his experiences as a prisoner of war, is a perpetual boy, “frozen at the age of immaturity, and curiously unlined,” yet he delights in the sensory ritual of toast and tea. Harriet’s mother, who supports the family with a dress shop prior to Harriet’s marriage, cares for her husband but finds passion with the landlord, Mr. Latif. Such compromises, usually the result of careful calculation, are everywhere evident among Harriet’s associates, including her own daughter, yet Harriet keeps her eyes closed for much of the novel, choosing, instead of the path of pleasure, a more virtuous and morally arduous life. Significantly, Merle and Hughie’s frivolity allows them to marry off their only daughter to a man her father’s age, a wealthy buddy of Hughie from World War II. The compromise causes some pity for Harriet, but not enough to discourage either Merle or her husband. Indeed, Harriet’s marriage provides both financial and social ease for her parents.
Other sets of contrasts in A Closed Eye include the marriage of Tessa and Jack and that...
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