Incidents in the Rue Laugier
Anita Brookner has written many novels, including Hotel du Lac (1984), winner of that year’s prestigious Booker Prize. Her works are frequently populated with men and women whose familial obligations and societal demands freeze them into making choices, often against their will. Although many of her characters isolate themselves from society by choice, many become desirous to be part of some society, often at a more respectable level. Brookner’s focus, however, is not only limited to these issues; rather, she doggedly focuses on the complex psychological lives of her characters, these people who are forced to deal with outward and internal pressures. Although often quite ordinary people, Brookner’s characters resonate; their inner searches and attempts to understand their precarious existences become our own. Although stylistically lush with detail, Brookner’s worlds are cold, often harsh backdrops for these characters, places abounding in complicated affairs, marriages without love, disastrous familial relationships, and often early deaths. Although Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Brookner’s fifteenth novel, contains this basic interest of creating characters in crisis, she also explores the notion of fiction-making, an extraliterary effort on her part which broadens the scope of the linear story line, a plot which threatens at times to become too conventional. Certainly, her effort at showing the importance of memory to storytelling, as well as her allusions to Marcel Proust, aid in making this novel more complex than the rather simplistic plot of “boy meets girl; boy marries girl” might suggest. Brookner succeeds in this novel almost in spite of herself.
Incidents in the Rue Laugier is narrated in the present by Mary Francoise Harrison, a self-proclaimed unreliable narrator, who happens upon her mother’s journal after her mother Maud Gonthier, the main character of the novel, dies. Rather than finding a full-blown account of her mother’s life in this journal, however, the narrator finds only the opening line, in French, to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913), some cryptic words, mostly place names, and a recipe. From these findings, the narrator, then, feels compelled to reconstruct her mother’s life, a life her mother kept guarded from her daughter and everyone else.
Brookner’s opening conceit of reconstructing a life from found evidence forces the reader into collusion with the narrator and calls into question the notion of fictionality and its importance to Brookner’s narrator and to us as modern readers. Rather than belabor this metafictional point as a postmodernist writer might do, Brookner shows how fiction-making occurs naturally in human lives, and how those self-created fictions inform the larger arena of novelists creating their own fictional worlds. Brookner showcases this conceit in chapters 1 and 15, creating a frame for the narrator’s imagined life of her mother. Yet, Brookner also shows how these framing chapters contain elements of the rest of the novel. For the narrator, the need to “create” her own version of her mother mirrors both the reader’s desire to “read” another’s life, as well as the main character Maud’s need to fictionalize certain events in her life. As the narrator closes the first chapter, she rather succinctly sums up this theme which permeates the rest of the novel: “It [this story] is a fabrication, one of those by which each of us lives, and as such an enormity, nothing to do with the truth. But perhaps the truth we tell ourselves is worth any number of facts, verifiable or not.”
The story within the story opens when Maud Gonthier is eighteen, near the age of making important decisions about her future. Because of the early death of her father and her mother’s inability and disinclination to work, the family can afford only a good education for Maud, education being a calculated maneuver so she can be introduced properly to society, and thus make a good marriage. Her mother Nadine, the first of a successive line of haughty, aloof women which will include Maud, as well as her daughter, the narrator, spends most of her life preparing Maud for this marriage without considering her daughter’s wishes. Maud is ill-prepared for the awakening passions which lead her to believe in the romantic notion that a man will come and, essentially, sweep her off her proverbial feet. Here, Brookner’s women become almost cartoonishly nineteenth century, though the time period when Maud comes of age, the early 1970’s, might suggest that these women would have had some knowledge of broadening possibilities for women. Certainly, life in and around Paris would prepare Maud for something beyond attachment to the most promising suitor. Brookner comes dangerously close to losing the tight realism which her novels depend upon by closeting these characters in this patriarchal milieu. Yet, because these women have a heritage of depending on men, the reader is able to pull back and recognize this as a construct which others in the novel will also find demeaning. (Indeed,...
(The entire section is 2085 words.)