Anita Brookner’s novels are noted for their wit and understatement, their literate, romantic heroines, and their nearly Jamesian portrayal of moral scrupulosity. Latecomers (1988) reversed this formula to some extent by offering as protagonists two male figures, Jewish immigrants to England from the war-torn Furope of the late 1930’s. It was a remarkable book and represented a shift in Brookner’s attention from primarily romantic plots to that great theme: the impact of the past on the present. Lewis Percy, as several reviewers have noted, returns to the combination of romance and psychological realism evident in Brookner’s novels prior toLatecomers. Indeed, the title character, a student of nineteenth century literary heroism, resembles the female protagonists in such works as The Debut (1981), Providence (1982), and Hotel du Lac (1984). All are somewhat melancholic, highly principled characters engaged in the romantic tradition, not only as lovers but also as scholars of romantic literature or authors of romance novels. In Lewis Percy, Brookner seems to have deliberately reversed her usual romance plot in order to study the male ego in its search for ideal love and under the constraint of behaving well in the face of romantic defeat.
The character of Lewis Percy—whose name may be a conflation of Percy “Wyndham” Lewis, the colleague of Fzra Pound and founder of Vorticism, and C. P. (Charles Percy) Snow’s Lewis Fliot—is the only son of Grace Percy, a woman who has endured the loneliness of widowhood by doting on her son. The novel opens in 1959, in a period prior to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, when Lewis is a doctoral student in Paris. There he passively seeks the protective company of women in the evening—Roberta and Cynthia, his fellow boarders, and Madame Doche, the companion and servant of his landlady—while reading romantic literature all day at the Bibliotheque Nationale.
As the novel unfolds, it is clear that Lewis is a man with nineteenth century values caught in an era of changing sexual mores. His sentimental education is of the type once suited only to women (he avidly reads his mother’s favorite novels after she dies) or to nineteenth century literary figures. From the outset, in fact, Lewis identifies with various nineteenth century literary heroes and with the world of women. At the age of twenty-two he is fond of quoting Julien Sorel, the protagonist of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir (1830; The Red and the Black, 1898): “Laissez-moi ma vie ideale”—clearly calling attention to his own quest for a heroic ideal. Here and elsewhere in Lewis Percy, Brookner suggests both her hero’s concept of life and his central dilemma: the conflict between “the life of contingencies” and “the life of the spirit”—between a life that imprisons most people (and Lewis himself after his marriage) in stultifying routine and the life of the imagination, of passion, and, ultimately, of hope. In Lewis’ time in Paris, this latter life is associated not only with the literature he reads but also with the salon where he quietly enjoys the company of women, offering a piece of Camembert or a bag of cherries as his contribution to the evening. Indeed, at this point in his life, Lewis sees his “lifetime quest” as “the study of, and love for, women.” He believes that women are compassionate—in his peculiar formulation, they are a “beneficent institution”—and at the salon, with the aid of literature, he hopes to acquire his “final education.”
For all this romanticism and attraction to women, at this point in his life Lewis is virginal, passive, and naive. He overlooks the shabbiness of the salon, a relic of “a long vanished bourgeois French family,” and the indifference to him of the three women whose company he shares. For all his idealism, the young Lewis Percy is a pitiable character, leading a disciplined, dull, and meager life. In the romantic city of Paris, he studies the exploits of romantic heroes rather than emulating them. In the city of love and light, he is chaste and spends his days closeted in a library. While his whole life is marked by excessive hunger—for food but also for freedom and a dangerous passion—Lewis settles in after his return to London. When his mother dies, he is desperate for someone to care for him, tend his house, and cook his meals. Marriage to Tissy Harper, an agoraphobic who works in the library that his mother used, is an alternative to loneliness, a substitute for the passion he desires. Where once Lewis identified with his mother’s humility, he finds himself identifying with Tissy’s virginity. Yet throughout this second phase of his development, Lewis idealizes his courtship by seeing himself as an emancipator. He believes he will rescue Tissy from her agoraphobia and Tissy’s mother from the duty of caring for her fearful daughter. It is, of course, he who needs liberating, but Lewis’ innocent egotism does not allow him to see this or to recognize the extent of his mother’s loneliness and illness before her death.
Writing in the tradition of the nineteenth century Bildungsroman, or novel of learning, Brookner traces Lewis’ sentimental education from his student days in Paris through his return to London, his marriage, the birth of his child, and his divorce and departure for America. Significantly, in several interviews, she has acknowledged the influence on her work of such nineteenth century French writers as Stendhal, Gustave Flaubert, and Honore’ de Balzac and of American author Henry James. Her fiction also evokes the London of Charles Dickens and the middle-class Victorian world of Anthony Trollope.
Almost as homage to her literary forebears, she alludes to all these masters in Lewis Percy Lewis either identifies with their characters at different stages of his development or alludes to them in some way. After his marriage, for example, he begins to model his life on that of “gentlemen in Trollope, to whom he was devoted even more than to his early heroes.” When his marriage feels stultifying, he thinks of Fmma Bovary. When it fails and he learns that Tissy is pregnant, Lewis envisions himself as Silas Marner, “a gray-haired old man, devoting his life to a pretty and unsuspecting little girl,” his daughter. At another...
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